Life’s Afterparty: Visions of a New Death
The jungle requests a good dose of bravo, a brave stance, lest you be swallowed alive by any number of forces, so I went in to the ceremony with gusto and a big chest of courage. Whatever needed to happen, I would stand up to it, I would take it, let it take over me, rip me open, tear me apart, anything, just give it to me!
The ceremony began and one by one, the guests were served. When the cup came to me, I drank it down in a few gulps. I was used to the taste in general, but this was different — strong, bitter, yes, yet almost chocolatey and enjoyable.
I was infused with camalunga, doused with agua florida, attractive in Taboo perfume, I blew tobacco smoke all around me and began to breathe the medicine throughout my body.
The mounting nausea made its way through my guts and soul like a fast scanning password built of wrenching bitter rapture. And once again I’m snake handling invisible serpents as they constrict from the inside out.
Lights and shapes approached from the deep-end, visions of nothing major. Any lofty expectations I had had been discarded to avoid the self-bamboozle. We can barely predict tomorrow’s weather, let alone forecast the Ayahuasca forest.
Silently I spoke to it.
Jairo, the curandero, was singing, his shacapa sounding like a bird in flight. Higher I rose on the wings of his icaros. Forward, up, electric, stirring, floating, flying, heating, roiling, racing — pushing past the gates of nausea and corporeality, to a place of tranquil dread.
Expectations now of a different kind — something’s coming
Fast or slow, hard to say.
A boat appeared at the shore of my being.
Doctorcitos disembarked, and before I knew it, boarded my soul.
I sprung, stumbled, lunged — the purge was on and rising rapidly. Borracho legs wobble-ran me to the edge of the maloca, off into a black abyss of open air and steady stars.
I braced myself, caught a breath, I’d been here before, this incandescence.
I resolved to stand strong and go toe to toe and face to face with any oncoming mauling. There was a taunting calm.
I kept watch outward, and it came of course, from within.
Surging, boiling, slithering, intensity and fire. The snake was screaming, ripping, pulsing, pushing, pulling, shrieking, rocking, and I writhed and twisted with it, absolutely forced to submit. Glowing vomit fiercely jettisoned, over and over, again and again while someone–something–ran impossibly fast circles all around me.
Insectoid buzzing, reptilian barking, tidal wailing, flickering shadows, caustic flavours.
The agonizing satisfaction of an ayahuasca purge.
I had met the purge with bold backbone, but by the time it was over I felt I’d no bones at all. I was left limp and emptied, humbled and hovering like a ghost in limbo. I could barely walk. Two of the curandero’s assistants helped me hobble back to my place in the maloca.
They laid me, face down, to rest.
I was absolutely immobile, felt incredibly heavy and for all intents and purposes, dead to the world.
And then I began to fall, or kind of float and pass through the floor of the maloca, through the ground, the soil, roots and down, deeper, faster, a descending crescendo now speeding magnetically into darkness. The dark giving way to rising illuminations, geometric machinery, gears and apparatus, rooms, walls, floors, precisely slipping, twisting, emerging and turning, alive with industrial character.
It occurred to me that I was in the basement of the Earth, a place like the engine room of a great ship.
At this I bounced back up rapidly—
— back the way I came, faster now, up through the ground, through the floor of the maloca, through the roof, up over the camp, over the trees, up out over the entire canopy — higher and higher, into the clouds and beyond them, until I was hovering, drifting, poised, above Earth, looking down.
I slowed, floating silent, and was now accompanied by a spirit — the spirit of Ayahuasca.
The Moon beside us, we were looking upon Earth. From the blue-green glow beneath, someone else was floating up, an old man; grey, wrinkled, solemn, limp, head hanging, arms to his side, diving up, or out, as it were, peacefully drawn towards somewhere.
My guide, Ayahuasca, gestured telepathically, with a knowing smirk: this old man floating towards us, he’s newly dead.
“Let’s catch a ride with him, see where he’s going” she said.
We continued up/out, past the Moon, and “out-of-nowhere” we came upon a group of planets — planets I’ve never seen nor heard of before. It was as though we startled these planets, as if we had burst into a room of mafia bosses holding a meeting. These planet-mafia-bosses, huge and imposing, turned to us, slowly, gruff, grimacing, with a “what are you doing here?” vibe. Indicating me specifically.
They glanced at Ayahuasca like they knew her.
To the planets and to me she smirked and winked as she does.
“Don’t worry about them, they have a whole different perception of time.” she said.
We kept on going, riding the wake of the newly dead man.
For a moment there was only space, blackness, silence, peace. Without warning we passed through a membrane.
Instantly fantastically everything erupted!
Lights! Colours! Music!
The Music! — flowing, glowing, magnificent, alive!, moving in all directions. And there were people! So many people — thousands or more — young, old, everything. Faces and bodies shining electric, chromatic, fluorescent, radiant, buzzing, illuminated, joyous!
In waves some approached me, breathless, laughing, bright-eyed and smiling.
“Can you believe it!?!?!” they said.
“Holy fuck!!!” was all I could answer.
My jaw dropped like a cartoon.
“This… this is what death is?” my voice an awestruck whisper.
