Pollan on Psychedelics: a Spiritual Skeptic Meets Psilocybin

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 18, 2019

Michael Pollan’s blockbuster books The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire, Food Rules, and Cooked have had major impact on the how people view food, gardening, and cooking. But his latest bestseller, How to Change Your Mind, which documents his investigation into the medical and scientific research in the world of psychedelic drugs as beneficial, surprised even himself as the veteran writer found himself serving as not just reporter, but also a subject who went on several “journeys” as part of the project.

As Pollan was getting set to go on the road for a new book tour to promote the new paperback edition, he talked over the phone earlier this week about the spiritual aspect of psychedelics as gleaned from his own experiences, which will form the bulk of his talk at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday, April 23. “There was one particular trip that changed my understanding of what the word ‘spiritual’ means, and what the phenomenon is,” he explained. “One of the big takeaways of the book for me was that I misunderstood it completely.” 

Q. Is it correct that when you started this project your intention was more about exploring the medical/psychiatric benefit? 

A. Yes. I got into it after hearing about the clinical trials that had helped people who had been given life-changing diagnosis, and were struggling with depression, anxiety, and fear. After a psilocybin experience in which they were guided by therapists, most of them had had spiritual experiences where they completely transformed their fear of death. One of the reasons I decided to go on journeys of my own was that I wanted to understand how one trip could reset someone’s outlook on life. It seemed so implausible: Drugs don’t change people, or so I thought.

But I also had a little bit of envy because I had never had a spiritual experience and was curious if I was even capable of one. What would it be like? 

And your journeys did have a spiritual effect?

It was huge. I was very allergic to the term, because I assumed that it meant that you believe in the supernatural, which I very much didn’t. Philosophically I’m a materialist. I really believe that the laws of nature should be able to explain everything – molecules and matter and energy. I thought that to be spiritual was to be opposed to that idea. That it was ethereal. But I had an experience that completely reset my understanding of that idea.

Not to give away what I’m going to talk about, but I had a profound experience of ego dissolution, where my sense of ego disappeared. That can be very scary – it’s a kind of death. But if you are prepared for it and feel very safe in your environment, which I did, it can be ecstatic. What happens when the ego melts away is that there is no wall between you and the larger world, whether that’s nature or other people… I realized that what happens when the ego shrinks is that the channel for connection opens up between you and the natural world, the universe, other people, music. That’s what a spiritual experience is – a strong, powerful connection, one that is overwhelming. So I came to the conclusion that I was wrong: the opposite of spiritual isn’t material, it’s egotistical. When we figure out ways to shut that voice up, what takes its place is connection with love, a sense of oneness with others and the larger world.

That is a completely naturalistic understanding of reality. To have that sense of connection override the sense of separateness is actually a more scientifically defensible point of view.

Whether from a spiritual or therapeutic point of view, drugs aren’t the only way to get there, right? I mean, just in the last 20 years or so there’s been several books like The Power of Now, The Untethered Soul, and The Presence Process, not to mention Eastern practices, for that matter.

Sure. These insights aren’t news. Buddhists have been talking about them for a long time. But it’s hard for us to get there. You need a shock to the system. That can also come from fasting, a vision quest, daredevil sports that result in flow states, or meditation. In fact, one of the striking findings is that the MRI imaging of the brain on psychedelics looks exactly like that of a very experienced meditator while in meditation. The same parts of the brain are quieted. But those practices can take longer to get there.

In a way this all seems like the magical thinking of waving a wand and all the pain goes away. Is it really that easy?

No, because it’s not just the pill. It’s the therapeutic approach. Unless you are prepared properly and guided during and after the experience, with someone helping you integrate what it meant, these are just drug experiences. A big part of it is feeling safe enough to let your ego go, which is a huge leap into the unknown, and then figuring out what things mean. It’s hard work. And the experiences themselves are not fun. There are moments when I was transported, but there was also lots of death imagery, and the work of reviewing my life, and figuring out what the images meant. But it can achieve a lot in a short amount of time. The perspective I gained on my ego – not the least of which was the shocking realization that I am not identical to my ego – is the kind of valuable work that happens long-term in psychotherapy. But all that happened in the course of an afternoon, so it is a shortcut. So it does hold great promise to revolutionize a field that’s in dire need of it. 

Have your own experiences changed your beliefs in God?

In a way. I was an atheist. I heard that people emerge from these journey experiences with a sense that there is a transpersonal consciousness that exists around us as a kind of field. I thought that idea was ridiculous when I started. I now entertain it, which is a big shift for me. And I still can’t explain the point of view that arose after my ego subsided. It was a new eye. Where did that come from? Maybe my brain, but I’m not sure. 

Have you had any experience with psychedelics since completing the book? Do you meditate, or do anything else in that area now?

I have started a meditation practice. But I haven’t done any journeys mostly because the drugs are illegal. The risks were worth it for the book, but that’s changed. The thing is, the benefits tend to fade over time. Some insights remain, but I don’t have the same glow, that feeling of being different. You go back to basics. So if they were legal, I can imagine having some kind of journey on my birthday every year. 

‘Help’ for Healing 

Megan Griswold, who has worked as a mountain instructor, a Five Element acupuncturist, a freelance reporter, an NPR “All Things Considered” commentator and an off-the grid interior designer, is now the author of a best-selling memoir. The Book of Help traces her lifelong quest for love, connection, and peace of mind in a narrative that spans four decades and six continents, from the psycho-tropics of Brazil, to Ivy League academia and the study of Eastern medicine. Griswold has trained and received certifications as a doula, shiatsu practitioner, yoga instructor, personal trainer and wilderness medicine, all of which are touched on in a book Kirkus Reviews loved, saying that “vicariously living [her quest for remedies] and healing from the scars of her youth and the tragedy of her divorce through her telling makes for a fascinating book… Soul-searching has never been more comprehensive.” Griswold’s book tour makes a stop at Chaucer’s at 7 pm on Wednesday, April 24.

Starved for Connection? 

Although it’s only been online for a week and has yet to have its first gathering, the new Santa Barbara Connections Meetup has already attracted 30 members, even given that there is a four-question process prospective members must answer to join. The gathering will consist of games, exercises, and readings to help members learn to have better relationships, getting connected, and having fun in the process. The Connections Meetup is based on four simple principles of that include creating a Safe Container, practicing the Law of Attraction, employing Compassionate Communication including Active Listening, and Celebration, the latter concerning goals to achieve together that may not be possible alone. The first Meetup takes place 6-8 pm on Tuesday, April 23, at the Goleta Valley Library, 500 North Fairview Avenue in Goleta. Visit www.meetup.com/Santa-Barbara-Connections-Meetup.


You might also be interested in...