Two journalists who’ve spent varying amounts of time teaching their craft at Cal give themselves an assignment that, in the end, blows away that well-worn rubric of “who, what, where, when, why.”
They are Michael Pollan, famous for his smart writing about food, and Don Lattin, a.k.a. me, known for my reverently irreverent writing about religion. Pollan and I found a subject that falls within each of our “beats,” a magic mushroom that offers the omnivore a tantalizing glimpse of God.
Working on separate tracks, we each spent three to four years interviewing many of the same experts and psychedelic explorers. We had amazingly similar experiences and came up with nearly identical titles. We even had some of the same hallucinations.
My book is called Changing Our Minds—Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy. It was released to little fanfare in April of 2017 by Synergetic Press, a tiny publisher in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Pollan’s book comes out a little over a year later, in May of 2018, and is titled How to Change Your Mind — What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. It is published by Penguin Press, the New York publishing powerhouse that is putting the work out with a big marketing and promotional push and a nationwide speaking tour at sold-out auditoriums.
Am I jealous of all the attention I know his book is about to get?
Let’s just say I was grateful to get an invitation to address the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado last summer and score an autumn booking at the Alchemist’s Kitchen in New York City, way down in the Bowery. My publisher even gave me two hundred bucks to help me buy a plane ticket to Newark, New Jersey, so I wouldn’t lose too much money on that gig.
Okay, I admit it. I have some issues with all of this. Michael Pollan is the majors, and I have most definitely been sent back down to the minor leagues, my last stop before the rest home. He writes for The New Yorker. I write for California Magazine. My glory days (three books with HarperCollins, including one national bestseller) are now fading memories, which I plan to enjoy before the Alzheimer’s kicks in.
In the end, though neither of us intended it, Michael Pollan and I wound up writing books about ourselves and our own troubled minds. We both seem slightly embarrassed by and apologetic of the fact that we became the most interesting (to us, at least) part of our stories. But that seems to be what happenss in “psychedelic journalism.”
The main assignment we gave ourselves was to write a book about a new wave of scientific research and clinical trials into using drugs like psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and MDMA, known on the street and at Burning Man as “Ecstasy,” as tools to supercharge marathon sessions of psychotherapy. The goal of the research is to persuade the federal government to re-classify the drugs so they can be routinely used by therapists helping people struggling with substance abuse, and mental disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
Michael Pollan and I each decided that it was important for us to personally experience the altered states of consciousness inspired by psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, and to do so in settings that mirror as closely as possible the government approved clinical trials now being conducted at places like UCLA, NYU, and Johns Hopkins. But since we did not meet the strict standards needed to qualify for those trials—such as having treatment-resistant PTSD—we each found underground psychedelic therapists to lead us on our trips.
This is where our stories—and in my opinion, Pollan’s book—gets really interesting.
Journalistic “objectivity” is one of the myths of our trade. Everything we do is subjective, from what we choose to write about to whom we choose to interview. As reporters, we can try to be fair and open-minded, but we are never really “objective.”
Writing about psychedelic states of consciousness blows any vestige of “objectivity” right out of the water. Higher doses of psychedelic drugs melt away our entire sense of subject and object, self and other, observer and observed.
Psychologists call these states “ego dissolution” or “disssociation.” Theologians call them “mysticism” and “transcendence.” Losing a sense of one’s body and self—while still being conscious of this in some profoundly altered way—can be terrifying and/or enlightening.
We may feel blissfully at one with all and everything, or like we’ve lost our mind and will never get it back. We may think we have died, and be strangely okay with that.
This is what I meant when I said in the lead paragraph that our self-imposed journalistic assignments obliterated the familiar categories of “who, what, where, when and why.”
That advice offered in Journalism 101 morphs into questions like:
“Who am I?”
“What planet am I on?”
“Where is my body?”
“When will this nightmare end? (or I hope this never ends.)”
“Why do we exist (or do we really exist)?”
Pollan tells this part of the story in the 70 pages he organizes into Chapter Four and calls “Travelogue: Journeying Underground.” In my book, I jump in and out of myself in various chapters, but mostly relate my own experiences about a psychedelic retreat center in Brazil and a magic mushroom encounter with an underground guide at Stinson Beach to later chapters.
Both Pollan and I tell the separate but similar sounding stories of our wild ride after smoking something called 5-MeO-DMT, which, believe it or not, is the dried venom of a Sonoran desert toad.
Psychedelic drug experiences, especially when conducted in a therapeutic context with the intention of healing a mood disorder, can bring up deeply personal matters of psyche and soul. I, for example, used my journalistic assignment to search for an alternative treatment for my own depression, and to gain insight into my own history of cocaine and alcohol addiction.
Pollan shined a psychedelic light on his own anxiety, self-centeredness, and neuroses. “Most of the time,” he writes, “I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.”
Going into our research and reporting, I had a lot more previous experience than Pollan in exploring my own consciousness and sense of self via psychedelic drugs. Perhaps that’s because I’m a little older, coming of age in the late 1960s, or that I spent my undergraduate years at Cal, in an era when dropping acid seemed like a course requirement.
Pollan entered these realms with more trepidation and dread than I. He was not too sure that he trusted his own mind and his own sanity. “In the wee-hour throes of insomnia or under the influence of cannabis,” he writes, “I have found myself tossed in a psychic storm of existential dread so dark and violent that the keel comes off the boat, capsizing this trusted identity.”
On the up side, Pollan also knew that psychedelic-assisted therapy has the power to instill—at least temporally—a renewed sense of awe, wonder, connectedness, gratitude and transcendence. Guides and therapists may use medicines from the plant kingdom or the chemist’s laboratory. But when used with proper care and preparation, these consciousness-expanding tools have the power to quiet the ego and give us a new perspective on our engrained habits of thought and action. After the sessions, the explorer works with the guide to find ways to integrate these insights into the ways we live our lives.
On his first LSD trip, Pollan expected to see the same angels or demons or other extraterrestrial beings that his interview subjects had told him about. Instead, his first acid trip in the remote yurt of an underground psychedelic therapist brought up powerful feelings of gratitude and compassion about his relationship with his family of origin and his wife and son. This might have been because he took a relatively small dose, but it nevertheless produced deep insights, or at least they seemed so at the time.
He’d been worried about his own cardiac issues, which was one reason he did not try MDMA, which can be dangerous for people with heart problems, and took a small hit of acid.
“All this time spent worrying about my heart,” he said while tripping on LSD. “What about all the other hearts in my life?”
“Love is everything.”
Words like these do not come easily from the minds of hard-boiled journalists. We seem to have extreme cases of what the Buddhist scholar Alan Watts called “the taboo against knowing ourselves.”
“It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal,” Pollan writes. “This is the failure of language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.”
I had my own revelations of compassion, gratitude, and oneness in my reporting for Changing Our Minds. This state of consciousness is refreshingly different from the negativity and resentment and hopelessness and self-centeredness that can bury the mind in a bout of depression.
The trick is to remember this drug-induced positive perspective when the drugs wear off and our engrained patterns of thought return.
That’s what I will try to do when Michael Pollan’s version of Changing Our Minds, not Don Lattin’s, makes the New York Times Bestseller List. I will wish him well. The universe is a wondrous, friendly place with plenty of room for two fine books on this cutting-edge topic.
Last week, as Pollan prepared for his first-class nationwide book tour and promotional barrage, the two of us had lunch in Berkeley. My magic mushroom therapist thinks Michael Pollan is my doppelgänger, a kind of psychic twin who may have a lesson to teach me, so my mushroom man was anxious to get a report from our meeting, to hear which part of me showed up at the restaurant—the Don Lattin ruled by the demons of resentment or the Don Lattin inspired by his better angels.
I’m happy to report that Pollan and I shared some sushi, had a pleasant conversation and exchanged some juicy gossip about the psychedelic underground. We then signed each others books, expressing mutual admiration and solidarity for jobs well done.
See, this psychedelic therapy really does work.
Don Lattin ’76 worked for 20 years as the religion writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of six books, including the bestseller The Harvard Psychedelic Club. More at www.donlattin.com