A good friend introduced me to this inspiring podcast between Joe Rogan and Paul Stamets. Stamets is a mycologist (fungi expert) and lives in Washington state. During the podcast, they discuss how fungi is its own kingdom, separate from plants. In some ways, fungi act more like animals in the way they breathe and in the foods they consume. They create gigantic networks that run underground, connecting trees to other trees. They operate as a sort of currency exchange between different species of trees. (Here’s another great podcast on that specific topic.) I’m telling you, it was so eye-opening. I had to go back and listen to it again as soon as I finished it. And it’s over two hours long!
So, a large portion of the podcast is devoted to psilocybin mushrooms, the kinds that take you to magical, wonderful lands. In the last several years, the FDA has authorized multiple academic studies on the effectiveness of these mushrooms to treat depression and anxiety. The results are staggering.
The conversation about magic mushrooms and spiritual experience was first introduced to the West in the 50s, but eventually, this type of mushroom would be scheduled by the FDA as an illegal substance that had no medicinal / therapeutic value. And when that happened, the conversation sort of stopped. Or it went underground (no pun intended) at least. But there are a lot of hopeful folks talking about the Third Wave of Psychedelics (another podcast to check out!) right now and I personally find it super compelling.
Different forms of fungi have been used throughout the world and throughout history to elicit religious experiences. There are even those out there who would say that a lot of the most evolutionary times in humanity have been assisted by the use of these psychedelics. They may offer us a chance to expand our consciousness and move us forward. They certainly offer us a chance to break away from our default ways of thinking and explore ideas and situations with a fresh perspective.
Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave. — G.I. Gurdjief
Stamets share his first experience with mushrooms. A whole bag of them, he tells. Standing in a tree during a storm when he was young. And he tells himself that he wants to stop stuttering. This had apparently been something that made him self-conscious for most of his life and he made a pact with himself that he was done with that. And when he came down from that tree, he said he never stuttered again.
Enter the rabbit hole. I spent the next several months reading and listening to whatever I could get my hands on that interested me on this topic. My friends were doing the same, so we had plenty to talk about.
One of my favorite reads was Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head, where he detailed out the history of various psychedelic drugs and also included a sort of travel journal of his own experiences with them. After reading his write-up on mushrooms, I knew I was ready for my own journey. I was ready to dive in, observe and learn. I was ready to let go. I was ready to be transformed.
Mushroom Trip #1
My first mushroom trip was on the Oregon coast. A buddy of mine—a veteran of such things—generously offered to be a sort of guide or at least an overseer for my journey. My friend was going to take about two grams, but I was going to take the full Hero’s Dose of five grams. This is the amount supposedly necessary for what is referred to as ego dissolution. This gets you to the real-real. Beyond your socialized self and your external identities. Right to the core.
Before dosing, we spent some time walking the beach and talking about our intentions. For me, I was hoping to get some clarity. About who I am. About my path in life. About my relationships. I also told my friend that I wanted to see God! I wanted to peer behind the curtain.
We both chewed up and swallowed our dried mushrooms just before sunset and it only took about 30 minutes for me to begin to feel their effect. The sky over the ocean suddenly became an IMAX-sized flat screen TV with geometric shapes all across it. I really could not believe my eyes. Another 10 minutes in, I decided I best go inside and lie down as I was feeling it happening so fast.
And it did happen quickly. For the next four hours, I was lying on my back on the couch in my sleeping bag. I could not get up. My friend tried engaging with me, but I couldn’t communicate with another person. What was going on inside my head, behind my eyelids, was terrifying and confusing. “Do you feel like you saw God?” he would ask me later. The terror I saw was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was beyond normal human terror. Yes, I do believe I saw God.
As I was coming down, my friend said that I seemed to have had a bad trip. He was right. It was difficult and scary. It was not what I had imagined.
But as we drove home the next day, we assessed that term bad trip to be unsuitable for describing such an experience. Already, I was beginning to get some clarity about what was revealed to me in that dreamlike state, specifically my own anxiety about not doing enough, not bringing enough to the table, not being enough. Was it a bad trip? Or was it the trip I needed? What did it do for me? It disrupted my normal automatic ways of thinking just long enough for me to get some perspective.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. — Michael Pollan
It would not be useful to write words to describe that first mushroom trip’s contents as they are simply beyond words. But the impact of the experience was felt. “Do you think you’d ever do it again?” my wife asked when I told her as much as I could about the trip. “Yes, absolutely.” But the next time, I would probably relax the dosage a bit so as to have one foot in this world and one foot in the other.
Mushroom Trip #2
My second mushroom trip was in the Oregon forest. It was almost 100’ in Portland, so we were happy to leave home and find a spot on the Clackamas River that had some shade. I went with two close friends (one who first told me about the Stamets podcast and who has a far superior knowledge about psychedelics and mysteries than I). We took the top and doors off my Jeep and headed out on a short overnight adventure.
We made camp and settled in. This time, we were all going to take two grams each. This amount is enough to see some cool visuals and get “out of your head”. I was a little nervous, but that quickly passed. I told myself this was going to be a good trip. Because that’s what I wanted and that’s what I deserved. I was going to partner with these mushrooms in order to explore some feelings I had about that last trip, namely: I am not enough.
When I could feel the sensation of dizziness, I decided to lie down in the back of my Jeep and look up at the trees and at the sky. Another friend laid down on the ground and the other took off for a walk. I personally cannot walk while I’m taking mushrooms. It is just too much to coordinate at the same time. Ha.
It was such a beautiful, pleasant experience…healing, I would later say. There were a couple moments where I started feeling uneasy. I would simply shut my eyes, remind myself that this was a good trip and that I had what it takes and then I’d open my eyes again and the screen would be reset.
