The last thing you might expect from psychedelics is that they’d teach us how to die.
Yet that is precisely what they’ve done for me. Over the course of dozens of sessions with powerful “entheogens” (as some call these “God molecules”) I’ve literally been trained over and over in how to transition from this life into what comes next. The psychedelics have included ayahuasca, psilocybin, N,N,DMT and 5-MeO-DMT, San Pedro cactus, and even cannabis (which, in edible format, engenders visionary experiences for me).
As a young person I was conservative in my use of recreational drugs. I drew the occasional toke off a joint passed around at parties, and hot knifed hash a few times over the stove. Yes, I did inhale. (There goes my political career.) But the effects were never interesting: I’d feel stoned and tired, and end up falling asleep on the sofa while the revellers partied on. And so I followed the cultural salmon stream into using and abusing alcohol — the drug of choice in the circumscribed reality of materialist societies.
You’d think that being born in 1960 at the end of the baby boom I’d have tales of getting high on acid or mushrooms, but in truth that scene was as faded as my blue jeans by the time I reached puberty. As I entered my teens Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix had all died, supposedly of drug overdoses. Turning 13 in 1973 was like arriving at a party after most of the people have left, with a few bodies sprawled on the shag carpet among the empty bottles and full ashtrays. We knew there’d been a lot of sex and drugs and rock and roll, but by then the “good LSD” was difficult to find, and the occasional damaged person walking around in a daze didn’t inspire me to seek it out. The hype over herpes gave way to the very real danger of AIDs, ending the sexual revolution, or at least its orgiastic dimension. (Damn!)
In fact, the only time I tried LSD in my youth was on a hiking trip in the Adirondack mountains in my mid-twenties with an American cousin Jules and his friend. He’d brought an acid tab inside some crumpled aluminum foil, which I consumed on the banks of a mountain lake and enjoyed my first true psychedelic journey. In this trip I acquired God-like hearing and could track the sound of every insect, bug and bird for miles over the course of several hours; not as a cacophony — I tracked the individual movements of each creature. A filter had been removed from the infinite sea of consciousness that is our true nature.
It’s incredible that I didn’t look for LSD again, after such an amazing experience. But, again, it was hard to find, and I soon pivoted to the marriage-kids-mortgage stage of my life for which encounters with the numinous weren’t useful, or even on the radar.
Fast forward to the last week of December 2013 and picture a 55-year-old man with a 25-year career editing environmental magazines under his belt, arriving by plane in Iquitos, Peru and joining a group of young travelers to trek a section of the Amazon rainforest, then spend a week at the Nihue Rao Spiritual Center where we drank ayahuasca three times. I can’t account for all the factors that led me to such an exotic trip (in every sense of the word). Maybe it was listlessness after a quarter century in the same job; maybe it was the need to correct some bad habits (e.g., overconsumption of rye whisky after a failed marriage). It most certainly related to an interest in death after my stepfather passed away the year before.
When Peter died (at age 86) I found myself asking deep questions about the meaning of life and what awaits us beyond the grave. Trite mainstream answers that we “can’t know” and “it’s depressing to think about” didn’t cut it. My stepdad was successful by any measure in our consumer society, having made a fortune in tabloid newspapers. Yet here he was: Dead. Gone. (Insert your own parody of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch here.)
I researched ayahuasca heavily before signing up for the voyage, and spoke at length with a friend who’d done it. There wasn’t nearly as much literature about ayahuasca back then, so my first ceremony was a jump into the unknown. I broke through fully in my very first ceremony and enjoyed a night of Alex Grey-style spectacular visual effects, and many teachings (in the dozens if not hundreds) from what felt like a Gaian earth mother presence (Madre).
The two other ceremonies on that trip were just as profound. You can read about those in my book The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls, which won the Silver Medal at the 2018 Independent Book Publisher Awards.
Ayahuasca’s teachings in those ceremonies and subsequent ones home in Canada covered a wide range of experiences. I spent hours inside the mind of a spider. I was shown the unique eye of every creature that has ever lived on earth. I was a Zulu warrior dancing on the African veld. And I was given lessons in death and dying. These weren’t verbal (though sometimes a medicine voice pointed out certain things); instead I was shown. And where death teachings were concerned, I was made to die repeatedly on the medicine, sometimes dozens of times in a single session. Real “lights out” stuff. Each time I passed away, I had no certainty I’d revive. Yet revive I did, each time a bit less afraid.
