One night nearly twenty years ago, I was a college student with friends who had friends who had psilocybin mushrooms. I had recently read Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival, and decided that I had to try this psychedelic thing for myself.
I was nervous, but excited. Fortunately my friends’ friends created a very relaxing, pleasant space for us. I recall reading some passages from a copy of Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead while I waited for the effects to kick in.
After about an hour I had my first hint of unusualness: the couch was breathing. There was a sense that the couch was a conscious, complex, living entity. The floor changed, felt spongey under foot. Bumps seemed to rise up out of the tile. Moving outside later, I sat with a bush for a long while in a kind of reverent communion. I felt a love for this bush not unlike what I now feel for my son, and looking back, I know that it was not some illusion brought on by the psilocybin. It was an authentic experience that normally would be buried, completely inaccessible, under calcified layers of cultural conditioning and belief systems that somehow had miraculously melted away, leaving me with a capacity for wonder and astonishment and openness I had not known since I was a child. This deep love for a plant I would normally feel nothing towards was a natural outgrowth of that openness, that inability to take things for granted, and was as real and as beautiful as it is difficult to describe.
This is the key to understanding what psychedelics do: They do not create anything that isn’t there. They take away things that obstruct our direct experience of the world. In doing so, your brain may not interpret its input in the ways we have become used to. For example, on that evening, I made an extraordinary discovery when I lifted a pen and released it. For reasons that were completely mysterious, the pen moved very quickly, seemingly of its own accord towards the floor, and then settled there, right the hell up against it. The reason this minor everyday occurrence was mysterious and inexplicable was not that I was just whacked out on mushrooms and forgot about gravity. The reason this was mysterious and inexplicable was that it really, genuinely is mysterious and inexplicable, but ordinarily I would forget that.
In my ordinary state, I would see a pen move towards the ground, and deeply-worn neural pathways would instantly supply the concepts, “up” and “down,” the concept of “falling,” which is explained by “gravity” which is described by a simple formula. But with these neural pathways are stripped of their usual primacy, I simply saw what was actually occurring: the pen moved towards the ground, and all the concepts and words and equations I would normally muster, ostensibly to explain it, utterly fail to do so. They simply describe the process that occurs, ignoring the fact that the occurrence itself is essentially magic. That is, we do not know why gravity occurs, what it is, only that it occurs and how it occurs. In short, a magic mushroom taught me that magic is real.
On future trips, I would learn that just as my internal conception of gravity is really just a big show I put on to make myself feel more comfortable about this weird, unexplainable force that effects me every moment of my life, so is my concept of self. What I generally think of as “I” is just the fabrication of an organism. It’s a series of neural pathways that link up and create the illusion of a self. But when you take away those pathways, there’s still something there. I’ve experienced a sense of looking out at the world not as an organism, but through an organism. Whether this means the “I” that looks out through the organism is a “soul” is up for debate. The sense I get is that the “I” looking out through this organism, is not only indivisible from the organism, but also indivisible from the universe as a whole, which of course is demonstrably true.
We do not emerge out of nowhere and inhabit this universe. We literally are this universe. There isn’t a place where our skin ends and the universe begins. In fact, the atoms that make up our skin are continuously swapped out with a river of atoms that have flowed out of nearby supernovae, cascaded through rocks and trees and oceans, billions of other organisms, and broomsticks and famous paintings and piles of dog poop. We are not physically the same entity from one moment to the next. Our skin isn’t just ours. Our skin is literally the skin of the big bang itself, riding the leading edge of space-time out into the great unknown. This isn’t crazy hippy talk; it’s just science. It’s just the way it is.
The reason psychedelics tend to give us this view of ourselves as connected to something greater is because psychedelics tend to get our preconceptions, our system of perceptual organization, our fundamental beliefs, out of the way and allow us to experience the universe as it reveals itself, without our usual filters. We invest in suppressing these child-like, raw perceptions of reality in the interest of efficiency and cultural preservation, our sense of being actors on a stage we are quite separate from. It’s comfortable to feel that way. But it’s time we faced facts. We lie to ourselves, we comfort ourselves, because our parents, our teachers, our culture as a whole has always comforted us — has always told us how to organize and interpret our perceptions so that the number of questions we need to ask about reality is minimized. Everything can just make sense if we accept that it just does, because.
But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t. Gravity does not make sense. It is an invisible force from out of nowhere that we cannot explain. It is magic, and the other three forces are magic, and existence is magic, and consciousness is magic. It’s time we get real and admit that in spite of our truly incredible ability to describe aspects of our universe, we cannot really explain anything fundamental about it.
The power of the psychedelic experience is that it strips away the illusion that we humans have any clue what is going on here and brings us straight to the door of wisdom, where we admit that we know nothing, where through humility and surrender, wonder is born. Wonder heals. Wonder nurtures us, spurs us on to great things, makes us human. When we start with wonder, we can get anywhere. Life becomes what life really, truly is: pure Goddamn magic.