I finally finished the audiobook version of Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, and wow, that book was amazing. Long, but amazing. The audiobook was 13 hours, so I can only imagine how long the text version would be. (FYI, I checked out the audiobook version through my library’s Libby app for free. You might want to check out what’s available in your hometown.) As the obnoxiously long subtitle suggests, Pollan’s book is all about psychedelics, from their illustrious history in the United States to neurological science to their emerging use in psychotherapy.
Now, if you went through a program like D.A.R.E. in grade school like I did, you may be inclined to write psychedelics off as a moral entrapment, but stick with me because my mind has been changed about psychoactive chemicals like psilocybin (commonly found in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). I don’t advocate the use for these chemicals flippantly, but Pollan’s book has — pun not intended — changed my mind about their use in specific use cases and environments.
(Two disclaimers before moving forward. First, I have genuinely never tried these chemicals myself. Stating that because they remain illegal currently and my employer would be none too happy if I was consuming them. And second, while I would like to see these chemicals legalized, I would want to see them legalized in highly regulated and controlled circumstances, specifically for use in psychotherapy. You’ll understand why as we continue along in this post.)
While these psychoactive chemicals became popular in the 1960s for their spiritual implications, what I found most interesting in Pollan’s book was the description about their use in psychotherapy. In short, researchers have found that people who are chronically depressed or have strong addictions to things like cigarettes have had wonderous turnarounds in their lives even after a single, guided psychedelic trip. For alcoholics, I think they mentioned that as many as 66% of people remained sober after a full year. That number might not sound very high, but when you compare it to every other treatment of breaking alcohol addiction, that number is absolutely astounding. Even founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., recognized the value of this therapy and sought to pursue their incorporation into the AA program prior to them being made illegal by the Nixon Administration.
So what is it about these drugs that have made them so effective? Is there something that neurological rewires your brain?
The physiological science actually doesn’t indicate this at all. While brain scans of people in the midst of a psychedelic trip show noticeable dip in certain brain activity, there’s no indication that these drugs are rewriting neural pathways. Nor do they — to dispel a popular myth — rewrite one’s genetic code. (We’re not making the X-Men here, folks.)
Rather, the effectiveness comes from the psychoactive (or “spiritual”) experiences these patients have had while taking one of these drugs. These people very often emerge from these psychedelic trips with a new outlook on life, and this new outlook inclines them to view the world more optimistically than they did before. So cancer patients make peace with their forthcoming deaths, depressed people see the beauty in everything, and addicts see their former addictions as fruitless.
In the book, Pollan tells one very interesting story of a man with cancer with little time yet left to live. After undergoing therapy with the use of psychedelic drugs, the man’s wife chronicled the account of his last days. The man viewed life very optimistically and was very much at peace with his death. He chose not to die immediately as to remain with his wife as long as he could, but after his cancer continued to grow, he eventually chose to stop chemotherapy. In his final days in a hospital, nurses greatly enjoyed the man’s presence for his radiant smile and positive attitude, and the man eventually died in total solitude.
Isn’t that wild?
The most common experience in these people’s psychedelic experiences is a disillusion of the ego. To reiterate from another former post, consider the ego to be all the stories and experiences that define who you are today. These people literally experience their egos dissolve into what they note as a basic “oneness” of the universe. Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) chronicles his own disillusion of his ego in his famous book Be Here Now, where he visually watched the roles of his life — a professor, a pilot, a Jewish man — literally dissolve away while in a psilocybin trip. Ram Dass’s experiences are apparently very common amongst many people.
Here’s the thing… we can’t empirically verify this “oneness” of the universe, and that starts to get very “woo woo” for many people. I can’t argue with them; it’s a totally fair point. What’s interesting, however, is that people still emerge from these psychedelic journeys with more positive outlooks on life because of the disillusion of their egos, even if These same people would never have considered themselves to be spiritually inclined. This isn’t at all a surprise to me because this ego deconstruction enables a person to see beyond the arbitrary stories of other people’s lives in order to better empathize / sympathize what they’re going through. In other words, we can get out of our own heads enough to see what’s going on in the heads of others.
So this deconstruction of the ego and inclination toward “oneness” can be great for our spiritual lives, but this fact remains: we still live on this earth and on this plane of consciousness! I supposed one could try to maintain a tangible sense of that oneness by constantly taking psychedelic drugs, but as Ram Dass and his students found in the 1960s, you always “came down” and had to live back with the normal people. (Literally, he and some students once tried going like four straight weeks of constantly taking psychedelic drugs.)
Some might think that’s a bummer, but I don’t think that at all. While psychedelic drugs provide a sort of “fast track” to dissolve the egos of users, many people — including myself — have come to these conclusions through natural experiences. For me, it was simply seeing that the stories that I grew up with aren’t working for me now as an adult. In my own life, I had to go through a lot of difficult times to eventually come around to the point of dissolving my own ego, just like these psychedelic users.
Where do we go from here?
Because we still live in this world and with these egos, I suggest a reconstruction of the ego that seeks unity (yes, that “oneness”) even on this plane of consciousness where everybody seems separate. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is in precise alignment with many things I have written about before, including the “hero’s journey” and Richard Rohr’s Three Boxes. It is in constantly asking ourselves the questions, how have my experiences shaped who I am, and vice versa, how have experiences shaped the lives of people around me?
By reconstructing our egos to be more inclusive of the lives of those around us, we build stronger empathy toward their circumstances. We allow more grace and more forgiveness, and we seek actions that promote equanimity amongst all people.
Now, the reason I wrapped this whole post in the context of psychedelic experiences is because a) I find them fascinating and more importantly b) going through the journey I went through to get to this point was both difficult and very circumstantial. I’m not sure many people go through the same sorts of things I went through to get to this point. I know, I know, that probably sounds very “proud” of me, but if you recall from my previous post about free will, we all live with the very limited set of chips we’re dealt. I could have easily been born in a different life in a different time that would have never led me to this point.
That said, if we just so happen to have plants that can “fast track” people to this point, then why not use them for these psychotherapeutic scenarios? Again, I do not necessarily advocate open legalization because there can be hidden dangers of what happens in the case of a “bad trip.” But there is no evidence that you can overdose on these chemicals, nor are they addictive like nicotine. Add to that the importance of “set and setting,” and I personally see a lot of value for even well people in controlled sessions. Transparently, I am very curious what these chemicals would do to me; I’ll have to wait until they’re legal to find that out. (Which I do believe will happen in my lifetime.)
The journey doesn’t end with psychedelic experience. Rather, it is a beginning. I can’t say this for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Ram Dass hasn’t taken any psychedelics in over 20 years due to his stroke. That hasn’t stopped his journey, nor has it stopped the journeys of many others.
And that, my friends, is why I will probably never stop blogging. *wink*
Let’s wrap this post here. I hope you’re open to a different mindset about these chemicals, and I would highly recommend you check out Pollan’s book. (And if you do the audiobook version, you can easily listen to it on 1.5x speed .) Catch you in the next one!