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Death & The Psychedelic Experience

Death & The Psychedelic Experience - The Wheel of Life

Keith W. Fiveson, MDiv

"There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby, and invisible. And there is where God lives, where the dead live, the spirits and the saints, a world where everything has already happened, and everything is known." - Maria Sabina

In this article we unpack the Tibetan Book of the Dead to better understand the concepts surrounding death, The Wheel of Life and the use of psychedelics to achieve transcendence in one's lifetime. The Psychedelic Experience was written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) almost 60 years ago. Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs the reader, “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream." These words were incorporated into the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles.

Bhavachakra, The Wheel of Life (The Wheel)

The Psychedelic

Experience is a guidebook to using psychedelics to explore altered states of consciousness to attain spiritual enlightenment and insights into death and dying. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an essential Buddhist text that is believed to have been written by Padmasambhava between the 8th and 9th centuries. The text has also been referred to as "The Great Liberation through Hearing During the Intermediate State" or "Bardo Thodol," which translates to ‘liberation upon hearing in the intermediate state.’ The Tibetan Book of the Dead is therefore meant to be read during this transitional process, as it contains unique teachings meant to help a person gain liberation from suffering, based on The Wheel of Life and the twelve causalities that link one to the heavens and hell realms in life, and into death. It is believed that mastery over life and death can be achieved once one hears and remembers these teachings.

The Wheel is an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism that outlines the twelve links of causation and the cycle of samsara, the ongoing suffering of rebirth. It explains how the world operates and how we can become liberated from suffering. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this cycle is described in detail to help us understand how our actions can bring us closer to liberation.

The Wheel consists of twelve links arranged in a circle, representing different life and death stages. These links are ignorance, formation, consciousness, name-form, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death. Each link symbolizes a particular stage in life and its effects on us. Ignorance is represented by the blind woman at the tip of the wheel who does not recognize reality and instead lives in delusion; formation is represented by a potter forming clay into pots; consciousness is indicated by two monkeys looking outwards away from each other; name-form represents naming things according to their shape or form; contact refers to our interaction with objects; feeling means our emotional reactions to these interactions; craving signifies our attachment to these feelings; grasping indicates clinging onto what we have acquired through craving; becoming refers to developing something based on those acquisitions; birth symbolizes taking form based on what was developed previously; old age shows aging due to continuous change over time while death signals the end of one's life span.

The twelve links provide insight into how karma works and affects every aspect of our lives. At each stage, we can choose between positive or negative actions, which will determine where we go next in life. By understanding how samsara works we can make wise choices that bring us closer to achieving liberation from suffering. The Wheel gives us insight into why certain situations happen in life and explains why certain people suffer more than others, depending on their past karma.

The Wheel encompasses four fundamental principles:

  1. impermanence (anicca),

  2. emptiness (sunyata),

  3. dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), and

  4. karma (karma), action driven by intention and consequences.

  • Impermanence highlights the fact that all phenomena are transient; nothing remains constant, and everything changes

  • Emptiness asserts that nothing has any inherent existence independent from other things

  • Dependent origination explains that everything depends on causes and conditions for existence; one cannot exist without the other.

  • Karma emphasizes our actions have consequences, either positive or negative depending on whether we act with wisdom or ignorance. It is, therefore, of supreme importance to recognize and choose our actions wisely.

The Three Poisons Turn The Wheel:

The Wheel turns from its central hub. The Three Poisons turn the wheel, creating the fundamental problems of existence. They are depicted as a pig, a snake, and a rooster (cock), each biting the tail of the one in front so that they create a circle. The pig represents ignorance, a misunderstanding of the notion of self or the ego. Ignorance leads to harmful desires and attachments. Attachment is represented by the cock, constantly feeding or searching, pecking, for more to cling or attach to. When we can’t get what we want, we experience frustration, irritation, anger, and even hatred. This is represented by the snake, ready to strike out when threatened. Anger strengthens the ego sense; therefore, we see the snake biting the pig's tail, maintaining the vicious circle. The next layer of the wheel represents karma, which is the result of good or bad actions. This symbolizes moving up or down to the upper or lower realms. Good deeds lead to positive outcomes; evil deeds will lead to adverse consequences - this layer is often referred to as 'cause and effect'. The third layer of the wheel symbolizes the six different realms of birth and rebirth — the heavens, titans (demi-gods), humans, animals, ghosts, and hell realms.

The Outer-Layer of The Wheel

The 12 links of causation explain how our actions create karma, or cause and effect. This cycle is also known as samsara, and it keeps us trapped in suffering unless we make conscious choices to break the bad habit loops and formations that keep us bound to this cycle. To move away from samsara and towards nirvana, the Buddhist spiritual liberation, we must understand these twelve links of causation.

Understanding these 12 links of causation makes it easier to make conscious choices based on love and compassion rather than clinging to attachment; this will help break free of samsara to attain the liberation of nirvana.

Twelve Links of Causation

  1. Misperception and Ignorance, a form of spiritual blindness. We don’t understand our true nature. We are unconscious of the fate ahead.