I saw beautiful figures dancing in the clouds. A couple in love. To the upper right, I saw what seemed like an edge, as if we were in the Truman Show and part of the set had been revealed to be as much. Are we living in some sort of simulation? Later I would find out that we all had some experience like that during the evening.
There were two trees trees in my field of vision. One had a more masculine, protector energy and the other, a more feminine, nurturing energy. I mainly spoke with the male tree, but I always felt the presence and support of the female. At one point, I asked the male tree, “What should I be doing right now?” I really felt a little uncomfortable, like I should be taking some sort of action instead of just lying down. “You can just lie there. This is for you. There is nothing that you need to do.” Okay. I knew my question too well. What can I do to help? How am I able to provide value? What am I worth if I’m just lying here?
“Who are you?” I asked the male tree.
“I am you.”
“Then who am I?”
“You are the little boy inside of you that needs to be taken care of right now. You can simply lie there and know that you are being taken care of. You do not need to take care of anyone or any thing. You are perfect as you are.”
Tears on tears on tears. Of relief, of gratitude. I was being taken care of. But more than that, I had been reminded that I matter even when I don’t try to offer something. My presence was enough. My presence is enough.
As we were coming down, we made a fire and stayed up through the wee hours of night, discussing our experiences and trying on new ways of thinking. It was magical. I felt limitless. We had each made peace with different aspects of ourselves and our lives. We were stirred. We all said that we were so glad that we stepped away from our busy lives. We had left our normal routine and made way to the sanctuary of the trees and returned refreshed and renewed and awake.
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! — Michael Pollan
Mushroom Trip #3
My third mushroom trip was in the Oregon desert. My intention was trust.
We drove over seven hours to a remote part of Oregon called the Alvord Desert. It’s a dry lake bed that’s about 100 miles north of Black Rock, Nevada, home of the infamous Burning Man festival. I went with two friends of mine. I was spitballing about how I think that three participants is the perfect number for these mushroom journeys. It’s enough people to take care of each other, but if one person wants to check out, there are the other two that can connect. But it’s never just one person responsible for another.
We talked the entire car ride out. The whole time.
We discussed intentions, our struggles in life and our hopes for our futures. One of these friends was the same friend who was with me for my Hero’s Dose on the Oregon coast. We are all in our early 40s and there seems to be something about that timeframe for a man that is transitional. We are all thinking about ways to be better humans, raise our kids well, plan for the future and create a more hopeful world.
This place is crazy. I had wanted to go to the Alvord Desert for years. I had first seen pictures on Instagram and marveled at the landscape. In real life, it did NOT disappoint. Vast. I mean really vast. Double the size of the city of San Francisco and surrounded my mountains and mesas 360’ around, this place was unique. We spent some time in the hot springs, set up our tents and biked around in the pitch black night with our eyes closed. We grilled and we slept.
We woke the next morning and prepared for the day. We were going to dose around 2pm, but we decided to push it back to 4pm because it was hot, there was no shade and the wind had really picked up. But around 4pm, everything had settled perfectly. We each took two grams.
I didn’t have my Jeep to lie in and I didn’t want to be on my cot in the tent, so I tried walking for a bit. That didn’t work for me. Again, I just can’t multitask on mushrooms. Ha.
I laid a towel on the surface of the playa and looked at the sky. I was inside my mother’s belly. The huge blue sky above me pulsed. I saw shadows on the other side of it. “It’s okay, Ryan. They’re just people who want to know about the baby in your mother’s belly. They’re safe.” I saw a geometric firefly that had a feminine energy that came to me and shown bright white light on me. Warm and calming. I saw an octopus-type god with tentacles reaching over the mesas and down toward the desert floor. I did not like that. I reset.
It was beautiful and surreal. About two hours in, I felt it was time to get to my feet, even if to just stand up. So I did. I turned all the way around, taking in the mesas and the Steens mountains on all sides. Then I looked at the dry dirt beneath my feet.
“The earth is hard, but it is soft beneath. It is not as hard to dig as you may think. So dig. And build. You can build anything you want.” Those were the words given to me. I considered. Then I did another full panorama of the mesas and mountains. “You can build anything you want. You just need a vision. And you are a man who has vision. So what is it? What is it you will build?” I knew these words were to be remembered. I knew they were true for me. But I knew I would need some time with them before I fully understood.
We all met back up and made a fire and ate some dinner. Then we slept like babes. We got up the next morning and headed home. It was a weekend we would never forget.
Currents of air and sea are vulnerable to my breathing. Metaphors of mountain ranges seem tiny compared to all I contain. — Laurie Perez
I had coffee with another friend yesterday and we both remarked that each of our experiences on mushrooms had really had some sort of long-term effect on us. It was as though we had been touched by something that gave us a new kind of energy to see things in new ways and to be kinder to ourselves and others. I absolutely feel this to be true. Did we bring a little bit of the mushrooms back with us into our waking life? Perhaps.
This post is not an “in defense of mushrooms” type of post, so I’m not going to tell you about how they are non-addictive and how the PR around drugs in the 80s was mostly using false data and how maybe we shouldn’t be so scared just because we don’t completely understand them. Hell, the medical community still doesn’t even fully understand how anti-depressants work! But we cannot always understand how something works. Or how the journey will be. But if we feel compelled, we should at least allow ourselves the chance to try something new. Anything new. A new habit. A new way of thinking. A new place to visit. A new experience to remember.
Michael Pollan’s newest book, How to Change Your Mind, is bringing these ideas to the mainstream. He documents his experiences with mushrooms (and a couple other psychedelics). It makes me so happy to see an intelligent, respected author like that write a 300+ page book on this topic.
Mushrooms aren’t the point. At least not for me. Growth and acceptance and expansion. Those are the points for me. And I’m grateful for the ways these experiences have helped me grow and accept and expand. I am so grateful.