Updated: Aug 17
Painting: "Dying", by Alex Grey
αν πεθάνεις πριν πεθάνεις,
δεν θα πεθάνεις όταν πεθάνεις
If you die before you die,
You won’t die when you die
-Inscription from the Monastery of Agios Pavlos, Mt. Athos, Greece
Early morning of the final day of a recent sojourn in the Rocky Mountains I awoke to a message from an old mentor of mine back in New York City.
It was the kind of message one never hopes to receive.
He had recently discovered he is critically ill with a medically grim prognosis.
In his message, he shared some of the details of his illness, the coincidental nature of its discovery, and his deep anger and frustration with his allopathic journey thus far.
Towards the end, he confessed to feeling completely unprepared to face, let alone embrace, the apparent inevitability of his coming death.
But his message concluded with a very personal ask:
He asked if I would be willing to accompany him on a journey -- a very special kind of journey...
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by death.
Not in a morbid way.
I just wanted to know more about it, and couldn’t figure out why no one wanted to talk about it.
As you can imagine, I was very popular at family gatherings.
Given death is the only aspect of life that is actually assured, it felt strange to grow up in a culture that largely eschews it wholesale.
When I got older, I took matters into my own hands and went looking for it on my own.
From coastal burial grounds in Tanzania to burial mounds at Thermopylae, Dachau’s gas chambers to the burning ghats of Varanasi, I would inevitably find myself drawn to the battlefields, holy sites, and graveyards of our shared human experience.
Solemn, beautiful, and largely devoid of people, (living people at least), they are places of profound motivation for me.
Because if you listen closely enough, the dead always seem to have the same thing to say:
“Live while you’re alive.”
Always seemed like good advice.
I took that advice as my mantra and tried to live my life accordingly.
But as my travels and spiritual pursuits matured, I began to notice a different pattern emerging at the heart of the great teachings, martial traditions, and mystery schools I was studying that felt like the opposite of the mantra I had first adopted:
“Die while you are alive.”
The plot thickens....
Every week, for a year, I came to see my mentor.
Every week, for a year, I would hop the subway and travel to his Manhattan office or Brooklyn home, lay on his exam table, and have the demons cast out of me at the end of a needle.
Or should I say, needles.
Lots of needles into various parts of my body.
I would often convulse, shudder, weep, or scream as he worked on me.
I’ll never forget the session where he first opened the doorway to my “spirit burial ground”.
Through the entire experience, he would speak calmly, asking questions, answering questions, humming lightly under his breath while he guided me through the wisdom of his ancient lineage of acupuncture.
During that year, I experienced healing of my body, mind, and spirit that I would have never thought possible.
I always hoped I’d have the chance to pay him back someday.
To return the favor.
To hold space in kind.
In late 2016, Dr. Roland Griffiths, pharmacological research scientist at Johns Hopkins, along with seven other research fellows, published the results of a landmark study: “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial”
The results were as astounding as the title.
The participants in the study were all cancer patients who met the diagnostic criteria for significant anxiety or depression as secondary to their original cancer diagnosis.
Every patient accepted into the study met this criteria.
During the study, patients were administered psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in psychedelic mushrooms.
They each experienced the effects of the substance, in a clinical setting, with medical professionals attending to them.
After the journey, they were asked about their experience, and were then asked again 6 months later, and again 5 years later.
The results were staggering.
On average, patients experienced precipitous drops in anxiety and depression after their experience.
86% of participants in the high dose study experienced “increased well-being or life satisfaction moderately of very much after 6 months. 82.6% of them still made this claim 5 years later.
5 YEARS LATER.
No serious adverse events attributed to psilocybin administration occurred.
From the experience, each patient logged commonality in the following categories:
A major shift in world-view --
An experience of “Consciousness” as eternal --
Direct challenge to the previously held ideas that everything ends at the moment of death
Scientists don’t really know what to do with or make of this data.
Read, DATA. Not opinion, not hyperbole, not anecdote, data.
In addition to this study, Griffiths and his team have conducted several additional studies on Psilocybin. Two hallmark results to emerge from these are as follows:
80% smoking cessation rate after the first dose
75% of participants reported that their experience on psilocybin remains one of, if not the most meaningful experience of their life
The majority of participants experienced a 1 point uptick in openness on the Big 5 Personality Scale. That’s the equivalent of jumping from the 55th percentile to the 85th percentile, and the jump is permanent.
No one knows what to make of these findings.
Not the scientists, not the medical practitioners, not the FDA, not even the participants themselves.
But we do know that going through the process of “dying before you die” seems to unequivocally produce positive utility.
I’ve had many incredible beings hold space for me in my day.
And I have had the privilege to hold space for many incredible beings.
The fact I’ve been trusted enough to serve in this way honors me deeply.
The recent ask from my mentor honors me deeply.
It is a very exciting time to be alive, for many reasons.
We are literally standing on the doorway of a true renaissance in the fields of clinical research and therapeutic possibility on the psychedelic front.
It has the potential to be a massive turning point -- a moment where scientific discovery and religious experience can join together as allies to help humanity heal.
The evidence for the movement is everywhere:
In the 2020 November election cycle, the state of Oregon became the first to state to legalize psilocybin. Oregon’s Measure 109 grants legal access to psilocybin, the psycho-active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” for mental health treatment in supervised settings.
Sometime in early 2022, Rick Doblin and his team at MAPS is slated to publish the full results of their first of two “Phase 3” clinical trials for MDMA- assisted therapy for the treatment of PTSD. Phase 3 is the final stage before seeking FDA approval for a new prescription treatment.
Paul Stamets has become something of a mycelial celebrity, catalyzing a true grass-roots movement with his groundbreaking research, development, and approachability as a figurehead for the movement -- not to mention his research on "micro-dosing" and neurogenesis.
Author Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, “How to Change Your Mind”, became a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller, and has been arguably the most influential figure to point the finger in the direction of all things psychedelic to the mom and pops of middle America.
In addition, there are quite a number of scholars over the years who have presented rather compelling evidence for the potential psychedelic origins of many of the world's oldest religions:
In "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross”, John M. Allegro alleges that the early Christians were essentially a mushroom cult, and used psilocybin as the activating substance in the Eucharist and other sacred rites.
R. Gordon Wasson is convinced that the legendary beverage, “Soma”, described in the Vedic scriptures actually contained amanita muscaria, the infamous “toadstool” mushroom of Alice in Wonderland fame.
Dan Merkur insists that the “Manna” the ancient Hebrews were eating and carrying around in the Arc of the Covenant while wandering in the desert for 40 years was none other than magic mushrooms.
Investigators believe that Ergot was the psychoactive ingredient in the beverage imbibed during the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries -- the religious rite both Plato and Socrates took part in. Ergot, a fungal disease that appears on cereal grains, produces a very specific alkaloid derivative known as lysergic acid diethylamide. Aka, LSD. After drinking the brew, participants would experience direct communication and interaction with the Gods. “Persephone’s Quest”; “The Road to Eleusis”; “The Immortality Key”.
Terrence McKenna's hypothesis concerning the influence of psilocybin mushrooms on human evolution, known as "the 'stoned ape' theory, continues to gain mainstream ground. He believed that psilocybin was the "evolutionary catalyst" from which essentially all of human culture rose -- linguistic ability, religion, projective imagination, science, art, philosophy, etc.
All this to say, here in the West, our culture has grown alarmingly white-washed of all things death and decay.
Most people don’t want to look at their shit.
Most people definitely don’t want to grapple with the inevitability of their own death.
But would this still be the case if they knew the positive effects of doing so?
Would this still be the case if they had the tools to do so safely and directly?
Soon, I hope everyone will have legal access to therapeutic use of these powerful tools, teachers, and allies.
If you do journey, please be safe and follow the “3 S’s” -- Set, Setting, and Sitter.
Set - what is your mindset going into the experience,
Setting- is the setting safe and conducive to a positive experience,
Sitter - is there someone you can trust to sit with you through the experience as a guide?
And, the following practice from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s, “Hagakure” is a viable alternative to eating a bunch of mushrooms:
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shake to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail, one should consider himself as dead.”
Some use dance, breath, physical exertion, music, sex, religious ritual, psychedelics, various forms of asceticism, or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane to break through into the present moment -- past the thinking mind and into our deeper truths -- "slaying the ego", if only for a moment.
There is a part of all of us that needs to die -- to be integrated, loved, released, or "walked home", as Ram Das would say -- so that we can actually live.
The religions of the world agree, at least on this one point.
How you kill it, is up to you.