Common advice for folks new to psychedelic medicine is to “trust”, “surrender”, “accept”, or ‘let go”. 

When I first heard this, I didn’t know what it meant or how to do it. I held the words like a mantra in my mind, but struggled with anxiety, fear, and overwhelm during my early experiences. I felt as though my fear and my mind were “blocking” me. If I could only let go and stop being afraid, I felt I could “break through” and access what was on the other side. Others told me that I was “resisting” and kept repeating the same advice. I felt shame. No one could tell me “how” to let go. I remember being in tears, wishing I could stop being so afraid and be like everyone else who seemed to be having deep and beautiful experiences.  

Fortunately, I’m a determined person and I didn’t want to give up. Eventually I stopped trying to not feel fear. It seemed inevitable. This was me learning how to accept. Instead of trying to avoid becoming fearful, I decided to develop a relationship with my fear, befriending it and learning about it. I saw it’s arrival as something stepping in to protect me. I reached a turning point when once again, fear arrived during an experience and I welcomed it. 

I visualized my fear as a person living inside of me. I held it’s hand. I asked if it could keep me company. Somehow, my perception of fear shifted from something blocking me from the experience to something keeping me company. The fear would arrive, I’d take its hand, and we’d lean into whatever was happening. I found comfort from my fear, and this allowed me to fully embrace the experience.

This “learning in” or “embracing” of what is happening during a psychedelic experience is one way to describe letting go. It goes beyond accepting what is happening to fully feeling it. Visions, physical sensations, sounds, and thoughts arise. Sometimes they are overwhelming and scary. And we can be curious. We can take try to take one more breath where we are. This is how we learn to trust. The “trusting’ is the knowledge that we can get through. That we will survive. That it will be okay. That we can handle what is happening. The surrender is in accepting that what we are feeling is what we are feeling, there’s nothing wrong with it, and we don’t try and change it. We try to just be present with it until it passes. This is how we heal.

In a psychedelic experience, we experience additional suffering when we try and avoid or control what is happening. If we’ve experienced trauma, it makes perfect sense that we would do this. It’s normal to be scared of the unknown. It’s normal to find new experiences overwhelming. It’s normal for our mind or fear to step in and try and take over. It’s normal to react with panic, terror, and frenzied thoughts.

Many of us arrive at using psychedelics to heal trauma. It’s not helpful to be told to “trust”, “surrender”, or “let go” without further explanation and practice. We may never have had the opportunity to learn trust. We may have very good reasons to be fearful. We may not know what trust, safety, surrender, and letting go feels like or how to do it. And we can learn. It takes practice. And this is not unique to psychedelic experiences. It’s the same process in our day-to-day life. 

P.S. After dozens of experiences, I still feel fear. And when it comes, I say hello to a dear friend I know very well.