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The Power of Stoned Thinking

The Natural Mind by Andrew Weil Houghton Mifflin Co $5 95 229 pp

By Sallie Gouverneur

HEALERS AND REVOLUTIONARIES there many characteristics: a belief in a social or mental ideal; a commitment to the achievement of that ideal; and a chosen method of effecting change. The methods depend on the man; if he is active he looks outside himself for evidence of wrong, and concentrates on altering the externalities of political or psychic life. If he is contemplative, he concerns himself with the state of his own mind, looks inward for guidance, and affirms his own internal relation to the world before prescribing correctives for others.

Andrew Weil '64, M.D. '68 belongs to the second class of healers. His concern in The Natural Mind is drugs and their relationship to the human consciousness. Weil has grown up with the drug scene; he began when Leary and Alpent did, experimenting with mescaline as a freshman in Claverly. He wrote papers for Riesman on drugs in American society and went on to Harvard Medical School. As an intern Weil treated the "victims" of the Haight in San Francisco. In 1968 he conducted the first thorough, objective study of marijuana in this country since 1946; the results, though they now seem old hat, caught most experts completely off guard.

But to call The Natural Mind a book about drugs, and its author a drug expert, is to do neither the book nor its author full justice; for though The Natural Mind at first glance, is a same and objective discussion of the use of drugs in this country and its probable cause, its value and impact go much further. Because Andrew Weil trusted his own response to drugs and altered states of consciousness, he has been able to explore the realm of the human mind unhampered by the dictates of medical and psychological experts. Because he followed the classic route of the medical student, and acquainted himself thoroughly with the methods, goals, and biases of drug researchers, he has been able to come to terms with modern and medical failings and foibles, and provide his own model for personal research and observation. Weil has not only written a careful, reasonable, and liberating treatise on drugs; he has also provided a new model for approaching the human mind as a subject for study, and a new way of evaluating the ranges of human experience.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION he allies himself with some pride to a scientific tradition of "meticulous self-observation," represented by Sir Humphrey Davy's experiments with laughing gas in 1799. He notes with an edge of bitterness that Davy's experiments were carried out "with a careful intelligence and a spirit of wonder that seems to have vanished from our modern laboratories."

This capacity for wondering self-searching. Weil believes, has been neglected and underestimated. We have been taught to attend primarily, if not solely, to the input and output of the intellectual computer, and to deny or mistrust the experiences associated with alternate states of consciousness. We are not at ease with our own unconscious minds; we look for reassurance and self-esteem in the external world. "Internal reality, in all its varied forms," he writes, "is a different order of reality that is self-validating. And the most elementary requirement for getting in touch with it is simple withdrawal of attention from sensory attachment to external reality."

Drugs provide one of the quickest, easiest ways to withdraw from the ordinary waking state of consciousness. Weil rejects the notion that drug use in our society indicates internal unrest or social canker; he believes instead that "the desire to alter consciousness periodically is an innate, normal drive analogous to hunger or the sexual drive."

Adults who neither drink nor smoke, daydream, hallucinate mildly just before sleep, and meditate or withdraw from the waking state without realizing that they are in effect, "high." Young children whirl around madly to produce dizziness or "vertiginous stupor;" they also hyperventilate, inhale the fumes of volatile solvents, experience the effects of ether during operations. As they grow older they learn that such practices are not acceptable to adults, sublimate the desire to experience altered consciousness, and eventually regain social approval of a high by drinking and-or taking drugs.

THE REMARKABLE aspect of Weil's discussion of drugs in this context is his refusal to attribute value judgements to the varied expressions of this need to experience a high. He carefully discusses the disadvantages and properties of drug-induced highs, and differentiates between the abuse of chemical agents and their proper use to attain a certain psychic state. The Amazon Indians' use of natural drugs as community events moves Weil to suggest four ways to encourage their proper use; use drugs in natural ways, avoiding synthetic chemicals and the isolated, more potent forms of natural drugs (marijuana rather than THC); use drugs ritually, for certain purposes and in certain settings; "seek advice about drugs from people who know what they are talking about;" and use drugs for "positive reasons," not to avoid depression of escape a problem, but to enlarge the consciousness under stabilizing circumstances.

In a recent interview Weil spoke about his research and observation among Indians in Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico. He went to learn more about their healing techniques and use of drugs as medicine, but the results, he said, were disappointing. Synthetic drugs from European and American pharmaceutical companies have already made their way into most Indian cultures. Weil reported that drug injections have become a very popular remedy for illness, for the Indians ascribe the same magic to the needle that they once attributed to mushroom and herb.

The belief that magical power--whether medicinal or mystical--resides within the drug rather than within the consciousness of the user, is the cause of most drug abuse, and, more generally, harmful conceptions about the consciousness itself. Anxious Americans try to escape with drink or dope for the same reason that Indians prefer an injection to the medicine man's traditional methods. Weil's most important and far-reaching point in The Natural Mind is simply this: that the power to heal and to perceive the self fully lies within the mind, not outside.

This power is undermined and untapped because we approach reality in a certain way. Weil calls this approach "straight thinking." Straight thinking is something all of us do, most of the time, during the normal waking state.

STRAIGHT THINKING manifests itself in everyone in varying degrees, and is characterized by several inter-relating "tendencies." First, things are perceived or known through the intellect, which is ordinarily mistaken for the mind itself. False identification of the intellect with the mind prohibits or hinders testing of hypotheses by direct experience, because the mind is so often equated with "ordinary, ego-centered waking consciousness." Straight thinking encourages the thinker to "be attached to the senses and through them to external reality." Sense-perception becomes computer input, and the mind equates that input--external reality--with all of reality, causing a "lapse into materialism" of the most pervasive kind. Finally, this ego-centered consciousness tends more toward discrimination and classification of things: the intellect ultimately recognizes and latches onto the distinction between self and not-self, and denies the consciousness the direct understanding of the unity of things and people, often realized during a high. This direction of thought encourages a profound sense of isolation, pessimism, and despair--the logical result of the preceding tendencies.

Weil terms the non-materialist, non-intellectual manner of perception "stoned thinking," primarily because the words "stoned" and "straight" are common usage and easily grasped. Stoned thinking is characterized by reliance on intuition--deductive thinking based on direct experience--as well as intellection. As acceptance of intuitive perception encourages an understanding of "the ambivalent nature of things"--paradox, Yin-Yang--and a sense that infinite reality is not a threat but rather an invitation to explore. Stoned thinking in Weil's terms is conductive to that rare sense of being at home in the universe.

Andrew Weil's application of these ideas to modern social problems is broadly-based and telling. He establishes a firm relationship between the experiences which arise from stoned thinking and the mystical heights which all religions see as the ultimate goal for the believer. He feels that conventional psychiatry's general lack of success is due to its essentially non-experiential, negative approach to mental health. The idea that the simultaneous experience of two opposite feelings--neurosis--is wrong causes psychiatrists to encourage the patient "to resist neurotic conflicts," rather than understand and assimilate them. The analogy to political action is equally revealing, for by regarding other modes of government as different and therefore wrong, the effort to eradicate or deny the other philosophies automatically negates the possibility of peace. The key is integration based on trust, not disintegration and destruction through defense.

Weil is hardly the first thinker to assert the power of the mind to heal and develop itself: Emerson said as much in "Self-Reliance" in 1841. But Weil's quiet indictment of a society ruled by rationalism and psychological materialism is unique, because it comes from a true child of this society. Moreover, he sees evidence that "we have passed the peak of our rational intellecutal period." The Natural Mind, valuable for its optimism alone, is an important examination of the potential of the mind for finding its own strength and security within.

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