Mushrooms and depression

As the stranglehold of fear that has blocked meaningful research into psychedelics for decades begins to loosen, a lot of attention is being focused on using mushrooms in the treatment of depression. This introduces another powerful spirit into the relationship, a spirit that is now understood to help us reorganize how we think. That’s what is going on underneath all the curious sensations and perceptions: the rivers of thought in our brains are rejuvenated, which can be every bit as dramatic as when it happens to a living river. Rejuvenated rivers can be more challenging to navigate, though, which is why it’s best not to ride the rapids without a guide.

In Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual, I write a fair amount about the importance of guides when engaging with any drug. To interact with a drug is to interact with a spirit, and when this is handled poorly it can result in considerable harm. It’s when we build relationships with spirits that we are most likely to benefit. These are substances that alter the chemistry of the brain, which is the organ that we use to govern our perception, thinking, and behavior. The most dangerous drugs to my mind are the ones that alter our brains in subtle ways, like food and air. The fact that some drugs have more pronounced effect, such as alcohol and psylocybin, means that at least there is the possibility we will approach them with some caution. (It would be better if one of our cultural values was to treat all spirits with respect, but we aren’t quite there yet.)

Mushrooms go well with guides. The very idea of engaging a guide comes from advocates for the healing power of these fungi. It’s possible to find guides for hire online, but I won’t link to any in particular because I have not evaluated their competence or character. What a guide typically does is provide context for processing the experience, which begins to taking control over “set and setting,” or mindset and environment during the experience. These are perhaps the most significant factors contributing to the quality and content of the trip.

It is common—but not guaranteed—that one will experience a dissolution of self during a mushroom experience. I think of this as how the mind processes having the neural pathways of the brain rewritten, and while research suggests more and more strongly that this can be beneficial, it can also be terrifying. One’s mental moorings are temporarily erased, which includes the filters our brains use to sort out what we perceive as “reality” from the huge amount of sensory input that is received on a regular basis. Since mindset influences the experience, there is the potential for someone to spiral out of control due to fear or another emotion—especially if one has no guide to provide appropriate support. Guides appear to minimize negative results, but these experiences are going to be disorienting regardless. With the correct set and setting, it can also be incredibly entertaining, deeply profound, or both at once.

What happens once the brain is altered is a mix of sensory hallucinations, which may include altered colors, patterns in blank spaces, motion where one expects there to be none, changes in how time is perceived, voices, and song. I do not recall ever having an hallucination of touch, taste, or smell, but I imagine someone with particularly developed senses could have that experience. To a varying extent, it is possible to take control of perception in a way that doesn’t happen at other times. I don’t know of anyone who can manifest a specific vision on command, but it’s possible to amplify or reduce certain hallucinations, for example. A “bad trip” is really just the mind directing this heightened control into a dark place—often without conscious intent, and driven by fear and ignorance. A competent guide lays the groundwork to minimize this danger, and knows how to redirect the experience if bad feelings rise. I have personally made the conscious choice not to have a bad trip, but that was only possible because I implicitly understood I had this power thanks to experiences of close friends. The right guide is able to step in to set a new course for the tripper, as some of us can do for ourselves.

What is reported in research is that psylocibin can result in a lessening of the symptoms of depression. It’s not a promise of a cure, but it is a promising lead. The scientific method could be our worst enemy when it comes to this kind of research, because it’s based on eliminating variables to allow for accurate measurement of the effects of whatever is being studied. If researchers try to distill the specific chemical that causes a particular sort of neuron to fire in a human brain, they could easily miss out on something important. While science has resulted in a lot of changes in how we understand the universe, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. I don’t know what or when or if a treatment for depression based on shrooms will be available, but I am clear that this plant holds much to teach us.

Given the limits of science, it will be interesting to see how this research progresses.

Real money magic: investing in problematic companies

Last year, a veritable coup was staged in the Exxon Mobil board room. Three new directors, seated over objections of company leaders, are committed to addressing climate change as a business risk for a company that’s all about oil. This is a big deal, and highlights the power that shareholders have—but rarely exercise—over companies in which they have a stake.

Voting power at these annual meetings is based on shares of stock held. This is the one form of democracy in which votes are openly bought and sold in the market. Every share equals one vote, and company insiders often make it a point to hold enough shares to block any unpopular action—often, but not always. The activists who lead the hedge fund Engine No. 1 had just two-hundredths of a percent of all the outstanding Exxon shares, yet they were able to sway the votes to pull this off. That’s even more impressive given how these decisions are framed: the proxy statement in which board candidates and other matters are laid out always have a board recommendation next to each choice. Any candidate or question supported by board members includes a recommendation to vote for the proposal, and it’s easy for an uninformed shareholder to assume that board recommendations are the way to go. That’s a lot of headwind to overcome, yet that’s what happened.

Forcing the addition of three outsiders to the Exxon Mobil board easily could go nowhere; these energy transition experts are just a quarter of the full board, after all. Convincing the other nine directors of this corporation to make such a big shift in course also faces stiff headwinds. Momentum seems still to be building, though; another investor group believes change must come faster. Energy is building.

Mostly, people think only of the money that can be made by investing in corporate stock. The fact that shareholders are owners of these companies, and as such have power to effect change, tends to be overlooked. We need every tool at our disposal. Owning even fractional shares in companies like Exxon Mobil makes it possible to have a say. Directors will always resist change, saying that their first duty is to make money for shareholders; when shareholders are the ones asking for change, they are replying that profit isn’t everything.

I now have a tiny sliver of several companies with problematic histories in my portfolio, including Exxon Mobil, Volkswagen, and Microsoft. Whether those modest investments make or lose money does not matter to me as much as the power to have a say. The dollars I spent are a component in larger spells to change the world. By my will, let it be done.

Offerings at a depression shrine

Each morning, I make offerings to my gods, and most days I follow these with offerings to my ancestors. After that, there is often [[Deipnon for depression|another shrine]] I approach. It is tucked away out of sight, nurtured in darkness. It is where I make offerings to the spirit of depression.

Giving something to a spirit that seems to suck the soul out might feel a bit off, but offerings of appeasement are part of the rich traditions of polytheism and animism. This is not an offering that’s intended to intimidate or scare the spirit. Rather, the message is more like, “You may have good intentions, but I suffer from your presence. How about you hang out in this place, and I’ll pay attention to you here, instead of inside of me?”

I cannot say if depression is a spirit that comes from within—making it a lost part of myself—or a visitor that settles in because I have such a nice place here. I am clear from my experience and study that depression does live within the body. My shrine is intended to be a nicer place for it to live.

Tending to my depression shrine is not necessarily a daily practice, but it is a self-correcting one. This spirit is not going to stay outside of my body if I ignore its new home. If the shrine becomes disused, disorganized, or downright discombobulated, then chances are depression has moved back in. Likewise, if I recognize symptoms of depression in myself, I will know without looking that the shrine fell off my radar. Tending the shrine makes me more mindful of how connected I am to myself, and to my community. It’s a reminder to take care of my health, and my relationships.

The shrine is an external signal about an internal condition that affects my body, my mind, and my spirit. Tending the shrine does not eliminate depression from my life, but it does allow me to use my external senses to help monitor it. It’s located underneath my ancestor shrine, because they desired to cover this spirit. Having it out of sight mirrors how depression can dwell undetected within my body. I am not sure if that’s a bug, or a feature. If others adopt this practice, together we may find out.

Later this month, at WitchsFestUSA, I will be giving a workshop that includes creating the totem that is central to a depression shrine. I am thrilled for the opportunity.

Empty Cauldrons – not quite a review — Druid Life

This is not an objective review. Empty Cauldrons by Terence P Ward is a book about depression and Paganism. For this book, Terence interviewed a number of Pagans about their experiences, and I was one of those people. We knew each other from the period when Terence was reviewing books for The Wild Hunt and […]

Empty Cauldrons – not quite a review — Druid Life

Money and depression, a dynamic duo

Depression—that condition which saps the spirit, clouds the thoughts, and drains motivation from the limbs—has a way of amplifying the worst in everything, including our relationship with money. One of the advantages of an animist worldview is being able to look at these spirits, how they relate to you, and how they relate to each other. While the way they manifest in the world is different, money and depression are both spirits that been part of human lives since before the dawn of written language.

One quality that the spirits of depression and money have in common is a silencing effect: anyone experiencing depression doesn’t want to talk about it, and very few people are comfortable talking about their personal relationship with money, either. In both cases, this reluctance is reinforced by the behavior of our fellow humans. There is a perception of stigma around mental health issues, an idea that any condition of this type makes one weak or a burden or undesirable. Our societal pressure around money is incredibly strong: many of us won’t discuss our pay with coworkers, despite this being protected by law in the United States. The nature of these two spirits can amplify their presence in a person’s life. Worries about money can easily be a contributing or triggering event for an episode of depression, and during depression how we manage money can be distorted: we might spend as a way to feel better, and then avoid even looking at the bills that have to be paid because the very thought of those consequences is too much to bear.

The spirit infusing money is older than the minting of coins and the keeping of accounts. This is a spirit that feeds on the movement of energy, and has evolved to facilitate that exchange by providing short-term rewards to our meaty brains. Likewise, it seems clear from the earliest writings about depression that this condition was nothing novel even in those ancient days. It could well be that this spirit was protective of those who were injured or ill, altering behavior to promote healing and minimize risk to the tribe.

We are beings driven by chemical reactions. Our brains direct the manufacture of chemicals to alter our behavior based on circumstances, such as adrenaline. We also encounter chemicals in our environment, and ingest them regularly, whether we are aware of this or not. Our brains do not distinguish between chemicals created in the body and introduced from outside it; particular compounds affect our behavior in predictable ways, and we consistently rationalize the results. Spirits have the ability to trigger the manufacture of chemicals in our bodies, modifying our behavior. A sufficiently trained practitioner can intentionally trigger the release of particular hormones or other compounds within oneself. A human baby, a kitty cat, a charging bear, or a sudden sound like a gunshot can do the same. Is there any reason to believe that a spirit with fewer tangible dimensions is less able to affect the human brain?

Ideally, the motivations spirits have align with our interests. That may well have been true about depression once upon a time, but it’s hard to see vestiges of those benefits in modern society. As for money, it seems to me that releasing endorphins when we spend some could have some advantage, but now that money is used as a proxy for most other human interactions, it’s hard to imagine life without it. That makes it an incredibly dangerous spirit with tremendous power; power we crave because we see other humans wielding it.

The focus on accumulating money, or worry over not having enough, generates stress. It’s when we reach our personal stress threshold that we are most vulnerable to depression. On the flip side, during a period of depression any thoughts about money can be used to force us to withdraw into that darkness: whether you’re struggling to save your first hundred or earn your first billion, it may not feel like enough to prove that you are a worthwhile person. Whether you’re snagging a cute little dress through a buy-now-pay-later deal or taking a few of your pals into orbit in your own rocket, that chemical burst of happiness is never permanent. Money does not replace self-worth, and trying to use it that way always results in a crash. When we crash, the black dog of depression is always ready to curl up and keep us home and alone in that misery.

Money is not evil, but it is misunderstood. Humans think we invented money, and as a result that we control its behavior. Focusing energy through money allows us to bring stupendous change to the world, creating shortcuts around the barriers to human cooperation and achievement. Assuming that money is the key to happiness will instead result in bringing stupendous changes to ourselves, none of them good. In Empty Cauldrons I compare depression to poison ivy; read the book if you want to understand my reasons. Money can also be compared to poison ivy. I do not handle poison ivy carelessly, and I aim to be conscious of where it grows on my property. The same is true of money: I try never to handle it thoughtlessly, and always to be clear on how much I have, how much is coming in, and how much is going out. If you’re thinking that this is a poor analogy, because poison ivy can be eliminated from my life much more easily than money, think again: many birds eat poison ivy, and even depend on its berries during the winter. To poison the earth against this plant is to turn my back on my nature-loving ways. I can’t quit poison ivy without contributing even more to the destruction of the earth. I can’t quit money any more easily.

This post is not a love letter to money, but recall that depression amplifies the negative and minimizes the positive, and that money accelerates and amplifies any human endeavor. These two spirits feed off each other, it’s true, but money is a spirit that can and has been used to bring education, and empowerment, and peace when we have the will it work with it in that way. Each of these spirits has something to teach us, but it’s best to deal with them separately or they can quickly overwhelm us.