Germany 6: Munich Part 2 – The Jewish Museum and the Residence Museum

On August 27, our first full day in Munich, we saw two museums that could not have been more different. The first was a spare and dramatic testimony to the enduring presence of Munich’s Jewish community, and a damning record of the many efforts that have, for centuries, been intended to exterminate it. The second was (yet another) lavish demonstration of what happens when powerful people use vast amounts of public money to beautify their personal environments.

Munich’s Jewish Museum

We arrived at Sankt-Jakobs-Platz just as the Saturday morning services at the magnificent Ohel Jakob Synagogue were ending. The synagogue, the museum and a community centre, all completed in the mid-aughts of this century, form a focal point for Munich’s Jewish community. The synagogue stands a few blocks from one that was destroyed in 1938, and while it would be wonderful to think that the kind of thinking that leads to such devastation has been confined to history, that is not the case: in 2003 authorities uncovered a plot by neo-Nazis to bomb the cornerstone ceremony for this new facility, and “security concerns also led to the decision to house a memorial to the more than 4,000 Jews of Munich who were killed in the Holocaust in a tunnel between the synagogue and the community centre” (Wikipedia).

One of the people we chatted with out front of the synagogue observed that it looked like a tefillin box.

Inaugurated in 2007, the Jüdische Museum München is a stunning building with a see-through main floor that features a book/gift shop and a cafe. The permanent exhibition on the lower level is both elegant and moving. It includes an audio installation called Voices, which allows visitors to hear the stories of some of the thousands of Jews who have moved to Munich in the past 200 years. Other installations showcase the accomplishments of Jewish residents of Munich (including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and the lovely objects associated with Jewish rituals and traditions.

Two installations bring home the historically precarious nature of life itself for Munich’s Jews – one a chronology of significant events, another a display created by the renowned comics creator Jordan B. Gorfinkel, a former New Yorker who worked at DC Comics for many years, where he helped to create the Batman series.

The upper levels of the Jewish Museum house temporary exhibitions. One that engaged me for quite a while was called Heidi in Israel. It demonstrates how Johanna Spyri’s 1880 novel – about a young girl who is overwhelmed by loneliness when she is taken away from her grumpy but beloved grandpa and from their home in the Swiss Alps, and sent to work in the city – struck a particular chord with children living in what is now Israel, many of whom were European Jews who were coming to terms not only with homesickness, but with the whole concept of “homeland.” The novel was first translated into Hebrew in 1946, and has appeared in various forms to acclaim in Israel ever since, including as a radio drama and a play. Of course, Heidi is beloved by children everywhere and has been translated into many languages: one of the museum’s guides and I shared a moment when we realized that we had both read and loved the book within a few years of one another – she in Germany, and me in Canada.

I was intrigued to read on Wikipedia that “As an alternative to the mandatory national military service, young Austrians have the opportunity to serve as Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servants at the Jewish Museum Munich.”

Munich’s Residence Museum

The Munich Residenz is the former palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria, who occupied the facility from 1508 to 1918 – i.e., for more than four hundred years. This gave them time to acquire an awful lot of stuff. (Part of the palace was destroyed during World War II, but most of what was bombed has been rebuilt and restored.) It is no surprise to learn that this is the largest city palace in Germany, because it is huge. It includes ten courtyards and 130 rooms, and our feet wore out long before we tired of looking at the profusion of furnishings, artworks and decorations.

These photos depict only a small sample of the treasures on display at the Residenz.

And that was Saturday.

Germany 5: Munich, Part 1 – The Old City, including the Amazing Rathaus

In Munich, I had one of the best surprises of our entire trip. There were many sights and landmarks in Germany that I knew in advance I would like to see (most of which I did), but when we emerged from Munich’s subway system into Marienplatz I experienced a moment of sheer delight that was totally unexpected. As I said on Facebook at the time, it was the closest I’ve come to a spontaneous scream since the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was August 26, and we had arrived at Munich’s massive hauptbahnhof (train station) from Bayreuth mid-afternoon, then rolled (dragged) our suitcases two (long) blocks to our hotel. The Mirabell, at the corner of Goethestrasse and Landwerstrasse, turns out to be located in an area with a lot of Turkish restaurants and shops. After settling into our room, we wandered around the neighbourhood a bit, then decided to take the subway to Marienplatz, the central square in the historical section of Munich. (Munich’s wondrous transit system includes the S-Bahn on the surface, the U-Bahn underground, and a host of connecting trams and buses, most of which meet either at or under the Hauptbahnhof. Everything we wanted to see in Munich was easily accessible from our hotel.)

At the Marienplatz stop, we got off the train and took the escalator up to street level, thinking we would emerge into a plaza with some nice old Bavarian buildings surrounding it. Instead, this was the gasp-inducing sight that greeted us:

Neues Rathaus, Munich

Marienplatz has been the central square of Munich since 1158, and the massive Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has been its prime attraction since 1874. (Parts of the building were damaged in the air raids of 1944 and were rebuilt following the war.) We took dozens of photos of this remarkable neo-Gothic building (of which I will spare you 99%), and when we went back the following day we waited in the square to witness the chiming of the hour from the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. To the great delight of tourists like us, this attraction features figurines that emerge from the central tower three times a day, enacting stories from Bavarian history,

Here’s a short sample of what the glockenspiel looks like in action. The top section depicts a 16th century joust that was held to honour the marriage of a Bavarian duke to a member of the House of Lorraine. The lower section shows coopers “danc[ing] through the streets to ‘bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions’” during a plague in the early 1500s. In 2022, we can easily relate to the need for such distractions.

In addition to the New City Hall, Marienplatz is the site of the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), the Marian column (the pillar you can see in the top photo in front of the Rathaus, with the gold statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of it), and many shops and restaurants. Nearby sights include the Frauenkirche and Peterskirche, neither of which we had time to tour.

The day after our arrival, we took a tram rather than the subway to the Old City. As we walked from the tram stop back to Marienplatz, we came across the Asamkirche, which I’d seen mentioned in my travel guide, and went in to have a look. This late-Baroque style church was built for the private use and “salvation” of its designers, two brothers – a sculptor and a painter. Wikipedia reports (albeit in a statement with no citation) that “Due to public pressure, the brothers were forced to make the church accessible to the public.” I did wonder what sins might have led the brothers to believe that they needed to create such opulent facilities in order to save their souls, but I’ve been unable to find the answer to that question.

Also near Marienplatz is Munich’s Viktualienmarkt where since the 1800s, large crowds of tourists and Münchners have gathered to eat sausages and pretzels and other tempting treats prepared by local vendors, to drink beer and listen to live music, and to purchase fresh meats, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, as well as plants, honey, herbs and spices and a lot of other things.

Germany 4: Bayreuth, Part 2 – The New Palace and the Margravial Opera House

Both of the two amazing Baroque structures we saw in Bayreuth were built at the behest of the Margrave Friederich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1711-1763) and his wife, the Margravine Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 – 1758). Partly due to their extravagant home-decor decisions and partly because of their mid-18th century contributions to opera in Bayreuth, their tenure had a permanent influence on the region.

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a “margrave” is “a military governor of a German province, particularly a border province,” although this seems to be an archaic definition, or “a member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess.” Britannica adds that it is a “ranking in modern times immediately below a duke and above a count, or earl.” I hope that helps.

When his father died, Friederich was unprepared to assume his role as margrave because his father had failed to explain to him what his responsibilities might be. Friederich’s wife, the beloved sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, seems to have intervened to help where she could, simultaneously advancing her own agenda, and between the two of them they managed to build properties of historical interest and significance, support the arts and sciences (he established a regional university and an academy of art), and in general to enhance the reputation of the region (no doubt at the expense of thousands of less fortunate souls who could have put the money to better use).

Das Neues Schloss (The New Palace)

The old palace in Bayreuth burned down in 1753, and this provided an opportunity for Friederich and the Margravine to design and construct the building we toured on our second full day in Bayreuth. Das Neues Schloss, as it is called in German, was constructed to incorporate five existing buildings, which must have presented untold headaches to the architect. (How he executed his assignment – which he had to do on a shoestring on top of everything else because the Margravian couple had already overspent their building budgets on the Bayreuth Opera House and another residence – is engagingly described on German Wikipedia.)

The first floor of this enormous, horseshoe-shaped residence apparently features a comprehensive collection of faience (pottery decorated with coloured glass) and an exhibition entitled “The Margravine’s Bayreuth,” but we did not have an opportunity to see either of these exhibits due to the time of day. We were, however, able to stroll (almost alone) for an extended period through the second floor of the palace, where a significant portion of the baroque excesses that formed the original furnishings and decor have been either preserved or reproduced.

Some of the highlights of the residence’s long series of interconnected rooms include the rococo “Palm Room” and the “Hall of Fractured Mirrors.”

In addition to the wall designs, parqueted floors, decorated ceilings and accoutrements, I was taken with a decidedly undecorative bas relief on the main floor near the entrance to the residence, which has an interesting story attached to it. I think this is how it went:

Either “our” margrave or a previous one had a jester in his employ of whom he was very fond. The jester, a dwarf, was not popular among others in the court due to his barbed wit, and of course he was also the target of animosity because of his physical appearance. Ill-wishers (it is thought) arranged matters so that the jester’s small horse was tripped by a stone and fell, tossing the jester into the street and killing him. The margrave was so sad at this offensive act that he had a plaque made to commemorate the deed.

Bas relief depicting the demise of a favoured jester

The back of the new palace opens onto the long park we’d walked through that morning after visiting the Richard Wagner house.

Given its size and splendour, it is difficult to absorb the fact that the Margrave and Margravine’s visions for their New Palace had to be seriously curtailed because of their previous spending excesses. It is hard to imagine what the place would have looked like if they’d had unlimited resources.

The Margravial Opera House

After leaving the palace, we wandered further through Bayreuth’s lovely Alt Stadt (Old City) before going to find dinner. We had not intended to do any more sight-seeing involving admission fees that day, but when we came upon the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus), a UNESCO site, we learned that you can’t get even a peek inside the actual facility unless you are on a tour or attending a concert. There would be one more tour that afternoon, they said, but it was in German. The attendant offered us a reduced rate since we are German-deficient, and we decided to go for it. We were very glad we did.

Lovely fountain across the street from the Margravial Opera House

Described in the site’s brochure as “one of the most important remaining examples of baroque theatre architecture,” the Margravial Opera House was built in honour of the 1748 wedding of the Margravine’s daughter, Sophie, to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemburg. Wilhemine was very interested in music and she composed, performed, and played several instruments herself. She was also keen to build interest in opera in general and to let the world know how cultured things were in the Bavarian city that was her home: at one point she brought a whole Italian opera troupe to Bayreuth. In the weeks-long celebration of he opening of the opera house and Sophie’s wedding, there were Italian operas, French plays, and banquets.

