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Ground Control
A Sitter's Primer
by The Teafærie, voidpilot23 (at) yahoo (dot) com
v1.1 - July 22, 2007
I want to talk a little bit about Ground Control. Opinions and stances vary, so I'll try to stick to a general overview of the basic protocols. I don't pretend to be an authority on the matter, but I do have extensive experience. I have been a psychedelic explorer for more than ten years, and I've sat for over a hundred sessions. I'm also a nanny and a childbirth doula, both of which draw many of their foundational axioms from the same principles.

I prefer "Ground Control" to "guide", following Terence McKenna, who often pointed out that nobody is really guiding anybody anywhere. I met shamans in the Amazon who could really go in after someone if they got lost. It's important not to bill yourself as a shaman if you're not sure that you are one. "Sitter" is alright, if a bit infantilizing. "Buddy" is maybe better, even, but I'll use Ground Control for the purpose of this essay to denote the role of a person who holds space with a psychedelic voyager and tends to his or her physical and interpersonal needs. I will occasionally refer to the psychonaut as the client, a term which does not, in this context, necessarily denote a professional relationship. I will use the feminine pronoun when referring to the client or clients, but of course my advice and observations pertain to both genders.

"The term Ground Control is a bit of a misnomer, since most of the actual control is always in the hands of the pilot."
-- The Teafærie
Ground Control, or GC, is a discipline and an art. It demands the patience of a kindergarten teacher, the insight of a transpersonal psychologist, and the total acceptance of a priest. It is an opportunity to share in another person's most profound and transformative experiences. It is an honor no less intimate than that accorded to a lover and I believe that it should always be treated with the same degree of respect, even if, as is often the case with lovers, the context is predominantly fun and casual.

Of course no article on Ground Control could be complete without reiterating the fundamental principles of set, setting and dose.

Set, or mindset is the sum total of the attitudes and expectations that a prospective psychonaut brings to the trip. It encompasses how she feels about the proposed experience, her attitudes about psychedelics and spirituality, her expectations and intentions, her energetic balance, her integration of other life processes such as relationship drama and health issues, what (if anything) she had for breakfast, what spoke of her menstrual cycles she happens to be on at the moment, etc. It's worthwhile to talk to a client at some length about how she is feeling before diving into something potentially massive. Set can almost always be improved simply by talking about the upcoming adventure with confidence and enthusiasm. It's good to try to find out what a person is hoping to get out of a particular session and to help them vocalize and focalize their intention. A little meditation, yoga or even simple stretching doesn't hurt, either. If the client is extremely agitated or uncomfortable with some aspect of the proposed experiment you should consider altering your plans or rescheduling for another time when conditions might be more optimal.

The setting is the physical environment and energetic surroundings. Is this trip going to take place at the clients home? In a secluded forest? At Disneyland? Setting has an enormous effect on the content and quality of the experience and it's important to choose wisely and to be prepared for site-specific contingencies. Ask yourself the following questions and proceed only if the answers are fairly reassuring. Is this place safe? A home environment should be baby-proofed. Sage the space to clear any past valence if you're into that kind of thing, and as you do, go ahead and remove anything that seems likely to trigger unwanted thoughts. Big piles of scary porn and rusty knives should be taken out of the target area. Turn off the phone. Cover the television if it dominates the room. Close and lock the door that leads to the high balcony with no railing. Common sense stuff, mostly. Is the space comfortable, and is the client comfortable within it? Make a big nest out of pillows if you want. This is your chance to be five years old again! If you prefer to commune with nature, will you have the place to yourselves for a while? Do you have access to food and water? What will you do in the unlikely event of a medical emergency? (It's a good idea to learn basic first aid and CPR, anyway.) Have you accounted for possible weather and temperature changes? If you intend to venture out in public, make sure that you have an escape plan in case of an abrupt change of direction. Know where the bathrooms are. Don't carry any drugs on you. Sometimes I like to have a client put a note in her pocket that says how much of what she has in her system, in case we become separated and she is too disorganized to explain her condition to a hypothetical medical professional in the event of an emergency. Don't let them get away from you, though! It's an easy enough situation to avoid if you keep your wits about you and you don't try to manage too unwieldy a group in too chaotic a space. I once had seven candyflippers under my wing at Burning Man and it was like herding kittens in zero gravity. A good time was had by all, to be sure, but it's not an experience I plan to repeat any time soon.

