“The early approach with psychedelics was the correct one... It’s too early for a science. What we need now are the diaries of explorers. We need many dairies of many explorers so we can begin to get a feeling for the territory.”
“Things that amaze, but will not make us wise.”
The first time I took Psilocybe mushrooms was the summer after my freshman year of university. I had just spent nine months away from my family, I had a full-time summer job that would pay my tuition, and the Modern Philosophy class I took first semester, in which we read Descartes’ Meditations, had awakened what would prove to be an irrevocable interest in metaphysics. Riding a high, I called a small flight company outside of town to book a sky-diving appointment for early August, around the time of my birthday. Only afterwards was I informed that several of my high school friends were planning to trip on Psilocybe mushrooms that same weekend.
Then something changed, my friends moved the date, and I could not have been gladder.
This was far more exciting.
It was a clear day on the Canadian prairies, with none of the heavy languor of high summer. We met at Oscar’s place around noon—his parents were out of town and we had the house to ourselves.
There were five of us. I remember distinctly, as though it were the iconic opening scene of some film, how we sat around a table in the sunlit dining room with the plate of dried mushrooms at the table’s center, aware we lingered on some kind of non-normal threshold. After dividing them into equal portions, we sat there and chewed. Two of my more cautious friends each left a mushroom stipe on the plate. I ate them.
I liked surprising my friends with occasional acts of daring and was pleased at their incredulity. But this was also more. I wanted something to happen, and I had to make sure it did. My guess is that the extra two stipes made my dose around five grams.
I was there for epiphanies and adventures.
We washed the mushrooms down with grapefruit juice, which was supposed to help with the digestion, then went down to the basement to play videogames on the massive flat screen TV and waited for the high to kick in. It was a giggly and anticipatory atmosphere. I kept checking to see if anything was different. “You’ll know,” Oscar said. “You’ll know when it happens.”
I’m sure I did. But now, eleven years later, I can’t recall the exact moment it hit.
What I recall is a sense, in that dank basement, of a sudden and powerful awe.
Aldous Huxley has a famous concept from his account of a mescalin trip in Door of Perception: the brain as a “reducing valve.” This idea is so foundational to my interpretation of “what went on” in this maiden voyage into the weird zones of the Psilocybe that I cannot honestly say if I read Huxley’s book before or after the trip.
The concept is a simple paradigm shift. Instead of the brain giving rise to consciousness, Huxley views the brain as that which restricts what he calls “Mind at Large” into a kind of consciousness that “fits” our human situation—that is, as biological organisms living in community and struggling for survival. In short, the modes of cognition our brain makes available are mostly those which are somehow “useful.” “What comes out at the other end” of the reducing valve is, Huxley observes, when compared to what everything going on in the universe, “a measly trickle.”
The psilocin molecule, by this metaphor, prises open just a bit further that valve, that Door of Perception—and lets in a torrent of existence.
A lot went on. We listened to “the End” by the Doors—deep, chilling song that brings you to outermost solitude. The stucco ceiling moved organically, like a heap of shifting lizard tails. Oscar went into the shower and started yelling. My friends pooled money and ordered pizza (evidence, if I was looking for it, that I was much higher than they were; I could never have figured out how to do that). But chief in my memory was the discovery of the apple tree in the backyard.
It stood at the back of a lengthy plot of lawn. That the apples were ripe made me laugh with astonishment.
I must have been “peaking”: walking to the tree was an epic journey. One apple in specific drew my attention, and I plucked it, drew back to the sundeck, and lay on the reclining beach chair. When I closed my eyes and deep orange sunshine oozed over my lids, I understood I was in the Garden of Eden on the first day of creation. We had made it back. Maybe we had never left.
Here is where it becomes important to know at what point, before or after the trip, I read Doors or Perception. At the time, it seemed to me that the apple tree itself suggested Eden—not suggested, but was. Yet there is another famous image from Huxley’s book: looking at a flower arrangement, he writes, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
Was this episode primed by Huxley?
Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind, suggests that the entirety of psychedelic experience since the 60s is primed by language cribbed from religious traditions, mostly Eastern. He cites Alan Hofman’s accidental ingestion of LSD: “Because Hofmann’s experiences with LSD are the only ones we have that are uncontaminated by previous accounts, it’s interesting to note they exhibit neither the Eastern nor the Christian flavorings that would soon become conventions of the genre.”
What Pollan doesn’t address is why that connection—between psychedelic experience and the language of myth and mysticism—is made in the first place, and why it is such an intuitive one.
