Book review: “How to Change Your Mind”

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics
Author: Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s nice to have your interest in a subject reinvigorated. My readings of late have rotated around cognitive science and personal transformation. Apparently those keywords must have made this book pop up. Reading it helped me re-connect my experience with psychedelics with who I am today (and probably why I keep adding books like this to my “to read” shelf).

So much of the psychedelic experience lies tantalizingly outside of our ability to form an intelligible narrative about it. This is both its bug and its feature. But the frustrations of communicability regarding my time spent unencumbered by restraints of conventional reality due to the presence of these molecules in my blood system are only the subjective dilemma writ large.

So I really appreciate Michael Pollan’s attempt to attempt this journalism of consciousness. Talk about hard reporting. Some journalists go to war zones and put themselves in range of deadly ordinance in service of getting the story. Pollan chooses to travel to the brain on psychedelics. In both cases the challenge of getting the story is as formidable as the intimations of personal mortality.

The therapeutic benefit of this class of drugs has become a sliver of hope for me in a world that desperately needs transforming. The modern dilemma is one of scaling crisis in the face of an atomized psyche. In order to move towards a context where solutions to environmental, nationalist and even ontological problems can present themselves we will need something that resembles a trans-personal awareness.

So there is reason for hope that these drugs may play a beneficial role. My own take on them is that they can and should. And on personal reflection, having had the experience, the world is now and forever become psychedelicized; less opaque, more imbued with worth, unifying and celebratory. May we all get there in our own way.

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That Spot (the one between necessity and free will)

I’ve been suffering a recent issue with an itchy spot on my back. Right where I can’t get at it. Since no one including me seems to have a proper back scratcher anymore (did somebody confiscate all of those?) I’ve had to improvise with one of those triangular rulers that became popular at the time of America’s refusal to go metric. It works really well as a back scratcher by the way. And probably easier to find than an actual back scratcher in case you need to know.

That spot, which goes off daily like clockwork, is currently my morning companion of irritation. Kind of like an annoying relative who overstays a visit. And now it has come to also represent another resilient pest: my need to tell you what I’m thinking. Neither seems to want to just go away so here we are then.

“It doesn’t work in theory, only in practice…”. I love that phrase. Switches up the familiar order. I came across it in a description of the Church of England’s struggle with outmoded traditions and doctrines. It’s flips around the old cliche and becomes descriptively potent across a whole spectrum of habitual behavior. Like the high school prom for instance. We still return to this hidebound ritual even though its function as cotillion and precursor to marriage has long since faded. We do it even if we don’t know why.

A friend wrote a thoughtful post where he asked questions about the origins of his ethical sense since he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. He wondered; “Are people good because they are Christian or do they become Christian because they are good?” Great question. I tried my best to answer and promptly wandered into the nether land of the good vs evil puzzle.

But another one of his questions scratches today’s itch even better: “How much conscious choice do we have in becoming who we are?” This speaks to the question of free will. Now we’re talking about a much easier subject right? Good thing I love this stuff and have lots of time between breakfast and lunch.

We sense free will. We operate as if we have it. Then we learn that this might not be true by instruction and analysis. The science of cause and effect says “Nope”. Evolutionary psychology says “Sorry, only passing on the genes matters!”. Chemistry is action/reaction. Physics offers a small out with indeterminacy but even that is only a way to draw a line from A to B.

Another leg under free will that gets blasted away (free will is the Many Legged Beast after all) comes from the spiritual teaching of the need to release the ego. If, as the sages tell us, ego is an illusion created by the “I” that doesn’t exist, then free will is just so much salt spray on the wave of existence. Or something like that.

So am I free? Not if I have to scratch that damn itch.

And not if I have to clean the house today. But if I don’t and instead go into my studio and make something out of stuff that has no reason to exist other than I willed it to be, what is that? Tell me that I am doing it to gain attention from the opposite sex in order to propagate my genes and I’ll tell you that boat has probably sailed. Say that I am still only making art because I’m operating on a remnant of that dynamic and I’ll tell you quite plainly that while that explanation might have descriptive value it has nothing whatsoever to do with the internal dance of consciousness that is the creative process.

Maybe this is all just mental yoga. All I know is that the experience of free will is real and performs psychic and physical transformation in me. The “fact” (if you will) of determinism is descriptive and has great explanatory powers. But it is true only if it is generative and speaks to richer complexities, and not just dismissive of the valid and fully operative processes of consciousness.

Now I’m going to go lick a begonia.

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Migrating Through the Problematic

 
We traveled to Nebraska this spring to see the Sandhill crane migration. “I guess that’s a thing” said a friend. Is it ever. Half a million or more of this one species of bird channel their way through a fifty mile stretch of the Platte River on their way to northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop over at the Platte for a few weeks before the final push, for the corn, for the flocking sociability and because the river has open shores.
 
The birds are accustomed to the wide vistas afforded by what was formerly a natural flood plain and they gain an understandable sense of security in maintaining clear sight lines on potential predators headed their way on their nightly roost in the river. But the open river banks were made problematic by human priorities. Damning for both power generation and flood control ended the scouring effect of the seasonal rush of waters which removed the small plant starts from the shore every year.
 

