Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Michael Pollan's 'How To Change Your Mind,' A Psychedelic Odyssey

Timothy Leary ruined it for the rest of us. 
When Richard Nixon declared the washed-up Harvard psychology professor to be "the most dangerous man in America" in 1971 for advocating the use of LSD and other psychedelics, it marked the crashing end of a golden age that began in the early 1950s in places as far flung as Northern California, Baltimore and Saskatchewan where scientists and therapists had begun developing theoretical frameworks and therapeutic protocols to use psychedelics -- primarily LSD and psilocybin -- to help heal people. 
If Leary hadn't spoiled the party someone else surely would have.  This is because as psychedelic use leaped the wall from the laboratory and psychiatrist's couch to the counterculture, Nixon and the ultra-puritanical American establishment saw these drugs as a serious threat to civil order, which at the time included the willingness of young men to get themselves killed in Vietnam. 
Additionally, the news media was in full panic mode with apocryphal stories of college students going blind after taking LSD and staring at the sun and people suffering terrifying and suicide-inducing "acid flashbacks" weeks and months after using LSD. 
But before LSD and other psychedelics were outlawed in the late 1960s and government funding of psychedelic research dried up, hundreds of studies were conducted and scientific papers published confirming that in unlocking the mind with psychedelics, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses could be treated, alcoholics and cigarette smokers cured and the existential distress of terminal cancer patients relieved, among many other seeming medical miracles. 
As scientists and therapists began to better understand the biochemistry of mental and physical illnesses, their deepening curiosity about the power of the psychedelic experience led them to realize that the supervised "trips" taken by psychotics, addicts and disease sufferers were overwhelmingly, if bafflingly, positive despite their often dire straits.  Rather than lurching into madness, they felt the spiritual transcendence that I and other so-called "healthy normals," in clinical parlance, have experienced while tripping. 
There perhaps were not enough skeptics and too many evangelists back in the day.   
Many studies ended up being self-fulfilling exercises for the people who designed them, "rendering their conclusions biased by their own ecstasy," as one critic put it, and not more rigorous placebo-controlled double-blind experiments that were the scientific gold standard.  But the therapeutic and mind-expanding powers of psychedelics had become undeniable, and the eternal puzzle of human consciousness was perhaps becoming a little less so. 
Among the evangelists were Aldous Huxley, who wrote the psychedelic classic Doors of Perception in 1954.  Then there was Al Hubbard, a conservative Catholic who became known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD and did pioneering work with recovering alcoholics while turning on a Who's Who of future Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the 1960s, including Steve Jobs of Apple, before the area was even called that.   
Engineers in particular seemed taken with psychedelics during this First Wave, and played key roles in transforming computers from engines of the military-industrial complex to tools for personal liberation and virtual communication.  Myron Stolaroff, who designed the legendary Ampex 200A reel-to-reel tape recorder, went on to establish the International Foundation for Advanced Study, a non-profit medical research organization that conducted clinical studies with LSD and mescaline that eventually involved about 350 participants.       
Michael Pollan covers this little-known history to great and insightful effect in the recently-published How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.  But he doesn't stop there and writes how, beginning in the mid-2000s, a new generation of psychedelic researchers began repairing the grave damage Leary had done to psychedelic research.  They dug through the ruins of that first burst of activity and discovered all over again the largely unmapped frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and our place in the world.   
Which in turn led Pollan, a self-described square but a most excellent participatory journalist and author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma, among other books, to trip three times -- on LSD, on psilocybin mushrooms and on the potent smoked crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (honest) -- and assemble and vividly describe his experiences in How to Change Your Mind. 
