Friday, February 26, 2010

What does it feel like to die?

What does ego death feel like
A near death experience induced by Ketamine

"A place to live unharmed by death
Does not exist
Not in space, not in the sea
Nor if you stay in the midst of mountains."

Buddha says that a healthy contemplation of death throughout your lifetime helps to counteract the misguided notion that life is permanent. Yet ironically we who live in the West are rarely privy to the one phenomenon that we will certainly come to us all. Nothing in life is certain, except that on day life as we know it will be no longer. Death is hidden away, swept under the carpet, kept behind closed doors. And the reasons for this are as numerous as they are varied, death is private, it is sad, it forces us to confront our mortality, to take a long hard look at our life and to decide whether or not we are satisfied that we have put our time on earth to good use. Did I make a difference? Has my life amounted to something? Did I learn whatever it is I was put on earth to learn? These are all questions that resonate amongst all of us as members of the human race, regardless of our culture, our nationality or our religion. But if death is hidden away from us, and if the culture we are brought up in eschews the idea of contemplating death; considers it to be morbid and unnatural. Then how are we ever to understand what death is? What does it feel like to die?

Two years ago I experienced (ego) death, and the experience was so enormous, so profound, that the memory I have of it has been seared into my inner most being and will remain with me until the day I experience it again in earnest. For me ego death was the most incredible, breathtaking, terrifying, eye-opening and deeply, deeply spiritual experience I have ever had. It quite literally brought me to my knees, it unleashed an inhuman scream, a scream that rippled across the universe. It was the scream of a being experiencing his true nature for the first time. My near death experience occurred two years ago, and although I have only just now plucked up the motivation to write about it, not one day has gone by when I haven’t thought of it and revisited the place I was transported to. The realm of the eternal. The divine source.

I was 27 when I decided to take ketamine for the third or fourth time.  I had experimented with several recreational drugs over the past decade, but had never really experienced the dissociative effects high doses of ketamine can induce.  And although I had used lower doses of ketamine before, this experience was only the second time that I had entered a k-hole – that endlessly looping and almost robotic “cartoon-i-verse” which seems to lie just behind the curtain of reality. And even now, some two years later, trying to put this utterly ineffable experience into words stretches the English language to its limits.   The experience took me to soaring highs, producing feelings of bliss and ecstatic love for the world and the people in it, but simultaneously it also took me to a place of unadulterated horror, where the darkness and the sheer dread and hopelessness forced me to see that the state we refer to as “hell” does exist...and for a moment I was given a glimpse into all that is evil and wrong with mankind – like a horrid divine experiment that had gone terribly wrong and had begun rotting and eating away at itself.  The culmination of this ketamine experience resulted in me being carried out of a nightclub kicking and screaming, convinced that I had just experienced my own death.  A death as breathtakingly beautiful and perfect as it was terrifying and life changing.  I am not sure what part of me died that night, but one thing is clear, when I woke up the next morning back in the reality I had always known, I was an immensely different and a fundamentally more spiritual and altruistic person

Entering into what I can only refer to as the ‘world of k’ was to me like entering into another dimension or reality which exists behind the scenes of the reality in which we all play out our lives. It’s like seeing the great wheels and cogs that comprise the machinery of the universe endlessly revolving in upon themselves - as they have done for aeons.  One has the strange sense that time and space do not exist, and as such, one begins to truly begin to understand the concept of ‘eternity’, a strange and unsettling feeling which courses through your inner most self... like the slow recollection of an old truth you have always known, and at the same time, always managed to forget, time and time again.  In this particular case the fall into the k hole was both sharp and almost immediate.  A sense of foreboding overcame me, as if I had taken a bite of the forbidden apple and consequently forever condemned myself to the dark, robotic and surreal k-dimension.  I recall thinking, “Why did you take the k, now you have enslaved yourself into the k-dimension, you have infected yourself with the drug, and now whilst you may continue to live your everyday existence and reality, you will forever be bound to this darker side of reality and subject to being thrown back into the world of k at any given moment.  The world of k is horrifically real as an experience – in some ways even more real than reality, it’s as if ketamine acts as some sort of chemical key which allows your cerebral cortex to unlock the part of your brain capable of accessing this dimension.  Like a radio tuner all of sudden rewired to pick up not just other radio stations on air, but also capable of seeing the antenna, the sound waves and all the equipment which facilitates the broadcast.

