Sam Harris talks with Michael Pollan about Psychedelics and Mystical-Spiritual Experience

This morning I listened to a podcast conversation between neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris and bestselling journalist and author Michael Pollan about Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

This morning I listened to a podcast conversation between neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris and bestselling journalist and author Michael Pollan about Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. I reviewed Pollan’s latest work recently here.
The conversation was a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion about psychoactive substances and the experiences that they occasion. If you dropped into the middle of the discussion, you might think that they were talking all about religious and spiritual experiences. And I think you’d be right. The experiences that these substances induce in the brain have a host of similarities to the classical mystical/spiritual experiences of the traditional religions, so much so that I think it will become increasingly difficult to disregard that there is a deep relationship between them, even of altered states of consciousness (however they may be occasioned) and the mystical/spiritual experience common to so many religions and spiritual traditions.
In the last few years it has become increasingly clear to me that there is an intimate connection and relationship between mystical and spiritual experiences of religious history and changes in conscious states. Eastern spirituality tends to make this connection explicit, altering one’s consciousness through deliberate conscious exercises and practices such as contemplation and meditation (deep forms of prayer). But in Western spirituality it is often avoided or talked around rather than explicitly discussed and seriously considered. Western spirituality seems to refer to spiritual experience as if it always takes place in everyday normal consciousness, but I think this is mistaken.

William James (1842-1910)

The phenomenology of mystical experiences, whether induced by ingesting certain substances or many other means, often sounds like the classic spiritual experiences found in many religions’ spiritual texts and scriptures. The famed psychologist William James once outlined four qualities of such experiences in his 1902 classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience as:

  • ineffability – the experience is indescribable, goes beyond language, impossible to put into words, defies expression,
  • noetic – the experience seems to be revelatory of profound knowledge and truth, insight, full of significance, importance, and meaning. They are authoritative.
  • transiency – the experience is not sustained long, and soon passes.
  • passivity – the experience seems to be under the influence of a greater power, in control by a higher being, and not caused by the experiencer. One’s ego is often dissolved, and one becomes a passive participant rather than the creator of their experience.

These qualities, and many others that have been suggested, can be found in the world’s religious experiences, and also in psychoactive substance-induced experiences, suggesting that they are not different experiences, but the same type of experience, simply induced in different ways.
This discussion between Harris and Pollan goes over these many qualities. Although Harris is considered an outspoken atheist, he does value what he calls “spiritual” or classically “mystical” experience (see his book Waking Up), he just doesn’t give credence to the many religious doctrines and dogmas that have evolved out of such experiences throughout history. I think many such dogmas may be a direct result of the ineffability of this type of experience.
As soon as mystics try to put words to the experience, they inevitably fail at capturing it in truth, and this is an ongoing struggle for them. Some would rather just keep their “mouth closed” (which is the etymological source of our word mystery), than profane their experience with words that utterly fail to describe it. It is a sacred mystery because it cannot be spoken, not because speaking it would reveal it. Others open their mouths, knowing that their words fall far short, and are only relative truths, metaphors, symbols that point at the truth. Yet others might think that the words they put to their experience are just as certain as the experience itself. This can be damaging, because the words can thereafter become dogmatic and detached from the life-transforming experience itself, which is ultimately beyond words. Some mystics and groups of followers can become so sure of the words and symbols that have been used to describe the divine/sacred in their tradition that they forget the experience from which they were derived, and begin to focus solely on their particular doctrines, principles, teachings, parables, metaphors, narratives, rituals, symbols, etc. As one mystic said, “they draw near to [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [God], they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
How could religious people mistake their words in this way? This might be because the experiences can seem so overwhelmingly powerful, objective, and real (the noetic quality), that when the mystic translates their experience into words, the words can take on that same sense of objectiveness and reality, the same certainty that was felt during the experience. What they may not realize is that their description is an interpretation and translation of experience, not the experience itself, and is therefore fallible and uncertain. It is an outward expression of an inward journey that cannot ever be fully explained, but is often painted in words that are known in the mystics’ culture. This may be the cause and source of much confusion, and the incompatible and irreconcilable dogmatism that exists between religious groups who claim that their particular expression of divine truth is the one and only correct one, and all others are mistaken. A better position might be found in the Rig Veda which has this line: “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” Just as white light may be refracted through a prism into a myriad of colors, so too none of those individual colors is the white light, but only a particular expression from the white light.
Harris and Pollan discuss this issue of the problems inherent in ineffability, and Pollan notes how he had to catch himself in his writing for his book, and even form a new style of writing, in which would assert certain qualities about his experiences, but then walk them back immediately after. Many historical and modern-day mystics often do this too, and sometimes sound as if they are contradicting themselves because of it. In Taoism, for instance, it is stated that “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Such names, words, terms, are all symbols, and point at truth, but are not that truth in and of themselves. Mistaking the names, words, terms, symbols, and images as the ultimate truth has sometimes been termed idolatry, or a corruption of true worship, even apostasy. This is also why I put a disclaimer on my About page, noting how I cannot tell the absolute truth on this website, because that truth can only be experienced.
I think in the coming years we will gradually open up more in our discussions and conversations surrounding these substances, and many other ways of altering consciousness, which seem to be very much a part of spiritual/mystical experiences, and the origins of the traditional religions. Only in this way, I perceive, can we come to reconcile the meaning of religion, and hopefully fashion environments in which these ineffable experiences can safely and beneficially take place for the good of all people.
For those interested in spiritual and mystical experiences, and their relationship to religion, and how changes in states of mind are involved in these experiences, I highly recommend this discussion between Harris and Pollan. Although they don’t talk much about religion specifically, much of what they say I think is directly applicable.

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