In January of 2017 I reached out to Eric Osborne of Mycomeditations.com concerning a psilocybin mushroom inspired family retreat he planned to host in Jamaica for June 14-22. Initially my wife and I planned to go by ourselves while our daughter Bogyeong (aka “BG” or “Ashley”) was in Korea visiting relatives, but we began wondering if perhaps she might also benefit from the experience. I knew how powerful and profound psilocybin could be because of my participation in research on the confluence of psilocybin and meditation at Johns Hopkins in 2015, and I wanted my whole family to enjoy such an experience. I asked Eric what effects on young people he had noticed as regarded psilocybin. He responded: “Younger people are often… inspired to become more socially active after a retreat such as this, older individuals tend to become more intensely aware of the value of time. Most everyone gains a new respect for family and community” (private communication, January 11, 2017). We decided to ask BG if she would like to go with us to Jamaica to experience magic mushrooms. This required me to tell her about my previous experiences, of which she knew nothing.
I gave her the first report I’d written for Johns Hopkins, which she read with no small measure of surprise and bewilderment. When asked if she’d like to try psilocybin herself, she at first hesitated. I offered her some additional facts I thought would reassure her, such as: • humans have been consuming psychoactive mushrooms for thousands of years without apparent ill effects. In fact, mushrooms are found abundantly in religious iconography, showing up on pre-historic rock art (e.g., at Tassili in Algeria)1 and perhaps as the sacramental substance (soma) described in the world’s oldest religious text, the Rig Veda of India (c. 1700-1100 BCE);2 • psilocybin is not only not addictive, but is now being clinically explored (e.g., at Johns Hopkins and NYU) for the treatment of addictions to legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine (i.e. smoking cessation);3 • additionally, psilocybin is under investigation as a treatment for common depression and for people facing end-of-life anxiety with terminal illnesses (again, at Johns Hopkins and other institutions);4 • the toxicity of caffeine far exceeds that of psilocybin, and while deaths from the world’s most popular drug are commonplace5, when I asked Roland Griffiths, the lead scientist in the Johns Hopkins study, about psilocybin related deaths, he could only come up with one possible example, but that involved significant complicating health factors such as heart and blood pressure conditions. (Psilocybin is known to temporarily raise the blood pressure.) It is hardly possible to die from psilocybin— though this is not to say you will always have an enjoyable time while using it.
In other words, while psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I substance along with such life destroying drugs as heroin and cocaine, the verdict of science is that psilocybin is not only not physically dangerous, it is therapeutically promising—and this does not even consider the traditional use of magic mushrooms as sacraments for healing and transcendence. After some consideration, Bogyeong decided to join and we signed up for the retreat. Five months later the retreat happened. Both my daughter and wife experienced profound and positive effects from their four “trips,” accounts of which I hope will be the subjects of separate write ups. For the rest of this account, however, I will focus on what I experienced and the meaning I derived from those experiences.
The Setting The retreat was centered around four separate ceremonies taking place on the evenings of June 15, 17, 19 and 21. It was led by Eric Osborne and his associate Jonathan Thompson, host of Psychedelicparenting.org and himself an experienced psychonaut who had partnered with Eric on a previous retreat in Jamaica. (Psilocybin, among other psychoactive drugs such as cannabis, is legal in Jamaica.) In addition to my family of three, the retreatants included siblings Matt and Julie, a middle-aged couple Jason and Ben with two non-participating children ages 10 and 14, and Eric’s 14-year-old son Jacob. On ceremony evenings we met and discussed our intentions—i.e. what we specifically hoped to learn during the trip—as well as any other issues or concerns that might affect us. Each retreatant then decided with Eric on an appropriate dose, considering such factors as prior history with psilocybin, personal concerns, and, for sessions two, three and four, the experience of the previous trip. My intentions were twofold.
First, I had recently made a significant decision not to pursue a yoga studio business for which I had purchased a franchise. This was a major career choice, in effect altering my line of work and economic disposition for the next decade. I was concerned, though, to use my free time before retirement (expected at age 59) in the best possible way, and I had two options available to me. One was to resume my fiction writing, the other was to dedicate as much time as possible to spiritual endeavors—meditation, yoga, and perhaps, a relationship with psychedelics. I wanted to know the best options for my life. The second intention was to remove what I felt were mental blockages in me, preventing progress in meditation and general spiritual and emotional development. I knew psychedelics could prove helpful with this, and indeed, that had been my goal at Johns Hopkins. While that experience proved revelatory, I discovered that one good “trip” was just not enough to really break through whatever obstructions I was dealing with. I needed stronger—or more—medicine. The “medicine” was dispensed by Eric via gel caps containing 500 mgs of dried Psilocybe cubensis, probably the most commonly consumed psychoactive mushroom in the world. Eric was very pleased with the batch, which he described as potent yet gentle in its onset. I began with a dose of 4 grams (i.e. 8 caplets). According to the psychedelics resource website Erowid.org, P. cubensis contains on average 0.63% psilocybin dried, meaning I was ingesting probably around 25 mgs of psilocybin, a “strong” dose.7 (By comparison, I had deduced that my first session at Johns Hopkins was in the 20-25 mgs range, which they described as a “moderate-to-heavy” dose.)
