Psychedelic Parenting 🍄
Turn off your mind, book a babysitter, and float downstream
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The ego is a wily beast. You can spend your entire life oblivious of the power it holds over you. The way it makes you perceive the world. The mental contortions it forces your brain into. It’s the Wizard of Oz, a shadowy figure behind the screen, the puppeteer pulling the strings, controlling each and every one of your decisions.
Your ego is what sits between the person you are today and the one you want to be. It’s that nagging voice in your head telling you to rethink that major life decision because it isn’t going to work out for you. It tells you you’re not creative enough to start that new project. It reminds you, at critical moments, of past failures, making you hit the brakes, second guess yourself, and remain in no man’s land. Feeling inadequate, paranoid, anxious or filled with shame, guilt and self-doubt? That’s your ego at the wheel.
It isn’t all bad—the ego’s contribution to our level of confidence and self-belief is essential in challenging situations. One day, in the not-so-distant past, it told you “yes, go talk to that person,” a conversation that may have put you on a path to becoming a father. But the ego loves to overstep its bounds, thriving in chaos, a hyper-critical voice constantly reminding you of how much better you could be. How much more patient you should be with your children. How much easier everyone else seems to be finding this parenting lark. It’s the engine that powers the overriding guilt that you’re spending too much time at work, and not enough time with your children, who seem to grow older each time your laptop closes.
The ego emphasises “I,” placing us at the centre of the universe, the hero—or villain—in our own story. If only it would get the fuck out of the way we could live happier and more fulfilled lives as parents, partners and human beings. But it’s so deep-rooted that it becomes impossible to imagine life outside of its all-encompassing tendrils.
The ego makes a great servant, but it’s a terrible master. There are many ways to wrestle it under your control—mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, active imagination, hypnotherapy, fasting, spirituality and more. And for those who glimpse peace of mind on the other side, and can find a way to carry that through into their daily life, the world can be radically transformed. These tools allow us to “dissolve the ego” by tapping into what psychologists call “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” giving the space and perspective necessary to silence your mind’s most destructive tendencies.
But there’s another tool becoming more popular, more prevalent, and more socially accepted in the work of ego dissolution: the therapeutic use of psychedelics.
You’re a smart bunch, and relatively open-minded. So I’m going to assume you’re somewhat familiar with the history of psychedelics. The tl;dr: they’re a group of plants and synthetic compounds which are often grouped under a broad classification of “entheogens”, derived from the Greek word entheos, meaning “to find god within.” (You will notice my intentional non-capitalisation, an off-topic discussion for another time.)
Recorded history of their usage can be traced back to 9,000 years ago, with cave paintings in Australia showing shamanic figures dancing with mushrooms sprouting out of their bodies. Native tribes across the world have long used them in indigenous rituals, with some believing they played a formative part in early religions. As research was formalised in the 1950s and 1960s, they were found to be non-addictive, and able to treat a wide range of social and psychological conditions. But their role in a counterculture movement in the US, and contribution to an anti-war movement in a country vying to control a narrative around the Vietnam War, led to their banning in 1968. Timothy Leary, who did as much to further the cause of psychedelics as he did to damage it, fired up politicians and defenders of the status quo when he told reporters: “psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them.”
The burgeoning field of psychedelic research was slammed shut, where it remained for decades.
For those uninitiated: a psychedelic experience is a little like falling in love, or becoming a parent for the first time; a life event that can’t be explained, but only experienced. In his book “How to Change Your Mind” (required reading for anyone interested in this space, and the most important non-fiction book since “Sapiens,” imho) Michael Pollan talked about the possibilities they offered:
“It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room—the room of your own mind—that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking—of being!—lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious?”
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
The written word is powerful, but it’s still woefully inadequate to communicate the depths of a significant psychedelic experience. Metaphors—while still insufficient—can be useful. One that’s I’ve returned to many times is from Mendel Kaelen, which I found via an excellent series of essays from Nikhil Shah:
“You can think of your mind as a snow-covered hill, and your thoughts are sledges. A path is pressed into the snow, it gets deeper and deeper, and soon it’s hard to escape that groove. A psychedelic trip is the fresh snowfall that lets your sledges explore new paths.”
