”Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.”– Maria Sabina
BY Arielle Tiangco
A couple of weeks ago in San José del Pacifico, a mountainous town in Oaxaca state, Mexico, I emerged from the dark womb of a tiny volcanic-stone hut, drenched in a mixture of my own sweat and the honey that my 29-year-old Shaman, Israel, had told me to rub into my skin.
After an hour in the hut, seated on a small chair and being bathed in fragrant steam produced by herbal water poured onto rocks that had sat for two hours in the heart of a fire, my detoxified skin felt as new as a baby’s against the cool mountain air. The ritual temazcal ceremony was complete. I was ready to receive the mushroom tea that Israel had prepared with the fresh hongitos that grow abundantly here.
During the ceremony, between chants of gratitude for each element—the forest, the earth, the rocks, the fire, and our ancestors—I learned from Israel as we conversed in Spanish that temazcal ceremonies have been a part of Mexican culture for over 1,000 years. The cleansing ritual, which is believed to have been inspired by pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican Indigenous peoples, has many physical benefits, but above all is a mindfulness practice akin to meditation. It is especially recommended to prepare for a hallucinogenic experience with mushrooms, as it is supposed to connect you deeply with Nature.
The use of psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico is likely older than the nation itself. Pre-Hispanic Indigenous peoples like the Aztecs would use mushrooms during sacred rituals. The communities of San José del Pacifico have been allowed to use mushrooms in peace for generations now because the law perceives it as a part of their culture.
As much as they are used by tourists for their hallucinogenic properties, the locals regard mushrooms as sacred and often call upon the mystical power of the mushrooms for all types of ailments such as blindness, skin problems, and even as a way to combat addictions such as alcoholism. Today, we see how their ancient, Indigenous knowledge rings true in contemporary medicinal research.
Psychedelics in the western world
While ancient Indigenous cultures may have been privy to the healing benefits of mystical experiences brought on by psilocybin mushrooms, contemporary medicine has only recently become open to the impressive medicinal potential of psychedelics.
The mystical powers of psilocybin mushrooms were introduced to the western world in the 1950s through a contemporary Mexican healer named María Sabina, who used psilocybin mushrooms in traditional healing rituals. An American ethnomycologist by the name of R. Gordon Wasson passed through Sabina’s hometown, Huautla de Jiménez (also located in Oaxaca state) in 1955, and he and his wife were permitted to participate in one of her healing rituals, where they ingested psychedelic mushrooms for the first time.
Wasson published a book in 1957 about the ritual and his experience entitled Seeking the Magic Mushroom and later published a two-volume book called Russia, Mushrooms and History, including the identity and location of María Sabina, both of which were not revealed in his first publication.
The Wassons also took the spores back home to Paris, which eventually led to Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann successfully cultivating and isolating the mushrooms’ primary psychoactive ingredient, psilocybin, in 1958.
We’ve written about Albert Hoffman before in our Optimist View piece “An Ode to the Marvelous Mushroom,” as he was also the chemist who discovered the compound lysergic acid diethylamide (commonly called LSD). His discovery launched a wide-reaching academic exploration into the medicinal properties of hallucinogens and their potential to treat a range of mental health illnesses such as addiction, depression, and anxiety.
These factors combined to spark the hallucinogenic counterculture of the 1960s. Those who were interested in alternative lifestyles would experiment with psychoactive drugs and many bohemian types would go so far as to seek out María Sabina in Huautla de Jiménez.
The discord that ensued during the 1960s and the popularization of experimenting with hallucinogens then spurred the government to pass the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. This enactment hindered any progress made by scientists and researchers in this field.
Contemporary psychedelic research
Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D. published an article titled “Special Edition of Perspectives: Psychedelics and Mystical Experience,” where he outlines how once the federal government began approving psychedelic research once again, both the John Hopkins and New York University studies found that the mystical experiences induced by the consumption of psilocybin effectively decreased depression and anxiety in cancer patients. In fact, the degree of intensity of the mystical experience that patients underwent correlated directly with the degree to which their depression and anxiety diminished.
“In other words,” Brown explains, “researchers have predictably occasioned mystical experiences—faith-based ‘flights of the soul’ traditionally thought to be beyond the scope of empirical science—in clinical settings by administering high-dose synthetic psilocybin.”
Brown also references Roland R. Griffiths, who is widely regarded as the grandfather of the Psychedelic Renaissance. Brown outlines how Griffiths determined, through various experiments, that when psilocybin is consumed in high doses, the patients’ perception of their own depression and anxiety, especially anxiety revolving around death, would decrease significantly, while their self-assessed measures of quality of life, life meaning, and optimism would surge.
“Some 70 percent of the cancer patients rated the high-dose psilocybin session as among the top five ‘most meaningful’ and ‘spiritually significant’ life experiences,” Brown writes. “In addition, their post-session mystical experience scores served as statistically significant predictors of therapeutic efficiency in reducing anxiety and depression.”
The positive effects of cancer patients’ psilocybin sessions extend to include more than the patients themselves. Brown notes that the daughter of one of the participants in this particular study was strengthened by her father’s mystical experience, which energized him during his last days, and gave him peace.
We also wrote about another study by researchers from New York University, in which 29 cancer patients were administered either a dose of psilocybin or a placebo, coupled with psychotherapy sessions. Patients who received psilocybin were still reporting lower levels of depression, hopelessness, and anxiety even four-and-a-half years after their mystical experience.
We have also written various articles about the impact of psilocybin-induced mystical experiences on depression in general, not just for those with terminal illnesses. For instance, we wrote about 56-year-old website developer Michael, who had been battling depression for 30 years and was the participant of the first modern study to target treatment-resistant depression with psilocybin.
Years of traditional therapies and antidepressants proved unsuccessful, so he decided to try psilocybin therapy. One session, during which he embarked on a five-hour-long trip into the depths of his mind, resulted in the waning of his depressive symptoms over a period of three months.
The overwhelmingly positive and lasting outcomes of studies like these, according to Brown, prompt clinicians to ask, “will long-term, costly psychotherapy and psychiatry eventually be enhanced, or even possibly replaced, by short-term, more affordable psychedelic psychotherapy?”
Inner self-healing intelligence
Brown uses Carhart-Harris’ magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain’s neural pathways prior to and post-ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms to show us how the brain expands from normal consciousness to encompass the “largest frame,” which is what, according to Griffiths, a psilocybin experience allows us to understand: that within the largest frame, “everything is fine and that there is nothing to be fearful of.”
“Psychedelics allow us to leave the ‘brain’s default-mode network,’ the brain’s everyday information highway, and to travel into areas of the mind only available in expanded states of consciousness, clearing the way for mystical experience,” Brown explains.
My mystical experience
Here at The Optimist Daily, we have written extensively about the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy and the mindful consumption of psilocybin, so as I gulped the rather flavor-less mushroom tea, my anticipation for what was to come next was palpable. After I had drunk the tea, I picked at the squishy mound of wet mushrooms left at the bottom of the cup and ate each one. The slimy texture was punctuated by small particles of soil left clinging to the fungi, freshly picked by Israel and his family. I was determined to pay close attention to the experience I would be plunged into—and what better setting than these wild and remote Oaxacan mountains.
The walk down from Israel’s home to my cabin accommodation was perhaps just over half an hour, though once the effects of the powerful hongos started kicking in, I found myself in a space void of time. My feet would step, one in front of the other, as though separate from the rest of my body so that I could be completely attentive to the excruciating splendor of the nature that surrounded me.
Though I had walked the path before, I noticed the vibrant flowers of orange, yellow, pink, and purple that grew unrestricted along the road for the first time. How could I have missed them? I asked myself in wonder. The trees that grew on the cliff towering above stretched their branches toward me, unfurling leaves like fingers, beckoning me closer like intimate friends on the verge of telling me a secret. The forest expanding into the valleys below undulated like an ocean of impossible green. Even the jagged rocks breathed through rust-colored lips.
While walking, I experienced the deepest pleasure from the sensation of the breeze through the fingertips of my free hand, which swayed in time with my steps. Looking too long at anything was almost unbearable due to an excess of beauty and vitality. Once I had reached the cabin, I opened the window and bathed myself in the mountain views. I realized, hours into the trip, that since consuming the mushrooms I had not once thought about my body or my physical appearance. I never sucked in my stomach or thought to straighten unruly, flyaway hairs. I didn’t even once look into a mirror. I had been liberated.
Though reluctant to admit it, as it feels anti-feminist, I am plagued by my own preoccupation with my physical appearance. Low self-esteem perpetuated by constant exposure to impossible beauty ideals and the feeling of having failed to satisfy past partners by being unable to maintain a certain level of fitness or aesthetic beauty cripples me.
The mushrooms allowed for my mind to derail itself from the same thought patterns that have carved the beliefs I have about myself, and about life. Now, the absurdity of my obsession with physical appearance became obvious next to the opulence of nature, which I recognized as a part of me as well. The transcendent joy that I extracted from the unity I felt with nature and all living beings filled my body-less consciousness. I felt within me a childlike energy mingling with quiet, ancient wisdom. I felt, for the first time in a painfully long time, content with myself.
This effect that psilocybin has on self-perception and an increased sense of cohesion with the natural world is known as “ego dissolution,” which we also mention in “An Ode to the Marvelous Mushroom.” “Ego dissolution” can play a major role in helping people break out of obsessive behaviors or unhealthy self-perceptions, but it has also been linked to the increase of environmental consciousness, something that the planet and everything who lives on it needs more than ever before.
About the author:
Arielle Tiangco is a Philippine-born Canadian who, over the past decade lived in various Latin American countries before assuming the role of Contributing Editor and Content Producer at The Optimist Daily. She holds a BA in English Literature and a MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, both from the University of Guelph. When she’s not writing about civil and environmental rights, sustainable development, or other solutions, you can probably find her looking for snacks or walking through a forest with her dog.