Intentions for a Guided Mushroom Journey in an Indigenous Village
Prequel to a journey through the mind in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico
Yesterday was Yom Kippur. It was my first time fasting and ‘celebrating’ the holiday, which is about reflection and atonement.
I don’t like fasting. It’s really hard. You have this persistent feeling of discomfort that comes from being hungry, but you don’t do anything to try to stop it, like we normally do when we feel uncomfortable. In this way we learn to sit with discomfort without turning away.
This weekend will likely be my first psychedelic trip, and I’m nervous. I’ve micro-dosed but never tripped before. Generally, I prefer to preside over my mind with as strong a grip as possible, and anything that might involve relinquishing control over myself and my experience is not usually my jam.
As a total control freak, I’m expecting there to be some degree of discomfort involved. Like on Yom Kippur I’m prepared to try my very best to sit with that discomfort without turning away.
But this won’t be just any psychedelic trip. I’ll be accompanied by one of my closest friends and by a western spiritual counselor/mushrooms guide, and we’ll travel 6 hours around hairpin turns in the mountains of Oaxaca to the village most well-known for mushroom culture, in order to partake in a limpia and 2 mushroom ceremonies with 2 different indigenous shamans.
Magic mushrooms (referred to as ‘the holy children’ by the indigenous folk who use them medicinally) have been used as medicine in the villages of Oaxaca for generations, but historically this part of indigenous culture was not open to outsiders.
Deep in the Sierra Mazateca lies a damp, unremarkable town called Huautla, where there lived a priestess and folk healer (curandera) by the name of Maria Sabina. Maria Sabina was the first person to allow westerners in to experience a velada, or healing vigil using magic mushrooms, beginning with a visit from ethnomycologist and banker R. Gordon Wasson in 1955.
After Wasson published an article in 1957 about his experiences, the town quickly became commodified and tourists from the USA and Europe arrived in droves to attend veladas. The social dynamics of the town were thrown into disarray, the attention of the police was attracted, and many visitors did not behave respectfully. The tradition was nearly done away with completely.
Maria Sabina slowly became disillusioned and regretful of her decision to open the tradition to a wider audience. She is said to have once remarked that before, “nobody took ‘the children’ simply to find God. They were always taken to cure the sick.”
(However, other sources say differently).
On an even more bitter note, in her old age she is rumored to have said “from the moment the foreigners arrived, the ‘holy children’ lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it.”
This discovery made me feel apprehensive about my decision to go to take mushrooms in Huautla. What if this is a misuse of a sacred medicine? What if I am contributing to the desecration of a colonial culture, just like the colonizers, whose skin was as white as mine? What if the ‘being’ I’m told is in the mushrooms turns against me, sees me as an intruder?
On the other hand, the truth of one person, however iconic, is not everyone’s truth. Even today some foreigners go to Huautla to participate in veladas and many report overwhelmingly beneficial experiences. It has become a part of the economy of the town; I’m told that people will approach tourists on the street offering ceremonies.
Furthermore, just because no one took them to find God before doesn’t mean taking them for that purpose is wrong. Change is the only constant and as an evolving species, sometimes we change the way things are done, and sometimes those changes are improvements. More often, they’re a mixed bag, which is what I suspect to be true in the case of Huautla.
Our guide, to whom I will refer as “J”, has been studying and practicing as a guide for mushroom trips for many years. What this means is that beforehand participants talk to her about what to expect, about her experiences with mushrooms, about their medical and psychological history and their spiritual path, and about their intentions. Then she reads tarot cards for them.
She also accompanies participants to Huautla, facilitates the arrangement of all ceremonies, is present for the ceremonies, literally holds your hand if you’re scared (and if you want that), and helps you to integrate lessons from the experience afterwards.
Our first full day in Huautla, the first order of business will be a ‘limpia’, or cleaning. This is another traditional indigenous (well, indigenous mixed with catholic, as is customary in Mexico) ceremony in which negative or built-up energies are removed from the body by way of a shaman hitting you with some kind of special leafy branches, blowing water or mezcal on you, and some other rituals.
J felt shaky after her first limpia, and reckons that while some people don’t feel different afterwards, people who are very sensitive to things on an energetic level might find it powerful. Usually I don’t connect much with rituals that come from a foreign cultural context, although I find them fascinating. To be completely honest, I envision having a hard time not laughing if someone blows water on me in a serious way, but I will try my best. I want to take this seriously.
After the limpia, we will have our first mushroom ceremony. This will entail being served a big pile of mushrooms by a female shaman and lying down wrapped in blankets while the shaman intermittently chants and prays for us in both Spanish and Mazateca (an indigenous language) and checks in on us occasionally.
The next day, we’ll have a similar ceremony, but with a male shaman who has a different style and a whole bag of tricks he can pull out if someone is having an uncomfortable experience, like rubbing some kind of tobacco extract on their arms (to be absorbed through the skin) and I’m not sure what else.
Since I’m terrified of drugs, I’ll probably only take a small dose (but bigger than the micro-doses I’ve taken in the past) for the first trip, and more for the second trip if the first one doesn’t feel too overwhelming.
Finally, we’ll de-brief and reflect with J, and hopefully come away with new insights that we can integrate into our lives.
Why / Intentions
As a person who likes control, doesn’t drink, and eschews drugs, why am I doing this?
Although I’ve been traveling around the world for 9 years and advancing in many areas of my life, there are some areas in which I feel really, really stuck.
Multiple studies as well as anecdotes point to psychedelics having the capacity to heal and to help us change our minds and our lives for the better. I believe there’s a chance that mushrooms taken in a ceremonial context with an introspective objective might help me get un-stuck. J advised me to formulate specific questions to ask the ‘holy children’ that is the mushrooms.
Specifically, I’m stuck in (at least) 4 areas:
— I’ve had insomnia since I was a kid, and have been taking medications for sleep for almost 9 years. I have a few theories as to where the insomnia comes from — genetics, ancestral trauma (nighttiime pogroms), too much screen time, overthinking/anxiety, childhood trauma, etc. — but I’m not sure which (if any) are correct, or if that’s even relevant. All I know is that I’d like to sleep better, and I intend to ask during my trip how that can happen.
— This is embarrassing to admit as I frequently criticize this quality in others, but I’m terrible at consistently taking care of myself. I rarely go to the doctor unless I think I really need to, just to save money. Although I’m mostly vegan, I eat a lot of junk food and a lot of sweets and not nearly enough vegetables. I don’t exercise consistently. My job is sedentary. I read about mindfulness and facilitate meditation workshops and think about how I should meditate everyday, but rarely do so anywhere near consistently. I stay up too late and spend far too much of my free time mucking about on facebook. I set self-care goals, get momentarily enthusiastic, and forsake them after a couple of days.
Basically, in this realm I have no follow-through, and every failed attempt compounds the others and solidifies the bad habits. I’d like to ask the holy children how I can break out of this cycle and truly sustain motivation to take good care of the beautiful gift that is my body and mind…consistently.
— I need to learn to set a specific type of physical and energetic boundary. I learned early on that people like people who listen well, so I cultivated good listening skills and stepped into the role of the person to whom one can talk and talk and talk. About anything. Essentially an unpaid therapist.
After years and years of this, I’ve noticed that most of my relationships feel very disproportional, that my friends don’t know nearly as much about me as I know about them, that I feel drained after most 1-on-1 social interactions because it’s usually just the other person talking and me listening at least 70% of the time, that people in general relate to me this way, even when they relate to others more healthily and reciprocally, and that I’m running out of compassion and empathy.
While I recognize that this quality is in some ways a precious gift that I can give to the world, right now it has become too much; I find it so draining and overwhelming that my voice shakes when I talk about it.
To be quite frank, I feel this issue goes beyond mere boundary-setting in the traditional sense and has also to do with an energetic boundary that I simply don’t have. I intend to ask the holy children to help me learn how to open and close this door at will, so that I can give higher-quality presence at my own discretion and stop before I’m depleted.
The trip to Huautla will be Friday-Monday, 11–14 October, 2019. Once I’ve had a chance to de-brief the experience, I’ll write about it on Medium, including every embarrassing or clandestine detail.
I’ll also write follow-up articles 3 months and 6 months later in order to record progress or lack thereof in the areas in which I’m stuck.
Wish me luck, amigos…