Imagining a Conversation about Psychedelics
The intriguing thing to me about Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, is though it is non-fiction, there seems to be a a narrative story-line that made for a compelling read. Though it would be great to sit down and have a conversation with him, in his narrative, he pretty much answers any of the questions I would have had. I mean, with a title like that, how can anything have been left out?
As I was reading the book, certain questions that interested me seemed also to be of interest to him, and he does attempt to answer them. This is the narrative structure of the book, the quest for the truth of what psychedelics have to offer us. I would love to meet him, but I think I already know the answers to the one question I would want to throw at him. Here is a conversation I imagine with him, on the “God” question.
Me: I really like how your mind works. You knew that how you saw the world was from a materialist, scientific point of view, but you say you are sensitive to the limitations of that worldview. How it is that you could put yourself into an intellectual framework that could potentially shake your world?
MP: Well, I think that’s what journalists do. My work builds from one to another. I had written about psychoactive plants in my book The Botany of Desire, and I had avoided partaking at that time, so I just took my research further.
Me: So Michael, after your experiences with psychedelics, are you convinced that there is a God?
MP: Well, no. I can understand how many people do come to that conclusion. People typically report a mystical experience — “the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.” I have to admit, it was one of the reasons I wanted to pursue this topic. I was skeptical, but intrigued.
Me: As a scientific question, it seems.
MP: Yes, but it was also a personal quest. I started out exploring whether there was proof that these “mystical” experiences were or were not just a drug-induced hallucination, or only “in the mind.” But the interesting thing is that “… along with the feeling of ineffability, the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is a hallmark of the mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation.”
Me: I do think it is a big deal to assuredly walk in the world knowing that this alternate consciousness exists, that there is more to reality than what we experience in everyday life. But, in a way, it’s scary, it’s the unknown, it’s unstable. And most people want certainty, routine, predictability. How is it that you were open to this scary thing?
MP: Yes, when I was reading the psychologist William James, who wrote about “The Varieties of Religious Experience” at the beginning of the twentieth century, it just struck me that I needed to explore the “unopened door in our minds” of which he wrote. About a psychedelic experience, it turns out. He got my number when he said, I had closed myself off to other accounts of reality.
Me: So you walked into that door?
MP: I had to. Don’t you ever do things because they are presented to you and you either do it or you don’t, and whatever you choose says something about who you are?
Me: Like in the Matrix, red bill or blue?
Me: In your chapter Travelogue, in which you vividly describe your psychedelic experiences, you described your “journeys” one of which included that common ineffable mystical experience everyone reports.
MP: Yes, it is so powerful, you can see why there is an impulse to proselytize, to share. More often than not, it is a spiritual awakening.
Me: I like how you resolve the God question. You don’t acknowledge a God, but you do acknowledge a “spiritual experience.”
MP: Yes, I really came to know that everything has a spirit, but under psilocybin, this understanding comes with a flood of feeling. The spirits I encountered in my experiences were apprehended and embraced in this way. “So perhaps spiritual experiences is simply what happens in the space that opens up in the mind when … egotism vanishes. … The gulf between the self and the world, that no-man’s-land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected. Whether we call that entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters.”
Me: YES! There is so much in your book, something for everyone. For those who want to know the modern history of psychedelic use and research, it’s there. For those who advocate for its use to treat certain mental illnesses, it’s there. For advocacy on its use for healthy people, it’s also there. For riveting accounts of psychedelic experiences, it’s there. For the science of it, including brain research and methodology, it’s there.
MP: Oh, please. You now sound like a proselyte for my book.
Me: Well. Maybe so. I do hope this book will help in moving the needle in opening up the legal use of psychedelics in our country.
MP: You’re very kind.