The most frightening and simultaneously enlightening aspect of a high ketamine dose as its ability to produce a schizophrenic break and completely obliterate the ego.

“To produce a schizophrenic break you need to collapse the ego, preferably as rapidly as possible. There are different ways of defining the ego but I define it thusly: The ego is a structure of the personality that is made up of what we believe to be true about ourselves, others, the world around us, and our place in it. We form these beliefs as based on our relationships, our experiences, the roles we play and the activities we engage in. All of these combined, create our ego -- which is, for most of us, our sense of who we are.”…   "The overall experience is described as falling into a kind of abyss of isolation. This comes about because there is such a discrepancy between the subjective inner world that one has been swept into, and the mundane everyday world outside…. It is like falling into a death - not only a death state, but also a death space - the "afterlife," the "realm of the ancestors," the "land of the dead," the "spirit world." The common experience here is for the person to look about and think that half the people around him are dead too. While in this condition, it's very hard for one to tell if one is really alive or not." 

For me it was as though I had somehow managed to tear through the fabric of reality and to step behind the scenes of the world. Everything moved in slow motion in an endless cycle. The universe is cyclical, perfect and eternal - it had no beginning and it will never have an end, after all, how could it?...when time and space are mere concepts that we perceive through our unavoidably human experience.  Life is nothing more than our divine creator playing out a grand eternal game through us, the characters he has created.  Life is God’s way of perceiving himself.  

"Right away at the beginning, the death experience is accompanied by the feeling that you've gone back to the beginning of time. This involves a regression, a return to the state of infancy in one's personal life history. But hand in hand with this is the feeling of slipping back into the world of the primordial parents, into a Garden of Eden. For example, it's a very common experience to feel one is the child of Adam and Eve, say, at the beginning of time. This is very symbolic, obviously. It's pretty much a representation of the psyche at the start of one's individual career after birth."

I remember distinctly having memories of Adam and Eve and the other narratives I’d read about in the bible. Words and phrases would rise in my mind, as though the entire experience was being narrated to me by some divine voice. Or perhaps it was just my own voice. The voice of the eternal "self" that had always been there underneath "I" but who had been drowned out by the incessant chatter of the mind. The phrase “That’s life” passed through my mind again and again as though I was realising for the first time what "life" actually was. I remember seeing language as an entity unto itself, seeing the spirit of language… it is alive and it sustains this life as we transmit it from generation to generation. I remember seeing all the meaning bundled up in a word like "love" and feeling it with the same intensity as if for that split second the voices of every single human being who had ever uttered it were coursing through my mind. I remember the phrase "The Game of Life" passing through my stream of consciousness and laughing as I saw for the first time the mechanics of this game unfolding before my eyes. I remember repeating a word over and over in my head. It was not an English word and to this day I don’t know how to write it or what language it is. It seemed as though the language and word was being spoken to me from the inner most depths of my soul, and a few words in particular seemed to be like a name, not the name I have been given in this lifetime, but my eternal name, the name I have remembered at the point of all my previous deaths, and the name I will continue to remember for as many lives as I am forced to wander through Samsaric existence. I saw all the people in my life as though they were characters in ‘my story’, some of them good, some of them malevolent...but all of them were there for a purpose, to teach me something about myself, to allow me to grow as a spirit. It was as though we were all intertwined in a great eternal narrative and that each of us in our various lives plays a role in order for others to grow. 

Suddenly it was as though everybody in the room turned to face me and I felt all of the cells in my body tremble. The thought passed through my consciousness, "I am about to die… I know what’s going to happen now…this moment is about to be the moment of my death." I felt all the people in the room turn in slow motion to look at me, as though something profound was about to happen. Again there was a primordial word for it that I heard from someone in the room. "He’s about to go through his……(then the primordial word for death)." 

