Disclaimer: This article does not advise the illegal use of psychedelics or any other psychoactive substances.
Perched on the bank of the Manigotagan River, jack pines pulsed radiant green, stretching upward and rebounding like elastic. The sky glowed blue, ocean thick. Every ripple in the wake of our canoe, every tuft of lichen clinging to shore quivered and shone.
It had been a long time since I’d tried psilocybin mushrooms (or magic mushrooms as they’re often known). I’d hated it the time before. I’d been at a party. The house was dingy, and someone had smeared paint on the cupboard doors with their hands. Though dried, the paint appeared to ooze down the cabinets. People buzzed around me. Beer cans smelled sharp and rancid on the counter.
My breath quickened as the world fractured. I think people spoke to me, but their voices seemed far away. Help, I thought — or maybe I said it, because then I was home, through the door, a friend supporting my weight. Water sprayed. I was in the shower, sitting, balled up, knees to my chest, soaking, heavy beads dripping from my hair. Then it was dark.
But now, an angry beaver surfaced at our bow and slapped its tail to ward us off. I smiled. Love for it overwhelmed me. I apologized inwardly and steered the canoe toward the island dividing Old Woman Falls. My friends and I pulled our canoes aground and pitched our tents. The sun set. The air blushed orange and rose then snuffed to blue-grey dusk. The gush of waterfalls on each side of the island drowned all other sound.
Upstream, fog slithered around the bend. I stood staring as it braided toward me, vine-like, through the river valley. It swallowed me, slid down my nostrils into my lungs, possessed me. I felt light, as though I’d dissolved into mist. In the haze, I was sure a heron glided past my ear and called, high pitched yet guttural. My friend assured me I was wrong.
A glint of magic shimmers in the memory, but I can’t be sure how much was the riverscape and how much the psilocybin. It did, however, plant a seed, which has sprouted a sapling from my calcifying brain.
In the years after, I noticed psychedelics popping into my podcasts. Guests on The Tim Ferriss Show raved about their potential, from the pseudo-psychedelic MDMA to classic psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca. They described these drugs as medicines, with none of the disdain I’d grown up hearing.
I’d remember the Manigotagan: the joy I felt, the sense of growing up from moss so springy it swaddled my feet. Or another time, freshly 19, my pupils like black moons from MDMA, when I embraced a friend and told him I loved him. And I did. I shook with it, and not falsely — I still love the man — but before then, I’d never broken the L barrier with anyone but family and partners. I opened after that. Or maybe I’d started already.
I’d also seen grime and addiction — chattering teeth, 4 a.m. shakes, a blue face nearly lifeless. I’d never been so deep myself, but seeing it was enough to be glad those days were behind me.
Anyway, the guests on Ferriss’s podcast had strings of letters after their names, PhD, MD, etcetera, or seemed well respected in their professions. To my mind, their credentials lent legitimacy to psychedelics. Before that, I’d viewed their effects as fleeting, ending as soon as the chemicals flushed. And it put me off when people extolled psychedelic virtues with a tone of near-drunken spirituality. I am, after all, a child of the West, and one who’s lost belief in gods and spirits. As a consequence, I’ve clung to modern science, desperate for something greater than my microscopic life. Though, it could be the other way around.
But we’ll come back to that.
Over the last decade or so, a renaissance of psychedelic research has begun to mount.
The first go-around came in the 1950s and ’60s, when Humphry Osmond pioneered psychedelic science. He explored hallucinogenic drugs’ usefulness in treating mental illness and alcohol dependency. From his adopted home in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, the Englishman wrote to author Aldous Huxley, who’d been an enthusiastic guinea pig for Osmond’s experiments. The two mulled over terms to classify these psychoactive substances. Huxley offered phanerothymes alongside a two-line poem. Osmond responded in kind with the eventual winner.
To fathom Hell or go angelic
Just take a pinch of PSYCHEDELIC.
The first epistle of a brave new world.
But as psychedelic drugs grew in popularity amongst an anti-war, anti-establishment, and pro-sexuality demographic, a taboo grew around psychedelic research, Mark Haden of MAPS Canada (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Canada) told me. Governments pulled funding and established bureaucratic barriers. Psychedelic research sputtered into a long coma.
In 2010, an article in The New York Times lifted the work of Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University into the public eye. Griffiths’s double-blind studies suggested psychedelics could decrease anxiety and depression in cancer patients and improve mood. The field gained momentum, and studies rolled out with increasing regularity.
