March 27, 2020

Are We Having a Collective NDE?


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

If you’ve been following my blogs, you may remember that in my first one, "An NDE Researcher Ruminates about Death in the Time of COVID-19," I drew on some correspondence with a graduate student who wondered whether because of the widespread nature of this virus we were undergoing what she called a "collective NDE." So imagine my surprise when last night I received this note from a woman who herself had survived an NDE:
I was inspired to write you because I thought of you directly as it started to dawn on me that we might be living through a collective near-death experience.
I had my NDE at sixteen and was transformed forever, and now as I am listening to people describe their experience with this "pandemic time" I can't help but feel like millions of us are having similar processing experiences, life reviewing, atemporal experience, waves of spiritual connection -- and it seems like we will move to the other side of this profoundly affected as such. Purpose is emerging, importance of connection... etc.
Having had two such inquires recently both of which used the same expression, "a collective NDE," got my attention and caused me to exercise what’s left of my brain in a little reflection.

As my most recent correspondent indicated, NDEs have the power to bring about a profound transformation. My research and that of others have offered abundant evidence that NDEs tend to lead to radical changes in one's values and behavior such that NDErs become more loving and compassionate and decidedly more spiritual. So if the very specter, horrifying as it is, of possibly widespread death and certainly even the worldwide fear of death were to usher in a planetary NDE, so to speak, might we reasonably expect that humanity -- at least those who survive -- would be similarly transformed?

It is a comforting thought to suppose that when this black cloud of the virus finally lifts, we might, as a species, reap the benefits of the light of a collective NDE.

To me, personally, it is a slender reed of hope to cling to since it is entirely possible, and perhaps even more likely, that all the survivors of this ordeal will reap is a collective case of PTSD, owing to the pervasive trauma that this virus can be expected to inflict on us. Even so, there is plenty of evidence that trauma, even seemingly soul-destroying ones, can nevertheless lead to astonishingly positive personality changes and spiritual growth. So it is at least conceivable that when humanity emerges from its current trauma, it too may find itself in a nascent state of spiritual renewal with an undeniable sense of deep connection to all the peoples of the earth who together will then have to fashion a planet where love for one another and all life must reign.

A utopian dream perhaps, but in these dark dystopian days, it is at least something to think about. And if this kind of transformation should come about, we will have reason to give heartfelt thanks. In the meantime, I plan to cling to that slender reed of hope, and maybe if enough of us do, the dream will one day become the reality of our lives.

March 24, 2020

Silver Linings in a Dark Sky


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Are you suffering from virus fatigue? I know I am. You can’t turn on the TV or check the Internet without being drenched in stories about how terrible it is -- and of course it is dreadful -- and how grim the prospects are for the long term. While I don’t intend to adopt the way of the ostrich to deal with it, I think there is something to be said, not for denial, but for diversion. I know when I listen to all the advice for how you protect yourself, I sometimes think that the only way to be safe is to cut off my hands and then have someone decapitate me. That way, at least, I would no longer have to worry about touching my face.

All right, there’s humor, too, even lame humor like mine, to provide diversion of another kind. Whatever works.

But then, let’s not forget that this crisis also has brought out some things to be grateful for. I know I am filled with gratitude for its unexpected benisons. Let me just share one of them with you, which will exemplify what I mean.

I have a dear Mexican woman friend who has had a hard time recently after her father suddenly died. Not long afterward, she broke her leg and various complications ensued. Many months later, she is still struggling to recover. And yet...

I just received this note from her yesterday.
Dear Mr. Smile!!!
I hope everything is going soft and easy for you. Please keep calm and enjoy your quarantine. You must have lots of emails to answer and some time for relax and enjoy!
I am still working hard on my recovery. Now I am going daily into the pool, so this may help me a lot with strength and resistance... always with love and good mood!!
Here we take our own measures to make this experience a positive one. I really think this was meant to be since our sense of separation and lack of love between each other. 2020 will be remembered as the year where Mother Earth claimed some peace and showed us what is love about. I am sharing a beautiful video with you. Hope you like it.
I send you all my love from home!! 
I replied immediately:
Dear Miss Sunshine,
Thanks for checking in with me. I'm all right, just buried  under an avalanche of email for the last few days as everyone has been writing me to make sure I'm all right. And since most people write me long letters or send me their videos, blogs, poems, podcasts, what have you, it is taking all my time to keep up with my mail. I have to spend all day at my computer and don't even have time to brush my teeth! Still, it’s gratifying that so many people take the time to express their concern and love. So my thanks to you. It’s reassuring to learn that you are okay and still progressing in your recovery.
And I agree with your sentiments, too. As I wrote to another friend, the other day --
On the plus side of this vile virus crisis is the fact that it is putting people in touch with each other again in heartful and life-affirming ways. This is one way to contend against the fears that are being stirred up in the mainstream media, which I think represent another kind of toxin. Paradoxically, it is this very enforced isolation that is bringing people together, if only virtually. I myself, even though I bellyache about being on an email treadmill, am grateful for all the many friends, longstanding ones and recent ones, who have written or called me to make sure I am all right. And I’ve even heard from all of my grandchildren, which is rare, as well as my own kids of course (I have three) and other family members. It's comforting to feel surrounded by so much loving light in such dark times. 
So for this outpouring of love and concern from so many friends and family members, and indeed even for "the kindness of strangers" who have also come may way lately to offer assistance to me, I am filled with gratitude.

Only connect, E. M. Forster famously said at the end of his novel, Howards End.  I don’t think he meant it the way I mean to, but this is also a time when people are connecting with each other with love and caring. My experience must be typical of many, and I hope it has been for you, too. As trying as this time has been for all the world and for however long it may endure, the darkness has not extinguished the light of love, and never will.

March 20, 2020

Is the World Still Turning?


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

To me, the world -- and certainly my world -- seems to have become still, like molecules at absolute zero (all right, I know that even then they still vibrate a little, but I’ll stick to my metaphor all the same). Seemingly, everything has ground to a halt and we all now live suspended in an indeterminate limbo of anxious uncertainty and not a little dread about the future. The world’s future and our own.

We here in California are now, all of us, living in a locked down situation. We can leave our houses if we must but otherwise we have been directed to stay home as much as possible and avoid contact with others. And last night, even worse news as our governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that he expects that 56% of Californians will become infected with the virus. Just what I needed to hear before tucking myself into the womb of my bed.

Predictably, I had a troubled night’s sleep and feel like crap today, but at least I’m not sick. Yet.

This morning, I got out my little calculator and did some figuring. Let’s see -- there are about 40 million of us in California, so if Newsom is right, we can expect about 22.4 million to get sick. If we assume a 3% percent death rate, that means, if I have calculated correctly, maybe some 67,200 of us will die of this disease. But since at age 84 and not in tiptop health I am in that vulnerable category, the odds that I may not make it are not exactly encouraging.

On the other hand, what’s so important about my petty life? I’ve lived long enough, anyway, and am only taking up room on this planet. What I really think about are younger people and children whose lives may suffer so much because of this virus or even die. How monstrously unfair! How absurd! It makes me think that the Gnostics were right, and that we are governed by a malevolent god, or more likely, live in a universe that is indifferent to our fate.

I’ve spent over half my life studying and writing about near-death experiences. So I am okay with death. In fact, last year I brought out a little book of humorous essays I entitled Waiting to Die. Hey, I may not have to wait much longer! This could be my chance! (Is humor still allowed during a pandemic? It had better be!)

But do I really expect to die? Well, yes, someday if I ever can manage to get around to it. But the thought of having to kick the bucket because of a stupid virus -- it’s just unacceptable! Also, demeaning. No one deserves to die because of a virus, even if many already have. See my comment above about absurdity.

