After reading the last post on this topic, you may be wondering how to have your own mystical experience. That’s understandable, as mystical experience is widely considered one of the most profound and meaningful someone can have.
Mystical experience is characterized by feelings of self-transcendence and direct connection with the divine, a sense of cosmic unity, timelessness, bliss, joy, gratitude and more. It appears to be the catalyst for successful treatment of ailments like anxiety, depression, and addiction to tobacco and alcohol. Mystical experience also creates lasting positive behavioural changes and subjective quality of life increases for those who undergo it.
Mystical experience can be brought about using techniques like meditation, fasting, or holotropic breathing, but these methods are unpredictable and unreliable. Psychedelics are the only reliable (and safe) way we know to bring about mystical experience.
A mystical experience is never guaranteed when taking psychedelics, but there are certain factors that make it more likely. Several of these can be controlled for, and a few cannot. This post draws on psychedelic research and established best practices to explain how to maximize chances of inducing mystical experience.
Set and Setting
The two most basic considerations when taking psychedelics are what’s called “set and setting”. Set refers to the state of the individual going into the experience, including expectations, personality structure, and mood. Setting is the physical setting in which the experience takes place, including whether it is indoor or outdoor, alone or with others, and so on.
Set includes the personality of the individual, their expectations and motivations for the experience, and their preparation (mental and/or physical) before the experience.
A general principle is to avoid having anything hanging over your head before a psychedelic experience. This includes uncompleted tasks, chores, or “loose strings” that need tying up. You want a block of at least 6-8 hours or more, depending on the substance, with no other obligations or pressing problems weighing on you. A full day is ideal, and the key is to have a clear schedule and clear mind. This sort of preparation is especially important if one is seeking transcendental experience.1
One’s mood going into the experience also has a strong influence on its character. In a 2012 study with data from over 400 individuals using psilocybin, researchers found that a state of “emotional excitability” immediately before drug intake strongly correlated with spiritual experience and insightfulness. Having had few psychological problems in the preceding weeks was also associated with pleasant and mystical-type experience.2
Intentions over Expectations
Even with all the preparation in the world, psychedelics can still be unpredictable. Accordingly, it’s best not to focus on expectations for what one wants to get out of the experience, and instead on setting intentions and then just letting it take you where it wants to take you. A reddit user says:
Spend an hour or two in nature the day before. I prefer to be alone and contemplate my intentions: why am I taking LSD? Do I want to reconnect to my artistic side? Do I want to explore the meaning of life? Do I want to slow down and just be in the moment? Do I want to watch Electric Sheep visualizers and play with glow sticks? These are very different than expectations, of which I’d suggest having none. Detailed plans tend to cause me stress. I once packed a backpack for three days before a trip, going as far as to draw a cross-section diagram to locate everything while peaking. I was fucking ready. Then I ate the acid and ended up watching ladybugs and grasshoppers and the clouds for a good four hours. I never even opened the bag. Intentions are good. Expectations are bad.
Set your intentions and then…
Let Go Into the Experience
In my opinion the best possible piece of advice to keep in mind when taking psychedelics is to let go into the experience. Anecdotally, this has proven very helpful for many people. The analogy of a roller coaster ride can also be useful: there will be ups and downs and moments that are exhilarating and perhaps terrifying. Things will seem strange and feel very different from how they normally do – but that’s the whole point. If the ride starts to get bumpy, just remember that whatever happens, at the end you will come down, be back where you started, and feel just the same as you did before.
Particularly with strong doses, it may feel at times like you are losing control. Understand that this is a normal and natural part of the psychedelic experience, and try not to hold on to control. There is always the potential for something truly remarkable and beautiful with psychedelics, but you have to let it happen. A mantra often used is “Trust, Let go, be Open” (TLO).
If challenging aspects arise, one is encouraged to go in and towards the difficulty. Psychedelic therapy pioneer Betty Eisner explains:
Then there was the most important information for a therapeutic session, the suggestion that the subject should allow IT (whatever) to happen. At the symbolic level, where there are images and archetypes, the imperative was: “Move toward the problem!” In other words, one should go into the fire, toward the dragon, into the vortex, toward the void, toward that which is frightening. In a psychedelic session (as in life?), it is confronting the seemingly life-threatening situation that allows the problem to be solved and/or transcended. Another important maxim was: “Life – or the deep unconscious – knows better than we do.3
Setting refers to the physical setting in which the psychedelic experience takes place. Setting affects one’s expectations and mood (set), and can also directly impact the perceptual changes that occur during the experience.4
When it comes to setting, there are some general principles to always follow:
• Always be somewhere safe and comfortable
• Minimize the chances of surprises or interruptions (meeting unknown people, unexpected phone calls) and avoid these entirely if possible5
• Avoid being around anyone you don’t like or don’t trust
Secondary principles to improve the experience:
• Clean your space beforehand
• Be in nature for at least some of the experience, if possible
• Put your phone on airplane mode
• Meditate before the experience and/or during the beginning stages
• Have a guide or trip sitter (Discussed more below)
You may also want to plan ahead for food and drink. Psychedelics suppress the appetite, but you may get hungry or want to eat towards the end of the trip, so having some light food or drink on hand is probably a good idea. Natural, healthy foods like fresh fruit or vegetables tend to be the most appealing when tripping.
