March 26, 2019

Michael Pollan Tackles Psychedelics in His New Book

“Soon after I set out to write a book about psychedelics, it became obvious what I would have to do: Trip, and then write about what it was like. True, I could have relied on the testimony of others, but that seemed less than satisfying. Ever since the 11-year-old me read George Plimpton’s account of playing football in “Paper Lion” (1966), I’ve believed that the most absorbing way to convey an experience is to have it yourself and then try to describe it from the inside. Best of all is to have it yourself for the first time, which is the only time the comprehensive wonder of any experience is available to us.

But while it may have been obvious that I would have to trip in order to write “How to Change Your Mind,” it wasn’t at all obvious how I would write about that experience, one often described as, well, indescribable. William James famously wrote that mystical experience — perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip — is “ineffable”: beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them. Boring readers was another worry. Perhaps the second closest analogue of a psychedelic journey is the dream, and there is no surer way to drive people off — even your loved ones! — than to tell them your dreams. I’d also read enough “trip reports” online and in books to be acutely aware of the literary risks — what Arthur Koestler, a skeptic after his own psychedelic experiments, described as “pressure-cooker mysticism” and “cosmic schmaltz.”

As I began to write my book, the accounts of my trips loomed up ahead like a range of tall, possibly insurmountable peaks. And matters only got worse when I began having the trips I intended to recount, a series of guided psychedelic journeys on a variety of different chemicals, including LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and a substance called 5-MeO-DMT. This last one, which is ingested by smoking the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, was, I’d been told by a friend, “the Everest of psychedelics,” a trip she promised would obliterate not only all sense of self (as many psychedelics can do) but also all reference points of time and space. How do you possibly construct a narrative without the essential ingredients of person, time and place? What’s left?”

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