Decomposing the Shadow: Lessons from the Psilocybin Mushroom by James W. Jesso
Originally published in 2013, ‘Decomposing the Shadow: Lessons from the Psilocybin Mushroom’ is written by James W. Jesso. The book, written partly from a personal perspective, examines the manner in which modern society and culture operate, and how the responsible use of Psilocybin-containing mushrooms can aid us in overcoming personal, and as a result, social pathologies.
There is a prevalent worldview in the psychedelic arena that Jesso sums up neatly in his opening passage in Decomposing the Shadow: “Humankind is of the Earth, and the integrity of our physiological and psychological systems rely on maintaining constructive relationships to it—though in the modern world it seems as if we have forgotten this” (Jesso 2013, v). The environmental crisis is the most obvious example of a poorly maintained relationship that modern, Western humanity has cultivated, the macro example, but this extends to the relationships we have culturally, socially, personally, and with the self. The last being categorised by the prevalent cases of anxiety, depression, and such like, which now pervades all levels of society.
The root of this problem lies, Jesso says, in our disconnection with the “intelligence” that “sustains us”, and that in order to heal the damage that has been caused we need to find a way to reconnect with this “spirit”. The current state-of-affairs is maintained by our cultural belief systems, and the degree to which Western society tends to exclude certain behaviours—namely, those behaviours that put us in touch with what he calls the “spiritual”, which is achieved through certain altered states of consciousness. The particular method in discussion here is the use of Psilocybe mushrooms, and while there is no firm, culturally-accepted standpoint for the spiritual use of these mushrooms in the Western world, Jesso notes that we shouldn’t just adopt other cultural belief systems wholesale.
“If we choose to look at shamanism as a means by which we enable an alternative perspective on self and the world, without fully buying into the cultivated belief systems that my surround the practice, we can learn from altered states of consciousness without losing sight of the updated human knowledge base.” (Jesso 2013, viii).
One of the key points in Jesso’s book is the development of new systems and methods with which to approach the mushroom experience, taking into account not only knowledge from cultures experienced in their use, but also allowing space for our Western knowledge base to integrate. In this sense, Jesso is not arguing for a return to old ways, and there is certainly no ‘noble savage’ at work here, but rather the creation of new traditions that are relevant to the affected lives of people in the developed world. The important point when reading this, to my mind at least, is the necessity to not adopt cultural belief systems wholesale, for it is, in many respects, culture itself that Jesso wishes us to step beyond.
Strangely, Decomposing the Shadow appears to be aimed at two audiences. The opening historical sections, which take into account some of the major features of twentieth century psychedelic history is written for the uninitiated audience. It is really a rundown of the major events, and discourse that emerged, but he doesn’t buffer it with any critical information or depth-analysis. The final section of the book, similarly, covers well-trodden ground on how to manage experiences with mushrooms – dealing with set, setting, and dose. To anyone with any knowledge of these areas already, there is nothing new added, but they would work as useful, short, introductions, for those who do not. In many respects, through personal psychedelic maturation, the aim of the book is to help society heal its wounds and, therefore, the audience is a wide one.
On the other hand, however, the middle section of the book is the meat, and in fact goes into some psychological debate and explanation for which it would be useful to have a grounding in psychedelic discourse and theory in the first place. It is worth now taking a closer look at the mode Jesso develops and some of the key terms he employs. Primarily, language and syntax: “[T]he nature of language as a cognitive system used to construct a conceptual grasp on one’s experiences, and how the sum potential of all personal languaging capabilities is called syntax” (Jesso 2013, 38). Obviously, the words language and syntax have been reconfigured for Jesso’s system of understanding the cognition of experience, but how so?
Language can be understood as verbal – which Jesso states is too heavily relied upon in the modern, Western world – but also through a multitude of exchanges that take place through the aforementioned relationships: humankind and the world, people with people, a person with the self. Each has its own particular conceptual make-up and these act as frameworks for conceptualising our experiences of these relationships. Syntax, which in some respects is akin to identity, is the personal make-up of these various languages, and is culturally conditioned in us as we grow up. A matrix would be another word to describe this. The argument goes, if we experience something that sits outside of a language we understand, then it is blocked off by the syntax as not fitting into one’s worldview. Here is the point one finds the personal pathology that the healing capabilities of mushrooms address.
Although Jesso talks about “expanding syntax” as opposed to transcending it, he at other points talks about the need to “surrender the ego to a broader sense of self”. Just how his cognitive conceptual system works with the traditional approaches to the mind – ego, subconscious, etc. – is not fully explained in the book, and it perhaps represents a very interesting avenue of investigation in the future. So, the psychedelic theory goes, one uses mushrooms to bypass the cultural conditions of our syntax in order to find a language whereby we can then assimilate experiences of the spiritual into our everyday lives, and expand our syntax. The method of this process utilises an updated version of Jung’s idea of the ‘shadow’.
“Chronic fear operates in the background of our lives, seated in the substrate of awareness, constantly informing the experience of reality and adversely affecting the ability to make sound decisions. When strongly present, it debilitates us from making wise choices toward constructive spiritual growth. Chronic fear is among the greatest obstacles to growth within self and the human species.” (Jesso 2013, 59)
Chronic fear, the state in which fear is unable to be escaped, is caused, we are told, by our inability to have a language to describe it, and the result is that we shrink from its cause. Moreover, society feeds this belief by its inability to address the cause of these problems – found in the shadow – and only treats the symptoms: “Psilocybin mushrooms guide us into a state of increased emotional awareness, and in doing so, are able to bring us into a direct encounter with the shadow” (Jesso 2013, 69). Through facing our shadow, and then integrating the experience, we are confronting the spirituality of oneness; the result of which is a more coherent and complete syntax with which to conceptualise and address the languages of the world; and release emotional blockages through what he names emotive-psychosynthesis.
The frameworks that Jesso utilises in Decomposing the Shadow will be familiar to anyone who has read the major works of psychedelic literature, especially the ones with a psycholytic and psychedelic therapy focus and/or underpinning. Moreover, it is clear that there is a great deal of influence from Terence McKenna in his approach to understanding the mushroom through language, and his conceptualization of culture as a conditioning foe. However, as stated earlier, the meat of his exposition, marked through language, syntax, and emotive-psychosynthesis, is a very alluring language in itself, and this reviewer looks forward to reading more on these ideas in the future.