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DoubleBlind: Collage of nature and humans in the shape of the world. In this article, Bett Williams explores taking psilocybin during COVID-19.
DoubleBlind: Collage of nature and humans in the shape of the world. In this article, Bett Williams explores taking psilocybin during COVID-19.
Collage by Max Henderson

Birds Playing Tiny Violins; Diving Deeper with Psilocybin in the Pandemic

During a pre-pandemic mushroom trip, she had a vision of the corona virus; now she's returning to the medicine.

Bett Williams // May 25, 2020

On Feb 4, in a circle of women in Mexico, I drank 7 grams of psilocybin mushroom tea and saw the virus in psychedelic space. It looked just like the images that I saw weeks later.  At the time I didn’t know what it was. It was just a gigantic pink, red, and orange circular organic geometry that rolled into my field and took over everything, a spinning wheel of fortune but more floral, with teardrop shapes around the center and inside were embryonic feminine elfin creatures. The energy of its force field shot right through me and I danced on the ground, jerking my legs and making florid hand movements to the sky. 

“I don’t know what I am supposed to do!” I yelled out loud.  

Jess Grotfeldt, the host, coaxed me back to the blanket. I’d travelled some distance flopping like a fish. In the giant turning circular shape I felt Brazil, Asia, then everywhere. This was before the virus was even a thing. My partner Beth texted me about it, telling me to get some masks for the flight home. I did, but only to ease her mind. When I had a nightmare about corpses of strangers laid out in rows on a sidewalk, Beth suggested it might have something to do with the virus. I thought she was being ridiculous.  

The gigantic wheel was the entire event and all around it was darkness. Souls and elementals were flying this way and that, a highway of the dead and maybe not dead, not sure. During the trip, I thought of a friend back home who was in a coma. Maybe my job was to help her die or not die. I was a grade school crossing guard in this realm, but a clownish one who couldn’t see the crossroads, didn’t know which way to send anyone, so in my not-knowing I just danced.  

“I don’t know what I am supposed to do!”

Nothing and no one seemed to understand that this was a real question; regarding the virus, and the emergency of my recent mushroom journeys in general. The thing was ambivalent towards my efforts. I was an inconsequential flicker. I somehow knew not to try to get smart and engage with it. It was something to be respected, this new stranger on the scene. Stay in your lane, child, and pray for good.           

Three months before the ceremony where I saw the virus-thing, I was tripping on mushrooms in an Aspen grove. I had just read The Overstory by Richard Powers, a fugue state of a book about the way trees communicate with the ecosystem, including humans. I came to the mushrooms with the intention of having a conversation with the Aspens. Like, Hey, how are things going in your world? I brought lunch, chocolate, copal, and tobacco, and a young friend I met at the skatepark. His grandmother had just died, and when the mushrooms came on, I spent much of the trip holding space for him as he cried. Towards the end, I turned my attention to the Aspens.  

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My vague query poised, they answered with a terrifying vertiginous swoosh. We were all in a landslide together from up on high, slipping down to the south pole, all of us together in a monstrous correction, like an earthquake or a stock market crash, but this correction was operating on every atomic level. It was a foreign as fuck feeling, and I couldn’t handle it.  

“You’re not prepared,” I heard the Aspens say, as I shook myself into a sober state.  

Articles were circulating at the time about how we should go to the woods, take a bunch of mushrooms, and grieve climate change. I knew better. Aspens have boundaries. They are fine in their own world. It’s in all the fairy tales, a clueless traveler enters the spirit world of a non-human thing without enacting proper protocol and danger ensues, or they get laughed at, or lost. Being prepared, in the way that has been shown to be yours, through practice, is how you show respect. It’s how things WORK.  

I do things improperly often because my ego likes the drama of pretending I don’t remember how to do it right. I’d rather feel bad about myself than do the hard work. I use all manner of propaganda to reinforce my laziness: I’m not allowed, a teacher needs to show me, I’m not ready. Feeling bad about yourself is an ego trip and a waste of time, I wrote in a book a long time ago. It took a pandemic, but I think I’m finally getting sick and tired of this act. 

I spoke on the phone with Jess from the women’s circle. We shared stories that we heard about things going horribly awry in various group mushroom scenes, especially lately: injuries, boundary violations, and multiple instances of uncontrollable purging—a side effect that I’ve never associated with the mushrooms in my years of using them. If you want my opinion, I think it’s an entity possession; a ghoul from our repressed unconscious seeking wholeness, because we are out of balance as a collective in how we are approaching the mushrooms right now (too much capitalism, but that’s just me). I try not to judge how other people roll with their mushrooms, as this is a detriment to my own practice. However, it’s the nature of the plant medicine path, even with simple herbalism, for a person to be shown over time, the way that is right for them. 

