The ABC of Psychedelic Integration

What’s the point of having a deep psychedelic experience if you can’t integrate it into your everyday life? But then again, as Marc Bolan sang, “life’s a gas”. At the end of the day, it’s all experience, isn’t it? Art for Art’s sake and all that. Not everything has to have a point.

If nothing else, we can learn to appreciate the wonder of present lived experience on psychedelics without looking to exploit it for utilitarian ends. We can learn the art of flow. And there are subtle ways, below the threshold of conscious awareness, in which these mysterious compounds change us, almost imperceptibly, from the inside out. In the aftermath, we may sense a curious shift in our outlook and demeanor that we can’t quite put our finger on.

However, for those who want to reap the abundant fruits of the psychedelic experience, there is the added dimension of conscious integration. This conscious integration can be described in three steps: gnosis, pistis and kenosis.

When people in the psychedelic community talk about integration, they usually mean something like, “absorbing and applying the insights gained from the altered state”. This has two main components: one philosophical, the other psychological.

First, there are ontological and epistemological questions of reality and worldview, our pictures of reality. We typically see the world through the filters of deep-seated assumptions and beliefs, inherited for the most part from our family and culture, but also individually constructed through reflection and inquiry. These will be to varying degrees challenged and/or confirmed by the insights arising from the psychedelic experience.

Second, there are personal questions relating to the self in isolation and in relation to significant others. Who we are, who other people are, and what our relationships are, are also questions that challenge our assumptions and beliefs. If we hold negative self-beliefs which limit us in particular ways or make us anxious or depressed, for example, powerful, compelling insights which explode these personal stories have clear psychotherapeutic value.

Human beings are of course story-telling animals. We can’t really live without stories. But the stories we tell about ourselves and the world can be endlessly refined and updated, enabling us to live by more positive, helpful stories as well as more truthful ones, ones that fit better with the reality that reveals itself to us in moments of clarity and insight, those “spots of time” that afford us a glimpse into the heart of Truth.

The process of revising and refining our pictures of reality is what I call pistis. It takes a lot of careful thought and mental effort. It usually involves some form of study, reading, discussion, etc., perhaps with a therapist, perhaps with a mentor or tutor, perhaps with a partner, perhaps with friends. We find our way in artfully and skillfully adapting our working models of reality to accommodate our new insights.

If we don’t do this, the insights are simply forgotten. They evaporate and disappear into the ether (“life’s a gas”). However, if we do it rashly or clumsily, we end up confusing ourselves and constructing a mental Frankenstein’s monster. We may adopt bizarre beliefs and superstitions and turn into a woolly-headed hippy. Or we may cling to certain apparently inalienable revealed verities and turn fundamentalist. Either way, we are not integrated. We have started thinking outside the muggle box only to find that we are now thinking inside a muppet box.

When people in the psychedelic community talk about integration, they usually mean good pistis. This is certainly an important part of it. However, there’s not much scope for good pistis without good gnosis (revelatory insight). If you don’t have the insights, what exactly are you integrating?

For good gnosis, we need both quality and quantity. Plenty of good insights. Both the quality and the quantity of our insights would appear to be outside of our conscious control (and they are), but they can be encouraged and facilitated through the conscious application of a third element, kenosis.

Kenosis means “self-emptying”. It implies the suspension of our assumptions and beliefs, but also of the habitual use of all our human faculties of perception and cognition. Insight comes most powerfully when you clear a space for it. Kenosis is “space-clearing”. It is really the same thing as Zen (or Cha’an or Dhyana), which really just means “meditation”.

So good integration depends on three things: good meditation (kenosis), good insight (gnosis) and good re-appraisal of life, the universe and everything (pistis). It should also be noted that the integration process is not a one-off thing that ends when the insights gained in the psychedelic experience are exhausted. Insights don’t stop once you’ve come down from the revelatory summits of your trip. If you nurture them through good pistis and kenosis, they just keep on coming.

If done right, the integration cycle following a profound psychedelic experience typically lasts for a few weeks. But the effects last a lifetime.