A Religious Experience Courtesy of My Friend the Mushroom

by nielskunze on September 28, 2011


The problem with religious experiences in general is that they do not yield easily to the constraints of language. We do not possess adequate descriptors when we step outside the boundaries of normal perception. Our common language is based directly upon our common experiences. Religious experience, however, is not at all common. It is rare and often perplexing.

So what is religious experience— specifically? A religious experience occurs in that astonishing moment when we view the world suddenly in a completely new and different way— an encompassing view which renders in one swift stroke our old view of the world obsolete… even pathetic. It is not merely an epiphany or insight added on to our old way of looking at things; it is rather a total revolution of perception where nothing remains as it was. Everything is refreshed, made anew, and we are changed as a result.

I experienced just such an apocalyptic moment in my early thirties. It would have been the mid-nineties. I was out of school for about eight years already, but the mindset into which I had been indoctrinated was slow to relinquish its hold. Although I had more than a few points of contention with how my contemporaries viewed the world, I must admit that I too viewed the world from generally the same angle as they.

To describe that previous mindset my memory is drawn to an incident from a year or two earlier yet. It was the first time I ever went camping overnight by myself. I was several hours away from any vestiges of civilization, camped in a small pup tent by my favorite river. I was outfitted for a two-night stay, and was determined to see it through.

As the sun set on that first night, I kindled a fire for cooking… and for protection. As darkness presses in, the light of even a small fire provides unreasonable security, but even so, every tumbling rock or creaking tree heard in the distance above the constant rush of the river was more than a little disconcerting. After I finished my supper I smoked a joint… and then the fear really crept in. I’m not usually one to get overly paranoid from my indulgences with pot, but the circumstances as they were left me straining to hear every little sound, craning my neck to peer into the darkness, and generally got me scared enough to keep me within a few feet of the little campfire despite the occasional need to pee. After awhile I was perplexed by all the whispering voices. I couldn’t make out the words, but there was an incessant babbling nevertheless. Of course it was just the river. In my heightened state of fear the normally soothing rush of the river was suddenly a conspiracy of voices. Sure I knew that it was only the river, but the knowing by itself couldn’t stop me from hearing what I was hearing. By the time I turned in for bed I was so wound up that sleep was an utter impossibility. Every twig or leaf which rustled against my tent was a huge grizzly come to devour me. I lay there unsleeping with my hatchet by my pillow and my hunting knife by the door. It had not been a pleasant first night.

All of that next day I spent building a cage. A cage for whom, you might ask? For myself, of course. I built a cage around my tent using small logs and twine. I dug the poles a foot into the ground and laid rocks around the base of each. The cage was sturdy enough for me to climb on without any fear of collapse, but don’t get me wrong, I knew that it was nothing to stop a determined bear. My thinking was that it was perhaps just enough to deter a mildly curious bear, and in the event of a very hungry bear the cage would at least afford me a moment’s warning should I actually fall asleep. How reasonable was my thinking? I don’t know, but I did get adequate sleep that night.

That mindset was typical. I know very few people who have camped overnight in a tent by themselves. It’s too risky, too scary… And that’s totally untrue. Statistically there’s far more dangerous activities we engage in routinely— like riding in a car for instance, but fear is rarely rational in how it chooses.

This is the backdrop— the old mindset. It was overlaid, one day, like a dull and faded canvas suddenly splashed with a vibrant new “scene.” But no, “scene” isn’t the right word at all… I can only tell the story with the words that I know.

The first time I really got off on mushrooms was in Nelson. Missing Peace was playing there. I don’t recall if we got high for the third set or if we waited until the end of the show before we dropped. Nelson is a town that is friendly to mushrooms and their attendant experiences. For the first time I hallucinated. It wasn’t that I was seeing something that absolutely was not there; it was just that what was there was disguising its appearance— continually… Morphing. It was cool. I stayed up all night gazing at the stars, and soon, at the clouds of the creeping dawn. An interesting experience, but not a religious one. I was intrigued.

A few months later, autumn I believe, I decided to head off into the woods again on a solitary mission. This was just a day trip. I would drop magic mushrooms in the deep forest by myself, and see what the afternoon might reveal.

I had saturated myself by that point with a pile of drug literature, much of it dealing with shamanism. I was well versed in the chemistry of most hallucinogens and was generally comfortable with the dynamics of tripping. Mushrooms want to trip in nature.