“Yes! Yes! Can you believe it!? It’s true! It’s true!” the newly dead replied, dancing, flying.
I looked to my guide, Ayahuasca, for confirmation, and received the knowing smirk, a little nod of the head,
The scene continued to erupt and unfold, chaos of the most beautiful kind — a blooming festivity, unprecedented triumph — the most extraordinary, unimaginable, cosmic surprise party. The music progressed, flowing from nowhere, everywhere, and from the mouths of newly dead people. Formless spirits flew around like attendants.
And yet, this seemed to be just the lobby, some kind of coat check, as it were. I could sense there was more, approaching, like apparitions, faint doors ringed us. We were a crowd, a party, floating, flaring. Surrounded by blackness, the source of light was everyone and the music being sung by our souls.
With a surge it vanished as I opened my eyes, back now in the maloca, face down on the mat.
A candle was lit, the ceremony over.
Thoughts & Reflections
This vision, which was in fact more of an experience, not just “visual”, occurred several years ago, as fleeting as it may have seemed, it has never left me, it hovers ever-present, a bright memento mori.
My friend and teacher, Peter Gorman, author of Ayahuasca In My Blood — 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, has a kind of touchstone to help discern the difference between a hallucination and a vision, and it is this:
In my world the vision is the thing that, if you were given unlimited time and unlimited paper and had nothing to do but write down 10,000 things you might expect to see in a given circumstance — well, the vision would not be on that list. In other words, the vision is not something you’ve seen on television, read in a book, talked about with other people, or imagined. It’s something from a place outside of your experience entirely.
I share his advice because never in a million years would I have thought, guessed or dreamed up this vision/experience of going to the world of the dead, the afterlife, or the great beyond, or anything like it and so, I feel a very deep authenticity to it all. At the time I had no interest in the phenomenon of death, no questions related to it. I had gone to the jungle and to Ayahuasca, as a way help close a chapter in my life — which, in hindsight, my visions of death might serve a simple message, such that when we die we simply turn a page, close a chapter and begin a new one.
Or, as described by the curandero Juan Flores:
Death is a door you pass through, nothing else.
During my experience in the world of the dead, I was me, and other people were, it seemed, themselves, too — just ordinary people. Fluorescent, glowing and astonished, sure — but otherwise normal.
Of the DMT experience, Terence McKenna described how “You go to that place with all your groceries.” In my experience of going to the afterlife, this represents a central lesson for me; one goes to the other side as the person you are. This is perhaps the reason and inspiration for the universal quest to be a good person, live well and wisely, develop oneself, growing and loving with humility, grace, passion, purpose, generosity, respect, honesty, integrity, gratitude, and peace.
That said, I got the impression that we all go there, regardless of the life we’ve lived. Even misbehaving caterpillars still weave their way to butterfly.
Furthermore, the experience entrusts in me a sense of peace for the death and destruction we encounter on Earth. In this vision, disease, war, catastrophe, extinction, and so forth, are all fiery bridges (or simply natural processes of decomposition) to a place of wonder and beauty. When considering what is perhaps the greatest death — the death of the planet, the destruction of Earth and everything on/in it — I often wonder what kind of astonished eruption that might invoke.
To be clear, I’m not endorsing disaster as a viable path to a better place, just that death receives and reserves life with open arms and empathy, offering continued flourishing. And everything is there — all that has ever lived and died — exists in this place. Although it may take many forms, or even no form at all — life, soul, essence is there in a fantastic festival of all that ever was or ever could be — there to explore and commune with. The greater, more beautiful lives and worlds we create on Earth, the greater, richer and deeper the expanse of death becomes.
In other words, life on Earth is the soil from which springs the world of death. The better the soil, the better the fruit. Earth is the ground and death is the garden.
From another angle, in this vision I’m describing, death is a kind of a spring and summer which bursts with being and color and song, from the trials and challenges of a life of winter.
Now, I’m not suggesting that life on Earth, or life-as-we-know-it, is only ever a cold, harsh winter.
I would, however, like to encourage you to imagine the ways in which the totality of you — your senses, your emotions, your body, your soul — might erupt, expand, shiver, shake, flare and flash with miraculous awe and ecstasy if you had always lived life in the season of winter (beautiful in it’s own right) and then, suddenly — stepped into the magnificent blooming of spring, and furthermore on spring’s horizon you see the warm, glowing expanse of summer.
This is what death is — simply a change of season.
Of course, I could be very wrong on all this and I’m ok with that.
I’ve considered the perspective that this vision was of my own death, and that the old man I followed to the world of the dead was, in fact, me — and that my vision here was profoundly personal, a flashing seduction, a divine decoy, the real truth waiting, a truth I guess that would be a revelation regardless of any preparation.
Perhaps there truly are various types and styles of life after death — a spectrum of heaven to hell, a shifting ecology and culture, like any other place, city, tribe, forest, country. Who knows if, where, or why one goes to one or the other?
All in all, the vision has since put a peaceful smile in my heart and inspires an intimacy with myself and the mystery.
When I returned home from the jungle I happened across a book on death, one that stood out, by several paces, from others I’ve encountered on the subject: The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death, by Stanislav Grof.
