Unless you’re totally new to the psychedelic space, the likelihood is that you’ve heard the term ‘set and setting.’ Whether you’re eating magic mushrooms, drinking ayahuasca, or taking MDMA, considering your set and setting is paramount. Set refers to your mindset when you enter the psychedelic experience, while setting speaks to the environment in which the session takes place. Both set and setting encapsulate a whole host of different factors and can have a strong impact on the direction and nature of your journey.
The term ‘set and setting’ was first used by Timothy Leary in the 1960s and each component is addressed in his 1964 psychedelic guidebook, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary believed that in order to maximize the benefits of a psychedelic experience, one must understand the influence of internal and external characteristics.
However, it’s important to note that while Leary gave the concept this particular name, he didn’t come up with it himself. Indigenous cultures that have been using psychedelic plant medicines for thousands of years use set and setting to enhance ceremonial experiences, such as by eating a specific diet prior to the ceremony, playing music, and burning copal.
So, what exactly makes up set and setting – and why does it matter so much?
The ‘Set’ in Set and Setting
Set refers to our internal state when we take psychedelics, and can encompass short-term factors such as mood, preparation, and expectations for the experience, as well as more enduring factors like personality, personal history, and beliefs about ourselves. Leary categorizes these phenomena as long-range and immediate characteristics.1
Motivations for use can also have an impact on how your experience might go, so it’s crucial to set your intentions for the journey ahead. Having an intention that you can remind yourself of can help anchor you in the journey, especially if it gets challenging in certain parts. Try to surrender any preconceived notions, and prepare to get curious about what may come up.
“Set is important because it can have different types of effects on what happens in the journey,” says Leia Friedwoman, psychedelic integration coach. However, Friedwoman notes that it’s not a good idea to have strong expectations of what will happen: “Don’t try to predict how your set is going to impact the trip because it’s always going to be a surprise.”
“There’s no one way of ‘doing’ set and setting,” says Dr. Catalina Munar M.D., founder of IMAP, an integrative medical accompaniment program that provides integration support to individuals working with ancestral medicine. “However, it’s important that the individual is conscious of where they’re going, understands what they’re intending to heal, and doesn’t have any preconceived expectations. They should trust that the medicine will give them what they need and be open to facing whatever comes.”
Here are a few more practical tips on how to enter your psychedelic experience with the best ‘set’ possible:
- Journal / write down your intentions
- Take long deep breaths to calm your nervous system
- Meditate to help ground your attention
- Go for a walk outside or spend some time in nature
- Listen to calming music that you enjoy
- Speak to friends and family beforehand, and if you’re going to be doing the session with a guide or therapist, speak to them about any doubts or concerns you may have
- Do some light exercise such as yoga and tune into how your body feels
- Express yourself through creative activities such as playing music, singing, or dancing
- Always feel empowered to cancel or postpone your trip if you’re not feeling good about it
The ‘Setting’ in Set and Setting
The setting of a psychedelic journey encompasses the physical environment, the people present, and any music or sounds being played. In a typical psychedelic-assisted therapy session, there is usually soft lighting, a comfortable couch or chair which can be reclined, blankets and pillows, spiritual-esque objects (crystals or stones, for example), and visually appealing or calming artwork. Even though the therapy may be being done in a clinical setting, the typical hospital room and its bright lights and clinical feel would not be appropriate for someone taking a psychedelic.
“We work with our clients to create a space that is safe, comfortable, and conducive to healing,” says Nicholas Levich, co-founder and facilitator, Psychedelic Passage. “This includes eliminating physical hazards, reducing external distractions, and adding elements like lighting, music, blankets, and water,” he adds.
If you’re taking psychedelics by yourself or with friends, it’s best to be somewhere comfortable and private, where you won’t have to deal with any unexpected circumstances. This might be at home or at a friend’s home; or, if outside in nature, somewhere where you won’t be bothered by the ‘outside world’ or forced to move.
Taking psychedelics in nature can be an extremely powerful experience. “When we take psychedelics, we often feel a connection with everything that surrounds us,” says Ivaylo Govedarov, a Colombia-based psychedelic medicine facilitator and founder of The Colibri Garden. “Being in nature not only allows us to connect with nature herself, admire her natural design, and feel her expansiveness, but also to avoid the hustle and bustle of the city, which might impact an experience.”
