At the 2012 Burning Man festival, a drug-art-and-costume-heavy event that unfolds for a week each summer in the Nevada desert, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) pitched a tent and launched its first-ever edition of the Zendo Project. They staffed the site with volunteers who were trained in what’s known as trip-sitting: sitting with and sometimes caring for people having psychedelic experiences. The goal is to reduce harm by “holding space” or creating a “container” in which the trippers can have a psychedelic experience with a responsible, ostensibly sober, person by their side.
At the core of its mission, Zendo believes that psychedelic trips—and, in particular, those that are not in a treatment setting—can result in “overwhelming and uncomfortable experiences.” Those experiences, however, when approached with care and safety, can be sources of psychedelics’ positive impact. “Psychedelic harm reduction includes a variety of methods,” says Zendo’s website, “to help prevent and transform difficult experiences while in a non-ordinary state of consciousness.”
Since its first wade into the trip-sitting waters, Zendo Project has expanded to work at a number of other music and arts festivals worldwide. Burning Man remains its flagship event—last year the group provided peer-to-peer trip support for nearly 600 people, according to the Zendo website. In 2022, the Zendo Project spun off to become its own nonprofit, after 10 years of incubation at MAPS.
The group’s work, however, is not without its hazards. In December, MAPS and an adjacent medical site operator, RGX Medical, were found liable in a wrongful death case. The lawsuit hinged on the 2017 death of a 20-year-old woman who died after reportedly consuming LSD at the Lightning in a Bottle music festival. The plaintiffs contended that the deceased woman, who was at the Zendo Project tent, was showing signs of physical distress that weren’t properly addressed until it was too late for her to recover.
MAPS is reportedly planning to appeal the ruling, while continuing to educate more volunteer trip-sitters and communities. Ahead of the 2023 Burning Man Festival, Terra spoke with Chelsea Rose Pires, M.A., L.M.F.T., a psychologist who serves as MAPS’s Harm Reduction Officer, and who is former Director of the Zendo Project. In our conversation, she shared the group’s approach, the pitfalls of doing psychedelics alone, and why harm reduction is so essential. Here are her thoughts, condensed and edited for publication.
How the Zendo Project works
“It is a model of attending to and working with challenging psychedelic experiences that prioritizes a compassionate approach, that is a non-restraint, non-sedate model, and we train volunteers. We have a team of volunteers that we bring in and train in our specific protocols. And those volunteers then hold space for people who happen to find themselves in challenging psychedelic experiences at festivals and events.”
“Those principles are creating a safe space. Sitting in—not guiding—talking through and difficult experiences are not the same as ‘bad.’ We consider those the pillars of the work that we do. At its essence, a lot of what we are practicing in our approach is just a non-judgmental, compassionate approach where we are working to really listen to people provide reflection and a space where people can talk and share about their experience.”
What volunteers are watching for while trip-sitting
“What science and research are now validating is that psychedelics have the potential for healing. So part of what we’re seeing is that psychedelics can be a catalyst for a healing process. What happens when we ingest a psychedelic is that it can catalyze this process of deeper awareness into ourselves.”
“And so in a clinical environment or a therapeutic environment, or a ceremonial environment—such as an Ayahuasca ceremony—it’s expected that challenges are going to arise when you go into a setting with the assistance of MDMA or psilocybin. It’s understood that the challenges are going to emerge, and that it is the process of bringing things that were previously in the subconscious into the light of the consciousness so that we can become aware of those things and work on them and through them, as well as to feel emotions and to process thoughts and feelings.”
What’s distinct about taking psychedelics recreationally
“Something I feel doesn’t make the translation when people are taking psychedelics in what we might call recreational settings, like festivals or events, is that having a challenging psychedelic experience is not uncommon. And it is exactly the very things that make psychedelics so promising for their healing potential that are also the things that emerge for people in recreational settings.”
“In festival settings people might take a psychedelic, and then all of a sudden…they are expanding their…consciousness into a variety of human experiences—and that can be incredibly disorienting. It can be incredibly frightening. It can also be the moment that the psychedelic experience can feel incredibly positive and beautiful and amazing.”
