As the psychedelic renaissance continues to penetrate the mainstream consciousness, more and more individuals eager to experience the therapeutic and expansive benefits of psychedelic substances seek professional psychedelic facilitators. However, thanks to decades of prohibition and the ongoing War on Drugs, there is little to no access to reliable insights and visibility to guide seekers through this process.
While there are plenty of ethical, skilled, experienced, and properly trained psychedelic facilitators out there, high demand, limited access, lack of oversight, and legality issues have all unfortunately contributed to developing a ripened environment for opportunists in search of wealth, fame, power, and status to claim themselves "shaman" and begin dispensing psychedelic substances under the pretense of healing and spiritual growth.
Over the course of the past 15 years, I have had the honor of sitting with and studying with renowned psychedelic teachers and facilitators who either came from a long lineage of indigenous healers or had spent decades apprenticing with shamanic masters. During my quest to find teachers with strong ethics and integrity, I have also at times stumbled across individuals who blatantly abused their position and power for financial gains, exploitative power dynamics, and sexual advances.
We need to have real conversations about this and shed light on the shadowy side of psychedelic communities.
Unfortunately, the spiritual communities that surround facilitated psychedelic experiences often prefer to remain silent in fear of not being characterized as "judgemental and projecting" which is frankly a common avoidant pattern of spiritual bypassing parading as a virtue. Such oversight and denial often embolden abusers and harm not only the victims but also the very fabric of the community.
It is the ethical responsibility of every psychedelic advocate and facilitator to create a safe space for these conversations and act as a conscious guardian to protect not only the psychedelic seekers but also the delicate future of the psychedelic renaissance and the positive impact it can have on the future of humanity and our planet.
It is unfortunately common in my practice to hear from individuals who reach out with apprehension and confusion to inquire about my opinion on a questionable incident with a psychedelic facilitator. Almost all of these individuals are women and almost all are not sure if what they experienced was inappropriate or not.
Although shady "shamans" come in many shades, here are the 7 warning signs of a shady "shaman":
Golden Rule: If It Doesn't Feel Right, It Probably Isn't
It is the duty of the facilitator to go the extra mile to ensure the physical and psychological safety of the participant. Although under the influence of psychedelics the perception of reality can be distorted and triggers and traumas can surface, a skilled, ethical, and trauma-informed facilitator will have enough foresight to effectively identify and discuss these possibilities PRIOR to the journey experience and design a container that takes into account these situations.
The participant must at all times feel comfortable and safe to express physical or psychological safety concerns and be fully received and responded to in a kind, compassionate, and respectful manner.
Simply put, if it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Furthermore, if the participant doesn't feel welcome to express a concern, then the facilitator has failed to create a safe space and can not be trusted. This is the Golden Rule of engagement with healers of all modalities.
Inappropriate Physical Touch
Physical touch during a psychedelic experience is highly uncommon and is generally considered not only unnecessary but also inappropriate during a journey process. While a gentle holding of a hand or feet or a gentle touch of the head or heart (WITH EXPRESSED PRIOR CONSENT) can be a supportive and reassuring gesture under certain conditions, excessive touching, holding, and any touch that feels restricting or inappropriate to the participant is a significant warning sign of an unethical facilitator.
Unfortunately, inappropriate sexual advances are extremely common in healing communities of all kinds and many predators disguise themselves as gurus and facilitators and use manipulative language to exploit individuals; this is well-documented in communities like Osho, John of God, and Bikram Choudhury to name a few.
It is the duty of psychedelic facilitators and communities to actively emphasize the importance of physical boundaries and set up structures to ensure individual safety and ethical responsibility especially because the brain's executive functions are compromised under the influence of psychedelics making consent under the influence not a reliable measure of real consent.
The Golden Rule applies here as well; if it doesn't feel right, it isn't.
Questionable Intake Process
Unlike what some active promoters of psychedelic journeys might suggest, psychedelics are not a good fit for everyone! There are many reasons an individual might not be a good fit for a psychedelic experience. Some of the most common reasons are:
A history of severe mental health conditions personally and in the immediate family
History of severe trauma & PTSD
Severe anxiety and panic disorders
Some counter-indicative prescription medications
Certain health conditions like hypertension and cardiovascular disease
Some cases of substance use disorder
The overall psychological state of the individual
Ethical and skilled facilitators and organizers have an extensive intake process that includes a comprehensive medical and personal history screening to minimize the possibility of harm to the individual. The absence of a robust screening process is a reliable indicator that the safety of the journey container can not be trusted.
