Mushrooms as Spiritual Teachers
The human use of fungi for changing consciousness extends far into pre-history. Arguably, the first food product humans produced was a mead (honey wine). Early humans, so the thought goes, at some point discovered that by placing a beehive in a small body of water and then coming back a few days or weeks later, they would find the water transformed into an intoxicating drink. Many cultures around the world have since seen alcoholic drinks as a gift from the gods that allowed them to temporarily shed their ego and find deeper levels of connection with other people.
A Brief History
Archeological evidence does show that many cultures around the world used these fungi for ritualistic and sacred practices. The earliest depiction of entheogenic mushroom consumption might be a cave painting found in the upper Tassili platueu of northern Algeria that dates to at least 5,000 B.C., if not older.
Since that time, many other cultures around the world have developed rich traditions that utilize psychoactive mushroom species to bring about profound insight into the human predicament. In Mexico, the Mazatec and Aztec cultures have a well documented use of San Isidro (Psilocybe cubensis) in that region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In Siberia, the use of the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) for intoxication is not only a long-standing tradition in with shamanic tribes of that area but has also been linked to the origination of the myth of Santa Claus! For more information on this, watch the free documentary The Pharmacratic Inquisition.
Even in the West, psychoactive fungi seemed to have played a significant role in the development of culture. In ancient Greece, the great statesmen and philosophers of the day would take part in an annual ritual to honor Persephone and Demeter that included the consumption of a visionary fungal drink. These highly secretive ceremonies, known as the Eleusian Mysteries, were multi-day events that perhaps contributed to some of the ideas and profound insights that laid a foundation to the great philosophical movements of the era. The ingredients used in the sacred drink are not known with certainty, though evidence suggests it might have been made from an extract of Ergot (Claviceps purpurea), an infectious fungal agent in rye that contains psychoactive derivatives of lysergic amide (LSA).
In the early part of the 20th century, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman was studying extracts of Ergot for use as a hemostatic to control excessive bleeding during births. In the process of synthesizing the compounds in Ergot, Hoffman accidentally produced Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a powerfully psychoactive compound, in 1938.
In the 1950s, banker, JP Morgan Vice President, and amateur ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson made a trip to Mexico to follow up a lead about a supposed mushroom practice outside the city of Oaxaca. Wasson eventually encountered Maria Sabina, the carrier of a shamanic tradition which used psychoactive fungi for inducing visions as part of a healing practice. Wasson took part in several mushroom sessions with Sabina and thereafter came back to the states to write an expose on the story for Life Magazine. The story became a sensation and soon bohemians, beatniks, and early hippies were heading to the Sierra Madres of Mexico in search of Sabina’s “holy children.” Some of these people later discovered how to cultivate these mushrooms on their own, in their closets. Thus began the era of home-scale mushroom cultivation.
During the 1960s and 70s, the large scale production and use of LSD and “magic mushrooms” created a significant cultural shift in the US and abroad. In tandem with a variety of social movements of the era, these substances helped their users see the value in honoring the planet and each other. Eventually, these substances were made illegal and classified as Schedule I drugs in the US (on par with heroin and cocaine). Despite the scant medical or anecdotal evidence to support such extreme decrees, LSD and many of the psychoactive mushrooms remain illegal today in many parts of the world.
Medical Applications of Magic Mushrooms
John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, has been conducting government approved studies over the last few years into the use of psilocybin (the active compound in most magic mushrooms) for medical purposes.
Studies with “psychedelic naive” patients repeatedly affirm that the use of this substance, even in one 5-hour session, can have profound and long-lasting effects on treating or controlling a range of mental and emotional disorders. Most notably, people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), chronic anxiety, or severe depression have all been shown to be living significantly improved lives after treatments with psilocybin; even 6 months later, when follow up studies are performed. Interpersonal dynamics are often improved as patients re-discover the beauty and brevity of life that is found in the psychedelic experience. People who are close to death or have terminal illnesses have repeatedly been shown to live fuller, happier lives, despite their diagnosis, after a controlled psilocybin experience. The experience gives these patients insights into the death process and, again, the value of life to the point that they are better able to accept their fate and embrace every sacred moment of life they have left to live. On a physical level, micro doses of psilocybin are able to completely treat or reduce cluster headaches, which have been reported to be so painful that some people have committed suicide over the pain.
