Growing Old With the Lotus Eaters

Blue Lotus

The lotus-eaters of Greek mythology lived on the sandbanks of waters near Carthage and ate the fruit of the lotus. There is still some argument about what was meant by the “lotus” they ate, but the plants were thought to have roots in the underworld and so drew water from the river Lethe. That water had the power to remove all memories.

The lotus-eaters (Lotophagi) who arrived there lived in an idle, paralyzed, trance-like state with no recollection of the past nor concept of the future and with no desire to return to their native lands. Reading about them, it sounded not unlike some older people today living in the strange worlds of senility and in our retirement villages.

Odysseus pulls his men away from the lotus-eaters

You might have discovered the lotus-eaters as I did, in the tales of Odysseus. When he was sailing home, he landed on one of those sandbanks and sent a few men out to explore. The men discovered the Lotophagi, ate their fruit and fell into the same twilight state of idle paralysis. Odysseus had to drag them back to their ship as they pleaded to be left behind.

There certainly were examples in ancient religions of plants and substances being used in rituals and ceremonies: Soma in the Bhagavad Gita, Huoma in pre-Zoroastrian Persia, and the Manna of the Bible which fell from heaven. 

The blue lotus (AKA lily of the Nile) was a psychedelic plant used by ancient Egyptian high priests. It is referenced in the oldest recorded story known to man, the tale of Gilgamesh. Is that the plant Homer’s lotus-eaters were using?

Idleness can be quite addictive even without drugs. I thought a lot about retirement n the years before it became my reality. A lot of my friends are now retired. One thing we seem to have in common is a fear of becoming lotus-eaters – a fear of just becoming mind-numbingly idle.

Now, after a bad work day, the thought of just “doing nothing” is very appealing. I have some lotus-eater kinds of days when I feel like I have done nothing. But when I think about the day, I wasn’t really idle. I was reading and writing and working in the garden and taking a walk and taking some photos and communicating with people online and in person. But I didn’t do what I once defined as “work.”

One of the dangers if you are unprepared for retirement is that you become idle. You need a plan. When a car is idling, it isn’t going anywhere. You need to get in gear and get moving, though even a machine needs to rest and be idle at times.

Maybe that is why I keep so many To Do lists. They remind me that I have things to do. They also remind me in their undoneness of times when I am idle.

I visited someone a few years ago who had newly arrived at a retirement community. there was much of a lotus-eater feel to the place. No one seemed to be doing anything, but no one seemed to be looking for something to do.

Odysseus’ men in an unconscious state, by W. Heath Robinson

Is it apathy? I think about it at times, such as when it’s time to eat and I am hungry but there is nothing I want to eat.  I’ll eat almost anything you put in front of me to fill myself, but I don’t want anything, and I don’t even want to think about it. What if that becomes my attitude to everything?

In my online research, I found the island of Djerba which the legend says is the island of the Lotus-Eaters where Odysseus was stranded on his voyage through the Mediterranean. One of the vacation photos I saw showed a nude woman being misted at a spa and she looked blissed out.

But Odysseus would not recognize the island. I saw a coffeehouse on Djerba where I might sit and chill out, but it is just down the street from the Yasmine Shopping Center. How much of a lotus-eater would I be there drinking a powerful Tunisian coffee? Would I end up walking to the shopping center? Is there a lotus-eater cafe?

Homer set Ulysses’ sailing buddies onto a sandy beach to have them become seduced by un-mindfulness. There is something about the beach that does that. On vacations, my mind often can’t turn off. I’m looking for something to do, to read, to eat or drink, a place to go. But on beaches, I can actually turn off my brain. What is it?  The sound of the ocean, the sand, salty air, warm breeze, the heat of the Sun, women without much clothing?

In his 1833 poem “Song of the Lotos-Eaters,” Alfred Tennyson used this myth to explore our desire to reject the work world for a state of idleness:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep…

It sounds pretty sweet, but I think I would need someone nearby to drag me back to the ship after a time. I can’t help thinking that I have things to do and miles to go before I end my odyssey.

Stealing Ecstasis

L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern-day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to the time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion-dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?


Tomorrow Never Knows: Aldous Huxley Dying, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

While cleaning out my basement and attic this month and boxing up books to give away, I came across my long-unread copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a paperback that I bought when I was in high school but never read until I was in college.

In this classic scripture of Tibetan Buddhism— A friend recommended it. She was far ahead of me in spirituality. She told me it was traditionally read aloud to the dying to help them attain liberation. I bought it more to impress her than with any intent to prepare for my own death.

It wasn’t until college that I really recognized that it was a classic book of Tibetan Buddhism. I came to understand that death and rebirth are seen as a process and understanding that process helps one recognize the true nature of mind.

At least that is the intent. Reading the book didn’t bring me there. I doubt that any book can bring you to understand the nature of mind.

Most modern translations come a bit closer to the psychology of death and dying. Those are still topics I would prefer not to consider, but I am much closer to them than when I did my first reading of the book.

The book and my college experiences in the 1970s also introduced me to writers such as Aldous Huxley who wrote about the inner journey and mixed Western thought and Eastern spirituality. The path I wais pointed down also had stops with indigenous religious practices and psychotropic drugs.

