Reflection one year after a psychedelic women’s retreat
Many of you who know me might be shocked to know that the women’s retreat I went to last year was a psilocybin (aka “magic mushrooms”) retreat, so this is a “coming out” of sorts. I had been meaning to write about my experience at this Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) women’s retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico ever since I returned a year ago. But it is better that I waited a year; I can now write about how it affected me.
My psilocybin journey connected the dots for me in many ways and I am convinced this particular gift from nature has much to offer the world. I wrote a detailed account which I will publish in total at some point. In this essay, I skip the activities and descriptive details and instead share how it helped me to break through spiritual, creative, and psychological blocks.
Introduction to the idea
I met retreat organizer, Jessica Grotfeldt, when I was in Oaxaca in March of 2019. She was new to Oaxaca, and I was there for workshops and to learn Spanish. She told me that she organized psychedelic retreats, describing mushrooms as sacred medicine — ritualistic, ceremonial, and used for healing, self-discovery, and growth. When she told me her story of surviving trauma, I was intrigued and mentioned that I would like to do it. She responded, “If you’re ready, she will call to you.”
Why was I open to stepping in this direction? I remember having a conversation with others that though I was living the dream — traveling, doing a lot of creative things, contributing to my community — there was something missing in my life. I had always been a seeker and though I was raised a Christian, surrendering to Christ as my be-all and end-all does not resonate with me. I used to think my restlessness was because I was single and unsuccessful at love, but I wasn’t willing to make it a priority. I was reasonably content, financially stable and healthy. And I was hungry for something.
My Conscious Intention
When Jessica announced the Dia de Muertos retreat, I signed up right away and started to prepare, following her guidelines. One of the standard practices for a positive psychedelic experience is the importance of “set and setting.” Being primed internally (set) in a congruous external setting, is essential. Jessica gave us suggestions for journal-writing for preparing our “set” — our minds, our focus, our intentions.
Most of what I wrote early in the process of self-reflection and setting intention had to do with my lifelong angst. “Why am I always rejected? Why can’t I find love?” I shamefully realized this descent into self-loathing, and changed tack. My reflections eventually crystallized into this: “I want to know that I am loved. I want to walk in the world knowing that I am loved. I want to be a conduit for love. I want to be a healing force for love — especially in my own family.”
The setting, the Llano de los Flores retreat site, was located near the town of San Juan Atapec, 2,881 meters altitude (9,452 feet), high into the Sierra Norte mountain range. There were no cellular or internet signals here, which was an indication of how far from “civilization” we were, and how much of a retreat from the world it would be. On the first day, when I awoke, I looked out the window to see horses grazing in a pasture against a backdrop of mist-draped mountains. Yes. Idyllic.
Included in the setting are the people who are going to take care of you. The volunteers that Jessica assembled as staff seemed to be a dream team. I was struck by such a beautiful bouquet of international women: V, the fire keeper from Ecuador; M, the Somali-Finnish singer/music coordinator from Finland; C, the African shaman/ecstatic dance leader; D, the yoga teacher/crystal specialist/sound healer from Colorado; A, the artist/art therapist from Australia; C, the Mexican vegetarian cook; B, the all-around helper/photographer from the Midwest US; and L, an English-Spanish interpreter/community organizer from Oaxaca. And then there was Jessica from Texas and recently New York City, acupuncturist and organizer extraordinaire. This group of women provided so many opportunities for us, the participants, to open up, to bond, to have fun, to have a good experience. This was all part of the set and setting.
The ceremony space was outdoors and circular, surrounding a fire. The weather was perfect for the first two ceremonies, but we were forced indoors for the third. We were cozily packed into one of the cabins, and a fireplace on the side served as a source of light and warmth. There were thoughtful decorative pieces everywhere, for example, a large macrame’ Ojo de Dios (Eye of God) art piece made by A, our resident artist.
The Medicine Knows
Though I had written down this conscious intention to know that I was loved, the Medicine knew there was something else going on. Throughout the retreat, the Medicine was working to help me to garner the courage to use my voice. It started in the first ceremony, which did not engender a psychedelic vision but instead a general feeling of well-being. It was purposefully mild, as it was meant to open and prepare us, like laying a foundation. In this mood of trust and calmness, I was asked to sing before anyone else and I agreed, singing “What a Wonderful World” though I had forgotten a verse. I got applause and praise later. That was unexpected. When we returned to our rooms, I remembered the parts of the song that I had forgotten and wrote all the words in my journal. The next day, I wrote a poem (or potential song), after a candle meditation.