The Default Mode Network (DMN) refers to the mind’s natural state of being—the interconnected group of brain regions that dictate how it operates at rest. It’s what powers your internal voice, thoughts on self-reflection, self-criticism, and your overall perception of self. Psychedelics have been proven to silence the DMN, enabling a short-circuiting of how we think, allowing “new paths” to be forged in the snow. (Long-term readers might recall previous writing on the role of the DMN, and how meditation provides another opportunity to override it.)
One thing that’s worth adding to Kaelen’s metaphor is how psychedelics can provide a chance to stand at the top of this hill, with a zoomed-out perspective on these different grooves, and the historical reasons that your mind travels down them. The slowing down of the DMN enables a stepping back from your mind’s normal method of functioning, and objectively seeing how your childhood and major life experiences contribute to how you perceive and navigate the world today.
I never thought I’d be the type of person to sit and read research papers for pleasure, but a by-product of writing this newsletter, and the wonder of Sci-Hub—best described as The Pirate Bay for peer-reviewed papers—means I’m spending an increasing amount of time with them. And of all the reports I encounter, it’s the psychedelic research that is most compelling. Traditional approaches to mental health, as well as the burgeoning $1.5tn wellbeing industry, will be completely transformed by what they’re calling “the shroom boom.” In combination with therapy, they are changing how patients work through depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorder and more. Research has shown how they’re more effective than traditional antidepressants, and can “increase emotional connection, unlike SSRIs which create a general emotional blunting.” They’ve been shown to help cancer patients deal with end-of-life anxiety and depression. 80% of smokers were able to stay nicotine-free 12 months after a single session, compared to 35% who took the most effective FDA-approved drug on the market. 71% of people who took psilocybin for major depressive disorder showed a greater than 50% reduction in their symptoms, and half of the participants entered remission. In this oft-cited report on mystical experiences 64% of hallucinogen-naïve participants said the psilocybin experience increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction moderately or very much, and 67% rated it among the five most personally / spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Ezra Klein, writing about this topic last year, suggested that “even if further research finds psilocybin only 50% as effective as these experiments suggest, it will still be a breakthrough.”
Psychedelics fundamentally alter how we think about fixed concepts like death, grief, consciousness, healing, and forgiveness. I’ve spent over 20 years experimenting with macrodosing (taking large amounts of psychedelics), and the last 12 months with microdosing, and the contribution these plant-based medicines have had on the parent I am today can’t be understated, and are impossible to pry apart—like mycelium roots, invisible to the eye, connected together, one and the same. I can guarantee you, with 100% certainty, that you would not be reading this newsletter without their guidance. Parents looking to be more present, manage extreme emotions, reduce cravings and dependencies, or break cycles of trauma should seriously consider the role these plant-based medicines can play.
A few things for parents who are considering stepping through these doors. Of utmost importance is the situation you are in at the time of your experience. The concept of “set and setting,” popularised by Timothy Leary in the 1960s, refers to the mental load that is brought to the experience—thoughts, moods, expectations, and previous life experiences (the “set") and the physical and social environment the participant’s experience (the “setting.”) These factors will play an instrumental role in the nature of the trip, and are why many first-time users will seek out an experienced guide, or take the “mushroom vacation” route (as a close friend did with a company like Essence.) Second is the idea of intention—what do you hope to achieve from the experience, what are you working on, and what do you want to leave behind? Setting an intention has become part of the popular lexicon thanks to its role in mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and forms a fundamental part of a good trip and successful integration.
