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What LSD, mushrooms, and toad venom taught Michael Pollan about spirituality

Michael Pollan poses for a portrait at Lamont Library at Harvard University on September 10, 2019. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

The smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad is “the Everest of psychedelics,” Michael Pollan was told. The moment he lifted the pipe to his lips and inhaled its vaporized crystals, he felt a roaring rush of energy filling his head—and terror, as if everything that he had been was no more. “That was not a very happy experience,” says Pollan, who was exposed to LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychedelics while researching his latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

It was not enough for Pollan to experience his own apparent disintegration; he also had to bring his readers along with him. It was a quantum leap for a man, and a (not quite) indescribable passage for a journalist. In the book, he compares his encounter with the toad to the Big Bang in reverse: Rushing backward through fourteen billion years, I watched the dimensions of reality collapse one by one until there was nothing left, not even being. Only the all-consuming roar. This was followed, to his relief, by an equal and opposite reaction.

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