The winter sun was beating down through the open windows of my older sister’s Porsche as we cruised down Pico Boulevard toward the beach, bumper to bumper with other cars in the westward traffic of a warm Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.
“That smells good,” she hollered to the guys in the next car over, pot smoke filling the space between lanes. They motioned to pass a joint through the open windows, my two best pals and I giggling in the back seat. I was 18 and by this point familiar with the terrain of a cannabis high, but I wanted to keep my head clear for later — for what my sister described as “weed plus.”
I’d spent my first semester of college smoking weed out of a hookah with friends, my nights ablaze, as one does in Berkeley. In the daytime, I’d burrow into a pile of books about psychedelic counterculture for an upcoming research paper. I had become obsessed with Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and as if I’d read the guidebook to Paris before a trip, I decided that all my academic probing into psychedelics better culminate in lived experience. So, I bought a half ounce of shrooms and headed to Venice Beach with a few friends for our first time “tripping.” My older sister — a dedicated stoner and a cannabis attorney 14 years my senior — along with a family friend, who was a medical marijuana doctor and a seasoned psychonaut, were there to guide us in case things got too weird.
Unlike acid (which I still hadn’t tried at that point), mushrooms felt like the next level up from cannabis — that is, “weed plus” in the words of my sister. The psychedelic experience, or “trip,” would be longer than a regular weed high, but shorter than 12 hours of LSD. After that first time tripping, I soon learned that, for me, mushrooms and cannabis bring on similar visuals of swirling floral patterns and paisleys in a pink Technicolor palette.
My first time taking mushrooms was easily one of the best, most significant days of my life: playful, exploratory, spiritual. I felt like I was reborn, discovering the world and its wonders for the first time. The shrooms had turned down the volume on the anxiety that defined my day-to-day and turned up the volume on my appreciation for life. For the first time, the phrase “be here now” meant something to me on an embodied level — but like Ram Dass, who ventured to India after coming up and down on countless psychedelic trips during his tenure as a psychiatry professor at Harvard in the 1960s, I too wondered why it seemed I needed mushrooms to feel the way I did. I asked myself, “Would I be able to get there on my own one day?”
It’s a common adage that one can accomplish the same degree of healing in a single psychedelic trip that might otherwise require years of therapy. By the same token, in the psychedelic community it’s often said that “the journey is the medicine.” In other words, such as in the case of mushrooms, it’s not just the psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound, that spurs a neurological reset — it’s the experience of the trip itself. This can come with insights, challenges and joys that consequently foster lessons and memories that nourish the soul and last a lifetime. Science can only attempt to describe this alternative headspace.
Many well-known research institutions such as Johns Hopkins and UCLA are exploring how psilocybin is being used for mental health treatments and can occasion a “mystical experience,” defined by “scale scores” of seven criteria. What scientists are finding is that the degree to which a patient undergoes a mystical experience often correlates to the degree of healing they experience for whatever condition they are treating, be it anxiety, depression, or something else.
“When you optimally screen, facilitate and integrate these [psychedelic] experiences, you can almost reliably facilitate a mystical level kind of encounter, which may be predictive of positive therapeutic outcomes,” said Dr. Charles Grob, psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
To put it bluntly, the promise of psychedelic therapy is forcing researchers to grapple with notions of God or mysticism that have otherwise been absent from Western science and medicine. Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, are well-known for structured spiritual-medicinal approaches and traditions that incorporate psychedelic plant medicine, such as ayahuasca, magic mushrooms or peyote.
Grob notes that clinicians have much to learn from indigenous practices, which “were entirely dependent on a harmonious relationship with the world of nature for shelter, for food, for continuity, and for societal groups.”
He goes on to say that the psychedelic experience may be symbolic of a death and rebirth ritual. That could be thanks to the experience of “ego death” — a psychedelic-induced dampening of the brain’s default mode network (DMN), where the ego resides. Ego death, or “ego dissolution,” can act as a reset for the DMN, helping to rewire thought patterns that were otherwise constrained by the ego, and facilitating an increase in personality traits like openness or empathy.
