Chi performs a short ‘blessing’, asking that the truffle spirit guide Debbie on her journey, and taps her on the head with the wooden mushroom. Nervous like the rest of us, she tips all 20g into her mouth, and is hastily advised to spit it back out. “Take your time,” cautions Chi. “These are living creatures, an intelligent species. Commune with the medicine.”We’re in a lodge on the outskirts of Amsterdam overlooking woodland and a picturesque pond. A tall man called Chi calls us forward one by one, eldest to youngest. First up is Debbie, a sprightly American in her early 50s. She kneels before the truffles – similar in appearance to the ones you might grate over a bowl of pasta, but lacking any discernible smell – weighs pieces on the scale and transfers them into her own, smaller bowl.
Debbie’s faux-pas is a welcome distraction. People have travelled from all around the world for this moment, and an anxious energy has settled over the room. Our group includes a Brazilian couple in their late 40s, a mother and daughter from New York City and a former US Marine. Two days of meditation, talking circles and ‘sound therapy’ have led towards this moment, when we will consume a bowlful of psychoactive truffles and, with any luck, embark upon a spiritual journey deep into our own subconscious.
When my name is called, I pick out half a dozen walnut-sized chunks and a handful of smaller pieces. Chi taps me on the head with the mushroom and it’s time to eat. I gingerly bite into a piece the size of my thumbnail. It’s nutty, not unpleasant, but is soon met with an intense acidic backwash that lingers at the base of your tongue. I immediately start to feel nauseous. We eat our way through our bowls in silence, alternating mouthfuls of truffle with squares of chocolate to mask the taste.
Then we unroll duvets, slip on blackout goggles (encouraging us to “look within”), lie back, and…
Truffles Therapy is the brainchild of Mitsuaki Chi, a charismatic American in his early 30s who made his money as a semi-professional poker player. He’d hit the casinos at night and spend his days in an existential funk, battling addiction and depression. “Poker was the only way I knew how to earn,” he says, “But it was dirty money.” So he left the city and travelled the well-trodden hippy trail around India, South America and South East Asia. He enrolled at Buddhist monasteries, once spending 16 months on a silent retreat, before making a life-changing discovery: magic mushrooms.
He says his first trip was transformative. He sobbed for hours, and when he woke the next day, he felt like a new man. On the Truffles Therapy website he says his goal is “to surrender fully to psilocybin [the active compound in magic mushrooms] intelligence, with no regard to my own life.”
He started to organise informal ‘retreats’ with friends, during which they would take turns to ‘trip-sit’, providing a safe space for each other to ride out their psychedelic experiences. Around this time he met his partner Leti Passemier, who had been equally unhappy working in a corporate job in Paris. They hit upon the idea for Truffles Therapy, a business combining group therapy, luxury ‘wellbeing’, and psychedelic drugs.
Rarely seen without his magic mushroom hoodie and matching socks, Chi may not look like your traditional entrepreneur, but the business plan is sound. The retreats take place in luxury chalets in countryside around Amsterdam; mine was in a hunting lodge in a village called Beekbergen, an hour’s drive from Schiphol airport.
It’s exactly the kind of experience you can imagine bored investment bankers and people who enjoyed Eat Pray Love seeking out for an ‘alternative’ holiday to brag about at dinner parties, although Chi insists his target audience is people seeking genuine spiritual healing (in fairness, if one wanted to simply get high, there are cheaper ways of going about it).
The retreats – which start from €1,200 per person for a group or €5,900 for a private experience – are fully booked for the next six months. The company is expanding fast, advertising for new trip-sitters (there were two first-time members of staff on my retreat) and sounding out overseas investors.
Part of the appeal is that, thanks to a technicality, the business is completely legal. Magic mushrooms were criminalised in Holland in 2008 after a 17-year-old French girl died jumping from one of Amsterdam’s canal bridges (not that the law is enforced; you can still buy them in most of the city’s ‘head shops’). But the law only applies to the parts of the mushroom that grow above ground. The mushroom ‘truffle’, the store of energy that grows beneath the soil, is fair game (there’s debate over whether the ‘oversight’ may have been intentional).
