Not everyone knows how to ask for medicine or how to receive it, they [the indigenous healers] tell me, but there is no one in the world who does not need medicine in their lives.1 Kathleen Harrison
Note: The essay below was added to the site over two years ago as I sit here tonight in January of the historic year 2012 (ask me about that in twelve months time.) In the intervening period I’ve come across some potentially valuable information that I’d like to share. I decided to insert it here rather than attempt to harmonize it into the body of the essay. First a disclaimer however: This idea is based on several anecdotal reports and so of course it’s a long way from passing the test of scientific rigor. I offer the information in case it’s of use to some people.
There is reason to believe that the very low-dose quantities of psilocybe mushrooms discussed below may have significant beneficial effects on depression. A leading researcher in this area of ethnobotany—whose name I’ll keep private out of discretion—told a friend of mine that something in the neighborhood of one small mushroom taken each morning could go a long way toward alleviating his depression. I have great respect for this ethnobotanist so I assume she spoke based on at least some experience. I’ve also heard from two people who wrote me in response to the original essay who both said they had experienced noticeable improvements in their depression symptoms.
Though I make no claims to have medical expertise in this or any other matter, I will go so far as to say that there appears to be no evidence whatsoever of physiological harm or contra-indications associated with these small doses of the mushrooms. The LD50—the dosage at which 50% of people would die—is extremely high with psilocybes. There is a danger of encountering frightening experiences with high doses, but not with the barely threshold or less than threshold doses suggested for this and the other purposes discussed in the original essay. There is further information on the dosage issue below so please read on. . . .
It’s well-known to the experienced that medium to high doses of psilocybin mushrooms, given advantageous internal and external conditions—often called “set and setting”—can provoke experiences of stunning insight, visions of great beauty, an abundance of love, contact with spirit entities, and authentic mystical experiences completely beyond the boundaries of the separate ego.
What is much less frequently discussed, in my experience, are the benefits of very low-dose experiences with these mushrooms. I’m talking about doses not too far above the threshold of observable effects. It’s difficult to pin down the exact quantities involved at that level of potency. And if we think of it in terms of medicine, getting the dose right for the desired effects can be important. I’ll return to that concern further down in the article.
I think the best way for me to describe this is to talk about my own experience. Interested readers can extrapolate and experiment from there. I often get together on weekend evenings to play music with friends. On one of these evenings, I went to the home of some friends who have a collection of dried and frozen psilocybe cyanescens that my friend had picked locally. We decided to try an experiment, and this is where any discussion of exact quantities becomes unreliable. We wanted to see how a very low dose would affect the emotions and the mechanics of playing and singing.
We each ate two of what I would call medium-sized, dried mushrooms, the stems perhaps an inch and a half long and the caps half to three quarters of an inch across. Although we didn’t weigh them, previous experience suggests we’re talking about less than a gram of dried weight. We didn’t engage in any special preparation for this, such as fasting for several hours before hand, although I always attempt to make a connection with such medicine plants before consuming them, like with a short prayer, dedication, and expression of gratitude to the spirit of the plant.
I have to make it clear with full disclosure that this was in no way a reliable scientific experiment. We included a little cannabis smoking with the mushrooms, knowing that the two often complement each other quite nicely. The result was that you might say the mushrooms’ effects overrode the somewhat more fuzzy effects of cannabis with a subtle but noticeable sharpness of mind and emotion. I’ve also experienced this sharpness on the three or four other occasions in the past year or so when I’ve done something similar.
One of the results of this sharpness was that my playing became more focused and agile. I don’t play guitar enough anymore to get through most songs flawlessly but on those nights my playing was definitely more on the mark. I also don’t spend the time to memorize lyrics to a lot of the songs these days and instead often use lyric sheets. In these situations I’ve noticed my recollection of lyrics to be noticeably superior to the norm.
