Set and Setting During a Psychedelic Experience
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Set and Setting
Set refers to the mindset that the people bring to the experience and includes thoughts, feelings, emotions, and expectations. Setting refers to the physical and social environment surrounding a person. What sets the frame for a psychedelic experience are the internal set and the external setting or context, including the presence of a facilitator or therapist. For centuries, shamans have use rituals as the intentional arrangement of set and setting for purposes of healing and divination.
Set and setting are so important to a psychedelic experience that research has shown that they’re the primary determinants of a psychedelic experience. Researchers have reported that both set and setting influence whether a person reports even having a religious, mystical and/or meaningful experience and have written much about the topic (Havens, 1964, Hood, 1973, as cited in Rosegrant, 1967; Abramson, 1967; Panke & Richards, 1966, Leary et al., 1964; Metzner, 1998; Samiy, 2012). It seems that a safe, controlled setting significantly lessens the incidence of serious adverse reactions and difficult moments.
In my research (Blaha, 2017), set and setting lent many answers as to how someone may arrive at a place of deep psychic and somatic healing. For the participants, some of these contextual variables were pre-arranged and were intended to be part of the set and setting, though at other times they were spontaneously discovered during the course of their entheogen experience.The set and setting factors that spontaneously emerged that were outside of the control of the participants, often led to more difficult and negative experiences. For example, while at a night club, Kiara (real names are not used) did not have much control over her surroundings: "The club was a little overwhelming, too much energy moving around, and since I’m sensitive to the vibe of the dance floor, the energies around me, the people and intentions, it was very hard for me to find a spot and be like okI’m safe, I have this nice container where I can move and create my own little story. So, for the first couple hours while being at the party I was just browsing around looking for a good spot where people are not moving so much." After a while of feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at the club, Kiara left to go to her home. Her internal experience immediately changed, “And obviously when I got to the roof and saw the moon everything was right.” When Kiara’s setting changed, so did her internal state and she then began to experience intuitive movements. These findings suggest that with the right set and setting, one is able to open oneself to a transformative experience. Without the right set and setting, it’s possible that one may never have a chance to experience this.
This information is extremely important when we think about implications for future psychedelic psychotherapy. Like shamans, psychotherapists are present during psychedelic therapy and are a witness to the participant's process. From everything from the music that’s chosen to the clothes the therapist wears are important to consider. Great lengths do not need to go into getting everything “perfect” but great lengths do need to go into considering and thinking about how the environment may affect the client - whether they'll be facilitating or inhibiting. Set and setting must be considered from all angles when entering into this type of therapy. Below is a short list of set and setting factors to consider with psychedelic use:
1. Client’s intentions for the psychedelic journey.
2. Client’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and expectations (before the journey).
3. Openness (refers to the state of mind and body of being open to the present experience)
4. Visions (refers to psychedelic visions as either an inhibiting or facilitating contextual variable)
5. Safety (refers to the internal experience of feeling safe as a facilitating contextual variable prior to and throughout the experience)
6. Connection (refers to the desire and need to connect with self or others as a way of facilitating movement during the experience)
7. Getting stuck (refers to the phenomena of getting stuck in an experience, whether that be bodily, mentally, or spiritually)
1. Immediate surroundings (refers to the participants’ immediate surroundings including objects, people, and energy in the room)
2. Nature (refers to the setting of nature as a facilitating contextual variable)
3. The psychedelic medicine itself (refers to the psychedelic medicine as an inhibiting or facilitating contextual variable) [read: is it good?]
5. Rituals (refers to rituals participants participated in either before, during, or after their entheogen journey)