"Setting has an enormous effect on the content and quality of the experience and it's important to choose wisely and to be prepared for site-specific contingencies."

I think a home or private property setting is best for most excursions, and I like to encourage clients to decorate the space with sacred objects or simply things that trigger positive emotions. Preparing and decorating the space makes it feel like a special event, and it helps put clients into an appropriately festive spirit. At the very least, tidy up a bit. A tripping client should never have to confront a sink full of dirty dishes or an overflowing trash can when it's really so easy to make everything nice beforehand.

Dose is another important consideration. With some substances a little bit can go quite along way, indeed. Do your homework! Check Erowid and other sources to see what others have experienced at the dose level your client is contemplating. If your client plans to mix drugs, research the combination. Find out if your client is taking antidepressants or any other medications and be sure to factor them into the mix, too. Synergies can have unexpected results, sometimes dramatically intensifying or altering a drug's effect. With all due respect to our brave pioneers, I would rather not be responsible for someone who plans to go where no man has gone before. There is also individual variation to take into account. Weight can play a role in sensitivity, as can less obvious physical and psychological factors. Potency also varies on the material side. You never really know. When in doubt, think less is more. A mildly disappointed client is better than one who is struggling with an overdose. If your client wants boosters, be sure to wait until the primary dose is good and truly active. We've all heard cautionary tales about the explorer who thought her drugs weren't working and took more, only to get hit hard by the first batch a few minutes later. Dose can also affect duration, so make sure you both know what you're in for. Always plan for the longest plausible duration, with time built in for afterglow.

Sometimes a client might have a list of things she wants to think about or work on during the trip. If so, you can note them down and remind her of them once she gets going. Remember that intentions can be fluid and something that seemed very important beforehand might feel like entirely alien concept in the throes of the actual experience. It's good to remind a client of her intention, but don't force it if the trip moves off in another direction. If the client wants any toys or props, collect them in advance and keep them at the ready. Some people like to make audio, video or photographic records of their experience to study later. Learn to operate any technical equipment that you will need to handle before you begin. Always remember to assure your client that any such records can be deleted later if they so choose, handle the devices unobtrusively and respect all requests to stop recording.

Don't neglect the ears! Clients may have very strong opinions about music selection, and they might completely clash with your sensibilities. Don't try to force psy-trance on someone who prefers Beethoven. If they want to listen to something that is just plain wrong or that is clearly not working for them feel free to suggest an alternative, but the client gets to make the final call. A good GC is a smooth DJ who can alter the aural environment in a way that resonates with the client's changing needs and fancies. If you can do it from a pre-loaded MP3 player near at hand, so much the better. Every time you get up and fiddle with the radio it's a distraction. Some clients prefer silence, of course, and that's okay, too!

If your client thinks she might want boosters later in the trip, you should take charge of them if you're okay with handling and administering drugs. Same goes for anything like Valium, Xanax or Ecstasy that your client wants to have on hand in case she wants to warm or soften the trip if it becomes uncomfortable. Caution: combinations can be risky, and adding more drugs to a troublesome situation is not always the best idea. Again, research interactions beforehand. When in doubt, it's best to err on the side of caution.

"It's up to you to decide what you're comfortable with and what you're not. It's also smart to establish boundaries that relate to your own safety in case of aberrant behavior."

Some people like to make a formal contract with their clients, and I don't think it's a bad idea. Anne Shulgin proposed some good starting points in TIKHAL. The client agrees not to act out violent or sexual urges on your person or property, for instance. She also suggested getting the client to agree not to die on your watch even if he or she is presented with a compelling opportunity to do. This can be a touchy one because in some cases the secret to threading the needle is really letting go. It's up to you to decide what you're comfortable with and what you're not. It's also smart to establish boundaries that relate to your own safety in case of aberrant behavior. At what point will you call in another friend? At what point will you leave the sanctum? At what point will you call the police or the paramedics? I had a guy on acid attack me once and try to rape me. We managed to regain control of the situation without calling unwanted attention to our activities, but it was a very near thing indeed. Making these kinds of contracts explicit might seem counterproductive because it brings up the specter of unwanted outcomes, but I've found it to be like having a first aid kit. If you have one handy you never have to use it. The Universe will sometimes check you if you get sloppy, though. Make sure you have all the phone numbers that you might need written down where you can find them quickly.

