A Christian Approach To Psychedelics
Here’s the tl;dr version of this post: Michael Pollan’s new book, How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science of Psychedelics Tells Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is terrific, and ought to be read by my fellow conservative Christians. Yeah, you heard me: this is a book about LSD and magic mushrooms from which religious conservatives can learn a great deal. I encourage you to read it with an open but critical mind.
Let me explain. Sit down, this is going to take a while. And I’m going to ramble.
Pollan’s book (henceforth, HTCYM) is in part a history of psychedelic compounds (like LSD and psilocybin) in medical research and practice. I had no idea that in the 1950s, there was a lot of serious medical research on psychedelics as treatments for addiction and depression. The word “psychedelic” comes from the Greek word meaning “mind-manifesting,” and was not coined by 1960s hippies, but by 1950s scientists. It turns out that scientists experimenting with psychedelic compounds were getting good results treating depressives and addicts with it. In one of the more surprising facts reported by Pollan, Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, kicked the bottle after an experimental treatment with belladonna.
Timothy Leary is a villain in Pollan’s narrative. Leary was such a reckless, vain showboater that he ended up making psychedelics into a weapon of the counterculture. His antics caused serious scientific research into psychedelics and their possible therapeutic value to fall into disrepute for decades. Only now are scientists picking up where their colleagues half a century ago left off.
There are two parts to the story Pollan tells that interest me.
The first is about how psychedelics, administered under certain conditions, can help people who are suffering greatly. I’m going to write a bit about that below.
The second is about what psychedelics may tell us about the nature of mind, of epistemology (how we know what we know), and of reality itself. If you’re the kind of religious believer who reflexively rejects this area of inquiry because it’s associated with the dopey 1960s counterculture, then I urge you to set aside your prejudices and read Pollan’s book.
In his introduction, Pollan talks about how reading the founder of psychiatry, William James, on religious experience, caused him to open his mind. Pollan:
“No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness disregarded.
“At any rate,” James concluded, these other states, the existence of which he believed was as real as the ink on this page, “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”
The first time I read that sentence, I realized James had my number: as a staunch materialist, and as an adult of a certain age [Pollan was born in 1955 — RD], I had pretty much closed my accounts with reality. Perhaps this had been premature.
LSD, commonly called “acid,” was discovered by accident in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who had been working with the ergot fungus. He accidentally got some of a compound he had synthesized on his skin, and had the world’s first acid trip.
What had happened to Hofmann’s brain? As a general matter, psychedelic compounds work on receptors within the brain, somewhat short-circuiting the brain’s default mode network (DMN). This means parts of your brain that normally don’t communicate with each other do while under the influence of the drug. The DMN is what organizes sensory input, and allows you to order experience. The DMN blocks out a lot of sensory information, the admission of which into consciousness would pretty much disable one. The DMN is responsible for maintaining our sense of ego, of separateness, and subjectivity.
According to Pollan, when you’re tripping, the DMN is suppressed, and you lose the sense of a barrier between yourself and the world outside. You experience that world with a much heightened sense of wonder. Much of Pollan’s book is taken up with therapeutic use of psychedelics, and accounts of how they have helped people. Some who have been afflicted with addiction, compulsion, and depression find that a single psychedelic experience, under clinically supervised conditions, serves to “reboot” their brain, and to break that harmful patterns of thinking.
Others who are suffering from terminal diseases find that psychedelic experiences greatly ease, and even eliminate, their anxiety over death, easing their passage. There’s a powerful testimony in the book left behind by a terminally ill man who participated in NYU psilocybin trials. The experiences left him with a profound sense of peace and ultimate meaning, and helped him to meet his death with a sense of serenity.
Based on these stories alone — and there are lots of them in Pollan’s book — it seems immoral to deprive psychiatrists of these medicines to use on the suffering. These accounts in HTCYM struck a resonant chord within me. In college, I knew personally a man who had been suffering from depression for two years, and who was drinking heavily. He dropped acid for kicks one night, his first psychedelic experience. That single trip changed his life. As he later described it, it made him see that his sense of isolation and self-hatred were illusions, and the world itself was filled with beauty, life, and love. It convinced him that God was real.
Leaving aside the theological aspects of the story, I can confirm that that single drug experience changed his outlook and behavior overnight. The recollection of that story, in fact, is what prompted me to buy Pollan’s book at once when I heard about it. As Pollan writes, researchers are discovering that there is something about psychedelic drugs that breaks old patterns of thinking. Bill W.’s experience of the “Higher Power” that would become part of AA came from his belladonna event.
