[Part 1, a backgrounder on psilocybin – aka magic mushrooms - is here. If you have not done so, I urge you to read that before this post.]
On the day before Christmas last month, I traveled to the home of a guide who would, the next day, be at my side during the five or six hours of a magic mushroom session.
In the years before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had followed reports of research into psilocybin therapy for terminally ill patients and determined that if I ever found myself in that predicament, I would seek to participate.
And so the predicament came to pass.
By December, I had been searching for a magic mushroom guide for a month or two – not an easy trick as psilocybin is illegal, designated a Schedule 1 drug (along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, etc.) by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
I had been anticipating having to muck about in the illicit drug market, of which I have no useful knowledge, but the universe smiled on me when out of the blue, an old friend with whom I had never discussed such matters asked if I was interested in end-of-life psychedelics.
How does something like that happen? And at just the right moment? It's a mystery to me but one of several things recently for which I have no explanation.
My friend put me in touch with a guide and after a long and interesting telephone conversation, the guide and I arranged the time and place for my session.
Over dinner, we spent the first evening discussing how the session would work the next day and the guide asked what my goal was, what I wanted to learn during my “trip.”
As I explained then, I was seeking relief from the fear and terrors that has been plaguing me since my terminal diagnosis in early October. I wanted to find acceptance of death as a normal part of life, gain some peace with the inevitable along with, if possible, some insight to the meaning of life and death.
The next morning, I ingested a measured amount of dried, crushed psilocybin mushrooms mixed with a small amount of ice cream and we moved into a large, beautiful, serene room overlooking a woods in which the background music the guide had selected seemed to me to be just right.
And here is where I get into trouble trying to tell you about what happened over the next five or six hours. It is impossible to do that without sounding like a hippie dippy doofus out of the 1960s.
Fortunately for me, I am not alone. The man who wrote How to Change Your Mind, last year's best-selling book on psychedelics, Michael Pollan, had the same difficulty, as he explained in an article in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. Some excerpts:
”William James famously wrote that mystical experience — perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip — is 'ineffable': beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them...”
“Taking notes during my journeys proved futile. I couldn’t summon the will, and the very effort seemed like a violation of my guides’ first commandment, which was to surrender to the experience.
“So instead I asked them to write down anything I might say. This yielded a handful of mostly useless notes, consisting of vague superlatives like 'Spectacular!' or gnomic utterances like 'I don’t want to be so stingy with my feelings.'”
”What do you do with an insight like 'love is everything'? I wondered aloud. 'Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude?' No, I decided: 'A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To resaturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight.'”
I quoted all that so you won't think I am too much of a hippie dippy doofus – or, at least, not the only one. (There is an excellent interview with Michael Pollan about a lot of this at Fresh Air With Terry Gross.)
A portion of my trip – though I have no idea of the length of time, long or short - involved many doors into empty white rooms. It wasn't entirely that but I don't remember visuals so much as impressions and feelings and maybe some insights to my life.
There were moments of supreme beauty for which I have no words and a strong sense of wellbeing, of connectedness to all living beings and to the universe.
After passing through many doors, I came to one that seemed identical to the others but when I walked through it, a strong sense of peace and contentment enfolded me, and an understanding that dying and living are inseparable; that there is nothing to fear.
And that's the best I can do to tell you what happened.
The next morning, the guide took me through a period of integration guessing correctly that I, being who I am, would be prone to dismiss my experience as not real.
She brought me around to believing otherwise and I have been able to hang on not just to the sense of connection, but to the sense that dying is as normal as living – that they are the same.
So far, since returning home, I have not had any of the terror attacks I'd experienced before the magic mushroom session.
And none of that even begins to explain what happened to me with my guide that day.
Caroline Dorsen, an assistant professor at NYU Rory Meyers School of Nursing, in an interview last June had this to say about her research into guided psychedelic sessions. There is, she says,
”...an underground — and understudied — community of people...helping others to use plant-based hallucinogenic drugs. In guided sessions or ceremonies, facilitators administer drugs like ayahuasca or psilocybin to people looking to alter their consciousness and improve their mental health...
“...plant medicine use is all about facing life’s difficulties in a safe and supportive environment. Used in the context of community and ritual, ingestion of plant medicines (like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms) is seen as a powerful healing modality.
“Ingestion of these plants is taken very seriously and the ability to use them is seen as a privilege.”
Yes. I consider my psilocybin session to be an extraordinary privilege that has redirected my end-of-life journey onto paths I could not have found on my own or without my guide. I am deeply grateful to the universe for dropping this experience into my lap when I had no idea where to turn, and I am exploring a whole new set of assumptions now about living and dying.
There is more than a bit of the sacred about this.