Have you ever taken the same dose of plant medicine or psychedelics in two vastly different environments and had entirely different experiences? If so, you may have grown an appreciation for what is known as “set and setting,” or the universal term used in the psychedelic world to suggest that the outcome of a journey is shaped by both internal state and external environment.

As breathwork induces non-ordinary states of consciousness, states of awareness accessed through plant medicine and psychedelics, it is important that we understand set and setting and the role that each plays in shaping a psychedelic experience. Let’s explore how we can create a pre-journey container that best sets us up for the experience, whether that be through breathwork, plant medicine, or psychedelics!

What is Set and Setting?

The notion that context can influence a psychedelic journey has been acknowledged for thousands of years. Take indigenous cultures and their plant medicine ceremony rituals, for example. Shamans may not only require specific diets prior to the ceremony, but they can incorporate music, drumming, whistles, and smoke during the trip to enhance the ceremonial experience and support deep spiritual healing.

In the 1950s, Alfred Matthew Hubbard first introduced the concept of set and setting to Western medicine, suggesting that the manipulation of external environment could improve the therapeutic effects of LSD. It was then Timothy Leary who took this idea that psychological and social factors influence a psychedelic experience and coined the term “set and setting” in 1961. Leary, along with his Harvard colleagues, then laid out an even more extensive account of set and setting in their guidebook, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964).

The set and setting hypothesis maintains that the effects of psychedelics are contingent upon set, internal factors like personality, expectation, and intention, and setting, the external context in which the experience takes place, such as the cultural, physical, and social environment. Not only was this idea radical in recognizing non-pharmacological factors that shape the way in which people are affected by psychedelics, but it offered researchers and practitioners a way to better guide, shape, and predict experiences and their outcomes.

A Deeper Dive into Set and Setting and How it Works

Set refers to our internal climate, our mood, mindset, and motivations as we enter into a psychedelic experience, while setting encompasses the outside environment, the people present and music played, as well as larger cultural and social factors that may not be visible.

As our inner state and external environment are lenses through which we experience and perceive the world around us, set and setting is an integral part of psychedelic conversation because these medicines are able to alter, intensify, or heighten our lenses, therefore, shaping our journey.

Further exemplifying this idea, Ido Hartogsohn in his 2013 paper suggests that LSD is “mind-manifesting,” acting as a magnifying glass and mirror toward a person’s state of mind. For example, if a person is anxious, LSD could serve as an anxiety-inducing substance, whereas if a person is feeling creative, then LSD can help to enhance their creativity. Basically, the substance exacerbates our state of mind, whatever it may be as we enter into the experience.

With this said, it is important to note that because set and setting lay outside the confines of our consciousness, we are never able to fully predict what will surface or what the outcome of a journey may be. However, we can absolutely integrate different tools and practices to best prepare ourselves for a positive experience.

Creating a Container for a Positive Journey

As psychedelics are “mind-manifesting,” it is important that we be in a state of mind that is both calm and comfortable upon entering the experience. There are a plethora of practices that we can integrate to come into this space. Here are just a few:

  • Journal and write down your intentions for the journey
  • Listen to calming music to ease the mind
  • Become embodied by engaging in any movement, walking, dancing, yoga, etc.
  • Spend time in nature or a place that instills a sense of safety or comfort in you
  • Speak to a guide beforehand about any concerns you may have
  • Take some deep breaths to calm the nervous system

Just as important to shaping our experience as our mindset is the environment in which the journey takes place. Although the ideal setting is variable as people differ in what makes them feel comfortable, it is essential that we be in a space that feels safe. Let’s lay out some ways to create a positive setting:

  • Be in a familiar environment
  • Surround yourself with supportive people
  • Play music – music can be used to calm the mind and experience a deeper transformation
  • Add any personal comforts
  • Ultimately, when it comes to setting, we want to keep in mind comfortability, familiarity, safety, and social support.

Both set and setting are involved forces that shape the overall psychedelic experience, whether that be through psychedelic substances themselves, plant medicine, or breathwork. It is paramount to respect the internal and external factors that are present upon entering into a journey so that we can be with whatever happens to emerge, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, in a more comfortable container. Although there are always uncontrolled factors subject to surface, we have the power to set ourselves up for a more positive, compassionate, and transformative experience.