One of the joys of being a compulsive reader is finding resonances between books I’m reading concurrently. If I’m cynical about this phenomenon, it’s part confirmation bias and part “nothing new under the sun.” (As the old saw from my MA in English goes, “All stories can be reduced to Man v. Man, Man v. Nature, or Man v. Himself.”)
But the joyful part of me loves these moments that stick out–these echoes back and forth between disparate books–because I believe firmly they’re signs of what the Buddha would have called “Right Path.” Like those red, white, and blue shields alongside the interstate that let you know you didn’t, in fact, make a wrong turn at Albuquerque, resonance tells me I’ve found books that are aligned not just with each other, but with me, too. (As another old saw goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”)
So the books I’m reading at the moment are Michael Pollan’s fascinating look at the clinical history and use of psychedelics called How to Change Your Mind, and the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) how-to book, Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Yes, both books deal with the mind (in absence of actual cancer in my body to focus on, I’ve got to deal with the stress in my head somehow). So therein lies a lot of potential for resonance, simply because, well, it’s just Man v. Himself, isn’t it? (Or in this case, Woman v. Herself.) People have used both psychedelics and meditation to literally change their minds for millennia. But while one of the books is a history of the clinical use of magic mushrooms and LSD in the US, the other is effectively a self-help book based on Buddhist vipassana meditation practice. They’re not even shelved in the same spot in Barnes & Noble, let alone my local library (615.788P and 155.9042K, respectively, if you’re curious).
Yet here is a paragraph from How to Change Your Mind, in which Pollan quotes a widow talking about her husband’s eventual death from cancer, long after his experience with magic mushrooms in a clinical trial:
“‘It was a good death,’ Lisa told me, a fact she credits to the people at NYU and to Patrick’s psilocybin journey. ‘I feel indebted to them for what they allowed him to experience—the deep resources they allowed him to tap into. These were his own deep resources. That, I think, is what these mind-altering drugs do.’” HTCYM P. 358
And here is a paragraph from Full Catastrophe Living, in which Jon Kabat-Zinn describes the reaction the patients at his MBSR clinic often have after completing their intensive eight week training:
“Usually people leave the program thanking us for their improvement. But actually the progress they make is entirely due to their own efforts. What they are really thanking us for is the opportunity to get in touch with their own inner strength and resources, and also for believing in them and not giving up on them, and for giving them the tools for making such transformations possible.” FCL, introduction P. lix
If I were grading these paragraphs in a stack of essays from a freshman rhet/comp class, I’d check right quick to see if these two authors were roommates. Switch one POV, and change the fact of someone dying to someone living instead. That’s it. Other than those two changes, these are effectively the same paragraph. And when you factor in the extended chapters of Pollan writing about the “transformations” people effect on their own lives after being guided by clinicians through the use of psychedelics (as just another “tool” of psychotherapy), well…
Amusingly, I’m managing to make this sound like an indictment of some sort. Maybe it’s just the cynic in me. Maybe all human stories really can be reduced to nonsense. Or maybe three years was too long a time for me to be an English teacher. 😀 But somehow I don’t think so. I think both paths–the psychedelic and the vipassana–have great promise when used properly, when the path is followed with heart.
Those who know me well know how rarely I quote Scripture (unless it’s in sarcasm or jest). But Jesus had a thought about following a difficult path with heart, too, and said, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” He was offering a vision of comfort and sufficiency to his followers, despite his death. I think it’s a good thing that paths as varied as psychedelics and vipassana can also offer comfort, sufficiency, and a mental transformation toward living no matter when the dying. When I read resonances like these two paragraphs, it gives me the unexpected joy of finding two paths vibrating to the same note, like one tuning fork humming when a similar one is struck. It tells me that there are indeed many paths to follow through life–many mansions in the Universe’s house–and they’ll all have heart if I bring mine along for the ride.