In breaking out of old thought patterns, a person who experiences ego death may also obtain a degree of healing from habits that previously kept them in a loop, particularly in addiction. Turning down the volume on the ego can also help engender a sense of oneness with the surrounding world, people or nature.
“The ego is looking after us,” Grob says. “There’s good reason to be compassionate toward the ego: It’s trying to do its best, but it’s not useful, and it overshoots in what it does and disconnects us. What psychedelics do is turn down the defenses.”
The ego’s defenses can manifest in addictions, such as eating disorders, compulsions and obsessions. “They’re all a maladaptive defense response to adversity,” says Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.
Through psychedelic therapy, Grob says, we can engineer a context in which it’s safe to let the ego go off duty and allow us to be vulnerable in a caring, nurturing environment. “It’s about going backwards to go forward,” he said. “Being vulnerable to be stronger, more flexible, more capacious.”
Finding the right setting for a psychedelic experience is up to the beholder; it could be in a therapist’s office, a spiritual ceremony, with friends at a music concert, or decidedly alone in the woods. Once that ideal setting is found, one can relax and focus his or her mindset on whatever kind of healing or intention they set out to explore with the help of psychedelic medicine.
Even back in the ’60s, Grob says, pioneer researchers “found that those who had a mystical level experience had improved quality of life.”
With psilocybin in particular, he said, “the replicability and degree to which the trip might happen, and the depth is more apparent”— than perhaps with other psychedelics such as LSD — because the six to eight-hour trip is “easier to control” than something that could otherwise be twice as long.
Despite the growing amount of research, psychedelic scientists have yet to fully comprehend how substances such as psilocybin work in the brain. Psilocybin definitely stimulates the serotonin 2A receptor in the brain and can occasion ego death by dampening the default mode network. Even so, the compound remains a mystery.
That said, there’s mounting evidence that psilocybin — much like cannabis — can facilitate healing from a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders, among others. It can also increase the personality trait of openness, allowing the afflicted to become more amenable to new patterns and solutions, and enhancing general well-being for those who are otherwise already well.
While people who use cannabis medicinally can get a great deal of relief from chronic pain or mood disturbance, Grob says it’s more of a lifestyle drug. “The effects of cannabis are dwarfed in comparison with the potential that psilocybin or LSD might have in evoking a powerful altered state of consciousness that allows individuals to see themselves and the world around them and their lives in a novel manner,” he said.
In other words, psilocybin offers more bang for your buck if you compare it to regular cannabis use.
Around the peak of that Venice Beach mushroom trip so long ago, my friends and I decided to venture out of our apartment and head to the ocean. As the sun set and temps started to cool, the winds picked up.
“I’m shivering, but it’s not me,” I said through chattering teeth. I looked down at my hand with curiosity, flipping my palm over and under, upside and down, as if it was someone else’s hand.
I plopped down on the shore, near the sunset drum circle that takes place every Sunday. It smelled like weed, but I wondered how many others were also on shrooms. I remembered what my sister had said about psilocybin feeling like “weed plus,” but this was so much better. So. Much. Better.
“There’s no competition,” Grob said, when comparing psilocybin and cannabis. “The psilocybin experience has the potential of facilitating a life-changing kind of event.” Precisely how I felt about one of the best, most significant days of my life.
A huge smile crept across my face, and I was feeling more in touch with my essence than ever before. “Ohh, be here now,” I giggled, referencing the phrase and title of Ram Dass’ famous book which my parents had introduced me to as a child. “I get it,” I thought.
It was the first time I felt that sacred sense of time and space, of being in the moment — in my body — without feeling an attachment to the chronological series of events that took me here. I just was, feeling a sense of “is-ness.” I was simply being, and my nervous system, with all its anxieties and temporal attachments, was for once at rest.
My memory of that mind-bending Venice Beach experience remains vivid. The spiritual nourishment and sense of mystique from that day are still with me, infusing my life with the magic of those mushrooms. “These are like waking dreams,” Grob said. “Sometimes it’s important to just sit back and look objectively at the scene playing in front of you, and how that relates to your life.”