Set and Setting Structure

“This Must Be the Place”- Sets and Settings in ESEs

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Back in the 1960s, when psychedelic drugs were being discovered by university researchers, psychiatric doctors, the military, and underground psychonauts, it was found that, if you do what you can to control for the Set and Setting of a psychedelic experience, you can minimize the potential of a challenging experience. Focusing on the setting meant creating inviting spaces within one’s home, choosing beautiful outdoor spaces, curating music for the experience, and even dressing the part. All were a part of generating ‘good’ experiences with psychedelics. The psychedelic experience would feed back and influence the design of spaces and artwork and music throughout the 1960s and 1970s, to great effect and appearance and sound. Likewise, making sure one’s ‘head was on straight’ – set, or mindset – minimized the challenging experience as well. Minimizing anxiety and lowering expectations helped clear the psyche so the mind could follow.

I have lifted ‘Set and Setting’ for the first aspect of my cartography of Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESE) because the ideas and understandings behind the phrase can help us understand what is happening in an ESE. Quite simply, paying attention to the where and when and feelings of an ESE can help us integrate our own ESEs and provide a strong platform for helping others understand their own ESE. 

An ESE can be dependent upon the setting, or an ESE can transform the understanding of a particular setting. I think of Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), a saint in the Catholic Church. As a teenager, Bernadette, her sister, and a friend were gathering firewood near a grotto with a little muddy stream. Bernadette moved slower than the other girls because of ill health, which lasted her whole life. While she was attempting to navigate the stream, Bernadette felt and heard wind but nothing moved. She was led to the grotto and saw a ‘dazzling light and a white figure’ in a small cave in the grotto. Bernadette’s visions at the grotto happened over the course of 18 days, attracting the attention of her village. During that time, the water of the stream began to run clear. Toward the end, the apparition identified itself as the ‘Immaculate Conception’, which is known otherwise as the mother of Jesus, Mary. Bernadette became a Christian ‘influencer’, eventually convincing the local bishop to build a shrine at the grotto. 

St. Bernadette’s ESE transformed this little grotto into what is today known as the Fountain of Lourdes. It is the source of many other ESEs, primarily miraculous healings in the name of Jesus by way of Mother Mary. This is an example of an unremarkable, though liminal, place being transformed by an ESE and becoming a location of other ESEs. 


Spaces where ESEs occur, or spaces that have been transformed by an ESE, are called ‘liminal spaces’. A liminal space is an in-between space, a set apart space, a place which exists in a fuzzy intermediary state between two concretized places. The idea of liminality originally came out of the world of folklore studies, Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957). van Gennep saw that folk and fairy tales often had a pattern of moving from apparent normalcy, into a stage of strangeness and the unknown, and then back to a new normalcy. That middle stage of strangeness and unknown is the liminal state. Later, anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983), applied this idea of liminality to his understandings of ritual and transitional practices in tribal groups. 

For a folklore example of liminality, think of Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood leaves her home to visit her grandmother (normalcy). She travels through a forest set apart from the rest of the normal world; she enters a liminal space. Things get very weird very fast for Red Riding Hood. Her grandmother is now a wolf, having eaten the grandmother, and the wolf, in the traditional story, also eats Red Riding Hood. The relative return to normalcy in the story is, quite simply, existential death. 

For a ritual example of liminality, I can’t help thinking of the early Christian church’s approach to baptism. A convert to the Christian faith would be taken under the wing of a mentor for 3 years of training (called catechesis in liturgical traditions) in prayer, reading of Scripture, and training in the protocols, dogmas, and practices of the faith. The convert would attend services, but was not allowed to take communion (the sharing of bread and wine, which is spoken of as the body and blood of Christ in the community). The convert would have to leave the church before communion was served. This is the establishment of normalcy within the community for the convert. Then, during the final hours of Dark Saturday, the eve before Easter, after the 3 year training has completed, the converts would be led into a dark hallway. They would be dressed in white gowns and walked down to a large pool just at the edge of the front of the church. The torches would be very low and silence would surround the people in the congregation. One by one, the converts would be lowered into the pool as the priest said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The convert was held under the cold water, then lifted up and sent to the front of the church. Once all had been baptized, the torches were lit, the congregation sang and welcomed the converts, who were first in line to celebrate their first communion. This is the intentional creation of liminal space for the sake of ritual. The dark hallways, the brief encounter with death and radical change, and the new life are all components of liminal spaces. 

