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Artist Sam Juan posing next to painting titled "Self Love"

Integration Unfolding as Art – Sam’s Process

So often, we speak to veterans shortly after their retreat experience to understand what they’ve learned and what they hope to carry with them from the experience into the future. There’s often new knowledge, euphoria, and legitimate hope for the future. The initial insights are powerful and important. And yet, it’s when the retreat ends that the work truly begins.  Psychedelics are a tool that show us the potential we have to do our own deep healing work. They empower us. They provide an opportunity, a door we can choose to walk through. 

Integration is leaning into that potential, taking ownership of our own healing processes, and walking through that door. It is up to us to make meaning and learn from challenging experiences, and it is equally up to us to practice the skills needed to weave positive experiences into our daily lives rather than to let them fade into distant memory. 

While there are many integrative activities and tools that can be used to stay connected to and continue learning from a psychedelic experience, for Sam Juan, a combat veteran who served in the Cultural Support Team program, the path to integration has largely been through her artwork. 

Artist Sam Juan posing next to painting titled "Self Love"

Self Love, 24×72″, oil on canvas 2021

I started this painting at the end of 2020 and completed it in mid 2021, so this painting took almost a year to complete. 

The painting was inspired by the Fall Equinox ceremony, where I attended a peyote ceremony. At the time I was already working on my first large-scale psychedelic painting, but the experience from the Fall Equinox was too intense to not capture on canvas. I was, and am still, experimenting with the process of using art to integrate, but at the time, I knew I wanted to get the emotions and lessons out from my journal and onto something more significant. 

I remember the first step I took was journaling to make sense of what happened during the ceremony for me. I did this by writing down all the words that came up when thinking about the experience. This ceremony in particular, focused on my self-love journey. I felt like the medicine showed me a raw and true assessment of how I saw myself, which at the time, wasn’t in very high regard. I was giving my energy and time away to people who didn’t care for me because of my fear of loneliness. There was something about being lonely that drove me to do anything in my power to distract myself from that feeling. 

After writing down the words that came to mind, I selected the most important ones. Then, I decided what visual symbols, colors, and textures I could use to express those words on my canvas. With this ceremony being held in the Mojave desert and the roadman being from the Maxacali church, there were strong Huicol, Mexican, and Native American influences coming to mind. 

Over the months that it took me to complete this painting, acceptance of where I was in my self love journey (and where I wanted to be) set in deeply. It reflected back to me honestly. There was no hiding from the truth of what I had previously allowed into my life and the inner work I had left to do

The painting is a tangible reminder of the journey that I’ve been on to get here, and how far I’ve come so far. I feel proud about the growth, even though I’ve stumbled along the way. My intentions are now purer than they have ever been and because of that, I can hold my head up high with how I approach situations in my life. 

Empathy and humility. I can empathize with those who may be going through this journey or aren’t aware that they are self sabotaging themselves with their repeated patterns. I understand how oblivious we can be when not establishing solid boundaries and sticking to them because we’re not aware of how boundaries are a reflection of self love. 

Integrating my ceremony through art has changed my day to day in that it helps me stop and pause and be intentional. I have a lot of room to grow in this area, but I know that being more patient and selective is something I want to improve in the future. 

Tree of Life, 30″x40″, oil on canvas, 2022 

This one took around six months, and I finished it faster than I otherwise would have because I wanted to show this piece at a group art show. 

This painting was a culmination of my psilocybin journeys to date and a means for me to take a stand of where I was in my healing journey. I knew I was evolving, and I wanted to create something that helped me understand my growth so far. 

As I mentioned earlier, loneliness was the driving factor for my self sabotaging behaviors. I knew that I had to shed who I thought I was to become the woman I was destined to be. The skulls in the painting depict the phases of my life that I had to go through and release in cycles. 

Another aspect of the painting that came to me as I was creating it was the duality of how the tree of life has sustained itself over the centuries within various cultures, yet no one describes how it endures.  It is the source of energy for so many, yet receives no water itself. Through my exploration of the tree of life I realized that I had always given myself to so many people without expecting anything in return. I just wanted their presence in my life, regardless of whether or not they were a beneficial presence in my life. I ignored warning signs about relationships that weren’t serving me as a distraction from loneliness. 

When I look at this painting I still feel mixed emotions. I have a sense of pride for the amount of progress I have made to reach this point, but also I feel a touch of sadness knowing what I have had to endure. I understand now that everything that has happened, has happened for me and not to me. I try to remember that when my emotions become overwhelming or hard for me to process. 

Letting go of attachment to identity is key to progress. I always thought I knew what my life should look like and how I was supposed to get there. I am realizing now that those thoughts, or ideas of what I imagined this life to be for me, came from learned patterns. Initially my vision stemmed from self-sabotaging behaviors because I could control the outcome. Now I’m much more comfortable releasing  control and letting the universe steer me in the direction that feels right. It may feel hard, but it’s what I need to do. 

Finishing this painting has opened my eyes to other people’s journeys. I can understand that each person I experience today may not have been this way before and may also change in the future, and that is okay. I try to remember to receive them as they are and then assess whether it’s right for me to meet them there.