  2. Unconsciousness/Fate is second, representing actions or the choices we form at the potter's wheel (our life), which may lead us towards more suffering or joy.

  3. Biased Conscious / Monkey Grasping is the third link of indecisiveness, materialism and the external influences, which can distract us from our inner knowledge, intuition and deep knowing.

  4. Self-Construct - Name and Form, is the fourth link, combining spiritual and physical energy to create the unique individual identity, based on the construct.

  5. Distorted Perception - The fifth link, Six Senses includes our sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mind; these aspects perceive only the personal and distorted reality

  6. The sixth link, Contact / Lovers, highlights Sensory Experience as we partner or connect with others

  7. The seventh link, the Arrow in the Eye - Sensations, Impressions, Attachment and Aversion, indicates feelings and emotions from interacting with others or objects in life

  8. Cravings, Eating, and Drinking is the eighth link, referring to desires, thirsts, and hunger which are potentially never-ending sources of suffering if left unchecked.

  9. The ninth link is Compulsive Behavior, Clinging to Sensations, or Entanglement and attachment to worldly things like money or status, which can cause dissatisfaction if not managed wisely. The monkey's hand gets stuck in the coconut.

  10. Becoming – also known as coitus – is the tenth link, understood to be a source of suffering and an unquenchable desire to connect, give birth and deny death.

  11. Birth represents the eleventh link, where new life emerges from being joined with another through this cycle. Mindful or Mindless, we will give birth to what was formless in shape and form

  12. Traumatic Aging & Death, the twelfth link in the cycle, indicates how life must end at some point resulting in physical decay. This cycle of aging and decay repeats itself until one transcends through mindful recognition and awareness of one's patterns (karma) to choose different outcomes

The Psychedelic Experience aligns with The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Tibetan Buddhism, equipping us with a pathway to break free from suffering, the karma of samsara. By cultivating a higher state of consciousness, we comprehend the significance behind each link in the chain of causality that governs our lives; through heightened awareness, we gain knowledge and insight into traumatic imprints. During a psychedelic experience, we are guided and instructed through these “bardo’s” and doors of perception, from samsara, ego-death, physical death, reincarnation, and transcendence out of samsara. The bliss state of non-recognition or no-self, is known as nirvana.

Reaching Nirvana

Calm Abiding (shamata) meditation can help one reach nirvana. By focusing the mind with compassion on metta.

The painting above depicts the practice of being present and compassionate as the essential strength for the journey to ascend to nirvana. The practice requires strength, focus, and ongoing compassion in body, speech and mind.

In this painting, we see the elephant, monkey, and hare (rabbit). These three animals are often used as symbols to practice and gain insights, elevate presence, live with greater awareness, and break free from the suffering of the lower realms. By cultivating calm abiding or serenity, which is a mental state that is very flexible and very pliant, we can place our attention on whatever virtuous object we want and thus free ourselves from its poisons.

The three animals have much to do with the turnings of the mind

The three animals - an elephant, a monkey, and a hare - are often used to represent the three turnings of the mind in Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness is represented by the elephant, since it reminds us to remain aware of our thoughts and feelings even during difficult times, and to cultivate presence, recognition, and choice. The monkey stands for distraction; here we have to pay attention to its presence and recognize when it tries to lead us away from our path. Lastly, the hare represents doubt; it derails our clear vision with faulty perception. To stay on track, we must continually cleanse our minds of such obstacles so that we can better understand the concept of abandoning negative actions of the body, speech or mind (first turn in the pathway), relinquishing attachment to individual self or phenomena (second turn) and letting go of clinging emptiness (third turn). This serves as an essential part of Buddhist practice, which enables practitioners to progress spiritually along the pathway and live a more meaningful life.

Facing our own mortality

When we face the inevitability of death, it can be an incredibly intimidating and frightening experience for some. Research has shown that an individual's awareness of their own mortality has been linked to increased physical health, as it can motivate us to make more optimal life choices, such as improving our diet or exercising more.

The use of psychedelics can help us to come to terms with our mortality by providing a safe and controlled environment to explore what it means to die. Based on past experiences, we can better understand what we need to be present in life to break free of our suffering and our death. The Wheel of Life and the Tibetan Book of the Dead provide the context for how a mindful, supportive presence and a centered approach can offer peace, wisdom, and insights.

Before you consider using psychedelics in relation to death and dying, you should keep a few things in mind. First, consulting a qualified medical professional before taking any psychedelics is essential. Second, do your research and choose a reputable source for your psychedelics. Finally, make sure you are in a safe and comfortable setting before embarking on your journey.

In our next installment of Death And The Psychedelic Experience, we will present the research and science of psychedelics, the rise of death doulas, hospice, psychedelic chaplains, and providers that offer services in North America or elsewhere.

Notice: This article presents research and should not be taken as advice. The author offers mindfulness-based coaching, counseling, and Psychedelic Assisted guidance. For more information go to - and listen to The Mindfulness Experience podcast #themindfulnessexperience podcast.

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