The enduring, amorphous, inescapable question.
Well, that first post went down better than I’d hoped. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the number and the quality of comments and emails that came back in reply. I believed that I was not alone in my need for integration and connection, and it is wonderful to have that hunch confirmed so heartily.
But now the call to adventure has been heeded, and we’ve stepped onto the path. We look forwards, and backwards, and forwards again, and wonder; now what?
It’s a good question. One I’ve been thinking about a lot.
One important aspect of my last experience with psilocybin was to do with time. I saw all of existence as one big, endlessly entwined, globular mass. Like a Celtic knot of astonishing complexity, each strand sparkling like a disco ball as it wove and squirmed in and out of the others. And because I was able to view all of existence from where I sat, an arm’s length beyond it, I realised this meant I was sitting outside of time as well as space. And I got a very strong sense that time wasn’t real. Or at least, that the way we experienced it, as humans, on this planet, was only one very limited manifestation of it, and not a reflection of its ultimate nature.
This was one of the many things I was laughing about that night. And I tried to joke about it with a group of fellow ceremony participants sitting next to me, who seemed to be chatting amongst themselves. Conversation, however, requires a stronger grasp of human/Earth standards of time than I was able to muster at that moment. That these other folks could engage in it suggested that they were far less high than I was, and caused me to wonder if the ceremony was closer to its end than I realised. With great effort, I asked them what time it was, then laughed at the absurdity of such a question. “Time! Like that’s even a thing,” I managed to joke, before falling back into my trip.
At some point after that, I realised the temple was almost completely dark; not only were all of the musical instruments and blankets and other accoutrements of the ceremony packed away, but someone had banked the fire.
I, however, was still blazing away, my field of sight still full of fantastic, colourful visions. But I remembered that I was spending the night in that very temple, along with several other participants, all of whom seemed to be getting ready to go to sleep. If I didn’t want to be a bad roommate, I needed to figure out a series of steps: how to stand up (which I hadn’t done in some hours), how to locate my toothbrush and flashlight from my pile of stuff at the edge of the room, how to find and put on my jumper and beanie and shoes, how to traverse the grass between the temple and the off-grid toilets, how to queue up for and use the rather idiosyncratic composting facilities within, how to brush my teeth, and how to land safely back in my sleeping bag for the night. Quite the undertaking, given my state.
But I knew it was okay. I held onto the fact that time wasn’t really real. It was kind of like a game we were all playing. And thus, it was mine to play with. I could choose what to do with it; what to craft out of it. I could choose what actions to take, and in what order. And I could be patient, and not get flustered or try to rush through any of it, because there was no hurry. I was actually in control of my time, and I could act like it.
So I did. And when I had finally completed the necessary series of bedtime tasks, I plopped victoriously onto my sleeping bag. Back in the stillness and darkness of the temple, the psilocybin visuals took over again, in a way that was aesthetically very different from before, but still extraordinary, and perhaps even prettier than all the ones prior. I knew everyone else was trying to sleep, and that it was late, and that I would be tired in the morning; I ‘ought’ to get to sleep. But what I was seeing was so perfectly wonderful, and I was so perfectly content - so perfectly embodying myself and the moment - I chose to carry on quietly. And I was entirely happy with that choice.
Eventually, the visions fading down to a tiny flicker, I got into my sleeping bag. I decided to text my husband before I fell asleep. Which was tricky work, as the screen looked like a beautiful, three-dimensional field of glitter. But again, I knew I had all the time I needed. So I giggled quietly and tapped away, and produced about a dozen very important texts to him, including the following:
I know it's late but also time is hilarious
I have been laughing for maybe 8 hours or maybe all of time because WHAT EVEN IS TIME?
I'll tell you more later. Like that's a thing 🙃
Love you infitanyely and also right now 🍄🏻👌🏻
I stand by my words.
I awoke to find that the sun had come up, thus confirming that time was indeed still a thing, at least at this earthly level, and that some of it had passed. I went to get in line for the centre’s one shower, and told myself I could choose not to be bothered about having to queue. The sun was out, my psyche was gleaming, and breakfast was imminent. And after breakfast, I could also choose to walk the five miles through the countryside back to town rather than faffing around with trying to hitch a ride. When I had walked the five miles, and arrived at the little ferry that crossed the River IJssel to the town where I would stay the night, it didn’t matter that I had just missed the boat; I could happily enjoy the beautiful view until it came back. Time was no problem. And engaging with the world around me was no problem. At each juncture in my path, I could decide the next step, and take it. And the next. And the next. And thus chart a steady way forward through the boundless potential of eternity.
Yeah… That didn’t last long - surprise, surprise. I got home and my monkey mind got back into full swing. I have at least a hundred tabs open on my laptop, and another hundred on my phone. My flat is an archipelago of piles of shite; for half a dozen different projects I’d like to be writing all at once, several other projects I’d like to be crafting, and the mad clutter that family life churns out by the hour. I spend too much time on Instagram, and not enough time on my yoga mat. I feel like I’m busy from the time I wake up, yet feel I have relatively little to show for my efforts when the day is done. I create whole mosaics of post-its listing out all the things I need to take care of, but the optimal order for attending to them eludes me no matter how much time I spend rearranging them. And I switch almost manically between wanting to explode my life one week to deciding it’s actually pretty okay the way it is the next - which wastes a huge amount of energy. And time. And is not very fun to live with.
That inability to attend to my life in an consistent, effective way, and the red-hot frustration that my befuddlement fosters, is a lot of what took me to the mushrooms. The desire to no longer flicker between imagining four different potential lives, but to just be focused on one path before me, and be confident that it was the right one, and simply get on with the work of finding my way forward. Despite knowing that it wasn’t really possible, I still secretly hoped that the ceremony would provide me with some kind of silver bullet to fix all that perplexed me in one go.
It couldn’t, of course. But it did give me the experience of relating to time in a different way, and of being able to focus fully on the task at hand, and of being amused at my limitations, rather than ashamed. It showed me that I am capable of being mindful of what I’m doing in the here and now, and making decisions, and seeing them through, without getting hopelessly ensnared by worries of ten different hypothetical futures. I can be effective, and content, and even enjoy myself in the process. And if I can achieve this desired state whilst high as a kite, then surely, surely, I must be capable of doing it sober, too. I mean, you would hope.
So this is a lot of what I’ve been ruminating on in the two months since returning home: how can I be more grounded in the life that I have, whilst still encouraging it to grow in the directions I desire?
There are probably at least a dozen different ways to approach the problem. And a hundred different tasks and practices I could implement. Which, again, raises the question; now what? Which of these many valid actions do I take? In what order? Do I start by taking sober stock of the reality of my bank account and world events, and what I can ‘reasonably’ expect in light of them? Or do I start by trying to identify my heart’s deepest desires? Or do I start with what is best for my son, whose wellbeing I treasure above all things? Do I try to change the things about my life that bother me incrementally, or stage a violent uprising against my status quo? And given the unending nature of my to-do list no matter how I tackle it, which tasks do I prioritise each day: the things that excite me most, or irk me the most; the things that are easiest to strike off, or hardest?
I don’t know how to answer these questions. The reason this post has taken so long to write is because I genuinely had no idea how to answer the question I posed at it’s start; now what? But the writing of it has forced me to keep banging my head against the problem, day after day. And in thinking so much about this one element of what the mushrooms showed me, and about my fumbling since, I think I’ve learned at least one lesson. One that life has been trying to teach me for a very long time, and will undoubtedly continue to keep teaching me. And that’s about dealing with life as it is, in front of you, and not as you imagine you’d prefer it to be.
It’s a lesson life really beat me over the head with during the pandemic. When your entire world revolves around a very small child who doesn’t sleep through the night (breastfeeding, bad dreams, flu, etc…), and the world has gone tits-up, you kind of have to just do what you can, when you can. Write when you can. Sleep when you can. Go to the shops when they’re actually allowed to open. See family when it’s actually possible to cross borders. Anytime I tried to cling to any plans I tried to make, I was miserable. And I was reminded, many, many times over, of the Yiddish saying:
Man plans and God laughs.
Having the world - with the full range of life’s choices - back on the table this year, has been kind of giddy-making. But underneath all the renewed options, some restrictions remain. I still can’t take a night’s sleep for granted. Or a day’s work; the constant rotation of germs my son brought home from daycare last winter was absolutely punishing, and next winter probably holds something similar in store for us. And even aside from the germs, winter in Berlin sucks. My bank balance is still laughable, and the global economy is still a shitshow. And there is still a hideous war being waged 800 kilometres from where I sit.
And I’m realising that the key here is to try to remain in tune with the events and seasons unfolding around me, and triage what needs doing accordingly. Get out in the sun while the weather is fine. Travel while the germ loads are down. Buy new walking shoes when the good sales are on. Exercise when my back hurts. Hug my family when they need hugs. Feed them when they are hungry. Get them to bed when they are tired. And write absolutely whenever the hell possible in midst of all these other important things… even if that means the work takes a million times longer than I’d like. And the rest will just have to wait til I can get to it.
I was thinking of all this in terms of the saying, about how you’ve gotta “make hay while the sun shines.” Or the line from the Bible, which I, being raised by hippies, know mainly via The Byrd’s pop song version;
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
Bu then the other day, I was listening to a clip of Alan Watts, talking about worry, and our perception of time. As part of this, he was explaining a Zen saying:
Simply live now, and there will be no problems… When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, sleep. When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit.
And now I think this is what I have, without realising it, been trying to learn to do. I think this is what the mushrooms showed me. I don’t know how well I will ever truly learn this lesson, or be able to live accordingly. I’m not even 100% sure I want to live like that all the time. But I’m finding that when I do remember my experiences of time during the ceremony, and what it felt like to be so present, and then try and bring that focus into normal life, rather than trying to force things or flail about, I feel a whole lot better (which is also, as it happens, a great Byrd’s song). So I’m going to keep trying, and see where it gets me.
The question remains. But it has changed slightly, in the asking. It is no longer a general sense of “Now what?” But of looking at THE NOW before me, and asking it, as though it might answer, “What? What are you showing me? What do you want? What can I offer?” And if I really pay attention, an answer does, in one way or another, follow.
If any of this resonates with you, or perplexes you, I would welcome your thoughts: