Although it wasn’t his invention, Tim Leary popularized the concept of “set and setting” back in the early 1960s when psilocybin was still legal and he was still a prof at Harvard. And whether you subscribe to Leary being a “brave neuro-naut” as novelist Tim Robbins asserted, or the “hero of American consciousness” poet Allan Ginsberg described, or simply a publicity-seeking celebrity as most media did at the time, Dr. Leary should be respected as one of the first American psychologists who believed that psychedelics showed potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry and could actually help people heal. He also became a strong advocate for utilizing “set and setting” while tripping in both clinical and leisure situations.
What is the importance of “Set and Setting”?
As Timothy Leary contextualized it in his 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical—the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social—feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural—prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide-books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories which modern science has made accessible.”1
Set and setting simply refers to one’s mindset and the physical and social environment in which the user actually has the experience. It is considered by many psilocybin proponents as particularly relevant when tripping.
“Set” is about your mental state: what mental state are you bringing to the experience, what’s going through your mind, are you in a positive or negative frame of mind? What mood are you in? What are your expectations for the experience? Any thoughts that might cause unpleasantness? Stress or fear could result in a bad trip or ugly experience. A person who is relaxed and comfortable in a warm, safe place, with an open and curious mind is going to have a much more pleasant experience.
“Setting” is the physical place as well as the social environment (the people who will be with you during your trip). A network of supportive people who have some knowledge of psilocybin use are considered valuable to the outcome of the experience. A knowledgeable person who can guide you and help to control certain aspects of the experience—both consciously and subconsciously—could be a real asset.
And before we go any further, suffice to say that a bad experience of any psychedelic can be very, very unpleasant. So following the “set and setting” guidelines can mean the difference between having a really good or a really bad time.
Plan ahead. You may become very sensitive while under the influence, so you should plan ahead by asking yourself these questions:
Do you feel well physically? Feeling in your best possible physical shape puts you in the best position to begin the psilocybin journey. Do you take medication? Are you experiencing chronic pain? Can you stop taking the medication? Will it interact? How’s your tummy and digestion system? Are you too tired to do this? What do you plan to eat before taking the psilocybin? Something light and easy on your stomach is preferable.
How do you feel emotionally? Your emotional state is important to consider when planning your psilocybin experience. Try to define the emotions you’re experiencing while anticipating your trip. Mushrooms often magnify the feelings we’re experiencing so be very cognisant of your state of mind. Obviously a positive state is desirable, whereas a negative one might tell you that it’s not the time to try psilocybin.
Where are you most comfortable? It’s important that you choose a setting that is safe, relaxing, comfortable and familiar which is why many people decide to stay in their own home for their first psilocybin experience. It’s also important to have a safe and quiet place to sit, lie down or rest as needed. Comfort can be an important factor while tripping because anything uncomfortable could become amplified. For example, the temperature of the room, the clothes you’re wearing, the texture of the carpet—all things sensory could have an effect on you so be prepared. Consider the environment around where you’ll be physically located and make it safe. Is there a fireplace or set of stairs that pose an obstacle? Is a bathroom a convenient distance away?
Who will be with you? This is an important aspect for you to decide: Who are you most comfortable with? Really close friends are highly recommended, but someone who shares your sense of curiosity and supports your psilocybin journey might be best. Or a person who has a lot of experience with psychedelic substances might also be a good choice. Avoid contact with people in normal states of consciousness unless they’re a qualified guide or sitter.
Plan a curated music playlist. Music has a powerful sway on the conscious and subconscious and can help guide you on your journey. Some people suggest that it might be preferable to choose instrumental music that is not overly dramatic for your first journey.
How are you mentally? If you have been diagnosed with a psychological or psychiatric illness, do not take psilocybin without consulting with your medical professional.
1 The Psychedelic Experience, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Psychedelic_Experience
Set and Setting, Wikipedia
The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary. Citadell Books, 2017.