When you’re getting ready to hit the festival grounds with your friends, safety is probably one of the last things on your mind. It’s far more likely that you’re worried about which stage to choose from when the organizers somehow book two of your favorite artists for the same time slot. But knowing what to do when you’re about to take psychedelics can be the difference between having the time of your life and cowering in your tent for three terrifying days.
Luckily, The Zendo Project is here to help. This harm reduction initiative, which derives its name from Japanese meditation halls, works in tandem with emergency medical services, security and law enforcement at festivals and events to ensure that everyone who came to have a good time can do just that.
“We are the emotional support branch of those emergency services,” says Sara Gael, Director of Harm Reduction for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Since its founding in 1986, MAPS has been at the forefront of research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
In 2012, they started the Zendo Project to provide support to people tripping at festivals. They are now a common sight at events like Envision Festival in Costa Rica, Burning Man in Nevada, Lighting in a Bottle in California and AfrikaBurn in South Africa, among many more.
At festivals that don’t have this kind of service, people having bad trips can end up in the hands of law enforcement, making a trip even worse and sometimes traumatizing. Harm reduction, on the other hand, is about showing that there’s a way to turn challenging moments on psychedelics into productive ones.
“Where a difficult experience might go bad is when someone is in a situation where they’re alone and scared; they might end up in jail or in the hospital,” says Gael. “Those situations are often preventable.”
Rather than having to deal with the police, Zendo will help you through a bad trip.
Gael says it’s difficult to predict how cannabis legalization will affect Zendo’s work, but she notes that cannabis is often underestimated when compared to substances like MDMA or LSD. Still, according to the 2017 Global Drug Survey, cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms and LSD had the lowest number of emergency room visits of all substances. In fact, it’s generally accepted among the scientific community that these substances have no lethal overdose level— at least none which has been proven in a lab.
Two of the most common mistakes first time drug users make at festivals is that they either don’t know what they took or how much of something they took. (An organization called DanceSafe has information for people who want to test their drugs.)
“It’s important for people to be aware of what their taking,” Gael emphasizes. She also stresses the importance of what psychedelic experts call “set and setting.”
“We encourage people to know their surroundings and make sure that they are with people they feel safe with,” Gael said.
Most importantly, it’s about respecting the substance and knowing how it’s meant to be taken. For example, a common mistake made among MDMA users is overhydration. MDMA can make users feel thirsty, but its chemical makeup actually causes the body to retain water.
When it comes to the psychological effects of psychedelics, Gael points out that similar substances have been used therapeutically for centuries because of their ability to bring certain hang-ups and traumas to the surface. The word itself, psychedelic, means ‘mind manifesting.’ As a result, she recommends that people don’t take psychedelics to escape their problems. Often times, if they try, they’ll just end up being confronted by them anyway.
A deeper understanding of how these substances work is part of Zendo’s “4 principles for helping someone having a difficult experience,” which can be found on flyers all over festivals and online.
Four principles for helping someone through a bad trip.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 not to resist it.
4. 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.
Many of these principles may seem counterintuitive, especially since our natural response to difficult experiences is fight or flight. Instead, harm reduction is all about creating a safe space so individuals can learn from these difficult moments.
“For us in the Zendo Project, a difficult experience is not a bad thing,” says Gael. “It’s what’s to be expected from an exploration of your consciousness because your consciousness is not just unicorns and rainbows.”
As the program continues to expand they are sharing their knowledge with event staff, medical professionals, and law enforcement to ensure that those who are seeking help can get it. After all, the last thing you need when you’re tripping is a terror-inducing interrogation from the cops.
For the public, Zendo offers training courses for volunteers virtually year round. Their public training calendar can be found on their website.