The following article by Patrick Doerksen first appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal, issue XXXVIII. To support our writing and research on Substack, please consider a free or paid subscription:
“Things that amaze, but will not make us wise.”
This is the story of my first seven experiences with psilocybin-containing mushrooms and what happened when, during a group trip, a friend of mine nearly died.
The first time I took mushrooms was the summer after my freshman year of university. I was eighteen, and riding a high. I’d lucked out with a well-paying government job in my hometown, and Descartes’ Meditations, assigned reading for the Modern Philosophy class I’d enrolled in that first semester, had awakened in me an irrevocable passion for metaphysics.
As a birthday present to myself, I booked a sky-diving appointment outside of town for early August. Only afterwards did a few of my high school friends inform me that they were planning a little “pharmaceutical adventure” that same weekend.
When the flight company called to rebook, I couldn’t have been gladder.
This was far more exciting.
It was a mild and cloudless day on the Canadian prairies, with none of the heavy languor of high summer. We met at Oscar’s place around noon—his parents were out of town and we had the house to ourselves.
There were five of us. I remember distinctly, as though it were the iconic opening scene of some film, how we sat around a table in the sunlit dining room, a plate of dried mushrooms at the table’s center—aware, all of us, that we lingered on a kind of immaterial threshold. After dividing the mushrooms into equal portions, we sat and chewed. At last, a pair of stipes remained on the plate.
I ate them.
My guess is that the extra two stipes made my dose around four or five grams.
I was there for epiphanies and adventures.
We washed down the fungi’s gamey pap with grapefruit juice, which was supposed to help with the digestion, then descended to the basement to play videogames. It was a giggly and anticipatory atmosphere. I kept checking in on myself to see if anything was different. “You’ll know,” one my friends said. “You’ll know when it happens.”
I’m sure I did. But now, thirteen years later, I can’t recall the exact moment it hit.
What I recall is a sense, pervading that dim basement like a substance, of a sudden and powerful awe.
Aldous Huxley made Henri Bergon’s idea of the brain as a “reducing valve” famous when he published The Doors of Perception. This idea has become so foundational to my own interpretation of what went on in this maiden voyage into the Psilocybe that I cannot honestly say if I read Huxley’s book before or after the trip.
The concept involves a simple paradigm shift. Instead of the brain giving rise to consciousness, Huxley views the brain as that which restricts “Mind at Large” into an animal-sized container. We are aware, in other words, only of what services our biological and social thriving. But this awareness represents but “a measly trickle” compared to everything actually going on in the universe.
The psilocin molecule, according to this metaphor, prises open that valve, that Door of Perception—and lets in a torrent of existence.
In short, a lot went on.
We listened to “The End” by the Doors, a chilling, uncertain song that brought us to outermost solitude. The stucco ceiling became a heap of shifting lizard tails. Oscar went into the shower and started yelling. My friends pooled money and ordered pizza (evidence that I was much higher than they were; I could never have figured out how to do that). But chief in my memory was the discovery of the apple tree in the backyard.
The tree stood at the back of a lengthy lawn. That the apples were ripe made me laugh with astonishment.
I must have been “peaking”—a word I learned much later. Walking to the tree became an epic journey. One specific apple caught my attention, and I plucked it, drew back to the sundeck, and lay on the reclining beach chair. When I closed my eyes and the deep orange sunshine oozed over my lids, I understood I was in the Garden of Eden, on the first day of creation. We had made it back. Maybe we had never left.
Here is where it becomes important to know whether I read The Doors or Perception before or after the trip. At the time, it seemed to me that the apple tree itself suggested Eden—not suggested, but was. Yet there is another famous image from Huxley’s book: looking at a flower arrangement, he writes, “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
Was this episode primed by Huxley?
In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan suggests that the entirety of psychedelic experience since the ’60s is primed by language cribbed from religious traditions. Of Albert Hofmann’s famous first bioassay of LSD, he writes: “Because Hofmann’s experiences with LSD are the only ones we have that are uncontaminated by previous accounts, it’s interesting to note they exhibit neither the Eastern nor the Christian flavorings that would soon become conventions of the genre.”
What Pollan doesn’t address is why that connection—between psychedelic experience and the language of mysticism—is made in the first place, and why it is such an intuitive one.
In any case, I had entered ecstasy, and now I had to (had to!) leave the house and get out into the world. My friends were back in the basement, listening to a playlist. What were they doing in the dark on a sunny August day? I urged them to walk the neighbourhood with me, but there was little interest, and at last I became impatient. Not irritated—irritation wasn’t possible. I only felt we were missing out on something huge and amazing.
So I left.
I was gone for what felt like the briefest time, because out the front door was something so astonishing that I ran back to the house, trembling, bent on convincing my friends once more. But inside, they were in a state of panic. Where were you? You can’t just leave like that! Their worry astonished me. I knew it was real, but at the same time it didn’t seem right to dignify it.
This was my first lesson in the tripper’s truism: you know only your trip.
It’s a hard lesson. How could it be that others aren’t jiving, aren’t wrapped up in this same euphoria? It is difficult to wrap your mind around the fact, cosmically strange, that others aren’t feeling what you feel. They aren’t seeing what you see. They don’t wonder what you wonder, or attend to what you attend to. As kids we are reprimanded for such lack of empathy; for what it’s worth, though, I believe the incongruity between subjectivities really is astonishing. Only, it has become one of those marvelous enigmas, like the sheer isness of things, that, rubbed down by habit, have lost their glint.