Then there was the moment of (ego) death itself, the final frame on the film of my life up until that point. It felt as though all the energy in my body culminated to a single point between my eyes.... and then reached breaking point.  Then it felt as though all the cells in my body suddenly turned to water and I quite literally felt myself collapse into the ground, back into the very universe from which I first sprung. As I collapsed I let out a god awful scream, like the release of all the pain I had ever known in my was an inhuman scream from the very depths of my soul.  To this day my friends who were with me say they have never heard a person make a sound like that, it seemed to have erupted from somewhere deep inside me, a sacred cathartic release.  I was screaming the word for my name, as though this unearthly scream of my primordial name could somehow force me to remember who I was and where I had come from. I knew then that I was experiencing my own death unfold, I felt a sort of a guiding presence trying to tell me that what I was now going through was a natural progression in the higher scheme of things, that it was a process that everyone had a time and a moment reserved for them to die, and that everything that was about to unfold was a perfectly normal step in the process.  At the time I felt like every person in the room surrounding me had already passed though into the next realm and that they were there to witness and guide me as I passed through to join them.  I collapsed kicking and screaming to the ground, I felt a guiding force instructing me to do so, to release all the anger and the pain of life out of my body, to cleanse myself.  I honestly believed that each and everyone one of them, at their chosen point in time, had also undergone this experience.  Finally I saw the faces of two of my friends as they picked me up and it was as though somehow all the cells in my body reformed and I came out the other side. It was as though for one brief instant instead of cycling in upon itself, the universe passed one cycle through my body. As I got up I could see my two close friends comforting me "See, you’re going to be ok, it’s ok. You’re going to be ok because death is not the end, it is just the end of one cycle and the beginning of another"

“All kinds of imagery comes tumbling across the field of awareness. It's like the mythological image in a perfect stained-glass window being smashed, and all the bits and pieces being scattered. The effect is very colourful, but it's very hard to discern how the pieces belong to each other. Any attempt to make sense of it is an exercise in abstraction from the actual experience. The important thing is to find the process running through it all.”

I also distinctly remember a feeling of fear and terror which came from feeling like I’d popped out of reality and into this great eternal loop.  My friend and I would be thrown together, intertwined, both with gaunt eyes filled with horror, begging each other to try and remember, to “never forget”…but each time we would pass through another cycle, sure enough, we seemed to be back to the place where we had begun, forever trapped in this world of ignorance.  The loop experience is also characteristic of the k-world itself, indeed one of the overwhelming thoughts that continued to pervade my k experience with my friend was that I had become trapped, and that the world and human lifetimes were effectively an eternal loop of suffering and ignorance.

(N.B. -- Years later in 2015, as I would still come back to this terrifying part of the ketamine experience, I had a conversation with a Buddhist monk who had also visited this place both through meditation and himself also through what he called the "very greedy drug, ketamine."  I asked him what this place was, and where my mind had gone during this terrifying part of the experience. He said to me with a knowing smile -- "It's simple, all you saw for the first time was what a place full of ignorance; devoid of any love from the heart, REALLY looks like.  In this sense I have come to understand that as I repeated  "Never forget" over and over to myself, that I was infact experiencing my soul crying out to itself to never forget what a life lived in ignorance would lead to.  Endlessly wandering though Samsara (delusion), lifetime after lifetime, failing to grasp the most important lessons of being a human being.  That the ego is false, and that its constant obsession with sustaining itself is what leads to all of the world's problems.  All suffering can be put down to thoughts that have roots in hatred, anger, greed and delusion.  A life led anchored in this type of ignorant suffering will lead to rebirth after rebirth until we finally understand the reason why we live our lives, and that is -- to try and stop the suffering of other people.  When we work towards this as our ultimate aim, then, and only then, do we truly understand the deep joy of living, and begin the lengthy spiritual work needed to reach liberation and ultimately,complete  enlightenment.)

