Andew Weil has made a name for himself as a doctor well-credentialed in Western medicine, as well as an advocate of exotic -- and often controversial -- alternatives to conventional cures. His bestseller “The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness,” explores the experience of using consciousness-altering narcotics, with particular attention paid to his own experience, which he calls “meticulous self-observation.” The book connects Weil’s understanding of the impact such substances have on the mind with the general problem of drug addiction.
Why Do We Take Drugs?
The first three chapters of “The Natural Mind” are directed to the issue of why people take drugs at all. Weil is quick to opine that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking drugs; in fact, he considers the impulse natural. Besides providing a temporary respite from the pain of trauma and work, he says, it also provides opportunities for psychological expansion. The natural tendency of the human mind is to seek out ways to move beyond the world as it appears to us in search of greater spiritual depth and meaning.
In Chapter 4, “What No One Wants to Know About Marijuana,” Weil makes the controversial argument that marijuana is potentially a much less dangerous drug than most people realize. While it can significantly impair cognitive function, that impairment can be virtually eliminated through “compensation,” or the proficiency acquired by regularly taking marijuana and becoming accustomed to its effects, Weil says. Stronger narcotics, and even alcohol, do not permit the same degree of compensation and are ultimately more dangerous. Marijuana, he argues, provides a potentially safer avenue for responsible adults to explore different ways to experience reality.
Straight vs. Deep Thinking
Weil distinguishes between two distinct modes of cognition: straight thinking and deep thinking. Straight thinking interprets the world in purely dualistic terms, positing a hard distinction between the self and others. The straight thinker’s classic tendency is to interpret the high from drugs as a way to escape the world, finding sanctuary from pain and disappointment. Conversely, deep thinking is more intuitive and understands the self as fully integrated into the world, aiming at a spiritual oneness that all things participate in. Weil argues that drug use can be good if the user understands the narcotic as a tool to forward the aims of deep thinking.
The Problem of Addiction
According to Weil, the problem of drug addiction springs from disordered selves, rather than the actual drugs. If the proper approach to a drug is adopted, then it can be used responsibly, even profitably. That approach involves seeing the drug in question as a conduit to spiritual growth rather than a pharmacological solace from pain and misery. The key to drug addiction, he says, is not eliminating drugs but changing the consciousness of those who choose to use them.
While popular with readers, Weil's thesis has not been without its detractors. Arnold S. Relman, former editor of the "New England Journal of Medicine," is among many who criticized Weil for a general lack of scientific rigor, and for his view that valuable insight can result from drug-induced states of altered consciousness. As reported in the "Los Angeles Times," Relman said the following of Weil's theory: "It hit me that this was the explanation for what I consider to be the odd, unconventional and often irrational attitude of people like Weil who champion alternative medicine. It explained a lot about their attitude."