The Zendo Project provides “psychedelic first aid” at festivals. Image courtesy of the Zendo Project.

Burning Man and other transformational festivals are known for many things: awe-inspiring art, world-class music, elaborate costumes, community bonding, and, for some, the use of psychedelic substances. In many ways these relatively new festival experiences mimic the ancient and ongoing rituals of indigenous people from across the globe, and indeed many people who attend these festivals have transcendent experiences that redirect the course of their lives.

But while the art, music, and spectacle of these festivals far exceeds those of their native predecessors in scale, they are missing something critical that indigenous ceremonies do have: a deep-rooted cultural understanding of how and when to administer psychedelic sacraments, and how to properly care for those who are on a psychedelic journey. This is where the Zendo Project steps in, providing “psychedelic first aid” for those who are having difficult trips, and a caring, supportive atmosphere for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed, triggered, or in need of a safe and comfortable space.

A Helping Hand

Sponsored by the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and bolstered by a recent successful Indiegogo campaign, the Zendo project provides a supportive space for festival attendees who are undergoing difficult psychedelic or psychological experiences. The Zendo area is housed within a special structure on festival grounds and staffed by specially-trained volunteers who can receive overwhelmed participants and give them the space or interaction they need to work through their experience in the most positive way possible. Often the people who come into Zendo only need to talk to someone for a short while and be reassured that their experience is temporary and that they have community support. Other times, overwhelmed participants may just need a shoulder to cry on, a person to talk to who is attentive and grounded, or just some alone time in a quiet space that is not part of the chaotic fray of the festival. The goal of the Zendo Project staff is not so much to guide a person through a psychedelic journey like a traditional shaman would (a role that should never be taken lightly), but instead to provide harm reduction that nurtures and reassures people until they feel well enough to rejoin the festivities or get some rest back at their camp.  

In addition to providing counseling services, the Zendo Project hopes that they can effectively reduce the unnecessary involvement of medical and law enforcement personnel, which overwhelmed people can sometimes erroneously turn to when a good trip turns into a difficult one. Zendo Project staff work hand-in-hand with security and medical personnel so that cases are handled appropriately and efficiently for everyone involved. This has the benefit of not only lightening the load on these critically important festival resources, but also helping people who are not in their right mind to avoid costly visits to the hospital or jail.   

The Zendo Project has been around since 2012 and has had a presence at festivals in the US, Portugal, South Africa, and Costa Rica, where they have helped over 700 people with over 10,000 hours of volunteer staff time.

Filling an Important Role

While some could argue about the illegality or dangers of taking psychedelics in a festival environment, the truth is that it happens, and it is here to stay. Seeking out non-ordinary states of consciousness, especially in an elaborately-facilitated group setting, is an impulse as old as humanity itself, and can be seen in everything from the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, to peyote ceremonies, to modern day raves and festivals.

Unlike indigenous cultures, which have the use of psychedelic sacraments woven deeply into their culture, our Western culture is far behind in understanding the risks, benefits, and best practices of psychedelic use, which is why a project like Zendo is so important. Learning how to support people who choose to take psychedelics with a harm reduction approach is best for everyone involved, and helps to create a safe and nurturing environment for all festival attendees, as well as the organizers and staff who facilitate the festival. As Linnae Ponté, the Zendo Project Director, says, “Together, we can create a model for a post-prohibition world, where psychedelic harm reduction is an integral part of festival health and safety infrastructure.”