In the book Grof covers an impressive expanse concerning the literature, archetypes, ritual, psychology of death and the afterlife and, significantly, the groundbreaking, psychedelic therapy Grof conducted, along with Walter Pahnke and other researchers and staff, at the Spring Grove Hospital in Maryland.
Beginning around 1965, The Spring Grove program, utilizing LSD and DPT, “explored…the potential of psychedelic therapy for alleviating the suffering of those dying of cancer”.
“By 1974 more than one hundred persons dying of cancer were part of the Spring Grove program”. This was to be the last federally funded research project with psychedelics in the United States, until the recent revival and resurgence of psychedelic therapy we are witnessing today.
It is a fascinating book that weaves the work of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Ernest Becker, Martin Heidegger, Eric Kast, Aldous Huxley, Sidney Cohen and Gary Fisher, with Egyptian, Tibetan, Mayan, and medieval European Books of the Dead, and the psychedelic experience.
Yet it is the following passages in which Grof reviews Raymond A. Moody’s Life After Life, that, classic accounts as they may seem, give glistening chills when I read them, as they reflect my own experience with ayahuasca;
Many dying individuals mentioned in Moody’s study reported encounters with other beings, such as dead relatives or friends, “guardian spirits”, or spirit guides. Visions of the “Being of Light” were especially common – an apparition of unearthly, radiant and brilliant light that somehow showed certain personal characteristics—love, warmth, compassion, and a sense of humor. The communication with this divine being occurred without words, through an unimpeded transfer of thoughts. In the context of this encounter or outside of it, the dying individual often experienced a partial or total review of his or her life, which almost always involved vivid colors and a three-dimensional, dynamic form. The message from this experience seemed to be the understanding that the most important values in human life were learning to love other people and acquiring higher knowledge.
Some accounts spoke of reaching some absolute border or limit, where the decision had to be made as to whether to return or to continue the journey to the Beyond. In some instances this frontier had a purely abstract form; in others it was represented by some symbolic obstacle or frontier — a door or a gate, a body of water, a gray mist, a fence or a line. The attitudes toward coming back seemed to change during the process of dying. the first few moments after death were often characterized by a desperate desire to get back in the body and regret over one’s demise. This attitude typically changed into unwillingness to return after a certain depth had been reached and especially after the encounter with the Being of Light. Some individuals attributed their return to their own decision to do so, while others felt that they were sent back by the Being of Light or were brought back by love or the needs and prayers of others, regardless of their own wishes. Some survivors did not remember how or why they returned.
Throughout mystery and history, numerous, luminous clues have accumulated, as though we’ve known all along what lies beyond. At times I wonder if these clues, stories, myths and archetypes are, perhaps, low-res omens, indications innocently twisted to earthling-ends, painted this way and that, filtered through the lens of our ever-developing human souls and eyes.
And maybe it’s only now, in part via the increasing acceptance of and mass engagement with psychedelics and vision plants like ayahuasca, that new eyes are opening, the collective unconscious is surfacing, rising and as it grows, as we nourish it and as we keep watch, we’re piecing together a higher resolution of the great big picture.
Perhaps this is happening because we — the people, the plants, the animals, the Earth — are indeed dying, passing over to the great beyond, on a massive scale.
Do I fear death?
Despite everything I’ve seen, my answer remains a slight yes — or rather, I’m in no hurry. I do not want to die anytime soon, there is so much to learn, love and do.
Knowing of course that everyone does die and that someday I will too — it seems to me I’ve at least seen the trailer and feel honoured to be gifted with a tiny hint of what awaits.
An excellent and expansive collection of podcasts and articles regarding birth, death and rebirth featuring Daniel Vitalis, Stephen Cave, Stephen Jenkinson, Arthur Haines, Jeff Greenberg, Darcy Harris, Alexandra Schueler, Frank Giglio, Katy Meyers Emery, and Sarah Buckley.
“What if we — here and now — decide to face down this last and greatest taboo. What if we walk up to the giant and ask it it’s name. What if we dare to inquire, to turn our heads towards the very thing that has had us cowering for countless generations. What if we start the conversation, make peace with, accept the inevitability of our own individual deaths?”—Daniel Vitalis
“Dying before dying has two important consequences: It liberates the individual from the fear of death and influences the actual experience of dying at the time of biological demise.”
“For any culture which is primarily concerned with meaning, the study of death — the only certainty that life holds for us — must be central, for an understanding of death is the key to liberation in life.”
“Stanislav Grof, M.D., and Joan Halifax, Ph.D., have a unique authority and competence in the interpretation of the human encounter with death. Theirs is an extraordinary range of experience, in clinical research with psychedelic substances, in cross-cultural and medical anthropology, and in the analysis of Oriental and archaic literatures. Their pioneering work with psychedelics administered to individuals dying of cancer opened domains of experience that proved to be nearly identical to those already mapped in the “Books of the Dead,” those mystical visionary accounts of the posthumous journeys of the soul. The Grof/Halifax book and these ancient resources both show the imminent experience of death as a continuation of what had been the hidden aspect of the experience of life.” —Joseph Campbell