Mushroom Magic

For the last few days I have been reading a book called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It is a fascinating look at all the different ways that fungi have influenced and continue to influence humanity and the world around us throughout history. This book not only addresses the incredible research being done around psychedelic mushrooms, but also the incredible nature of our fungal friends in general. For instance, did you know that human beings are more closely related to fungi than we are to the plant kingdom? There are tons of intriguing tidbits of information like this sprinkled throughout this book between awe inspiring accounts of spiritual psychedelic experiences. Even if you have no interest in psychedelics, this book is still well worth a read for all of the other information and research it contains.

I haven’t even gotten halfway through this book yet myself, but already there are a few points that I’d like to discuss today. The first of which is the great comfort that simply reading this book has brought me. As you may know from reading my other posts, I am quite disturbed and troubled by the thought that soon the world as we know it will be coming to a rather abrupt and violent end due to the unsustainable nature of modern human civilization. For many years now I have despaired over the fact that we have already gone past the point of no return when it comes to the destruction of our environment. I’m not exactly sad due to the inevitable loss of human kind, rather by the greater loss of all the beautiful and complex lifeforms that share this wondrous planet with us. Michael Pollan’s book has given me hope that despite all humans have destroyed that life will continue on after our end.

Are you aware that humble oyster mushrooms have the ability to clean up oil spills? Apparently fungi, unlike most organisms, are able to consume and purify a lot of humans’ more toxic and problematic waste materials quite efficiently. A study was conducted where oyster mushroom spores were sprinkled on an oil spill. After some time had passed, the spores were able to consume the oil and cover the area in a blanket of squishy mushrooms. Most of us are aware that fungi are the organisms that break down dead or decaying matter, purifying waste and recycling it back into life once more. I was not aware that these miraculous beings were able to do the same with toxic man-made substances. However, according the Pollan’s book, fungi actually thrive even in the wake of human destruction and debris. Mushrooms are even able to break down plastics!

While I don’t expect humans will take advantage of the amazing potential of fungi before we all perish at our own hands, this new information still leaves me hopeful. I am filled with peace. Despite centuries of irrevocable human error, the fungi will protect this earth. They have preserved the endless cycle of life and death on our planet long before the arrival of humanity and will continue to do so long after we are gone. And for that I am so grateful.

7 Impressive Benefits of Oyster Mushrooms

Meditation on Death

Due to my morbid obsession with death and dying this past week, I started looking for some books to read in order to better cope with these grim ruminations. After a little searching, I came across a book that seems perfect for me. It’s called Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Face of Death by Joan Halifax. I haven’t gotten past the first few chapters yet, but it has already been a great comfort to me.

This book approaches the subject of death from a Buddhist perspective. It highlights the different ways that western and eastern cultures deal with death. It calls attention to the way the fear of death dominates western culture. We do our best to hide it away out of sight. We live most of our lives without ever thinking about the fact that we are all going to die some day. Avoidance seems to be a primary part our lives, especially in America.

The best part about this book is that it is written as a resource for everyone, in any stage of life. It can benefit teenagers, the elderly, caregivers, medical professionals, healthy people, and people that are terminally ill. This book reminds us that death is a natural part of life. It is something that has the potential to bring us all together. It is ultimately the great equalizer. It is a phase of life, a culmination of everything we have experienced here, a right of passage, a necessary darkness we will all pass through one day.

One of the ways I believe this book will help me is by preparing me to be there for my loved ones when they die. I still feel tremendously guilty about how little I was around my grandmother as she was slowly dying from cancer a few years ago. For the most part, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. I saw her when we went to my parent’s house on holidays. It was painful just to look at her, to be in that room with her. Even though it was actually the room I grew up in, my childhood bedroom. What a sad, beautiful mixture of things that have gone on within the walls of that room.

When I sat by her bedside those last few times I saw her, I felt paralyzed, petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to cry. I wanted to ask her so many questions. But instead I sat silently at her side, waiting for any opportunity to leave. I still wonder how she must have felt in her final days. Was she afraid? Did she resent us for not being there for her? Did she find peace? Did she have regrets? Were there things she wanted to tell us, but didn’t? Did we leave her feeling alone? Unloved? What is normal, what is acceptable to say or do around a death bed? Is anything? Does it even matter?

