A dear friend told me I had to read Michael Pollan’s new book “How to Change your Mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence”. Pollan is a best-selling nonfiction author who writes about the natural world and the global state of mind but until he wrote this book he’d never taken a psychedelic substance.
Psychedelics, are a subject I’m interested in and have written about. This is a well written book that makes the brain science understandable and beautifully explains the mysticism and spirituality of the psychedelic experience. However, it’s important to remember that although the brain science may be “new”, the use of psychedelics (I prefer the term entheogens…from entheos, the divine within) have been around since earliest recorded history. Indigenous cultures have used these psychoactive, naturally occurring plants and creatures to transcend ordinary consciousness and communicate with the spiritual world.
Pollan has now taken LSD, psilocybin, and the crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. He did not come lightly to this transformational journey. He was afraid and anxious and describes himself as a “reluctant psychonaut”. Each time he participated it was preceded by worry and self-doubt; he realized after that his fear and reluctance were his ego trying to convince him not to do it because it was going to challenge its need for control.
What appears to be happening, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence drops away, and that an older more “primitive” part of the brain emerges that’s analogous to a child’s mind. This is a place in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and the capacity for awe and wonder is stronger. Children are basically tripping all the time in this egoless realm.
Pollan makes the case for its efficacy in treating people with addictions, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is not an advocate for the recreational use of psychedelics but says that in the hands of trained professionals they are a potent adjunctive therapy. I agree that the recreational use of psychedelics is ill advised, but I also think that you don’t have to be diagnosed with an illness in order to have access to them.
In the right place, with the right people, and used in a ceremonial way, these entheogens can have a life-changing impact, and I see ceremonial use of entheogens as completely different from recreational use. Ceremonies and ritual set the stage for coming to these awesomely powerful substances in a sacred way which magnifies the likelihood that the experience will be enlightening, even if it’s scary.
I have used entheogens infrequently over the last 50 years but after reading Pollan’s book I ‘ve decided to reacquaint myself with these sacred plants. I’m at the stage of my life in which my once familiar landscape has changed profoundly. I want to open my mind and look at my world through the eyes of an untethered child.