In conjunction with the sharpness has been a softening of the heart which has helped me connect to the emotion of the songs. A lot of the songs I like to play have poetic lyrics that don’t necessarily reveal clear and simple meanings. The songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen can be like that. Favorites among the younger songwriters are Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine, and Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver. Writers like these are strong and clear channels for the Muses of metaphor. During these low-dose mushroom sessions I’ve noticed that my mind instantaneously grokked meanings which had previously eluded me.
I’ve seen before with psilocybes and had confirmed again in these experiences that the plant functions as a truth serum of sorts. The mushroom appears to temporarily dismantle inhibition and hesitation to seeing things clearly and talking about personal topics straightforwardly. And it appears to be just as easy to hear these truths spoken about oneself as it is to say them. I’ve had some very intimate conversations with friends where we revealed ourselves without embarrassment and spoke about sensitive issues without raising defensive reactions.
There are a couple of extremely interesting points about these very small doses that bear comment. If you’ve read other writings on this site, articles I’ve written elsewhere, or read my book Returning to Sacred World, you’ll know that my main plant practice is with the Native American Church and that I’m a strong believer in the value and importance of careful, thorough inner and outer preparation for working with these powerful medicines. I agree with Kathleen Harrison’s observation that for most of us in the so-called modern cultures, “We’re not generally wise enough and openhearted enough to take that type of medicine on our own, for casual use, without a teacher, a healer who can show us how it really is medicine.”2
However, it’s not so easy for many of us to find the right circumstances. Where are the experienced mushroom guides? Where are the traditional mushroom ceremonies for us to participate in? Ingesting such small doses is something most people can do safely on their own. No particular ritual is necessary to elicit beneficial effects, although in my experience the spirit of the plant is always potentially present and is much more likely to bless and empower even these mild experiences if petitioned and treated with respect. You might even take the attitude that you’ve invited an honored guest into your home. I believe that this is an extremely kind plant, willing to meet us where we are and help us at whatever level we’re willing to come to it.
If any of you reading these words but not already acquainted with “Los Niños” are inclined to track down some psilocybin mushrooms on your own, I’ll mention a couple of cautions. Those experienced with the mushrooms often say that it’s important to educate yourself about them. There are several books available that describe various aspects of the mushroom experience. The best book I’ve come across on identifying the little ones is Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide by Paul Stamets. It has excellent color photos and some good guidance for usage. Though Stamets’ book is a good starting point, I would still stress the importance of proceeding with caution. As he demonstrates in his book, although the psilocybes are all around us in certain areas of North America, they are not easy to identify at first and can easily be mistaken for similar looking but poisonous mushrooms. I had an experienced mycophile point out the local psilocybe cyanescens and since then I’ve shown another friend how to identify them.
Getting the kinds of effects from the mushrooms that I’ve been discussing in this article can involve some experimentation. Not all mushrooms are the same potency of course and not all people respond the same. One time I ate two small ones and the effects were too subtle to have much impact. Another time I experimented with a slightly higher dose, somewhere between one gram and a gram and a half. For playing music that quantity proved to be a bit much. The effects interfered with functionality. Some of these in-between doses may not be particularly useful and people may find their effects more uncomfortable than illuminating.
If we’re able to shift our cultural understanding of these plants and begin to see them as medicines, I would say that, used with respect and good intention, low-dose psilocybin is good medicine. Playing music under its influence has been a good way for me because it provides a focus, a kind of ritual environment. The songs almost become prayer songs. No doubt beneficial experiences can come from working alone like this in a meditative, prayerful way, or with others of similar intention. The important thing is to provide the right kind of space for the medicine’s effects to manifest. Superficial, chatterbox conversation is not likely to be the best lubricant. There has to be enough space in the mind’s busyness to notice the subtleties, to feel the softening of the heart, to catch the insights as they arise. Aho.
1. Kathleen Harrison, Roads Where There Have Been Long Trails, terrain.org
2. Harpignies, J.P. (ed.). Visionary Plant Consciousness, 103.