Spirituality & Health Magazine

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By:
2010 May-June

Practicing Death

Marti was a bright, optimistic, attractive 40-year-old woman when she first entered a support group for cancer patients that I facilitated at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Tiburon, California. It wasn’t until a few years later that her illness wrought its devastation on her body and her spirit. During that time we had become friends, and she became interested in my shamanic work outside the center.

When her death was imminent, she became quite frightened and anxious. I shared with her my experiences with a psychedelic agent, 5-Methoxy Dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), with which I had been working for a number of years, and which might be helpful to her in dealing with her concerns and the challenges to come.

I told her it was a “spiritual medicine” from the Amazon, used shamanically by indigenous peoples there to contact the spirit world. Indigenous cultures typically use 5-MeO-DMT as a snuff, although on some occasions they use it as an admixture to ayahuasca. Rather than making a snuff, contemporary users prefer to vaporize extracts of 5-MeO from plants and inhale the smoke.

She became especially interested in it when I mentioned that I called it “death practice energy medicine” because it helped people work with the letting-go process, something she would face in the all-too-near future, and opened them up to the reality underlying the physical world — the world, as William Blake put it, where “energy is total delight.”

My First Practice

The first time I took 5-MeO-DMT, I was with Terence McKenna in his home in Occidental with two other friends in 1985. I went first; I inhaled the smoke. When the medicine came on, time, space, and ordinary consciousness were totally obliterated.

At warp speed I shot down a hyperspace energy tunnel in full panic that this time I had gone too far — I was dying and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I knew I would never see my family again, never enjoy a sunrise, and never again walk in the mountains or forests that always filled me with joy. I tried to stretch my arms and legs out to the sides of the tunnel to slow down, but alas, I had no arms or legs. I had no body, just energy of what previously had been me, zooming toward infinity.

Realizing there was nothing I could do, I surrendered to my fate with the thought, I can’t stop this, so I might as well be totally present and get as much from it as I can, right up until the moment when I die. At that precise instant, I went into a state of total bliss.

A gentle explosion of white-gold light evaporated all notions of past, present, future, shape, form, identity, and space. There was only infinite, pulsating “all-ness” of ecstatic energy — a cosmic organism of joy that just kept exploding into a sea of infinite emptiness, devoid of materiality but filled with love. This was the cosmic consciousness state referred to by the mystics of all religions around the world as god/goddess/holy spirit/the mysterium tremendum.

After 10 immeasurable minutes, parts of my psyche that had been blasted into the far reaches of the cosmos gradually began floating back into awareness. I could see sections of my ego identity slowly appear from the vast distances of far-off space, heading toward what was my body, lying there on the rug, beginning to recompose itself. After another 10 minutes I was back to baseline here but with a new relationship to death, to dying, to letting go.

The Peace-Filled Channel

I have been working with physical death in one way or another since my rude introduction into the teaching of impermanence, just months before my fourth birthday, when my father died. As an adult I received a Ph.D. in psychology and went on to help start the second hospice program in the United States. Then I helped start the Center for Attitudinal Healing, where I worked with children and adults with cancer for 32 years.

Over this time I sat bedside with numerous children and adults, witnessing their final moments. All too often I saw that anxiety and fear, along with a resistance to let go, created intense struggle for the departing person and increased anguish for attending family and friends. My job in being there, enlightened by my death-practice work with the energy medicine, was to serve as a labor coach, helping the natural letting-go process to happen as smoothly as possible, thereby birthing the person “back home” into the infinite cosmos from whence he came, an existence of pure consciousness, pure light, pure love.

My 5-MeO-DMT journey experience with letting go and entering cosmic bliss allowed me to remain peaceful no matter what was happening, as I knew that the key was surrendering into the underlying reality of oneness with all. Thus, I was able to be a peace-filled channel for the love and light that awaited each dying person when he finally did release. This function seemed to help the dying person, as well as others in the room, to feel more trustful of what was taking place and release into it with more peace and ease.

