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Michael Pollan talks about the potential of psychedelics to improve mental health, break down barriers, ...
2018-12-05 10:00:00

Leaving Your Ego Behind
An Interview with Michael Pollan

Photo by Fran Collin
Leaving Your Ego Behind
Leaving Your Ego Behind

A psychedelic trip can reorient everything we think about ourselves and the world around us. It can enable us to step outside the stories that we create about ourselves and in which we are sometimes, quite literally, trapped. Michael Pollan, a man who certainly knows what he is talking about, is interviewed by Tomasz Stawiszyński.

Read in 25 minutes

I reach Michael Pollan’s office at Harvard University’s Department of English well ahead of time, as is usual in such cases. While waiting for him to arrive, I take another look through my notes and some highlighted passages in his most recent book, entitled How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics.

It is no coincidence that from the outset this book has been surrounded by sensation. A serious member of the research staff at the world’s top universities, an author of many bestselling books, named among the 100 most influential people by Time magazine, has written a book about… narcotics. And as part of his research for the book, he took those very substances himself on several occasions. Obviously, the book includes a detailed account of what he experienced.

All right, we’re not talking about narcotics in the strict sense of the word. At least not ones we should be really afraid of. The drugs described in Pollan’s book, though still commonly banned and available only to specialists, have been used for years and have brought surprising results in the treatment of depression, addiction, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Their medical applications are currently the subject of trials at top research centres such as Johns Hopkins University and UCLA. The results are more than promising.

These substances are, of course, psilocybin and LSD, powerful hallucinogenics referred to as psychedelic drugs (or as the Greek origin of the word suggests, substances that are ‘mind-revealing’). They elicit classic mystical-style experiences – a sense of oneness with the universe, an all-encompassing love, the dissolution of one’s ego in a universal consciousness that transcends individuality. Interestingly, such experiences turn out to have excellent therapeutic effects.

Pollan has tested the drugs on himself. A number of times. He claims that the effects were spectacular.

“Does this really mean,” I think, “that I’m about to meet a true mystic? A man at one with the universe, who does not fear death? Someone who has broken through the gates of perception?”

For now, however, the meeting should have started 30 minutes ago, and Pollan is still not here. After 60 minutes, I get quite anxious. What if he doesn’t show up? What if my entire journey to Boston proves to be a waste of time?

When he does finally arrive, he’s clearly surprised that I’m already there, waiting for him. A moment later, he apologizes and explains that he noted down the hour of our meeting according to California time, where he spends half of the year, teaching courses at the University of California, Berkeley.

“That’s okay,” I say when we walk into his office and sit at the table. “After all, psychedelic experiences show clearly that everything is relative and our individual identity is an illusion. So it’d be hard to say that punctuality is the most important thing in the world.”

Tomasz Stawiszyński: So, is love the most important thing?

Michael Pollan: [laughs]. Yes! It is, actually! It’s not news, but it’s something we often forget on a daily basis. So maybe psychedelic drugs remind you of the obvious, and these obvious things in turn prove to be the most profound life truths. Love is the most important thing. What else could be more important? Some people crave power, but love is the only thing that truly gives meaning to life.

But why do we need psychedelic drugs to realize this?

What happens on a psychedelic journey is that your ego starts to crumble. The same applies to the various defenses that work in our psyche and limit a whole lot of stimuli that are constantly coming in. These include emotions, sometimes very strong ones. Such barriers help a species survive, but they do affect our picture of the world. Aldous Huxley talked about a measly trickle of information that the conscious mind admits into the awareness.

So when these walls come down under the influence of psychedelic drugs, our minds get inundated by a wave of information that usually gets marginalized. For example, we feel how we’re more deeply and strongly connected with other people than we thought. Or that there are no walls between us and nature, because we’re an integral part of it. And since the walls that we build so laboriously in our daily lives are gone, we also start to feel love more intensely, and love is one of the most powerful human emotions. It simply turns out that there’s more love in us than we realized and that we need it a lot more. That’s at least my understanding of the dynamics of these psychological processes.

