As the year is drawing to an end and a new cycle of life is waiting to be born, most of us feel like taking some time to reflect on the past twelve months, with all their learnings, wins and losses, fulfilled intentions and perhaps broken dreams, with all of their experiences which, in hindsight, seem to way more meaningful than they appear when we were actually living through them. The last days of the year are the perfect time to gather all the little bits and pieces of wisdom that may have enriched our lives and store them somewhere safe, like precious seeds that may give birth to new, wiser, kinder, more conscious versions of ourselves in the year to come.
I could not part ways with 2018 if I didn’t stop to pay tribute to the books that have touched my life this year. Books that made me think, that challenged and helped expand my view of the world, that opened up whole new universes of feeling and understanding and helped me grow as a human being. These are books that got me reflecting and the books that got me crying - sometimes both at the same time. There are several readings that I found transformational this past year, but three books in particular stood out, so I am sharing them with you, in no particular order. I hope that, if you haven’t read them yet, you might include them on your list for 2019 and that they bring you at least as much inspiration as they brought me.
This is what Boston Globe had to say about the book: “Pollan’s deeply researched chronicle will enlighten those who think of psychedelics chiefly as a kind of punchline to a joke about the Woodstock generation and hearten the growing number who view them as a potential antidote to our often stubbornly narrow minds....engaging and informative.”
This is exactly what I felt while turning page after page of this incredibly well written, engaging book and and marvelling at the way this highly respected science writer bravely went out of his rationalist comfort zone to explore a topic that many still scoff at as “hippy” or “New Age”. Pollan takes the reader on a riveting, extremely well researched journey into the science and history of psychedelics, all the while interspersing the objectiveness of the journalist with the very personal and vulnerable experience of a man who, not without some trepidation, decided to travel across the US, trying different mind altering substances and candidly reporting back his experiences.
We get a glimpse into a revolution that began with Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery, in 1943, of the Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) - a molecule extracted from the ergot fungus - a fungus that often infected cereals. Hoffman never envisaged LSD as a drug with the potential to be used for hedonic purposes, but rather as an incredibly helpful substance in the treatment of different psychiatric disorders. By the end of the 50’s, over 40000 participants had taken part in clinical trials involving psychedelics (a class of substances that is clearly differentiated from other drugs - like stimulants or opioids) in major universities across the US. Over 1000 peer reviewed papers had been written on their positive effects. They were being used, among other things, in the treatment of alcohol and nicotine addictions, depression and in enhancing the quality of life of terminally ill patients. Apparently, after an experience with these substances, patients got a glimpse into a different level of consciousness. Many of them had what could only be described as mystical experiences from which they came back with a sense of peace, interconnectedness and an increased appreciation for nature and other people and a motivation to bring a positive contribution in the world. Fascinatingly enough, terminally ill patients tended to lose their fear of death after an experience with LSD and spent their final months or days in peace. Take in the right therapeutic setting, they seemed to have a positive effect on people’s level of consciousness and general wellbeing and the effects tended to preserve over time even if the patient had had just one experience with the substance.
The present stigma around psychedelics started in the 60’s, when these drugs (most notable LSD, psilocybin, DMT and mescaline) found their way out of university research labs and started being used by the masses as recreational drugs. Pollan asserts that the widespread use of LSD and other psychedelics in the the 60s in the US might have had a lot to do with the ensuing civil rights movement, anti-war movement and an almost seismic shift in the mindsets of Americans. The effects were so powerful that they led to a backlash and to the ultimate stigmatisation and interdiction of these substances at the end of the 60s.
Fast forward 50 more years and Pollan introduces the reader to a new generation of researchers who are starting to slowly (and this time much more carefully and responsibly) investigate the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. In 2006 the first study on psychedelics was published by Roland Griffiths, a researcher at John Hopkins university. In his review of Pollan’s book, Benjamin Bell, himself a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, writes:
The study focused on “psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), demonstrating with scientific rigor its ability to induce “mystical experiences” with long-lasting life benefits to their volunteers. Many of these subjects reported the experience was among the “most meaningful” of their lives, and months later find themselves happier and open, changed forever.
The success of this study turned the research trickle into a flow. Griffiths is now involved in experiments at multiple institutions besides Hopkins (NYU, UCLA), picking up the torch of psychedelic research from where it was prematurely halted and demonstrating to modern scientific standards how valuable therapeutically-guided psychedelic experiences can be for a range of disorders, from sufferers of addiction to those faced with the existential distress of a terminal diagnosis.
Psychedelics are still illegal and culturally stigmatized, but there appears to be change on the horizon. Driven primarily by the accumulation of hard-won evidence that these drugs are both safe and helpful for the sick and well alike, people’s minds are changing, and cultural acceptance may follow closely behind.
Pollan bravely takes us into a series of fascinating interviews with many of the people who are now at the fore-front of this kind of research. We get to meet scientists who were brave enough to navigate the fine line between science and spirituality and to approach with the tools of science a topic - human consciousness - that, until recently, was left to realms of religion and mysticism and some substances which still bear a heavy stigma. We discover trained therapists who have taken the risk to include psychedelics into their practice, even if they need to operate underground. Most fascinatingly, we are invited to witness Pollan’s own journey from skepticism to curiosity and finally to openness to something that he accepts might be a true mystery worth exploring.