Truffles Therapy has also benefitted the renewed interest in psychedelic research. Psychedelics were hailed as potential wonder drugs when they were ‘discovered’ in the West in the 1950s and 60s (indigenous peoples across the world have been using them for millennia), but a hyperbolic backlash led to them being banned across most of the world. It wasn’t until the late 90s that scientists began experimenting again, albeit in small pockets.
Today there’s a powerful lobby in the US for laws to be relaxed. In April, the world’s first centre for psychedelic research opened at Imperial College London, and psychedelic therapy involving magic mushrooms is expected to be approved in Australia within the next few years. Studies suggest psychedelic experiences can help the terminally ill come to terms with their mortality and may be of use in the treatment of other mental illnesses including depression and anorexia.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Oman’s sultan announced a shake-up of the Gulf country’s constitution on Monday with changes that include the appointment of a crown prince for the first time and steps to boost government transparency, the state-run news agency reported.The move, one year after the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who pulled Oman into modernity and deftly navigated the region’s sectarian and political divides, comes as the government faces growing pressures at home. The constitutional amendments bring iconoclast Oman into closer conformity with other Gulf sheikhdoms and dispel fears of any destabilizing succession crisis in the future.Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, the former culture minister, came to power last year amid intense speculation that gripped the sultanate after the death of his cousin, who left no heirs. His name was written in a sealed envelope left in the palace in Muscat.Now, there will be no more mystery or tempestuous theatrics. Sultan Haitham, who quietly has made his mark over the past year by renaming andreorganizing ministries once controlled by his predecessor, changed Oman’s basic law to allow for the appointment of a crown prince, the succession practice of every other Arab Gulf state.Monday’s announcement did not specify who the crown prince would be or what responsibilities he would have.“This is revolutionary,” said Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University who studies Oman. “It took (Sultan Haitham) a year to absorb everything, and now he’s pushing ahead with his own stamp. You don’t change the basic law lightly.”The sultan’s decree also creates a committee to monitor and evaluate the performance of senior government officials. It is an apparent effort to encourage transparency and accountability as the country struggles to borrow after credit agencies listed its debt as "junk" — meaning at higher risk for default. Debt stood at around 60% of Oman’s gross domestic product last year.Earlier this month, Oman’s state-run news agency announced that the country expects a 2021 budget deficit of some $5.7 billion, and plans to take on more debt and draw from its reserves to plug the gap. The sultanate, which produces just under 1 million barrels of oil a day, has felt the pain of plunging oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. The International Monetary Fund estimated that Oman's economy shrank 10% last year, the sharpest contraction among the Gulf countries.Though Menendez hasn’t announced his priorities since Democrats won control of the Senate last week, he has in recent months sponsored a bill to elevate the protection of human rights in the control and export of defense articles, called the Safeguard Act. He also led legislation that was defeated under GOP control to block the UAE arms deal, arguing the sale could spark a Mideast arms race and that the administration rushed the vetting.“There are simply too many outstanding questions about the protection of critical U.S. military technology, the broader implications of these sales to U.S. national security regarding the UAE’s relationships, for example, with Russia and China, as they exist today,” he said last month about the UAE deal.
High-profile authors including Michael Pollan have also helped to bring psychedelics into the mainstream (everyone on the retreat had read his book, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics). There’s a near-unanimous consensus among researchers, he argues, that psychedelics are amongst the safest category of drugs. Which is just as well…
A decidedly un-hippyish Mercedes people carrier picked me up from the airport, along with Debbie, a teacher at an international school, and Adrian, a writer from Lisbon. Within 10 minutes we were discussing everything from philosophy to our parents, sharing personal anecdotes I wouldn’t usually dream of telling strangers. Debbie was hoping to gain insight into her relationships with her family. Adrian, a lyrical “spiritual atheist”, wanted to experience “total dissolution of the ego”.
When we pulled into the retreat, we were met by Harry, a young Syrian man who lives in Amsterdam. He was topless and told us the airport had lost his luggage, which was true, although they hadn’t lost his T-shirt; that was more about showing off his abs. Harry is a regular Buddha of Suburbia, speaking almost exclusively in metaphors, as if he’s reading a never-ending fortune cookie, or forever composing a haiku. During one “talking circle” he regaled us with a story about Kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using golden glue, creating something beautiful out of something broken. That’s how he was feeling. I was feeling a bit tired.
Roger, meanwhile, is a former Marine – he has the USMC tattoos to prove it – who arrived w