On July 12th, Netflix dropped the documentary series How to Change Your Mind based on Michael Pollan’s bestselling book of the same name. Shelby Hartman, co-founder of DoubleBlind Magazine, a publication dedicated to psychedelics, reflected on the significance of Pollan’s work.
Major outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic were already covering the burgeoning research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics at institutions such as Johns Hopkins and NYU, but Pollan’s article “The Trip Treatment,” which laid the foundation for How to Change Your Mind, gave the conversation a whole new level of credence. Then, How to Change Your Mind became a bestseller, and suddenly folks who had never been interested in psychedelics before became curious. Pollan had earned respect in multiple topic areas outside of psychedelic research. So How to Change Your Mind became the favorite book for every psychonaut to introduce resistant grandparents, parents, or friends to the conversation.
While reviewing a media preview of this documentary, I was struck by Pollan’s sincerity in exploring psychedelics with an open mind, as well as the Western bias inherent in this work. For example, the series focuses more on the discovery of these mind-expanding drugs in the 1950s by pioneering academics such as Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and Aldous Huxley and their use within the United States than on the far more extensive history and use of these substances in indigenous cultures.
In his capacity as an Episcopal priest and sociology professor, my late father connected with his fellow white male academics in search of utopia. However, my admittedly fuzzy recollections as a child bring to mind a more sinister version of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” culture advocated by Leary. The darker way in which these drugs can be misused, especially under the power of a charismatic guru like Leary or my father, was touched upon but not really addressed in this series.
Even though I am white with many inherent privileges, I did not feel I could experiment publicly as Pollan did with psychedelic drugs that had been designated illegal by the federal government without facing criminal consequences. Hence, I didn’t feel comfortable going public about my exploration of earth-based medicines until 2021 when Oregon legalized psilocybin mushrooms for controlled use in specific therapeutic settings and decriminalized all drugs.
So, I started the 2021 New Year by gifting myself a three-day journey with this fungus. Little did I know that these experiences would prove invaluable in keeping me sane while the world continued spinning even more out of control.
On New Year’s Eve, I went to a trusted friend’s house, knowing I would be safe should I have a negative reaction. The next morning, I started my experience with a mini dose (smaller than a microdose of psilocybin) to assess how my body would respond. I spent the rest of the day feeling all warm and sunny, a soft grin covering my face.
The next day I took a beginner’s dose, which was enough for me to have an extended trip. I found myself lying on the couch for several hours feeling very mellow and at peace with the universe. I felt my body say goodbye to my extended dysfunctional family, who have long since abandoned me. While I have acknowledged in my mind that it’s healthier for me to just let them go rather than to keep trying to connect, this marked the first time my body said “yes.”
At the conclusion of this trip, I watched The Wizard of Oz. This movie was an annual family tradition, but I haven’t been able to watch it without tearing up since my parents died from their addictions when I was a teenager. I smiled with delight that I could view this childhood favorite from a place of expansive joy instead of tears.
On the third day, I took a final mini dose. This produced a creative surge that broke through the acedia I felt on and off during this pandemic due to the lack of external stimuli like live music, festivals, and other social gatherings that feed into my creative process. Unlike CBD and cannabis, which I need to take whenever I want to derive their benefits, the effects from the weekend kept me centered during a week of unprecedented political upheaval here in the United States.
Satisfied with these experiences, I decided a week later to do a deep dive by taking a full dose. I hunkered down in my bedroom and prepared a nest of items I might need such as drinks, snacks, a warm blanket, and music.
This time I could feel myself being pushed through a seemingly never-ending tunnel with images of childhood traumas and adult disappointments flashing before me.
Had I not undergone EMDR, I suspect the revisiting of these traumatic experiences might have triggered me. But thanks to that work, I was able to remain still and just let these experiences pass over me.
When I emerged out of this tunnel, I found myself in a calm place lying by a pool of water. Bathed in the healing power of water, I reclaimed my identity as a survivor, though the warrior within me that needed to do battle to protect myself was now overflowing with empathy. My revelations were not based on left/right politics, but rather a deeply grounded sensation of being connected to the earth through this fungus that allowed me to see clearly our interconnectedness based on our shared humanity. (I say this as someone who is very wary of woo-woo and remains highly skeptical of those who abandon medical science as they claim their auras will protect them from STIs and other communicable diseases.)
Coming out of this experience, I watched the season finale of Star Trek. Suffice it to say, the show’s message of global interconnectedness really hit home, and the powerful effects of the themes of death and rebirth reconnected me at my core.
Finally, I tried microdosing, an experience that creates the uplifting and empathic effects of psilocybin mushrooms while letting the user still be able to focus and function. I was informed that if I could feel a psychedelic effect from the mushrooms, this meant I took a bit more than what my body needs.
Typically, I’ve used herbal teas or CBD to help me stay calm when under stress or unable to sleep. But for those times when I am stressed to the breaking point, microdosing mushrooms enables me to feel more centered than CBD.
Rebecca Martinez, community organizer and founder of Alma Institute, an Oregon nonprofit that trains people to facilitate psychedelic experiences, provided me with the necessary instructions for my journeys. She confirmed that my experience parallels her use of this fungus. As she described to me, “Psilocybin mushrooms temporarily disorganize your brain activity, and parts of your brain start communicating in novel ways. You’re able to go back and revisit traumatic experiences where your stored memory of that event is separate from the emotions attached to this event.” In this state, the mind and emotions come together, and you can reframe the event in your mind and feel what happened. This reframing allows you to feel compassion from the heart instead of simply mentally forgiving the person.
Nate Howard, Co-creator and Director of Operations for InnerTrek, an Oregon Health Authority-approved school to train Oregon-licensed Psilocybin Service Facilitators, has written about his experiences with psilocybin mushrooms. He points to the resurgence of plant-based medicine in the United States and beyond.
“Whether the plant is cannabis or psilocybin-producing mushrooms, people are finding genuine relief from a variety of ailments from these plants and fungis. That is a fact. And the research confirms it. Now what we need is better policy that aligns with science—like full decriminalization, descheduling, and legal frameworks like Oregon’s ballot measure 109 so that we can responsibly and ethically reintegrate them back into society and into a medical and wellness framework.”
Author’s Note: This piece reflects my own experiences with psilocybin mushrooms and is not designed as prescriptive advice. Furthermore, I’m aware of others for whom psilocybin mushrooms had an adverse effect. The same can be said for cannabis/CBD and other mind-altering substances. For those looking for additional research on psilocybin mushrooms, check out the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
An earlier version of this article was posted at Spirituality & Health