Book review, mind review

My book group chose to read Michael Pollan’s latest: How To Change Your Mind. The subtitle says a lot: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. That’s a bundle of complicated concepts Pollan takes on, but he recognizes his task looms large and that he can only make forays into the many overlapping arenas the book explores.

His approach–he uses this in his other books and articles, too–is a mix of serious research and journalism (interviews, mostly) and personal inquiry and experiences. If you have read Second Nature or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you might find this one to be a more “difficult book.” It is heavily documented and features neuroscience (brain pathways and structure, mostly), psychology, pharmacology, and chemistry (tryptamine-related molecules). Not to mention mushroom biology and mushroom hunting, and serum produced by plants, toads, and ergot.

What attracted my book group members to this text is its chapters on dying; as a hospice volunteer myself, and having read articles on the potential value of psychedelics among people with terminal illnesses, this part certainly interested me.

Pollan writes: “The uncanny authority of the psychedelic experience might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal.”

These outcomes seem significant enough that we ought to find ways to employ them in our palliative care work. In my own, somewhat limited, experience with dying people, those who are less fearful of death–for whatever reason that may be–stay alert longer, respond better to palliative efforts (pain medicine, massage, positioning, and so on), and are more likely to comfort their loved ones. They die more “easily,” if dying can ever be called “easy.”

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Yet I found the parts of Pollan’s book which deal with the huge question of what consciousness is and where it resides most relevant to my own interests. Yes–that difficult neurobiology stuff. Pollan suggests, with the healthy pragmatism of the skeptic, that empirical approaches to consciousness based on the idea that “the brain is meat” (viz, medical science) are unlikely ever to explain consciousness fully or to anyone’s satisfaction. In other words, consciousness may possess a component one might name “spiritual.” Here is how he frames this concept:

“…it seems to me very likely that losing or shrinking the self would make anyone feel more ‘spiritual,’ however you choose to define the word, and that this is apt to make one feel better. The usual antonym for the word ‘spiritual’ is ‘material.’ That … is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for spiritual might be ‘egotistical.’ Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love…seems to figure prominently.”

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When I was much younger, I considered myself “spiritual.” I stopped using the term once I began a more serious exploration of my life and began to study philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, phenomenology, and consciousness more intentionally. But the crucial components–connection, relation to and with others (sentient and not), and love–those I have always understood as necessary. Even though my ego has never “dissolved” quite the way Pollan describes.

So maybe I can go back to considering myself somewhat spiritual. At this moment in life, Nature and Others matter more than accomplishments and outcomes.

Welcome Spring, welcome Spirit. Namaste, Amen.

iris reticulata

iris reticulata

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Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.

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While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?

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Next door to God

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I’m currently reading a new Tupelo Press anthology of essays by poets, A God in the House. The essays are based on interviews with poets whose work engages with “the spiritual” or with “faith”–often in similar ways, though attained through widely varying means and experiences.

It’s lovely to savor these thoughtful commentaries on the spiritual. Many of the poets wrestle with the concept of faith, soul, or the spiritual as they try to put into words what that feels like. Poets know better than most people the limits of what we can say in words, and they push at those limits in and through their work.

And this book features some marvelous poets. Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Grace Paley, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, the incomparable Alicia Ostriker, Gregory Orr (one of my long-time favorite living poets), Annie Finch, and many others. Even if you are not interested in poetry all that much, the anthology is valuable if you are interested in the spiritual and how we obtain, understand, incorporate, question, and express it.

Can we attain transcendence? Or immanence, instead? Or are we fooling ourselves altogether?

Good questions.

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When I was a very young child, my father, a newly-minted Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a small parish in a rural area of New York. We lived in a ranch-style manse across the driveway from the 19th-century shingle-style church. We had a large yard which bordered a large field. There was a post fence along the side of the church yard and a barbed-wire fence in back of our own yard. I liked to sit on the post fence’s wooden stretchers and pretend I was riding a horse. There were tall pine trees at the front of the church and I recall watching birds fly in and out of the trees and also in and out of the eaves of the steeple. All of those memories I now associate with church-going and whatever the spirit is. I always think of that time of my life as the days I lived next door to God.

I was raised in the culture of God-the-Father. My father, my human father, was the man behind the pulpit. He wore flowing robes and he sang beautifully, but what I liked best was watching him as he opened the enormous Bible and read from it.

Yes, I was a bibliophile from the get-go.

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I suppose the words mattered. Certainly the verses, the language of scripture, its pacing, and the intonation of recitations, creeds, and prayer–not to mention the music–made their way into my forming mind. I learned to read by doodling on church bulletins and pretending to follow along in the hymnals as we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “The Doxology.” But I do not recall ever believing, quite, that the words equaled the spirit, even though I memorized that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.

Now I have come around to words again. (Writers do that.) I am not in the right frame of mind to write eloquently, as the writers in A God in the House have done, about how my poetry, my practice, my beliefs entwine with the spiritual. Perhaps someday I will, inspired by the thoughts and reflections of others. It is a brave thing, to write about one’s faith–so personal. I am grateful to the editors (Illya Kaminsky & Katherine Towler) who envisioned this project and interviewed the poets; and I heartily recommend this book.