My experiences with other psychedelics (including peyote, psilocybin, and ayahuasca) and other life-threatened individuals over the years, and working with indigenous healers in Mexico and the Amazon, has repeatedly evidenced how the letting-go process with mind-altering substances — when used responsibly in supportive settings with experienced guides — allows the journeyer to exercise what I 63call the “surrender muscles.” It creates an opportunity to do vital preparation work for the ultimate letting-go journey when physically dying by strengthening the letting-go process.

The Dynamics of Letting Go

A key dynamic for a fruitful and transformational psychedelic journey is releasing control and surrendering into mystery — and allowing the experience to unfold. In doing so, journeyers learn about the cartography of altered space; they learn about levels of consciousness and being beyond the physical self and the identity of ego. They experience an aspect of their being that is transcendent of whom and what they thought they were; they learn of the cosmic self. This experience not only brings more comfort and ease with the altered states that frequently accompany physical death, along with an ability to navigate within them, but it also provides a sense of inner peace and serenity.

The practice builds confidence that whatever is dying is okay, for they are about to enter a state of blissful oneness with all that has been, is now, and will forever be. Thus, they feel comforted that they will not be separated from the loved ones they seemingly are leaving behind. The practice suggests that the love they share does not die with their physical bodies, for they experience themselves as more than the physical containers that house their life spirit for the time of their life walk upon Mother Earth.

Marti, the cancer patient mentioned earlier, was eager to try the energy medicine after we talked about the experience and how it might prove helpful in defusing her fear and anxiety about death. We set up a time and safe setting, she arranged for a mutual friend to be there as an additional support person, and we went forward with our plan.

On the day of the journey, we met in her home. I first purified the site with sage smoke and invited Marti to set the stage for sacred space by placing her spiritual objects and pictures in a circle around her. I then invited her to speak her intentions for the journey and her gratitude, after which I said a prayer that used her spiritual notions of deity. Marti inhaled the smoke, held it for the required 45 seconds, and then collapsed backwards onto the pillows laid out for her journey.

Her eyes rolled backward in her head; her body shook uncontrollably. A blood-curdling scream roared from her mouth. Then she was totally still. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” she mumbled. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” A gloriously serene smile appeared on her face, now softened in a way I had never seen before.

Marti lay peacefully on her back for another 20 minutes before she opened her eyes. Blinking, she looked at her friend and me, at the room, then back to me. “I saw God,” she said. “I really did. I saw God. It was unbelievable, but it happened. Death is okay now. I know I will be okay, that I will be with God, with everyone. It’s all love; it’s all light. We are all together! Thank you, Tom. Thank you so much. I can’t believe this medicine. What a gift. You have to share it with others!”

The Future of the Practice

Marti died peacefully one week after her energy medicine journey. I have seen similar results with scores of others, helping them ease their fear of death and dying and what happens after death. I can’t help but believe how helpful this work could be with others who seek to exercise their surrender muscles in preparation for their physical death and/or for spiritually enhanced living.

The indigenous peoples with whom I have studied consider these agents as having a guiding and healing spirit, as being alive, a wisdom elder, a sacred sacramental gift from the spirit world. They must be approached only with the utmost respect, reverence, and humility. It is easy for our materially based, sensation-seeking culture to abuse these substances, and when that occurs, great harm can result. These substances are not for everyone. Most certainly they are contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, heart problems, seizure history, or those on any kind of psychoactive medications, as well as those suffering from any kind of mental illness. A trained guide who knows the territory also is necessary, along with a safe and secure setting, and creating sacred space in alignment with the journeyer’s belief system and intentions.

It is my hope that federal regulations will allow these substances to be used responsibly by qualified practitioners, who can conduct research to validate the potential of these substances to create a sustainable world; one that is peaceful, loving, and just and that is built on the recognition brought forth by the journeys — that all of creation is interwoven in an invisible web of love that is truly the essence of our being.

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