What comes in is love, not hate. That’s comforting.

Maybe some people do feel hate. For that matter, it’s interesting that so many people have had the same experience under the influence of psychedelics, and their takeaway is that love is the most important thing. I know that it sounds like some hackneyed phrases that get written on greeting cards, but there is a reason why such words appear on cards. We often protect ourselves against strong emotions through irony, by looking at something in a satirical or ironic way.

That may be what we call the expectation effect – the course of a psychedelic experience is largely dependent on the circumstances and convictions that we have when we start it.

Yes, expectations are of primary importance here. However, it’s interesting how many people with different backgrounds have had the same kind of epiphany, and they were not all looking for it. For some, it comes as a big surprise. For example, for me.

In today’s world, are we in need of a psychedelic awakening? A return to all those primal emotions – love, oneness with nature and others – which we have almost completely forgotten, both as individuals and as a civilization?

The West is now faced with two big challenges. One of them is tribalism. In terms of not only competing nationalisms, but also tendencies that become manifest within a single nation or society. The best example is provided by today’s United States. The other challenge is posed by environmental pollution and climate change. Both of these problems are about building walls between us and others, objectifying what is not me, what is different from me. We treat people of other faiths, other cultures and other races as hostile objects, as things.

We’re doing the same thing to nature. The degradation of the natural environment, of which we are the cause, has its sources in the way we objectify nature – perceiving its interests as being distinct from our interests. Psychedelic drugs address directly both of these problems. Or rather the same problem – the objectifying of others.

But what should we do with this information, that such drugs have this kind of an effect on individuals – administer them to a whole culture or whole civilization?

That was a particularly poignant issue back in the 1960s, when psychoactive substances were seen as a potential tool for effecting profound transformations of culture and identity. Back then, they were blocked by governments, which banned LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

Today, we can learn a lot from the debates of that period. One of the most important propagators of psychedelic drugs back then was Timothy Leary. Today, we would call him a populist. His leading slogan [coined by famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan – ed. note], was: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary wanted psychedelics to be in common use, eventually becoming an evangelist of psychedelics in the world.

Others, in turn, believed that such substances should be reserved only for the elite and the leaders – corporate executives, artists, engineers – and that consciousness would filter down from these influential people. I have no idea which of these strategies is more effective in the context of social and political change. After all, there are no known models for giving psychoactive substances to entire cultures. But you can easily imagine a world in which meditation is taught in schools. And meditation can take people to similar places as psychedelics, which means above all outside the ego.

Experimental programmes exist here and there. Some American schools and prisons teach mindfulness meditation.

I recently talked to Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon-general of the United States, who very intensively promoted the introduction of meditation in schools. Such courses could be started very early, in primary school, in the first and second grade. The effects are plain and promising: there is less fighting in the classroom and children are more attentive. In any case, we’re still talking about a very special mental experience that can be achieved via various means, not only psychedelic substances. Universal meditation programmes seem the most reasonable solution, otherwise we’re only left with putting LSD or psilocybin into the municipal waterworks, which is not something I recommend [laughs].

In one interview, you said that you might or might not experience this altered state of consciousness after many years of meditation, but you could be almost 100% certain it would happen after you took psychedelics.

Or at least it’s very likely. That’s why I hope we may one day use psychedelics to kickstart meditation practice. I found those experiences very helpful. Already at the beginning of your path, you get a sample of the state of the consciousness that you’re striving for. I think that many people mediate, and they don’t know where they’re trying to get. Psychedelic experiences give you a preview of the destination. Thanks to neuroscience, we know that the same parts of the brain are active in states of deep meditation as during psychedelic trips.

Meditation and psychedelic experiences could be considered as a therapy but also as a religious or mystical experience. Are these two perspectives complementary, or rather contradictory?