Under the growing weight of research, the walls enclosing psychedelics have started to breach. Since May 2019, U.S. cities Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor have all decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms. In the 2020 U.S. federal elections, Oregon legalized psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use.
Above the forty-ninth, Health Canada has granted 48 people the right to use psilocybin since August 2020 — 29 for cancer patients and 19 for therapists in training. But it’s illegal to sell psilocybin nationwide, so patients and health care professionals must sleuth out their supply on the illicit market. Or they can buy spores to grow their own. Spores are legal to sell because they don’t yet contain psilocybin.
It was a VICE article in September that renewed my interest in psychedelics. Health Canada granted a Winnipeg church a religious exemption to use ayahuasca. The article said it was the sixth such exemption. As of Mar. 26, 2021, seven have gone out.
Ayahuasca. A tea brewed from Amazonian plants — vine bark and chacruna leaves boiled together for hours. The ingenious mixture wouldn’t work without both ingredients, though only the leaves contain the psychoactive dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. The mashed bark of the ayahuasca vine releases alkaloids required for the DMT to activate when drunk. The brew is ruddy brown. It coats the mouth, thick as cough syrup and bitter as burnt rubber. When swallowed, it causes powerful hallucinations.
I’d heard of ayahuasca before reading about the exemptions, always in relation to a ceremony. I’d pictured someone swinging a brass censer smoking incense and charcoal, as I’d seen in Catholic churches growing up. But also, I imagined something darker, more mysterious, without gilded arches or stained-glass windows.
In fact, Canada’s exempted ayahuasca churches mostly follow Santo Daime, a 100-year-young religion that blends Catholic, South American, and other traditions. They worship the Abrahamic god, Jesus Christ, and a hierarchy of angels and archangels comprising a celestial court. They also believe in reincarnation, karma, and the mystical properties of ayahuasca.
But I had no taste for Christian theology. I wanted to know about ayahuasca’s roots, planted in the richness of the Amazon. Being a student, my budget more buttons than coins, I found something nearer.
Jim Sanders, an ayahuasquero, or ayahuasca shaman, sat beside me sipping coffee from a pale-blue paper cup. The honking of geese speckled the air, and I dangled my feet over a limestone ledge terraced into the riverbank. Down two more tiers, the Red River flowed north, pushed along by the merging Assiniboine. It was warm for November in Winnipeg, and the noontime sun saturated everything.
Sanders didn’t look as I’d expected. I knew he wasn’t born in the Amazon like his teacher, but still, I’d imagined a knotty beard, beads strung around his neck, or something… shamanic, I suppose. Instead, his neat, blonde hair was combed to one side. He wore jeans, skateboarding shoes, and a blue hoodie with the logo for his centre, Tonkiri, on the chest. A pang of guilt pinched me for having caricatured him.
When he described using ayahuasca, for himself and others, his voice softened and slowed.
“My job necessarily means I constantly heal myself,” he said. “It’s the thing I love to do more than anything, and I get to do it all the time.”
There are different kinds of ayahuasca ceremonies. Sanders trained in the tradition of the Asháninka, a people indigenous to the rainforests of Peru and northwestern Brazil. They’ve been using ayahuasca for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, as certain Indigenous North Americans have used peyote and Mesoamericans have used psilocybin mushrooms, or “god’s flesh,” as the Aztecs called it.
Sanders’s teacher, Maestro Juan Flores, performs ceremonies at a sanctuary in Peru, where stilted structures with thatched-palm roofs hover over sloping ground. Nearby, drifts of steam rise from the Boiling River. And a cosmos of rainforest encircles it all.
Sanders’s centre in Manitoba seems a fair analog of his teacher’s in Peru, considering the difference in topography. A wood-panel lodge stands surrounded by a forest of cedar, spruce, and ash, and the Whitemouth River snakes through the grounds.
A ceremony at Tonkiri begins around 9 p.m., said Sanders. The participants sit in a long, rectangular room with their backs against the wall. There are mats to sit on, where earlier in the day hung hammocks for lounging. It’s dark. Sanders comes in and takes his spot. He sparks a cigar of pure tobacco and blows the smoke into the medicine. This triggers it, he said. Then everyone drinks a cup of the brew.
After about 20 minutes, it begins to take hold, and Sanders sings. “The icaros are these songs of gratitude for the plants,” he said. “They’re specifically what calls in the spirits and activates the medicine.”
Ayahuasca is the key that opens the door to the spirit world, he explained. The icaros summon the tree spirits to do the healing. Then Sanders blows tobacco smoke or flower water at participants to transfer them the strength they need for the process.
