Andrew Sullivan on ‘Saying Yes to Drugs’

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Andrew Sulllivan

Andrew Sullivan is an English-born American author, editor, and blogger. Sullivan is a conservative political commentator, a former editor of The New Republic, and the author or editor of six books. He was a pioneer of the political blog, starting his in 2000.

Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs (The Daily Intelligencer, NYMag.com)

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.

Read Andrew Sullivan’s full column at New York Magazine.

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