Trifling with the Eternal

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Michael Pollan, the chap below without the hair, is a man whose name used to mean just one thing to me: one of my chickens was named after him. Indeed, our first batch of chickens each bore the name of someone closely associated with food. There was a Julia Child, a Thomas Keller, and others. It didn’t matter that they were all hens.

In any case, both the name Michael Pollan and the hen herself had long departed from my world until about a month ago, when a friend of mine (conjured up by way of my writing on Slope) offered to buy me a Pollan book if I pledged to read it. I agreed, but warned him that I had a stack of Alan Watts books to get through first, but I would read it immediately thereafter.

Thus, he sent me a book that had nothing to do with Pollan’s traditional subject of food and farming. Instead, it was about psychedelics, and the book’s title is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

Now a few of you might be thinking, “Hold on there! What’s this man trying to do with our poor Tim? Turn him into a junkie?” It’s OK, it’s OK. My dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism keeps me far afield from any such risks. I long ago decided never to unlock the Pandora’s Box that is my brain, but that doesn’t keep me from being interested and curious about new topics. Plus I promised to read it.

Having done so, here are a few thoughts and impressions, in absolutely no particular order:

  • The book covers several broad categories in the span of 420 pages – – the history (both political and cultural) around psychedelics, the biochemistry around them, the applications of such things as LSD and psilocybin, and the author’s own personal experiences with several psychedelics.
  • Personally, I found the history portions the most interesting. I’m a history buff myself, and it turns out that the SF Bay Area is pretty much the epicenter of most psychedelic culture and history.
  • Michael Pollan did not go into this book as a “psychonaut” (as the term evidently is), and in fact had only one so-so experience with them in his past. In the course of doing the book, however, he embarked upon mental explorations with a “guide” by way of LSD, mushrooms, and “the toad”. His accounts of these psychedelic journeys were interesting, although, let’s face it, few things are more boring than listening to someone tell you about a dream they just had, and his accounts weren’t too much better.
  • Perhaps my favorite point in the entire book is how, in spite of the very convincing applications of these chemicals in treating depression, addiction, and other human psychological hardships, the drug and psychology industries will fight tooth and nail against them. Why? Well, if you are a therapist, would you rather have a paying client come and see you for years and years, or would you rather open up the prospect of an individual being cured of their mental malady in a single session? And if you’re a Big Pharma drug company, would you rather make someone reliant on you for the rest of their lives with a daily regimen of pills, or would you prefer a handful of mind-altering experiences fundamentally changing their outlook, thus rendering you unnecessary? Yeah, I thought so. I’m not saying these drugs are a magic bullet, but the data Pollan presents on their efficacy is impressive.

Besides my own intuitive disinterest in embarking on any such ‘journey’ myself, the other thing which leaves me particularly incurious about the culture and experience of psychedelics is, frankly, having been wholly unimpressed by the individuals who did embark on such things. I believe the ephemeral nature of these experiences leaves most people unchanged. Not that I believe character is immutable. However, the people with whom I am impressed in my own life didn’t get that way by munching on acrid fungus or touching their tongue to blotter paper.

I distinctly remember one pretty girl in high school. She was a sort-of friend of mine, never particularly close, and she definitely had a reputation as a party girl. She went to Stanford, and she mentioned once or twice being into magic mushrooms. Let me assure you that, afterward, she was every bit as vapid and uninteresting as ever.

Most people, such as the aforementioned lass, are fairly well empty as spiritual vessels, and I imagine indulging in LSD, mushrooms, or “toad” (God forbid) is little more than a desperate escape from boredom coupled with crackling curiosity. I have little doubt that, in the right hands (or, closer, the right mind) psychedelics offer profound and ineffably insightful experiences. Much of my reading with the great Alan Watts aligns itself beautifully with the message of this book.

I’m glad to have read the piece, for I feel I understand the topic, culture, and history far better than the I ever might have otherwise. And even though in the back of my mind I started the book thinking, “uh-oh, I hope this doesn’t seduce me into trying this stuff“, having finished the book, I feel more comfortable than ever with my own choice simply to live with the terrors and mayhem of my own unaltered mind for the balance of my carnal days.