James Jesso is the author of Decomposing the Shadow: Lessons From The Psilocybin Mushroom – both a sweeping overview and a profound personal journey. We sat down together for an online conversation about the “dirt work” of psychedelic psychotherapy and how his own experience of transformation has informed his mission to help others face and transcend their darkest parts…
SolPurpose: So there’s a profound connection between the “digging” and “mulching” of psychological shadow work, the way mycelia bodies decompose matter like a fallen tree, and the way that psilocybin mushrooms bring unconscious material to light. This is the metaphorical hub of your book, Decomposing The Shadow. Care to go into more detail?
JJ: You definitely got the metaphor on point. The fungi are in many ways the decomposers of our planet. In the same way that forest mushrooms enable the death of a tree to become the nourishment for new life, I feel that psilocybin mushrooms can help us in obtaining psycho-spiritual nourishment through an accelerated catharsis of repressed emotions. This type of catharsis is what I call Emotive Psychosynthesis; it is the means by which repressed or undigested shadow/dark emotions are metabolized and the energetic nutrients held up within the repression is recycled back into the mental-emotional system. The phrase “decomposing the shadow” is describing this process, in which we conjure repressed dark emotions and allow them to decay through catharsis so as to be reabsorbed into psycho-spiritual nutrient cycle.
JJ: Ah yes, Mr. Wasson and his double agent role in the simultaneous exposure and marginalization of psychedelics within the contemporary western world. It is certainly interesting how complex and multidimensional the history of these substances are given the complex multi-dimensionality of the experiences offered by the substances themselves… The oceans of mind/soul are certainly vast and complex to the default human awareness and without some type of navigational tools it can be easy to get lost and swept up by the tempest of information available. People come back with all sorts of wild ideas and, as McKenna put it, try to integrate the behemoth sperm whales of insight into normal life, generating confusion and self-alienation. Or they come back with nothing of value at all and call it “just a trip, man.”
Either way, the experience isn’t consciously capitalized on for its potential as a means for personal healing and the development conceptual/spiritual capacities. When we enter it with navigational tools – a cognitive model or conceptual framework – we enable ourselves to enter the experience to its fullest and come out with things applicable to our daily lives. Rather than “just a trip” or ideas that alienate us from others due to their obscene novelty and difficulty to grasp. But, not all models enable mature use, some are pretty far out and “woo-woo”, or based in the cosmology and language of other cultures that don’t integrate very well into default western life, or simply marginalize the entire experience.
Part of my intention for this book was to generate a model/framework to enable accessing mature and conscious use of psilocybin mushrooms within a contemporary western culture. A model that is founded on experience, built on the updated human knowledge base, that maintains the poetry psilocybin awakens without asking one to accept “woo-woo” concepts. In doing so, it also offers a language for generating accessible and intelligent rhetoric about the experience. Without such a language, we cannot regenerate mature public discourse on the subject and take it beyond the safe walls of the festival party and into the default world.
I’m not saying I’ve got it all universally right in this, but I am offering a stepping stone along our journey towards a fuller understanding.
SolPurpose: So let’s expand on the language you think will help us “regenerate” (I like that – we are in fact reinventing the wheel here) mature public discourse on the therapeutic use of these substances. (As an aside, I really enjoy and appreciate Rich Doyle‘s use of the term “ecodelic” to point to the way psilocybin mushrooms and other psychoactive organisms re-render the self-other boundary as a continuum and raise our awareness of our ecological embeddedness…my own experiences have definitely catalyzed the growth of ecological metaphors in my understanding and speaking on both personal and collective issues.)
JJ: Well, I feel that the manner in which we “language” our experiences determines the meaning we (mostly) unconsciously apply to raw sensory data. This goes to say that the potentials of our internal languaging structures determine the potential implications we can engage in any given experience. Regarding experiences that hold powerfully novel characteristics, it is vital we have a language that allows us to investigate their potential implications from an integral perspective. By integral, I mean a language that allows the experience’s implications to be applied in daily life without throwing out Occam’s Razor, but also one that doesn’t dry out the poetry psychedelics inspire.
Once we establish this “language” the cultural rhetoric surrounding the psychedelic experience can proliferate through increasing circles of society, rather than the disconnected fringes it currently occupies – dry academia, visionary plant spirituality, festival culture, recreational drug culture, etc. In other words, we can use “language” and metaphor to allow the promising information present within the morphic field of the psychedelic experience to resonate with growing numbers of the population…thus allowing the mature integration of this information to play out unconsciously in the actions, thoughts and feelings of general society moving forward.
For example, this term you offered, “ecodelic,” is like a key to an entirely new perspective on the psilocybin experience that, once integrated into the common lexicon, unlocks new meaning to be applied to the experience. When used in daily life, the meaning can be communicated to others who may not have had that experience. This is what I hope to achieve with my book and terms like “decomposing the shadow” and “emotive psychosynthesis.” The personal psilocybin experience will change when these keys are introduced – and the experience can now be communicated to the layperson/non-user in a way that appears intelligent, accessible, and applicable to normal life. I have seen this, for example, in my parents, whose perspectives have dramatically changed over the last few years through following my work.
SolPurpose: How have your experiences prepared you for this work? I mean, what is your personal story with psychedelic psychotherapy and how did it lead you to devote yourself to serving people in this way? I’m sure “difficult” experiences were part of it. Most people don’t seem to appreciate how thoroughly healthy a “bad trip” can be if it’s handled in the right way. (Or, for that matter, how superficial and meaningless a blissful, awe-inspiring experience can be if it’s not properly integrated after the fact.)
