In Texas it has been (and still sometimes is) said that “there ain’t no such thing as free barbecue,” a typically Texan way of expressing the truth that every action has it cost. This is particularly true in the realm of human evolution, the processes that have led our species to where it is today. One of the crucial differences that exist between Homo and other genera is that we can pay selective attention to elements in our environment that we find interesting, ignoring others that seem less important at that moment. Evidence suggests that one reason that people on the autistic spectrum often feel overwhelmed by modern life is that they lack this ability.
What we gain by this is the ability to see patterns and to classify those patterns according to how they might affect us. Pattern recognition has permitted adult humans to generate complexities in our reality that are beyond the capability of any other terrestrial being (if you have never read A Pattern Language, do yourself a favor and do so), for which we pay the price of losing the innocent sense of wonder that we had as children, when everything fascinated.
Inertia being omnipresent, most people find patterns in which they are mostly comfortable, and live their lives first guided by and later incarcerated by configurations that have become habitual, first perceptually, then physiologically. Good health requires both the establishment of healthy patterns and the regular restructuring of those patterns to prevent them from fossilizing. Since time immemorial humans have explored ways to “shake the snow globe” and re-order their representations of reality, including meditation, chanting, yoga, drumming, dancing, hypnotism, and the consumption of psychoactive substances.
As Michael Pollan observes in his new book How to Change Your Mind, every known human culture except the Inuit (who lack psychoactive substances in their native environment) uses some substance (usually a plant) to alter the workings of the mind and offer potential pattern-changing results. Psychedelics have been and are even now being used to facilitate dying, treat addictions, and explore consciousness.
In his usual thorough way Mr. Pollan provides fascinating, useful, even-handed evaluations of just how psychedelics first reached American society, why they were prohibited, and why they may now be rehabilitated. In his guise as a reporter he brings admirable objectivity to his examination of his subject, but he then went further by electing to employ some of these substances personally and sharing with his readers some of his subjective perceptions of his experiences, with reports on how the shaking of his personal ‘snow globe’ permitted him to perceive, dismantle and transcend some patterns that had been preventing him from living his life more fully and satisfyingly.
Mr. Pollan emphasizes the importance of a guide who can ‘hold space’ for those who elect to explore their potential in this way, and to this reality I can testify personally. I first experimented with psychedelics as a teenager, happily with an enquiring mindset and in generally salubrious circumstances. But it was only after I met Sri Vimalananda, who trained me to use intoxicants for transformative purposes rather than as vehicles for intoxication, and whose company offered a rare and cherished setting, that I could really understand just how transformative intoxicants can be when rightly employed.
Each individual will take away something different from each such experience, but anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of ingesting distinguished substances in sacred circumstances is likely to agree with Mr. Pollan’s concluding words:
“Mysteries abide. But this I can say with certainty: the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began.”