One of the recent books that captivated me was Michael Pollan’s How to change your mind. There are plenty of reviews out there, and this will not be a review. It’s more of a critique – not of him, but of the paradigm into which psychedelics have fallen. The book is recommended: a well written, relatively sober compendium of history, current research, and the author’s excursions into tripping with several substances.

The book is specifically about psychedelics, mostly magic mushrooms and LSD. These substances are non-addictive (some call them anti-addictive since they have been used to cure addictions), they quit working if used often, and are among the safest drugs out there, medicinal or not.

Psychedelics are used in modest, “esthetic” doses, and in heavy doses, which can lead to temporary ego disappearance and to mystical and healing experiences, as well as scary “bad trips” and poor decision-making. They have been of late used in microdoses (1/10th of the usual dose) to boost creativity and counter depression.

Pollan dwells mostly on the positives, and to simplify his long argument, these are as follows:

  • The experience can open up a crack in the edifice of materialist rationality
  • It offers the possibility of a mystical experience with greater ease than other methods like fasting or deep meditation
  • People who experience the ego-less state are inclined to think of consciousness as a property of the universe (rather than of brains), which tends to undermine secularism; mysticism might be an antidote to fundamentalism
  • Psychedelics can boost creativity and problem-solving capacity
  • They can help people overcome the fear of death, and change the experience of dying for the better
  • They can send a person or a culture down a new path that turns out positive
  • They can provide an active eucharist for a religion (e.g. União do Vegetal (UDV))
  • The radical suggestibility they occasion can, in the right hands and guided by firm ethical boundaries, lead to alleviation or cure of a variety of problems that plague humans, from stuttering to alcoholism
  • Coming out of the more profound version of the experience often allows the user to see the world “as if newly created” and caught up in the NOW
  • Pollan also suggests that they would “heal humankind” but fails to provide evidence (viz negatives).

Psychedelics at one time caused a moral panic in America, and I am still trying to understand the basis of the negative perception of these experiences among conservative folks that seems little affected by changed understanding and new research. Rod Dreher, a well-known conservative blogger, got attacked by his readership for doing a friendly review of Pollan’s book. I believe that if conservatives dared to venture into the psychedelic world, they could positively affect its cultural context, as well as add invaluable insights and language not linked to the left counterculture.

Now to list the negatives, as I understand them so far.

  • Psychedelics can trigger psychosis in vulnerable individuals, esp. where psychosis runs in families
  • The mystical experience they often occasion can lead to ego inflation and messianic complexes (like “healing humankind”:-); as well as a dubious sense of certainty
  • And can foster a feeling of invulnerability in turn leading to injury or death (admittedly rarely)
  • Temporary dissolution of the ego can be very frightening
  • They can lead to bad trips esp. in situations where set and setting has not been attended to, and users lack psychological/spiritual skills to deal with scary imagery and threatening entities
  • The experience of “unity consciousness” can mislead people into black and white thinking, seeing “separation” as undesirable and the self as prison
  • Radical suggestibility makes the individual wide open to manipulation and propaganda, and insufficient attention has been paid to this in the guidelines for sitters and users
  • Psychedelics have been closely linked to left-oriented counterculture and there is palpable lack of steadying (or just different) input from conservative journeyers and sitters, rebalancing the expectations and reporting of experiences
  • New Age music, altars, and promotion of syncretism has accompanied many settings (which amounts to propaganda and misuse of suggestible openness)
  • They can send a person or a culture down a new path that turns out to be negative, a dead-end street (viz Timothy Leary)
  • They frustratingly lead users to sentimental platitudes

There are two things that bothered me the most. The first is the lack of emphasis on dealing with radical suggestibility. Pollan makes much of the guidelines that have been developed by underground sitters who run psychedelic retreats. And they are indeed essential. But too little attention has been paid to the ethical boundaries of people who find themselves in the position to influence the experience of psychedelic journeyers. What sort of a thing will it do to your inner being to have to listen to New Age music for hours on end? Pollan calls it spa music, yet submits to it without demur. Even when it leads him to “places” he very much dislikes.

The second thing that struck me was the marked lack of spiritual anchoring that results in people accepting sets and settings that abound in New Age artifacts, music, prayer, and symbolism. Pollan admits that he does not have a clue about religion or spirituality, and so he allows himself to be led like a sheep to slaughter. Maybe the ethical guidelines could notice this vulnerability and address it? Just maybe? Since he has no idea how to pray or to make his own altar, he has others with axes to grind do it all for him. Should people diving into deep suggestibility get pushed into other people’s spiritual frameworks? A good idea he stresses is spending time after the experience unwrapping what happened. But is it really helpful to have it done under circumstances of more New Age ideation? There is a moment when his sitter tries to insist that Pollan’s hyperventilation-caused A-fib episode was really a “heart opening.” Pollan rejects that one in no uncertain terms, but there are other examples in the book that could use closer attention.

And finally, I would like it noted that in my view, the people who watch over psychonauts to keep them safe are not Guides, as they call themselves. The guides are the fungi, not the humans, and I find this self-designation presumptuous and inaccurate. “Sitters” is the more common, accurate and quite down-to-earth designation, though, naturally, less ego-inflating.

Don’t get me wrong. A measure of self-inflation is a key survival skill. If we steadily focused on naked reality in its gory glory and our own fragility and mortality and the given hardships of life on this planet, who’d want to carry on? Psychedelics can lift a person up. But even when you get yanked up by a fungal helium balloon, be here now. I am intending to let the fungal wisdom guide me, not my wildly rebounding ego. 🙂

Why am I telling you this? Because I have never taken a heroic dose of a psychedelic, and when I do, I want to do it my way. My guidelines, my rules, my own set and setting. I’ll make it public so that we can all compare notes. I think I’ll skip the music and use the eye shades only intermittently. I’d rather hear the birds or watch the snow falling… Many too many years ago, my magic mushroom experiences (of the modest kind) were always interactive, in the company of other journeyers; on two occasions a sitter was present as well. They were accompanied by visuals of shimmering transparent latticework and Southwestern Indian geometric patterns. Everything in the world seemed hilarious and I was four years old again. But this time, I will go deeper. Stay tuned.