I recently ingested psilocybin mushrooms for the first time in my life, a decision that would have shocked and disappointed the straight-edged sprint kayaker I used to be. And I'm alive! I'm sane!
My goal was to have some sort of spiritual experience; or, more accurately, to figure out how consuming a molecule produced by a mushroom, or any drug, really, could possibly be a spiritually significant act.
I'd done enough research to realize that my skepticism was probably unfair. Michael Pollan's "How to Change your Mind" had made me aware of the modern wave of research into psychedelics as miracle cure for all sorts of conditions, from anxiety, to PTSD in soldiers, to fear of death in late-stage cancer patients. In one Johns Hopkins study, a single high dose of psilocybin reliably triggered, in the majority of patients, a "mystical-type experience" ranked "as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent." (from "The Trip Treatment", by Michael Pollan.)
Well, I got what I came for. 2.5 grams of Psilocybe cubensis, taken with two close friends on a summer evening in Boulder, produced an experience that was unique and precious, and very, very strange. I want to share some background on what led me to the mushrooms, the story of the evening itself, and the insights about my own life that I've been able to extract from those wonderful few hours.
Some background on my (lack of) relationship to consciousness-altering substances. I grew up racing sprint kayaks; paddling was one of the first activities that I felt like I was good at, and as a young teenager I became obsessed with staying clean as an athlete. I perversely avoided any drink mix or powder that promised performance gains. I didn't drink or smoke, and even started to police my family, forcing my dad to hide his stash of nice cigars lest I douse them in water and dump them in the trash.
At the beginning of my freshman year of high school, the principal had each student write a letter to his or her future self. We'd open the letters four years later as wise old seniors. By senior year, I'd relaxed slightly, been to (literally) a couple of parties and gotten drunk on wine a handful of times. Imagine my shame when I opened my letter and found this line, penciled in bold strokes:
"No smoking, no drinking, NO DOING DRUGS, no experimenting WHATSOEVER."
At the time, this was devastating. Now I can't help but think... man, what an asshole!
I mellowed out in college, but paddling and its potential for random drug tests kept me away from anything harder than alcohol and caffeine. I was perfectly happy with the world, and didn't "need" substances to modify my experience. (Never mind the beer and caffeine that I was consuming almost every day.)
So what changed? One big event was catching my dad smoking weed at 6am one morning years after college... and learning from mom that he'd been doing this almost daily since before I'd been born. (I can't imagine I'm alone here, by the way. Catching your dad smoking weed must be the millennial version of discovering that you had a gay son for men in the 50s, complete with mom's reassurance that "he's the same father you've had this whole time!")
Dad's pattern was to take a few puffs in the wee hours of the morning, head to work and crank out emails. Harmless and almost charming behavior from one of the most creative people I knew. Maybe pot didn't guarantee you a life on mom's couch.
Over the next few years I started to encounter more mentions of psychedelics from people whose intelligence I deeply respected. Sam Harris's Drugs and the Meaning of Life and Waking Up revealed, shockingly, that not only had psychedelics swerved him into his current career as a writer, neuroscientist and public intellectual, but that if his daughter "does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience."
Friends from San Francisco were heading down to Peru to participate in Ayahuasca ceremonies. Joe Rogan and many of his podcast guests mentioned, casually, that psychedelics were a regular feature of their lives, and very helpful as creative instruments. I was curious but didn't know what to think about any of this.
Earlier this year, just before my 31st birthday, Michael Pollan's book "How to Change your Mind" landed. As I noted above, the book describes the history of psychedelic drugs in the west and the modern resurgence of research into these chemicals, both as treatment for various psychological disorders and for the "betterment of well people".
I had recently decided to quit a well-paying job as a software engineer at Stripe for reasons that I found hard to articulate. I wasn't learning enough. I wasn't engaging with the local tech community in Boulder. Was I really working on problems that I was uniquely able to solve? Was I becoming a cog?
I found that I didn't seem to have the proper equipment to even think about the question of the meaning of my life. I could sense that I wasn't in the right place. But why?
The picture Pollan drew of psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms - was of a molecule that was physically very safe, but that, for someone open to the experience, could shake off the cobwebs of everyday life and, perhaps, clean up some of technical debt in one's life philosophy.
