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Demystifying Ayahuasca Integration

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” Carl Jung

Ayahuasca Integration Defined

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can bring us profound insights, deep healing, mystical experiences, and paradigm shifts, where we see the fundamental nature of our existence in a new way. Unless we integrate these realizations into our lives, the experience will ultimately fade and become just a memory.

What does it mean to integrate an experience into our lives? Here are a few definitions of integration found on the web that may help illuminate the concept.

“Integration is the process of taking what you learned during the journey and applying those insights to your daily life moving forward. " [1]

“To integrate a mental state is to successfully ‘absorb’ it, meaning, you can now move on to other matters without suffering the energy drain that comes from ‘unfinished business’.” [2]

“Integration is the process of consciously receiving insights and translating them into direct action in our lives, so that we grow into new ways of being ….. discerning what we’ve learned from our experiences and applying these lessons to our daily life” [3]

“the process by which a psychedelic experience translates into positive changes in daily life” [4]

“a psycho-social-spiritual process of growth involving working with the learnings and challenges arising from a psychedelic experience, translating learnings into behaviors, and adjusting to changes catalyzed by the experience.” [5]

Integration is clearly about intentional change. This should not be surprising: If nothing changes, nothing changes! At a basic level, this is a natural part of growth and evolution as we move through life.

Consider a simple model for how we bring change into our lives.

  1. We get some new information, through a book, an experience, a conversation, a documentary or podcast, a psychedelic experience, etc., etc.
  2. We decide our lives would be better if we made some change, or incorporated something new, that is in accord with this information.
  3. We choose to make a specific change and begin practicing that new behavior or response to life’s signals.
  4. Through trial and error, and the advice and guidance of those “further along the path”, we adjust and adapt our behavior/response as we learn through experiencing life in a new way, a different way of being.
  5. After a period of attention, intention and effort, this new behavior becomes a natural part of how we show up in life, an integrated part of our being.

There is nothing fundamentally new about the process of ayahuasca integration. It is, in essence, how we integrate any change into our lives. There is nothing mysterious about it.

Nothing New Under the Sun

One of the fascinating things about human beings is that while being incredibly unique, we are also very much the same. When people start letting go of false beliefs about themselves, when they begin learning that they are not their thoughts or emotions, they begin to realize we are not that different from each other.

What ever process a person chooses for personal growth, self-actualization, conscious living, spiritual growth, the process of becoming whole and authentically ourselves, similar insights and challenges eventually arise. The mechanism that catalyzes these insights may be different. Yet the effective tools for processing them usually come from a common set. Pick a genre. Among the tools recommended for facilitating and anchoring change in our lives you will find at least some of the following.

  • Journaling
  • Meditation or some form of mindfulness practice.
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Talking to people who have a shared experience
  • Becoming involved with a community of like-minded people.
  • Spending time in nature.
  • Taking time to be alone to reflect and contemplate
  • Breath work
  • Conscious movement such as yoga, tai chi or dance therapy.
  • Creating a ritual that serves as an anchor and reminder of the change.
  • Creative or artistic expression of some form.
  • Intentionally exploring difficult emotions from a place of curiosity and non-judgement.
  • Taking good care of the body. Diet and exercise.
  • Avoiding negativity, our own, and that of other people.
  • Cultivating Gratitude
  • Being discerning about what we allow in our lives, such as the kind of books we read, movies we watch, and music we listen to.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means. Why are these recommendations found in so many different sources intending to help people grow into wholeness? They have stood the test of time. They have proven to be effective in a wide variety of situations for a large number of people. How effective a given technique will work for a specific person may vary, but at least some of those techniques will work for almost everyone. If one searches the internet for articles about what steps to take to help integrate an ayahuasca ceremony, their recommendations will probably be fully included in this list.

There is nothing fundamentally different from ayahuasca integration, psychedelic experience integration, than any other process of growth and change.

Well, okay, maybe that is not wholly accurate.

Ayahuasca and Psychedelics ARE Different

Talk to someone who has been on a dedicated path of personal or spiritual growth for 5-10 years, who has never done psychedelics. Talk about the insights you have gained from ayahuasca or psychedelics, about yourself, the nature of reality, the tricks of ego you may still at times struggle with. Talk about letting go of victimhood, accepting full responsibility for your life, the power of an honest apology to one you unconsciously, treated poorly. Perhaps about non-duality, the realization that you are not your thoughts and emotions, but something other. Things so many people learn through the use of psychedelics. Chances are they will understand most, if not all, of what you say, and it will be a meaningful and satisfying conversation.

Yet, consider the sheer number of psychedelic integration services and trainings available. It has become a whole new industry, so there is clearly a need. Something is different. Depending on your specific background, there may be at least one significant difference. And that is the rate of change. What may be slowly realized over a 5 or 10 year span through other methods, could be fire hosed into your consciousness in a small number of sessions, through experiences that are very difficult to put into words, even to those who have done psychedelics, and may be incomprehensible to someone that has not.

That is a significant difference. How a person copes with a psychedelic experience, how well they are able to comprehend, make sense of it, and ultimately integrate it, depends on their background and their beliefs of self and reality. At the Hummingbird Center, it is clear that those who have done about three years of focused personal or spiritual work before ayahuasca, get the most out of their experiences and have a much easier time with the process of growth and change facilitated by ayahuasca. Having some background, having an “Interpretive Framework”, can make significant difference in the value people get from their experience.

In a study on ayahuasca integration, the authors state “Some respondents felt that they were able to integrate the ayahuasca experience due to having an interpretive framework from which to make sense of the experience. While respondents generally did not use the term “interpretive framework” per se, it was apparent that having an explanatory system (e.g., psychological, spiritual, or religious) aided their integration process by providing normative explanations for unexpected or challenging phenomena. Some ayahuasca church members felt that their spiritual/religious framework helped make sense of their experiences.” [6]

Regardless of the path we take toward wholeness, what we ultimately end up integrating into our lives has many similarities. Yet what unfolds slowly over years with most methods can be illumined quickly in profound or shocking ways with entheogens. The basis a person has to understand what needs to be integrated can be radically different.

When working with ayahuasca and other psychedelics, having prior experience with the emotional and psychological struggles that arise in the personal growth process, having some knowledge of the possibilities of mystical experience, perhaps having some experience with shamanic journey work, this background can make the process of integration easier and more rapid. Without this interpretive framework, how information is conveyed and the rate it is conveyed could result in confusion, ontological shock or spiral a person into a spiritual crisis. This can and does happen on a purely meditation centered spiritual path, but is unlikely to occur after a small number of sessions as is possible with psychedelics. This is where the emerging fields of psychedelic integration therapy and integration services may be of great benefit to a person.

Practical Steps for Ayahuasca Integration

The integration process is about intentional change. Taking what we have learned and applying it to our lives. Its about stepping into action. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Positive Change Begins with Preparation

Good preparation is key to getting the most from your experience at an ayahuasca retreat. All retreat center websites have a page on Preparing for Ayahuasca, and they contain similar information. It is recommended you follow all of the suggestions. Preparation is not just about the diet, the physical. It is also about preparing the mind, the spirit, the energetic body, about becoming open and receptive to something new.

Have a Clear Intention

“In the universe there is an immeasurable, indescribable force which shamans call intent, and absolutely everything that exists in the entire cosmos is attached to intent by a connecting link.” - Carlos Castenada

Setting an intention is an important first step in your journey with ayahuasca. Get very clear on what you to achieve from your time with the medicine. What do you want to change in your life. How do you want it to be better? “The key is being conscious about where you place your attention — that's the only way to think what you want into reality.” [7] Also get clear on why you want this change in your life. Getting clear on the why helps activate this universal energy.

Commit to Your Growth and Healing

Commit to the change in want to bring about in your life. Commitment is a powerful force. When we make a true commitment to something in our lives, the universe responds. The process begins when we make the commitment, not when the retreat begins. What does commitment mean? You pick a destination and declare “I am going THERE. I may not know how at this time, but regardless of the obstacles and challenges, I am going THERE!” Bringing an attitude of willingness to do what ever it takes facilitates surprising synchronicities and smooths the path The universe responds to that level of commitment.

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way." - W.H. Murray

Begin Integration Promptly

In the afterglow period of an ayahuasca retreat, or any workshop of personal growth and transformation, most are in a heightened state of interest and motivation. This is the time to step into action, taking tangible steps to make positive change in our lives. If we procrastinate or delay, this motivation to act will begin to fade. If we put off stepping into action for 6 weeks, we may never do it.

During an ayahuasca retreat people will usually get a number of insights in how they can improve their lives. Pick at least one, and begin to act on it as soon as possible.

Take Advantage of Enhanced Neuroplasticity

Recent studies in neuroscience indicate psychedelics enhance neuroplasticity, the ability of the nervous system to change or modify in response to external signals, including alterations to neuronal networks, changes in neuronal and synaptic connectivity, generation of new neurons, and other neurobiochemical changes. [8, 9] This increased neuroplasticity lasts for days or weeks, but does fade with time. At a practical level this means it is easier to form new habits, new patterns of behavior, in the first few weeks after a psychedelic experience. It is easier to Integrate. Do not delay. Pick something to improve in your life and step into action!

Journal About Your Experience

Writing about our experiences is a wonderful way to bring them into focus and clarity. Describing what we felt, any information that came, frustrations or fears that arose during ceremony, the love or compassion we felt for those in our lives, how we feel about it now. The process of writing slows down the mind and allows information to bubble up from the sub-conscious, it allows a depth of understanding and acceptance that is not possible by simply thinking.

It is recommended to maintain a daily journal while at the retreat. Write about your experiences the morning after ceremony while it is fresh in your mind. Write again in the afternoon and see how your understand may have shifted with a little time to process. Journaling can help us get clear on what to change and how to change after the retreat. It can be a great place to form a plan of action.

Some of the know benefits of journaling include mental clarity, self-awareness, stress relief, emotional regulation, enhanced creativity, improved mindfulness and improved physical health. [10]

Develop Mindfulness

“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.” [11]

Pay attention to your inner world. Become increasingly aware of the interplay of our thoughts, our emotions and our body. Meditation is the most direct way to cultivate mindfulness, but it need not be the only way. We can mindfully eat, mindfully take a shower. A key is focusing on the present, what is actually here. Begin noticing how a recuring emotion arises in certain situations.

The next time you find yourself worked up or agitated, resentful or angry, trace back what you have been thinking the past couple of minutes. You will usually find a direct connection to what you feel and what you have been thinking. Practice being increasingly aware, and with time you will move into a place of greater choice, instead of reactivity. After a period of attention, intention and effort, this new behavior becomes a natural part of how we show up in life, an integrated part of our being.

Talking With a Trusted Person

Having a trusted person to talk openly with about your experience is very helpful. Someone experienced with psychedelics is most beneficial. Many retreat participants form a private Facebook group to stay in touch and support each other. Lifelong friendships may be formed this way.

While helpful, most of the time it is not absolutely necessary the person you are talking openly with has experience with psychedelics. There are certainly exceptions, but if the focus in on improving our lives, becoming more authentic and whole, talking with someone further along the path of personal growth than ourselves can be sufficient and very helpful.

Connect With a Support Group Regularly

The journey of personal growth and change is difficult. It is REALLY hard to do this alone. Best not to try. If you do not already have one, find a group of people who’s purpose in coming together is to help each other grow. Most will find this in some form of spiritual community. It does not have to be that, but that is where it is easier to find. Most important is the consciousness of the people involved.

For those in the USA you might try a nearby Center for Spiritual Living. It could be a meditation circle. Perhaps a group dedicated to Shamanic Journey work speaks to your heart. It may be a hiking club that thrives by spending time in nature. What ever its structure or specific point of focus, its intent should be to help each other grow.

Try to find a group you can connect with weekly, or at a minimum twice a month. Having like-minded people to share the journey is not only easier, it is a lot more fun!

Spend Time in Nature

A growing body of evidence is showing that spending time in nature has a positive impact on our sense of wellbeing, levels of happiness and our physical health. Many cultures around the world have long known this, and some of the great thinkers of history made time in nature a part of their lifestyle.

Taking a walk in the woods and bathing in nature positively affects mental and physical health and higher-order cognitive processes like creativity. [13] The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing) has gained world-wide attention and takes a more mindful approach to time in nature. Forest bathing has shown to have the following benefits:

  • Feel less angry, anxious and sad.
  • Increase self worth and confidence.
  • Overcome fear, self doubt and a wavering mind.
  • Get better sleep and rest.
  • Find peace and happiness in the present moment.
  • Build empathy. Improve relationships.

Develop Skill Managing and Releasing Emotions

An essential part of personal growth and becoming whole is learning to manage and work with our emotions. Many come to ayahuasca specifically to be freed from anger or resentment or other enduring and limiting emotional states. With the help of mother ayahuasca, some do fully process what is under those emotions and find permanent release. Others have a profound cathartic experience and believe it is cleared, only to find it resurfacing within a few days. It is also possible for previously unknown anger, resentment or fear to rise to the surface. We can become aware of it, yet little in the way of healing and release occurs. So what does one do then?

The healing journey does not end with the ceremony or retreat. There will always be more to be revealed and healed. It has been humorously said that we are “infinitely layered dysfunctional onions”. Learning to intentionally work with and release difficult emotions is an essential skill in our journey to wholeness. Fortunately, there are very good resources to help us do that. Two books specifically come to mind.

Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender by David Hawkins. It is about learning to process and let go of our negative emotions, teaching very simple and effective techniques for doing so. It also has a lot of very good information about the root of these emotions and the conditioning we receive that results in so many false beliefs about ourselves.

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach which focuses on Buddhist meditative practice and emphases accepting what we are feeling and allowing ourselves to learn about it, instead of changing it.

Both of these books are recommended to all our clients during our intake process, and we have had hundreds of people say they changed their lives. That practicing the techniques in these books not only immediately had a positive impact, but what they learned had a huge positive impact on the results they got from each ayahuasca ceremony.

Use Guided Meditations

Guided meditations are another great tool for helping us process difficult emotions. The Mindful Movement has excellent guided meditations for a variety or purposes. You are encouraged to search YouTube with “Mindful Movement”. The following meditations include very helpful techniques for working with our emotions.

Give Yourself Permission to Let Go

Develop Inner Peace and Calm

Mindfulness Meditation for Being Present

Contemplate Your Experience

Contemplation is distinct from thinking or meditating. It is the holding of idea in the mind, while being “being fully present in heart, mind, and body, to what is in a way that allows you to creatively respond and work toward what could be.” [14]

Get comfortable and bring up some part of your experience you want to better understand. Hold it in your mind, ponder it. Hold an awareness of you breath while doing so. Adding a meditative point of focus to this process help keep the mind from wandering. Sink into your heart space and try to feel the idea you are holding in your mind. Explore it a bit, both with your mind and your heart. Feel. Inquire. Get curious. All while holding what you want to explore in your mind and in your heart.

“What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.” Meister Eckhart

This practice will be most beneficial in the two weeks immediately after your retreat. Take 5-15 minutes each day to contemplate your experience. This is an evolving practice. From contemplation insights and understanding arise. We appreciate and understand in a new way. And then we may contemplate from that new place of being.

Integration Resources

MAPS Psychedelic Integration List - A resource of individuals and organizations in the mental health field who help people integrate past psychedelic experiences.

10 Week Online Integration Course - Integrating Ayahuasca is a 10-week online course developed by a psychotherapist experienced in plant medicine to inspire and support your post-ceremony transformation.

Integration Workbook - This workbook consists of different activities such as meditation prompts, journaling exercises, and goal planning.

Psychedelic Integration Guidebook - A free workbook with exercises to guide you through some of the most common stages of integration. Written and offered by Alison K. McQueen, MA, LPC, ATR, the Clinical Director and Co-Founder of the Medicinal Mindfulness Psychedelic Therapy Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Wakeful Integration Journal - A "facilitated" journal specific for the ayahuasca retreat experience. It features 5 Colour Therapy Pages, Quotes & Resources, Preparation Pages such as: Planning & Reservations Travel Packing List Journey Packing List Discover Your Intention Medicine Reflections Body, Mind, Spirit Prep Pages Grounding Pages Navigation: Traditional Journaling Pages Draw Your Experience Integration: Reflection Questions Integration Pages Insights & Breakthroughs.

After the Ceremony Ends - A Companion Guide to Help You Integrate Visionary Plant Medicine Experiences (book).

