An Account of the Magic Mushroom
by Hugh Sjöstedt - November 16, 2009
This account of my, 'my', experience of magic mushrooms begins on a walk with my brother through paths and fields in an isolated Cornish landscape. It's late October and the weather is particularly foggy. We turn into a grazed set of fields facing north. I was later to discover that this set of conditions is the ideal for the occurrence of the most common, and amongst the most potent, magic mushroom in the British Isles: psilocybe semilanceata, or, the Liberty Cap.
Fortunately my brother was an amateur mycologist and so immediately recognised the distinctive appearance of these little fungi: a cream colouration throughout the thin, crooked stem and the bell-shaped cap. Most distinctive though was the 'nipple' apex. We spent a few hours gathering a hundred or so specimens. At home I placed them to dry and began reading about the organism, chiefly to gauge the safety of its ingestion.
A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon now in London, I mix about forty-five of the 'shrooms', as is their colloquialism, into three pots of yoghurt, to avoid their earthy taste. My girlfriend is with me in our flat -- it is important that she is in my company as a loving anchor to reality, 'reality', as my studies indicated that deep fear can arise in rare cases.
After an hour not much has occurred. I feel somewhat light but not much else. I read the newspaper but lose interest. Half an hour later I begin to feel disappointment because I am not experiencing the effects I had read others experience. But now a drunken state befalls me and I simply want it to end. If I had wanted to become drunk, I should have enjoyed the taste of a fine beer as well, rather than the muddiness of dried fungus. As a result, I have a slight anxiety simply to return to my usual state of mind. But then I decide to consider this anxiety as a phase of the trip I realised was now, two hours later, emerging. The anxiety left and the journey began.
I should say now that this new state of being consisted of a variety of quite different phases, both mentally and physically (if I may for now use that standard dichotomy). It was as if I had taken several distinct drugs one after the other, although certain features were constant such as spatial and temporal distortion. The first phase in fact began with spatial distortion. I looked at the printer whilst sitting at my desk and it seemed to expand slightly, then retract, as if (I think now) it had a rib cage and lungs within so to breathe. I then turned to the right and stared at a paper yellow, lit lampshade. Its two-tone yellow texture suddenly became three dimensional, having a depth of a centimetre or so. Fantastical interwoven streams flowed thereon, resembling a choreographed serpent dance or an animated Celtic, Nordic and Saxon weave design, as witnessed on historic jewellery and weapons. It is speculated that the Vikings at least took another hallucinogenic, or entheogenic, fungus -- the Fly Agaric - which induced the berserker rage where the warrior became one with his wolf or bear shirt ('ber-serk'). To speculate, perhaps the mushroom also influenced the Northern European design style.
Next, I stood up but noticed that I had lost some control of my body. My movements were slow and clumsy. I slumped on the sofa and closed my eyes. I was overcome by a rich, deep, warm, loving calmness. I felt more comfortable than I have ever felt in my thirty years of life. I knew that my partner was close to me so I had no reason for an anxiety caused by feeling out of control. That sofa was so perfect, as was the room temperature, as was everything. This sweet happiness lasted with me for most of the trip, but there on that couch I embraced it fully. Here as well time now distorted in the sense that I did not know whether I had immersed myself in the calm for a few minutes or a few hours.
The next step down the rabbit hole revealed what seemed to be a portal to another reality. What I experienced with my eyes closed far exceeded what I experienced with those wide-pupiled eyes open. I 'saw' the most awe-inspiring patterns and space-scapes, perpetually in motion. I witnessed gigantic, multicoloured layers, now and again becoming more directly three-dimensional. It's difficult to describe, but sometimes a three-dimensional image became properly three dimensional, such as the difference between seeing a three-dimensional object on television and seeing it in everyday reality. At that point, I felt as if it were therefore real (though I shall qualify that adjective later, as well as the personal pronoun).
In this inner world, where I felt as if I travelled through the universe, I at one point arrived at a super-structure of pointy luminescent sheets which converged at a centre point, like a star-sized, wide mechanical rose. This structure was a sentience, however, an alien being who tried to communicate with me. I here thought that perhaps (I was not certain) our search for alien life was restricted as humanity was only looking for it in the eyes-open world, the world Immanuel Kant calls Phenomena. Rather, we should realise that this other world I was accessing was the one which aliens used to make contact. Again, I was aware that I was speculating and certainly did not have the conviction of certainty that William James labelled noetic for mystical experiences. I didn't know, I considered. But, as epistemology reveals, we cannot know, be certain of, much at all even in the phenomenal world. Even the great empiricist David Hume understood the problem of induction and causation which afflicts the science of men. A wishful thinker could have easily interpreted his experiences here as evidence of aliens, or even of God.
Many people consider their psilocybin experiences as spiritual. This is partly a semantic issue: if one means by spiritual, metaphysical, then this experience is spiritual. What is experienced goes beyond the physical world. Of course one could see a physical cause of the metaphysical experience, viz. that the Liberty Caps' psilocybin is dephosphorylated to psilocin which then mimics the effects of serotonin in the brain's serotonin receptors. This is a physical cause of the experiences; but the cause should not be conflated with the effect. A third-person explanation of an experience is never a sufficient explanation as it excludes the first-person experience. As Thomas Nagel illustrates, though we can theoretically know exactly how a bat's brain operates, we can never know what it is like to be a bat - we cannot enter the bat's first-person perspective. Likewise, though we can know what causes a magic mushroom experience - magic mushrooms plus physiology - we cannot thereby know what the experience is of, and more importantly we cannot thereby know whether that experience is of something that has an ontological status beyond my physical self. In sum, the question is open as to whether magic mushrooms make you only hallucinate or whether they allow your mind to access realities which are normally prohibited by the practical modus operandi of the brain and body.
