Death and Psychedelics

October 6, 2021

Terminal patients often suffer from feelings of intense anxiety and despair after receiving their diagnoses. For many, this is just too much to bear. The overall suicide risk for these patients is double or more compared to the general population, with suicide typically occurring in the first year after diagnosis.

Terminal patients have twice the suicide risk of the general public. Psychedelics may help reduce their fear and suffering.

That’s where psychedelic therapy may help. After a single large dose of psilocybin, taken in a curated space and supervised by a pair of doctors, many patients report feeling reborn. It’s not that the underlying physical disease has been cured. Rather, the drug prompts a shift in the theme of their emotional self-narrative—from anxiety and despair to acceptance and gratitude.

It may seem curious to think about psychedelic drugs, often associated with hippies and the Grateful Dead, as clinical-grade tools for overcoming our primordial aversion to death. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe this is only surprising if your window of historical perspective is too narrow. Maybe these “novel findings” are, in a sense, a return to somewhere we’ve been before.

Psychedelics at the dawn of civilization

In late 2020 I spoke to Brian Muraresku, author of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name, about the use of psychoactive plant medicine throughout antiquity. Our podcast conversation covers this history in more detail, but it’s clear that humanity’s relationship with psychoactive plants extends back at least to ancient Greece—if not further. It’s hard to look at prehistoric cave paintings like the Tassili mushroom figure and not wonder if psychedelics played a part in their creation.

Western philosophy may have developed with help from psychedelics as well. In Plato’s well-known allegory of the cave, a group of prisoners live chained to a cave wall, seeing nothing but the shadows of objects projected onto it by fire. The shadows are their reality; they know nothing outside of it. Philosophers, Plato states, are like prisoners freed from the cave. They know the shadows are mere reflections, and they aim to understand deeper levels of reality.

Was Plato tripping?

If that sounds like someone who’s explored those deeper levels with psychedelic assistance…well, maybe it was. In his book, Brian Muraresku explores the significance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret ceremonies that involved death and rebirth. For centuries, philosophers and mystics traveled to the Greek town of Eleusis to partake in a ritual that involved an elixir known as pharmakon athanasias, “the drug of immortality.”

“Within the toolkit of the archaic techniques of ecstasy–plant medicine just being one among many–something you find again and again, in Ancient Greece and other traditional societies, is this sense that to ‘die’ in this lifetime, or achieve a sense of timelessness in the here and now, is the real trick.” -Brian Muraresku

Contemporary archaeologists, digging outside Eleusis, have unearthed ancient chalices containing a residue of beer and Ergotized grain. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grain. It produces alkaloids similar to LSD. It’s possible, then, that influential thinkers like Plato were inspired by genuine psychedelic experiences.

This connection between psychedelics and death didn’t end with Eleusis. It survived, often repressed and hidden from view, right through the time of Aldous Huxley.

The connection re-emerges in the 1960s

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary co-wrote a book called The Psychedelic Experience: A manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary, the exiled Harvard professor and psychedelic guru, dedicated the book, “with profound admiration and gratitude,” to Aldous Huxley. It opens with a passage from The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s essay on the psychedelic experience. Huxley is asked if he can fix his attention on what the Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Clear Light. He answers yes, “but only if there were somebody there to tell me about the Clear Light.”

It couldn’t be done alone. That’s the point of the Tibetan ritual, he says: You need “somebody sitting there all the time telling you what’s what.”

Huxley was describing a trip sitter, someone who guides a person along their psychedelic journey. Sometimes it’s an ayauasquero in the heart of the Amazon. Sometimes it’s a doctor holding your hand in a hospital.

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