They’re definitely complementary. Because it turns out that a mystical experience has therapeutic effects. Let’s take studies conducted at Johns Hopkins in which psilocybin was administered to smoking addicts and to terminally ill patients suffering from anxiety about death, among other things. The positive results were closely correlated to the occurrence of a mystical experience in patients. Let me stress very clearly – the therapeutic effect came not from the pharmacology, but from the nature of the experience caused by those substances. What is crucial here is this kind of non-duality. Of course, some seek it out so as to solve some temporary problems – to stop smoking, to cope with the fear of death, or to get relief from depression. Others, in turn, see it as a chance for spiritual development.

In some sense, these two things come together in terminally ill people. The profound spiritual experiences they have after taking psychedelic drugs can allay their fear of death, allow them to come to terms with the inevitable. That’s how my interest in this subject started. From conversations with people in a state suspended between life and death, who had undergone a profound transformation under the influence of psychedelic experiences.

When we look at the catalogue of problems or disorders that can be remedied especially effectively by psychedelics – fear of death, depression, addictions, obsessive-compulsive disorders – what we get is essentially a perfect profile of people in today’s world. We live in a post-religious era, an era of disrupted great narratives, an economic and cultural crisis, uncertainty. It therefore comes as no surprise that we’re troubled by such problems. Was C. G. Jung right when he wrote that modern people needed a primal spiritual experience to regain emotional stability?

It appears that he was indeed right. Also, I find his conviction that you should seek such a numinous experience in the second half of life very insightful. Jung, at least as far as I understand him, meant the experience of transcendence, which doesn’t need to be tied to any specific religious context. Some people have a numinous experience from interacting with nature. It’s an experience of awe, where you feel overwhelmed by something that’s bigger than yourself and shrinks your sense of ego. I mean awe diminishes the ego, too, which is very interesting. There are many ways to diminish the ego, but the kinds of elements that you are just describing are very much the product of modern ego consciousness.

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Of course, psychedelic drugs are a shortcut. Some turn this into an accusation – it is not something you’ve had to work hard to achieve. That’s not exactly true, you do also need to work hard for such experiences. But definitely not as hard as when you meditate. Which scenario is better? I don’t know. However, I would say that the inner puritan hidden in each of us tells us to think instinctively that we need to deserve every success, by working hard for it.

Jung believed that such a shortcut is simply dangerous for people living in the West. In his letters, he warned that the use of psychedelic substances could result in consciousness being flooded with content that it was not prepared to take.

The risks must be discussed loud and clear. For sure, psychedelics can be dangerous, and there are people who should stay as far away from them as possible. I was initially very mistrustful, I had to overcome many doubts and fears. That’s why I studied all available sources discussing possible side effects. On the physiological side, I was struck by how safe these substances were. They are – of course I mean psilocybin and LSD – much less toxic than many medicines that we routinely take. For example, there’s no lethal dose. If you look inside your medicine cabinet, you’ll find many drugs that you can overdose on with lethal effects, for example paracetamol.

Also, psychedelics are not addictive, they don’t cause hunger or an urge for another, higher dose. If you took them every day, they’d simply stop working.

However, there is a psychological danger associated with their consumption. Anyone at an increased risk of psychosis should not touch these drugs. Also, there are people who have very unpleasant experiences or do dangerous things after taking psychedelics. After all, you lose control of your body and mind. There have been cases in which people walked out into traffic or fell out of a window, and cases of suicide, too. We must not pretend that such dangers don’t exist, but we can try to minimize them. Above all, such substances should only be used under the supervision of a trained therapist who knows what to do in the case of a bad trip.

I think that Jung in particular warned of the moment of returning to one’s daily routine. If a moment ago you felt oneness with everything that exists and emanated love of all living and dead creatures, how can you return to your ordinary identity on the next day, go to work, sit down at a desk or stand behind a counter? Timothy Leary put it clearly: people who took LSD grasped that social hierarchies are an illusion. They would not be obedient corporate employees or soldiers who would shoot at others without batting an eye.