I think our society’s fear and avoidance of death leaves a lot of people to regret their incompetence when dealing with the passing of a loved one. When you avoid something all your life, how can you possibly be expected to handle it when it is in front of you? When it can no longer be avoided? When my other grandmother passes, when my parents pass, I want to be ready. I want to be everything I wished I could have been for my dad’s mom. I want to be brave enough and comfortable enough to discuss these difficult topics with them. I want to be prepared to give them everything that they need, even if they are unable to ask for it when the time comes.

Being with Dying provides exercises to help us work through our aversion and fear of death. The first meditation it suggests is to contemplate both the best and the worst case scenarios for your own death, in as much detail as possible. I want to have my grandmother and my mom do these exercises with me at some point. I want to know everything that I can do to make their deaths peaceful and comfortable and meaningful. However, even the thought of writing such a thing down seems terrifying to me. At the same time, that terror is quite fascinating. To confront this reality, the certainty of death, why is it so very painful? Why does my mind want to avoid even the thought of it at any cost? Do people in other cultures feel the same way? Or are they able to embrace this inevitability with grace and humble surrender?

I think my greatest fear surrounding death, is simply not knowing. It is the ultimate loss of control, a nosedive into a vast unknown. Perhaps it is less daunting if you believe in an afterlife of some kind. But it seems impossible that anyone could have total conviction as they are facing down their own end. There must always be some doubt, some uncertainty. It is not only not knowing what happens after we die, but not knowing when or how we will die that is frightening. I suppose a lot of people are also deeply afraid of death being painful. As someone who hasn’t experienced hardly any physical pain yet in my life, I find this hard to imagine well enough to be afraid of. Besides it always seems like pain can be escaped, even if that escape is death itself. However, that not knowing, that final surrender, will always be there.

I am looking forward to reading more of this book. I am hopeful that it will give me the tools I need to prepare myself for this stage of life, this end of life. Not only for myself but for those around me as well. Even if you think I’m nuts for believing the science that says soon the oceans will be dead along with all of us, I would still recommend this book. Regardless of when you imagine death will touch your life, the fact remains that it will, no matter who you are. It’s much easier to avert our eyes as long as possible, but if you are ready to face that fear head on and take the steps you need to in order to be prepared, Living with Dying seems like a great place to start.

Please make the wonderful effort to show up for your life, every moment, this moment – because it is perfect, just as it is.

Being with Dying
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Moral Ambiguity

I have been reading Les Miserables for the last few days. I am incredibly shocked that I never knew it was a book as well as a play until now. I was really missing out. Anyway, I have just finished the chapters detailing Jean Valjean’s (Monsieur Madeleine’s) inner turmoil regarding the right thing to do in the case of his mistaken identity. It is truly a very interesting philosophical question. On the one hand, it seems clearly “right” to clear up the misunderstanding and spare this stranger a fate he does not deserve on your account. However, should Monsieur Madeleine give himself up as Jean Valjean, would not even more people be made to suffer as a result? After all he has practically created his own society. All within that society benefit from his presence and guidance. Not least of which, Fantine, who should surely die without ever seeing her child again if he goes to Arras and interfere with the trial.

This section of Les Miserables really highlights the complexities of morality. The “right” thing to do in life is quite often unclear. I can see why Monsieur Madeleine wrestled with this problem as he did. I still don’t really know what I believe the truly moral decision would be. If it were me (myself being nowhere as upright and honorable as Monsieur Madeleine) I would have allowed the trail to go on. I would have felt terribly guilty, but I would have also felt guilty if I would have decided to leave my community and poor Fantine in order to save a stranger whom by a terrible twist of fate was mistaken for me. In some ways, both decisions are moral. And in other ways both are selfish and unfair.

I am very interested to see how Monsieur’s decision to go to Arras works out in the end. Will his conscious be pacified? Or will he suffer with the consequences wrought on M- sur M- and Fantine? This painful reflection of life’s more difficult moral questions is undoubtably one of the reasons Les Miserables has earned it’s place among the great works of history.

One would hope that merely the resolve to be “good” would be enough. Yet we see that even that does not nullify all of problems laid before us. Sometimes there is no “right” answer. Sometimes no matter what decision you make, someone will be made to suffer because of it. Even the decision not to act can result in grave consequences as in this case.

What a complex, confusing, and often cruel world we live in. There is something truly incredible about seeing that so perfectly reflected in a novel. To be able to hold these heavy problems in your hands. To see the inner struggles of another and know that we are not alone in our own. To have such strong concern and sympathy produced for a fictional character. The written word is an awe-inspiring thing.

