Death: The root of all our fears. The underlying reason we hold back, take the safe route, stay in our comfortable abodes, and live platonic lives ruled by our fears. Death is the biggest mystery in our lives with the most speculation about what it entails, and it’s the fact that we can never really solve the mystery until it happens that keeps so many of us paralyzed.
But is death really so terrifying? What if we could glimpse death before it occurred? Would we feel more open to life’s innumerable possibilities? Would we greet the demise of our loved ones with grace and acceptance instead of resentment and anger?
The answer is yes. Because when we’ve seen what lies beyond this realm, the afterlife isn’t nearly as terrifying. When we’ve felt an endless sense of oneness, even if it’s still, on some level, only speculation, most will find they’re much more comfortable with the idea of their bodies withering away. Such is the cycle of life, though rarely do we humans see it that way.
They say perspective is everything. This is partly why researchers are now using psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA as a treatment for people with terminal illness. People who are in pain, depressed, and whose reality is seeped in despair are finding solace by being catapulted into an entirely different perspective.
The anecdotal accounts of perspective-shifting experiences from psychedelic substances are plentiful. But that’s not what I want to focus on here. I want to talk about the ancestral uses of psychedelics, as well as the modern research in regards to the benefits of these substances for healing our negative attitudes towards death.
The Death Of The Ego
It’s important when talking about death to talk about the ego, the ‘I’, the driving force behind the majority of our motivations as inherently selfish humans.
When we take psychedelic substances, we experience a death of the ego. We can see ourselves from a much larger viewpoint and our selfish drives that often lurk in the shadows are brought into the light.
In this way, although eventually we snap out of it and return to our daily lives, we remain forever changed. Perhaps after such an experience with a diminished ego, we find it easier to humble ourselves, to remember that we may be alone in the world yet we’re still all in this together. We stop making ourselves the primary and experience the world, our surroundings, and our loved ones in an entirely different way.
For some it’s quite subtle, and for others their entire worldview may be shaken. Either way, it goes to show why we are where we are on a collective level. For thousands of years, our ancestors before us revered psychedelic substances and viewed the Earth as sacred. Contrasted with a society that condemns plant medicine and puts people in jail for trying to challenge the norm, all the while destroying the planet and embarking on more and more missions of violence and glorification of war, it’s easy to see how perspective changes everything, and how our egos have gotten out of control.
The Ancient Use Of Plant Medicines
Perhaps the most well-known description of the ancestral use of plant medicines is Terence Mckenna’s Food of the Gods. Terence references the use of psilocybin mushrooms being revered by ancient cultures long ago. The evidence shows that as far back as 3500 BC, images of dancing shamans holding mushrooms in the presence of white cattle are painted on the rock surfaces of Tassili Plateau in Southern Algeria.
While it’s difficult to know for certain how ancient cultures used these substances during death, it’s quite apparent that they honoured them deeply. On every continent, in every indigenous culture, there’s evidence of mind-altering substances being taken. Even today the use of ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin, ibogaine, and san pedro continues in tribal settings around the world.
It’s been speculated that soma, described as a leafless, rootless plant in the Rig Veda, an ancient text written by the Aryans who came from Siberia to India, is in fact psilocybin mushrooms.
“We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods.” (Rig Veda 8.48.1-15)
Modern Psychedelia & Acceptance Of Death
DMT, psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA have all been studied for their potential to help us better understand and accept our inevitable demise.
And what do we have to lose when a person is already facing certain death? When the worst has already been conquered, we can allow our fears to wither away and begin to try new things. Perhaps this is why we’re starting to see a reemergence of mainstream research into psychedelics for helping the terminally ill cope with death.
This is happening in the U.S., with huge discussions taking place even on mainstream media like in this New Yorker article titled “The Trip Treatment,” which talks about the reemergence of psychedelics as therapy for those approaching death. The article focuses on one study in particular, documenting one man’s experience taking psilocybin to ease his fears surrounding his coming death from a terminal illness.
