When is it good to be shaken up? Not physically. Psychologically.
It seems that being all shook up typically is viewed as something to be avoided, since it means "greatly disturbed or upset." As in, watching that scary movie left me all shook up (shaken is the proper word, with shook being slang).
But I've been reading Michael Pollan's new book about psychedelics, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Dying, Consciousness, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence."
In it he speaks of how sometimes our overly rigid psyche needs to be shaken up like a snow globe.
Today I came across a Vox story, "The extraordinary therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, explained." Here's how the snow globe analogy is discussed.
Yet it’s not entirely clear to the scientists what it is about these experiences that produce such profound changes in attitude, mood, and behavior.
Is it a sense of awe? Is it what the American philosopher William James called the “mystical experience,” something so overwhelming that it shatters the authority of everyday consciousness and alters our perception of the world? What’s clear in any case is that psychedelic trips are often beyond the bounds of language.
The best metaphor I’ve heard to describe what psychedelics does to the human mind comes from Robin Carhart-Harris, a psychedelic researcher at Imperial College in London. He said we should think of the mind as a ski slope. Every ski slope develops grooves as more and more people make their way down the hill. As those grooves deepen over time, it becomes harder to ski around them.
Like a ski slope, Carhart-Harris argues, our minds develop patterns as we navigate the world.
These patterns harden as you get older. After a while, you stop realizing how conditioned you’ve become — you’re just responding to stimuli in predictable ways. Eventually, your brain becomes what Michael Pollan has aptly called an “uncertainty-reducing machine,” obsessed with securing the ego and locked in uncontrollable loops that reinforce self-destructive habits.
Taking psychedelics is like shaking the snow globe, Carhart-Harris said.
It disrupts these patterns and explodes cognitive barriers. It also interacts with what’s called the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain associated with mental chatter, self-absorption, memories, and emotions. Anytime you’re anxious about the future or fretting over the past, or engaged in compulsive self-reflection, this part of the brain lights up. When researchers looked at images of brains on psychedelics, they discovered that the DMN shuts down almost entirely.
Think of it this way: You spend your whole life in this body, and because you’re always at the center of your experience, you become trapped in your own drama, your own narrative.
But if you pay close attention, say, in a deep meditation practice, you’ll discover that the experience of self is an illusion. Yet the sensation that there’s a “you” separate and apart from the world is very hard to shake; it’s as though we’re wired to see the world this way.
The only time I’ve ever been able to cut through this ego structure is under the influence of psychedelics (in my case, ayahuasca).
I was able to see myself from outside my self, to see the world from the perspective of nowhere and everywhere all at once, and suddenly this horror show of self-regard stopped. And I believe I learned something about the world that I could not have learned any other way, something that altered how I think about, well, everything.
So as this passage shows, there's various ways to shake up the human mind.
Meditation is one way, an approach that I've followed since 1970, when I started my lifelong practice of meditating every day. Forty-eight years later I'm still at it, though I've switched from a mantra-based form of meditation to more of a mindfulness approach centered on following the breath while being aware of other sensations both within and without my mind.
Any other activity that demands or encourages present-moment attention also can lead to a lessening of our usual focus on ourselves, and how the self is being treated by the great big world that exists outside of our personal consciousness.
Sports, dancing, martial arts, Tai Chi, walking in nature -- I've found that these also are good means of lessening the feeling of being separate and distinct from the world.
But I agree with the author of the Vox story about psychedelics that substances such as psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline are especially powerful ways of shaking up the snow globe of our mind. Unlike other ways of doing this, all that's required is to ingest a small bit of a psychedelic substance and, voila, shaking happens!
I'm hoping that voters in Oregon, where I live, agree to legalize psilocybin in the 202o election. The Vox story mentions this. An Oregon Psilocybin Society Facebook post notes that the story isn't completely accurate about the legalization effort, and shared some clarifications.
Check out the Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon to learn more about the proposed ballot measure. The home page has a moving video of testimonials from people whose lives have been changed for the better by psilocybin.
Probably I'd be wary of trying psilocybin at my age (70), since I'm no longer the wild and crazy try-anything guy of my college years.
Plus, 1967-68, when I did most, if not all, of my experimenting with full-on psychedelics was a magical time, especially since I attended college in the San Francisco Bay area, hotbed of the Summer of Love, Haight-Asbury, and such.
However, even though cannabis isn't really a psychedelic, it can generate ego dissolution, or at least ego lessening.
And marijuana is both legal and plentiful here in Oregon, so I'll continue both with my daily morning meditation and daily evening vaping of some cannabis flower. Ego loss can be fun!