The opera house in Bayreuth was designed by one of the leading opera theatre architects of the era, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, and Bibiena’s son Carlo supervised construction and then worked at the facility for more than ten years.

To call the decor of the loge theatre “extravagant” would be to seriously understate the matter. There is no way to describe it. As our guide told us various facts in German, we sat in our seats, our heads back, staring open-mouthed at our surroundings. Every square inch of every wall and every bit of ceiling is decorated with wisps of gold and ribbons and cupids and paintings of people and every single bit of the design is probably where it is for a reason. It is a true sight to behold.

The lowered stage curtain is the illustration of an early opera set and gives some sense of what the place must look like when the lights go down.

The Margravial Opera House was extensively restored between 2013 and 2018 (mostly cleaned and brightened, as there was little actual damage) with a goal of preserving its unique beauty well into the future – not to mention its representation of an era where such excess was even thinkable.

The music was a lovely touch.

Germany 3: Bayreuth, Part 1 – The town, and the Wagner Museum

Quiet Charm and Culture

On our first evening in Bayreuth, we walked from our hotel down into the old part of town for dinner. En route, we passed Wahnfried House, where the Wagner Museum is located, and Neues Schloss (New Palace), both of which we would tour two days later. The streets were quiet, wide and cobbled, and even where people had gathered, they seemed to have done so on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. When we took a bus through the downtown area on our way to the concert at the Festspielhaus the following day, we noticed that the central part of Bayreuth looks much more urban than does the older area, but it’s still open and spacious, with a small-town feel.

The population of Bayreuth is 73,000. The town operates, I am guessing, like other single-focus tourism centres like Stratford, Ontario and Park City, Utah, upon which thousands of people from all around the world descend for several weeks each year to enjoy an annual festival ­– filling up all of the hotels and B&Bs, shopping, dining and asking stupid questions (“Why does this bus go this way when I want to go that way?” “Is a German dumpling like an English dumpling?”) then leaving the place in a state of relative peace and quiet for the remainder of the year. Festival attendees must drive the locals in these places nuts, but I’m sure we’re also essential to their municipal bottom lines.

We chose to eat at a popular restaurant named Manns Bräu. The outdoor patio was totally packed, so we sat inside, where we shared a table with a couple who’d come from a town near Cologne to hear the entire Ring Cycle, which started two days later and ran for four nights. They’d been coming to Bayreuth for decades.

Thanks to the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we were able to share our passion for Wagner’s music and our dismay at his antisemitism: all of this over sauerbraten mit sauerblau und Kloß (yes, a lot of sauer there, and a lot of calories), bratwurst, apfelsaft (apple juice) and beer (“What is the German word for lager?”) Sharing tables with strangers is a lovely custom.

On our second day in Bayreuth we attended the Tannhäuser opera that I have written about already, which was quite enough activity for one day. On our third, we toured three of Bayreuth’s cultural offerings, each of which was impressive and totally distinctive.

Haus Wahnfried and the Richard Wagner Museum

As I mentioned in my Tannhäuser post, after considering several options, Richard and Cosima Wagner decided on Bayreuth as the location for Wagner’s opera theatre and their own home, the latter of which they named Haus Wahnfried. (Wikipedia tells us that the name is a compound of the German words for delusion or madness [Wahn] and peace, freedom [Fried]. The inscription over the door provides a bit of explanation: “Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) Built between 1872 and 1874, the home is now a museum featuring not only some of the original furnishings, tableware, etc. set out in their original locations so you get a feel of what it must have been like to live there, but also displays of Cosima’s diaries and letters, and Richard’s writing implements and musical scores. Part of the house was destroyed by bombs during World War II but has been restored. Some of the artifacts within the house were also destroyed (including Wagner’s writing desk) but Richard and Cosima’s daughter-in-law Winifred managed to put most of the furniture and art in safe locations in advance of the air attack.

The basement of Haus Wahnfried has been renovated to include technological displays that offer insights into how Richard Wagner created his music, and how the score is transformed into sound.

There is also a separate home that Cosima (a widow by then) had built for her son Siegfried and his wife Winifred; Winifred lived there until she died in 1980. Siegfried and especially Winifred were fierce supporters of the Third Reich in all of its ugly manifestations, and this home was for an extended period a favourite place for Adolf Hitler to take a break from his efforts to conquer and transform Europe. A failed artist, he apparently loved to hang out here with the Wagner family and with Bayreuth musicians. Displays in this house explore the relationship between the Wagner-run Festspielhaus and the National Socialists. Throughout our visit to Germany I was impressed with the way the country has acknowledged and confronted the demons in its past.

The dining table at Siegfried House where Adolf Hitler often ate. Just looking at it gave me the creeps.

A third building on the site is new and very modern. It houses a separate museum less focused on Wagner himself and more on his operas and on “Wagnerism” in general. There we saw costumes, props and miniatures of sets from various productions of Wagner operas at Bayreuth. There was also a fascinating collection of the kind of bizarre objects that have appeared all over the world since Wagner died, either in acknowledgement of Wagner’s extraordinary talent or in an attempt to profit from association with his fame. There is also a cinema in the building.

Out back of the villa itself is the smooth polished piece of marble (outsized, of course) that marks the site of Richard’s and Cosima’s graves (he died in Venice in 1883, she at Bayreuth in 1930.) Nearby are those of several of Wagner’s favourite dogs. The secluded area which is the location of these graves opens up onto an extensive civic park, formerly part of the new palace of the Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (see next blog post), which gives visitors a sense that the Wagner property is much bigger and more pastoral than it is.

(This post is getting a bit long and I still have two significant sites in Bayreuth to write about so stand by for Part 2. 🙂

Germany 2: Tannhäuser!

Wagner’s Opera Goes Inside Out at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth

I am a big fan of Richard Wagner’s operas (not so much of the man himself), and if it were not for that fact, we probably wouldn’t be in Germany at all. When I heard several years ago that it can take up to ten years on a waiting list to get tickets to see a Wagner opera in Bayreuth, I decided that this was yet another instance of life throwing down a gauntlet. So I submitted my name. I figured I could always back out if it didn’t seem to be something we wanted to do when I reached the top of the list.

To my amazement, this past spring I was advised that I could apply for tickets for the 2022 season. I believe I got tickets seven years earlier than I’d anticipated because of two world-altering events – Covid, and the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on energy prices – both of which have made people less inclined to travel. Both factors made us think twice before moving forward, too, but in the end we decided that when gauntlets are thrown down, it is wise to accept the challenge. You might never get another chance.

When given the opportunity to go to Bayreuth, die-hard Wagner fans typically apply for tickets to the four operas that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka The Ring Cycle. This comprises four successive nights totalling about 15 hours of music and a whole lot of intermissions. I wasn’t sure my bum could handle all that sitting, and I wanted to still be married after our trip to Bayreuth (my husband is less enthusiastic about opera, and about Wagner, than I am). So I applied for two tickets to Tannhäuser – which, at around three hours, is a more standard opera length. The two seats were separated by two other seats and a pillar and they were at the very back of the theatre, but I’d heard that there isn’t a bad (or a comfortable) seat in the Festpielhaus. So there we were. And here we are.

I will write more about the city of Bayreuth, which is quiet and lovely and has several interesting sights to see, in my next post. This one is just about the opera.

Richard Wagner

For those who are unfamiliar with the controversial composer Richard Wagner, I offer a brief overview.

Wagner was born in 1813 in Leipzig and died in Venice in 1883. (We happened upon a sign marking the site of his death unexpectedly when we were in Italy several years ago as we wandered into the back [non-canal] entrance to the Casino di Venizia.) Wagner was wildly talented as a musician, wrote the librettos for his operas as well as the music, and also directed them. He was egomaniacal, outspoken, politically engaged, and slept with women who were not his wife. All of those proclivities meant that he was frequently in trouble with employers, other composers, musicians, theatre-goers, politicians, members of the nobility, and women. He was also an antisemite but unfortunately that was not widely considered to be a depraved view in the society in which he lived and moved.

Wagner wrote a lot of not only really long, but also monumental, operas; even today, the term “Wagnerian” is applied to almost anything that is totally over the top. Wagner wrote the operas that most people grew up mocking ­– featuring substantially constructed singers wearing horns on their heads, armour and huge fur coats. Many of his operas were based on Teutonic myths, involved gods and goddesses and wrangled with large religious (Roman Catholic) themes. Tannhäuser itself is basically the story of a poet and singer who has been tempted away from moral, upstanding society by Venus and her shameless retinue. He has apparently been engaging for an extended period of time in untold Dionysian frolics with Venus, but he has finally grown tired of it. A sweet thread of music calls him to return to his upstanding life and to Elisabeth, the niece of the local landgrave (a count, or prince) who loves him. Venus permits him to go back to “real life,” but the draw to the life of decadence is strong, and he continues to battle his demons until, following a trip to Rome where he throws himself on the mercy of the Pope, he is absolved. But, alas, it is too late: Elisabeth is dead by the time news of his pardon arrives, and so is he.

Wagner’s music is stirring to the core. It is dark and voluptuous and exerts almost magical powers over many listeners. There is no explaining it if you haven’t felt it. It has overtaken the minds of right-minded people (like Stephen Fry) who would love NOT to be so enamoured with it because of Wagner’s terrible views on Jews, and it has also entranced a lot of very wrong-minded people – like Hitler, who loved the music from an early age and subsequently deployed it to stir feelings of patriotism to a fever pitch among his followers. (Woody Allen once remarked, “I can’t listen to that much Wagner… I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland.” I’ll let you decide whether you want to put Allen in the right- or the wrong-minded cohort.)

Wagner’s music is known by even those who have never heard of Wagner: it’s appeared in films and cartoons and in a kazillion other contexts. For a full appreciation of Wagner’s influence in the world, one cannot do better than to read an excellent book by Alex Ross called Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music – but you must be a real Wagner fan to get through it because it’s 784 pages, comprising 1.46 lbs of fine print. It is fascinating and endlessly detailed and reading it is a Wagnerian effort in itself. But it is a worthwhile investment of time if you are so inclined.

