Attaining Oneness with all being is a goal that many spiritual seekers spend decades working towards. It takes many years even for the most diligent meditator to lastingly quiet the chattering mind, and to move towards deep experiences of transformation and lasting happiness.
Back in the sixties though, the two psychologists and then-academics Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – the latter better known as Ram Dass – experimented with a shortcut to enlightenment: psychedelic drugs.
The drugs helped them to experience feelings of deep peace, transcendence and unity with all creation. They also used them to recreate the experience of dying as described in the ancient Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and called it The Psychedelic Experience.
“A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness”, the authors explain in the introduction. “The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity.”
Not everyone will immediately reach these states of consciousness, the authors warn, as it depends on the personality and attitude of the experimenter. But those who are able to make the drugs work may very well go through an enlightenment experience.
A speedway to spiritual liberation in one shot? The ancient masters are probably turning in their graves. Yet new research is claiming that drugs like “magic mushrooms” can create long lasting personality shifts for the better after such an experience, simply with one pop of a pill.
But in a way, the authors of the Tibetan Book of the Dead didn’t necessarily demand a lifelong spiritual practice either when they created the guidelines to help the dying to achieve the passage into liberation – meaning liberation from suffering.
What was important to them was not so much a virtuous life, but a courageous attitude in the face of death. Of course in their thinking it was just as invaluable to prepare for this test during one’s lifetime.
According to the Tibetan Buddhists, the crucial element on the final stretch is to remain detached in the face of hallucinations of paradise as well as of hell that the mind is creating, and to neither cling to illusions of pleasure nor to turn away from visions of pain.
That of course is easier said than done.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is said to be based on the experience of ancient sages, who may have gone through what we now call a near death experience (NDE).
Scientific studies that examine NDEs in different cultures all speak of visions of light and illumination as well as images of darkness or pain. The same can happen during an experience with LSD, when an initially transformative experience can turn into a “bad trip”.
According to the Tibetans, the task is to push through the periods of pain as well as the periods of pleasure without clinging to either one of them, but to sustain a detached attitude in the face of strong feeling.
Leary and Alpert argued that this practice applies not just to dying, but life as well: to work towards equanimity in the face of all of life’s trials and tribulations.
For them, the controlled use of psychedelic drugs led them on this path. Turns out that current neuroscience is picking up where they have left off.
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Last reviewed: 16 May 2013