The site of our first ceremony was inside, on the second floor of the main guest house of the bed and breakfast we were staying in. I lay down on a loveseat, others lay on couches or yoga mats on the floor. We did not have any music.
Trip #1 (June 15)
My experience during the first session was similar in many respects to what happened at Johns Hopkins, though the phenomena came in different orders than previously, and overall it felt slightly stronger. The initial sensations began not in my head, but in my face—a feeling of the flesh being peeled back. I carry a lot of tension in my face, especially my jaw, and I interpreted this as a sort of radical relaxation response initiated by the medicine. As the session progressed, I had more and more the feeling of my body being eaten from within—by vines or bugs or little aliens. The odd thing about all of this was I felt totally okay with it! I did not feel alarmed or anxious as my body was “consumed” and became progressively more relaxed. In fact, through part of the session I practiced metta bhavana (“loving-kindness meditation”), wherein I extended thoughts of love and goodwill to myself and others. I also thanked my teachers, the mushrooms, for what they had given me in the past and were giving me now. I told myself that whatever happened would be for the better. The session was not without its problems, though these were externally caused, not because of the medicine. In general, the other retreatants seemed unsettled. There was a lot of getting up and moving around, with doors opening and slamming shut (from the wind). Dismayed and more than a little irritated by this, the thought occurred to me, The mushroom people are here to teach us but nobody is listening! I felt we were wasting a blessed opportunity. Probably the worst distraction came from my wife, who was experiencing her first psilocybin trip. As frequently happens to people on mushrooms, she was laughing a lot, but instead of just processing this and letting it go, she got up and started walking around, and eventually ended up in conversation with another retreatant. (In general, people should not do this before the medicine has mostly worn off, which typically takes at least four hours.) This proved tremendously distracting to me, and for much of the session I was flitting between irritation and my efforts to absorb into my own experience. I spent most of the session lying down, but sometimes I sat up, which is when I noticed how relaxed I’d become. Sitting with legs crossed, head back and eyes closed, I began entering psychic spaces I’d last visited at Johns Hopkins. At first I saw the geometric patterns of light common in psilocybin trips, but these gave way to spacious depths of delicious quiet and calm. These were seen in the darkness behind my closed eyelids and were similar to the jhanas (“absorptions”) described in Buddhist texts. Practiced meditators can access these states of consciousness through the breath alone; indeed, in the late 80s, I had been able to do so, but hadn’t for many years, which was one of the reasons I’d become interested in psychedelics as a means of breaking through my psychic blockages.
Trip #2 (June 17)
Our second session was held indoors, because of rain. (The alternative was the nearby beach, which would be the site of our third and fourth sessions.) This time the group agreed to try music, one of the playlists developed at Johns Hopkins, which consisted of mostly classical pieces. I consumed 6 grams of dried P. cubensis, around 38 mgs of psilocybin. This would be my strongest dose during the retreat, which I repeated on the fourth session.