In any case, I had entered ecstasy and I had to get out into the world. The others were back in the basement, listening to Oscar’s playlist. What were they doing in the dark on a sunny August day? I urged them to go on a walk in the neighborhood, but there was little interest, and at last I became impatient. Not irritated—irritation wasn’t possible. I only felt we were missing out on something huge and amazing. So I left.
I was gone for what felt like only the briefest time, because out the front door was something so astonishing that I ran back to the house, trembling, bent on convincing my friends they had to come with me. But inside, my friends were in a state of panic. They swarmed me as though I was Lazarus, reeking of death but alive. Where were you? You can’t just leave like that! Their worry astonished me. I knew it was real, but it felt so silly that it didn’t seem right to dignify it.
This was my first lesson in the tripper’s truism: you know only your trip. Sometimes euphoria is such that you assume others share it, because how could they not? It is difficult to wrap your mind around the fact, cosmically strange, that others aren’t seeing what you see. They aren’t feeling what you feel. They don’t wonder what you wonder, or attend to what you attend to. As kids we are reprimanded for such lack of empathy; for what it’s worth, though, I believe the incongruity between subjectivities really is astonishing. Only, it has become one of those marvelous enigmas, like the sheer isness of things, that, rubbed down by habit, have lost their glint.
There is one final image from this first trip, strange and useless, which I have nonetheless carried with me all these years.
Early on, while we were still in the basement, I was playing around with the remote control for the TV. It had a clamp on the back. I stuck my thumb beneath it, and as it clamped down it felt as though it were now in control of my thumb and, by means of my thumb, my entire body.
I remembered then that this tiny remote also controlled the TV. It was an object that manipulated entities larger than itself. That was the kind of thing it was. I thought about all the other technological objects of control—cell phones, car keys, remote detonators—all of which had unprecedented influence over things greater than themselves, and suddenly I felt cold dread. Everything was getting smaller, yet controlling more. One day, therefore, there would be only one object, occupying a single point in space, that had absolute control over everything in the universe.
Terrified, I called it “the Point.”
In the end, as we were coming down, I got my walk with my friends. The neighbourhood was uttermost suburbia: clean sidewalks and picket fences, homes with high gables and wide porches supported by white columns. Yet everything had a sharpness of color and detail that made me giddy. Walking along a strip of boxwood hedge, the leaves seemed like fantastic forms newly sculpted from a holy substance capable of holding more detail than the matter we knew. But, like cooling magma, it would soon settle down, become blunted: become the boxwood hedge we knew in our daily lives.
Exhausted, I longed for that.
But the greater longing, I think, was never to be exhausted.
The second time I took mushrooms was at a Flaming Lips concert. This was just after the band had released their bizarre, paranoiac, acid-rock album Embryonic. I was in third year university, in Edmonton, which was on their tour circuit, so I said to those same high school friends that if they drove down they could crash in my dorm.
At the entrance to the stadium we immediately encountered a problem. Two security guards stood there, patting people down. How did we get the drugs inside? Really, the solution should have been obvious: eat the mushrooms in the parking lot. But we were nervous idiots, and besides, we wanted to time things right. We made ourselves PB&J sandwiches and put the dried mushrooms in these. Then we put the sandwiches in plastic bags and shoved them in our crotches.
It could have easily gone south. But we were lucky, and though one of the guards put his hand near Oscar’s smuggled goods and must have felt something, he did not investigate.
I remember little of the concert, other than vague impressions of loud, static-soaked alien soundscapes and one moment when a huge ball of light descended from the top of the stadium, like some angel without a message. What I remember, instead, is our long walk back to the dorm. We had driven to the stadium, but when we were let out none of us was near sober enough to drive. My friends talked among themselves while I walked several paces ahead.
I had been reading Wittgenstein for one of my courses and my mind was on language. It seemed to me that language was a Möbius strip that, as you followed its contour, now faced you outward, then faced you inward again. The inside and the outside were one, but in a dynamic way. What we say is what we mean; and yet there are concealed dimensions to what we say, even from ourselves; and yet we ought not to despair of language on account of what it buries, but rejoice on account of what was revealed; and yet we should never forget how much—so much!—is buried. I could not stop spinning thoughts, and that too became part of the vortex of realizations: the way that language naturally hypertrophied, and how that hypertrophy could be valued or distained depending on your existential position.
Langauge is an open field!
It is a cage.
Becomes a field again.
