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Building Community Around Integration: A Guide for Community-Led Peer Integration

Psychedelic integration circles serve a key role in promoting healing & personal growth. Learn about the need of building community support.
By Niki Sylva
July 24, 2019(Updated: March 17, 2021)

Psychedelic integration keys personal growth and development following therapy and retreats. This is an introduction to a new guide for community-led peer integration circles. It will provide context and practical methods for setting up a peer circle. Critical considerations for how communities can effectively support themselves to meet their own integration needs are also included.

The guide is unique in that it takes an in-depth look at current issues pertinent to integration. These are issues that have seen minimal discussion. They include power dynamics, accountability in integration settings, and other holistic and ecological reflections. 

The Need for Community-based Integration

Many more people from Western industrialized contexts are seeking information about and experiences with visionary substances. The growing popularity owes thanks to increasingly positive press coverage about psychedelic use in medical settings.

Additionally, recent decriminalization initiatives of some psychedelics in cities like Denver and Oakland highlight a key issue. This is 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 psychedelic 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.

Definition of Psychedelic Integration

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 psychedelic 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 a key step. That part of the journey is when the hero/heroine returns, and they bring with them what they have learned in order to share with others (2018). The transformative component of an experience may feel incomplete or unresolved if this communal sharing does not occur. An incomplete experience may also occur when participants lack people to witness or validate their psychedelic experiences.

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. State-sanctioned religious activities represent the exception. Therefore, those of us who did not grow up in visionary plant-using contexts are at a disadvantage. Trying to understand and incorporate insights received in altered states of consciousness is harder. Compare this to the ease of those raised in indigenous cultures.

Indigenous people whose cultures maintained their practices with visionary plants through this moment in the 21st century, are often under great duress imposed by colonizing forces. They 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. On the other hand, compare this to the enforced secrecy and isolation many find necessary to have a tenuous feeling of safety when using psychedelics in a prohibitionist context.

That said, it must also be noted that there are many contexts in which indigenous people continue to find themselves unsafe or excluded from participating in their own ancestral rituals.

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 for Psychedelic Integration

Community-led peer integration circles are one way for individuals to come together to discuss their transformative experiences. These circles aid in 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. This can reduce potentially problematic dynamics that exist when someone places themselves in the position of “expert.” “An expert” risks not acknowledging or using 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. Empowered participants 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. 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. 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. Being a safe place where people can go to report harm that has happened in another integration context mitigates these dynamics.

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. They should 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.

References

  1. 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. 

Published by:
Niki Sylva
My name is Niki Sylva, and I facilitate peer integration circles in my community and coordinate educational programming for Botanical Dimensions Ethnobotany Library. I am caretaker of The Understory, an online resource for holistic psychedelic integration. I recently served as the Adherence Program Coordinator for MAPS Public Benefit Corporation’s clinical trial of MDMA-assisted Psychotherapy.

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