Reishi: A Psychedelic of the Unseen
Joining the Unseen
Though we pride ourselves in this country on what we can capture, quantify and see, it’s a simple fact that the vast (and I mean vast) majority of our world is made up of the unseen. As human beings we are only privy to a very small window of experience. Meanwhile we move through a world that is built out of things we cannot touch or hold, or even understand fully. Dark matter, atoms, electromagnetic frequency— what we can perceive is only a very small fraction of the multitudes of worlds within our world.
Traditional peoples always understood that what we see as reality is just a sliver of a much larger experience. The tip of a vast iceberg, a reality that plunges down deep below the level of our day-to-day being. Scientists now hypothesis that over 98% percent of the universe is invisible. With the discovery of the atom as the basic chemical unit of all of life, a picture began to emerge that no physicists previously thought possible. Through all the experiments into this building block, we have come to find that the space between an atom’s nucleus and the outer electrons is so great, that atoms themselves are over 99% empty space. We have come to see that our world is literally more no-thingness than tangibility. In fact, if we removed all of the space from all of the atoms in every single human being, all of humanity could fit in the size of an apple. That is how much substance we truly contain. What we view as reality is made up, vastly, by the unseen.
We are so small and always, and ever, on the lip of exploring the magnanimous world of what lies just beyond our vision. In autumn we are fully invited to let go of the need to grasp or prove, and just fully join the realms of the unseen. Old emotions, memories, the worlds of the ancestors, spirits, the invisible threads that keep our world spun into a single web of being. We, like all beings, are made up primarily of the unseen. In autumn, when the trees empty themselves of leaves, and yet still remain alive, when the wind howls and pumpkins die on the vine, we are asked to examine and discard even our concepts of death, matter and endings. We are asked to reach beyond our five senses, to recognize that the existence of the Otherworld in all things and begin to reclaim our roles as priestesses, poets and agents of the unseen.
>> Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum, G. Tsugae) <<
Mushrooms are masters of the realms of the unseen and the in-between. Neither plant, nor animal, nor mineral, mushrooms occupy a space of being that is hard to communicate…let alone conceive. Like us, mushrooms breath. They take in the same oxygen we so unconsciously praise, and exhale the same spent carbon dioxide. Many people lump mushrooms in with the plant kingdom but mushrooms are actually as different from those chlorophyll-loving beings as we are from a blade of grass.
Mushrooms are reminders that what lies at the heart of the world is the unseen. Growing from soft logs and standing trees, mushrooms are the wisely-timed blooms of a much larger, hidden network of vegetation called mycelium— colonies of branching beings that extend underneath the soil of our entire world. If ever there was magic that lived in the very roots of all things, it is mycelium. Mycelium breaks down massive amounts of organic material, turning autumn’s leaves into the rich humus of a forest floor. Without mycelium, life on our planet, and the great relief of autumn’s dying, would be irrevocably altered. Mycelium is not only an organism (and some say the largest organism on earth) it is also as a network of interaction. Trees and other plants are able, not only to communicate, but also send vital nutrients to each other through the infinite strings of this mysterious web. Mycelium is central to the interconnected functioning of our world. In fact, mycelium is so adept as breaking down and ferrying organic compounds, many think they might be the first to adapt to the new chemicals of our world, transmuting radiation and pollutants into something more benign.
Growing from this vast unseen network are the mushrooms that thrive on life in decay. Agents of transformation, blooms that point to the ever-present unseen. And here in our woods there is one mushroom that tells this tale most vividly.
Ganoderma tsugae, our local Reishi species, is named for the genus of the trees on which they flourish, the Eastern hemlocks (Tsugae candensis). These magnificent hemlocks used to dominate large swaths of southern Appalachia. They were an iconic tree of these woods, its past and history. But today, almost all of these great hemlocks are falling. The wooly adelgid, an invasive East Asian insect, has single-handedly brought down an entire population. And as the Hemlocks fall, the Reishis boom.
In these mountains Reishi is sought after, searched for and prized like gold. Every summer I try to dry enough to begin my ritual of imbibing Reishi tea, beginning on the first cold night of autumn. As a holder of the space between the waking and dead, an entry point into an earthly network of the unseen, Reishi is a powerful initiator of the autumn’s medicine.
The Asian species of Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is called Ling zhi, which translates as “spirit plant.” In traditional Chinese medicine, this rare wild mushroom was reserved for the emperor and his court. Reishi was cherished for its ability to nourish the heart and safeguard shen (the Chinese word for the concept of a person’s individual soul, the consciousness that is housed within the heart). A disconnection from or disruption of our shen can manifest as anxiety, moodiness, and poor memory. In Chinese medicine are actually two shens. There is our wider spirit, our big Shen (with a capital S), and our little shen, the aspect of our light and the individual soul that animates our current selves. Reishi, as a medicine, can help nourish our small shen so effectively that we can begin to become aware of and interact with the larger, vastly invisible, Shen from which we come.
Reishi, called the “immortality mushroom”, is a powerful tonic of longevity. As an adaptogen, cardiotonic, immunomodulator, antiviral, hepatoprotective and nervine, it is a rich and nourishing fungus for every day decoctions and broths. Traditionally used in China and Japan for a whole host of conditions including, chronic hepatitis, hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, bronchitis, asthma, and deficient Qi. In clinical trials Reishi has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, inhibiting the clumping of platelets. It can also reduce angina and arrhythmia by improving artery flow. It has a deep affinity for our lungs, as well as our hearts and is also a powerful anti-cancer remedy, used in prevention, treatment and to protect against the negative side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. (Want a yummy way to imbibe Check out our recipe for Dark Magic Reishi Maple Truffles.)
An alchemical tonic of whole health, at its heart (its own shen), Reishi is a deep psychedelic. By definition a psychedelic is any substance that expands our consciousness, and part of Reishi’s Dao is to help us connect into a wider, mythic state of being. Reishi is a shen expander in ever sense of the world. Though much subtler than a medicine like Psilocybin, Reishi has the ability to shift our perception of reality. Over the years I’ve had many experiences of sipping on Reishi tea and clearly entering into an altered state of being. I remember one day in particular, I showed up to teach a class on flower essences at the Chestnut School for Herbal Medicine and was so elevated from a cup of fresh Reishi my dear friend Juliet said to me, “If I didn’t know you any better I’d think you were high on weed!” Drank on its own in a decoction, Reishi can invoke feelings of expansion, interconnection, and shimmering reality.
In this lifetime we are like mushrooms, small blooms bursting forth from a vast network of invisible being. When we can connect into this place of the unseen, we are enriched by a magnanimous sense of vibratory interconnection and well-being. The feeling that we belong to a wider, more radiant world. The reanimation of our individual souls, and the remembrance of our big Shen, the home from which we all came.
Are you ready to exponentially open your awareness of autumn’s subtle psychedelia and learn about the gatekeepers who guard its portal? Check out the class: Herbs for the Otherworld.
Article originally published in Plant Healer Magazine