Look, the earth is breathing

Cole D Lehman
14 min readNov 29, 2023
A glimpse into Kalalau valley, land of dragons.

The psychedelic renaissance is here. Mushrooms, ayahuasca, MDMA, and LSD have the cultural spotlight for good reason. Here’s what you need to know.

(previously published on Hencecreative.com Journal)

Have you ever seen the earth breathe? Or watched the living mandala of color that threads sunset to treetop? These kinds of psychedelic experiences are an integral part of the largely unpublished outdoor subculture.

People who play outside have consumed mushrooms on river trips, LSD or MDMA at concerts, and wild combinations on the Burning Man playa for decades. And it’s not just because psychedelics are fun (they certainly can be) but also because if you can get past the fear, taboo, and real dangers to have a safe encounter, these experiences can change your life and your brain for the better.

In the last five years, psychedelics (also called entheogens) crawled out of the Erowid vaults and hit the mainstream. The word “entheogens” comes from the Greek roots en (within), theo (divine), and gen (born), and roughly translates to “birthing the divine within.” The more popular term, “psychedelics,” is similar in origin: it comes from the Greek roots psykhē (mind, soul) and dēloun (make visible, reveal) — to reveal the mind or soul. We’ll call them “psychedelics” to stick with the cultural momentum.

Books and films like How To Change Your Mind, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, and Fantastic Fungi have inspired people to talk about these substances in the open. And more people than ever are considering taking them for anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, addiction, traumatic brain injuries, and other life-altering conditions. Because a growing body of evidence (and personal experience) shows that psychedelics work in many places where western medicine comes up short.

Behind this resurgence stands 37 years of policy work and research from Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and the revival of psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. They’ve managed to bring the therapeutic and healing benefits of these substances back into focus.

All of this has led to venture-funded hype and a flood of new psychedelic-assisted therapy industries (Ketamine clinics everywhere!). This wave of interest and funding also comes with the very real dangers of exploitation, erasure of indigenous wisdom, and financial exclusivity. And the likelihood of forgetting one of the most crucial parts that informs the psychedelic experience — going outside.

Before we visit Paul Stamets in a lightning storm, let’s hop on the bus for a quick history of psychedelics in the US.

Oaxaca, outlaws, and acid tests

Morning after a starry night on cliffs above the Green river.

First, let’s remember that indigenous peoples have relationships with plant medicines that are as old as the human species. In fact, there’s a theory that the abnormal sudden tripling in size of the human brain 200,000 years ago was catalyzed by psilocybin mushrooms. Either way, there’s many millennia of experience before any VC bros ever ate a “heroic” (which is to say, massive) dose of mushrooms or drank ayahuasca for the first time.

Modern cultural awareness of psychedelics bloomed soon after Albert Hoffman synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) from ergot fungus and accidentally dosed himself, leading to an infamous 1943 bike ride. Soon after that, LSD was administered to everyone from soldiers to 1950’s housewives. “If you can’t see it, you’ll never know.” (She’s right, you know. You’ve got to see it for yourself.)

Beat poets like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac dabbled in over-the-counter forms of mescaline for inspiration. At the same time, Aldous Huxley got interested in the peyote ceremonies of the Native American Church in New Mexico. That led to his at-home experience with mescaline (not an indigenous peyote ceremony) that became the source material for The Doors of Perception published in 1954.

In 1957, Gordan Wasson’s magic mushroom experience in Oaxaca, Mexico made the cover of Life magazine and psilocybin went viral in both print and radio. Wasson was introduced to the sacred mushroom ceremony by Maria Sabina, a Mazatec shaman and healer. Unfortunately, she’s one of the first known casualties of exploitative colonial psychedelic tourism. Her home was burned down by her own Mazatec community for bringing waves of culturally disruptive hippies. She died penniless in 1985 but you can still buy T-shirts with her face on them all over Oaxaca and the internet. Ah, capitalism.

