Mindfulness and Psychedelics

Mindfulness and Psychedelics

Published on:

November 6, 2023

The art of letting go ...

Mindfulness is the open, nonjudgmental, and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant (ref). Mindfulness is associated with being more present and more aware of our internal state, reactions, thoughts and emotions. When we are mindful, we can become less identified with our experience and can clearly see thoughts, emotions, sounds or reactions simply as content arising then passing in our awareness. One thought experiment that gives us insight into this concept is considering if we can find a place to stand on a river bank watching the river flow by or are we being swept up in constant flow of the river. In the first scenario you are aware of the river and the other your unaware that you are being swept up by it.

Beyond recognition of certain content in consciousness, watching it arise and fall away, we can also recognize a particular experiences we are having. One experience relevant to psychedelics is coming in contact with anxiety, fear, panic or difficult memories. Often the antidote here is to get curious and gently 'lean into it' to explore it further. The effect here of wanting to feel and explore a particular aspect of a difficult thought or emotion paradoxically can reduce the half life in which we experience that experience. This is not always the case for everyone, but for many, it can reduce the resistance, the contraction or the unpleasantness of it as we adopt a scouts mindset, curiosity and a willingness and openness to feel.

If things get tough in a psychedelic journey mindfulness might be able to help. We may encounter the intensity and unpleasantness of anxiety, fear, thought loops, a difficult memory or having a bit of trouble with ego dissolution. Whatever the experience, the first step is to recognize we are resisting something which is important because the degree of resistance is often associated with the degree of suffering. The second step is to see this challenging experience, the resistance and any contraction around it as something that has the ability to arise and pass away, very similar to patterns of weather. This shift allows us to do a few things: 1) become de-identified with the experience, changing our position from ‘I am anxious’ to ‘there is the anxiety, (2) allows us to surrender, soften or relax our resistance to it and (3) explore it with curiosity often leading to interesting insights and an overall better experience. Mindfulness like anything requires a bit of practice and is complemented by a mantra such as ‘trust, let go, be open, breathe, surrender' to help ground us so we can regain our footing.

If you are looking to practice mindfulness during a safe and unpleasant experience, try using a cold shower. Stand in the cold shower for 1 minute and notice your resistance to wanting to feel the cold. Pay attention to details such as the location of the discomfort and the intensity of the resistance to wanting to feel. Next, see if you can relax, open and say yes to the experience. 'Lean' into it and adopt a sense of curiosity and see how it changes. You can do the same exercise in a sauna or steam room, a cold water swim, or when bringing a negative experience or a negative thought to mind. Recognize it, allow it in, and investigate.

Take home points:

1. Certain aspects of the psychedelic experience can be challenging and mindfulness might help you to get through it.

2. The degree of resistance is often equal to the amount of suffering. If we are mindful of the difficult aspects of the psychedelic experience, we can let go, open, surrender and get curious about the experience thereby allowing us to shift. By not doing so, we might spend more time in difficult parts of a psychedelic journey.

3. Mindfulness might be particularly helpful to some degree when experiencing ego dissolution which is a common place where resistance arises and surrendering is needed. Other areas where mindfulness is supportive is when coming in contact with memory traces or difficult emotions.

4. Beyond helping during a psychedelic experience, mindfulness can be an important foundational skill for the integration that follows. It can help with self-awareness of habits, patterns, attachments and reactions that may or may not be serving you well.

How could I learn to be mindful or start a meditation practice? 

  • Start with 2 minutes per day. Practice with an effortlessness and without hope for secondary gain such as to become more peaceful, less stressed or whatever. Just sit and notice. And every time you forget your supposed to be meditating or your lost in thought and then you come back to the breath, the coming back and remembering to meditate is how we build our mindfulness muscle. Celebrate this.
  • Now set a timer. Sit comfortably and just notice the breath: the inhalation, the space between the inhalation/exhalation, and finally the exhalation. Don't try to control it, let it be as is.
  • As a next step, try bringing these skills into your day to day activities.
  • For free, simple and effective guided meditations can be found here at UCLA Health
  • Other good resources for beginners, and for those who are experienced, are Sam Harris, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield
  • Our Entheo psychedelic coaches can help you build this skillset.

Can technology help me? Are there any apps?

  • There are many great apps to choose from. Whichever app you choose, consider starting with a multi-day introductory course to learn the foundations. 
  • A first recommendation would be Waking Up, followed by 10% happier, and Headspace.