ceremony as an opportunity to take stock, responsibility, and action
A few weeks after my first mushroom ceremony at Earth Awareness last summer, I joined one of their online integration circles. The woman who runs them, Judith, recommended a book called Consciousness Medicine, by Francoise Bourzat. When the circle finished, I mentioned the book to my husband, who immediately produced a copy from one of his many crowded shelves, and placed it in my hands. I was surprised, delighted, and… then left it to sit on my own bookshelf. Until the following spring, when I tried to cram the whole thing into my head on the train ride to the my second retreat.
Letting things slide like that is not entirely untypical of me. Or probably of most people. Indeed, that is one of the main reasons for going on such a retreat, or other such pilgrimages; it’s not just about spending time in another place, or another state of consciousness, but about marking out time to take stock of one’s life. In a way that we might never get around to otherwise.
Bourzat’s book has a large chapter on this kind of stocktaking. She calls her inventory the Holistic Model for a Balanced Life, and divides it into five rough categories: body, mind, spirit, community, and environment. For each of these, she poses dozens and dozens of questions, about everything a life is composed of, from diet to dreams to home decor.
I diligently worked my way through all of her questions, fully aware from the start that my life was out of balance. I felt it, acutely - which was precisely why I was on my way back to the mushrooms. But what going through the inventory did help me see was the extent to which my life’s lack of balance was the result of my own choices.
Some of the problems and solutions were straightforward enough. For example, I didn’t exercise enough, but the main reason for that was that I had a torn meniscus in my left knee. I could choose to go ahead with knee surgery. And indeed, I had already scheduled the surgery for two weeks after I got back from the mushrooms. The recovery would be slow-going, but that it was the right choice was obvious.
Similarly, the problem of how much I loathed my flat. Yes, it was old and scruffy. And yes, it was very frustrating that my lack of income, combined with the housing crises that had been plaguing cities everywhere, meant that I would probably have to stay in said scruffy-ass flat for the foreseeable future. And yes, the fact that I had a small child meant that a certain level of domestic chaos was inevitable. But there were so many things I could do to make the flat nicer, that I had refused to do. Because I kept believing that we would be moving to Ireland imminently, and had refused to invest any love or money in our current dwelling the meantime. But I could change that attitude. I could put the potential move that kept getting pushed back out of my mind, and choose to try to live fully in the place where I definitely lived, now. I could repaint. I could hang pictures. I could get new sheets. I could take the energy I put into imagining running away from our home and invest it in improving it.
Figuring out what I could do about community, on the other hand, seemed far more baffling. I mean, there was just nothing but tumbleweeds through that whole field, as far as I could see. I went from day to day without interacting in any meaningful way with any friends or neighbours or community members of any other sort. Again, I could recognise that this was partly the result of my choices; I had chosen to move to a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language, in order to be with my husband. I had chosen to be a writer, and work at home, entirely on my own, for virtually no money, year after year. I had chosen to do other things with my limited time and memory than master the German grammar. And I had chosen to become a mother, and to be at my son’s beck and call through his crucial early years. Most of which ended up being COVID years, too, which were a strange and stressful and isolating time for a huge number of people. I was not alone in feeling lonely in that time, I knew.
But now the pandemic seemed to finally be over. All restrictions had been lifted. Isolation was no longer mandatory. Things could and should be different now. And they were. Yet I still felt alienated from others, and even from my own life. I had finished my first novel amidst the chaos of the lockdowns; I had chosen to put all of my creative energy into a fictional world, at the expense of most of the other areas of my life. Which was a great thing to be able to do. But then I couldn’t sell the manuscript, and so would make no money for all that work, or any of the other writing I’d done since. Which meant not only had I not put down any roots in the city where I lived, but I had no means of moving elsewhere. And I felt doubly the fool for it. And how I was supposed to choose a new the path forwards, when it was my own choices that had got me into this conundrum, was hard for me to see.
When I arrived in the mushroom realm, it was these kinds of thoughts that formed a major thread through the angsty entanglement of my mind.
But then the mushrooms started to kick in. And I started to feel grooooovy.
Many of the other participants had gone to lay down by the time I was coming up. But I was still sitting by the fire. Hanging. Tripping. Doing awesome. And I thought to myself, I am so great at mushrooms. Look at all those guys, laying down. Not me. I can hang. I can trip. And still be cool by the fire, in the centre of all things. No one here can hang like I can hang, or trip like I can trip.
And then I thought, Why the fuck does everything have to be a competition? How sad is my ego, that I can’t you stop comparing myself to others, here of all places?
And then I thought, Yeah. Fair. But… Still, I am really great at mushrooms. And I spend a lot of time feeling like I am shit at pretty much everything. Being able to give myself credit when I am actually doing well at something is probably a good thing. I just ought to focus on it as a positive thing for me, without trying to use it to feel better than anyone.