The Festspielhaus

Wagner knew that his music was not suited to standard opera houses of the day so after a long and involved process that included planning for a while to build in Munich, he and his second wife Cosima (a force of nature, that one, and an even bigger antisemite than Wagner was, if that kind of comparison is of any consequence at all) settled on the quiet town of Bayreuth for their opera house and their residence, Haus Wahnfried. They could not have built either edifice without the financial patronage of the profligate and somewhat nutty King Ludwig II, who spent money on all kinds of crazy projects including Schloss Neuschwanstein, in which Walt Disney found inspiration when he was designing Disneyland. But Ludwig did make a sound  investment when it came to Wagner’s opera house.

The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth

The Festspielhaus stands at the top of the “Green Hill” which is a famous landmark for any  serious Wagner fan. Again for those not familiar, my Lonely Planet guide explains that “The structure was specially designed to accommodate Wagner’s massive theatrical sets, with three stories of mechanical works hidden below stage. It’s still one of the largest opera venues in the world.”

Interesting facts about the Festspielhaus

  • The building accommodates 1970 patrons per performance, and they are jammed in like sardines.
  • Wagner wanted the seats to be uncomfortable so that no one would fall asleep in them, and he got his wish.
  • There are no subtitles in German or any other language, so unless you speak German, you are SOL when it comes to following the dialogue. The woman who sat next to me (a Dane who had studied in Germany and also spoke English) told me that even for German-speakers, the lyrics in the performance we were watching would have been hard to follow because only two of the main performers (Elisabeth and Tannhäuser) sang their lines as clearly as one might have wished.
  • The orchestra is sunk out of sight below the stage. No photos of the orchestra pit are permitted.
  • The sound created by the configuration of the building is astoundingly good.
  • When the moment arrives for the performance to begin, the doors are closed and the lights are all turned out.
  • A chorus of trombones gives a warning fifteen minutes before the second and third acts begin.
  • If you are late, you are not admitted to the theatre until the next act. (I gather there is a room to which latecomers are consigned, where they can watch a video of what they are missing.)

There is an intermission of a full hour between each act, which gives patrons time to drink champagne or beer, wander around the lovely grounds, eat anything from pretzels and bratwurst on a bun to a full dinner, either in the cafeteria-style setting or a comprehensive buffet dinner.

The patrons themselves wear anything from evening wear to nicely groomed shorts and shirts. I saw a lot of lovely evening dresses on the hill, and people-watching is a popular entre-acte activity.

The Festspielhaus and the Jews

During the reign of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party prior to and during World War II, it was not only in keeping with the extreme prejudices of the by-then-deceased Richard and Cosima Wagner, and their son Siegfried and his deeply antisemitic wife Winifred (who were running the festival at the time), it was also in the family’s best financial interests to support and conform with the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Hitler kept the festival afloat during the years when Nazi politics led to boycotts from outside the country, and he was a frequent visitor at Wannfried. A failed artist, Hitler apparently loved hanging out with the owners of the Festival and the directors and performers, and to sit by a huge fireplace in Winifred and Siegfried’s home (where he had standing invitation to stay), talking about the arts long into the night. He bought many tickets that were given to Nazi officers in order to help support the Festival, but Alex Ross reports that most of these people were not opera fans and attended only with reluctance. (I hope they suffered during every minute of those very long performances in those very uncomfortable seats.)

Like much of Germany, the Festspielhaus has in recent years chosen to put its ignoble past front and centre, rather than trying to hide or cover it up, an initiative that any right-thinking person must applaud. Since 2012, an art installation entitled “Silenced Voices” has stood just below the opera house on the Green Hill. It is a “tribute to the many singers, musicians, choreographers, and musical directors who, under Wagner’s and succeeding administrations up through the 1930s, were hired to work here, only to face the institution’s bigotry. Most of these artists, for the most part Jewish, a few of them gay, were harassed into resigning, fired, or forced to flee Germany altogether.” Several wound up in the extermination camps.

I appreciated the words on this sign, which is part of the display:

As the sign says, many Wagner fans will try to say (mainly out of desperation) that since Wagner was dead at the time, it was Hitler’s fault not his that Jews were so badly treated in Bayreuth during the Third Reich, and that Wagner’s music was misused to further the insidious goals of the Nazi regime. It is not that simple. However, this exhibit at the Festspielhaus, initiated and supported by the more recent descendants of Wagner, is a step in the right direction.

This Tannhäuser

Far be it from me to dare to review a Wagner opera: Wagnerism gave me some insight into how little I know about Wagner and his music. But I have watched several Wagner operas thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s live-streaming program which brings operas into movie theatres around the world each season. In addition, during the pandemic, I took an excellent online course entitled “Wagner’s Ring: Music, Motifs, and Magic.” So I’m not a total neophyte.

In preparation for our trip to Germany, I watched a traditional production of Tannhäuser from the Met, performed in 2015 and starring Johan Botha (Tannhäuser) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Elisabeth), with musical direction by James Levine, so I knew what was happening and had some idea of what to expect.

I did not get what I expected, which turned out to be great.

The version of Tannhäuser we saw in Bayreuth (directed by Tobias Kratzer, conducted by Axel Kober, and starring Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser, Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth, Markus Eiche as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Albert Dohmen as Landgraf Hermann, and Ekaterina Gubanova as a wondrous Venus) turns the traditional story on its head. Tannhäuser himself, in his “Venus world,” is a clown, and Venus – an acrobat – is the leader of a little band of circus folk, which also includes a lovely drag queen named LeGateau Chocolat and a kind and funny dwarf named Oskar.

Unlike in the traditional interpretation, this circus world – the world Tannhäuser wants to flee in order to return to his Elisabeth – is not the world of fantasy but rather is the real world, complete with Burger Kings, run-down camper vehicles and billboards. This gives a lovely twist to the trope in which dissatisfied protagonists “run off to join the circus.” Tannhäuser has clearly done just that, but now he regrets his choice and wants to return to the world from whence he came. This world – the world of the Landgraf and Elisabeth, which in the original opera is the domain of the region’s landholders and the sacred terrain of the Catholic Church – becomes by contrast, in this iteration, the land of make-believe: a theatrical production.

The scenes involving the Landgraf and Elisabeth et al. take place inside the very Festspielhaus in which we, the patrons, are now seated. What is happening to them, which they take to be real, is not; instead, it is the production we’re now watching. The pilgrims, whose chorus is essential to the musical impact of this opera, take various forms: at one point they are theatre-goers, representing us, dressed to the nines and carrying copies of the Tannhäuser program that in reality are available for sale outside the theatre. Later, when they return from seeking absolution in “Rome,” the pilgrims become a troupe of migrants wandering through the town.

In the second act, the deft use of video (deployed throughout the opera – I wondered if its inspiration was the opera live-streaming with which so many of us are now familiar) is used to show characters moving from one world to the other. Before us on the stage we see Tannhäuser, Elisabeth and the others stage the singing competition that is to determine Tannhäuser’s fate, but via video we also watch Venus and her little troupe breaking into the theatre in which we sit: we see them mount a ladder to the second-floor exterior balcony (the same one from which a fanfare warns patrons that the next act is about to start), make their way into and through the backstage area of the theatre, and down to the stage to watch the singing competition. Venus grabs a wig and heads onstage for a closer look while the other two watch mostly from the wings. After various shenanigans engineered by Venus in her efforts to reclaim Tannhäuser (these scenes are mimed because Venus is not in the second act of the original so has no singing lines, and the other two are not in the opera at all) and political protests (including the posting of a huge banner on the aforementioned balcony), the stage director finally summons the police. We watch on video as the local Bayreuth constabulary drive up to the theatre in pursuit of the offenders, soon afterward appearing before our very eyes, on stage.

The playful approach to what is real and what is not extends into the second intermission when we wander outside and see Venus’s ladder propped against the second balcony, alongside the banner that was earlier posted by Chocolat and Oskar.

It was during the third act that I became fully aware of the distance between the focus of the director and that of the composer. In this rendition, Venus and her troupe clearly hold far more sympathetic and higher ground in than does the world of politics and religious sentiment. Elisabeth demonstrates that she understands this truth when she comes out of the fancy theatre and down to the campsite where the circus folk are currently living rough under a billboard, and shares food and conversation with the by-now discouraged and lonely Oskar. Distraught and disillusioned, this is where she meets her end, at her own hand. (Spoiler alert!! Albeit too late.) When Tannhäuser returns soon afterward from his trip to seek redemption, not knowing that Elisabeth is dead, he tears up Wagner’s script in a futile attempt to attain a different outcome for their story. (This is the one place where I really lost track of things due to not speaking German: I had no idea what was being torn to pieces on the stage until I read a review after the evening was over.) So it all ended differently but no less tragically in this version of the opera that it does in a traditional production, but it was far more satisfactory ending from a 2020s perspective on how the world should work.

All in all the production was magical. Venus was astonishing: relatable, funny and demonstrative, and a wonderful singer. Elisabeth, by necessity more restrained, was also powerful. And Tannhäuser was beyond fabulous. The benighted Woolfram whose love for Elizabeth remains forever unconsummated, at least on an emotional and spiritual level, also put in a hugely strong performance. The cautious deployment of circus tawdriness often adds a note of dark mystery to art, and it worked to great effect on that level here.

The curtain calls were lengthy and well deserved, and while there was no standing ovation (probably not a “thing” here) there were many many roars of “Bravo” And “Maestro.” The audience approved, and apparently so did some of the world’s more qualified-than-I reviewers, who have been covering this same production (albeit with different musical­­­­­ directors and cast changes here and there) since it was first mounted in ­2017: See Opera Today or The New York Times or Opera Ramblings for example, for photos and mostly glowing write-ups.

The treatment was playful but the story remains serious and the rendition haunting, and I loved every bit of it. So did my fellow audience attendees: The couple to my right were from Japan and had come all the way to Bayreuth to see not only Tannhäuser, but The Ring Cycle starting the next day. To my left was the couple from Denmark with her mother; they had been to Bayreuth before – the mother several times. They were not sticking around for The Ring Cycle, although they had seen it before at Bayreuth, but were instead leaving for Milan where they would see Aida. All of us were in Germany for one main purpose, and none of us regretted our decision. (Not even the Japanese couple, even though they faced the possibility of a quarantine, still in effect in Japan, after they got home.)

Happy at Bayreuth

Germany 1: Frankfurt

A Lovely, Clean and Friendly City

Visiting the city of Frankfurt-am-Main while recovering from jet lag is a perfect way to start a trip to Germany. We arrived at about noon on Saturday, August 20, 2022, checked into our hotel, and had plenty of time to walk the approximately 2k to the north side of the Eiserner Steg (Iron Footbridge) for the 4 p.m. river cruise I had booked for us while still in Canada. In fact, they let us onto the 3:30 cruise as we were a bit early. So on a clear and lovely afternoon we had the best possible introduction to the city of Frankfurt ­– a view of its lovely skyline from the Main River, accompanied by some identification of buildings and a bit of history over the loudspeakers, in English as well as German. We were accompanied by people from all over the world, it seemed, including a few of course who were there only to arrange their beautiful selves against the skyline in a dozen different ways for the purpose of posting photos on Instagram.

