Content Warning: This essay may be triggering for folks recovering from addiction. It may be triggering in other ways as well. I am bearing witness to my own study and practice here; I am not defending that study and practice and I am not advocating for it. Forgive me. And be kind to yourself as well.
Several years ago, in a state of spiritual crisis that was profoundly affecting my ability to function in the world, I grew and ate psilocybin mushrooms.
I was guided to do this. I asked the Holy Spirit should I do this and the Holy Spirit said yes, do this. But it was not easy. It did not feel natural or comfortable. There was a lot of resistance, a lot of internal argument. There was a lot of doubt and fear.
Even now I see the mushrooms as a dangerous exercise I do not recommend and will never try again but for which I am deeply, almost mystically, grateful.
I tripped a lot in my late teens and early twenties, a practice that ended around the same time I stopped drinking in 1990. I was an angry and self-destructive drunk from the get-go. Drinking was fun for about fifteen minutes and then it was submission to family demons who wished nobody well. I hated myself with every sip. The self-hate fueled more drinking, and the drinking fueled more self-hate. It was a vicious and escalating spiral with only one possible outcome. The question wasn’t would I die from drinking, it was how much damage would I do going down.
Oddly, in those years, psilocybin seemed to . . . confuse the anger? Pacify the demons? They didn’t dissolve the trauma and its emotional affect (much less undo the addiction) but they did seem to slow it all down. And in that slowed-downness, there was less harm both to me and to others. I was still crazy but I was way less agressive and for that I was – then and now – grateful.
For me, in those years, psilocybin was a form of brutal self-observation. I truly hated myself, believed that self-destruction was merited, even unto death, and felt more or less powerless over any of it. But I was also curious why I hated myself. When I drank that hatred turned to rage and self-harm but mushrooms held the inquiry in icy stillness. I could ask the question over and over, and I did.
It turned out there were answers to the question of why I hated myself. And when I did not flinch from those answers but accepted them, it was possible to hate myself a little less. I went toe-to-toe in those moments with an interior horror show I do not wish on anybody. Yet I was not destroyed by it, and because I was not, healing became a real possibility.
Self-hatred metasticized in my psyche as an effect of growing up with a devout but forbidding Catholicism practiced by a family in which violence and addiction was the secret nobody was allowed to name. No effort was made to emphasize that the devil was a metaphor, or suffering contrary to the nature of God. Satan was as real as Jesus, both of whom were fighting a war for my soul, the whole thing overseen by a God who was indifferent at best, and cruel at worst. My mind was depressingly fertile ground for the cultural demonology of the late sixties and early seventies. Movies and books like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen seeped into my consciousness and convinced me that I was a lost cause in the conflict between good and evil, a conviction my parents and other adults seemed to actively encourage. It is hard to convey the anguish this caused. It is hard to describe the hurt and anger. I wanted to live but believed I did not deserve to live. In the end, I believed that everyone would be better off if I did not live. It was a terrible thing to inflict upon a child.
To the extent hallucinogenics were helpful with all that, it was mostly in how they sometimes exposed the fear and guilt that underlay the rage that drove my addiction to self-destruction by making clear the insanity of my religious upbringing (and rarer yet, making clear a cultural conflict that was bigger than just me and my family). They did not show me God so much as show me that I had not yet seen God. I did absolutely nothing with those insights except note – however faintly – that there might actually be a way out.
So in that sense, the first faint threads of healing – of remembering my inherent innocence and goodness (which I share with you and all Creation), of the promise of return to the human family, and of the possibility of real relationship – were revealed to me in the mid-to-late 1980s by the mushrooms.
Was I thinking of all that when I decided to try them again thirty-some odd years later? I don’t know. Certainly nothing else in my bag of tricks was working – therapy, twelve steps, prayer, A Course in Miracles. I was foundering in grim nihilism, increasingly unable to respond to even the most basic responsibilies.
Parenting, being a husband and householder, writing and teaching . . . I began to ghost all of it and as a consequence began to experience myself as a ghost. I was haunting life but rather than rank fear there was just uneasy boredom. Everything went gray and faded; I stopped feeling a part of anything, and I stopped caring one way or the other about it.
Or I stopped caring mostly. Now and then something would snap me back to the moment. I would notice a look on my wife’s face – a sadness, a loneliness – and I would feel . . . sad, too. Or I’d notice the kids weren’t including me in things like board games or discussions about books. In those moments I would wonder how it had come to this and, critically, was another way possible? Or had I fallen too far off the path?
That was the space in which the invitation to partake of a new mushroom experience was given. I was surprised I said yes but also, not surprised at all. What did I have to lose?
