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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life

Webb, Marilyn. (1997)
New York: Bantam


ISBN: 0-553-09555-2

Description: Hardcover, xxxii + 479 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, Foreword by Timothy E. Quill, Introduction by Joanne Lynn, A Personal Introduction, 12 chapters, conclusion, epilogue, notes, index.

Except(s): Modern pharmacology's ability to synthesize psychoactive drugs has made the psychedelic experience-one that can encourage memories to arise as well as induce and mimic an ecstatic, mystical state-a common and widespread phenomenon for many Americans, and especially for the baby boom generation. Now, some are beginning to regard these drug experiences as a way to prepare for the shift in consciousness that may occur in dying.

For many, the first glimpses of the transcendent power of dreams or controlled images arose with psychedelic drugs. And so, many therapists and physicians are now beginning to consider using these drugs as a means for helping patients prepare for death. In a way, it is utilizing what many baby boomers have already learned about merging with dream images or using controlled hallucinations, taking that to a next step for use in a far more disciplined and traditionally organized way.

Such preparatory, visionary experiences were once practiced only by Native American or Aborigine shamans or medicine men, within sacred ceremonies, and by non-Western cultures that incorporated as part of their social milieu the nonordinary states of mind that psychotropic plants can create.

The modern synthesis of plant medicines into psilocybin or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), however, removed the religious moorings from these experiences, opening them to potential abuse as party drugs. At the same time, it introduced vast numbers of people to altered states of mind that previously had been known only through religious rites and visions. (page 265)

In his seminal novel Island, Huxley had written about mescaline-another psychedelic-and described it as moksha, a Hindu term for enlightenment. When his wife, Maria, died of cancer in 1955, Huxley gave it to her, and said that it-and hypnosis-had helped her get into deep trance states as she was in the process of dying. Near the end, it helped her move more easily, he'd said, into a mystical state of consciousness that became death.

He kept telling her to go toward the light and the drugs helped her do that more easily. After Maria's death, Huxley began experimenting with LSD himself and found he could elicit the same state, apart from the dying process. Later, when he was dying in 1963, he asked his next wife, Laura, to give him mescaline so that he could also merge with that light. (page 266)

Like narcotics, hallucinogenic drugs have gotten a bad reputation. They are potent-and therefore they have been deemed illegal by federal agencies, which may have overreacted in claiming that they have no medical use. In the 1996 referendums in California and Arizona-which many saw just as referendums on the medical use of marijuana-voters in Arizona in fact passed a bill that would allow LSD (and all Schedule I drugs, including heroin and marijuana) to be used for medical purposes. Like opioids, psychedelics can-and have-been used responsibly in medical environments.

Among the most interesting work has been their use with the terminally ill in the work of Grof and Halifax. During the 1970s, with the FDA's research approval, they were using LSD in therapy sessions to treat alcoholics when a woman named Gloria, who was a part of their research team, found she had advanced breast cancer. She was so anxious and depressed about her poor prognosis that she asked whether she could try therapy sessions using LSD. The team agreed. ...

In their book The Human Encounter with Death, Grof and Halifax wrote about how Gloria described her experience. "Mainly I remember two experiences," Gloria said. "I was alone in a timeless world with no boundaries. There was no atmosphere; there was no color, no imagery, but there may have been light.

"Life reduced itself over and over and over to the least common denominator. I cannot remember the logic of the experiences, but I became poignantly aware that the core of life is love. At this moment I felt that I was reaching out to the world-to all people-but especially to those closest to me." As she came out of the experience, Gloria said she never felt such joy and incredible love for her co-researchers, her parents, her husband, and her family. Her depression and fatigue lifted. She felt at peace, and she died that way five weeks later.

The Spring Grove team began to focus almost exclusively on LSD therapy with terminal cancer patients, trying to work in ways similar to how many counselors use NDE narratives with dying patients today-helping patients quell fears of dying and taste the sort of experience that might accompany death. Their work was also similar to that of shamans and medicine men (and women), who use peyote rituals, vision quests, and sweat lodges as guides toward their own deaths.

By the end of the 1970s, the political climate had changed and the FDA did not renew the Spring Grove group's research authorization to use LSD. At that point, however, the team had already worked with more than two hundred patients and had built an impressive body of research on the psychology of dying.

