“Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
How do you become happy? Is it a choice that you make, simply to take life as it comes, screw on your head straight, and just be happy? Or is happiness a by-product of success – an after “oh, well look at that, I’m happy” phenomenon? What does a consistently happy and peaceful person actually look like? Do I live among them? Is it even possible to be happy, consistently, given the day to day sufferings inherent to life – the fact that we get sick, break our bones and our hearts, all the while loved ones are dying around us, and in but a blink of the timescale of man, we too will soon join them death? School didn’t teach us how to become happy and well adjusted – it taught us to work – so where next does one look for these answers?
These are the sorts of “perennial questions” one asks themselves in the middle of an ego-filled existential crisis, particularly one which comes during one of life’s pivotal transition periods. As Carl Rogers mused in On Becoming A Person, “I cannot help but puzzle over the meaning of what I observe.” To ask the great philosophical questions – “What is my goal in life?” “What do I strive for?” “What is the meaning of my life?” – that’s just what I do. It’s just the way my brain is wired, so I play along, and try to ride out each crisis as it comes, and I hope to learn something along the way.
Continue reading How to do what you love, and why it’s so fucking hard.
It must be incredibly difficult to imagine the maddening reality of living with a mental illness for someone who has never experienced it first hand. We all feel blue from time to time, but few ever experience the debilitating inability to feel joy, constant fatigue, and mind-numbing impediment of thought accompanied by major depressive disorder. William Styron once described it as being attached to a bed of nails which one carries around wherever they go, and in my experience this is strikingly accurate.
Yet for all its unpleasantness the noonday demon seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Darwin’s legacy was that evolutionary pressures shape not only our physical characteristics but our mental and behavioural processes as well. This being the case, how is it that an illness characterized by a myriad of symptoms so obviously detrimental to evolutionary fitness – decreased cognitive function, a loss of interest in sex, socializing, and exercise, not to mention suicide – has persisted?
Not only has depression not been wiped out through the course of natural selection, it is now – and I believe rightly so – considered an epidemic. The global burden of depression is soaring; the latest estimates by the World Health Organization place the global prevalence of depression at three hundred and fifty million worldwide , and in the last forty five years alone the annual rate of suicide has increased by sixty percent . Despite our best efforts in the development of behavioural therapy, pharmacological treatment, and psychological theory the depression epidemic shows no signs of letting up. We are losing the fight against depression.
Continue reading Evolutionary Psychology Offers A Fresh Perspective On Depression
“Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious. There is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is far from clear how to reconcile it with everything else we know.”
– David J. Chalmers
WE ARE ALL intimately familiar with that voice in our heads, nagging as we reach for a second helping of chocolate eggs in the wake of Easter, and judging as we have to settle for a looser belt hole a week later. We are all also accustomed to the different masks we wear in various social situations. I would be ruthlessly mocked could my close friends see the way I behave around my girlfriend, snuggled on the couch on a Sunday night, and my parents would be hard pressed to recognize me. But this apparent discontinuity is a perfectly normal aspect of human existence – psychologists have long known that situation exerts a significant influence on personality – and I have never experienced anything which would seem to indicate that there was more than one self calling the inside of my skull home. As a matter of conscious experience, I am just as much me whilst goofing around with my girlfriend as I am typing this essay and sipping green tea. But am I really? As a result of a fascinating avenue of inquiry involving patients who have had the hemispheres of their brain surgically separated, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have begun to argue that there is every reason to believe in the divisibility of consciousness – the existence of a separate centre of consciousness in each of the divided hemispheres – and you and I might not be as different to these patients as we think.
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – René Descartes
“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” – Voltaire
THE UNIQUE THING about psychedelics is that they provide the user with direct access to subjective realms so inconceivable to “normal” waking consciousness. These altered states, emphatically, seem to catalyse a transition towards “abnormal” or “alternative” lifestyles and belief structures. Turns out that turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is decidedly incompatible with modern Western neo-libertarianism, but psychedelics might be just the tool we need to counter the ever growing threat of consumerism in Western society.
So I ask you to suspend your disbelief, at least for the duration of this article, as you imagine that everything you thought you knew about drugs was wrong. Studies in behavioural economics and cognitive science have taught us that our realities are shaped to fit our belief systems and cognitive biases, whilst the mass social experiments conducted by Edward Bernays in the wake of the First World War taught us that “public relations” (the politically correct term for propaganda) could subtly but powerfully mould the collective mind of the population to fit with the ideals of a select few individuals. Do you see the problem? Individuals are slowly but surely losing control over the one thing that can be truly be called theirs – their minds – and this process is so immersive that we need an incredibly powerful tool to undo the processes. Psychedelics are just that tool.
Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head examines how certain substances, held in such high esteem throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, are not only repressed but ridiculed in contemporary Western culture.The use of psychedelics is documented to date back 75,000 years throughout indigenous shamanic cultures, where they are revered as sacred technology, awakening the mind to new levels of awareness. Shamanic use continues today in secluded pockets of the world where visionary plants are worshiped like gods; their use and the knowledge they convey constantly challenged by the encroachment of Western ideals.
Breaking Open the Head is part seeker’s memoir, part psychonaut’s field guide, and part anthropological investigation into the world’s shamanic cultures, and it makes a compelling argument for the role of psychedelic awakening in global change.
Continue reading Altered States: The Psychedelic Antidote to Modern Culture, A Review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head