Just because medical technologies give us the ability to live forever doesn’t mean that we have to do so. Timothy Leary was one of the first people to start promoting ideas about life extension; he began doing so in the late 1970s. He believed attaining physical immortality was one of the “goals” of biological evolution. Leary’s enthusiasm inspired longevity researchers and helped to popularize transhumanist ideas about how science would soon conquer the aging process and allow us to virtually live forever.
However, when Leary was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer at age seventy-six, he said that he was “thrilled and ecstatic” to hear that he was going die. As much as Leary loved life — which I can personally attest to — he not only accepted death but also embraced it. In the end he even decided to forgo his plans for cryonic suspension.
Euthanasia: Transcending the Body and Moving On?
I think there is an important lesson in Leary’s dying process about the importance of facing the mystery of death with the same openness and sense of adventure with which one faces life. In other words, attaining physical immortality in a human body may not be the final stage for evolving consciousness in this universe.
Numerous spiritual traditions, such as Hinduism and many forms of shamanism, assert that healing the spirit sometimes involves transcending the body and moving on to whatever is after death. However, regardless of whether consciousness survives death, not everyone may wish to hang around until the final collapse of the universe, and certainly people who are in chronic pain or who are suffering greatly should be given the option to leave if they wish.
When I asked Andrew Weil about his views on the controversial issue of euthanasia he said:
I don’t think it’s appropriate for doctors to be involved in that, although I think patients should be able to discuss that issue with doctors. I think that for people with overwhelming diseases, for whom life has become really difficult, that they should have that choice, and that there should be mechanisms provided for helping them with that.
80% Support A Patient's Right to Die
Jack Kevorkian, on the other hand, believed that physicians should be able to perform euthanasia and was in prison for second-degree murder because he assisted with the last wish of a patient who was suffering from ALS. When I interviewed Kevorkian about voluntary death for my book Mavericks of Medicine, I learned that, despite the U.S. government and medical establishment’s opposition to euthanasia, 80 percent of the public support a patient’s right to die, and one in five physicians has admitted to practicing euthanasia at some point in their career. Why, then, is euthanasia illegal? Kevorkian said:
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I think that the U.S. government, medical establishment, and pharmaceutical companies are opposed to euthanasia for monetary or financial reasons. To help correct this situation there has to be an organized public response and outcry — which I believe is now occurring.
While the goals of contemporary Western medicine are healing disease and treating injuries, the goals that one aspires to in the pursuit of optimal health are much larger and more encompassing. This may involve developing an immortal, nanotechnologically proficient, self-repairing superbody of our own design, or it may involve gracefully transcending this world entirely and discarding our body like a pile of used clothing.
But either way I think that the primary goal of medicine should be the reduction of human suffering. I think that if we make the reduction of human suffering our number-one priority, the future of medicine does indeed appear very bright.
Death: Inevitable Fact of Nature
We are living in truly astonishing times. Although our current health care system appears to be crumbling around us, we are simultaneously witnessing a rapidly advancing biotechnology revolution that promises to forever change the course of human history. New possibilities are emerging everywhere we turn, and there is enormous cause for hope.
When we look out onto the frontiers of medicine we see an incredible vista blossoming with possibilities that stagger the mind and border on the miraculous. New advances in medicine promise to help humanity end countless generations of suffering and deliver us into a golden age where disease and aging are merely subjects that we learn about in history class, and the boundaries of our physical capacities are limited only by our imaginations.
However, death appears to be an inevitable fact of nature, something that we all ultimately must face, and I think it’s something that is best not be feared.
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 7 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