In the spring of 2019, approximately two weeks after I started a daily prayer rule upon taking my first steps as a Christian, I took psychedelic mushrooms, something that I would not dare do today. Nonetheless, it happened, and I’d like to offer commentary on the out-of-body experience I had through the eyes of my growing Orthodox understanding.
Here’s a recounting of the event that happened while I was under the influence of the mushrooms:
I turned to lay on the right side of my body, almost in a fetal position, and closed my eyes once more. The geometric patterns were gone, my vision all black. My breathing became labored once again. My chest felt like it was being wrung out from the center. I tried to be careful with my breaths to make sure I received enough air.
The sound of my breaths was still loud, but now they were becoming spaced further and further apart. Don’t be afraid, I said to myself. Then the sound of the air entering my lungs went silent. I was no longer breathing. I could not perceive myself as breathing. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. Then I tried to wave my hands in front of my face, but nothing happened. I was no longer in my body. Then whoosh—I felt a great movement at amazing speed as if I was transported somewhere else.
I was placed in a great void. My breath was gone, my body was gone. I couldn’t hear Albert [my friend] or any sounds of the forest. And yet I was not afraid or worried. There was no concern for what happened to my body or if I would ever possess it again. There was no lamentation that I could not continue experiencing the world as I have for my previous 39 years of existence. In this great void, with no sign of stars or other physical matter, or even the perception of space or time, I felt complete serenity and peace with myself.
Then a large dome with a gray outline came into view. The bottom of the dome was flat. In the center of the flat bottom was a white light. I stared at the light and a warm feeling overcame me. The word “home” entered my mind. That [could be] the home of my soul, where I came from and where I will go back to, where I will rest for all eternal. I desired to be with the light, to float towards it, but then my eyes opened.
I was back in the forest, curled up on the ground. I took a deep breath and stood up. I wanted to talk to Albert but I had no voice.
What happened to my body? What did I see? Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory has offered the most likely answers to these questions in his important book The Soul After Death:
[A near-death experience] is not precisely an “after-death” experience; it is rather the “out-of-body” experience which is only the antechamber to other much more extensive experiences, whether of death itself or of what is sometimes called “astral travelling”… Although the “out-of-body” state might be called the “first moment” of death—if death actually follows—it is a gross mistake to conclude from it anything whatever about the “after-death” state, unless it be the bare facts of the survival and consciousness of the soul after death, which hardly anyone who actually believes in the soul’s immortality denies in any case.
The beings contacted in this realm are always (or almost always) demons, whether they are invoked by mediumism or other occult practices, or encountered in “out-of-body” experiences. They are not angels, for these dwell in heaven and only pass through this realm as messengers of God. They are not the souls of the dead, for they dwell in heaven or hell and only pass through this realm immediately after death on their way to judgment for their actions in this life. Even those most adept in “out-of-body” experiences cannot remain in this realm for long without danger of permanent separation from the body (death), and even in occult literature such adepts are rarely described as meeting each other.
From Father Seraphim’s teachings, my understanding of death and the toll houses as taught by the Church Fathers, and my own contemplation of the experience, I’d like to pose three inferences about what happened.
First, I believe that my soul did leave the body for a period of time and enter the aerial realm (the antechamber to heaven or hell). In Church teachings highlighted by Father Seraphim, this is the realm where angels come to take your soul upon bodily death in an attempted ascent to heaven, but if you have failed to please God in your life, your ascent will fail and demons will pull you down to hell. Father Seraphim explains:
The realm into which the soul immediately enters when it leaves the body and begins to lose contact with what we know as “material reality” (whether after death or in a simple “out-of-body” experience) is neither heaven nor hell, but an invisible realm close to earth which is variously called the “After-death” or “Bardo plane” (Tibetan Book of the Dead), the “world of spirits” (Swedenborg and spiritism), the “astral plane” (Theosophy and most of occultism), “Locale II” (Monroe)—or, in Orthodox language, the aerial world of the under-heaven where fallen spirits dwell and are active in deceiving men for their damnation. This is not the “other world” that awaits man after death, but only the invisible part of this world that man must pass through to reach the truly “other” world of heaven or hell. For those who have truly died, and are being conducted by angels out of earthly life, this is the realm where the Particular Judgment begins at the aerial “toll-houses,” where the spirits of the air reveal their real nature and their hostility towards mankind; for all others, it is a realm of demonic deception at the hands of these same spirits.
If my soul really did leave the body, and this experience is similar to actual physical death, the best analogy I can give to dying is trying to squeeze a marble through a thin straw. Initially, there was the feeling that I was losing gradual awareness and control over my body, including a cessation of sensory feedback, including pain, then a tightness and squeezing in the center of my body as I was being pushed through the “straw,” and then a feeling of traveling at rapid speed into another realm, like being blasted off into space. It’s disconcerting and strange but not painful or frightening. I never lost consciousness or awareness of what was happening, which we would expect because the soul is eternally awake, and the time it took to “die” (the progressive shutdown of my body), was short enough that there wasn’t an opportunity for fear, just confusion as to what was happening. It is possible that real death is a completely different experience, but from my reading of after-death experiences, it seems to be somewhat similar.
Second, once outside of the body, my soul enjoyed a feeling of joy and peacefulness since it was unencumbered by sins of the fallen flesh, which was especially true for me since at that time I was riddled with a lifetime of mortal sins that were not yet cleansed through the sacraments of the Church. Father Seraphim shares that once outside of the body, you will experience less of your fallen nature.
Our physical bodies in this fallen world are bodies of pain, corruption, and death. When separated from this body, the soul is immediately in a state more “natural” to it, closer to the state God intends for it; for the resurrected “spiritual body” in which man will dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven has more in common with the soul than with the body we know on earth.
Most out-of-body stories of near-death experiences are positive because they describe the soul freely floating in the aerial realm (before any type of judgment takes place). Unless we have lived the lives of saints, our fallen bodies are opposed to the desires of the soul, so coming out of that body feels like taking off tight clothes. Even if you’re on your way to hell, for the time before the demons come to take you, you will feel free and joyful at the shedding of your flesh. If you’ve lived a holy life in the body then being out of the body may not offer a stark increase in the joy you perceive, since your body was already subverted to your soul’s desire to be in communion with God.
Third, I believe the vision I had with a dome containing a white light was either a projection of my preexisting belief of the afterlife or a deception by the demons to trick me into believing pantheistic notions. According to Father Seraphim, afterlife experiences are usually deceptions.
…most, perhaps indeed all, of [near-death] experiences have little in common with the Christian vision of heaven. These visions are not spiritual, but worldly. They are so quick, so easily attained, so common, so earthly in their imagery, that there can be no serious comparison of them with the true Christian visions of heaven in the past… Even the most “spiritual” thing about some of them—the feeling of the “presence” of Christ—persuades one more of the spiritual immaturity of those who experience it than of anything else. Rather than producing the profound awe, fear of God, and repentance which the authentic experience of God’s presence has evoked in Christians saints (of which St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus may be taken as a model—Acts 9:3-9), the present-day experiences produce something much more akin to the “comfort” and “peace” of the modern spiritistic and Pentecostal movements.
…we must clearly distinguish between genuine, grace-given visions of the other world, and a merely natural experience which, even though it may be outside the normal limits of human experience, is not in the least spiritual and tells us nothing about the actual reality of either the heaven or the hell of authentic Christian teaching.
My initial interpretation was that it was a vision from God, because I so strongly craved God at that time, but I no longer believe this interpretation to be absolutely the case because of my then gross impurity and the vague nature of the vision. Visions given by God as described by Orthodox elders are usually quite descriptive and vivid, not vague and open to multiple interpretations as if it were a palm reading. For many years before this experience, I had been closely following Zen and Buddhist ideas of the afterlife that detailed the “collective unconscious” and going back to the “source,” so when I saw the dome, I thought it was the source of all creation, somewhat matching Eastern teachings, but I was so zealous for the real God at the time that I eventually interpreted the vision as being from a personal God. The most neutral possible interpretation is that the dome was something like space junk in the aerial realm.
When someone begins a life of repentance, they can be given a heavy dose of zeal and often grace. It was while in a state of zealousness that I took the drug and saw the vision, and so I believe that this state blocked me from interpreting it in a way that would steer me away from God. I say this because the psychedelic experience did not veer me off the path to getting baptized into the Orthodox Church two years later. I hesitate to say it helped me, but it did allow me to more quickly come to believe in a concrete spiritual reality, in which I had a weak belief at the time. Unfortunately for the vast majority of people, psychedelic experiences more often create mistaken notions of a spiritual reality and pull them away from God into beliefs closely aligned with deism, pantheism, or Buddhism, with the associated universalist belief that “everyone goes to heaven” or “everyone will be in peace after death.” If this deception is not corrected, a person’s soul is likely to be damned upon death.
From Father Seraphim:
It may be asked: What of the feelings of ‘peace’ and ‘pleasantness’ which seem to be almost universal in the ‘out-of-body’ state. What of the vision of ‘light’ which so many see? Are these only deceptions also?
In a sense, it may be, these experiences are ‘natural’ to the soul when separated from the body. Our physical bodies in this fallen world are bodies of pain, corruption, and death. When separated from this body, the soul is immediately in a state more ‘natural’ to it, closer to the state God intends for it; for the resurrected ‘spiritual body’ in which man will dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven has more in common with the soul than with the body we know on earth…. In this sense, the ‘peace’ and ‘pleasantness’ of the out-of-body experience may be considered real and not a deception. Deception enters in, however, the instant one begins to interpret these ‘natural’ feelings as something ‘spiritual’—as though this peace were the true peace of reconciliation with God, and the ‘pleasantness’ were the true spiritual pleasure of heaven. This is, in fact, how many people interpret their ‘out-of-body’ and ‘after-death’ experiences, because of their lack of true spiritual experience and awareness.”
I see my psychedelic experience as a form of chemically-induced pseudo-grace. I used a chemical and happened to luck out that I didn’t have more of a standard experience that would keep me turned away from the Lord God. I attribute this entirely to the fact that I was in a new state of bountiful and genuine zeal at the time and God was closely watching over his idiotic servant. Since then, I’ve had potent spiritual experiences within the Orthodox Church, without using any type of drug, so it was wholly unnecessary to get blasted off into the aerial realm by using a poison for what amounted to a fireworks show for a man who denied fireworks for much of his life. In fact, I have had spiritual experiences in the body where the joy I felt exceeded the joy felt while out of the body induced by my experience of chemical intoxication, negating any temptation to try a psychedelic drug again.
In conclusion, I got lucky, and cannot claim that I saw God or the source of all creation. I did experience something I suspect is close to bodily death, but the vision that followed was likely a demonic attempt to put me back into agnostic or gnostic notions of reality. Thankfully, my hunger for God was so great that I was able to get on the normal path of developing spiritual life as prescribed by Lord Jesus Christ and the Church He created for us, and two years after the experience I was received into that Church. If I hadn’t typed out a record of what happened, I would hardly remember it, signifying how unimportant it was in my path to the Orthodox Church and developing faith in Lord Jesus Christ. Visions under chemical intoxication will not at all compare to what God can give you when He deems you ready.
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