It looks like Michael Pollan's book, How to Change Your Mind, may signal the breakthrough moment where psychedelics hit our mainstream culture, and then stay there. Momentum has been building over the past number of years, as the Johns Hopkins and NYU studies of have brought psychedelics into the health section of newspapers and out of the crime blotter. Yes it's been a long strange trip, but at this point is it in danger of becoming a predictable one?
Some people in the psychedelic community have expressed the thought that it's a shame that an outsider, previously naive to psychedelics, should be the one to usher them into the popular awareness. There are so many other people who actually knew what they are talking about before they started writing their book. Personally I'm fine with the notion that Pollan's main credential is his 'beginner's mind' in this area, and he certainly did a hell of a job researching his material and making it accessible to regular people who will not give you a knowing wink if you say 'kambo' or '5MeO."
I was there in the sixties, dutifully not remembering very much, but even at the time Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in and drop out" sounded massively hokey and not likely to win over my super uptight aunties and uncles. More relevant to what's going on today is Jules Evans' "Turn on, tune in and sell out," in a piece he wrote for www.aeon.com. As we stand at this tipping point of psychedelics becoming genuinely accepted, the risks of acceptance in a world of rules, regulations and commerce have to be weighed, and I'm not sure Pollan does a good job of that.
Let's take a look at another time this happened. In the 1820s the Quakers, according to John Whittaker in his brilliant book Mad in America, created a way to take care of the mentally ill members of their community. They brought them to little cottages where they were dressed in Sunday best clothes, invited to drink tea and sit properly, and were always treated with dignity and kindness. When they started raving or talking to people who weren't there, the conversation was politely brought back to something nice to talk about. And after a while, the people got better, and went on with their lives. The Quakers called these places away from the stress of life asylums. The medical establishment of the time could not deny the efficacy of the model, so they professionalized it, gradually evolving asylums into a total institution horror show of electric shock therapy, Thorazine and shuffling lost souls. We do have the capacity of turning the good into the bad.
Today's psychedelic cottage industry is one of shamans, would-be shamans, white coats, professional sitters, and decidedly unprofessional ones. Once psychedelics become even quasi-legal, the floodgates will open and the forces of medicalization, bureaucratization and monetization will bear down on us full force. Now is the time to watch out, as various commercial enterprises are already preparing the future for us. Having conquered and tamed the external wildernesses, the internal wild lands may be the next for the chopping block. Some will say that the spirit realms are way too enormous for us to ruin, but we humans have developed a remarkable capacity to get things twisted in almost any dimension.
Psychedelics are, or can be at least, a doorway to a land of wonder and revelation. I'm not confident that in the hands of the medical bureaucracy and the commercial establishment they will stay unblemished. The deeper genius of psychedelics is their ability to totally undermine materialism and comfortable categories by blasting us into ridiculously remote realities. The medical model and the commercial model will never tolerate that. They will find a way to restrict, contain and sanitize. Exactly how, I don't know, but no system will deliberately destroy itself, it would rather consume and digest the systems around it.
The model I like best is the one quietly in use in underground treatment right now, where the sitter makes the environment as home-like as possible (like doing it in someone's home for instance) and then be the one to gladly hold space. Being present, not promoting your own ideas and theories, and seeing to the every need one someone who is quietly tripping behind an eye mask is a demanding task and it goes on for six or seven hours. It's probably not the cup of tea of psychologists bent on fixing symptoms and having clever insights.
In the sixties psychedelics were the tool of cultural revolution. That revolution was followed by a tsunami of a backlash that was in no way the fault of the medicines. Today we have finally gotten over ourselves and are ready to reapproach. I understand why today's researchers take great care not to wear beads and sandals, but as the time comes when psychedelics become as ubiquitous as vacuum cleaners, I hope we summon the wisdom and fortitude to let them do their transformation on us without the process being damaged. Rather than fixing up the emotionally walking wounded so they can return to their jobs in Big Data etc., I hope we can allow them to do their real business of reminding us to wonder why and who the hell we are.
Maria Sabina, the Mazateca woman who inadvertently introduced the West to psilocybin mushrooms and died in extreme poverty said, "From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children (mushrooms) lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won't be any good, there is no remedy for it." I hope that we still have it in us to find a civil relationship with the saint children, but to do that will take a lot of humility, kindness and diligence. Let's try to do that.