“The first stage is what people typically associate with the drugs, a swirl of lights and colors and sounds. The second stage is a catalogue of faiths – users see Jesus and Buddha and Greek gods and Egyptian gods and so many others that this stage has become known as the ‘archetypal realm.’ But it’s what comes next that make psychedelics so effective against mortal terror. After the archetypal realm comes the mystical state. There’s a dimension of awesomeness, of profound humility, of the self being stripped bare. In the psychology of religion, mystical experience is well-described: unity, transcendence of time and space, noetic knowledge, sacredness, ineffability, paradoxicality… It’s the sacred dimension of revelation, but it can be what Kierkegaard called `fear and trembling’ -incredibly profound and powerful terrain to travel. Hallucinogens, then, do the same job as religion: they provide proof of unity, which-in humans and all other animals-is still the only known cure for fear of death.” – Bill Richards
Near-death experiences (NDE’s for short) are an incredible, newly-blossoming area of psychological research. The poetic accounts and testimonials given by survivors are truly subversive. With reports of ineffable love, cosmic acceptance, and an omniscient all-permeating sense of union being STANDARD for NDE’s, one is obligated into curiosity. I find parallels between NDE’s and the mystical experiences reported during psychedelic visionary experiences especially fascinating.
Roland Griffiths, a behavioural neuroscientist at John Hopkins School of Medicine, led a study in 2008 regarding the mystical revelatory potential of psilocybin – the active chemical magic in certain mushrooms. His study confirmed what mystics and theobotanists have believed for millennia, and what psychedelic pioneers Walter Pahnke and Tim Leary proved for the first time in 1962: magic mushrooms produce an ecstatic epiphanous experience akin to genuine religious revelation. While awe and wonder are naturally unquantifiable subjective experiences, the scale of mysticism used to measure participant’s submersion in these consciousness-expanding realms echoed those William James put forth a century earlier. Ineffability (the inability to conceptualize or verbalize an experience), noetic (insightful or enlightening) qualities, transiency (escaping the passage of time or space, and understanding life as a fleeting moment), and passivity (the feeling of being used, taught, or animated by an omnipotent spiritual force) are the 4 marks of mystical experiences James put forth.
Curiously, fourteen months later, 94% of participants reported their psychedelic experience was one of the five most important moments of their lives. An amazing 39% percent said it was the most profound experience they had ever felt. Their colleagues, friends, and family members also found the participants were kinder and happier; participants at follow-up reported positive experiences ranging from realized empathy and improved marriages, to awakened spirituality and less drug use. Now that the original, shamanic-therapeutic nature of these mycological miracles has been scientifically proven, we can integrate the indelibly empowering features of this experience to actualize our species.
My first psilocybin experience is a great foundational marker here. I won’t open that Pandora’s Box descriptively at least – not in this vehicle – but point blank it was life-changing. Absolutely transcendental, enlightening, mystical, whatever you want to call it. Amongst countless numinous gems of glory I brought back with me, a loss of fear of death was amongst the most beautiful. Mystical experiences often include the sensation – just like NDE’s – of loss of body, identity, or what WEIRD cultures call “ego.” Ego-death is a common aspect of the psychedelic experience, as well. It involves and instigates the majority of good/bad trips; as the overwhelming creeping feeling of “This is it, I actually just killed myself by eating some fungus. Way to go me,” settles over you, the psychonaut has a choice: either succumb and surrender to this unknown force, or resist and be dragged along for the ride. Good trips are what follow the former, while bad trips follow the latter. If you are able to shed your ego in these rare moments, to give in and let go to the metaphysical maelstrom that beckons, you will be rewarded with indescribably unenglishably illuminating wisdom. You experience truth; the core, the source of All; you become God and soak in the divine acceptance that you are everything that has ever happened, and everything that has ever happened is a part of you, too. You become the Universe, and vice-versa. But then you realize it’s not a becoming, it’s just a groaking implicit recognition that you actually ARE the whole thing in cosmic expression. Again, I won’t get into wonderland here, but the point is you experience death during a true psychedelic trip. It acts as the filter for the prepared and the unprepared, for the psychically capable and the in-training. We can actually, with psychedelics, TRAIN people to prepare for death, and to overcome their anxiety towards it (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&).
These NDE’s tell us that death is not the gross, destructive, morose macabre spectacle WEIRD societies tells us it is. Reductionist materialist scientists have nothing to say on the matter anyways, so listening to their views on the subject is embarrassing. Ancient Egyptians, and historical mystics on the other hand, have countless tomes and rites of wisdom that encourage this discussion around death. They remind us that, as Buddhists, Hindus, Daoists and shamans have all attested for generations, death is to life what front is to back. One is not without the other, and the other cannot be without the one. So as the sun rises and sets, so too must your life have a glorious sunrise and a tranquil sunset. Death should be embraced as educational and sacred; as a transcendental return to what we all are, not as the dreary blackclad depression we take it as.