An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Psilocybin by Harmony Holiday

The poetics of the microdose.

Part of the Spectacular Herbs series.

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There are things, elements in this world, that exist, completely liberated of our delusion —  Amiri Baraka 

Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga — Paul Mooney

They are like stone these people, now make them lava — Henry Dumas

I first heard the term “microdosing” used casually, like a quotidian verb, when I was visiting a friend’s office in Manhattan, one of those wannabe hip corporate spaces that feels like a scripted version of a college campus for adults, an environment that tricks its constituents into thinking they have it all, while the abject convenience induces a vapid monotony typical of megacorp American culture. The lust for recreation was palpable at this lunch hour, all of the employees herded by catering and buffets into a regressive school cafeteria-like scene. When my friend mentioned that she had microdosed Molly on a date the night before, it fulfilled the suspicion that this workspace was teaming with restlessness, utter boredom, and the adolescent attention to transgression that overly-curated panopticons demand. At the same time, the thrill of the dichotomy between the night before and that afternoon was vicariously gratifying—I support any mischief that makes American life bearable for my friends, especially the mischief of leaving corporate time-signatures for anything more soulful, even the tiny constantly deflating highs of microdosed designer drugs. 

The word microdosing became an instant part of my lexicon; I was curious about its inherent shrug, how it made itself seem responsible, even orderly, absolutely common, and how that assuredness proved the subconscious shame it carried. The micro was the shame, the disclaimer, I only poisoned myself a little, the dose was the normative so what, the held back over(t)(dose) likened Molly to medicine or the famous-for-the-wrong-reasons friend from the afrocasual Future anthem, proof that it was medicinal in a way no puritan ethic wants to face.

There’s a whole subculture blooming out of the collective and individual desperation for renovated minds, new ways of thinking, new patterns of cognition, which really all add up to new ideas about how to trick ourselves into coping with the human condition as it stands, and to be better capitalists while we’re at it, patenting ancient technology, using it to compete for perceived sanity. Nootropics, or ‘mind-hacking smart-drugs,’ refer to both herbal and Big Pharma products, that are made and taken to enhance neurological function and stimulate neurogenesis as well as help correct imbalances associated with depression and anxiety.  As a society we’re fiending for ways to think ourselves out of our own disordered choices and nootropics promise cognitive utopias to the mind dimming in the ruts of obsolete and lonely programs. Nootropics offer a second chance at creative freedom in a time of homogeneity so effective we don’t realize how deep in the hive we all are, how branded and controlled by received images and ideas.

Psilocybin, the compound produced in so-called “magic mushrooms,” and LSD, a synthetic hallucinogen, are the real preoccupation of the nootropic craze, to the extent that in Silicon Valley it is not uncommon for programmers to take a petit, polite dose of one or the other with their morning coffee, and rave about the increased well-being they feel as a result of this new ritual. It would be easy to laugh and dismiss this psychedelic renaissance as another sign that many are starved for any excuse to access the imagination, and have relegated it so much they need drugs to induce its function. But that yearning isn’t so laughable in a world where anxiety and depression run rampant and anything that soothes the addled mind is a potential miracle ‘drug.’ While I’ve spent the last few years experimenting with medicinal herbs and exploring their long-term effects on the body, I’ve also explored their close cousins, adaptogenic mushrooms, like Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, Chaga, and Reishi. Though they too are worthy subjects for any artist’s inquiry into plant medicine, microdosing the magic ones preoccupies me today, and adds relevance to the notion that mass consciousness is hardwired to respond to inklings of fascism by exploring deliberate delusion to cope with our mass complicity. Micro-dosing possesses an intricate poetics that sings, trips, and almost redeems the regimes that inspire it. There’s a sense of almostness that haunts everything now, and micro-dosing is an honest materialization of our constant precipice, the perfect accompaniment for our worship of revolutions that never quite arrive, trips that never quite start or finish, limbo and ambivalence, the pseudo magician’s favorite placeless places. 


Here’s Where I Come In 

Microdosing psilocybin increases the visual intensity of colors and hues, which suggests a higher sensitivity to differences between frequencies. People say it helps them feel more focused and present and eager to explore the fullness of each moment in a way that enhances creative thinking. Physiologically, the most salient response is an increase in the neurotransmitter serotonin which helps the human mind recognize gratification and pleasure. People complaining of anhedonia and dejection claim they are revived to states of tenderness and near blissful well-being through microdosing, while not feeling in any way incapable of performing daily tasks. Work and study are said to be more productive and fluid, some compare it to the feeling of taking Adderall without the accompanying aggression and restiveness. 

