Psilocybin: what is ego death?
Paul Stamets turned 65 last July. A time of ‘deep reflection', he called it. The last phase of a life, how do you deal with that? How do you look at death, at the transition to another existence? Just as a religious person has an image of what will happen, specifically or not, there are also people who see only a black hole in the word 'death'.
The way you look at death determines how you see life. We try to imagine what it is like to die. The thoughts and feelings we get are nourished by 'not knowing'. It is difficult for a person not to be afraid of uncertainty. Do you live with an ever-present fear, a look focused on the inevitable? Do you live with your head in the sand, denying the circle of life, because you cannot accept that the end means a new beginning? How joyful are we all when we welcome new life into our midst? The birth is a magical moment of celebration and we all applaud the arrival of a fresh person in our midst. I continue to find it extraordinary that we have all experienced this intense moment and no one can recount it. Dying is something that no one can recount either.
Death is a subject that I think we are all working on a lot. Thanks in part to corona, there is perhaps an even stronger awareness that this body is a fragile mechanism that can be turned off even by a seemingly invisible hand. I am not yet as old as Paul Stamets and am in a different phase of life. As an older lady said to me 'it all has yet to begin for me'. Death is just a dot on the horizon. Still, according to the mycologist it is our own responsibility and our destiny and we have to learn to be at peace with our mortality. However difficult that may be. The other day I saw a film in which the evil rulers of a beautiful planet destroyed all life, purely out of fear for their own mortality. What I really liked was that the characters determined that they are actually all part of the planet. Dying' is what they call 'returning to Thra' (the name of the planet). In this way they see dying as a transition phase in which you go back to your original state, as part of the whole.
Psychedelics and the dying of the ego
The thought that one day I will no longer be this 'I' (and that I've always been much more than just that) I was able to investigate while traveling with psychedelics. Magic mushrooms have introduced me in a very gentle way to the feeling that 'everything is connected'. Every time I trip, or even take a microdose, this important memory comes back. In daily life I often forget it. Before I know it I am listening again to that ever present 'voice', the storyteller of my own life. This story is built up from all kinds of experiences I have had, the thoughts and feelings I got and which now determine how I experience the world. I find myself on slippery ice, when I try to speak about the 'ego'. The Latin word for 'I' has been the subject of confusing debate for centuries. For how do I speak or write about this 'I' when it is me? Or is it not me but is it something else? These mind-cracking questions can be tiring and I understand that sometimes a human being would rather get drunk than philosophize about them. Still, I realize that I am reaping the fruits, if I now plant seeds that will make my peace grow with dying. Letting go of the ego is an exercise that man has always struggled with. Thanks to psychedelics, but also with meditation, it is possible to experience this state. Something that can't really be put into words. The trick is to integrate it into your life. Letting go of this 'I' means letting go of this complex mix of desires, fears and thoughts. As Buddhist doctrine emphasizes it is the ego that stands in the way of experiencing true self-awareness. I feel that this storyteller holds me back in more ways than one. The one I cling to because it gives me a feeling of certainty, of recognition and at the same time the cause of so much suffering.
Mooji, a spiritual speaker from whom I learn a lot, puts it into words as follows:
"I' is the master-thief himself. The one dressed in the policeman's uniform who goes out to catch the thief - who is himself! Of course, the thief will not be caught. This policeman-thief will run around, blow his whistle and pretend he is earnestly seeking the thief, but he will never put himself in jail. Ego will not and cannot kill ego. It is unreal! So this thief, who really is it? This shape-shifting 'I', when investigated turns out to be only a thought - the most intimate and primal thought in manifestation".
Tripping as a path to enlightenment: a warning
What happens when this thought disappears, the feeling of being 'me'? Is that dying? For many people who use psychedelics, this is an important point. Learning to let 'yourself', or your so-called identity, go completely. To let go of the mask, the picture you have taken of yourself. What I find a beautiful image is the drop that falls from the sky, travels its way as an individual, dissolves at last in the infinite ocean and becomes one with it.
The so-called ego-death, or ego-loss, is a phenomenon that many psychonauts are looking for and at the same time have their greatest fear of. What does it mean? The dying of the ego would mean that the feeling you have about yourself, the idea of being an 'individual', completely disappears. During an intense psychedelic experience and with meditation it is possible to lose the ego. For a long time man has been fascinated by this idea of 'dying before really dying', or an exercise in dying. Maybe you wonder why someone would want to experience this frightening state.
Leaving the safe island of your so-called identity and navigating the unknown waters requires courage and wisdom. Buddhist monks meditate for years and even then they do not always manage to reach this state of enlightenment. Psychedelics can be, as it were, a shortcut to this destination. A warning is certainly in order here: the mystery of existence can get more clarity through the use of psychedelics, but at the same time all kinds of things can surface that you can't prepare for with any possibility. Once on the surface you can't go back. Do you feel you are ready for this? To see the shadow side of yourself, to let things that you've been putting away for a long time come to the surface? Because you can't go back, you have to work with it. Only then does the work begin. Although I agree with the idea that it is important to learn how to deal with death and to face the ego storyteller who wants to keep control, it is wise to give yourself the opportunity to process this knowledge and only then to go when you're ready. There's nothing wrong with lower trip doses, where you might as well arrive at valuable and workable insights in a more subtle way.
Psilocybin as a way to learn how to die
The clinical trials done with terminally ill cancer patients and psilocybin are promising. As you can read in Michael Pollan's book ‘How to change your mind', psychedelics are powerful preparers for death. One example is this placebo-controlled, randomized study in which 51 cancer patients participated in a psilocybin study (publication). The mystical experience of psilocybin gives the patients, who suffer from anxiety and depression about their approaching death, a different perspective on mortality. Scientists agree that psilocybin is "one of the safest drugs that has such a great influence and needs so little use". No less than six months after the study, 80% of the participants who had received a high dose of psilocybin were still positively influenced by the effects. In the medical world it is almost unthinkable that one session is enough for a person to have a strong reduction in symptoms for six months. The legalization of psilocybin is a hot topic in several states of the US. As Paul Stamets puts it, we all have the right to decide for ourselves how we deal with dying. Therefore, the safe use of psilocybin mushrooms before the end of life is, or should be, a legitimate way to say goodbye. Hopefully we will evolve to the point where we can respect each other's choices. Legalizing psilocybin as a way to learn to deal with death, as a first step to complete legalization. Of course it is very important that we treat these entheogenic substances with respect. As the word says, they show the divine in ourselves. Something very valuable that allows us to look at this life with a very different, open mind.
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