We concluded our first day in Germany appropriately – eating schnitzel with Frankfurt’s famous grüne soße (green sauce) on the square in the old city (Altstadt).

Goethe House

On our second day in Frankfurt we began to figure out the transportation system, which is excellent but also confusing if you don’t speak German too well. I think because the whole system of underground and surface trains and buses runs so smoothly, they don’t need too many information people standing around to help those (literally) misguided tourists like us. So a few times, we had to get off a train, go back the way we came, and then set out again. Fortunately, we weren’t in any rush.

We had similar problems trying to use Google maps to walk to our destinations from the subway stops so we did lots and lots and lots of unnecessary steps. At some point, I am going to take the time to watch a YouTube video on the subject of how to go the way you WANT to go when using Google maps, rather than in the opposite or some other unrelated direction. I was glad I had bought a SIM card, given all the times I had to recheck where we were going. At times it seemed that the street signs in Frankfurt and the street names on Frankfurt maps were totally unrelated.

Our first destination was the original home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet/playwright/scientist etc. whose Faust (parts One and Two) many years ago permanently expanded my appreciation for the role of literature and drama in the understanding good and evil, not to mention magic and dark thoughts, and gave me an insight into one powerfully creative visionary. (I can still see and feel Goethe’s rendering of Walpurgis Night in my mind’s eye.)

Goethe’s childhood home was large, and the rooms inside it were large, as befitted the social status of his family. The museum into which the building has now been turned is as interesting in its depiction of the era it evokes as it is for what it tells us about Goethe, who lived there for about twenty years. One of the most interesting artifacts to my mind was a puppet theatre he was given as a child that was of great interest to him well into adulthood. It reminds me that what we offer children to stimulate their imaginations can have a lifelong impact. The puppet theatre isn’t much to look at, but that is probably the point of it; drawings hung nearby illustrate what can be done by a child with some ideas who has been given a glass case with a wooden floor.

Goethe’s house was lovely – one of those places that makes you think “If I just had a desk like this in a room like this and was born into a wealthy family that offered me time and space, I could have produced Great Works.” It’s not true, but it is part of the appeal of visiting the homes of creative masters.

Jüdisches Museum

After the Goethe Museum we wandered down toward the river, past Willy Brandt Plaza, and found lunch at a place on the waterfront named “MainNizzo” that had been recommended in my Lonely Planet guidebook. When you eat outside, as we did there and have done several times now, you quickly learn that there are as many wasps in Germany as there are in Canada.

Frankfurt’s “new” Jewish Museum is located in a massively renovated former Rothschild Palace (not much to see of the original interior) and it features three floors of multimedia exhibits that focus on Jewish life in Frankfurt “from the Enlightenment to the present” with a focus on such topics as everyday objects, tradition and ritual, and history and present. One cool thing that is probably common in other museums but that I hadn’t seen before is a digital card that is given to you on admission that you can then hold up near signs next to various displays in order to access additional relevant information online after you get home. Thanks to this feature, I am bringing home a recipe for apple cake (Apfelkuchen) from Anne Frank’s family (there is a whole room of information in the museum about Anne Frank and her relatives, who were from Frankfurt), a recipe for Challah for the grandkids to try out if they are interested, and several other interesting digital artifacts. I was very taken with the “Untitled” tree sculpture by Ariel Schlesinger.

There is also an “old” Jewish museum in Frankfurt. We were unable to see that one as it was closed on Monday, when we could have made time for it. But we were able walk around the very old cemetery behind it. It was badly damaged by the Nazis, but “the oldest extant tombstone dates back to 1272 – the oldest material evidence of Jewish life in Frankfurt.” Its walls are embedded with markers with the names of the many, many Frankfurt Jews whose lives were extinguished during the Holocaust. So many names.

The Film Museum

Foot-weary, we decided to cross the river and see one final museum that day. We chose the Deutsches FilmInstitut Filmmuseum partly out of the hope that it might offer us an opportunity to sit down and watch a bit of film footage. Which it did. We were short on time as well as energy by then, so we didn’t see the feature exhibition, “Rapture of the Deep: Film under Water,” which sounded intriguing. But we did see the permanent exhibitions: one on “filmic vision” and one on “filmic narration.” Both were truly interesting and contained lots of fascinating exhibits.


On our final day in Frankfurt, since the museums were closed and our batteries needed recharging, we thought we’d take it easy. We ended up walking over 12,000 steps anyway: that’s the way it goes when you are travelling.

We started at the wonderful city market, Kleinmarkthalle, which offers all the wares of any big city market and was busy with patrons buying fresh produce, meat and fish for consumption at home, and others enjoying food that looked and smelled fabulous right on the premises. Since it was late on a Monday morning, it wasn’t too busy, but I’m sure this place is packed later in the day and week. It was early enough that I was tempted but didn’t make purchases from the vast arrays of hand-made chocolates and magnificent looking baked goods. There were also lots of fresh flowers and plants for sale.

From the market we wandered over to the old Jewish cemetery (see photos above) then down to the central visible attraction of Frankfurt in the old town – the Dom Römer aka St. Bartholemew’s Church aka Kaiserdom. This church contains a lot of religious art and sculpture and even a van Dyck. Wikipedia points out that “It is the largest religious building in the city [but] despite its common English name, it has never been a true cathedral… ” and that “The present church building is the third church on the same site. Since the late 19th century, excavations have revealed buildings that can be traced back to the 7th century.”

After lunch we strolled all the way back to the Nizzo and bought a bottle of water there, then walked back through the park by the riverbank to have dinner in the same restaurant we’d eaten at the first night. We liked it because it was outside, on the square, and the food was very tasty. My pork loin was fantastiche and Arnie enjoyed his goulash.

Before dinner, we had a lovely chat with a young German woman with her cute one-and-a-half-year old in the town square in Frankfurt. (The little boy had toddled right up to me, very eager to tell me where his mama was and to practice climbing some shallow steps.) She was so happy to see Arnie and me travelling around the world at our age (“when you’re older, I mean,” she said, politely). She was at that time of life (mid-thirties, I would guess) where she felt that much as she loved her little one, she was pretty tied down and feared she’d never be able to see and do all the things she’d once dreamed of seeing and doing. She was really lovely and we had a good conversation about life and parenthood. I told her about my solo trip to India when I was 60 and that cheered her up even more.

I guess we’re just a couple of travelling inspirations with sore feet.

Personal Politics

I noticed last weekend that our prime minister had “thrown cold water” on appeals from the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had been visiting Canada to appeal for help in regard to Germany’s energy crisis. I began to wonder if I should stop wearing my little Canadian pin as I travelled around Germany, which I like to do to distinguish myself from our southern neighbours. But then the next day I read that “with a grateful German leader at his side, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood firmly behind the controversial decision to export at least one natural gas turbine for a Russian-owned pipeline that is a crucial source of natural gas for Germany and other European states.” So even if he did piss off everyone except Germany, at least I felt it safe to continue to wear my pin.

Otherwise, it’s been nice to be able to ignore politics for a while.

Thanks, Frankfurt for the opportunity to visit your truly lovely city.

Willy Brandt Plaza

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (13)

The Adventure Continues….

To say that this summer has not gone as I had hoped would be an understatement. But following my on-line meeting yesterday with the psychiatrist who is the director of the research study I’ve been participating in – one month after my first dose – I now know my status vis-a-vis the study, and understand my options moving forward.

As you will know if you have been following this journey, I was extraordinarily disappointed following the 25 mg dose of psilocybin I received on July 16. I felt I had not received enough psilocybin to attain the result I had expected, and this outcome plus the continuing withdrawal from the anti-depressants I’ve been on for several decades, plunged me into a state of despair the likes of which I have not experienced for a very long time, if ever. The “jaws of the black dogs” (as John Bentley Mays described them in his Memoir of Depression) were nearly unrelenting, and I did whatever I could to keep myself upright: from long walks in nature, to shorter faster walks, to meditation, to reading, to writing, to movie watching, to attempting to be sociable: you name it. Anything to distract myself from the bleak goings on inside my head.

I knew that I could resume a course of antidepressants at any time and relieve the depression I was feeling, which means that I did bring my state of mind on myself. But I did not want to go back on the antidepressants because I was hoping that despite my disappointing outcome with the first dose, I would secure approval in the study to receive a second. (You can’t and shouldn’t receive a psilocybin dose when you are on Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, which is what most modern antidepressants are, including mine. It is believed that SSRIs interfere with, or even repress, the effects of the psilocybin. This is why I tapered off them in the spring, and have been off them now for several months.)

Why, you may ask, would anyone want a second dose after feeling so terribly strung out after the first one? It is a question I have asked myself many times. The answer is in part that I have huge faith (based on a lot of clinical research papers I have read, so it’s not just faith) that psilocybin does work in the treatment of depression, and I felt that perhaps my expectations had been so high and my anticipatory tension had been so great that I had interfered with the effectiveness of the treatment simply by being so uptight about it. (Is “uptight” still a word that anyone understands?) I hoped that I could calm down enough the second time to let the dosing work its magic. I had also read that the same dose can have different effects on the same person at different times. If I were approved for the second dose, I wanted to give it a try. And that meant not resuming the antidepressants until I had a decision from the research team about the second dose.

Second Dose: Not Happening

Yesterday I had my scheduled meeting with the director of the research program, a psychiatrist who works and conducts research in the field of neuropsychopharmacology at the University of Toronto. (He is a genuinely nice guy who actually listens to what patients say to him.) He told me that based on all of the surveys I have done, questionnaires I’ve completed and meetings I’ve attended since the first dose, I am not eligible for a second one. The reasons he gave me make perfect sense: this study is approved by Health Canada which means that all of the protocols set out in the study must be adhered to exactly. And the guidelines say that only participants who have benefitted from a first dose (i.e., had their depression alleviated even a little) and who might find even greater benefit from a second dose are eligible to receive one. My depression had, if anything, intensified following the first dose, so I did not qualify.

The doctor also pointed out that if – as I had suggested to him and to anyone else who would listen to me – a higher dose might have brought me the benefits I sought, he couldn’t have given me more than the 25 mg the study protocol allows anyway.

He pointed out a couple of other interesting things.

While it has always been my hope that the psilocybin treatment would alleviate my depression, I was also very interested in experiencing the consciousness-expanding properties of psychedelics that such writers as Michael Pollan, Sam Harris and many, many others have reported. The 25 mg dose which is standard in most depression studies is not intended to send participants far enough out into the stratosphere that they will find themselves closer to understanding the meaning of life, but is rather intended only to help alleviate their depression, PTSD, end-of-life anxiety, etc.

In other words, I may have been seeking more from this dose than the dose in this study could ever have given me. This theory is reinforced by the fact that the colourful imagery and magnificent soundscapes that I did experience while taking the first dose were similar to those reported by people who DO find their depression alleviated by the session.

So Now What?

My discussion with the researcher/psychiatrist/director has let me to two conclusions.

  1. People with depression should not base their decisions about whether or not to treat it with psilocybin (if and when that option becomes available to them) on what happened to me. The treatment is effective for so many people and has so few negative side effects (mine being almost totally attributable to having gone off antidepressants and having disproportional expectations) that in my estimation, in this context, psilocybin is still a wonder drug.
  2. I am not finished with this.

There are other ways of obtaining a slightly larger dose than the one I received in the research study, some of which are even legal for people in specific mental-health situations. Before I go back on the antidepressants, I am going to explore these other options until I am satisfied that I have done what I personally believe I need to do in order to 1) relieve my depression AND 2) learn more about the nature of consciousness. I will report on my adventures as they continue to unfold – so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I am feeling more optimistic, partly because I am feeling more in control of what happens next, and partly because I found a wonderful psychotherapist online at the Psychology Today website. We conduct our sessions on Zoom, which perfectly suits my needs.

My immediate focus is on a three-week trip to Germany which starts on Friday. I will be reporting on that adventure on this blogsite, as I have previously reported on my/our trips to India, Cuba and Italy.

I also want to draw the attention once again of interested readers to the list I have compiled so far on interesting, useful and scientifically sound resources relating to the use of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs in the context of mental health and the expansion of one’s mind.

Auf wiederhören!

NOTE: Just came across this article. It’s a good warning, and worth a read. “Psychedelic Clinical Trials and the Michael Pollan Effect.Psychedelic Spotlight, August 9, 2022.

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (12)

What happens when a dose of psilocybin fails to produce the anticipated result

Well, I’ve had the (first) dose. So far it’s taken me a week to recover from it, but I’m gradually feeling better. The reason I needed to “recover” is not because the effects of the dose were so dramatic, but because they weren’t. While I definitely felt as though I was on a path that could take me somewhere interesting during the dosing experience, I never got there. After all the buildup, this left me feeling fairly shattered. This outcome was not the fault of the drug or the research study, nor was it anything I did wrong. It’s just one of those things that happens sometimes and unfortunately for me, this was one of the times it happened.

I have found a quote in the Psychedelic Times that describes the experience I had. It reads, “… some people become anxious at this level of dosage and feel on the crest of ‘breaking through’ to a fuller experience but never do…”. I am not exactly sure what dosage the author is referring to, as I think he is discussing psychedelic mushrooms rather than distilled psilocybin, but the description of what happened is exactly right: while the dose I received is enough for most people to attain “lift off,” that didn’t happen to me. Psychedelics are tricky things. Different people respond differently to the same dose, and the same person can have a different reaction to the same dose on different days. While I think my experience is highly unusual for participants in studies about psychedelics and depression, obviously it happens.

As I’m sure you can imagine after everything I’ve written here, which reflects only a tiny portion of what I’ve read, and listened to, and thought about regarding this journey, I was so devastated with the non-result that my first reaction was to say, “I’m never doing that again!” But after a week, I have come back to my senses (?), and have requested that the study administrators consider me for a second dose.

This post is an overview of what happened to me, but I hope it won’t discourage others from taking advantage of this amazing treatment if they have the opportunity. On the other hand, if anyone else has the experience I did, maybe my account will be of some assistance.

The Build-up

By the time I went for the scheduled dose last week, my anxiety about it – which was exacerbated by the depression and anxiety I was already experiencing following my withdrawal from antidepressants – had intensified to the point where I was in a state of near panic. In fact, I have wondered if the extent of my apprehension before the dose might have interfered with my ability to “break through.” (If so, that part should at least go better next time: no dose I take in future will ever again be my first.)

I had three main fears. First, I was really worried about having a “bad trip,” which I gather is akin to having intensely realistic nightmares that reach into your deepest fears, from which you feel unable to waken, and during which you don’t remember that the experience you think you are having is not real. Guides are usually able to help with this. Just as one does with a person who is actually having a bad dream, they will notice your distress and say a few words or – if you have given them permission in advance – reach out and offer a steadying hand on your arm or shoulder. This is usually all it takes to redirect the thoughts of the person who is having the bad trip and send them in a more positive direction. In addition, since my guides were physicians, they had counteractive treatments at hand if things went really bad. Furthermore, bad trips are not all that common. But even knowing all of this, as the experience approached I kept thinking about the accounts I’d read of people who’d had bad trips, and it didn’t help that, two days before my dose, I listened to a really interesting interview of Roland Griffiths by Sam Harris, to which Sam had appended his account of a trip he recently took (basically because Terence McKenna had thrown down a gauntlet, it seems, which is no reason to do anything as far as I’m concerned) in which he’d consumed 5g of mushrooms all at once. His trip was not “bad,” but it was a very scary ride.

Secondly, although I was sure, and had been frequently reassured, that I would come back in one piece even if I did have a bad trip, I could not get the concern out of my head that I might not come back as the same basic person as I was when I went into the psilocybin session. Some of the benefits of a dose of psychedelics that are widely touted ­– the expansive sense of oneness with nature, the love for humanity, etc. – all sound great, but they do not sound like me. (Well, they do, but they don’t. It’s hard to explain aside from saying I don’t want to lose ALL of my cynicism nor to relinquish my firm grip on reality, downsides and all.)

Finally, I was worried that the dose would not work at all. I have never responded the way most people do to cannabis – no happy, giggly, floaty stuff for me, just paranoia and sleepiness. So what if the dose had no effect on me at all? I had asked those running the study if I could ask for more psilocybin during the dosing session if nothing happened, and of course I was told that I could not receive more than the original dose. This makes sense because this is a research study, and doses need to be the same for everyone.

So given all these fears, the amount of time I had spent thinking about the upcoming experience, and my wonderful imagination, by the time I arrived for the treatment last Saturday, my stomach was in knots and my heart was pounding. I was basically a basket case.

The worst fifteen minutes were the ones I had to go through following the required Covid test, sitting outside the treatment centre in the car with my (heroically patient and probably quite perplexed) husband. If I’d tested positive and could not have been admitted for the treatment, I honestly do not know what I would have done. It would have been a legendary temper tantrum of Hulkian proportions.

Fortunately, I did not have Covid. I was admitted to the centre, and greeted by my two guides. These are wonderful women, both MDs with an interest in psychology and psychedelics. Having two people in the room throughout the trip is unusual, but it adds a layer of protection because in non-controlled study situations there have been some instances of abuse by unethical guides. I’m sure having two people on board also protects the guides, and it probably allows them to confer on participants’ experiences, and their responses to that.

They asked me how I felt, and I told them how scared I was. They reassured me that this was normal, which helped a bit. I had also been thinking of Michael Pollan’s sleepless nights before his doses, so I knew that I was not the only person who had ever felt this way. We talked for a while about what I was hoping to get out of the day’s experience, but this discussion was really just to help me focus, as I’d already discussed my hopes and expectations in great depth with one of the two guides the previous week.

Then I received the dose, 25 mg of psilocybin in about half a cup of liquid. The concoction was fairly tasteless.

The Event

I donned a black mask to keep out light, and put on headphones so I could hear the mixed tape that is apparently the one that Johns Hopkins created for participants in their studies. (BTW, I found the musical selection rather odd: most of the pieces are lovely, but many of them are quite Western and classical, and therefore quite structured. This seems at odds with an experience that is supposed to un-structure everything!)

Once dosed and outfitted, I lay down on the couch, my two guides nearby in armchairs about five feet from my head, and I waited. I was still quite worried. After about 30 minutes, I started feeling like I was on a drug. I’m not sure how else to explain it – I did not feel any more relaxed, but things were definitely not feeling normal. After some additional time, I started seeing things in my head that I can best describe as very much like the images we are getting from the Webb Space Telescope. (I’m not kidding here: the resemblance was uncanny.)

The images in my head grew more personalized as time went on – I thought I saw Yoda in the mists at some point, and a few people I know, and some eyes. It seemed to me that the images that were coming to me were very closely connected to the music: when the music stopped or changed, the images retreated or changed. If the music was majestic I had majestic images (mountains, castles, etc.) and when it was more Eastern, I had images of Mayan- or Hindu-type figures.

This was all very nice and interesting, but I was still fairly nervous because I knew I was not “there” yet, and I was waiting for my “self” to disintegrate (as the literature had told me to expect it would) or at least for my self to become less important. I knew I was not tripping – but I was on my way in that direction. I remember thinking “So this is where cinematic artists got their ideas for the images in sci fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dune.” I also felt a very deep appreciation for the music that I was listening to. It sounded richer and closer than I had ever heard music sound, and again I felt great appreciation for the composers/creators. I remember thinking as I listened to a piece of flute music that the intake of breath of the flautist was an essential part of the piece – I had never noticed that before. It was lovely. So I was definitely getting stuff from the drug that I do not normally experience.

I had consumed a lot of coffee before I came to the session (next time, I’ll keep my fluid intake to a minimum!) and before too long I had to get up and use the washroom. This was frustrating because it meant I had to leave off from the trip I felt I was beginning to experience, which actually seemed kind of interesting by that point. When I walked to the bathroom, I definitely felt like I was on a drug – it was like moving through a dense but invisible cloud and I had to pay attention to what I was doing. My legs felt a bit rubbery – but I didn’t have any hallucinations or anything. I came back, lay down again, and resumed my journey.

I had to use the washroom a few more times over the next couple of hours, and each time when I got up, I had no feeling that I was in anything more than a mildly altered state. When I came back into the treatment room, I conveyed my frustration to the guides that nothing much was happening. I kept asking what time it was because I was still tense – mostly worried at this point that time was passing and I was not having the experience I came for. They told me the onset was different for everyone, that the trip would come in waves, and that I should just try to let go and let it happen.

And I did “try to let go” (sounds like a contradiction in terms, I know, but as a meditator, I do know how to clear my mind). But these efforts did nothing. About three hours in, I was even thinking, “God, I am so bored. How much longer do I have to lie here?”

