How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan

Here’s a good example of a great book that generated a lot of buzz when it first appeared last May, but had completely faded from the conversation by the fall. I read it when it first came out (thanks, library advance hold system!), was mightily impressed, and read most of the articles, columns, essays, and blog posts that discussed it.

Since one of Pollan’s major points was that the horrified disdain in which psychedelics are currently held is a sad historical accident (LSD was initially thought by the scientific community to have great promise, and then the grandstanding clown Timothy Leary came along …), and then goes on to claim that the scientific mood is shifting quickly back to favorable, I wondered if there might be a window of opportunity for general attitudes to also shift. No such luck, it seems, or at least I’ve heard nothing public to indicate that there will soon be magic mushroom shops appearing next to legal pot emporiums.

A shame, because Pollan nearly persuades me to give some sort of psychedelic experience a whirl—I’m as hesitant now as I was to drink that first glass of raw milk so many years ago. But, truth be told, I’m very unlikely to seek out such a thing, because of my responsibilities to my family. They surely wouldn’t want me taking the risk, and I’m not so eager that I’d do it behind their backs.

And, strangely, I’m not particularly eager because I’m pretty sure what Pollan says about the experience is accurate, that it strips away the self and enables you to take a more direct look at the world. It’s something I’d like to see personally—but because I’m so confident after years of studying up on the matter that self is the culprit preventing us from fully beholding God’s creation, I’m content to know just that clearer sight is a possibility, and to do what I can using my simpler (and safer) exercises to slowly strip away layers of self, even if I don’t have enough years ahead of me to get to the place that a psychedelic might take me to directly.

Anyway, I recommend the book even if you have no interest in psychedelics or are suspicious of what they can do to a person. Pollan is a great writer, and the modern history of psychedelics will surprise you.

6 thoughts on “How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan

  1. Interesting. I have no opinion one way or the other on psychedelics. However, I think for a living and I’m responsible for my father’s well-being, so I’ll stick with normal consciousness for now :)

  2. Servetus,

    What got me comfortable with the prospect of a psychedelic experience is Pollan’s explanation that it is more or less a state of mind also reported by experienced meditators (of all traditions), dissolution of self. But now that I know the destination, I don’t have any particular urge to arrive there in a hurry, or at all really. Knowing what lies at the end of the path gives me a greater interest in traveling the path, however long that takes, even if I never reach the end. The journey is rewarding enough.

  3. Servetus,

    Psychedlics : meditation :: bariatric surgery : dieting ?

    Haha, good one! Especially the more I think about it … my big problem with weight was never what the scale read, but wrestling my compulsive eating to the ground. Dieting was an imperfect teacher (other important lessons were learned elsewhere) … but having my stomach stapled would have taught me nothing at all about my eating problems.

    Again, Pollan is an interesting case. His psychedelic experiences (which he underwent for the sake of the book) led him to explore meditation—which he continues with interest, while he seems to have no particular urge to continue with psychedelics. My interpretation: he knows now that since drugs can obliterate the self it is obliterate-able, but is more interested in doing hands-on obliteration … and thereby learning things about the self that his drug experiences could never teach him.

  4. I have the impression, too, that we’re often sold a bill of goods on controlled substances — like, if you use one once, you’ll be addicted forever. I know people to whom that has happened, but I know many more who just sort of shrugged, or maybe went through a phase, but then quit. There may be a group of people who just aren’t that interested. Although I think psychedelics weren’t hugely addictive anyway, were they?

  5. Servetus,

    Although I think psychedelics weren’t hugely addictive anyway, were they?

    According to Pollan, not at all—not physically, and it seems not psychically. The other big concern is whether they induce psychotic breaks, which he says they don’t (I forget the argument/evidence, but I do remember him emphasizing that).

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