The world will go on, even without some of us. It will keep turning no matter what. It won’t be the same after this, but children will play outside again and there will be the sounds of laughter and song. And have you noticed? It’s spring.

March 19, 2020

Putting the COVID Virus in Historical Perspective


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Last week, before it had become evident how serious the COVID-19 virus would become, I had an email exchange with a cousin of mine, a retired cardiologist, who even then was predicting that this crisis would be much more deadly than earlier forecasts had indicated and certainly far worse than the bland reassurances we were then hearing from the not always reliable lips of President Trump.

In response, I wrote my cousin this:
On the virus, well, you certainly paint a pessimistic picture of the next few months here in the Bay Area. I don’t think it’s unrealistic, but I can only hope your projections will not be realized. On the other hand, I have been reading -- among other books -- a book about the European émigrés who had to flee Nazi Germany and who came to settle LA, creating a kind of "Weimar of the West." You might have read about this in an article that Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker not long ago. Reading what some of these refugees went though helps to put things in perspective. As does the situation of Syrian refugees and so many others who have been displaced in recent years. So now it’s our turn.
And consider how lucky we’ve been to have lived all of our lives until now never having suffered here from any of the world wars or anything else at all comparable to what the world has had to endure during the last hundred years or so. In that, you and I have been extremely fortunate, wouldn’t you say? And as of Sunday, both of us will be octogenarians. Yesterday, I actually reached 84 and 1/4. I'm not any more keen to die than you are, but on the other hand, I've lived long enough, and death would obviously solve my spinal stenosis and other physical problems. So although I am taking all possible precautions, que sera, sera. If things get as bad as you anticipate, I’m not sure I’d be all that keen to witness all that, anyway, even if I do survive.

March 18, 2020

An NDE researcher ruminates about death during the time of COVID-19


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Just a little while ago, I heard from a graduate student who asked me what I was thinking about in regard to death during this virus crisis. (She was familiar with my work on NDEs.) She had mentioned that she was now doing daily meditations on death. She also wondered whether we were going to experience what she called "a collective NDE."

What follows is a bit of what I wrote to her a few minutes ago:

Re your idea of a collective NDE, I actually wrote about that toward the end of one of early books on NDEs, Heading Toward Omega, although right now, we seem to be heading toward oblivion. But I’m sure many people, especially us old farts, are thinking about death, and at many levels. Not just personally -- will I or my loved ones survive? -- but what the world will look like after this crisis has passed? How many -- possibly millions -- will have died? And what about the world’s economy? It’s like the Great Depression of the '30s, only much worse. So, sure, apocalyptic thinking is in the air despite all the brave and cheerful talk about "carrying on." Though carry on, we must. What else can we do?

Meanwhile, you are dealing with this in your own way with your meditations on death -- an ancient Buddhist meditative practice, to be sure. I am, too, but I’m different from most people because I have spent more than half a lifetime thinking, reading and writing about death and near-death experiences -- as well as spending countless hours with NDErs. To me, death is an old friend, and nothing to be feared.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to be feared about dying, especially in these circumstances. Unlike the H1N1 crisis of some years ago, which affected mainly younger people, this one will tend to target the old -- people like me are in the "vulnerable category." And what makes this tough are the very practices designed to keep us safe -- isolation. So I think:  Should I get ill, seriously ill, I would not want to infect anyone, especially those dear to me. Which means I could well die alone -- not a cheerful prospect, no matter what may follow death. I think: Will I ever see my children again? My friends? My girlfriend, Lauren? Who will hold my hand if I should find myself dying?

Not that I think I will -- at least not because of this pandemic. But then, being a sucker for Jewish humor, I have considered that actually death would solve a lot of my problems, such as my spinal stenosis or what the hell am I going to do when my driver’s license expires at the end of the year, assuming I don’t expire before that myself. So my thoughts are not so much about death but about social isolation.  Living alone has its drawbacks...

I actually thought about keeping a corona diary, since writing is just about all I can do these days, but I’ve been too busy. But maybe writing letters like this is a way to write a diary in another form.

March 16, 2020

Ketamine Days


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

My adventures with ketamine actually began with a fateful phone call more than thirty years ago.

In August of 1984, I was in California on a lecture tour and to see some professional colleagues in connection with my work and my recently published book on near-death experiences, Heading Toward Omega. The last of my talks on that visit was to a medical society in the Bay Area that had been arranged by my cousin Cliff, a cardiologist. That evening, while I was still at Cliff's house in Orinda before leaving the next day for Los Angeles, I received a phone call from another Orinda resident who was, but would hardly remain, a stranger to me. Her name was Therese.

It turned out that Therese had read my first NDE book, Life at Death, and wanted to talk to me about a professional matter concerned with that book. Since she had serendipitously discovered that I was staying very near her house in Orinda, she wondered whether I could come over to meet her while I was still in town. I explained that that would not be possible since I had to pack and leave the next morning. Therese countered by asking whether it might be possible for me to take some time on the phone now so she could explain just a bit about what she had in mind.

She had a very pleasant and gracious manner of speaking -- there was certainly something very appealing, almost seductive, about her voice -- so I readily consented. She then had a bombshell to drop concerning another invitation altogether.

Therese told me that she had been working with an oncologist and that they were both concerned with trying to find ways for terminal patients to die with less fear and with a sense of some kind of transcendent revelation similar to that which near-death experiencers often reported. In fact, what they wanted to try was to induce something like an NDE, and the means that they proposed to use for this purpose was the anesthetic, ketamine. Because Therese had read my first book on NDEs, she said she regarded me as an expert on the subject, so she had suggested to her oncologist colleague that she should ask me whether I would be willing to be a "professional subject" who would take ketamine under supervision in order to see the extent to which this drug might mimic an actual NDE.

Whoa!

In my mind I remember thinking, "Oh, God, wait just a minute."

I already was familiar with work that had been done with terminal cancer patients along these lines using LSD that Stan Grof and Joan Halifax had described in their book, The Human Encounter with Death. They had indeed shown that LSD employed in this way was sometimes capable of inducing an experience that had many of the same components and aftereffects of an actual NDE, including in most cases a reduction in the fear of death and an increased expectation of some form of life after death.

But ketamine was another story. I knew something about this drug from having read about John Lilly's experiments with it and from some other sources, and what I had heard had certainly made me wary of it. There was even a macabre and scary story about a well-known ketamine explorer who was found dead in a forest two days after becoming unconscious following an injection of ketamine.

I definitely had never had any interest to try it -- if anything I was averse to doing so, particularly because I knew that it was administered by injection. Thoughts of heroin addiction flickered in my mind.

Besides, my days of using psychoactive drugs were by then long passed. I had experimented with LSD, peyote and psilocybin for a while during the 1970s, but I had taken them only about once a year, and had stopped for good in 1977. I had no desire to try anything new along those lines, and certainly not with anything like ketamine, which for me was a drug associated with real risk and danger.

"Ah, I don't think this would be for me, Therese."

Therese had an alternative proposal ready.

“Well, you don't have to make up your mind now, Ken. Just think about it, and let me send you a little literature on the subject, OK?”

She then happened to mention that the following spring, she would be coordinating a major invited conference on psychedelics at Esalen Institute in Big Sur and wondered whether I would have an interest to be there, particularly because John Lilly himself would be attending it. She mentioned that it would be held during the very first half of June, 1985.

Now here's the kicker.

Therese did not know when she tendered this invitation that I would actually be at Esalen at exactly that time.  I had first been to Esalen in 1983 when its co-founder, Michael Murphy, had asked me to come out to do a program on NDEs. It was successful and Michael and I hit it off. He had recently been in touch with me again to invite me this time for a much more extensive engagement at the institute.

