Dr, Raymond Moody and the staff of The University of Heaven are not advocating the use of psychedelics. However, we do think that informed discussion about them is important in our exploration of consciousness and end of life.
A high dose psychedelic experience is death practice.
-- Katherine McLean, psychedelic therapist
Lately, I’ve been reading a new book by the celebrated food guru, Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other well-known books about food and the food industry. But his new book isn’t about food. It’s all about psychedelic drugs, and its subtitle tells you exactly what Pollan is on to in this surprising turn in his professional career: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Wow, about the only thing he left out is the proverbial kitchen sink.
Well, did you know that there is such a thing as a “new science of psychedelics”? Indeed there is, and if you haven’t noticed, it’s actually been going on for the last two decades. And these days it’s legit, too, with research programs being carried out by distinguished scholars and academics at some of the leading universities in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Pollan’s bestselling book, entitled How to Change Your Mind, is an excellent journalistic account of all this work and what we can all learn from it, regardless of whether we have used psychedelics or not.
For me personally, however, it is also a remembrance of trips past because psychedelics were once a pivotal part of my life, and before picking up Pollan’s book I was already personally familiar with many of the figures who played an important part in this movement in the days before its recent and surprising re-emergence as an exciting and thriving area of research into the mysteries of consciousness. Yes, Virginia, I, too, had my adventures as a psychonaut back in the day, and this book revived many of those memories...
In these essays, I usually try to stay pretty much in the present tense, and before concluding it, I will return there, but to set the stage for what I really want to end up discussing – which is our end – I hope you will indulge me for a few moments so that I can describe my own improbable and unplanned entry into a world I had no clue even existed. What I am about to relate was, in fact, the most important thing that ever happened to me, and after it my life was never the same.
In March of 1971, when my then wife and I went off to the Berkshires to celebrate our anniversary, I happened to pick up a book that she was then reading – Carlos Castañeda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan. It looked intriguing and after she had finished it, I read it.
I was then a typical Jewish professor – wedded to rational thought, committed to science and atheistic in my worldview. I had no interest in religion and very little knowledge of mysticism. But I was open to new experiences, and what had particularly excited me about Casteñeda’s book was his discussion of what he called “seeing the crack between the worlds,” which he had apparently effected through the use of mescaline.
At the time, I had never considered using psychedelic drugs and my only familiarity with anything close was having smoked marijuana a few times. But since I had never been a smoker, even that was difficult for me, and my experiences with it, though of the usual kind, did not have any particular impact on my life.
Nevertheless, since there was a long-haired hippie-ish colleague in my department at the time who I knew was familiar with psychedelics, I approached him to tell him about my interest to take mescaline and why. This fellow was one of those half-crazy/half genius types that most of my colleagues had no use for but whose brilliance and charisma were enough of a compensation to keep him on the faculty. In any case, he had read Castañeda’s book and knew what I was after.
I came to the point. Could he provide me with some mescaline? He could.
By then it was early May. The semester was just about over. He told me not to read anything further on the subject and just come to his apartment on the following Saturday.
That day turned out to be a rare beautiful sun-splashed day with everything beginning to bloom. My colleague lived at the edge of a forest. He suggested that I take the mescaline in his apartment, wait just a bit and listen to music and then go outside into the nearby woods.
And then he gave me two purple pills to ingest.
I did not know my colleague well, and as I was soon to find out, he was not only impish, but embodied the trickster archetype. While he gave me to believe I was taking mescaline, he had actually given me 300 micrograms of LSD, a very high dose.
I will not bore you with an account of the next twelve hours. Suffice it to say that all the pillars of my previous ontological categories soon began to crumble into dust. At the time and afterward I realized that this was the most important and most transformative experience of my life – and nearly fifty years later, I still feel the same way. I had the undeniable feeling that I was seeing the world as it really was with pristine eyes for the first time. And once I did, I could never return to the person I had been for he, too, had been obliterated.
The one portion of the experience I will allude to here -- because it eventually led me to the study of near-death experiences – took place when I was sitting on a log near a stream in the woods. I don’t know how long I was there, but at some point for a moment outside of time I – except there was no “I” any longer– experienced an inrushing of the most intense and overwhelming rapturous LOVE and knew instantly that this was the real world, that the universe, if I can put this way, was stitched in the fabric of this love, and that I was home. However, again I have to repeat: There was only this energy of love and “I” was an indissoluble part of it, not separate from it.
In fact, I was soon to learn that this experience of “non-duality” in which one becomes aware of the primacy of love is fairly common in psychedelic journeys, and Pollan himself had a similar experience the first time he took LSD and comments, as all psychedelic voyagers will attest, at the paucity and seeming banality of using everyday words to describe the ineffable:
Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
Love is everything.
Okay, but what else did you learn?
No – you must not have heard me; it’s everything.
Pollan also mentions that Aldous Huxley had the same insight the first time he was given LSD: What came through…was the realization…of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact….The words, of course, have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains.
And again, in interviewing another psychedelic sojourner, who will allude to where we are going with this, Pollan hears her say: I remember thinking, if this is death, I’m fine with it. It was…bliss. I had the feeling, no, the knowledge – that every single thing there is is made of love.
This, indeed, is the exact same revelation that comes to people who have actually experienced the first stages of physical death when they undergo an NDE. Let the following example, which I draw from my book, Lessons from the Light, stand for the many accounts of NDEs I have heard over my more than thirty years researching such experiences. This woman was writing of her encounter with a being of light:
…the light told me that everything was Love, and I mean everything….I vividly recall the part where the light did what felt like switch on a current of pure, undiluted, concentrated unconditional LOVE. This love I experienced in the light was so powerful it can’t be compared to earthly love….It’s like knowing that the very best love you feel on earth is diluted to about one part per million of the real thing.
Which brings up a question: If psychedelics can afford direct knowledge of the primacy of love in such an overwhelming way, and if near-death experiencers encounter the same truth when they come close to death, then might it be possible to use psychedelics with terminally ill people to afford them a preview of what they may actually encounter when they die?
He who dies before he dies
Does not die when he dies.
-- Angelus Siliseus 1624-1677
Ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, which when used at sub-anesthetic levels induces a very distinctive but powerful alteration in consciousness that some people feel mimics the experience of death. In 1984, I was asked by a psychedelic therapist whether I would be willing to participate in a study she was carrying out with an oncologist to determine whether ketamine did induce something like an NDE. (Presumably, I was being tapped for this study because I was an “expert” in such matters – despite never having had an NDE myself.) The idea was that since NDEs almost always cause a loss of the fear of death, ketamine might serve a similar purpose for those facing imminent death, such as terminally ill cancer patients.
I eventually did accept the offer and wound up taking it a number of times. I have written about my ketamine experiences elsewhere (those interested will find my account in a book called The Ketamine Papers, edited by Phil Wolfson and Glenn Hartelius), and although I personally did not find that they resembled very closely NDEs, others have reported striking similarities. And, indeed, since my own adventures with ketamine, there have been some very promising preliminary case studies reported in which ketamine has significantly reduced fear of death in cancer patients.
Furthermore, beginning in 1965 and continuing into the next decade, the psychiatrist and leading psychedelic therapist, Stanislav Grof, and his colleagues at Spring Grove Hospital in Baltimore, using LSD with terminally ill patients reported the same thing and many other benefits as well in a significant number of cases.
Finally, Michael Pollan brings us up to date in his book with the latest studies of this kind using psilocybin. Preliminary but very impressive studies have been conducted at both NYU and Johns Hopkins, and once again, 80% of terminally ill cancer patients “showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin session.” Moreover, the patients with the best outcomes were precisely those who themselves had had the most complete mystical experiences, presumably akin to an NDE.
These findings astounded even the researchers carrying out these studies. One of them confessed, “I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants – that they must be faking it. They were saying things like, ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet’….People who had been palpably scared of death – they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once could have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never seen anything like that in the psychiatric field.”
But lest this essay become too academic, let me simply quote a couple of brief excerpts from these patients. First, from a man named Patrick who had these insights during his psilocybin session: From here on, love was the only consideration…It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light...I could feel my physical body trying to vibrate in unity with the cosmos. "Aloud he said, 'Never had an orgasm of the soul before.' And then later, 'It was right there in front of me…love…the only thing that mattered.' ”
Next, from Dinah, who described herself to Pollan as a “solid atheist. Nevertheless, Pollan relates that in her psilocybin-induced epiphany, she experienced feelings of “overwhelming love,” and later said that she felt herself “bathed in God’s love.” When Pollan pointed out that using such a phrase would seem to be in contradiction to her professed atheism, she retorted, “What other way is there to express it?”
So from all this, we have learned that psychedelics can be very effective for the terminally ill in helping them overcome the fear of death and their depression about dying, thus enabling them to die with greater serenity and peace of mind. But what about a more radical possibility?
How about administering LSD at the very point of death, so that one goes out riding high on the wave of a psychedelically-induced ecstasy?
Actually, it’s been done, and no less by than Aldous Huxley himself whose second wife, Laura, administered LSD to him on his deathbed while urging him to “go toward the light.” She has said that he died with “a very beautiful expression on his face.” (By an odd stroke of fate, he was having his drug-aided death experience that same day, November 22, 1963, that John Kennedy was assassinated.)
Which as promised brings us back, at last, to the present moment that finds me still waiting for death and thinking again about psychedelics. I’m wondering whether I should follow Huxley and die with the aid of a psychedelic agent when my time comes. If it comes.
Check with me later.
Or just read my obit.
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
Learn more about Kenneth Ring: