I Did “Psychedelic First Aid” at a Festival in Costa Rica

How The Zendo Project Helps the Festival Community Take Care of Its Own

Photo by Andrew Jorgensen

Photo by Andrew Jorgensen

First published on Fest300 (now Everfest) on March 26, 2015

It was some time after 2 am and I was sitting in front of a structure made of bamboo and cloth at Envision Festival in Costa Rica. It was warm enough that I was dressed in a tank top with a lightly glowing pink lei around my neck. There was burning sage in the tropical air and I could hear the violin from Emancipator lilting mesmerizingly from the mainstage. The space felt tranquil and subdued, which was exactly what we were going for. I was embedded with The Zendo Project, a group based in Santa Cruz, California, that provides a safe space for people having difficult psychedelic experiences and other emotional or personal challenges at festivals. The space was set up right next to medical by the entrance to the event.

The Zendo Project trains and oversees volunteers who assist distressed festival-goers with “Psychedelic First Aid” — work that might sound akin to some kind of groovy, interdimensional therapist meeting a tortured, hallucinating adventurer on the astral plane to guide him or her safely through intense visions. My experience, however, was entirely different and far more fulfilling.

My shift had just started and I was sitting with Yashpal, a Doctor of Natural Medicine in Costa Rica, when I got my first call of the night. At the request of a concerned friend, Yashpal and I went into the field to retrieve a young man from a hammock near the Lotus Stage. Confidentiality for guests is very important to the Zendo Project so we’ll call him “Charlie.” Charlie was fixated on convoluted stories about the politics of various government agencies in his home country, his fingers contracted like chicken talons — but with his permission we walked him back to the Zendo to get him situated on one of the beds in the gently decorated temporary structure. Yashpal immediately took me aside to coach me before I started.

“The trick is to not intervene or change the trajectory of his trip in any way,” Yashpal said, looking a little like Merlin with a curly grey beard and a comforting but slightly mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “You don’t want to engage him. Be neutral, say as little as possible and simply let the him go through his process. The experience will bring about healing — even if it doesn’t look like it in the moment. Trust it. Don’t get pulled into his trip, hold your own energy. Give him water if he needs it, take him to the bathroom. Focus on your breath. Your job is to hold space for him to have his experience.”

Yashpal emphasized the concept of “holding space,” meaning sitting rather than guiding, one of the Four Pillars of the Zendo approach to psychedelic support. With this in mind, I sat with Charlie and instead of trying to talk him down, I simply witnessed him to go through the experience. I focused my energy and attention on my own breathing and remained very calm. I created a center of gravity that grounded him without forcing him in any way. I listened attentively to his rambling and simply smiled, nodding in affirmation to his need for reassurance.

After some time writhing on the mat Charlie asked me to help him get to the port-a-potties. On the way there he stopped and looked up at the stars. Without my Zendo training I might have encouraged him to keep moving to accomplish the task at hand but instead we simply stood there together for almost an hour as he told me about his dreams of being an astronaut and seeing Earth from Space. The beginning of his experience was desperate incoherence but over time it gave way to a place of deep and profound longing. I did nothing to guide him there. I stood by and kept him safe. As he accepted and felt his existential pain, Charlie became very calm. After using the bathroom he told me that he was ready to return to the festival.

How did I come to be talking about astronauts and the stars in a Costa Rican jungle with a person I’d never met?