Could Magic Mushrooms Change the World?
By Michael Allen / Vice
British author Simon G Powell thinks he'd have had a slightly less eventful job had he never discovered magic mushrooms. "Probably working in a bookshop, or something," he says when I ask him to speculate.
Instead of chasing up late DVD returns, however, the 50-year-old has just released his second book about shrooms titled Magic Mushroom Explorer: Psilocybin and the Awakening Earth. Psilocybin—if you haven't already been informed via those glow-in-the-dark velvet posters at your local record shop—is a psychedelic tryptamine compound found in around 200 types of mushrooms worldwide. Or, in layman's terms, the stuff that makes you see weird shit when you eat them.
Writing about magic mushrooms certainly hasn't made Simon rich, at least not in the monetary sense. I meet him in his cramped co-operative-owned flat (the only way he can afford to continue living in London) a five-minute walk from Oval tube station. But a lifetime of psilocybin exploration, Simon claims, has brought him more spiritual riches and wisdom than he could have ever asked for—and he wants you to discover them, too.
In 1984, Simon was living on the dole as an unemployed, malnourished punk in a friend's east London council flat. Ironically, considering his current professional devotion to mushrooms, he detested them back then, always pushing them to the side of his plate if anyone dared serve them up. But that same year, during a period of particular penury, a chance encounter at his local library with several books on shrooms changed the course of his life forever.
Like many experimental-but-stupid young people, he made some unsuccessful attempts with a friend to get high on nutmeg and suffered awful stomach aches as a result. Inspired by the books he'd taken out of the library, he also tried to trip on fly agaric mushrooms, which, unlike psilocybin mushrooms, are widely considered to have undesirable and unpleasant effects, like nausea and death.
Perhaps fortunately, the fly agarics didn't work, and it was a full two years before he became acquainted with magic mushrooms again.
Until then, his only experience with drugs had been with alcohol and cannabis, so—despite doing his research—he was ill-prepared for the powerful, unforgiving effects of psilocybin.
Having thought he would just see some nice colors and experience a warm glowing feeling, Simon was terrified when, instead, he started to have a bad trip—a really bad trip. His head started to fill with "noise and garbage," so he curled up in bed in a fetal position and buried himself in blankets in the hope that everything would return to normal.
Unfortunately, as you'll know if you've ever eaten a ton of shrooms, covering yourself in fabric does little to halt their effects. In fact, it wasn't until something written by one of his favorite authors—Russian-born spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff—popped into Simon's head that he was able to view his negative thought patterns "as clearly as he could see physical objects in the real world."
"The longer I was able to objectively observe my inner turmoil, the more and more clear it became. And the more clearly I saw it, the less powerful it became and the more I became free of it," he writes in the book.
At one point he felt like a reborn Native American: "I could hear tribal voices, or at least I had the sense of a native tribal language deep within me," he says.
The experience was, in the end, utterly liberating and fulfilling, and Simon was never the same again.
"I knew something that other people didn't," he says. "I knew there were realms of experience in which some bigger meaning could be grasped. I knew that we were part of a bigger picture and a bigger purpose."
Since that experience, Simon has spent his life experimenting with and researching psilocybin. I ask him when he last ate mushrooms, half expecting him to whip out a bag from his coat and offer me some on the spot. So I'm surprised when he says it was nearly half a year ago in the Lake District.
In hindsight, my surprise was a little irrational. As Simon points out, ingesting psilocybin is in no way comparable to going for a pint, or smoking a joint, or even doing a line. It's just not a recreational drug.
Unlike the late, venerated psychonaut Terence McKenna, who recommended people take mushrooms indoors in the dark, Simon advocates the use of psilocybin out in nature.
"If you're an experienced trekker and have camping equipment, it's the best thing there is," he says. "I know of nothing greater than taking the mushroom out in an oak forest in a wild region of Snowdonia or the Lake District."
