Michael Pollan's latest book How to Change Your Mind, which I devoured in three days, has inspired me to share the story of my own mushroom trip. Before you stop reading, if you happen to be a naysayer or wary of any and all drug use, let me just say that psilocybin "magic" mushrooms were legal where and when I consumed them (overseas, a number of years ago) and I wasn't breaking any laws. I am nothing if not a rule follower and a law-abiding citizen. I believe that Pollan's research, and the stories of those of us who have had mushroom experiences, are important to share because of the potential this drug has for healing and for healthy mind expansion. "Doing mushrooms" is not, in fact, as Pollan underscores, frivolously recreational. His book covers psilocybin and other forms of psychedelic-assisted intervention for challenges including addiction, depression, and end-of-life care.
Set and Setting
Pollan emphasizes throughout his book the importance of set (your mindset with regard to the experience you expect to have once under the influence) and setting (the physical location, people you are with, safeguards and risks of the situation throughout your experience until the drug wears off). I don't remember too much about my "set" although I remember saying to a friend that I had wanted to sit at a desk during the trip because I thought I would want to write or draw, and that I wanted to be listening to music while tripping. My friend and guide (whom I will refer to simply as 'they' throughout this piece) suggested that I might enjoy being outside, in nature, during the experience even if I was not normally an outdoorsy person. Up to this point in life I was not, at all, outdoorsy. They mentioned however that I would probably want to write or draw something afterward, but that I should rest assured that I would remember everything I needed to later on and therefore there was no need for me to take notes or in any other way document the experience. Thus, I had a general mindset that I was going to learn/experience something that I may or may not want to express creatively later.
As for the setting, I was in a hilly rural village near a lake on a bright July day in a dry climate. Most importantly, I was in a safe place, with someone I trusted, and I had assessed the risks, both internal and external, as well as the requisite contingencies in case I decided part way through to discontinue the trip. (Vitamin C will counteract the effects of psilocybin and I had two bottles of orange juice in my day pack as an antidote, should I have needed one.) I remember that it was very hot, even early in the morning when we set out to find a good location in the woods. Although I have endured 99% humidity throughout several summers in West Africa—where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer—and Washington, D.C., I am no fan of arid climates (and so you should not expect to find me on the playa at Burning Man). The only anger, discomfort, or negative emotions I experienced were when my friend and guide tried to accompany me from our initial spot in the shade to a more private location in the woods once we realized how close we were to people on the beach. The beachgoers could not see or hear us, but we could see and hear them, which was a bit of a buzzkill, literally.
I remember being guided up the hill and into a relentless late morning sun and I pleaded to go back to my cool spot under the tree. Before they agreed, I had been walked up the hillside and found the sunlight and dry heat absolutely intolerable on the climb—an ascent which, for all I know, lasted only a few minutes or less though it seemed like a lifetime. Not only was the original shady spot preferable in my heightened state, but on the temporary journey to find another spot I remember feeling an acute obligation to acknowledge and apologize to each and every plant stem over which I trod on my way up the hillside. It felt as if I were massacring them by walking so fast over so many individual, holy objects coming out of the ground, just doing their business to move toward the light. Eventually, we went back to the first spot, and managed to successfully ignore the distant frolicking sounds of the family on the beach—a soundtrack that might be pleasant when sober but that, in its inherent earthly humanness, did in fact dilute the psilocybin effects.
Back under the cool, comfortable shade of the giant tree—a tree that I have since located using Google Earth software (yes, seriously)—I settled in and found once again that there was a comfortable cradle of brush to hold me. Although it was made of sticks and roots and plant stems, nothing seemed painful or sticky or even uncomfortable. And remember, I am not one to sit on the ground when another seating option is available. I settled in and, perhaps because I am an auditory processor, the sounds more than the visuals are what helped me back into a pleasurable trip state. As Pollan writes, “Sound begat space.” Overhead a bird flew by and it was like a physics lesson in every wing beat. The portion of the flight within my view could not have lasted but a few seconds; nevertheless, I understood more about sine waves in those few seconds than in a whole semester of tenth grade trigonometry. Granted, having studied mathematics, I was probably imagining the sounds as soundwaves. Still, this type of condensed tutorial would put the Khan Academy to shame.
I examined all the plants and insects around me and proclaimed more than once that I was “in the terrarium.” I was trying to express something about having a new vantage point from which to view bugs that was not only comfortable but fascinating. I went on at length about the wonder of being “in there” with the insects and watching them build things out of plant fragments and seeing clearly that each and every bit of twig was a veritable set of construction materials and that I was witnessing a massive building project low to the ground. I was all of a sudden aware that there is a whole world of creation going on down there that I am too high up (too tall) to encounter under normal circumstances. (I was able to simultaneously imagine the vantage point of some creature to whom we are just as small, but just as earnest and industrious in our endeavors.) And this was only what was going on above ground on an infinitesimal patch of ground out here in this forgotten village! Rather than being overwhelming, though, there seemed to be infinite time for me to contemplate these ants, with zero resistance to time or people or schedules or to the ants themselves. All of this I tried to articulate in an enthusiastic stream of exposition and half-metaphors.