Externally, this session was far more settled. I wasn’t bothered by anything anyone else did, though after a while the music started making me anxious. This was rather odd, since I was familiar with a lot of the pieces from my time at Johns Hopkins and it was all perfectly “good” music. Eventually I asked Jonathan to turn it off. Before the session, we had agreed as a group that if any single person was bothered by the music he or she could ask for it to stop. It’s a good thing I did since later when as a group we reviewed the session almost everyone disliked it. (This is one subject Eric feels strongly about: he views music as imposing a certain structure and mood on a psychedelic session and he thinks it does violence to the organic process and effects of the medicine. While my first experience with music at Johns Hopkins was extremely positive and if given the opportunity to trip on my own I would certainly try it again, in principle I must agree with him.) The primary facts of this session were anxiety and physical discomfort. The anxiety hit me early on, in conjunction with the music, but also as something separate, with no obvious cause. Perhaps it was some unconscious concern about the heavy dose, which was 50% more than I’d ever had before; I don’t know. I practiced loving-kindness meditation for a while, and that proved very beneficial, making me emotionally open, vulnerable, and receptive. After the music was turned off, I could settle down and this proved a passing phase. Bodily discomfort, however, persisted and worsened. I experienced nausea and heartburn. I yawned continuously, and felt I would go to sleep. At one point, I curled up fetal on the big couch; my body just wanted to shut down. I told myself that would be a waste of 6 grams of mushrooms and I wouldn’t let it happen. So I lay there uncomfortably, my toes twitching with electrical currents. I got up continuously to pee; my bladder seemed to have gone into overdrive. I sat up, thinking to meditate, but was still uncomfortable, so lay on another couch. Eventually I went to the floor and stretched out crucifix-wise. I became convinced I’d taken too much medicine, that my body couldn’t process so much psilocybin. I figured I’d have to dial it back next time, and started making plans. Where were the quiet spaces? I only touched them flittingly now and then during the session, mostly feeling physically and emotionally constipated, though after I lay on the floor I became more accepting of my situation—resigned, you might say—and my body problems stopped bothering me so much. At one point, late in the evening, I got up to pee and on my way out from the bathroom bumped into my daughter. She was in our bedroom with Ben and Jason’s children. I asked her what was she was doing up, playing and talking with the kids. Why wasn’t she in the main room with the rest of us? “I kept my mouth shut my whole life,” she said, “and now I feel chatty!” I laughed—it was the most wonderful thing I’d heard all day—and gave her a hug.8 My assessment of this most challenging of the four trips is that it represented a clearing out phase. Talking with Eric after the session, he said many years of mushroom use had convinced him that psilocybin is a powerful detoxificant: if there’s something physical or mental you need to purge from your system, the mushrooms will find a way to get it out. This is probably the principle reason people experience “bad trips”: they are purging the dross of their lives through one or more avenues, be it physical, emotional or intellectual. However, like my three previous trips, I did not touch anything personal, in the way of memories or emotions, and excepting the initial anxiety it was mostly a physical as opposed to psychological experience.
This has become a constant fixture in my psilocybin experiences: they are never about me. Contrary to what most other people seem to experience—psychodynamic material from their lives: memories, relationships, etc—my six trips to date have never involved specific content from my life, either past or present. Instead, they have centered around the structure and nature of my conscious experience—the shape and “feel” of internal awareness, or, as in this second session, the relationship of body to mind. This is true even for my first Johns Hopkins session, where I went through extreme bouts of laughter and crying. During that particularly powerful sequence, there was never anything I was “laughing at”—it was, as I put it, the “funniness of funny,” something comical about the nature of things in and of themselves as opposed to anything specific to the moment. My crying had been a release, like urinating or belching; I did not cry because of some personal memory or emotion. Far from being unpleasant (as it would have been if caused by sadness or some other negative affect), it was enormously gratifying and freeing to let go in that fashion. But it must be emphasized that neither the laughter nor crying had anything to do with me as an individual. They had been more like biological reflexes to the medicine.
Trip #3 (June 19)
Our third phase of the retreat happened in the evening on the beach behind the bed and breakfast where we were all staying. Because of my challenging physical experience the previous session I opted for a “middle way” dose—figuring four grams were too few and six too much, I took five (roughly 31-32 mgs of psilocybin). On the beach, I picked out a blanket on the far edge of the group and lay down. However, on account of some inner urging (or perhaps because of wind flinging sand into my face), I decided I should not lie down but sit. So I did. I had no pillow or chair, just a towel bundled under my bottom, and I adopted a typical meditation posture, like I would at home. I decided I would meditate, that is, to note the moment-to-moment arising and passing of my experience. This is Buddhist vipassana, or “insight meditation.” I soon became very absorbed, pressing my awareness against the borders of mental and physical sensations—sounds of the sea, thoughts, sensations in and on the body—trying to encompass more and more of what could be felt and experienced in the now. At one point someone—I thought it was Eric—came up to me and said something. He put a reassuring hand on my knee. I could not move or respond. (I learned later it was Jonathan.) I sat effortlessly for a couple hours then began doing yogic postures, whatever felt right or necessary. Then I went back to sitting and contemplating sensation. My body became filled with energy: my tailbone pulsed, electricity ran up the spine, a bubbling, ticklish sensation emanated from my navel and coursed through my stomach. These sensations percolated into my chest and face, like a slow-moving orgasm consuming my torso and head. I felt tremendously happy, and when I opened my eyes and put on my glasses to see the stars I cried at the beauty of it all. Whenever it felt right I would pause for yoga. I was far more flexible than normal. It seemed channels had opened throughout my physical form and I could move easily into much deeper poses than usual. This offered an insight into yoga, which uses stretching movements and static postures to open and adjust energy channels. I saw that you could come at this work from either way: from the inside out (via meditation or psychedelics) or from the outside in (through body disciplines like yoga or tai-chi). Most important, I felt I had begun to understand my proper relationship to the mushrooms and any other entheogens. They would be my tools to facilitate meditation for the direct seeing into the nature of experience, the kind of seeing that leads to freedom. They would be fuel, catalysts, guides, trailblazers and butt-kickers, all with the purpose of facilitating the work I was already doing, which is spiritual development. In this they were the perfect partners, but I would need to discover how to work with them consistently for the long term. That would be my challenge.
