On Death Denial, Truth, and Transcendence with Dr. Jordana Jacobs

On this episode, I talk with Dr. Jordana Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. Her approach is integrative, combining psychodynamic and existential therapy into her treatment of patients. Dr. Jacobs’ training at Memorial Sloan Kettering working with terminally ill cancer patients, her studies in Northern India, and her Vipassana meditation practice inspired her research on the complex relationship between death awareness and love. Her dissertation, entitled “Till Death do us Part: The Effect of Mortality Salience on Satisfaction in Long-term Romantic Relationships” specifically explored the ways in which priming for death has the potential to increase intimacy in partnerships. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Jacobs now speaks and leads retreats aimed towards helping people accept inevitable mortality so that they are able to live and love more fully.


Having, Being and the Psychedelic Experience

Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the process, loses his soul.”   

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

We want more. More property, more money in the bank, more cars, more movies, more shoes, more houses, and more status symbols. Modern society can be characterized by its constant generation and consumption of material possessions; but where do these possessions go when they are discarded? This is an important question to ask, as a society that has an endless appetite for more material possessions will be inevitably balanced by an equally endless production of waste. The answer; the natural environment. When material goods are discarded, only a small percentage of those goods end up being recycled. The rest is funneled into landfills, but that’s only when it is responsibly and conscientiously managed. An untold amount of garbage subsequently ends up in the natural environment, leading to ecological devastation. CNN recently reported that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating patch of plastic debris and trash, is now “three times the size of France”. But, this problem is not as simple as finding a better solution for managing waste, nor is it the simple act of “cleaning up” the pollution and ecological devastation that has already occurred; that is treating the symptom, not the cause. Something needs to change, and though this seems to emerge as an ecological problem, it is more deeply and appropriately dealt with as a psychological one. This paper will outline the problem of modern Man’s materialistic inclinations through the psychological lens, borrowing from the insight of the humanist psychologist Erich Fromm, and provide a solution based on empirical data; the controlled and responsible consumption of psychedelic substances.

“If I am what I have, then I lose what I have, what then am I?” asks Erich Fromm, the influential German psychoanalyst in his book To Have or to Be? He was one of the first psychoanalysts to study and diagnose the problems of Man as they relate to the destruction of the natural environment. For him, the problem lies in a psychological mode of existence that is predicated on consumerism, materialism, industrialism, and a pathologically exaggerated value on having. Fromm insists that modern Man is perverted in his value structures, confusing having with being. Modern Man believes that “if I have much, I am much” . This fundamental axiom is juxtaposed with what Erich Fromm labels as the more proper psychological mode of Man; the mode of being. This is the modality of the psyche that finds identity in the non-material qualities of existence; of virtue, integrity, and an embodiment of knowledge and values. More on the being mode later. First, let us dive more deeply into the nature of the having mode, its sources, and the implications it has on for the natural environment.

The having mode, according to Fromm, is a mode of being reinforced by the premises of our modern, post-industrial age social organization.  Our society is fueled by a promise; by what Fromm calls “The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress”. It is the promise of domination over nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and of unimpeded personal freedom; freedom to hedonistically and passively consume whatever one wishes for. This promise has held faith for countless generations. Though some of these values have always been held in some form, particularly the desire to conquer nature, Man was not able to fully realize any of this until the industrial revolution. During the industrial age, mechanical and nuclear energy substituted human and animal energy, the computer substituted the human mind, and our ability to produce began to make possible the idea of continual abundance for all. We were on our way to constant consumption. The industrial age began a conquest, but Fromm warns that “… our spirit of conquest and hostility has blinded us to the fact that natural resources have their limits and can eventually be exhausted, and that nature will fight against human rapaciousness”.

There are two pathological premises at the root of this Great Promise of Unlimited Progress, as Fromm asserts. One, that “the aim of life is happiness, that is, maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel (radical hedonism)”. Two, “that egotism, selfishness and greed, as the system needs to generate them to function, leads to harmony and peace” . These premises are largely what engenders the having mode. If happiness is consumption, then Man will continue to do so as far as he believes that happiness is an ultimate ideal. A person might even come to think that if they are not consuming, they are not or cannot be happy. If one cannot consume and meet the needs of all their desires and satisfactions, they will be left feeling hollow, unachieved, and impotent as a functional person in society. So, with this feeling of material and consummatory lack being defined as the opposite of happiness, Man will run away in the opposite direction; in the direction of constant consumption to procure the Great Promise’s definition of the ideal mode of being.