My friend mentioned more than once during the trip that I may get more out of it if I stopped talking so much. I am verbose, and my trip was no doubt a verbal river of expoundings on the experience ("I'm in the terrarium!") and what I thought it meant ("I totally get it now!!"). My memory is largely auditory, though, and writing this now, many years on, I am glad that I said so much aloud because it makes it easier for me to remember what was going on. I did try to draw some pictures of it, and I wrote one song about it, but hearing my own commentary in my memory helps me to reconstruct what the plants and insects looked like: everything was geometric. It was as if I was given an extra set of glasses (on top of my regular glasses) with which to examine the finer details of every leaf and pine needle. Glasses that magnified not necessarily in terms of size, but in terms of detail. By looking at a plant stem, I could instantly synthesize how the geometry of the cylinder that formed the stem lent itself to the very particular shades of green that reflected and refracted in the light as I twirled the stem. This gave me the idea that the strawberries I ate later (I had brought them for reinforcement but they were way more fun to look at and touch than to eat) were geometric configurations and that the placement of each seed on the flesh of each berry was 100% geometrically determined. Mind you, the physical limitations of language and pixels make it very difficult to express to you how instantaneously all of this "content" configured in my brain during my mushroom trip. I've so far covered about the first ten or so minutes.
Pollan read numerous accounts of mushroom trips and identified dominant themes that, unlike accounts of other types of drug use, were informational in nature, rather than merely sensory. For example, many people emerging from being under the influence of psilocybin will report having learned something while tripping about love or the universe, or about time, space, nature and life forms. I, too, had this kind of “noetic” experience of being exposed to specific knowledge by some authoritative entity (although the “entity” cannot really be confined to such a word because it was all-encompassing and expansive and nothing like a human or even god-like “entity” as we would normally think of one). It should be noted that my mushroom trip was years ago, before I read Pollan's book, and in the intervening years I spoke with a number of friends who will corroborate that the hallmark of the experience for me was the "content" I acquired, which is the way I spoke about my mushroom trip to distinguish it from even the highest of marijuana highs—experiences that I described as having extreme sensory effects but during which I did not acquire any new "knowledge" or understanding about the world. I had never, to be sure, understood anything novel by smoking pot or learned something that endured beyond the temporary high. Mushrooms were different. I instantly acquired knowledge, or content, or information, or whatever you would like to call it. Or at least I think I did. It was rather simple to acquire, and it revealed itself rather soon after the psilocybin took effect. It has also endured, no doubt reinforced each time I have explained and rearticulated my trip. It was quite important to me to tell people about; I risked a few friendships with people who I thought would judge me for using drugs because that's how important it was to me to tell them about what I had learned.
So, what was it precisely that I did learn? For starters, there was absolutely no distinction among animal, vegetable and mineral. That distinction to me, while tripping, seemed as silly and inconsequential as it might be for us to argue about what defines and delimits "medium roast" from "dark roast" on our coffee beans. Yeah, there's a difference, but imagine trying to explain this to someone who doesn’t drink coffee and make it matter to them. Additionally, I would say that I learned to “trust” the earth and the world in an unfettered way, or at least that it is possible to do so; the feeling didn’t last, but I can remember it. People often wonder if I had an overpowering feeling of love or some such, and I wouldn't describe it quite that way, although I do identify with those accounts and I believe they are a function of the "set" mentioned above that determines to some extent your expectations of the experience. Religious people may have a religiously-themed trip, and I did not, but I am not a conventionally religious person. It wasn't, for me anyway, "love" so much as beauty. Comfort as opposed to divine light. A total lack of resistance or any looking backward or forward. It was a distinctly present sensation or idea that enveloped me. I would describe it as boundless or infinite. I, being very cognitively-oriented, wanted connections and I was able to see, and make, and exclaim aloud, more connections in the space of an hour or two than I had for my entire previous conscious years to date. Everything I had theretofore known still existed, and was true, and made sense, but the new knowledge or "content" I acquired was so vast as to defy description. The new knowledge rendered my old knowledge very small indeed, but no less true or real or significant. It was a matter of lenses—anything I focused on could become deeply significant, but there were so many things to choose from and to focus on, and rather than being overwhelming, this notion was comforting because I also had the sense that there was infinite time available to contemplate any pinecone or insect leg or strawberry seed that I chose and that doing so could mindblowingly fill all of eternity for me if I wanted it to and that the possibility of ever being bored again in life was erased indefinitely.
Unlike the physical, sensory effects of cannabis, caffeine, and alcohol—the only other drugs with which I have any experience—psilocybin conferred content (knowledge, information) alongside the sensory effects. Admittedly, the sensory effects are so extreme that perhaps what happens on mushrooms is that your prior knowledge is enhanced so greatly in an instant that, for example, all of sixth grade biology suddenly becomes clear by examining one plant stem, and in this way people on mushroom trips think they have received some sacred knowledge from beyond. I should emphasize here that there is nothing unsacred about understanding biology, and I often experience moments of awe simply by watching Nova and Nature on PBS each Wednesday night, albeit in a much more ordinary setting than where my mushroom trip took place. While I did not suddenly become outdoorsy after my psilocybin journey, the disposition that endures is that nature is the greatest show on earth.