It may be obvious by now I had a hard time swallowing the idea of tree spirits and summoning songs. Don’t misunderstand — despite my disbelief, or because of it, I adore stories of myth and magic. They swell with culture, understanding, and worldviews that enrich humanity. My perspective is only one, and by no means best. But I can’t barter my beliefs.
Still, Sanders sounded so awed by it all, I truly wished I could share the feeling. On Sanders’s recommendation, I read The Cosmic Serpent, a book on Asháninka beliefs and medicine, by Swiss anthropologist Jeremy Narby. I admired Narby’s defense of Indigenous Amazonian knowledge, too often dismissed for being expressed in language incompatible with the West. He was right to chide these western attitudes. But I couldn’t shake my own. I couldn’t stomach Narby’s pseudoscience, nor could I abide his attack on the theory of evolution.
On my right forearm, just above my wrist, tattooed lines scrawl out like a grape stem picked clean. Above it hang the words I think in Charles Darwin’s own hand. People call the sketch the Tree of Life.
Darwin’s theory needled into my life in more ways than one. When I finished On the Origin of Species, I felt freshly born. My new relatives were everywhere. People on the street, the dogs they walked, the birds that chirped, the trees that endured, the fungi that bloomed all shared common ancestors with me.
But I lost something too. Darwin led me to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and with that, the author would be glad to hear, my last scrap of religiosity vanished. I became consumed with thoughts of death. I’ve never better understood the lure of eternal life than the moment I believed it impossible. It’s not the dying itself; it’s the rendering everything futile. Death, sewn as shadow to my heels, haunted me. But over time, the panic eased until it faded into the background, less imposing, but there. Still there.
When people described their ayahuasca experiences for me, they sang rhapsodies. One said she saw gods and goddesses and the world manifest as love, all connected. Another said he saw his breath form a snake twisting above him, and through it, he deepened his understanding of himself. And they said they’ve been happier or more complete since.
I couldn’t grasp the spiritual language, but I couldn’t dismiss it either. After all, if you gave me water and called it God, it would still quench my thirst. I had to know more.
So, when Sanders invited me to a ceremony in January, I accepted. My stomach fluttered with fear and anticipation. But a certain pandemic interfered, and the ceremony was called off. Still, I needed to know more.
No surprise, the neuroscience surrounding psychedelics bent my mind. Much remains unknown, mingled in the mysteries of the natural world. But I’ll do my best to explain.
As I said earlier, ayahuasca contains DMT. Mushrooms contain psilocybin, which our bodies metabolize into psilocin. Both DMT and psilocin are tryptamines, a chemical compound found in many organisms — fungi, plants, and animals. (LSD is also in this category.) Tryptamines can act as neurotransmitters or neuromodulators. In other words, they signal cell-to-cell communication.
Humans naturally produce certain tryptamines, and here’s where things start to fall into place. Serotonin is a tryptamine. In fact, they’re so similar, a lay person might struggle to distinguish between diagrams of DMT, psilocin, and serotonin. I certainly did.
Serotonin affects mood, cognition, sleep, and various other psychological and physiological functions. Many antidepressants work by modifying how serotonin works.
The resemblance psychedelic tryptamines share with serotonin allows them to interact with serotonin receptors scattered throughout the nervous system. They are particularly attracted to one receptor, 5-HT2A, named with typical scientific panache. DMT and psilocin communicate with it, which is why they’re classified serotonergic psychedelics. It’s something in this contact that causes the psychedelic trip. Exactly how it works, we don’t know.
But the exact processes of the human brain often elude us. The real magic of the mushroom, so to speak, is in its potential outcomes.
A quick preface: psychedelics are non-addictive and contain extremely low toxicity. Some have experienced acute anxiety and dysphoria during trips, but lasting adverse effects are rare. It’s impossible, however, to predict every psychological reaction.
As antidepressants and antistressors, psychedelics can yield extraordinary results. Studies have repeatedly shown a single dose of serotonergic psychedelics can reduce anxiety and depression and increase optimism and overall well-being for weeks, even months. Psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and LSD have all demonstrated this ability, sometimes against the direst odds — terminal cancer.
