How psychedelics help you “die before you die”
- The concept of "dying before you die" lies at the heart of religious tradition, argues Brian Muraresku.
- This secret ritual connects the Eleusinian Mysteries with the origins of Christianity.
- In "The Immortality Key," Muraresku speculates that psychedelic wine could have been the original Christian Eucharist.
After a 20-year ban on clinical psychedelics research, the U.S. government approved trials on DMT in 1990. At first, Rick Strassman, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, only wanted to study the physiological strain of injecting DMT: heart rate, blood pressure, and so on. Given that psychedelics had been contentiously demonized for a generation, he wondered if physical consequences were as dangerous as advertised.
LSD had been administered tens of thousands of times in the 1950s and early 1960s. Did it really fry your brain like eggs, as the Reagans so confidently declared?
Over the next five years, Strassman administered 400 doses of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to over 50 volunteers. It turned out that DMT, the fast-acting psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca—the “soul vine” persists for hours only when blended with MAOIs to slow the breakdown of enzymes in your gut—has few negative effects. A longtime Zen Buddhist practitioner, Strassman noticed something else going on when over half of participants reported having profound religious experiences.
They were dying before dying.
Well, some of them were being visited by alien creatures, a phenomenon MAPS founder Rick Doblin possibly attributes to the “setting” part of “set and setting”: tripping out in a sterile hospital room surrounded by clinicians in white lab coats certainly felt foreign, perhaps otherworldly. Other volunteers saw a beautiful light at the end of a tunnel and returned—a sensation noted in the ayahuasca literature for as long as we have records.
DMT is chemically related to serotonin and melatonin. The latter hormone is produced by the pineal gland, which is symbolically called the “third eye”—Descartes famously called it the “seat of the soul.” Since every mammal that’s been tested (including humans) produce endogenous DMT, could our third eye possibly release this structural analog of tryptamine at death? Is it a coincidence that the pineal gland, according to Strassman, appears in fetuses at 49 days, the exact duration of the “passage” of souls described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
Strassman admits this is speculation. The anecdotes are irrefutable, however. His clinical work led to Charles Grob’s government-approved research on ayahuasca and MDMA in the 1990s, which opened the door to Johns Hopkins researchers studying psilocybin to treat the existential dread hospice patients encounter, which opened the floodgates to the psychedelic revolution occurring today.
That initial Johns Hopkins study, which found that psilocybin (structurally similar to DMT) eases distress by helping initiates die before they die, helped give form to Brian Muraresku’s 12-year journey while writing his debut book, “The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name.”
Muraresku has been getting a lot of press since the book’s publication, in part boosted by his appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The classicist speculates that the Christian Eucharist is rooted in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which may have involved the ceremonial ingestion of wine spiked with psychedelic ingredients. The idea of a psychedelic Christianity is not new, but Muraresku brings a detailed level of scholarship and compassion to the topic.
As he told me in a recent interview, the “immortality key” is not psychedelics, but the concept of dying before dying. He opens his book with a Greek inscription: “If you die before you die / You won’t die when you die.” Muraresku, a devout Catholic raised in the Jesuit tradition, kicks off the discussion with an atheist from the Johns Hopkins trial. Despite her lack of faith, she felt an “overwhelming, all-encompassing love” that helped her deal with the inevitable consequences of mixed-cell ovarian cancer—really, the inevitable consequences of being an animal bound to die.
The Hopkins study went mainstream when Michael Pollan wrote about it in the New Yorker. The results were stunning: 70 percent of participants felt a single dose of psilocybin produced the most meaningful (or among the top five) experience of their lives. Interestingly, the same result occurred after the famous Marsh Chapel experiment, when Timothy Leary and friends dosed Harvard Divinity School grad students with psilocybin; a quarter-century later, all but one rated the event in their top five.
Not only do you die before you die while under the influence of psychedelics, but you also gain a new perspective on life. The ego death that occurs during the ritual changes their orientation about existence. And what good is a religious experience if it can’t be applied to living?
As Muraresku told me,
“[Psychedelics] is one tool in the Spiritual Toolkit. What I mean by ‘the key’ is in Greek, which is preserved at St. Paul’s monastery: if you die before you die, you won’t die when you die. That’s the actual key. It’s not psychedelics, it’s not drugs; it’s this concept of navigating the liminal space between what you and I are doing right now, and dreaming and death. In that state, the mystics and sages tell us, is the potential to grasp a very different view of reality.”
Muraresku taps into a growing consensus that humans are “wired” for mystical experiences. He points to lead Johns Hopkins researcher, Roland Griffiths, who believes that mysticism is included in our operating system at birth. You just have to turn it on. While the effects of psychedelics can be replicated through the more arduous path of meditation, in the right set and setting anyone can tap into mystical states of consciousness. Psychedelics provide a shortcut to these states.
Credit: Galyna Andrushko / Adobe Stock
Western religious leaders, especially those in Christianity and Islam, treat their prophets as standalone figures. The best you can hope for is being granted access to some special place after you die. Gnostics and Sufis—sects within those faiths that attempt to replicate their prophet’s mysticism—are considered outcasts by mainstream religious figures. In some circumstances, they’re outlawed, threatened, or even killed for their supposed heresy.
Sufis might spin for hours in ecstatic rapture to reach this mystical state, but as Muraresku’s extensive research shows, psychedelics also tap into this “secret” knowledge that he believes to be at the heart of Christian—and if we extrapolate, religious—tradition. And to him, this is the essence of the religion, not a byproduct of the real faith.
“I didn’t write this book to be anti-organized religion. In some cases, it’s the exact opposite. In the intro, I mentioned Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is a hero of mine. He talks about the tension between mystics and the dogma and doctrine of organized faith. I don’t think you can have one without the other. The balance, as Brother David says, is to rediscover that original visionary power and live in it as a lived experience. This is what Joseph Campbell says of religion being a lived experience. We’re talking about emotional potential. That’s how the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion: these powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations. That only happens when you’re talking about something that gets inside of people’s bones. That’s what the mystical experience is; it’s how these religions are born. Brother David says it’s virtually impossible to start a religion without mystical experience, like Moses in the burning bush, Paul on the road to Damascus, or Peter, in Acts, caught up in a trance.”
Campbell’s conversation with Bill Moyers in “The Power of Myth” nicely ties together this idea:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
The mythologist also advocated for a reformation of religion every generation so that the faith speaks to the times. This is effectively what Muraresku advocates for in “The Immortality Key”: an honest conversation regarding the historical circumstances that birthed the world’s most-followed religion in the hopes of applying the foundational lessons to our current reality. If that means a psychedelic ritual that shows you how to die before you die so that you may better know how to live, then it’s time to rethink the role of the sacrament.
Mysticism is a universal phenomenon. The “eternal return” Mircea Eliade wrote about has been experienced throughout history in disparate regions of the world. As Strassman’s and Griffiths’s work shows, we retain the capability of dying before dying. In fact, current research on psilocybin, LSD, iboga, DMT, and ayahuasca show that these substances are helping people gain a perspective of their lives, be it in depression treatment, addiction recovery, or easing the pain of hospice care. A little mysticism goes a long way.
Let’s move beyond this notion that mysticism only applies to a chosen few. In fact, let’s reconsider the role of consciousness in general. Every religion has its own take on what happens after we die. Yet we have tools at our disposal to show us how to exist now: a living religion that speaks to the entire planet.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is “Hero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.”