To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. –William Blake.
We’re on a steep dirt road carved out by truck tires that zig-zags down the mountain and eventually falls into a valley where we’ve been told there is a river. I’m on my hands and knees and my girlfriend M is doubled down, her face no more than a foot from the ground. The fauna that’s growing wild in the middle of the road has captured our attention and won’t let us go. There must be thirty different varieties of plants in a space no wider than a meter and the flowers burst with color—purple-cream, blood-red, snowflake-white, tangerine-orange. The lime-green stems curve, twist, arch, and unravel purposefully in the direction of the setting sun which leaks a buttery gold through the pine trees at our backs. The deeper we look, the more the plants reveal. One has a bulb like two rows of little red teeth with purple tongues hanging at the mouth. A tiny bug, something like a bee, is hard at work inside the mouth of another. The deeper we look, the more we are in awe. Behind us is a vista that rivals any I’ve seen. Two huge mountain ranges, blue-green in the twilight, and a valley that’s hidden by a sea of clouds floating at eye-level. But we’re not looking at the view, because in this moment these little flowers seem to contain all that is, was and ever will be.
There is no view. No path. No place. It is all a matter of focus. Everything is contained inside of every thing.
A realization hits me and I flow into soft laughter. How ridiculous it is, I think, that we feel the need to go to the cities in search of art, (M is a dancer—Mexico City, and I am a poet—New Orleans) when with the right focus and state of mind something as “simple” as a flower can completely enthrall us, as if we’re walking through a wing of The Louvre. “Beauty is difficult,” wrote the American expat poet Ezra Pound in his masterpiece The Cantos. But along this road it grows effortlessly and abundantly. He also wrote in ABC of Reading, that “it doesn’t so much matter where you begin the examination of a subject, so long as you keep on until you get round again to your starting point…until you have seen it from all sides.” This idea seems more appropriate. Color. Form. Purpose. Life. Beauty—it is all here (and always has been), inside each and every plant. I wonder how long it would take for us to see it “from all sides.”
We walk further down the hill and pause on a little ledge as the sun breathes its last breath from behind the mountains and the moon—first a concentrated bright white light, glowing, then form, outline, shape—slices through the clouds which are everywhere in front of us, an ocean of white, silver and gray, a bubble bath filled with snow and smoke that floats, mixes, morphs—(the silence in the mountains is immense)—and the intensity of the moon’s energy when it finally breaks through brings us to tears. I’ve got a cold and snot’s running out of my nose like a schoolboy in Northeastern winter. Tears puddle my eyes and wet my cheeks, but I’m not ashamed (I’m not even thinking of I)—and I look at M and she’s smiling and crying too.
We’ve been walking down this path in San José del Pacífico, a little town perched high in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range in Oaxaca, Mexico for about an hour now and the magic mushrooms are in full effect. Our senses have been heightened (yes, we’re “tripping”) and the profundity, complexity, artistry, and the breathing, living, talking (nearly everything has energy and energy communicates) nature of the natural world is hitting us deeply. At times, it’s almost too much to take in and that’s when we laugh and wipe the tears from our cheeks. That’s when we open our mouths to speak, (Look at this flower, the blue…it’s incredible—) but we don’t say much before stopping because the experience cannot be put into words and that’s obvious to us. We also realize that as soon as we open our mouths to talk (to produce output), the input from the moon and the clouds and the plants is reduced. So we shut up, quickly, sometimes awkwardly, and refocus our energies on observing, feeling, listening.
This is my fifth or sixth time using psilocybin mushrooms, and every trip has been a spiritual experience, as well a practical learning one. For me, magic mushrooms help quiet and organize the noise of my mind, and with a calmer mind I’m able to reflect more clearly on my life, habits, relationships, and on more philosophical musings such as the nature of the world and my role in it. Often on mushrooms I can see negative thought patterns arise, take note of them mindfully, and do away with them. They also help open me up to new ideas, concepts, observations, understandings and epiphanies. This may be explained by recent research that shows the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, has the effect of connecting regions of the brain that don’t normally communicate, creating a hypoconnectivity of brain function that returns to normal once the drug has worn off. In other words, when you think on magic mushrooms, you are literally thinking outside of the box. Other studies show that psilocybin decreases brain activity in certain hub areas of the brain and might actually temporarily eliminate the extra noise in the brain, or what’s known in yoga as chitta vritti (“monkey mind.”) In my case, this enables access to a clearer, calmer, more lucid mind. Finally, the senses, especially vision, are heightened during a trip, and the natural world becomes an amusement park full of beauty and wonder. During a hallucination, Daffy Duck isn’t going to jump out of the bushes and push you off a cliff, as your high school health teacher might have led you to believe. But a flower, a patch of grass, the peeling bark of a tree, your lover’s hands, might glow with life and such intensity of color and perfection of form that it might bring you, like us, to your hands and knees, or to tears.
But perhaps the most important thing that magic mushrooms continually teach me is this: if you want to understand something more deeply you need to Stop. Be quiet. And listen. It is this skill, this practice, simple as it sounds, that has been most beneficial to me after the trips have worn off and I’ve returned to my regular life. Ultimately, it is the practice of meditation. And in a day and age when technology has given everyone a voice and we’re all ready to share it (on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, comment sections), the ability to be quiet and listen is a fading skill worth re-cultivating.
The first time I ever took mushrooms in Ko Phangan, Thailand, I was so nervous I almost backed out. Like many people who grew up at the height of America’s War on Drugs, I had heard the tale of intoxicated hippies jumping off roofs because they thought they could fly, and I was about to drink a mushroom shake on a balcony bar that jetted out over a steep cliff. Fortunately, I was with a friend who had had a remarkable experience with mushrooms just days before and urged me on, assuring me that I would be okay. And I was. When the plant took effect, I found myself more lucid and hyperaware of my surroundings than I’d ever been in my life. It was nothing like intoxication from alcohol where the senses are dulled and dumbed down, and it gave me no delusions about being a bird. Jumping or falling off the balcony wasn’t going to happen. It was that moment that I first realized the tale I’d been told as a youngster, like so much of what we’ve been told about “drugs” for the past fifty years in America, was a lie.
I was so moved, inspired, and excited by life after my first trip in Thailand, that I wrote a book-length poem in the months that followed. The poem wasn’t about mushrooms specifically, but it was about a trip, a journey, and about color and dreams. It most likely would not have been written without my experience with the mushroom shake. I also wrote an article about disassociating objects from their names. When you are high on psychedelics, a chair is not simply a chair, but a form, a specific thing with a specific nature, an individuality. It begs you too look more deeply into it. Cultivating the skill of disassociation is of great value to a writer, and it was under the influence of mushrooms that I first understood this, or rather, I felt it—I did it.
But all in all, though I’ve spoken to friends and family about my experiences with magic mushrooms and other psychedelic plants, and though I believe that experiences with these substance and more scientific research into their healing properties would help improve the world, up until this point, I have written very little about them. I hope this article marks the beginning of a change. Because of the beauty, gentleness, and importance of this last trip in San José del Pacífico, I’ve decided to write more about the plants that have been so vital to my development as a human being, and with less fear of what people may think. I’m coming out of the psychedelic closet, so-to-speak, to share some of my own experiences with this non-addictive plant which our society has foolishly (or maliciously) labeled as a Schedule 1 Drug, but that more and more research is showing (as indigenous people and healers have known for thousands of years) can treatanxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction—can increase empathy, creativity, openness to new ideas and overall happiness—is non-addictive—and perhaps most importantly, tends to induce consistent mystical experiences that enable users to perceive how everything is alive—the tree, the clouds, the flower, the stone—a concept found in almost all religious texts, a concept that if taken to its logical conclusion prevents an individual from living a destructive life, or if understood by a society, might prevent that society from collectively destroying their environment, as we are doing now.
