interesting times

Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs

Psychedelics could be the answer. Photo: Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive/Corbis via Getty Images

The great mystery to me of psychedelic experiences is the centrality of love.

I mean, why is it love exactly — overwhelming love — that so many experience under the spell of these molecules? When I first dabbled in the expansion of consciousness, I assumed it was simply some kind of wish-fulfillment. Maybe as your ego relaxed a little, and your eyes opened for a while, you felt what you always wanted to feel, loved. But that wasn’t quite right, because at the same time, I found myself overwhelmed with the feeling of love for others, for boundless compassion, sometimes almost painful empathy. I felt more nearly the hurt I had caused others, but instead of being convulsed with guilt, as was usually the case, I experienced only the urge to ask forgiveness and love some more. As I grew more experienced with MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy), and then psilocybin, and eventually LSD, this sense of love only deepened.

In Michael Pollan’s astounding new book, How to Change Your Mind, he expresses the same thing: “The flood tide of compassion overflowed its banks … a cascading dam break of love … ‘I don’t want to be so stingy with my feelings.’ And, ‘All this time spent worrying about my heart. What about all the other hearts in my life?’” And yes, this all sounds unbelievably trite. Pollan, who writes seamlessly about his own experiments in psychedelics as well as the exciting discoveries in mental health now opening up before us, puts this perfectly: “Love is everything … A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To desaturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight.”

I have felt this every single time I have ingested a psychedelic. Sometimes, it overwhelms me as a metaphysical truth; at others it seems to be incarnated in everything around me, especially when I take what I blasphemously call my annual “Jesus Day” alone in the dunes at the end of Cape Cod, and invite the beauty inside of me. And then there are the moments when this love simply fuses with awe — watching the dawn break over the mountains surrounding the playa at Burning Man; sometimes it comes to me in the form of the Holy Spirit, on the wind and in my oddly opened lungs.

Much of my religious upbringing and strict moral code had informed me that this kind of experience was wicked. I am too young to have experienced the ’60s, but old enough to come of age in their aftermath, and to absorb the counterrevolution of the time. This stuff made you crazy, it wrecked an entire generation, it leads to social breakdown, it can lure you into a vortex of addiction — you know the drill by now. Above all: God forbade it. And yet all I can say is that in reality, when I gingerly ventured into the kaleidoscope, this was precisely the opposite of what I felt. This, it immediately impressed upon me, was an intimation of godness; it opened my heart to the divine; this was a sacrament, a fusing of the material with the ineffable. Pollan tells the story of a woman called Mary who ate two or three spoonfuls of mushrooms one day and, she told him, “had the most profound experience of being with God. I was God and God was me.”

The neuroscience of this is fascinating, as Pollan pellucidly explains: Psychedelics disarm what’s called the Default Mode Network in your brain, the part of it that keeps you alert to danger, performing tasks, scanning the future, remembering the lessons of the past, doing, doing, doing. Some argue that this is the part of the brain we developed later in our evolution, the ego, the engine of natural selection, harnessing our intelligence to order and survival. It edits your experience, stripping out the unnecessary, ordering the whole. It is the governing reason of which the ancients spoke. But behind that DMN is the rest of our consciousness — the being, not the doing. We are much more in touch with this when we’re children, when we have not developed the experiences that allow us to predict easily, edit swiftly, and get about our business. The child’s wonder, her simple, unfiltered absorption of the world’s mystery and awe: This is what a psychedelic experience can mimic in a way. Unless you are like a child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

And so you see things as if for the first time. There were times in my adult life when this happened before, without any assistance: strange, fleeting moments of transcendence. I was walking through a garden in college one day, and noticed a daffodil. The spell lasted less than a minute but for that time, I actually saw it. It seemed suspended in time and space, shimmering, communicating, alive. Wordsworth finally made sense! It came again years later in Boston, when a tree rustled in front of me: I can’t really explain it, but it filled me with a sense of gratitude and awe. Pollan describes taking a piss in the middle of a psilocybin session: “The bathroom was a riot of sparkling light. 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.” Imagine that every time you go to the bathroom!

And then there was the vividness of the trees and fallen leaves in the forest surrounding the meditation center I spent ten, silent days in a couple of years ago. I realized then that the insights I had gained from psychedelics were indeed available without the drugs. Meditation disarms the ego as well, unpicking the Default Mode Network, bringing you back to your more basic self (“waking up,” as Sam Harris would put it) and to the joy of reality. That’s why the Buddhists talk of the nonexistence of the self, a doctrine I have had a devil of a time wrapping my DMN around most of my life.

But for me, the psychedelic experience is also deeply Christian. This, it seems to me, is how and who Jesus is and was: the incarnation of the love that these experiences reveal to you — and always suffused with it; not romantic love or friendship, but that universal agape that seems abstract to me at times, but that some small mushrooms have sometimes uncovered. My DMN knows, of course, that this is heresy, that there is only one sacrament that you can eat and enter into godness. The rest of me knows that the idea of heresy itself is the DMN’s work.

And the word “drug,” like “psychedelic,” is horribly loaded. Like the miraculous weed, psilocybin comes from the earth. LSD comes from bacteria. They are not addictive; yes, they can be abused, but very few who have had a psychedelic experience want to have it again and again. There is something profound about it that stays with you, for a long time. You see something you cannot unsee. And that space of unity and compassion is always something you can reach back to, a mountaintop you can see from a distance. It helps the most addicted smoker quit, simply because, in the context of awe and love, smoking becomes irrelevant. It reconciles people to death, the way religion used to. It can break depression — by scrambling the furrows and rigid patterns of thought that keep us in a groove of self-orbiting misery. The medical potential is extraordinary.

But it’s impossible not to see the social benefits of more widespread use as well — clinically and recreationally. In Sean Illing’s conversation with Pollan in Vox, Pollan says something about this moment in America: “The two biggest problems we face are the way we look at nature and the environmental crisis that’s resulted, and tribalism.” And both, it seems to me, are related to our lack of gratitude — for the earth and each other. I cannot help but think of these substances as a way to reintroduce people, especially the younger generation, to the great spiritualities of humankind, Christianity and Buddhism particularly.

I think of them also as the real and most powerful antidote to opioids and to the condition the opioids are a misbegotten response to: loneliness, depression, and a lack of meaning. Opioids are one solution to our crisis of meaning, in as much as they numb you to sleep. Psychedelics are another: a new unveiling of awe and awakening. In that respect, the ’60s got the metaphor wrong. These are not a means to drop out; they are a path to dropping back in.

Brexit Backfires

The question I kept getting after my return from the U.K. was: “Is Brexit actually happening?” And I suppose the answer to that is, I’m not sure anyone really knows. The clock is ticking toward March next year when Article 50’s exit deadline hits the proverbial fan, but I can’t see any sign that the Tory government is actually close to pulling it off. Yes, they’re having lots of meetings; yes, they’re talking about a new kind of “customs partnership” with the E.U., as opposed to the “customs union”; yes, they’re trying to come up with some technological miracle which will allow the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to remain open and “frictionless,” while keeping Britain somehow separate from the E.U.; and yes, I could find no one in power or remotely near it who can contemplate up-ending the “will of the people,” i.e., 51.7 percent in a referendum.

But actually getting fully out of the Customs Union and the Single Market and starting over? Not so clear. It increasingly looks less like Brexit and more like BRINO: Brexit In Name Only. The bureaucracy and most government ministers are trying desperately to keep as close to the continent as they can for obvious economic reasons, while formally, you know, wink, wink, “leaving.” But the compromises they keep airing and never quite nailing down are those they can barely get through the Cabinet, let alone the Commons, and there’s no indication the E.U. itself will agree to them. With Italy now straining to weaken the bond, the last thing the E.U. wants to do is provide an example of an easy cost-free exit.

