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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Small Mercies: Magic Mushrooms Helped Me Regain Control of My Brain

Could psilocybin actually change my mind, or is it all in my head?
Small Mercies: Magic Mushrooms Helped Me Regain Control of My Brain
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In the influential 2019 book about psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan describes a conversation he had with famed psychonaut Paul Stamets regarding Stamets’s idea that psilocybin, the compound that makes “magic mushrooms” magic, is a “chemical messenger sent from Earth, and how we had been elected, by virtue of the gift of consciousness and language, to hear its call and act before it’s too late.” According to Stamets:

“Plants and mushrooms have intelligence, and they want us to take care of the environment, and so they communicate that to us in a way we can understand.” Why us? “We humans are the most populous bipedal organisms walking around, so some plants and fungi are especially interested in enlisting our support. I think they have a consciousness and are constantly trying to direct our evolution by speaking out to us biochemically. We just need to be better listeners.”

Mycophilosophers have floated the notion that the drug is a direct transmission from nature because it doesn’t make much evolutionary sense that psilocybin should have the effect on consciousness that it does. We simply don’t know why it does what it does, so for the time being, here’s a why as good as any, and it’s a fun why. It could explain why this essay exists—the mushrooms made me write it. Stamets’s idea brings a unique depth to the phrase “under the influence.”

It might sound outlandish, but Stamets is hardly alone in his thinking. The ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, a major influence of the psychedelic movement in the ‘80s and ‘90s, also spoke of fungal will. In 2020’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake explains that, “McKenna thought fungi could wear our minds, occupy our senses, and, most important, impart knowledge about the world out there.” That connectedness that people describe after a psilocybin trip—to each other and nature—would come as no coincidence, according to this theory. “Fungi could use psilocybin to influence humans in an attempt to deflect our destructive habits as a species,” writes Sheldrake on McKenna’s behalf.

If in this space I’m just a medium, a pawn in the mushrooms’ grand scheme, well, let me assure you that I’m happy to be of service. I’m putting this upfront not only so that you understand my potentially mushroom-directed bias, but also to establish my tone. It’s only going to get more woo woo from here, so tune in and/or drop out. I was telling some guy about this theory at a party recently and his patient but terse response was, “Oh. Out there!” Yeah man, far out.

Do I actually believe that nature is communicating directly with us through psilocybin? I am as agnostic about this as I am any forces beyond our immediate understanding as a species. But since I started integrating psilocybin as therapy in 2020, a practice that only grew in 2021, the idea is now firmly swirling in my pot of possibilities.

My experiences with this drug have been profound and, I believe, have changed my outlook on life and the way I process certain things for the better. In most of the mycological texts cited in this essay, you see one statistic come up again and again: More than 70 percent of participants in a Johns Hopkins study titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” said their single encounter with psilocybin for the study was in the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives (of that group, 33 percent said it was the most spiritually significant experience).

I can relate. Last year, I underwent a guided trip with a shaman I found online named Crow. It was in the thick of lockdown, so we did this via Zoom (he’d never guided anyone via Zoom but was willing to try). The session went like this: We’d chat for a bit, and then I’d put on my Mindfold, a blackout mask that allows the same absence of light whether one’s eyes are opened or closed, and he’d drum or rattle while I looked around my mind, and then we’d talk about what I saw or thought about. In six hours, we completed maybe four of these cycles: I went under, as it were, and then we convened for informal therapy. Crow talked a lot about the spirit world that the psilocybin allowed me to access.

No matter how much you want to invest in that line of thinking, though (and I did invest in it, if for no other reason than when I’m tripping I am highly suggestible) this was someone who had taken a lot of psychedelics in his life and knew how to trip. His knowledge base was as practical as it was theoretical. He kept ushering me along—after I came back from poking around my brain and reported the incredible imagery I saw (beautiful scarabs, fractals on a snake that was coiled in a triangle formation, H.R. Giger’s original alien suspended in air, some kind of ceremonial coronation of a creature that looked like the brain bug from Starship Troopers that took place on a barge), he told me that I could keep floating around seeing the sights or I could actually do some work.

The next time I did, and I came away with a new understanding of a friendship whose ending, it turns out, left me with a distorted view of it. It wasn’t the ending that defined this relationship’s importance to my life, I realized—the totality of the experience was still more important to me than any single moment of it. This radically changed not just how I saw that friendship, but my understanding of my understanding. I had been locked in a loop of grief that obscured my ability to honor the joy of this relationship, which was far more plentiful and defining. Mushrooms aren’t known for being particularly addictive, but after seeing firsthand the shift in perspective they could impart for the better, I was, in a way, hooked.

Crow told me that mushrooms can show themselves to us through the visions they provoke—literally, he meant. Sure enough, I saw a giant mushroom in the sky of my mind after he said that. Perhaps that’s a product of my suggestibility, but I have found this to be true on the solo trips I’ve undertaken in the past year. They always pop up, as mushrooms are wont to do. Respecting them as an entity—a living force that can burn you like fire or whip you like the wind—has served me well during my trips. I take them as a tea, reconstituting the dried fungus in boiling water and eating them as I sip the tea. Instead of burying the taste with, say, peanut butter, I embrace all that they have to offer. Should mushrooms provoke unpleasantness, you’re supposed to steer into it, not away from it. Doing the latter may result in a bad trip.

What drew me to mushrooms was the potential for neural pathway generation that Pollan writes about in How To Change Your Mind. The idea that a drug could be additive (and not just in a “YOLO, it’s all about the experience, man” kind of way) and not subtractive, as I’ve largely known them to be until now, was a thrillingly massive notion to wrap my head around. It’s about as perspective-shifting as the idea that these highly potent, conscious-altering drugs could be used for therapy and not just mindless partying. Ultimately, both ideas, in sync, are extremely appealing to me.

I believe in self-actualization only in the abstract, and this belief is galvanizing. I will never be perfect, but I will die striving for perfection. I know who I am and I like that person, but I know myself well enough to understand my shortcomings. For a long time, I felt stuck in myself, frustrated and unable to change my worst attributes, like my lack of patience, my tendency to blurt out uncharitable criticism, my arguing for sport at the expense of my sparring partner’s feelings. Now I feel less stuck. A trip offers me unparalleled control of my mind. My meditation muscle on mushrooms becomes Popeye’s Spinach-fueled arm.

About a week after my trip with Crow last year, I attended a party at which I got somewhere between tipsy and drunk. “Oh no, I don’t like what this does to my mind,” I slurred in my head. Truth be told: I never liked alcohol. It was never part of my family culture. I came to it late and drank it for the sake of socializing. I always said that if I never saw another drink in my life, I’d be fine. After that party, I resolved to actually test that out. It’s now been about 16 months since I’ve had a drink of alcohol. I haven’t missed it at all.

No drug has taken more from me than alcohol—some really terrible choices I made when younger aside, nothing tragic resulted, but the hours upon days I spent in bed recovering from hangovers convinced me every time that drinking wasn’t worth it. And then I’d forget that lesson and have to learn it all over again. And again and again. I never respected alcohol; with mushrooms, I am nearly reverent.

They’re amazing! Mycelium is said to operate much like a brain, with an array of pathways and electrical pulses. It facilitates communication among plants, resulting in what’s referred to as the “wood wide web.” Could the network of it that’s just below the surface of our planet be the brain of Earth? Could our higher power exist beneath our feet? There’s still so much we don’t know (we’ve identified some six percent of the estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million species of fungi on earth), but already there’s more actually there regarding something that is way bigger and beyond human existence than virtually any religion has demonstrated.

In fact, in his 2020 book The Immortality Key, Brian C. Muraresku provides a compelling argument that the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist has its origins in the ingestion of a psychedelic substance, a ritual inherited from the Greeks, which allowed people to “die before they died.” Maybe enlightenment has been there for the picking all along. In the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi, Stamets describes how the Earth rebuilt after extinction events. It was the organisms that paired with fungus who thrived, he says. “We are descendants of mycelium. Mycelium is the mother of us all,” he explains. No wonder why their psychedelic varieties make us feel connected.

It is the ego-dissolving properties of psychedelic drugs that strike me as the most useful to my life, and that of the planet. If we could all think of ourselves as part of a whole with a responsibility to care for our home, instead of individuals whose duty it is to carve the biggest piece of for ourselves, then I think the future would look far less bleak. For whatever reason, mushrooms help people understand they are part of that whole. If billionaires took mushrooms, maybe there would be far less oil to spill (though mushrooms can help with that after the fact too, in a process called mycoremediation).

Unfortunately, insights have their shortcomings, and I don’t expect you to make much of those that mushrooms have assisted me in uncovering. Pollan writes that “so many of the specific insights gleaned during the psychedelic journey exist on a knife-edge poised between profundity and utter banality.” It is true. When I repeat these realizations back, they sound dumb. They are things I should have known all along. Alone, I can’t knock myself out of the wrong-minded pattern I’m in, but on mushrooms, it turns out, I can. Because of mushrooms, I realized that when I complain about something trivial—say, someone who’s walking slowly ahead of me on a subway platform while their eyes are glued to their phone—I’m thinking selfishly and only about how it puts me out.

Another recent insight relates to the negative voice in my head: my inner saboteur, as RuPaul would say. I think I’ve always had this habit, but writing on the internet has exacerbated it. I routinely criticize myself with the worst-faith reading of essentially any aspect of my life and output. I think there is a logic to this: It prepares me for the criticism that I might hear externally. While this proves prescient at times, that criticism by no means is a given. What is, however, is that negative voice. The call is coming from inside of the house so much of the time. I am the primary source of my own negativity. I guess I knew that, but now I understand it in a way that feels much more the product of experience than simple knowledge.

But see? It sounds dumb! I’m almost embarrassed to commit it to writing because it took me so long to get it. I guess turning down that embarrassment impulse is another thing about myself to work on.

Maybe the profoundest realization I had on a recent trip was more meta in nature. For years, I have collected practices and strategies to slow down aging and facilitate vitality. These range from regular HIIT workouts to a strong concentration of antioxidants in my diet to a sunscreen devotion. I read David Sinclair’s Lifespan last year and started intermittent fasting to promote autophagy. Sinclair also inspired me to start taking NMN supplements. Will any of this stuff actually work? Will I live to my goal of 150? I don’t know, and that is actually useful in itself. This just-in-case health regimen I have adopted and steadily add to over the years as I learn more has come to include psilocybin, both from regular trip doses and in semi-weekly microdoses. The hope there is that I can generate more neural pathways and literally change my mind. But even if none of these things happen, even if I die next week and my mind expansion is all in my head, the residual hope itself is as real as anything else. The hope is what I have here and now, and it’s done absolute wonders to my outlook. Whatever follows is simply a bonus, a cap on a blessing. I spent too long terrified of the future, but now I’m excited for now.