San José del Pacífico isn’t an easy place to get to. From the Oaxaca Coast, where we spent the preceding week at a friend’s place in Puerto Escondido, it’s a 4-hour ride in a 20-seater van called a camioneta. The first hour is a breeze down the coast. But when the van turns off the beach and heads into the Sierra Mountains the trip becomes more like something you’d pay for at a theme park than a mode of public transportation. For the next three hours, there isn’t a straightaway in sight.
Our bus driver doesn’t speak and looks like a Mexican James Bond—shades, gold watch, square jaw. He plays rare remixes of techno and house music the entire trip, which in itself is enough to unsettle your stomach. The camioneta climbs the narrow two-lane road, drops, twists, turns, breaks, speeds up, passes a truck hauling lumber, honks at a car that’s veering too close, and zips past other camionetas, cars, motorcycles and trucks while just a few feet away from “breathtaking vistas,” valleys and mountain ranges blue-green in the distance. By the first stop, M has already lost her papaya and guava breakfast into a plastic bag she had the smarts to bring along just in case, and when I step out into the midday sun, still blazing though now accompanied by a cool mountain breeze, the girl who was sitting behind us hurls—a drop tickles my leg and the rest splatters onto the wheel of the bus. From the looks of the mess, she had more than fruit for breakfast. As for me, if I stand on the edge of a cliff for five seconds, I’m liable to shit my pants, or jump off. At least that’s my fear, especially the jumping part. I shake. I sweat. I mumble incoherent sentences. I forsake my loved ones. I curse god. I’m no hero on the mountain. I long to get away from the edge as quickly as possible. But for some reason, put me in a van and shake me around like a dye and I’m good to go.
You can also get to San José from Oaxaca City in the north, a three-hour ride in a camioneta that only includes about an hour of sharp curves and steep mountains. There are regular flights and buses from Mexico City to Oaxaca City.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In the sixties, many Westerners, not only counter-culture types but also scientists like Albert Hoffman, came to the Sierra to try magic mushrooms, a practice made famous by MaríaSabina, the Mazatac healer or shaman who’s practice was based off of the use of psilocybin mushrooms, and who became famous for being the first curandera to allow Westerners to participate in a healing vigil known as the veleda. It’s rumored that Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Keith Richards all made pilgrimages to the Sierra Mazteca to seek out María Sabina and the magic mushrooms. It’s possible that some of your favorite songs were conceived amongst the clouds and mist during mushroom induced hallucinations.
LODGING, FOOD, & THE TOWN
There isn’t much in San José. Maybe ten restaurants, half of which aren’t more than home kitchens with a few tables set for dining rooms. And the food that we had during our time there was, mas o menos, shitty—nothing like the delicious dishes we devoured in Oaxaca City. There’s a humble church, no gold, no stained-glass windows, chairs instead of pews. And outside of the church is a basketball court with mushrooms painted on the half-court circle. Supposedly in March, there’s a basketball tournament where teams come from all over Mexico and even other Latin American Countries and the United States. It’s one of the nicest courts I’ve seen in Mexico, and I’m told that basketball is popular in the mountains because there’s not enough flat land to build soccer fields. At first, seeing a psychedelic plant painted on a basketball court where kids presumably play is odd, but then I imagine that for some folks seeing beer commercials littered throughout sporting events the world over must be just as strange. The difference may be that you could probably still play ball on mushrooms (or at least identify the glitch in your jumpshot)—but while drunk, you don’t have a chance. (See Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter on LSD).
Along the main street of the town is a tiny art gallery with interesting psychedelic-influenced art, mostly penwork, a cantina, an Italian restaurant and bar, a couple of artisan shops where they sell all sorts of mushroom shaped souvenirs as well as hand-knit winter hats and ponchos (it’s cold at night in San José!), and a café that serves as internet café, public restroom, gift shop and restaurant.
