Psychedelics have been a part of human culture since the beginning. They occur as a natural compound. And yet they exist on their margins of society. The author Michael Pollan takes us on a journey through the world of LSD and psilocybin, discovering primarily that these drugs are therapeutic and non-addictive. He shows how and why psychedelics disappeared from our consciousness, and how we're re-discovering them again.
"It's not hard to see why the church would have reacted so violently to the sacramental use of mushrooms. The Nahuatl word for the mushrooms-flesh of the gods-must have sounded to Spanish ears like a direct challenge to the Christian Sacrament, which of course s also understood to be the flesh of the gods, or rather of the one Cod. Yet the mushroom sacrament enjoyed an undeniable advantage orer the Christian version. It took an act of faith to believe that eating the bread and wine of the Eucharist gave the worshipper access to the divine, an access that had to be mediated by a priest and the church liturgy. Compare that with the Aztec sacrament, a psychoactive mushroom that granted anyone who ate it direct, unmediated access to the divine-to visions of another world, a realm of the gods. So who had the more powerful sacrament? As a Mazatec Indian told Wasson, the mushrooms "carry you there where god is."
The modern world is riddled with anxiety and the need for certainty.
"Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I'm seldom surprised. The bad thing is I'm seldom surprised."
Living inside our minds, so focused on the perceived dangers and our own self, becomes akin to imprisonement.
"Several referred to living in 'a mental prison,' others to being 'stuck' in endless circles of rumination they likened to mental 'gridlock'".
We are a society obsessed with the past and the future, but terrified of the present moment.
"Depression is a response to past loss, and anxiety is a response to future loss." Both reflect a mind mired in rumination, one dwelling on the past, the other worrying about the future. What mainly distinguishes the two disorders is their tense."
The therapeutic potential of psychedelics is enormous, especially when it comes to depression, anxiety, addiction, and even the fear of death. They offer the chance to nudge us out of our usual habits, especially the destructive ones.
"There are a range of difficulties and pathologies in adults, like depression, that are connected with the phenomenology of rumination and an excessively narrow, ego-based focus," Gopnik says. "You get stuck on the same thing, you can't escape, you become obsessive, perhaps addicted. It seems plausible to me that the psychedelic experience could help us get out of those states, create an opportunity in which the old stories of who we are might be rewritten."
But to take LSD and psilocybin, one must have the right guide, the right expectation, the right intention, and the right environment.
"We've since learned that the experience of psychedelics is powerfully influenced by one's expectation; no other class of drugs are more suggestible in their effects."
I didn't know it at the time, but the difference between these two experiences of the same drug demonstrated something important, and special, about psychedelics: the critical influence of "set" and "setting." Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place. Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever's already going on both inside and outside one's head.
A compound as powerful as psilocybin or LSD must be taken with caution, but the fear is unnecessary. While exploring the research on pscyedelics, Pollan discovers his own curiosity and desire to experience psychedelics.
"But there are moments when curiosity gets the better of fear. I guess for for me such a moment had arrived."
In the end, the idea took root.
"The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of in a familiar room - the room of your own mind - that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking- of being! -lay waiting on the other side."
And throughout his journey, he learn that the mysteries of psychedelics often point in the same direction - the need for love, nature, openness, a divorce from fear, and the enjoyment of the present moment.
"I hope whatever you're doing,
you're stopping now and then
and not doing it at all." James Fadiman