Death & Pychedelics

by | Sep 30, 2021

Early on during his trip, fifty-four-year-old television news director and cancer patient, Patrick Mettes, encountered his brother’s wife, Ruth. She “acted as my tour guide,” he would later recount, wearing “a translucent body” so that he would recognize her. From there, Patrick took a tour of his inner world. Among the highlights: being enveloped by divine feminine energy; encountering a point of light emanating pure, unconditional  Love; traversing his own cancerous lungs and experiencing “a brief death” atop the apex of a razor-blade-like stainless steel structure. “I had a choice,” he recounted, “to look or not look, over the edge and into the infinite abyss.” After staring, unafraid, into “the vastness of the universe,” he decided he wasn’t ready to leave his wife, Lisa, and still had things to accomplish here on earth. “No sensation, no image of beauty, nothing during my time on earth,” he later recounted, “has felt as pure and joyful and glorious as the height of this journey.”[1]

Google “psychedelics” and “fear of death” and you’ll find dozens of similarly inspiring stories – stories of people from all walks of life overcoming a profound fear of death through encounters with psychedelics. Given that death is both inevitable and, for many, terrifying, one might wonder why we aren’t rushing to legalize and popularize end-of-life psychedelic therapies.

Denial might have something to do with it.

Death Denial

Our relationship to death is peculiar, to say the least. On the one hand, we construct our lives with death as both framework and temporal horizon, feverishly scrambling to complete our life to-do lists before its inevitable arrival. On the other hand, many of us prefer not to think about, talk about, or acknowledge death, even with close friends and family. This denial is so profound that when death comes for us or a loved one, we may be left at a loss for words, feeling strangely shy or even embarrassed at having to finally confront our own mortality. Our stock pretenses no longer suffice and we find ourselves stripped bare, defenseless, and utterly vulnerable.

Ernest Becker, in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, theorized that our collective denial of death is a crucial cultural function designed to prevent us from going insane. By making our realities appear permanent and invulnerable, he reasoned, death denial shields us from what would otherwise be an unbearable state of existential terror and distress.[2]

Is death denial unavoidable then, a necessary trade-off providing us with needed emotional security at the expense of existential honesty?

Death Acceptance

“Allowing dying to be intensely present enriches both the preciousness of each moment and our detachment from it.” – Ram Dass

Ram Dass’s outlook on death changed dramatically through his odyssey with psychedelics. Before becoming a renowned spiritual teacher, he was Richard Alpert, a Western psychologist, self-described philosophical materialist, and, in his words, “one of the people in this culture who hid from death”. That all began to change on March 6, 1961, during his first psilocybin trip. After encountering what appeared to be the external embodiments of his many social roles – professor, cosmopolitan, wise man, lover, kind person, and finally Richard Alpert himself – he said goodbye to each of them, secure in the understanding that they did not constitute his deepest essence. “At least I am my body,” he said to himself, and then that too began to disappear. With panic mounting and the last vestiges of his physical self evaporating, he believed fully that he’d arrived at death’s door. “But who’s minding the store?” a jocular inner voice whispered, waking him to the realization that an inner awareness with no reference to body, personality, or social roles remained to witness the experience.[3]

This experience, and the tremendous feeling of liberation that it produced, helped transform Ram Dass’s understanding of death and entire life trajectory. Many other well-known consciousness pioneers have arrived at similar realizations, both with and without the assistance of psychedelics. Confronted with death and their overwhelming vulnerability in the face of it, these seekers discovered that letting go of the ego’s desire to remain could trigger a newfound appreciation for life.

Ego-Death and the Default Mode Network

The ego could be described as the view we have of ourselves–a view that serves to distinguish us from the world and other people. As such, it serves as “gatekeeper of consciousness, admitting into awareness only those thoughts that conform to our self-image.”[4] According to recent neuroscience, many of the ego’s attributes begin forming around age 5, when the brain’s default mode network (DMN) begins to distinguish itself from other brain networks. While undoubtedly protecting us from a host of overwhelming data and stimuli, the ego/DMN can also contribute to a highly dualistic view of the world in which our sense of self becomes more and more rigid while the outside world grows increasingly unknowable and threatening. Creatures of habit, we increasingly rely on a set repertoire of egoic habits, excluding new ideas and possibilities that might better connect us with the outside world.

In this context, an ego-death experience like the one Ram Dass had might be exactly what the doctor ordered. It stands to reason that when our ego-illusions shatter, our corresponding perceptual biases, self-imposed limitations, and narrowly defined selves might shatter as well, reconnecting us to a non-dualistic world filled with unrealized possibilities. This ego-death, or dampening of the DSM as some have referred to it, can usher in a profound state of reconnection akin to a religious awakening. Though our ego is dissolved, consciousness continues–a state reminiscent of the ones attested to by countless mystics and spiritual sojourners throughout the ages.

A Brighter Future Ahead

“People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?” – Anthony Bossis

Thanks in part to research conducted by a number of dedicated doctors, scientists, therapists, and academics, the tide does seem to be turning toward a more generalized acceptance of end-of-life psychedelic therapies. Several recent well-reviewed psilocybin studies provide solid evidence that it contributes to “immediate meaningful and enduring reductions in psychiatric and existential distress.” More than two-thirds of these studies’ subjects rated their experience as “one of the most personally meaningful or spiritually significant events in their lives.”[5]

In light of the overwhelming success of recent studies, many in the psychedelic community have begun to imagine a future in which psychedelic therapy is not merely accessible but routine. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” says former Johns Hopkins psychologist, Katherine MacLean. MacLean plans to someday establish a “psychedelic hospice” for the dying and their loved ones. “If we limit psychedelics just to the patient, we’re sticking with the old medical model… I get nervous when people say they should only be prescribed by a doctor.”[6]

The Brooklyn Psychedelic Society Presents Death Awareness Month

In what we hope to become a long-standing tradition here at BPS, we’ll be honoring both death and psychedelics throughout the month of October. If you haven’t done so already, join our email list to find out more in the coming days.

 


Footnotes

  1. Pollen, Micahel, “The Trip Treatment; Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results,” The New Yorker, 09 February 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment.
  2. Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1975, Print
  3. Ram Dass, “The First Encounter,” RamDass.org. Accessed 28 September 2021, www.ramdass.org/the-first-encounter.
  4. Lebowe, Jeff, “Ego Death: Everything You Should Know,” Double Blind, Accessed 30 September 2021, www.doubleblindmag.com/ego-death.
  5. Gordon, Judith, “Policy Statement and Review: Psilocybin Therapy for Emotional Suffering Caused by Terminal Illness,” End Of Life Washington, Accessed 30 September 2021, www.endoflifewa.org/news/policy-statement-and-review-psilocybin-therapy-for-emotional-suffering-caused-by-terminal-illness.
  6. Pollen, Micahel, “The Trip Treatment; Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results,” The New Yorker, 09 February 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment.