How Does a Writer Put a Drug Trip Into Words?
by Micheal Pollan
December 24. 2018
Other resources: Annotated Summary of How to Change Your Mind by Micheal Pollan
Soon after I set out to write a book about psychedelics, it became obvious what I would have to do: Trip, and then write about what it was like. True, I could have relied on the testimony of others, but that seemed less than satisfying. Ever since the 11-year-old me read George Plimpton’s account of playing football in “Paper Lion” (1966), I’ve believed that the most absorbing way to convey an experience is to have it yourself and then try to describe it from the inside. Best of all is to have it yourself for the first time, which is the only time the comprehensive wonder of any experience is available to us.
But while it may have been obvious that I would have to trip in order to write “How to Change Your Mind,” it wasn’t at all obvious how I would write about that experience, one often described as, well, indescribable. William James famously wrote that mystical experience — perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip — is “ineffable”: beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them. Boring readers was another worry. Perhaps the second closest analogue of a psychedelic journey is the dream, and there is no surer way to drive people off — even your loved ones! — than to tell them your dreams. I’d also read enough “trip reports” online and in books to be acutely aware of the literary risks — what Arthur Koestler, a skeptic after his own psychedelic experiments, described as “pressure-cooker mysticism” and “cosmic schmaltz.”
As I began to write my book, the accounts of my trips loomed up ahead like a range of tall, possibly insurmountable peaks. And matters only got worse when I began having the trips I intended to recount, a series of guided psychedelic journeys on a variety of different chemicals, including LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and a substance called 5-MeO-DMT. This last one, which is ingested by smoking the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, was, I’d been told by a friend, “the Everest of psychedelics,” a trip she promised would obliterate not only all sense of self (as many psychedelics can do) but also all reference points of time and space. How do you possibly construct a narrative without the essential ingredients of person, time and place? What’s left?
Taking notes during my journeys proved futile. I couldn’t summon the will, and the very effort seemed like a violation of my guides’ first commandment, which was to surrender to the experience. So instead I asked them to write down anything I might say. This yielded a handful of mostly useless notes, consisting of vague superlatives like “Spectacular!” or gnomic utterances like “I don’t want to be so stingy with my feelings.” The evening after each journey I spent several hours transcribing everything I could remember, which on psychedelics is a lot. I produced 10 to 15 single-spaced pages in which I tried to render the images, sensations, insights, events and appearances (of people and places) as literally as I could, resisting the urge to interpret, comment, assess or otherwise shape.
When it came time to write the travelogue section of the book, I reread those files with a sinking feeling. Here was a detailed transcript of a stream of consciousness, but a hopelessly anarchic one liable to reverse course without notice, splash wildly, overflow its banks and then simply vanish, circling down a gyre of nothingness. I wasn’t sure I could make sense of its contents, let alone someone less invested in the workings of my mind. I did find some striking images in my notes — being trapped head-to-toe in a black steel cage, watching a vine snake its way up the bars to reach the sun and realizing “a plant can’t be caged” — but what in the world did these images mean, if anything? And some of the profundities I’d recorded in the immediate aftermath of the experience — such as the supreme importance of love, an epiphany I’d had on LSD — now seemed embarrassingly thin, platitudes best suited to a Hallmark card. I was reminded of an experience Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. had on ether, in which he discovered, and managed to write down, “the one great truth which underlies all human experience.” His notes, which he’d struggled to jot down in his drugged state, read: “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”
Now, there are two ways to regard such an observation. The first is obvious, at least to our sober selves: as risible proof of the emptiness of chemically mediated “insight.” O.K., fair enough. But might it be worth our while at least to try to imagine a mental state in which the smell of turpentine actually explains something? A state in which all our metaphysical ideas simply dissolve in the presence of overpowering sensory experience? That, it seems to me, is something for which the smell of turpentine is a decent metaphor.
What I realized, reading over my own dubious epiphanies, is that there is an inside and an outside to a psychedelic experience, and that one way to write about it would be to honor both perspectives more or less simultaneously. I wouldn’t take sides, in other words, but would instead attempt to cultivate a measure of intellectual generosity, a kind of negative capability, toward my mental doings, however bizarre, and at the same time frankly acknowledge the reader’s skepticism, which in fact I shared. I would be of two minds. (This is a little like the memoirist, who recounts the naïveté of her younger self from the more knowing perspective of the grown-up author. But here it is not time but type of consciousness that separates the two voices.)
So when I got to my LSD epiphany about the supreme importance of love, following a series of encounters with my wife and son in which I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their existence, I paused in the narrative to reflect on the problem at hand, dilating on the delicate line between profundity and banality. I confessed to the reader that the nakedness of the emotions I was describing, undefended against the pitiless glare of irony, made them embarrassing to write about. Irony was certainly an option, à la Koestler’s cosmic schmaltz. But while irony might have protected me from ridicule, it wouldn’t have been faithful to what I had felt and experienced — which had the power of a revealed truth.
What do you do with an insight like “love is everything”? I wondered aloud. “Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude?” No, I decided: “A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To resaturate 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.”
So in the end I did take sides, crediting the psychedelic experience rather than my abashed sober self’s take on it, but not before nodding to the reader’s doubts about my reliability (or sanity). Perhaps a more sure-footed writer would have stuck to his psychedelic guns, remaining inside the visionary logic of the experience, but when I tried to write it that way, the narrative lost all friction, making it impossible for anyone but a mystic or psychonaut or ardent New Ager to grab hold of it.
Once I had worked out this double stance, moving back and forth between the interiority of psychedelic consciousness and the ironies of ordinary consciousness, scenes I had approached with dread became great fun to write. For a journalist accustomed to working within the tight box of checkable facts, constructing a narrative from the pure productions of my imagination was liberation itself. I had passed beyond the reach of the fact checker and felt a bit like I imagine a novelist does transcribing her waking dream. Whenever I got to a place in my journey that flirted with implausibility or took me beyond the bounds of grammar or language, I simply turned to the reader, much like an actor breaking the fourth wall, and frankly acknowledged the narrative pickle in which we found ourselves.
Perhaps the trickiest of these passages came during a psilocybin trip when I experienced the complete dissolution of my ego. All at once I had burst into a sheaf of paper slips, no bigger than Post-its, that were being scattered to the wind. Yet there was still an “I” observing this seeming catastrophe, a paradox I couldn’t explain but needed to address.
So who was this other I? “Good question,” I wrote, turning once again to the reader. “It wasn’t me, exactly. Here, the limits of language become a problem: In order to completely make sense of the divide that had opened up in my perspective, I would need a whole new first-person pronoun.” And then, having acknowledged the squishy new terrain of identity onto which we had stepped, I went on to characterize this “bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. … There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.”
Multiplying my authorial persona — or was I dividing it? — in this way allowed me to capture at least some of the paradoxicality and sheer weirdness of the psychedelic experience as no single, stable narrator could hope to do. By this point in my story there were three distinct “I’s” telling it: the voyager reporting from inside the experience; the I who observes that first-person poof into Post-its (who is also “inside” the experience but at a remove); and, finally, the “outside” narrator who, acutely aware of just how crazy this all sounds and of the demands he is making of the reader, tries to assure her that it is only the limitations of language that make it hard to see there’s something here worth taking seriously. The acknowledgment of doubt is precisely what allows us to suspend it.
My desire to orient the reader at all is itself a narrative choice, and one that not all writers who’ve attempted to limn the psychedelic experience regard as fair play. The two authors who taught me the most about psychedelic narratives were Aldous Huxley and Henri Michaux. The fact that you’re probably familiar with one and not the other reflects the radically different strategies they employed in their respective books, “The Doors of Perception” and “Miserable Miracle,” both published in the mid-1950s. As it happens, both books are accounts of mescaline trips that the authors took just a few years apart. But there the similarities end.
“The Doors of Perception” is a seamless, confident, elegantly written travelogue of a psychedelic journey that the author found astonishing but entirely comprehensible. Its evocations of an altered state of consciousness are lovely, especially in their visual detail, but on reflection perhaps a tad too lovely: You come away with the feeling that the experience conformed to expectation, and served to illustrate a metaphysics already in place. By the time he wrote the book, Huxley had developed his “perennial philosophy” — the idea that there is a common core of mystical insight at the root of all religions — and his encounter with a divine “Mind at Large” on mescaline confirms him in that belief. His notion that ordinary consciousness functions as a “reducing valve,” a kind of mental filter that restricts our access not only to the divine but to reality as it really is, was not so much inspired as vindicated by the experience. Thus, the chemical flung open the doors of perception, so that when he gazed upon a small vase of flowers, he was able to see “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation — the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
To read “The Doors of Perception” is to feel a powerful mind at work, proposing a sturdy set of metaphors — the reducing valve, the mind at large, naked existence, etc. — in order to corral and domesticate the wilds of psychedelic experience. Huxley’s metaphors have influenced all who have followed him; it’s hard to find a trip report written after 1955 that is completely innocent of his interpretation, especially its flavor of Eastern mysticism.
Henri Michaux, the Belgian-born French poet and artist (1899-1984), is a far more esoteric writer, a man allergic to the comforts of certainty — or for that matter, sense. In recounting his mescaline experiences, Michaux took the opposite tack, refusing the offer of metaphor to make sense of an experience he believed was beyond the power of words to convey. In “Miserable Miracle,” he promised to be “attentive to what’s going on — as it is — without trying to deform it and imagine it otherwise in order to make it more interesting to me.” Or more comprehensible to his readers: The book is intermittently brilliant but for long stretches completely unreadable.
“I had no longer any authority over words,” Michaux writes at one point. “I no longer knew how to manage them. Farewell to writing!” And in fact there come moments in his narrative (if that’s the word for it) where Michaux forsakes writing altogether in favor of drawing, filling pages with abstract patterns of lines meant to convey qualities of an experience — particularly its nonlinearity and velocity — beyond language’s reach.
Michaux’s example was very much on my mind as I sought to render my most challenging trip: smoking the toad. Within seconds of drawing the vapor into my lungs, I felt as though a Category 5 mental storm had blown through my head, obliterating every familiar point of reference: self, then time and finally matter. How do you construct a narrative in the absence of those cozy coordinates of reality? How, in other words, do you capture the experience without doing violence to it? It might not be possible: If the nature of the experience is utter mental chaos, then to choose any word or offer any metaphor — even “mental hurricane” — in an effort to convey something about it is to break faith with the truth of it, a violation of its sheer senselessness.
There is something to admire about Michaux, his perverse integrity in refusing the consolation of metaphor and ignoring the hunger of his readers for meaning. To him, metaphor, description, interpretation are all crutches — and what good are crutches when there is no floor? But where does that leave the poor reader? With an utterly impenetrable text, something more like my notes than the account I finally published.
My notes on the toad did exhibit some of Michaux’s incoherence, though even in that initial attempt at fashioning an account I found myself reaching helplessly for metaphor. Looking back, this impulse began during the experience, when I felt a sensation of “explosive flight,” as if I were strapped to the outside of a rocket shuddering through successive layers of clouds until it had passed beyond the reach of gravity.
From my notes: “I was aware that I was forming those words and the thoughts that preceded them, but for a time even that became impossible — my sense of awareness broke into fragments and flew away and there was just pure sensation — mental sensation, not physical, because I had already left my body. The chaos in my brain externalized into a chaos in the universe. The realm of space we were in was pure chaos — pre-Big Bang, the time before Genesis, void without form or order, the world before it was the world.”
In writing my account of the toad trip, I can see now that I was charting a path between Huxley’s Scylla of neat interpretation (I had none to offer) and Michaux’s Charybdis of incoherence. But even though the anarchy of my experience bore a closer resemblance to Michaux’s, it seemed to me that to give up on language and metaphor, inadequate to the experience though they might be, would constitute a breach with my reader, who had already come some distance with me in my psychedelic journeying. Could I now abandon the reader in order to preserve some ideal of literary integrity?
In the end I organized my account of the toad trip around those two metaphors: the rocket and the Big Bang. I’m not suggesting these are such great metaphors, but they were the first to come to mind as consciousness reknitted itself once the effects of the toad venom began to fade. The mind will not tolerate mental chaos for very long. Indeed, this is one of the most interesting aspects of psychedelic experience: how it allows you to observe the mind in real time as it imposes form — a metaphor, a hallucination, a pattern — on the anarchy of thought and sensation that the molecules incite.
Yet I didn’t want to leave the impression that any metaphor could “capture” the experience, so I broke the fourth wall once again to explain all this, admitting to the reader that while metaphors “inevitably deform the experience … they at least allow me to grasp hold of a shadow of it and, perhaps, share it.” And then, after likening the beginning of the trip to riding a rocket strapped to the fuselage, the G-forces pulling my face down in a taut grimace as the great cylinder crashes through successive layers of clouds with a punishing roar, I say simply:
“It was a little like that.”
Only a little. Because that’s all it was and the best I could manage — my feeble attempt to evoke a realm beyond words or sense. I doubt either Michaux or Huxley would approve of my approach of offering up imperfect metaphors accompanied by disclaimers, but at least it allowed me to construct a rough analogue of an experience that remains ineffable.
I might lack Huxley’s confidence about what my psychedelic experience means, yet I have somewhat more confidence than Michaux does in our ability to share the contents of our consciousness with others — and psychedelic experience is just an extreme case of the more general problem. This is the power of metaphors: They can take us places that simple words alone can’t, even when they’re subject to qualification by their authors. Who knows exactly what it means to say, “It was like the universe before the Big Bang”? (Who remembers the Big Bang, much less what came before it?) Such a metaphor is less a description of anything than an invitation: to imagine a time before time, a point before there was anything at all, before being itself — an invitation, in other words (in no words!), to go on a little trip of your own.
Michael Pollan is the author, most recently, of “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”