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Chop Wood, Carry Water: Psychedelics, Nature and Spirituality
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Chop Wood, Carry Water: Psychedelics, Nature and Spirituality
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Chop Wood, Carry Water: Psychedelics, Nature and Spirituality
Pass it on
Pass it on
6 December 2022

Chop Wood, Carry Water: Psychedelics, Nature and Spirituality

“When “the sea flows in our veins … and the stars are our jewels,” when all things are perceived as infinite and holy, what motive can we have for covetousness or self-assertion, for the pursuit of power or the drearier forms of pleasure?”

— Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Written by Georgina Reid

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

I’ve never been on a rollercoaster. As a kid, I remember waiting shamefully with Mum and Dad at an amusement park, while my brother and sister whizzed down the slides again and again, higher and higher. I envied their abandon, their flushed and grinning faces as they emerged at the bottom of the slide, their apparent fearlessness.

As a teenager and university student I gave psychedelic drugs a wide berth. They were a rollercoaster of a different form. The same fear of leaving the groundplane, of losing control, kept me away. It is surprising, then, to be asked to write an essay about psychedelics as a woman who’s never partaken. “Follow your curiosity,” urges my editor. I am nothing if not curious.

I’ve circled the subject for years: as a writer exploring relationships between humans and nature, and as a gardener intrigued by the agency and intelligence of plants and other beings. Interactions between people and plants/fungi that open the door, just a crack, to what is sacred and universal make sense to me. I think of how trees in a forest are linked together by intricate webs of mycelium, invisible beneath the forest floor.

Is this where psychedelic plants and fungi take us: the hard-tosee yet very real place, throbbing with life force and vitality, where everything begins and ends? Or, are they simply a rollercoaster ride: fun, exhilarating, and short-lived?

I read books, talk to friends and experts, watch videos and join online forums (the algorithm can’t keep up). I’m surprised by the stories I hear. Many people I speak to are convinced of the transformative power of psychedelics, and none of them trip regularly. I always assumed them to be dangerous and addictive, that you could get stuck in a bad trip forever. But, “Psychedelics are far more frightening to people than they are dangerous”, writes Michael Pollan in How to Change Your Mind. “Many of the most notorious perils are either exaggerated or mythical. It’s virtually impossible to die from an overdose of LSD or psilocybin … and neither drug is addictive.”

The modern history of the use and study of psychedelics is a tale of extremes. The story begins with Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who first synthesised LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) from ergot, a fungus affecting wheat and rye plants. He accidentally took the first LSD trip in 1943 and spent much of his very long life (he died in 2008, aged 102) exploring the uses of the drug. “I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality,” he wrote in his memoir, LSD: My Problem Child.

In 1956, Hofmann isolated psilocybin from the mushroom Psilocybe Mexicana and the company he worked for, Sandoz, began selling it worldwide for use in psychotherapy and medical research. Both LSD and psilocybin were legal prescription drugs, and were seen as having significant medicinal potential.

Then came the 1960s, the Vietnam war, and the ensuing counter-cultural movement. LSD and psilocybin seeped from hospital corridors to the streets. Evangelicalism and controversy were never far away, perhaps best illustrated by the Harvard Psilocybin Project, led by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, which “crashed and burned” in 1963, according to Michael Pollan. US Law reform in 1971 transformed LSD and psilocybin into Schedule I banned substances, having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” despite growing research illustrating otherwise. In Australia today, psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT are listed as Schedule 9 prohibited substances.

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. A superb and surprising title for a scientific paper – science, mysticism, mushrooms and meaning all wrapped up in one sentence! According to the 2006 study published by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, after two months the volunteers in the trial “rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance.” It was, for some, as profound an event as the birth of their children, the deaths of their parents.

“The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably ‘occasion’ a mystical experience,” writes Pollan. This is typically described as the “dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.”