I was a seeker and experimenter, but also a bit too frightened to go all the way down the psychotropic rabbit hole. Huxley’s own first psychedelic experience in the 1950s “was in no sense revolutionary.” He was disappointed, as I was, at not experiencing the visions he had read about in the Bardo or the writings of William Blake.

Still, Huxley felt a shift in consciousness and that continued for the rest of his life, as did his experiments with psychedelic drugs.

When Huxley was on his deathbed, he requested that his wife inject him with 100 micrograms of LSD. In the short video up top, Laura remembers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And in the letter above, which you can read in full at Letters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Huxley’s brother Julian and his wife Juliette.

A book that connected The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Huxley was another paperback on the same shelf that I was sorting through. It is a book I bought around the same time titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead  This book – which I think of as being “very 1960s” – is an “instruction manual” intended for use during sessions involving psychedelic drugs.

It was published in 1964 when this kind of experimentation by people such as Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert were mixing the therapeutic and religious/spiritual possibilities of drugs such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

I knew back then that the band The Doors had gotten their name from Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and I had read that the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) were aware of the book (and LSD) and used a bit of the text in the lyrics of their song “Tomorrow Never Knows” from their 1966 album Revolver.

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

When he was dying, Huxley’s wife Laura read to her husband The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her husband did not want to die and fought his cancer. But in his last days, he came to terms with death and decided he wanted her to give him two 100-microgram doses of LSD. People who were there reported that Huxley left without pain and without struggle.

I hope that is true. Today, we often drug those who are dying to free them from pain, but the drugs generally dull the senses and mind.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between is another translation of the original done by Robert Thurman. The edition’s foreword is by the Dalai Lama, which should not be surprising since it is still a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and religious thought.

I’m surprised that The Tibetan Book of the Dead hasn’t had more of a resurgence lately, not only because of what it might teach us about death and dying and how to live our life, but because psychedelics have seen a resurgence. A few years after Huxley’s death, the US and UK governments banned almost all psychedelic research, but it has recently become once again an object of scientific study and thanks to the reporting, and experimenting of writers such as Michael Pollan in his book, How to Change Your Mind. (which I read and wrote about earlier this year), Westerners may soon once again use psychedelics to take the inner journeys our culture does its best to discourage.

You may also want to explore Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics by Nicholas Knowles Bromell and The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows: A Biography by James L Desper Jr.  I discovered that the phrase “tomorrow never knows” was a line that Ringo came up with when the song was being written. Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is an easier read than The Book of the Dead, if you are so inclined.

Change Your Mind

Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.

On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.

I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.

“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.

Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.

He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.

From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.

Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.

Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.

Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”

What a Long Strange Trip It Has Been

I’m reading that taking “microdoses” of psychedelics, primarily LSD, is now growing in popularity and it isn’t something occurring at those recent semi-Grateful Dead concerts. This is professionals who then head out to the office.

A microdose is about a tenth of the normal dose. For LSD, that is 10 micrograms, or 0.2-0.5 grams of mushrooms. That kind of dosage is considered “subperceptual.” meaning an  energy lift, maybe some insight, but not tripping – and continuing on with normal daily activities.

In the 1960s, there were plenty of experiments to study the creativity enhancing effects of psychedelics, and lots of celebrity “endorsements.”

Having been through those 1960s days, it seems like a long, strange trip to today and reading about psychedelics being used “to improve cognitive functioning, body awareness and spiritual evolution.”

The five categories for enhancement are generally listed as: physical, emotional, perceptual, creative and spiritual.

The benefits include more overall energy, resonance and openness, improved mood and patience, enhanced senses, improved comprehension and increased awareness of universal connectedness, in an enlightening and almost divine way.

Though it’s not all love and flowers. Some microtrippers also report that personal issues can be more disturbing and that day of energy can end with a heaviness requiring more sleep, and a warped perception of time.

Reading posts on Reddit is hardly scientific research, but many microdosers are active there and sharing the good and bad experiences – bursts of creativity and cluster headaches. And there are still the associations with music and counterculture that will create threads about it on But you can also find the straight-ahead carrying articles headlined “LSD Microdosing: The New Job Enhancer In Silicon Valley And Beyond?”  Strange trip indeed.


Psychedelic Healing

I have a friend whose cousin is dying of untreatable cancer. At this point, he would consider any treatments and one thing he is exploring is psychedelic healing. I know that sounds like 1960s hippie quackery, but I found out that there is quite a bit of scientific research into it now.

New Jersey was the 14th state to approve medical marijuana which is a much milder drug that has faced the same prejudices. One of the articles I found is  from Scientific American. It is a  primer on much of the research into the use of psychedelics for medical purposes. The drugs that put the “psychedelic” into the sixties are now the subject of renewed research interest because of their therapeutic potential and are in clinical trials.

Psychedelics such as LSD and the compound in magic mushrooms might ease a variety of difficult-to-treat mental illnesses, such as chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol dependency. (Scientific American Mind – December 2007)

MAPS is funding clinical trials of MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) as a therapeutic tool to assist psychotherapy for the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other illnesses.

Their preliminary studies have shown that MDMA in conjunction with psychotherapy can help people overcome PTSD. You might know MDMA as the popular drug Ecstasy (although “Ecstasy” does not always contain pure MDMA). In laboratory studies, MDMA has been proven sufficiently safe for human consumption when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses.

Some of these substances, like ayahuasca, have been used in trials in Peru to actually treat substance abuse.

Further Reading