I started figuring out how I would describe what I was seeing to people after it was over, and I had no trouble putting words to my visual experiences. An inability to put the experience into words – “ineffability” – is one of the measures that some people have used to describe a psychedelic experience, but I did not see anything that I would call indescribable. Nor was there anything that felt as real as reality (“noetic.” Another measure). And nothing – aside from the music – felt “mystical” (a third measure).

At one point I realized I was hungry so I sat up and ate the lunch they’d suggested I bring with me. By this time I was beginning to suspect the treatment wasn’t “working,” but yet again I tried to give it another shot.

And so it went, until finally I’d had enough. I don’t know what time it was, but I believe that after about four or five hours (which is the length of time these experiences are supposed to last) my sense of being on a drug was gone. I was done with it. It was over. I had never once lost my sense of “self,” or my feeling of being in a room, in my own body, with two guides. I’d had no feeling of euphoria or any pleasant or mystical feelings of any kind.

The Aftermath

Maybe I did have a psychedelic experience, but if that is the case, I don’t understand the hype at all, and it certainly offered me no benefits aside from a greater appreciation for the creators of film and music. Here is the analogy I have since developed for what I feel I experienced: It was like going up one of those way-too-high roller coasters (like the Yukon Striker at Wonderland near Toronto – which I haven’t gone on … yet) – up, up, up to the very top, to the point where you can see the entire landscape ahead of you (I could see what it would be like to be fully launched on the psilocybin trip, and it was certainly scary but also quite lovely and I was really interested to see what was going to happen when I did start the actual ride). But then I realized that my roller-coaster car was stuck at the top, completely stuck, and that I was never going to go over the edge. I was never going to drop. And I had no ability myself, no matter what I did, to move the car forward. Instead, I just had to sit there fearing the heights, and wait it out until my brain cleared and I could figure out how to get myself down again. And that part was traumatic.

I have rarely felt so awful in my life as I did after that experience. I was overwhelmingly disappointed. I felt frightened from having hovered in suspense for so long. I felt grumpy and irritable. Also, I was exhausted. I had trouble sleeping that night, and the way I felt the next day was worse. It was like an experience with quasi-PTSD that I’d had in my 40s after jumping out of an airplane during another one of my adventures. (The actual skydiving part was great but everything around it terrified me – what was I thinking? I am afraid of heights! But that’s a story for another day.)

I had an “integration session” with my two guides at 9 the next morning. They reminded me that the dose I had been given was standard and that it had been determined on the basis of the optimal amount in the treatment of depression. It was not intended to zap me into some alternate universe. In other words, they were telling me that it was what it was, and I needed to work with that and see how it had affected my depression.

Talking to them helped a little, but later in the afternoon I was feeling awful again. I felt threadbare, as though the inside of my brain had been stripped of some protective layer that I was unable to get back. I felt like I should be feeling better after the treatment, but I wasn’t, and I felt as though I had no one to blame but myself.

On Monday, after a good night’s sleep, I came to the realization that it was not my fault, and I started figuring out how to put myself back together again.

Moving Forward

One week after my first dose of psilocybin, I am feeling less disappointed and more optimistic about the outcome if I give this another try. (In AA they talk about the tendency most of us have to try the same approach to resolving problems again and again, hoping for a different outcome. I hope this isn’t that. 🙂)

I feel no less depressed than I did before the dose, no better psychologically in any way, and I still feel deeply disappointed, but after a week of keeping myself occupied with activities that interest me, in order to avoid thinking about my disappointment, I am regaining my sense of direction. I have been meditating every day, trying to get some exercise (when it’s not too hot!), reading some great books, avoiding the news and social media, talking with close friends and relatives, and doing a bit of work on my novel. Anyone who does these things is bound to feel better, and it’s working well for me.

By this point, I am also fairly tired of thinking and talking about my own state of mind and my efforts to improve it, so I’m just going to carry on with my life on my life’s terms until I find out if I am eligible for another dose – and if so, when. I don’t expect it will happen soon — I gather that those who do get a second dose usually need to wait for ten weeks or so. I’m not going to resume the use of antidepressants after going to all the trouble to go off them (still having brain zaps after eight weeks!), unless I get to a point where I have no other options.

So I’m going to stop writing about psychedelics for a while and focus my attention instead on another trip: the one we are taking to Germany next month. But I will keep you posted on what happens with the study. I offer my sincere thanks to so many people who have been cheering me on during this whole experience. I am sorry I couldn’t have delivered you a happy ending without all of these complications. But I’m probably going to benefit from this experience too – even if it takes a bit more time before I see exactly how.

Psychedelics pose threats to powerful groups with vested interests. We need to support initiatives to make them available for therapeutic use.

Part 11 of the series “Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me”

As I have said too many times since I launched this series of posts, there is increasingly strong evidence that psilocybin, LSD and other psychedelics can help to alleviate depression, addictions, PTSD, and other debilitation mental-health issues after one or two doses, given the right set and setting.*

As I’ve been chronicling my own journey as a participant in a study into the effects of psilocybin on chronic depression, many people have reached out to me, expressing hope that not only will the dose I take be effective for me, but that they will eventually have access to this treatment too. Some researchers in the field now hope that within five years, psilocybin will be approved for use in safe therapeutic settings. (I know! This is an agonizingly long wait if you are suffering.)

However, many researchers, therapists and prospective patients – as well as “healthy normal” people who are interested in safely exploring dimensions of consciousness not usually available to us – have expressed concern, as I am doing here, that before we reach a world in which there is legal access to these substances – within, much less outside of, treatment settings – the drugs will be banned once more, as they were in the 1960s, making it illegal not only to use them but even to continue researching their benefits. If that happens, millions will continue to suffer without access to an option that is showing dramatic, positive results and very few negative side effects.

The Shape of the Threat

If the past few years of watching the news have taught us anything, it is that people with money and power can achieve just about anything they want. They do this directly (e.g., by withdrawing money from funding agencies or by changing laws), and they do it indirectly (e.g., by convincing significant numbers people via social media, community groups and religious institutions that something they don’t want us to have is dangerous). As we have seen over and over again, when special interests have lots of money for lobbying, they can be frighteningly effective in winning government support.

It has been demonstrated beyond a doubt that when properly administered, psychedelics are almost never dangerous – physically or psychologically. To the contrary, they have provided relief to thousands upon thousands of people. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons why those with power and money are likely to want to prevent or curtail governmental approval for their therapeutic use.

Here are some of them.

They Are Going to Damage Big Pharma’s Bottom Line

Psilocybin is a chemical that is found in mushrooms, which are cheap. Mushrooms with psychoactive properties can be easily found in nature if you know what you are looking for (and if you look in the right geographical locations) and, given the right spores and media, they can even be grown at home. Even when a production step is added to ensure quality control and ease of consumption, so that people don’t have to chow down actual dried mushrooms, psilocybin itself is likely to remain relatively inexpensive. because no one can control the source.

Further, only one dose of a psychedelic is normally required to attain lift-off and, in most cases, to produce the desired outcome. Even if LSD (a laboratory-developed chemical compound) is used instead of mushrooms, and even if pharmaceutical companies corner the market on LSD, most patients are not going to want or need to take more than one dose – the trips they induce are intense and can be scary, and their effectiveness is diminished with repeated use. These drugs have no effect on the dopamine centre in the brain which is what leads to drug addiction, so they are not candidates for getting people hooked. (Some current research shows that a way to extend the benefits of having dosed with a psychedelic may lie in meditation, of all things, rather than in repeating the psychedelic dose or using other drugs. Meditation is a very inexpensive route to peace of mind.)

Contrast the cost of a psychedelic treatment with the big business of antidepressants, which a whole lot of us have been taking once a day in increasing doses for years and even decades. The benefits of SSRIs tend to diminish over time, and they are very hard to discontinue. (I can attest to this. I’m now six weeks off of duloxetine/Cymbalta and I am still having brain zaps, aching joints, anxiety and, of course, intensified depression and anxiety.)

It seems to me as though it would be a good business strategy for Big Pharma to gain sole legal control of the production and distribution of psychedelics when and if they are approved – and then to mount intense PR campaigns (of the kind some companies once used to insist that opioids were harmless) to get the message out that psychedelics are dangerous and that anti-depressant treatment should be preferred.

They Threaten Those with Financial Stakes in Other Profitable Industries

Psychedelic use tends to make people more aware – on both a short- and a long-term basis – of the deep, life-nurturing and even sacred connections between themselves and others, and between humans and the natural world. This leads to increased concern for the environment and greater interest in fostering peaceful and loving relationships among humans.

If millions of people seek out psychedelics in an effort to lead more stable, productive and creative lives, and end up becoming more loving and peaceful and more intent on protecting our planet, this development will not be welcomed by those who earn their livings through the manufacture and sales of guns and military armaments – nor by those whose futures depend on nurturing interpersonal disputes. Elections would be quite different if voters were more interested in seeking peaceful solutions to their differences than in fighting over them, or beating down the “other” so many of them seem to fear, or trampling others’ rights and freedoms.

To me, it seems quite likely that when rabid conservatives (in particular) discover a political resurgence of “peaceniks,” and decide that this trend is due in part to the availability of a single chemical substance, that substance is suddenly going to become very difficult to obtain. If some fake news needs to be manufactured in order to make that chemical disappear, so be it.

Users and Underground Guides Can Make Psychedelics Look Risky

This morning I came across an article in the New York Times that reports that some people trying out psychedelics purchased on the street have had terrible outcomes for themselves as a result of unethical dealers and guides. This means renewed damage to the reputation of psychedelics. The NYT article links in turn to a whole series of New York Magazine podcasts about the downsides for some people of taking psychedelics, and the abhorrent practices that may be pervasive underground and even in quasi-therapeutic settings.

I am already massively apprehensive about my upcoming dose of psilocybin, and since psychedelics are very suggestible drugs, it would be a dumb idea for me to listen to these podcasts now. ** [Update. I’ve listened to them now, and I’ve commented below.] But from a quick review of the promo bits, it sounds to me like the approach taken in the New York Magazine series will fit perfectly with the goals of those who are opposed to making psychedelics available for therapeutic use (or any other purpose) in the foreseeable future.

As was true in the 1960s, a few acid heads also contribute to the continuing (if largely unsubstantiated) negative reputation of these substances. Research makes it clear that “set and setting” are crucial to successful trips, whether directed toward therapy or consciousness-raising. The trip experience is improved if one is in a quiet place, lying down comfortably, wearing a mask that keeps keep out light, and listening to quiet music on headphones.