Later walking out of the club onto the road where I had spent so many nights with my friends over the years was like walking out into bliss.  I saw the faces of all the people I had ever loved, and as the process wore on I felt the veil which obscures all the mysteries of life falling down all around me.  I felt that I finally understood.  In particular I felt a deep connection with language and the way we use language to construct meaning around us.  I remember contemplating certain words and turns of phrases in English, and finally understanding a deeper meaning, how they fit into the jigsaw puzzle that is life, and how they are but the building blocks of all those who have gone before us – the very spirits I was about to encounter as I moved into the next realm.  I saw all the people I had ever thought I had loved - some brief encounters, other more lasting as finally my image settled on a friend of mine – my one true soul mate.  I saw him in a light that I had never seen him in before, I felt the love and the connection building in me like a volcano, I lay down on the road in front of me and let it all out in a tide of tears.  I realised then the deeper meaning of life.  I was convinced that one part of me was about to be born again as a new child, although in this particular experience it never occurred, or if it did occur I was not aware of it whilst it was happening.  As I neared the end of my death I felt euphoria, I was muttering ‘That’s life’, that’s what life is!  I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of life force – that which we call god – but what I experienced as an omnipresent energy from which all life is derived.  I felt complete, I felt whole, I felt peace.  But no light can exist without darkness and shortly after this euphoric epiphany I began to feel the darkness again - the terror and the evil that is also life.  As I held onto my friend he began to disintegrate in my arms.  I bit him savagely on the chest to try and hold onto him, drawing blood and causing him to cry out – I had wanted to try and keep part of him with me, to stop the erosion.  But he began to melt away, as did the feeling of bliss and euphoria.  The guiding presence told me that I needed to experience all that is life, not merely the good, but also the destruction.  I heard my friend saying “Don’t forget how good this was and I’ll see you next time our spirits rejoin’."  But I also simultaneously felt the guiding presence telling me that soon all would be forgotten, that my conscience would be reset, and that still deep down below this world of bliss, of heaven and of euphoria, was the world of K, the mechanical, robotic ‘loop’ world which underpins reality.  Human ignorance.  That I would be bound to it as long as I remained ignortant, and knowing that fact every time I came to dying in my future lives was ultimately a hell that I was bound to endure.  Life is suffering, and as long as human lust and greed shackles us to the physical planes, we're be bound to endure it.  

My ego death was truly the most profound experience I have ever gone through.  As I was laying out on the road I felt as though I saw the people who had played a significant role in my life as though for the first time - like they were shedding their masks and I was seeing them in a way that I had been unable to do during my life.  I understood the roles they had played in shaping me, in allowing me to grow and learn as a spirit and I felt an overwhelming love for all of them which overwhelmed and consumed every essence of my being.  Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that I saw their spirits…their essence… I felt their light and their warmth, and was overwhelmed by the collective wisdom and knowledge that I saw within them.  I felt as though I was amongst very old and very wise spirits who were guiding me and helping me grow and move into a new, higher realm.  I felt privileged to have had them in my life.  This included both those who had caused me harm, and those who had brought me love and happiness.  I understood for the first time that they were all, in essence, incredible spirits that in my death brought me a feeling of peace and belonging that I had never known in my mortal life.  I felt a connection to the universe and to these spirits, my friends, that made me realise for the first time that death is not at all something to be feared, and that most importantly that my connection to these great spirits would be eternal.  As the earthly faces of my friends were one by one unveiled, and as I saw each of them as if for the first time, I witnessed the essence of who they truly were and I finally understood what it is to love someone, and just how beautiful and special each of them truly is. I remember finally understanding that we are all at various stages in lives, lives that begin and lives that end.  As I lay there experiencing my death on the road I felt at peace, that death was not something to be feared but to be embraced, and that when my time eventually did come, this understanding that I had been given a glimpse of in my k-hole would reveal itself in its entirety.   That the energy which powers us as humans is eternal, and that whilst I was one thing in this life, I was male, I was someone who chose to use drugs, I was someone who was not religious, etc... that in my next lifetime I would be someone else.  That life itself was eternal, even if my life was not.  That on my ‘next time around’ so to speak, that I would experience things from a different point of view, perhaps as another person, perhaps simply as another animal or being somewhere.  I remember laughing at those who had told me that the way I had lived my life was wrong knowing that after the death of their physical selves that the energy that is them could return as somebody like me.  That their values were only contingent on their physical surrounds and of their geographic place in the world.  I felt a new sense that our concepts of right and wrong were quite arbitrary, that life itself was so infinitely grand and all consuming that those mistakes or wrongs that we committed on the earthly plane were in the grand scheme of things were of little relevance.  That all the goodness that exists in humanity can only be so with the necessary existence of all that is bad with humanity.  That both goodness and evil are life, and that life itself is so infinitely grand and amazing, that in the end all we as human beings can do is surrender to the infinite divine source from which we were manifested, and allow the circle to come around, and to return home.

blog comments powered by Disqus