This is an older piece, written back in 2014, with some minor grammatical adjustments. Its original title was ‘Cultivating The Teacher: Parallels In Sufism And The Use Of Psilocybin Mushrooms As A Spiritual Tool’. [added: Dec 21, 2021: Although much of what was written here remains my perspective, my use of the language of “tool” no longer rings true for me. See here for why.]
It was published in “PsypressUK Anthology 2014 v.3” by PsyPressUK in August 2014 and re-published in “Out Of The Shadows: A Cornucopia from the Psychedelic Press” by Muswell Hill Press in July 2015. More of my written work can be found here.
Citations of quotes from Kabir Helminski, The Knowing Heart, Shambhala Publications 2000 ~ and: James Jesso Decomposing The Shadow, SoulsLantern Publishing 2013 ~ will be referenced as ‘TKH’ and ‘DTS’, respectively, followed by the page number where the quote can be found.
Sufism: A Mystical School Of Islam
Sufism can be loosely described as the mystical school of Islam. I personally know little of this way of life as it is expressed in dedicated seekers, I am merely one who is interested in some of the founding principles it presents. In that interest, and in reading a book called The Knowing Heart by Kabir Helminski, I have begun to explore the applicability of certain Sufi principles as they relate to using psilocybin (magic) mushrooms as a tool for psychospiritual maturation. Specifically, this essay will explore the correlations related to the Sufi principles of Dervish and Shaikh (the relationship between student and teacher) and the role of spiritual community.
The intention here is not to promote Sufism but to elucidate how one can apply some of its principles in their relationship to mushrooms (or any visionary medicine) to create a student/teacher exchange between oneself and the visionary experience mushrooms’ occasion. If there are principles in a tradition, society, philosophy, religion, etc. that are found to widely apply outside of their cultural context, this offers support in the validity of those principles being cross-cultural in some sense. Thus also open to the public domain of human life without the need for cultural appropriation. Sufism, as a way of life that is said to engender an increasing expression of spiritual maturity in the dedicated participant, seems to offer this caliber of applicable principles. In particular, some of these principles flow beautifully to the use of psilocybin mushrooms as a tool for cultivating spiritual maturity as well. In exploring the relationship between these Sufi principles and the use of psilocybin mushrooms as a tool for personal development, I hope to recapitulate these principles from their religious context for applicability and use within a personalized mushroom practice.
Before we continue with this essay, it is important to address that I will be frequently referring to new or loaded terms. I will do my best to define these terms as the text moves along to ensure the reader is able to understand what my intended use of them. One of these terms is ‘God’. I have often defined my use of ‘God’ simply as a term to reference the All That Is, All At Once. In The Knowing Heart, Helminski offers this description of Sufism’s philosophical take on God, (it can be applied throughout the rest of this essay as the intention behind my use of the word as well):
Reality, the Source of Life, the Most Subtle State of Everything. The love of God is the love of the greatest Truth. This question concerns Reality, not religion. The “love of God” is our essential relationship with what is most real. [TKH pg4]
The Connection Between Working With Psilocybin Mushrooms and Sufi Mysticism
I touched on the relationship between Sufi principles and psilocybin mushrooms in my book Decomposing The Shadow. In the section titled “God and Surrender”, I speak briefly on the correlations between accessing “awareness of God” in Sufism and the process of surrender within a psilocybin experience:
[It] is stated [in Sufism that] those who love God are gifted three blessings: Islam (submission/surrender), Iman (faith) and Ihsan (awareness of God). Mushrooms can open our psychoemotional perception with such force that we may have no other choice but to give into its power (Islam) and have faith or trust in our self (Iman) that we will come through it alive. It is in this surrender and trust that we may get a glimpse of the true depth of spirit (Ihsan). [DTS – pg51]
Since writing on this subject, I have further explored Sufism to find several other correlations between it and accessing, navigating and integrating the spiritual psychedelic experience. Such as the premise of a divine creative principle manifesting in all reality, encompassed in the quote “Wheresoever you look is the face of God”(Qur’an 2:115), and there being a capacity within the human being for perceiving an imaginal inner-world, full of symbolic meaningfulness rendered as visions and engaged through the active imagination. I have also found several of the principles for integrating spiritual perception into daily life and the path of Sufism, in general, to be in accordance with my personal practice with psilocybin mushrooms. Could the relationship between various principles in Sufism as a way to God and practice with visionary medicines such as psilocybin mushrooms, as a way to God be representative of these principles as being diversely applicable means to psychospiritual maturity? Maybe, but for the purpose of this essay we will keep the inquiry into exploring the application of some of these principles in psilocybin experiences.
