The Negative Space of Buddhism in Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

A talk to the White Heron Sangha, Sunday August 26, 2018

1.

One afternoon last May on my way home from working at City Farm San Luis Obispo, the car radio came on with my favorite program, Science Friday. I was surprised to hear the genial voice of Michael Pollan speaking with its host Ira Flaytow. Before I could could pick up the thread of the conversation, out popped the words psilocybin, LSD and mescaline. So that’s what he’s up to now, I thought.

Ever since I heard Pollan read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007) during a long drive to Canada ten years ago, he’s been one of my favorite writers and most informative teachers.  That book’s comprehensive reflections on the history, biology, economics, politics, and morality of America’s food system altered my tastes, motivated me to design a required general education course in argumentation at Cal Poly around its subject, and inspired me to spend a good part of my retired working life on our local urban farm. The broad impact of his work was demonstrated by a local incident that received national notoriety.  When Pollan was invited to give a public lecture here by Hunter Francis, the director of Poly’s center for sustainable agriculture, large agribusiness funders pressured the university administration to deny him an opportunity to speak unless he was part of a panel that included a professor of Beef Science from Kansas.

That book and two later short ones—In Defense of Food and Food Rules—mainstreamed attitudes about industrial agriculture, factory farming of animals, and healthy eating that had been elements of the counterculture of the sixties. As effective manifestos for change, they contributed to the revival of organic and local food movements. It struck me as fitting that he was now addressing another suppressed strain of that culture of my youth.

The conversation I tuned into was promoting a new book by Pollan called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Flaytow was dwelling on the opening theme of the subtitle—the New Science of Psychedelics.  What turned me on, however, was its coupling of Science with Consciousness and Transcendance incorporated into a “how-to” book promising doubled satisfaction, with a pun on “change your mind.”

That night I downloaded the book to my tablet and read the first chapter, relishing its lively style and its mixture of reportorial objectivity and conversational intimacy. Despite its freight of dense quotations and its occasionally laborious expositions of brain science research, I got through all 450 pages within a few days.

The reading touched me in several ways.  Like many contemporaries, I was deeply affected by experiences with psychedelics in my youth.  They offered a positive alternative to the vision of reality of America offered by my parents and their postwar culture—a vision already questioned in the fifties by the specter of the bomb and the spectacle of the beats and shattered in the early sixties by the violence of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war.  Our experiences of what we called “consciousness expansion” were reinforced by generational solidarity, by our music and art, and by newly discovered traditions of spirituality. They not only changed minds, they motivated many of us to drop out of existing society in pursuit of new forms of community.

The Big Chill of the seventies which tempered that utopian idealism also undermined the faith that psychedelic drugs offered magic powers that could “get us back to the garden.” This was due to overselling of their benefits and underestimating their perils, to their disrespectful misuse in many forms, to crackdown by legal authorities making their possession federal crimes, and their conflict with the imperatives of growing older: raising children, developing careers, finding identity in a non-utopian reality.

My own hope was to reconcile the promise of psychedelics with the sobriety of responsible citizenship through spiritual practice. But though I’ve found manifold benefits from the habit of daily meditation for the last 45 years, never has that practice opened the door in the wall for me in the way it was opened numerous times under the influence of psilocybin, mescaline and LSD. During all that time I’ve anticipated the occasion when I’m no longer constrained by obligation from revisiting that territory. Michael Pollan’s persuasive siren song calling me to Change my Mind by taking drugs was something I wanted to hear, and his thorough research, striking descriptions, and honest introspection convinced me to act.

But I had a countervailing reaction to the book as well. Pollan approaches the subject as a newcomer.  Though growing up in Berkeley, he tells us that being of the generation fifteen years later than mine, he never tried any psychedelics until he started doing research for this book.  His naivete works well with one of his primary motives—to accentuate the newness of the New Science of Psychedelics in order to promote their responsible use by scientists, clinicians and the general public today with lobbying for their legalization. As I read his wonderstruck accounts of losing himself in the music of Bach or his communication with trees in his garden, my inner cynic muttered, “been there, done that.” And when he summoned revered authors like William James and Aldous Huxley to support his enthusiasm, I searched a dusty file cabinet and dragged out a yellowed copy of my rhapsodic 1966 graduate seminar paper titled “Romanticism and Intoxicating Drugs.”

The sense that Pollan’s book might not provide a guide for someone with a longer perspective on drugs was reinforced by its conspicuous absence of the topic of meditation. Pollan states in passing that he meditates regularly and briefly acknowledges doctrines about expanded consciousness expressed by Buddhists past and present, but he always refers to us in the third person, and leaves out references to the extensive literature on Buddhism and psychedelics. This leaves a negative space most relevant to my own present interests.

My two contrary reactions led me to reread the book and talk about it with friends, many of whom, I discovered, already knew of it, since apparently it’s been long on the New York Times bestseller list and an earlier shorter version appeared in the New Yorker magazine.

2.

As its tongue-twister of a subtitle announces, the book takes on multiple subjects.

