Integration is a buzzword in the plant medicine community, and an integral piece of the journey when working with psychedelics. Intentional and responsible use, without a shadow of a doubt, includes focused time and energy following a ceremony to integrate the experience. But what does this really mean?
As advocates for a deeper understanding of psychedelic integration, we are excited to share this interview with author and integration specialist Dr. Katherine Coder. Katherine is a transpersonal psychologist and author of the new book After the Ceremony Ends: A Companion Guide to Help You Integrate Visionary Plant Medicine Experiences.
Lana: Katherine, we love and honor your work because part of our mission is to advocate for and educate on the intentional use of psychedelic and plant medicines. Can you shed some light on your own experience, and how it may have led you to understanding the importance of integration?
Katherine: I would say my journey began when I was a teenager with recreational use. There was one experience in particular where I scared myself, actually…
Lana: Wait- I want to hear more about that. How did you scare yourself?
Katherine: You want to hear more about that? [Laughs] For me, it’s really important to have the ritual, ceremony, space holding and intention setting and all of that, but at that time, my friend and I didn’t know how much to take. We were young, and green, and we didn’t have any context for anything. So we ended up taking about twice, or, actually, three times as much as one would normally take, and it was… well, it blew me so far out that I was really losing track of things; I was losing consciousness. There was half of the experience that I could remember and another half that I wasn’t conscious of. It was just [laughs], it was just maddening because I was with this friend, but I was feeling really far out and wanted to be left alone. So I would say to him, “I want you to leave.” And this poor guy is as high as a kite, and I’m trying to kick him out of my house. And then apparently, I was telling him to leave, and then would go back to my room, and come back out only to find that he’d still be standing there. It was driving me absolutely crazy, and I just could not stand it.It was freaking me out, basically. Later, he told me that I was telling him to go, but then I was coming out and telling him to stay. But I wasn’t remembering telling him to stay, I was only remembering that I was telling him to go! So, [laughs] he didn’t know what to do, because I was telling him both to stay and to go. It was just one of these bizarre experiences [laughs]… it was frustrating.
Then, at one point, I was really feeling like I wanted to call 9-1-1 on myself, and if I could have figured out how to dial the phone, I probably would have. I was very uncomfortable and I couldn’t settle into anything that was happening, and I was getting really frustrated and overwhelmed. Eventually I just rode it out. At one point, I felt like I was coming through water. Like I was in a deep ocean, and coming out of the water, and once I made that transition out of the water, things settled down.
Lana: Wow… [Laughs] That sounds like it was quite a challenging experience. Thank you for sharing this unique story. I know there are people who will be able to either relate, or to gain some insight from this as it shows how powerful psychedelics can be. It underscores the importance of making sense of these experiences after the fact. Did you decide not to have another experience after this?
Katherine: Well, I did… I did do it again, and it was another weird experience. I took it as a sign to put this on the shelf. I had actually been taking a lot of MDMA at that time, and it was always pretty straightforward for me. I decided I would just stick with MDMA.
Lana: Yep, sounds familiar! [more laughter]
Katherine: The MDMA felt very heart opening for me, which felt very significant, whereas with the mushroom I was just having these wacky experiences which didn’t feel like they meant anything. I just chalk it up to readiness: I wasn’t ready for them.
Lana: Looking back at these experiences, do you believe that the MDMA may have helped you integrate the mushroom experiences? How did you know if you were or were not integrating?
Katherine: I actually did not feel that the MDMA was helping me integrate. That came much later. It was after I took a long break and came back to the work that I could see how I thought I was integrating, but in fact I was not integrating.
Lana: How did you know that you were not integrating?
Katherine: I felt like I was chasing ceremonies. I was just going into so many ceremonies, and then I got into leading the ceremonies myself. I had gotten so far down this track. I needed to keep going back to ceremonies, and I was getting teachings, but instead of really honoring the teaching by working with it for a while, I would just go back to ceremony again. Because that’s what my community was doing- we were all doing what this Peruvian teaching that I was working with was recommending. We had something after every ceremony called integration, where we spoke about our experience the next day, and our teacher offered us guidance, but the invitation was always to come back to ceremony again. So I kept coming back to ceremony over and over again, but it felt like I hadn’t really integrated each ceremony. I thought to myself: “What did I do with that teaching I learned at an ayahuasca ceremony over a year ago?” I just noted it down, but didn’t really work with it. It’s just logged somewhere in my consciousness, but I didn’t do anything with it, really.
Lana: Why wasn’t it good for you to just keep going back?