We will deal with liminality in greater detail in a later post. It is a fountain of fascinating possibilities. 


Each of the aspects of an ESE – Set and Setting, Appearance, Revelation, and Disclosure – function on multiple levels. Developing an understanding of these multiple levels and what symbols and signs may be resonating from them are a tremendous help in integrating an ESE into one’s daily life. 

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and their meaning in the context of culture. Semiotics originated in American philosophy with Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914). He developed a somewhat complex way of understanding the nature of language by way of signed and signified uses of words, which develop into a logical combination of meaning making. This was picked up by (and as always) the French. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) picked up on Pierce’s work and deepened the understanding of semiotics. Then the field exploded with such great names as Roland Barthes (1915-1980, killed by injuries sustained from being hit by a laundry van), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Umberto Eco (1932-2016). My doctoral program was in semiotics at Portland Seminary.

Understanding symbols and how they work, and what is being signified by place, person, and thing in personal experience, family history, cultural surroundings, and history itself can provide a vast amount of information for interpreting the meaning of an ESE. The symbols can have multiple meanings and signify different things for the individual. Likewise, the set and setting can have multiple prior meanings as well. 

A person can be transported to new settings and worlds during an ESE. A person could start in one place, say a clearing in the woods, and be transported to an entirely different, perhaps unknown, setting because of the ESE. The place one is in could be rendered unrecognizable by a particular experience, or one could be transported to an entirely different space. As an example, for those who study such things, it is well known that the realm of the faeries at once exists in another place and also sits on top of our perceived reality (see The Fairy Faith and Celtic Countries by WY Evans-Wentz). A forest pathway can be transformed into a cathedral of golden trees by the ‘wee folk’*. This is what I mean by multiple levels. 

Sometimes the new setting is difficult to understand. In the case of many DMT (the active ingredient in many psychedelic medicines) trips, the new setting is an abstracted space that allows for deeper access to personal insight. Or that abstracted space may be occupied by bizarre self-transforming entities that exhibit some sort of intelligence. The semiotic meanings available here may be seriously lacking since the space defies normal experience. The space might be ‘alien’ in the truest sense of the word if, for example, your setting is radically altered by a UFO abduction. Meaning-making is challenging in these situations, and the lack of available social constructs may itself be part of the ongoing ESE.

Sometimes, though, the new level may be familiar. Many mystics, among them Emmanuel Swedenborg and Dante Alighieri, had experiences and conceptions of heaven and hell realms, both of which are rich with historic, religious, and mystical symbols ripe with meaning. This will also generate a new “set” or “mindset” about where one is experiencing things.


What a person is feeling and the state of their mind at the advent of an ESE is as important as the symbols and signs of the setting the person is within. The mindset, or “Set” as it is called in psychedelic research, can shade, alter, or even govern the perception of the experience occurring. This is not to say that only the mind creates the experience we are having. There is an external, functional reality that impinges upon us at all times. But I am saying that what we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing internally can deeply influence how one perceives that reality. 

Like the setting, there can be multiple mindsets present in an ESE, whether it is an individual or communal encounter. These need to be taken into account and examined with the same kind of sensibility as the setting if we are to gain a deeper meaning of an ESE. Of course, the landscape of mindsets is as vast as the many settings in which an ESE can occur. This vast territory doesn’t need to be daunting, however. In the same way one travels to new settings to see what is there, and perhaps to see what one has never seen before, we would do well to develop the same kind of curiosity about mindsets. 


