What's it really like going on a psychedelic retreat?
I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years diving deep into the world of psychedelics. During my master’s degree studies I spent much of my time writing about the antidepressant effects of psilocybin, which led me to where I am now: disseminating current research in the field. However, despite a fervent fascination with these substances, all of my previous psychedelic use had been purely recreational—I had never taken an ego-shattering dose in a suitable set and setting. As I was returning to the UK after living in Amsterdam for the last three years, I felt like this was an opportune moment to participate in a psychedelic retreat.
What compelled me to attend was a blend of the mystical and the mental. I had read extensively about the spiritual experiences that occur under a high dose of psychedelics. How would my experiences shape up to these descriptions?
But what seemed even more pressing was that my mind had become a turnstyle of ruminative thought. A long, cold, and dark winter coupled with lockdown after lockdown had an impact on my mental health. Maybe tripping on truffles could provide some fresh perspective?
Psychedelic Retreats in the Netherlands
A legal loophole in the Netherlands means that you can buy psychedelic truffles from smart shops on the high street. This liberal approach towards drugs, combined with the public’s deepening interest in plant medicine, means that the country has become a hotbed of psychedelic retreats.
After chatting to some retreat facilitators and some colleagues, I decided to opt for Essence retreat. I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the founders a couple of weeks before, and the way that they described the retreat was particularly appealing to me. Setting up a psychedelic retreat still suffers from a lack of standardisation—some colleagues advised me not to attend a couple with unprofessional practices. However, mental healthcare practitioners and responsible facilitators made up a core part of Essence’s team, which ultimately made me feel much more comfortable taking the trip in their venue.
Journeying with Essence
Breaking the ice between 16 strangers is challenging at the best of times, but the facilitators managed to do so pretty seamlessly. Technically, the retreat started a week before I travelled there; an email thread was set up so we could introduce ourselves to the rest of the group, and ensure we were no longer just names on a list.
On the first official day of the retreat, we were greeted outside and led into the ceremony room, where we would spend most of the next three days. The room was bright, white and spacious, with big panel windows that looked out upon the surrounding nature. Sixteen seats faced a large vase filled with flowers and some percussive instruments placed on a faux sheepskin rug in the centre of the room.
Willem, a 71-year old clinical psychologist and one of the co-founders of Essence, kicked us off. He introduced himself while circling the centrepiece, donning a pair of socks decorated with mushrooms. Sanne, a mental healthcare worker, Sofie, a young actress, and Marco a water engineer were the three facilitators that followed suit. I was immediately struck by their warmth as they playfully trod around the room.
One-by-one we did the same, re-introducing ourselves and clarifying our intentions for the ceremony. This element is particularly important in psychedelic circles; any well travelled psychonaut will tell you that being open to the experience is one of the most important predictors of a ‘good’ trip. Opening myself up to others definitely made me feel more willing to open myself up to a powerful psychedelic experience.
The rest of the day was dedicated to extensive preparation for the ceremony. The facilitators answered questions, described the process, and dished out advice for the trip. Activating the neutral observer was supposedly key—during the ceremony, you should simply watch what is happening to you, without becoming too attached. Easy, right?
A Psychedelic Ceremony
The next morning was filled with meditation and a light breakfast. By ten am, the ceremony room was covered in 16 mattresses, all facing the centrepiece. We bought down our duvets and pillows and did a breathwork session (which allegedly mimics the psychedelic experience) to further prepare ourselves for the afternoon ahead.
After dwelling on our intentions, we crushed down two packs of high Hawaiian each. Truffle-infused ginger tea was served, and we each gulped down two glasses. We were encouraged to lie back, put on our eye shades, listen to the curated playlist, and ‘activate the neutral observer’.
I realised I was tripping when I saw musical notes form a beam of light in my field of vision, despite having my eye shades on. The notes from the violin formed a staircase of light as the music played out, which was an easy and light start to the session.
However, I quickly started to realise how many truffles I had just taken, and how far I had to go. After hearing my neighbour become increasingly unsettled, I panicked and ripped my eye mask off. I stared down at my hands and they looked worn and wrinkled—like they didn’t belong to me.
Sofie, one of the facilitators, noticed my anxiety and sat next to me. The idea of asking for help this early on seemed ridiculous, so I put my legs up between us as a barrier. She stayed there, sitting patiently and held my feet to the ground. Even though I didn’t explicitly ask for help, she knew that I needed to be reassured. Her simple presence encouraged me to put my eyeshades back on, and settle back into the trip.
However, the ride didn’t get any less turbulent. The truffles were really kicking in now, and the music was becoming more haunting. I could hear someone a couple of mattresses down become increasingly confused. He kept on asking existential questions to the facilitators. “Who am I? Where are we? Why are we here?”
At this point the room was erupting with emotion, and after seeing these questions reverberate around my mind for what felt like hours, I became terrified that I was slipping into a deep psychosis. I had no idea where the mattress ended, nor where I began. Time and sound started to bleed into each other, and I had the disturbing feeling that I was embedded in ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvidor Dali.
Then, as quickly as I fell into this psychosis, the music and my mindset switched. Euphoric choir music started blasting from the speakers, which triggered a fundamental insight: nothing even mattered! This was far from a nihilistic conclusion though; this liberating notion allowed me to distance myself from the feeling of losing myself, and was quickly replaced with a stronger sensation—that the only true thing that mattered was love. And this truly was a sensation; it coursed through my body, and permeated everything that I saw.
I then spent the next few hours or so screaming with laughter. I found it hilarious that I was so bogged down by the stresses of life before this experience, and that a cliché like this could move me so deeply.
Integrating the Experience
As I returned to Earth, matter started to form again, and the world as I knew it slowly pieced itself back together. We spent the rest of the evening walking amongst nature, and slowly becoming grounded again.
After resting up, the following day was spent teasing out any insights we had from the experience, and integrating them into our wider lives.
Dwelling on my time, I realise that I had a pretty ‘classic’ psychedelic experience. There were unmistakeable feelings of oneness with the world, and I definitely lost my sense of self for a good while. However, there was a diverse set of experiences within the group. Danielle*, 50, another participant, didn’t have such a profound trip:
“From the literature I had read on the subject, I was hoping that a psilocybin induced psychedelic trip would reconnect me to my true self, make me more empathetic and open towards others. Rather frustratingly, that wasn’t what I went through at all. The experience didn’t open any new perspectives and I was stuck with my usual controlling mind.”
Danielle did mention, however, that the following days after the retreat she managed to feel more relaxed than usual. I do believe that if there wasn’t the same level of care and attention put in to Essence, then Danielle might have felt more negative afterwards, and my experience would have been very different; if Sofie had never managed to initially calm me down, and if I never experienced that mental shift to profundity, who knows how long I could have been stuck in a psychosis for?
I’d therefore recommend that if you were thinking of going to a psychedelic retreat, to do as much research as possible. Ask the facilitators plenty of questions about their team, what the psychedelic preparation is like, and, importantly, what kind of support they provide afterwards. Essence was excellent because there was enough time to share the experiences that we each had. And, honestly, being in a space where everyone was completely open and vulnerable was almost as moving as the psychedelic experience itself.
So, what have I learnt? While normal life has seemingly reconstructed itself, the liberating insight that nothing even matters (except love) still bounces around my head several times a day. If nothing matters, I should just enjoy life as much as possible, and not take everything too seriously, which is enough to catapult me out of my ruminative patterns of thought. I just hope I can keep on remembering it.
*Name changed for anonymity