He wanted me to come for three weeks in the late spring of 1985 as a scholar-in-residence so that I could conduct a workshop on NDEs and attend and present my work in other workshops and seminars that would follow mine, including a month-long workshop that would be conducted by none other than Esalen's then permanent scholar-in-residence, Stan Grof. I had loved being at Esalen on my first visit, so naturally I jumped at the chance.

So I already knew what Therese didn't -- that I would be there at the same time her conference would be held.

It is a cliché among the people in my world to say "there are no coincidences." Being contrary, I usually reply "except for accidents and chance events." But in this case, however, I couldn't help feeling a little unnerved when she invited me to attend. It already seemed like destiny had decided to take a hand in my affairs.

Naturally, I told her I would love to come.

Naturally, she was delighted.

We agreed to table the whole business about ketamine for now. In due course, however, she would send me some materials pertaining to the conference. And that, for the moment, was that.

Fast forward to June, 1985.

By now, I had already spent a very engrossing week at Esalen and had become very involved with a woman I'll simply call L. with whom I was then staying. One morning, several days before Therese's conference, L. told me that Therese's roommate, S., would be arriving in order to set things up at the conference. Since L. and S. were already good friends, L. invited me to come along to meet her.

That evening the three of us met and slipped into a warm pool together, sans clothes of course -- Esalen style. We were alone except for one fellow who was at the end of the pool. At some point, S. whispered to L., but in my hearing, "Would you like to do a little K tomorrow?"

"What's K?" I asked.

"Ketamine," L. whispered in my ear.

"Uh-oh," I thought.

Of course, I was supposed to be "saving myself" for a possible ketamine experience, which I hadn't ruled out. It had been on the agenda for Therese and me to discuss after she arrived.

L. quickly expressed her enthusiasm for having a ketamine session the following evening. She knew that a grand house on her property was temporarily vacant and L. had the key and permission to use it.

I was very conflicted, and more than a little afraid.

I explained all the reasons for my hesitation, but briefly, urgently, and sotto voce so that the fellow who was still at the other end of the pool couldn't hear. Not only was I concerned about violating an implicit understanding about remaining a "ketamine virgin" for Therese, but I was really worried about having to take it by injection.

S. said to me, "Ken, I have taken it about 200 times. It's perfectly safe. I know how to give injections. Meet me for breakfast tomorrow and I'll answer all your questions.”

By now, I was virtually living with L. -- things happen fast at Esalen, and now I was already on the verge of taking ketamine with her and S. -- so the following morning I had to hustle to meet S. for breakfast.

"I have a lot of questions," I began.

"I'm sure I can answer them all," S. replied.

She did give me the feeling I could trust her.

That was something I had quickly learned during my short stay at Esalen. You had to trust. If you were going to take a leap in the dark, you had to assume that someone would be there to catch you. S. radiated confidence; I felt I would be safe with her and that she would answer my questions
truthfully based on her own extensive experience with ketamine.

In the end, after she had explained a great deal to me, I felt reassured. But there was still one problem.

Therese.

I mentioned this to S.

"Call her," she said.

When later that morning I was able to reach Therese, who would be leaving for the conference in just a couple of days, she was very upset. She really didn't want me to do it -- it would bias my reaction to the kind of ketamine test under controlled conditions that she was still hoping I would assent to. She urged me to decline. There was also some evident bad feeling between L. and Therese, as if they were rivals of a sort (which was indeed the case, as I soon learned).

I neither consented to Therese's request nor rebuffed it. I just didn't commit myself one way or another. I think I evaded the whole matter and simply told her I would consider it and think it over. The conversation ended on a note of irresolution. I didn't think Therese was happy with me or the prospect I might be doing Ketamine with L.

By that time, however, I had come to feel very comfortable not only with S., but very close to L. And because there was already a strong bond of friendship between S. and L. and a growing sense of camaraderie among the three of us, I rather resented Therese's attempt to place a block of sorts in the path of what seemed a natural progression. I decided to follow the call of my desire rather than to honor what wasn't exactly a pledge to Therese. I would do it.

What the hell! This was Esalen. At Esalen, you took chances, trusting you would land on your feet.

That evening, after dark, for it was still early June, the three of us made our way down to the large house L. had commandeered for our session. Immediately I was struck by its burnished beauty. I remember a very ornately designed banister with a series of balusters that led down to the lower portion of the house where the bedroom was located in which we would be situated once we had received our injections of ketamine. In the nearby bathroom, S. got out the syringes and the little vials of ketamine but before she began the injections, L., who was always the most eloquent of the three of us -- she just had a gift of spontaneous flowery incantations -- took a few minutes to do a kind of ceremony, asking blessings for a safe and fulfilling journey. Now we were ready to begin.

S. had explained that even at the sub-anesthetic levels we would be taking, once the injection had taken place, we must immediately go to the nearby bed, lie down and wait. She also said she had to be careful in order to make sure that there were no bubbles in the syringe because that could cause problems. I began to be very nervous. She would first inject L., then me (in my thigh) and finally herself. Were we ready?

Gulp.

Once S. had injected me, I made my way to the bed. L. was already supine to my left, I was in the middle of the bed, and S. would soon join us, and lie to my right.

I waited.

After only a few minutes, I began to see swirling colors -- beautiful oranges and glowing peaceful reds. I was no longer aware of my body. It was as if I were gliding on a river of color, and then I was the colors; I had merged with them.

But next, I found I was holding L.'s hand with my left hand and S.'s with my right, and I was blending into them. I could feel their energies, their essence in me, because seemingly my own boundaries had dissolved. I said -- we never forgot this – "The L. of Us and the S. of Us."

L. hissed softly but with emphasis, "Yes!"

We lapsed into silence.

I continued to surf the waves of ecstasy, but this was entirely different from what I had previously experienced on MDMA, which I had taken several days earlier with L. There were peaceful, floating, beautiful colors. Then at one point, everything went black -- very black. I grew frightened; I thought I might be dying. Then, a radiant exfoliating burst of new colors and another level of the trip had begun. I was no longer aware of anything but beauty -- no body, no Ken, nothing but being merged with the very sensations of the experience itself from which I was not separate, there being no "I."

Eventually -- because I had no sense of time, I had no idea how much time had elapsed -- I became aware that I was feeling the energies of L. and S. again. I was still holding their hands. But then -- I remember this distinctly -- my left hand began "making love" with L.'s hand. The way our fingers were moving together. She responded. This was love. I felt a little bad not doing the same with S., but it was L. was I drawn to.
 
It turned out about 45 minutes had gone by.

I was still very woozy and had to continue to lie there for a few minutes while the two of them got up.

There was a large, beautifully designed blue stone-inlaid circular hot tub nearby. Someone -- probably S. -- turned it on.  Eventually, we all got into it and began talking softly about what we had experienced. We laughed over my phrase, "The L. of Us and the S. of Us." But it still seemed true -- we had bonded, we had blended, we had become one. One in three persons, the Esalen trinity. (By the way, thirty-five years later, we are all still very deep and loving friends with one another.)

I spent the next day recovering -- and reflecting on what I had experienced the night before. I had never taken anything like ketamine before -- the experience was so qualitatively different from anything I had encountered with any of the psychedelics I had used during the '70s or with MDMA. I wasn't hooked, but I was exceedingly intrigued. Now, I was really looking forward to doing it again, this time with Therese.

And speaking of Therese, she was now due the next day. The people for the conference were already arriving, S. was now busy at work preparing the conference room and making various arrangements, and Therese was scheduled to arrive that evening. I needed to get the ketamine out of my head, so to speak, and ready myself for my meeting with Therese. I hoped she wouldn't be angry with me when she learned I was no longer a ketamine virgin.