In the trip I am going to talk about here – because it was the one from which it seemed I would not return (and, in a sense, from which I did not return) – I had a vision.
I say “vision.” If you’ve ever eaten mushrooms, you know what I mean. It’s nothing supernatural; it’s nothing divine. It’s just a thing the mind does at the farthest (and most unfamiliar) reaches of consciousness. The closest analog is lucid dreaming, but (for me) the mushroom vision is to lucid dreaming as the ocean is to a koi pond in the mall.
I do not like to talk about mystical or supernatural experiences. They are just experiences that sometimes happen; they are neither better nor worse than any other experience. Writing and talking about them can too easily become a way of insisting that something special happened to me and as a result I have something – an insight, an understanding, a wisdom – that you do not. That is always a lie.
And yet, without this vision, the whole psilocybin experience would’ve been merely another exercise in self-destruction. And it wasn’t. It was more than that.
This trip (a so-called heroic dose, e.g., just over five grams) was mostly terrifying. My hands kept floating off my arms. I forgot to breathe and ended up gasping, chest pounding. Walls turned to stone, then dissolved into rainy forests I’d been lost in for a thousand years. I crawled on the floor through my own vomit. Aliens injected my blood with beads of amber; I spoke in tongues. The block universe became a rack on which I was ruthlessly stretched by invisible torturers. The pain was Godless and excruciating.
But in the middle of this – all at once, no warning – the agonizing phantasmagoria stopped, as if a switch had been thrown. The silence was funereal, the stillness made of marble.
All of creation arose is a vast and prismatic cascade before me. Quasars and galaxies, elephants and oceans, sex and war, cave art and crayons. All of it arose in a vivid towering plume and at its peak crashed down through itself into nothingness, from which it arose again, over and over and over.
This was the cycle of Creation and Destruction, Brahma and Shiva, Being and non-being, life and whatever life was not. The two flowed into and out of one another, without intention of any kind, endlessly neutral. Here was Everything collapsing into Nothing; here was Nothing erupting into Everything.
How long did I witness this? Five seconds? A million years? I have no idea. I blinked and came to in cool grass beneath a birch tree near the barn. Sunlight rested on nearby lilies; clouds floated through the sky. I lay there a long time before a single clear thought appeared: “I have a name.”
A few minutes later, I remembered what it was.
David Carse, whose book Perfect Brilliant Stillness helped precipitate the afore-mentioned spiritual and psychological crisis, makes the following observation:
It can be asked, What is prior to Being?
‘What’ lets Being be?
As it is prior to Being, this ‘what’ is not.
Here is Void, Nothingness, no-thing-ness.
Prior to Being, ‘it’ lets Being be:
That in which Being is,
Plenum, the fullness of no-thing-ness
out of which, in which, as which
Being (and hence all beingness) arises.
The paths of mysticism, bhakti and jnana
join here and end here.
All paths can lead this far and no further.
‘Being’and ‘Nothing’ are the last concepts,
and the last experiences, available to us (386).
When I say I remembered my name under the birch tree, what do you think I remembered?
Of his so-called awakening, Carse says, “who carse?”
When the first mushrooms were ready to harvest, I ate them right away, after everyone had gone to bed. I sat on a folded blanket out back near the horses.
I prayed before I ate them. Prayed as I chewed and swallowed, prayed as my stomach roiled digesting them. I prayed desperately and pathetically. In that moment, I wanted so badly to live and be happy, and was terrified I would never be again. I began sobbing.
I begged Jesus to join me, to help me, to grant me insight and knowledge, to not let me be hurt by the mushrooms, to help me re-earn the love of my family, to remember meaning and function again. It was self-centered and puerile but I didn’t care.
Fireflies filled the meadow. In those days the blind horse could still see. The only sound beside my bawling was the river humming in the distance.
A funny thing happened then. Without any reflection or intention, the prayer up-ended itself. I didn’t decide to change it; it just changed. It became about others. I suddenly knew that countless others were in pain like me – some in greater pain, some lesser – and all I wanted was for them to be healed.
And so I asked Jesus to heal them – to visit them instead of me, to bring peace to their hearts and to calm their minds, soothe their souls. “I’m okay,” I said aloud. “Help them. I’m okay.”
You have to understand that I was not okay. I was a mess. A mess. But for no reason I understood – because there is absolutely no virtue or logic in any of this – I no longer cared about being healed personally.
I only wanted you – whoever you were, wherever you were – to be healed.