Ego dissolution – to my unenlightened mind – sounds a bit scary. But it also seems to be key to transformative psychedelic experiences. One person I speak to says this: “When your sense of self breaks down, the perceived boundaries between the individual and nature can also dissolve. It can be quite a powerful shift in perspective.” Another says, “It’s the direct felt experience of being part of a larger whole. It’s not a detached, intellectual understanding, but the emotional experience of being connected to something bigger.” I’m fascinated. Firstly, about the mashup of spirituality and science – whom I thought were bad bedfellows; secondly, because reliably occasioning a mystical experience is a wild idea; and thirdly, even though it scares me, I wouldn’t mind extinguishing my ego for a while.

I speak with my partner – who has a long-term meditation practice – about the place psychedelics seem to take people. “It sounds like the thing Zen people talk about as enlightenment?” I say. Like me, he has no experience with psychedelics, and whilst interested, says he’ll stick with meditation. He’ll take the long road. I, as usual, am open to a shortcut.

The connection between psychedelics and spirituality is relatively new to me, but of course, it’s not new at all. “… plants and fungi with the power to radically alter consciousness have long and widely been used as tools for healing the mind, for facilitating rites of passage, and for serving as a medium for communicating with supernatural realms, or spirit worlds,” writes Pollan. There are no lack of grand claims on the spiritual.

One is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of a God.”

And then there’s the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna’s stoned ape theory. McKenna suggested in his 1992 book, Food of the Gods, that the ingestion of psilocybin caused rapid development of the human brain for social bonding and analytical thinking. In short, he suggests, the mushrooms made us.

A friend tells me that on a recent trip she looked down and instead of fingers she had five penises attached to her hand. Hand of god?

“What would our world be like if more of us were awakening spiritually, if more of us were increasingly aware of both the temporal and the eternal realms in consciousness?” asks William A. Richards (one of the co-authors of the 2006 Johns Hopkins psilocybin and spirituality study) in Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. This is a question I’ve heard – and pondered – often, but never within the context of psychedelics. If, as research shows, it’s possible to reliably occasion mystical experiences using psychedelic drugs, what potential for meaningmaking does this have in a dangerously materialist world?

Meaning, despite what lifestyle marketers would have us believe, grows from deep connection. To nature, to each other, to community.

Re-imagining worldviews that centre meaningful connection to all life, has never been more urgent. As a writer, my tools are creativity and language. My output, stories. If a worldview is nothing more than a story told over and over again until deemed to be true, then it is true to say stories shape worlds. At a time like ours, we need a forest of stories and solutions, both practical and meaningful. No this or that but yes, and. If psychedelics can reliably occasion spiritual experiences, if they can connect people to themselves and the world around them, might they be one of many trees in the forest of solutions?

My curiosity is further piqued when I come across a study exploring the relationship between psychedelics and nature-connectedness, broadly defined as the extent to which humans feel themselves part of nature. The study, titled From Egoism to Egoism and published in 2019, found a causal link between psychedelic use and increased nature-connectedness. The researchers found that a single high dose of psilocybin can provoke sustained, and relatively long-term, increases in nature-connectedness. Not only that, but, “The observed increase in nature-relatedness post-psychedelic use was correlated with concomitant increases in psychological wellbeing and remained significantly elevated two years after the psychedelic experience.”

Nature-connectedness is essential for human and planetary health. “There’s a growing body of research literature showing that nature-connectedness has a strong association with mental health and wellbeing, particularly eudaemonic wellbeing which is tied to life meaning and self-actualisation,” says ecologist and independent researcher Dr Sam Gandy, one of the co-authors of the study. “If we’re concerned about mental health and wellbeing, the global decline in nature connectedness is something which should be of grave concern to all of us.”

There are two primary differences, according to Gandy, between psilocybin (the study tested a range of psychedelics – including LSD, ayahuasca and mescaline – and found psilocybin to be the most effective in stimulating nature connectedness) and more traditional nature-connection interventions such as nature retreats, wilderness immersion and daily interaction. The first, longevity. The effects of a single high dose of psilocybin can last up to two years, where he’s not found “any compelling evidence for long-lasting change” in non-psychedelic options. The second, intentionality. It could be assumed that those who take psychedelics are more open to nature to begin with, but studies have found that psilocybin can elicit increases in nature-connectedness even in a clinical setting – where the only nature is human. This can happen without any prior intentionality. “There’s no other interventions that have this effect. It’s really quite mysterious and unique,” he says. “What happens if we mindfully and intentionally use psychedelics as nature-connectedness enhancing agents?”

Research into psychedelics as treatments for a range of mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, OCD and addiction is booming. But data on nature-connection and psychedelics, according to Sam, is “data left on the side … If we’re looking to explore all the possible positive attributes of psychedelics, we’d be foolish to overlook their capacity to affect our relationships with nature … If we can use psychedelics in ways that maximise or deepen that connection, then there’s positive long-term implications for that.”

When I started researching this essay, I found myself sliding towards evangelicalism. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, what I was reading. Transformational experiences here, there, everywhere. Mystical experiences for all! I read about drug advocate Rick Doblin’s attempts to end sectarian violence by sending tablets of MDMA to the world’s spiritual leaders (he also, apparently, sent 1000 doses of MDMA to the Soviet military working on arms control negotiations with President Reagan) and had a brief, rose-coloured vision of a global annual mushroom-imbibing event; we all stay at home, eat mushrooms, and dissolve our egos for a better world. I pondered how to get LSD to Vladimir Putin, ASAP.

It’s easy to frame psychedelics as a quick fix when hearing and reading firsthand stories of people whose lives have been changed for the better as a result of psychedelic treatment – clinical or recreational. Enlightenment without a decades-long meditation practice. Yes! Worldview shift overnight. Yes! Relief from anxiety in eight hours. Yes!

But, as Sam Gandy points out, “we’re not suffering from a mental health crisis because there’s a lack of psychedelics. Disconnection is a big part of it.

Yes, psychedelics might help boost that, to some degree. But unless the societal structures are shifted … You know, sending someone out into the world after they’ve had a psilocybin session to treat depression, their connection levels might be boosted, but it shouldn’t be surprising if their baseline goes back to the societal baseline over time. Because they’re going out into what is a fundamentally disconnected society.”

“I don’t see psychedelics as a panacea,” he continues. “The issue of disconnect from nature is deeply entrenched, and there’s not a one-stop solution to deal with it. If psychedelics can potentially be a helpful tool in the box, that’s great … I feel like we should rein in expectations, but at the same time, we’ve not comprehensively assessed the full potential of psychedelics. We need to be mindful of that.”

We talk about a study he’s been involved in, which shows that group nature based activities foster both nature-connectedness and social connectedness, which then support pro-nature behaviour. “I’d like to see more of this for the afterglow of the psychedelic experience,” he tells me. “You know, before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. But replace the wood and water with the renewal and restoration of the earth.”

My editor told me to follow my curiosity when writing this essay. But the thing with curiosity is this: the more questions you ask, the less answers you find. My writing studio is piled so high with questions I can hardly see out the window. Answers slink into the shadows.

It is impossible, then, to make a strong and clear statement to end things. Yes or no. Right or wrong. They’re wonderful, they’re a curse. They’re transformational, they’re dangerous. All perhaps true. Dualism has been the story of psychedelics for the last 50 years and it doesn’t seem to have done them, or us, any good.

All I can say with any confidence is this: it’s hard to see how supporting people to access the sacred, and deepen their connection to nature, is a bad thing in a world bereft of both. Using psychedelic substances – as one of many tools – to achieve this, raises a mountain of questions around legality, access, education, regulation, medicalisation and commodification. None of which I have answers for. But if we’re serious about re-enchanting our world, and re-imagining our place in it, they’re questions worth pondering. With clear eyes, open minds, and armloads of curiosity.

Note: It’s a criminal offence in Australia and many other countries to possess, manufacture or supply psilocybin and LSD. This essay is for education and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to encourage you to break the law.

Georgina Reid

Georgina Reid is a gardener, landscape designer and journalism graduate, she launched The Planthunter, almost a decade ago, which continues as Wonderground.

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