Since then, psychedelic work with the dying has nearly stopped. Today, however, some researchers are attempting to resurrect it once again, this time using not only LSD but also shorter-acting hallucinogenic drugs, such as psilocybin, ibogaine, DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine), ecstasy (3, 4-methylene dioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA), and ketamine, which might be easier on dying patients. (pages 267-268)

One of Dr. Grof and Dr. Halifax's patients, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American man named Dean, was dying of kidney cancer. In the course of many therapy sessions, LSD was used during three sessions. During those times, Dean had experiences of the light, of a life review, of euphoria, and of the merging of his consciousness with a more universal consciousness.

Shortly before he died, Dean got uremic poisoning and was in and out of a coma. "I was saying to him, come out of the darkness into the light, don't be afraid, go into the light," Dr. Halifax says. Dean didn't die right then. When he became more lucid, he reported that as he was fading deeper and deeper into his coma, he experienced exactly what Dr. Halifax had been describing. He also said that it was no different from what he'd already experienced in the LSD sessions.

"He did see the light and he went toward it," Dr. Halifax says. "He also said there was a moving picture on the wall across from his bed and he saw all the faces of people he'd killed in the war, plus all those he'd beat up on as a child. When he came back, he said, 'I won't have to go through that again.' And he died an extremely peaceful death a month later."

Holotropic Breathwork can be used in lieu of psychedelics, he says, because it "[can] take people into similar places." Ideally, however, he would like to have a range of psychological tools to draw on-with psychedelics as part of it-so that the kind of therapy and preparation for dying could be matched to a patient's need, depending on the particular patient-his or her strength, experience, and physical condition.

"If you have an opportunity to practice nonordinary states, it takes away the fear of death," Dr. Grof says. "[But] we have a culture that is not only unused to mystical experiences, it denigrates them; in fact, it even confuses them with psychoses. We have a Bible in every hotel room, yet all the experiences described in the Bible would be seen today as psychotic, pathological. We don't have a mainstream religion where people could have a powerful religious experience. There were mystical traditions in every religion, and now we are talking about using them again in preparation for death." (pages 270-271)

By the time he returned [from India], Ram Dass had also learned enough of Buddhism to realize that the state of mind he'd discovered on psychedelic drugs was similar to the descriptions of the stages the mind-spirit would encounter after death that were found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He and Leary (and another researcher, Ralph Metzner) wrote a book, The Psychedelic Experience, based on that text to describe the travels of the conscious mind while on drugs. He also wrote Be Here Now, which was perhaps the seminal spiritual book of the boomer generation. ...

In 1976, he founded the Hanuman Foundation Dying Project. With Stephen and Ondrea Levine as codirectors, he began giving workshops in Santa Fe and in the San Francisco Bay area to help those who were dying make a more spiritual journey of their deaths.

Two age-old premises underlie their work, premises that by now are familiar in this book: Death is not an end but a transition; and we can learn to make that transition well. They, too, aim to use altered states of consciousness ahead of time so that the dying person might more easily-and quickly-resolve personal, emotional, and family issues and might grow comfortable with transcendent feelings. Much of their work-which uses meditation-also aims to reduce panic and fear and prepare the patient for what he or she might feel at the moment of death. ...

"I am one of the few people who gets thrilled to be with people dying," he tells his audience, which consists largely of more than a thousand psychotherapists. "It's such a grace for me because I know I am going to be in the presence of truth." That's because the dying, he says, exude an intense feeling of love; he learned how to recognize that space, he says, from psychedelic drugs.

"Most of our images of love have to do with romantic love," he says. "We give lip service to the fact that there is another love that's not interpersonal. We call it God's love. Or whatever. But to be with someone who is dying is to feel it. Sitting with someone who is dying is so intimate a human contact that we are floating. That's how grief gets transformed into a living, loving space. And it transforms the pain." (pages 271-273)

Stephen and Ondrea Levine have written more than six books on the specific philosophy and techniques they use to aid the dying. This meditative style has since found its way into mainstream medicine in work with ill patients in hospitals, into nationally distributed guides for the management of pain in cancer and AIDS patients, and into the literature and workshops of established self-help groups such as Cancer Care. ...

Stephen first met Ram Dass in the late 1960s, when he was the editor of the San Francisco Oracle, a popular underground paper during the Haight-Ashbury days. Stephen had a familiarity with drugs himself; he was a recovered heroin addict who had turned to Buddhism.

"It was in 1964 when I stopped smack," he says. "I had dabbled with Buddhism before drugs-since 1957, when I was nineteen-but that day I was in my car and I literally pulled over to the curb because I suddenly realized I wanted God more than the shot I was on my way to get. The smack was part of my spiritual search but it didn't work. I've been clean now for nearly thirty-five years." The teachers he found were in the Theravadan tradition, which comes out of Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. (pages 274-275)



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