Group sessions can be fun and enlightening. It's important for the Ground Control person to have a general grasp of the relationships that obtain between the clients. It's also good to know their relative experience levels in case you have to make decisions about who needs your attention most when things start to get interesting. Music seems to really facilitate group work in my experience, at least when something mutually enjoyable can be agreed upon. People listening to the same music tend to fall into resonance, which can synergize the telepathic rapport associated with some group encounters. Psychedelics dissolve boundaries, and it's not uncommon for secrets to come out under the influence of certain chemical compounds. Love affairs begin and end, confessions are tendered and past traumas are revisited on a fairly regular basis. The GC's job is to listen without judgment, moderate as necessary, and steer the conversation into friendly and constructive waters whenever possible. It's a privilege to be present at a group bonding session, and the GC should be able to joyfully participate in the celebration of family without becoming involved on a personal level. Sometimes an individual may need to be taken aside for a little while if their mode of behavior becomes incompatible with the group gestalt. The GC's goal in those cases is usually reintegration of the prodigal lamb into the larger dynamic, though in some instances it's fine for a participant to go lie down by herself for a bit if that best suits the needs of all concerned. Make sure to take time out to check on anyone who chooses to move elsewhere, even and especially if the rest of the scene is much more fun to take part in. On occasion a member of a group might be moved to suggest a change of venue or activity, such as a trip to the hot tub down the hall. I think a good rule of thumb is that anybody who is opposed to the new plan gets a veto without having to explain themselves, including the GC. This works most smoothly when it's clearly established before things get rolling.

Some clients will want you to hold their hand for twelve hours and engage them in wildly speculative conversations about Life, the Universe and Everything. Others will just want you to sit quietly in the next room unless they call for you. Some clients want a friend and others prefer to trip alone and simply feel more confident if they have a safety net to prevent them from wandering outside naked or trying to operate the stove. Either way is fine. Remember this is about the client's needs, not what will most thoroughly amuse the GC.

"If the client asks a question, feel free to answer it in a simple and reassuring way. If she becomes obviously agitated, a few comforting words or a light touch might help to soothe the situation."

If a client plans to take a short acting drug such as DMT or Salvia divinorum, the GC should stay by her side throughout the experience. You may even be called upon to administer the drug, especially if the plan involves a vaporizer pipe which can get red hot just as the client goes into a trance. Familiarize yourself with the technique and be prepared to demonstrate the process to your client. I prefer silence for immersive experiences, because music and background noise can provide a sort of metronome that keeps the immersant enmeshed in a linear time frame. Some people like the metronome, though, for that very reason! In any event, I think the client should be the first to speak. Tell anyone who wants to watch that they will be required to maintain silence for up to half an hour and give them a chance to leave if they're not comfortable with committing to that. Anything you say can send the person who is tranced out off in an unexpected direction, and random chatter is distracting and rude. If the client asks a question, feel free to answer it in a simple and reassuring way. If she becomes obviously agitated, a few comforting words or a light touch might help to soothe the situation.

Transference potential looms large in many psychedelic sessions, and your client may react to you in unexpected ways. A woman might say something to you that she needs to say to her mother, for instance. Someone who is manipulative may get the idea into her head that you're toying with her and react to you with anger and suspicion. Sometimes you just have to empty yourself out and try to function as a mirror for your client, allowing her to project whatever she needs to and to see her own reflection clearly. It's easy to distort this process with ripples from your own ego, but all effort should be made to avoid this sort of thing. Psychedelic voyaging opens people up in unexpected ways and can leave them extremely vulnerable to suggestion. Yes, you could play guru and gatekeeper, initiating them into worlds that you fancy yourself to be familiar with. Don't forget that whatever your experience level, you, too, are a beginner and pride commeth before a fall. Yes, you sometimes could make them fall madly in love with you. Don't. Sharing such intimate experiences can be deeply bonding and some of your clients will doubtless become fixated on you, especially if you're awesome. It takes a real depth of character not to get off too much on this aspect of the work; you absolutely have to develop it if you want to do this kind of thing with any regularity. Don't fall into the trap of trying to interpret a person's experience for her; just help her to draw her own wholly personal conclusions. You're not out to start a cult of personality or to promote your pet theory about the nature of the Universe. (Or if you are, it would serve you to take a good hard look at your methods and motivations.) Feeding on the adoring energy of unprotected hearts, minds and spirits is a form of vampirism. This doesn't mean that you can't be open to energetic interaction with the client, but you must take the attitude of a temple prostitute who's just standing in for the Goddess for the night rather than relating to the role on a personal and self-serving level. You have to keep the ego firmly in check in order to do this work well.

