The New York Times named How to Change Your Mind one of its top 10 books of 2018. Michael Pollan’s title might suggest that his readers will gain insights into self-improvement, but it is not that sort of a book. A more accurate title might have been How I Changed My Mind because the new viewpoint is Mr. Pollan’s own. The long subtitle, however, accurately lays out the book’s contents: “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
The book opens with a popular history of psychedelics, primarily L.S.D. and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Back in the ’50s, before they were outlawed, these drugs initially showed great promise in treating all sorts of psychological pathologies. Mr. Pollan blames Timothy Leary, the maverick Harvard professor of psychology, for frightening us into making these drugs illegal, and his book is a rather convincing argument for giving the drugs a second chance.
Indeed, Mr. Pollan sees the experiences that these drugs produce as blurring the line between science and spirituality because, as he sees it, they frequently result in mystical experiences “just like those produced in religious practices.” The scientific advantage of drug-based over traditional mystical experiences is that they can be induced and therefore reproduced in a way that allows for scientific study. We have no way of tracking drug-free mystical experiences.
We have no way of tracking drug-free mystical experiences.
Unfortunately, Mr. Pollan evidences a very limited understanding of Christian mystical experiences. His go-to resource is William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. For example, Mr. Pollan takes “ineffable,” a quality of the traditional mystical experience, to mean “My words won’t do it justice.” But true or traditional mystics insist that words are useless not because they fall short but rather because the mystical experience does not contain any concepts. Nothing is heard or seen. There literally is nothing observed to describe. Mr. Pollan calls his own experiences using the drugs “ineffable,” yet he narrates them just as one would talk about any other dream.
Mr. Pollan identifies as an atheist, yet his drug-induced experiences produce a new, very unscientific need for him, which is to be grateful. His narration is quite powerful:
Next came an overwhelming wave of gratitude. For what? For once again existing, yes, for the existence of Isaac and Judith too, but also for something even more fundamental. I felt for the first time gratitude for the very fact of being, that there is anything whatsoever. Rather than being necessarily the case, this now seemed quite the miracle, and something that I resolved never again to take for granted. Everybody gives thanks for “being alive,” but who stops to offer thanks for the bare-bones gerund that comes before “alive”? I had just come from a place where being was no more and now vowed never to forget what a gift (and mystery) it is, that there is something rather than nothing.
The foundational, constitutive act of Christianity is Eucharist, a ritual of thanksgiving. St. John of the Cross taught that the first movement of authentic spirituality is a sense of gratitude: What is did not have to be. We should receive life as a gift, which implies a search for the giver.
Or, as an alcoholic, 19 years sober, said to me last week on the front steps of the church: “I don’t understand people getting mad at God when someone dies. That person wouldn’t have existed without God. Neither would the person grieving. We’re all just gifts of God.”
What is did not have to be. We should receive life as a gift, which implies a search for the giver.
Mr. Pollan calls himself a materialist. He accepts only what can be scientifically studied. Needless to say, psychology cannot examine the psyche in the way a pulmonologist inspects lungs.
Mr. Pollan considers calling himself “spiritual,” provided that he be understood correctly.
I could easily confirm the “fusion of [my] personal self into a larger whole,” as well as “feeling that [I] experienced something profoundly sacred and holy” and “of being at a spiritual height” and even the “experience of unity with ultimate reality.” Yes, yes, yes, and yes—provided, that is, my endorsement of those loaded adjectives doesn’t imply any belief in a supernatural reality.
By “supernatural reality” Mr. Pollan perhaps means some human-like God or God-like human, sitting on a divine throne in some divine realm. That may be a child’s understanding of God, but it should not be that of an adult.
All that came before Jesus is like water compared to wine.
Look again at our long tradition, one that Judaism and Islam share in their stark refusal to create depictions of God. St. Augustine taught that if you can imagine it, it is not God. St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that left to our own devices all that we can say of God is that God is. Everything else, all our attempts to define or describe God fall short of the ineffable reality. Thomas called God “Ipse Actus Essendi Subsistens,” the very act of subsisting being. God simply is. Everything else that is not God owes its own existence to God.
Further, if our own existence includes freedom, we find ourselves, like Mr. Pollan, compelled to respond with gratitude for life itself. Put another way, authentic spirituality begins with a realization that what is did not have to be. However he got there, this is the point at which Mr. Pollan has arrived.
Of course, it is quite true that Christianity is not a naked form of spirituality. We believe that God has entered human history, and so, quite paradoxically, we can know a lot about God, who is essentially unknowable, by studying our own humanity in the person of the Eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
This is why St. John the Evangelist shares the wonderful story of water turned into wine. He wants us to respond in gratitude; he wants his Gospel to be proclaimed within the Eucharist. Because in Jesus the ineffable has expressed itself, even while remaining, for us, the unfathomable.
Everyone serves good wine first,
and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one;
but you have kept the good wine until now.
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
and so revealed his glory,
and his disciples began to believe in him (2:10).
Put another way, the evangelist presents the very person of Christ as illuminative, even to the point of intoxicating. All that came before Jesus is like water compared to wine.