There’s one final image from this first trip, strange and useless, which I have nonetheless carried with me all these years.
Early on, while we were still in the basement, I was playing around with the remote control of Oscar’s massive flat screen TV. I stuck my thumb beneath the clamp on the back. As it bit down, I felt as though it were now in control of my thumb and, by means of my thumb, my entire body.
This tiny remote, I understood, also controlled the TV. So: it was an object that manipulated entities larger than itself. I thought about this, and about all the other technological objects of control—cell phones, car keys, remote detonators—all of which possessed unprecedented influence over things physically greater than themselves. Suddenly I felt cold dread.
Everything was getting smaller, yet controlling more.
One day there would be only one object, occupying a single point in space, commanding absolute power over everything in the universe.
Terrified, I called it “the Point.”
In the end, as we were coming down, I got my walk with my friends. The neighbourhood was uttermost suburbia: clean sidewalks and picket fences, homes with high gables and wide porches supported by white columns. Yet everything had a sharpness of color and detail that made me giddy. The leaves on a strip of boxwood hedge seemed like forms newly sculpted from a holy substance capable of holding more detail than the matter we knew.
But, like cooling magma, it would soon settle down, become blunted: become the boxwood hedge we knew in our daily lives. Exhausted, I longed for that. But the greater longing, I think, was never to be exhausted.
The second time I took mushrooms was at a Flaming Lips concert. This was just after the band had released their bizarre, paranoiac, acid-rock album Embryonic. I was in third year university, in Edmonton, which was on their tour circuit, so I said to those same high school friends of mine that, if they drove down for the concert, they could crash in my dorm.
At the entrance to the stadium, we encountered a problem. Security guards were patting people down. How did we get the drugs inside?
The solution should have been obvious: eat the mushrooms in the parking lot. But we were nervous idiots, and besides, we wanted to time things right. We made ourselves PB&J sandwiches and put the dried mushrooms in these. Then we put the sandwiches in plastic bags and shoved them in our crotches.
It could have gone south; we got lucky.
I remember little of the concert, only vague impressions of loud, static-soaked alien soundscapes, and one astonishing moment when a huge ball of light descended from the top of the stadium and seemed to break a dozen laws of physics. What I remember, instead, is our long walk back to the dorm. We’d driven to the stadium, but when we were let out none of us was near sober enough to drive. My friends talked among themselves while I walked several paces ahead.
I’d been reading Wittgenstein for one of my courses, and my mind was on language. It seemed to me that language was a Möbius strip that, as you followed its contour, now faced you outward, then faced you inward again. The inside and the outside were one, but in a dynamic way. What we say is what we mean; and yet there are concealed dimensions to what we say, even from ourselves; and yet we ought not to despair of language on account of what it buries, but rejoice on account of what was revealed; and yet we should never forget how much—so much!—is buried. I couldn’t stop spinning thoughts, and that too became part of the vortex of realizations: the way that language naturally hypertrophied, and how that hypertrophy could be valued or distained depending on your existential position.
Language is an open field!
It is a cage.
Becomes a field again.
First there is the conviction that nothing will ever be the same again. Then you come down from the high.
Maybe you have more compassion in the days that follow; maybe your anxiety has lessened; maybe you even make some kind of life decision. But sooner or later you return to work or school, things organize again into something very much like the everyday. And the question becomes: does this Return mean that your conviction was a delusion?
The following semester I tried to explain the experience of psychedelics to my girlfriend, S, who had never used them, and in particular this sense of cosmic significance. I hadn’t talked about these things with anyone, not knowing how, nor having much inclination to. But she was curious, and the best listener I knew: so we walked along the North Saskatchewan River and over the course of two hours I tried to describe what made the phenomenon qualitatively unique.
It felt good to communicate my excitement. But it also confirmed for me the linguistic intractability of psychedelic experience. There was no way around it. You had to take mushrooms to really know.
These days, there’s much talk among researchers and activists about psychedelics as therapeutic tools. Some even argue for the positive gains of “horror tripping”—intentionally inducing a bad trip. But perhaps one of the great unstated things about psychedelic experience is that it acclimatizes you to solitude. This solitude is semantic. It is due, I think, not to the meaningless or deluded nature of these experiences, but to their over-abundance of meaning.
Behind all my musings on language during that long walk back to the dorms was the consciousness that, if called on, I would be unable to explain these thoughts to my friends. Indeed, when I sobered up, I might not be able to communicate them to myself.
I would wake, but it would be a downward waking, into something less than the dream.
In 2014, two years after graduation, I was working for an environmental activist organization on Vancouver Island. A co-worker said he’d acquired a species of psychoactive mushroom that originated in the Amazon. Since my second trip, I hadn’t actively considered using them again. Had the time come?
Typical of a positive psychedelic experience is a strong desire to share it with loved ones. While high, I’ve found myself thinking, If only so and so could experience this! At the time, my older brother, N, and a close friend from university, K, both lived in Victoria. Neither had done psychedelics before.
Did they want to try?