In the Christian Testament of the Bible, the apostle Paul tells of the things he has suffered in the name of Jesus in his second letter to the Corinthian church, which was a port city in Greece. He is presenting a mindset which he occupied while being tortured and persecuted. In this section of the letter, he tells a story of an ESE that happened to ‘a man’ he knows. A secret to understanding the apostle Paul is knowing that when he says “a man”, or “I know a person…”, or “someone…”, he is very likely speaking of himself. He says, 

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)

Paul is describing something very much like a Near Death Experience (NDE), or an Out of Body Experience (OBE), in this short story. Someone, likely Paul, is transported to another setting – ‘the third heaven’. There, the man has an experience of paradise. He hears things that are ineffable and inexpressible, meaning that the experience was so transcendent it is difficult to find words to describe it. It is a great irony that Paul says ‘no one is permitted to tell’ what was experienced, when he has just told us, and was told by the person who experienced it, if it wasn’t Paul himself. 

It is a strange and curious story, and it speaks to mindsets and settings in ESEs. Paul’s concern in this part of his letter is that we often ask questions about the wrong things. We often get sidetracked by misplaced curiosities. Paul was deeply aware of human nature. You cannot tell a story like this and not be flooded with questions about ‘the third heaven’ and ‘inexpressible things’. It does not matter in the least whether someone is supposed to speak of such things or not; the questions will come. And they should. Humans are curious and that is why we have discovered so many things about the world. But curiosity should not override the story the person is attempting to tell about their ESE. 

Our questions about set and setting are to help the person make meaning of their experience. We are the beneficiaries of the witness we bear to the ESE in the telling (more about this in our discussion about Disclosure). Often, an ESE is so bizarre and exciting that we want to know everything all at once about it. We likely will want to impose our own interpretations on the experiencer. However, we are receivers. We are canvases for projection. We are a reflecting pool, at least in the beginning, and at least in the hearing and wondering about an ESE. I believe ESEs are an opportunity for meaning-making for all who hear them, and it is part of the ESE to be shared in a frothing stream of many interpretations and understandings. But we have to respect the source of the story. We have to allow the story to be told in the first place, and we have to respect the particulars of the story in the retelling of it to others. 

Simplicity and a ‘holding lightly’ are the best approaches when we examine the set and setting of an ESE. Our questions are simple: “Where were you?” “What did you see?” “How did you feel before anything happened?” “What does this place remind you of? Have you been here before?” “Does the place have a name? Does that mean anything to you?” 

Asking questions, rather than imposing interpretations, always furthers meaning-making. At this point, we haven’t even gotten into the experience itself. We are just at the beginning of the beginning. Making sense of where we were and how we felt during the ESE will inform the rest of the experience and will ground us in the world of the ESE. Remember, the desire in these stories – whether it is a mystical experience, a psychedelic trip, an encounter with ghosts, a cryptid sighting, a cosmic download, etc. – is to rush to the interpretation first, then feed back our interpretation onto the ESE, and then declare that the meaning of the ESE is how we have interpreted it during our initial rush. Instead, in this approach we are prioritizing the experience itself here as best we can. The best way to prioritize experience is to be curious, to ask questions, and to do the hard work of waiting to interpret what it all means until we have immersed ourselves in the depths of the ESE. This will be true within every aspect of an ESE. 

Thank you for reading!

Peace and grace to all!

*The concern is not whether an ESE is ‘real’ or ‘true’. This is a diversion from the experience of the experiencer, and those concerns are of little help in making meaning of an ESE. Real and true may matter at some point, but ESEs have a way of expanding what those terms signify in the first place. My goal in creating this cartography of Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences is to provide a simple pathway, or scaffolding, for understanding ESEs. The field of psychedelics, weird studies, and psychological insight is flooded with research and scientific literature, much of it excellent and well-stated. What I am hoping to do is to bring a narrative, poetic, spiritual perspective to the field, especially so a clergy person, therapist, guide, or experiencer does not have to become an amateur expert in the field of the weird, but instead has a few simple aspects of an ESE that they can access to help someone create some meaning around their experience. There may be a need for more advanced intervention if psychological processes have gone awry, and it is important to understand a psychological crisis is not at the expense of an ESE, and vice-versa. We can be a point of help and assurance in creating meaning and understanding when weird things happen if we have a simple way of accessing the experience.

2 thoughts on ““This Must Be the Place”- Sets and Settings in ESEs”

  1. Fascinating direction you’ve headed into , Seth…..Courageous, really…….Your investigations will hold my attention throughout…I look forward to your future writing s…

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