Ana Flecha is a PhD candidate in the Latin American and Latin(x) Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is researching the epistemological values choreographed by the Santo Daime bailado, a dance central to this ayahuasca religious practice from the southeastern Amazon region. Ana received a UC Global Community Health and Wellness Fellowship through UCSC's Institute for Social Transformation to conduct research presented in this piece.
Matrix Theory and Women Who Work with Plant Spirit Medicines
Physical environments and emotional states play significant roles in determining a person’s life experiences. Unsurprisingly, physical environments and emotional states are also essential factors for determining the effects of psychoactive medicines.
In the psychedelic sciences, physical and emotional states are known as set (emotional state) and setting (physical environment). Psychologist Betty Eisner, a major proponent of using psychedelics as a complement to psychotherapy, asserted the importance of set and setting as early as the 1950s. Eisner emphasized the importance of matrix, the environment (physical and emotional) an individual comes from, where the individual lives while using psychedelic medicines, and the everyday living conditions the individual returns to after psychedelic therapy (Eisner, 1997). She introduced her theory of matrix alongside set and setting, suggesting that successful therapies with psychedelics require not only therapy sessions assisted by the medicines, but also attention to the patient’s daily living environment. Eisner advocated for a community-based living environment throughout the course of therapy to provide emotional support for processing psychedelic therapy beyond the clinical environment.
Clinical trials with psychedelic medicines increased during the first wave of psychedelic research in the 1950s and 60s. Applications of set and setting in these trials focused on immediate factors such as lighting, décor and mood music used in the spaces in which these experiments occurred, which may be easier to control than the daily circumstances of a person’s life. Attention to set and setting in these trials did not sufficiently address the physical and emotional environments participants came from or where they would return to after therapy. This emphasis shift contributed to the absorption of Eisner’s concept of matrix into the generalized idea of set and setting, watering down the concept in favor of more superficial applications, appropriating and diluting important cultural influences (Hartogsohn, 2020, p. 6).
Eisner and other women psychologists, like Joyce Martin and Margot Cutner, who experimented with psychoactive drugs for therapeutic use believed that the social and cultural contexts of a psychedelic experience were more important than the medicines themselves for understanding individual outcomes. Eisner’s matrix theory recognizes the therapeutic potential of community belonging and physical engagement when working with psychedelic medicines. Even as one of the most prolific and original researchers of set and setting in shaping psychedelic experiences in her field, Eisner was marginalized, a consequence of the prominent gender-based prejudices against her as a woman scientist in the male-dominated field of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) research (Hartogsohn, 2020, pp. 81–82). Eisner, Martin, and Cutner integrated the physical and emotional needs of their patients by developing early versions of LSD assisted therapies in the 1950s (Dubus, 2020). Each of these women emphasized the importance of more structurally sanctioned emotional support for people utilizing psychedelic medicines in a therapeutic context, yet their work has been largely unacknowledged. Although women have actively contributed to the conceptualization of set and setting, and continue to further psychedelic science research broadly, gendered power dynamics erase their impacts. Historically and contemporarily, men receive a majority of the credit for conceptualizing set and setting, and have risen to prominence in the field of psychedelics since its emergence in the mid-twentieth century. Historian Erika Dyck affirms that women’s labor and intellectual advancements to psychedelic research and policy have often been attributed to male colleagues, systematically erasing women’s work. Today, gender imbalances are seen in and experienced at conferences, realized in publishing by-lines, and in who is recognized as a leader in the field (Dyck, 2020).
Figure 1: View from Vision Quest
A recent study featuring eleven women who completed a year-long initiation program utilizing psychoactive plant medicines affirms Eisner’s beliefs. The women participating in this study reported being more motivated to commit to the program by the opportunity for spiritual development and engagement with others than by the opportunity to work with the medicines themselves. Echoing Eisner, the women in this study understood that the power of psychoactive medicines is not in their ability to fix a problem, but rather to help people more consciously co-constitute the worlds they want to live in; their matrices of support.
The program this study focuses on integrates various embodiment exercises, ritual work with psychoactive plant medicines, and community building practices, culminating in a rite of passage and initiation into womanhood and a community celebration. “Initiation” in the program title indicates that rather than change only occurring within the context of the program, participants are able to continue growth after the program concludes, as they emerge into new understandings of themselves as women in their families and communities. According to the accounts of initiated women who participated in this study, the community building practices and the emphasis on embodiment work throughout the program complemented and deepened their spiritual and emotional processes. These findings expand those of Eisner and her contemporaries, demonstrating the importance of one’s matrix in determining outcomes with psychedelic medicines.
Figure 2: Daily Check-In Space
The program, called Embodying Womanhood: Rites of Passage in the New Era (EWR), was created and is administered by a medicine woman, Luzia, who has thirty years of experience practicing psychotherapy. Luzia sometimes incorporates the ritualistic ingestion of plant medicines and meditation during sessions, which she refers to as Daimetherapy. She emphasizes that, along with the emotional state and physical environment in which someone works with psychoactive plant medicines, spiritual maturity is a key factor for determining outcomes of psychedelic sessions.
In the EWR program, Luzia works with a team of dedicated co-facilitators throughout the year. During their program year, women first work with flower essences (a kind of homeopathy), progressing to santa maria (cannabis), niños santos (psilocybin mushrooms), and daime (ayahuasca, a psychoactive, brewed drink). The program includes ritual work with plant medicines, therapeutic group processes, creative art projects and varied health and wellness practices. With sites across Northern California, six cohorts of women have completed the program since its inception in 2015.
Women participating in EWR are together over the course of five weekend modules throughout the year. These modules follow the flow of a medicine wheel through the cardinal directions — East, South, West and North — each corresponding with a different season, color, animal and energetic force. These modules also correspond to different phases of a woman’s life including childhood, adolescence, adulthood and elderhood, a phase of wisdom and self-actualization. The thematic structure of the modules is set up so that each plant spirit medicine complements the general developmental challenges of that age span. In the final module, women complete their participation with an ombleche (vision quest) initiation ritual, isolating themselves for two days and nights in the wilderness on a mountaintop. After this ritual, they present themselves as initiated women in a community celebration. EWR initiates who participated in this study report that working together in a group throughout the year helped them integrate and process their work with psychedelic medicines.
Figure 3: Program Logo
Eisner observed community development resulting from her work with psychedelic assisted group therapy when people came from out of town to participate in the research and stayed in the local communes, made up of therapists and their families (1997, p. 215). Eisner’s matrix theory grew from her observations of this community dynamic, addressing the role lifestyle and community relationships have in shaping outcomes for work with psychedelic medicines; Eisner’s matrix theory is exemplified by the EWR community.
The first exercise women in EWR participate in establishes a safe, inclusive group environment. In this exercise, everyone has an opportunity to share what they need in order to feel safe working together over the course of the year; these responses make a list of guidelines that all participants agree upon, unique to each cohort. Building trust among the participants, setting boundaries, and fostering inclusivity and community are each deemed essential by Eisner for anyone participating in any kind of drug-potentiated session (1997, p. 214).
The women in EWR are almost always together during the weekend modules. They share meals, prepare space for activities, collaborate with each other in embodiment practices and medicine ceremonies, and participate in group processing circles. Some women reported a greater sense of accountability and deeper engagement in their relationships because of the program’s group dynamic, seeing the collective as a resource. The structure of EWR provides opportunities for participants to practice listening to others and being supportive. Some women reported making more conscious decisions about how they want to behave and be seen in their communities as a result of their participation in EWR.
