Is it a download, or am I projecting? – How to integrate psychedelic experiences

You’ve just been through one of the most transformative experiences of your life, journeying through a roiling mass of emotions, thoughts, visions, ‘downloads’, memories, and amplified residues of recent activities, and it’s hard to put them into words. 

Salman Rushdie writes in his magical masterpiece, The Ground Beneath Her Feet that ‘five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, the birth of a baby, the contemplation of great art, being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden: an eff of the ineffable.’ I would add that there is at least one more key that can unlock the doors to divine intimations and profound transformations: freeing up the human body in a visceral, life-affirming, effortless dance while tuning into the eternal, creative life force (Axe) –  with the help of psychedelics. However, that key to the unseen is not always a gentle fit. It can be a Trojan horse.  

Psychedelics amplify mental states and emotions we are not aware of

I can still struggle as a registered psychotherapist – having had 7 years of personal therapy before I embarked on my first ayahuasca journey 7 years ago, and who is equipped with tools how to make sense of overwhelming experiences – to make complete sense of everything I have been through during a psychedelic journey. An ayahuasca journey can be psychologically and physically overwhelming: you can feel that you have received ‘downloads from benign entities’, or as Jeremy Narby, the author of The Cosmic Serpent put it, you have tuned into a ‘biospheric television’, a ‘broadcast outside your mind’.  Traumatic memories can come up that stir up difficult emotions, you are flooded with visual hallucinations that seem ‘more real than real’, while you can also experience heartbreaking beauty and bliss. 

Stanislav Grof said that psychedelics are unspecified amplifiers of unconscious processes, so if you are not intimately acquainted with yourself, often deep terror, shame, guilt, and sadness can come up during a journey (here’s an interesting conversation about the risks of taking ayahuasca). And while perhaps during the ceremony you feel safe and held by the facilitators or shamans, after the ceremony ends, these difficult emotions can return – sometimes with even more intensity – and linger on.

What is integration?

There are so many strands to unravel, it’s hard to know where to start the untangling to integrate the pieces into a meaningful new whole that can also be maintained when we are back to the daily ground. And whether you believe that the visions are the product of your own unconscious processes, or that you are tuning into the ‘biospheric television’, or whether you think you are accessing intelligence on a molecular level, it can be hard to know what to do with the information conveyed by these visions, and how to decided whether you are filtering them through your unacknowledged fears, desires, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Pierre Janet, the French psychiatrist formulated first what integration was: uniting thoughts, sensations, and emotions into a  new consciousness, fitting them into an existing cognitive framework that might very well be augmented and reworked while integrating these new bodily and mental experiences.

Clinical vignette

Let me illustrate the integration of psychedelic experiences on ayahuasca with one of my clients. Any identifying details have been removed from the account. Let’s call this client Alex. Alex had been a client of mine, and they regularly go off to do ayahuasca in South America, so I knew about their previous experiences in detail as well. After their last trip, coming back to their ‘everyday life’ felt challenging as they felt very sensitive (which is normal after a long ayahuasca retreat, even after a short one). When Alex told me about their experience, they said it had been the most profound (by that time they had done it for more than a dozen times), extremely beautiful as they felt they really connected with ‘the gods and higher beings’ and could feel coming into their power like never before, while at the same time an early traumatic memory came up which they hadn’t thought about for decades. They were also struggling to maintain ‘the serotonin high’ (after consuming ayahuasca you can have increased serotonin levels for a few weeks), they felt they were getting depressed despite the profundity and beauty they experienced. A love interest also appeared in their vision/fantasy and they didn’t know whether they should act on the ‘download’, or whether it was rather an amplification of their emotional state and a projection of those strong emotions. So there was a lot to unpack in the coming months. I will not go into detail about Alex’s religious beliefs, but the fact that they felt they were ‘connecting with the gods’ during the retreat, meant that they started to think more about how to maintain a ‘higher vibrational state’ on a day to day basis, and how to stay connected to their ‘higher self’. They started to incorporate prayers into their daily meditation practice, and seek out a community where they could ‘connect with the gods’ without ayahuasca’. The intention that they wanted to stay connected to their higher self in practical terms meant that they could respect their own needs much more, which meant a decrease in self-sabotaging behavior in the long run. (Alex used to be a compulsive caretaker. Everyone else’s needs always came first in their life as a result of having to be a caretaker of their younger sibling while also looking after an abusive alcoholic mother who didn’t have the capacity to look after them). Alex started to be able to acknowledge and slowly voice what they felt, and slowly assert their own needs, rather than constantly looking after other people’s needs.