One metaphor in particular landed for me (from Mendel Kaelen, I believe):
Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.
The experience Michael Pollan pursued was a high dose of psilocybin in a controlled setting, with a guide there to make sure he was physically safe. He laid on a comfortable couch with instrumental music playing through headphones and an eyeshade on to encourage him to "go inside" into what sounded like a waking lucid dream. This dream lasted for about six hours. The next day, he and the guide talked about what had happened so that he could "integrate" the experience and glean useful insights.
To my past self, the idea of gleaning personal insight from a waking dream would have sounded like bullshit. But today, the promise of some type of shake-up of my cognition... what could that possibly feel like? I've come to see myself as someone dedicated to learning, and Pollan's description of psilocybin as the ultimate self-learning tool was too compelling not to try.
I went on a psychedelic learning bender, self-consciously posting books on psilocybin mushrooms and mycology to my public Goodreads profile. I learned aseptic lab technique, acquired spores of Psilocybe cubensis, the most common type of magic mushroom, and over the next few months created little cakes of mycelium that I managed to coax into producing mushrooms packed with psilocybin.
When to partake? Two close friends, Aaron and Dave, were coming into town in mid-August for a running adventure. My hope was that they'd be intrigued by what I was doing, and go through the experience with me, walking around and looking at trees while under the influence.
Aaron had taken psilocybin before, knew what I was doing, and was enthusiastic. Dave was hesitant, and had deliberately avoided the topic. If Dave was in, going through the experience with two close friends felt like a beautiful thing. If not, I'd wait.
Aaron and Dave showed up Thursday night. We had a wonderful meal together, woke up early Friday and headed up to the High Lonesome Loop, a 16 mile run to the continental divide and back. We talked about mycelium, the history of our friendship... it was perfect.
That afternoon, in the car on the way back from lunch, I decided to pop the question.
"So, Dave... what do you think of trying out the mushrooms this evening?"
Dave and I have a very long history. We met when I was 9 and raced kayaks over the next 13 years. We went to college together, and started a company together a few years later. Since I moved to Colorado in 2013 I've been inviting Dave out to the mountains and, invariably, sandbagging him with difficult, cold, and scary experiences. The run this morning had been tame. I'd finally adjusted and acted the kind host. Yet here I was, sandbagging him again.
Dave was nervous, but agreed to join me and Aaron; he decided that he'd take half of the dose that Aaron and I took. We were three software engineers with no idea of what we were talking about, but we were treating the occasion with respect.
Back at the house that evening, we each measured out equal doses of dried Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, two doses each of 1.2g. Taking all of this would bring us to a strong "level 2", maybe a "level 3" dose on the Shroomery Trip Level Experience chart.
Aaron acted as our leader. We turned off our phones, sat down in the living room, turned on some wonderful violin music by Andrew Bird and nervously downed our portions. We knew we had up to an hour before anything happened, so we talked a bit self-consciously about consciousness (what else?), Aaron's past experience and some of the details from other reports I'd read.
A while into the discussion, Aaron transitioned to full lotus position, thumbs touching forefingers. "Are you trying to levitate?" I asked. "Or are you holding yourself DOWN with psychic energy, so you don't freak out me and Dave?" Aaron laughed too hard at this, just howling, and Dave and I exchanged a knowing look. It was happening, whatever it was. We kept talking, but a few minutes later Dave trailed off, held his hands up in front of his face and just stared at his palms. I looked at the ceiling and noticed that the random patterns in the stucco were beginning to swirl. Oh boy.
It became clear that what was happening was not like any other form of intoxication that we'd experienced. It started with mild effects, like swirling wallpaper and intensification of light. But after 30 minutes or so, we all began to share a strong sense that it wasn't us that had shifted, but the world. We had traveled through a gateway into a very close, very similar dimension. A virtual reality game... but the game world was THIS world, tilted by a couple of degrees and shimmering with more detail. We were game characters! We'd spawned into the safe level of my living room, with peaceful music and utter safety, but there were many levels to explore.
Now, obviously I didn't think I was in another dimension. Kids don't think they're actually knights and warlocks, but something about a kid's mind allows her to fully inhabit the role during play. In that same way, when I suggested that we'd been transported inside of a vast game, Aaron and Dave agreed without hesitation, and that became our world.
