Psychedelic harm reduction at Burning Man

Imagine this…You’re at a festival and you’re approached by someone who looks totally dehydrated and seems to be mumbling something about the world exploding and aliens taking over. You don’t seem to have the answers to the questions he’s asking about the universal meaning of everything, so what do you do?

At Burning Man, a festival in Nevada with almost 70,000 attendees, you’d walk this person to the Zendo, a space where people having difficult psychedelic or psychological experiences can get some water, earplugs, snacks, a hand to hold on to, a fuzzy blanket, art supplies, medical attention, and a professional listening ear (or two).  

This was my fourth year at Burning Man, and the most rewarding because of my volunteer shifts at the Zendo. Like the work I do as an Outreach Counselor for homeless youth in San Francisco, we met guests in the space with an open-minded, non-judgmental approach. Anyone who walked into the space was welcomed, and there was no paperwork or ID they had to provide to receive services. We believe people know themselves better than we do, and they know what’s best for them. We didn’t try to guide their experiences; we just created a space where it was safe for them to go deep and explore themselves. And we intently listened guests, accepting them where they’re at, supporting them with whatever was coming up for them in the moment, and collecting suggestions for how to make improvements for next year.

Youth RISE recommends a harm reduction approach to youth services. If youth feel as judged by service providers as they do by the rest of society, it’s unlikely they’ll respond well. And if they sense that service providers are trying to push a specific agenda on them, or are making them jump through dozens of hoops and tons of paperwork, they won’t last long. The more we listen to youth, the more we can structure services to fit their needs. I was happy to see that the structure of the Zendo followed all these recommendations.

During my time at the Zendo, I saw many psychedelic experiences that could’ve ended with trips to the hospital turn into remarkable personal transformations. I hope that more youth services consider these harm reduction principles when structuring the way they work.

We hear a lot about safer injection drug practices in America, but when it comes to psychedelic harm reduction, the discussion is just starting to go viral. For more information about the Zendo project, go to zendoproject.org. If you want to learn more about sitting for someone having a difficult psychedelic experience, check out the information pulled together by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).