How to choose a guide?

Disclaimer
Please note that the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands does not provide nor recommend taking any psychedelic substances.

Interested in taking psychedelics?
We argue that psychedelic experiences, with the right set, setting, substance and intention, can be of significant therapeutic value. Psychedelics can facilitate an improved understanding of the self, of others, and the nature of reality. Such an experience does not replace therapy or any other self-development practices, but it can provide deep insights or a new point of view. The value is in the experiential nature of the “lesson”, which is more powerful than classical ‘talking’ therapy.

To ensure beneficial sustained outcomes, the following is key: safe set and setting, proper preparation for the experience, context of administration, and post-session integration. One possibility to safeguard all these points is to go for a guided experience with an appropriately trained facilitator. In the Netherlands, two types of guided experiences are on offer:
Sitter Service
The Dutch market of the sitter service is booming, and there are many people to choose from. We recommend using our sitter service, because we work with very experienced people (including an accredited therapist who overviews our methods) who have a deep understanding of psychological and neurobiological processes. This option is an opportunity to take a legal psychedelic – psilocybin truffles, which you can purchase in the designated shops called smartshop.

PSN Sitter service

Guided ceremony or retreat
There are many centres and individuals who offer ceremonies and retreats, which differ in style and form. Utilised frameworks vary from religious to shamanic to spiritual to therapeutic. There is also a big choice in the offered substances. Most common are truffles, ayahuasca, psilohuasca, San Pedro, DMT and peyote. You can also find ceremonies with iboga and 5MeO-DMT. Bear in mind that it is technically not legal to provide these substances to paying customers, which is why we stick to psilocybin truffles only. There is also no code of conduct or certificate that would qualify guides for their job. The guided psychedelic experience is in a grey legal area. Before you sign up, make sure you fully understand all of these points.
Regardless of which option you are interested in, you should be very careful with choosing people to whom you entrust your mental health. The following section provides our advice on how to select a sitter or a retreat/ceremony facilitator.

Additionally, if you took part either in the sitter service or a retreat/ceremony already but you struggle with incorporating it into everyday life, we offer integration services. You can arrange a free 15 minutes call to discuss how we can help you.

Criteria for selecting a ceremony
The list of criteria below is based on ICEERS (International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service ) guidelines, and advice from various mental health practitioners.
No matter what the context of the psychedelic substance intake you should feel comfortable and safe when entering the psychedelic experience. The state will make you very vulnerable, and if you do not trust people around you, you might have a difficult time, sometimes with long-lasting adverse effects.

Choosing the substance
Before you start your search for psychedelic journey contemplate what kind of substance you want to choose. In the Netherlands, the majority of psychedelics are listed as illegal in the Opium Law (Opiumwet in Dutch). These include such classics as DMT, LSD and psilocybin (for the full list go here).
Due to a loophole in the law, psilocybin truffles can be legally sold in the specialty shops called smartshops. The psilocybin-containing mushrooms are listed in the Opiumwet, but because truffles are sclerotia so technically not a mushroom, they are allowed to be sold as a food item. Any form of action that can be considered as psilocybin extraction can be seen as an illegal activity. Therefore, if you want to ingest the truffles legally, you should purchase your own box and take full responsibility for your action.
There are other substances that are unlisted and therefore in the legal grey area. These include Iboga (an African shrub) and Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a brew made from two components – a plant containing monoamine oxidase inhibitor and a plant high in the inactive form of DMT, both of which can be legally purchased in smartshops. The problem with Ayahuasca starts when you try to combine the two plants, which can be seen as an attempt to extract DMT, which is illegal, listed on the Opiumwet substance.
The Opiumwet also does not contain many research chemicals because these substances are new on the market, and their long-term effects are unknown. Therefore it is better to avoid them as they might be dangerous for your health.
Before you decide to make an appointment then, analyse whether you want to involve yourself in an illegal or semi-legal activity. A good guide should be able to provide you with sufficient information on your legal responsibility in case of any problems resulting from the ingestion of the substance.
Additionally, when choosing a substance, take into account your experience with psychedelics. If you have not tried psychedelics before, it is probably not the best idea to start with Ayahuasca, which is one of the most potent hallucinogens available. This experience might put you in a state which might be too intense, and as a result, you might not be able to integrate it properly. Our advice is to start with low doses of a less potent substance, such as truffles, and then build up to stronger experiences if you feel such a need.

Screening of the participants
The screening process is the most crucial part that should be covered by a sitter or a group guide. The centre or a person should invite you to an interview or send you a questionnaire or a screening form before the admission and exclude you if there is a risk that you might harm yourself by taking a psychedelic. If they have no exclusion criteria and do not objectively inform you about the potential dangers of taking hallucinogens or present psychedelics as a panacea that cures everything, then they will probably not offer you a responsible and safe setting.
The content of the evaluation should include questions about your current and past mental health state, your family mental health history, your physical health and information on any medication you currently take. In the case of Ayahuasca facilitators, they should also check whether you are not on any supplements that affect serotonin level and inform you about a special diet for the day of brew ingestion.
In addition to these basics, you should be asked about your anxiety levels (high anxiety and inability to manage it, is a contraindication for the psychedelic experience) and whether you are not depersonalised, spaced-out, or ungrounded (psychedelics are a substance that leads to dissociation from reality so they might worsen this state). In case of the latter issue, a skilled sitter (ideally psychotherapist) can help you with those symptoms, so these states do not exclude you from taking part in the psychedelic experience, but you should be more careful than others when choosing your guide (this person should be knowledgeable on this topic).
If these questions are not covered, you are risking your mental health because the facilitators might not understand the problem you are facing.