Shortly after Wasson opened the door for magic mushrooms into the US, Albert Hoffman’s company, Sandoz, synthesized psilocybin and it was free to bounce around. Tim Leary and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) immediately began administering the substance to students and themselves — leading to the Harvard Psilocybin Project and the Good Friday Experiment. Harvard soon fired them and they both began their journeys as counter-culture icons and cosmic tricksters.

Back on the west coast, Johnny Griggs and his speed-loving motorcycle gang broke into a Hollywood producer’s home and stole LSD. That night after ingesting 1,000 micrograms (10x a standard dose), they threw down their weapons and started The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Their mission: spread the gospel of LSD to the world. They funded this with global hashish smuggling while Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters started up the Acid Tests. Extremely affordable and pure Orange Sunshine LSD flooded mouths and minds at Grateful Dead shows (and many other concerts) across the US, and the world was forever changed.

The drugs, sex, and rock’n roll of the 1960s quickly obscured the important therapeutic benefits of LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics. Sandoz stopped distributing psilocybin in 1965 and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 made everything from psilocybin to cannabis, LSD, and MDMA Schedule 1 restricted substances. They were officially off-limits and illegal for citizens to have — and for medical researchers to study.

Psychedelics went underground for decades. Luckily, that’s where mushrooms’ subterranean threads flourished. Terrance and Dennis Mckenna published Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiast in 1976 and empowered the modern psychonaut. Burning Man started a decade later on Baker Beach, San Francisco in 1986 and the leading edge of culture for psychedelics and art had a place to thrive. In the 1990s, Dr. Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin literally wrote the books on many of today’s psychedelic compounds — PiHKAL and TiHKAL.

Fast forward to 2023. Just on the horizon, we see the potential of these medicines to be fully realized and used by the global north. But take a quick look back and notice how that version of psychedelic history is very, very white and male-dominated. The only indigenous woman mentioned was the person who knew the most about the mushroom experience — and she was quietly discarded by the system she introduced them to.

That danger of exploitation is still very real, driven by a long list of life-changing psychedelic benefits … and the billions to be made from them.

Welcome to the psychedelic renaissance

Appreciating a sunset while the west burns a little.

With psychedelics entering the mainstream, there’s a flood of potential for both hugely positive and negative impacts on society. Some plant medicine purists will criticize exploitation endlessly and the VC bros will proselytize about “awakening the planet one person at a time” while ignoring harm caused to the earth and indigenous peoples. In reality, it’s going to be a never-before-seen kaleidoscope of light and dark. And right now, there is an overwhelming amount of good being done for the hearts, minds, and bodies of people suffering from many conditions.

MDMA-assisted therapy to treat PTSD in military veterans is almost ready for FDA-approval — it’s shown great promise in Phase 3 clinical trials. A venture-funded Canadian company invented an ayahuasca pill (without planning how to share the benefit, and without obtaining informed consent from indigenous peoples who have cultivated and used the plant in sacred ceremony for countless generations). Both Denver and Oregon have made psilocybin mushrooms legal for people 21 and older, and the first US psilocybin manufacturer, Satori Farms (a woman-owned business!), has been approved in Oregon.

Ketamine clinics are booming (and busting), ibogaine is helping veterans with life-threatening PTSD, and ayahuasca continuously helps people with treatment-resistant depression and traumatic brain injury. It’s a gold-rush in psychedelics. These medicines and assisted therapies help people overcome the biggest challenges in mental health while the misleading “chemical imbalance” model that floats the $25 billion antidepressant industry crumbles.

Psychedelics help with:

  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Treatment-resistant depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Severe addiction
  • Brain injuries
  • End-of-life distress

You name it, and there’s likely a psychedelic that might help. There’s a lot of evidence that psilocybin and LSD can even help with recovery from paralysis due to spinal cord injuries. In a recent Outside magazine article, artist and adventurer photographer Jim Harris recounts taking mushrooms at the High Sierra Music Festival and appreciating the beauty of the geometric shapes in the sunset. And in the process of this mushroom-trip he got his previously unresponsive hamstring muscle to contract — a muscle that had been completely inactive since his chest-down paralysis.

How is that possible? Essentially, cells in the brain and cells in the spinal cord are the same type of cells. It’s well known that psilocybin induces neuroplasticity in the brain and that neuroplasticity can contribute to functional recovery after spinal cord injuries.