Walk in the light of love
Remember the lessons learned here
Speak your truth with clear certainty
Share your truth with no fear.
Walk in alignment with spirit
From the heart deep inside
The fire in your heart glows brightly
Burning off all the lies.
Walk, for you know
You’re not alone
There’s kindred spirits with you.
A community of friends
Sharing blessings of all that is true.
In the second ceremony, having partaken of the “Medicine,” setting my intention to know that I am loved, I had a vision that I was a jaguar, and I was roaming, looking for something. I was following the beat of a drum, and a voice telling me to come in Spanish. Finally, I found my home, a hillside, who was Mother Earth, and I was her pet. I felt the immense love that my Mother had for me. She told be to be strong and to be a voice for the Mexican people. In my vision, I recalled what I had written in my journal about my desire to have love in my life, not just in the symbolic sense of being loved by the Universe — by God — but the down to earth assurance of being loved by a man. Then I saw a black jaguar — beautiful, powerful, sleek. My thought: “If I am to find a mate, he needs to be as strong as me, a suitable jaguar, a worthy jaguar.”
Though acknowledging that I was loved was the conscious intention that I brought to ceremony, the Medicine addressed something else that I seemed to have minimized. I didn’t even remember that I had written it until I saw a note in my photos when I was looking for images for this article.
This statement — I want to be aligned in my Spirit. Feel more Loved. So that I may be part of the healing — was broader and vaguer. I had a general dissatisfaction about what I was doing in my everyday life. I had wanted to live life more fully, purposefully. I had doubt about whether or not to continue writing, or songwriting. I had become aware of the need to speak out, and had set up an altar at home with a jaguar mask that I had bought on my spring trip to Oaxaca to remind me to speak up. I had made a fabric square for a quilt collaboration about violence against women, children, and Mother Earth. My stitched text was “Speaking Out — Basta!” Something that had to do with my voice was simmering.
At this second ceremony, I was again asked to sing first. I sang “What a Wonderful World” again. I felt myself going deep within myself, not sure if I could remember all the lyrics, but following a thread of memory, step by step, word by word. Some voices joined me, especially when it came to “I LOVE YOU.” I finished it off with the “Oh Yeah,” ala Louie Armstrong. I remember hearing laughter, shouts, and applause. I felt opened and empowered, that I could do this thing. Sing.
After such a powerful experience, I had the thought that I was good, as in “I’m good,” that I didn’t need to have more Medicine. I felt satisfied with my experience. I felt loved. I could go home knowing it was well worth it. But — I continued the journey. In my dosage session for the third ceremony with Jessica, we talked about how taking a larger dose and going deeper meant the possibility of meeting your shadow self. She asked if I thought I was ready for that. I was more curious than fearful. Like Alice in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. So yes.
When I set my intention for this third ceremony, it was to determine whether I should share this with others, or keep it private. But, the Medicine showed me much more than the answer to this yes/no question.
In the first part of this ceremony, I remember being cold — bone-chilling, teeth-chattering cold. I was breathing deep, trying to get my breath to warm me up. I remembered what Jess said in opening the ceremony — about the energy coming from above and going through my body to my feet and going back to the earth. Someone was giving me a foot massage, and then someone was massaging my head. I was holding tight to my body, trying to keep warm.
I heard V’s voice. She was at the fire and calling to everyone, saying our names one at a time, and an identifying phrase as she said our names. When she said my name, she said I was “bringing warmth from the volcano island.” At that point, I started to loosen up, I used my hands to warm myself up. That’s when the thought hit me that I was on a psychological journey, and I was letting go of my dark side. My dark side was that I was a cold person, lacking warmth. I had a feeling of satisfaction. I learned something about myself. Yay. Done.