It should be noted here that prior to the outlawing of LSD and psilocybin in the 1960s, both compounds were regularly used in clinical applications for psychedelic psychotherapy to treat many psychological and emotional disorders. A resurgence in this type of therapy is currently being pursued and supported by doctors and researchers working with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Psilocybin is less toxic than aspirin or caffeine.
The Teachings of the Sacred Fungi
For those who have never consumed the entheogenic fungi, it is relatively easy to argue that the visions and insights experience by users are mere “hallucinations.” For the user, however, it is quite the opposite. The experiences had on higher doses of psilocybin are often found to be of such profundity that they are frequently described as, well, something that can’t be described.
Psilocybin is a boundary dissolving compound that, in some sense, strips the user of their ego and sense of individuality. Once the ego and contrived perceptions of one’s place and purpose in the world is set aside, the user soon comes to realize and sense a deep interconnectedness with the other lifeforms of the world/cosmos. This process is often described in terms similar to a mystical or deeply spiritual experience. For the user, this experience is far from a hallucination, and the insights and sensations imparted can often be seen as a turning point in one’s life. If a typical psilocybin session had to be summarized, one could argue that the main lessons gained from these fungi is that all life has inherent value and to take care of that life. This lesson extends from caring for one’s self, to those around them, to all the earth’s inhabitants, to the earth, and to the complex and dynamic multiverse beyond.
One turn off for some people who have never taken the sacred fungi is a fear of the infamous “bad trip.” These experiences typically involve deep sensations of fear, dread, or an unidentifiable presence that is unwelcome. While these sensations are unpleasant, they can often be resolved and cut short with the help of a “sitter,” a sober and experienced friend who sits through the session to offer verbal and physical support and reassurance for those difficult moments. Other “bad trips” come about when the user is confronted with inner wounds, personal, and interpersonal trauma or drama that is painful and unresolved. While this type of confrontation with one’s shadow aspects are never fun in the moment, in the long run they are often very insightful experiences that help the user see the root causes of unhealthy physical and mental habits. This is some of the medicine these fungi provide. Good tips on how to avoid a bad trip can be found here.
Taking the Sacrament
Consuming the sacred fungi is not something to be taken lightly. While many people in western cultures are introduced to these fungi in a more casual or party-like environment, it is recommend to approach these fungi as something to be honored and respected. The best psychedelic experience is had when taking advantage of the following recommendations:
- Eat the fungi on an empty stomach.
- Clear your calendar and head of any drama, commitments or concerns (ideally have the next 24 hours more or less open).
- Take them in a safe, comfortable place. Some prefer during the day and outside. Others like indoors at night. Some like to take large doses and sit/lie in silent darkness to take a deep inner exploration.
- Be surrounded by only your closest and more loved and trusted friends and family.
- Go in to the experience with an openness. Some people like to go in with questions, others like to see what comes.
- Have water on hand. Dress appropriately for the weather and be prepared for any change in weather. Be prepared for anything you might want or need to feel happy, safe, and secure.
- Take the sacred fungi rarely and always with respect. Honor this natural gift and give thanks for the lessons and healing you receive.
A beginner dose of Psilocybe cubensis (the most common ‘shroom) is around 0.75-1.5g (dried). A more experienced user often consumes 1.5-3.5g (dried). A large dose would be around 3.5-5.0g or more (dried). Other species contain varying amounts of the active ingredients and should be consumed in different amounts. Folks at the Shroomery offer this dosage calculator to help guide your experience.
Cultivating the Sacred Fungi
Cultivating psilocybin containing mushrooms is illegal in the United States and many other countries around the world. Radical Mycology does not encourage the illegal cultivation of these fungi. That said, for informational reasons we will state that cultivating these mushroom species follows the exact same concepts and practices used to cultivate the edible and medicinal fungi. This main thing to pay attention to is whether the given mushroom species prefers wood-based substrates (such as Psilocybe cyanescens and P. azurescens) or compost-based substrates (such as P. cubensis).