First there is the conviction that nothing will ever be the same again. Then you come down from the high.
Maybe you have more self-compassion in the days that follow; maybe your anxiety has lessened; maybe you even make some kind of life decision. But sooner or later you return to work or school, things organize again into something very much like the everyday, and the question becomes: Does all this, and above all the fact that others cannot tell that anything has happened—that there is no “evidence” to point to—mean that your conviction was a delusion?
The following semester I tried to explain the experience of psychedelics to my girlfriend who had never used them, and in particular this sense of cosmic significance. I had not talked about these things to anyone, not knowing how, nor having much inclination to. But she was curious, and the best listener I knew, so we walked along the North Saskatchewan River and over the course of two hours I tried to describe what made the phenomenon qualitatively different.
It felt good to communicate my excitement. But it also confirmed for me the ineffability of psychedelic experience.
There is much talk among researches and psychonauts about psychadelics as therapeutic tools for the “processing” of emotional baggage, of healing, of learning acceptance. Some even argue for the positive gains of “horror tripping”—intentionally inducing a bad trip. But perhaps one of the great unstated things about psychedelic experience is that it acclimatizes you to solitude. This solitude is semantic. It is due, I think, not to the meaningless or deluded nature of these experiences, but to their over-abundance of meaning.
Behind all my musings on language during that long walk back to the dorms was the consciousness that, if called on, I would be unable to explain these thoughts to my friends. Indeed, when I sobered up, I might not be able to communicate them to myself.
I would wake, but it would be a downward waking into something less than the dream.
In 2014, two years after graduation, I was working at an Environmental group in Victoria, BC. A co-worker said he had twenty grams of a species of psychoactive mushroom that grew in the Amazon. Since my second trip, I had not actively considered using them again. Had the time come?
Another characteristic of a positive psychedelic experience is a strong desire to share it with loved ones. While high, one thinks, If only so and so would do this! If only so and so could be here with me now! So I asked if my older brother, Nate, and a friend from university, Finn, would join me. Neither had done psychedelics before.
We took the mushrooms in a spacious and light-filled apartment sometime in April or May. After a huge surge of kinetic energy I began to feel queasy. Nate vomited pretty much as soon as the high kicked in, and Finn, after initial enthusiasm, did too. Afterwards he called his girlfriend, Cassidy. Their conversation cycled through various anxieties and reassurances: Do I need to go to the hospital? Am I going to die? Finn was truly uncertain.
The section called “The Great Liberation by Hearing” in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is concerned with helping the dying into a better postmortem outcome. It contains the instructions:
O, Child of Buddha Nature, however terrifying the appearances of the intermediate state of reality might be, do not forget the following words:
Renouncing the merest thought of awe, terror or fear,
I will recognise all that arises to be awareness, manifesting naturally of itself.
Knowing such sounds, lights and rays to be visionary phenomena of the intermediate state,
At this moment, having reached this critical point,
I must not fear the assembly of Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, which manifest naturally!
Granted, what Finn was going through was not the post-mortem intermediate state of reality. But there is a lesson here, I think, for users of psychedelics. Facing down terrors, you must not think “this is not real,” but rather, “this is not something to fear, this is not going to damage me.” If you spend your energies resisting what is happening, either through fear or through continuous inner debate about what is real and what is “just the drug,” you will end up missing what “the drug” can offer.
Finn and his girlfriend talked for over fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, my brother and I listened at the sidelines. We were not concerned about Finn dying—we knew a person could not overdose—but we were emotionally involved. I made a recording of this episode—why not, right?—and so can give, verbatim, an example of the sorts of things I was saying. I was fixated on Finn getting off the phone.
Every moment has a little decision at the very center of it. You have to pull through it. You have to pull through the infinity of little decisions, downwards, downwards, downwards—then you flip up. It’s like Dante in hell: you go down to the center and you find at the very center that what you thought was down is now going up. And—woo!—reality is a sphere.
I wish I could give Finn that image.
It is strange to transcribe the full-body excitement I was experiencing into meager words-on-a-page. I continue on in this vein:
It’s Finn alone—he has to understand it himself, we can’t tell him that. Oh man, I sympathize with the angels in heaven. They’re all looking down and they want to tell us things. But no, we’re alone, and we have to follow it ourselves, we have to literally find the courage ourselves, God planted it there but in our structure of being. He—wow—he is incredible. [Long awe-filled pause] He actually designed something that allowed it to choose itself. He designed that! From the outside!
I could direct all my thoughts to God right now.
Wow, he let me do that too.
I’m aware of so much, but I can center it all on God. Hmm. Hmmm.
At this point Finn left the bathroom. “I’m pulling out of it,” he said. “Cassidy says I’m totally good. I just need Cassidy to tell me that everything is good. I don’t need to get a doctor.”
Nate and I were happy. He and Finn lay down in a sunbeam by the window and I brought them food which they did not eat.
When I begin to talk again into the recorder, my voice has changed. It’s no longer ecstatic.
Oh. I’m facing it myself now.
It’s like everyone has been ushered into heaven and now, now I can step through.
I have to choose to go through it. Fuck. I existed and I was unaware I had to make this choice and now I have to make the choice and fuck its hard. Okay, I’m going through it. Do I induce it? Am I inducing it right now? Do I just let it happen?
Listening to the recording, you can tell something has changed: I’ve gone to a darker place, things are getting sombre. I actually remember this moment well. It was the moment I realized that my active interpretation of the experience was creating the experience. The idea that we had to “pass through it”—this refers to the dark part of the trip in which both Nate and Finn vomited—seemed like a fact of reality. You had to go through something difficult and come out the other side.
But I was not coming out the other side.
Ho. This is joyous and disappointing to have a clear image of reality. Huh. I would have thought there is more mystery. Hmm. Okay. Okay okay.
Oh fuck, why do I have to...
It continues on like this for some time, and to listen to it is painful and rather boring. I can’t seem to stop talking. Then I talk about how I can’t stop talking. Yet there was a deep conviction that I was working something out, and that the angels were rooting for me.
But what were they rooting for?
What was going on?
It is strange and somewhat deflating to listen to this recording for the first time some six years later. I had long thought of this trip with Nate and Finn as the one in which I intuited the existence of angels. And I did. The impression I had then—hordes of sympathetic beings of light just outside perception, leaning in at the edges of existence to root for struggling humanity—remains strong. But the idea of “priming” returns to me here. Listening to the recording, I am inclined to think here of my love of Rilke’s poetry and the Wim Wenders film Der Himmel über Berlin. The film is, after all, about angels whose witness to the struggling inner lives of various characters around the city lifts up and sanctifies those lives—without their knowing it. The notion of “priming” reaches its limits, however, in the next question: why this image, this metaphor, and not some other? Why angels? Who chose this?
Not the psilocin.
The rest of the trip consisted of laying in sunbeams and joking around on the carpeted floor. When the sun was blocked by a cloud the mood darkened. When the sunlight returned everything was made well. I remember Finn saying of the whole experience, “I was not expecting this!” When we sobered up, we found orange peels in just about every inch of the apartment. I guess we’d been eating oranges.
On our debriefing walk through the neighbourhood Finn said, “I’m not sure what that was. I’m not sure I’d do that again.”
Talking to him a week later, he said, “That was amazing.”
There were around five grams left from the twenty I bought off my co-worker. I stuck them in the freezer. One day in August, bored, wanting an adventure, I took them.
There was the nausea again, worse this time. Perhaps it was the strain of mushroom, or perhaps they were too old. I felt heavy and slippery with perspiration. I lay on the couch and hoped that the housemate my partner Samantha and I were living with at the time did not return from work. I closed my eyes.
Before me was a tennis match. It was like I had turned on a TV; I could observe every detail. The tennis ball went back and forth, back and forth.
It was not a voice which said this, but an intention. Yet it amounted to the same thing. Something, something that wasn’t me, had spoken.
I watched. The game was repetitive, and the volley never ended. When my attention drifted, it said, “Watch.” When my attention did not drift, it said, “Watch.” Nothing in particular happened.
Yet, to be told to watch, instead of it just happening—it gave something, a significance, to my gaze.
After a while I was able to get up from the couch and sit at the table, where I had my notebook. I wrote quickly and in fragments while the nausea came in waves. Suffering through it felt involved, as though it took use of my own willpower to pass through time.
Getting high on shrooms alone is not fun. Who to talk to? Because all things are said as a question, and with questions, there’s always someone on the other end.
Everything is textured by the effort. Strive and...Flop. Too much weight inside. Micro-like.
I will just have to accept that my body is different. Not weaker or more prone. Different. Their bodies are made for this world. Mine: not. Mine: for another place. Who knows what place. Not the task to reconstruct it. The task is to live here.
I am writing, above, about more than nausea. I have a gastrointestinal condition which is like, but much more than, IBS, and which occasionally gives me abdominal pain and puts me into depression, to say nothing of the ongoing social isolation of having severe dietary restrictions.