The book concludes with an examination of the neuroscience of psychedelics (it's not for nothing that the neurotransmitter serotonin has a strong resemblance to psychedelic molecules) and the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy.   
The long, strange trip of Timothy Leary was far from over after he and Harvard parted ways in 1963 with collapse of a freak show of a study, his scandal-drenched Harvard Psilocybin Project. 
(Very) long story short, Leary went on the road with fellow prof Richard Alpert, who would become Ram Das of Be Here Now fame, forever earning them the emnity of freaked-out parents and politicians.  Under the banner of the Federation of Internal Freedom, which morphed into the League for Spiritual Discovery, they landed in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, where the government kicked them out under pressure from U.S. authorities, then the Caribbean island of Dominica, where that government kicked them out, on to Millbrook, a mansion in upstate New York, and then the Human Be-In in San Francisco in January 1967 where Leary, now wearing white robes, love beads (and, of course, flowers in his graying hair), first uttered the immortal words "Turn on, tune in, drop out." 
The U.S. government stepped up its harassment efforts and busted Leary for marijuana in 1966.  He was imprisoned, escaped with the help of the Weatherman revolutionary group, fled to Algeria and into the arms of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, then to Switzerland, Vienna, Beirut and Kabul, where U.S. agents finally caught up to him and he resumed his odyssey through the extraordinary 29 prisons in which he was incarcerated before California Governor Jerry Brown ordered his release in 1976.  Leary resumed his proselytizing for the use of psychedelics and branched out into advocating the importance of space colonization and extending the human lifespan before his videotaped death in 1996 . 
Writes Pollan:
Leary's post-Harvard "antics" are relevant to the extent they contributed to the moral panic that now engulfed psychedelics and doomed the research.  Leary became a poster boy not just for the drugs but for the idea that a crucial part of the counterculture's DNA could be spelled out in the letters LSD
Would things have turned out differently had the cultural identity of drugs been shaped by someone like Al Hubbard?   
No, and one of the richer ironies of psychedelic history is that the CIA bought and paid for the first LSD trip taken by novelist Ken Kesey.  Kesey's inaugural trip, part of a study at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park, California, was an adjunct of the secret MK-Ultra program, the CIA's decade-long effort to find out whether LSD could be weaponized, which is the subject Wormwood, of Errol Morris's superb, must-see documentary. 
In what Kesey aptly called "the revolt of the guinea pigs," he and his Merry Pranksters organized a series of Acid Tests in which thousands of young people in the Bay Area were given LSD, which did much to shape what Pollan calls "the new zeitgeist."
The term psychedelic was coined in 1956 in an exchange of letters between Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond when the ex-pat English psychiatrist and LSD therapy trailblazer combined two Greek words that together mean "mind manifesting." Pollan writes that his own understanding interpretation of his three trips remains a work in progress, but
I have no problem using the word "spiritual" to describe elements of what I saw and felt, as long as it's not taken in a supernatural sense. . . . Wonders and (and terrors) we're ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness , the far ends of the sensory spectrum, which are normally invisible to us, our senses can suddenly admit.  While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing unexpected patters of thought and new rays of relation.  The gulf between self and world, that no man's land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected . . . it seems to be in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.
I first took LSD in 1968 and in one fell swoop radically changed how I looked at life.  As in forever.  
Long story short, psychedelics enabled me to be more humble, more appreciative of the interactions between people and nature, less ego driven and happier.  As well as making me a felon.  But how do I know that my trips were not spiritual events, as they often were, rather than merely a drug experience?  That question, whether you are a researcher, therapist or mere healthy normal, is unanswerable.  All you can do is "Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream," as the Beatles sing in "Tomorrow Never Knows."  