Feeling bad about yourself is an ego trip and a waste of time, I wrote in a book a long time ago. It took a pandemic, but I think I’m finally getting sick and tired of this act. 

Jess and I work in keeping with what I will call the old ways. If there’s a sacred fire, one in which you’d better not throw your cigarette butt into, it’s old ways. If you sing to water, it’s old ways. Ceremony is a container for the spirit world, one where acts of reciprocity take place. A mushroom ceremony done in this way can give one great personal insight; it can also use you up for its own agenda that may have nothing to do with you. You’re not always the most important thing going on—old ways.  

In her Chacruna article, “The Five Phases of Psychedelic Initiation,” Jessica L. Nielson has me pegged as the Jaded Psychonaut, one step away from Veteran Psychonaut. I’ve long passed the phases of Experience Seeker, Patient, and Psychedelic Messiah. I’m a self-diagnosed Jaded because I’m at an impasse. Witnessing people do things improperly is a thing I can’t un-see, while meanwhile I have no idea what I’m doing—I’m only beginning to grasp my role and agency within the complexities of psychedelic space. I’m humbled to be held accountable towards all the things I do not know. I can’t stay in this zone forever, the spirits will lose patience with me. I’m not having negative experiences, I’m just having a hard time remembering what I’m for.   

Following the women’s circle, Jess had an experience with strangers that went very dark. She was questioning whether to even continue on the path. She came to the mushrooms in ceremony and asked for help.  

“It’s been such a confusing time for us,” she said to me over the phone, a month after our circle. “I keep asking if there’s anything I should be doing differently. They keep telling me the same thing: Keep it simple.”

“That’s exactly what they tell me!” I said, joyful that a wise sister was getting the same message. Keep it simple, keep it clean, they say.

I don’t entertain magical thinking to a degree that I believe large amounts of people doing mushrooms the wrong way caused a pandemic, but… 

  1. That would be a new one in terms of conspiracy theories.
  2. As a collective we have been living lives wildly out of balance with the ecosystem. How we do mushrooms is a microcosm of our relationship to everything, especially the Earth. All our actions are one collective hologram of tweakery to which no-one is exempt.   

How we do mushrooms is a microcosm of our relationship to everything, especially the Earth.

No wonder most of my friends don’t feel much like taking psychedelics right now. It’s like being in Lubbock during the Great Dust Bowl, when it’s dark in the afternoon; hard not to think God’s mad at you.    

Covid-19 is a ceremony. It’s a liminal and precarious dimension where change moves like quicksilver in a quiet room. Time’s not what it was. We are taking cues on how to live from invisible realms. Can you feel it?  How are we becoming something else in conversation with the catastrophe? I recently heard someone describe ceremony as a “realm without error.” We abide by that law by staying home, wearing masks in public, separating ourselves by six to ten feet, while we separate facts from spin. We have never been here before. The ceremony is about waking up to this moment. That’s it.  

My days of willfully doing things improperly need to be over. Those of us who live with partners know this especially as we stack food, empty the dishwasher, and water the plants, only to be met with the quarantine litany of, “You’re not doing it right!”

Over and over, we are all saying to each other, “You’re not doing it right!”   

It’s just easier in the end to do it right.   

Covid-19 is a ceremony. It’s a liminal and precarious dimension where change moves like quicksilver in a quiet room. Time’s not what it was. We are taking cues on how to live from invisible realms. Can you feel it?  How are we becoming something else in conversation with the catastrophe?

I roll my eyes at the memes and articles saying this pandemic is a great time to do psychedelics, because like, you’re bored, depressed, and lonely? No doubt many people are experimenting with mushrooms for the first time. I’m sure most tender-hearted beginners will find their way just fine. It’s my old jaded psychonaut ass that’s having difficulty.       

I had intended to do a ceremony much earlier on in the lockdown, but when the day approached I didn’t have it in me. Quitting weed edibles and tobacco snuff, fasting, taking a break from social media, and writing down my dreams are things I have done in the past to prepare. Other than giving up tobacco for “Lent,” I failed at everything else. I turned all these things into SHOULDS and flogged my psyche with every failure of discipline. Most of us were being way too hard on ourselves so I didn’t feel all that bad about it. I repeated the process of attempting to arrive to a mushroom ceremony twice. Finally, it dawned on me that the only way out of this Catholic School situation was to set these austerities and rituals aside for a time. I needed to contemplate the intention at the root. Disciplines and rituals become hollow so easily. We let ourselves not see it.  