JJ: That’s a great question (with a long answer). I suppose I went into it like most conventional western people: without reverence or understanding. I was maybe fifteen years old when I first took mushrooms. Considering the potential scenarios I could have experienced them under, due to the prevailing cultural context of ignorance, mine was pretty good. I was in a group of four, all of whom were older and had taken it before; one of them was a twenty-six-year-old older cousin; and we were in a house where the father was home and aware of our actions. Mind you, we also just played videos games for hours and hours. It certainty wasn’t the most spiritual experience I had at that point. But, there were twenty-five minutes we spent walking to 7-Eleven for chips. There was a brief moment on that walk that I caught a little glimpse of the sky that hung overhead and was shown a small piece of what mushrooms can offer.
Fast-forward ten years and I’m at Rainbow Serpent Music Festival in Australia and I am way too high on LSD (or maybe just high enough). A good friend was with me and together we locked ourselves in a parked car to ride out this high in safety. That experience pushed me into the awareness that I had become addicted to drugs and no longer had control of my impulses regarding substances and parties. This shook me to my core, as I was brought up in a good Christian family with demonized stories of extended family losing their lives to drug abuse. My lifestyle was in direct opposition to core values with which I had once identified – values that were clearly closer to my honest self than the ones I had been embodying. The psychological result of this realization was a deep discordance in my psyche, manifesting as self-doubt, regret, self-deprecation, depression, self-hate, shame, guilt, etc.
Throughout my journeys in the seedy underbelly of the Melbourne drug scene, the paradigm of psilocybin mushrooms as a healing tool was introduced. After this Rainbow Serpent epiphany, I had direction and was making a lot of positive life changes, yet all the aforementioned psychological consequences still bashed me throughout the process. So, in a strange sense of intuition I decided, somewhat paradoxically, that I would use mushrooms to heal the fragmented psyche left over from all this substance abuse. I talk about my journey in more depth in Decomposing The Shadow, but ultimately after thirteen months of once-a-month dedicated mushrooms journeys, I found myself in an amazing state of being: happy, healthy, creatively driven, involved with a great community, very responsible in my substance choices, regular job, and loving myself again. It wasn’t just the mushroom that helped me get there, but the self-guided psychotherapy I facilitated with them that offered me perspective and emotional release in a way I believe would have been unavailable without some type of intervention. I feel like they helped to get into and process the intense darkness inside of me so I could work through it without my normal ego defensive mechanisms protecting me from the emotional pain it unlocked.
Throughout this process I paid attention and created a psychological construct for navigating the experiences. Eventually I was “shown” that I had the ability to articulate this construct in a way that others could understand and thus apply into their lives. I saw that this was what I had to offer to the world, so I dedicated myself to it. It was out of appreciation for the mushroom and in an effort to enable their potentials to humanity desperately in need of the very healing they can offer when used properly. This became my purpose, and in many ways still is. That’s why I continue to organize events and teach lectures on psychedelics all across Canada.
SolPurpose: That’s a beautiful story…and a familiar one. I know a lot of people who have been through a similar process of healing, learning to use psychedelics in a dedicated sacramental and therapeutic context. And you’ve probably seen the studies on how psilocybin reduces recidivism rates – probably for this very reason, that in releasing all of this unconscious material it forces a person to confront and assimilate those parts of themselves they have pushed away into darkness. It seems to me that it is only by reconciling with our capacity for evil that we don’t lie to ourselves about how righteous we really are; there’s a humility and a compassion I observe in people who have been through the initiatory gauntlet of this experience. (You know, in a similar vein, archeologist Graham Hancock says he believes nobody should be allowed to assume a position of power as a world leader until they’ve had a dozen ayahuasca ceremonies.)
But this is all well and good as long as we are preaching to the converted. What do you say to the worried parents, the probation officers, the millions of people for whom the only story they know is that these are poisonous, possibly deadly substances that compromise a person’s ability to think clearly and live a responsible adult life in society?
What do you tell people whose first taste of psychedelics was ignorant of “set and setting,” and they ended up having terrifying experiences without any guidance, comfort, or support? What about people who have seen friends and family go through these difficult experiences without knowing what to do, and whose only reference point is witnessing a person’s living nightmare? What about people who are curious about the well-documented spiritual and psychological benefits of a savvy and respectful and relationship to the mushroom but who are too afraid of the “bad trip” to seek it out? What do you say to people who won’t take them on the grounds that they’re illegal?
JJ: As a quick point on your bracketed comment about Hancock: I agree that our politcal “leaders” should be those who have faced the emotional accountaibilty of the psychedelic frontiers. Whether or not that needs to be ayahuasca, I’m not so sure. I don’t resonate with the “Ayahuasca is the light and the way” thinking that has come out of its recent subcultural popularity. I have issues with the ego attachments to belief systems regarding Ayahuasca the great savior goddess, blah blah blah. I’m not much for religiosity, regardless of what it is orbiting around, be it text, tradition or psychedelic substance.
There are four multilayered questions that compile into about eight different questions, all of which seem to reduced into the same question: “What do we say to convince others that we are right?” To that question, I have one simple answer: I don’t know.
We all seem to create this battle between whose opinion is right or wrong…I agree with your inferred point that there needs to be a dissolution of ignorance within society at large (all of us) and small (each of us) so we can establish a healthier planetary community. When it comes to psychedelics, what do we say to those who live in ignorance or fear regarding them? I don’t know exactly, but I have a feeling that it is through rhetoric informed about and free from common logical fallacies and delusions of grandeur. Where we meet a person where they are at in themselves, honest with where we are in ourselves, speak intelligently and articulately, in a sense of love and respect for the ignorant and fearful.
With that said, I’d say we are doing pretty well so far. Besides, it’s all just a ride, right? 😉
Jesso’s next book, Soundscapes & Psychedelics, comes out on Bicycle Day (April 19th).