The spiritual angle
The mushroom is such a praiseworthy creature! I use the word creature because mushrooms are not plants. Plants eat light from heaven, but fungus, like us, eats things of the earth. You and I are evolutionarily more closely related to mushrooms than we are to plants. Animals evolved from fungus when they began to wrap their digestive systems inside skin – animals have their stomachs inside their bodies; fungus has its stomach on its outside.
What we call the mushroom is the fruit of the creature – the mycelial web, a network of fibers that can run for miles, unseen, under the soil. When ready, the creature sends up its graceful phallic fruits which succulently woo their way into the mouths of animals so that their spores can be distributed by the ones who walk. Or, in praise of the air and light after a life in the dark underworld, the fruits burst open and ecstatically spurt forth their spores with up to 25,000 times the force of gravity.
In the dark under-earth, the creature spreads itself out in a fungal net, reaching between and around the roots of plants. It holds space between the plants, and it also holds space between tiny soil particles so that air and water can flow in and around. This space creates healthy soil.
Most magnificently, the fungal creature answers the prayers made by the plants. They pray for certain microscopic nutrients, and the fungal creature finds them in the soil and delivers them to the plant. Actually, it's not really prayer, but trade. The plants excrete sugars from their roots – pure sunlight distilled into alluring food for the fungus. And in trade for the sugars, the fungus brings the nutrients.
And the wondrous miracle perhaps you have heard about: When distressed plants send chemical signals (prayers?) requesting support through the fungal network, healthier plants deliver those nutrients, which are carried back to the sick plants through the fungal network. The fungus is the communication network for the plant kingdom. The "mushroom" is the earth mother's nervous system.
But there's even more primary wonder to the fungus. Every ecosystem on earth began with bare rock. Only bacteria and lichens can live on bare rock. But slowly, both of these begin to chip away at the rock, forming the very first thin soil. The first shallow-rooted plants take form in the thin soil and, as they die, they become the birthplace of the fungi – the great decomposers (along with bacteria). As the fungi digest the dead plants, it creates thicker soil filled with nutrients. Paul Stamets, the wizard of mycology, calls the fungi the "grand molecular disassemblers of nature; the soil magicians."
We know that there have been two cataclysmic asteroid impacts that wiped out 90% of life on earth both times, and the fungi inherited the earth. Organisms that paired with fungi through these disasters tended to survive.
I wanted to deliver that information about the fungi to you so that you can enter your spiritual work with it on a deeper level. Muse a little on these ideas:
The fungus is:
- In shamanic language: an underworld ally.
- The nervous system of the Great Mother Earth.
- Like Hermes/Mercury, the magical communicator between realms.
- The earth's natural internet.
- The deliverer of nutrients to the sick and food to the healthy. (In the brain, the "nutrients" pour in through the newly opened neural connections that allow information that is always in the brain, but usually stopped, to flow into consciousness.)
- The one who holds space for us.
- The Ancient One, our primordial ancestor, just a little younger than the rocks themselves.
- The Spirit of dismemberment – the "Dark Mother," the other face of the green Earth Mother we so love to talk about. The Dark Mother comes to clear away what needs to go, and disassemble what has outlived its usefulness, in order to make room for new life. It is the one who transforms old pains, losses and mistakes into new life.
- The ever present "yet-to-be manifested" sea of creation under all visible things.
- The vast, intelligent network beneath our feet. (Paul Stamets)
- The great repairer of traumatized soil.
- The unseen life of every forest, and indeed of everything, the link between every life form.
- The one who forms partnerships with many other life forms. The living embodiment of "all my relations" and "we are all connected."
- The rescuer of life after disaster – the one who carries life through the next apocalypse.
People have been using mushrooms in a sacred manner for at least 9,000 years (likely far longer than they’ve used ayahuasca).
The vast majority of fear we may feel about psychedelic mushrooms has been implanted in us by the paranoia of the 1960's from a culture that does absolutely nothing about alcohol, tobacco and guns (revenue producers!), gleefully addicts people to prescription drugs of all kinds (revenue!), and does everything possible to keep people from having direct access to expanded states of connection with the divine (interferes with revenue!).
The vast majority of formal research done in the West with all psychedelics (1940's-60's) has been in sterile therapeutic laboratories. Research in the USA was stopped by the government in the late 1960's. A recent resurgence in formalized studies is very promising, particularly in regard to depression.
Informal research has been done at uncountable hippie parties, teenager-filled basements and campgrounds. The incredible rarity of serious health issues resulting from these many informal studies demonstrates the overall safety of using psilocybin.
