person attending a psychedelic retreat ceremony

Ceremony and Neuroscience Go Hand In Hand At A Psychedelic Retreat

We can all benefit from going inwards…

Cover of How To Change Your Mind

On the heels of Michael Pollan’s new Netflix documentary “How to Change Your Mind”, the topic of psychedelic medicine is of increasing interest to the mainstream media and original spiritual seekers.   We live in an exciting time in human history where neuroscience provides us a grounded lens through which to view spiritual experiences forged from psychedelic journeys.  

Science has caught up with what Indigenous people have long known, that change is the only constant and that we can reprogram our nervous system at any point in life.   What modern science calls “reprogramming the nervous system,” ancient people would call Ceremony.  Ceremony is a space to go inwards and connect with what is sacred.  Ceremony is a time to attune to our feelings intentionally and purposefully.  Ceremony as gratitude.  At Dimensions Retreats, we see Ceremony as a way of cultivating harmony with self, others, and our planet.  

The Importance of Ceremony

Once we can realize that Ceremony and plant medicine are not the same thing, we can better appreciate how they supplement each other very well.   Integrating plant medicines into Ceremony tends to amplify, deepen, and allow for a more visceral experience of who we are as human beings.  However, it is our intentions, presence, and reverence that truly creates the ceremonial aspect of this work, with or without plant medicine.  

The Ceremony helps to create structure, safety, and sacredness, while the plant medicines help to open us and offer us alternative perspectives of ourselves, others, and our planet.  Another key element more often observed with the inclusion of plant medicines is the phenomenon known as “sequencing.”   Whenever we experience a trauma (acute or developmental), some kind of trapped energy is suppressed within our nervous system and body.   Imagine having the impulse to tell someone how you really feel but instead swallowing the words and moving on to the next event. 

The residue from that experience will be an amount of anger held in that will someday find a way out.  This “way out” is one way to understand sequencing.  Specifically, sequencing within the ceremony is held with an honoring for whatever old memory needs to be released and space created for what is new about the person in the absence of that trapped energy.  While the actual behavior can vary greatly, it would be fair to imagine a primal scream or deep bellowing of tears as some examples of sequencing.

This understanding of sequencing allows us to really appreciate what neuroscience shows us, specifically through somatic traumatic reprocessing techniques (e.g.  EMDR, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Deep Brain Reorienting, etc.).  When we look at how many traditional Indigenous ceremonies encourage and allow for such expressions of sequencing and overlay it with the more modern findings in neuroscience about how our nervous system works regarding trauma, the result is a nearly mirrored reflection of how the human body responds.  

Understanding The Role Of Plant Medicine

The plant medicines help to get the “controller” or ego out of the way so that the body can move, release, and hopefully, sequence-held trauma residue.  This is why plant medicine has such healing potential.  By making it easier for people to sequence their own unique trauma residue out of their nervous system, it increases their likelihood of raising their quality of life.    No matter how many brilliant thoughts, trippy visuals, or angelic interactions happen, if the body doesn’t release the trapped energy, the transformation is only half-mast.  

While no one can ever control anyone else’s psychedelic plant journey, the set and setting can greatly influence the experience.  This has a lot to do with how much a participant can sequence in a conscious and intentional manner, whether they just journey in a meandering fashion or whether they end up experiencing a “bad trip”.    When emotions and/or memories arise that are experienced as too intense, and when the person does not know how to be with those emotions, they will often feel “trapped”, and/or “scared”.  It is not the painful memories or feelings that are bad, it is the lack of support and guidance through a scary place that leaves one feeling like they had a bad trip.

By providing preparatory psychoeducation, breathing skills, and other mindfulness practices, participants are much more likely to be able to move through challenges that may arise during a plant medicine journey.   Creating a tranquil sacred space, offers quietness and stillness, and most of all, safety is another important variable to consider when facilitating a plant medicine journey.  At Dimensions, our guides have experience with trauma reprocessing techniques, breath-work, and an array of other mindfulness-based gifts to increase the likelihood that the participant will have an overall positive outcome, even if challenging emotions/memories arise. 

We include mindful integration sessions after the ceremony to increase the likelihood of the new changes staying alive for the return to “normal” life.   Too often people access altered states of consciousness during a plant medicine ceremony, only to have it feel as if a dream a month or so later.  Integration is possibly the most important part as it allows us to learn how to reactivate the new neural networks that we can access during ceremony, and integrate them into our everyday lives.  

Looking at this explanation of how trauma reprocessing, based in neuroscience, is highly correlated with the “sequencing” that is often seen in plant medicine ceremony helps us to see more clearly how safe, ethical, effective, and sacred containers can be crafted.   Such containers for deeper work allow the modern brain-science to coexist with the ancient rituals of healing ceremonies.   While it ought to be obvious to see where plant medicine has its place in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and end of life; hopefully we can also see where any of us can benefit from going inwards and taking a closer look at why we choose the behaviors we choose, why we feel the way we feel, and ultimately, to know ourselves at a deeper level.  

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About the Author

Jesse Hanson, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer, Dimensions. Jesse completed his PhD in 2015 from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. He also holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. In addition to his academic pursuits, Jesse has spent over 14 years training with different holistic and shamanic teachers.

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