On November the 4th 2021 I attended a psilocybin retreat lead by the Essence Institute in the Netherlands. It was incredible. Over three days, with sixteen other participants and supported by a small team of experienced facilitators we prepared, travelled inwardly, and began the process of integrating what we'd been shown.
We were guided and hosted by Willem Fonteijn, Stella Stok, Paul Soons and Sanne de Burger. The Essence retreat format uses a set of activities that make it possible to quickly feel at ease in a group, and even to feel close to these recently-strangers; essential for reaching the level of openness and vulnerability that the ceremony asks of you. The group format has advantages over a solo journey that I didn't fully appreciate beforehand. For processing and integrating what you've seen it's helpful to be among people who've just had a similar experience. They're the ones most able to given full attention and credence to what you're describing. And hearing their accounts with openness can end up shedding light on aspects of your own experience. You can find more information about the Essence format on their website.
The reading material suggested by the institute was valuable. In the weeks leading up to the retreat I read The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide by Jim Fadiman and How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. Both useful, but the latter much more so for me. And so well put together. I think many will enjoy it even if they have no plans to use psychedelics. The accounts of people's journeys and practical information about how to maximize their usefulness were most interesting to me.
Here are some excerpts from Pollan's book that seemed important to keep in mind during the ceremony.
The flight instructions advise guides to use mantras like “Trust the trajectory” and “TLO—Trust, Let Go, Be Open.” Some guides like to quote John Lennon: “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.
If you feel as if you are “dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead.” Volunteers are quizzed: “If you see a door, what do you do? If you see a staircase, what do you do?” “Open it” and “climb up it” are of course the right answers.
“Think of yourself as an astronaut being blasted into outer space,” Richard Boothby recalled him saying. Boothby is a philosophy professor who was in his early fifties when he volunteered at Hopkins. “You’re going way out there to take it all in and engage with whatever you find there, but you can be confident that we’ll be here keeping an eye on things. Think of us as ground control. We’ve got you covered.”
The main thing is to surrender to the experience, even when it gets difficult. Surrender to your fear. The biggest fears that come up are the fear of death and the fear of madness. But the only thing to do is surrender. So surrender!
Many of the volunteers I interviewed reported initial episodes of intense fear and anxiety before giving themselves up to the experience, as the guides encourage them to do. This is where the flight instructions come in. Their promise is that if you surrender to whatever happens (“trust, let go, and be open” or “relax and float downstream”), whatever at first might seem terrifying will soon morph into something else, and likely something pleasant, even blissful.
After an illuminating breathwork session in the morning, and a light lunch, the ceremony began.
We were gathered in the hall, dressed in white, and sitting on our mattresses. The music on Willem's playlist had begun.
Following our instructions I put one and a half packets of mashed High Hawaiians Magic Truffles into my glass. 33 grams, a high dose. Paul came round adding ginger tea to our glasses. We stirred and pressed the truffles with our spoons until the tea had a milky look.
We drank the tea, lay down, and put our eye masks on. I didn't leave the mattress for the next six hours. I've forgotten many details and scenes. What follows are the parts that stand out the most strongly for me two days later.
Soon I felt unusual sensations including tingling in my hands and feet. I saw the beginnings of motion and imagery. The music changed in an unpleasant way; a harsh metallic echo had appeared. I felt like anaesthetic was spreading through my brain and that my thoughts were malfunctioning. I felt anxiety. The thought came up that it was a mistake to use psilocybin again after the bad experience I had with it in my teens.
The visuals developed into vast underground spaces. Dark, with three dimensional arrays of repeating objects stretching as far as I could see. A succession of these spaces presented themselves. The atmosphere was oppressive but also awe inspiring.
Following Willem's instruction to approach whatever threatening thing we encountered I imaginatively stretched my arms wide in a literal embrace and swam into the darkness.
Quickly the scene changed. I emerged onto a light-filled plateau. Again arrays of geometric forms stretched away endlessly. The light intensified towards a brilliant center. The sense of threat was gone. Instead there was overwhelming awe and joy. I felt like the most fundamental level of reality was revealing itself and I was continuous with this glowing environment. I whispered 'Oh' many times in wonder. I cried with happiness. I stayed here for what felt like a long time.
From this point onward gratitude and wonder were the feelings anchoring the journey.
Stella placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me how it was going. Smiling broadly I said "Good". "It looks like it's going good" she replied warmly. "Keep going".
My two year old son appeared several times during the journey after this point. He was wearing his favourite bag/hat on his head and carrying his favourite stick. He said, in Dutch, "Ja. Uh-huh" and nodded. Sometimes he used carefully pronounced English; "Yes. Uh-huh". These are the self-confirming phrases that often follow his announcements in daily life.
In the journey my son's confirmations carried the meaning: Notice and accept the fundamental goodness and beauty of existence. Many times during the rest of the journey I would nod my head both during intense happiness and sorrow. Following my son's example and gratefully accepting both.
I decided to visit sorrow. Immediately I saw my Polish grandparents and felt a powerful wave of grief for their fear, pain and suffering at the end of their lives. I sobbed heavily.
Willem placed a hand on my shoulder and said softly "It's good. Go into it". "Yes, thank you" I replied through the crying. I knew that the goodness and beauty of existence can carry - and coexist with - any amount of grief.
I cried for the suffering of my father who died alone of cancer.
I cried for my mother's care for - and her worry about - me and my brother.
I cried for my wife and the hurt we've caused each other in our relationship.
I cried for my eldest son, and for how I've so often failed to be patient and compassionate with him the way I want to be.
Throughout the journey I could hear everything around me in the hall; the sighs, crying, and laughter of the other participants. I heard the low conversation between our guides about how to proceed in supporting a voyager who was having a difficult time. I could hear and feel their footfalls as they walked between the mattresses. None of this felt threatening or distracting. I noticed these goings on with a feeling of safety and interest.
Later, laughter from other participants was coming in waves. I smiled and nodded each time it came, sometimes laughing out loud with the others, helpless not to. I felt the dampness of my tear-soaked eye mask on my cheeks. I began to notice soreness in my stomach from sobbing and laughing. Eventually I became interested in deliberately moving my hands, feet, and head.
I heard Willem announce to the hall that the team was bringing food round for us. I took off my mask as others were doing the same and understood the journey was ending. I wiped my face and ate fruit from the platters that Willem, Paul, Stella and Sanne offered. I felt exhausted and at deep peace.
So far, a few days on, I've noticed a very welcome lightness of mood - I feel less serious, more playful. It's much easier to be mindful. I still have negative feelings and reactions but they no longer have me; there's a good deal more optionality in whether I indulge them. I find it much easier to be patient and compassionate towards my children.
I often think back on the experiences I had and am moved by them again. I also notice with sadness how they're fading from my memory.
At Willem's suggestion I've begun doing very short mindfulness exercises while sitting, walking or biking.
The tape measure disagrees but I feel taller and as though there's a lightness at the top of my head where there used to be pressure. Perhaps least expectedly I can touch my toes - and easily - for the first time in my adult life.
I've made a note to revisit this post in six months to add a section about any changes that have persisted in the longer term.