It seems like everyone in town rents cabanas and you can have your pick. It was recommended that we try a different place every night, and though we only stayed two nights, that is what we did.
I can’t tell you how to find our favorite cabana, because I never would’ve found it myself if M hadn’t stopped to talk to an old lady carrying a machete (M is fearless. Personally, I never talk to people carrying machetes no matter how old they are.) coming down a flight of mountain stairs that led to a path that if we had continued walking would’ve taken us down, down, down into the valley.
The old lady descends the stairs slowly, but she is strong, agile and confident—Buenas tardes. Buenas tardes—and before long we’re following her down a path through a flower garden that leads to a small dirt terrace on the back of the mountain, a view of mountain ranges and a valley and clouds mixing like cigar smoke right in front of our eyes. The cabanas are wooden with pressed-aluminum roofs, and no bigger than the size of a modest bedroom. There is an outdoor shower and toilet. The price is $150 pesos a night. $7.50 in American dollars.
BUYING THE MUSHROOMS
In San José del Pacífico, all you have to do is ask.
The magic mushrooms we’re about to devour are soaked in honey and sit in a star-shaped Tupperware container on our desk. The honey and mushrooms have turned a dark-green, almost black color, and look something like chopped alien-octopus tentacles, or little shiny chocolate wieners.
We purchased them last night from a pudgy smiling man who runs an artisanal craft shop on the main-street in town. The shop is a two-storied wooden building painted sky-blue perched on a little slope, each story the size of a small bedroom. There are no stairs connecting the bottom and top floors. Instead you walk out of the bottom floor and around and up the little hill and into the top floor. It’s a fairytale building, and the shop, unfinished wood and full of Oaxacan crafts and hand-woven clothes, is something you might see in Cape Cod or on Magazine Street in New Orleans, minus the myriad of mushroomed-themed souvenirs.
The man who runs the shop and makes many of the crafts, was very friendly, soft-spoken, and articulate. He told us that mushrooms are most often used by locals when they are sick, depressed, going through life-troubles, or faced with difficult life-decisions. In other words, they are used medicinally. He said that no elaborate rituals are involved these days and that we could eat them and walk along the paths that surround the town, or stay in our cabana if we’d like. He said the police don’t bother people here about mushrooms, and that the tourists never cause any problems. (I asked numerous locals if there are any problems with the people who come here particularly for the plant, but they all said mushrooms don’t cause any trouble, “not like alcohol, or marijuana”). The craftsman said that he first tried mushrooms when he was around 12 years old—they make you happy, make you laugh. Make you more curious than you already are as a child. Many parents give them to their kids at even younger ages… They are not drugs. They are natural. They grow in the mountains. The mushrooms grow during the rainy season in the Sierra, between July and October, and since we’ve arrived in late October the mushrooms he had were preserved in honey. They’ve come from a remote mountain region about five hours away. There’s other towns in Oaxaca that use mushrooms traditionally, he said, but they’re even harder to get to than San José . We paid him $400 pesos (about $20), and he gave us the mushrooms right there in his shop, enough for two “trips.”
I wrote poetry on a leaf today, and on a piece of wood, and on the pealing bark of an all but naked tree.
We walk back up the path in the moonlight, together and alone. A trip, you see, is always alone. The intensity of concentration, the ability to go deeper and deeper into the object you’re observing is disrupted when you attempt to share it. We felt this, and so we walk together (or at least in the same direction), we cry together, we hug and share the experience, but we also give each other the space needed to experience the trip as deeply as possible.
On the way back up the hill, I notice an orange that is so bright I think it is paint. As I get closer, bending down to touch the wood, I realize the orange ring around the outside of the tree isn’t paint at all, but blood. The tree has been severed by a saw and is lying on the ground, dead. The orange isn’t blood, of course, but some chemical the tree had released when it was cut. The orange doesn’t appear anywhere else in the forest. It is distinct, and it is powerful. The tree did not die naturally like many of the other trees around it. It cries in color.
