Changing Yourself

Du muβt dein Leben ändern.

The human heart craves transformation. Inspired, Rilke tells us in his famed verse, you find you not only can, you must, change your life.

Whatever that might mean for you. For me, it’s obvious that we all ossify as the struggle of life wears us down. We construct shelters of our habits and settle in. Ruts of thinking and behaving that are comfortable and don’t challenge us. That require no energy.

Sounds like death. The price of comfort is boredom—not to mention the anxiety, if we allow ourselves to think about it, of having blocked our minds from their true birthright. To really live, we must change.

I finally got around to reading How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, the food guru, after several recommendations. I enjoyed it. If you’re looking for an overview of the history of psychedelics in our culture, and the research into their potential medicinal use, and the entanglement of social attitudes with that pursuit, particularly in the 1960s when the counterculture and Timothy Leary drove the whole business into a disrepute that is only now showing signs of revival, this is your book. You will also be regaled by accounts of Pollan’s own overcoming of the personal skepticism he takes pains to establish and experimentation with psychedelics himself. You may, like me, come away with a more open mind about the potential of psychoactive chemicals to effect positive change in people. Pollan gathers plenty of evidence of their transformative power in people suffering depression, addiction, or facing terminal illness. And he comes to believe in those chemicals’ potential to allow “well” people to escape the condition “when the grooves of mental habit have been etched so deep as to seem inescapable.”

I have to say, the hysterical criminalization of psychedelics seems an over-reaction that I can attribute only to bureaucratic fear of anything that encourages people to think for themselves. I do share the skepticism of spiritual enlightenment coming from a pill, but what is there about brain activity that isn’t chemicals? The drugs don’t do the spiritual work, but they can perform the service of making people aware that it is possible. I don’t think there’s anything inherently valuable in psychedelic experience, or in any spiritual practice or belief system that doesn’t lead to a transformation of perception. I am suspicious of the motives of anyone doing a psychoactive drug more than once.

Pollan provides many testimonials from people who have had experience with psychedelics, as well as from himself, and these more than anything caught my attention. It’s true not all experiences are positive, but the majority are. It’s also true that there is no single, common theme to them. These are human beings, individuals. But there were two aspects of the psychedelic journey that were widely shared, and for me were thought-provoking.

One, the loss of ego and a feeling of oneness with the whole.

And two, the conviction that all that matters is love.

Such experiences are simple and profound and have the power to transform our being. But they are for most of us, on our own, nigh impossible to attain. I have no idea why this is so. If the inevitable degradation and delusion of human experience owes mainly to the entropy of our biological predicament, so be it. But what pushes people to pursue transformative change if a sense of its necessity doesn’t sleep within us all?

I have long been aware of a deeper self beyond the various dramatizations we call ego, and I know that personally I am most myself when I’m lost in something—when I’m not an “I.” Consciousness is more than mere self-awareness. When you’re not aware of yourself, you are still “conscious,” not separately but as part of “the whole.” There are many avenues to this state: meditation, renunciation, suffering, near-death experience, sweat lodges, what have you, and maybe chemical manipulation of the brain? I don’t know, but I do know that human experience based on a more enlightened sense of what we are would work out a lot better on this planet than the ignorant and predatory one we’ve got.

As for love, we’ve all read those accounts of what people are thinking about on their deathbeds. Could it be that love really is the primordial generative vibration of everything?

More on that in a post to come . . .

August 27, 2019

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