Is it a download or a projection of unacknowledged feelings and emotions?

The visions about snakes and other animals made them try to connect with these animals when they were lying in bed and do a meditation on spirit animals before falling asleep. (Years of doing psychedelics and ayahuasca can significantly change the quality of your dreams) (Here you can watch a very insightful conversation with Dennis McKenna, and one with Jeremy Narby about whether the entities you can encounter on DMT are real or not).

The ‘download’ about the love interest turned out to be a projection rather. This love interest had been dangling the carrot in front of Alex for months and using them to help her with exams. (they were at the same university). Again, the pattern of compulsively helping someone while ignoring what they really wanted from the relationship. In the ayahuasca vision, Alex saw the spirit of this love interest moving into their mother’s body. (In real life, Alex’s mother was dying). They thought it was an indication that this love interest was the love of their life whom they should marry. However, after weeks of exploration, Alex realised that the longing for their mother’s love was almost unbearable, especially at a time when they could lose that love any minute. They projected this longing onto the person they were most emotionally intimate with at the time (the exploiting and narcissistic love interest) and whom they severely idealised. Psychedelics usually amplify anything that’s on your mind at the time of taking them, and the emotional states you might not even be aware of. During therapy, Alex described their longing for their mother’s love as ‘tormenting’, and he recounted several instances when they found their love interest’s behaviour ‘disturbing’, but Alex felt he could help her change and turn her into the ideal partner who would love them as much as Alex wanted their mother to love them. It was a long process for Alex to acknowledge how much their needs were not met in their relationship with this love interest, and was a similarly long process to mourn the loss of a relationship with their mother they always longed for but never had.

The voice of our inner healing intelligence can be distorted by our unexplored unconscious processes

Alex had had several years of therapy before these ayahuasca experiences so they already had a quite well-integrated personality, which means that they dealt with the parts of their personality they had to split off (dissociate from) as children as part of coping with an emotionally unintelligent caregiving environment, so they were aware of their ‘shadow’ side. Someone who is less integrated, or as we would say it in western psychology, has less ego-strength (ego strength means how well you can cope with anxiety, stress, uncertainty, and what coping mechanisms you use to regulate difficult, potentially overwhelming emotions. Someone who uses drugs, alcohol, or sex to regulate their stress and anxiety has less ego-strength than the person who doesn’t need to resort to them but rather regulate themselves with spiritual practices, meditation, exercise, or co-regulate with others in meaningful relationships), can potentially be more overwhelmed after a psychedelic experience and might find it harder to differentiate between what is a ‘download’ and what unconscious and unacknowledged contents of their mind they are projecting. I usually think of ‘downloads’ as our inner healing intelligence, the voice of our true authentic self that can be buried under layers of developmental and shock traumas. This wise inner voice can guide us in the right direction if it is not distorted by unacknowledged fears and desires. So you have to be a pretty ‘clear channel’ to be able to ‘receive downloads’. If you haven’t worked through your traumas and repressed or dissociated mental contents, these will distort the voice of your inner healing intelligence.

That is why it is so important to unpack the different strands of your psychedelic experience with a licensed professional who knows what they do and have experience in integrating not only other people’s shadow but their own as well, since you can only go as far as your therapist can go.

As a registered psychotherapist and counsellor who has been specialising in treating complex trauma, attachment problems, and personality adaptations, I can help you not only with integration but preparation for the psychedelic journey as well. I work with dreams, emotions, and unconscious processes as my primary training has been in psychodynamic therapy, but as a trained yoga and meditation teacher I also use somatic interventions and can teach you techniques and strategies to regulate your nervous system and build somatic capacity if you’d like me to do that.

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