The concept of set and setting was coined by Timothy Leary in 1964, and he put it out there that when using psychoactive substances, the state you are in and the environment you choose is likely to have a profound impact on your experience. When a person is not in their mental or physical comfort zone and ventures into a potentially heightened emotional state, there are some obvious risks – but these can easily be mitigated.
First, let’s take a look at the definition of set and setting:
Leary defined ‘setting’ as the physical environment you’re in when embarking on your journey. Typical settings would be a room at home (or a friend’s place), a ceremony, a park; for some, even a party or festival. The setting you choose may depend on the substance you’re using, and how you came to be in possession of it. Opportunistic encounters often lead to less predictable settings, obviously.
Setting also covers anything physically present in your environment. For example, at home it would be anything from your sofa cushions to the music you’re playing, incense you’re burning or plants in the room. It also covers any mess present, and the people you’ve chosen to trip sit – if anyone.
Set is something else entirely. It is a lot more complex than setting, as there are so many aspects covered by it; some of which the user may not even be consciously aware of. Set refers to your current mental state or mood at the time of your trip. It also covers long-standing mental issues, deep-rooted beliefs, and aspects of your personality.
For example, you might be someone who is prone to anxiety or expecting the worst; conversely, you might be a positive thinker who tends to assume things will work out. You might have had a terrible day at work or a fight with your partner; you might have had a fantastic day or received some great news. In other words, your set could be affected by any number of factors, some of which may be so habitual that you don’t notice them motivating you.
The bottom line is that your set is going to affect your overall attitude to (and likely your perception of) the experience. It is a good idea to be as self-honest as you can be when putting yourself under the influence of a powerful psychoactive substance like DMT or ayahuasca.
How seriously do you take set and setting?
By now, most who have so much as dabbled with psychoactive substances have also heard of the concept of set and setting; yet it doesn’t always feature as a major concern… and that is how bad experiences can happen. For some, set and setting is automatically important, whether motivated by awareness and self-care, or fear. Sometimes it is just common sense; if you have never experienced ayahuasca before, it is only sensible to do so under the care of a reputable shaman.
Whether set and setting really matters could be argued to be subjective, but it is nevertheless true that when exploring the less tangible realms, literally anything can happen. This is the case whether you believe you are entering alternate dimensions or just unchartered territories within your own mind. Regardless, in the event of a traumatic experience you will surely be thankful for a safe and familiar (or trusted) setting.
Set should also be given careful consideration. Some people will feel that they are very sound of mind and experienced in the use of psychedelics, entheogens (or whichever label you wish to give them). Perhaps for those people, setting is easy to decide on - or not so relevant - and set is something they are generally familiar with. Does familiarity mean the experience will be completely unaffected by set or setting? It’s debatable. Even the most resilient of psychonauts have been shaken up at some point.
Newbies would be wise to err on the side of caution
Sometimes the urge to have an experience is so overwhelming that the experience is the only consideration. This is especially true when the promise of a totally new experience beckons; then the circumstances can take a backseat in terms of priority. It’s quite strange really, when a substance has the power to alter your perception in completely unpredictable ways. The environment is going to be quite important!
Add to that the fact that DMT is often called the most intense and powerful psychoactive substance on earth, and that the human mind has no real control over the experience. Set is going to play a major part in how you perceive and handle the experience, on both a mental and emotional level.
The approach should be quite logical: if you are the kind of person who wouldn’t be inclined to call up any old acquaintance just to have someone to grab a beer with, you probably won’t want to smoke DMT with strangers, and especially not those you don’t trust. Likewise, if you wouldn’t go into a seedy or dilapidated bar just to satisfy that beer craving, an unattractive, dirty or uncomfortable room isn’t your ideal trip environment. Beer has nothing on entheogens in terms of life-changing experiences anyway!
Tips for a healthy set and setting
With set, be honest with yourself. If you’ve felt unusually agitated on the day of your planned session (aside from regular pre-trip anticipation) it might be worth postponing until you’re in a sounder state of mind. Having said that, you might have an anxious disposition and be using DMT to unravel your anxious tendencies.
Ultimately, your set is something that only you can control, and even when in the soundest of states there are no guarantees. The best approach is a mixture of common sense, self-honesty and courage. Don’t deny fears or issues - just be aware of them and accept them as teachers.
Acceptance is key for the whole experience, in fact. To accept is to let go and trust that what is has purpose. Arguing with any version of reality is resistance, and that only promotes fear and pain. Letting go and trusting that you will come out the other side in one piece is a great place to start.
Lastly, think about setting an intention for what you want to get out of the trip. Write it down, but don’t be rigidly attached to its fruition. It always helps to be clear and specific with your intention, especially if there is something you want to get to the bottom of.
If you are genuinely seeking understanding, one way or another you will reach it, but it can happen more quickly when questions or intentions are clear. Fortune favours the brave, or so they say, and venturing out into the unknown is among the bravest things a person can do. You’ve come far already… enjoy the journey.