From his journey, a series of very deep questions are born: What is the nature of human consciousness? Is our “normal” view of reality truly “normal” or might there be more ways to experience the world and more layers of reality than we have ever thought possible? How come these substances, all of them derived from nature - from mushrooms, fungi or plants - have such a powerful effect on human consciousness and why have all ancient cultures across the globe used them from immemorial times? Is it possible that the life-changing mystical experience is actually accessible to every human being and if yes, what might the benefits of this be for people’s individual wellbeing and, ultimately, for humanity as a whole? Is it possible the psychedelics hold some key to the epidemic of depression that is sweeping the globe? How might they be used wisely and responsibly as a force for good in a world that seems to be ever more crushed under the burden of separation, conflict and fear?
Pollan gives us some glimpses into possible answers to these questions, but, most of all, manages to raise new ones. This book is a tantalising glimpse into a completely different way of looking at the human mind and at the relationship between humans and the rest of ecosystems on our planet. I hope you approach it with an open, healthily skeptical but equally curious mind. And I am pretty sure it will shake you and enrich you in ways you might not expect.
2. “Belonging - Remembering ourselves home” by Toko-Pa Turner
It is very hard to write about this book because, perhaps more than any other book I have ever read, I perceived it as an experience onto itself, one that can only be lived and is very hard to put into words. Toko-Pa Turner is an award winning Canadian writer and dream worker who brings together the Jungian approach to dreams with the Sufi mystical tradition. This book felt, literally, like balm for the wounded soul. It is a book about the global ailment of not belonging in a world in which people are ever more interconnected and yet ever more estranged from each other.
It is a book about relationships - those with our parents, our friends, our spouses and, most importantly, with ourselves. Toko-Pa has a unique style of writing - it is prose but somehow feels like poetry. Never before have I felt in such awe of a writer’s mastery of language and metaphor. I sometimes had the feeling that words Toko-Pa’s words flow like honey - warm, liquid, translucent and sweet. There is a gentleness to her writing, a constant sense of very deep wisdom. Every chapter feels like a gift of reflection - “Why have I never thought of that?”. I lost the count of the number of annotations I made on this book.
She takes you on a journey of exploration of what “belonging” really means - from a physical place, to a family, to certain roles you take in life and, finally, to yourself. She explores the role of suffering, of creativity, of the personal shadow, of the relationship with the outer world (nature) and the inner world (dreams).
I will leave you with one of the many quotes that I have loved from this amazing book and hope you give yourself the gift of reading it. To me that was, in itself, a healing experience.
After all this time searching for a mysterious place in union with others and out in the world, may you find there was a home you’ve always-never known waiting within. Unaware as you may have been, it has gone on chirping and creaking and mutually flourishing, waiting for you to stop seeking and allow yourself to belong.
As you learn to walk with this ever-allowing,ever-allowing, others catch glimpses of their intactness in your mirror. This is the great irony of belonging: that in all your searching for a home of love, it was yours to give away all along. And the real reward of your quest is to fling your doors open and let your life become a shelter of belonging for others.
3. The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski
I am one of the people who believe that consciously reflecting on death while you are young, healthy and with no reasons to expect it soon is one of the best mindfulness practices one can have. Being aware of the impermanence of life, of the inevitability of death is a constant reminder to fully inhabit the “here and now”, to cherish the small things that sometimes get overlooked in the constant daily grind. I have read quite a few books that deal with the topic of death, but none have touched me as much as Frank Ostaseski’s.
“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most.”
He is a Buddhist teacher and the founder of the first Zen Hospice project in the US - a network of centres where people who are living their final days can find comfort, compassion and be accompanied through a dignified ending of their lives. Over the past 30 years, Ostaseski has accompanied thousands of people in their final days. Some have made peace with life and found wisdom in the face of death while others have left the world kicking and screaming. He has been present for them all, witness to their passing and more appreciative of life with every patient he helped over the Big Threshold.
The book is a beautiful mix of autobiography, many life stories of patients whom Frank has watched over and the distilled wisdom of a lifetime of service and learning from the dying. Ostaseski presents us with five lessons for a well-lived life:
Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing
Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience
Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things
Cultivate Don’t Know Mind
He builds the lessons from his lived experiences with the dying and the stories he tells throughout the book are some of the most inspirational I have ever read. I felt taken on a journey into what is, perhaps, the most intimate part of somebody’s life - one’s death - and came on the other side richer, softer, wiser. Ostaseski has managed to take the “creepy” out of death and to present it to us in a different light - as a passing, as a source of wisdom and as an incentive to live more fully.
“If we learn to let go into uncertainty, to trust that our basic nature and that of the world are not different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed becomes, rather than a threat, a liberating opportunity.” Everything will come apart. That is true of our bodies, our relationships, all of life. It is happening all the time, not just at the end when the curtain falls.
Coming together inevitably means parting. Don’t be troubled. This is the nature of life. Our lives are not solid and fixed. Knowing this intimately is how we prepare for death, for loss of any kind, and how we come to fully embrace constant change. We are not just our past; we are becoming. We can release grudges. We can forgive. We can free ourselves of resentment and regret before we die.
Don’t wait. Everything we need is right in front of us. Impermanence is the doorway to possibility. Embracing it is where true freedom lies.”
Do keep a box of tissues nearby while you read this book. You will cry - not tears of sadness - but of revelation.