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Mimicking Faith: Magic Mushrooms and the Fear of Death

For most people, Aldous Huxley is remembered as the author of the classic dystopian novel, Brave New World. But among devotees of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, mescaline and “magic mushrooms,” Huxley is also known as the author of The Doors of Perception.

In that book, Huxley chronicles his experience after ingesting mescaline, the psycho-active ingredient in peyote. As anyone who lived through the sixties might expect, these experiences include what he believed was an enhanced appreciation of music and the visual arts. Thanks to mescaline, Huxley “understood” that Vermeer “was truly gifted with the vision that perceives the Dharma-Body as the hedge at the bottom of the garden.”

If that seems less-than-helpful-or-clear to you, then you can imagine what went through my mind as I read a recent article in the New York Times about hallucinogens and terminally ill patients. Did you see it?

The lead told the story of a 55-year-old “upbeat, articulate and dignified” woman who was told that she had terminal colon cancer and between six and 14 months to live. Like many people who receive this kind of terrible news, she fought back: she never stopped running even as her cancer treatments were taking their toll. And these exertions may have helped her to outlive the initial prognosis by nearly three years.

But the one thing her efforts couldn’t overcome was her fear of death. The longer she lived, the more anxious and depressed she became about her impending death. The question “when?” dominated her and her husband’s life.

So, her doctor prescribed magic mushrooms. More precisely, he administered doses of psilocybin,  the psychoactive compound in these mushrooms, to her and other terminally ill patients. The idea was that perhaps the hallucinogen would enable terminally ill patients to see their impending death in a new way — as one researcher put it, through the carefully administered use of these drugs patients may see death in a “new light.” The experience might “promote introspection” and provide patients with “grounding.”

If that sounds, well, religious to you, you are not alone. Listen, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be told that you only have months to live — it’s hard enough to deal with the news of a loved one’s impending death, as I recently have done. So, I will not begrudge a dying person’s grasping for relief from this unimaginable burden.

What I will do is to note that researchers are using drugs to mimic — that’s the word that best fits here — the effects of faith, especially Christian faith. For Christians, our natural fear of death is overcome, not by a drug, but by faith in the risen Christ. Just as death no longer has any hold over Jesus, it no longer has any hold over us.

This is not a matter of perception — it’s a matter of fact. As the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, if God did not raise Jesus from the dead, our faith is in vain. It doesn’t get more fact-based than that.

None of this makes death — either our own or that of a loved one — any less painful. Christians believe that death is an enemy. But it’s an enemy God, through Christ, will destroy. That’s the source of our hope — hope that no pill can ever mimic.

Come to We’ll have Chuck’s thoughts and other articles on why we can’t medicate our problems away.

Publication date: May 1, 2012

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