For me, though, the most interesting aspect of all this is what it might say to us about the nature of consciousness, and the existence of the transcendent realm — and ultimately, of God.
When you do psychedelics, are you in some sense encountering the transcendent realm? Or is it entirely a hallucination? Put another way, are the trippy perceptions you have manufactured entirely by your brain, or does the drug make you sense something that is actually there, but hidden from perception under normal conditions? Or some of both?
Bill Richards is a psychiatrist who was involved with the early scientific explorations of psychedelics. From Pollan’s book:
Richards emerged from those first psychedelic explorations in possession of three unshakable convictions.
The first is that the experience of the sacred reported both by the great mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real” — that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.”
Second, that whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis for religion. (Partly for this reason Richards believes that psychedelics should be part of a divinity students’ education.)
And third, that consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains. On this question, he hold with Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who conceived of the human mind as a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to frequencies of energy and information that exist outside it. “If you wanted to find the blonde who delivered the news last night, “Richards offered by way of an analogy, “you wouldn’t look for her in the TV set.” The television set is, like the human brain, necessary but not sufficient.
Pollan quotes another scientist who was involved with psychedelics as a volunteer in a 1999 Johns Hopkins trial:
Turner is now an ordained Zen monk, yet he is also still a physicist, working for a company that makes helium neon lasers. I asked him if he felt any tension between his science and his spiritual practice. “I don’t feel there’s a contradiction. Yet what happened at Hopkins has influenced my physics. I realize there are just some domains that science will not penetrate. Science can bring you to the big bang, but it can’t take you beyond it. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.”
In 2006, Hopkins neuroscience research Roland Griffiths published a landmark paper based on these trials. Here’s a Hopkins press release on it. The famed religion scholar Huston Smith (d. 2016) had this to say about Griffiths’ work:
The Johns Hopkins experiment shows — proves — that under controlled, experimental conditions, psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences. It uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, it offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism. And it does so in the very teeth of the unscientific prejudices built into our current drug laws.
OK, there’s a lot to process here.
What is a mystical experience? According to Pollan, William James set out four criteria that he says separate authentic mystical experiences from counterfeit ones:
1. The experience is ineffable. People who have undergone them struggle to convey what the experience is like.
2. The experience is noetic. You have the sense that you have learned some profound truth or truths that you couldn’t have learned any other way. “Dreams cannot stand this test,” James wrote. People who have these experiences often change their lives in meaningful ways.
3. The experience is transient. It lasts only a short time, but its effects do not.
4. The experience is passive. People who have the mystical experience aren’t seeking it, but only receive it.
I have to interject something personal here. In my life, I have had four or five mystical experiences. Two of them were profound, life-changing events. One of them I may write about one day. The other I never will. In both of the profound cases, all of James’s criteria were met. Those experiences not only have to do with why I am a religious believer, but also with why I am the kind of religious believer that I am. I’m not going to elaborate on either of those cases here, so don’t ask.
Reading the descriptions in Pollan’s book that psychedelic users give of their trips sounded quite familiar to me. Note well that Pollan himself tries several types of psychedelics as research for this book, under supervised conditions, and does not become a religious person because of it. But it did give him profound experiences of awe, experiences that changed the way he saw himself and the world. Pollan points out something that everyone I know who has done psychedelics have said to me: it’s not like a narcotic, in that you feel stoned or drunk. You are in most cases lucid.
Are these experiences less authentic when induced by a chemical, as opposed to by intense prayer, meditation, fasting, and the like? Not from a neurological point of view. It turns out that under observation with fMRI machines, the brains of experienced meditators and the brains of people on psilocybin look at lot alike. Pollan writes that “the practice and the medicine both dramatically reduce activity in the default mode network.”
To put it more crudely, the money a man puts in the bank after 30 years of hard work is no more or no less valuable than the money put in the bank by a man who won the lottery. But then, the man who acquired that money through hard work will regard it differently. This may be why the psychedelic experience is wasted on many people.
Nevertheless, reading Pollan makes me far less inclined to dismiss the value of hallucinogenic experiences because they were acquired cheaply. He writes:
What is more material than a chemical? One could reasonably conclude from the action of psychedelics that the gods are nothing more than chemically induced figments of the hominid imagination. Yet, surprisingly, most of the people who have had these experiences don’t see the matter that way at all. Even the most secular among them come away from their journeys convinced there exists something that transcends a material understanding of reality: some sort of a “Beyond.”
It’s not that they deny a naturalistic basis for this revelation; they just interpret it differently. 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 become in the minds of the more psychedelically experienced irrefutable proof of its fundamental enchantment.
… So here was a curious paradox. The same phenomenon that pointed to a materialist explanation for spiritual and religious belief gave people an experience so powerful it convinced them of the existence of a nonmaterial reality — the very basis of religious belief.
This is heavy stuff. Eastern Orthodox Christianity teaches that the cosmos is panentheistic. What does that mean? From Orthodox Wiki:
In panentheism, God is viewed as creator and/or animating force behind the universe, and the source of universal truth. This concept of God is closely associated with the Logos as stated in the 5th century BC works of Heraclitus (ca. 535 BC — 475 BC), in which the Logos pervades the cosmos and whereby all thoughts and things originate; e.g., “He who hears not me but the Logos will say: All is one.” A similar statement attributed to Jesus by John 10:30.
While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God. Panentheism holds that God is the “supreme affect and effect” of the universe.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, creation is not “part of” God, and the Godhead is still distinct from creation; however, God is “within” all creation, thus the parsing of the word in Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christianity is “pan-entheism” (God indwells in all things) and not “panen-theism” (All things are part of God but God is more than the sum of all things).
The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have a doctrine called panentheism to describe the relationship between the Uncreated (God, who is omnipotent, eternal, and constant) and His creation that bears surface similarities with the panentheism described above but maintains a critical distinction.
Most specifically, these Churches teach that God is not the “watchmaker God” or mechanical God of philosophy found in Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the “stage magician God” who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all. That is, God’s energies maintain all things and all beings, even if those beings have explicitly rejected Him. His love of creation is such that he will not withdraw His presence, which would be the ultimate form of slaughter, not merely imposing death but ending existence, altogether. By this token, the entirety of creation is sanctified, and thus no part of creation can be considered innately evil. This does not deny the existence of evil in a fallen universe, only that it is not an innate property of creation.
This Orthodox Christian panentheism is distinct from a fundamentalist panentheism in that it maintains an ontological gulf or distance between the created and the Uncreated.
If this is true — and I believe it is — then it strikes me as likely consonant with Henri Bergson’s theory of consciousness: that it does not emerge from the brain, but that the brain is rather a receptor of the consciousness that is really there. In my own mystical experience, which occurred many years before I became Orthodox, I felt the presence of the divine filling all things, and that all things are connected. This, by the way, is classical mysticism, not just Christian mysticism. When I first happened upon Orthodox Christianity, I thought, “Of course! That’s how it was for me!”
It’s hard to talk about this stuff for reasons that Pollan elaborates. He writes that people who are trying to recall the things they experienced on psychedelics end up saying things that are totally banal, e.g., “Love is all there is.”
The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious. Yet people come out of the experience understanding these platitudes in a new way; what was merely known is now felt, takes on the authority of a deeply rooted conviction. And, more often than not, that conviction concerns the supreme importance of love.
Anyway, Pollan’s book makes me reflect on how religious ritual and material expressions (e.g, in church architecture) exist both to replicate the foundational encounter with the Divine, but also to create environments in which it becomes more likely that ordinary people will experience at least a glimmer of those numinous events. For me, my encounter with the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, while not precisely mystical, provoked an awareness of the transcendent realm immanent in those stones and stained glass.
Pollan concludes that the psychedelic experiences compels us to question our notion of reality:
The model suggests that our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memories. Normal waking consciousness feels perfectly transparent, and yet it is less a window on reality than the product of our imaginations — a kind of controlled hallucination.
Huston Smith on this point: “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.” Integration is essential to making sense of the experience, whether in or out of the medical context. Or else it remains just a drug experience.
Which is why so many people who dropped acid or did mushrooms at Grateful Dead concerts did not become spiritual. Which is why other people run smack dab into the paranormal, and don’t allow it to change their lives. My own father was at the center of a poltergeist situation after his father died, and accepted it as real … but it changed nothing in his life, even though the clear lesson of it was about the power of forgiveness.
What if what we consider to be normality is, in fact, simply a “take” on experience? Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal has written about how “dogmatic materialism” has caused science and scholars to wrongly dismiss experiences and phenomena that don’t fit into their materialist boxes. Readers from a long time back will recall my writing about linguist Daniel Everett’s experiences with the Piraha tribe of the Amazon, and how the tribespeople claimed to be seeing a spiritual entity that neither Everett nor his daughter could see. From that post:
Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.
His young daughter came out to have a look, and like her father, saw nothing. Everett continues:
What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.
As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.
Everett is an atheist and a scientist, but he cannot deny the power of what happened to him that day by the river. It indicates that our ability to see what is actually there depends on our subjectivity. Either the Piraha were hallucinating, or Everett and his daughter were. Either there was a jungle god (or demon) present, or there wasn’t. Some of them were seeing something that wasn’t really there (was a projection of their minds), or the Everetts were blind to something that was truly present. The fact that Daniel Everett doesn’t actually believe in the existence of jungle gods, but cannot bring himself to dismiss the Pirahas here, is hugely significant, and speaks to the WEIRD phenomenon we’ve talked about in his space before. That is, what we in the secular, rationalist West call “normal” and “objective reality” is far more subjective than we think.
I like this passage from Pollan:
Even in the case of the minerals, modern physics (forget psychedelics!) gives us reason to wonder if perhaps some form of consciousness might not figure in the construction of reality. Quantum mechanics holds that matter may not be as innocent of mind as the materialist would have us believe. For example, a subatomic particle can exist simultaneously in multiple locations, is pure possibility, until it is measured — that is, perceived by a mind. Only then and not a moment sooner does it drop into reality as we know it: acquire fixed coordinates in time and space. The implication here is that matter might not exists as such in the absence of a perceiving subject. Needless to say, this raises tricky questions for a materialist understanding of consciousness. The ground underfoot may be much less solid than we think.
So, I promised to discuss “a Christian approach to psychedelics”. What would that look like? Here are some suggestions and thoughts:
- We should not dismiss psychedelics out of hand — not for the sake of treating those suffering from mental disorders or terminal illness, but also for those interested in studying consciousness.
- It is compatible with the metaphysics of premodern Christian tradition — especially Eastern Christianity — to believe that God is everywhere present, and in some sense (not just symbolic) fills all things. Orthodox Christianity (and Catholicism?) posits that this is a theological and metaphysical truth. It has been confirmed by Christian mystics. Psychedelic drugs may reveal this truth in a different way.
- Pollan is correct to say that a purely neurochemical explanation for these states doesn’t negate their spiritual meaning. Certainly not for Christians in the sacramental tradition, who take for granted that God can and does communicate with His creation through matter.
- On the other hand, Christians should approach these things with extreme caution. Opening yourself up to the numinous is spiritually risky. Not every spiritual presence wishes us well, or tells the truth.
- Pollan writes that people who bring Christian expectations to psychedelic experiences often have Christian experiences. Those who do not, do not. If psychedelic experiences are real, why wouldn’t God reveal Himself in Christian symbols to non-Christians having them?
- Science finds no neurological difference between brains deep in meditation, and brains in the grips of a psychedelic experience. From the point of view of Christian mysticism, is there a difference? If so, what is it?
- Huston Smith says (accurately, I think) that having a spiritual experience is not the same as having a spiritual life. If you don’t integrate the insights of your experience into daily life, it’s meaningless. Smith also says that psilocybin “undermines modernity’s secularism”. How might it do that? How can we be sure that people won’t simply drop acid, do mushrooms, or whatever, and then go back to ordinary life, as if nothing meaningful had happened? Perhaps psilocybin use can undermine confidence in materialism as an explanation for reality, but I don’t see how it could effect mass transformation, and the re-enchantment of the world. Though I’d certainly like to hear Christians discuss it.
- Can psychedelic data be accounted for within a Protestant worldview? Do psychedelics undermine Protestantism in a particular way? If a Protestant pastor took psilocybin in a controlled experiment, he would have many of the same experiences as everybody else who takes them, because they work on the brain the same way. How would he explain them? Maybe some of you readers are Protestants who have done psychedelics as believers, or before you were believers. How do you regard that experience?
- Do Catholics, Orthodox, and other sacramental Christians whose Christianity comes from the pre-modern (that is, pre-Reformation) era, have a particular vantage point from which to evaluate the psychedelic experience? If so, what is it?
These are my first reactions to Pollan’s book. I’m going to give it a lot more thought, as preparation for writing my next book, which is going to be about the re-enchantment of the world (though I do not foresee advocating the use of psychedelics to that end, my priest will be happy to hear). I believe that Christianity is true — not just true for me, but true for everybody. I have long pondered how to be faithful to that conviction while honoring the mystical insights of those outside the Christian religion. I struggle to know how to fit into a Christian framework the experiences of people like my friend the nonbeliever who had an ayahuasca experience as she was dying of cancer. I mentioned it in this 2014 post:
My Dutch friend Miriam, who died of cancer late last year, told me last summer that she had recently visited a shaman who induced, as Miriam’s request, an experience with ayahuasca, the psychedelic plant used ritualistically in South America. It was a terrifying event for Miriam, but in the end, cleansing, and healing, she said. I won’t reveal what she told me she learned, but I can tell you that it left me sitting at her table weeping over its profundity — in particular, what she learned about the roots and the character of the intense suffering she had been going through for a decade. The ayahuasca experience did not save her from cancer, but it helped prepare her to die. I didn’t know what to make of it, personally. I had no doubt at all that her experience was real, and healing. But was it entirely contained within the subconscious depths of her mind — or did the chemicals in the plant unlock the doors of perception of a reality beyond her ordinary cognition? Miriam, who was New Agey, would not have seen the difference. And maybe there’s wisdom in that. For her, a woman facing death, it was all useful to bring her to a point of peace.
The question doesn’t resolve itself, however: did she hallucinate, or did she experience a dimension of reality closed off to most of us?
I wish I could tell you that Miriam’s experience under ayahuasca had been a Christian one. It wasn’t. It was about reconciliation with her late mother, and her worries about the teenage son she was going to leave behind when she died. But it was a healing one. And get this weird sign of the White Moth that happened to me and to us on my last visit to her.
In that 2014 post, I cite an experience by the worldly, even hedonistic, Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven, who had a powerful mystical experience among Dutch Pentecostals, but was so shaken up by it that he ran as far from the mystical as he could.
I’ve written about Pollan and psychedelics before, in a post titled “The Psychedelic Dante.” In it, I mentioned my college friend who changed after his experience with LSD. And I mention Dante:
As a freshman in college, B. was very depressed (though not diagnosed as such). His girlfriend had broken up with him, and he was drinking way too much to dull the pain. That spring semester, he would go down to the pub and drink himself silly. He was caught up in dark, sad music, and couldn’t seem to break out of the fog.
Then a mutual friend of ours asked him to try LSD one weekend. B. was not a drug user, but at that time, he was in such a state that he was willing to do anything to think about something other than his own misery. It turned out to have been one of the most profound experiences of his life.
B. told his friends later that he had felt a sense of oneness of all things, the presence of God filling the universe, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life. His depressed self, he said, had been turned relentlessly inward, and he was blind to the reality around him: that God exists, that He is love, that He is calling us all to unity with Him. He wasn’t a religious believer at the time, or at least not much of one, and he didn’t have a specifically Christian experience. He says that when the drug wore off, he had been — the phrasing here is mine — given a glimpse behind the veil, and seen things as they truly are. That was the end of his depression. He ended up becoming a Christian, and still is, thirty years later.
As B. saw it through the psychedelic experience, he had a choice: to turn outward, see the beauty of the world and God’s presence in it, because that was the truth; or stay mired in solipsistic, drunken, morose brooding. The fact that this choice occurred while under the influence of a drug did not make him — nor does it make me — doubt the truths revealed. It was as if B. had badly defective vision, but had been given a magic pair of eyeglasses that showed him what the world really looked like with corrected vision.
I absolutely do not want to give the impression that I am in any way endorsing recreational use of psychedelics. I knew others in college who used these drugs and did not appear to gain any sort of life-changing insights from them. They just had fun. I knew a couple of people who ruined their minds with them.
I also believe that psychedelics can be spiritually dangerous, because if they open you up to a different level of spiritual reality on the good side, they also open you up to the dark side. It seems to me risky to have a spiritual experience so profound that is unearned, that you haven’t prepared for, as a mystic would have prepared through years of prayer. A man who makes his millions slowly, through hard work, regards his fortune differently than a man who made his millions by winning the lottery. I could be wrong about this.
That said, I can’t deny the change I saw in B., and for that reason am excited to see medical science once again researching therapeutic uses for this category of drug. I believe that for many people, it can give them profound relief. If these drugs eventually become approved for use in controlled therapeutic sessions, good.