One of the researchers I talked to when I was working on my book, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, suggests that there is something inherently anti-hierarchical in psychedelic substances. His results indicate they reduce authoritarian tendencies and promote a sense of inter-connectedness.

I’m not so certain. I think we should be very careful not to attribute any specific qualities to such substances. I’d rather agree with Stanislav Grof, who calls them “unspecific mental amplifiers,”, which means that they exaggerate whatever is in there. We should remember that the people who took those substances back in the 1960s were young and rebellious. There was a war going on, and there was a particularly sharp division between the generations. Maybe psychedelic drugs only enhanced all those tendencies.

You write that the generation of flower children, who started to use psychoactive substances commonly, was the first generation to have its own rites-of-passage. The existing social order had been based on new generations being initiated by older ones. The older generations introduced the young into the adult community, initiated them into different aspects of life, and showed them what reality looked like. In the 1960s, this process degraded completely, in a way that has influenced today’s culture very strongly.

That’s true. LSD, and psilocybin to a lesser extent, contributed to the generation gap for that reason. You had this very unusual moment in history when the young had their own rite-of-passage that the adults didn’t understand. Normally, rites of passage are organized by the adults for the young to usher them across the river, onto the shores of adult life. But here the kids were organizing them themselves, and the adults were terrified.

But does that still pose a problem today? Frankly speaking, I don’t think so. People from all possible generations have already experienced psychedelic trips. When I meet with my readers, there are many older people in the audience, and I’m very pleased with that. Next to them sit people who are very young. In turn, there are no people who are 35-40 years old. Maybe people at this age are chiefly busy working and raising kids, and there will be time for existential dilemmas later on [laughs]. Anyway, the discovery that these substances bring a lot of good to people in the second half of life is truly momentous. In the 1960s, no one even thought of anything like that.

When I was reading your book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the title of a famous work by R. D. Laing. The title is The Politics of Experience, and it expresses what is generally a simple thought – our experience is a matter of politics. The community decides what is real and what is not real, rational and irrational, scientific and religious, factual and mythical. Psychedelic drugs cause the complete dismantling of such divisions. Maybe that’s why a ban was imposed on psychedelics in the 1960s, and essentially remains in place.

Absolutely. A psychedelic trip allows us to see everything we think about ourselves and the world from a fresh perspective. People experience what are truly profound transformations, revolutions in their lives. They drop everything and start again. They get divorced. They change their jobs. They turn their lives upside down. Some find that threatening.

But that could be an illusion, an action taken under the influence of fleeting impressions.

Yes, but you should remember that psychedelics merely activate the parts of the brain that usually remain in the shadows. Consequently, if it’s an illusion, it is one that is generated by your own mind. Of course, our minds can take us down the wrong path, I’m not saying that’s not true. But we must take responsibility for their mistakes, too [laugh].

Here, the question arises – how should we treat the insights that appear when we are under the influence of psychedelics? As mere hallucinations and fantasies, or as something more?

Many cancer patients who participated in studies of psychedelics developed a very profound certainty that life in some form exists also after we die. That their mind will join some sort of universal, all-encompassing consciousness, or at least will last in some form. I ask those people if they were really certain that this was not merely an illusion. In turn, the scientists who conduct such experiments don’t think about the reality of such experiences at all. They tell me: “We don’t know what happens after you die, maybe it’s real.” Or they say: “Who cares, it helps people die with equanimity.”

In a society in which no one is interested in metaphysics any longer, such experiences are extremely rare. So – and here I’d like to get back to Laing – they may be seen as a threat.

That’s true. Instead of accepting the consensus reality, you start to question it. Timothy Leary claimed that all social institutions are in fact games. Psychology is a game, science is a game. Everything is a product of conventions and – once you notice this – you can break with those conventions at will.

He used to say that our minds are programmed in a specific way, and psychedelic drugs can help us get rid of that oppressive programming.