It is also of value to talk to a knowledgeable guide (a “dose doula,” to coin a phrase) ahead of time in order to set intentions for what you want to get out of your trip, and for that guide to be physically present when you take the psychedelic. That way, if your trip goes south, someone will see that you are in distress and (with your permission in advance) will reassure you with a touch to your arm or shoulder, or say a few words to remind you of what you are doing, where you are and why. A guide can also help you to integrate the experience afterwards.

People who dose without attention to “set and setting,” and especially those who dose without a guide, can have bad experiences. They may have no awareness that they are on a drug and, lacking anyone to direct them away from their own frightening hallucinations, they may cause harm to themselves or others in their attempts to fight off perceived threats and dangers. These are the kinds of situations that lead – very infrequently but occasionally – to suicides, homicides and other unfortunate incidents for people who are tripping.

In addition, a very small percentage of people are thought to be at risk of being tipped into psychoses by psychedelics. These include people with a genetic predisposition to psychoses and those who are at risk of schizophrenia (often young people in their late teens and early twenties, which is exactly the age group most likely to experiment with psychedelics unsupervised, alone or at raves and parties – exactly the generation Timothy Leary attempted to turn on in the 1960s). Obviously, these bad outcomes attract public interest and media attention, which ultimately also serves the purposes of those who would like to stamp out the use of psychedelics for unrelated reasons.

Licensed Doulas for Psychedelic Trips?

It seems contrary to the very nature of mushrooms (watch Fantastic Fungi if you haven’t done so already) to regulate their use even in therapeutic settings to the point where they are available only to those with therapists. Therapists are themselves regulated by governmental and organizational dictates.

And yet regulation of these substances is the direction in which all research seems to be leading us at the moment, and there is no doubt that some sort of “sturdy societal container,” as Michael Pollan has described it, is probably necessary (selling tabs at the local 7-Eleven or even at cannabis-type stores is not likely to work out well). But where to draw the line? Human nature suggests that the therapists themselves will find it financially beneficial to insist that guides must be licensed by governing bodies of some kind.

To my mind, such a dictate would be as silly as instructing women (as the medical profession essentially did for many years) that they can only have babies when there’s an obstetrician in attendance. Babies will emerge no matter who is on hand. If safety is a concern (and it is, with both childbirth and psychedelics), the equivalent of a midwife or doula should be a legal option – someone who knows what they are doing but is not necessarily part of the medical or psychotherapeutical establishment.

Millions of people already use psychedelics illegally to self-treat or to simply have mind-expanding experiences. They are a relatively inexpensive resource that anyone can use. But if you are required to go through the burgeoning therapeutic system that is already growing up around us, and you want a competent guide, it seems likely that you are going to have to pay thousands of dollars to get one. I like the idea of people being able, at a reasonable cost, to seek out a compatible doula or midwife-type person with some track record or training to guide them through their trip in a warm, safe, home-like setting.

How Do We Prevent a Disastrous Halt to Psychedelic Research, Treatment and Explorations of Consciousness?

I haven’t got a clue. But I hope someone comes up some suggestions soon.

I am worried about this, especially given the political climate that surrounds us now.

Maybe I’m just displaying some of my pre-tripping anxiety, but I doubt that I’m alone in my concern.

* I am not going to litter this article with references. You can read back through my previous posts or just use Google to find links to scientific studies that support everything I’m saying here. If you want a reference for anything I say here, ask me in a comment and I’ll get back to you.

** UPDATE: I have now listened to most of the New York Magazine podcasts and they failed to dampen my enthusiasm for the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. For one thing, they primarily concern the horrific problems that can arise from misguided (very misguided) guides who manipulate vulnerable minds, and offer them quantities and mixtures of drugs that should not be administered to, or consumed by, those in precarious mental states – or, in some cases, by anyone. The series raises no concerns about psychedelics themselves, but it does fail to make the distinction between actual psychedelic drugs and drugs like MDMA and ketamine that are not in that category. This failure to distinguish is a problem that is rampant at the moment, one that arises from sloppy journalism combined with false advertising. Too many treatment centres are offering MDMA and ketamine as “psychedelic treatments,” when they are not true psychedelics. In fact, MDMA and ketamine can be dangerous and addictive. Listening to the series is probably worth your while in order to remind yourself not to get sucked in by snake-oil salespeople, especially if you are emotionally vulnerable or easily swayed and led by false prophets. Incompetent guides can kill you. But nothing in that series raised any alarm bells for me in regard to taking a standardized dose of psilocybin one or two times an a therapeutic setting with one or two competent guides on hand. Nor does it do anything to contradict the valuable resources Michael Pollan has created, although it clearly wishes that it could. In the end, the series just left me feeling very sorry for vulnerable people who will apparently go to any lengths to make themselves feel better, and will listen to anyone who offers them a way of doing that.

A note to readers who have been commenting on my blog:

I have been responding to your comments! But it appears that WordPress doesn’t tell you when I have done so. I am sorry to hear that. I thought you’d get an email or something when I replied to you. I guess you will need to go back to your comments on previous posts if you’re interested in seeing my responses to them.

Also, if you want to write a comment to me, but don’t want the comment made public, say so in the comment, and I won’t approve it. I’ll just read it and then toss it in the trash.

I am grateful for the feedback!

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (10)

Why You Might Want to Read Pollan’s Book Before You Dose. A Rather-Long Book Review.

How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence, by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, May, 2018. Also available on Audible)

Anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s writing knows that he not only brings an inimitable perspective to subjects that range across the environment, nature, and food, he does so with a virtuosic literary flair. While his approach is authoritative and science-based, his books are as much aesthetic pleasures as they are troves of compelling information. These attributes are part of the appeal of his most recent work, How to Change your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

The book opens with a line from Emily Dickinson – “The soul should always stand ajar” – and Pollan invites us to put that advice to use by exploring a world with which most of us (even most “acid heads,” I would guess) are unfamiliar. His opening paragraph is as much a hook as an introduction.

“Midway through the twentieth century,” he begins, “two unusual new molecules, organic compounds with a striking family resemblance, exploded upon the West. In time, they would change the course of social, political and cultural history, as well as the personal histories of the millions of people who would eventually introduce them to their brains. As it happened, the arrival of these disruptive chemistries coincided with another world historical explosion – that of the atomic bomb. There were people who compared the two events and made much of the cosmic synchronicity. Extraordinary new energies had been loosed upon the world; things would never be quite the same” (p. 1).

It’s a paragraph that may strike the reader as hyperbolic, but thanks to Pollan’s fine blend of compelling writing, intriguing facts and riveting anecdotes, his exploration of the world of psychedelics consistently lives up to this initial promise.

How to Change your Mind unfolds in six chapters that cover, among other subjects: the social history of psychedelic use (from the time of the Aztecs to the present); the natural history of “magic mushrooms” and other true psychedelics; a review of the scientific literature relating to these substances; a discussion of the chemical makeup of psychedelics and current research into what effects they may have on the brain; the drugs’ philosophical and mystical dimensions; the political issues that have plagued the entire field of psychedelic use and study and may threaten them again in future; and, perhaps most importantly in this bat-shit crazy era of human history, the promise offered by these drugs to address depression and addiction and to expand our knowledge about the nature of human consciousness.

Pollan personalizes his story by explaining what drew him to write a book about psychedelics and what happened when he (a “healthy normal,” as he calls himself) tried them out for the first time. And for the second time. And the third. He also offers anecdotes relayed to him by others who have taken psychedelic trips.

Perhaps most relevant to my own decision to participate in a clinical study of psilocybin is the material in Pollan’s book relating to the treatment of depression and anxiety. He details the massive clinical evidence that has accrued to date showing the beneficial effects, which can last for months or years or even longer, of one or two psychedelic treatment sessions on those experiencing chronic and/or serious existential depression, addiction and certain other (non-psychotic) forms of mental-health disturbance.

The protracted effects of a well-managed single dose suggest that these benefits cannot be attributed to the chemical itself, and some of the most fascinating content in this book is the discussion of current research into what effect these substances may be having on the brain. Scientists now believe that psychedelics must cause a “temporary dissolution of the ego,” allowing the wiping away of certain debilitating thinking patterns and allowing new, more positive patterns to be built.

The mind-boggling range of interrelated topics that are covered in this book (I can’t begin to convey the vastness of its scope) to my mind makes this essential reading for anyone with any serious interest in the subject of psychedelics. In this post, I talk about some some of the many issues Pollan raises – not in an attempt to offer a condensed version of the book (which would be impossible anyway), but rather out of a hope that the reader’s interest will be piqued enough that they will find a copy of the book and read it for themselves.

The Context

As many of us know, in the early 1960s Harvard professors Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (who later renamed himself Ram Dass) and others became so enthusiastic about the potential of LSD to save the world that they decided to try to turn on everybody, or at least an entire generation. The effort had several disastrous outcomes – not because of the drug itself but because of the way it was distributed, mostly underground, and used. The fallout put psychedelics out of legal reach for research or individual use for decades.

Although many who tried LSD at the time had wonderfully transformative experiences or just garden-variety amazing trips, others had more negative and newsworthy outcomes. These ranged from disastrous judgement calls (there were incidences of accidental deaths, suicides and cases of long-term psychosis), through accounts of hallucinations that terrified the trippers, to events that mostly horrified disapproving onlookers and the media – such as kids running naked through the streets. The love of humanity and nature engendered by these substances also led to a widespread disinclination among users to march off to fight a war in Viet Nam. Within a few years, alarm about psychedelic drugs had risen to such a level that President Richard Nixon declared war on them, Harvard fired Leary and Alpert, and all research into this intriguing substance was made illegal. It would be thirty years before clinical investigations into the positive aspects of psychedelics could be resumed – legally, at least.

Disabusing Myths

As it turns out, the actual research from the 1950s and 60s and the extensive clinical investigation since the late 1990s clearly indicate that psychedelics are physically safe. “It is virtually impossible to die from an overdose of LSD or psilocybin… and neither is addictive” (p. 11). Tryptamine, the organic compound that causes the psychedelic effect, is not only not toxic, but it works differently on the brain from substances that do lead to addiction. “What is striking about this whole line of clinical research,” Pollan writes, “is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego that may be the key to changing one’s mind.” (Pollan points out that other drugs that are not true psychedelics, some of which are now being used in clinical settings to relieve depression, and all of which are available on the street – such as MDMA [aka “molly” or “ecstasy”] and ketamine [Special K, KitKat] – can be addictive.)

