The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) merges the psychedelic experience with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s an interesting book that tried to merge Western use of psychedelics (which originate mostly from South America) with Eastern philosophy. As Daniel Pinchbeck states in the introduction, the book can best be seen as a product of the time (the 1960s), not as a complete guide on how to approach the psychedelic experience.
“Created by the prophetic shaman-professors Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), this foundational text serves as a model and a guide for all mind-expanding inquiries. Based on a unique interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Psychedelic Experience remains a vital testament to broadening spiritual consciousness through a combination of Tibetan meditation techniques and psychotropic substances.“
Daniel Pinchbeck (in 2007) has some wise words to give in the introduction: “[the book] is both a historical document and an anthropological curiosity.” The book is an early attempt at a guide, but one in which “… the Harvard psychologists grasped these chemical catalysts as the Answer, rather than approaching them, with skepticism and proper caution, as tools that, potentially containing hidden dangers, required scrupulous care.”
The mismatch between the more Shamanistic origin of psychedelics (mainly psilocybin, mescaline, and ibogaine) from North and South America, and the Eastern philosophy is what strikes Pinchbeck as misguided. It also doesn’t do ‘right’ to the original Tibetan Book of the Dead. “[the book] overlays a simplistic and moralizing psychological perspective on the subtler and more profound exegesis of an ancient spiritual science found in the original text.”
The introduction (by the authors) gives a short explanation of what the psychedelic experience is, “[it’s] a journey to new realms of consciousness.” They state it’s not only psychedelic drugs that allow you to have such an experience. Yoga, sensory deprivation, disciplined meditation, religious activities, or even spontaneous occurrences are also possible.
A drug is only but the key to open the mind, breaking you free from ordinary patterns and structures. Already here they highlight the effect of set and setting (terms that are often attributed to Leary). Throughout the book, there is plenty of mention of ego dissolution and breaking free of your ‘personality’ and ‘games’ that we play (or ‘game reality’).
The book is divided into the three phases of the psychedelic experience:
- Chikhai Bardo – complete transcendence, beyond words and space-time, pure awareness and ecstatic freedom
- Chönyid Bardo – external game reality, clarity, hallucinations
- Sidpa Bardo – return to routine game reality and the self
They state that the second phase is the longest (and is described in most detail in the rest of the book). But for someone who has a bad experience, the (struggle to) return to reality (third phase) may be the longest phase.
One good point of advice that is mentioned repeatedly is to trust the process, or in their words: “Trust your divinity, trust your brain, trust your companions. Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”
After the introduction, the book describes the different phases, gives practical suggestions on how to prepare for and hold a psychedelic experience, and finishes with passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
First Bardo: The Period of Ego-Loss or Non-Game Ecstasy
In modern language, this chapter can be understood to describe ego loss (death) and a lowering of the activity of the Defaul Mode Network (DMN).
The authors describe two different phases of ‘the clear light’.
Second Bardo: The Period of Hallucinations
This part speaks mostly about experiencing the things that happen during a psychedelic experience. It highlights that you should accept what is happening and enjoy the ride.
This chapter then dives deeper into 7 different types of visions, I would argue that this part is the most esoteric. The 7 visions are:
- The Source or Creator Vision
- The Internal Flow of Archetypal Processes
- The Fire-Flow of Internal Unity
- The Wave-Vibration Structure of External Forms
- The Vibratory Waves of External Forms
- The Retinal Circus
- The Magic Theatre
Note: Here (in my opinion) they strife the furthest from making reasonable claims. A direct link is made between the psychedelic experience and physics. They talk about experiencing the vibrations of the universe, your every cell being able to communicate and have ‘intelligence’, and although in a way this is true, it’s very much not so in the anthropomorphized way they describe it.
Third Bardo: The Period of Re-entry
This is the period in which someone returns to reality (the come-down) or ordinary waking life. The chapter describes ways in which difficult experiences in this phase can be avoided, recognized, and alleviated.
Signs of the third Bardo are described as follows:
- the feeling of supernormal perception and performance
- experiences of panic, torture, and persecution
- restless, unhappy wandering
- feeling stupid and full of incoherent thoughts
- a feeling of being dead, cut off from surrounding life, and full of misery
- the feeling of being oppressed or crushed
- grey twilight-like light suffusing everything
The chapter then continues to describe the six levels or personality types to which a person can re-enter, from saints to psychosis.
Judgment visions are also considered a possible part of this period. The authors do make a very good comment about this: “Remember that fear and guilt and persecuting, mocking figures are your own hallucinations.”
This ends the description of the Bardos and the authors advise the reader to go over the text multiple times to really capture it.
The rest of the book consists of more practical and preparatory steps about holding a session, your intention, and advice for dosages.
The final pages are devoted to instructions to give during the different Bardo phases.