Footsteps - An Online Integration Journey - An online integration course from the Mind Foundation, a European non-profit science and education organization that promotes psychedelic research and therapy.

Integrating Psychedelic Experiences Course - There is no right or wrong way to integrate, but there are supportive practices to learn. MAPS’ Integrating Psychedelic Experiences course explores each one in detail, with extensive guidance and supporting resources to ensure you’re ready to process and digest any journey.

Some Final Thoughts

Integration is about action, about making change in how we show up in life. It results in a change in our behavior, in how we respond to life emotionally and mentally.

There is nothing mysterious about “ayahuasca integration”. It is not fundamentally different than any other process of change we go through in life, though there may be some radical difference depending on your interpretive framework.

There are many tools available to help one integrate their experience into their lives.

Each person’s process may be different. What is very effective for many may not work for you at all. That is okay.

There is no “should” or “must do” about this process. How you choose to direct your life’s energy is a personal choice.

The more attention, intention and energy we devote to a process, the more results we tend to receive.

Depending on your interpretive framework, it might be very helpful to work with a Psychedelic Integration professional.

Cultivate mindfulness.

Be gentle with yourself.

"Integration is an open-ended process that continues throughout life. A basic definition of integration is ‘to combine two things so they become a whole.’ We naturally integrate as we take in new information and generate new perspectives. Simply put, integration is the process of growth and evolutionary change—and humans have been doing this pretty much forever." - Kerry Morran


References:

[1] OutOfTheDark Integration. Ayahuasca Integration, https://outofthedarkintegration.com/ayahuasca-integration

[2] Sol, Aletheia. July 10, 2022. Lonerwolf. What is Spiritual Integration? (5 Simple Techniques!), https://lonerwolf.com/spiritual-integration

[3] Morran, Kerry, MA, LPC. August 30, 2022. psychedelic.support. What Ayahuasca Integration Is – And Isn’t, https://psychedelic.support/resources/what-ayahuasca-integration-is-and-isnt

[4] Thomas Freyman, et al. .May 23, 2022. Frontiers in Psychology. The Psychedelic Integration Scales: Tools for Measuring Psychedelic Integration Behaviors and Experiences, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9168432

[5] Woolfe, Sam. August 11, 2023. psychedelic.support. Integrating Ayahuasca Experiences: Common Themes, Challenges, and Practices, https://psychedelic.support/resources/integrating-ayahuasca-experiences

[6] Tessa Cowley-Court, et al. .June 13, 2023. MDPI. Life after Ayahuasca: A Qualitative Analysis of the Psychedelic Integration Experiences of 1630 Ayahuasca Drinkers from a Global Survey, https://www.mdpi.com/2813-1851/2/2/14

[7] Houlis, AnnaMarie. December 16, 2021. Shape. The Power of Setting Intentions — and How to Do It Correctly, https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/mental-health/how-to-set-intentions

[8] Boutzoukas, Emanuel M., Adam J. Woods. January 01, 2022. Springer Link. Neuroplasticity, https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-030-22009-9_678

[9] Rogers, Miyako. September 13, 2022. Front Line Genomics. One trip can change your life: Psychedelics, genetics, and rewiring your brain, https://frontlinegenomics.com/one-trip-can-change-your-life-psychedelics-genetics-and-rewiring-your-brain/

[10] Wright, Kristen Webb. March 15, 2023. Day One Journaling Basics. 20 Journaling Benefits: Why You Should Keep A Journal, https://dayoneapp.com/blog/journaling-benefits/

[11] Greater Good Magazine. What Is Mindfulness?, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

[12] Koehler, Jessica Ph.D. September 19, 2020. Psychology Today. Can a Walk in the Woods Improve Your Well-Being?, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-school-walls/202009/can-walk-in-the-woods-improve-your-well-being

[13] Healing Forest. January 27, 2020 Forest Bathing: Shinrin-Yoku, https://healingforest.org/2020/01/27/forest-bathing-guide/

[14] Lockwood, Mark. MarkLockwood.com. What is Contemplation, https://markllockwood.com/what-is-contemplation/

[15] Morran, Kerry, MA, LPC. Ayahuasca Wisdom What Integration Really Is, https://ayahuascawisdom.com/integrating-ayahuasca/