“So what can happen for people is in these settings, people might take a psychedelic, and then all of a sudden they’re having these feelings, these emotions, these physical sensations, and they are expanding their consciousness into a variety of human experiences—and that can be incredibly disorienting. It can be incredibly frightening. It can also be the moment that the psychedelic experience can feel incredibly positive and beautiful and amazing.”
When the unexpected happens
“What we see in recreational settings, however, is that because people are often not expecting that or that wasn’t their intention to say, you know, work on their healing, then sometimes what happens is when the psychedelic catalyzes the process and expands consciousness, what can happen is that can really catch people off guard, they can be surprised by that experience.”
“And then when they feel some of those challenging feelings, like fear or anxiety, if they don’t feel like they’re in a safe environment then they might feel like they need to further suppress those feelings. When they try to further suppress those feelings, it actually can get worse, right? Because what we resist persists, and so it can actually get bigger.”
“The idea behind the Zendo Project is that if you create a space for people to come, where there is support. There are people whose role is just to hold that container and hold space. Then it allows them to relax some of those defenses and surrender to the experience. And to be able to move through whatever is coming up from so that they can move through—rather than get stuck—and then process that and move to the other side.”
Why someone might seek out the Zendo tent: from naked running to internal distress
“Psychedelics, especially in higher doses, can induce the state of ego dissolution. Those are the cases that we often think about when we think of somebody who’s being very disruptive in a public area—taking off their clothes and running around naked or being very disruptive. We work with those experiences as well, but I highlight the more subtle ones or the ones that can feel more internal, because I think that those are the majority of cases that we see. We definitely see naked people running around, but we also see a lot of people who are just internally struggling and who might otherwise end up just alone and isolated in their tent for the rest of their night.”
“We definitely see naked people running around, but we also see a lot of people who are just internally struggling and who might otherwise end up just alone and isolated in their tent for the rest of their night.”
“We work with other departments in those situations that are beyond our scope such as things that are actually people harming themselves or others, or someone’s having a medical emergency. So when somebody comes into the space, we just welcome them. We let them know what we’re there for.”
“Other times people will bring in their friends or somebody from the event will bring them in. And so it’s really important for us to greet them and let them know who we are and what we’re there for. We have a greeter at the space who then gives them over to a sitter. We also have shift leads and supervisors in the space who oversee the Zendo tent.”
“They’ll sit with the sitter and the sitter will let them know that they’re present there to listen if they want to talk. However, it’s okay if they don’t want to talk. Sometimes people just need somebody there with them. And especially when somebody is very deep into the psychedelic experience, they may not be able to verbalize their experience. Sometimes people actually are very quiet, sometimes it’s very difficult for them to access words. We remind them that any emotions that they’re feeling are welcome as well and that you know that if they feel like they need to express themselves emotionally that this is a place of space where they can do that.”
“The principle of sitting and not guiding is rooted in the idea that everyone has an inner healer, an inner wisdom. It’s our work, to create space for that.”
“If they want to talk or they want to share anything about their experience, then we do a lot of deep listening and reflecting back to them some of what we’re hearing them say. The principle of sitting and not guiding is rooted in the idea that everyone has an inner healer, an inner wisdom. It’s our work to create space for that. Not to analyze or interpret or put our agenda on what their experience is supposed to be. We really want them to feel like they have a place where they can share these things. And for a lot of people that’s very impactful because for some, the things that are coming up for them, you know, might be things that they haven’t shared with people in the past or very vulnerable things that are coming up for them.”
The “inner healer” approach of trip-sitting
“We trust that their inner healer will guide their experience. We reassure people that these experiences are common because what can come up for people—sometimes it feels very alone. Especially if they’re new to psychedelics, they may not know that it can be difficult. So we provide a lot of reassurance and normalization that t people running into challenges with psychedelics is not an uncommon thing and we reassure them that they’re gonna get through the experience.”
“Because sometimes people can be afraid that they have gone crazy, or that they’re never going to come back and that they’ve broken their brain. So we reassure people that we’ve seen literally 1000s of people who have been in similar states be able to work through the experience and that we have the confidence that they will be able to get through that, too.”
Visit the Zendo Project website for more information. Volunteer application details for Burning Man 2023 are available here. The application window opens April 20, 2023.