God: I saw two flowing eyes staring at me. I considered them sentient and I still felt bliss. If I were already religious, I should probably have considered this to be proof of God. However, I realised that if I had not the cultural understanding of God from religion, I could not have interpreted my meeting as one with the almighty. I could also have interpreted this as a meeting with aliens desperate to make connections with human beings, or I could have interpreted it as a demon, or even as Satan. A spiritual experience must still be interpreted, and the tools used for interpretation are significantly cultural. The question though is whether religion emerged from such experiences in the past, or whether religion emerged from power structures or human anthropomorphism, etc. I'd argue that what we now call religion has a plurality of origins, drug-induced experiences being one of many.
Writing of the devil, at one point I believed I was the devil, Satan Himself. This was because, I think now, I saw many occult, demonic images but felt completely at ease; as if the dark spirits were my friends. One image I remember in particular was a sort of waterfall, shaped as a goat's head, from which fell and ran tens of wolves, goats and skulls towards me. It was in black and white but covered simultaneously in multicolour. It was very 'heavy metal', a form of music for which I have a penchant. At another point I saw a streaming wall of skulls and iron crosses. It was hell; but I liked it, I was at home here. So it dawned on me that I was probably the Prince of Darkness. I took this all very light-heartedly though the images were intense. I still wonder whether I imagined this because I enjoy metal or whether metallers use these images because they use, it has been suggested, many drugs from where their inspiration derives.
Before I opened my eyes and entered the world of phenomena once more, another realisation and understanding dawned upon me: What was 'me'? I realised that what "I" is, is only one 'thing' as a word. Really, "I" is a conglomerate of many levels. Though I had come to this thought previously in life via the study of Kant, Nietzsche, and some psychology, I had never properly come to this feeling. At one level, I always considered reason to be there, as a judge, a viewer of what was happening to me. Though reason had lost his power over the body and was very easily side-tracked vis-à-vis 'his' line of thought. I considered reason as something which rolled on the underside of my skull, metaphorically. On another level was the unfolding of 'my' imagination. If this was merely imagination, it was also "I" that was its author. But then on another level still "I", another "I", was watching this imagination unfold. Parts of the mind were watching other parts of the mind, so what part was "me"? Again, one understands how this collection of selves was metaphysical as it would make little sense to say that some physical parts of the brain watched other physical parts. The brain process is a necessary cause of my psychological insight, but not a sufficient explanation. Full understanding of the mind cannot be arrived at solely by physical neurology; other types of scientific criteria are needed which as of yet do not exist. Another level of my self was my body. As I opened my eyes, I decided to try reading. Rather surprisingly, when I opened Nietzsche's 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', the first sentence I encountered was, '"My ego is something that should be overcome": that is what this eye says.'
As I got up, I could not walk properly, if at all. At one stage I tried moving to the bedroom but had to crawl back. Gravity was unstable and a great effort of will, if I can use that traditional concept now, was necessary in order to complete the most mundane of tasks. I wanted some paper from my desk two metres away, but realised it was too much for me. The cup of tea my girlfriend had made for me I wanted, but I didn't dare to pick it up as I knew I was not strong enough to do so. I ended up crawling to it on a low table and managed to sip a little. I then looked at my mother's beautiful painting of our house in Cornwall and became exceedingly sentimental considering her great love for me. I then eventually managed to arrive at the other side of the room and looked at my father's abstract watercolour of a harbour town. It became three dimensional and oscillated in and out of the wall like a giant speaker! It was incredibly colourful and fantastic. I noticed the little figures engaged in their daily lives there and fell in love with art. Moreover, my sense and appreciation of art and beauty increased a lot. More so for visual art than music, which was playing on television at one point.
I tried speaking, but was annoyingly always sidetracked in my thought and thus speech. I tried to explain the lack of power over my mind and body by using the analogy of the cartoon character He-man and his alter ego Adam, which seemed perfectly intelligible to me at the time. Just as Adam gains strength over his environment by transforming into He-man, so I needed to make a similar transformation so to gain that power. However, this logic did not translate well through my speech, and my girlfriend just considered me mad, mumbling on about the Masters of the Universe et al.
At a later point I started writing notes, quite odd as I look at them now, in order to not forget my trip. I noted down that art and logic were essentially the same thing as they put 'things together, under a scheme (composition in art, taxonomy in biology)'. This seemed somewhat profound at the time, but now seems a little shallow. However, I do believe this idea could be investigated further, and therefore I realise that the fungus liberated my thoughts enabling seeds to be sown for development when one's mind is less free but more focussed. The term 'Liberty Cap' is hence quite fitting for such mushrooms.
Despite common recounts of psilocybin journeys, I experienced no colour trails, no auras, but also no nausea (due to fungus digestion). I did not laugh as much as I had read others did. The only negative effects for me were the initial disappointment and brief anxiety, and a temporary moment where I looked at my hands which looked old, grey, decrepit with the fingernails sinking into my fingers. This, however, was rather brief; thereafter everything appeared healthy, fun, friendly, artistic and loveable.
The liberation this experience afforded me has led me to pursue much activity in the form of art creation, psychology, neurology, theology and further philosophy. It is obvious that language and culture encages the potential of our thought, though it hones it. The practical mode of thought inhibits the theoretical; the Liberty Cap liberates the latter by inhibiting the former.