She wasn't. And during the time of her conference, we quickly were on our way to becoming good friends, particularly because of another deep MDMA session we had together the night of the first day of the conference.

Therese, however, still wanted me to do ketamine with her and invited me to come up to her home in the San Francisco Bay Area once my stint at Esalen was over. Now I agreed with alacrity. I was on a ketamine roll.

The day after I had arrived, she proposed that we try an experiment. At that time, Therese was interested to explore various combinations of drugs. In this case, she suggested that we start with MDMA and use it as a kind of booster. When that drug had reached its peak intensity after about two hours, I would then be injected with ketamine. (S., who was in the area but had vacated the apartment temporarily so that Therese and I could remain there together, would be summoned to do the injection.)

Was I game?

"But what about that ketamine session with that oncologist of yours?"

"Oh, we can put that off for a while."

I had a little hesitation, but since I had already bonded so much with Therese at Esalen, not for long.

Therese's apartment had obviously been set up for such sessions. My impression was that this was the way she conducted some of her work with her clients. And since I had already come to be feel very comfortable there, I was ready to relax with her, be close to her physically and begin my second MDMA encounter with her.

S. came in to wish us well, and then went elsewhere, presumably into her bedroom.

Therese and I lay down on one of her very plush rugs and waited for the MDMA to take effect. By this time, I was familiar enough with the drug to know how it would affect me. Once more, I felt myself bonding with Therese, with her essence, and the feelings just built and built with waves of love lifting me into a world of pulsating ecstasy.

At some point, S. quietly came in and injected me, but not Therese, with ketamine, but this time the dose, by agreement, was much higher than that I had taken it at Big Sur. This, too, was part of the experiment.

And this time, not surprisingly, my experience was very different, radically so. Although it started in the same way, with those beautiful shimmering colors into which I soon merged, I then found myself -- although I could only recall this afterward -- experiencing what I subsequently came to label "the creation of the universe." Somehow, I seemed to be an indissoluble part of "the Big Bang," except it was a soft feeling of being, not seeing, something like an expanding balloon that contained the germ of all the galaxies that were then first forming. It was as if, encoded into the star-stuff of which I was composed, was information about the very origins and evolution of the universe, which I was now tapping into. (Afterward I couldn't resist the admittedly wild speculation that this information must somehow be contained in our very cellular structure, but I had no such thoughts then. I was not capable of thinking at all.)

I remember that the energy of this soft expansion was not neutral -- this creation was infused with a feeling of love. (Again, afterward, I was inclined to feel that this was probably due to the effect of MDMA.)

At this point, there was no "I." There was only the experience of oneness with the nascent universe as it was in the process of formation. Any sense of time had completely disappeared. Not only that, any sense of being human, much less a particular human called Ken Ring, had also vanished. There was only this experience, but no one was observing it.

At some point -- it must have been perhaps a half hour later from what Therese, who had been observing me, told me -- I began to have a faint inkling of a kind of descent through an array of what seemed to be galaxies all around me, as if some invisible force, a kind of gravity, was causing a sense of downward motion -- although in fact, there was still no sense of "I" or anything human. Just this feeling of a descent through star-systems.

After a time, I had the first intimation that there was something called "earth," which appeared to be my destination, and with that came the slow realization that I was something -- a person! That I was human, that I was heading back toward earth. But my identity was still not clear to me.

I later learned that S. had been there during this whole session, and that she had had a tape-recorder handy in case I said anything of interest. It's good that she did because what happened next surprised everyone.

I didn't come back as myself, Ken Ring.

I returned with another identity altogether. I was a Dutch tugboat captain who appeared to have lived in the 19th century, and I spoke English with a distinct accent (that later seemed to be like that of the famous Austrian comic film actor, S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, a staple in films of the forties, most famously Casablanca).

When I started talking in this accent, I heard Therese hiss to S. "Is the tape recorder going? We have to get this!"

I have a very clear memory of what I was experiencing at this time. 

First, it was as if in my final descent toward earth, as I was slowly parachuting down, as it were, I had landed not on the ground, but had got stuck in the branches of a tree. On the ground was Ken Ring, and I, as the tugboat captain, was aware of him. But Ken Ring was no longer who I was.

Second, I remember saying and repeating, "This is a distinct personality, a distinct personality." I could not just see this man; I was him. I could feel him as if I indeed lived inside of him. I knew that he was a "cold man." (Not at all like Ken.) That he was lonely, and somewhat embittered. And that he was actually envious of Ken Ring. About him, he said, "Yah, Ken Ring, the guy that likes the ladies."

I knew what he looked like. I could see his face, his sideburns and whiskers. I could see him on his boat, and I could see him in a tavern where he made his remark about Ken Ring's fondness for ladies. I knew he was Dutch, even if it his accent was more like that of an Austrian. And I knew I was him, not me.

You know how when you are driving in a car listening to the radio and you begin to lose the signal? Well, something like that began to happen next. I felt that the tugboat captain, whom Therese later labeled "the immigrant," was beginning to fade out and as he did -- to continue the metaphor I used earlier -- it is as if I was now being sucked out of the tree and down into the body and person of Ken Ring.

Plop! I was back. I recognized -- with relief -- that I was Ken Ring again. But I remembered everything about "the immigrant." And Therese had recorded my words and accent.

In all, over the next year, I wound up doing ketamine nine times, including my first experience in Big Sur. In five of those sessions, "the immigrant" was present during the penultimate stage I passed through on my way to myself. He was always the same, and he always, as far as I can now recall, spoke in the same accent and had the same personality -- cold, unfeeling, somewhat cruel, and lonely.

I leave it to you to interpret who -- or what -- he was. And why he was so often a part of my ketamine experiences as they terminated.

My subsequent experiences with ketamine, sometimes with Therese, but mostly with others, were similar, but on the whole, not quite so intense as my initial ones had been though still full of marvelous and enthralling sensations and periods of ego-dissolution. Whenever I would enter the kstate, I would recognize it immediately as distinctively sui generis. It represented a world of its own, radically different from any of my other experiences in altered states of consciousness and utterly beguiling.

I might have used words such as "captivating" or "enchanting" were it not for one further experience I had under Therese's aegis the next year.

Remember her wish to have me become a volunteer for a ketamine session with her oncologist colleague? Well, even though I was no longer a ketamine "virgin," but almost a ketamine veteran by now, she still wanted me to undertake this journey, if only for the sake of satisfying her colleague's professional interest in my report.

So one day in the winter of 1986, at this doctor's office in the hospital, I would be given the anesthetic with a special infusion that would allow the doctor to titrate me -- that is, he could control the amount of ketamine to be administered so that it could slowly be increased to its maximum. During this process, he would tape-record any utterances that I might emit and afterward, once I had recovered, he would interview me. His main interest would be to determine the extent to which I felt my experience mimicked that of an actual NDE.

Therese, of course, had accompanied me there, and she would remain at my side during the entire session.

In going through my boxes of memorabilia recently, I was surprised to come across a cassette tape of this session and a two-page letter from the doctor summarizing my experience and what he felt he had learned from it. I didn't have the patience to re-listen to the tape, but I did read his letter, which brought back some aspects of the experience for me, though it was one for a number of reasons that I remember, with horror, very well.

Although some of the excerpts from the tape that the doctor's letter includes make it clear I was again experiencing vivid colors at the onset, when the dosage was increased, I was already indicating that I was "farther out now... whirling in the cosmos... like part of a galaxy... moving through vast, vast, vast spaces... like floating nebulae... going further out into space... scintillating. I see more light...,"

Then nothing for a long time, but what I remembered afterward was something that gave me a sense of profound metaphysical fright. What I became aware of when the dosage was apparently at or near its maximum was that human beings were not real. It as if they were mere projections, like the images on a screen. But people were deluded because they had come to identify with the images in the same way that when we watch a movie, we see people, not images. But only the images are real, not the people. We were no more than simulacra -- the whole of existence was not as we supposed. Instead, it was empty -- just full of moving images. And who or what was behind the projector? Nothing...