To observe profoundly you must shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the mountain, the breeze, the trees, your partner. Listen with all your senses. Listen until you forget yourself. Unplug the output chord for a moment. This is meditation. This is also yoga. And many people I’ve met around the world in yoga and meditation classes have arrived in those classes because of an experience or experiences they’ve had with psychedelic substances. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
An agave cactus on the side of the road is 8 feet high and 12 feet wide. It’s arms curl gracefully towards the moon. It is like a shrine and all the forest around it seems to come out of it, to depend upon it. It is dying. Its lower arms have turned chocolate-black and hardened like wood. I can feel it dying. I can feel it casting a shadow over the forest around it. A spider sews its web between the arms. Ants crawl in and out of decaying roots. The names of lovers are etched into the thick pads that lie at the cactus’ feet, slowly becoming soil.
It’s not that you see things that aren’t there, but that you see what is there and has always been there with fresh eyes. It’s as if you are seeing a tree, a bush, a piece of wood, for the first time. And in actuality, it usually is. I had never seen any of the trees in San José before I went to San José. I only came with the idea of “tree,” an idea that has been agreed upon by a collective consciousness, an idea I seldom question or investigate. In daily life, I rarely stop and look at any particular tree to see it’s individuality, its uniqueness. Instead I name it, and because I name it, I think I know what it is. By doing so, I almost always fail to really see it.
I found a tiny purple pencil amongst the leaves on the edge of a vista and put it in my pocket, along with a stone the color of fire and sand. As I walked back up the mountain to find M waiting for me and watching the moon shining the clouds silver, I hummed a little tune. It went like this:
I’ve got a couple of coins and a stone in pocket.
I’m headed to the city, ‘cause the city is the market.
I’m not entirely sure what the lyric means, but I have an idea. The city is where we go to produce output, to share, to sell, to buy, to talk. But nature is a place to listen and be taught. The lyric seemed to come from somewhere else—a muse? A mushroom? I don’t know. But somewhere outside of me.
GOOD DAY, GOODNIGHT
Night has fallen over San José and M and I have made a little fire in front of our cabana on the ridge that looks out over the valley. A thousand tiny stars shine overhead. This is her first time trying mushrooms. Only a few weeks ago she told me I was an asshole for suggesting the world would be a better place if people opened themselves up to experience psychedelics. But tonight, when I go to bed she’s still staring into the fire, and when she returns to our cabana and cuddles up next to me she tells me she’s been thinking about the properties of fire—how it doesn’t always rage with flame, but sometimes contains itself within an ember, rests, waits for its time to glow and grow more fiercely. She talks about how the flame needs air to breathe, but if hit with a strong gust of wind, it goes out. Her eyes are bright and her mind is buzzing with new ideas and realizations. She is not crazy. She is not a hippy, or a druggy, and at this point in the night she might not even be high. She is simply listening, deeply, allowing herself to be absorbed by something other than herself, and in the process, she is learning about the spectacular world we are so fortunate to live in—and also, paradoxically, about herself.
The road, the view, the town, the lodging—these things are of secondary importance. What mushrooms teach is to look deeply into things. To observe intensely until the world opens up and you can see and feel the complexity, the beauty, the life, in everything. You could stay in once place, in a room, and describe it for a million years, and still you would not cover everything. The deeper you look into something, the deeper that something becomes. The soil, stone, tree, clouds, moon, the paint splattered on the wall. They are all alive. They possess energy and magic mushrooms make it very difficult not to be touched by this energy. When you can see and feel the energetic vibrations of the natural world, even if it only happens to you once in your life, you cannot help but become more empathetic and more conscious of how you treat that world.
I know what you’re thinking. This is hippy shit. But one thing about hippies is they got a lot of things right, annoying and cliché as they sometimes sound. This past trip helped remind me that I don’t need to go anywhere to feel the immense beauty of the world, and to be grateful for it. I only need to practice the art of listening.