Timothy Leary's Set and Setting

The concept of "set and setting" was first introduced by Timothy Leary in 1964. Since then it has become a universal term used throughout the global psychedelic community. What exactly is psychedelic set and setting? Set and setting refers to the interplay between substances, your internal state, and external environment. If you’ve ever taken the same dose of the same psychedelic drug in two completely different environments, you have likely not only experienced “set and setting” but developed a certain appreciation for it.
What Is It and Why Is It Important?

While incredibly fascinating, the question is, how can taking the same dose of the same psychedelic drug catalyze two vastly different experiences and psychedelic journeys? When it comes down to the crux of it, it all boils down to the fact that psychedelics have the unique and uncanny ability to make you acutely aware and hyper-sensitive to what you are experiencing within yourself as well as what is going on around you in your outside environment. Simply put, both your internal and external state ultimately have an influence on your overall psychedelic experience.
 

Set and Setting: What is it?

The concept of "set and setting" was first introduced to the world and the psychedelic community in 1964 by Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard in their renowned psychedelic guidebook, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Since then it has become a universal term used throughout the global psychedelic world.

Before we dive deeper into the concept of ‘set and setting’ and its importance, let’s define exactly what set and setting is. Essentially, set and setting respectively refers to both the internal and external factors that influence your psychedelic experience. ‘Set’ reflects your inner climate or internal state. It refers to various internal factors such as your beliefs, perceptions, mood, emotional state, and personality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘setting’ refers to your external environment and everything that’s going on around you. Your ‘setting’ can include anything from the people you surround yourself with and their specific behaviors, the smell in the air, the weather and temperature, particular sounds or music playing, even the cultural forces that aren’t as readily visible can have an impact.

For example, the social reality or realization that the psychedelics you are taking is illegal, and in many places highly stigmatized, is a prime example of one of the more obvious cultural set-and-setting conditions that may shape or influence your psychedelic experience. While that is the simple definition of set and setting, there has been extensive studies, findings and a great deal of thought and research invested into the concept, especially by researchers like Dr. Ido Hartoghson, author of the book American Trip: Set, Setting, and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century. 

Besides merely internal and external factors that influence our psychedelic journey, Hartoghson has written extensively on how broader social systems are reflected and expressed in the psychedelic experience - Hartoghson refers to it as a “collective set and setting”. Hartoghson goes on to describe that set and setting is also “composed by the society’s character, its knowledge and attitude towards the psychedelic experience, as well as by the physical and social settings provided in that society.”
 

How does Set and Setting Work?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what set and setting is, the next step to address is how does set and setting work? The truth is, set and setting is not unique to psychedelic experiences. While our own internal state and external environment/the things we encounter on a daily basis act as lenses through which we see the world, and essentially influence how we experience and process reality in any situation, the main reason why set and setting are so frequently discussed when it comes to psychedelics is because these substances have a way of intensely amplifying those lenses and heightening the specific situation and the various internal and external factors. It almost acts as a mirror or magnifying glass to its user’s state of mind, directly reflecting what they are experiencing both internally and externally.

For example if you are feeling stressed or anxious, it could easily function as an anxiety-inducing drug. Similarly if you are feeling inspired and creative, it could equally serve as a creativity enhancer. Should it be spiritual, then spirituality will be heightened. It therefore directly reflects and mirrors the state that you are in. Hartoghson highlights in her research that psychedelics seemingly takes on a shapeshifting quality.
 

How to Check on Your Set

Knowing how to gauge a “good” set is as crucial as understanding the importance of your specific set in your psychedelic experience. Sara Gael, M.A., is the harm reduction officer at the Zendo Project, a non-profit research and educational organization that provides a safe space and trains staff at events where individuals might be taking substances. She is also a study therapist of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy through the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). 

According to Gael, an important question to ask yourself before taking any psychedelic substances is whether you are using that particular psychedelic with the intention to ‘escape’ a specific situation or emotion. If that is in fact your intention, Gael points out that it is a good indication that you may want to focus on tending to your emotional and psychological health through therapy or other types of support before using any kind of psychedelics. In addition, Gael recommends talking to a psychedelic-friendly therapist as another means to gain extra insight, reflection, and perspective on using psychedelics before embarking on your psychedelic journey.

While many people who use psychedelics do so in the hopes of achieving a therapeutic effect, the ability of psychedelics to magnify and enhance certain emotional states is something to take into consideration. Especially if you are using psychedelics to escape a particularly traumatising or difficult emotional experience - As instead of ‘escaping’ it, you may in fact enhance it. Seeking prior professional support, help and assistance of any sort is incredibly important if you are struggling with your mental health or emotional state in any way. Although it can be very tempting to turn to psychedelics as a means to self-medicate and escape your reality, without the proper psychological and emotional support and a stable support structure in place, taking psychedelics can actually end up exacerbating your symptoms.
 

Finding the Right Setting

Your setting refers to the external environment (and associated external factors) you take your psychedelics in. The truth is, there is no perfect setting for a psychedelic experience that applies to every single person. The ideal setting will therefore vary from one person to the next. It is highly personalised and dependant on what makes you feel safe, receptive, and comfortable. There are however a few things to keep in mind when deciding on your specific setting for your psychedelic experience, these include:

    •    Safety: If you find yourself in a particular state or situation, can you easily access medical/emotional support if needed?
    •    Social support: Who are the people you want to be/or should be present during your psychedelic experience?
    •    Comforts: Are there any items, spaces, food, music etc. that you need to feel more relaxed and comfortable?
    •    Familiarity: Are you someone that gets anxious easily when exposed to unfamiliar places, people, and experiences?


Typically a psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy environment would be a quiet and private space with a few non-intrusive home-like decorations and a couch to create a calming and soothing atmosphere and a natural sense of safety and comfort. Psychedelic group rituals on the other hand can offer an entirely different environment to individual or personal rituals. In psychedelic group rituals, people can often enlist the support of participants to “hold space” for one another. Whether you prefer your psychedelic experience to be a collective group experience or a more private, intimate, individual journey is entirely up to you as well as your personal values, needs, and social identity.

Although many people who take psychedelics prefer to experience their psychedelic journey in solitude and view it as their own personal journey of self-reflection and self-discovery, it is recommended to have a trusted and sober person called a “trip sitter” with you, just in case social support is needed - especially if it is your first time taking psychedelics. ‘Trip sitters’ are typically very familiar with psychedelics and the psychedelic state and will essentially act as a trusted, responsible, calming, and grounded force and presence throughout your experience. Alternatively, if you choose to surround yourself with other people during your psychedelic journey, it is highly recommended that they are people or friends that you feel very safe, familiar, and comfortable with.

In addition to the people you choose to experience your psychedelic journey with, it is incredibly important to consider how you will access and tap into support if the experience becomes challenging or too intense and overwhelming. For this reason, many people choose to take psychedelics or enjoy their psychedelic journey in the comfort of their own home. Not only is it a safe, familiar, and private space, you know exactly where all your favourite comforts are in case you need support during your experience.

If you live with family or a loved one, that will also act as an additional means of support and comfort, thus enhancing your overall experience. If you however decide to venture outside of the trusted confines and comfort of your home for your psychedelic journey, it is important to think about what you may need that will be more difficult to procure once the psychedelics take hold. Some essentials may include things like water, snacks, phone, wallet, the company of your best friend or supportive partner, and any other safety essentials or comfort items you might want or need, or think will come in handy.
 

Conclusion

From all the above information you can see that the concept of set and setting are both immensely complex forces that ultimately determine the entire course of your psychedelic experience. It is therefore incredibly important to take everything into consideration to ensure an enjoyable and enriching psychedelic journey. Any psychedelic journey that begins without reverence for these internal and external forces or acknowledgement of their influence are at the mercy of whatever happens to emerge, whether it be physically, socially, or emotionally, during your experience. While there will always be some factors that are out of our control, we can do our best to surround ourselves with the necessary support, and be aware and tend to our inner needs, feelings and emotions before taking the psychedelic plunge.

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