Though I didn’t know it yet, I was revisiting the situation of my fearful moment from summers passed. That time I’d been high on marijuana; this time it would be mushrooms. Last time I’d spent the night; this time it’d just be the afternoon. Middle of nowhere… again. Life seems to shoo us in the general direction of our greatest fears. I gobbled a handful of ‘shrooms without ever realizing that I should have been scared.

The afternoon was perfect. Mostly sunny; just a few clouds. I wandered into the swamp. The bugs weren’t bad, so I’m thinking it must have been September. The summer’s burst of outrageous growth was evident everywhere. I was drawn to the sight of some six-foot thistles bordering a patch of almost black BC swamp mud. This was my first experience with thistles as tall as me. I wanted to stand among them. The thousands of menacing spikes covering every square centimeter of their dark green flesh looked unbearably beautiful to eyes that were just beginning to morph. Some things morph better than others. Thistles that can look you right in the eye are kickass morphers!

Without really giving it any thought (regular thoughts can be elusive in the presence of psilocybin), I took off all my clothes. I dunno! Maybe I didn’t want to get my shirt snagged on one of my newfound friends— although there was scarce evidence of any such rationality coming from me. I went naked among them. It seemed right at the time— right about the time when little things like that can seem so profoundly huge! My toes sunk into the mud… “Oh my god, it’s warm… and so delightfully squishy.” That much thought I was still capable of… and not a smidgeon more.

In retrospect I can tell you that my situation at that precise moment was rather incongruous with the part of my life which I’d already lived. For no good rational reason I was standing naked… in a swamp… among a cluster of giant thistles which looked like any one of them could take me in a fair fight… with my toes sunken in several sensuous inches of muck… swaying with the gentle breezes to avoid being poked and teased by my new pals… and I was higher than… well, higher than I’d ever been before…and I was really digging it… and… It just didn’t fit.

My old cognitive system couldn’t relate. The way I had assembled the world to that point in my life could not account for having such an experience and liking it. It did not grok. And that made me like it even more! It was the new jigsaw piece which absolutely did not fit anywhere in the old puzzle. In that moment I chose to go with the new piece and set the old aside. I looked at my little swamp world with newborn eyes.

I was met with the Symphony of Summer’s Riotous Abundance. All was in harmony. The vibrancy of each individual plant sang to enhance the vibrancy of each of its neighbors. It was in no way predatory… a feeding… a competition. It was only rejoicing. The pure expectation of Joy for more joy… and finding that it is so! My eyes heard the Song of the Swamp, and I knew that all life was a singular thing… a singing. Shapes and bodies lend temporary attributes to a singular life, growing… evolving… holding together. Comradery and cooperation were freely given, continuously… without commerce. Each form flowed into each other form; all delighting in the presence of All. And I was as much a part of it as any.

There is no way that my words can exaggerate the impact of that moment. A lifetime of viewing the world and all life within it as an unrelenting struggle, a fierce competition of forms seeking dominance over one another, the constant warfare of survival— that view, so typical of 20th century man, was instantaneously obliterated. The participatory harmony which spun me ’round 180 degrees replaced it easily. There was no internal debate, no weighing of choices, no intellectual indecision; there was ultimately nothing to choose. I could not go back now and “choose” to remain mired in my old view. It was in error— or at least it was so completely lacking that it now seemed a blatant lie. The new mindset was a blessing, and I accepted it with grace. For the very first time in my life I belonged.

Knowing that you belong to the whole world, to the whole cosmos and knowing that you are loved and supported by it in every moment is a beautiful certainty once you’ve experienced it. I know that skeptics will be quick to point out that my brain was “fried” on a powerful hallucinogen, so how can I give credence to my perceptions in such a state? Perhaps that is where choice enters into it. After I returned to my normal state of mind, the experience could have been filed as an anomalous memory. I could have struggled to re-establish the old mindset. But why? I had already felt deeply that something profound had transpired, and my intuition for the future was that my newfound view would render the world much more comprehensible. It made sense that the universe should love me; I had felt it; what more could I need? I was grateful.

It’s now more than a decade later and I have never abandoned or even seriously questioned my new mindset. The universe still loves me; I feel it always. The world has opened up for me. What was once confusing and utterly perplexing has yielded to my new sight. I see the same world as others which the media chooses to portray as ugly and bleak, yet I feel eternal optimism. My confidence in the future cannot be shaken. Slowly, others are seeing what I have seen. They are being transformed. We can’t go back to our uglier views when love simply beckons us onward.

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