There were fresh figs on the table I had picked from a tree a few blocks away. I took a small bite, then, before I had finished chewing, went back to my notebook:
If getting high brings me closer to things, then nausea is close close close to things—as close as joy and the rest of it! The fig gets forgotten in my mouth.
I want to talk to Finn, Samantha, whoever, but they’d be like the fig.
I must bring the music with me to the washroom. I must bring it companion with me everywhere.
It is the trip.
In the bathroom, I almost did a million things but come back out here
It’s just too bad about my body.
Sweaty and all that.
Somehow I keep spelling nausea correctly when I think it’s the ugliest word and have no idea how to garble it right.
Grammar is one thing,
(see how the comma indicates intention)
You can get near but at a price: you have to be goofy
Some flowers smell like feet
Eventually our housemate came home. I hid in the bedroom while she busied about in the kitchen. I called my brother, who was tree-planting, and we talked for a while. Then I made a break for it: dashing past my sober housemate without saying hello—as though, by avoiding a greeting, I could disguise the fact that I was on mushrooms, and not instead alert her—I raced down the stairs and out of the apartment.
What followed was a long, occasionally anxious trip. I paced around in nearby park, listening to Arcade Fire, enduring ups and downs. One moment I was eating figs from a tree and giggling to myself, the next I was sick with self-loathing.
As I came down, my partner Samantha met me in the park. We sat in a private corner, amid clumps of tall switchgrass, and although I’d been waiting impatiently for her, I wished she hadn’t come. She was there, but her spirit was across an ocean. It was a feeling akin to postcoital tristesse, that melancholy lull one sometimes gets after sex.
I was back in the world.
As I came down, my partner Samantha met me in the park. We sat in a private corner, amid clumps of tall switchgrass, and although I’d been waiting impatiently for her, I wished she hadn’t come. She was there, but her spirit was across an ocean. It was a feeling akin to postcoital tristesse, that melancholy lull one sometimes gets after sex.
I was back in the world.
I tripped for the fifth time on mushrooms in early December, 2018. After a conversation about psychedelics with my friend, Rowan, he said he wanted to try them.
Remembering the last time, I did what I could to circumvent nausea. We made tea, cutting the mushrooms finely and steeping the crumbles three times, because I had heard that cooking the chitin (the cell walls of fungi) made it more stomachable. We also added ginger and Clavohuasca, an antinauseant.
It was an overcast day in Vancouver, and we were in Rowan’s poorly lighted basement suite. No matter: we had a sound system. We played the album A Deeper Understanding, by The War on Drugs, and Rowan was in tears by the end of the track, “Pain.” He cried: Oh the earth! What are we doing to the earth! And: My parents! I love them so much. Me, I closed my eyes and moved to the music, paying no attention to the lyrics.
At one point I stood and, my eyes closed, felt the wall. It existed in a field of blackness, of abstract space, and as my hands moved along the wall to connect with the ceiling, it seemed to me strange that, existing as I was in black, bare space, these walls nonetheless existed. What should have stretched on infinitely just—didn’t. What was a wall? What sort of force could do that?
I opened my eyes. Rowan was pointing at where I had been pounding on the ceiling. “There are people living up there!”
He meant the family on the ground floor. It dawned on me: what I had not thought was my own isolated action—a couple experimental slaps on the surface of this thing, the ceiling, that should not have existed—in fact was communication.
Epiphany: everything, no matter what you did, was communication!
Once, I was asked, “What is it like to be on mushrooms?”
“No matter what happens,” I replied, “on mushrooms, it is full of significance.”
To outsiders of psychedelic experience, this might sound as though the drug is “simulating” meaning—as though “significance” is only a kind of feeling. Even if that is the case, it subtracts nothing.
Say that mushrooms allow you to enter an afternoon “as if” it had spiritual import: this does not just leave a lasting impression, it literally expands what is possible for you to think and feel. What, then, does it mean to say that this experience is “simulated”? What does it mean to hallucinate not just visually but with our organ of meaning?
I had a dream, several years ago, that I had a ten year old daughter. I loved her with a fierce, protective love. And then I woke. Was that love not real just because I dreamed it? I felt it, and I remember feeling it. It is mine.
This is the reason, I think, those who have had psychedelic visions rarely dismiss it as “just a drug trip.” Meaning is meaning, no matter what sort of consciousness it occurs in.
