God Is In The
Magic Mushrooms
This just in: Psychedelic drugs could be very good
for your mind, heart, soul. Can you believe?
By Mark Morford
SF Gate Columnist

Hide the children. Pour some absinthe, fluff the pillows, take off your pants. It is time.
Because now we know: Getting nicely and wholly high on illegal but completely natural hallucinogenic drugs might, just might open some sort of profound psychological doorway or serve as some sort of giddy terrifying rocket ride to a higher state of consciousness, happiness, a sense of inner peace and love and perspective and a big, fat lick from the divine.
It's true. There's even a swell new study from Johns Hopkins University that officially suggests what shamans and gurus and botany Ph.D.s and alt-spirituality types have known since the dawn of time and Jimi Hendrix's consciousness: that psilocybin, the all-natural chemical found in certain strains of wild mushrooms, induces a surprisingly large percentage of users to experience a profound -- and in some cases, largely permanent -- revolution in their spiritual attitudes and perspectives.
Not only that, but the stuff reportedly made a majority of testers feel so much more compassionate, open-hearted, connected to and awestruck by the world and the universe and God that it ranks right up there with the most profound and unfathomable experiences of their lives. I know. Stop the presses.
But let us sidestep the face-slapping obviousness. Let us look past the fact that you are meant to react to this study's findings like it's some sort of revelation, like it doesn't merely reinforce roughly 10 thousand years of evidence and modern research and opinioneering and responsible advocacy by everyone from Timothy Leary to Terence McKenna to Huston Smith to the Tibetan Book of the Dead with yet another study to add to the pile in the Science of the No Duh.
You know the type -- studies that merely reinforce ageless common sense, that simply reiterate something that's been said and understood for eons. There have been, for example, recent studies that prove that meditation actually reduces blood pressure (no!) and that MDMA (Ecstasy) is amazing at releasing inhibition and tapping the deeper psyche (shocking!) and that marijuana is roughly a thousand times less harmful than Marlboros and nine vodka tonics and smacking your family around in an alcoholic rage. You know, duh.
Because one thing painfully redundant studies like this do provide is a nicely clinical framework, a structured context from which to view a long-standing phenomenon. But here's the fascinating part: In the case of something like psilocybin, it's not so much the astounding findings that can make you swoon, it's also, well, the illuminating shortcomings of science itself.
Put another way, they are trying, once again, to measure enlightenment. They are attempting to put a frame around consciousness, cosmic awe, God. And of course, they cannot do it. Or rather, they can only go so far before they hit that point where the sidewalk ends and the world spins off its logical axis and the study's participants cannot help but deliver the death blow every scientist dreads to hear: "You cannot possibly understand."
Witness, won't you, these revelations:
The psilocybin joyriders claimed the experience included such feelings as "a sense of pure awareness and a merging with ultimate reality, a transcendence of time and space, a feeling of sacredness or awe, and deeply felt positive mood like joy, peace and love." What's more, for a majority of users, the experience was "impossible to put into words."
It doesn't stop there. Two months later, 24 of the participants (out of a total of 36) filled out a questionnaire. Two-thirds called their reaction to psilocybin "one of the five top most meaningful experiences of their lives. On another measure, one-third called it the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, with another 40 percent ranking it in the top five. About 80 percent said that because of the psilocybin experience, they still had a sense of well-being or life satisfaction that was raised either 'moderately' or 'very much.'"
You gotta read that again. And then again. Because those statements are just a little astonishing, unlike anything you will read in some FDA report on Prozac from Eli Lily. The most profound experience of their lives? One of the most spiritually significant? Can we get some of this stuff into Dick Cheney's blood pudding? Into the Kool-Aid at the American Family Association? Into Israel and Lebanon?
But this is the amazing thing: Here, again, is hard science running smack into the hot cosmic goo of the mystical. Here, again, is science peering over the edge of understanding and jumping back and saying, "Holy crap." It is yet another reminder that our beautiful sciences have almost zero tools with which to quantify something like "transcendence of time and space" or "a feeling of sacredness and awe." And watching them try is either tremendously enjoyable or just depressing as hell. Or a little of both. It all depends, of course, on how you see it.
Here then, are your choices. Here are the three ways to look at the effects of magic mushrooms on the consciousness of humankind. Which angle you choose depends a great deal on how nimble you allow your mind, your heart, your spirit to be. Or maybe it's just how much wine you've had.
The first way is to simply presume that the lives of the study's participants had obviously been, up to their psilocybin joys, tremendously mediocre. So bland and so limp that something like hallucinogenic mushrooms could not help but be, in contrast, as profound as being licked by angels.
This is a clinical interpretation. The gorgeous experience itself means nothing except to say that normal life is terribly drab and crazy drugs temporarily scramble your brain in occasionally positive and interesting ways, but never the twain shall meet, so oh well let's go back to work.
But you can also take it one step further. You may conclude that the study underscores the harsh fact that we as a species are so divorced from deeper meaning, so detached from the mystical and the divine and the universal in our everyday instant-gratification lives, that it takes something like a powerful hallucinogen to show us just how meek and limited and far from merging with God we still very much are. This is the pessimistic view. And it is, by every estimate, a very primitive and sour place to be.
Ah, but then there's the third way. This is to suggest that it's exactly the other way around, that perhaps at least some of us are, as Leary and his cosmic cohorts have suggested for decades, just inches from the celestial doorway, already on the precipice of realizing that we are, in fact, the divine we so desperately seek. Problem is, we can't see the edge through the tremendous fog of consumerism and conservatism and quasi-religious muck.
But even so, every now and then we manage to take a tiny, unconscious, clumsy step ever closer to the edge, stumbling toward ecstasy without really knowing or understanding that we're doing so. And ultimately, sly entheogens like psilocybin are merely nature's way of clearing the fog for a moment, of letting us know just how close we are by smacking us upside the scientific head and tying our cosmic shoelaces together. And doesn't that sound like a fascinating way to spend the weekend?
Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate and in the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle. To get on the e-mail list for this column, please click here and remove one article of clothing. Mark's column also has an RSS feed and an archive of past columns, which includes another tiny photo of Mark probably insufficient for you to recognize him in the street and give him gifts.
As if that weren't enough, Mark also contributes to the hot, spankin' SF Gate Culture Blog.



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