Psychedelics – The Self and the Real

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This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.

Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.

 

The Claims

Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.

Claim 2: Harris and Pollan also talk about the way psychedelics can be used to help people cope with a range of notoriously hard to treat psychological disorders, including depression, addiction, and anxiety. They recount the case of Patrick Mettes as illustrative. Mettes was extremely anxious and experiencing a significant amount of psychological distress after being diagnosed with cancer. He took psilocybin and afterwards was apparently a changed man. He was profoundly grateful, happy, and at peace. Notably, he felt that in his trip he had been shown there was something more to human existence than he had been aware of before.

 

The Objections

Objection 1a: Granted, the Buddhist insight that the ego is a source of much (perhaps even all) suffering is hard to argue with. How much suffering would be eliminated if there truly were no ‘one’ to suffer; just some kind of impersonal consciousness? But is this coherent? Can the self be eliminated and yet some form of consciousness remain? I just can’t see how this is possible. If there truly is no self, who is having the experience?

One might object that what disappears is the sense of being a separate, individual ego, with distinct, concrete desires. There is an experiencer but only in the sense of a ‘pure’ form of consciousness, unburdened by all the attachments, prejudices, and biases that come with a personal sense of self. Even if this isn’t total nonsense and such a thing as a ‘pure, self-less consciousness’ exists (which is certainly not a given), one finds oneself (no pun intended) thrust fully into my next objection.

Objection 1b: Jettisoning the sense of self is not a practical solution to anything and certainly not a viable way to live a life. As Pollan himself admits after a particularly bad trip; we need time, place, and a character in order to form any kind of narrative about our lives. Without these three things there is no anchor around which to build a coherent life. So how can dissolving one of them be a positive goal? We shouldn’t want to eliminate our sense of self. Think about it, if you truly lacked a sense of self, you would be as useless as someone in the middle of a trip. Could you hold down a job like this? Have a relationship? Own anything? Be responsible for anything or anyone? Without a robust sense of self, human life is impossible.

One might argue I have taken this too far. No one is advocating complete and permanent dissolution of the self; just a recognition that it’s a construct of our own minds and we can choose when, or whether, to listen to its neurotic ramblings. I disagree. The claim is that there is no self so, in truth, we are all living without one anyway. This, I argue (and apparently bad-trip Pollan does too), is incoherent.

Objection 1c: If the self is the source of all suffering, surely it is also the source of all happiness. If there were no ‘one’ to suffer, surely there would then be no ‘one’ to feel pleasure either. I know Harris and co. would strenuously object to this. On the contrary, they would say, feelings of compassion and love on a trip supersede anything one feels in normal states of consciousness. But this clearly hasn’t answered the question. How can one feel compassion, if there is no one to feel that compassion? And how much sense does it make to suggest that all the benefits that come with having a self (feeling love, happiness, joy, etc.) can be preserved while all the drawbacks (all forms of mental suffering) are discarded?

Objection 1d: Exactly why do Pollan and Harris imagine that their drug-induced experiences are somehow real? Why is it that they treat hallucinations procured while in an altered state of consciousness as more real than perceptions acquired during a normal waking state? I can’t understand this. It’s like someone waking from a religious dream in which they spoke to God, and taking this as proof that their favourite deity exists. Someone like Harris would (as he should) dismiss such nonsense without a second thought. How could a dream, a fiction cooked up by a sleeping brain, tell you anything meaningful about the world? But wrap it up in psychedelics (or mediation), lose the deity (making it ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’), and suddenly Harris thinks we’ve pierced the veil of Maya and reached ultimate Truth. Of course I don’t have a self! I realised this when I was tripping out of my skull and hallucinating all manner of nonsense!

 

Objection 2a: So, even if we assume psychedelics are more effective (and less dangerous) than other treatments for certain disorders, i.e. they really alleviate psychological suffering in people with anxiety or depression, how exactly are they doing this? By giving the user experiences that foster a delusional view about reality. After trips, people often come down with fairly grandiose claims about love, meaning, existence, something beyond death, etc. In other words, they think they have glimpsed the Truth… and it’s much more fantastic than even most religions claim. Have they? Or have they just hallucinated a whole host of spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo? Somewhat surprisingly, this is where Harris’ hardnosed and insistent materialism seems to abandon him.

But they feel better, so what’s the harm? Well, the results may be great but presumably we don’t want to proffer cures that work by passing fictions off as fact, essentially lying to people to make them feel better. We do that on occasion with children when we feel they aren’t ready for certain truths (the family dog has gone to live on a farm in the country); do we want to do it to adults, ourselves included? What happened to our materialists’ drive to see reality as it really is, rather than sheltering in the delusions of a brain tripping on DMT?

 

Closing Thoughts

No one doubts the powerful nature of drug-induced hallucinations and delusions. Scores of people in cities all around the world experience them all the time. My resistance to Harris and Pollan here is in the way they are offering psychedelics as some kind of revolutionary, life-changing experience that somehow reveals something real and genuinely meaningful about human life. Can drugs be life-changing? Sure? But they can also just be a wildly trippy five to ten hours. If there were really something genuinely profound there, every twenty-something who trips out on magic mushrooms would come back down to earth and become a monk, learn to meditate, preach the virtues of love or simplicity to all who will listen, or believe in the transcendent significance of their life. But they don’t. For every Patrick Mettes, there are thousands of kids who just enjoy the ride, marvel in the hallucinations the mind is able to generate, and go back to work on Monday morning. And this, of course, is not to mention the thousands who have bad trips, see darkness and depravity, find themselves in a meaningless void… and still go back to work on Monday morning. But where is the Waking Up podcast exploring the negative experiences of drugs as if they are grandiose portraits of the real world just beyond our horizon? Why are these experiences ignored, laughed about, or written off as merely bad trips, while the ones that bestow significance, love, and meaning on existence are treated as somehow true and genuinely insightful glimpses of Reality to be cherished and cultivated (and maybe to build a religion around)?

I have the same reservations about meditation. Few people doubt the psychological benefits of regular meditation but the Buddhist claims about it go well beyond these. I have no doubt that if you go on retreat for a month where you meditate for hours a day and observe a strict code of silence, you can have some pretty interesting experiences. But what do you expect? And more importantly, what does it mean? Have you accessed a deeper level of reality, have you seen through your self, have you seen your real Self… or has your bored brain just created its own entertainment? Inmates placed in solitary confinement also. Have they transcended mundane human existence? We all hallucinate every night when we sleep. Are these revelations of a greater shore lying beyond our mortal grasp?

 

The phrase ‘altered states of consciousness’ is one which peddlers of spiritual and New Age mumbo-jumbo regularly use to give their particular brand of woo-woo an appearance of credibility it doesn’t really deserve. Sure, the brain can conjure up all manner of weird and wonderful experiences – you can meet dead relatives, feel overwhelming love for all sentient creatures, dissolve your self, or merge with the universe – but when you come back down, you’ve still got to go back to work on Monday morning.

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