Games have levels, so why not explore? We walked outside to the Garden Level (aka my backyard), and as we went through the door crickets and wind replaced the violin music inside. The sky looked just impossibly vast, and the fence around the yard gave me the sense that we were on the environmental level of an enormous spaceship. The image of the sky was being projected above us to give us a sense of space.
I noticed birds in the garden, moving between the ground and neighboring trees, with brilliant clarity. I could see bees pollinating flowers by the garage - but in this strange, off-kilter world they seemed aware, and furiously busy, probably aware of us but far from caring. The garden felt full of little consciousnesses and overlapping tiny insect and plant civilizations. This is true, really, and if you'd told me this on a normal day I would have thought it was interesting. But in this state the thought was already there, and felt obvious, just a feature of the landscape.
What a strange sense to have in your own backyard! The sense that everything around us was mildly conscious extended to the sky, even. We laid in the grass for a while, looking at the clouds, and I had the feeling that the clouds were awake. Great, golden, lumbering jellyfish moved across the background. A little plane crossed the sky, and I actually whispered out loud, "he should be careful up there."
Jenna came outside to pick strawberries, and, by now fully immersed in the weirdness of the experience, I had the thought - "I wonder if she can see us?" In the game she seemed like a wise AI character, available for discussion but not able to join our exploring party. We were each holding a "rock of power" that we'd chosen from the landscaping around the garden boxes. To her credit she acted very casual about this. On her way back inside, Jenna gave us each a strawberry to inspect.
We could interact with the strawberries - of course they were nourishment, but did they have other uses? As I stared at mine, the yellow seeds suddenly erupted out in sync, like a mass of little pimples, then receded back into the flesh. Woah.
The light was becoming more purple in the sky, and we decided to go back inside. The music had transitioned to the Johns Hopkins "Psilocybin Research" playlist (available on Spotify!), and the classical music made the house feel like a safe monastery, some sort of nexus in the game from which we could reach all levels.
In the living room, an idea came to me and I suggested that we "look at the artifacts", or the various little items on my mantle. I redirected a floor lamp to point at the artifacts.
I finished fiddling with the lamp and looked back to see Dave and Aaron spontaneously bowing at the artifacts. They both started laughing at how bizarre and how right it felt. Just then, the soprano on the playlist busted out a wild vibrato, the pitch climbing impossibly high - Dave's eyes bugged out and he said, startled, "I feel like I'm about to have an orgasm! What the hell is happening!"
We settled down to look at the right-most artifact, a beautiful carving of a kayaker hunting a whale, a gift from a close family friend. I pulled out the little paper underneath the artifact and declared that I was going to "consult the symbols" - in the real world this is called "reading" - and listed off the materials that make up the sculpture's elements. Fossilized mammoth bone, whale baleen, whale ivory...
Dave said, "It makes me sad to look at this. There's just too much power in these bones." We all nodded.
I want to stress that we weren't being ironic with any of this wording; I actually felt that the items on my mantlepiece WERE artifacts, and that the various rooms of my house were levels to explore. At the same time we weren't "gone". The intensity of the world had been cranked up, and we were giving the world - the same world, the same house I lived in! - the cautious respect that this new level of awareness deserved. Jenna noted later that the report reminded her of traveling to some new country, where everything is a strange and new version of the usual items that humans stock living spaces with. That sense was available for items I had owned for years.
The power of the artifacts blew Aaron backward, and he stumbled over to the rocking chair in the corner, sat down and closed his eyes. He reported later that he'd seen a rich movie behind his eyes featuring his wife and kids dressed as knights in glowing, shining armor. this was deeply meaningful for various personal reasons that belong to his report.
Dave sat down and tried staring into a sleep mask I'd bought after reading about the Johns Hopkins protocol. In this world, the black sleep mask looked to us like an Oculus Rift. If you put it on you could lucid dream while awake, immediately and reliably.
I went to the freezer and picked out a dried mushroom ("from cryogenic storage" was my thought at the time) with a nice, open cap, medium size. I handed it to Dave to look at just as he took off the mask... and as he took it and looked, he exclaimed, "Holy, SHIT! Holy shit, do you feel that? Take this and look." He handed me the mushroom. The cap was golden, with dense, delicate, purple gills under the cap... and as I looked the cap started to flex and shift, waving slowly. Dave had seen this, but also, for just a second, he had felt an intense spark of connection between the mushroom in his hand and the mushrooms he had consumed. "I think the mycelia were communicating," he said solemnly.
I gave it back and we went into the kitchen to look at more dried mushrooms. We decided that the mushrooms were like wands in Harry Potter's world. Each mushroom had a very different character, matched to one individual. The one I'd chosen for Dave was The Queen.
In the kitchen we talked a bit about the various levels, and how Aaron had gone deep. We both had the sense that the highest level might be lurking behind the scrim of reality that we could both see, all around us. At the higher level maybe everything just dissolved and you were left with whatever lurked behind the wallpaper.
We decided to go look at the fruiting chamber, where my little mycelium cakes lived, producing the mushrooms. The light in my office - the Birthing Chamber Level - was off, with only a desk lamp shining on the little cakes. Baby mushrooms were growing off of a few of the cakes. We looked with reverence.
Dave noted, "you know... they sort of look like little dicks!" then, after we laughed together, said, "dude... you know who we are? we're Merry and Pippin. Aaron is Gandalf, and we're the hobbits that just can't take anything seriously. We're not ready for the deeper levels." He was on to something.
"You know," said Dave, shifting, "it's almost like you've opened a portal here. Like the mycelium were always here in some form, but it needed you to open the door." Dave was right. I had been a worker ant, busily assembling the materials, acquiring spores, following a recipe I didn't understand and bringing into the world these little mycelial networks. Doing the bidding of a higher consciousness. Various "psychedelic scholars" have raised the idea that psilocybin mushrooms could be some evolutionary mechanism of the entire planet designed to make apes more aware of nature, aware that we're just guests at a bigger party. In this state, I could see the appeal of the idea.
We woke Aaron/Gandalf and retreated to the couches in the TV room of my house. The level here was the White Chamber, due to a white couch and chair and the bright lighting. The room was lined with books, and suddenly the metaphor of game levels and exploration engulfed them too. I realized that every book was a portal to some other place, some abstraction, or some fictional world. The room, the library felt like a point of departure for any place we could imagine.
And depart we did. We decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood, without our shoes, of course, since socks or shoes would dampen our contact with the earth. (Jenna would look up from her book shortly after we left to find us missing, shoes present, and unsuccessfully hunt for us around the neighborhood. Sorry, honey.)
It was dark outside, but brighter than I'd expected due to the full moon. I led us out to the road - the perspectival view down to the end of the road, lined with lights, was beautiful, and in fact IS beautiful when I notice it now. Dave and Aaron both looked like figures being projected, like Star Wars holograms, onto the road, not really there.
I wanted to point this out, but I'd started to develop the sense that words were both clumsy and powerful in this other world. I felt nervous that saying that Dave and Aaron were holograms would make it true for them and make them feel like projected visitors. I told them anyway, to illustrate the point, and Dave nodded knowingly.
"Schrödinger's wave," said Dave, and of course I knew what he meant. Words collapsed the probability wave! If you talk less, you leave the wave up and vibrating.
The gray world felt like the set of a Miyazaki film. I had the thought that this must be the place Miyazaki goes to observe the worlds he creates. Everything around felt painted in varied blocks of gray. You don't need to have any imagination here, I thought. You can just look around and describe what you see.
Suddenly into this anime landscape walked a lady and her dog. What did she see? Three mid-30s guys without shoes, looking around. I thought, "Oh, shit, we must look pretty bizarre... Just act normal." I gave her an exaggerated "whassup" flick of the head and she crossed to the other side of the road. If you ever think the words, "act like a normal person," things are getting weird, let me tell you.
The Graveyard Level
I had been leading the guys toward the graveyard, where I usually walk our dog Pretzel. I remembered something and stopped. "Okay, one more block," I said. "...You should know that there's a guardian to the right. He should let us pass safely." I was together enough to realize that they probably didn't know what I meant, so I added, "it's just a dog." They didn't laugh. It felt like we had moved beyond the need to laugh to be comfortable with each other.
We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery and I realized that I hadn't warned them about where I was leading them. "Guys," I said. "You should know that this is a place of power. It's a cemetery. It's safe! But we should all be comfortable before we enter."
"This is a deeper level," said Dave.
I took us in on a small grass pathway to the left, and the sense came on again that we were hobbits, sneaking into Mordor via the stairs of Cirith Ungol. Inside, Dave took over as leader and guided us to the right, toward the moonlit hillside sloping up toward Kohler Mesa.
There was a warm, strong wind blowing toward as we walked. This felt like appropriate resistance for our journey into the graveyard.
We came upon the large structure of a crypt on the right, with a dark glass door set in the center of white stone. Aaron broke off from us and started to walk toward the door. He stopped in front of it and turned to face us. "What do feel watching me stand here?"
"It feels like you're dying," I said. He quietly walked toward us again, and I said, "I'm glad you came back to us, Aaron." Heavy!
We crossed a paved road and stopped before the hill began to rise. Up above us, a bright red light shone out from the top of the hill. Above it and to the left - in the sky? - was a brighter white light.
Dave stopped and gestured for us to wait. "Guys... I think that that light up there... I think it might be us." He'd gotten a strong sense that we were looking into our own future, and that we - Aaron, Sam and Dave - were up there looking down the hill and into their past, back in time. Aaron and I picked up on his sense and started riffing.
Those versions of us up on the hill... they're so fortunate. They've done almost everything that we'll ever do in our lives. They know how the whole story turns out. All the bad stuff is behind them; all the creative, great works are filed away as memories, safe. They know how it all turned out, and they have to be smiling at how anxious and uncertain we are about the journey ahead. There are so many paths we can take. But they all lead to that hill, looking back down. (Later that week Aaron sent us a calendar invite for an event called "The Red Light" for a day in 2048.)
"And the light," Aaron asked... "what is that white light?"
Dave said, "Maybe that's the far future, humanity's destiny up in the stars. Millenia in the future, when we've moved beyond earth."
Maybe. We joked that maybe if we were able to ask our future selves they'd say, "that's just a fill light for video contrast. It's still fucking hard to make movies, even in the future."
Where to next? "Let's go over here," said Dave, no hesitation, pointing right. We walked up the gravel a bit and turned onto the lawn.
We turned around and looked out over what seemed to be an alien city. It looked like a foggy neon bridge, very far away, pulsing with color like some set piece from Bladerunner 2049. The more I looked at it the stronger the impression became. I focused on a single pixel, trying to bypass object detection, and the whole scene began to melt and warp into itself, threatening to destroy the illusion that I was in control here.
Dave suggested I focus on the trees instead of the alien landscape. I did, and the sense arose that the trees were aware, awake, and very old, watching the alien city ahead of them.
"They're the Vanguard," said Dave. "It's like they're the last stand of an ancient warrior race. they've been here for hundreds of years, before this city in front of them ever arose. There were more, but these are the last line. I feel proud - proud of how long they've been here. And they can see, they know that the civilization in front of them is going to overtake them, to engulf them, and isn't aware of them... but they're standing strong anyway." We all stare at the Vanguard for a while, feeling the conscious presence of the trees.
Dave said, "I've never felt this way before in my life." I know what he means.
We turned around and laid down to look up at the sky. I had the sense that the slope was steep and that we were going to slide backward, but the grass held. The clouds above were huge and beautiful, the moon so, so bright. We saw a plane flying across the sky, and again I thought, "they should be careful."
"Dave... I think you might be Neo," I said. The reluctant traveler; Dave had been nervous about joining us, but it turns out that he might be a psychedelic messiah, calm and full of insight.
"This is what I was afraid of," said Dave, resigned to his new role.
After a while we got up and walked to the small trail that leads back to the Four Pines trailhead, continuing our tour.
"Guys... looking at this hillside... don't you get the sense that something built this for us to see?" I said. I didn't have a sense of a God, but there was a beauty in the arrangement, like we were looking at a huge Zen garden. I realized that if you sped up the clock this hillside would be so much more dynamic and active, with various trees, bushes, grasses and plants erupting, falling apart, decaying... what was so beautiful about the scene was that it was a frozen cell of a larger story. I tried to explain to the guys that it was like we were looking at the frame of a movie, just one of many frames per second.
"That IS what's happening," said Dave. There is a movie playing at a vast scale, and we really are, each human, in effectively a frozen frame. We let this sink in, and shared the sense that the movie of lives had, indeed, paused. The mushrooms we had consumed had allowed us to pause the movie of our lives and wander off set. We were able to look around and observe, knowing that life would safely resume in a few hours.
Dave - Neo - brought up the idea of "perspectives", or mental models. He observed that what's amazing about this world is that in it we're closer to the "all-lens"; the ability to hold all perspectives in your mind at once, without feeling the urge to stop when looking at just one aspect of any of the scenes in front of us. He described his sense of a large all-consciousness. All of the grass and trees around us, the plant matter, were still attached to the consciousness, to earth. Animals, insects, birds are all "consciousness globules" that the earth has pushed out and calved off. They, and we, are able to live independently for a while, but after a time they melt back in, reclaimed and recomposed by the mycelial networks into yet more consciousness globules.
Earlier on our run, we had been talking about mycelium networks as very clever pieces of software running on the hardware of the earth. This was the lens of a software engineer; with mycelium, of course you could also use the cultivation lens, thinking of the networks as food sources; the remediation lens, trying to use mycelium to restore habitats; the ecologist lens, seeing them as systems with inherent worth just for existing.
"How stupid is it to imagine that just because you've seen something from one perspective, you understand it?" said Dave. "That's the insight I want to take back with me. I want to resist the impulse to look at things from one narrow slice."
Our weak hardware forces us to try and collapse reality's spectra into abstract, thin concepts, little microscope slides. We all agreed that we'd like to do less of that back in the real world.
As we struggled with that idea, we moved toward a riff on the idea that language and words are such a poor, blunt medium of communication. A word is a stone that you throw across the void between people, hoping that you hit the proper piano string in the other person's mind and get it to start vibrating at the same frequency as yours was resonating when you formed the word.
I brought up the Terence McKenna idea that words are an early form of synesthesia. We make mouth-noises with our vocal cords; those vibrate a membrane in the other person's ear, and that sets of a cascade of synapse firings that, hopefully, translates into the desired internal state of consciousness in the other mind. Crazy!
It's wild, we realized, that we're communicating these ideas about words... USING WORDS... and that there's nothing else to be done. We're weaving massively complex word-ships and sending them forth across the void between us, hoping that they land. The hope is that emotions are bound up within the the word-blimps. They're the passengers.
I can't believe I'm thinking of this, but the Diversity push from SF that I like to tease comes up in my mind. Dave and I have a ton of shared life experience. This makes it much more likely that I'll be able to craft a word-blimp that has the proper effect on him. On the other hand, if we were to come across some traveler in this world with very little shared experience... well, it's going to be a much harder lift for each of us to come up with a shared language, with words that can effectively pluck that traveler's internal strings. That says nothing about the richness of that person's internal life. How could you not be patient with each other?
"Without shared internal experience, all we can do is try to stutter it out and launch more words, making the best of it," I said.
We began to talk about the experience itself. Dave observed that it feels like the mushrooms have turned up the dial on our consciousness, just a bit... but in doing so revealed that fundamentally we're running on shitty hardware. Our bodies and our brains are an older model struggling with these new insights.
"There's obviously a spectrum of consciousness," said Dave. "We've moved up a level, which is proof that there's a continuum. There have to be beings that can live at this level all the time. And just imagine... imagine all of the levels above! It's such hubris to believe that we're the top. Though maybe in the future we'll be able to just slot in new RAM, new CPU! Consciousness upgrades!"
We all agreed that our hardware was definitely overclocked. And we all know what happens to a CPU that gets overclocked TOO much. It was good that we'd been cautious with the dose.
"In this world," said Dave, "metaphors become real. Everything in here is so vivid. You can choose to engage with anything in the landscape, and anything is a potential level, endlessly interesting. But it would be such a waste to just stare at this one stalk of wheat and never look around at all of the other levels available."
I had to pee, and asked Dave if it's okay if I peed off the trail. "It's okay," he said. "It'll just get cycled back into the landscape." I peed, feeling like my ape body was doing all it could to keep up; it had to keep functioning, and all of the peeing and random farting we were doing was part of that effort. There was nothing to be done about it. At least our minds were stable in this new world.
Aaron said, "just think of how many people walk down this trail every day. How many of them do you think have ever stepped off the trail?" Not so many.
We moved farther down the trail and looked back up at the moon. It was close to full and incredibly bright, peering down at us through a single hole in the clouds. "THAT is a portal," said Aaron.
"I'm not ready for the moon level," I said. Of course, every star is a new level, impossibly distant.
Somehow Erik, a colleague from Stripe, came up, and we all agreed that Erik is a Level 10 Wizard in this world. "He lives with one foot in this world and one in the real world," observed Dave, after we described Erik's vitality. We joked about how he's probably been here watching us.
At the end of the trail, Dave asked Aaron - Gandalf - what the deeper levels are like. Dave had observed earlier that a very positive element of this experience was that he could choose his level of engagement. If he wanted to lean in, he could lean in hard, but he could also pull back and, almost, flip into the normal world again.
"In the deeper levels, the ability to lean back goes away," said Aaron. "You're forced to lean in, and if you try to lean back, you can't. Trying is how bad trips happen." We talked about ego dissolution and Michael Pollan's reported dissolution into a cloud of confetti.
Dave noted that he didn't go inside at all on this journey. He felt almost no introspection. The journey had been completely about our team, and the outside world. But back home, that Oculus Rift, the eye mask, is waiting. Put it on and all that's left is you and what's inside your head; and there is no pathway inside your head, no map for where you might go. Maybe the mushroom that Dave felt flicker in his body when he held The Queen takes over.
We all agreed that we wanted to try the deeper levels at some point. "Maybe in six months," said Dave, and I silently thank the fucking universe that I was able to experience this level before being forcefully pushed deeper into the Oculus.
As we walked toward the road at the Four Pines trailhead, I shared an idea that had come to me on a run a couple of weeks ago. Each individual human consciousness is a temporary vortex, like a wind-whipped bunch of leaves held hovering in place by the wind. The consciousness vortex is able to pull in various items growing off of the earth-consciousness - wheat, kale from the garden, fruits, OTHER consciousness-globules as meat. Each of these sustain it and act as nourishment, but eventually the wind will die down and the leaves will fall to the ground.
All of this nourishment getting pulled into the vortex is like an offering from the earth, and required to create a consciousness-globule with an ego, with awareness of the external world. It makes total sense that a creature with awareness would turn that awareness back on itself and develop anxieties. It's okay, a necessary design flaw of a highly conscious vortex, but it's important to try and stop looking at oneself and turn that awareness outward, maybe to create something new, maybe to protect, who knows. And even if that outward-turning doesn't happen! Even if one vortex fails! Well, it's a numbers game for earth. Hopefully some vortex will get its shit together.
That idea reminded Dave of a dataflow application (his mental models were reasserting themselves as the effects wore off). So many elements of the system of the world act as sources and as sinks. The sun is the original source for the sink of the plants, and the plants act as a sink to the next level up. But here we are, humans. We're only a sink. We're not the source for anything.
"Except for the mycelium," I said. How fitting that we were just in a graveyard, where the human
bodies below were being digested by mycelium and recomposed into the next round of consciousness globules.
"Maybe we are a source after all," said Dave.
We left the trail for the road back home. We were still in the other world, but the sense of having an internal life was starting to return. We talked about how our ape bodies were on autopilot again, running the "walk" subroutine, taking us back home. I realized that my stomach had been cramped with hunger for a while now. We were on autopilot, searching for food.
We weren't completely back, as it turned out. As we approached the house - Bag End, as we'd started to call it - Dave said, "my biggest fear is that we never made it home today from High Lonesome. That we're actually dead."
"That's why it's so dark!" I said. "Because we're in the underworld! And if so... well, this isn't so bad. What else can we do but explore?"
We each nodded.
Aaron said, "What if we got back to the house and looked in the window, and saw ourselves on the yoga mat, about to take the mushrooms?"
"Oh man... and we have to walk inside out of the mushroom world and lay down into those bodies so that they can visit here?" I said. "Are we the emissaries from the spirit world?"
We made it home without trouble, greeted Pretzel and headed to the kitchen to prepare a sad meal of muffins, sausage and popcorn. After gorging we moved to the White Chamber - the tv room with its books - and sat, silent and exhausted. We talked a bit, and tried to make plans for tomorrow - should get breakfast, then run? - but I couldn't think about any plan beyond breakfast.
Finally, I got up to go to bed. I woke Jenna and told her we were okay, tried to read a bit, then gave up and closed my eyes. A hint of geometry played behind my eyes for a while, but, soon enough, sleep came.
So what did it all mean? The experience itself and the way my perception changed was strange enough without digging any deeper. God knows I don't look at my normal life with that sort of focus. Writing up the experience of a few hours felt like recalling the details of a 100 mile ultramarathon.
The next day I noticed a sense of closeness that I haven't felt with a group of friends for a long time. We went out to breakfast and had a lovely, deep conversation about where our lives were headed, what we were each grappling with, the emotions the previous day had stirred up. I felt like the main gift of the experience was this sacred, unexpected reset of my friendship with Dave and Aaron. We had gone to the other world together; any protective sense we felt about personal issues felt much less important to maintain.
It took me a few days to think through what it was that the experience had meant for me. At first I felt that the main benefit had been to tour the other world as a stop on the road to Michael Pollan's style of high dose experience, just me and the Oculus. This trip had been fun and intensely interesting, but not serious.
But I kept thinking back on the notion that metaphor becomes real in that other world. Dave thought of his riff on perspective while physically examining a stalk of grass from different angles, for example. What metaphor had I brought the experience?
I realized that the visceral sense that the other world was some sort of virtual reality game isn't the most obvious perspective. I'd noticed the sense early and had made it real for our group by sharing it Aaron and Dave.
This was a metaphor that I believe in deeply made real and cast over the landscape. The other world was anchored on that metaphor, and on the idea that every level you might explore is potentially deeply interesting. Why would some level have been built into the game otherwise? In fact, there were vastly more levels than I'd ever be able to explore! The levels might be as constrained as the contemplation of a strawberry, or as large as gunning for the stars. Everything in that world had the potential to be fractally interesting.
I've often felt that my desire to learn is inherently selfish. Walking around in a world constructed by a desire to learn cured me of that. How could you help the urge to explore?
Given this framework, why did I leave Stripe?
My calling, what I think I'm truly great at, is discovering large structural patterns in the landscape of the world-game. There are skeletons and ancient machines buried in the hillside, and I seem to have the ability to sense when the artifact I'm brushing at is part of some larger structure.
My open source work at Twitter was focused on uncovering, with Oscar, the abstract algebraic structure behind all of the data-streaming applications we were writing. No one understood, until they did... but we could see the shape far earlier, and that was satisfaction in itself.
At Stripe, I was able to see the shape of the large machine learning workflow manager that we'd eventually have to build. By the time I left, we could all see the shape, and were busy polishing various elements, cleaning off the T-Rex skeleton and preparing it for the museum. Most of my work had become about developing existing components that really anyone could have built. This is valuable work, and I can do it, but there are more skeletons buried, and not many people out there searching.
I have the sense that I might be... an illuminator, with a deep urge to help others see patterns. All of the reading I love has the side effect of adding more mental models, more lenses to my toolkit that I can use to see hidden structure. The writing I love most has the effect of making these connections seem obvious, and installing hard-won mental models (about how to tackle ultramarathons, for example) into the reader's mind.
A major anxiety of mine is the worry that, if I move on from one project before knowing where I'm going next, I won't be able to find exciting work again. In this new framework, that's analogous to worrying that maybe every buried machine will be discovered, and I won't be able to find anything else buried in the landscape. This is obviously silly! If only it were the case that everyone is looking.
This could all have been obvious to me before the trip, I suppose, but the glaring strangeness of that other world almost demanded contemplation that I wasn't making time for on my own. How convenient that all of the elements of that world could only have come from inside my own mind. Reflection on the landscape becomes self-reflection.
If nothing more, it was a hell of a night. I'm deeply thankful that I stumbled across this lens, and can confidently report that the world does now have a little bit more sparkle than it did a few weeks ago.
On to the next adventure!