So it’s not far-fetched in the least to assume that psychedelics can speed recovery with everything from spinal cord injury to treatment-resistant depression.

That’s why money is flooding into psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic manufacturing.

Where there’s money, there’s exploitation

Imprints washing away on Kauai.

Remember how the history of psychedelics in the US was a list of mostly white, cisgender men. That picture hasn’t changed much and points to some of the biggest problems in the psychedelic space — environmental exploitation, economic and racial exclusivity, and cultural erasure.

The market for psychedelics is predicted to grow to $12 billion by 2029. And that’s just a small fraction of the real economic opportunity. Access to psychedelics is going to disrupt the $652 billion global illicit drug market, the $10.3 billion yearly revenue of US correctional facilities, and the $41 billion US drug control budget. That’s a lot of billions to shift around while psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, mescaline (peyote), and cannabis all make their way off the DEA’s Schedule 1 substances list.

Since 1971, the US has spent $1 trillion on the failed drug war. And while failing to make any real change for the mental health, wellness, and safety of its citizens, the US has simultaneously done enormous damage to cultures in Latin America where many psychedelic medicines grow. The psychedelic renaissance and influx of money could learn from this and support these people, or ignore it and cause even more damage.

For example, ayahuasca is one of the most potent healing substances on the planet — consistently being used for everything from PTSD to treatment-resistant depression. It has thousands of years of history with the Shipibo-Conibo peoples in Peru, yet their culture has already been irrevocably changed by ayahuasca tourism.

Now, a venture-funded company has developed an ayahuasca pill and says they’ll give back to the land and people. But if they don’t, the plant central to the brew, banisteriopsis caapi, could become endangered and the people who grow it could suffer more at the bottom of a new supply chain. This isn’t about preaching psychedelic wokeness — rather, it’s just a reminder we need to be vigilant not to turn what’s left of the rainforests into the psychedelic industry’s own version of slave-labor-powered cobalt mines.

You can still use psychedelics and be reasonably socially responsible. You don’t need to spend $5,000-$10,000 on an overseas ayahuasca retreat to have a psychedelic experience that changes your life. Mushrooms offer a more culturally and ecologically responsible psychedelic experience. While some cultures, like the Mazatec, have used psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years, psilocybe mushroom species grow in grassland ecosystems all around the world.

They grow quickly, locally, and cheaply at a scale that’s accessible to many incomes. And they’re already decriminalized in a few locations in the US.

Set, setting, and dose

Secret oasis in southern Utah.

While prices of psilocybin-assisted therapy are still being set, there are companies poised to make sure the benefits of mushrooms are available to everyone. If you’re in Denver, psilocybin is decriminalized, so you can create your own experience. And if you’re in Oregon, a wide array of assisted services are on the way.

Soon you’ll be able to experience psilocybin with a licensed therapist by your side. That means people will get to trip in a safe, contained environment for the first time. There’s even music for mushroom sessions. It also means people who are rightly concerned about their psychological safety have a safe source of advice.

There are plenty of reasons taking mushrooms or other psychedelics can cause you harm — if you’re taking SSRIs or other antidepressants (you could die!), have severe mood swings, don’t do well with a lack of control, or are diagnosed with certain disorders. Now you can find a qualified therapist or doctor who specializes in psychedelic-assisted medicine and ask their opinion.

This can help a large portion of the population navigate crucial aspects of the experience — set, setting, and dose. No more trying to figure out what the right amount to take is. Now you’ll know you’re safe, you’re not going to get in trouble, and you have a knowledgeable guide you can trust. And that’s awesome. It’s going to help a lot of people.

But (there’s always a but). While these kinds of assisted experiences will be extremely helpful, the ones that happen in an office are missing a key ingredient. That sunset in Jim Harris’s experience. The vast open sky and desert of Burning Man. Music played on guitars around campfires. Agency to play games with friends in new ways. Wide open space without the noises of a city. The living intelligence of the world staring back at you and breathing with you.

