Click here for a slide show. 9: Satori

It’s my last day in Amsterdam. I’ve got no one to hang out with. I’ve seen all the good museums, I’ve biked through all the interesting neighborhoods. What’s left?

Ah yes, one last thing to do: eat psychedelic mushrooms.

I’m fretting over this decision. I have taken shrooms once or twice before, but it was years ago. What if I get superpotent, brainfry shrooms, flip out, and wind up in a straightjacket? It’s especially scary because I’m a firm believer in the buddy system, and I’m alone here. Also, to top it all off, it’s drizzly out. Which means all the best shrooming spots (nature preserves, the beach, nice parks) are out of the question. My worry is that urban shrooming—in the streets and public spaces of central Amsterdam—could turn into a howling, gnashing nightmare.

But screw it. It’s time for me to dance with the fungus.

Luckily, the “smart shops” here are incredibly professional. They tell you precisely the dosage to take (it’s pre-packaged), help you determine which shrooms are best suited for your purposes (I took a pass on the daunting “Philosopher’s Stones” and went for the wussiest option: “Thai”), and even explain how to come down if you’re freaking out (you fill your stomach with food and sugary drinks, which mutes the effect).

So, now I’ve bought some shrooms, scurried them back to my hotel room, and gobbled them up. And now the waiting game begins. I walk around Amsterdam aimlessly, doing some window shopping, trying to kill time until the trip kicks in.

I’m in an H&M, on the edge of the socks and accessories aisle, when the drugs begin to take hold. My body starts to yell at me: “Something is happening! What is happening?! Yeeeee!!” Racks of cotton dresses shimmer together in a wavy mass. Sounds that were soft are suddenly loud, while sounds that were loud are now fading away.

I manage to stumble outside to an empty park bench. The trees here are waving wooden fingers at me, and birds are somehow flying without flapping their wings. It feels like I’m in a scene from Koyaanisqatsi. And my stomach seems poised to eject from my torso at any moment. I am clinging to broken shards of reality.

Then, after a few terrifying minutes like this, it all smoothes out. My stomach settles. My eyes refocus. I decide that I am not in fact dying … and that the basic laws of physics still pertain. I gather myself, and I stand up straight.

It feels like there is a magical accordion in my skull and that it’s pumping a thick, steady breeze of colors through my brain.

The rain has picked up and that low, weighty Netherlands sky looks sort of evil, so I duck into a nearby cinema. I complete the ticket transaction with a surprising degree of competence. Now I find myself watching What the #$*!  Do We Know? in a theater with a few dozen people. The British women to my left whisper during the coming attractions, gossiping about their love lives. Their voices sound like they’re living inside my cortex. Then the film starts up, and it turns out to be just the ticket: an exploration of quantum physics and the meaning of life, written by members of a bizarre, guru-centered cult. Perrrrrfect.

The accordion in my skull eventually slows. The experience is becoming less physical and more cerebral. My thoughts race and blend. Concepts and forms crystallize, then melt, then merge.

I start contemplating my visit to Amsterdam: how wonderful travel is—the way it jolts you from patterns and ruts and lets you examine your everyday life from the outside. I think about the people I’ve met here, conjuring their faces in my mind. I remember the thoughts and stories that spilled out in our conversations. Each person and thought and story forges a teensy new dot in my brain … a dot that hadn’t been there before … and these dots join a web of connections in my head … and the people and places and thoughts and stories swirl together in an overarching conceptual understanding of the universe and my place in it …

I know it’s silly. I know I’ve totally lost you here. And I don’t mind you laughing at me—I realize that this seems not nearly so profound as it did when I was in that satori moment.

One thing about interesting drugs (not boring drugs like cocaine or Vicodin) is that they can help you appreciate simple truths. Things you’ve been taking for granted. I mean, you look down at your hand, and the drugs say, “Wow, far out, there are bones inside my hand!” but then the sober, together voice in your head says, “Well, of course there are bones inside your hand, you doofus—you have a skeletal system to provide structure for your body,” and then the drugs say, “No, dude—there are bones inside my hand! That is trippy!”

And the thing is, both of you are right.

When the film ends, I sit in the cinema lobby for a while (it’s a plush, upscale place—not some popcorn-shrapneled megaplex), and I let myself come down. I sip on a fountain Vanilla Coke. I watch people come and go. A few Dutchies have set up a sort of picnic at a table in the corner. They are surrounded by their empty bottles of Heineken. Their children are playing a game of tag, shrieking and circling the bench I’m sitting on. People board the escalator, and I follow them with my eyes as they ascend. Everyone I see, I love. You, guy in the glasses with a backpack: You’re A-OK! Hey, you, mom with the stroller: Rock on! I feel deep empathy for all humankind. This is a feeling I wish to hold onto forever yet also wish to be rid of as soon as possible.

I suck at my straw and the last drops of Vanilla Coke burble up to my tongue. So, this is the end. My travels are over. Tomorrow I’ll get on a plane and be back at home, back at work, back in the swing, back on track.

But I’ve realized it’s just a state of mind. Going to an art museum shifts my perspective. Meeting new people shifts my perspective. Taking mushrooms shifts my perspective. Being here in Amsterdam shifts my perspective. But I needn’t actually move to Amsterdam (or, thank God, be on mushrooms) to find the life I’m seeking. It’s all waiting for us, up there in our noggins. We choose to become who we are, and together we all create the world we live in. And now my rational, together voice is saying, “Duh! You’re a mushroom-eating moron.” But my Amsterdam voice is saying, “That is trippy!”