I haven’t read Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics, so I cannot comment on it directly. Although I admire him for his earlier books on food. And, I have no doubt he makes a real contribution to our societal considerations of the human mind.
That said, me, I’m getting old. And I have found I don’t actually have to read everything people say is important. I don’t even have to read everything that is important. Actually, I can’t. And, I see the sands running ever faster in my life. And with the time I have, what I want to do and what I am doing is digging deeper into the things that particularly call to my heart. So, I’ll be frank. not only have I not read it, also I don’t plan on reading this book. I have other fish to fry.
And I note how several of my friends have found his book encouraging. For that I’m glad. However, I would offer an informed dissent to any among those on the Zen way who think they’re going to be able to shortcut the spiritual path through drugs. There are at least a couple among my personal acquaintance who are doing so. And with this small reflection I am responding to them.
First. My personal experience of psychedelics, now many decades past, is that they can offer a real lesson, something profound and true. And that lesson is that the world is not how we think it is. The world is not as I think it is. However, that’s it. That’s what psychedelics can teach us.
Second. In some cultures that experience is integrated into the communal life as part of a larger project. And, I have no judgment on that path specific to some cultures.. But, in our culture this just isn’t how it is.
Third. The most important experiences are not the discovery our view isn’t correct. As important as it is. Rather the most important insights are those that take us to a perspective on who we are and our place within the cosmos. I know some claim these insights are also contained within the psychedelic experience. I acknowledge the claim. I haven’t seen much evidence it is true. But, I am not saying it doesn’t happen.
However. And. Fourth. And this is so important. The most important point. The authentic path is a lifetime journey. The experiences we call awakening or enlightenment are simply markers on a larger project. This is a project that plays out over a lifetimes. So, whether psychedelics offer a single gift of a disruption of our ideas of how things are, or do in fact lead us to a deeper insight into who we are within the play of things; the critical thing is that those experiences are themselves only part of a large and coherent path of realization and manifestation.
The real spiritual path is a life long journey. It is an ongoing investigation into the matter of life and death. And, critically, it involves the incorporation of many, many lessons, only one of which is that insight into how what we think and how we “see” the world is not actually the truth of the matter. Or, even of the deeper insight into the realities of our fundamental relationships.
I think putting too much emphasis on experiences of any sort is problematic. Experiences are just experiences.
Over the years I’ve seen too many Zen teachers who’ve forgotten that. They’ve relied upon their own experiences of disruption, of seeing through the confusion of identity and self-centeredness, and even to that deeper wholeness. And then, without a serious commitment to the long haul, to integration, to integrity of practice, to a full on embrace of a path of community and correction, too often they become abusers of the way and the people who they have charge of serving and guiding.
Relying on personal insights, even profound experiences, without a larger context of practice and life creates people who are at best narcissists and at worse monsters. And, I’ve seen no such path of integration among those who rely upon psychedelics.
So, my bottom line point. The real deal of our spiritual lives is much more complicated, much more difficult than any experience we might have. It requires actual commitment to a life beyond any kind of indulgence, including and maybe particularly indulging those special experiences.
May all beings be at peace.