Another integral aspect will be your personal attitude towards what we can loosely term “drugs.” Whilst the legal status of psilocybin mushrooms changes from country to country (and even state by state in the US) the majority of psychedelics remain illegal. Everyone's level of comfort with this fact will be different—some will have spent a lifetime “just saying no”, while others will have spent their pre-parenting years experimenting, using them as accelerants towards memorable nights out, and briefly losing that hardwired connection to the world. You may have, like me, spent formative years in sweaty nightclubs, nothing more than what house music pioneer Kerri Chandler called “A Basement, A Red Light, And A Feeling.” You might have taken drugs in your past—and had a very good time with them!—but since having kids have left that life behind. Because once you’re a parent, you can’t carry on getting fucked up every weekend: not only because it’s socially irresponsible, but because I can’t imagine anything worse than a Tuesday morning school run after having pulled an all-nighter the weekend before.
Over the last year I’ve spent time talking to many friends, and other dads in this community, on this topic. We are—broadly speaking—the first generation of parents with a first-hand experience of drugs. Some of us had parents who dabbled, or might have taken them more regularly. But those parents were the exception, not the rule. I’ve been working on this essay for over a year, and—full disclosure—I’m more nervous about sharing this than anything I’ve ever written. Some will read this and think it careless, or a huge risk, to even consider something like this after having children. There remains a huge stigma around drug usage, and you don’t have to go far to find stories of families who have had lives have been ripped apart by harmful substances. But there’s a gulf between the type of addictive substances that are damaging to people and society at large, and these plant-based medicines that have been proven to be non-addictive, and offer unparalleled opportunities for personal growth. The tide is turning, and a new paradigm of self-development is rapidly approaching. Depending on where you live, it might have already arrived.
Those who have taken psychedelics will often talk about the mushrooms “calling” them. You’re going through a period of change, asking big questions. You’ve read the right books, listened to the right podcasts, and had meaningful conversations with close friends. But there’s a ledge you’re approaching, a leap into the unknown required. You might get there yourself, with time. But psychedelics can guide you through the gate, break down barriers, and overcome demons, enabling a letting go, and a moving forward. Tim Ferris, who has dedicated a significant chunk of his time and income to furthering the cause of psychedelic-assisted growth, called them “performance-enhancing drugs for personal development” and it’s as pithy and powerful a testimonial as you’re likely to find. But it’s not a panacea, a simple solution to all of life’s problems, “just eat these mushrooms and you’ll be a better dad tomorrow.” You still need to do the work. And, like so much in life, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.
I’ve dealt with issues on psychedelics that would’ve taken years of personal work, or thousands spent in therapy. They have brought me face-to-face, and finally liberated me, from baggage I’ve carried around my entire life, issues I hadn’t even realised I’d pushed down and locked away. You can live an entire life ignoring this emotional dead weight. Or you can deal with it, head first. I’ve often told friends a psychedelic experience is akin to sorting the drawer under your bed. It contains an assortment of shit, detritus built up from decades of emotional hoarding, that occasionally surfaces in your mind but is all too easy to imagine doesn’t exist.
Because there’s never been the right time to deal with it. Because nobody ever told you how. Because your ego gets in the way, protecting itself, preventing you from letting go. Because you’ve learned from a young age—from every institution in your life—that these things aren’t supposed to be talked about, but to be ignored. But there will come a time when you decide it’s finally time to sort it out, to drag that drawer open, and audit its contents, asking yourself: what is useful here? What do I want to keep? What have I been unwittingly holding onto that serves me no longer? What do I have here that I’ve inherited from my own parents, and their parents before them, and my childhood, that I don’t want to pass on to my children? What are those negative patterns of thinking that I can finally see—free from the normal operation of my default mode network—and let go of forever?
This won’t be for everyone. But as I spend more time writing about the tools and techniques that have helped me on my own journey as a parent, and how they might assist others in theirs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about this topic in-depth. One of the core responsibilities of the conscious parent is to carefully sift through our life experiences: separating them into ones that are useful, and can carefully be passed onto our children, and those that are hurting us, and will potentially do so for generations to come.
Psychedelic parenting can change the paradigm of how we think about these substances—from something that helped us get fucked-up in early adulthood, to something that can enable us to fix fucked-up things inside us today, protecting our children from having to deal with them tomorrow. They can play a colossal role as part of the modern parent’s toolkit, enabling us to live tranquil, joyful lives, with our ego finally working for—and not against—us.
4 mushroomy things to read this week
“Can Magic Mushrooms Heal Us?” by Ezra Klein in The New York Times. This level-headed essay from 2021 is as great a case for the power of mushrooms out there. Klein talks to researchers, experts, and talks about his own experience: “I became more legible to myself. I am not cleansed of anxiety, but I am more aware that my outlook, at any given moment, is just a dance of brain chemistry and experience, and far from the only state possible. That a few micrograms of was all it took to upend my confident grip on reality shook me in ways I’m grateful for.”
“More Parents Take Psychedelics Than You Think” by Rebecca Kronman in DoubleBlind. DoubleBlind is fast becoming one of the most interesting and authoritative publications in the psychedelic space, in large part due to their hyperbole-free reporting and easily-understandable beginner’s guides to plant-based medicine. This essay is from Rebecca Kronan, the founder of Plant Parenthood, an organisation formed to destigmatise the conversation around psychedelics and parenting.
"How to Dissolve Your Ego—And Why You Should” by Scotty Hendricks in Big Think. This article—featuring input from Sam Harris, Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris—talks about the hold the ego has over us, the work we can do to overcome it, and how meditation, mindfulness and psychedelics can free you from its tyranny. “The idea is to use drugs to alter your consciousness to a point where your mind no longer differentiates itself from the rest of the world around it. This condition allows for the individual to view their mental processes, including ego defences and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, from a detached state.”
“Out There and Back: My Psilocybin Journey into Forgiveness” by Joseph Dana in Both/And. In this widely shared essay from last October, Dana wrote about his first psilocybin experience, working with a guide, and how it changed his relationship with his son, and his own father: “My father did indeed appear, but instead of manifesting as a dark or scary form, I saw his love. Stripped of the emotional baggage of the last 35 years, I saw him as the human being he is. I had empathy for him for the first time. I forgave him. I write these words with tears in my eyes, for it has taken me a long time to feel these emotions. When you cut out all the bullshit – and we are drowning in bullshit these days – what is left is love.”
Continuing this conversation
This has been a long-time coming. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the breadcrumbs dotted over the last 18 months of essays, and I’m incredibly thankful for the conversations that have helped shape it. There’s a lot that isn’t covered here—the role of microdosing, compelling research on the placebo effect, the networks of support communities that are forming around the important work of integration, and, for those ready to take the next step, how to actually do this—that I’m hoping to explore as part of an ongoing series.
There continues to be a huge stigma around this topic, and I feel it essential to use this platform to counteract this unhelpful narrative. I want to provide a space for others to share how psychedelics have helped in their parenting journeys. And whilst I am beginning to get comfortable talking about this publicly, I know a commenting box underneath isn’t the best place for others. So for those who might like to share their own story, using a completely anonymous form, please do so. I’m hoping to feature some of your stories in a future newsletter:
I’m also excited to preview two upcoming essays. The first is from Joseph Dana, author of a fantastic series on the subject, who has penned a powerful piece on his use of psychedelics as a parent. That will be in your inbox next week. I’m also putting the finishing touches to a much more personal essay, in which I’ll write in-depth about how psychedelics have shaped my own parenting narrative. There’ll be stuff in there that I’m not entirely comfortable posting here, so it’ll be going into the member-only archive. We will also be continuing this conversation in the private Geneva community, and if you’d like to be part of that, you know what to do.
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Branding and illustrations by Selman Design. These illustrations have been sat finished since March, but it’s taken a while to wrestle it into shape—thank you for your patience fellas! Thanks to Joseph Dana and Linda Freund for essential input into the essay. Stay tuned for Joseph’s piece next week, and you can read about Linda’s first mushroom experience here. Some members of the community got an early peek at this essay during one of our weekly calls, and it is much better due to their input and the personal stories they shared.
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This was an excellent read, Kevin. This has opened my eyes to a new concept but it definitely something I feel will help me with my own parenting journey. This was a topic I would have never considered without reading The New Fatherhood, but am interested to find out about taking the first steps in future newsletters.