This went on for an hour or so. Eventually my voice stopped working and the prayer faded. I sat quietly in starlit darkness. It wasn’t peaceful; it wasn’t blissful. It wasn’t productive. There was no insight or understanding. Everything was still and quiet. Hours passed.
Near dawn, I got up and walked past the barn to pee. Venus rested on the horizon. Standing there in exhaustion, I remembered whose light it was – Lucifer, the fallen one. The bad angel. The Destroyer of Worlds who was paradoxically also the Bringer of Light, the haunter of my childhood and author of my doom.
Briefly I saw him – the Beast slouching through the pasture towards me. His head hung like an anvil and his feet dragged. In his wake was pestilence, war and famine. Every hateful word ever uttered battered my ear drums; the sky ran with blood and smoke.
And yet, for the first time in my life – a life wracked with hurt and anger, destruction and violence, bitterness and cruelty – I was no longer afraid of the devil.
Instead, I saw my brother – self-sabotaged in Heaven, desperately missing his Creator, and stumbling accordingly. I recognized him, and my recognition was a form of love. I opened my arms to hold and console him.
Then there was only Venus again, diamantine and brilliant over the rocky New England hills.
James Hillman, a Jungian psychotherapist and writer, once said (here paraphrased), don’t interpret your dreams. Let your dreams interpret you.
He meant that the story we tell about the dream is removed from the dream and involves us in ways that can bias the dream’s healing clarity. He advised staying with the dream in non-linear ways – feeling its emotional tenor, witnessing its images, praising it in poetry. In that way, the dream could reach us in ways and at levels mere analysis could not.
Something similar applies here. This essay is an analysis written several years after the mushrooms, not to mention after the transformation that followed them.
In a sense, the transformation was simple. I stopped needing my life to be other than what it was. I made what was unwelcome welcome. I gave attention to what was given rather than my preferences. I submitted judgment to the grace of God and in that submission – which, yes, had to be learned and relearned, applied and re-applied – I remembered who and what I was in truth.
A Child of God is happy only when he knows he is with God. That is the only environment in which he will not experience strain, because that is where he belongs (T-7.XI.2:6-7).
The Kingdom of Heaven is the quiet, sustainable happiness that we do not create and yet were created to share. It is in us but not of us. Sharing it is creation. You need do nothing; there is nothing to do.
This is the state of true creation, found not within time, but in eternity. To no one here is this describable. Nor is there any way to learn what this condition means. Not till you go past learning to the Given; not till you make again a holy home for your creations is it understood (T-24.VII.6:7-10).
It’s true that the form of my life changed. I found new work and new writing practices. My marriage came back to life. My children recognized me again. I joined with fellow ACIM students to study and apply the lessons; I was led to a new and more helpful twelve-step program.
There were still challenges – some that were nontrivial – but they were seen and accepted as sites of learning. They were no longer seen as psychological conflagrations that needed to be attacked and defeated but rather as seeds of peace to be gently nurtured and allowed to blossom on terms set by God, which terms would be revealed to me as I consented to their revelation.
I wasn’t in charge any more and it was a vast relief. I could participate – could cooperate – with life rather than engage in endless conflicts, both minor and major. The self-sabotage ended; the loneliness ended, and I was no longer alien unto Creation. The divine family was everywhere, asking to be remembered, and it was given to me to remember it.
I asked you to do this work with me, and you said yes.
Being is known by sharing. Because God shared His Being with you, you can know Him. But you must also know all He created, to know what they have shared . . . Know then the Children of God, and you will know all Creation (T-7.XI.7:6-7, 11).
I am not saying that anybody needs to eat mushrooms. They took years off my life; I can’t imagine doing it again. But I am saying that if you are desperate, there is a way out, and the way out is to remember that the way is relationship. In relationship, you will be shown the unending cycle of creation and destruction which absolves you of any personal wrongdoing, and that in this revelation of your fundamental innocence you will realize that you have something to share with your brothers and sisters who are everywhere like you.
Service – action coming from love – is the answer. Nor is it difficult once the underlying relationship – the underlying oneness – is clear. Everything we do we do for our own Self, who is the Child of God in whom all Creation remembers itself as holy.
The mushrooms taught me that. Or, if you prefer, God taught me that, using the mushrooms as a teaching tool. The form of the learning doesn’t matter; only that we learn.
Mostly I want you to know that you are not alone. Not in the cosmic sense, because all creation lives in you and is your home, and not in the local personal sense either, because you are reading this, which means it was written for you, and so together – this very moment, which is all of time there is – we are together re-membering wholeness.
Trust yourself. And if you need a friend, I am here.