The most dramatic incident took place in Peru when I was poisoned by spirit world spiders and felt myself going down for the last count (for realsies). The lead curandero detected my distress from across the totally dark room and ran across to me; he sprayed a spicy liquid from his mouth over the giant spiders, who scuttled away.
In the six years since my Peru trip, my work with other master plants has expanded on the death and dying theme. As can happen, my experiences with magic mushrooms became almost indistinguishable from aya journeys. Tiring of flood doses with these powerful plants, I shifted to private ceremonies with edible cannabis, which offers me a gentler journey with some of the same teachings. My favorite took place inside a floatation tank in 2016 when I saw the Wheel of Life turning like a vast Ferris wheel. The souls of the living (red in color) entered the machine from the left side; the souls of the departed exited from the right, bleached white. The scene had the vibe of a Grateful Dead poster, or some intricate Tibetan sacred painting.
“Alive or dead, it matters not to her,” an authoritative voice boomed out, lest the lesson escape my notice.
In my opinion, tryptamine drugs like ayahuasca and N,N,DMT are dualistic medicines, emphasizing contrasts of light and dark, angels and demons, male and female, and so on. Psychonaut James Oroc, author of Tryptamine Palace: 5-MeO-DMT and the Sonoran Desert Toad, refers to them as “Third Eye” opening substances, corresponding to the purple forehead chakra in the yogic energy system. You can read about my experience with N,N,DMT here.
Oroc refers to 5-MeO-DMT as a crown chakra medicine that takes us directly to unity with God, Allah, or One-ness. You can call it the flying spaghetti monster if you like, but in my experience Five was a high-speed elevator that passed all dualistic planes and took my consciousness straight to the penthouse. Actually, like the crazy elevator in Willie Wonka and the Magic Chocolate Factory, Five shot through the roof and into space!
More precisely, the medicine engendered my experiencing the single-pointed awareness or pure white light described by spiritual masters in eastern spiritual traditions. Consensus reality switched out within seconds of my deep inhalation. All illusion dropped away. What was left was, well, ultimately reality: the white light of pure awareness, minus the objects of its own projection (our world) via which it comes to know itself. You can read a detailed account of my 5-MeO-DMT experience here. In short, I experienced a nondual state with the first inhalation, and with the second inhalation my conscious awareness rode the event horizon of nondual/dual reality, experiencing them as one. This validated the Hindu and Buddhist insight that this world is “nothing” appearing as “something.”
“Five” switches out common brain neurotransmitters with the psychedelic, but more than other tryptamines, it zeroes in on the area of the brain associated with the construction of the ego, the sense of a separate self. This means Five can take a person to the white light state in seconds that a dedicated yogi might take years to reach.
This instant samadhi has benefits, but I caution it’s “walking backwards into enlightenment.” I subsequently began reading sacred texts to reverse-engineer this paradigm shifting attainment.
Ayahuasca and N.N.DMT took my consciousness into a weird arcade-like environment featuring brilliant laser-like colors and forms the Tibetan monks call the Bardo. Work with these hallucinogens is preparation for death, in that our non-corporeal awareness is more likely to surrender to the transition into somewhat familiar territory.
The Breath of Five (as some call it) skipped over the Bardo. Five seemed to confirm there is only truly the white light appearing in an infinite number of forms: Shiva wrapped in the coils of Shakti. There is no separate self, only “what’s happening” as nondual teacher Tony Parsons reminds us in The Open Secret. It suggested that distinctions between an inner and outer world are just how we experience phenomena, and that matter is ultimately made of “mind stuff” as demonstrated in quantum experiments such as the famous Double-Slit Experiment and the less well known Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser. (Be warned: most scientists stand by a dogmatic material interpretation of these experiments and resist their profound ontological implications.)
I propose we classify these psychedelics as “mortuarials” in recognition of their potential to offer a shamanic death — a preview of what’s to come, and how to surrender into it. This isn’t just death training: the encounter with ultimate reality allows us to relax more fully into the ground of being while we live through this incarnation, to become (as one writer calls it) cis-human. And appreciating that our brains may be quantum transducers, we can experience and come to know our true nature as unlimited awareness, for which our current minds and bodies are simply a sophisticated interface. When that interface ceases to function, the awareness (inside of which everything appears) continues, forever.
Guy Crittenden is a freelance writer who focuses on spiritual, psychedelic and environmental themes. His book The Year of Drinking Magic: Twelve Ceremonies with the Vine of Souls (Apocryphile Press, San Francisco) won the Silver Medal in its category at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Contact Guy at [email protected]