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How Studying Fungi Can Help Navigate a World in Chaos

Some thoughts on how the study and cultivation of fungi can help improve our well-being during these trying times.

Last Updated on August 23, 2020

If you’ll be so kind as to oblige me. I’d like to try something new and share with you a few thoughts I’ve had as of late as a sort of experiment in personal self-expression. My brother-in-law recently commented on Sam Harris’s Mushroom Trip monologue and after listening to it closely one afternoon, I couldn’t help but to feel inspired to write down some of my own thoughts on the matter and record this incantation.

Where this goes, the medium through which it will be published and the reaction to be received in consequence, well – I can’t say for sure . But I do know, like so many of you, I yearn to be heard, for some of my thoughts to be explained and perhaps most importantly, to be understood.

I’m often reminded of Sir Francis Bacon’s declaration that “reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

Indeed; writing as a form allows for one’s thoughts to be carefully constructed, poured over and conveyed to the limits of one’s ability. 

I suppose if I am going to talk about my first psychedelic experience and the impact it had on me, some background information and a lens through which I entered into the experience would be useful.

How Mushrooms Can Help Navigate a World in Chaos

My journey with mushrooms began over ten years ago when I discovered that mushrooms are part animal, part plant and that human-beings share more DNA in common with mushrooms than plants. Fungi provide medicine, food, clothing, and a wealth of other benefits to mankind. This initial discovery led me down a path to dig into the kingdom of fungi and the incredible symbiotic relationship that we share with these often misunderstood and feared organisms.

I recently had a conversation with a close friend and he was asking me how I was fairing with the epidemic. Personally, I haven’t been too affected by it. I certainly have my opinions and have my moments but by and large, I’ve been navigating through this time like any other. My friend was apt to point out to me that I would often steer the conversation towards one of my current projects involving the study and cultivation of a variety of medicinal mushrooms. It dawned on us both that there is something special about the process of mushroom growing that is actually helping me during this time and that it might actually be something worth sharing.

I can talk and share all kinds of really fascinating research and information about fungi but for now, I’d like to just talk at a meta-level about getting involved in learning about and cultivating mushrooms and how we might apply that to our lives and our workplaces to improve our overall well-being.

Learning and Attending to Fungi is a Great Place to Occupy a Worried Mind

Prolonged social distancing and isolation are precisely the opposite of what human-beings need to develop a sense of well-being, belonging and connectedness in this world. Many of the coping mechanisms we are accustomed to leaning on during times of distress are no longer accessible to us.

For the intellectually minded, those who are on a constant chase for new information and learning, fungi offer an outlet unlike any other. For example, studying the slime mold Physarum polycephalum  offers software engineers a chance to peek into how nature has solved NP-hard problems – that is a problem that is non-deterministic and cannot be easily approached with a predetermined algorithm. This same slime mold was also recently used to simulate the dark matter that connects all matter in the universe. 

There are many experiments you can do from home to learn algorithms that nature has laid at our footsteps.

For the layperson, you might start by looking up an antibiotic that you have laying around the house such as a prescription or from a tube of antiseptic cream. You’ll quickly discover that the key ingredient is derived from a fungus that was discovered by accident. This might take you down a path of learning how to grow your own antibiotic mold in some Tupperware laying around the house. While others might be interested in knowing more about how fungus generates enzymes that “plug into” our body or harmful pathogens and soon, the world of microbiology is at your fingertips in a way you would never experience in a classroom setting.

Learning about fungi and mushrooms from all angles provides you with knowledge, a better understanding of our world and a sense of empowerment in realizing the information has applications to medicines, including the current epidemic, when your mind might otherwise be sitting in fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness.

Learning About Mushrooms Increases a Sense of Connectedness

Research suggests that one’s subjective sense of well-being is highly correlated with how interconnected the mind is with itself and that one of the biological mechanisms of trauma and its corollary effects is that it shuts down parts of the brain (or you might say self). The research suggests that it’s a series of deeply connected interpersonal experiences that shape how we view the world and our capacity for healing and growth.

When you dig into the world of fungi, you will begin to see the parallels in how connectedness, in a variety of micro and macro contexts, is not just healthy for humans, but has been employed by nature for millennia.

Fungi facilitates nutrient exchange between just about every type of plant there is. Underneath our feet is a massive network of mycelium, resembling the topology of the internet, connecting living organisms and acting as message pathways that alert life in the local ecosystem of potential dangers.

In my learning, I have discovered a plethora of parallels in how fungi grows, travels, reproduces to that of human well-being. I would postulate that the more we can emulate the degree of complex interconnectedness we have with our own minds and in larger social contexts, the more our well-being is improved – offering up a vast amount of benefits to individuals and society at-large.

In short, if you can get over the hump and make a connection to mushrooms, it won’t be long before you begin to draw parallels between other organisms and systems you interact with. The outcomes, in my experience, offer a counter-balance to the ever disconnected and isolated world in which we live in and are increasingly moving towards.

There are many ways to get started with growing and studying mushrooms. In my case, I’ve built my own clean room, poured agar plates, germinated fungal colonies, transferred isolated strains to bulk and fruited whole mushroom bodies. I’ve filmed and grown bioluminescent mushrooms, cultured yeast that naturally lives on our bodies and now am I on a journey to use the awe-inspiring natural biosynthetic power of a common yeast to produce valuable and life-saving compounds. And I’m doing it as an average person with no fancy degree, no formal training. It’s me. Books. The internet. And voracious appetite for knowledge and to manifest into the present that which has lived in the corners of my mind, often neglected and attended to, for far too long.

Other folks might get started with a $20 oyster mushroom grow kit from Home Depot.

Whatever methodology you choose, there is definitely something to be said about the process and it’s healing, regulative effect on the psyche. Growing mushrooms takes patience and each step is fraught with the possibility of failure. The process often means that you do a lot of prep work and then you wait to see the results.

I’ll find myself in my lab for hours working on a project or inspecting growths on my Petri dishes. As each stage of the process advances, I find myself checking on my experiments and ensuring they have the right humidity and temperature to colonize without introducing contamination.

In a sense, I’m a modern farmer of fungi and I’ve developed a strong sense that the act of farming – the journey from seed to harvest – is itself a healing process that instills a sense of regulation and calm. With each step of the process, I can only move as fast as the mushrooms will allow. Developing a trust in this serves as a metronome for the parts of me that are seeking instant hits of gratification that I might otherwise lean on to avoid being with myself or feeling whatever lurks deeper within me.

The satisfaction of having paced myself, attuning myself to my observations, listening to what the growths are telling me, the daily ritual of measuring and logging my observations and then finally seeing the finished product in my hands is indescribable. It’s probably akin to how farmers of old felt by having a successful crop they invested everything into, knowing that they were able to create food and resources through a beautifully coordinated dance with the ultimate incubator of life: nature.

Closing Remarks

There is much we can learn about how to adapt to these challenging times by looking to nature and emulating how it has solved problems that we are only now understanding apply to us. Mycology, or the study of fungi, has been an incredible gateway to increased connectedness, meaningful learning, and obtaining the satisfaction of the slow and steady progression of tending to a crop before feasting on a glorious harvest.

To those of you who find yourself, like so many of us, in a perpetual struggle for meaning and balance in life – for those of you seek to transcend the flawed constructs of modern day society and the division it sews amongst our fellow man, I offer up this anecdotal experience and words of hope that there are ways you can navigate chaos, fear, anxiety, and other emotional challenges. There is much we can learn about ourselves from the fungi world and I hope this post will offer up a new pathway – a new connection – that you might explore to help improve your personal and work life as it has for me.

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