A Good Psilocybin Guide is Hard to Find
On psychedelics, shamans, and the future of therapy
I have been looking for psilocybin guides, and boy is it hard work. There has been an undeniable boom in psychedelics research to treat various conditions ranging from PTSD to depression. The use of psychedelics like psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been particularly effective in limiting anxiety in studies with terminally ill patients at Johns Hopkins University and New York University. Given the state of the world and the liberalization of drug laws in the United States, people are returning to plant medicine to ease the ills of modern life.
Since the birth of my son, I have been reconciling loose ends from my early childhood with positive results. During the lockdowns last year, I managed to inadvertently unlock repressed memories in a sort of lucid dream state through breathwork. But it’s my ego that needs the most work. Through traditional talk therapy, I have managed to dance around my ego but failed to break it down in any meaningful way or allow my heart to guide me more than my mind. While I haven’t struggled with depression, I have my share of anxiety.
For the first time in my life, I am prepared for a plant medicine to look through me and (hopefully) assist in dissolving my ego, however temporarily. I have never done any psychedelics, which might be a good thing as I have fewer expectations than those with recreational experience. How hard could it be to locate a psilocybin guide?
The journey begins
While having coffee with an acquaintance from the local technology scene, the topic of guided psilocybin experiences came up (as it so often does in the tech community). She spoke of a friend who had an utterly profound experience with a guide in a Cape Town suburb. After our coffee, she sent along the guide’s contact details.
The relationship between the person consuming the psilocybin and the guide is fundamental to the overall experience. The connection you have with a guide can make the difference between a life-changing experience and something less than enjoyable. Timothy Leary famously spoke about the importance of set and setting in facilitating positive psychedelic experiences. The guide is the cornerstone of set and setting.
After contacting the guide on WhatsApp, we arranged to meet at her home in Constantia, a leafy suburb of Cape Town known for its large estates and tree-lined streets. As a heavy storm front moved into the city, I arrived at the guide’s old Dutch manor house. Excited and eager, I jumped right into my life as a writer, my outsized ego, and the fact that I had never done any psychedelics. My ego went into overdrive as if it needed to deploy defensive shields in a hostile environment.
Unlike meeting a therapist, this guide didn’t seem to engage with what I was saying. She was a blond-haired woman in her late 30s or early 40s, with piercing blue eyes and an impossibly tight bun. Instead of an analytical conversation, she seemed to look right through me. It wasn’t working for me, but I had so many questions about the general lay of the land I just kept talking.
“I start with a two and a half hour numerology and chakra energy-clearing session,” the guide told me. “I will give you some exercises to do at home before the journey, including drawing people close to you as animals. We will do some shadow work. You need to be plant-based and abstain from caffeine and alcohol at least two days before your journey. On the day of your journey, you will arrive at my house at 8 in the morning, and I will start you with a dose of five grams of mushrooms, and I will take one gram. I will gauge the exact amount that you need after our first energy-clearing session.”
While the dose might sound like a lot, most guided journeys involve large amounts of psilocybin to fully launch the traveler into whatever realm opens. However, most of what I have read about these experiences caution that guides should be fully conscious and not ingest mushrooms themselves.
I explained my apprehension and asked if my wife could attend the session as a sitter, a common practice in guided journeys. The answer was a firm “no,” and the guide used the question to establish some facts. “I am a shaman,” she told me. “I will assist you as we encounter past lives and whatever comes up.”
We had been speaking for about half an hour, and I was feeling slightly uncomfortable. It wasn’t scary. Instead, it just got weird. The weather outside was dark, and rain was lashing at the windows. We were seated in a large room connected to an open kitchen where she conducts the journeys. Travelers lie down on the floor of this room, she explained, and are surrounded by crystals. Throughout the experience, she smudges with sage and uses OM tongs to assist with the journey.
As I looked around the room, I began to notice the sheer amount of crystals (can someone have too many crystals?) and the powerful pieces of art set about the room. There were statues of the ancient Egyptian goddess ISIS on the bookcase behind us, along with a group of colorful elephant sculptures. Perhaps the strangest item was a carving of a man’s face from a large and gorgeous piece of mahogany. The face was normal, but the forehead was elongated, giving the work the look of a Tool album cover. Not the piece I would choose to pull a room together.
At this point, the room started to tingle ever so slightly. It was as if the energy of the space was pulsating in mellow but detectable wavelengths. I understand this might sound absurd. Perhaps I had been reading too much about the world of plant medicine and psychedelics, or maybe this person was, indeed, a shaman. Regardless, I perceived the vibrations to be real as writing this newsletter. During our meet and greet, I didn’t consume any plant substances. I didn’t even sip the water she offered on arrival.
The conversation continued as I tried to get comfortable in the strange space. How does someone become a shaman, I asked. “You are born a shaman,” came the stern answer. “You just have to discover it.” How she discovered her shamanic powers wasn’t discussed. Throughout our conversation, the guide’s gaze didn’t change in its intensity. In fact, she hadn’t blinked her eyes since I had arrived.
Then something else happened. The guide’s likeness began to take the shape of a leopard. It was as if a leopard was welling up and emerging from within her. Her blue eyes started to draw back as her shoulders began to hunch over. It was subtle but undeniable. At that point, I knew it was time to leave.
It was strangely refreshing, but the experience left me feeling a little unsettled and questioning what I was looking for in the first place. I was full of conflicting thoughts that jumped from “your apprehension is coming from your overdeveloped ego, which is what you are trying to dissolve with this exercise” to “these people are quacks, you aren’t ready to operate in this space.”
An anti-vaxxer makes an appearance
The shaman graciously connected me with another guide. Unlike the first encounter, I got a comfortable feeling from the start despite connecting over the phone. That changed quickly. After we spoke about her approach (spoiler: lots of crystals) and agreed to meet in person, the guide called me back.
“I forgot to ask you. As a medicine worker, I have to ask if you have been vaccinated against Covid?” I was delighted to hear the question, given the strong anti-vaxxer sentiment in these circles globally and in Cape Town. I told her I was indeed vaccinated. “Oh, well, we will need to wait at least 3 or 4 months before journeying together because we don’t yet know the effects of the vaccine.”
That isn’t science. She mentioned that she had journeyed with people who recovered from Covid. When I pointed out that Covid had proven neurological effects like brain fog, it was clear that it was the first time she had made the connection. I respect the knowledge these guides have, but this amounted to sheer ignorance. It wasn’t the right fit – again.
The right guide is out there, but I haven’t found them yet. A good friend recommended someone who is “certainly not a kook.” After chatting with her on WhatsApp, I have a positive feeling that she might be the one. We still need to meet in person, but I am pretty confident she won’t transform into a leopard when we do. There is a lot more to this journey, and I have only taken the first step. Stay tuned for the next installment.
Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and The Origins of Knowledge is a great read. He distills significant strains from molecular biology, shamanism, neurology, and ancient mythology into a highly readable narrative about plant medicine and psychedelics. This quote jumped out at me:
“We do not know how our visual system works. As you read these words, you do not really see the ink, the paper, your hands, and the surroundings, but an internal and three-dimensional image that reproduces them almost exactly and that is constructed by your brain. The photons reflected by this page strike the retinas of your eyes, which transform them into electrochemical information; the optic nerves relay this information to the visual cortex at the back of the head, where a cascade-like network of nerve cells separates the input into categories (form, color, movement, depth, etc.). How the brain goes about reuniting these sets of categorized information into a coherent image is still a mystery. This also means that the neurological basis of consciousness is unknown.”