I am certain that I have never experienced anything more unnerving and psychologically destabilizing in my life. I felt that all points of ordinary reference and meaning had dissolved and that it left me, or what I had thought of as me, completely void.

The doctor writes, "At this level, the process of ego dissolution appeared to start. Pertinent comments included the statement 'I'm gone... gone... gone' and somewhat later repetitions of the word 'collapsing.' Later [there were] long howling vocalizations. During this period the speech was very dysarthric, but there was a plaintive and possibly dysphoric quality to it... The first sign of recovery was a chuckle or laugh which sounded almost like crying. Then the first clear vocalization, 'I'm alive... I'm alive.'"

What I remember at this point was seeing Therese's elbow. I reached out for it the way a man drowning in an ocean and overcome by fear reaches for the edge of a raft.

Although I obviously felt I had in a sense returned from death, what I had experienced was in no way like a transcendent radiant NDE. If anything, it was the opposite, and it left me with a feeling of something close to dread. What if what I had perceived was somehow a kind of ultimate truth about the nature of things that was blessedly veiled from us during states of ordinary consciousness?

Certainly, I had never before experienced anything like that on any of my previous trips with L. or Therese nor would I experience anything remotely like it in any of my subsequent ketamine sessions. In fact, I've never known what to make of it. It occurred to me afterward that maybe I had never had so much ketamine in my system, that perhaps I had had too much this time. Or perhaps I had been given a glimpse of something that was an essential, if unutterably frightening, part of our universe.

All I know is that that experience haunted me for days afterward and that I have never forgotten it.

Years later -- more than three decades now -- what do I make of these experiences? To be sure, I can't draw any generalizations about ketamine experiences on the basis of my own idiographic encounters with this drug. I don't want to claim that they have any ontological significance either. Mine were what they were, and while others may have had experiences that seemed to mimic at least some aspects of NDEs, that certainly was not true for me.

Nevertheless, I still regard ketamine as providing the means of access to a distinctive world of revelatory experiences that usually left me in a state of rapturous wonder even if upon recovering it was hard to retain much of the contents of these extraordinary voyages, which were in any event almost impossible afterward to capture in the net of language.

I remember at the time of Therese's Esalen conference that John Lilly, one of the participants, was hardly ever present. Dressed in a kind of brown monk's robe, he seemed mostly to be in his VW microbus (if memory serves) injecting himself, as I was later told, every 15 minutes or so with ketamine. 

I remember thinking at the time thoughts along the lines of: "How sad. Such a brilliant man," etc.

But after my own experiences with ketamine, I was inclined to see things very differently. At least on the basis of my own experiences, ketamine gives you access to a world that is so fantastically alluring and full of wonders that to me it makes perfect sense to want to explore it, just as adventurous naturalists of previous centuries were keen to travel to unknown and exotic lands.

I'm glad I did.

In the Beginning


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Some of you may have already read this piece; most of you have not. In any case, the essay that follows seemed to me to be a natural sequel to my first one. In either case, I hope you will enjoy reading it, even if it is a re-run for some of you. [Spoiler alert: This one doesn’t have any humor it in. You will understand why when you read it.]

The other night, when I was reorganizing some of my books and papers, I happened to come upon an old newsletter from forty years ago that had been edited by some then friends of mine. At the time they lived just a few miles from where I now reside, and seeing that newsletter brought back warm memories of our friendship.

But what struck me most forcibly was a little essay I had written for their publication, which was sent only to the people who were members of their organization, probably something like fifty and surely not more than a hundred. I had completely forgotten about this essay, and obviously only a relatively few people had read it at the time.

When I wrote it, I had just completed the research for my first book on NDEs, Life at Death. I was then deeply affected by the interviews I had conducted for the book, and in the essay I wrote about it in a very personal way. I could never, and never would, have written about my research this way in my book, but here I was still in the emotional throes of my interviews and how they had already changed my life.

I was also aware that my work had completely validated that of Raymond Moody, and for that reason, I had actually entitled my essay, Researching "Life After Life: Some Personal Reflections." Now in retrospect, I find something else I hadn’t been so much aware of at the time -- my indebtedness to Moody’s book, Life After Life. What if I had never come across his book? How would my life have developed without that book?? Was there ever a book that was so crucial to my life’s path? So, in a very definite way, if only in hindsight, I would like this essay to be read as a kind of homage to Dr. Moody and the critical role that he and his book have played in my life.

But here’s what I wrote forty years ago, when I was just at the beginning of my own journey into the world of NDEs.

Beginning in May of 1977, I spent thirteen months tracking down and interviewing persons who had come close to death. In some cases, these were persons who appeared to have suffered clinical death where there is no heartbeat or respiration; in most cases, however, the individuals I talked with had “merely” edged toward the brink of death but did not quite slip over.

Since this work was part of a research project, I had trained a staff of interviewers in the necessary procedures so that I -- the busy professor -- would not have to conduct all the interviews myself. After I had talked with a couple of near-death survivors, though, I saw that my life would just have to get busier: this stuff was plainly too fascinating to get it secondhand. I wound up interviewing 74 of the 102 persons who eventually comprised our sample.

Although I had been familiar with near-death experiences for some years, my interest in doing research in the area had been kindled by Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life. I found that, although I didn’t really question the basic paradigm that he described, I was left with a lot of questions after finishing the book. How frequent were these experiences? Did it make any difference how one (almost) died? For example, do suicide attempts that bring one close to death engender the typical near-death experience? What role does prior religiousness play in shaping the experience? Can the changes that allegedly follow from these experiences be documented systematically and quantitatively?

So I wrote a little grant proposal and got some funds in order to answer these questions.

And thereby uncovered a source of spiritual wealth that will always sustain me.

This was not exactly what I had bargained for. But I am happy to "share the wealth" with you. Not that it’s mine or was given to me. Nor does it "belong" to those who survive near-death episodes. It’s just there. It’s simply that talking to these persons helped me to see it.

In this little article, I am not going to bother to summarize the results from this study except to say that our data fully uphold Moody’s findings. Virtually every aspect of the near-death experience he delineated is to be found in our interview protocols. I have no doubt whatever that he has described an authentic phenomenon (though its interpretation is up for grabs).And others, since the publication of Moody’s book, have also corroborated his findings. As far as I'm concerned, then, the basic outline of the core near-death experience, as sketched by Moody (and before him by Kübler-Ross) is now established fact.

What I want to relate to you is something of the experiential residue that has remained with me now that the interviews are finished. I doubt that much of this is going to find its way into the professional publications I shall be writing based on this research or that it will even find explicit expression in a book I am planning on near-death experiences. And yet, in some way, I feel that it represents the essential finding of my research:  that it is "the real message" hidden within the welter of statistics and the seemingly endless interview excerpts which so far make up the bulk of he manuscript I am presently working on.

You don’t forget their faces or their manner during the interview. I talked to one woman who had been close to death perhaps eight or nine times owing to an unusual respiratory problem. Once, when her life was in danger, she saw a ball of light and heard what she took to be the voice of the Lord. The voice said, "You will suffer, but the Kingdom of heaven will be yours." This woman insisted that these were the exact words, nor a paraphrase or "an impression." As with so many other incidents that were disclosed to me, this one seemed fully real. People will deny indignantly that what they experienced was a dream or an hallucination. But what I remember most vividly from this interview is how this women looked. She radiated peace, serenity, acceptance. She knew she didn’t have long to live -- that the next time could be "it." She has had many personal difficulties to contend with in her life. She lives every day as a gift. This was not said as an empty religious platitude. I could see it. She never said so, but it became clear that her friends are deeply inspired by her example. (She herself makes light of it all.) I looked at her face as she continued talking. It seemed lit up -- from the inside.

How do you think I felt when I left her house?

I remember another woman. She had had her near-death experience more than twenty years ago. (Most of those we interviewed had come close to death within the past two years.) Her doctor had botched up a routine tonsillectomy and a cardiac arrest had resulted. According to the information she gave me and from what I could glean from her medical records, it appears that she was clinically dead for nearly three minutes. I’ll relate just a portion of what she told me:

"... the thing I could never -- absolutely never -- forget is that absolute feeling of [struggling for words] peace... joy... or something. Because I remember the feeling. I just remember this absolutely beautiful feeling. Of peace. And happy! Oh, so happy! That’s about the only way I can explain it. And I was above. And there was a presence. It’s the only way I can explain it because I didn’t see anything. But there was a presence, and it may not have been talking to me, but it was like I knew what was going on between our minds. I wanted to go that way [toward the presence]. Something was there. And I had no fear of it. And the peace, the release. The fear was all gone. There was no pain, there was nothing. It was absolutely beautiful! I could never explain it in a million years. It was a feeling that I think everyone dreams of someday having. Reaching a point of ABSOLUTE peace. And ever since then I’ve never been afraid of death."

The woman who told me all this (and much more!) is now in her mid-fifties and had recently suffered a near-fatal heart attack. There was nothing about her manner that suggested she was denying the fear of death that Ernest Becker says each of us carries within us. I wish he could have met this woman! No reaction-formation here! I have seen her socially several times since. She is the same woman. Love of life and of others animates her. Well, maybe she was always like this, but she denies it. She traces this attitude to the time when she was "dead."

Suppose you had interviewed her. Suppose you had interviewed dozens of persons who described to you similar feelings, experiences and aftereffects. What impressions do you think you’d be left with as you drove back to the university?

Another person who made a deep impact on me was a husky-voiced, elegant woman in her late forties. At the time of my interview with her, she lived in a tasteful, well-appointed home in a well-to-do suburb of Hartford. The outward comfort of her life was in sharp contrast, however, to her years of severe physical suffering and psychological torment. Two years before I met her, she had lain, alone and comatose, in her home for three days before she was discovered and brought to a hospital. She had apparently suffered heart failure and lay close to death for a long time.

This extended period during which she hovered between life and death enabled her to have a very deep experience, perhaps the deepest of any I heard recounted. She eventually found herself surrounded buy a radiant light, feeling totally peaceful and ecstatic, reunited with her deceased parents, and in an environment which can only be described as representing a vista of what most people would call heaven. At the height of her joy, however, she felt herself being pulled back by the appeals of her children who stood around her bed, and at this point remembers experiencing an agonizingly painful wrenching sensation, as though, she said, "I were being pulled out of a tremendous vacuum and just being torn to bits."

Before her return to life she remembers thinking:

One very, very strong feeling was that if I could only make them (her doctors and others) understand how comfortable and how painless it is, how natural it is. And the feeling that I had when this was happening was not that I was becoming non-existent, but that I was becoming just another identity, another part of me was being born. I don’t feel that it was an ending of my personality or my being. I just felt it was another beginning of my being.  I felt no sadness. No longing. No fear.

Even when she was feeling the pain of being caught between the worlds, her resolve did not ebb:

I cannot tell you exactly what happened -- whether I heard my daughter or my children speak to me, and when they said, "we need you!" (But) suddenly, the immensity of what I had experienced somehow made me realize that I had to, I have to make people understand. I have to make them realize that death is not a frightening or horrible end. It is not. I know it is not! It’s just an extension or another beginning.

Since the time of this incident, this woman has been attempting to share her experiences with others. She has spoken to journalists, radio reporters, and was even in a documentary film that dealt with the experiences of dying. To live in accordance with what her near-death experience disclosed has become her life’s aim. At the present writing, this woman is undertaking a program to counsel the dying and the sick. She has found her life’s work and she found it through encountering her own death.

She is not the only person I talked with whose experiences have led to a mode of life devoted to helping others deal with their own deaths. Such persons who have had a near-death experience come to engage in this work not simply out of a desire to do something useful or kind, but from an inner conviction that their own experience, by virtue of its having been vouchsafed to them, is meant to be shared so as to provide comfort and reassurance to those who are about to take their own journeys into something that we call death. And there is something about such people I have noticed, some special quality they have that draws you to them. They seem to radiate in life the peace that they felt when they were close to death. And it does something to you.

I could mention many other persons I talked with who have this ability to make a gift of their presence, but I think I’ll relate just one more vignette. Again, it is a woman (I think I should say that I found no sex differences in incidents of near-death experiences and many men gave me deeply affecting accounts of their episodes; it just happens that the memories that come first to mind in connection with this article all involve women), but this time it is a woman who had no conscious, Moody-type experience. In fact, though she never read Moody’s books, what she had heard about such purported experiences had left her feeling skeptical in the extreme.

I had driven a long way through a dreary rain to get to her home and when I rang the doorbell, there was no response. I was about to ring again when the door finally opened. A middle-aged woman, her face showing the pain which still affected her body, silently invited me inside. I understood immediately on seeing her that she could only move slowly and with difficulty. That explained the long delay on her doorstep. She lived alone.  Her husband has died some years before. Her daughters, whose photographs were displayed on the living room wall, lived in nearby towns. I noticed that her daughters were strikingly beautiful. Her house was small, but tastefully furnished. Charming knickknacks and lovely flower filled-vases gave the living room a homey and cozy quality.

She sank heavily into a chair. Speaking slowly and with a German accent, she told me that a year and a half earlier, she had been severely injured in an automobile accident of which she remembers nothing. They didn’t think she would live. She showed me photographs taken at the time; they were not pretty. She spoke matter-of-factly, without any sense of self-pity. She was still recovering and she was still suffering physically, but somehow she exuded a quality of repose and serene pensiveness.  She began to reflect on what her experiences had taught her:

In my opinion, there are two things in life which keep a person going, or, I should say, which are important. To me, they are the most important things. And that is love and knowledge. And what I experienced when I was in intensive care, not only once but several times, when I went out of my consciousness, was the closeness of another human being, the love I was treated with from everybody including the doctors and including the nurses and most of all, my family, my children. And I think a lot of people who are very religious or so will say they more or less experienced God, whatever God I believe in, right? And love was one of the things I felt (when) I was close to them. I got more of it than others. And I could give more of it, too. I felt very much loved and I felt that I loved everybody. I did not only tell one time that I loved my doctor and I still feel that way because they [she paused], they gave me life back again. I think that this is worthwhile, to love somebody, because life is the most precious thing. And I think you don’t realize that before you actually almost die. (And) the more knowledge you have the better you will understand whenever anything happens to you. You will understand why certain things have to be this way and why.

For example, a friend who was on a dying list, too, but he never believed in doctors, in nurses or anything like that. And he is still ill, and this is over a year now and he’s still ill, very ill. Because he did not trust in the people, that they can help. And [she paused again] I think that’s very important that you know that certain people love you and not only certain people, but most people love other people... There may be some people, and one hears about it, that they live in hatred, but I think they don’t have the knowledge that it is so important to love and to understand what life is all about because I think that’s the main thing... that’s what it is all about. 

I asked her if she had felt that way before her accident:

I did, but I did not feel as strong as I do now. The accident, as bad as it was and as much as I suffered and as much as I will probably never be exactly the same as I was before, but mentally I think I grew. I grew a lot. I learned the value of life more than I did before and I actually gained by this experience. It’s very important to me. That itself makes life worthwhile for me to go on and do whatever is in store for me, you know, and live to the full extent.