Another crucial component of setting is the music being played. While journeying with psychedelics, music can intensify emotions, visions, and even increase the transformative nature of the experience. Many also report that music sounds more beautiful and meaningful while under the influence of psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, or ayahuasca. In fact, a 2020 study found that overtone-based music played during a psilocybin session correlated with higher mystical experience scores and increased rates of smoking abstinence after the session when compared with Western classical music.2
“Music is one very powerful way to take the energy of a journey in a certain direction,” says Govedarov. “For example, playing Hindu mantras during a psilocybin journey, which have a very particular vibration, can carry a very powerful message to the journeyer and help create the space for deep healing.”
Finally, it’s also vital to consider who is present during the experience. If you’re doing psychedelics in a non-guided setting with other people present, make sure that you feel totally comfortable around them. This is important to reduce feelings of paranoia or anxiety during the journey. You might also want a trip sitter present, who should be someone you feel comfortable with and who has experience with the substance being used but stays sober during the trip. They are there to keep you safe during the trip and provide a sense of security.
If you’re doing the journey with a psychedelic therapist or trained guide, make sure to verify this person’s credentials, get a sense for them prior to the journey, and if possible, refer to recommendations and reviews of the practitioner.
Socio-Cultural Factors of Set and Setting
While set and setting can be easily understood in the framework outlined above, it’s also crucial to understand the role of culture in set and setting and how it may impact a person’s journey. For example, a 2019 study explores how experiences of race can influence psychedelic experiences.3 The author suggests that factors such as the mental health challenges of racial and ethnic minorities, along with the character of race relations in the US “provide a distinct cultural setting for racialized psychedelic users,” which can influence the individual’s interpretation of the experience.
Another study shines a light on how set and setting cannot exist independently of culture, as “both set and setting are to some degree shaped by the broader socio-cultural context.”4 The author cites the famous example of white vs. Native American use of peyote – a 1959 study found that after ingesting the mescaline-containing cactus, peyote, white users “exhibited extreme mood swings, alternating between depression, anxiety, and euphoria,” while their Native American counterparts “manifested a relative stability of mood, characterized by enthusiasm and religious awe.”5
Understanding the impact of cultural and sociological factors on set and setting is vital for any practitioner working with psychedelic medicines or with people integrating psychedelic experiences. While the individual’s mindset and the physical environment on the day are important for the experience – there is a whole cultural and sociological history that makes up that person’s ‘set’ and preferred ‘setting.’
Learn how you can create a more socially aware ceremony space in our Keys to Decolonizing Plant Medicine Workshop.
..And What About the “Container”?
In addition to set and setting, you might have also heard people in psychedelic therapy circles talking about creating a safe container for psychedelic use. Going further than the set and setting around a single experience, the concept of the container refers to numerous components that can impact the safety and outcomes of a psychedelic journey.
When a psychedelic journey is intentional, i.e. it’s done for therapeutic, healing or growth purposes, the container is instrumental in maximizing long-lasting benefits. In the case of psychedelic therapy, the container encapsulates things like pre-session screenings and conversations with the providers, the structure of the program and cadence of the sessions, the quality of the medicine, and the provision of support during and post-journey.
If you’re taking psychedelics outside of a therapeutic setting, the container is just as important, and includes how you prepare for the journey, the dose and purity of the medicine, and the support and resources available to you during and post-journey, as well as the components of set and setting outlined above.
Ultimately, by having a safe and supportive container for your psychedelic session, you minimize the chance of coming out of a journey feeling disempowered, exploited, or psychologically worse off than before.
Set and setting are a key part of ensuring responsible, safe, and beneficial psychedelic use. Whether you’re a first-time tripper, entering the field of psychedelic therapy, or a psychedelic integration provider, understanding the multiple aspects of set, setting and the container is crucial.
Are you interested in learning more about how to turn psychedelic integration into a career path? Check out our ebook on entering the field of psychedelic integration therapy and coaching.
1.Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Alpert, R. (1964). The psychedelic experience: A manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead. New York, NY: University Books.
2.Strickland, J. C., Garcia-Romeu, A., & Johnson, M. W. (2020). Set and Setting: A Randomized Study of Different Musical Genres in Supporting Psychedelic Therapy. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science, 4(2), 472–478.
3.Neitzke-Spruill, L. (2019). Race as a component of set and setting: How experiences of race can influence psychedelic experiences. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 51–60.
4.Hartogsohn, I. (2017). Constructing drug effects: A history of set and setting. Drug Science, Policy and Law, 3.
5.Wallace, A. F. C. (1959). Cultural Determinants of Response to Hallucinatory Experience. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1(1), 58.