Do I want to trip during a pandemic? Not particularly. My greatest concern is my own potential for grandiosity, that in my helplessness I might fantasize I have powers that do not exist. That thought, however, is a defense against the truth; I have forged a relationship with the mushrooms almost ten years strong now. It’s my practice. It’s what I do. It’s time I take things to the next level and get prepared.

Fasting        

The mushroom is an entity. To ingest a mushroom is to meet this entity. The entity is not a human being, but a fungus made of organic compounds. It is in this open field of our combined chemistry where the relationship takes place. I am usually engaged in a biochemical firestorm of some kind. Ideologies, entertainment, grandiose fantasies, and personal drama alter brain chemistry and become addictions. Food is a drug, and then there are the other drugs. 

Having met them before, I can attest to the fact they are smarter than I am, more stylish, creative, and capable of solving most problems—so yeah, it’s intimidating. I don’t see this entity often, so I want to make the best of it. I’m not going to arrive flustered and mad about something I read online. I’m not going to bore them with my petty frustrations. They always bust me and show me what’s really going on anyway. They don’t want me to bow down and be passive, either. They like me to participate. This isn’t possible if I take the shape of a servant. However, a mushroom can’t burn copal, throw down tobacco, or change the music selection, so when they tell me to do these things, I obey. Arriving to the entity in an uncrowded state is always way harder than I think it will be. The times I’ve nailed it have been mostly by accident. 

Committing to staying off social media, psychoactive substances, and certain foods for a duration of time, at least four days, offers a glimmer of hope that I can meet the entity with whatever remnant of attentiveness I have left. 

Showing up with a clean head is polite.  

Then there’s the bad news: Brain chemistry does not level-out overnight. Change requires duration, so all these behaviors have to shift over a good-size period of days to matter. Fasting for up to five days has been my most powerful tool. It speeds up the process of clearing out mental and physical trash. I drink water and ginger/turmeric tea with butter and coconut oil. If I need the energy to complete a task, I supplement with avocado or other healthy fatty foods. I lick salt from my palm. Everyone is different in terms of what their body needs during a fast. Some people should maybe not ever fast at all, like if they have specific health issues or a history of eating disorders. 

All I know is, for me there will be hunger, holy suffering, and birds playing tiny violins. 

Prayer 

I’ll send the entity some postcards before we actually meet, to let them know I’m thinking of them, though they prefer copal and juniper smoke to my writing. I’ve started building a stone wall for a fire pit. Some days I dress up for them. Maybe I’ll finally learn some songs. Whether it’s planting seeds or hanging a necklace I don’t wear anymore on a tree branch, these gestures take on a layer of resonance when intended as offerings to the spirit world that the mushrooms are so intertwined with. I will try to remember to be specific when I say out loud all the things I want for myself and my relations, but mostly I will pray by walking, dancing, and moving rocks. Beth is making masks—a most perfect prayer. Her medicine is LSD, so she won’t be journeying with me when the time comes, but she’ll likely hold the space, keep an eye on the fire, and bake a chicken that we will eat afterwards. 

Clean the House  

This isn’t any ordinary cleaning. I’ll have to pretend I’m somebody else to get it right. It may take days. Finish with salt in the corners and juniper and copal smoke through every room. 

One morning I’ll wake up and the mushrooms will have found a way to write me back.  In a dream, a bodily sensation, in the there-ness of things, they will say, “Hi!” 

I will answer, “Hi! So, am I prepared?” 

“What are you waiting for?” they’ll say.  

Will I be in a good headspace? I have no idea what that fucking means anymore, but at least I’ll be prepared. Keep it simple, keep it clean, the mushrooms say. I’ll do my best, Lord knows I have the time.

Bett Williams is the author of the novel Girl Walking Backwards and the memoir “The Wrestling Party.” She and her partner, Beth Hill, produce “No Cures, Only Alchemy,” a podcast about psychedelics and culture, for which they received a Kindle Foundation Maker’s Muse Award in 2018. Bett lives in New Mexico, where she supports writers, artists, and others through hosting private retreats, residencies, and events in keeping with the spirit of mycelium. Her new memoir “The Wild Kindness; A Psilocybin Odyssey” will be coming out on Dottir Press in September.

Collage by Max Henderson

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