For a society on the precipice of both totalitarianism and total anarchic unraveling, it’s these subtle avenues to self-soothing that seem crucial to mental health as daily life refuses to respond to the ongoing crisis. To become just a little more lucid, to hallucinate just enough to forget to be neurotic or hysterical in the face of Earth’s nervous breakdown, and to be able to focus on the work you intend to do in a calm, unriled, state, is to begin the healing process away from our solipsistic daily habits. It makes showing up not just bearable but adventurous, tricking those who need it most into the kind of zen contentment that makes participation in this charade feel meaningful again, and less drastic and stiff and wicked.

As a poet who microdoses this psychically oppressive language in order to dispute and disrupt its grammar, to bring it to its knees and force it to reconsider everything it accepts as a given, and as a close listener to any music I can find that does the same, the idea of microdosing hallucinogens feels like a near equivalent to my most sacred intentions, to escape using intimacy instead of numbness. In my most vivid recollection with a real dose of psilocybin, my friend walks in after a breakup, sits down in the living room with a few of us who were furtively on mushrooms, and I proceed to cry his tears for him, all the while smiling. He hadn’t mentioned that he was sad or where he’d come from but it was so clear that I took it upon myself to feel it for all of us. That level of empathy is not sustainable in the everyday, not desirable, but a microdose of knowing exactly how someone is feeling and being present enough to acknowledge it completely, is why I microdose on the English language, why shards of speech like Norman Prichard’s sound variegated through beneath lit, repeated, alter the mental and corporal state, why we turn to Gertrude Stein for reasonable categorizations of the backwards every day. In the way that poetry accumulates in the system like the threat of true liberation and scares itself with revelation, microdoses of psilocybin similarly alter consciousness in a cumulative way. 

Establishing a habit of non-anxious hyper-awareness is a threat to the systems that attempt to control social life by inflating the ego at the expense of the spirit. Imagine a society wherein everyone from the factory workers to the programmers to the day laborers to the dancers and athletes and poets, are microdosing this tender magic in any form they can handle, and operate from a place where they can’t be so easily seduced into automatic action by the idea of material gain, where everyone needs their behavior to feel meaningful and considered and right, like the poets and hippies and children and everything unreasonable, where nature really could hack and reconfigure the capitalistic hive mind with something even greener, a new sense of what’s appropriate that excludes alienated labor.

Black Magic Mushrooms

As is true in most instances of potential collective healing through ritual, members of the African Diaspora are the born ready masters of ceremony in the resurgent ritual of the microdose. We possess an entire aesthetic tradition based on insinuating ourselves and our origins while also implicating and mastering the vampiric culture that tries to deny our connection with ourselves, and we accomplish this using microdoses of sound and shape through movement, speech, and music. One of the first Black American dances, a kind of  shamble, was deftly mocking White decadence while coding Black rebellion. From tap dance in the fields to the cakewalk that simultaneously entertained and mocked planters, we microdosed centrifugal motion to avoid the motion sickness of total assimilation. Being too African would have been as impossible as being too American, and so we managed to create social dance that was both and neither. 

Aurally, we did the same with our music, knowing that the cutesy American songbook didn’t satisfy the souls of black folk, we improvised on it and created jazz, blues, and soul. We microdosed those forms using the technology meant to repeat them, and created hip hop, then we microdosed on our new addictions and made Trap, and the even more obtuse Footwerk, a music that loops pieces of language, shards of grammar and meaning, the way the brain loops thought on drugs meant to corner it with pleasure. Footwerk is the sonic equivalent to both microdose and overdose, offering intentional ruts of thought and feeling, indoctrinating listeners in what almost feels like occult rituals for songs. One Footwerk anthem features the phrase I just had a brand new feeling repeating for ten minutes until you forget whether you’re tripping on some furtive dose of a drug or just caught in the hugging snare of the muse’s cyclical route to salvation. Either way, you’ve taken something, used a substance in channeled increments until it became one with your body. Microdosing is another black habit finally catching on in the West, a poetics of infinite insinuation, an arrival that always surpasses itself to be elsewhere, a craft, built on the persuasiveness of black deprivation and how that false sense of lack becomes the material of black hyper-indulgence, how attempts at our erasure help us fill up every space with refusal, we turn every hostility into a site of refuge.

Microdosing psilocybin fascinates me in light of these tendencies, because the practice seems like the endogenous chemical portal to exactly how we already exteriorize blackness. It makes beautiful sense that these imperceptible doses of a semi-hallucinogenic plant medicine would become so popular at a time when most of society is feeling as disenfranchised and at the mercy of our own creative power as black people have always felt here. We have always known the spell of slow poison as healing, we have always vaccinated ourselves against their way of thinking by ingesting it a little at a time, we have always been tripping off the glare of their reckless and invasive self-delusion, we have always made an everyday practice of imagining we had our own undivided attention and focus and could block out the threats racism and industrial capitalism impose. Even deep in the mines under the threat of suffocation we dance like sun stars. We have been microdosing socially and intellectually and environmentally ever since the mass abduction we now politely call slavery, so that it feels like this revived trend is another in their series of efforts to occupy and mimic the black body, and maybe one that will help us reclaim some of our own misplaced functions, and tune them out. And I just love when we get new rumors from old legends.

Tripping in the Gift Economy

There are some who say that when the Sahara went from tropical to desert, psychedelics were given to priests and artists so the rest of society could be controlled and more literal and focus on agriculture, building, hard labor, while relying on the self-appointed priests for information on the supernatural. The lay people, having lost access to their own trip, had to take the priest’s word for it, and were gradually abandoned by their internal gods as they ceded this power to intermediaries, needing something to believe in besides their labor.

There are some who say this mushroom is the gateway to all esoteric knowledge, that if you megadose psilocybin and read the hieroglyphs they are a movie, a series of moving images, that they’re meant to be read on psilocybin or not at all. That the mushroom is in most of the glyphs in disguise like a shielded goddess. What if that goes for everything, what if we’re all illiterate in a world that lurks just beyond our willingness to perceive it and could change that by reading poems and taking tiny portions of magic mushrooms regularly? If the evolution of human consciousness is going to accelerate at a rate equal to that at which we’re destroying the planet with our ignorance, maybe it is time we enlist some herbal allies, maybe it’s as normal as another day in the corporate cafeteria, or another path within a stanza or another supplication jazz, maybe next time I visit a dystopian office they’ll be hip and have some psilocybin adjacent the kale chips and La Croix. This is capitalism, even the spiritual awakening that could be its undoing will eventually be leveraged into just another commodity, nothing-to-see-here, even the ruins will sell for amusement and become spacious sites tourists visit just to trip inside of, ancient temples turned drug dens for our modern zombies.

There are rumors that there’s a cult forming, a group advocating for what they call ‘Transhumanism,’ or the merging of the human body with machines, and that nootropics, bio-hacking, and microdosing, are some of the gateways to the microchips we’ll soon have inserted like barcodes. The beauty of blackness is that no doomtheories seem any more or less coherent than what we’ve already survived and transcended, microdosed, and applied to the task of overcoming ourselves for centuries. Just being inside a black body in the West is a psychedelic experience, we’ve been trippin, we’ve made that into dance and music, we’ve infected the society with the abysmal beauty of our endless trip. Maybe small doses of psilocybin and neo-fascism will make some of what we’ve endured just a little more translatable and transmutable because they’re achieving resonance with whole levels of experience they’ve repudiated their entire lives, whole pleasure centers that black bodies have been forced into resonance with—there’s just some giddy redemption in the double entendre of their tripping over us, off of us, because of us, in effort to reach us, to be as psychedelic and free, redemption that time itself seems to be chasing into inevitability. Let the robots have any drug or plant that breaks them, sneaks up on them with pleasure, and makes them human again. 

Harmony Holiday is the author of Negro League BaseballGo Find Your Father/A Famous Blues and most recently Hollywood Forever. She is also the founder of Mythscience, an arts production house devoted to cross-disciplinary work that helps artists re-engage with their bodies, the Mingus School, its first series of events, and the Afrosonics archive of jazz and everyday diaspora poetics. She worked on the SOS, The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka, transcribing all of his poetry recorded with jazz accompaniment that had yet to be released in print. Harmony studied rhetoric and at UC Berkeley and taught for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She received her MFA from Columbia University and has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a NYFA Fellowship. She is currently working on a book of poems on Reparations and the body, a collection of essays on the same topic, and a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.

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