However, both the sterile lab and the party basement are less conducive to a spiritual experience than a solid ceremonial container. Certainly chemicals in plants can open doors, and even blow the doors off their hinges. But is that what you are truly seeking? A dramatic story to tell?
Most people view mushrooms as a party drug because of their associations with the 1960's hippie scene. That's unfortunate, because for thousands of years before the hippies turned on and tuned out, the mushroom has been a gift from the Grandfather of Wisdom and Awe, wrapped up by a loving Earth Grandmother and given to us as joyful medicine to help us become larger, cleaner, more loving humans.
If you actually want to learn something spiritually valuable, or want to download useable, long term wisdom, I suggest you attend carefully to the Set (your intentions, hopes, and visions for yourself) and the Setting (the physical space, the energy of the group, and the skill of the facilitator to create and hold safe, sacred space, to sing and speak the prayers that move the energy in the right way, and to manage the energies that arise during the ceremony).
My own perspective of ceremonial space is shaped by my experiences working with a family of Shipibo ayahuasqueros from the upper Amazon and other master teachers with decades of wide-ranging experience, along with my own 25 years of creating various types of ceremonies. My experiences have taught me a profound love of, and respect for, the power of the ceremonial container. I believe firmly that without a good container, in the least, your experience is less spiritually valuable, and in the most, a bad container or absent container opens you to distracting or malevolent energies.
The active hallucinogenic substance in ayahuasca is dimethyltryptamine, commonly known as DMT. The active hallucinogen in mushrooms is psilocin. These are nearly identical in molecular structure, and both produce similar consciousness-expanding effects. The DMT molecule exists everywhere in nature, including in our own brains. It is sometimes called the spirit molecule.
Ayahuasca is a brew cooked for many hours that combines at least two (and usually more) plants. Some of the plants contain DMT, and others contain chemicals to let the body readily absorb the DMT. Psilocin in mushrooms is not immediately broken down by the body as is DMT, so it doesn’t need that other help. It is often said that mushrooms are nature’s straightforward gift of the DMT molecule while ayahuasca is a human-made brew that delivers the DMT molecule.
Some people say that ayahuasca digs deeper into the body as a healing spirit, and that is why vomiting (purging/cleansing) is so much a part of the work. It is true that mushrooms rarely cause purging, but they also can deliver physical effects – heat, cold, trembling - that are also a type of physical cleansing and release. It is common to say that ayahuasca journeys are more intense - like a rocket ship compared to the mushroom's jet fighter. But it is also said that every single use of either depends on set and setting.
Ayahuasca is considered a medicine of the sacred feminine, and mushrooms are often considered medicine of the sacred masculine. Sometimes people say that ayahuasca works more in the heart and mushrooms can tend to be are a bit more mental. I have not found that to be consistently true – once again, set and setting, intentions and prayers. One teacher told me that when working with mushrooms, you just need to remind it to open the heart and work there.
One aspect of the "mental" quality of mushrooms: researchers have seen that psilocybin makes the brain hyper-connected, opening fully the connections that are already there, but blocked. (Perhaps like trust in the presence of Spirit, and an awareness of being related to everything.) Psilocybin has been shown to re-organize connections and link previously unconnected regions of the brain. These connections were not random, but appeared very organized and stable. Studies have shown psilocybin doesn’t just create temporary experiences; it can cause neurological changes that last over a year. These changes resulted in a personality that was more open to the creative arts and became happier, even 14 months after receiving the psilocybin. This again speaks to "set and setting" - to make sure that the prayers and intentions framing the experience are good and solid.
One big difference between the two medicines is that mushroom journeys can often involve a great deal of laughing (as well as deep weeping as a profound release). In my ayahuasca experiences, laughing is far less common - perhaps because it's difficult to laugh while purging, recovering, or waiting for the next purge. I find laughter to be incredibly healing, and this is a major benefit to Mushrooms.
Finally, the body builds up a tolerance for psilocin which means that you may feel less effect if you take it again within two weeks (but, again, set and setting). Ayahuasca can be taken many times in a row without diminishing its effects (in fact, often multiple closely staged ceremonies weave together into a whole). It's likely (but not a given) that several psilocybin uses in a row at the same dosage will diminish in strength.
You don't need to do any kind of severe dietary preparation to work with mushrooms. This is one of the advantages of mushrooms over ayahuasca. However, much of a spiritual ceremony is in your preparation and commitment. Spending time (for example, seven days) clearing your diet, abstaining from distractions and energetic expenditures, and focusing your prayers and intentions can only help the fungi work with you.