Research is also showing that with screening and supervision, psychedelics are almost always psychologically safe. The incidences of “bad trips” (which can indeed be terrifying from all reports, and are one of my big worries about my impending dose), can almost always be averted or at least mitigated by attention to set and setting. The “psychotic breaks” that emergency doctors unfamiliar with the drugs identified in those (few) people who were admitted to their care after taking LSD back in the 1960s are now believed to have been primarily panic attacks – which are also less likely to happen when dosing takes place in a safe setting in the presence of a knowledgeable guide. Again there are usage warnings: people with psychosis in their family history and young people who are predisposed to schizophrenia may not be good candidates for psychedelic use.

“Set and setting” are so crucial to the successful therapeutic use of psychedelics that early on, Johns Hopkins developed a set of “flight instructions” that are given to research participants in advance of their treatment doses in order to help them avoid bad trips – or to transform bad trips into good ones. These instructions basically involve trusting that you’re going to be okay, letting go, and remaining open to the experience, and they have become part of the standard protocols of clinical studies into psychedelics everywhere – as has the mixed tape of music that Johns Hopkins researchers developed for participants to listen to while they are tripping.

Psychedelics are highly “suggestible,” which means that setting expectations for a psychedelic experience ahead of time is an extremely important step. (This is the “mindset,” or “set,” part of “set and setting.”) It seems, for example, that those who anticipate a mystical experience in which they feel as though they have made contact with a divine being or a deceased loved one are far more likely to have these kinds of experiences than are people whose intentions are (again, by way of example) to learn more about the self or about the nature of consciousness.

Clinical Evidence

The evidence that psychedelics have a dramatic role to play in the treatment of mental-health issues including chronic depression, end-of-life despair and PTSD includes a 2016 publication from New York and Johns Hopkins universities showing clinically significant reductions in measurable incidences of depression and anxiety in 80% of cancer patients. When researchers applied for funding from the FDA in 2017 to extend a study into the effects of these substances on cancer patients, the results they had already amassed were so impressive that FDA staff asked them to expand the next phase to include depressed patients who did not have cancer. As Pollan points out, they made this request “seemingly undeterred by the unique challenges posed by psychedelic research, such as the problem of blinding, the combining of therapy and medicine, and the fact that the drug in question is still illegal” (p. 375). Similar initiatives have occurred in Europe, where there is also serious concern about the pervasiveness of depression in the general population and the inadequacy of current resources and medications to adequately address the situation.

Way back in the 1950s, before psychedelics became illegal, there was already growing evidence that these substances could help people with addictions. Pollan takes an interesting detour in his historical account to report on a highly successful program in Weyburn, Saskatchewan in the early to mid- 1950s – involving Aldous Huxley among others – that made LSD standard treatment for alcoholism in that province. Even before that, indigenous people in North America were using peyote to treat the rampant alcoholism that had accompanied the European invasion of the “New World.” Since the 1990s, research in the addictions field has resumed both underground and above ground, and is showing promising results, with up to 50% of participants in one Johns Hopkins study having quit smoking following a psychedelic session compared to 10% to 35% who used other treatment options.

Even “healthy normals” who have taken standard therapeutic doses of psilocybin or LSD in settings that approximate the ones being used in clinical studies have reported such benefits as increased focus and greater creativity. In small doses, psychedelics have shown a benefit to the fitness of animals, and the implications for humans in this context are also being investigated.

The Spiritual Element

As well as temporarily dissolving the ego (or “shaking the snow globe” as one scientist quoted by Pollan put it), psychedelics have occasioned what many have described as “mystical experiences.” Science is exploring theories about what makes this happen. This is in itself quite an amazing turn of events: we now have researchers focusing their traditional methods of investigation on efforts to discover what causes phenomena that have zero anchors in reality – such as convictions of the existence of higher powers in which people may have faith, but can show no concrete proof. Obviously, the only way to approach this topic in a way that has scientific resonance is to explore the physical side of it. What effect does tryptamine (which is, as explained above, the psychoactive component of psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca and other true psychedelics) have on the brain that might lead to hallucinations and mystical experiences?

Many studies in England, the U.S., Canada and other countries are now focussed on the effect of tryptamine on the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which “forms a critically and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to to deeper and older structures involved in memory and emotion” (p. 301). Wikipedia describes the DMN, which scientists who study the brain did not even know existed until about 2001, as “being active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. It can also be active during detailed thoughts related to external task performance. Other times that the DMN is active include when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future.” Scientists are able to get the DMN to “light up” during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when subjects are asked certain questions about their selves or given feedback about something they have done (such as receiving “likes” on social media), and with other prompts that involve identification of the sense of self. For this reason, neuroscientists sometimes refer to the DMN as “the Me network.”

The positive effects of the DMN on human thinking and behaviour are multifold. The network essentially acts as a conductor of the orchestra in our brain, whose instruments carry out functions such as smelling, seeing, adding, subtracting, etc. It organizes the instruments in a way that prevents all their necessary activity from leading to cacophonous collisions that would send us into madness. However, the DMN can also create patterns of repetitive thinking that are unproductive, causing our minds to wander around and around dark alleyways (wearing deeper and deeper ruts in our mind) that can lead some of us into cycles of depression and addictive behaviours that we seem unable to escape.

Pollan provides a comprehensive report on the recent history and current thinking related to the DMN, all of which – thanks to his strong writing – is truly interesting. The long and the short of it is that some neuroscientists now think that during psychedelic trips, the DMN or “me network” is knocked out of commission, leading to the dissolution of the ego. This allows the brain to stop processing input as it traditionally does, on the basis of memories and learned emotions, and instead to respond in a way that some have compared to how babies and young children see the world: with amazement and pleasure. Because the DMN is not doing its usual job of telling us “this is impossible,” perhaps tryptamine also lets us encounter visions that we interpret as gods and monsters.

Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious. (Pollan, p. 251)

Pollan explains it all much better than I do here, but in short, psychedelics may wipe out the ruts we have created in our thinking, allowing us to see trees and flowers as if for the first time, to love those we love as though experiencing love for the first time, and just generally to become much more open and creative in our ways of interpreting the world. And they may do this simply by taking the default mode network out of commission for a few hours. Herein lies a scientific interpretation that may also explain some magic.

The Psychonauts

There is no doubt that the spiritual component of psychedelics is what is attractive and notable to many who are exploring altered states of consciousness through the use of psychedelics. Indeed, it was for their mystical properties – not to get “high” as one does with alcohol or cannabis – that almost every aboriginal group in the world made use of psychoactive drugs from early times. And it was their mystical effect on users that made LSD seem so dangerous to governments in the 1960s – people who had experienced an explosive love for humanity and the world around them as a result of using psychedelic drugs were no more interested in becoming cogs in the capitalist machine than they were in going off to war. (I imagine that this is not a selling point for psychedelics within the industrial complex.)

Interestingly, it was thanks to a paper published in the journal Psychopharmacology addressing the whole mystical side of psychedelics that revived research interest in the use of psychedelics in therapeutic settings fifteen years ago. Entitled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” it was the result of a study by a highly regarded neuroscientist named Roland Griffiths, a researcher who had grown bored with his previous work after having had a spiritual experience himself on psychedelics.

This aspect of psychedelic use is still of major interest to many, and groups have been established to foster and explore the spiritual experience. Unlike most religious experiences, the contact with higher powers precipitated by LSD and other psychedelics is direct – you don’t need an intercessor (religious leader, shaman, etc.) to tell you about the immutable revelations; you experience them yourself. (I imagine that this is not a selling point for psychedelics among would-be cult leaders – including not only religious leaders, but also some politicians.)

Pollan writes about a whole range of figures from both within and outside of the world of science who are interested in and knowledgeable about the mystical facets of psychedelics – including the aforementioned Roland Griffiths, as well as Bob Jesse (another of the authors on the Psychopharmacology paper and founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices), Rick Doblin (founder and executive director of the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, [MAPS]), Terrance McKenna (creator of the “Stoned Ape Theory” of the evolution of human cognition, including language), and Paul Stamets, a self-taught mycologist who is central to the movement to increase human awareness of the power, ubiquitousness and benefits to the planet of the range of mushroom species (not just those containing psilocybin).

Back to the Neuroscience

“If, as Freud said, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, is it possible that psychedelic drugs are a superhighway to the unconscious?” (M. Holden, 1980, as quoted in “The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs,” by Robin Carhart-Harris, Robert Leech, et al.)

I personally found it reassuring that despite all of his research and personal “travels” using psychoactive drugs, Michael Pollan has not turned into a mystic, or completely relinquished his atheism (although he does confess to having “communed directly with a plant for the first time” on his first, unguided trip), but those who are interested in the spiritual aspects of these drugs will find lots of non-judgemental and interesting material in his book.

However, I am at this point more interested in living in the world than lifting off from it on any kind of permanent basis. In fact, one of my big worries about my upcoming trip has been that I will lose my groundedness and sense of purpose, both of which I value highly. So it is reassuring to know that the direct effect of psychedelics on the default mode network is temporary, lasting only as long as the drug is having its most intense effects, which is typically between 6 and 8 hours. Psychedelics do not make people permanently delusional.

The lack of permanent physical change to the brain as a result of psychedelic use is of great interest to scientists. Since the nature of the psychedelic journey does not make people want to have trips on a regular basis (or even more than once, in many cases), and since the effects may wear off within months or years, clinical trials such as the one I am involved with now are working to figure out how to extend the benefits of these trips by means of follow-up integration sessions, meditation, and other non-pharmacological means. (I imagine the fact that only one dose is typically administered is not a big selling point for Big Pharma.)

In Conclusion

This review is so long that I am tempted to just throw the whole thing in the trash despite the hours it has taken me to write it, because I doubt others will be bothered to read the whole thing. Even if they did, their time would be better spent in opening Pollan’s actual book and digging in. But I read How to Change Your Mind far more closely than I would have otherwise because I wanted to to write about it, and that was of great benefit to me. Writing this review, or dissertation, or whatever it is, was also beneficial. It would be a better a literary artifact, and become a more appropriate length for readers of this blog, if I now embarked on a great deal of trimming and restructuring, but I have other things to do.

There are unfinished threads I still want to write about that have arisen from my ingestion of so much material on matters psychedelic – I am concerned abut the future role of these drugs in therapeutics and other consciousness-expanding settings, and specifically about how their potential benefits may be eroded yet again by the machinations of Big Pharma, governments and even therapists themselves who may see little benefit to themselves in the relief experienced thanks to psychedelics by ordinary humans, but I’ll write about that next time.

In the meantime, people who are asking other people and/or the Internet to tell them more about psychedelics, as well as people like me who are contemplating a one-off full-dose psychedelic tour of the inside of their brains, will benefit from reading Pollan. How to Change Your Mind is an extraordinarily rich and interesting resource.