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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.