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How Michael Pollan Changed My Mind About Psychedelics 

Ego-Dissolving Drugs Are Powerful Tools For Healing

Michael Pollan at a restaurant in Berkley in 2020.

Christopher Michael

Michael Pollan at a restaurant in Berkley in 2020.

"Do you have any questions?" my psychiatrist asked me.

I paused and hesitated. My doctor was a traditional woman, so I knew that she would not take what I was about to ask lightly.

"Yes," I said. "I was doing some reading about how psychedelic micro-dosing could help alleviate symptoms of OCD and anxiety when other medicines have failed. Would you happen to know anything about that?"

"No. She answered curtly. "That might be discussed in other places, but not this office."

For almost three years, I have gone from medicine to medicine in search of something which could alleviate my intense pure-o OCD. Some medicines worked better than others, but some had many side effects, such as sleepiness, disturbing intense dreams, and a newfound mental slowness. At first, I attempted to avoid learning anything about the mind or brain at all. I worried that by focusing my attention on psychology, I would keep the problem of my OCD on my mind and make it worse. Before, however, I did have an interest in how the mind worked. One day at a local bookstore, I found the book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan. I was instantly hooked. The psychology classes I had in school seemed overly mechanistic to me, overly focused on how to classify people into personality types and determine how childhood and our environment affects our personality rather than how we can change and grow. Being a student of a disciplinarian magnet school, any talk about drugs I heard growing up was overwhelmingly that they were negative and for irresponsible people. For some reason, I did not keep reading the book at the time, I suppose "life got in the way" as people always say, but yet years later, I found myself coming back to the insights that the beginning of the book had, not just about psychedelics, but about egoism, transcendence, religion, and insight, and I began to read it again.

From his book, outside research, and his talk on the Joe Rogan Podcast, I found that psychedelics have enormous potential to increase the metacognition that humans have about themselves. Metacognition is the ability to understand the deepest part of ourselves and the function of our own minds. It is the same skill that meditators aim to develop. When taken properly, psychedelics don't just offer an amusing trip, but a true path to healing.

This happens because psychedelics dissolve the ego. The definition of ego varies a little bit among different schools of psychology, but what most definitions have in common is that the ego is related to the story we tell ourselves about our identity. Humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman defines the ego as ''That aspect of self that has an incessant need to see itself in a positive light" Typically, a large ego is associated with a success driven ambitious person. However having a large ego will inhibit a person from making the self improvements they need to truly grow. Instead of allowing a person to see themselves as they are with compassion, as Scott Barry Kaufman writes, "A noisy ego spends so much time defending the self as if it were a real thing, and then doing whatever it takes to assert itself, that it often inhibits the very goals it is most striving for."

Michael Psychedelics are like a reset button for the mind and especially the false-self. They dissolve the ego and allow a person to see the world as a child would, with no expectations for oneself, nothing to prove, and nothing to defend. The metaphor he gives is that psychedelics are like a new sheet of snow on a hill that has been sledded many times. As we struggle to make sense of life, we become entrenched in our ways of thinking. This is similar to how sleds create a path on a hill of snow. After a while, the path will become so entrenched, that it will prohibit the sled from going in new directions. Psychedelics are like a new sheet of snow which opens up the mind to new possibilities. The metacognition engendered by psychedelics also creates a sense of unity and oneness with all of humanity. Imagine a difficult parent who always pushes their children towards success in order to increase their own status and live through their children. Psychedelics are not the only way for this person to develop metacognition, but metacognition would allow this person to see that not only do their actions hurt their children, they are hurting themselves. Joe Rogan even went as far as to say that psychedelics make us aware of how our actions which hurt others, really hurt ourselves. When I heard him say this, I was struck by how closely the insight resembles teachings from ancient counter-ego philosophies such as the Stoicism and the Tao Te Ching which Creative Loafing writer Allan Watts wrote an excellent synopsis of. On the podcast with Michael Pollan, Joe Rogan described his personal experience with psychedelics. He described seeing an endless stream of clowns "A fractal of Jesters" all giving him the middle finger, as if telling him to stop taking himself so seriously.

So if psychedelics have so much potential, why did your mom, your school counselor, your doctor with a degree from Duke tell you to absolutely stay away from them? Psychedelics are a dirty word in our culture, and perhaps for a fair enough reason. The psychedelic revolution of the 1960s encouraged many incredibly irresponsible practices such as spiking the punch bowl with psychedelics, taking psychedelics alone rather than with practitioners, and giving psychedelics to people who might not know what to expect led to bad trips, suicides, and a cultural-counter panic which stonewalled all serious research into psychedelics for decades. Thankfully both academic researchers and pharmaceutical developers are beginning to get past this cultural baggage and look to the good that psychedelics can bring. Allied Health Corp for example, is developing products made from cannabis and psilocybin in order to naturally cure anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pollan believes that researchers should take guidance from indigenous cultures when it comes to determining the best ways to use psychedelics for spiritual growth. Indigenous cultures have defined rituals for specific healing needs, rituals for trauma, rituals for connecting to a higher power, or higher realm, and rituals for connecting with those around you. There are always knowledgeable shamans to guide the practitioners in a way that will have the psychedelic experience be safe and productive. The ritual is not only for ceremonial purposes, but to put the practitioners in a state of mind where they are open to experience.

Being open to experience and not attempting to resist the sensation is critical for psychedelic experiences to go well.

"If you feel like you're dying just go with it," Joe Rogan said. Eventually the initial anxiety should fade.

The link to the Joe Rogan Podcast Episode with Michael Pollan is below.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/3fMorDEYl8YUJgfNIVliLV?si=25d1e245f9434607

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