Pollan begins a history of modern psychedelics with the 1943 accidental discovery of those properties in LSD by Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist, and the mid-fifties popularization by the banker, R.Gordon Wasson, of psilocybin mushrooms long used for healing and visions by native Central American shamans. He details the explosion of psychedelic use in the sixties both for scientific research and for popular consumption, spurred by notorious figures like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, followed by the suppression mentioned earlier, and their less publicized “Renaissance” in recent decades.

He goes on to document a range of scientific research in brain function using advanced detection tools for electrical activity that center on the working of what’s dubbed the default mode network (DMN) described “as the brain’s “orchestra conductor,” “corporate executive,” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the whole system together.”(346) Psychedelics have been shown to significantly reduce those neural operations, suggesting that here is the physical correlate of a crucial segment of consciousness. The reduction apparently leaves room for the brain to function in more fluid, less patterned ways than normal.

In addition to research, Pollan details the successful use of LSD, psilocybin and mescaline in clinical treatments of mental disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction, reported in respected scientific journals. On the related subject of providing palliative psychological care for the dying, Pollan cites studies that employ both medical and spiritual vocabularies

“A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” says Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet the experience brings the comforting news that there is something on the other side of that death— whether it is the “great plane of consciousness” or one’s ashes underground being taken up by the roots of trees— and some abiding, disembodied intelligence to somehow know it.(394)

And he ascribes much importance to an article which was

written by the same team at Hopkins that was giving psilocybin to cancer patients, … published in the journal Psychopharmacology. For a peer-reviewed scientific paper, it had a most unusual title: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”(15)

Throughout the book, Pollan weaves carefully-wrought descriptions of his own personal experiments with  psychedelics into those of the scientists he reads or interviews.

Although it didn’t start out that way, it is a very personal as well as public history…too— to see how the changes in consciousness these molecules wrought actually feel and what, if anything, they had to teach me about my mind and might contribute to my life.(8)

Disarmingly, he locates those experiences in the context of his own unfolding story

After more than half a century of its more or less constant companionship, one’s self— this ever-present voice in the head, this ceaselessly commenting, interpreting, labeling, defending I— becomes perhaps a little too familiar…over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. …Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.(23-24)

The professional writer’s ego-driven research leads him on a winding quest through laboratories and rainforests and finally to the residence of a shamanic dispenser of psilocybin who administers the full 4 gram dose of mushrooms that he’s prepared for.

now I watched as that familiar self began to fall apart before my eyes, gradually at first and then all at once…. No more ego? That was okay, in fact the most natural thing in the world… And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content. There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.(300-301)

This evocative account leads Pollan to some realizations that are buttressed by references to what previously for him was incomprehensible language:

Others have called it cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul, or Universal Mind. This is supposed to exist outside our brains— as a property of the universe, like light or gravity, and just as pervasive. … This might not come as a surprise to Buddhists, transcendentalists, or experienced meditators, but it was sure news to me, who has never felt anything but identical to my ego.(302)

Again and again, the journalist in him remarks upon the “newness,” or newsworthiness of what he encounters. That novelty prompts him toward philosophical questioning. On one hand it confirms his scientific Darwinian world picture:

The psilocin in that mushroom unlocked the 5-hydroxytryptamine 2-A receptors in my brain, causing them to fire wildly and set off a cascade of disordered mental events that, among other things, permitted some thoughts and feelings, presumably from my subconscious (and, perhaps, my reading too), to get cross-wired with my visual cortex as it was processing images of the trees and plants and insects in my field of vision.(157)

On the other hand, he begins to doubt that certainty, in particular regarding the issue referred to by biologists, psychologists, and a prominent playwright as “The Hard Problem”–that is the riddle of the body-mind problem, matter or spirit.

If the experience of transcendence is mediated by molecules that flow through both our brains and the natural world of plants and fungi, then perhaps nature is not as mute as Science has told us, and “Spirit,” however defined, exists out there— is immanent in nature, in other words, just as countless premodern cultures have believed. What to my (spiritually impoverished) mind seemed to constitute a good case for the disenchantment of the world becomes in the minds of the more psychedelically experienced irrefutable proof of its fundamental enchantment.(100)

At the end of his long voyage through the “New Science of Psychedelics,” Pollan arrives at the threshold of Buddhist practice:

A brief daily meditation had become a way for me to stay in touch with the kind of thinking I’d done on psychedelics. I discovered my trips had made it easier for me to drop into a mentally quiet place, something that in the past had always eluded me.

He retreats here at the end from grand claims about his renewal of innocence or insight into the mysteries of the universe, but instead makes the modest acknowledgement that meditation provides

…a certain cognitive space that opens up late in a trip or in the midst of a mild one, a space where you can entertain all sorts of thoughts and scenarios without reaching for any kind of resolution.

The final words of the book locate the lasting value of his drug trips in the larger promises of Buddhist contemplation:

My psychedelic adventures familiarized me with this mental territory, and, sometimes, not always, I find I can return to it during my daily meditation. This strikes me as one of the great gifts of the experience they afford: the expansion of one’s repertoire of conscious states.(457)

3.

Pollan’s recent trajectory from psychedelics to meditation was traced during the decades after the sixties by many Buddhist practitioners. Inquiries into the connection between these two paths to transcendance resurfaced in the nineties, occupying the negative space left by Pollan’s current book.  A 1996 issue of Tricycle magazine contains a collection of essays entitled “Psychedelics: help or hindrance?” presenting views by authoritative teachers ranging from prohibition of their use to insistence that optimum benefits can be derived from their combination with practice. Jack Kornfield for instance wrote

I see psychedelics as one of the most promising areas of modern consciousness research. I would not be surprised if at some point there comes to be a useful marriage between some of these sacred materials and a systematic training or practice.

Most agreed that psychedelics serve at least as a helpful gateway drug to Buddhist practice.

A large 2002 volume entitled Zig Zag Zen: Psychedelics and Buddhism collected longer essays on the topic.  In its introduction, updated in 2015, Huston Smith asserted that

It may be one of the great paradoxes of history that one of its greatest religions was launched (chemically speaking) by a state of mind that is virtually indistinguishable from ones that are produced by fudging the fifth of the Five Precepts in the Eightfold Path…the one that proscribes the taking of intoxicants.

And Stephen Batchelor wrote: “[In] traditional schools of Buddhism…there is no discussion about the role that drug use might play in propelling someone on the path in the first place.”

Partly energized by Pollan’s writings, the topic has recently heated up further in Buddhist circles.  The website and podcast series, “Buddhist Geeks,” referred to me by another WHS member, has devoted many installments to it. In a recent one, its host, Vince Horn conducted a 90-minute interview with Albert Rabb, an LA radiologist and seasoned meditator who participated in an ongoing experiment at the John Hopkins University lab where Roland Griffiths conducts fMRI brain research on the use psilocybin by Buddhists. Rabb raved about the “ultimate fruition” psilocybin brought to him in several forms of meditation practice: concentration, following the breath, open awareness and metta. Horn was not shy of characterizing such psychedelic experiences as “awakening” and “enlightenment.”

A few weeks ago, Tricycle carried an article entitled “Psychedelic’s Buddhist Revival,” stating that “the release of Pollan’s book represents a major leap forward for those able to benefit from psychedelics—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.”

4.

Though it wasn’t the only deciding factor, Pollan’s persuasive rhetoric was enough to tip my resolve to venture back into psychedelic experience.

The next question was how to set it up.  My wife Jan and I were planning a July trip visit to Vermont for a 50th reunion of the commune where we lived part-time from 1968 to 1970. It was there that I remembered ingesting psilocybin mushrooms a number of times, with spectacular results. I wrote to a fellow ex-communard who promised to bring a batch and share it at the occasion, but the offer never materialized, and it was clear during the happy weekend that the septuagenarians’ drug of choice is now alcohol.

As soon as we returned to SLO, I approached the friendly undergraduate next door with whom we traded cat-sitting, and he promptly supplied me with four grams of “shrooms,” the dosage that Pollan was given for his climactic undertaking. The young man said that he usually started out with half and then took the rest later if all went well. With Jan’s reluctant agreement to keep me company, and if necessary phone a friend who’d agreed to be backup, on Friday July 20, I chopped up half of the stash, let them soak up my saliva and swallowed.

I’d already typed up a statement of intentions for the trip, which included several quotes from Pollan’s book about moving beyond the satisfactions of maturity. And I wanted to gain more insight into materialist evolutionary explanations of consciousness, which I’d mulled over preparing a previous Sangha talk. I also intended to gain some distance on the story of my life, which the recent deaths of many contemporaries forced me to acknowledge is in its final chapters. Finally and most pressing, I hoped to enhance my regular meditation practice, which since returning from the two week silent retreat I attended three years ago, was falling steadily further under the control of monkey-mind chatter.

About an hour after ingestion, I noted that the music I was listening to was absorbing fuller attention than normal, but that nevertheless I was feeling satiated with the pleasure.  I wondered whether or not I should take the second dose or wait for this one to have stronger effect. That uncertainty produced anxiety. I sat and tried to center attention on the breath, but the chatter was amplified rather than silenced.

After another hour, the effects got more interesting. On my skin, I could see shifting paisleys that we used to call acid patterns, and I kept on giggling in conversation with Jan while we looked at photos of our last winter’s trip to India. But I feared that though none of this was taking me in the direction I wanted, it was probably too late now to add the second dose.  I tried again to meditate with no better results. Most of the next few hours I experienced fatigue, combined with a feeling I haven’t known for a long time: boredom. I resigned myself to just wait it out, and by evening was back to normal, enjoying a good meal, dealing with email, playing with the dog, but clearly disappointed. The negative space I’d observed around Pollan’s book also surrounded my experiment.

Since then I’ve tried to explore that space.  First of all, I’m relieved that there was no damage, and I’m pretty sure that doubling the dose wouldn’t have serious ill effects. Second I can reaffirm my gratitude for the “unawakened” reality of marriage, family, friends, work and health that I normally inhabit. Third, I can see that, circumstances permitting, there is a next step in the process that led me here.  It will involve a) taking a larger dose in the presence of someone acting as a guide or b) signing up for another long retreat experience or c) some combination of both.  The outcome remains to be seen.

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