In Decomposing The Shadow, I offer a framework for psilocybin mushrooms as being a tool for catalyzing increased emotional potency and self-awareness. In supporting the emergence of both the light and dark elements of the psyche, the cathartic release of repressed emotions, and exposure to a grander expression of self, the mushrooms can work as a teacher or a guide in one’s process of psychospiritual maturation. I offer how to better occasion such types of experiences, how to navigate them and the psychological, emotional and spiritual mechanisms associated. I speak of offering oneself in respect to the mushroom as one’s teacher and also the awareness that it is not the mushrooms but the self-awakened in relationship the mushroom, that offers this guidance. The Sufi principles of dervish, shaikh and spiritual community helps to expand on how to better access and apply this teacher/guide relationship.
The Learning RELATIONSHIP between the Shaikh and The Dervish
A dervish is a person who has committed themselves completely to ‘the love of God’ (ultimate truth) above all things through apprenticeship to their shaikh. A shaikh is also a dervish, though one who has committed themselves long enough to reach a point of becoming a teacher, one who is spiritually mature. The shaikh is not considered to be a being to worship, such as a living god, but as a being of inspiration and guidance towards maturity within a spiritual community. A spiritual community is a group of dedicated participants whose intention is deepening their relationship to God.
“[T]he shaikh does not gather power or privilege for himself or herself but is the servant of the yearning of the dervish’s heart”[TKH pg135]. This is to say that the shaikh is a teacher who has dedicated himself or herself as a dervish to God through offering themselves as a servant to the yearning of their student’s process of maturity, and in their relationship to God. This is cultivated through Rabita, a connection of love. In many ways, this is essentially a relationship of offering and receiving love and respect through student and teacher as a means to deepen ‘love of god’ and integrate spiritual wisdom.
In Sufism according to Helminski, it is understood that “the truth is a ‘trackless land’ [and] one attains wisdom primarily through one’s own experience, independent of guidance”[TKH pg120]. Yet, it is also understood that the unconscious guidance offered by the immature human environment of conventional society, played out through the ego, is not one that will ultimately lead to spiritual maturity. In this understanding, it becomes highly functional to create a spiritual community that has a spiritually mature person or persons as an example to aspire to and be inspired by. Elsewise, one may simply cycle the same patterns of egotism almost indefinitely. In Sufism, this is someone (the shaikh) who has come to fully embody baraka (grace) and Rabita in their relationship to God.
In Islam every human being has a direct relationship to the divine. In Sufism, however, this individual’s relationship with the Divine is assisted by a sharing of mind with someone who has broken through the barrier that separates the alienated self [(ego)] from the wholeness of mind, which is transpersonal. [TKH pg120]
The dynamics of relationship between student and teacher in this tradition work as a feedback loop. The shaikh is a servant of the dervish’s yearning heart. Yet, the shaikh’s ability to offer themselves in a way that allows for the dervish’s advancement is dependent on how the dervish engages the shaikh. Essentially, a great teacher is the result of a great student and vice versa. Ideally, within the spiritual community, the students create a bond together that mutually empowers the students, and the teacher, through recognizing each other for their gifts and growth, holding each other accountable for their actions. All of this would be founded around ethical behavior, love, grace, respect, trust, and dedication, creating a field of support towards spiritual maturity for all parties.
Furthermore, it is also understood around some traditions of Sufism that the shaikh is merely an expression of the student’s inner wisdom. This is why it is said that a great shaikh is the result of a great student. When a student offers the perception of reverence and wisdom in the teacher, those characteristics are reflected back to the student. The wisdom of the teacher is an objectified reflection of the student’s inner-wisdom being played out through a relationship of Rabita. This is also why it is important to have the teacher as one is who is spiritually mature, as spiritual maturity is an expression of “someone who has broken through the barrier that separates the alienated self [(ego)] from the wholeness of mind”[TKH pg120]. They have been able to release the assumptions and projections readily played out by the ego so as to work as clear mirrors for the wisdom shining out through the student’s humble dedication.
We can see an example of how the shaikh is an expression of the dervish’s inner wisdom in the great Sufi poet Rumi’s relationship to his shaikh, Shams Tabrizi. After Shams disappeared, Rumi spent much time mourning his loss, searching for him. Eventually, Rumi realized that to seek for Shams was unnecessary because all that he sought from his teacher was available within himself.
Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!
Psilocybin Mushrooms As A Spiritual Tool
It is here that we will begin to explore how this relates to psilocybin mushrooms. As mentioned earlier, I consider the use of psilocybin as a potential tool towards similar results as mentioned in Sufism, spiritual maturity. The mushroom can work as a guide in this process. But how does one obtain this guidance and who/what is guiding us? The mushroom? How does this relate to Sufism?
Sufism speaks of the shaikh as one who has “broken through the barrier that separates the alienated self from the wholeness of mind, which is transpersonal” [TKH pg120]. This is exactly what the mushroom chemically unlocks for us. When one takes psilocybin mushrooms, the neurological actions being facilitated include decreased blood flow (and thus functioning) to the very areas of the human brain associated to maintaining ego self-identity patterns and the structured flow of information, especially the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate. In creating this neurological change, one of the associated experiential effects of psilocybin can be described as connecting to a world of transpersonal self-identity. Thus, the mushroom may very well biochemically activate oneself into a state of mind similar to that proclaimed to be naturally of the shaikh.
There is a problem that arises here, however, as the potential results of a psilocybin experience are highly mutable and dependent on set (as in mindset or how we perceive the substance and occasioned experience), setting (as in the physical environment), dosage (how much of it we take) and how we integrate the experience. Just because the state of mind occasioned by psilocybin has the potential to employ shaikh-like awareness, does not mean that one’s use of them makes one an awakened being. It is highly dependent on the aforementioned elements as to whether or not that awakening will occur within the participant. And furthermore, it must be understood that even if it does occur, the biochemical change it is sourced in will eventually wear off and the ego (alienated self) identity will return. However, it is possible to occasion experiences that awaken this type of awareness and engage them in a way that brings the lessons offered within those experiences back into the normal ego life. Over time, this may help us achieve fuller expressions of psychospiritual maturity.
Decomposing The Shadow outlines a complete cognitive model for the type of experiences that can potentiate these results. Expanding on what is presented there, it is possible to engage shaikh-like awareness with the mushroom experience but, as mentioned, it is all dependent on how one engages it.
Respect is the foundation of any constructive relationship; be it with a practice, person, or medicine. We are entering an exchange with an organism from which we are hoping to garner insight and/or healing. It is important to treat it with respect as we will gain more from the experience in this way. Respect is one of the manners through which we increase our receptivity to the mushroom’s lessons about self and life as a whole.[…]
The source of an experience with psilocybin is not the mushroom itself, it is only the catalyst. The source of the experience is within us. So when we show respect to the experience and the substance that occasioned that experience, we are actually showing respect to an aspect of self. This respect for self is a key element in utilizing psilocybin for personal growth. [DTS pg83]
Awakening an Inner-Shaikh With Psilocybin
Helminski says that in Sufism a great shaikh is still an apprentice to something grander than itself. He also says what defines a shaikh as ‘great’ is how they are engaged by their students. It is the student who holds the shaikh in the reverence of being a ‘great shaikh’ that allows both to obtain the benefits of such an exchange. I present the same perspective here. If one offers reverence to the awakened-self occasioned by mushrooms as being a source of spiritual guidance and wisdom, one can obtain the benefits of such an exchange. Yet in order to do this, we must be able to hold trust for ourselves and the potential of what this experience offers as well as the languages we have to understand it, which takes time and commitment to develop.
We can help this process along by becoming students, not of the mushroom, but of the awakened-self. If we choose to build Rabita, a connection of love, founded on respect and reverence to that expressed element of self, we can build that self inside of us. At first, the mushroom- awakened self is highly limited in its scope as we, the student, are unfamiliar with its teachings. We are not yet familiar with how to be a student of this self, nor have we engaged the experience in a way that offers opportunity for the mushroom awakened-self to even be a dervish. In the early stages of this relationship, the caliber of wisdom that emerges is usually too novel or odd to be properly applicable in daily life; we lack the conceptual framework to navigate the experiential wisdom of the awakened-self in a functional way. Yet in time, if we choose to engage the mushroom experience as students of the awakened-self, of our self, we cultivate a relationship to our inner wisdom. We do this by exploring the mushroom awareness with a systematic approach founded on this student/teacher perspective and in time build a sense of trust in ourselves, in that which the mushroom exposes us to (a deeper expression of our emotional connection to God, the essential transpersonal reality), as well as a conceptual framework to functionally navigate and apply it in daily life.
Relating this to Sufism, we choose to awaken the dervish (seeking apprentice) in the mushroom awakened shaikh (one who has embodied the wholeness of mind) and allow that expression of our self to explore and learn. We do this by becoming a student who honors and reveres the inner shaikh to a point where, in time, that shaikh, awakened in its exploration, has a wisdom that is accessible to the now-familiar student (ourselves).
This established relationship of trust enables us to not only visit the awakened-self, but also integrate its wisdom into one’s self-identity as we learn to apply it in our daily lives. Learning the applicability of wisdom offered in explorations with the mushroom comes through familiarizing ourselves with the dynamics of the experience, through learning how to engage ourselves and the world around in a manner that will offer personal benefit. Doing so can be benefited by ‘spiritual community’ or a group of people exchanging with each other on the foundation of ethical behavior, love, grace, respect, trust. Yet, it may also hinder us from true wisdom.