And then I thought, Wait, what does that even mean, ‘great at mushrooms’? I had recently learned that not everyone has visual hallucinations on mushrooms, which shocked the hell out of me. The visuals I had were intense and wide-ranging and altogether gobsmacking. They were one of the very best things I’d discovered in my years on Earth, and I had never even considered that they weren’t accessible to all who tried psilocybin. That this ability came to me naturally, and not to others, felt like a blessing. That I seemed able to sit, and surrender totally to whatever the mushrooms wanted to show me, and handle the full range of whatever my subconscious had to reveal, without ever freaking out or puking or anything, seemed like a gift.
I thought more about my mushroom visuals. And how they varied so much from trip to trip. And how no one else could see what I was seeing. And how actually, that was always sort of the case, in all areas of life; everyone’s experience and perspective was different. And why was that the case? Why were we all here? Living our own, unique, finite little lives? To go around, having experiences, making memories. My job as a person, and especially as a writer, was to pay attention to what I encountered. And I could do that differently than anyone else. And I was doing it. At every opportunity, to the best of my ability, I was showing up, and doing my job. As a living creature. And as a writer. And if that wasn’t reflected in the regard I received from my peers, or in the compensation I received from the formal economy, well, that was something separate. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a problem, but it was like secondary or tertiary.
And actually, I was doing pretty well. I had a lovely little family. And we were housed, and had good health care, and had never once gone to bed hungry. Indeed, our scruffy little flat was filled with a wealth of books and music and stationary and stones and snacks we had sourced from all over the world. The world I encountered around me every day was full of flowers and fireworks and flavours. Every manner of spectacle and sensation was waiting for me, should I desire it. The muchness of my life was amazing. And all this in spite of being so bad at making money for myself.
And I saw that I could make things happen, could assemble people and things in places, if I wanted to. I could ask things of others, just as they could of me. That different people I knew could provide different things, the skills and resources I didn’t have. Because every one of us had something different that we could contribute, and that huge variation between human beings was exactly what made our species great. It was okay that I couldn’t do everything myself, and I didn’t need to feel bad about it. And I didn’t have to operate so much in a scarcity mode. Because yes, some moments in time, certain people in certain places absolutely didn’t have enough. But there was enough. It was just a matter of distribution. And I had the capacity to influence that in my own life, and in the world more broadly, in ways far wider ranging than what could be captured in a mere pay check.
As I discussed in a previous post, I left this retreat more mindful about how I engage with time. I wanted to make the most of how malleable my mind felt after the retreat, but knew I couldn’t fully transform everything in my life all at once. What most needed attending to, and in what order?
I went back to my inventory. And saw again how much of what came up lacking for me was about my community and environment. I had not built many strong connections with the people and places where I reside, and meanwhile, the ones I did have with faraway people and places had dwindled. I had felt for quite some time like a pot-bound tree, who longed for a forest. And this was the thing I most needed to address. True, I couldn’t exactly afford to. But I also couldn’t afford not to anymore.
So that has been my mission this summer: to connect, or reconnect, with as many people and places as possible. Pretty much since I was able to walk well again after my knee surgery, I have been in motion. Every good offer of a couch or a spare room, a pint or a cup of tea, a lift or a stroll, I have taken up, if at all possible. I have cashed in rain checks I’ve been holding onto for months, and even decades. Some of these excursions have been with my family, and some have been solo. They have included hiking, camping, and wading into the sea. There have been axe wounds and exes. Markets and museums. Jet lag and carsickness. Hugs and high fives. And talking, talking, talking, in a way that is so different in person than online. And telling people that I love them when I do. Which does not always come out as easily as I would like.
Obviously, all of this connecting is inherently good in and of itself. It has been illuminating and healing and weird and wonderful, and the different areas and eras of my very scattered life feel markedly more integrated than they did before. But I also chose to do all this with the express hope that it will enable me to come to a confident conclusion about where it is I will at last invest in putting down my roots properly. All of the places I’ve gone (Anchorage, London, Deventer, Dublin…) are ones where I’ve seriously considered settling. And visiting them all in short succession has offered a unique chance to compare my options.
And of course, one of the places I could try to put down proper roots is the place I already am: Berlin. On the weeks in between my many trips, I have mainly been busy catching up on laundry, admin, errands, and sleep, before heading back out. But I have also been trying to be more engaged with my current home. Rearranging furniture, replacing linens. Trying to make a bit more use of the many pleasures the city has to offer, from music to museums to specialty delis. And I’ve even started an online course in A1 German (because I am still A1 after all these years, Gott hilf mir).
I have one more trip to visit a big batch of family and friends with my son, and then I am done with all my travels for the year. And just in time. With only a few days until the autumn equinox, summer is officially winding down. Daylight is waning, leaves are starting to scatter, and germ-loads will surely be on the rise. I will be more than glad to snuggle in here until the spring, and turn to what most needs attending to next; my writing, my psychedelic studies, and my cosmic study buddies. I am perpetually aware of how absent I have been from my own Substack this summer, and the community that I so wish to connect with here. I am looking forward to catching up, and hope you will join me.
How about you? I’d really like to hear what kinds of integration work other people have been up to this summer, and what work they look forward to in the months ahead. I’d be curious to know if there’s a season shift in that work, as there is for mine. Also, if you’ve ever had any stocktaking experiences in a similar vein - did you recalibrate where you put your time and attention in light of it? And did you notice any ongoing shifts in your life?