Notes from the mycelium

Also published on Medium with a new title from the editor: The Future of Psychedelics is Inclusive: Why we need to have more than one conversation about the potential of psychedelics

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Sketches from the audience, by Sam.

Last night I attended the Women and Psychedelics Forum at CIIS, organized by Bia Liabate of Chacruna, with support from MAPS. Topics of conversation included the ethics of psychedelic therapy, sexual assault in ceremonial settings, the current state of crisis/division, and our history in a dominator system. We talked about psychedelic-assisted pattern-seeking, deconditioning, education, and healing. For individuals and societies. We talked a bit about the War on Drugs and how it has been used against black and brown people to benefit a few white people. This has been and still is our reality.

Speakers addressed the fact that these cultural problems of social inequality, sexual violence, and greed also exist in this psychedelic bubble. Surprise! (Well not really.)

But I left overjoyed that this space even exists, and while I’m still processing everything from the seven hour conversation — the many lines of thought to be continued — I am almost certain that last night’s gathering pushed me and other attendees a little further into our own hope/work. For ourselves and this community.

Compared to other conferences I’ve attended in the last few years… this gathering was different. The psychedelic space can be an inviting bunch, but the female psychedelic space provided a uniquely thoughtful, stimulating, and progressive mixing of minds.

I loved when Kathleen Harrison compared women’s work in this space to mycelium: a growing underground network, working from the bottom up. A web of connections highly aware that our current system is not collectively caring and compassionate (like it could be!). A group of voices that have chosen not to succumb to attempted silencing and “be quiet”s. We met here and chose otherwise, just like people before us did during the abolition of slavery, the suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. Psychedelic medicine can help us carefully gather information, come back, and share.

Sara Reed spoke poetically about her MDMA experience in a clinical research setting. As a therapist herself, she tried to self-examine her changing condition after the dose was given. “I feel like I’m dying, but it’s okay.” Once she stopped accessing her felt experience, she “let go,” she was greeted by her deceased grandmother. Forced to reconnect with a truth beyond social conditioning to “be twice as good,” “don’t wear that,” “act like this.” “I finally had a place where I belonged; I felt free.” Those words hit the room. Most people were crying or on the verge of tears from her retelling. Reed believes the session eased her racial wounds and multigenerational trauma, helped her learn to love complexities in her self, and guided her to more easily confront a history of silence and violence.

Annette Williams spoke about the female relationship to the plant realm — maintaining a balance between seen and unseen — in West African Yoruba tradition and in her great grandmother’s homeland of Jamaica. She spoke about black women’s personal responsibility during slavery to treat and medicate themselves. Using spiritual technologies (or read it as medical technologies if you’d like) to conjure the root. She demanded we respect these medicines and communities (pointing to tobacco, a sacred plant to many people, now pushed far beyond safe, and oftentimes meaningful, consumption). “It’s about respect, you’re a guest in someone’s home.”

Valerie Corral of WAMM highlighted our current system and how it leaves too many medically bankrupt. She touched on ownership of healing, the uniqueness of individual healing processes, and gave a precaution that we can learn a lot from marijuana legalization when addressing psychedelic integration into our existing, exclusive medical system.

Wendy Chapkis raised the important question: Who benefits other than the patient? Who profits? Who gets to give and receive the awards? She spoke about misconceptions of these botanicals as “crude” or illegitimate and big pharma’s investments to suppress these botanical competitors (which are becoming more and more popular as supplemental medicine). Her research made it more clear that both sex and drugs are treated from similar, outdated, puritanical views of our justice system and culture. She spoke bluntly: pleasures and profits are often reserved for men.

Every word that flowed from Michelle Corbin in some sort of spell-binding slam poetry resonated. She said it: this event could have been called ‘Gender and Psychedelics.’ Because men were there too and men have a role in this too. As do all people. Corbin honed in on our history of gendered/sexual violence and the ability for psychedelics to heal trauma. She urged the restructuring of power. She urged we should not repsychologize this issue, and that the medicine itself will not help us, but we need to do deliberate work. “The grandmother will show you what your work needs to be.” Triggers can reveal where ancient pain is. She wants us to connect at points of empathy. This is a movement because we find each other at these points and move forward.

(The word ‘grandmother’ was mentioned a lot last night, and I appreciated this generalized ancestral awareness/appreciation/even simple recognition.)

Other speakers included Emily Sinclair, Jae Sevelius, Clancy Cavnar, Annie Oak, Alicia Danforth, and Jodie Evans, who focused on ayahuasca, radical risk reduction in community settings, and some darker characters in this equation, from sexual offenders to misogynistic leaders in the psychedelic space (because hello, we see you).

I wanted to ask a question after these women spoke so bravely, but I was riddled by nerves, and would prefer to open it up beyond the event. I am curious what people think:

Do male and female psychedelic experiences/perspectives differ?

There’s a reason I ask this question. I’ve noticed a pattern in the typically male reflections of psychedelic experience. They often focus on ego-loss as the height/peak/most supreme concept. From Leary to Pollan, this is a recurrent pattern in majority of the psychedelic literature that has been written mostly by men. Men are also the most likely to report their experience on forums like Erowid and Reddit. Some men even obsess and compete over the concept of “achieving” ego “death.”

So there’s this pattern in the literature and online conversation that men are very, very interested in the ego-loss phenomenon of psychedelic experience.   

However, many female experiences (although I admittedly read/hear much less) seem to focus on a kind of homegoing (including Sara Reed’s talk last night). A coming back. A connection to some unseen. Female perspectives also report/experience ego-dissolution, but it does not seem to be the most profound theme of the trip. Letting go and sinking out of the thinking mind allows for more receptivity/direct experience of being, but it is not the grand finale of the learning or information intake. It is really just the beginning.  