At minimum, for a couple of days before taking mushrooms you should abstain from overly heavy, greasy, spicy foods and cut back on dairy, sugar and caffeine if you have a lot in your diet. Basically eat cleanly, and let your body relax. You don't need to fast the day of, but if you want to for ceremonial purposes, you may. Some sources recommend having a light meal 2 hours before the ceremony to give energy and avoid light nausea. Warm tea, citrus and dark chocolate are sometimes part of a ceremony itself. No alcohol, marijuana or sex (including masturbation) at least 24 hours before. Alcohol is a bad mix, marijuana can weaken your protective field, and abstaining from sex smooths out your temperature and stores energy.
Health, medications and caveats
- Psilocybin has demonstrated therapeutic potential against a range of mental conditions including cluster headaches, OCD, treatment-resistant depression, terminal illness-related anxiety, and dependence on various substances such as smoking and alcohol. These changes are also usually catalyzed by a single or a few doses of psilocybin. It is said that psilocybin does in thirty seconds what antidepressants take weeks to do. It is said that psilocybin opens closed connections in the brain (that’s the "mind-expanding" experience) but also that these connections may stay open for weeks after, and perhaps even permanently. Again, we need more wide-ranging studies to accumulate new data to make any definitive claims.
- There has been scant research performed on the interaction between psychedelics and antidepressants because research with mushrooms was stopped in 1971 and SSRI anti-depressants didn't exist until 1987. But there is evidence, based on small and not well-controlled studies. Check out the many links at the end of this article.
- Unlike Ayahuasca, which is chemically dangerous when mixed with prescription drugs, there is no evidence of psilocybin having contraindications with antidepressants containing Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
- The (again, scant!) research so far shows that antidepressants with SSRI's or MAO inhibitors reduce or nullify the effects of psilocybin. But this in no way suggests that you should just take more psilocybin.
- Tricyclic antidepressants and lithium may amplify the effect of psilocybin.
- Because the research is scant, I would think carefully before ingesting mushrooms while also taking antidepressants.
- Psilocybin is still classed as a Schedule 1 drug in the US - with no currently accepted medical use, and therefore illegal. I do not advise anyone to break the law.
- In late 2018, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy designation for psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression, which will help expedite its approval as long as results from clinical trials remain positive.
- If your regular blood pressure is over 140/90 you should not take this medicine because it can have a tendency to raise blood pressure. (However, people often use mushrooms if their blood pressure is controlled by medication – but again, please be thoughtful.)
- Don't take psilocybin if you're pregnant. If you have a history of schizophrenia or severe bipolar conditions, you should only consume psychedelics in the presence of a medical doctor.
- It's best not to take any psychedelic if you are in a severe mental crisis, or under unusual, severe stress, or are in a severe physical health crisis.
- Psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive drug in mushrooms, usually leave the body in less than a day. However, the drugs can remain in the system of people who frequently use the drug for up to three days. Drug tests for magic mushroom use are uncommon.
- I'm not a medical doctor, chemist, pharmacist or scientist. All of the information in this article has come from internet research (see below).
Because mushrooms are easier to come by than other plant medicines, there has been more experimentation with how to ingest them. They can merely be eaten fresh or dried, or put into warm (not hot) water and made into tea (but remember to also eat the mushrooms at the bottom of the cup, or you won't get a full dose – plus, why waste them?). Mushrooms can also be dried, ground and put into gelatin capsules. They can be rolled into candy and pastries and mixed into pasta. On and on it goes. The medicine takes effect most quickly in tea or by eating them directly. In capsule form and other prepared forms, it takes longer since the body also needs to break down the "container" (the caramel or the capsule).
For me personally, perhaps because I value the discomfort of ayahuasca ceremonies and other shamanic work I've done, I think eating the dried or fresh mushrooms is more natural and ceremonial than eating mushroom powder folded into a salted caramel. This is purely personal preference. I also like the warm tea because preparing it, holding it and making prayers into the liquid is more ceremonial. And I love eating the little wet slimy bodies of the mushrooms at the bottom of the tea, because, first it’s a little gross and I like that discomfort, but also, it's very immediate to ingest the body of the Spirit – the "flesh of the God" as it is called sometimes.
A typical ceremonial dose is around 3 grams of dried mushrooms, but I have found that 4 grams is better for deeper ceremonial work. People often use far less and go on walkabouts in nature, and even higher dosages are used for therapeutic work with a medically trained therapist. However, body weight, emotional state, metabolism, previous mushroom experience, and advice from the mushroom spirit should all be taken into account to determine dosage. Try to remember that you are working with a living spirit, and the goal is not to shoot yourself to Andromeda, but to ask Spirit to help you with some prayers you are making for your life.
