What do I think happens after we die? I think about this question every day as an exercise of the imagination, and I frequently change my mind about it. Like Rupert Sheldrake, I suspect that what happens after we die is largely influenced by what we believe happens, much like in life.
Death is something that many people try to avoid thinking about, but I haven’t been able to stop wondering about it since I was a child. One of the reasons I’m continually confronted with death is because I’ve been a longtime member of WAMM, (Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana) and many of the members routinely exit this world. But it’s much more than that. Our lives seem so fragile, the mysteries of birth and death surround us, and our time here is so short and precious.
My Near-Death Experience
After a woman whom I was deeply in love with broke up with me in 1995 I suffered from a case of severe depression. The emotional pain was excruciating, and I continually contemplated suicide. In some desperate, crazed, and purely idiotic state, I called my ex-girlfriend and I told her that I was planning to kill myself. I was seriously considering doing it too.
Two days later I was driving through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and as I was going around a sharp turn suddenly my steering column snapped and I couldn’t control the direction of the car, which was headed right over a steep cliff. I experienced mind-screaming terror as time began moving in slow motion. I put the entire weight of my body on the brakes, but the car was moving too fast and I went flying straight off the cliff.
Once my car was in midair time completely stopped. I felt the presence of a higher intelligence with me, and the question being posed to me in this timeless moment was crystal clear: “You’ve been saying that you want to die, well here’s your chance. Do you really want to die?” the disembodied voice asked. Thinking about all the people I loved, I knew in an instant that I wanted to live. I begged and pleaded for my life.
Moments later the front of my car smashed into the side of the mountain around two hundred feet below. I was astonished to be alive. I looked up into the rearview mirror, expecting to see the worst, and didn’t even see any blood. My car door was crunched in on the driver’s side, so I had to climb out the passenger’s side. Miraculously, I was able to climb up the mountain and call for help.
When the police arrived the officer told me that he had never seen anyone go over that cliff before and live, let alone walk away. I felt truly blessed and have never seriously considered suicide again. Life is simply too precious, and I now feel too strongly that I have an important mission to complete here.
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Near-Death Experience (NDE) vs. Psychedelic Experiences
When I interviewed psychologist Charles Tart, I asked him how a near-death experience (NDE) is similar to and different from a psychedelic experience. He replied:
I wish that I could say we have a lot of studies that have made detailed phenomenological comparisons, but of course we haven’t. The NDE is, of course, centered on the fact that you think that you’ve died, which is a pretty powerful centering device. It usually includes the feeling of moving through a tunnel, toward a light, contact with other beings, and a quick life review.
A psychedelic experience may not have all of these characteristics. Some of the characteristics may be present, but certain details of the NDE may be missing, like the quick life review or the speedy return to normal consciousness. Now, this is interesting. This is one of the very vivid differences between psychedelic experiences and NDEs. With NDEs you can feel like you’re way out there somewhere, and then “they” say that you have to go back, and bang! You’re back in your body and everything is normal again.
With psychedelics, of course, you come down more slowly and don’t usually experience a condensed life review. . . . But psychedelic experiences also reach over a far wider terrain of possibilities.
Let me tell you something about the life review. It’s extremely common in NDEs for persons to undergo a life review, where they feel as if they remember at least every important event in their life, and often they say every single event in their life. Sometimes it even expands out into not only remembering and reliving every single event in their life but also into knowing psychically the reactions of other people to all their actions. For some it must be horrible, because it seems that you would really experience their pain.
I very seldom hear people say anything about a life review on psychedelics. Yeah, occasionally past memories have come up, but not this dramatic review of a person’s whole life. There are sometimes consequences that overlap and are mutual, but I would say that the NDE is more powerful. It’s more powerful in the sense that a person may make more drastic changes in their lifestyle or in their community if they try to integrate the acceptance of the NDE and make sense out of it. It’s also more powerful in the sense that it’s more liable to cause more lasting changes.
A psychedelic experience can also have powerful life-changing effects. But let’s face it: some people can pretty much forget their psychedelic experience afterward, much less alter their lives. It can simulate certain aspects of the NDE, but it doesn’t carry the same force that the typical NDE does.
This actually rings true with my own experience. My psychedelic experiences were pale compared to the time that my car went over that cliff. For about a year afterward the experience allowed me to appreciate life in a completely new and joyous way, and it eliminated my fear of just about everything, including death. I felt so appreciative just to be alive, and the sight of sunlight twinkling through the leaves of a tree would bring tears of gratitude to my eyes. However, this new state of perception faded away after about a year, and I became my old neurotic self once again.
Contact with the Dead
My late friend Nina Graboi (whom I interviewed for my book Mavericks of the Mind) and I often used to debate philosophical ideas pertaining to the mystery about what happens to consciousness after death. It was one of our favorite topics of conversation. In general, I took the position that after you die your individuality dissolves, and your sense of awareness merges with the universal oneness, the source of everything, the mind of God.
On the other hand, Nina’s position was, “Well, there is that, of course, but then there are all these levels in between, where individuality remains, besides the body, and you go through multiple incarnations with that.” For years we went back and forth with these ideas. In our conversations Nina referred to her body as a spacesuit. She said that she was going to get a new spacesuit after she died, with memories from her previous lives carefully encoded, and that she would go from one spacesuit to another each time she reincarnated.
After Nina died in 1999, late one night I was writing in my journal at a friend’s house in Colorado and the TV was on, buzzing in the background. I had eaten a cannabis cookie around an hour before and was thinking about what was going on in Nina’s mind when she was dying. I thought to myself, I’ll bet Nina was thinking, “Now I see—David Jay Brown was right! You do just merge with the universal consciousness.” As I was sitting there reflecting on this, in a kind of egotistical, self-congratulatory way, I looked up and there on the television screen were just two words: SPACE SUIT.
A tingle traveled up my spine, I stopped writing in my journal, and my jaw dropped open. It was the most profound sense of communication with somebody after they died that I’d ever witnessed. That is the most compelling evidence I’ve personally experienced that consciousness not only continues after death but that some sense of individuality continues as well.
Certainly other explanations could have accounted for this, but it was too striking to seem like just a mere coincidence. Still, I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe I just hallucinated it?
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Inc.
©2013 by David Jay Brown. www.innertraditions.com
This article was excerpted with permission from Chapter 8 of the book:
The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality
by David Jay Brown.
For as long as humanity has existed, we have used psychedelics to raise our levels of consciousness and seek healing -- first in the form of visionary plants such as cannabis and now with the addition of human-created psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA. These substances have inspired spiritual awakenings, artistic and literary works, technological and scientific innovation, and even political revolutions. But what does the future hold for humanity -- and can psychedelics help take us there?
About the Author
David Jay Brown holds a master’s degree in psychobiology from New York University. A former neuroscience researcher at the University of Southern California, he has written for Wired, Discover, and Scientific American, and his news stories have appeared on The Huffington Post and CBS News. A frequent guest editor of the MAPS Bulletin, he is the author of several books including Mavericks of the Mind and Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. Visit him at www.mavericksofthemind.com