Death and Rebirth in LSD Therapy: An Autobiographical Study
Christopher Bache, 2015
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This article explores the dynamic of death and rebirth in LSD therapy beyond ego-death. Drawing upon my experience in 73 high dose LSD sessions conducted between 1979 and 1999, it asks three questions: (1) Why does death become as large as it sometimes does in psychedelic therapy? (2) Why does death repeat itself so many times? And (3) what is actually dying and being reborn in this extended transformative process? It argues that death and rebirth is a cycle that repeats itself at different stages of initiation into the universe. While its core dynamic is always the same, the experiential texture of each death – its flavor, focus, and function – changes as deeper levels of reality open, requiring us to move beyond a model of individual transformation and beyond a focus on ego-death.
The experience of dying and being reborn is one of the central dynamics of deep psychedelic work (Grof, 1980, 1985, 1988). Death is the price one is often asked to pay to gain access to the myriad worlds that lie beyond the body-mind ego, death not as a metaphor or symbolic enactment but the agonizing loss of everything you know to be real and true, the spasm of your last breath, the terrifying surrender. Death comes in many shapes and sizes. It may steal in softly, melting your resistance slowly, or break through the door violently with drums pounding. Either way, if we want to experience the deeper currents and hidden secrets of the cosmos, sooner or later death calls to us.
In this essay I want to share some reflections on the dynamics of death and rebirth as I experienced them over the course of a 20 year psychedelic self-experiment I undertook between 1979 and 1999. Specifically, I want to ask three questions about this process: (1) Why does death become as large as it sometimes does in psychedelic therapy? (2) Why does death repeat itself so many times? And (3) what is actually dying and being reborn in this extended transformative process? In attempting to answer these questions, I also want to revise the discussion of death and rebirth I published in Dark Night, Early Dawn (Bache, 2000).
Let me say at the outset that I believe the incorporation of psychedelics into philosophical inquiry that began with William James (1902) represents a significant turning point in philosophy. Through systematically moving back and forth between psychedelically-generated states of consciousness and one’s ordinary waking state where these experiences can be recorded and systematically evaluated, philosophical discourse is expanded and deepened. The loss of control demanded by psychedelic immersion is balanced by the rigorous demands of sustained critical inquiry. In this process I think we are witnessing the emergence of a new and valuable philosophical method (Bache, 2000: Chapter 1).
It was as a philosopher that I undertook 73 therapeutically structured LSD sessions following Stanislav Grof’s protocol – completely internalized sessions with a sitter, eyeshades, and carefully selected music (Bache, 1980). There were two periods of active work, the first lasting four years (18 sessions) and the second ten years (55 sessions), separated by a hiatus of six years during which I suspended my work for reasons that are not relevant to this inquiry. After getting my bearings in four low dose sessions (200-250 micrograms), the remaining sessions were all high dose LSD sessions at 500-600 micrograms. They were all conducted in a private residence under conditions that assured complete privacy. Set and setting were standardized and spiritually focused. Sessions started in the morning after a period of yoga and meditation and lasted all day. An account of each session was written up within 24 – 48 hours with careful attention paid to phenomenological accuracy and completeness, resulting in 355 pages of typed notes.
This paper emerges from years of attempting to reflect critically on my psychedelic experiences in the context of reports published by other psychedelic researchers, especially Stanislav Grof (Grob, 2002; Grof, 1976, 1980, 1985, 1998, 2006; Metzner, 1999, 2004; Strassman, 2001). As a qualitative heuristic study, this paper honors the insights and strategies recommended by Braud and Anderson (1998), Lincoln and Guba (2011), and Moustakas (1990) for generating strong and reliable personal narratives. As an exercise in critical autobiography, it pays particular attention to reflexivity and self-transparency (Findlay, 2002; Tracy, 2010).
As many researchers have pointed out, psychedelic therapy is an exceptionally powerful vehicle of self-exploration that unleashes many surprises (Grob, 2002; Grof, 1980; Metzner, 1999). In a sustained psychedelic inquiry, one is repeatedly forced to recast one’s assumptions and recalculate what is possible. This perpetual rethinking of assumptions has certainly marked my attempts to fathom the inner workings of death and rebirth in LSD therapy.
Framing the Inquiry
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to divide my psychedelic journey into three broad phases – a first phase leading up to ego-death, a second phase centering on the collective death-rebirth experiences reported in Dark Night, Early Dawn, and a third phase marked by a deepening spiral into what I perceived to be the Divine. In a sustained regimen of psychedelic therapy, a doubling back and reprocessing of material at deeper levels is common, so I don’t intend to suggest a strictly linear pattern of development. That said, it has been my experience that when the external variables are standardized as much as possible in a long series of sessions, a gradual and somewhat systematic unfolding takes place into progressively deeper levels of consciousness.
When I began this work, I was primarily interested in spiritual enlightenment. I wanted to cleanse my system of its habitual constrictions and realize spiritual freedom. Because the spiritual traditions I had studied emphasized death of self as the gateway to liberation (Smith, 1958; Teresa of Avila, 1961; Underhill, 1961), this was my initial focus – challenging my ego, emptying my bucket of illusions, and reconnecting with my Essential Nature. Though I felt reasonably well prepared for this undertaking – 30 years old with a doctorate in philosophy of religion and socially grounded in a marriage and career – I did not fully appreciate what I was getting into. No amount of reading can completely prepare you for what you will encounter on this path. The journey turned out to be much deeper, much longer, and much wider than I ever dreamed possible in the beginning.
I chose to work in high dose psychedelic sessions rather than low dose psycholytic sessions because time for inner journeying was hard to arrange in a dual career marriage and I wanted to make the most of each session. The spiritual literature described one’s karmic conditioning as being ultimately finite (Govinda, 1969; Guenther, 1974; Thera, 1962), and I naively thought that I could work through mine faster by using this accelerated method of transformation, in effect biting off larger pieces of karma in each session. I knew from Grof’s early books (1976, 1977, 1980) that the sessions would be more challenging, but I thought that if I confronted my shadow conscientiously and could endure the intensity of the work, it would get me to my goal of liberation sooner. It turned out that I was completely wrong about this, or rather that all the assumptions I was making were wrong. I began this work thinking in terms of a therapeutic model focused on individual transformation. I found, however, that working with such high doses of LSD activated consciousness so powerfully that it expanded the scope of the work beyond the individual and beyond personal enlightenment.
I should mention that with the wisdom of hindsight, I don’t recommend taking this aggressive an approach to the deep psyche. Though I deeply cherish the many blessings this journey gave me, they came at a certain cost. There is significant wear and tear on one’s physical and subtle energy system driving it this hard, and it is eventually painful to be immersed in depths of cosmic beauty one cannot keep. Were I to do it over again, I would adopt a gentler strategy, balancing organic with synthetic medicines, low with high doses. And if one’s goal is enlightenment as this is conventionally understood, this work is better done closer to where the ego lives in the world, and that means working with lower doses1.
The first phase of this journey lasted two years and ten sessions. These sessions were largely perinatal in nature, involving intense existential confrontations, convulsive seizures, and fetal experiences combined with many forms of surrender and dying2 The physical cleansing was particularly intense. This series eventually culminated in a poignant ego-death in which my identity was turned inside out and shattered. Starting the day as a middle class, white male philosopher obsessed with the meaning of life, I was forced to become completely female and to live lives that were the opposite of “me.” Stripped of all vestiges of my masculine identity, I became countless women of all shapes and sizes, women of color at the laundromat with no prospects, women trained in the art of living by television with no horizons beyond the here and now. It was the perfect hell for a male professor with layers of metaphysical and existential anguish folded into it. It wasn’t women that were the problem, of course, or race or poverty; it was the tight grip that my physical and social identity had on me, telling me that “I” was not any of these. When I let go of my life as I had known it, I died…and was reborn into a new world, the extraordinarily beautiful world of the feminine explored under the arm of the Great Mother.