Early this year, I read the book “How to Change Your Mind,” by Michael Pollan, about psychedelic drugs, which are finding a place in the medical world to treat addictions such as smoking, alcoholism, and some forms of mental illness.
In the 2020 elections, Oregon passed a law legalizing the use of psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) for treatment purposes. The law creates “legal access to psilocybin assisted services to any individual over 21 years of age, upon passing a risk assessment for contraindications. Psilocybin assisted services will be provided on-site at a licensed facility by a licensed facilitator. The service progression would include, at minimum, a preparation session, a psilocybin administration session, and an integration session. All sessions would be conducted by trained facilitators.”
I found Pollan’s book fascinating – not enough to cause me to plan an acid trip, but it was a very engaging, well-written book.
I found his thoughts on mindfulness (being in the present moment) and habits compelling.
Pollan acknowledges the importance of our ability to remember our past and imagine a future. “…we define ourselves with reference to our personal history and future objectives.” He goes on to write about the other side of that ability. “Mental time travel is constantly taking us off the frontier of the present moment. This can be highly adaptive; it allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. But when time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward-looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety.”
On habits, Pollan writes:
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we are confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner… If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over… This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt.”
“The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment.… One of the things that commend travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful – wonder being the byproduct of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight… to which the adult brain has closed itself.”
Way back in 2012, I took an “Intro to Meditation” class and wrote about a homework assignment of practicing mindful eating. Specifically, we were asked to take at least three mindful bites at each meal.
The morning after I received the mindful-eating assignment, I filled up my bowl of cereal and sat down to eat more mindfully. At that moment, I realized I would have to give up a habit I had long resisted changing: reading the newspaper with my breakfast.
The mechanical function of eating is so ingrained in us, so automatic, that it’s one of the few things we can do the same time we are doing something else. In this case, I was doing a good enough job reading (I wasn’t going to be tested on what I read in the paper, I tend to skim it for pleasure and because I like to be up on general goings-on in the world), and I was successfully taking in the food my body needed. But the goal of eating more mindfully helped to remind me there is no such thing as multi-tasking—instead, we are jumping back and forth between the two activities, doing neither well. In this case, I wasn’t eating well because I wasn’t eating mindfully.
If I had been asked before that experience, I would have said the reason I ate while reading the paper was my sense of rushing to work in the morning. By bringing awareness to this long-time habit, I realized that was not entirely the case because I was also eating and reading on weekends—I was reading while eating primarily because it was habit, a routine created more than 40 years ago, and reinforced nearly every day since.
I also timed myself slowly eating a bowl of cereal and learned that doing so was about a five-minute activity. And while every minute can seem important when you need to get out of the house in the morning, I knew I could fit in five minutes of mindful eating and still have time for the newspaper. (Timing things to question my assumptions has been a strategy I have used more than once. For example, I timed a traffic light near my house and found it only stayed red for one minute. While I would prefer for it to be green, I now know if it’s red when I arrive it’s only going to be red for one minute, which has helped me to stop saying to myself, “Why does this light last forever?”)
Cutting the newspapers out of my breakfast routine was surprisingly easy. I was still reading paper editions of the news and quickly got into the habit of not bringing the papers in from the driveway until after I finished my cereal. And the absence of the papers acted as a valuable trigger to remind me about my homework assignment—to eat more mindfully, specifically at least three bites during each meal.
In my youngest days, before I started reading the paper over breakfast, my brother and sister and I (like so many other kids) would read cereal boxes—the backs, the fronts, the sides—so much so that I practically memorized the ingredients. To make sure I didn’t revert to my childhood habit in the absence of the newspapers, I made sure not to bring the cereal boxes to the table. Amazingly, a couple of days into newspaper-less breakfasts, I realized I was reading the milk carton!
Habits are hard to change, especially long-ingrained ones. That’s why we can rarely make a change instantly. Knowing it takes 21 days to form a habit allows you to not beat yourself up over the inevitable slippage.
Mindfulness is an ingredient in the habit-change process. And habit change helps us to be mindful, rather than simply moving through the world on auto-pilot. But too much reliance on habits can inhibit mindfulness. The synergy between mindfulness and habit change means it’s important to be aware of both.