My maternal grandmother passed away last year on September 11, a day when many of us might have been moved to reflect upon our mortality and some of its intriguing but ultimately unknowable implications.
I mean — here we are, right? We’ve been born, and we can extrapolate with reasonable certitude that if nothing changes drastically we’re going to die sometime fairly soon. Fascinating predicament, really. We’re sliding downhill at an ever-increasing speed toward a singularity that cannot be adequately anticipated. For the Muggles, this is pretty much a universally terrifying prospect. For psychedelic heads it may sound like an exciting Saturday night, but there are still a few issues to resolve.
When my other grandmother left the party, I was in high school and I had no experience with psychedelic drugs whatsoever. Everyone was very keen to assure me that Nana was in a better place, which wasn’t much of a stretch since she’d been completely paralyzed by a stroke since my childhood and our occasional visits to Shady Acres creeped me out more than somewhat. I had my doubts, though, which I politely kept to myself. More likely, I thought, we’re just figments of our own imaginations and death is the end and that’s all she wrote. This time, as I listened to the country preacher rhapsodize soothingly about the big ranch house in the sky, I had a somewhat more surreal perspective.
Death comes up around psychedelics from a number of different angles, so I’ve had a chance to think about it and talk about it more than most healthy young hipsters tend to care to.
For one thing: use carries risks. Overdose hazards aside, Thanatos is present in potentia whenever one gives up rational control of one’s actions, which can happen during high-dose psychedelic sessions. I’ve had a couple of youthful close calls in the behavioral toxicity arena, one of which involved an emergency room visit while I was high on way too much acid. Let’s just call it a less than ideal setting, and leave it at that. Not good. But it beats dying. Probably.
Then there is the much discussed Ego Death, which is usually a good thing if you’re not trying to fight it, and its numerous near relatives that probably have Sanskrit names I can’t pronounce. How relevant is all this to the actual experience of bodily death, though? A lot of the reports do sound suspiciously similar to near-death experiences recorded regularly by people around the world: tunneling, a white light, the presence of loved ones, life review, transcendence, and all the hokey trappings that go with the package. For all we know though, these effects could be features of the rebooting program that tell us little or nothing about what consciousness might be like without a brain to run it on. After all, we mostly get there by perturbing the brain. It’s a brain thing. Dead guys don’t have brains. Dead guys eat brains. No wait, that’s the undead. Sorry.
A lot of folks are attracted to the Tibetan Book of the Dead model that was at one time promoted by Timothy Leary. According to the theory, the state of one’s mind at the moment of death is critical, and drugs give us a sneak preview and a chance to practice keeping our shit together. There is a short but crucial window of opportunity; it is of the highest possible importance that we make the most of it. I’ve kind of always wanted to stir up a Psychonauts Against Nukes movement along these lines, the premise being that anything that vaporizes people instantly is unacceptable on the grounds that it would deny its victims the opportunity to run the upload sequence. Hopefully this is hogwash, but you never know.
I do know that it’s important to me personally to live so that if and when my life flashes before my eyes I’m generally aesthetically satisfied and I don’t feel the need to fight the flow on the grounds of missions left undone or words unspoken. It’s important to me to die at peace, though I’m not sure exactly why.
The anecdotal reports that I’ve heard coming out of the government-approved end-of-life anxiety studies with psychedelics certainly seem promising. I’d personally be somewhat hesitant to recommend psilocybin or LSD to a virgin with a set that involves mortal terror, though. The potential to win big is certainly out there, but on the other hand it would be a real bummer to have a bummer, if you know what I mean. Most sober people can’t imagine a hell anywhere near as intense as the sort of thing that a bad trip can bring up. I guess I’d want to first format the subject with a lot of MDMA, say, but official experimental protocols have to be tight. Considering the harsh prohibitionist restrictions on psychedelics, we should count ourselves lucky that we get to research the matter at all. I’m very glad that there are some excellent sitters involved with the projects.
While the approved end-of-life studies with psychedelics do not involve administering psychedelics to people who are actually on their death beds, I’ve heard a lot of people speculate about what drugs, if any, they would take if they knew that they were dying right away. It’s one of those perennial conversations that some enthusiasts come back to again and again. Would you Huxley-out with LSD, overdose on heroin, or something else entirely? I guess I go back and forth on it. It would depend on if I could control the exact moment somehow or if there was a real potential that I would come down and spend my last hours all cracked out and uncomfortable. I do know that it’s a decision that cannot be made ethically for others. When they told me when my grandma had less than six hours to live, the thought crossed my mind for a brief instant, but I do believe that dosing people without their explicit consent is an ultimate no-no.
Ancestor magic is very big in indigenous shamanism. Lots of modern folks also claim to interact with the dead or to travel to their realms, though it goes without saying that these experiences are subject to the voyager’s personal interpretations and prejudices. I’m no more qualified to dismiss these claims than I am to stamp them as true and valid evidence of the persistence of consciousness. The disembodied entity thing is weird. And scary. And awesome. And suspect.
So in the end, what are we left with? Has my experience on the frontier made me more sanguine about death and dying? Did I feel better when I held my grandmothers ashes in September than I felt when Nana was buried and my teenage universe was a
far simpler place? Have psychedelics blessed me with greater clarity or have they muddied the question and deepened my doubt? Am I more peaceful about my inevitable discorporation, or am I afraid in new ways of the bizarre dimensions that may lie ahead?
The answer is yes in all directions. Psychedelics certainly have not given me anything to hold on to, but that’s not what they’re for. What they’ve taught me is how to let go. They’ve shown me that the universe is cooler than I can suppose, and that’s a weird kind of faith all its own.
Rest in peace, Grandma. I hope you’re enjoying the ride.