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anyas

Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

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This morning at church our pastor talked about Saul’s conversion to Christianity as it was described in Acts. He mentioned the relief that Saul must have felt when Christ showed himself so clearly, because now he could stop trying to live the good life and measure up. In other parts of the New Testament Paul writes himself about the extent of his piety as a Jew. In Philippians 3, Paul lists his credentials: he is circumcised, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a man thoroughly versed in the scriptures, zealous, righteous, blameless…and yet he suffers deeply because his strivings towards perfection only point to his inability to be good enough; to win God’s grace, to earn His love. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death…”

Our pastor went on to say that, “In Christ Saul received the freedom from the frustration and despair of trying to be good enough…”

As is almost inevitable these days, my thoughts took his words and wondered to the topic of my failed marriage. I could see myself in Saul. I too had labored long and hard to get the right credentials. I prayed and I forgave and I put forth tremendous effort to DO everything to make the marriage work. Time and time again, I did the right thing. My actions were praiseworthy from every point of view.. And yet, I was wretched. And no closer to causing myself to be joyful, and no closer to saving the marriage.

During all of our years together, I did not feel like I had the freedom to give up. The freedom to fail.

I remembered a conversation I had with my youth pastor many years earlier. I asked him what he thought about the idea mentioned by many non-Christians that we believers use God as our crutch. He responded merrily, “Well, they’re wrong. We don’t use God as a crutch – He’s more like a stretcher.”

The beautiful thing about salvation is this: once you realize that you can’t be good enough, that it’s not at all ABOUT being good enough, you’re free. And God offers himself as the stretcher equally to those that seem almost perfect, and to those that are FAR from good enough. I thought about that, and about weakness, mine, and strength – his. Another conversation came to mind, one with a close friend that I had a few months ago. A non-believer, he told me that I have to let weakness consume me. That my future, my hope – was in my weakness. I wondered if he intended to mean then what I now understood that phrase meant.

And I made a decision today at church: I am SO over trying to be good enough. I am not good enough. And it doesn’t even matter. I’m not going to continue limping, putting on a smile and pretending I have this under control. I’m kind of tired, actually. Where’s that stretcher?…

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