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Opening

Well I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve fallen even more in love with The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. It’s almost meditative just to read. The last few chapters have turned to discussing energy. Namely internal energy, chakras, energy centers, whatever you would like to call them. Once again, somehow this book presents me with things I’ve already known about and believed in, yet does so in a way that completely changes my understanding of these topics.

I’ve written about chakras before. I think we have all had the experience of feeling at least our heart chakra’s energy. It even stands out in our language with common phrases such as “heartbroken” or “my heart sank.” Even the throat chakra seems to be referenced with comments such as “choked up” or having a “lump in your throat.” The Untethered Soul brought another interesting aspect of this internal energy to my attention.

I feel silly for never thinking of it before, but our emotions and internal feelings have a huge effect on our energy level. Even though this seems obvious now, beforehand I only really considered things like rest, diet, and physical exertion to have an effect on our level of energy in the body. But these clearly aren’t the only things that have an effect.

The easiest example of this that is mentioned in the book is the feeling of either finding love or losing that love. When we first fall in love with someone or even rekindle a romance, it feels like we are capable of anything. We have so much more energy! Everything is exciting, interesting, meaningful. It’s a breeze to get out of bed each morning. We even look forward to it. You can almost feel the energy bubbling in your chest. On the contrary, when your loved one leaves you, that same energy vanishes. You feel empty, exhausted, despondent. We have to drag ourselves out of bed. Yet the amount of food we have eaten or sleep we’ve gotten doesn’t have to change at all for us to experience these drastic shifts in energy. Isn’t that fascinating?

I guess I always thought that was all just “in my head.” But how can it just be in my head if I am truly experiencing it in my body as well? In this book, Singer explains that what we are feeling is the opening and closing of the energy centers (chakras) in the body. When our heart chakra is open there is an enormous flow of energy traveling through us. This is what we are feeling when we are in love. Our hearts are open. But when we lose that love, or close our hearts, we are closing off that source of energy as well. We are blocking the natural flow.

The truly exciting thing is that we can teach ourselves to unblock these energy centers, allowing ourselves to experience an abundance of energy. So much energy in fact, that it can even benefit those around us. We all have access to this limitless source of energy inside. We just have to learn to let it flow naturally instead of resisting or clinging to different parts of life.

Singer suggests we play a little game with ourselves. Just start to pay attention to your heart space as you go about your day. You will feel it opening and closing over and over. Notice when someone says something you don’t like or that hurts your feelings. Notice how it feels in your body. Does your chest feel tighter? Does your breath become more shallow? That is what it feels like to close. Also begin to notice what it feels like to get a compliment or have a meaningful conversation with someone. Do you feel an expansion in your ribcage? Do you feel a flush of energy, excitement? That is what it feels like to open.

Once we can identify these sensations in the body, we can learn to stop closing our hearts all together. We might feel as though we are protecting ourselves by closing our hearts, but this is not the case. All we are doing is limiting our energy, shutting it away, blocking it up inside. But with practice we can eventually get to a point where we always have access to our boundless inner energy. Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to always be in love and to share that energy with everyone we meet?

I am so eager to begin this journey of opening. As someone who always seems to feel tired, it’s lovely to realize I have more then enough energy. It just so happens to be locked up inside. I am ready to learn how to release and let go. I am ready to allow that energy to flow through me again. It isn’t going to be easy work, but I know it will be worth it. I am ready to begin again. I am ready to open.

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Mental Health & Time Perception

I have been reading a very interesting book called Time Warped: Unlocking the Secrets of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. This is a great book for anyone curious about the many mysteries of how we interpret and view time, and how our perception of time can change as we age and even from one moment to the next. While a lot of the book has fascinating facts that are not exactly useful as far as effecting everyday life, there are a few things that I think have immense potential for practical implications.

One of the most important things this book mentions is the way mental illness, namely depression, effects time perception. While I mainly suffer from anxiety, I have had periods of severe depression in my life. And even though I’ve had suicidal ideations in my teen years, I still never fully understood how anyone could go through with ending their own life. I think understanding how depression can warp our idea of time plays a key role in suicidal behavior.

It has been shown that people with depression over-estimate the amount of time that has passed in a given interval. Basically time slows down when you have depression. Each moment begins to feel like an eternity. Every day is simply too much to bear. Life seems to drag on and on. Knowing that depression can make you perceive time in this way really makes it more understandable why someone might feel like they just can’t take it anymore.