The river shores in this one stretch of the Platte are now cleared by human action; bulldozing, bush hogging, chain sawing. This is done in the off season so that the birds are accommodated and put at ease upon their return. Seems only right since they were the ones who got first dibs here.

 
It’s an anxious time for the cranes since they are on a timeline to stock up and get north to reproduce during the tight window that is the arctic summer. The flocking behavior provides some vital function for them during this stopover. It must help to ease the anxiety. This safety in numbers thing and the natural comfort of being part of a large community puts me in mind of some kind of large summer music festival. On the Platte the birds provide their own soundtrack with their Sandhill burbling, their hoots and cackles.
 

This huge celebration of youth and music disbands after the reproduction cycle is completed. After a brief summer of mating, of nesting and nurturing their young up north they return south in relaxed fashion, in much smaller family knots. 

 
On our way up there from western Kentucky we stopped in Kansas City and visited the Truman Presidential Library in Independence. It’s a shrine to a problematic individual. This mild mannered man with poor public speaking skills and a history as a failed businessman in the hat and oil trades also bears the responsibility of the decision to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese. There’s a weird irony in that personality making that particular decision. And the decision itself seems incomprehensible even as part of a practical expediency. A bookish Missouri farm boy becomes a presidential decision maker involving the use of atomic weapons on a civilian population, all tied to his nation’s psychology brutalized by the sufferings of war. 
 
From there the highway north passes right in front of Leavenworth Prison which is a massive monument to the power of evil sitting in the prettiest, more benign and lovely Kansas river valley you ever saw. The walls of Leavenworth extend forty feet each direction from the ground. Forty feet up and forty feet down. Machine Gun Kelly and Bugs Moran did time there. So did Tom Pendergast after riding high for many years atop his pyramid of corruption as the Kansas City political boss and Truman mentor. The problem of evil is not just about bad guys. Good guys sometimes get into trouble just migrating through the problematic.
 
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Really? I was just so sound asleep.

Mark Noble as Ötzi from the BBC’s “The Iceman Murder” (2005)
 
I used to do this weird thing as a kid. I would pretend to be asleep. My whole family would be up and about on a Saturday morning and I would just lay there in bed with my eyes closed trying to convince the world that I was still sleeping. I was awake and tracking the noises around me. I was also determined not to let anything perturb me or my self-imposed catatonia. This all came back to me today in a flash of memory; my brother screaming in my ear, “Wake up Dave. Wake up!!!” And me just laying there like Otzi the frozen man.
 
And now that I am thinking about this and laughing at my stubborn resolve in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, it occurs to me that my parents didn’t get involved. Or they probably were enlisted by my frustrated siblings, stuck their head in the door and figured out the game straight away.
 
I also now think back on the perverse pleasure I got just by causing my poor brother to engage in my madness. In the tight dark world of my adolescent sleeping fantasy, I just couldn’t believe that he actually continued to try and rouse me. Once the game was on there was no backing down for me. To suddenly “wake up” would be to admit my charade. So I just lay there with my brother shaking me and screaming “Wake UP!!!” in my ear.
 
This was all seems pretty silly now. At some point after my brother would finally give up I would get out of bed and claim obliviousness to the whole incident. I would actually insist that I was just very tightly sleeping. Very, very tightly.
 
Ridiculous, right? But it was about something. Maybe it was about control. And the joy of staying purely inside myself while the world went mad trying to break in. I read this wonderful essay by Chris Higgins where he says “…we all actively shrink from the world in countless ways, to what we can use and what we can bear.”
 
When I think of it like that I recognize the powerful impulse in us to be self contained and impervious. I also recognize how this comfort zone limits my ability to sense the world, to learn from it. The philosophical stance, the awareness of our ignorance as the beginning of knowledge, can only be seen as essential to break out of this limitation. It’s about fighting like the dickens to maintain an openness, especially towards well meaning individuals with whom we disagree. Believing what we believe is not the issue. We all need to do that. We must also remain open.
 
As Higgins says:
“Open-mindedness in turn appears first as a sort of aesthetic sensitivity, a capacity to perceive the uniqueness of a complex, irreducible situation. Then it takes the more familiar forms of humility and impartiality. Finally, it seems to represent a type of integrity, a capacity to avow the stranger within and reintegrate the self.”
(from his essay “Openesss in Three Dimensions)
 
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Layers

 

I am building layers in my studio. My recent efforts in surface design involve pattern creation using stencils that I cut in acetate which are then used to print color onto fabric. I rotate the stencil (in this case a loose grid of rhomboids) and repeat the printing process with a second contrasting color. I use translucent dyes which when layered create a third color. In this case I started with a bright red-magenta and overlaid a muted blue. A lovely purple happened where the colors overlaid. 
 
In thinking about mental patterns and the benefits that arrive by allowing for the possibility of changing them, I recognized this artistic exercise as illustrating this process. The third color that appeared, the purple, was not possible without first creating one pattern and then starting completely over with another. The color also wouldn’t appear as visually striking if the colors weren’t profoundly divergent (red and blue).
 
Our patterns of thought have a certain beauty. They can be regular and uniformly pleasing. But a much more powerful and interesting thing happens when two opposing patterns interact. These interference patterns bring us a new level of understanding. They tease out something new that wasn’t in each pattern individually. Something emerged from the interaction. The overlayed patterns form points where they conjoin to make new information.
 
 
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