The study involving terminally ill cancer patients is described by researchers as “two treatment sessions, one with the active drug and one with a placebo, along with additional meetings for emotional preparation and supportive counseling. The meetings are designed to insure comfort and safety for participants in the study.”
So far the research has shown promising results to reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of despair in terminally-ill cancer patients.
Trickling behind psilocybin research is LSD, the substance that changed a nation. Before 1966, LSD was being studied intensely for its medicinal benefits. Thousands of research papers were published on LSD, involving over 40,000 participants. The famous author and psychonaut Aldous Huxley asked for LSD while he died of laryngeal cancer.
In Huxley’s famous interview with Mike Wallace, he had this to say about his various psychedelic experiences:
The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.
LSD is finally creeping back onto the research scene. A small study done by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Gasser in Switzerland which tested the effects of LSD along with talk therapy involved 12 terminally ill patients.
Gasser explained in his follow-up, 1 year after ending the study, that his patients’ anxiety went down and stayed down before their death.
A question apt to come up in this discussion is whether or not we’re simply deluding ourselves with the notions brought to light by psychedelics. The answer is unknowable. But the real question is: Who are we to impose the necessity of scientific proof upon the fact that someone’s life was made better because of an intimate experience they had with plant medicine? Should we all not be allowed the freedom to choose our own experiences, especially when it comes to preparing for death?
MDMA is also being used to help people find acceptance in their terminal diagnoses. A substance that was once freely researched in the 60s is only now making a comeback for its medicinal potential.
When we examine mortality, there is one very important molecule which comes to mind, and that is Dimethyltryptamine, otherwise known as DMT. Released only when we enter and leave the world, DMT is present in every living form on the planet, naturally occurring at higher levels in certain frog species and very few plants. To take DMT is to on some levels mimic the experience that comes along with death.
Rick Strassman, MD, is famous for his research at the University of New Mexico in the 1990s involving DMT to induce a near-death experience. In a world where even talking about death is taboo, experiencing it before it happens is practically incomprehensible.
Pure DMT is very different from other plant medicines, as the actual psychedelic experience only lasts for, at most, 30 minutes. Yet personal accounts describe no perception of time.
In plants like ayahuasca where DMT is naturally occurring yet combined with a myriad of other compounds, the experience is said to last anywhere from 12-24 hours. In a world obsessed with time constraints, this kind of trip is far more daunting than a 30-minute deep dive into one’s psyche.
Strassman’s research was made into a documentary as well as a book called The Spirit Molecule. There haven’t been any studies on isolated DMT since, even though it causes no side-effects aside from the discomfort encountered when we enter a state of no control.
A Good Death
While it may be a slow process, the medical community is beginning to come around to giving these methods a chance. Although nearly every study must be privately funded, organizations such as MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are making major headway in the midst of endless challenges.
The reason that governments and pharmaceutical companies are hesitant to help with funding studies using psychedelics substances is twofold. One, they would be forced to acknowledge medicinal purposes and have no choice to remove these substances from their Schedule 1 drug class index which declares ‘no medical uses.’ Two, the pharmaceutical industry, fueled by profit as it is, would be unable to patent these natural substances, nor are these substances the type of thing that people would find long-term uses for.
This leaves us stuck between a rock and a hard place. Death, as taboo as it may be, needs to be talked about. Both in the literal definition and the spiritual death of the ego. Were we able to tame our egos earlier in life, perhaps we would find more freedom to truly live and break free from our invisible shackles of fear.
Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, has worked extensively in the medical community helping dying people and their families. His powerful statement “Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life . . . is death” speaks to our society’s aversion to this topic. We hide from it, yet in the end, it is incredibly important to infuse deeper meaning into our lives.
Coming to grips with the fact that one day we all pass away is liberating, yet difficult. To die a good death is to leave the world with a certain level of peace and acceptance. What better way to do this than to glimpse the ego’s death and see the world without our culturally imposed filters and unnecessary fears?
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