In addition to that, Hammond points out in this book that depression also effects one’s ability to imagine the future. So not only do they feel like every moment is taking longer than it objectively is, they also cannot visualize a future for themselves. Granted, being depressed, they may only imagine an awful, bleak future if they can imagine one, but they are incapable of imagining things getting better. They can’t imagine things ever changing in general. Even on my darkest days, part of me finds a small amount of comfort in the thought that nothing lasts forever, and when you’re already so low, most likely things can only improve from there. But imagining not even having that, to truly believe things will always remain the way they are, that things will remain painful, intolerable, desolate, lonely? Well, it begins to become more clear why suicide seems like a reasonable choice to some people.

Now, I’m not a psychologist, nor do I have any training in counseling people with depression, so perhaps this knowledge is already being implemented. However, I immediately thought of a way this may benefit therapists and perhaps even help save lives. In my experience as a social worker, there are many times when we must assess whether or not a client is at risk of hurting themselves. To do this, we normally ask if they have ever thought about hurting themselves, if they have had those thoughts recently, if they have a plan, etc. There is nothing wrong with these questions and I think they should still be asked. However, there is A LOT of stigma around depression, mental illness, and thoughts of suicide, especially amongst older generations. While we all hope each client will feel comfortable enough to answer questions about suicidal ideation honestly, I’m sure many don’t.

I remember in school reading about all the warning signs to look out for regarding depression and suicide. These are certainly beneficial and take into account that not everyone will verbally express these thoughts and feelings to others. By now, I would assume most people know these are the signs people are looking for and may actively seek to avoid being found out in these ways. I would propose that therapists, social workers, even friends and family members that are concerned about a loved one committing suicide, should begin asking seemingly innocuous questions regarding time perception.

The person’s ability to answer questions about the future would be a dead give away as to whether or not they may be at risk of suicide. You may think, well if they are already trying to hide their true feelings, they would just make something up. But if I understand correctly, they would not do this. Because they would not be able to. It isn’t that they are imagining an awful future full of suffering and would lie to the questioner, offering an imagined pleasant or neutral future. They would be incapable of giving an answer at all apart from “I don’t know.”

Not only would this question be much less direct than asking someone if they had thoughts of suicide, it would also be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be deceptive with the answer. I believe this would be a great way for people to nonchalantly discover whether or not someone is depressed or potentially suicidal. As I said perhaps this is already being utilized by therapists, but it could also be useful to anyone concerned for a loved one. I am hopeful that this kind of information will become more well-known and perhaps even save lives by allowing people to get the help they need before it’s too late.

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Who Am I Really?

Years ago I stumbled upon the title of a book called The Untethered Soul. I don’t remember when I heard about it or why it interested me, but the other day as I was going through some of my old notes, I found it again. Even though I’m currently reading three different books, I decided to go ahead and look it up anyway. I’m so glad that I did.

This book wastes no time. It gets right down to the important questions. Who am I? I’m sure most of us are familiar with the quote by Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” We all understand that feeling of have multiple sides of ourselves constantly fluctuating and shifting position and perspective. But which one of these various personalities is really us? Is it the first voice that makes a statement or the second voice that contradicts it?

Sometimes it’s nice to imagine that we are the culmination of the best of these voices. We are the voice that says loving, compassionate things. The voice that guides us to make “the right” decision. Yet the voice that says hateful, hurtful, ugly things, well that one isn’t us at all. For me however, I’ve felt the opposite for a lot of my life. I’ve felt that the negative voice is truly me, that the kinder voice is just a lie I tell myself, something I wish I was. It would be interesting to see how many other people identify with their internal voices in this way and how your perception of what voices are “really you” effects your life and relationships.

Regardless, The Untethered Soul, points out that we are missing something as we struggle to identify with one voice over the other. Who is listening to these voices? Who is it that is trying to decide which one is “really me”? That is us! We are the one who listens, the one who watches, the spectator, the witness, the awareness.

Even though I’ve heard this sentiment multiple times, the way it is explained and talked about in The Untethered Soul, has really reached me in a profound way. Even though it’s hard to even hold this idea in your head for very long before getting swept up in your internal monologue again, it is quite a relief to realize. I don’t have to feel so deeply attached to the things my mind is constantly babbling on about. I don’t have to get upset by what it says. I don’t have to feel guilty for a cruel thought, or self-righteous for a lofty one. I can just watch, an impartial, curious observer. These voices are not a reflection of who I am. I am something else entirely.

Keeping in mind that I had gained all of this from merely the first three chapters of the book, I am so excited to see what the rest of the pages contain. Even though I’ve just started reading, I can confidently say I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in these types of philosophical questions, or anyone looking for some respite from that pesky cacophony of voices.