I began to write haiku-like poems in my notebook, each occupying one of its square pages. I would sit and think a moment between pages; then, once I began to write, I didn’t stop until the poem was done, which took only seconds. I felt utterly fluent.
a ways away
a baby cries
there are people
a moon shines
on the city meadow
there is a deepness
a tree in the woods
stands there with
In mid-March, 2019, three friends—Cosimo, Zoe, Anika—and I rented a cabin on one of the gulf islands off the coast of Vancouver, BC. On our second day, Cosimo, who had only tripped once before, took five grams of Golden Teachers, a gentle strain. The rest of us split fourteen grams of a strain about which we knew nothing, save that the friend who'd given them to me had cautioned: “I know everyone says this, but be careful with these.”
So much happened on this trip that I need to break it down into three phases.
Phase one was a joy. We sat out on the lawn at the back of the cabin. The sun was out and the sky so shockingly blue that Cosimo, giggling up at a gap between the evergreen branches, cried out, “The sky can’t do that! No way!” Zoe was curating the music and every song she played was powerful and always just right, as though she knew in advance what I wanted to hear. I rolled around and did something analogous to dancing. At one point Cosimo noticed a strange object in the yard and, reaching toward it but not getting up, said, “What is that?”
I cried, “I’ll be your arm!” and ran over and brought it back to him. It was a decorative ceramic bowl.
But, instead of peaking when we should have, we kept getting higher.
I mark the beginning of phase two with the appearance of the dark elves. At first a hush fell upon the world and everything—the high sycamores, the ocean in the distance, the uncut grass of the wide lawn—was filled with whispers, like language without the backbone of its consonants. Then I looked towards the cabin, and they were there: mischievous faces with a distinct elfish quality. They seemed to grow in the darkness behind the eyelids and superimpose themselves upon the sunlit afternoon. It was the first open-eye, non-geometrical visual hallucination I’ve ever had. But I was slightly dissociated: I only faintly understood them as hallucinations. I knew intuitively that if I kept looking things could get scary, so I looked away.
Strangely, I found that even if I closed my eyes and looked in their direction, towards the cabin, they would be there. Their faces formed and swayed in the blackness. But again I knew it was wrong to look, so I turned away.
Then something more frightening happened.
Zoe and Cosimo were inside. To my right, Anika was repeating fragments of song lyrics and questions: “What is reality?” “Lift me up!” “Where are we?” I was enjoying the sunlight, writing things in my notebook. The things I wrote, however, are more sloppy and discombobulated than they normally were. This is one of the few fragments I can make out:
time tries to give it to you as nonsense
Suddenly I was interrupted by a choking sound. Anika was laying on her back and her throat was filled with vomit.
I was paralyzed. I had never been so high in my life, and I was only just realizing this. My body felt iron-heavy. But somehow I got up. I ran over to her. I remember looking for red and feeling a kind of relief when I saw none. I sat her up and did a few J-thrusts. When her airway was clear, vomit spilling down her front, I ran into the cabin and got Cosimo and Zoe. Together we lugged Anika out of the sun and into the tiled floor of the dining room.
Still, we were not sure if she was dying or not. She vomited and coughed and babbled, and one moment I thought, this is normal, she’s breathing, everything’s good—then suddenly she broke out in these terrible choking sounds and murmured, “Please, please, please!” and I descended into terror. She flailed about and I held her to keep her head from knocking against the counter. Her eyes rolled back and her tongue flicked in and out. Her smile was awry. I had the sense of something demonic: I did not see my friend Anika in those eyes, I did not see a person.
To be clear: Anika really had been choking on her own vomit, and if no one had intervened she really could have died. I was tripping, but I knew this. As for the reason she blacked out, that is still unclear. She is a small person, and her body was dealing with a mild cold at the time; the dosage might have been too much. It was almost too much for me. I was far higher than I had ever been, and I was used to five gram trips.
While I held her, I exchanged many worried glances with Cosimo, who hovered over us, providing warmth and support. We wanted to give her some water, but she was in no state to drink; we vacillated endlessly. At this point I was finally peaking and the time dilation was extreme: every single second was a long narrow tunnel. I kept thinking, “This is still happening. How much time must we still get through?” Then I would be distracted, and the thought would reset: “Oh shit, I’m still here.”
In the worst moments, when I was sure Anika was dying, I was compelled to reinterpret the world. Reality was not what I thought, and I was no longer where I’d thought I’d been.
