Its dark. Early morning. I’ve taken to waking up as early as I can drag myself out of bed to sit in the black-ness. It feels like a cocoon, the dark quiet, where my mind can wander without feeling over stimulated. And then, because that’s what I do, I started thinking about this whole ‘sensitivity’ thing.
Overstimulation can be a problem. There are some people for whom it feels as though there is no boundary or separation between them and the world. This can be a wonderful thing— the birdsong outside right now, while I type it is playing in my body, warbling over my upper abdomen. Cars drive by and blend into this music, their bassline cutting a diagonal from shoulder to hip. The construction a couple of blocks away is the percussion, an odd, arhythmic rhythm that hits in different areas depending on the note. And while this is going on there’s the electricity, which is a subtle but oh-so-audible ring. That’s the early morning. It gets louder throughout the day, and throughout the year, as the days get longer and the temperature rises. And when it gets to be too much, there is a natural tendency for those of us who are easily over-stressed to want to dampen the noise, provide a safe barrier between us and the world.
Think of the tension of dryness: of dried up winter skin that feels tight and stretched; of a dried out river bed, cracked and crunching underfoot— this tension caused by dryness creates a barrier, a false form of protection that’s paper-thin. Think of the relaxation of moisture. Of the oozing, the leaking, the dripping, the squidgy saturated sponge. There is more openness but at the same time that layer of moisture is there as protection, for things to bounce off, get stuck in.
When you dive underwater, what happens to all the sound above? It becomes muffled, dulled. Less overwhelming. The same can be said for layers of water in our bodies: the more exposed we are to the world around us, the more we feel. The water in our bodies helps to dull that feeling; I see a lot of hyper sensitive people tending to collect water in their bodies simply as a barrier between them and the world. A layer of safety.
When I was in TCM school*, ‘damp’ and ‘bad’ were practically synonymous. Dampness was seen as the ultimate evil, to be done away with whenever possible. Of course its easy to have an enemy that’s out there, but its ultimately disempowering. If we are subject to our ‘dampness’ then all will be well if we could just get rid of that pesky damp. Which is nonsense. Damp arises for a reason, just as it does in the environment— you have weather patterns and geological activity and latitude and these usually combine in some way or another to make places that are damp or dry or hot or cold or any combination of the above. Our bodies and psyches are like that too— dampness isn’t an evil force that invades us rendering us unhealthy, but something that arises for a reason. One of the reasons is because things aren’t digesting properly, and this creates ‘amma’ (cross-system-referencing, hey!), or ‘bad blood’. What it comes down to is that things just aren’t processing right, which could be anything from the liver to the lymphatic system to the kidneys to the stomach acid. Why aren’t things processing right? Because the system is overwhelmed. Be it nervous, digestive, lymphatic, cognitive, the ability to process matter that’s coming at us is a function that transcends systems. Some of us are better at it than others.
But you can look at it from another direction too: on one hand you have the body not processing things clearly, and this is creating a white noise of sorts. On the other hand, you have the body being so sensitive that it builds up this white noise as a protection. So why the sensitivity?
When you think of the body function that has to do with distinguishing ‘self’ and ‘not self’, there is processing that needs to happen: is this ‘not-self’ useful or harmful? What do I do with it? And there is a moment in the noticing of not self where we make a snap decision: either that we can process it or we cannot.
This can apply to our immune system, which works hard on a daily basis separating out self and not-self. It can also apply to our empathy function: somebody who is incredibly empathetic is going to have a harder time separating ‘self’ from ‘not self’ in the first place, and then know little of what to do with it all when its there. And a person faced with a lot of nervous stimulus, who feels deeply sensitized to the world around them, might feel energized by a little, but there will be a threshold at which ‘I enjoy this’ turns into ‘I cannot handle this’. And what happens when we can’t handle something? Stress. Lots of stress.
There’s a lot of talk in internet-land about antifragility lately. Its a term coined by the stock market analyst Nassim Taleb, and he used it to refer to systems that were made stronger by adversity. This principle, when applied to the human body, is similar to that of the Mithridate— you challenge the body in tiny quantities and this in turn builds up the body’s ability to handle stressors. This can apply to working out, to poisons, to diet, to stress levels, nervous stimulus, etc.
The concept of antifragility applies to multiple systems, and it applies to many humans, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all of us— some of us have a stress response that’s too out of whack, who don’t actually get stronger with pressure, but get more stressed, and therefore weaker. But you’ve seen people who thrive under pressure: they usually end up in high-stress jobs, or in the Special Forces doing things that plenty of us would lose hair over.
