When is the last time you walked outside and really appreciated the immeasurable beauty of nature around you? The infinite ingenuity of a colony of industrious ants or the astounding complexity of a leaf?
Most of us have become disconnected from this earth which sustains us, and we have lost sight of its abundant properties which offer profound healing. But it wasn’t always this way.
Humans have been using plants for ritualistic healing ceremonies for thousands of years. In the remote mountains of Tassili, Algeria, ancient rock carvings seem to depict mushroom use in ceremonies as early as 7000BCE (or perhaps the figure is just carrying a bundle of very small spades!) In addition, evidence suggests that the Aztecs (the wise people who also gave us chocolate) used mushrooms in healing rituals; they called them ‘teonanácat’ or ‘flesh of the gods’. Their rock paintings and carvings throughout central America give us a glimpse into their traditions and the significance of mushrooms in their culture.
However, it was only in the 20th century that psilocybin mushrooms gained prominence in the West. This was in part due to the work of Robert G. Wasson, who travelled to Mexico in 1955 to meet a Mazatec curandera (shaman), Maria Sabina. She bestowed upon him the honour of taking part in a traditional ceremony or ‘velada’. Afterwards, he reported that “we chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck.”
Mazatecs describe mushroom ‘trips’ much like Wasson did. Their use of shamanic language creates the sense of travel to powerful worlds unknown. “Mushrooms open up a pathway in which intermediaries [helpful imagined strangers] …can enter spaces of symbolic and real power and intervene on behalf of their patients” (Feinberg, 2018, p44).
“Mushroom discourse…has always been one of cross-cultural exchange and mediation, focusing on crossing the magically charged borders of day and night, the sacred and profane, and us and them.” Feinberg, 2018
There is also a remarkable level of respect for these fungi from people who use them for medicinal purposes. Maria Sabina is even said to have described them as ‘children’. She and the people of the Sierra Mazatec became internationally known for their ritual use of psilocybin mushrooms as result of Wasson’s work. But these traditions are not historical legacies – ‘tales of the Mushroom People fix Mazatecs in a limited role as passive bearers of an unchanging tradition’ - they are still alive today.
In the 21st century, perhaps we can do better than copying the rituals of others in a process of ‘cultural tourism’. We can create our own meaningful ceremonies which are personal to us, because we all need healing in different ways. A psychedelic experience can be one of the most profound of a person’s life and undergoing these mystical-type experiences has been shown to have a therapeutic benefit in several recent clinical trials with psilocybin (psilocybin therapy).
Nevertheless, even these scientific studies suggest that it can be beneficial to incorporate a ceremonial aspect into consumption of the ‘children’. These are not party drugs but tools of healing, a key to the subconscious wisdom; “the elements involved in the ceremonial use of psychedelics, such as music, prayer, intention setting, shamanic and energetic healing, and group process, open up the possibility for healing in different and perhaps deeper ways than in a clinical context” (Sloshower, 2018, p125).
“The authoritative sense of interconnectedness and sacredness that defines such experiences suggest that mystical experiences may be foundational to the world’s ethical and moral systems.” Aldous Huxley, 1947
Clearly, healing the soul is unlikely to happen in a sterile, clinical setting. We humans have the need to feel connected to the world around us. We are looking for that sense of oneness, that belonging to nature and the earth of which we are a part, but to which we have become increasingly detached.
We have a lot to learn from shamans past and indigenous people of today, who still respect plants for their mystical healing properties. But we need not simply copy their traditions. We can create our own ceremonies and set intentions which are personally significant, in the hope that the experience offers a possibility to expand the mind and reach a higher state of consciousness.
Everywhere we look, the earth is suffering because of many human-caused problems of the ‘Anthropocene’ era. And the human species is suffering too. Perhaps, with a little help from the mushrooms, we can heal the earth, and ourselves, as the mushrooms have healed us for thousands of years.
Austin, P. (2016). When did psilocybin mushrooms first appear in human culture? Retrieved from: https://thethirdwave.co/history-of-psilocybin-mushrooms/
Fienberg, B. (2018). Undiscovering the Pueblo Mágico: Lessons from Huautla for the Psychedelic Renaissance. In Labate, B., & Cavnar, C. (Eds.). Plant medicines, healing and psychedelic science: Cultural perspectives. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Halberstadt, A., Vollenweider, F., & Nichols, D. (Eds.). (2018). Behavioral neurobiology of psychedelic drugs (Current topics in behavioral neurosciences, volume 36). Berlin, Germany: Springer.
Huxley, A. (1947). The perennial philosophy. Chatto & Windus, London
Sloshower, J. (2018). Integrating Psychedelic Medicines and Psychiatry: Theory and Methods of a Model Clinic Plant medicine and healing the psyche. In Labate, B., & Cavnar, C. (Eds.). Plant medicines, healing and psychedelic science: Cultural perspectives. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.Wasson, R. G. (1957). Seeking the magic mushroom. Retrieved from: http://www.imaginaria.org/wasson/life.htm