All life on earth is one evolutionary family tree with shared roots. Many animals, plants and fungi on widely-spread branches of the tree share the alchemical ability to arrange the elements into the remarkable molecules we call psychedelics. Our own brains even seem to synthesise trace amounts.
Participants on our retreats drink a tea of cultivated ‘truffles’, descended from a single wild mushroom discovered in Florida in 1977, and barely seen since. These truffles contain inactive psilocybin, which our collaborating bodies deftly trim into the psychedelic psilocin. Almost identical in structure to our own brain messenger molecule serotonin, psilocybin clicks neatly to our serotonin receptors and temporarily retunes our minds, as if to another frequency.
It is rarely admitted how little we understand, but there remains a vast gulf between what scientists can tell us about the effects of psychedelics in the brain, and the lived embodied experience. It seems that adult human brains have settled into relatively ordered, efficient patterns of activity, as if we’re a jazz busker who falls back on a small repertoire of classic tunes. The melody we play most repetitively, without even having to think, is the one we call our sense of self, or ego. Psychedelics relax those constraints on our brain networks, allowing the music to flow spontaneously with novel improvisational twists, flourishes and medleys.
The Psychedelic Renaissance
Of all the classical psychedelics, psilocybin has (due to a shorter action and less troublesome reputation than LSD) become the focus of the recent surge of psychedelic research. A growing evidence base corroborates and builds on traditional knowledge of its power to heal, and also to teach and guide.
Therapeutic experiences catalysed by psilocybin can lift people from depression where other treatments have failed, defuse terror of mortality in the seriously ill, help people escape the grip of their addictions, but can also nudge those of us without any specific diagnosed ‘disorder’ towards lives of greater wellbeing, self-acceptance and harmonious connections with others and the more-than-human world. Whilst our typical conservative brain dynamics naturally reassert themselves, the effects can live on, especially so when supported by the use of daily practices.
Despite decades of suppression justified by the claim that psychedelics are uniquely dangerous, research has also finally established that the powerful psychedelic experience is, in clinical language, “well-tolerated” within supportive settings, (and remarkably low-risk even outside of them).