“Help me quit smoking.”
“I want to process the trauma of my abusive childhood.”
“Why do I turn to food to relieve my anxiety?”
“Show me how to make my romantic relationship happier and more connected.”
“I’d like to feel more comfortable in my body.”
“Teach me how to be still.”
“I’m at an impasse and want to know what path to follow in my life.”
“Help me find the courage to…”
All of these are intentions for psychedelic work.
The psychedelic experience is, by nature, destabilizing. Although it may not always feel chaotic (in fact, it can feel like things “finally make sense”), a person’s brain functions in markedly different ways while under the influence of psychedelics. As the default mode network—that is, the system of part in the brain that allow us to daydream and be on auto-pilot—goes offline, more connections are possible between parts of the brain that don’t tend to connect as easily.
The expression, “neurons that fire together, wire together” speaks to the effect of habit on the brain. The more we think a certain way or do a certain thing, the more that pathway gets strengthened on the neurological level. Psychedelics actually reduce activity in those regions associated with our ingrained habits, so we have the opportunity to create new pathways, develop new ideas, process past experiences, and make changes for the future.
So, what is the change that you want to make?
Crafting an intention before a psychedelic experience can be like an anchor as you travel the roaring sea of your mind. For some people, the intention is like a lifeline. They can return to that purpose and try to keep their thoughts from straying to other things. In some cases, being laser-focused on one’s intention can interfere with the natural process unfolding. Try to cultivate a balance between steering the trip and letting it steer you.
Going into a psychedelic journey with an open mindset can help you avoid the pitfalls of expectation, whereby the experience invariably goes differently than you predicted. A wise person once said, “psychedelics don’t give you what you want, they give you what you need.” If the experience isn’t working out like you hoped it would, try to keep the faith. Remember your intention, and remember that sometimes our intentions can unfold in unexpected ways. It may be that a feeling of losing hope is something important for you to sit with, for example. The feeling of disappointment, anger, confusion, or whatever else is arising may be connected to the fulfillment of your intention.
How to Craft an Intention
A facilitator at the Temple of the Way of Light, an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru, suggests the prefixes “teach me,” ”help me” or ”show me” as good starting points for intention setting. Such phrasing can help us be humble in what we are asking from the psychedelic experience.
Intentions can be as simple as, “I want to be open to what this experience has to show me.” An intention doesn’t need to be specific. Wanting to explore consciousness is a perfectly valid intention.
For focused work, it can be helpful to define the intention with a little more detail. Some people find it helpful to write their intention in a journal or someplace where they will see it during the trip.
Having a therapist, coach, or another professional support person could help you take a look at your life and identify areas that might benefit from more awareness, attention, or work. Friends and/or family may be able to offer suggestions as well.
For more seasoned psychedelic travelers, knowing what pitfalls you’ve encountered in the past can help inform future trips. For example, if you know that you sometimes want to be alone during a trip, but you feel guilty or unable to ask for space, you might set an intention that you’ll speak up and advocate for your needs during the experience.
Intention work begins before the trip. In the case of that last example, the person who might want to be alone should let their fellow travelers know ahead of time that they may seek out some solitary space and that they hope no one will take it personally. Remember, we are all responsible for our own needs and boundaries. If you want or need something, or know that there are things that you don’t want, be sure to communicate those needs to others. If someone else is communicating their needs to you, take note of it and be sure to respect their wishes.
Bill Richards Ph.D., a psychologist and research affiliate at John’s Hopkins, offers this affirmation for people going into a psychedelic trip: “let go, be open, trust the process.” Such a statement can also be a good anchor for a difficult experience in a psychedelic trip and could even serve as a more general intention. The book Trust, Surrender, Receive by Anne Other is about healing trauma with MDMA. In a similar vein as Richards’ quote, “trust, surrender, receive” could be an anchor in psychedelic work, especially with MDMA.
A solid intention can help you focus your energy on the specific area that you want to work on, and may help ground a trip if it starts to feel out of control. Through the lens of intention, we may be able to accept difficult experiences that are happening. Sometimes the pain is a necessary process to get to the other side.