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Lessons from Peak Experiences

About 10 years ago I paddled my white-water kayak onto a wave at “Steamer Lane” in Santa Cruz, California, on a day when the size of the of the waves at the famed surf spot made the front page of the local newspaper. I didn’t know the waves were huge. I just happened to be paddling up the coast and decided to join the surfers, and by chance and accident, I caught a whopper. “Oh, my god!” I gasped as I my kayak was lifted by power immeasurable, and in the next few seconds I understood why some people devote their lives to catching big waves.

Six months ago I inhaled a vaporized form of the neurotransmitter 5-MeO-DMT because a friend of mine said the stuff was appropriately named somadhi (Sanscrit for “enlightenment”). Within seconds my sense of self disappeared, and for about 10 minutes, I experienced infinite bliss and what corresponded to what I have read about enlightenment — and I understood why some people devote their lives to finding that state of being.

About 20 years ago, I was on assignment for a travel magazine, drinking my way through the Parisian haunts of Ernest Hemingway, when I ended up at a fine restaurant and splurged on the specialty that would have made Papa proud: foie gras. At the time I didn’t even know how to pronounce foie gras — much less how it was made. I remember I was ravenous, and when the dish arrived — a bowl of cream sauce with a few lumps the size of silver dollars — disappointment was a small word for how I felt. Then I took a bite — and understood why some people devote their lives to fine cuisine.

Here’s the thing about peak experiences: Each one has a trough. Seconds after getting on the huge wave at Steamer Lane, my mind was flooded with images of what would happen if I tumbled in the wave, and I just wanted off. Afterward, I wanted to want to paddle out and do it again, but instead, I slid onto the beach and got out of my boat. This was a limit I wasn’t going to push.

My short time on the wave of “enlightenment” on 5-MeO-DMT posed the opposite problem. I didn’t want off. It was all so effortless, so blissful. The experience seemed entirely positive and opened my mind to similar experiences during ecstatic dance and Native American sweat lodges and sometimes, doing nothing at all. But I think back to having lunch with Deepak Chopra, when he was a cardiologist wanting a cover blurb for his first book, and he was describing enlightenment in terms of a special connection to the quantum field. My sense now is that the experience is natural, another healing tool like laughter and dreaming.

The downside of foie gras took years for me to understand. From Paris I went to the Dordogne, where signs for foie gras were everywhere. Some farms are open, and one could stop and watch ducks being force-fed through funnels to balloon their livers, but who really wants to do that? What I did learn is that canned foie gras tastes good. The magic, however, was the fresh kind served in places that I couldn’t afford. I didn’t think about it again until we ran a short article in an issue of this magazine, suggesting what seemed like good news: that force-feeding ducks is not torture.

“The duck esophagus is lined with fibrous protein cells similar to fingernails, allowing them to feed on small spiny fish, plants, and insects, all of which are swallowed whole… Numerous studies, including one completed by the National Institute of Agronomic Research, show that stress levels do not increase during feeding. In fact, farmers have long realized that the happiest, healthiest birds produce the best tasting liver . . . The United States is blessed to have two superb foie gras producers in Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Sonoma Foie Gras. Both are recognized by their exemplary ethical standards. Arguably, a duck from one of these places enjoys a better life than most organic ‘free range’ chickens.”

Little did I know we had just stumbled into a minefield. Letters poured in from readers who were aghast. While stress levels may or may not rise during force-feedings, a significant number of the birds die — data that was not highlighted, perhaps because the study was funded in part by the foie gras industry. I was referred numerous times to animal rights websites featuring a stomach-turning video purportedly taken at Hudson Valley Foie Gras, where rats nibble diseased geese in wire cages. Meanwhile, our regular Enlightened Diet contributor Monika Rice weighed in with a report titled “Potential Health Risks Associated with Stressed Foodstuffs Such as Foie Gras” by the Humane Society of the United States. As Rice wrote, “The gist of the report is that harmful protein fragments known as amyloid fibrils associated with damage to brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease and to pancreatic cells in type II diabetes can be present in the meat of stressed poultry and mammals. These amyloids are not destroyed, even with high-temperature cooking processes, and have been found in high levels in foie gras.”

I contacted Sonoma Foie Gras to see for myself what was happening and was not invited to visit. Hudson Valley Foie Gras is apparently more open. A Village Voice reporter found nothing like the hideous scenes from the animal rights video that supposedly was filmed there. The ducks appeared relatively healthy and unstressed, not fleeing the farm workers who put the force-feeding pipe into their mouths. But New York Times columnist Bob Herbert described the feedings at Hudson Valley as “brutal and not very sanitary.” Furthermore, efforts to make the feedings less brutal meant the farm workers were “gruesomely exploited.” As Herbert described, “Each feeding takes about four hours and once the birds are assigned a feeder, no one else can be substituted during the 22-day force-feeding period that leads up to the slaughter… Not only do the feeders get no days off during that long stretch, and no overtime for any of the long hours, but they get very little time even to sleep each day.”

On top of all that, cramming thousands of ducks with several pounds of corn each day creates what one might expect: a disaster for local water quality.

As I was getting out of my kayak at Steamer Lane, a couple of the local surfers came over to make sure that I wasn’t planning to be on their waves in the future. They were polite but only because I’m very large — and their message was threatening. Similarly, the experience of infinite bliss — either through drugs, or meditation, or chance — often empowers people to abuse others. Access to peak experiences can bring out the worst in people.

What really strikes me now is how my foie gras experience brought out the worst in me.

Thinking back to that first bite in France, I don’t want to remember the duck. If I must, I want to imagine its being raised on a small farm beside the Dordogne River, lovingly tended by a French maiden. I was happy to hear that scientists had determined that all this was okay. But I suspect the truth is quite different. The dispirited creature was likely manhandled by an equally dispirited human in a process that epitomizes the worst of our relationship with the natural world.

Unfortunately, foie gras is a peak experience, and the urge to democratize such an experience through factory farming is understandable. However, the exquisite taste is a measure of completely unnecessary pain and cruelty. To quote one of our readers, it is past time to simply say “Yuck!”