Over the next decade I tripped perhaps 100 times on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and MDA (a close relative of Ecstasy which technically is not a psychedelic).  I tripped while holding down responsible jobs, although never on the job, made a fair amount of dough, won awards and was a doting son to parents whose attitudes about recreational drugs were . . . um, liberal.  I tripped while snorkeling off Seven Mile Reef in the Florida Keys, atop a 13,000 foot mountain in the Colorado Rockies, at a fair number of Grateful Dead concerts (natch) and in a chaotic hospital emergency room where I took a friend who split open his head while playing in an acid-soaked game of volleyball. 
One trip in particular — my first solo on LSD — remains especially memorable.  "How do you put into words an experience said to be ineffable?" asks Pollan, but I gave it a shot in one of my books:
"I wandered into a field [from the remote farmhouse where I lived] and sat down.  I was overwhelmed by visuals.  It felt as if I were in an airliner flying through pockets of turbulence with no seat belt to hold me down, while my only tie to the temporal world was the sweat running from my armpits and down my sides.  The sweat felt strangely cold although the afternoon was warm. 
"I laid on my back and looked up. The pearlescent clouds raced faster and faster.  I had the sensation of there being a symphonic overture to a great event that was about to unfold, which I later deduced was a snippet from Antonioni's Zabriskie Point 
"Then a massive draft horse tawny gold in color galloped out of the clouds, its muscular sinews, broad back, powerful hindquarters and long mane glistening in the sun as I pressed myself into the ground.  The field became cloaked in shadow as it approached, silently galloped overhead and was gone.  I was terrified.   
"That horse began visiting me in my dreams a few years ago, which begs the question of whether it is possible to have acid flashbacks while sleeping. 
"I thought I only tripped for the heck of it until I recently reread some of my journals from my time at the farm.  They were embarrassing piffle for the most part. . . . But it is obvious from some entries that I sometimes tripped to try to unlock a sort of alembic of creative thought.  Did I succeed?  More or less.  For one thing, I concluded, as greater minds had long before me, you can only dream that which exists.  For another, my life has been deeply informed by my trips and better for them."  
By 2018, the profound hypocrisy that had made nonaddictive LSD a Schedule 1 controlled drug just like heroin, cocaine and even marijuana was obvious to anyone with a brain.    
These people, of course, do not include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his partners in crime who still are happily destroying lives 46 years after Nixon coined the term "War on Drugs," although marijuana legalization has taken hold in saner climes despite the feds. 
Our relationship with drugs remains fundamentally twisted.  While our leaders piously proclaim that drugs are perdition in a powder, tablet, eye dropper or rolled cigarette, they are constantly looking for ways to get high, be it martinis or prescription mood alterers.   Still, the reins on institutional psychedelic research and therapy programs have been loosened somewhat, while so-called underground therapists assisting people like Pollan on their trips ("journeys" is the preferred term) are being left alone although their work technically remains illegal. 
Meanwhile, way back in February 1979 in the dark ages following the First Wave, virtually all of the important figures in American psychedelic research gathered for a reunion in Los Angeles.  Among those present were Humphrey Osmond, Al Hubbard, Myron Stolaroff and good old Timothy Leary. 
As Pollan relates the encounter based on a blurry videotape recording,
The old men reminisce, a bit stiffly at first.  Some hard feelings hang in the air. But Leary, still charming, is remarkably generous, putting everyone at ease. Their best days are behind them; the great project to which their lives lay in ruins.  But something important was accomplished, they all believe -- else they wouldn't be here at this reunion.  [Psychoanalyst] Sidney Cohen, dressed in a jacket and tie, asks the question on everyone's mind -- "What does it all mean?" -- and ventures an answer: "It stirred people up.  It cracked their frame of reference by the thousands -- millions perhaps.  And anything that does that is pretty good I think." 
It is Leary, of all people, who asks the group, "Does anyone here feel that mistakes we made?"  
Osmond, at age 62 still the unfailingly polite Englishman, declines to use the word "mistake."
"What I would say is . . . you could have seen other ways of doing it. There was a mistake made: nobody gave it to Nixon!" 