The therapeutic community Eisner worked in had a set of rules and a structure for orderly living, providing a safe environment for meaningful change to occur (Eisner, 1997, p. 214). Those who came to participate in the group sessions with Eisner and her community were greeted enthusiastically by the practitioners they stayed with, contributing to a sense of belonging. The list of guidelines co-constituted by and for everyone in EWR also contributed to the participants’ sense of belonging. Several women also shared that they were able to address feelings and patterns from their relationships and families of origin, partly due to this sense of belonging and safety.
Figure 4: Community Ceremony
Each day of the first four modules of the EWR program begins with some kind of embodiment practice led by various guest facilitators, followed by extended daily check-ins. Embodiment practices utilized in the program include yoga, dance, theater games, silent walks in the forest, and Breath Releasing Energy for Transformation and Healing (B.R.E.T.H. work). The women in the EWR program did not rank embodiment practices as primary motivating factors when deciding to commit to the year-long program; the spiritual work was more enticing. However, the women reported experiencing important breakthroughs because of the embodiment practices they participated in throughout the program, leading to improved mental and spiritual states and lifestyle changes lasting beyond their initiation.
Countering the Western mind-body split that values mind over body, women in the program found that the embodiment exercises helped them remember their bodies, slow down, become more flexible, and gain insights relevant to their daily lives. These practices, in conjunction with self-reflection and self-actualization exercises, provided opportunities for participants to incorporate their experiences with psychoactive plant medicines into their lives as part of their spiritual work. In her work, Eisner also found that intense body work available to subjects who came to participate in their research with LSD assisted group therapy was enough to spark change in some cases (1997, p. 216).
Because of their psycho-spiritual approaches to wellness and healing, women have been marginalized by the broader psychedelic science community, despite the positive changes in the lives of people who worked with them. Though Eisner and other women psychologists experimenting with psychedelic therapy in the 1950s like Joyce Martin and Margot Cutner produced groundbreaking findings into the potential for therapeutic use of psychedelic medicines, they and their work were slowly erased from history, while Sidney Cohen and Timothy Leary — male researchers in the field — rose to prominence.
Luzia, the medicine woman who founded the EWR program, has experienced similar stigmatization and challenges as a woman, willing to take risks and experiment within the confines of the knowledge she has gained over decades working ritualistically with psychoactive plant medicines. As a counselor, she has at times been targeted by those who came to her seeking healing and did not experience the results they were hoping for. She has also faced challenges with authorities as some of the plant medicines she works with are enmeshed in complicated legal restrictions concerning their use. Rather than discouraging her or thwarting her efforts to make this kind of psycho-spiritual healing work available, her practice and the matrix of relationships she has nurtured within her community continue to thrive.
Many EWR initiates attributed their emotional and spiritual growth more so to the activities and structure of the program as opposed to the psychoactive plant medicines alone. Some women reported experiencing important lifestyle changes and cultural shifts upon their initiation, and many women who completed the program continue to come together to recreate ritual spaces and work together for their spiritual health. By building relationships over time through their shared experiences they strengthen a growing matrix of women who regularly and ritually engage with psychoactive plant medicines within the communities they co-constitute through their participation. As the field of psychedelic science acknowledges the growing need for ongoing emotional support for those undergoing therapy with psychoactive medicines, more egalitarian power dynamics could help broaden the field and allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the potential for healing with these medicines.
Dubus, Z. (2020, September 30). Women’s Historical Influence on “Set and Setting.” Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/women-and-history-of-set-and-setting/
Dyck, E. (2020). Women in the History of Psychedelic Plant Medicines. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/women-history-psychedelic-plant-medicines/
Eisner, B. (1964). Notes on the use of drugs to facilitate group psychotherapy. Psychiatric Quarterly, 38(2), 310–328.
Eisner, B. (1997). Set, Setting, and Matrix. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs: Pioneering treatment and recovery models, 29(2), 213–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.1997.10400190
Hartogsohn, I. (2020). American Trip: Set, setting and the psychedelic experience in the twentieth century. MIT Press.