Believing you're in a dream, or dead

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This is an excerpt from my little book, Holiday From the Self, about an ayahuasca retreat I attended in 2017, in the Peruvian Amazon. After the ayahuasca retreat, I headed to the Galapagos. I thought it would be the perfect place to integrate the experience, surrounded by all that nature.

For some reason or other, during that two-day journey to the Galapagos, I became convinced that I was in a dream. It started to kick in when I changed flights in Lima - I felt disorientated by the airport, and by the time I found the right gate, I wondered 'is this real?' I texted my brother, Nessa and Louisa just to check in with them. I didn't get a reply. On the flight from Lima to Guayaquil, I listened to music from my iPhone. I started to wonder if my phone would really play the song I selected. This became a way of reality-testing. If it was a dream, the song would be weird, wouldn't it? Or could my subconscious generate an exact replica of a song? Each wait for the song to begin was agonizing. The songs I knew better seemed more 'real', while the songs I knew less well seemed weird and lyrically incoherent, as if my subconscious was making them up.

We landed at Guayaquil, and waited to get off the plane. And waited. And waited. It seemed endless. Why weren’t the people around me questioning this endless wait? Because they weren't real. I felt like I was in a computer game, and the next level wouldn’t load because the game was stuck in a glitch. The other people didn’t notice or react, because they were dumb non-playable characters in the game. I thought, I'm going to be stuck here forever, stuck between the levels. And then, after an unbearably long time, the plane doors opened and to my intense relief the story moved on. This feeling of dread at being stuck between levels plagued me over the next two days.

I got onto a bus heading for Puerto Ayore. There were no other passengers, just a small bird, hopping from seat to seat. Would the bus move? I had no faith in the predictability of reality anymore. Some other passengers got on and finally the bus started to move. It drove us through a desolate volcanic landscape. We pulled up next to a dock. This must be the ferry. We got out, and put our luggage onto the top of a small motor-boat, then took our seats. The driver and his crew all wore scarves tied over their faces. One of them went round collecting a dollar from each passenger. At this point, I decided I was not in a dream - dreams didn't last two days. No, I was dead, and in some ghastly afterlife. These ghoulish ferry-men were clearly Charon and his crew, taking us across the Styx and into the next place. Why were the other passengers so cheery? Perhaps they hadn't realized we were dead yet. I stared at the water bleakly. This is not how I imagined the afterlife. It was far more boring.

The ferry hopped from Baltra island to Santa Cruz. I hailed one of the waiting taxis, and asked him to take me to Puerto Ayore. We passed a bus stop. Then another. Then another. They seemed to be every hundred metres or so. It got ridiculous, like whoever constructed this alternate reality had no care for verisimilitude. The driver wanted to take me to a hotel of his recommendation, but I asked him to just leave me in the centre of town. It wasn't much of a town, more a single high street, called the Avenue of Charles Darwin, filled with garish tourist shops and tour operators. Each sign seemed to play with my ontological uncertainty. 'Galapagos dream hotel'. 'Galapagos - it's paradise!' I walked past a museum, which had a big sign saying 'Augmented Reality', with a picture of a shrunken head. Maybe this crappy reality had been constructed by one of the retreat shaman, to capture souls like that shrunken head. Maybe I was trapped in their fake reality, forever, like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. It was too dark a thought to consider for long.

I wandered into the first hotel I could find, and sat down on their terrace, overlooking the sea. The sky was grey and heavy, the temperature cold, the whole atmosphere flat and claustrophobic, as if all the energy had been sucked from Puerto Ayore. Nothing would ever happen here, it felt completely dead, its own fake world. I noticed these black creatures dotted around the white of the terrace, about a foot long. Marine iguanas. They either stood completely still like statues, or waddled grotesquely around the terrace. I looked behind me, and there was a grey shape poking out from under a bench. It was a seal, asleep or dead, as if it had given up on Puerto Ayore.  

I sat on the balcony, sucking hungrily on a cigarette, when I heard this awful sound, like someone retching from the bottom of their stomach. I looked over the balcony. A part of the restaurant's terrace had been blocked off, and was occupied by four fat seals, flopped on the sunbeds like tourists. They would occasionally bellow, not like any seal noise I'd heard before, but this awful retching noise, like someone puking on ayahuasca. I asked myself again, was this my subconscious? Was this some ancient level of my soul filled with waddling lizards and puking seals? How the hell do I wake up?

I retreated back to my room, and tried to read a novel on my Kindle, but I couldn't understand it. I turned on the TV to watch a film, and found Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in Spanish. I know this film quite well, but this version seemed to have scenes in it of which I had no memory, weird scenes that didn't make sense. I sighed, turned off the TV, and checked emails and texts again on my phone. Each new email or text from a loved one was like a breath of air to a drowning man - a confirmation of an external reality in which I existed and was known and loved by other people. My brother emailed me some photos of his family and my parents, who were visiting them in Yorkshire. They looked so happy, so normal, so real. Yet they might as well have been on another planet. I felt like the astronaut in Interstellar, watching videos from his daughter back on Earth, feeling a million miles of separation from his loved ones. Is that what it’s like when you’re dead? 

After two nights of this, a friend back in London clocked that I was in a very weird space, and she suggested I come home. So I did, getting three flights home. It was a very weird journey, as you can imagine. I actually upgraded to first class on the flight back to Europe, because I thought I was in a dream. I finally arrived back in London…

I got on a small plane to London City Airport, for the 90-minute flight home. But what would I find there? My friend Louisa had said she'd meet me at the airport. I put the chances of her being there at about 50% - I still thought it was possible I was in a dream, or a coma, or something. But at least I would find out what was happening when I got home. I looked out of the plane window as we started our descent. It looked nothing like London. We landed at a tiny airport, and I walked through to passport control. The man at passport control looked at my passport, looked at me, then looked at my passport again. 'Do you have any other ID?' he asked. I showed him my driver's license. Come on, let me in, let me home. He finally waved me through. I picked up my backpack and walked into the arrivals' lounge. And there was Louisa, smiling and waving at me. I hugged her for a long time. Was she real? Her body felt real. Her hair smelled real. She sounded real. Her smile was the smile I knew and loved. Like the hero of Inception, I decided that, even if I was still dreaming, I was going to go with the dream. It was a comforting dream.

My friends then took care of me back in London for a week or so, during which I still struggled to know for sure if I was in reality. Then, about ten days after I left the ayahuasca retreat, I returned totally to this reality…

What was that experience? What did it mean, and how did it change me? At the neuro-phenomenological level, it could be described as an experience of radical de-automatization. Cognitive scientists like Anil Seth suggest we create our experienced world through habitual automatic expectations and predictions. They’re like the computer code that renders our reality, the model our brain runs each day which fills in the gaps of immediate perception. Usually this process happens so smoothly and seamlessly we don’t notice it.  Psychedelics temporarily dissolve our habitual expectations, making everything seem extraordinary and wonderful (or terrifying). That’s why they can be powerful catalysts of psychological change. They dissolve the habitual, creating a space for something or someone new to emerge. In my case, the de-automatization lasted for days. It led to me thinking I was actually generating the world through my imagination: I was imagining the plane, I was making the plane take off. This is an over-literal interpretation of a genuine insight: our memory-imagination really is fabricating our reality, so in that sense it really is a hallucination, a magic trick. But it’s a collective consensual hallucination. If you start thinking it’s just your illusion, and everyone and everything is your creation, you can go mad. It’s lonely, being the Creator of the Universe.

At the emotional level, I was perhaps experiencing the return of trauma, dissociation and de-personalisation from my bad trips of 20 years before. A classic aspect of dissociation is the feeling of unreality, the sense of being in a dream. This time, however, I was able to play the level differently. I was able to ask for help and trust in my friends, which is exactly what I hadn’t done the first time around. This time, I had the spiritual tools to navigate the temporary psychotic experience. The founder of the retreat centre I went to, Matthew Watherston, later suggested to me the initial trauma in my adolescence was a moment of what indigenous shamans call susto – soul-fright or soul-fragmentation following a trauma. And this experience was an experience of soul-recovery, albeit a rather messy recovery.

At the spiritual level, the most intense feeling I had was that this reality is a dream. That passed after a few days, but it has stayed with me to some extent. I became drawn to the idea, in Hinduism and Buddhism, that our ego-centred construction of reality is Maya, an illusion, a dream, a magician’s trick. This egocentric reality is so habitual, so ingrained, that it’s hard to see through it, and when we do, it can feel like psychosis. The British psychiatrist RD Laing writes in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise:

Most people most of the time experience themselves and others in one or another way that I shall call egoic. That is, centrally or peripherally, they experience the world and themselves in terms of a consistent identity, a me-here over against a you-there, within a framework of certain ground structures of space and time shared with other members of their society….In fact all religious and existential philosophies have agreed that such egoic experiences is a preliminary illusion, a veil, a film of maya  - a dream to Heraclitus, and to Lao Tzu, the fundamental illusion of all Buddhism, a state of sleep, of death, of socially accepted madness, a womb state to which one has to die, from which one has to be born.

