Joe Mattia working with the Zendo Project at Burning Man.

Joe Mattia working with the Zendo Project at Burning Man.

Joe Mattia is the founder of and a trained recovery coach who volunteered with the Zendo Project at Burning Man this year. Zendo, which is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is a safe and welcoming space that provides support for people who are mentally or emotionally overwhelmed at festivals. Their staff are trained specifically on how to take a harm reduction approach to caring for people who are having difficult psychedelic experiences, which comprises the bulk of their cases. We caught up with Joe one week after his experience with the Zendo Project at the famous annual festival in the Black Rock desert.

Thanks so much for speaking with us, Joe. How was your experience of Burning Man this year, particularly in working with the Zendo Project?

This was my third time at Burning Man. On Tuesday we did a four-hour Zendo volunteer training at the Dr. Bronner’s camp. They hosted Zendo last year, but this year the Zendo grew, so now they have their own location. Actually, [they have] two locations on the playa, and they had 170 volunteers show up for training. It was really comprehensive they covered several methods for how best support people and what to expect. They also covered The Four Pillars for Providing Psychedelic Support:

Safe Space

If someone is having a challenging experience, try to move them into a comfortable, warm, and calm environment. If possible, try to avoid noisy or crowded spaces. Ask what would make them most comfortable. Offer blankets and water.

Sitting, not guiding

Be a calm meditative presence of acceptance, compassion, and caring. Promote feelings of trust and security. Let the person’s unfolding experience be the guide. Don’t try to get ahead of the process. Explore distressing issues as they emerge, but simply being with the person can provide support.

Talk through, not down

Without distracting from the experience, help the person connect with what they are feeling. Invite the person to take the opportunity to explore what’s happening and encourage them to try not to resist it.

Difficult is not bad

Challenging experiences can wind up being our most valuable, and may lead to learning and growth. Consider that it may be happening for an important reason. Suggest that they approach the fear and difficult aspects of their experience with curiosity and openness.

My wife, Lana and I volunteered for one shift the next evening. Most people had two eight-hour shifts, but they had so many volunteers we just ended up working one shift [each], which was the first opening shift of the Zendo. It was quite nice, actually: it was Tuesday night and there weren’t a lot of people, so we sat with only one person. The Zendo team likes to pair volunteers up together, often a man and a woman, to balance out the energy. Lana and I paired up, and held space for a young man having a challenging LSD experience. The whole experience was really beautiful. I was able to witness my wife, very present and in her element. She seemed to be a natural with this kind of work. The young man emphasized that he was very grateful for us and the Zendo space.

The Zendo Project space at Burning Man.
Image source: The Zendo Project

Zendo takes a “harm reduction” approach to helping people who have self-administered psychedelics or are just feeling psychologically overwhelmed. How important do you think that is at big events like Burning Man?

I think it’s crucial. Some people are inevitably going to use psychedelics at these events, and the typical festival infrastructure is not equipped or trained in how to respond in these kinds of cases. We do promote responsible use for those that choose to, and provide a space for people who happen to get themselves in a situation where things could escalate or end up going in the wrong direction. “Set and setting” are very important, and having people to sit with you can really change your experience. I think projects like Zendo and harm reduction are hugely important, and I draw from my own experience: the kid I worked with, he was just literally sleeping on the side of the road and a Green Dot Ranger came across him and brought him over to us. He may not have had a terrible experience on his own, but we did a lot of good work with him and cared for him. As somebody who has been by themselves on what you could call a bad trip when I was younger, if I had had a place where I could go and just lay there, or someone grounded to talk to, the bad experience could have been much better and not traumatic.

Large festivals like Burning Man are somewhat synonymous with an element of psychedelic experimentation. Do you think these events provide a good atmosphere for that?

I don’t encourage anything illegal, but the truth is, people do experiment with psychedelics, and I think that we should encourage responsible and intentional use. Psychedelics are known to be the most positive if you have supportive people around you, are comfortable, and have positive, focused intention. Is Burning Man or Symbiosis or one of these big events the best place to experiment with psychedelics? They could be for more experienced users, but it’s more of a toss-up for first-time users. Stan Grof says psychedelics are “non-specific amplifiers.” So sometimes mundane things get amplified, sometimes your childhood trauma gets amplified, sometimes something really funny gets amplified, and it’s almost as if we don’t fully have control over those things, so when you are in an environment like a festival, it can be amazing and profound and heart-opening, but there’s a lot of room for things to go the other way. That’s why having a space like Zendo is so important. A good analogy is that it’s like making condoms available to teens instead of preaching complete abstinence, which is unrealistic.

What surprised or inspired you the most during your time in Black Rock City with Zendo this year?

Seeing hundreds of people show up, donating 16 hours of shifts and four hours of training. They are looking at [giving] 20 hours or almost an entire day of their limited time at Burning Man to this project. It is amazing seeing people care enough to be there for other people, coming together to make this happen. That was the most inspiring part of it.

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us, Joe!