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Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

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Verusha: Mama, what if the reindeer run into us while we’re walking?
Me: We’ll just jump out of the way…
Verusha: I think they can crash into us. They can crash into you so hard that you might die.
Me: Well…
Verusha: But it won’t be the saddest thing, if you die.
Me: Why not?!
Verusha: Well, you’ll resurrect. God will resurrect you eventually, and then we’ll be together again.
(Silence)
Verusha: And in the meantime I can go sleep over at Anya’s house. And then I can spend the night at Penelope’s, and the next night at Alana’s…Oh, I know! How about when you do resurrect, just give Alana’s mom a call, and tell her you’re ready to pick me up?
Me: Sounds like a plan.

Driving to work, feeling frazzled and sad, I turn on Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, and my soul is taken elsewhere.

Praise the Lord, oh my soul, the hymn begins. I think about how tremendously fortunate it is that in his empathy and foresight, God has given us the aptitude to praise him in a way that is pleasing for Him, and for us. There are moments of clarity when you recognize who you are, who He is – your soul yearns to break out of your body and dash across green fields, your palms tingle, you inhale deeply. And at that moment, when you are consumed by a thankfulness so strong it threatens to overpower you, God gives you the voice, the words, the movements, to praise Him.

In worship, you offer your imperfect attempts but He makes them pure, makes them powerful, makes himself pulse through you so that you are able to give him the praise that he deserves – perfectly. I think that’s why worship can be such a powerful experience for people: they are not only offering their praises up, but they feel God within.

I also think about the resurrection. In church there’s a group of Christian ex convicts who always sit together, right in the center of the worship hall. They always clap the loudest when there’s mention of forgiveness and new life, new hope. They sing their hearts out, too. I look at them and envy them a little. They were fortunate enough to have their sins revealed to the world. Now they could no longer pretend that they were perfect. Instead, these people received punishment but also, forgiveness. They embraced death and resurrection.

But what about the rest of us, standing tense, singing loud but not too loud, raising up our hands, but not too high, rising up when we are told, sitting obediently when everyone sits. What about our resurrection? Outwardly living a righteous life, we are lulled into complacency. We begin to believe the fallacy that we are not so bad. Hey, we didn’t break into a bank. We did not steal, embezzle, beat, rape or murder. But woe to the person who thinks along these lines. They are most in need of resurrection, but feeling that their lives are pretty much okay except for a few tweaks here or there, they do not buy into a complete burial of the self. They cannot be made new because they like the old.

Several years ago I married and had kids. Through the many unexpected turns of events, I beat my chest, threw ashes on my head, begged God, complained to him, berated him. “Why?!” was the question of many seasons. These years have been the most difficult for me, not only because of the hardships that I endured, but because these hardships revealed to me the extent of my own depravity. Daily I face the abysmal darkness that is in my heart. It is near overwhelming.

And slowly I begin to see His mercy. Finally, I want to bury the old. Finally, I want to be made new. And how great it is that inner darkness so deep that it becomes palpable can still be overcome. It has been overcome! And now I want it. I want the resurrection for me.

Praise the Lord indeed, oh my soul, all my inmost being – praise His holy name.

The other day we were driving by a cemetery, and the following conversation transpired between me and my five-year-old daughter:

V: Mama, what is that place?
Me: That’s a cemetery.
V: What do you do there?
Me: You put dead people there.
V: But I don’t see any dead people. Where are they?
Me: Well, they’re in the ground. See, when somebody dies, you have to do something with them. You can’t just leave them lying around. So usually they go in a box, and then the box is buried. See how there are flowers and those tombstones? There’s a box with a person under each of those stones…
V: But don’t they get cramped up, lying in that box all day? Don’t they want to move around?
Me: No. When you’re dead, you don’t move. Remember we saw that dead squirrel on the road? Remember how it wasn’t moving at all?
V: Yeah, I remember…So they just lay there?
Me: Yup, that’s all they do.

Later that day the kids overhear an exasperated Mama saying to her exasperating husband, “Hon, you’re just killing me…really, you are…”. Poor Miss V tells me that she doesn’t want Dad to kill me. I try to explain that it’s a figure of speech; that it only means that he is really really irritating me. But the idea sticks, and death is all the rage now.

We go camping and the kids are playing with small stuffed toy birds. I overhear this:

V (speaking in a tiny bird voice): I’m dying! I’m dead now.
Fatty Pants (speaking in a funny bird voice): I’m dying too. Who killed you?
V: You’re killing me!
Fatty Pants: I’m dead now too!
Me (unable to resist): But wait! We can still save the birds! We must give them cardiac compressions. Where is the defibrillator? One, two, three…One, two, three…Yes! We have a pulse! Congratulations, Miss V, your bird has been resurrected from the dead!
Fatty Pants: Mama, do mine too…
Me: OK. One, two, three…she lives!

At night the topic is brought up again.

V: Mama, I don’t want you to die.
Me: I don’t want to die either.
V: I’ll live forever.
Me: Typically all people die at some point, but don’t worry. It won’t be for a long, long while.
V: But what will happen then?
Me: Then? Well, hopefully we’ll be back, living again, but different this time. ( I can feel Dad’s stern look on my back…)
V: Really? Are you sure?
Me: Well, I’ve never been dead before, so I can’t really say for sure. But I hope so…

***

Considering the number of people who die each day, it’s baffling that we so rarely come in contact with death and the dying in our day-to-day. Considering that we will all die at some point, and most of us will undergo a certain period of “getting dead”, it’s surprising that we don’t talk more about it.

I remember visiting an older friend in Belgium. On her tour of Brussels, she took a detour to visit her elderly father in a nursing home, and we tagged along. Later it turned out that she herself works with cancer patients, and that many of them never do heal, and die a premature death. I asked her how she dealt with death, with meeting it on a daily basis. She told me that when she was a child, her parents didn’t want her or her siblings to be afraid or unfamiliar with death, as it is an integral part of existence. The family made regular trips to the cemetery, visited dying relatives, attended funerals, talked openly about death. Seems like a healthy approach to me, but imagine if I took my two munchkins on a field trip to the cemetery. I would probably get a call from school after Show and Tell time.

Then there was the Alaskan throat singer talking about her childhood on NPR (years ago). She said that her songs may sound mournful (they do chill you and put you in a profound melancholic trance), but that this is not a bad thing. There is no need to fear it. Just as there is no need to fear death. As a child, she would watch as an elk getting butchered and skinned, gutted, and prepared for various uses in the household. There was no horror or disgust associated with the process. Rather, it was natural, raw, red, and familiar.

When you find out that somebody has died, you’re shocked: “Oh no…how could that be? Is that really so?” But imagine a culture where you could easily say, “Well you know, that’s how it goes.” In such a culture, I imagine the pain of losing someone close to you would remain, but at least the shock would be lessened, knowing (and I mean really knowing, not just in theory but in practice, having seen it first-hand many times) that it was bound to happen to them, and will happen to you. There would be less fear of death, and a healthier understanding of it.

Trying to avoid platitudes, I will say that I think we here in continental America could use some of that education. As it stands now, I can only talk normally about death with my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

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