I suspect we are not the bounded, separate egos we think we are. Sometimes, when the walls of our ego thin, we get glimpses of a deeper reality where our heart-minds are intertwined. ‘We are one’ is a hippy cliché, but I think it may be true in a literal, potentially terrifying way. By the by, two friends had dreams about me the week after I returned Peru. A psychologist friend called Oliver, who had recommended ayahuasca to me, showed me an entry in his dream journal from those days. It said: ‘I dreamt that Jules Evans was having some sort of psychotic experience, and his mother blamed me.’ Another friend, Onie, who I’d only met once, texted my friend Louisa while I was staying with her in the week after the retreat. ‘Hello darling Lou... I had the strangest dream about you and Jules last night... and personality fragmentation (is that even a thing?!!) Woke up to storm lashing at my window and thought I should text.’

I subsequently started researching ‘spiritual emergencies’ and noticed similarities in them. Other people had also gone through ego-dissolution experiences where they thought they were in a dream or in some afterlife bardo. I’m co-editing a book on spiritual emergencies called Breaking Open, which is coming out in Spring 2020. The term ‘spiritual emergency’ was introduced by Stanislaf and Christina Grof to mean a moment of awakening and ego-shift which is both ecstatic and very disturbing. It’s a sort of messy, dark night mystical experience, of the sort that occurred to Carl Jung and many others in the history of mysticism.

I have been struck by the similarity of people’s spiritual emergencies. It turns out my unusual experience of thinking I was either dead or in a dream is not that unusual. As RD Laing puts it: ‘Loss of ego may be confused with physical death.’

Sometimes people on psychedelics think they are on the brink of some kind of apocalypse during which the world will end. Monika, on the mat next to me at the Temple, screamed when she encountered entities who told her they were taking her away to the fifth dimension, and everyone left on Earth would die. Sometimes people feel they go through several lives and deaths over the course of one trip. The author Tim Ferriss says of his first ayahuasca trip: ‘I felt like I was being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours’. Jerry Garcia, front-man for the Grateful Dead, said: ‘I had one [trip] where I thought I died multiple times. It got into this thing of death, kind of the last scene, the last scene of hundreds of lives and thousands of incarnations and insect deaths and these, like, kinds of life where I remember spending some long bout, like eons, as kind of sentient fields of wheat.’  

People in non-psychedelic spiritual emergencies also often think they’re dead. One of the contributors to Breaking Open is Stephen Fitzgerald. He woke up the morning after a Sufi initiation and – like me – thought he was dead and in some artificial reality that he was generating:

Things seemed exactly as they had when I’d fallen asleep. Beside me was the small bedside table and lamp, the glass of water and opposite me, the wardrobe. Then came the initial realisation. The wrongness isn’t in the details, it’s in everything because I am dead, I have died, this world is the same, but I am different…I found myself suspended over a precipice of ontological queasiness and fear…A moment later, another pulse of lucidity and the second realisation. It is my mind that holds the world in place...I must reach out and tell someone. Who can I tell? My teacher. I must tell him. Immediately. But I can’t tell him because he doesn’t exist. My mind is generating everything I see around me ergo there are no others, not him, not anyone, no-one. An abyss of cosmic loneliness was disclosed to me.

Another contributor to the book, Anthony Fidler, describes a spiritual emergency he experienced during a meditation retreat in Thailand. He also thought he was dead and in a bardo (the Tibetan Buddhist word for the afterlife):

Totally at a loss, sometime during the night, I went to find the course helper, a Buddhist man from Canada. He was very patient with me, responding sincerely to my question on how to know whether I was alive or not. He said, as a Buddhist this is a very good question. We went out to a pagoda to talk, and I related how I had nearly committed suicide over a live rail line two years before, and now didn’t know whether I had continued with my life or died and ended up in some bardo after-death state. I told him, I didn’t know whether there was an actual world outside of the centre and so he encouraged me to break the rule and step outside the barriers, which I did.

