A couple of years ago, it felt like everyone was reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, a book about the history of psychedelic drugs, their recent renaissance within scientific research and significant potential as a mental health treatment. I read and found it compelling, until I learned that some seasoned psychonauts found the book’s doggedly rationalist lens basic so I had to change my mind (just kidding, kind of).
Aside from the scary prospect of tripping to a cacophony of sirens outside your window, a global pandemic feels like a fitting time for a psychedelic renaissance. Shuttered up at home, our physical bodies degrading under increasingly sedentary lifestyles, going through the motions of work and day-to-day tasks that may suddenly seem woefully insignificant as the world burns around us, why not free our minds? In Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change, a book about psychedelics that is nothing like Pollan’s even-keeled analysis, author Tao Lin comes to a realization: “Using only plants and fungi that have evolved over millions of years and been selected and used by humans over millennia, I can safely travel to the furthest places humans have gone and stay there 5 or 30 or 120 minutes, during which I can experientially research consciousness, death, time, existence, magic, ecstasy, and the mystery within a tradition older than agriculture.” The promise of infinite space and exploration contained in Lin’s words is particularly attractive in our current, cloistered moment where it’s difficult not to feel at least a little bit trapped, literally or otherwise.
Image: Rare Mushroom by Jonathan Zawada
I continued my psychedelic education with Tom Shroder’s Acid Test: LSD, Ecstacy and the Power to Heal, which explores psychedelics through their intersections with the lives of three men: a prominent psychedelics advocate, a researcher studying psychedelic therapy, and an Iraq war veteran who receives psychedelic assisted treatment for PTSD. Alongside substantial historical analysis and interviews with the who’s who of the psychedelic scene, both Pollan and Shroder chronicle their own experiences as “reluctant psychonauts” in their books. It’s hard to write about taking drugs without sounding like you think they’re terribly cool and countercultural, or coming off as overzealous in a way that fuels those quick to dismiss drug experiences as having no possible bearing on “reality”. So, I salute these two silver fox travellers of consciousness for giving it a red hot go! Their accounts are endearingly cringey at times, in an “oh no Dad” kind of way. Pollan becomes enamoured by his own stream of piss (“the arc of water I sent forth was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen...a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, breaking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light”), while Shroder weeps at the beauty of Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity”.
Overall, I found Trip’s accounts of drug use to be the most refreshing and affecting of the three books. Unlike Pollan and Shroder, Lin does not attempt to position himself as a trustworthy, materialist narrator attempting an objective analysis. Pollan and Shroder are middle-aged white men with wives, kids and esteemed careers as journalists and authors. They look back fondly on their boyhood experiments with hallucinogens in college days, but neither has touched anything for the intervening decades, coaxed back only by the increased scientific interest in these substances. Even the settings in which they self-medicate reinforce their sense of stability and domestic bliss: Pollan in the lush garden of his second home in New England as his wife co-trips inside the house, and Shroder in the backyard of the family home that, half-way through his trip, he decides to scrub within an inch of its life in preparation for his wife’s return home from work. Wholesome.
Pollan and Shroder’s rigorous research and their decisions to go public with their own drug experimentation will go far to reduce stigma and challenge preconceived notions about the kind of people who take drugs. Yet, both men need a scientific stamp of approval to allow themselves a mystical experience. Critical work, but still kind of a bummer if you ask me!
Lin is also a successful writer with a penchant for data-driven analysis, obsessively chronicling his patterns of drug-use and mood over many years on the Notes app in his phone in an attempt to document his life and then scale back to observe how he’s changed over time. He diverges from the other authors in his curious, maladaptive approach to life. Recovering from a prior addiction to prescription drugs, Lin practices “busy isolation”, staying inside his room for long stretches of time, away from the “anxiety, despair and tedium” of the outside world in order to self-actualize through “reading, writing, exercising, experimenting with psychedelics, and drawing extremely detailed mandalas.”
On psychedelics, Lin at times behaves erratically, throwing away his computer and becoming convinced that his internet friend Tracy is a CIA agent out to get him (not the craziest thought given the CIA’s history of dosing unsuspecting civilians for research purposes). In his own words: “Without psilocybin, I don’t see the imagination brightly with details while awake. I don’t realize I’m alien-occupying Tao Lin, sob profusely, delete my websites, feel outside time, announce life changes in typo-dominated blocks of text at 6:01 A.M. or any other time, or discard my computer.” While this might not sound like a particularly aspirational drug experience, Lin credits psychedelics with freeing him of old habits and thought-patterns and provoking significant long-term change.
Lin’s experimentation is ultimately life-changing, yet each drug experience is not necessarily grandiose when viewed in isolation. This slow-burn effect was comforting to read, as I’ve sometimes felt alienated by people’s accounts of one-off psychedelic experiences so intensely transformative that the entire course of their life is shifted.
While psychedelic substances may not be a magic bullet to sustained nirvana, they can provide a glimpse into the mind’s deep capacity for openness and joy and a rare bird’s eye view of life. While inebriated and holed up in my apartment with Sam in the other room, I had a revelation that the next phase of my career will involve drug policy. We laughed hysterically at the idea of having a revelation that you need to dedicate your life to “furthering the plant” while under the influence, then laughed some more about how funny Persephone (beloved cat) looked to both of us. On a late summer day in Prospect Park, a tour of the most idyllic and hidden regions took on a brighter quality. A steep flight of stairs became a descent into the underworld, a mushroom growing out of a tree trunk suddenly A SIGN! After diligently traversing the park for the perfect place to sit down, my friends and I realized we had parked ourselves next to a huge pile of steaming animal shit, the irony of which was of course absolutely hilarious. While these experiences were not independently life changing, they were certainly life affirming, which is quite frankly not to be underestimated in this crazy, messed up moment in time.
Xoxo slurp slurp!