Trip #4 (June 21)
Our final trip happened on the beach. I ingested 6 grams, same as my second trip. I did not hesitate this time, but sat right down on a pillow I’d brought from my room and began meditating. Specifically, I practiced noting per the technique taught by the famous Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw. I just noted sensations and thoughts—whatever came up.
At times this narrowed to focus on mindfulness of breathing at the nose tip (anapanasati), for which I would count my breaths. As the mushrooms kicked in my meditation became progressively more powerful, so that the counting (or noting) dropped off and mindfulness embraced the whole body. The preliminary purification and momentum I’d developed over the last three trips, coupled with my confidence and determination to just meditate no-holds-barred, ended up making this the most powerful psychedelic experience I’ve ever had.My spine and head bubbled and rocked. Head channels zinged open, and my arms and chest buzzed with a delicious energy. I became completely absorbed, unaware of time, place, or identity. If I opened my eyes and observed my limbs, I did not know whose they were; the experience of being someone, of owning a body, had receded. Later I learned both Jonathan and Eric had dropped by at points during the night, but I did not notice their coming and going. I did not know where or who I was—I was just AWARENESS, out there on the edge of sensation. I sat in siddhasana for more than three hours, immobile, dwelling in jhanas and various psychic spaces of deep equanimity. When at last the ride came to its conclusion, I did a round of asanas and like the previous time found my flexibility greatly improved. I walked over to where Jonathan and Eric sat at the fire. They looked at me expectantly, asking how things had gone. I said, “I don’t know where the fuck I’ve been the last three hours!” They had a good laugh. “That’s what we like to hear,” Eric said.
Intentions & A Final Word
I had wanted to know how best to use my free time before I retired; I got an answer. I think dedicating myself to learning about and practicing the contemplative path is the highest and best thing I can do, regardless of how much or little “progress” I make. The secondary question this provokes, however, is exactly how to go about this, both in terms of changes to habits, routines, practices, etc. I have no ready answer for this; it will require ongoing thought and research. About my second intention—the removal of inner blockages and obstacles. There is no doubt my meditations are more sensitive and aware than before Jamaica, but maintaining and developing this will require continued hard work; there simply are no magic doorways to permanent improvement or guaranteed progress. In fact, understood properly, this second intention or goal is the flip side of the first, a fact that was not originally apparent to me. How could it not be? Following my “true path” goes hand in hand with breaking through obstructions encountered on that path. Similarly, overcoming those obstacles more clearly reveals the nature and direction of my path.
Now I understand this, it is even more urgent I find ways to improve myself “spiritually,” both in terms of contemplative practice but also by simply becoming a wiser, better human being. If anything can be called The Ultimate Challenge, it is this. One thing cannot be doubted: this “trip” has served our family well. Our daughter is more emotionally available and mature and more communicative than ever before. Both my wife and I feel we are closer to her than previously. Young-ok as well has benefited, learning more about her family’s shamanic past, and more in touch with her purpose going forward. Like me, though, she will be challenged to maintain and develop the insights and openings gained on this journey. I think I can sum up this experience’s final lesson in a simple phrase: The family that trips together stays together.
Watch Craig’s Interview with Jonathan Thompson of MycoMeditations and Psychedelic Parenting Comparing the MycoMeditations Experience to the Johns Hopkins Studies
2 The investment banker turned amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson was the first to propose this. However, the identity of soma continues to be argued. An article by Wasson can be found here.
3 See, e.g., https://hub.jhu.edu/2014/09/11/magic-mushrooms-smoking/. Research into the use of psychotopics for treating PTSD, addiction and depression is exploding, as a simple Google search will prove.
4 See, e.g., https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160517083044.htm.
5 See, e.g., https://www.caffeineinformer.com/a-real-life-death-by-caffeine 6 Calculations done on The Shroomery suggest that “using the data for rats and accepting a median of 1% potency [of psilocybin per dried mushroom weight], …it would require the consumption of 1680g of mushrooms to reach the
6 LD50 for a 60kg rat. This amount of mushrooms is enough to provide a “normal” mushroom trip to roughly 650 people.” LD50 is the lethal dose for 50% of the population.
7 See https://erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_dose.shtml
8 As things turned out, BG had described her first session as the “worst experience of my life” and she’d hesitated to even engage again with the mushrooms. She did though, taking a slightly lower dose for the second session, and experienced a major emotional opening.