Later, Anthony, like me, wondered if he was in some sort of hell or limbo realm. On a ferry, he also had the sense he was on a ghost ship or ferry of the dead.

Here is an account by RD Laing of a patient of his, an old sailor who abruptly shifts into a numinous / psychotic space of mind. He is locked up in a hospital:

I remember that night it was an appalling sort of experience because I had the – had the feeling that – um – that I was then – that I had died. And I felt that other people were in beds around me, and I thought they were all other people that had died – and they were there – just waiting to pass on to the next department…I had a feeling at times of an enormous journey…I had come to the conclusion, with all the feelings I had at the time, that I was more – more than I had always imagined myself, not just existing now, but I had existed since the very beginning – er – in a kind of – from the lowest form of life to the present time….ahead of me was lying the most horrific journey to – um – the final sort of business of – um – being aware of it all.

John Weir Perry, who ran the Diabasis recovery centre for people going through spiritual / psychotic experiences, writes (in the Grofs’ 1980 volume Spiritual Emergency:

Whenever a profound experience of change is about to take place, its harbinger is the motif of death….In severe visionary states, one may feel one has crossed over into the realm of death and is living among the spirits of the deceased…The cataclysm of this kind of crisis of spiritual processes reminds me of the Biblical warning, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’. For during this period of time between the initial visions of death and world destruction and their resolution in renewal, one is apt to be in the grip of fear and dismayed to find oneself isolated since communication of one’s experiences is not often empathetically received.

This in-between place has something in common with the place known as ‘arising-and-passing’ in Theravada Buddhism, which in turn has something in common with the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ of Christian mysticism. Jack Kornfield, the Theravada Buddhist teacher, writes of the stage of arising-and-passing:

We actually see and feel the entire world begin to dissolve in front of us. Whenever we focus, our wold of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching starts to dissolve. We look at someone, we see them arise, we see them pass away…For most of us, with this dissolution comes spontaneously a great sense of unease and fear, even an experience of terror…At this point, there can also arise very powerful visions. These sometimes involve visions of one’s own death, or the death of other people, wars, dying armies, or charnel grounds. Sometimes we look down and pieces of our body start to melt away and decay as if we were a corpse.

Compare that to this description from Deborah Martin, another contributor to Breaking Open, of her mental state after taking MDMA at a club: 

The morning after the club, I woke to a world that looked entirely different. Everything in the room — the clothes, the walls, the chest of drawers — seemed strangely insubstantial, as if woven from air, as if I could huff and puff like the wolf in the storybook and blow it all down. It didn’t go away, although I willed it to…Otherness — the otherness of objects, the otherness of people — was just an illusion (or at least, that’s how it seemed). Yet I wanted those illusions back, as I suddenly understood their necessity…. [I was tortured by the fear] that this perceptual shift was somehow going to result in the entire world disappearing in front of my eyes, as if, now that I’d seen how flimsy the fabric of reality was, it could suddenly be pulled away like a stage curtain to reveal nothing but a void.

External reality can seem somehow fake, plastic, fabricated, uncanny, as it did to me in the Galapagos. This is Timothy Leary’s description of his first LSD trip:

All forms, all structures, all organisms, all events, were illusory, television productions pulsing out from the central eye. Everything that I had ever experienced and read about was bubble — dancing before me like a nineteenth century vaudeville show…

There’s a deep sense of ontological uncertainty in this sort of experience.  They’re often called ‘ego-death’, but they’re not exactly. Some sense of the ‘I’ may still be there, but reality feels so altered that the mind thinks, ‘I must either be in a dream, or dead’, then it struggles like Descartes to check its theory. But our ability to check reality is quite diminished in altered states of consciousness.

In my book, I then discuss how we can navigate these ego-dissolution experiences, using practices like mindfulness of breath and thought, connecting to other beings in love, and re-connecting to our senses and to material reality. These basic techniques work both in ordinary life, and in the sort of highly altered states described above. The fact they work even in highly altered states gives me confidence that these practices work both in this life and in the bardo or afterlife states our minds may find ourselves in, just as the Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests. But that’s enough for one article.

Do get in touch if you’ve had a similar experience – I’m continuing to research spiritual emergencies. You can find out more about them, and how to support yourself or others going through them, here.

You can buy my book Holiday From The Self here.

Jules EvansComment