Without a doubt, one of the effects of a psychedelic experience involves breaking with the standard conventions of thinking and behaving. That’s why it’s so effective in some disorders. It enables us to step outside the stories we create about ourselves and in which we sometimes are – quite literally – trapped. Such stories are sometimes useful, but they’re very often destructive. For example, I can’t get through the day without alcohol, cigarettes or narcotics. Or I’m fat, and that’s why I need to control my weight obsessively. Psychedelics allow us to step outside these narratives and see that they’re just some of many possible perspectives, that – in other words – we are not slaves to those narratives, although we have thought so for a very long time.

The same holds true for the stories about everything around us, for example the political world. We start looking at them in a similar way as we look at our ego – not as revealed truths but as stories to which there are numerous alternatives. I’m very curious to see what, if anything, will come of the current revival of interest in psychedelic drugs in the political sphere. Will we witness a similar stir as in the 1960s, or will things head in a completely different direction? As I said, there’s no doubt that we’re now locked in very destructive narratives, trapped in a tribal mentality, convinced that we can do whatever we want to the natural environment. In my opinion, things need to be shaken up to get us out of those dangerous ruts. On a global scale, at that. So maybe the ongoing revival of interest in psychedelics is no coincidence.

It’s like we’ve come full circle, returned – after an era of materialism and rationalism – to the ways of seeing the world that laid the basis for what are called archaic cultures.

Precisely. We forget all too often that people did not invent psychedelic drugs in the 1960s. Very few people know that medical experiments started to be conducted a decade earlier, but there was also an entire ancient tradition of using these substances to contact the spirits, the dead, predicting the future, experiencing the sacred. Native Americans used psilocybin mushrooms and peyote. In Siberia, Amazonia, and South America, shamanic cultures used hallucinogens.

On the other hand, contemporary researchers who study psychedelic drugs sometimes let themselves be charmed by the exotic and suggestive nature of such experiences and use them to concoct the most bizarre metaphysical theories. One example is the aforementioned Stanislav Grof, on the one hand a pioneer of research into LSD, but on the other the author of a peculiar cosmology comprised of Eastern beliefs, esoteric doctrines, and hallucinations of his patients.

Grof is a very important figure, who has inspired many researchers. Robin Carhart-Harris, who we mentioned earlier, stresses that he owes his interest in these topics specifically to Grof. At the same time, however, he studies psychedelics from a highly naturalistic, neuroscientific way, he does not believe in transpersonal consciousness, which he calls magical thinking. So even though he was inspired by Grof, he’s said many things that Grof would probably fundamentally disagree with. But Grof’s key insight was that this was a tool for understanding the mind.

As for the arguments formulated by Grof, he began studying LSD as an extreme materialist convinced that consciousness was exclusively a product of the brain. Today, just like many other researchers, he believes that this is only one of the possible hypotheses, and that psychedelic experiences give us insight into another kind of consciousness.

Modern neuroscience does not acknowledge such possibilities.

At the same time, neuroscientists are not able to explain how consciousness is actually produced. They have no convincing theory to explain this leap from meat to mind. At the same time, they reject various scenarios alternative to the materialistic interpretation. For example, there are physicists who believe that something like this is theoretically possible.

Nevertheless, my own perspective is still essentially materialistic. During my psychedelic experiences, I experienced a loss of ego and a sense of involvement in something that goes beyond my individuality, but I also fully acknowledge that this might have been a product of my brain.

Maybe you should have taken a higher dose?

[laughs] Well, yes, that would have changed everything! Curiously enough, many people who read my book have accused me of not giving enough credit to the idea of a universal consciousness, which exists somewhere outside the brain.

Maybe your experiences with psychedelic drugs were simply not spectacular enough?

On the contrary, I see them as extreme. Those were really big experiences. Are there bigger ones? Most probably, yes. But I also don’t know what the experience of having your ego completely dissolved might be likened to. You realize that you are not identical with your own ‘self’, and that’s very pleasant and useful. Undoubtedly, this influences your further life, because you start to see your usual identity as a construct. You get some distance from yourself. You understand that you don’t always have to listen to your ego, that it has its interests and needs, but you don’t necessarily need to follow them.

Did this attitude to your ‘self’ stay with you for good?

I think so. I’m definitely more distanced from myself. Of course, similar results could be achieved through a decade of psychotherapy or meditation. You then learn to understand various traps that your mind sets for you and how it leads you astray, so you can keep it under relative control. And I got all this in four hours, instead of ten years [laughs].

Do the side effects we’ve talked about mean that there should be special institutions, symbols or procedures governing access to such substances?

For sure, there should be relevant regulations. I don’t know if there should be any rituals, but there certainly should be solid legal provisions. Such experiences will bring nothing good, if we start them without feeling absolutely safe. People who go on a psychedelic trip need a qualified guide or supervisor to keep them company. They shouldn’t do it at home, alone, because even a minor event, like the visit of a postman, could throw them completely off balance.

In any case, if many people underwent such experiences, that would definitely affect the whole of our social life. Think of alcohol – it has undoubtedly influenced and keeps influencing culture very strongly, and in a clearly ambivalent way. On the one hand, it creates closer bonds, but on the other, it leads to many disasters and has a catastrophic impact on public health statistics. We’ll see what effects the legalization of marijuana will bring.

I think that the more people distance themselves from their ego, the better it is for the world. However, it’s impossible to hide that many propagators of psychedelic drugs have behaved like they were some sort of guru, people with quite inflated egos. One example is Timothy Leary, though he is not the only one. How can we reconcile these things? Where does this paradox come from? I have no idea. Maybe if you are convinced that you’ve gained insight into the deepest secrets of the universe, this is the way it affects you?

The journal Psychological Science recently published findings of a study showing that the practice of meditation, yoga and other forms of personal development increased narcissistic tendencies among people who live in the West.

I’d focus above all on how psychedelics could help people who suffer from various disorders and problems. And the results here are really promising. They work very well for people who are stuck in destructive narratives, obsessive thinking. Modern mental health care is not very good at managing such problems. Advances in cardiology, oncology, and epidemiology at the statistical level clearly improved the level of health in the population and increased average life expectancy, but there are more and more psychiatric problems, and medicines are growing less effective. Consequently, if psychedelics prove a truly effective tool of helping people who suffer from depression, addictions, and anxiety, this will mean a breakthrough in psychiatry. Studies are ongoing, hundreds of people are being recruited as volunteers. In five or ten years, we will know a lot more.

Meanwhile, the United States is grappling with an opioid crisis. It is visible even on the streets. People are becoming massively addicted to heroin and opioid painkillers, as if they wanted to drown out their own existence, stop experiencing things, lose themselves in a void.

Psilocybin could be a perfect remedy here. There are ongoing studies that will show if it is as effective in treating such addictions as it is in nicotine and alcohol addictions. Another psychedelic, ibogaine, which is found in an African plant, reportedly has similar, very beneficial effects in this respect. It is a lot more dangerous than psilocybin and may have more serious side effects, but it’s already used in Mexico to treat heroin and morphine addiction.

In today’s world, addictive behaviors are rampant: we’re addicted to telephones, computers, behaviors. Opioid addictions have tragic consequences, because they immediately destroy the body, and it’s easy to overdose.

Are you planning any psychedelic trips in the future?

Only when these substances are legal. And only under the supervision of a therapist and guide. I’m looking forward to it. I could imagine I could take psilocybin every year, on my birthday, to take stock of where I am in life and to set myself goals. That would surely deepen the usual birthday experience [laughs].

What about when death comes knocking?

Yes, I think so. I was initially scared by the prospect – how could terminally ill people take something that causes them to lose control of their minds? But then I met so many people who were helped radically by such experiences that my doubts were dispelled.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Introduction translated by Daniel J. Sax. 

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