So what’s the Dante connection? Reading the Pollan article and thinking about my friend’s transformative experience thirty years ago with psychedelics, I kept thinking about Dante’s Paradiso, and how the poet’s imaginative description of heaven — as a realm of light, love, and harmony — is what B. says he sensed during his experience. The glimpse that the pilgrim Dante has of heaven in the poem changes his life, and causes him to return to the world moving in harmony with the God Who is love. Many people who have had life-after-death experiences come back changed in a similar way. This is a fair approximation of what happened to B., though again, it wasn’t specifically Christian.
The question remains: have B. and others experienced things as they truly are, or merely an illusion conjured by the brain? Does it matter? If these depressed people and others are having these life-changing positive experiences under the influence of psychedelics, should it matter if they are real, or a hallucination?
Your thoughts? Please be serious. I’m not asking you to agree with any of this, but I am asking you to take it seriously, even if you dismiss it. I want to have a real conversation about this, not just deflect wisecracks and potshots.
UPDATE: I have an exchange in the comments with commenter MrsCole:
Mrs Cole: I’ve often wondered if this is why small children more often report seeing things that “aren’t there”– they haven’t pruned that off yet. It wasn’t so long ago that my then-2-year-old stared over my shoulder into the back of the nave at a sparsely-attended weekday liturgy, giggled, and asked me repeatedly: “Mama, what are those birds doing?” “What birds?” “Those birds” he pointed. I didn’t see anything. Couldn’t see out any windows from there. Nobody in the back… whatever he was seeing was not available to me, but I don’t doubt he saw it.
Me: My son Lucas, when he was around the same age, maybe a bit younger, was resting on my shoulder during Catholic mass (we were Catholic then). I was standing at the back of the church, holding him, because he had been restless in the pew. He was trying to fall asleep. Suddenly, he rose in my arms, pointed to the side, and said, “Angel!” His eyes and his pointing finger followed something I could not see, as it moved out over the congregation. “Angel! Angel!” he said. Then he put his head back on my shoulder and fell asleep. There were no images of angels anywhere in that (alas, modernist) church. I believe he saw an angel. While not crediting the existence of angels, Pollan would say that children have not yet learned how to suppress sensory inputs. They haven’t learned that you’re not supposed to see angels, so to speak. So they see angels. Pollan quotes the child psychiatrist Alison Gopnik as saying little kids process the world neurologically as if they are tripping all the time. Reading that made me think about Jesus’s words that we must come to him as little children. I’ve always taken that to read with the trust that little children have, but what if He meant the sense of wonder that they have too?
Second, I want to underscore that I do not wish to be read as encouraging people to fool with psychedelics. If they really do lift the veil, so to speak, that’s incredibly powerful, and an experience that could be overwhelming. I also believe it could open one up to malign spiritual influences. I just posted in an exchange in the comments a story about a goodtime Charlie I knew in college who I saw one night evangelizing people in the parking lot of a disco where a lot of us students went. Normally we’d see him bellied up to the bar, but there he was standing with a couple of hardcore student evangelists, warning us all about hellfire.
“Frank, what happened?” I asked him. He told me that he had been dropping acid in that same parking lot a week or so before, and saw a large demon. It scared him so much that he converted to Christianity, and was there trying to warn everybody else about that bar. His warnings didn’t work on me or anybody else, but Frank’s change was so dramatic that like Daniel Everett and the Piraha, I couldn’t get out of my head the possibility that he really had seen exactly what he said he’d seen — that the drug hadn’t caused him to hallucinate, but to seem something that was actually there, but that was hidden from view from most of us.
UPDATE.2: The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that that Huston Smith quote about how psychedelics stand to “re-enchant” the world is dangerously utopian. I can recognize that a mystical experience sparked by a psychedelic drug can be life-changing; the stories told by those interviewed by Pollan sound credible to me. But the idea that a drug experience can permanent re-vivify a way of moving through the world for most people strikes me as wildly idealistic. The people I have known who used psychedelics seemed to me no better and no worse than anybody else for having done it. I imagine that if you are someone of the caliber and temperament of Huston Smith, and you ingest psychedelic drugs (he did as part of a famous experiment when he was a student at Harvard in 1962), it might have that effect. But most of us? No, you can’t convince me of that. And it strikes me as dangerous to think that we can have enlightenment so cheaply and easily. There’s a reason why so many people who win the lottery end up ruining themselves. They don’t know how to handle what they’ve been given.
As ever, I welcome your thoughts. I’m still trying to work my way through the meaning of this book.