Which brings me to medicinal mushrooms.
On a spectrum of opposites, you have desert plants which are subject to vast variations in temperature and an onslaught of pathogenic factors, and things trying to eat them for their moist, sweet cores, they put out antimicrobial chemicals, or sharp spines to keep themselves safe. Desert herbs teach us about boundaries and water dynamics. Deep forest herbs, on the other hand, teach us, not about boundaries, but how to manage the lack of boundaries. Mycelium, by nature, spread out across the forest floor, connecting one thing to another, one edge to another. Mushrooms don’t grow without moisture. They come out after the rains, when its damp and wet and dark, and they thrive in their connectedness.
A lot of medicinal mushrooms help us build up our ability to handle stressors, with our ability to process that which is ‘not-self’, be it a tumour, a virus, a deadline, the noise of the city around us. My friend Renee who speaks Biochem explains it with regards to beta glucans and the way they challenge the immune system (this concept of antifragility when applied to the immune system is called ‘hormesis’). My language, however, isn’t Biochemistry, it is energetics, and elements, and patterns, but underneath, regardless of language, the principle is the same: something in the mushroom triggers us to increase our tolerance and ability to process things.
Mushrooms tap us into that connectedness, the openness. They raise the threshold of what we can handle, so that we can remain open and connected in more situations. So that when we are faced with more stimulus, we can process it more easily, because we have been absorbing that ability to be open and connected and still separate.
They obviously don’t have the same energetics across the board— reishi affects the psyche, nervous and circulatory system more than, say, turkey tail which acts more on the immune system. Chaga affects the lymphatics slightly more; cordyceps, our ability to handle stress loads, both physical and nervous, with our firey reserves. That said, there is that similarity. The underlying thread of tolerance, reserve-building, building our capacity for stress in response to stressors. The ones I use the most often are reishi, cordyceps, chaga and turkey tail. Which isn’t to say that they’re the best, but that I like them the best right now, which is why they’re in this recipe.
Last month’s surprise box was focused on medicinal mushrooms, and so I got to do a lot of exploring of different recipes and ways to incorporate medicinal mushrooms into every day life. My favourite was this black cocoa + porcini hot chocolate, made with a variety of mushrooms. Its a variation on my Reishi + Cordyceps hot chocolate blend, this time using *more* mushrooms, and black cocoa, which is deeper, richer, less acidic (think of the chocolate flavour in oreos). I threw in some culinary wild mushrooms (porcini and chanterelle), and a whole bunch of medicinal ones, and the effect is much more grown-up tasting: deep chocolate with a hint of mushroom and wildness.
If you can find the ingredients, do try it. It’s a great way to ingest medicinal mushrooms without necessarily having to think ‘oh I have to take my medicinal mushrooms now’. And more than that, its delicious, which I think is a great help when it comes to taking our medicine.
A note on powdered mushrooms:
If you can buy turkey tail and reishi already powdered. The process of running them through a Vitamix turns them to fluff, making extracting any usable amount of powder from them painstaking and hair-pulling. Chaga is so hard that it might break your blender, so I’d recommend buying that pre-powdered too.
Porcinis and chanterelles are available dried at speciality food shops, and *those* can be run through the blender to be powdered quite easily. Lion’s mane also powders easily, though is much more difficult to find commercially. My favourite source for powdered mushrooms is Mushroom Harvest, where the powders are excellent quality.
Black cocoa with medicinal mushrooms
(Makes enough to last a while)
1 lb black cocoa (King Arthur makes a black cocoa, I got mine at Savory Spice Shop)
1/2 lb dutch cocoa (Droste is my favourite, but the Valrhona one is also excellent)
2oz powdered turkey tail mushroom
2oz powdered lion’s mane mushroom
1/2 oz powdered reishi mushroom
2oz powdered porcini mushroom
2oz powdered chanterelle mushroom
2oz powdered chaga mushroom
Mix ingredients together thoroughly. Keep in an airtight container.
2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
2 tb hot chocolate blend
1 tb sugar
Warm the milk and cream on the stovetop, and once warm add the hot chocolate blend and sugar, whisk until dissolved, remove from heat and serve.
*I don’t think this is actually the fault of Chinese medicine but of the way I learned things and the reaction of the students around me— keep in mind I live in a place that is dry, thin, agitated, and naturally relaxation and wet-ness are easy to vilify because they’re ‘other’.