Thomas Hartle was one of four Canadians first exempted for end-of-life psilocybin therapy in August 2020. He compared his struggle with cancer to being dragged behind a horse. You have no control, he said, and the horse is running toward a cliff. The difference after psychedelic therapy was subtle, yet crucial. Now, he could ride the horse. He couldn’t control its direction, but he could hold himself atop it. Hartle’s experience bordered mysticism, but the effects were concrete. They pervaded his daily life. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, we need to address one last element of the brain: the default mode network. I’ll spare you a full description, but essentially, it’s the parts of the brain that fire when you’re thinking without trying to think. You may be daydreaming, monitoring your surroundings, or musing on the intentions of others. They are things that feel essential, and in their way, probably are. But studies have shown over-active networks correlate with higher rates of depression. Serotonergic psychedelics can calm activity in the default mode network — perhaps one way it improves mood.
Then I read meditation may affect this network similarly. A memory flooded in.
I sat inside a round building — a pagoda with a tall, golden spire in the hills above Kathmandu. Lined in rows, meditators crossed their legs atop plush mats. I didn’t know anyone; we were forbidden to speak for 10 days. We were there to go inward, to observe.
It was the third retreat I’d done and the second in a month. I could sit two hours without so much as adjusting my seat. I simply watched discomfort come and go. Thoughts wafted in and winnowed away. They were those unremarkable thoughts that clatter like beads in a baby’s rattle.
I could observe them, but not for long. They disappeared under scrutiny. I had believed these things defined me, but I remained as they flickered in and out of mind and body.
I was the observer. I was attention, wrestling automation.
Was this what psychedelics had the power to do? I wondered. Could they help me glimpse this perspective more clearly? Could I break free, even momentarily, of automatic thoughts, feelings, and emotions? Could I loosen my rigid perceptions? I found someone to help me understand.
Thomas Hartle lay in bed, a mask over his eyes and earbuds plugging his ears. The earbud wires clicked into a splitter connected to a speaker, so the others in the room knew what he was hearing. On his left sat Dr. Bruce Tobin, founder of advocacy group TheraPsil, who’d flown from Victoria to Saskatoon to run the session. On his right, a videographer to document it.
In the dark of the bedroom, Hartle swallowed 28 capsules of ground mushrooms in three 45-minute increments, seven grams in total.. He told me he’d grown the mushrooms himself from mycelium he’d bought online. When they’d grown, he dehydrated them, putting the leathery result into an airtight container alongside a desiccant, which made them dry as crackers. He ground the mushroom crisps in a coffee grinder and funneled the powder into capsules.
On the bed, music danced in Hartle’s ears — Vivaldi, Brahms, Mozart, South American and African folk songs, Gregorian chants, and throat singing, he said. A global summit of instruments and voices. Each composition ballooned into a universe, complete and self-contained, merged with Hartle’s consciousness. From time to time, he said, he’d check in on his body, as though “looking after a pet or a houseplant.”
Before treatment, his mortality lurked in every ache and pain. Anxiety poisoned his life, robbed it of quality. But having experienced existence without body or identity, both of which threatened to leave him, his anxiety melted away. He’d believed in life after death, but he hadn’t truly understood what that could mean. Psilocybin lifted his belief to a level he viewed as knowledge. The epistemology is important here — to know is to experience. Thought alone cannot bridge the chasm between belief and knowledge.
For a non-religious person like myself, it took some translating to interpret Hartle’s explanation. But I’d had a single psilocybin trip in total darkness and silence, aimed at introspection, which helped me relate.
I meditated as long as I could, to set a focus, then I lost myself completely. I couldn’t grasp what a Cody Sellar was. The concept seemed distant and unreal.
Acknowledging that Cody Sellar is a concept felt wonderful. I felt less subject to its whims, its bouts of gloom. My mechanical self had fallen to pieces, and what was left was my attention. It had a purity about it. But, reassembled, I understood. Sometimes, automation is necessary. I can’t give attention to every star of dust in milky twilight. It would be too much. Automation handles the mundane, the non-threatening, to free my attention. But in this low-danger, supermarket-filled life of mine, it’s easy to become an automaton. When my head hits the pillow, for example, thoughts pop like chains of firecrackers, each igniting the next what if. And with each thought comes a feeling. It churns every worry and regret settled in my mind. I imagine I am thinking. I am the torturer.
But I simply have a thought more often than I choose to think one. Even when I do, unconscious processes like memory recall and association narrow my options. That’s why, I gathered, it’s dangerous to conflate these thoughts and feelings with identity. And another thing: they’re fragile enough to blow away in a few grams of fungus. They float at an arm’s length from living. But attention — attention can account for the living of a life.
For days after, an ease softened my chest. It hadn’t cured me of negativity. It hadn’t lifted me to some spectral plane. It was not and will never be a cure-all. But I’d spied the world through new glass, and that itself made me more adaptable.
Every so often the world takes a new tint.