Sitters or Guides


"The role of the psychedelic guide is perhaps the most exciting and inspiring role in society. He is literally a liberator, one who provides illumination, one who frees men from their life-long internal bondage. To be present at the moment of awakening, to share the ecstatic revelation when the voyager discovers the wonder and awe of the divine life-process, is for many the most gratifying part to play in the evolutionary drama. The role of the psychedelic guide has a built-in protection against professionalism and didactic oneupmanship. The psychedelic liberation is so powerful that it far outstrips earthly game ambitions. Awe and gratitude - rather than pride - are the rewards of this new profession."

(from "The Psychedelic Experience: a manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead", by Timothy Leary et al (1964))


Choosing a Sitter

The perfect sitter is a devoted friend who you trust enough to reveal your feelings and needs to without having to impress or be polite. Experience is useful, but less important than their willingness to look after you. Here are a couple of examples from my own experience.

My very first acid trip was in the company of two college friends, a happy couple called Julian and Kay: caring, homely people who I could turn to when I was down. Julian soldered his circuit boards and Kay knitted a sweater, every now and then asking if I was alright. Although I felt that I was on a superior plane to them, the 'observer in me' was aware that my 'superior' state depended on being able to let go, and that they provided the reassurance I needed to do that.

Many years later I tried ayahuasca with a sitter who was very experienced but had no interest in me apart from the money I was paying him. At one point I asked him for reassurance that it was safe to explore the dark side, only to find that he had gone to sleep. My adventurous explorations came to an abrupt halt and I felt paranoid, rejected and physically ill.

Being a Sitter

"The guide must never be bored, talkative, intellectualizing. He must remain calm during the long periods of swirling mindlessness.
He is the ground control in the airport tower. Always there to receive messages and queries from high-flying aircraft. Always ready to help navigate their course, to help them reach their destination. An airport-tower-operator who imposes his own personality, his own games upon the pilot is unheard of. The pilots have their own flight plan, their own goals, and ground control is there, ever waiting to be of service.
The pilot is reassured to know that an expert who has guided thousands of flights is down there, available for help. But suppose the flier has reason to suspect that ground control is harboring his own motives and might be manipulating the plane toward selfish goals. The bond of security and confidence would crumble."
(from "The Psychedelic Experience: a manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead", by Timothy Leary et al (1964))

A willingness to serve is the most important quality for any sitter. You have to be prepared to devote yourself unreservedly to those in your care for as long as it takes, with your own comfort coming a long second. You should feel generous towards them and think of it as giving them a treat rather than doing a duty.

Boredom is most likely to be your biggest problem, but you must be prepared for emergencies and know how to respond. You have be willing to clean up vomit or worse, to tolerate the same music repeated endlessly, and maintain your caring attention even when 'nothing is happening'.

Deciding who to sit for

Unless you are offering workshops using entheogens, you will be the one chosen by your friends. That is quite an honour, but also an enormous responsibility. So think about it before you say "Yes", and make it clear where your responsibility ends.

You have to consider the worst case scenario, that of the drug triggering a psychotic episode. However unlikely this may be, you must be committed to see the person through it. This could involve days rather than hours of your care, finding professional assistance, or even getting questioned by police. Thoughtful preparation can minimise the risk of anything going wrong, and also reduce the impact it may have on you.

People who are well-grounded, successful in their work, have a stable relationship and happy home life are least likely to get into trouble, especially those with no current or previous psychiatric problems. This is your baseline; the further a person deviates from this ideal the more risk you carry. Remember that people do lie to get what they want, so listen to your intuition and don't be afraid to refuse to sit for someone you have doubts about.

You can guard yourself against being affected by something going wrong. Legally, you should be in the clear if you simply offer your services as a friend, without payment and without supplying, administering or encouraging the use of any illicit substance.

But the problem may not be the law so much as your conscience, feeling guilty that you did not give the support needed. The answer is to define your limits beforehand by making it very clear just how much responsibility you are prepared to take.


Even if you have experience with the drug, it's worthwhile to read up about it. You should be prepared for any known side effects and should be able to answer questions like: "Will it get any stronger?", "How much longer will it last" and "If I take more, will it last longer or will the effect be stronger?"

Prepare yourself for the worst. Try to learn enough to be able to distinguish between emotional and physical effects. Could you recognize a panic attack, and how would you deal with it? Ideally, you should know enough about first aid to know when someone really needs emergency treatment.

The venue

People generally feel most secure in their own home. As a visiting sitter, make sure in advance that you know where everything is that you may need so as to avoid asking: heating controls, duvets, food and drinks, cloths to clean up with and so on. Check what may disturb the neighbours: should you keep curtains or windows closed? Should you answer the door? Is the phone ringer off?

Learn how to use any equipment such as stereo, video, camera or tape recorder.

The session

The beginning of the session should be spent making people feel comfortable and preparing them for what may happen.

This is the time to talk about ground rules, such as:

keeping confidentiality within the group
agreeing that sexual feelings may be expressed but not acted upon
not doing anything that might cause damage or upset neighbours
not leaving until the session is agreed ended
not interacting with other participants
being prepared to face unpleasant experiences and work through them.

Additional rules may be added if the sitter or participants want. Ann Shulgin suggests that if a participant encounters a 'door marked death' during their trip, they must agree not to pass through it.

This is also the time to prepare people for possible effects of the drug. What does it taste like? Is it likely to make you feel nauseous, and for how long? Is it best to throw up or keep it down? How long does it take to come on, and so on.

Explain how to turn a bad trip into a good experience by facing it rather than fighting it, and mention the possibility of panic attacks which make people believe they are dying when they are not. And that you will help people change bad experiences into good ones rather than give them another drug to bring them down.

It's nice to learn a bit about the others but without it becoming superficial. A good way is to invite each person to talk about their hopes and fears for the session.


People appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences, and participants might want feedback to help them to integrate their trip. This may be straight after the session, or next day.

© Nicholas Saunders, January 1998

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