Betty Eisner, an American psychologist who was professionally engaged with psychedelic therapy in the 1960s, states in her writings that practice has shown that a therapist-sitter must necessarily have their own experience with psychedelic trips. Otherwise, they will absolutely not be able to understand the experiences of the tripping person. And the second very important quality of the sitter, according to her, is empathy. Of course, the ability not to judge or evaluate the experiences and behavior of the client during the trip and great patience are also very necessary, but according to her, empathy is the most important. Because only thanks to it can the sitter respond correctly to the states of the tripping person.
Official procedures, of course, require appropriate therapist education, but without the aforementioned qualities, personal experience, and an “open heart and mind,” a person cannot be a good psychedelic therapist-sitter, according to her. It has also been shown in practice that it is ideal to have two sitters – a man and a woman – present during a session. Apparently, this greatly speeds up and facilitates the therapeutic process.
The task of the sitter is primarily to create a “safe, protected, and sacred space” for the person tripping, both physically and mentally. Only in such a space can the tripper freely and fully go through their experiences. In ancient cultures and among indigenous peoples, this role was embodied by a shaman or curandero, a person who has their own deep experiences with altered states of consciousness. The sitter’s work is not a “rationalistic scientific activity,” but rather a strongly empathetic “sacred task,” and the sitter always experiences the tripper’s experiences to a large extent. Therefore, the sitter must also be able to approach these experiences correctly. If the sitter is not able to have such an inner attitude, then they can very negatively affect the tripper’s experiences.
Our Western culture tends not to take seriously or even reject experiences that exceed the boundaries of our normal, narrowly materialistic daily consciousness. But this is not due to our supposed “maturity”; on the contrary, it is because we are usually unable to understand such experiences. If the sitter had a mocking, rejecting attitude towards such experiences, they would drastically diminish the tripper’s experiences and subconsciously prevent them from fully immersing themselves in them.
The sitter must take their mission and psychedelic experiences seriously and “sacredly”, they must have respect for the tripper’s experiences. This cannot be done without sitter having deep experiences with psychedelic trips on their own. Each of us has our own deep paradigms by which we define our personal “limits of what is possible”. It is therefore highly desirable for the sitter to have these paradigms as “broad” as possible, to be able to accept any experiences of the tripper without prejudice. But at the same time, the sitter must be prepared for the possibility that the tripper will experience things that far exceed anything the sitter has experienced themselves. Therefore, the sitter must be prepared and able to learn from the tripper’s experiences.
The sitter is also not a “guide to the trip”. By nature, it is not possible – each tripper experiences deeply suppressed traumas from their subconscious, so associations and analogies always have a strongly individual character. It cannot be generalized. The sitter must definitely not try to influence the tripper with their own ideas and thoughts. The worst is a “I am smart” attitude, as if they already “know” how the psychedelic experience “should” go and then subconsciously try to “lead” the tripper…
But before both of them proceed to the actual ceremony, it is necessary to discuss a number of questions and issues that may arise during the session. One of the most fundamental questions is, for example, the extent of physical contact between the tripper and the sitter. Some flight instructions essentially recommend limiting physical contact to simply holding hands – and even that only if requested by the tripper themselves.
But those who have tried holotropic breathwork know that trained facilitators are ready to provide so-called “bodywork.” This involves massaging or pressing various parts of the body where pains and pressures may arise during the session, as this is how different suppressed experiences can manifest. However, there are certain limitations to bodywork – for example, never touching intimate areas, eyes, and by women even the chest. Although the format of the session and the sitter’s experience allow for the use of bodywork, it is still necessary to discuss this possibility with the tripper beforehand and agree on the extent of contact. It is also necessary to find out if the tripper has any chronic health problems that could make bodywork unpleasant or even harmful in some parts of the body.
In the past, there was also an experimental “hugging therapy” – Stanislav Grof mentions it in his books. Two brave female therapists practiced this therapy as a protest against the then-current practice of “uninvolved cold therapist” of Freudian type. Both the tripper and the therapist were fully clothed and held each other in their arms. Stanislav Grof describes that this therapy was incredibly healing for him and he had many powerful experiences with it. If there is a romantic relationship between the tripper and the sitter, then such a form of tripping is, of course, very good. However, in a professional therapist-client relationship, it can be strongly problematic. Nevertheless, everything depends on the format of the therapy and the agreement between the tripper and the sitter…
Before taking the psychedelic substance itself, it is good to perform a certain, at least small, ritual with the client. For example, some therapists have a kind of “altar” in the tripping room with various natural or spiritual and ethnic objects. It is up to the tripper to choose the form and content of the ritual. If they do not know, then it is the task of the sitter to empathetically estimate what would be most suitable for the client.
Another very important question is the lighting during the trip. Some therapies are performed in full daylight and the tripper’s eyes are covered with a mask. Other experienced psychonauts recommend rather dimming the room and using only weak and indirect light. Again, it depends on the agreement. An interesting option is also the use of ultraviolet lights, as it seems that they have an opening euphoric effect on people – I write more about it in the section devoted to the results of online sharing.
The actual administration of the psychoactive substance should have a ceremonial form, for example, it is appropriate to use some decorative bowl or chalice solely for this purpose. This is even the case when a synthetic substance is administered in tablets, capsules or in the form of a blotter. Because this moment is the “point of no return” – by consuming the substance, it is no longer possible to escape the upcoming experience. The ceremonial way of administration therefore emphasizes the crucial importance of this moment for all participants. Therefore, it cannot be rushed, and the tripper must express when it is the most suitable time for them to accept the substance.
During the psychedelic trip, there is usually a mental and emotional connection happening between the tripper and the sitter. To such an extent that the tripper strongly perceives if the sitter is preoccupied with worries and not fully engaged in the experience. Alternatively, the tripper may also perceive that the sitter needs to use the toilet but is delaying it and feeling uncomfortable because of it. Therefore, the sitter must understand that any mental state they are in can greatly influence the tripper. They must be able to empathetically recognize their impact on the tripper.
It is also natural for the sitter to gradually immerse themselves in the tripper’s psychedelic experience – this commonly happens during holotropic breathwork as well. And when this strong connection occurs, it can be really difficult for the tripper if the sitter suddenly “falls out” of it due to something that diverted their attention. It can pull the tripper out of their experience and bring them back to reality – which is particularly unpleasant and even shocking in the strongest phase of the trip.
During a trip, various mental states, including the awakening of sexual energies and desires, can manifest in both the sitter and the tripper. These experiences should be allowed to express themselves freely within, but sexual contact during a trip is generally only possible if there is a romantic relationship between the two. Some couples deliberately focus their trips on strong romantic experiences, which is of course appropriate. However, in a professional therapist-client relationship, sexual contact is highly problematic and should never occur.
But it is completely OK when a tripper starts masturbating during their experiences. The sitter must be able to understand that this is fine and must be able to handle such a situation correctly and perceive it in the overall therapeutic context of the trip. This also occurs during holotropic breathwork sessions, and in his books Stanislav Grof explicitly states that such behavior on the part of the breather is okay and that the sitter should not judge it in any way.
The sitter must also be able to lovingly and empathetically accept strong emotions that the tripper may express during the trip. Strong emotions are a sign of a very deep healing experience and are often the most important thing that the tripper experiences during the session. Our culture is based on the excessive suppression of emotions, because our narrow and masculinely rational daily consciousness does not know how to deal with them. It can easily happen that only through a strong immersion in the trip, the client dares to let their emotions surface freely.
It may be in some cases even for the first time in their life. Unfortunately, many people have been raised to believe that they must never show their emotions under any circumstances, with the reasoning that it is a “weakness”. The tripper may therefore become very insecure when they begin to feel waves of emotions. Then the sitter must reassure them that it is right to let these emotions freely express themselves, and must also show through their mental attitude that they welcome and understand the crucial importance of these moments and that they themselves have experienced something similar during a trip.
These can be very strong emotions. The tripper can cry, rage, swear, sob uncontrollably, or wildly laugh or to shake violently. Such situations occur very often during holotropic breathwork, especially if the tripper begins, for example, to relive their own birth. Facilitators do not prevent people from expressing themselves in these ways, they only try to create the safest possible space for them – for example, by surrounding them with pillows, etc.
If the tripper wants to drink during the main phase or is trying to communicate with the sitter, it is necessary for the sitter to understand that the tripper experiences time completely differently at these moments. Therefore, the sitter must speak more slowly and give the tripper enough time to react, not pressuring them even with thoughts. Even just picking up a glass of water can be highly demanding for the tripper in deep trip. Some trippers talk about having to literally “find the trajectory” or “find the timeline” leading to picking up the glass. Alternatively, they have to recall how to do it. Similarly, processing what the sitter said in such moments takes the tripper a very long time. And even then, the tripper may respond mentally rather than verbally – because from their perspective, in expanded consciousness, it is often the same thing.
The main phase of a trip lasts for several hours, after which the effects of the administered substance gradually begin to wear off. The person who is tripping then slowly starts to return to reality and may, for example, feel the need to use the bathroom or take a walk. Alternatively, after an especially intense experience, they may want to eat something light. This phase of the effects wearing off is also very valuable and can be very successfully used for gaining insights into other various issues which are troubling the person who is tripping. For example, it can help improve their understanding of family or job dynamics. The bond between the sitter and the person who is tripping is usually still quite strong during this phase, so the sitter can empathetically recognize which topics are particularly troubling for the person and they can focus on them together.
The overall format of therapy in which the trip takes place can vary, but in general, it would be ideal for the sitter to be available to the client, ideally even the day after the trip, during the most important part of processing and integrating the experience. And if possible, also for any subsequent consultations. This is because a psychedelic trip creates a strong bond between the person who is tripping and the sitter, and the person who is tripping sees the sitter as a confidant who can help them with further integration thanks to the shared experience.