This is an introduction to a new guide for community-led peer integration circles, which will provide context and practical methods for setting up a peer circle, as well as critical considerations for how communities can effectively support themselves to meet their own integration needs.
The guide is unique in that it takes an in-depth look at current issues pertinent to integration that have seen minimal discussion, including power dynamics, accountability in integration settings, and other holistic and ecological reflections.
The Need for Community-based Integration
Thanks to increasingly positive press coverage about psychedelic use in medical settings, many more people from Western industrialized contexts are seeking information about and experiences with visionary substances.
Additionally, recent decriminalization initiatives of some psychedelics in the cities of Denver and Oakland highlight the importance of making resources available to community members who will continue to access psychedelic experiences in unsanctioned settings.
In media portrayals of psychedelics, the emphasis has been on the quality of the experiences (eg. the degree to which a journey is considered ‘mystical’ or ‘therapeutic’) and on mostly positive outcomes (eg. resolution of trauma, diminished addiction behaviors, etc.)
Less attention has been paid to the crucial steps after the experience that make beneficial outcomes possible. This is the realm of integration.
Without a way to process the profound experiences one can have with psychedelics, users could find some of their experiences to be more harmful than helpful. Integration has therefore rightly become a hot topic in conversations about harm reduction.
Bustos, Megler and Metz define integration as “the process by which the material accessed and insights gained in an entheogenic experience are incorporated over time into one’s life in a way that benefits the individual and their community.”
The inclusion of community in defining integration is essential. This critical aspect of connection to others is fundamental to general human wellbeing, given that we evolved as social mammals. Without connection, psychedelic users may feel isolated by not being able to share their experiences with those who understand.
Kathleen Harrison points out that mentions of the “hero’s journey,” to represent going deep into a psychedelic experience, frequently leave out that when the hero/heroine returns, they bring with them what they have learned in order to share with others (2018). If this communal sharing does not occur, or when individuals don’t have their experiences witnessed or validated, the transformative component of an experience may feel incomplete or unresolved.
Highlighting the importance of community is therefore vital to helping people integrate their psychedelic experiences more fully into their lives.
Absence of Cultural Context
Use of visionary plants and substances is still generally unfamiliar in Western industrialized cultures. We live in contexts that are usually quite isolated and cut off from community or group ritual, apart from state-sanctioned religious activities. Therefore, those of us who did not grow up in visionary plant-using contexts are at a disadvantage is trying to understand and incorporate insights received in altered states of consciousness, in comparison to those who were.
Indigenous people whose cultures maintained their practices with visionary plants through this moment in the 21st century, often under great duress imposed by colonizing forces, do not need to integrate these insights into a dramatically different worldview than that within which they were raised.
Though practices have certainly adapted over time, there is a dramatic difference in being able to participate with reverence and ritual in practices that are congruous with one’s own culture when compared with the enforced secrecy and isolation many find necessary to have a tenuous feeling of safety when using psychedelics in a prohibitionist context.
The reality around the lack of a supportive cultural container has many identifying integration as a specific need for Westerners engaging with psychedelics. Many responses as to how to meet that need have arisen, from community-based peer support services to a growing pattern of professionalized guidance.
Building Community Support
Community-led peer integration circles are one way for individuals to come together to discuss their transformative experiences in order to continue processing how to bring those insights into their daily lives.
Individuals can be connected in groups and empowered to navigate their own integration processes without needing to be solely dependent on guides, coaches or therapists.
Peer integration circles are very accessible, usually costing a nominal fee to pay for the cost of space. Some people may be able to be included for free. =
Circles are educational and non-judgmental. Attendees share information and practice deep listening and reflection, versus trying to “fix” anyone. Participants are witnessed in a way that affirms that their process does not need to look any certain way; each person’s experience is “spiritual,” “therapeutic,” or “exploratory” to the degree that they themselves determine it is or isn’t.
Peer circles have the advantage of being non-hierarchical, which can reduce potentially problematic dynamics such as exist when someone places themselves in the position of “expert” and does not acknowledge or use care around the imbalance of power that is inherently present between someone seeking resources from another who claims to have them.
Circles may be intergenerational and give participants access to diverse perspectives. Participants are empowered to share authentically, rather than feeling the need to relate a certain way to any one listener.
Group learning processes are our natural inheritance as human beings, and peer circles are safe places for co-developing deep wisdom.
Professionalization and Power Dynamics: Notes for Harm Reduction
Integration has long been a practice of underground communities, which have been using visionary substances in the years before and since prohibition.
Recently, more trained therapists and others are identifying themselves as “integration-competent” to more openly interact with potential clients. This trend presents opportunities as well as challenges.
Therapists are trained to understand projection and transference, as well as other complexities of mental health, and these skills may lend themselves to deeper understanding around individuals’ needs for integration.
Therapists are also accountable to their licensing boards. This does not make it impossible for a therapist to harm a client seeking help with integration (and indeed this has happened) but it does mean there are established paths to recourse for harm done.
For integration providers without licenses, (coaches, etc.) there is perhaps less rigidity to dogmatic views on mental health. However, there is much more to be mindful of for these individuals not to cause harm and for potential clients to truly receive the help they are seeking and deserve. As one adage offers, “you can only go with others as far as you have gone yourself.”
In this regard, community-led peer integration circles can provide a check in terms of questionable power dynamics by being a safe place where people can go to report harm that has happened in another integration context.
Additionally, peer circles can be a part of building pathways to greater accountability that are accessible and supportive of people who have been harmed.
It will be interesting to witness how community-led integration circles grow and adapt over time to meet the particular needs of each unique community as psychedelic use continues to become more prominent.
We truly are all experts on our own experience, and peer support makes empowered integration possible.
Harrison, K. (2018). Big Botanical Beings: The Roles of Ayahuasca, Peyote & Magic Mushrooms in Times of Change. Personal Collection of K. Harrison, Botanical Dimensions, Occidental, California.