She grew quiet then, for even talking was an effort, and I noticed the timeless stillness that had come upon us. The illumination in the room was dim, and but woman’s face was again aglow with that inward light of peace and love that I had seen before in other near-death survivors. Everything in that room seemed hushed and still and suffused in beauty. Those of you who meditate or who have taken psychedelic trips will understand... and will understand how much words fail here. Everything -- all meaning, all mystery, all holiness -- was present in the specificity and precision and timelessness of that moment.

With a sense of wrong-doing, I finally broke the spell by asking another question. The interview continued. At the end I tried to express my thanks to her, but lamely. She thought I was thanking her for the interview.

Afterward, still feeling immensely moved, I felt that I wanted to send her something that would better express my gratitude to her. Since she had mentioned that she enjoyed listening to music, I chose a recording of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. The third movement of this quartet is sub-titled, Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit (Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Creator from a convalescent), and in view of her accident and ancestry, it seemed fitting. This quartet also had a special personal meaning for me since I had listened to it over and over at one point in my life when I had feared (mistakenly, as it turned out) that I might be seriously ill. I thought in listening to it, she would understand.

She replied by sending me a printed card of thanks with her signature. No more. Sometime later I wrote to her in order to see whether she might be interested in appearing in a documentary film on near-death experiences, but my inquiry went unanswered. I was somehow reluctant to call her. But I have never forgotten her or what she looked like when she spoke the words I quoted to you and what happened when she had finished speaking them.

I had begun this work during a time of sorrow and inward emptiness in my life. I remember feeling spiritually adrift, as if I had somehow lost my way. Suddenly, I found that I simply did not know what to do. Concealing my barrenness and distress, I took myself that summer to a nearby convalescent home and offered my services as "a volunteer." I was secretly hoping that some old wise person, contemplating his own imminent death, would somehow give me a clue as to what I was supposed to do. Mainly, I played cards with people in desperate physical straits and saw suffering all around. And our conversations were mostly about how well someone had played a hand of bridge or when the refreshments would be brought in. Philosophical ruminations on life were not in vogue.

It was while I was vainly seeking "the answer" at the convalescent home that I happened to read Moody’s book.

During the thirteen months of interviewing near-death survivors, I received my answer. The professor had found his teacher at last. They were ordinary people who described, in a consistent way, an extraordinary patterning of experiences which occurs at the point of death. The effect of personally seeing this pattern gradually reveal itself over the course of these interviews is something I shall probably never adequately be able to convey. But this effect, combined with that quality of luminous serenity which many near-death survivors manifest, made me feel that I myself was undergoing an extended religious awakening.

Quite a few of my interviewees claimed or believed that during their experiences they encountered God directly or sensed His presence intuitively. It was really astonishing how often this was asserted by persons of all sorts of religious persuasions including non-believers. What to make of such statements is, of course, another matter. Professional interpreters can debate the question. As for me, I can only say that I have no doubt I saw Him, too. He left His mark on those I talked to. And they left their mark on me.

Welcome To The Ringdom


By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Greetings, friends, and welcome to the Ringdom. I wish I could promise you that you will find it the realm of magic enchantment, but I'm afraid it is likely to be only a source of occasional entertainment and distraction from our dysphoric Trumpian times. Still, I will do my best to keep you interested enough to linger a while in the Ringdom and hope you will come to enjoy our time together.

Now, as Tonio, the clown in Leoncavallo's I Plagliacci, who introduces the opera by saying (or, rather, singing) that he is the prologue, perhaps I should introduce myself, if in a less dramatic fashion. Some of you may already be familiar with me if you were a part of Raymond Moody's University of Heaven crowd since for some fifteen months or so until December 2019, my essays were posted on that site. Well, I call them essays, but of course no one writes essays any longer, they blog. I have always resisted the use of the term although these days it seems we are stuck with it. I shudder to think of old Montaigne writhing in his grave in posthumous despair over the fate of the form he invented, which had such a long and glorious life in the world of literature. But I suffer enough as it is from being what used to be called an "old fogy" (someone will have to tell me what old farts are called these days; the only suitable term I can think of is in Yiddish -- alter cocker).  I don't want to risk eliciting even more derision by using terms that are clearly demodé (oops, I seem to have done it again).

But as I have apparently drifted into a confessional mode, I had best own up to one of my most besetting flaws.

I am old.

Very old.

Let's not get too specific but if I tell you I was born in the year that Babe Ruth hit his last home run, it will give you some idea. Suffice it to say that if I were a piece of Chippendale furniture, I would be an antique. But since I live in Marin County, perhaps a better sobriquet for myself would be that I am an ancient mariner (bad joke, I know -- I can hear the hoots from here -- but I couldn't resist).

The thing about being old, in case you have never tried it, is that you are on a very short and uncertain leash toward the future, but have a very long tail extending into the distant past. And in my case, where I find myself in the present is really in the epilogue of my life. You see, I have had my life; it is over. This is my afterlife, and it is from my afterlife that I am looking back on my life. When I look into the mirror of my life, all I see is the past. So that's some of what I would like to recall for you here -- who I was before I became a has-been.

Some of you will know that those essays I wrote for Raymond Moody's website were on the theme of "waiting to die." As you will shortly learn, I had spent a good part of my life researching what it is like to die (it's not bad, and is actually much better than you could ever imagine). But what I was writing about in those essays was what it was like for me waiting to die. (It wasn't bad, and was actually much better than you could ever imagine. But the thing is, in the end, I was an abject failure at it; I just didn't seem to have the knack for it.

But I digress. 

I was going to introduce myself to you, wasn't I?

Well, suppose I start by telling you how I first found myself spending a lot of time in the company of the once nearly dead.  I was young then -- in my early forties -- and I was about to have the time of my life. Here's the story:

It all began with two little purple pills. But they weren't Nexium.

They were two LSD capsules, but I didn't know that then.

I had better back up and explain.

In the early 1970s, just after I had turned 35, I was a newly appointed full professor of psychology with tenure at the University of Connecticut. And I was discontented. Not with my personal life, but with the field of social psychology in which I had been trained and hired to teach. I had recently published a critique of experimental social psychology, castigating it for the pursuit of merely clever and flashy research of the "can you top this" variety, which did not make me many friends. In any event, I was suffering from a sort of early career crisis, having become disenchanted with this domain of psychology.

In March of 1971, when my wife and I went off to the Berkshires to celebrate our anniversary, I happened to pick up a book that my wife was then reading -- Carlos Castañeda's first book, The Teachings of Don Juan. It looked intriguing and after she had finished it, I read it.

I was then a typical Jewish professor -- wedded to rational thought, committed to science and atheistic in my worldview. I had no interest in religion and very little knowledge of mysticism. But I was open to new experiences, and what had particularly excited me about Castaneda's book was his discussion of what he called "seeing the crack between the worlds," which he had apparently effected through the use of mescaline.

At the time, I had never considered using psychedelic drugs and my only familiarity with anything close was having smoked marijuana a few times. But since I had never been a smoker, even that was difficult for me, and my experiences with it, though of the usual kind, did not have any particular impact on my life.

Nevertheless, since there was a colleague in my department at the time who I knew was familiar with psychedelics, I approached him to tell him about my interest to take mescaline and why. He had read Castañeda's book and knew what I was after.

I came to the point. Could he provide me with some mescaline? He could.

By then it was early May. The semester was just about over. He told me not to read anything further on the subject and just come to his apartment on the following Saturday.

