A recent mushrooms-and-MDMA trip wasn’t elucidating in the way I’d hoped it might be. I chose to record myself doing psychedelics with a guide, hoping that when I listened back, I’d hear myself having major breakthroughs. What this actually sounded like, when I listened back: “It’s the second cumming—spelled with a U, because it’s on Pornhub!” The trip pretty much went on and on in a stream of explicit-ish babble. I have no idea what I meant—basically, I know just enough to feel embarrassed about it.
In retrospect, part of the problem was that I wasn’t clear about my intention for the session. People who professionally guide psychedelic journeys generally recommend creating an intention before any psychedelic experience in order to maximize your chances of getting what you’d like out of it. The idea behind setting an intention is that staking a trip on a set idea helps keep you focused on what matters to you or helps you find peace and meaning.
If you create a mental home base to return to before tripping, it’s more likely that your psychedelic experience won’t be as rambly and random as mine was. Maybe you’ll even arrive at something resembling meaning (or a surrender of it, if that’s your preference).
Here’s what you should think about when you’re setting an intention before a psychedelic trip, as well as some pitfalls to avoid. If you’re still hung up on how woo-woo “setting an intention” might sound: Better to sound like a kook on purpose and for your own reasons—rather than spouting, for hours, faux-deep insights along the lines of whatever the hell I was saying about orgasms.
Why should you set an intention before a psychedelic trip?
An intention can provide a guiding, girding idea for you to come back to if you start to feel adrift in a trip, or provide you with a safe thought to return to if you start feeling scared or spiral-y. “For a lot of people, [tripping] is a novel experience—they get caught up in the experience, rather than channeling it into the intention,” said James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Put another way: “Your mind can wander,” he said.
Intentions, particularly in guided sessions, may also give you someplace to redirect your attention if things get difficult, said Giordano. “The nature of psychedelesis”—the state of mind when you’re tripping—“is that your usual pattern of thought is changed,” he explained. “The individual’s thoughts could drift in ways that could be problematic if there’s nobody to guide them back.” For instance, someone on psychedelics could get caught up in frightening memories or perceptions. In those moments, it’s a relief to have a reassuring framework to help process and make meaning of those thoughts.
“The intention is so helpful… for those moments that get really intense and challenging or when part of you would like to be elsewhere,” said Jenna Fletcher, a psychotherapist in Ottawa who helps guide ayahuasca ceremonies and specializes in helping people process psychedelic experiences. Fletcher sometimes tells people who are struggling during ayahuasca ceremonies, “Remember why you came here.” Even this simple reminder to be intentional helps people to persevere through the tough moments, she said.
How do you choose an intention for a psychedelic trip?
A good intention usually concerns something that’s important to you, because, generally, the things we’re already thinking about are most accessible to our minds while we’re tripping, said Giordano. “This [subject] is something that already has some cognitive processes involved, so there is activity in various nodes and networks in your brain that are dedicated to or at least participatory in these constructs,” he said. “The more personally viable and valuable this is to you, the more you're going to invest your cognitive energy, and, literally, your neurocognitive real estate.”
Once you take stock of what’s immediately present for you, see what feels especially personal or pressing. “It's best if [the intention is] emotion- or body-focused, because your body and your emotions generally are pretty accurate and true to what you're feeling,” said Anthony Di Virgilio, who works as a therapist and ayahuasca guide with Fletcher. “If you're going in with an intention that’s rooted in your body or emotions—going in saying something like, ‘Teach me about my fear, and how fear impacts me, and where my fear comes from’, those are really good intentions.” If fear sounds too intimidating to work on, you can also pick a positive emotion to learn about, like joy.
Exploring the emotional aspects of physical pain or problems can also be a good place to start because these feelings are readily accessible to you. “This can be as simple as, ‘Teach me about my pain,’" said Di Virgilio. “If that pain had a voice, what would it say? If the pain is caused by lifestyle choices, the [trip] might show us the ways in which we don't love ourselves and the roots of why we don't.”
Another starting point is examining what you’d like your life to look like. “Focusing on an intention starts with tuning into the self without the noise of loved ones or society pushing their agendas onto what you should want,” said Juliana Mulligan, a psychedelic program coordinator for the Center for Optimal Living. “I like to encourage people to envision what a joyful and happy life would look like for them.” You can set a more specific intention to work through what’s getting in the way of that, or even to figure out what your true desires are if you’re unsure.
You don’t have to overthink it. Dimitri Mugianis, who facilitates iboga trips, recommended keeping your intentions as general as possible. One of the best intentions he’s heard has been, simply, “I want to be a more loving person to myself and others.” That’s clear and direct, but allows you room to explore on the trip itself.
What intentions should I avoid setting for a psychedelic trip?
Before I took that incomprehensible mushrooms and MDMA trip I mentioned earlier, the trip guide I worked with had, in fact, asked me to come up with an intention of my own. I was preoccupied, so I didn’t give it much consideration—I just told the facilitator that I wanted to “heal my relationship with the feminine.” I now realize that was a little too vague—I didn’t even really understand what I meant. So I’d recommend not going with something you don’t truly care about just because it sounds good in the moment!
Psychedelic facilitators tend to caution against any intention that’s too productivity-oriented. If you have a specific goal in the self-optimizing sense, like making more money or going running every day, try to instead focus on the broader feeling you’re trying to achieve with that goal or what’s getting in the way of it.
“Any intention that is too constricting can result in more self-judgment,” said Mugianis. “Like, ‘I’m going to go in and do this [trip], and I’m going to lose 20 pounds’—if you go in there and find something else, maybe about your relationship to food, and you don't lose a goddamn pound but you feel better about yourself, that's not a failure.”
Luna Charlotte, a 28-year-old artist in Canada, wanted to sell more of her artwork. Instead, Charlotte said, she made the intention on a recent trip “to reset my beliefs surrounding money and to take my artist career to the next level.” (After spending that psychedelic experience confronting her inner critic, she did end up selling more paintings.)
It’s also best to keep the intention focused on yourself and things that you can control. “Don’t intend, ‘I want this [trip] to fix my relationship,’” said Mugianis. “It’s not going to fix somebody else. It’s not going to fix how somebody else reacts to you.”
“The people I see going into experiences desperately wanting a specific result are the ones that have a harder and more tumultuous time,” Mulligan agreed. “You have to stay open to the fact that you might not know exactly what you need.”
There’s a place for getting answers to specific questions, like, “Show me what job I should apply to,” while on psychedelics, but Fletcher suggested doing this toward the end, once you’ve mostly come down, instead of making it your main pursuit. ”Towards the end of the [trip], we’re coming back towards a more ordinary state of consciousness, which for us tends to be more mental” in the ways that we’re used to than spiritual, she said.
What should (and shouldn’t) I expect to get out of my intention during and after the trip?
If you’re being supervised by a professional, or even just a friend, share your intention with them so that they can help remind you of and return you to it while you’re under the influence. Stay open, though—sometimes the path your mind goes down on a trip won’t stick to that intention in an overt way.
Just because you’ve set an intention doesn’t mean that what happens during your journey will be clearly related to that intention. Sometimes, something more top-of-mind will come up instead, or your intentions will be addressed indirectly.
“Many times, what we don't realize is when we set an intention, we open Pandora's box,” said Raven Marie, who guides iboga ceremonies. “We’re going for one thing, but we have to understand there are so many nuances and experiences and triggers and programs that are collectively creating this experience for you. You may say, ‘I want to open my voice,’ and you may be transported to being little in your crib and you're crying for your parents and they're not coming for you—there's an association of being abandoned or left alone or your voice not being heard,” she said.
It’s useful to talk to a therapist or other mental health expert after the journey to figure out how to relate what came up to your intention, which is a process known as integration. “The intention can get answered in surprising ways and in ways that might not seem related to the original intention, but often, within the processing that happens afterwards, we do learn there's a link there,” said Fletcher.
“We had one individual who set an intention about death anxiety, then their entire ceremony ended up being about shame,” Di Virgilio recalled. “They were kind of upset about that, and when we were processing that [after], what we learned together was that you can't be at peace with dying unless you've been at peace with how you've lived. In that way, the [trip] was giving them exactly what they needed to eventually address the death anxiety.”
Should you always stick to an intention when you’re tripping on psychedelics?
Plenty of people find a lot of meaning in trips without setting intentions. Whiskey Stevens, a 29-year-old in Ontario, recently tripped on marijuana tea without setting any intentions beforehand. “Soon after ingesting it, I fell asleep, only to wake up a few hours later completely immersed in an experience that lasted two hours and ultimately told me that I needed to spend less time on social media and more time doing this I'm passionate about,” she said.
Even if you choose to set an intention to anchor your trip, make sure you have room to explore, too. “Psychedelics are mind-expanding, mind-opening, and for many people, the experience itself is an important thing to engage, to process, to embrace,” said Giordano. “So it's not so much that you're focusing on the intention, but rather, the experience itself can be profound in terms of its content, its phenomenology, its feeling, and perhaps even things you take away from it.”
If you don’t have an intention going in, it’s still beneficial to reflect on what you learned from the experience afterward, even if that’s something abstract like learning what it’s like to lose your inhibitions, said Giordano. “Intentionality is not essential. What is, however, essential is an openness to the inspirational potential or inspirational possibilities of the experience.”
Finally, don’t feel bad if you lose track of your intention when you’re tripping. As Mugianis put it, “When you’re totally lost in a psychedelic space, you’re like, Where’s that fucking relationship with my dad? Is that happening? No, you’re fucking lost.” Sometimes, it’s better to just go where the trip is taking you than to expend your mental energy on stress about trying to retrieve your intention.
Marie recommended striking a balance between establishing a focus for your journey and staying open to where it takes you. “The best you can do is set an intention and be open to receiving, but also go into every ceremony free of expectations,” she said. “Don’t expect—just receive. Simply receive.”
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