Keep in mind these recommendations are specifically for psychedelic experiences with the intention of inducing mystical experience, which means you will be in a private space and have some significant amount of uninterrupted time to yourself. Taking psychedelics at a festival or in a communal or social setting is a different matter.
Guides or “Trip Sitters”
A common recommendation is to have a guide or “trip sitter” present throughout the experience. A trip sitter is a sober person who stays with you for the duration of the trip, and is available for support or reassurance if needed. They also ensure you stay safe.
Guide(s) should have previous experience with psychedelics themselves:
It scarcely needs to be stated that no one can be a proper guide without having experienced psychedelics himself or herself. This is the firm opinion of anyone and everyone who has worked with psychedelics. We have found no exceptions.6
The standard in psychedelic research is to have two guides – one male and one female. This combination has been shown to produce the best outcomes, and fosters feelings of security in participants.78 The guides are also there for safety reasons, as these studies have stringent safety requirements and must be approved by ethics boards.
Of course, many choose to take psychedelics alone, and there is abundant anecdotal evidence of safe, enjoyable, profound and transformative solo trips. However if it is someone’s first time taking a psychedelic, it is advisable to have a trip sitter and/or one or more others around who may or may not also be tripping.
Eye Shades and Music
The methodology used in modern psychedelic research follows basic set and setting principles. Participants are in a comfortable, pleasant room with flowers, art on the walls, and large picture books featuring nature, art, or mythology. There may be other spiritual or mythologically-inspired items in the room. Two further steps are taken to increase the likelihood of mystical experience: wearing eye shades and listening to particular music.
Participants put on eye shades, lie down on the couch, listen to a specific playlist through headphones and let the psychedelic journey begin. They are encouraged to focus on their inner experience.9 The two guides are available for support if needed, but do not otherwise involve themselves in the experience.
Music for Mystical Experience
Psychedelics enhance our emotional response to music, and music choice can dramatically influence the nature of a psychedelic trip.10
In a 2017 study, researchers used qualitative and quantitative methods to determine optimal music choices for peak and pre-peak times during a psychedelic experience.11 This study surveyed psilocybin guides with experience guiding more than 50 people in psilocybin sessions. The total data sample amounts to hundreds of individuals and groups, and thousands of individual psychedelic sessions.
The guides were asked to provide 2-3 pieces of peak and pre-peak music. Their choices were then reviewed by experts in music theory and music cognition. Qualitative methods of analysis include “subjective ratings of descriptive features of music such as compositional form, orchestration, phrase structure, tempo, mode, tonal stability, articulation, dynamics, and meter.”12 Qualitative differences between peak and pre-peak music were determined, and you can see a list of those qualities here.
Next, the music choices were subjected to quantitative analysis. These methods include “a range of approaches employed in the field of Music Information Retrieval (MIR)” which employs “signal processing and other computational algorithms to analyze the raw audio signal from a recorded piece of music.” This has been used in automated music recommendation algorithms (like with Spotify, for example) and automated systems that compose novel music.13
Without going into too much detail, it’s clear that musical analysis can quickly get quite complex. In this study, the qualitative and quantitative methods were used in conjunction with the recommendations from expert psilocybin guides to choose music that is most supportive for mystical experience.
The final result is 27 recommendations for pre-peak experience, and 27 for peak experience.
Note that this study used data exclusively from psilocybin sessions, and “the generalizability of these features has yet to be established with other psychedelic drugs.”14 That being said, it does seem reasonable to assume that, to the extent that psilocybin and other classical psychedelics are similar, the music would have similar effects.
Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Playlist
A book published in 2015 titled Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences includes a playlist of songs used by Johns Hopkins researchers in their studies with psilocybin.
One playlist that has been carefully developed through trial and error and has been found to work well with many different people over time is included at the end of this book. It includes a signiﬁcant amount of classical music, symphonic and choral, as well as some Hindu chant, in the intense portions of the session and lighter selections near the return to everyday reality at the end of the day.15
There is a blog post with more details and the complete playlist (2008 version) here.
Someone also created a Spotify playlist of these tracks, available here. There are other Hopkins playlists, that I don’t have links to currently.
Mendel Kaelen, a psychedelic researcher at Imperial College London, also has several playlists intended for therapeutic psilocybin sessions on his Spotify.
Mystical Experience is Dose-Dependent
Likelihood of mystical experience depends strongly on the dose of psychedelic ingested.1617 Ego dissolution, a key component of mystical experience, also correlates strongly with dose.18
In psychedelic research, psilocybin is measured out in milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight. In a 2011 study, participants received doses of 5, 10, 20 and 30mg of psilocybin per 70kg of bodyweight. 61% had a complete mystical experience during the 20mg/70kg session, and 67% had a complete mystical experience during the 30mg/70kg session.19
How much psilocybin is in mushrooms?
There is fairly wide natural variation in the psilocybin content of mushrooms, but estimates are around 6.25mg of psilocybin per gram of standard dried mushrooms (Psilocybe cubensis).20 By this approximate calculation, 3g of dried mushrooms provides 18.75mg psilocybin, 4g = 25mg, 5g = 31.25mg, and so on. These larger amounts – what Terence McKenna called a “heroic dose” – are, according to the research, those most likely to induce mystical experience. According to Psychonaut Wiki, an equivalent dose of LSD is around 200-300ug.
Positive outcomes of mystical experience increase as a function of dose
Positive outcomes associated with mystical experience (discussed in detail in this post) have also been shown to increase as a function of dose.
In a 2011 study, “1 month follow-up ratings of positive attitudes about life and self, positive behavior, positive social effects, and increased spirituality generally increased as a function of psilocybin dose.21 These ratings remained consistent at 14 months after the experience.22 Furthermore, 83% of participants rated the 20mg/70kg and/or 30mg/70kg psilocybin session as among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their life. 61% rated one of these sessions as the single most spiritually significant experience of their life.23
Data amalgamated from three psilocybin studies involving a total of 119 participants indicated the following about high-dose (30mg/70kg) psilocybin sessions:
- 57% of participants had a complete mystical experience24
- 66% of sessions were retrospectively rated as being in the top five or single most personally meaningful experience of a participant’s life25
- 68% of sessions were retrospectively rated as being in the top five or single most spiritually significant experience of a participant’s life26
Personality traits predict likelihood of mystical experience
So far we’ve covered factors that affect likelihood of mystical experience that are under one’s control: set, setting, music (technically a part of setting), and dose. There is a final factor, mostly out of one’s control, that affects this too: the personality structure of the individual going into the experience.
In a study with data from over 400 individuals, personality trait absorption was found to predict psilocybin response.27 Absorption is defined as “an individual’s openness to a variety of cognitive, perceptual, and imagistic experiences as well as vivid imagery, synesthesia, and intense involvement in aesthetics and nature”.28
The study found that trait absorption correlated highly with overall consciousness alteration, and strongly predicted mystical experience. After dose size, trait absorption was found to be the second most important predictor of psilocybin response.29
In the same study, a person’s sociability was also found to influence the nature of their psychedelic experience. Participants who were more sociable, outgoing and extroverted reported less spiritual experience and more audio-visual synesthesiae.30
Trait absorption is strongly correlated with Big Five trait openness, and sociability is roughly equivalent to Big Five trait extraversion. From this data we can conclude that individuals high in openness and low in extraversion (introverted) are more likely to have mystical experience.
Big Five traits are about 50% hereditary, and typically only change to a small degree over the course of a lifetime.31 Generally speaking, there’s not much one can do to alter these traits in the short term.
That being said, as we saw in this post, mystical experience itself tends to cause an increase trait openness. So not only does psychedelic-induced mystical experience make people more open, but open people are more likely to have mystical experience when using psychedelics.
How to Have a Mystical Experience with Psychedelics: 6 Main Takeaways
1. Your attitude and subjective state going into a psychedelic experience are referred to as set. The most important elements of set are a clear mind and positive mood.
2. Make sure your physical setting is safe and comfortable. Have a guide/trip sitter or be with others if it’s your first time. Nature always goes well with psychedelics.
3. Set intentions rather than expectations, then let go into the experience. If challenging aspects arise, go into and towards them!
4. Wear eye shades, lie down, and listen to music. Here are track lists for pre-peak music and peak music, and here is one of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin research playlists.
5. Mystical experience is dose-dependent. In studies, 30mg of psilocybin per 70kg of bodyweight was found most effective. That’s approximately 5g of dried mushrooms for a 70kg (154lb) person. An equivalent dose of LSD is around 200-300ug.
6. Personality traits predict likelihood of mystical experience, namely traits absorption and introversion. There is a strong genetic component to these traits, and not much you can do to alter them in the short term.
Finally, remember that mystical experience is never guaranteed. In the existing research, only about 60% of participants had a complete mystical experience. This guide simply describes the known, relevant factors, and what can be done to increase the probability of mystical experience occurring.
I hope you’ve found this helpful, and please remember that psychedelics are powerful substances that should be treated with respect. Be safe, be responsible, and enjoy.
Further links and resources:
Tripsafe.org features research-backed information on taking psychedelics more generally. The advice here is, in my opinion, slightly on the cautious side but very sound nonetheless. It is certainly better to be too careful than not careful enough.
HowToUsePsychedelics.org is another great resource.Their page on how to safely use LSD includes some of the best descriptions I’ve seen of what to expect and prepare for during a trip.
A Simple Guide to Tripping on Acid from the subreddit r/Drugs is excellent general advice
Psychonaut Wiki is an in-depth resource with substance information, dosing guides, documentation of subjective effects of psychedelics, accounts of experiences and more
- Eisner, Betty. (1997). Set, Setting, and Matrix. Journal of psychoactive drugs. 29. 213-6. 10.1080/02791072.1997.10400190. ↵
- Studerus, Erich & Gamma, Alex & Kometer, Michael & Vollenweider, Franz. (2012). Prediction of Psilocybin Response in Healthy Volunteers. PloS one. 7. e30800. 10.1371/journal.pone.0030800. ↵
- Eisner (1997) ↵
- Preller, Katrin & Vollenweider, Franz. (2016). Phenomenology, Structure, and Dynamic of Psychedelic States. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences. . 10.1007/7854_2016_459. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Eisner (1997) ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Preller & Vollenweider (2016) ↵
- Griffiths, Roland & Richards, William & Mccann, Una & Jesse, Robert. (2006). Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance. Psychopharmacology. 187. 268-283. 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5. ↵
- Kaelen, Mendel & Barrett, Frederick & Roseman, Leor & Lorenz, Romy & Family, Neiloufar & Bolstridge, Mark & Curran, Helen & Feilding, Amanda & Nutt, David & Carhart-Harris, Robin. (2015). LSD enhances the emotional response to music. Psychopharmacology. 232. . 10.1007/s00213-015-4014-y. ↵
- Barrett, Frederick & Robbins, Hollis & Smooke, David & Brown, Jenine & Griffiths, Roland. (2017). Qualitative and Quantitative Features of Music Reported to Support Peak Mystical Experiences during Psychedelic Therapy Sessions. Frontiers in Psychology. 8. . 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01238. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Richards, William A. (2015), Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. Columbia University Press. ↵
- Lyvers, Michael & Meester, Molly. (2012). Illicit Use of LSD or Psilocybin, but not MDMA or Nonpsychedelic Drugs, is Associated with Mystical Experiences in a Dose-Dependent Manner. Journal of psychoactive drugs. 44. 410-7. 10.1080/02791072.2012.736842. ↵
- Barrett, Frederick & Griffiths, Roland. (2017). Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates. Current topics in behavioral neurosciences. . 10.1007/7854_2017_474. ↵
- Nour, Matthew & Evans, Lisa & Nutt, David & Carhart-Harris, Robin. (2016). Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 10. . 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00269. ↵
- Griffiths, Roland & Johnson, Matthew & Richards, William & Richards, Brian & Mccann, Una & Jesse, Robert. (2011). Psilocybin Occasioned Mystical-Type Experiences: Immediate and Persisting Dose-Related Effects. Psychopharmacology. 218. 649-65. 10.1007/s00213-011-2358-5. ↵
- Carbonaro, Theresa & P Bradstreet, Matthew & Barrett, Frederick & Maclean, Katherine & Jesse, Robert & Johnson, Matthew & Griffiths, Roland. (2016). Survey study of challenging experiences after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms: Acute and enduring positive and negative consequences. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 30. . 10.1177/0269881116662634. ↵
- Barrett & Griffiths (2017) ↵
- Griffiths, Roland & Richards, William & Johnson, Matthew & McCann, Ud & Jesse, Robert. (2008). Mystical-Type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England). 22. 621-32. 10.1177/0269881108094300. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Barrett & Griffiths (2017) ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Studerus et al. (2012) ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Bouchard Jr, Thomas & Mcgue, Matt. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences. Journal of neurobiology. 54. 4-45. 10.1002/neu.10160. ↵