You Have No Idea What To Expect
According to the world-renowned traumatologist, Dr. Stephen Porges, who I had the honor of studying with, there are 3 key components to safety: Context, Choice, and Connection. When we know what to expect, are provided choices where it matters the most, and feel that the facilitator is attuned and responsive to our needs, we experience safety and are able to relax into the therapeutic experience whether psychedelic or not. Many skilled facilitators do this completely instinctually and the result is a sense of trust and safety that is the very foundation of healing.
In the context of psychedelic experiences, most commonly this looks like:
Knowledge of the location details ahead of time
Having some idea of what to expect as far as onset, intensity, and duration but also what potential rituals might be practiced especially if they involve any level of interpersonal exchange (touch, blessing, eye gazing, etc)
Transparency about dosing and the option to ask for less
Option to lay down or sit up
Option to move if needed
Option to have eyes open or closed
Option to ask for help
Stay away from facilitators who offer no context or choice and demand "absolute trust". While "trust and surrender" are two of the most profound teachings of psychedelic journeys, they refer to an individual's relationship with the psychedelic substance itself and not the facilitator. Shady "shamans" have long utilized gaslighting techniques to justify abuse and control in this context.
True surrender and trust are experienced within each individual as they explore their own consciousness and inevitably come across resistances and fears. This is an entirely internal and personal process.
No Lineage Or Training
Psychedelic facilitation is not for the faint of heart, the underskilled, or the uninitiated.
With the exception of licensed psychedelic therapists who also undergo years of education and training, non-licensed psychedelic facilitators on average undergo a decade of vigorous training, service, and apprenticeship before they are initiated as a facilitator by their teacher.
It is entirely appropriate to inquire about the background and lineage of a psychedelic guide as well as their years of experience as a student and apprentice.
There are no shortcuts to skillful and safe facilitation no matter what language is being used to justify it like "Spirits themselves gave me permission.", "Time is non-linear and I have access to the same wisdom others with 10+ years of experience have.", "I have been coaching/channeling/healing for a long time so I am qualified as a psychedelic facilitator", and "I have been working with psychedelics personally for a very long time", these are actual examples I've come across and none are valid arguments to prove competence and adequate training.
No Integration Option
Psychedelic experiences can be profoundly insightful and life-altering; the perspectives, visions, memories, and realizations that happen during and shortly after a psychedelic experience offer glimpses into our conscious and subconscious minds, histories, points of struggle, and opportunities for healing and growth. Proper integration is the key to accessing the deeper insights and meanings of these experiences and developing actionable steps to facilitate lasting positive change in our lives.
Psychedelic journeys can also be extremely terrifying, disorienting, and even traumatizing. Under such circumstances, in the absence of skillful integration support, individuals are left to make sense of these challenging experiences often resulting in confusion, shame, blame, projection, and victimhood. Integrative support helps contextualize the experience and offers healthy pathways for processing such experiences.
Furthermore, it isn't uncommon for individuals to make radical decisions following a psychedelic experience that they later regret. Integration offers a container for analyzing these insights and taking mindful and timely steps towards change without destabilizing the foundation of a person's life.
Informed and experienced facilitators always offer an integrative option whether through themselves or other community resources. They are available for one on one conversations following a journey experience and have a wealth of resources to recommend to support the integration process. Asking about integration options is an important step in vetting a facilitator.
So You're A "Shaman"
Lastly, one of the simplest red flags of a shady "shaman" is someone that calls themselves a "shaman" but doesn't come from a lineage of indigenous medicine facilitators. It is generally understood amongst psychedelic communities that the term "shaman" is strictly reserved for individuals with indigenous roots who come from a family lineage of spiritual healers. While there are many well-trained non-indigenous psychedelic facilitators, they refer to themselves as "facilitators". "healers", "guides", etc.
As the popularity of psychedelics continues to grow, it becomes increasingly more important to do your research and due diligence before choosing a guide, here are tips on how to vet your psychedelic guide
If you have experienced inappropriate behavior and conduct by a psychedelic facilitator, do not stay silent! Tell someone about your experience right away. Make sure the organizers and other participants know that the space held by this individual is not safe. Be aware of gaslighting attempts that deny your experience. If you believe that you're a victim of sexual violence, you may want to contact an attorney for advice on the safest course of action that doesn't jeopardize your liberty.