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Find Your Tribe

After reading Ishmael, the book I mentioned in another blog post, I’ve been reading another book by the author, Daniel Quinn. In this book, titled Beyond Civilization, he discusses how human beings can change society and live in a way that works better for not only the environment, but for us as well. There are so many insightful and profound things within just the first few pages. I absolutely love this author and cannot wait to read all he’s published.

In Beyond Civilization, Quinn explains how for the majority of human history, we lived in tribes. Once we broke away from that and built social hierarchies, that’s when he had our “fall from grace” so to speak. Not only have our societal systems, governments, and particularly capitalism led to the destruction of our planet, they have also created a culture of violence, apathy, drug abuse, and mental illness.

He uses circuses as a metaphor, likening them to modern day tribes. He explains that unlike big corporations like Amazon, a small circus creates an atmosphere of personal interest in the success of the group as a whole. At Amazon, the people in the warehouses most likely feel no personal attachment to the company as a whole. Nor does Jeff Bezos give a single fuck about any of his employees. Quinn explains that the members of the circus, while technically employees, work not for the money, but earn the money so that they can continue to do what they love and keep their group together.

As I was reading this explanation, I realized that I had been lucky enough to stumble into my own tribe! The job I currently have feels so much different than any I’ve had in the past. There are a lot of little things about it that contribute, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why it was so different until now.

At my small non-profit I can literally count all the employees on my fingers. While we do have an executive director, it doesn’t feel like a hierarchy. Everyone understands and respects the value and importance of each position in the organization. Thinking of this group of people I work with as my tribe makes so much sense. It feels more like a tribe than just a job. I couldn’t explain it exactly before. Explain why suddenly I don’t mind working late or going above and beyond what’s required of me. Why I desperately want to do a good job, not so I’m not fired, but so I can be an asset to my team, my friends, my tribe.

At all my old jobs, my goal was to do as little as possible without being fired. I was absolutely indignant if I had to work late or miss a break. It was painfully apparent that if I wasn’t being paid, I would not be there. At my job now, I look forward to being there. I no longer dread Sunday evenings. I am happy when I wake up to go to work. I truly feel like I am a part of something, rather than just another cog in a huge machine. I genuinely never knew it was possible to feel this way about work.

We’re conditioned to accept that for the majority of people, work is an unpleasant requirement of staying alive. It isn’t fair, it isn’t fun, but it is a necessary evil. I felt this way my whole life. And I’m sure I still would working anywhere else. What makes this job different is that it is such a small organization. We all know each other. We all care about each other. We all see the value and worth of what we do together. We are a tribe. We work to support one another and our organization, not for a paycheck.

Quinn has helped me understand that this is the way humans used to live. Things were smaller, more intimate, more meaningful. He believes we can change society so that we may all benefit from this type of system again. It is something I had never dared to dream. And while I still think humanity is too far gone at this point, I hope that he’s right. It feels so good to hope. And to experience a small piece of that life I hope everyone can have someday. I sincerely hope that you can each find a tribe of your own out there.

Ishmael

ISHMAEL An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Daniel Quinn) book | |  Modaville

A friend at work told me about a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn a while ago, and I’ve just gotten around to reading it finally. I honestly wish I had done it sooner. This has got to be one of the best things that I have read. It is comparable, in my opinion, with A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I recommend them both highly.

Ishmael is the name of a gorilla. He is highly intelligent and is able to communicate with certain human beings. The majority of the 160 page book is a conversation, or perhaps a lesson would be a more accurate description, between Ishmael and a human he has taken on as his student.

This lesson is all about the idea of human exceptionalism and how it is quickly leading us to our own demise, along with the demise of the rest of the planet. While this book is technically a fictional story, I view it as almost a philosophy book. One that is written in a much more digestible and enjoying way than most. While the main points of the story are things I have believed for basically my entire life, there were still tons of fascinating perspectives and explanations of how things came to be the way they are now.

I won’t give any spoilers or go into too much detail about what is said in the book. However, if you’re at all curious, I encourage you to check it out. It is a very quick read, full of so many enthralling, profound ideas. I’ll leave a link to the free PDF I found of it online.

After finishing the book this morning, I am eager to read more from Daniel Quinn. Let me know if you’ve read this book or any of his other work. It isn’t often that I find a book so meaningful and important. I was so inspired and excited by it that I simply have to share it with as many people as I can. I hope that you’ll check it out and be moved to share it as well!