No matter how talented you are, if you keep at it long enough you will eventually encounter some challenges. If your client is having difficulty, it's vital that you don't start to exhibit anxiety, which will only make the situation a million times worse. Don't blame yourself. Stay calm. Speak in reassuring tones. Try to get the client to talk about what they are experiencing but don't fixate on the supposed problem. Often an apparent crisis is short lived and quickly forgotten if it's allowed to pass without too much analysis. If the discomfort persists, gently change the setting. Sometimes just altering the lighting or putting on a new CD is all it takes to break the loop. Sometimes it helps to be held, if you're comfortable with that type of interaction. Remind the client that however strange things may seem at the moment she will surely return to her normal mode of consciousness in a very very short time, from your perspective. Remember that time dilation can be quite dramatic, and five minutes in your world can be experienced as a compressed eternity to someone who is really far gone. Try to encourage the anxious client to breathe consciously, and to chant or sing if they are able to do so. Sometimes it helps to reintroduce music or objects of interest associated with earlier and more blissful parts of the trip. Massage can be very helpful, as can yoga and stretching if the client is mobile. Once in a while there is nothing you can do but love and wait and hold space with the client and tell her how brave and hardcore she is until the situation resolves itself. It's tough. Don't let your client get down on herself for having a hard time because that just feeds the cycle. We are the explorers of the last Great Sea, all the more beautiful and compelling for its wild storms and terrible monsters. The dangers are real and the challenges are many. Everyone who takes the plunge should be saluted, in my opinion, no matter if they sink or swim on one particular occasion.

"...it's just as important to be there for someone who breaks through as it is to be there for someone who falls in. It is your job to bear witness to the occasional apotheosis as well as to minister to the occasional meltdown."

On the other hand, you get to be there when it all goes right, and it more than makes up for it. It's not that often in life that you get to see another person truly flummoxed with holy awe. Always remember that it's just as important to be there for someone who breaks through as it is to be there for someone who falls in. It is your job to bear witness to the occasional apotheosis as well as to minister to the occasional meltdown. Maybe your client didn't have to move to the Himalayas and eat bark and beetles for 40 years, but that doesn't mean that her revelation is any less relevant. Many people seem to think that legitimate spiritual insight is uniquely the result of long hard practice supported by an acetic lifestyle. Psychedelics are a very democratic and efficient path, but they're hardly the "easy way", as many who have been run through the cosmic ringer a few times can attest. Enormous courage is a prerequisite. Under the right circumstances they can deliver The Real Thing, though, and too often it occurs with little ceremony and no support and validation from the community. A revelatory experience can be quite shocking, and it can be lonely and alienating if there is no one there to share it with who will give it the honor it deserves. It makes it easier for the client to recall and integrate it if someone else acknowledges their attainment. Be happy for the client who hits the bull's eye, and at the same time try to balance any inflationary ideation by reminding her of the commonality of her experience.

I like to wrap the session up with a light meal if the client feels able to eat, even if it's just a little bit of fruit and tea. It's grounding and it makes a nice ritual celebrating the return to normal functioning parameters. [See also Integration Tips: Ideas for improving integration of a strong psychedelic experience and/or crisis]

As far as follow-up goes, I like to make myself available in the few days following a session if the client wants to talk things over. Telling the tale a few times helps people to sort out their often overwhelmed and fragmented memory track and massage it all into a more or less linear story that they can then integrate more easily into their lives. If a client is still having problems integrating the experience after a few days, it might be a good idea to refer her to a talented and sympathetic counselor in your area.

Having a Ground Control person is obviously a harm reduction measure. Most psychedelic disasters that I've heard about over the years could probably have been avoided or at least softened considerably if a sober and experienced friend had been on hand to keep things flowing in the right direction. Nevertheless, times being what they are, there is probably some legal risk involved and it pays to familiarize yourself with local statutes concerning aiding and abetting criminal activities and so forth. Always be conscious. Always be careful.

I hope this has been a useful overview of a rewarding and important avocation.

The Teafærie
Pai, Thailand, Feb 2007

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Feb 2007 - The Teafærie - Original draft.
  • v1.1 - Jul 22, 2007 - Erowid - Edited by Erowid and published on Erowid.org.