March 16, 2020
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.