Locating a practitioner
Psilocybin-assisted therapy (PAT) about to explode on the scene. There are already schools teaching therapists how to integrate MDMA into their work, and psilocybin should be next. However, since both are still illegal, locating a therapist who uses either is a challenge. PAT is led by trained therapists who are also trained in the use of psychedelics to enhance therapy – it is not the same as ceremony.
If you are looking toward ceremonial experience, my advice is to find someone who has skills holding a ceremonial container, has a solid relationship with the mushroom spirit (and other plant spirits and spirit guides) and has the personal gravitas to work with people if they encounter a difficult ride. (This is far less likely and common with psilocybin than with ayahuasca, but it can happen). It's not easy to locate a practitioner in a culture where it's illegal. Typically it will take some asking around, and it may take a while.
It's my view that a reliable ceremonial facilitator will want to make sure they have met you, or that you are referred by someone they know. They will ask you to fill out a health questionnaire so they know if there are any potential risks for you. They will make sure you are safe and well watched over by them and/or by "sitters" who are not taking medicine. They will stay with you for the entire ceremony and won't vanish. They won't take a full dose along with the group, but a lower "working" dose. They will insist that everyone in the ceremony, at minimum, agrees to two things: total confidentiality and no sexual interaction, including suggestive comments, flirting, or touching.
Also remember that you have been raised in a culture that has a twisted relationship with expansive experiences, with nature, and with Spirit. Tobacco kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, but in the Amazon it is considered the most powerful of healing plants. Why? Because of our twisted approach to it the plant Spirit. You've read articles about how one experience with this or that entheogen totally cured this or that thing. These stories are probably not untrue, but remember that in our drama-seeking marketplace, articles that describe "my Peruvian ayahuasca experience where nothing happened and I came back just as full of envy and sadness" don't get published. If anyone promises you that one or two doses of anything will cure your life, or that a super high dose will cure your life better than a moderate dose, run. The antidote to spiritual greed, panic or desperation is relationship with Spirit, which is 99% of the time, slow and difficult, filled with beauty, wonder, discomfort and temporary disappointment. Always ask Spirit to cleanse your heart of arrogance, impatience and stubbornness.
If you do want to make contact with a practitioner, it is really best to use communications that are as private as possible. It's best to use a free encrypted email service like Protonmail or a free texting encrypter like Signal. If you email someone, it's best to use euphemisms for the work and the medicine rather than specific terms. Vague phrases like "I'd like to find out more about your deep work" or "Are you on Signal or Protonmail?" are good ways to open a conversation. Some practitioners will not answer any email that is too specific. And always, always keep your contact with the person confidential. For the love of God, don't go around boasting that you know so and so who does this work. Ask the practitioner's permission before referring anyone to them.
The mushroom is often considered an energetically masculine medicine. (Well, just look at them!) But looking at some of the common names, you may remain open about that:
- Teonanacatl (Nahua/ Mexico): "Flesh of the Gods"
- nti si tho (Mazate/ Mexico) "(Little) Ones Who Leap Forth"
- Pequeño niño - "little child"
- Duendes (Spanish/"dwen-dayz") and "Aluxes" (Mayan/'alushes'): mythical elf-like creatures that play pranks and steal from people at nighttime.
- Llas mujercitas ("the little women")
- Las pequeñas mujeres los niños ("the children")
- las pequeñas hermanas ("the little sisters")
- niños santos ("holy children")
- Princesa noble de las aguas ("Noble princess of the waters")
A few resources:
- MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is one go-to source for current science. https://maps.org/research/other-research
- EROWID.org is another broad source: https://www.erowid.org/
- "Everything you need to know about Shrooms": https://tripsafe.org/shrooms/
- Magic Mushrooms Do the Opposite of Anti-Depressants, But That May Be Why They Work: https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-discovered-how-magic-mushrooms-alleviate-depression-antidepressants-psilocybin-amygdala
- Psychedelics and antidepressants: https://thethirdwave.co/psychedelics-antidepressants/
- Here is a piece with specific info on SSRI's, MAO Inhibitors and Psychedelics: https://erowid.org/chemicals/maois/maois_info4.shtml
- Webinar: hour long, boringly delivered but informative, from the University of Minnesota: https://mncamh.umn.edu/webinar/the-tripping-cure-psychedelic-assisted-therapies-past-present-and-future/
- Magic Mushrooms and Ayahuasca: https://www.asahota.com/blogpost/2017/10/10/ayahuasca-vs-mushrooms-whats-the-difference
- Which came first, plants or fungi?: http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=518