But the vision continued. I saw a volcano and the image of Pele, and she was in her home in Kilauea crater, looking towards Mauna Kea (an older dormant voilcano). Mauna Kea is the site of an occupation of indigenous “protectors” trying to prevent the building of a super-sized telescope. I saw Pele’s profile looking west across the island to another goddess, Poli’ahu, the goddess of Mauna Kea. I realized that the coldness I was experiencing was the coldness of Mauna Kea, where it snows in the winter. I heard, “You need to truly empathize with the struggles there.” Though I had friends involved in the protest, I had done nothing to show my support. When I made the connection, I felt a warmth wash over me, like the Medicine was saying, “You got it!” (I wrote about Mauna Kea here.)
I then had a view of the world from above, like I was looking down at the planet from space. I saw mountains strung across the Pacific, and each mountain was a connection to who I was: my ancestors in Okinawa and Kumamoto, Japan; a mountain on Guam where I grew up; the islands of Hawaii, all five volcanoes on my island; and finally, here in the mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico. My thought was: “I am native. I am a child of Mother Earth and Father Sky.” I made the decision to visit the Mauna Kea protectors when I got home, and bring them a gift of Okinawan sweet potatoes. This connecting, like stringing a lei, bringing together separate pieces, was comforting. I was now warm, humming with the singing bowl, in bliss.
V came into my space, said my name, as if to wake me, and told me that the others need me to share a song. I told her I was so warm and cozy, and she repeated, “They need you.” She knew exactly what to say to me to get me to sing. She helped me to sit up, and I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I remembered all the words, and I even did a jazzy rendition of it. After me, many others sang their own songs. There was a sense of camaraderie and joy.
And So … ?
Did it change anything? Did it work? Did I get over that feeling of malaise? Of not being loved?
Here’s my journey in a nutshell:
I was restless, feeling unloved, and that I should be doing more with my life.
I experienced “magic mushrooms” and got clarity on what I could do to find more purpose in my life, which was to “use my voice.”
My voice showed up in my writing. I started to write with more “meat” on issues that were timely and relevant, especially dealing with the presidential election.
My voice showed up in the redesign of my website. It was previously titled “Creating Sense of the World.” Now it is “Creativity Activism.”
My voice showed up in art. I started to paint and do lettering, then used art to speak out about the issues.
My voice showed up in songwriting and singing. I wrote a protest song, videotaped myself singing, and shared it.
Looks like I used my voice.
I was highly motivated. I had to do something about my country’s political situation and writing is my thing — my gift, the skill I have the most confidence in, besides teaching. My intention was to write with the hope to convince people to vote Trump out. I’ll never know if I made an impact, but I find meaning in other ways. Writing is how I strengthen myself, how I think through my reasoning, how I can become clear on what I believe to be true and why it’s important, how I can hold myself accountable with research and reading to gain perspective. Even if I am only preaching to the choir, I am maintaining bonds with my readers, my choir. In this pandemic time, we need to know that we are not alone. Writing and sharing with like minds has a mutual benefit. We can help each other clarify our thinking, and this can empower us as we face the challenges our divided, disturbed, vulnerable world presents us with. My artist friends tell me we’re contributing to the energy of the universe, helping the arc of change bend towards justice. Hope so.
Will I continue to write now that we succeeded in voting him out? The Trump era exposed the deep-seated racism dividing the country; moral duplicity of his so-called Christian supporters who idolize this very un-Christian man; mass gullibility for conspiracy theories; need for media literacy and critical thinking; dehumanization of those who don’t see the world the way you do; and on and on. There’s a lot of work to be done.
The world doesn’t have enough artists, storytellers, musicians, philosophers, enough people willing to build bridges with those we disagree with, or to suggest a way out of the quagmire of division. It’s a huge niche. It’s not about this one election, it’s about continuing to be engaged, to be part of the healing of, the saving of, a voice for, our precious, beautiful, fragile world.
What does this have to do with Mushrooms? I followed this path because I had the feeling of “something missing” even though I had a good, stable life. I now feel so full of mission and purpose, that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do. I had anxiety about being single and feeling like something was wrong with me. I can honestly say, that’s behind me.
I thought after my first vision, that I was “good” — satisfied. I went ahead with the next ceremony and that one unearthed challenges I hadn’t consciously “set” as an intention. I feel the same way now — that I am “good.” All set. Fixed. But I will be heading back when we can travel again, knowing there is more to learn. I will be bringing others with me. If the Medicine calls to you, as it did me, maybe we will be in the sacred medicine circle together somewhere, someday.
Diane Aoki is a writer who explores other modes of creativity as her intuition leads her.