Maybe ego-loss is less profound to female experience/biology/psychology/cultural conditioning. Women have historically spent more time losing themselves into roles/flows of caregiving (this is not to say compassion/caregiving are gendered/sexed traits, anyone can be anything, but this is indeed the case for women). This inherited/inherent shutting off of the ego/internal thinker to act for (or even simply be aware of) some Other is maybe less sublime for us. Sometimes I melt into ego-loss just petting my dog or cat.

If we look at the central profundities of the psychedelic experience across a more broad range of people, we can learn more about the psychedelic experience itself. And the more we know about how psychedelics can impact who, the better we can direct psychedelic treatment in the future.

This is a bit of my theory: Masculine and feminine psychedelic perspectives seem to differ. So the psychedelic experience or process itself might be different across men and women, and across various mental predispositions. This does not just include cultural conditioning or biological factors, but also lived experience like past trauma.

And varying mental predispositions will need varying care. 

Anyone can get the same thing out of the psychedelic experience: healing. Psychedelics can help people become more comfortable with themselves, leading to higher states of self-actualization, social deconditioning (especially relating to strict gender roles), and androgyny. But the path to healing with psychedelics is different for everyone. 

I realize the difficulty of this topic, but it lacks sufficient research for anyone to be able to claim ultimate knowledge/understanding of how different biologies (or cultural conditioning) interpret these states. We still do not know how psychedelic experiences may affect people differently because the literature focuses on the male experience and the research is male-dominated.

I can’t help but assume that some mix of cultural gender conditioning and biological sex might impact our mental predispositions that meet these substances, and therefore our experiences and understanding of these experiences. What are the patterns across different perspectives — whether due to social conditioning, epigenetic heritage, varying psychologies, underlying/unseen energy, or whatever it may be. 

I agree with Michelle Corbin: the individual touches the collective. When more people do psychedelics, what happens to society?

In Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna said that psychedelics act as “feminizing agents,” but what do they spark in those who are already feminine? I do not feel “more feminine” after many psychedelic experiences. I think they helped me become more comfortable with myself and more comfortable being in this world. They helped me drift from social polarities, like fitting into a very strict gender role. Some super-feminine ideal. They connected me to unseen physical realities and an awareness even further outside of myself. And this is what I think they can do for everyone and anyone (although this is not always the case. It is true that some shitty people just become shittier, or even more self-concerned, after mind-altering experiences).

Can psychedelics, rather than “feminize,” act as internal balancing agents? Do psychedelics help us become more comfortable as we are, and therefore less likely to spend energy on certain cultural drives, like excessive consumption? Could they even make people more androgynous in some cases, with less energy spent on obsessive gendered image maintenance? Can psychedelics break the cultural assumptions we hold?

As a young girl, I always felt outside of myself, hyper-focused on the external, listening, thinking about other people, how they might feel, what they might be thinking, what they’re saying, what they might think of me, how I might be perceived by them, how they see me.

Regular psychedelic use (microdosing LSD) and large doses (DMT, LSD, MDMA, mushrooms) helped me slow depressive and obsessive thought patterns. Psychedelics helped me shush the inner overthinker and find comfort being with myself and others. In a sense, this was ego-dissolution, but ego-dissolution itself was not the ultimate learning among the many threads. I think there is a real difference here between the heavily reported male experience and my/other’s female experience.

One of the most important things psychedelics helped me achieve was a deprogramming and deconditioning of what I was taught growing up in the United States. I was programmed to focus on my appearance and fitting into/buying into this culture. Programmed to insular thought. Psychedelics broke me out of an insecure way of thinking and living. If anything, psychedelics made me more androgynous in my way of being and less concerned with fitting into the assigned role I was playing.

Psychedelics can affect us all in similar and/or different ways, no matter our identity or biology or ancestry, but we’ve only been served one side of the experience. And my most profound psychedelic experiences have felt different from the ones I’ve read. They’ve felt like a homecoming, a connection into myself and some universal being.

What are the ethical implications of this theory? How do intersex or trans people experience psychedelics? Does examining patterns and differences help us understand ourselves and our interconnectedness better, or might it only divide us further? Can we embrace difference and connection at the same time? Am I manipulating this perceived reality or observing it? Or both? Is it too rooted in anecdotal experience

I’m working on a book that will weave together feminist and psychedelic theory with stories about becoming a woman, growing up in an image-obsessed culture, particular things men/boys have said and done to me throughout my life (some awful, some wonderful), migration (mentally and physically), large doses, and eight months of microdosing for mood support.

In this book, I’ll spin female sexuality and healthy body image with psychedelic practice. On multiple substances, I’ve seen feminine/yonic imagery behind closed eyes. Why is that? Am I just a freak or is this a shared experience? How can psychedelics help people heal their deeply personal, sexual lives? How can psychedelics help people regain confidence in their sexuality after abuse or trauma? Why do feminism, mental healthcare, environmentalism, cultural progress, and psychedelics mix? Do more self-actualized, androgynous people lead to a more progressive culture? Could these substances help highly gendered cultures and subcultures reorganize their power structures? Are LGBTQI people ahead of this? (Yes.) Can psychedelic healing lead to gender/sexual equality? How do multigenerational, epigenetic influences intertwine with the genetic code of these plants and substances? What new responsibilities and ethics circle psychedelic consumption, therapy, and interpretation?

This is all yet to be explored, but I found my work.

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