Katherine: I would say at this point- and of course, things can always shift- that another ceremony is not necessarily the answer and it’s not necessarily going to lead to integration of the previous ceremony. Maybe people have arcs of ceremonies where they’re working one particular process for a while, but I didn’t feel that this was really my experience with ayahuasca in particular. I feel like it gave me a teaching, usually one per ceremony, and it wasn’t necessarily related to the previous ceremony. It was just something that ayahuasca really wanted me to know, or it was an experience ayahuasca really wanted me to have, or to see something that I needed to see, and that was what I was supposed to work with.
I had a journey once where I was shown that I was depressed, or rather that I had a depressive persona. Ayahuasca showed me that this wasn’t my true self, and that this was a choice. If I were to integrate this journey, it would take some time. Now, when I feel my energy get low and I feel that depression start coming in, I remember that ceremony and I can say to myself: “Wait- this is a choice.” I remember what ayahuasca showed me as my true self, in contrast to the self that I was living, and how this was optional. Now, when I feel like I can recall that choice, I feel like I am integrating the ceremony. Does that make sense?
Lana: Totally. Can you go into the more tangible aspects of integration, or is a lot of the work within the mind and more in the mental realm?
Katherine: I think that the beauty of the teachings is that I can still feel them in my body. So it’s not just mental- I feel what ayahuasca shows me. It resonates from somewhere deep in my core, so I’m not just thinking about it, I’m feeling it. When I can recall the teaching, it’s like the depressive feeling dissipates. Psychedelics can help us build new neural pathways, but they only light up the potential pathway. In order to really build that pathway, we have to walk the path. We have to keep going through that behavior, or that thought or that feeling, and reinforcing it, otherwise, it withers away. So that’s what I feel like I’m doing when I’m remembering in this sort of embodied way- it’s building out this pathway more and more, walking it out more and more, making it stronger and stronger. It gets easier to remember the ‘other me’ that ayahuasca showed me. I’ll tell you, just on a personal level, the past almost two years of my life has been completely upside down in terms of what I thought I’d be doing, and I could certainly be in a complete depression at this point, but I am not. I think part of the reason I am not is because I’ve developed this kind of resilience, by remembering what ayahuasca showed me of myself. I can go back to this and recall it.
Lana: Beautiful. What is the core of all of this? Why is it that integration is so important?
Katherine: For me, integration is the real work. It’s the difference between changing and not changing. It’s becoming more of my whole self; integration is what makes the difference. The experience and ceremony are the spark, and the spark is really important, but the integration is when the path is made. I’m always reminded that there are groups of people out there who do not need personal growth, do not want it, and do not see it as useful; it’s just not a priority. Integration for these people might be completely meaningingless, so this isn’t everyone’s path. Though if people are into it, integration is the continued path-making for those who are dedicated to growth, expansion, deepening, embodiment and healing. Integration is what really pulls them through the entire journey, start to finish. We have the spark, and then we walk the path. Your life changes; the way you see yourself changes. I would also say that integration is not limited to psychedelic work. It’s a part of every field of growth and healing, and it can look like a lot of different things.
Lana: Yes! Let’s talk about some of those ‘things.’
Katherine: Well, talking like a psychologist, we would look at things like behavioral change. It could look like waking up in the morning and practicing yoga, or waking up in the morning and feeding yourself something really nutritious, or waking up greeting the sun or offering water to the earth in the morning, saying a prayer or singing a song, or connecting to Source in some way. Integration can also look a lot less like a personal spiritual practice and more like being in relationship with other human beings. Some people are very drawn into their own worlds and they’ve experienced trauma, and connecting with other people can be very intimidating- so integrating for them can be finding the best ways to connect with other people, whether it’s one on one, in community, or just being willing to be seen by others. Just being able to bring these things that are inside of us out into the world- which could look like sharing, talking, singing, creating art, dancing or movement of some kind, or something completely different- can be integration.
Someone could be healing a situation where they were sexually molested, and it could come up in ceremony. After the ceremony might be a good time to go and do some therapy, or somatic experiencing work (working with the body around the trauma.) There are so many different options for therapy… a craniosacral session could be integrating. It’s almost dizzying to think about all of the different options, which could be anything that helps to address these wounds that have come into the conscious mind. It doesn’t even have to be a wound; it could be an aspect of our bright shadow- something that is really beautiful about ourselves that we haven’t been able to acknowledge. We can find ways to lean into this in our daily lives. For me, integration is largely about our ‘real’ lives, how we can change in our day to day lives, to begin expressing and exploring these pieces of ourselves that become apparent in these visionary or transformative experiences.