K.J.Linhein said...


PB said...

Hey, Shaun,

I enjoyed this. I'm a little ambivalent about my own period of intense psychedelic exploration for two reasons.

First, I feel I was seduced by the notion that the next trip (very vaguely paraphrasing the hero's notion in Altered States), would take me to that ineffable timeless center that is no center, but I found myself a bit psychologically off-center, more than I was before I started. As that hero came to be, I became happier with the transitory.

The second reason is that during that period I was at times irresponsible and careless about others so that the memory of those times contains a bit of a buzz-kill.

Still, I maintain that much of what I experienced was valid, even though I might have shit in the temple, so to speak.

HCC said...

As I seem to recall, Gracie Slick said she intended to drop some in the punch bowl at Tricia Nixon’s wedding, having somehow merited an invitation for being a classmate at Finch College. Previewing her plan publicly apparently got her disinvited.

I still fondly recall my first trip in ‘66 in Golden Gate Park, which began as a lovely foursome but a few hours in dissolved into a solo journey. I think I made it from the fuschia garden to the Japanese Tea Garden but then backtracked past the bocce field to a giant boulder, where I alighted in much the same posture as the tea garden’s Buddha sculpture. As sundry day hikers passed me by on the path, I transcended through those great doors of perception, experiencing terror and exhilaration simultaneously and imagining my ego teetering on a knife-edge precipice from which I might tumble to some mad oblivion or will myself back to the material sphere I’d left, now forever transmuted. I found I was greatly relieved that a supreme effort of conscious will let me opt for, then realize the latter.

mickey Omostly said...

I have respected Michael Pollan's previous work and enjoyed his Terry Gross I find myself a little perplexed with the attitude toward Leary. I once saw Leary at the Bijou CAfe in Philly. It was called "The Stand-Up Philosophy Tour". Not sure of the year but he was certainly in his 60's by then and there was nothing oldman-ish about him. He paced while he spoke. He has like a big , beautiful wild cat and he was profound. I have also been reading every version I can find of the Tibetan Book of The Dead > His version is called "The Psychedelic Book of The Dead". Make no mistake..Timothy Leary was no lightweight. I see him more like a prophet in the tradition of John the Baptist whom the Establishment feared and attacked. He was a herald of a freedom we are not(still) ready to be comfortable with. I ,personally, found LSD to be the technology I needed to break down the walls a very strict Irish Roman Catholic home life and education. That one-two combo had conditioned my mind to the point where I had no idea what Life was about other than be obedient. In my very first trip, the tool that had been the primary weapon of my Spiritual castration became very clear: fear of Death...AND...the possibility that if one was not careful, of going to Hell. Forever. (See James Joyce's "Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man for the manual). That first trip was incredibly liberating and I am forever grateful to my friend who guided me that day; the veteran tripper: Dan Toomey. I was 25-ish at the time and LSD was like nothing else I had ever experienced, let alone imagined. So as that first wave of mind altering chemical/ electrical affect came on, I am so glad I had him for a guide. We listened to Beethoven' and Bruckner. Dan read aloud from Sri Aurobindo's epic "Savatri". By then, I had acclimated to the experience and the ego that I had brought with me was no longer calling the shots. This event coincided with the birth in me of a lifetime of Yoga and Meditation practice. The experience that you and Pollan refer to , I have found to be the essence of the "work" of those disciplines. When we are tripping we intensely see and feel..the ego does not take agency, it is not an inchoate middleman between us and our direct experience . Thus the Psyhedelicly accessed perceptions, insights and wisdom we receive while tripping..we intuit to be always available. The work I refer to is that final stage in the transformation of the ego from neediness and insecurity, to a powerful tool(not a Master) that gives us the spunk and gumption to keep trying to break through the clouds of illusion to the other side, where the Sun is always shining. It is truly about "growing up". That "I" I reference is that voice , that narrator of the conditioned mind that is akin to the little boy who put in his thumb, pulled out a plum know the rest. That need to be "special" instead of one of billions, quadrillions of spectacular drops in the vast ocean of life...therein lies the root cause of our separateness and all division flows from that Achilles heel. Thanks for your wonderful piece. It touched me and stirred me to revisit... hold comes that Dead lyric: What a long Strange Trip its been". That is Shakespearean in it's Tragic/ Comedic astuteness . Michaleen