I’m changing my mind about a few things lately. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my re-assessment of being nice, and today I’m re-assessing the old admonition to “be present.” Only a month ago I wrote about how vacuous that idea is, and yet a few weeks later I read something that finally gave it some body. It was one of four major sections in Michael Polan’s best seller “The Botany of Desire,” a section on marijuana.

In the mid-60’s Raphael Mechoulam identified the active ingredient in pot, a molecule we know as THC. In 1988, Allyn Howlett discovered the receptor cells in human bodies that are activated by THC. Since then, receptors for THC have been found in most animals, including even hydra and insects.

It’s assumed that if the body produces receptors it also produces an internal version of the molecule that activates them. Our bodies have receptors activated by morphine, and the body produces endorphin. It turns out we’re all on a mild morphine drip. You can turn up the endorphin with a little stress. Only this year did research finally reveal what had long been suspected. A “runner’s high” is an endorphin buzz. Runners run up hills to fetch a pail of morphine. In 1992 Mechoulam and William Devane discovered the body’s endo-version of THC. They called it anadamide–ananda meaning “bliss, delight.”

According to Howlett, the primary symptoms of THC or anandamide are pain relief, loss of short-term memory, sedation and mild cognitive impairment, “All of which is exactly what Adam and Eve would want after being thrown out of Eden. You couldn’t design a more perfect drug for getting Eve through the pain of childbirth or helping Adam endure a lifetime of physical toil.”

You’re familiar with the stereotype of stoners not being able to remember what they’re talking about from moment to moment. Polan argues that this short-term memory loss is the key to pot’s effect, and that it isn’t just a disadvantage. It’s what we like about THC. Pot, he argues reduces the distractions that keep us out of the here and now. Because attention is freed up from the act of creating and referring to memories, more attention goes into immediate sensation. If the blind can hear better, those of us who are blind to the past or future may be able to hear the hear and now better.

Promoters of being present often imply that when you’re present you can pay attention to everything. You’re freed from anxiety about whether to pay attention to this or that. There are no right or wrong answers about what to focus on because supposedly you can focus on it all. I’ve always suspected that that is simply the presence-promoter’s hard sell over-glorification of the state. Polan seems to share my suspicion. He describes being present as paying more attention to less, just the current slice of time, without judgment or discrimination.

Polan also admits to a trait I share. “I am not by nature one of the world’s great noticers,” he says. He and I are neither of us much inclined to be in the here and now. Kicking back to enjoy the moment makes us impatient. And we’re ambivalent about this trait. We’re proud intellectuals grateful for our tireless capacity for analysis, scanning the past for patterns by which to speed-read the present for clues to the future. But as Polan says for the both of us, it’s also a loss.

“It’s a form of impatience with lived life, and though it might appear to be a symptom of an active mind, I suspect it’s really a form of laziness. My lawyer father once complemented on his ability to see ahead three or four moves in a negotiation, explained that the reason he like to jump to conclusions was so he could get there early and rest.”

Not that it’s always restful to jump to conclusions. I remember my only moment when being present came easily. It was at the absolute nadir of my mid-life crisis. My past was a horror; my future terrifying. Panicked and surrounded I hid in the present and it calmed me. If your ability to read ahead confronts you with inevitable decline, it’s anything but restful.

That kind of refuge may be pot and the present tense’s greatest gift to Adam. If he doesn’t have to see before him a long tedious decline in hard labor–if he can just be–chopping wood carrying water, he can reside in it contentedly. Forget the past and future and the present seems none so bad.

In a way, therefore, pot or presence by any other means breeds bovinity, that know-nothing contemptible yet enviable state of contentment cows appear to occupy. The fates can tip a cow over, but as soon as it righted again, it forgets. A cow doesn’t seem to re-live the moment. It just plods on into the next moment and the next.

A cow doesn’t seem to foresee it’s own death. That’s enviable.

But Polan also says the payoff for short-term memory impairment is wonder, that newfound thrill over old and trivial things. Though we make fun of it, Polan celebrates the pothead’s ecstatic virgin enjoyment of a song, the taste of ice cream, the tree. Polan says, “memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting-on a process that is, of subtraction.”

I suspect that Polan is right about both bovinity and wonder as effects of short term memory loss, even though it seems odd that both bovine flatness and youthful thrill could result from the same source. Polan argues that pot is just one of many routes to short-term memory loss and that the purist’s distinction between achieving it by medication or meditation doesn’t really hold. It interesting that enlightenment by meditation, like pot is touted as offering that same pairing of complete calm acceptance, and the thrill of fresh epiphanies. “Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment” the saying goes and the saying cuts both ways. In one sense it disappoints the ego to discover that there are no thrills-it’s just hard-earn cow-mind. In another sense the ego vanquished is not there to analyze and so you reawaken to the ecstasy of beginners mind.

Both calm simplicity and renewed thrill have their place in a human life. Before reading Polan, “be present” just evoked skepticism in me. But now I can now see the benefits of self-medicating or meditating toward these states. Still, too much being calmly present can leave a body in ruins. Aspiring to stay in an enlightened state of ecstatic renewal is likewise foolhardy.

I’ve always thought of pot as a somewhat self-governing drug. Take too much of it and all you get is bovinity, but if you do it once in a while there is ecstasy, perhaps precisely because of the contrast to the analysis that I find to be my default state. Yes, on pot the ice cream is thrilling but perhaps the real thrill is the thrill of waking up to thrill again after long stretches of analysis.

There are people who talk as though bliss or bovinity should be their permanent states, but I suspect that’s just strategic compensation for their feeling that they tend to spend way too much time in the normal state of analytical scanning. If what they really mean by “always,” is “more than I tend to,” then great.

It is useful to have ways to attenuate in either direction, toward the moment or toward deeper analysis. It’s like the mushroom that the caterpillar offers to Alice. One side makes you taller (interpreted here as seeing a greater span of time, the past, the present, the future and therefore bringing more context and judgment to the moment) and one side makes you smaller (interpreted here as being grounded in the moment, bovine, caring less and forgetting more.)

And to link to past thoughts (the way an analytical mind would) I’m betting that “getting small” by smoking pot or meditation is a way to get more yin, less analytically discerning, more open to whatever is next. And conversely, “getting tall” is a way to pump up the discernment thereby bringing out the yang, the sword of decisiveness and judgment. And you know how I feel about those two. A bit of both makes the world go round.

Here’s an audio version of the Polan chapter if you’re interested.

And here’s a poem I’ve loved a long time that describes this tension between being here now and being attentive to the long-view. It praises the un-stoned, un-blissed, non-bovine state in a way that balances nicely against Polan’s lovely paean to presence:

Terence this is stupid stuff
A.E. Houseman

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.