Simon's many experiences of tripping out in nature have led him to develop the paradigm of "natural intelligence," which he calls the "gift" he received from his research. He believes that evolution is a naturally intelligent process that "constructs naturally intelligent systems of bio-logic."
"I think nature, as a self-organizing system, is an unconscious intelligence that is becoming conscious through nervous systems and particularly through the human cortex," he says. "Nothing is smarter than life itself. Our technology pales in the face of the technology of life. Think about DNA, for instance—it is a digital code, which means that digital information processing is actually billions of years old. Evolution through natural selection is the way this smart code-driven organic technology continually hones itself. And it is only possible because life is written into nature, akin to an embedded potential that was always waiting to emerge."
Simon believes adopting this view can benefit us because the tendency to take life for granted and disregard its innate intelligence is detrimental.
"If we don't see the biosphere as a network of living wisdom, we will not likely seek to learn from it," he writes. "Whereas it might make good survival sense to be wholly selfish and act in a thick-skinned way to everything else that lives in your vicinity, it makes more sense in the long term—and the payoff is greater—if you can cooperate in some way."
The whole theory is too complex to describe in full here, but is delineated in a 35-page chapter in Magic Mushroom Explorer, as well as in his 2012 book Darwin's Unfinished Business: The Self-Organising Intelligence of Nature.
In a world where we're constantly assailed by advertisements that promise us wish fulfilment and, without fail, never deliver, Simon thinks psilocybin is one of the only real brands that can provide us true empowerment.
"We're always being led around by culture—how to dress, the places we should go, the music we should listen to, the political party we should follow," he explains. "We're not empowered, whereas psilocybin empowers the person, and that's one of its chief virtues. You experience the living moment—what it is to be alive and conscious in the universe. Most of the stuff in culture can't deliver that kind of empowerment."
Indeed, he believes psilocybin is so powerful that it's capable of breaking down the fundamental barriers between human beings and creating a more harmonious society, even removing long-entrenched prejudices like racism.
"Water, wheat and fuel and all these kinds of things are obviously crucial to life, but psilocybin is a higher level resource because it feeds the human spirit," he says.
The Aztecs and Mayans are known to have used psilocybin, and psilocybin-containing species were explained and described by European mycologists (fungi experts) as far back as the 18th century. But there is no hard evidence that its potential was ever harnessed by Europeans.
"We're at a very difficult part of human history at the moment, where horrific things are going on," he says. "We need something to shock the human psyche into real wakefulness where we're aware of the larger biosphere in which we're embedded, because we're fucking it up. If you have a full-blown mystical experience it will change your life—it's a boon to the human spirit."
This fundamental unhappiness, Simon claims, stems from our disconnection with the natural world.
"We're alienated from nature and these mushrooms come from nature," he says. "This is the beauty of it: it's entirely natural. If you pick them out in the wild it's a free resource of the highest caliber. We've discovered things like copper, iron, and plants we can eat, yet we haven't discovered the potential of the mushroom."
A recent New Yorker article describes how psilocybin is being used in clinical trials at New York University, and Britain's top medical journal The Lancet came out in support of psilocybin research in January of this year. Simon believes that soon the UK authorities will have to reclassify psilocybin from its current class A status.
"One of the definitions of [a class A drug] is that it has no medical therapeutic application," he says. "That's patently wrong."
He says the onus on the state is to provide information to adults about psilocybin and other substances, not to criminalize people for their use. Soon, he believes, magic mushrooms will become more accepted in society, and eventually decriminalized. People will be allowed to use grow kits to cultivate mushrooms in their homes, and "revitalization centers" will offer people a safe place to have a psilocybin experience.
It took Simon more than a decade of effort to get his first psilocybin book published, so I ask him why he goes to such lengths for so little financial reward.
"I had all these incredible experiences," he says. "If you have these remarkable, precious experiences, you're obliged, I think, to try to spread word of it. It's the least you can do, really."