Preparation and integration
In general, it is best to avoid attending sessions where no preparation and integration of any kind is offered.
Preparation should contain information on what will happen during the session, how to surrender to the experience, and how the facilitator will behave when something goes wrong. An excellent addition that shows that the facilitator cares about the participant is a discussion on why a participant decided to take part in the session.
The integration part should include discussion or presentation on how to ground yourself after the experience, what to do if you feel worse as a consequence of the experience, and a follow up at least in the form of short email or message. In this way, if you happen to experience any issues in the period following the session or difficulties with the integration of the experience, you can receive support for the time needed.
In the group setting in addition to the above sharing circle helps to build a bond between people in the group.

The facilitator
A good facilitator is an empathic person who is a good listener. A person that is not pushing his/her ideology or spiritual beliefs on you but tries to empower you to be able to solve your problems on your own. You know what is best for you and no one else can tell you. The sitter can only assist you in the process and give you tools to prepare and integrate the experience.
The “guru” behaviour or insensitivity to your situation and the reasons why you want to participate, should be a red light for you. If you experience any sexual advances, these should be rejected, and the person should be reported to the community (in such a case you can contact Cosmic Sisters) .
Do not choose a retreat or a facilitator that guarantees a specific outcome. The human psyche is very delicate and complicated – every person has a different reaction – for some psychedelics hardly work, for others, these substances provide powerful experiences – there is no right or wrong here. People who had beautiful, mystical experience in many cases end up depersonalised and struggle to come back to normal life facing high anxiety and depression.
Check facilitator’s background and experience – the sitter does not have to have a psychology background but should have a basic understanding of human psyche that can be proven. The facilitator has to know how to behave in case of a psychological emergency such as a panic attack, paranoia or psychosis. A good indicator is proven work and training as a psychedelic carer at a festival. Examples of groups which offer such training are Zendo or Kosmicare. There are numerous smaller groups so the name of the festival and the name of the organiser should be enough. Additionally, many people who guided sessions for a few years should be equipped with this knowledge, but it is better to check this with them.
Ask about this person’s own psychedelic experience. Ask questions about the length of their personal work and whether they had both positive and challenging outcomes. A person that only went through “beautiful” mystical experiences might not be able to support you if you have a different reaction to the psychedelic substance.
If you decide to go for a group option, check how many sitters will be available for the whole group. A good practice is one sitter per maximum of five participants – more is unmanageable, especially if someone has a challenging experience.
Finally, make sure that the facilitator looks after you until you are entirely sober and then uses some grounding methods as part of the integration. Grounding is essential to help you to come back fully into an integrated state and connection with your body. It is recommended to ask them about it prior to arranging an appointment.
It is a good idea to hear opinions of people who have previously participated in the service of a centre or a group so try to find testimonials on social networks or websites listing providers with reviews systems such as AyaMundo, Retreat Guru, or Psychedelic Experience.
Another thing you can do is request a short call with the facilitator to establish whether you feel comfortable with this person. Sometimes, it is not about facilitator’s personality or professionalism but how you feel about them. The sitter might be very professional and empathic but still might trigger some uncomfortable emotions in you and this interaction might affect your session.

The group
For most people, the psychedelic experience is a reflective process, most of which is spent looking ‘inwards’ with closed eyes. In many cases these journeys into one’s psyche are accompanied by intense emotions and sometimes externalising them brings relief. Many people feel the need to cry, laugh or make other noises. When considering whether you should go for a one-to-one session or group experience bear in mind with whom you want to share very intimate moments. If you decide to go for a group option, check with the service providers whether they arrange sharing circles before and after the session, as this helps with building a trusted environment.

A final remark
Common sense is always a good advisor. If you don’t fully trust a centre or a person that does the session, the best thing to do is to find someone else who inspires you and gives you more confidence. A certain centre or a person, even though maybe recognised and famous, might not be adjusted to your needs.

Checklist
These are vital elements that should be covered to provide you with a safe setting:
– The legality of the substance and your responsibility
– Is the dose tailored to your previous experience and mindset?
– Screening – check on your mental and physical health, medication, anxiety and dissociation levels
– Preparation, integration and follow up
– Facilitator
• Empathic listener
• No “guru” behaviour
• Experience in dealing with psychedelic or psychological emergencies
• Do they have an appropriate background for this kind of work?
• Do they have both positive and challenging personal experience?
• One sitter per maximum of five participants
– Group – sharing circle
– No specific outcome should be promised
– Do they inform you about the potential risks?
– Do they have emergency protocols?
– What are the details of the session?

Examples of questions you could ask the facilitator before making an appointment:
– What is their experience with dealing with psychedelic emergencies?
– What would they do if you needed medical assistance?
– Did the facilitator have difficult cases and what did they do?
– What do they do if someone feels worse as a consequence of a session?
– What is their personal experience with the substance – how long have they been working with psychedelics both personally and as a guide? Did they have challenging personal situations?
– What kind of methods do they use for grounding?
– Can they send you a timeline for the events during the session or during the retreat length?

Other useful resources:
Adverse events: what to do? (by ICEERS)
ICEERS integration support
Travel to the Amazon: the decision making (by ICEERS)
The False Guru Test

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