We were six men, all middle-class professionals, mostly in our forties, who had gathered together in rural Kansas to take part in a psychedelic mushroom session. For the course of a weekend we were to leave the mainstream worlds of corporate capitalism, high technology and professional practice in order to make contact with a more authentic level of our being — whatever the mushroom might care to show us.
Four of us, including the group leader, had had considerable experience with psychedelics. For the lawyer, Joe, this was to be his first excursion into the psychedelic realm since his acid trips fifteen years earlier. Ed, the financial manager, had never before done anything stronger than marijuana, and although curious, had little idea of what to expect.
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We sat around during the day, smoked a few joints and got to know those we had not met before. We discussed our reasons for having made the (in some cases considerable) effort needed to be here in order to do this strange thing together. All of us, more or less successful in our careers, were seeking something more satisfying than the gadgets and material comforts which were represented in consumer-capitalist society as the rewards for loyalty to the established system. We were, in fact, exercising our natural right of self-determination.
Late in the afternoon we parted to wander the rural retreat in which we found ourselves and to reflect on life. Some of us were familiar with the use of psychedelics in shamanic exploration, and hoped that this evening would bring renewed contact with our spirit allies. As dusk settled we gathered by the sweat lodge, where a fire was burning, heating the rocks that would be needed. We stripped naked, formed a circle and passed around a joint as the group leader invoked the powers of the six directions and asked for their protection in this excursion that we were about to take into the realms beyond this ordinary reality.
We entered the sweat lodge on hands and knees, and sat hunched up around the central pit. Glowing red-hot rocks were placed in the pit, the flap of the lodge was sealed and we sat there in complete darkness, the temperature rising. Water was cast upon the rocks, producing steam, which made things very hot indeed. We all sweated profusely. Unfortunately at this point one of us had the bright idea of throwing some incense upon the hot rocks. This was not a good idea, for it produced clouds of smoke which, in the airtight sweat lodge, made breathing difficult. It was very dark, very hot, and we all wondered how long we could survive. It was like being in one of the hell worlds, the hot, dark, smoky hell world.
Eventually the group leader crawled out and we followed, gasping in the fresh night air. After a short time we returned. Fresh glowing red-hot rocks were added, but this time only water, not incense, was cast upon them. We sweated. The sweat lodge is a purification ritual common in the American Indian shamanic tradition, and is a fitting preparation for a psychedelic voyage.
We crawled out again, went back for a third session, then finally emerged and threw ourselves in the pool nearby, relieved at having returned to life after the symbolic (but all too realistic) immersion in the hell realms.
We dressed and took our places in a circle around the campfire. We each sat on a small chair and had a water bottle and a sleeping bag in case it got cold during the night. The group leader's large, wolflike dog was there, in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire, to watch over us during the night.
We passed a joint and the group leader went around the circle, presenting each of us with a small packet of dried mushrooms wrapped in a bandana. He gave us also a small painted ceramic on a length of rawhide to wear around our necks, so that in case we got into some difficult place this would be our ticket back. We unwrapped the mushrooms from the bandana (which some of us tied around our heads). There were about eight grams of crunchy, dried mushrooms (somewhat more than the standard dose of five grams), which we ate with water.
We had not eaten since breakfast. The effects began to come on in about half an hour. My mind was carried into a state that was somewhat overwhelming, and I felt a tendency to drift into a state disconnected from external reality. There was a geometric hallucination occurring on the margins of consciousness. I felt the presence of the mushroom, and asked often: "Who are you? What are you?" It was definitely leading me in some direction, I knew not whither.
At about this point it became clear that Ed, our novice tripper, was becoming agitated. He got up from his chair, put it aside, lay down on his sleeping bag and was obviously quite uncomfortable as regards what was happening. He was being swept off into a realm of consciousness that before he never knew existed. Being a very intellectual and verbal type of person, he kept trying to make sense of it all. He said later, "I kept wishing I could return to a normal state so that I could figure out what the hell was happening!" For several hours he tossed and turned on or in the sleeping bag, perplexed.
An hour or so after we had taken the mushrooms, with everyone tripping hard, Joe, the other member of our group with no recent psychedelic experience, retreated from the circle around the campfire into the surrounding darkness. He was, we knew, somewhere out there, and we were not much concerned. As Ed later remarked, "At first I kept wanting to know what to do, how to behave. But then I realized — what everyone else obviously knew — that here everyone was on their own."
The four more-experienced members of the group stayed in their chairs most of the time, gazing into the fire. There was no sound except for the incessant chirping of the cicadas in the trees. We then became aware of some weird noises — snorts, snuffles and yelps. "What's that!", cried Ed, somewhat disconcerted. "Must be the dog", he concluded. More snorts, grunts and whines — unearthly sounds. This was beginning to get rather strange. We realized then what it was. "It's Joe!", cried Ed. "I thought it was the damned dog! But it's Joe!" The unearthly sounds continued. One of the other members of the group commented drily: "Well, it's understandable — he's been a lawyer for fifteen years!" We were then treated to a series of the weirdest sounds that I have ever heard. These were no human sounds. This was obviously some really weird entity from some very alien realm, such as H. P. Lovecraft used to write about, which had been attracted by this group of humans entering non-normal reality, and which had seized upon Joe's body to express itself, though what it was attempting to express was impossible to comprehend.
I thought this all rather odd, but having previously met entities from some very strange, non-physical spaces I received this cacophony of alien articulations with a detached interest. Ed, however, was freaking out. The alien entity suddenly began to express itself more loudly, causing Ed to become even more agitated, at which point the group leader got up and went out into the darkness to quieten Joe (or whatever it was).
Later Joe came back into the circle. The group looked upon this episode with considerable amusement. In fact at various times during the evening the mushroom induced general hilarity. We would be seized with fits of the giggles. When one of us failed to contain them we would burst out into prolonged hoots, cackles and guffaws, which were difficult to stop.
At other times, especially as the night wore on, there were long periods of complete silence, except for the chirping of the cicadas. Ed continued to toss and turn, and Joe spent most of the time lying on the grass outside the light of the campfire, watched over by the dog, but the rest of us spent long periods gazing into the fire.
The fire was a conscious, intelligent being. It said, "Look at me! This is how I burn wood. Watch!" The living tongues of flame danced, consuming the logs. Each flame came into existence for but a short fraction of a second, but if I concentrated on capturing it in my memory as it disappeared it seemed to me to be a living being, saying, "Hi there! Bye now!"
My vision seemed acute. Deep within the fire the logs glowed red. I was a guest in the fire's natural domain. Each glowing nook and cranny was revealed to me. It was like spending time with a close friend. The fire was clearly an expression of a larger intelligence which manifested itself throughout all of Nature. The mushroom revealed that the entire natural world was quietly alive. Or — as in the case of the cicadas — not so quietly. They were obviously playing their instruments in unison, a simple and repetitive chirp-chirp, chirp-chirp, chirp-chirp, and they were clearly having a great time, celebrating life and the awesome world in which they found themselves living.
During the long periods in which all members of the group were silent, I felt that we entered some fairly profound meditative states. Consciousness was particularly lucid and refined, one might say ethereal. I felt that we were a flock of birds drifting high in the sky. All that would have been needed for consummation of the experience would have been for us to wheel over and to plunge into the divine abyss, snuffed out in the blissful void, but it didn't quite happen.
Throughout much of the evening I felt the presence of the wolf spirit, and in contact with my own deeper self. I reflected on my life and its current situation, and on my plans for the future. I felt strengthened in my intentions and more confident that the path I was on was the right one for me.
As the effects wore off, a couple of hours before dawn, we allowed the fire to die out, and fell asleep. We arose shortly after sunrise, prepared some coffee and related to each other what had happened for us during the night. We all felt OK. A woman friend of the group leader appeared and prepared for us a wonderful breakfast.
Further discussion during the day revealed that for all of us it had been a positive experience, even for Joe, who still could not make much sense of what it was that had possessed him. Only Ed had some mixed feelings about the experience, probably because it completely undermined his verbal-rationalist mode of relating to life up to this point. I felt that he had much to reflect upon as a result of the night's mushroom experience, as indeed we all had, upon our return to the rather strange and unnatural world of late 20th Century America.
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Fascinating, mysterious, illuminating, confounding, intriguing.