And this week, all this strange suspension was broken by a blog post by one Dominic Cummings, the rather brilliant young Tory who, more than anyone, masterminded the Vote Leave campaign. He’s basically telling the Tory Brexiteers that they’re completely fucked, that leaving the E.U. is not actually happening:

The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it. By not taking the basic steps any sane Government should have taken from 24 June 2016, including providing itself with world class legal advice, it’s ‘strategy’ has imploded. It now thinks its survival requires surrender, it thinks that admitting this risks its survival, it thinks that the MPs can be bullshitted by clever drafting from officials, and that once Leave MPs and donors — you guys — are ordering your champagne in the autumn for your parties on 30 March 2019 you will balk at bringing down the Government when you finally have to face that you’ve been conned.

It all sounds like a monologue from The Thick of It:

Ask yourselves: what happens when the country sees you’ve simultaneously a) ‘handed over tens of billions for ‘fuck all’ as they’ll say in focus groups (which the U.K. had no liability to pay), b) failed to do anything about unskilled immigration, c) persecuted the high skilled immigrants, such as scientists, who the public wants you to be MORE welcoming to, and d) failed to deliver on the nation’s Number One priority — funding for the NHS which is about to have a very high profile anniversary?

Their base will revolt or turn back to UKIP; the most left-wing Labour government in British history will come to power; and the U.K. will effectively be governed by the E.U. but have no place at the table to affect its policies. And that’s what the architect of Brexit now thinks!

The end of all this may not be the end of the U.K. or the end of the E.U., but the demise (largely deserved) of the Tory Party. How about that for being hoist with your own fucking petard?

“God Made You Like That”

The usual suspects have been hyperventilating about the latest secondhand report of something Pope Francis said to a gay man. Here are the offending words:

“Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like that and he loves you like that and I do not care. The Pope wants you like that, you have to be happy with who you are.”

Rod Dreher had a conniption: “If the Pope means that homosexuality is a matter of moral indifference, then Catholics have a very serious theological problem on their hands with this Pope, who has just blown a hole into Catholic moral theology with regard to sexuality.” Another hole!

The truth is the Church has tried to grapple with the question of homosexuality and moral indifference for quite a while now. Here’s the official teaching in 1975 [my italics]:

A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tendency comes from a false education, from a lack of normal sexual development, from habit, from bad example, or from other similar causes, and is transitory or at least not incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.

The Catholic Church was, in fact, ahead of its time among Christian denominations in acknowledging, however begrudgingly, that being gay defines a person (“definitively such”) and is due to some kind of “innate instinct” and cannot be changed.

In 1986, the official teaching was amended once again to be more explicit about this: “[T]he particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin.”

So it is blameless and should be regarded with moral indifference. The author of that sentence, by the way, was Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. It is connected to the other half of the doctrine: that if you commit a sexual act because of this inclination, you have committed a sin. This is not: love the sinner, not the sin. It is love the person, not the sin.

The idea that Francis’s love for a gay man as a gay man somehow rips apart the fabric of the church and implies that Francis is guilty of heresy is absurd. Francis is blessing an identity, not an act. But if the inclination always leads to an immoral act, isn’t the inclination itself sinful? The answer to that is no. Because being gay is not only or even mainly about sexual acts. It is also the only way some human beings can express exclusive love for another person. The reduction of gay people to what we do with our genitals is un-Christian.

To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the latest formulation in the Catechism, which does indeed call the “inclination” itself “objectively disordered.” But note also that even “objectively disordered” is not a moral category. It is simply a way — and a needlessly cruel way — of saying that some people are different in a way that means they cannot have children in a heterosexual marriage. An infertile person, in this respect, is also “objectively disordered” for the exact same reason. Should we regard infertility with moral indifference? Of course, we should.

And that is all the Pope is saying to another human being. God made you the way you are, and loves you for it, and wants you to be happy as yourself. How much agony and pain has there been across so many centuries because we could not open our hearts to this truth? It is so strange to me how so many nonbelievers can see in this Pope’s interaction with others the spirit of Jesus, and how so many of the most devout seem terrified by it.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs