Exploring the Ethical Responsibilities of Psychedelic Shamanism

Exercising supreme responsibility when using psychedelic drugs and shamanic plants is of vital importance for the health, safety, and sanity of everyone involved.

I began teaming up with psychotherapist Meriana Dinkova several months ago to teach a series of workshops about “navigating altered states of consciousness,” which is a less controversial way of saying, “how to gain the most benefit from a psychedelic experience.”

These workshops have been great fun, mutually inspiring for everyone involved, and they’ve helped me to clarify what the most important factors are in planning a safe, healing, and inspiring psychedelic journey.

As fate would have it, teaching these workshops coincided with a series of events in my life that shook me to my core--emotionally and spiritually--and made it abundantly clear just how vitally important total trust and complete honesty are in planning a psychedelic session. 

One’s intentions need to be absolutely clear, and personal boundaries between those participating in a session need to be understood and utterly respected. Honesty, communication, and openness are key factors here. 

When it comes to planning a psychedelic journey with someone, there is no single factor that is more important than trust. 

A psychedelic journey can be far more intimate than sex, as one’s entire psyche becomes completely naked, and one’s deepest, most fragile self is totally exposed. A psychedelic drug can make us as acutely sensitive, and as psychologically vulnerable, as wide-eyed infants. 

Integrity, respect, shared intentions, and honesty are absolutely necessary to create a firm foundation of trust, when our personalities dissolve under the influence of a psychedelic, conditioned ways of thinking begin to break down, and cultural assumptions are transcended.

Without clear and honest communication, unvoiced suspicions can grow into full-blown paranoias, and intentions can sometimes be misinterpreted or misunderstood in important ways. 

One should never even consider sharing a psychedelic experience with someone that he or she doesn’t completely and totally trust with his or her life.

This is no exaggeration. Your brain is the most precious thing that you own.

The first and foremost thing to understand about planning a psychedelic experience is what’s called “set and setting.” This is a concept that was developed by the late Harvard researcher Timothy Leary when he first began studying the psychedelic experience.

“Set” refers to one’s mental state. This is important because psychedelics will tend to amplify whatever one is feeling to an extremely heightened degree. 

Every sensation, every perception, every feeling, and every thought is dramatically blown up in size, as though one is viewing the world, and one’s mind, through the most powerful electron microscope imaginable.

Because of this, it’s of utmost importance that one be in an emotionally stable, relaxed state of mind before embarking on a psychedelic journey.

“Setting” is one’s physical environment, which should be free of distractions, and as comfortable, aesthetically-pleasing, stress-free, and trustworthy as possible. 

One’s mental set, environmental setting, intentions, expectations, and the dosage of a particular psychedelic drug determine the general nature of one’s experience.

Understanding and applying these principles could lead one to spiritually-transforming mystical experiences, powerful healings, deep personal bondings, and creative insights of the highest order.

However, to disregard these important prerequisites could be a recipe for disaster.

Another important factor in helping to gain the most benefit from a psychedelic journey is setting clear intentions about what one wishes to accomplish on the journey, and then  maintaining a concentrated focus on these goals throughout the experience.

The utilization of a spiritual practice--such as mediation, prayer, or ceremonial ritual--often has powerful results when combined with a psychedelic journey.

Taking good notes during the experience--using either a notebook or tape recorder--can be most helpful in bringing insights, revelations, and ideas back from the journey, and this can assist in integrating them into one’s life. 

However, once again, I can not stress how important trust is. No other single factor is more important.

To learn more about how to plan a safe, healing, and inspiring psychedelic journey see psychologist James Fadiman’s definitive book on the subject: The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys (Park Street Press, 2011). 

To find out more about upcoming workshops that Meriana Dinkova and I will be teaching see: http://merianadinkova.com/events/

If you enjoy my column, and want to learn more about psychedelic and cannabis culture, “like” my Facebook page:


and follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/DavidJayBrown

Claire Foster August 20, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Your article is totally irresponsible. The lifestyle you expound is completely ignorant of karmic principles. You are creating negative karma for yourself and your partner by publicly endorsing and proliferating your ignorant view for others to take-in and 'explore'. True Shamanism is a state of fully enlivened awakened consciousness devoid of embodying the concepts of 'self' and 'others' - true Shamanism has NOTHING to do with taking drugs. You will, through a natural course of karmic arising, suffer greatly from the course of action you are negotiating in life. This is spiritual law. Find yourself a true teacher and you will know these words are true. I pray for your health and well-being. Compassion is the only thing one can feel for such profound and damaging ignorance. Find a true teacher before you contract a serious illness through your ignorance of the psychic and karmic implications of what you are doing and proliferating. Find a true teacher before you damage life further through expounding that which you know nothing about. The drugs you experiment with are not avenues of awakening, they are means of being less aware and less conscious than you are without them. Negative karma naturally follows those who do not understand this, which leads to great suffering. Do not believe this, watch what happens in your life and the lives of others who expound this way of life.
Zach Leary August 20, 2012 at 06:37 PM
This comment just makes me laugh. "Forgive them for they know what they speak." It always makes me chuckle when someone insists that they have the market cornered on what yoga is the right yoga and wrathful judgement on other peoples karmic practices. As Ram Dass frequently says "To each their own yoga." I love Claire for expressing her judgement and fear and what she thinks is right knowledge. Keep on keeping on David!
Jake Gwynn-Shapiro August 20, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Claire, who are you to say that David will suffer greatly because of his choices? That is like saying he will be punished for sinning, but by replacing god with karma. If you truly believe that psychedelic drugs cannot be used as tools, I humbly suggest that you do some extensive research before stating that as a fact. To me, spirituality and compassion about validating all paths, all tools that one may use, and simply determining which of those paths is preferred by oneself. Just because you don't understand this method of self-discovery, doesn't mean you have to invalidate it. But you are certainly welcome to if you wish. To me, that is what compassion is all about, validating all paths that anyone may wish to walk.
Selina Reddan August 20, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Who are we to say or even know what Shamanism is and who among us have powers? Psychedelic shamanism is just one expression of this vast area and it seems to me that David has a good handle on this even to the extent that he keeps this safe for us all who otherwise might not understand the depth of what he alludes to. Keep on keeping us informed David...!
Alex Wall August 20, 2012 at 08:24 PM
I like what Jake has said. More than anything - in the current climate of social paranoia - the meat of the message was: TRUST. It doesn't need to be under the effects of psychedelics. BUT, with intelligent forethought, preparation and (as Terence said) intention, valuable and lasting work can be done between people. I tripped with a few people I hardly knew when I was much younger, and, even to this day, I feel that they are brothers and sisters with me now. I feel a family bond with them. We HAD to trust each other during the experience. Or, we would have been cast into a negative chaos... It worked. We bonded. And in my spiritual opinion, I believe that bond is eternal. TRUST... LOVE... Learn together... I always get a boost of information - and serotonin :) - when I read David's articles. To misunderstand them is what is irresponsible. I will trust a person who has been on the other side of the mandala, before I will trust any other person. To ignore truth is to ignore one's own shortcomings. To blast out against that truth is to be showing a full display of one's own self-doubts; objection, colored by personal-historic bias. With a bit of self-blindness thrown in... But thank whatever Force you believe in, that we have such free and liberal ways to express ourselves. Such wasn't alwasy the case. And every critic is worth listening to. What a time to be alive! And I pray there will be many more in the future.
Patricia Juarez August 20, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Awesome dude
Mr. E August 20, 2012 at 09:34 PM
"true Shamanism has NOTHING to do with taking drugs." Actually, every place on the planet where shamanism is practiced and psychoactive drugs are available they are ALWAYS combined. So you are dead wrong, making use of the natural world to benefit healing, divination and altered states is the most natural and fundamental aspect of shamanism. Anyway, there are hundreds of books that explain this in great detail, and if one is truly interested in shamanism it's not that hard to do a little research and learn humanity's real history and potential. Or, one could continue making a supreme fool of oneself by proclaiming nonsense as 'fact' while spewing venom, proclaiming to be more-enlightened-than-thou and passing religious-style judgement and damnation over another's methods of communing with the sacred Earth. ...Yeah, I'm sure that will bring about a happy and rewarding life experience. Do you really think such fear-fulled, arrogant, accusatory spite and hatred and dismissal of the most global and most ancient spiritual, ritual and healing practices is going to provide you with better karma than those you so freely and meanly pass judgment upon? Is that how your ethics work?
Torrey Peacock August 21, 2012 at 04:39 AM
I have to agree with the others here - historically, shamanism has frequently been entwined with the use of mind-altering plants. Its not a bad model at all, for those of us seeking to use entheogens wisely, for healing and personal growth. That said, we are kind of feeling our way in the dark here - there is almost no precedent in the West for doing this kind of internal voyaging. So, true teachers are hard to come by. This is why we have gone deep into the jungles to find the shamans, who work with these medicines in a sacred way. Whatever the context, the principles of set and setting, and of being able to trust your companions, are absolutely valid and important. I can see no negative consequences coming from sharing these ideas, which are simply true, and could only help other people who choose to make use of these medicines.
Alyssa August 21, 2012 at 05:23 AM
No spiteful comments can in anyway detract from this wonderful article, it's intent being to help others in their voyage of life, which is in no way wrong or harmful. Great thoughts to keep in mind for anybody!
john lightvision August 21, 2012 at 05:38 AM
Yes! One must take great care in exploring other states of mind and spiritual, psychological and emotional development through exploring psychedelics. They have a lot of potential for evolutionary development of the mind and spirit, but can be quite dangerous if not used properly in the right context and space.
Claire Foster August 28, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Delightful participation in such a lively discussion and I thank you for it. I will say one thing about the drug discussion: TRUE shamanism is not based upon drug use. This has been promoted by the people whose lives and livelihood depends on dependency upon marijuana. Such use of what some of you are calling "sacred drugs" maintains and addictive dependency. Use of peyote or mushrooms is much more difficult to maintain in a day-to-day context. Is anyone proposing that? I am fully aware that taking a stand against marijuana use is not a popular position. Come clean within yourselves, I propose an experiment: Try going OFF marijuana for 6-months and see what changes. See WHAT & HOW it changes. Same thing with coffee, alcohol or sugar. Try it - see how your mind alters under the new circumstance. Or, try taking a SILENT retreat. 2 weeks. No speaking, no listening. See how THAT alters things... Or, staying in a pitch-dark for a time. Very impactful, useful tools to explore consciousness. There is more going on than most of us know. Experiment. If one has a sincere interest in learning, why not try new things? We all live in our own states of delusion until we awaken, why not try to CLEAR delusion, heighten awareness instead of clouding it. I challenge you to speak from experience.


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