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The Psychedelic Path to Death's Door: Don't mistake the keys for the castle or the kingdom of god.

"Don't mistake the keys for the castle or the kingdom of god. Neem Karoli Baba once said, if you want to raise your kundalini, feed someone. Once the elevator key gets you to ground level, get out and help somebody else. Aiming for the penthouse just keeps you locked in a box." - Lou https://substack.com/profile/116596404-lou/reads





Death is an inevitable and universal aspect of human existence, yet also profoundly mysterious and anxiety-provoking. The awareness of mortality has a foundational impact on the human psyche that manifests in a complex phenomenon known as death anxiety. This multifaceted concept encompasses the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors related to concerns and fears about death and dying. While anxiety in response to the threat of annihilation is an understandable part of the human condition, excessive or unresolved death anxiety can become a source of deep distress and a barrier to living fully. It not only causes psychological anguish but can also lead to avoidant behaviors, loss of meaning and purpose, and hampered social relationships. If not properly addressed, death anxiety has been associated with increased physical health risks as well.

Understanding the origins and mediators of death anxiety is crucial. Psychological, spiritual, and medical disciplines have long studied this phenomenon to uncover approaches that may help individuals achieve equanimity in the face of mortality. Examining the role that psychedelic substances may play in transforming attitudes towards death represents one pathway currently being explored.


Psychological Perspectives on Death Anxiety

The inevitability of death creates an undercurrent of anxiety within the human experience. Psychologists have long studied this phenomenon, seeking to understand the psychological impact of our awareness of mortality. An early perspective was provided by William James, who emphasized how death's certainty continually influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Building on James' observations, contemporary psychologists have further delved into this concept of death anxiety. Menzies and Menzies (2023) describe death anxiety as encompassing a diverse range of fears - from the process of dying to the annihilation of self and the unknown.


Psychedelic Substances Overview

Psychedelic substances refer to a broad category of drugs that can induce profound changes in consciousness, cognition, and perception. Some of the major types of psychedelics include:

- Serotonergic or classical psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and mescaline that act on serotonin receptors and cause drastic alterations in thinking, mood, and perception.

- Empathogens or entactogens like MDMA that produce experiences of emotional openness, connectedness, and empathy.

- Dissociatives like ketamine and PCP that cause feelings of detachment from one's body and environment.

- Atypical psychedelics like salvinorin A that act on non-serotonergic receptors and have unique effects.

Psychedelic substances have a long history of use in spiritual and healing contexts across cultures. Indigenous groups in South America have used plant medicines like ayahuasca and peyote in shamanic rituals for centuries. In the 1950s-60s, psychedelics gained popularity in Western psychiatry and academia, with over 1000 research papers published on their therapeutic potential. However, rising recreational use led to their criminalization by 1970. Recently, scientific interest in psychedelics has re-emerged, with researchers investigating their potential to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and addiction. The FDA has granted "breakthrough therapy" status to psilocybin and MDMA for PTSD and depression, allowing expedited research. As evidence grows for psychedelics' safety and efficacy when used appropriately, these substances are being re-evaluated as transformative tools for healing and personal growth.


Psychedelics and Attitudes Towards Death

Recent studies have demonstrated the potential of psychedelic substances to improve attitudes and outlooks related to death. Some of these studies show that the profound mystical states induced by psychedelics can lead to a greater acceptance and lack of fear towards mortality. For instance, in a study of patients with life-threatening cancer, a single dose of psilocybin produced substantial and sustained decreases in anxiety and depression. When interviewed months after their psychedelic session, participants expressed an increased sense of peace and acceptance in relation to their impending death. The psychedelic experience helped recast their perception of death as a meaningful transition rather than an absolute end.

Other research found that even in healthy individuals with no terminal diagnosis, the use of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin correlated with overall increases in death acceptance. People who had taken these substances reported decreased levels of death anxiety as well as a greater sense of meaning and optimism when contemplating their mortality. Beyond improving attitudes about the nature of death itself, psychedelics have been shown to help dying patients find peace and closure regarding the act of letting go. Participants in studies reported feeling more ready to part with loved ones and make final arrangements after a psychedelic-assisted therapy session. The emotions of grief, loss, and separation were not eliminated but rather processed in a healthier manner.

Overall, these preliminary studies demonstrate the potential of psychedelic substances and psychedelic-assisted therapy to transform attitudes about death and dying for the better. By inducing profound changes in perception, meaning, and acceptance, they may help ease existential dread and find tranquility in the face of mortality. More research is still required to fully validate these findings and incorporate them into end-of-life care models. However, the current evidence indicates psychedelics' singular capacity to positively shift individuals' psychological orientation towards death.


Psychedelics' Effects on Cognition and Psychology

Psychedelic substances induce profound changes in perception, cognition, emotion, and consciousness that can lead to lasting psychological transformations. A leading hypothesis explaining the mechanisms behind these effects is the REBUS (Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics) model proposed by Carhart-Harris and Friston (2019).

The REBUS hypothesis suggests that psychedelics relax the precision of high-level priors or beliefs, enabling greater bottom-up information flow from intrinsic sources like the limbic system. By loosening the grip of rigid priors, psychedelics allow individuals to explore a broader range of perspectives, insights, and meanings.

This relaxation of beliefs is closely related to the concept of psychological flexibility - the ability to contact the present moment and one's thoughts and feelings without defense. Psychological flexibility involves openness to experiences, adapting to fluctuating situational demands, and aligning behavior with personal values.

Research shows psychedelics enhance psychological flexibility by reducing excessive control and avoidance behaviors. The psychedelic state allows people to accept and let go of unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and memories rather than avoiding them. This acceptance provides the basis for personal growth and change.

In therapy contexts, increased psychological flexibility from psychedelics facilitates the revision of maladaptive beliefs about oneself or the world. By temporarily disrupting rigid narratives of the self, psychedelics give room for new understandings to arise.

The interplay between relaxed high-level beliefs and enhanced psychological flexibility provides a window into how psychedelics can enable transformative experiences. With less attachment to existing narratives, psychedelics may allow for deeper reflection, new insights, and previously unconsidered perspectives to emerge.


Psychedelics, Meaning, and Life Purpose

The psychological effects of psychedelics, primarily their ability to alter one's sense of self and perceived life meaning, can have a profound impact on an individual's attitudes towards death. Studies have found that psychologically meaningful experiences induced by psychedelics are linked to increased life satisfaction and purpose.

Specifically, psychedelic experiences can lead to the reprioritization of values, allowing individuals to focus on what is most meaningful to them. Research has shown that prioritizing self-transcendent values oriented towards the well-being of others over more self-focused values is associated with lower death anxiety. Psychedelics increase openness which allows people to consider perspectives beyond their usual ego-boundaries. This dissolution of ego and heightened sense of connectedness to nature, humanity, and a spiritual dimension of life often results in increased empathy, compassion, and altruism. Ultimately, the shift towards more self-transcendent values and life purpose induced by psychedelics predicts greater psychological well-being.

The deeply meaningful states experienced under psychedelics are often described as spiritual or mystical. Studies have found that peak transcendent experiences reliably occasion enduring positive changes in attitudes and values. People often rate them as one of the most personally meaningful events of their lives. The profound shift in life perspective and values induced by such experiences appears to be crucial in cultivating acceptance of death. With an expanded sense of meaning and connection that transcends the self, death is viewed as less threatening. Overall, by altering how individuals perceive meaning and purpose in life, psychedelics can lead to lasting changes in attitudes towards mortality. The ability to reflect deeply on what makes life meaningful in the context of its impermanence allows for integration of death into one's worldview. With greater purpose and sense of transcendence, anxiety about mortality is reduced.


Psychedelics' Limitations

While psychedelics offer profound personal insights, they fail to directly address or provide solutions for broader societal problems and systemic issues. The individualistic experiences facilitated by psychedelics do not inherently challenge or alter the competitive, profit-driven values that are ingrained in many modern societies.

In fact, some argue that psychedelics may even reinforce components of the dominant neoliberal paradigm rather than fostering more collective-oriented or prosocial values. The intensely personal mystical experiences induced by psychedelics focus on subjective personal meaning rather than encouraging engagement with political or economic systems.

Psychedelics have limitations in their ability to promote systemic change or solutions for societal issues like inequality, discrimination, and environmental destruction. The mystical states and personal insights catalyzed by psychedelics may lead individuals to become more accepting of the status quo rather than motivating them to challenge unjust power structures or hierarchies.

While psychedelics may have value in addressing mental health conditions or personal growth, their individualistic orientation means they do not confront the cultural and institutional sources of many societal crises. Some theorists posit that psychedelics could even be integrated into capitalist systems as another consumer product or self-optimization tool rather than a means to inspire anti-capitalist sentiments or activism.

More research is needed to understand the relationship between psychedelic experiences and individuals' civic engagement, political activism, or commitment to social justice causes. There are open questions about whether psychedelics' impacts are mostly limited to personal well-being or can also seed societal transformation.


Conclusion

Psychedelic substances can play a meaningful role in alleviating death anxiety and promoting acceptance of mortality. While still an emerging field of research, the findings point to significant effects of psychedelic experiences on psychological constructs closely tied to attitudes about death.

Specifically, studies have demonstrated that psychedelics can increase psychological flexibility, relaxation of cognitive priors, and personality openness. These effects allow individuals to re-evaluate personal values, sense of meaning, and perceptions of death. Psychedelic-assisted therapy leads to self-reported improvements in the quality of life, life satisfaction, and acceptance of death in cases of patients with terminal illnesses.

The profound mystical-type experiences induced by psychedelics are indicated as catalysts for the positive, lasting changes in worldviews and self-concept. This aligns with the REBUS hypothesis, which proposes psychedelics loosen engrained cognitive patterns, enabling revised perspectives. However, some limitations are the lack of systemic change beyond the individual level and the need for more rigorous, controlled research.





"These compounds change everything (when bringing us up from an Awe deficit to baseline).

These compounds change nothing (when going from baseline to excess.)

Bruce Lee famously said “I don’t fear the man who has practiced a thousand kicks one time. I fear the man who has practiced one kick a thousand times.”" - Jamie Wheal


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