Some people aren’t interested in taking a journey of transformation.
Some people are happy with the status quo, or just aren’t aware of how much better things could be.
But an uncomfortable realization is dawning on us: The status quo isn’t looking so great right now.
People are becoming aware of how much they could benefit from a personal transformation; how trapped they have become in their lives, and how a change could benefit both themselves and the world around them.
The booming world of psychedelic retreats is offering people an answer to that urge for change.
But how is the complex and ancient world of psychedelic ceremony being incorporated into Western society? How can traditional psychedelic ritual inform a modern paradigm of transformation and healing?
At Synthesis, a leading psychedelic retreat in the Netherlands (and partner organization of The Third Wave), the facilitators are developing a pragmatic yet open-minded approach to psychedelic ceremony, allowing the transformative power of psychedelics to work in the best possible way.
The Rise of the Psychedelic Retreat
Psychedelic ceremony has arrived in Western culture with a bang. The popularity of ayahuasca retreats in South America has risen sharply, with thousands of people travelling to retreat centers from North America and Europe every year. Ibogaine clinics, aimed at providing a psychedelic ceremony that heals addiction, have blossomed worldwide. Psilocybin truffle retreats, including Synthesis, have taken the Netherlands by storm, making the most of their flexible psychedelic laws. Underground ayahuasca and peyote circles can be found in many major cities. Everywhere, people are searching for the benefits of the transformative psychedelic experience.
Many cultures are no stranger to the power of psychedelic ceremony. In many Amazonian cultures, the ancient psychoactive brew ayahuasca has been used in healing ceremonies for centuries. The psychedelic cactus Peyote has been used for divination and healing by first nation peoples for generations. Iboga, a plant native to Western Africa, has been at the center of Bwiti spiritual ceremonies for longer than we know. In all these cultures, the power of psychedelic ceremony has been acknowledged, respected, and integrated.
So why only now has the West developed an interest in the potential of psychedelic ceremony?
The answer is in the rise of free and open scientific research.
Although the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s saw a flurry of research into the potential benefits of psychedelics – these initial scientific endeavors were quickly shut down by the prejudicial and unfounded prohibition of psychedelic substances across most of the world.
The birth of freedom of information afforded by the internet, along with a dire need for alternatives to the current psychiatric paradigm in the treatment of mental health, led to a resurgence in psychedelic research in the late 2000s. Studies showing the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression, anxiety, addiction, OCD, and cluster headaches, flooded into view of the mainstream media.
Although most of this psychedelic research has centered on the treatment of clinical conditions, its findings are often relevant to the transformative power of psychedelic ceremony.
The DMN and Creativity
It has been hypothesized that the antidepressant effects of psychedelics are associated with the “resetting” of a particular brain network, known as the Default Mode Network (or DMN). Brain imaging studies have shown that a psychedelic experience causes the DMN to significantly but temporarily reduce in power, and that this correlates with patients’ being able to shift their perspective following the psychedelic-assisted therapy.
The DMN has been linked with rumination, and goal-oriented focus. As well as being involved in depressive self-reflection, an over-active DMN is thought to hinder creative, divergent thinking. It’s likely that psychedelics can boost people’s creative capacity by “resetting” the control of the DMN on our cognition.
Studies have accordingly shown that psychedelics could boost people’s creative problem-solving capabilities.
Jim Fadiman’s famous study from 1966 gave mescaline to 27 people with a professional problem that they needed a solution to. The participants reported effects including: a capacity to restructure problem in larger context; enhanced fluency and flexibility of ideation; heightened capacity for visual imagery and fantasy; increased ability to concentrate; heightened empathy; association of dissimilar ideas; heightened motivation to obtain closure; visualizing the completed solution.
A recent survey showed that psychedelic microdosers report higher levels of creativity and open-mindedness, suggesting that the creativity-boosting potential of psychedelics is so powerful that its effects can be utilized even at the smallest doses.
Harnessing the creative, open-minded state that psychedelics can induce is a core part of the structure of the Synthesis retreat.
The Mystical Experience
Roland Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins carried out a breakthrough study showing the relationship between psilocybin use and mystical experiences. Study participants rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior to their psilocybin experience. When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences were very similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.