So…

Remember to eat mushrooms outside

“After the storm had passed I came down from the tree, drenched, soaked to the bone, you know in love with life, with nature, in love with that tree, that tree was so important to me…”

That passage comes from Paul Stamets in Fantastic Fungi — a brilliant documentary where you learn that what makes mushrooms magic is a lot bigger than psilocybin. Stamets describes his first macro experience with psilocybin and it’s worth watching just that part of the film to get an unfiltered, uncommercialized description of the psychedelic experience.

He did make a lot of the classic mistakes that can end badly — ate too many mushrooms for the first time without knowing, climbed a tree to watch a lightning storm, stayed in the tree during said lightning storm. But he also experienced a spiritual oneness, survived his encounter with the wild earth, and had a miraculous change in consciousness — he even stopped stuttering the next day, an affliction he’d had his entire life.

“I went home and I went to bed, and I didn’t see anybody. And the next morning I woke up and went for a walk.

There was a really attractive lady that I liked a lot, but I could never stare at her in the eyes because I was afraid to stutter and embarrass myself. So better to avoid social contact than have social contact, even though I was really attracted to her. And she liked me but I didn’t know what to do with that attention.

And so she was walking past me that day and she looked at me and she said, ‘Good morning, Paul,’ and for the first time I looked her straight in the eye and I said … ‘Good morning, how are you?’ And I had stopped stuttering, in one session.”

No one’s recommending you pull a Stamets and risk dying by lightning strike. Or suggesting that you do anything illegal, since you can now have psilocybin where it’s decriminalized in the US.

But, it’s important to remember that being outside in a beautiful, safe place is a critical part of the psychedelic experience. Some therapy businesses will figure it out and offer outdoor retreats or sessions. And those programs will be much more expensive than a batch of decriminalized mushrooms and a camping trip with trusted friends and loved ones. Emphasis on the word “trusted”. You don’t want to eat mushrooms with just anyone.

If you want to explore the mushroom experience for the first time and would like to feel it out, definitely start with indoor assisted-therapies. It’ll get you familiar with the ride of the medicine. You’ll prove to yourself (and others) that you won’t go crazy. But once you do that, don’t forget to try them outside in a safe, responsible way (where they’re legal). There’s too many things you’ll get in the wild that you’ll never find in a human’s office — no matter how nice and interesting they are.

The kaleidoscopic sunsets, visible breath of the earth, and beautiful moments with friends and loved ones are a big part of the medicine. You might discover that the earth is alive, other beings are sentient, and the planet’s ecosystems are beautiful places worth saving. Or you might just crawl around for hours following ants and pulling apart layers of delicious geologic time with your fingers.

So if you’re trying to find your bearings through this next wave of psychedelics, or decipher signal from noise, remember what Maria Sabina (probably) said:

“Cure yourself, with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.

With the sound of the river and the waterfall.

With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.

Heal yourself, with the mint and mint leaves,

with neem and eucalyptus.

Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.

Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.

Put love in tea instead of sugar

And take it looking at the stars

Heal yourself, with the kisses that the wind gives you

and the hugs of the rain.

Get strong with bare feet on the ground

and with everything that is born from it.

Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition,

looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.

Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.

Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember …

you are the medicine.” -Maria Sabina

Disclaimer: We’re not recommending you break any laws. Eventually some of these substances may be approved for recreational use in some states, like cannabis, but they currently are not. While mushrooms are decriminalized in some parts of the US, they are still a Schedule 1 substance in most of the country (think felony offense). Other substances mentioned in this article (LSD, mescaline, ayahuasca) are the same. Going outside is inherently dangerous, and you can die or get hurt anywhere. Adding psychedelics to the outdoor experience can increase that risk. Be smart about set, setting, and dosage. There are also mental and emotional side effects that are unpredictable and a very real danger for some. If you’re not sure psychedelics are for you or you have questions, make sure to consult with a qualified therapist or doctor who specializes in psychedelic-assisted medicine.

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Cole D Lehman

A little bit Dionysus, a little mad scientist. Desert rat, animist, contact improv dancer, writer, and bodyworker. Eats chocolate for breakfast.