I was reluctant to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillema back in 2009. I equated it with foodies, whom I equated with bourgeois snobbery. But after enough recommendations from dear friends whose opinions I value, I gave in and ended up writing a fawning, long-winded review from Buenos Aires, which included the line “few other books have given me so much reason to re-think my own beliefs, outlooks, and behaviors.”
It’s true. To this day, The Omnivore’s Dillema has changed both what I eat and how I eat, and how I think about the inextricably linked co-evolution of humans and the species we depend on for nourishment. I then read The Botony of Desire and In Defense of Food and … I’ll just say that am I glad that Pollan decided to write about something other than food.
Of course, Pollan’s books were never just about food, which is what makes them so compelling. Peering through the kitchen window, he weaves together stories along the seams of history, biology, and pop culture. It all seems rather effortless and smooth to the reader, but surely requires years of research followed by aggressive editing and deletion.
I’m such a fan of Pollan’s writing, in fact, that I’ve read a good deal about his approach. Unlike most writers of non-fiction, who aim to impress upon the readers the weight of their credentials, depth of experience, and strength of argument, Pollan introduces himself as a flawed but curious know-nothing, who is eager to take a journey with the reader to learn something new. There is no convincing, no condescension, just an invitation to explore and learn something new. In fact, well into his 60’s, Pollan admits to his readers that he had never tried psychedelics prior to this project, that he’s “less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.” I find it more satisfying to learn about something through the eyes of an intensely curious novice, I realized, than an expert with hardened views.
How to Change Your Mind is as much about mindfulness and changing the mental habits that become so ingrained in adulthood as it is about psychedelics. In the prologue, as if he had just returned from a week-long meditation retreat, Pollan writes:
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet, they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.) The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.
This is not a novel observation. Back in the 70s, even while psychedelics provoked moral panic, corporate California was already reading about Zen Buddhism, popularized largely by Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Pollan approaches the topic from a novel perspective — through the medical and recreational use of psychedelics to show us the path to beginner’s mind through intense experiences that dissolve the obsessive, analyzing ego and leave us with nothing but observation and appreciation for what is around us. “Less doing, more being,” as he describes it.
Psychedelics seem to be especially helpful for a certain type of person: ruminative, introspective, analytical — someone like me. “The achievement of an individual self,” Pollan writes, “a being with a unique past and a trajectory into the future, is one of the glories of human evolution, but it is not without its drawbacks and potential disorders.” The price of a sense of self with the ability to shape an individual identity is also a sense of separation from others and nature. Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and unhappiness.
Those of us who spend a great deal of time in our heads — analyzing, reflecting, problem-solving, imagining forms of creative expression — can easily become blind to the beauty that surrounds us. Not just the natural beauty of a sunset, but the significance of our friends, a potential conversation with a neighbor, the taste of a delicious meal. We need to get outside of our analytical heads, tune into our senses, and just observe without judgement. As the novelist Andrew Martin put it:
I’m all for interrogating the shit out of everything. But I’d like to be able to experience art in an open, unmediated way, to be really moved by something even if it’s out of fashion or challenging to some of my own values.
You can substitute the word “art” with just about any other noun. Psychedelics are one powerful way to get us out of our own heads. They offer an intense, often transformative, experience that reveals what life could be like if we were to turn off our obsessive, analytical minds, extinguish our insecurities and aspirations, and simply be. Also, unlike coffee, cigarettes and alcohol, there is no evidence that psychedelics are addictive. But the effect does seem to eventually wear off and we return to our usual mental habits driven by deep seated insecurities and anxieties that we barely register or understand.
Still, although not a one-time cure-all, the psychedelic experience provides us with a North Star that we can return to when we’re at our most anxious and depressed. Why am I obsessing over these recurring thoughts rather than enjoying all the amazing experiences all around me? What would this same, boring, uncomfortable group dinner be like if I were on magic mushrooms? How much can we change about our lives simply by changing perspective? Quite a bit, psychedelics tell us.
One of the great benefits of reaching the stage of life where I currently find myself — let’s call it close to 40 — is that I have developed useful template responses for most situations. I can kinda coast comfortably on auto-pilot. As Pollan puts it:
Certainly by middle age, the sway of habitual thinking over the operations of the mind is nearly absolute. By now, I can count on past experience to propose quick and usually serviceable answers to just about any question reality poses, whether it’s about how to soothe a child or mollify a spouse, repair a sentence, accept a compliment, answer the next question, or make sense of whatever’s happening in the world. With experience and time, it gets easier to cut to the chase and leap to conclusions—clichés that imply a kind of agility but that in fact may signify precisely the opposite: a petrifaction of thought.
I think that’s why I sense more of an interest in psychedelics these days from folks in their 40s than young people in their 20s. I appreciate my learned ability to easily deal with many situations today that would have caused me anxiety and akwardness in my 20s. But I’m also wary of becoming an adult automaton based on prior experiences and assumptions that likely need to be revisited. In short, I don’t want to be set in my ways.
A day after finishing the book, I was walking through San Francisco with my wife when we passed a young homeless man muttering to himself, not an uncommon occurrence in this city. Like so many others, I feel helpless and horrible when simply walking by a fellow resident so obviously in need of help. Homelessness is the most visible symptom of the American mental health crisis, but the increase in suicide is more telling. “There are almost forty-three thousand suicides every year in America (more than the number of deaths from either breast cancer or auto accidents),” Pollan writes, “yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment.” I still hear a longstanding assumption that the mental health problems of most homeless San Franciscans are caused by alcohol and drug abuse. But after reading How to Change Your Mind, it struck me that the causality is likely the other way around. What if these individuals have especially analytical, ruminative minds? What if drugs and alcohol are the only reprieve to turn off the otherwise insistent inner-monologue?
My only disappointment with the book is that Pollan didn’t attempt a 10-day silent meditation retreat as a comparison with his experimentation with mushrooms, acid, and DMT. Toward the end of the book he says he tries to keep up a daily meditation practice of 15 or 30 minutes, but in my experience such a daily practice is closer to taking a nap than the dissolution of the ego of the self that comes with the rigor of more than a week of constant meditation.
The East Coast media — especially the New York Times — still like to poke fun at meditation and psychedelics, which they group with worst kinds of gemstone West Coast quackery. Ironically, it’s the kind of highly analytical and critical folks who work at East Coast media institutions that are most in need of a psychedelic experience. Michael Pollan is the rare individual — a credentialed professor who writes for the New Yorker — who can write earnestly for both coasts. No wonder How to Change Your Mind has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list for weeks now. Highly recommended.