That day turned out to be a rare beautiful sun-splashed day with everything beginning to bloom. My colleague lived at the edge of a forest. He suggested that I take the mescaline in his apartment, wait just a bit and listen to music and then go outside and into the nearby woods.

And then he gave me two purple pills to ingest.

I did not know my colleague well, and as I was soon to find out, he was not only impish, but embodied the trickster archetype. While he gave me to believe I was taking mescaline, he had actually given me 300 micrograms of LSD.

I will not bore you with an account of the next twelve hours. Suffice it to say that all the pillars of my previous ontological categories soon began to crumble into dust. I had the undeniable feeling I was seeing the world with pristine eyes as it really was for the first time. At the time and afterward I realized that this was the most important and most transformative experience of my life -- and nearly fifty years later, I still feel the same way. Nothing could ever be the same.

The one portion of the experience I will allude to here -- because it eventually led me to the study of near-death experiences -- took place when I was sitting on a log near a stream in the woods. I don't know how long I was there, but at some point for a moment outside of time I -- except there was no "I" any longer -- experienced an inrushing of the most intense and overwhelming rapturous LOVE and knew instantly that this was the real world, that the universe, if I can put this way, was stitched in the fabric of this love, and that I was home. However, again I have to repeat: There was only this energy of love and "I" was an indissoluble part of it, not separate from it.

I spent the next three years trying to come to terms with what had happened to me.

Before this, I had been very active as a young professor -- I had published a fair amount, I had been promoted pretty fast and I was the head of my division of social psychology and served on important departmental committees, etc.

Afterward, I didn't publish anything for three years. During that time, I was engaged in a spiritual search for understanding, and there were consequences.

My wife could no longer relate to who I was and to the kind of company I was keeping, which eventually led to a very painful and traumatic divorce. My departmental colleagues didn't know what to make of me either. A very distinguished clinical psychologist, who had always taken an avuncular interest in me, put his arm around me one day and said, "We're just waiting for you to come back to us, Ken."

I never did.

At that time, there was a graduate student in my department named Bob Hoffman who, I soon discovered, was engaged in a similar quest of his own -- a search for a new identity since mine had effectively been sundered. It was Bob who introduced me to the work of the English Theosophical researcher, Robert Crookall, whose books discussed phenomena that were, as I would only later realize, cognate to what would come to be called near-death experiences. And in 1972, Bob drew my attention to an article by the psychiatrist, Russell Noyes, entitled "The Experience of Dying," which recounted several examples of near-death experiences, though again that term was not yet in use. I remember how much these accounts affected me -- I think in part because I recognized that they were describing revelations similar to those that had come to me during my LSD trip.

Also in that same year, Bob told me about a conference that was to be held up in Amherst, Massachusetts, on something called "transpersonal psychology" of which I had never heard.

"I think we should go to this," said Bob. And since Bob was leading me by the nose in those days, I quickly assented.

It was then that everything started to come together for me. As my LSD experience had been pivotal for me, so this conference would be.

I don't remember all the speakers who gave presentations that day -- I do recall Stan Grof and Joan Halifax, Jim Fadiman, and I think Ram Dass may have there as well, and maybe even Stan Krippner -- but I do remember my feeling of joy at discovering all these eminent professionals had been through something similar to me (only of course in far greater depth and with a level of erudition that was so much beyond my ken -- or Ken -- that they were really intellectual heroes to me) and had built new professional lives for themselves which stemmed from their own psychedelic experiences. And more -- that I was, without having known it, a transpersonal psychologist! I had contemplated leaving the academy and psychology altogether, but now I saw I could remain a psychologist after all. Except I would have to teach a new way, learn a new subject and somehow undertake research in this emerging field of transpersonal psychology.

I returned to the university on fire. I was starting over.

Fortunately, I had a fair degree of freedom to teach at least one course of my own design, so I put together a graduate course on transpersonal psychology and offered it the next academic year. It attracted an unusual assortment of students and even a couple of professors as well as a Catholic priest.

One of the students was a rather hard-bitten and standoffish lesbian. Unlike most the rest of the students, she rarely expressed any emotion in class but was, on the contrary, rather phlegmatic and stolid. During one class, toward the end of that semester, I was reading some accounts of people's experiences of dying from the article by Russell Noyes, and I looked up to find that this student was sobbing uncontrollably. I think that was the first time I realized how powerful these stories could be.

In any event, over the next few years, my involvement and investment in transpersonal psychology continued to grow, which did not please my colleagues, but since I now had tenure and was a full professor, there was little they could do but shrug their cold shoulders at me or look at me somewhat sourly as if I were guilty of having left "real psychology" behind as well as my senses. They were, of course, right about that.

During that period, I made several extended trips out to California, then the epicenter of the nascent transpersonal movement. It was then that I was able to meet and spend time with many of the luminaries of the field, including Tony Sutich, now no longer much remembered, but then venerated as one of the two progenitors of transpersonal psychology (along with Abraham Maslow). I can still vividly remember when Tony, who suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis, was once brought on stage at a transpersonal conference, still lying supine on a gurney of sorts, and placed behind a speaker who was giving a lecture. It was during these years, the middle 70's, that I also met and in most cases was befriended by many others who played significant roles in the development of transpersonal psychology -- Stan Grof, Joan Halifax, Charley Tart, Jim Fadiman, Jean Houston, Stan Krippner, and others too numerous to mention.

And naturally as a result of these contacts and conversations, and my continued study and personal explorations of what Charley Tart had famously labeled "altered states of consciousness," I began to publish some articles in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, speak at conferences, the usual...

I don't have the space here (and you won't have the patience to read it) to continue to provide an account of my "spiritual adventures," so to speak, and related professional pursuits over the next few years that eventually led me to the study of near-death experiences, so let me just fast-forward to the spring of 1976. I was sitting outside my house, just after the spring semester had ended, and was reading a little book that I had come to my attention through a journal review by a new friend of mine. The book had been brought out by a small publisher in Georgia and was entitled Life After Life.

Written by a psychiatrist named Raymond Moody, Jr., it was an anecdotal account of what Moody dubbed "near-death experiences."

By the next year, after it had been picked up by Bantam Books, it was an international bestseller and the term near-death experience had entered the language of ordinary discourse.

I am holding a copy of the book now and I see all the excited marginal notes, exclamation points and underlinings that I made at the time. What I remember thinking was:

"This is it!"

I knew that I wanted to find a way to do research that would help me understand what had happened to me during my LSD trip -- and that my own spiritual explorations weren't sufficient for me. I had always enjoyed doing research and needed to find a way to satisfy that need of mine. I also knew that I was not cut out to be a "druggie," and that for a multitude of reasons psychedelic research was not an option for me. And from reading Moody's book, I could see, with increasing clarity, that his near-death experiencers had indeed encountered the same realm -- and so much more -- that had so shattered me. I could learn from them. They would be my teachers.

You see, I was never interested in death per se, much less with the question of life after death. What animated me and drew me to study near-death experiences was my desire to understand the state of consciousness and the transpersonal domains that I had begun to experience when I took LSD. Even then, of course, I could understand that NDEs were a kind of transpersonal experience in their own right since, according to Moody's account of them, they clearly transcended space, time and ego. Thus, researching NDEs, I immediately saw, could marry my spiritual search with my work as a transpersonal psychologist.

The rest, as the risible cliché goes, is history -- for me the personal history going on two score of years now of studying, researching, thinking and writing about NDEs. There's no need to recapitulate that long sojourn in NDEland here. All I really wanted to express was how an adventitious LSD experience was the critical turning point for me that led, seemingly inevitably, to my life's work as an NDE researcher, which indeed has been the blessing of my life. And for that reason alone, though to be sure not the only one, I will always feel supremely grateful for what I was able to see and understand on a certain day in May in the woods of Connecticut.