The process of properly integrating the wisdom of transpersonal self-identify can be benefited by connecting with others who are able to help us feel acknowledged in our growth and hold us accountable for our changes. I believe this is what Terence McKenna meant when he said “find the others”; find those who have become students of the awakened-self so as to better help each other achieve fuller integration of the wisdom it offers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one finds a group to talk about their experiences directly, but to simply share in communion with good people who have had similar experiences of awakening. Often, we speak to explain our psychedelic experiences too soon and miss the grander wisdom offered by constraining it into the only language the ego has available to explain it through at the time. It is best to wait. In a Sufi spiritual community, one doesn’t speak of their religious experiences with each other, only with the shaikh. And the same may apply to psychedelic experiences as well. It is often best to communicate an expression of what has been learned in action and composure, more than in retelling the story. But of course, this is dependent on the context and the point of understanding one may be regarding their experiences. Eventually, the sharing of stories may be the very thing that supports others in their development towards maturity. This is a rather grey zone and there are no rules to define when or what works best to share one’s stories.
This essay clearly does not intend to say that Sufism promotes, requires or is based on the use of mushrooms. It offers an outline to how Sufi principles can apply outside of their specific religious context. Like in Sufism, one can cultivate spiritual maturity and be empowered in their life and potential wisdom by becoming an honest student (dervish) of their transpersonal identity (shaikh) through a relationship of love and dedication their inner-wisdom accessed by psilocybin mushrooms.
However, and somewhat paradoxical to this entire essay, with any and all belief systems, whether they be attached to a religious text or a psychedelic experience, there are no guarantees that any of it will get you closer to spiritual maturity or God in any way. Sometimes these belief systems may help in navigating our experiences of life beyond the established ego and in turn cultivate a relative sense of God through directing the way we live. But they will inevitably hurt our development if they are not released in favor of simply being ourselves without imposed expectations.
In regards to the Sufi path of the “seeker” and “spiritual maturity” in general: Does creating an identity founded on being in search of something ever bring a sense of having found that which we seek? Who determines who as spiritually mature? Who determines the premise of cultivating spiritual maturity as all that important anyways? Is it someone outside of ourselves? Is this destination of maturity the point to life? If not, then is the point is the journey? If the point is the journey, is there really any need to seek anything? Have we not already arrived exactly where we need to be?
Of course, the premise of exploration and personal transformation holds a potential value to the individual and the development of what is described as spiritual maturity can offer positive effects in ones quality of life. In that way, both the use of psilocybin mushrooms and Sufism may offer the framework to encourage this. But again, who determines how and who we are supposed to be in life and what direction our journey should go? Personally, with this question in mind, I rest with more confidence in the direct experience of psilocybin than the externalized direction of a religious belief system. A psilocybin experience does not require a belief system, nor, as outlined here, does it need anyone else to inform you of how, what or who you are supposed to be according to an externalized value system. It opens the option to journey through new perspectives on ourselves and in that way, maybe counter to what I offered here, the psilocybin experience isn’t so much about spiritual maturity as it is about potentiating novelty in the journey we are already on. Of course, as stated earlier, having a systematic approach or framework for psilocybin experiences can help us to integrate those direct experiences, that is what this essay is all about. But the frameworks only have as much value as they are personally functional, the rest can be tossed in favor of what work best for the individual.
I ultimately feel that only through learning how to be love in and for yourself in the present moment, seeing the magic in the ordinary, without any belief systems employed to set expectations for what that looks like, can we truly discover ourselves as spiritually mature. In the meantime, essays like this (and a practice with the mushrooms) may help along the way. (Especially for the author, who is far from a role model for such maturity)
-  Psychospiritual maturation is the developmental process of learning one’s unwounded self and naturally embodying and expressing that unhindered self within one’s personality. I use it interchangeably here with “spiritual maturity”.
-  For a more in-depth look at the energetic dynamics behind the capacity to increase general perception (consciousness expansion), through community experiences, check out my published book Soundscapes & Psychedelics. [this book is now out of print]
-  Coleman Barks The Essential Rumi HarperOne, 2004
-  Decomposing The Shadow discusses the type of experience that can offer the development of spiritual maturity, the experiential characterizes of those types of experiences, as well as perspective and suggestion of how to cultivate these experiences in much more depth.
-  Carhart-Harris, Robin L., et al. “Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.6 (2012): 2138-2143.
-  This is a potentially dangerous place to be as its lack of normal life applicability can become a self-perpetuating cycle of confusion.
-  Though, a word of warning: if the community one shares their story with is not practicing a life towards spiritual maturity, and those people become the influence for how one integrate their experience, this very same premise of ‘spiritual community’ may only lead one deeper and deeper into egoic self-delusions of maturity.