But I see a hidden danger in it.
When I first heard of Michael Pollan’s bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence I was glad. The truth was finally getting out to the public. Rather than being the menace that government and media had long warned about, psychedelic drugs hold great promise for mankind.
I’ve known the truth about psychedelics for a long time. On a perfect sunny day in the fall of 1968, the day before my first class in college, I dropped acid and for a few hours gazed on the face of God. Fifty years later, I still remember every detail of that trip, inside and out. The moment when The Beatles’ enigmatic “A Day in the Life” revealed its secrets. The song made sense, because right then, everything made sense. I stepped barefoot down a sidewalk, certain that my purpose in life was to sense every inch of flesh on concrete. I knew this, though it would be years before I’d hear of walking mediation. I felt pleasure grow into joy, then ecstasy. Words fail to convey such an experience, of course. The closest I can get is cellular orgasm.
My acid experience didn’t just change my mind. It changed my life. In the months after tripping I searched in vain for another glimpse of God. I finally found one in the music of J. S. Bach. I abandoned the plans parents and grandparents had for me to become a scientist and followed my heart into a career in music.
As I read How to Change Your Mind, it became apparent that while Pollan applies his considerable writing skill to the many subjects in the subtitle of the book, his passion is in describing his personal experiences on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and toad venom. A more apt title for the book would be How I Changed My Mind.
After its publication, I couldn’t turn on the local NPR station without hearing Pollan being interviewed or speaking to an obviously rapt audience in San Francisco. Hearing their excited laughter and thundering applause, I felt my first misgivings. Michael Pollan the fine writer and engaging speaker was communicating his passion to a lot of people. Making them eager to change their minds, too.
The drier parts of How to Change Your Mind are devoted to the history of psychedelics and the new legal research into them. Pollan runs down the acid advocates of 50 years ago for acting irresponsibly, resulting in the drugs being banned for decades from scientific experimentation. Pollan points a finger at Tim Leary, a man nobody’s about the defend for his sober judgment. But how responsible is Pollan being?
This is part of a bigger question. How can any public figure communicate about something which they admit has utterly transformed their life, without proselytizing? People who’ve tripped on psychedelics come away from the experience with a unique bias. The experience is so powerful, so overwhelming that it overrides logic, and with it caution. Acid makes people more suggestable than just about anything else, except for perhaps religion when pushed by a charismatic leader.
The very straight men running the CIA program MK-ULTRA dosed themselves on acid and went completely off the rails, unleashing LSD on unsuspecting civilians. I’m sure they were certain they were doing the Government’s work, if not the Lord’s work. Because that’s how the drug makes you feel. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, Charles Manson gave his girls acid, and we all know how that turned out. Don’t get me wrong—these examples are extreme outliers. But back in the late 60s psychedelic heyday, I saw people get very interested in the oddest stuff on acid, then live accordingly. You don’t have to be experimenting on people or ax murdering them to have acid knock your life off the rails. (Which isn’t always a bad thing. It’s kind of the point.)
After my first acid trip, I had a burning need to tell someone about it, to share. If you’ve just had the most significant experience in your life, it would be wrong to speak of anything else. Wrong not to share.
Contrary to what Pollan suggests, many of us back in the day were careful, even reverent about how we used psychedelics. Tim Leary, for all his shenanigans, imparted some wisdom about tripping. He emphasized the importance of set and setting—the inner attitude one brings to such endeavors and the external environment in which it’s done.
Essential to the proper setting for a trip is a guide, someone who’s been there before. I was lucky to have one for my first trip. Michael Pollan writes about a future of “white coat shamanism” —legally sanctioned guides for psychedelic experiences. Following my transformational voyage, I imagined something very much like that.
But Pollan didn’t trip out in some lab, in the care of scientists. His guides were actual shamans, people who by legal necessity work in the shadows. He found them using a secret network of guides who take people on “journeys,” using what they call “medicines.”
In “A Day in the Life”—the song whose mysteries LSD revealed for me—John Lennon sings “I’d love to turn you on.” Just as that phrase caused many a young person to take the acid plunge, How to Change Your Mind must be encouraging thousands, if not tens of thousands to try these drugs.
I imagine there’s a limited quantity of qualified guides out there. Even if a fraction of the people Michael Pollan has inspired to trip manages to find one, there’s going to be a serious supply and demand problem. Many of the shamans in that secret network have been guiding for decades, perfecting their practice. New guides arising to meet the demand will be inexperienced. And many will trip without a guide.
This is a recipe for the same train wreck that happened with acid at the end of the 60s. Some trippers are going to freak out and do crazy stupid things. Psychedelic horror stories will rage across the internet, just as they did through old media in the day. Politicians will smell blood and start evoking their shameless go to line “But the children…” and they’ll rush through laws shutting down the research again. We’ll be back where we started fifty years ago.
I sure hope I’m wrong. Because for all the dangers, these medicines have the real potential to change minds, change lives, even change humanity for the better. But it would be good to remember that when you’re playing with acid, you aren’t just playing with fire. You’re messing with the divine incandescence of the sun.