It’s not just religious people who experience mystical effects from psilocybin. Other studies by Roland Griffiths have shown that the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin are directly linked with the intensity of the mystical experience it induces – in the treatment of both depression and tobacco addiction. In other words, the more mystical the experience, the greater the healing benefits: even in non-religious people.
Psilocybin’s potential for personal transformation is clear, when administered in a supportive and guided environment. This meaningful, mystical experience is what curators of psychedelic retreats aim to catalyze, by providing the ideal setting for lasting transformations.
Merging Scientific and Traditional Knowledge
All this latest scientific research informs the type of environment and guidance provided at the Synthesis retreat. Retreats that utilize this knowledge effectively will help you to go on the best journey possible, and maximize the chances of psychedelics having a beneficial transformative effect.
However, as well as taking on the most up-to-date scientific research, Synthesis incorporates other forms of knowledge into its retreat setup. Traditional shamanic wisdom, that has developed over many generations of a deep relationship with psychedelic substances, must be effectively combined with modern scientific knowledge to develop a psychedelic retreat that offers a full understanding of the power of psychedelic ceremony.
Although some aspects of the shamanic worldview can be at odds with our framework of the world, cultures that have developed alongside psychedelic plants have an extensive and unique understanding of the best ways to harness their transformative properties.
Components of traditional psychedelic ritual, such as the setting of clear intentions, fostering a connection to nature, breathwork techniques, and diet restrictions, are just some of the approaches that have been integrated with the modern scientific approach at Synthesis.
What Happens At Synthesis?
The psychedelic experience is wildly varied – as complex and unpredictable as people themselves. Crafting a psychedelic retreat that caters to everyone is impossible.
Some people will respond best to a purely ritualistic, spiritual setting, with an emphasis on religious and mystical themes.
Other people will respond best to an entirely grounded, clinical, science-based approach, that feels almost like therapy.
At Synthesis, important aspects of both worlds – spiritual and pragmatic – are combined, to provide a flexible experience that can offer something beneficial to almost anyone.
An important part of the retreat is the preparation in the days leading up to the session. Guests are encouraged to use meditation, contemplative walks, and journaling – to prepare for any encounters with potentially challenging emotional responses that may occur during the psychedelic experience.
This is combined with common-sense advice about exercising, sleeping well, and eating natural and healthy foods.
Upon arriving at the retreat, guests are given time to meet their facilitators (and the other guests present), and learn about the process that they will be undertaking over the coming days. They are given a chance to become familiar with the environment – a beautiful venue in rural Holland.
The second day begins with a workshop on breathwork, truly setting the stage for a transformational experience. The psilocybin truffles are then ingested together, and the facilitators will allow guests to go through their own process over the next few hours, while offering expert guidance and support. Music specifically curated by psychedelic researcher Mendel Kaelen is played to send guests on an effective journey.
On the final day, guests take part in a 1-on-1 session with a facilitator, who will talk through the experience and what it meant. All the guests then join together for a final integration workshop, where the lessons they have learned will be cemented into an ongoing practice.
Finally, guests are given materials that will help them continue an integrative practice, putting to use the realizations they may have come to during the experience. This includes guidance on setting up integrative ceremonies that will help guests revisit the benefits of the retreat. Additionally, there is the opportunity for participants to continue psychedelic coaching with one of Synthesis’ guides.
The facilitators at Synthesis are experienced psychedelic guides with diverse backgrounds. The current lead facilitators are all experienced integration practitioners, with expertise in business coaching, traditional wisdom, and spiritual care. You can read more about the current facilitators here.
An Evolving Art
Although the Synthesis retreat has put a lot of work into providing an environment that maximizes the transformative benefits of psychedelics – there is still progress to be made.
Retreat facilitators will always be learning new things about psychedelic experiences, and the ways that people respond to them. Any high-quality psychedelic retreat will be constantly evolving and improving.
Synthesis certainly isn’t right for everyone, and may not be right for you. For one thing, Synthesis currently does not work with individuals that are taking psychiatric medications, or people with mental health conditions–until the safety of this approach is understood in more depth. It’s important for you to find the right retreat for your specific needs.
If you’re interested in applying for a Synthesis retreat, you can do so here. By selecting “The Third Wave” as your referrer during the application process, you can help support our non-profit mission at no additional cost to yourself.