This is as clear I can put it. We know that the difference between life and death is vast. Like the line between land and sea, there is an absolute divide: on the one side trees grow and people build houses, and on the other side there is nothing. But in those moments holding Anika, that difference was stripped of all value. I regarded the duality as a god might: here I was on the one side intuiting the other, and I understood, deeply, that it was an arbitrary divide. We live here and not there, and the only reason we did not voluntarily cross over was just that we were used to things this way. It was overwhelming, and I kept thinking, Oh my God, Oh my God. It doesn’t matter if I die. I knew what I’d realized was true and that it made all fear of death irrelevant. But it felt wrong, it felt ugly. It was meaningless, meaningless. Life, death, they were incommensurate yet together, a part of this same great holy ungraspable ongoing Thing that didn’t matter.
I felt the scaffolding of my life collapse. The habits and desires that kept me going drifted apart like space junk. I was, at that time, working on a novel in my spare hours; now I could not imagine returning to it. I had planned a trip to Haida Gwaii with my Mom later that month; I could not imagine going anymore. My projects seemed pointless, having nothing to do with anything. People in my life came to mind, and they were placeholders of themselves; their personhood was missing. It was a feeling of cosmic doom. What was happening here with Anika, who was dying, was happening to all of us, though we were not dying. It was revealed to me: this was, in fact, what life was. I was not, none of us were, so much a person as I’d thought.
I considered killing myself. Since it did not matter if I died, it did not matter if I lived: either way I was obliterated. Even now I was gone, yet somehow still around to see it. There were knives in the kitchen, a few arm spans away. My eyes kept seeking them out. I could do it. I could.
But I didn’t. There was a line between life and death that, once crossed, could not be uncrossed. I knew this and held this knowledge tightly. From the outside it could not have looked like anything—I was just sitting there, holding Anika—but I was fighting for my life.
What brought me back?
At last I became certain that Anika was not going to die. She had been breathing evenly for some time and I felt a strength in her body. She is going to live, I thought. I seized that certainty and did not let it go. I had to use a kind of inner muscle for this—I had to flex my will. It was a little like holding focus on one of those Magic Eye pictures, which involve the minute coordination of the pupil and its ciliary muscles. If I let go of that control, I knew, the terror would be back. Time passed and it became easier, until at last little effort was involved and I allowed myself to feel relief.
That I could feel relief was utterly surprising to me. Before, a positive outcome had been impossible to conceive.
This was the beginning of phase three. Anika was still not herself and I continued to hold her head and keep her in a position to vomit when she needed. But I knew she was getting better. She had started smiling. I’d never seen anyone beam that way, and enhanced by the psilocin, her eyes were astonishingly beautiful. The joy I felt in her being alive was absolute. Cosimo returned and put on classical music. Then he and Zoe helped Anika upstairs into her bed, where she eventually came back to reality with no memory of what had happened.
What had happened?
It turned out that Cosimo, who had been on the Golden Teachers and not on the unknown strain the rest of us had taken, hadn’t lived the same nightmare. (You know only your trip.) Because he had not seen Anika choking on her vomit, he had simply worried about her hydration and protecting her head.
I found this out when, that evening, the two of us made a fire behind the cabin while Anika and Zoe rested inside. I was thankful for the difference between us: if his bliss had been punctured, he would not have been such a grounding presence throughout the terror.
That terror, however, still made me weak to think about.
It was not, I tried to explain, “fear.” It was doom. Fear is when we face an unknown outcome; doom is when we become aware that we are already defeated. In that long nightmare in the dining room of the cabin, holding a friend I thought was dying, I knew that my very selfhood was part of this terrible storm. I was not ontologically separate, with some destiny outside the universe; I was a brief gust in a hurricane of being that was this universe. This is different from the idea of facing your own personal death. I saw that, merely by taking part in this universe, this happening which included death, all of us were already dead. There is no option of victory, no successful spiritual quest, and there never had been. Before our first baby steps we have all already collapsed.
Sitting fireside with my friend Cosimo as the night coalesced around us, trying to explain this view of things, I realized that I had nothing to disprove it. Nothing other than the mere fact that the sense of doom was gone, and that I did not feel dead.
If the reader wonders how, after trip six, I was stupid enough for a trip seven, I do not blame them. But, long before all this, I had promised my younger brother, Noah, I would introduce him to the five-gram heroic dose. So in late June, that’s what we did.
