“What is needed is a spirit of boundary dissolution, between individuals, between classes, sexual orientations, rich and poor, man and woman… If this can happen, then we will make a new world. And if this doesn’t happen, nature is fairly pitiless and has a place for us in the shale of this planet, where so many have preceded us,” read the words of American ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna, who died in April 2000. While he missed the Covid-19 pandemic by 20 years, many of his observations about our minds, our modes of living, and how psychedelics can disrupt these – potentially for the salvation of the planet – could be pronouncements about the here and now.
Almost every aspect of our lives has come grinding and screeching to a halt in lockdown, leaving many of us questioning who we are, what we’re doing, and what kind of world we want to be doing it in.
But humans are strong adaptors, and while the world as we know it has been replaced by an endless miasma of cancelled hopes and dreams, we’ve been identifying and perfecting the coping strategies that can get us through these – dare we say – “unprecedented times”. I spoke to several for whom sourdough is a bit of a non-starter and instead have been joining the growing number of people who have been finding fulfilment horticulturally in glass jars at the back of their sock drawer. By which I mean they’ve been growing and harvesting magic mushrooms, which requires only a little more patience than taking to TikTok or baking banana bread. Could psilocybin be a secret key to dealing with the stressors of the lockdown? Quite possibly.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an aspect of life which is not disrupted by Covid-19, and the way we take drugs is no exception. “I’ve been hanging with a small group, which is my perfect setting for mushrooms,” says Eddie whose pre-lockdown drugs of choice were cocaine, ketamine and MDMA. “That freedom and liberation in time has been really important,” he says, speaking about the spontaneity in planning the two mushroom trips for which he has been able to travel into the countryside in recent weeks.
About three weeks into lockdown, Christopher, 29, decided to try to recreate the “set and setting” (psychedelic lingo for the mindset and environment you craft before taking your chosen dose) of a clinical psilocybin trial – normally carried out in hospital – in his flatshare in central London. “I couldn’t really consider a mushroom trip my ‘daily exercise,’” he says, explaining why he decided to do the trip in his room rather than the jogger-dense wilds of Clapham Common. Lying on his bed with the curtains drawn, wearing eyeshades and focussing on an eight-hour playlist designed for use in psilocybin trials, he wasn’t seeking wacky visuals or a carefree caper, but rather to delve deep into his own psyche. Specifically, to examine his relationship with his girlfriend, now strained by the imposed separation of lockdown. “Knowing that [this period of separation] was going to be indefinite,” he added, “I’d been in a strange, emotional place and so had my partner.”
His trip, using three grams of mushrooms he had grown himself, was only an approximation of the real deal, in which participants are given a 25mg dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms. “You can’t ever really recreate the medical setting because of the trained guides and the preparation that you go into for weeks,” he says. However, he prepared as best he could, by doing “nothing too mentally strenuous or emotional” in the time leading up to his trip. “The day before, I watched some nice, simple things on Netflix… made sure I wasn’t engaging in Facebook arguments or any stupid stuff like that, and had a bath and an early night.”
Though Christopher didn’t have a guide – a major component of any current clinical trial design – he did get hold of an eight-hour playlist created by neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen to be used in a hospital study setting, which helped him approximate the conditions. The music gave Christopher a framework that made him feel comfortable with the possibility of free-falling into his deepest emotions no matter what came up, secure in the knowledge that he would have a safe ride out: “It can be quite easy to tumble into some more difficult spaces and not know how to climb back up, especially if you’re on your own,” he says. “With the music, you can go into [an emotion] and know that you’re going to come out of it, because you can trust in the playlist.”
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Timmy Davis, Psilocybin Lead at the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, who will shortly be releasing a new paper recommending the rescheduling of psilocybin to better enable research into its potential to improve mental health, recommends an experienced guide or at the very least a friend that you know and trust. “To dive into your own mind and try to do psychosurgery on your deep childhood traumas isn’t recommended.” However, he also says that “There’s no reason to think that the mechanism of therapeutic action of psychedelics is confined to a hospital. I know a lot of people running clinical trials who would absolutely prefer to have enough space that they could take participants out into nature if they so choose.”
A very common trip outcome is getting a greater appreciation for nature and a stronger urge to protect the planet. Terence McKenna even speculated that a trip could be “a doorway into the Gaian mind” – a way to speak directly to the planet.
So could mushrooms have the capacity to make the world a better place at this ruminative moment in history? “You can have a couple of transcendental experiences and that doesn’t make you a priest or a saint,” says Timmy. “It’s the same [with mushrooms]. You can go and feel connection and acceptance of your suffering and trauma but you still have to put in the work… Because it’s about embodying the insights and taking them with you.”
Educator and researcher Michelle Janikian, author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, thinks that mushroom tripping is up because “one of the main things it can do is make you feel more connected. It can be to yourself and your past, nature and the universe, but also to other people, even if you’re tripping by yourself.”
For Jenny, 29, the connection she found was with her body. Like Christopher, she did a lockdown trip in her room, to explore what was going on with her menstruation, which had been absent for about a year. A week after the trip, her period returned. “I felt deeply connected to my body and I understood what was going on,” she said, as she was able to process some emotional stress stemming from a medical trauma in her family.
As the Covid-19 generation turns to mushrooms in the hope of being guided to a better place, it’s clear psilocybin has the potential to be a powerful teacher – whether it’s bringing people deeper into a state of harmony with their bodies and the relationships with those around them, or out into a greater understanding of the world around us. That, and the ability to simply offer a very vivid escape through a time when collectively we’ve been united in the search for TikTok fame and the perfect home-baked loaf of banana bread, yet also rather lost and so restrained.
While the potency of the experiences psilocybin can produce can be dialled up or down – depending on your chosen dose – there’s one thing that remains certain: the importance of fully understanding what to expect before embarking on your next magic mushroom-fuelled trip.