The first premise relates specifically to the consumption of material goods as it states that hedonistic pleasure is the source of happiness, and that form of pleasure can only be created by the sensory outlets of the body. One must consume food to have the pleasure from food; such is the nature of consuming cars, jewelry, drugs, sex, shopping. These are behaviors that offer pleasure in the short-term, as they gratify and satiate very baseline human drives such as relieving oneself from hunger or sexually gratifying oneself, but this form of pleasure is not a type that predicates itself at all on what is most beneficial in the medium to long-term future. That hamburger might taste good and be pleasurable now, but the deforestation of the Amazon jungle to have pastures to raise the beef from which the burger was made will have long-term consequences that will overshadow the small moments of pleasure offered by a hamburger. As long as happiness is put forth as the ultimate ideal, and as long as it is defined as consummatory freedom and hedonistic pleasure, it will place Man in a motivational state that maximizes the desire to consume material goods. This state might have positive short-term effects on well-being, but it is a bad medium to long-term strategy. If Man is to preserve the finite planet on which he lives, he needs to learn how to temper an otherwise infinite appetite.

The second premise of the Great Promise is that egoism, the ultimate concern for a bounded sense of identity excluding everything outside of the individual, is the most beneficial frame of mind for the individual and for the society. In other words, it is more important that I have than that you have or we have.  This form of egoism says “if I have more, I am more”. Not only is this premise supported by our society, but it is necessary in order for the current system to function properly. It is here that a pathological aspect of this premise comes to the surface. This premise is based on the notion that what is best for the system at large is also what is best for the individual. The system thrives on a collective of greed-driven, egoistic people competing with each other to succeed in their efforts to create the most value for themselves. But, not only is what is most beneficial for the prevailing system not most beneficial for the individual, it is also not most beneficial for the natural environment. If we maintain ourselves as a species that has an infinite appetite based on our pathological sourcing of self-esteem and personal value, we will continue to consume the resources on the Earth, and destroy the natural environment from which we evolved.

So, how exactly do the central narratives of a social system, such as the Great Promise, influence the behavior and psychological modes of existence of the population? The answer; through a form of natural selection. A system will reward individuals for behaviors that aid in the growth of the system, and punish behaviors that go against the system. In this way, the society places selection pressures on behaviors and thoughts, and the evolutionary process leads to a converging of the collective psyche to a state that has been selected for as most successful. Our social system selects for mindsets in the same way that tall tree branches selected for the long neck of the giraffe. But, the having mode as it is produced by our society is not exclusively a top-down phenomenon. The individual and the society are in a feedback-loop, effecting the evolution of each other. When trying to change a system, the proper level to work from is the level of the individual. As Ghandi once said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

According to Fromm, adopting the being mode of existence is the crucial psychological transformation needed to avert our species from catastrophe. But, what is the being mode, and how is this mode more beneficial for the long-term success of our species as well as being beneficial for the health and preservation of the natural world?

The crucial difference in the having mode and the being mode lies in the way the focus of well-being lays within each mode. In the having mode, short-term gain is positioned above all else, leading to the guiltless depletion and discarding of natural resources. This mode is also characterized by an inherent narcissism, which Fromm describes as “an orientation in which one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… for the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real. What is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and one’s intellect. But it is not real in the deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding. He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, inasmuch as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgement. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: he is the world.” This narcissistic orientation engendered by the having mode leaves the individual to be concerned only for their individual well-being, excluding the outside world, and subsequently the natural world. The being mode is concerned with not only the well-being of the individual, but the well-being of the collective species, as well as the world in which the individual lives, as it is evident when seeing reality through the being mode that the individual is inextricably related to the natural environment.

If we shift to the being mode, we would see that the having mode is a direct threat to our survival and our very ability to be in the first place. Man has become blinded to the destruction that he is causing to our planet, blinded by that fast, new sports car, by the crisp sound of a beer opening and by our new Hoover vacuum cleaner (a kind much better than the neighbors’). But, how can we shift our psychological orientation from the having mode to the being mode in time to avert a natural disaster? One solution could be the conscientious use of psychedelic substances.

Psychedelics are a class of drugs that includes LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline, that have been used in a medicinal context for up to ten-thousand years, and the use of these substances is potentially “as old as civilization itself” (Mckenna 30). The word psychedelic was first coined by a psychoanalyst named Humphry Osmond, and comes from a Greek-root meaning “to manifest the mind”. Psychedelics are a unique type of substance in that they are not physically addictive, their active compounds mimic endogenous neurochemistry, and are incredible safe. The Global Drug Survey recently listed psilocybin mushrooms as the safest of all scheduled substances. Psychedelics dependably induce what is known as a mystical experience. These mystical experiences as induced by psychedelics are colloquially known as the psychedelic experience. But, what does this have to do with shifting the psychological mode of Man into a mode that is more sustainable and beneficial for the natural world?

Evidence suggests that those who have used psychedelics have values and beliefs that differ from those who have never used psychedelics in some important ways. In a study titled Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Drug Users: A Cross-Cultural Study from Bond University in Australia, it was found that those who have used psychedelic drugs have a statistically significant difference in general life values. It was found that psychedelic users place a higher value on “spirituality”, “concern for the environment”, “concern for others”, “creativity”, and a lessened concern for “financial prosperity” (Lerner and Lyvers 8). This study presents that the psychedelic experience leads to personality changes analogous to Fromm’s idea of the being mode. But, why might a mystical experience cause such a change in values?

One hypothesis is how psychedelics modulate human neurochemistry. Specifically, psychedelics have been found to modulate activity in an area of the brain known as the Default-Mode Network, which is responsible for introspection, contemplation, and self-concept. This finding accounts for the phenomenological effect that the psychedelic experience has; it heightens introspection in a lasting way.

Our egoism leads us to believe that it’s things in the outside world that need to be conquered, when it is the inner world that one should learn to conquer. When we take psychedelics, our shift gazes inward, so to speak. Technically, it modulates activity in the part of the brain called the “default-mode network”. This is the part of the brain that is largely part of our capacity for introspection and self-reflection. Through this modulation of the neurochemistry of attention, we can become more mindful of our own being, rather than preoccupied with our having. This shift into introspection is concurrent with Fromm’s development of the being mode, as well as the findings on the values and beliefs of those who have used psychedelic substance. Spirituality and a lessened desire for financial prosperity are two values that are not held by those in the having mode. But, what accounts for the heightened concern for the environment that psychedelic drug users have?

Another common phenomenon of the psychedelic experience is a “sense of unity with the cosmos”, also known as “oceanic oneness” (Lerner and Lyvers). This can not only deepen our sense of being, but extend it to include the natural environment. When we move closer to seeing ourselves as a part of nature and identifying with the natural world, as a strand in the web rather than the spider on top of it, our behavior towards the nature will profoundly change. Theodore Roszak, author and champion of the Ecopsychology movement, states that “if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviors leading to the destruction of that world would be experienced as self-destruction” (Roszak). This is a profound notion; if one was to see the natural world as an extended part of who they are, any action that destroys the natural world will be experienced as harm being done to themselves. Psychedelics often produce a profound sense of “unity with nature” in those who ingest them, and this extension of the sense of self to include nature would drastically change that person’s relationship with the Earth. If each person in a society had a profound experience of unity with the natural world as a product of a psychedelic experience, the entire ideological orientation of society would shift. We would see that the Earth is one whole living system in which we are an inseparable part, and that polluting the oceans or cutting down forests is ultimately harmful to ourselves. When we fully realize that we are merely a strand in the web of life, we will be less likely to destroy that web and more likely to act symbiotically with it. Psychedelics may be the most efficient way to realize our connectedness to nature and to bring about the behavioral changes that come with that realization.

In conclusion, it is time that we look at the problem of environmental degradation as a psychological problem, and that the solution to this problem is a shift in consciousness from a fundamentally materialistic and consumerist state of mind to a more spiritual and interconnected one. If Man can focus more on being than having, and if Man can extend his sense of self to include the natural world, we will be a species inclined on preventing the destruction of the Earth, as we would properly equate it with the destruction of ourselves.