Noah had a great time. For a while he lay on his back staring at the ceiling in awe. I lay down beside him and he told me that the ceiling was pulsing with life, it had become a great intelligent protrusion into our world, patterned and complex; it stretched and kaleidoscoped, interested in us. For a moment I saw it. But I had given myself a lesser dose of three grams, and the vision faded.
Just before this, however, something happened that triggered a negative thought spiral which lasted the entire duration of the trip.
I had been moving around to the music—we were playing Four Tet’s album, New Energy—when Noah, lying on the floor, groaned. My nervous system shifted gears faster than I could think; I was once again looking up to see my friend Anika lying on her back, choking. I thought, Oh shit, what happened on the island is happening again. Noah is having a bad trip, he wants out and he can’t get out. And behind that, quieter: I did this, it was me.
He looked up, grinning.
It was too late for my body to recover, however, and the bad feeling, the doom, was back. It was as though the world had flipped over and I was clawing at the underside. Why did I do this again? I thought. What did I think was going to happen? I had hoped, by having a good time with my younger brother, I might recover for myself what wonder and joy I had found in Psilocybe mushrooms. I had thought the darkness, if I encountered any darkness, would be something else. Now came the sinking realization: but it’s this, it’s this. God help me.
I wrote things in my notebook to comfort myself, and to try to understand what was happening, but my words always felt like distractions, a cover up to what was unbearable. What I really wanted was for the trip to end.
Somewhere along the line I had picked up the idea that the only “key” to psychedelic experience, if there is any key at all, is surrender. If you feel fear, fall into the fear in order to come out the other end. If you think you are dying, even, do not flinch away: it is impossible to overdose. “Whatever terrifying experiences may arise,” go the ritual words of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “they are natural manifestations of actual reality.”
But this anxiety was different.
What disturbs me most in life is not the possibility of “fundamental meaninglessness.” It is the possibility that the discovery of meaning can occur at the same time as the discovery of a fundamental inadequacy of the self to dwell in that meaning. It is the existence of a spiritual imperative to ascend, combined with the certainty of failure. As I spiraled, I lived this fear. I tried to “surrender” to it, but what was supposed to happen did not happen: the anxiety did not become something else. All soothing things, music and good company, could only be sorry salves. Ugly and small, I didn’t want to be human anymore.
To say, “it was just a bad trip,” is reductive. If there is to be any point at all in describing psychedelic experience, it must find its own semantic integrity. I do not believe this was some kind of encounter with the Jungian “Shadow.” I do not believe this was Death, or Suffering. It was something else, something far worse. Doom.
And then, like every trip, it was over.
Juan Matus, the Toltec shaman from Carlos Castaneda’s books, observes that psychoactive plants (which he calls “allies”) can “make you see and understand things about which no human being could possibly enlighten you.” This should not be too strange to veteran users of Psilocybe mushrooms, nor even to those without direct experience of psychedelics. We live in a world that constantly exceeds our language, and each one of us has lived through things we can explain to no one.
I cannot conclude, however, that these experiences have any more claim to truth than others.
Here is what I think. Inconceivably, Ultimate Reality, though unified, is multiple. It is final void and it is Light beyond light. There are those who have dark visions—Thomas Ligotti, or the Terrance McKenna of his last mushroom trip (“a lack of all meaning, a lack of all meaning!”). And there are, more numerously, the religious mystics—Jakob Böhme, Ibn 'Arabî, Julian of Norwhich. Those who insist on one “version” of ultimate reality misunderstand the nature of mystical and psychedelic experience. If there are both mystics of horror and mystics of love, it is the result of difference—perhaps at the level of the self, of character and of deepest desire.
As I mull over these seven journeys into the “realm of the Psilocybe,” especially the last two, I take a kind of comfort in this. I am not obliged to accept my experience of Doom on its own terms.
Recently, I was pleased to see that Erik Davis, in his well-reasoned and entertaining book, High Weirdness, argues something similar. He calls his position weird naturalism. Instead of thinking about visionary or psychedelic experience as pointing to a “beyond,” he locates that “beyond” within the world. What Psilocybe mushrooms can do, he argues, is “open up a space of encounter and evolution that does not transcend so much as loop together culture and consciousness, sacred and profane, romance and realism, gnosis and nature.”
I cannot imagine enduring again what I endured in those last two trips, nor the weeks that followed trip seven in which it seemed I had lost all self-esteem and basic trust in the world. For now, I will give the realm of the Psilocybe a wide birth. One day (who knows) I may add another log to this account, and (who knows) it may change everything once again—change everything, that is, in the manner of Psilocybe: without changing a thing.