Death, being a subject that one can really only speculate on at best, is considered to be one of the great mysteries of life. It is the end for every existing creature on this planet, and neither king nor beggar is spared from its clutches.
I decided to talk to two people who I considered to be among the most intelligent living philosophers around at the time to see what their individual perspectives were on the subject. I put together a list of questions and conducted each of these interviews separately. The answers were quite interesting, to say the least.
Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the legendary Illuminatus! Trilogy , has written extensively on everything from parallel dimensions and their relation to quantum physics (Schrodingers Cat Trilogy), the use of psychedelics during love making to perpetuate mystical experiences (Sex and Drugs); the dogmatic and sometimes religious restrictions of the scientific community (The New Inquisition); and, of course, numerous volumes on a certain secret society that may or may not be pulling the strings in the great puppet show of history. From U.F.O.s to psychology to politics, Wilson seems to have covered it all. If you havent read any of his books, get over to your local bookstore and pick some of them up. They are mind fuck literature at its finest.
Doctor Timothy Leary, famous for being the man who told the world to Turn on, tune in, and drop out during the sixties by experimenting with various consciousness expanding chemicals, was still extremely active in the area of rapid brain change and altered states of awareness when this interview was conducted. His attention was focused more on the digital revolution rather than on drugs, and the amazing amounts of potential that await each of us in the years to come as technology enables us to better create, form and manipulate our own realities. He had not changed his view on psychedelics, which he still saw as an invaluable tool for personal enlightenment, but he wasnt living in the past. He was consistently looking forward and embracing the changes within the world with an optimistic perspective, seeing innovations in the last few years of his life such as the world wide web as great stepping stones for the human race. His classic books The Politics of Ecstasy and The Psychedelic Experience, along with his fascinating biography Flashbacks, all the way up to his video work with digital artists Retinalogic (How To Operate Your Brain) provide us with a body of work so vast and brilliant that it was no surprise that he had gained the esteem of so many generations of artists, writers, and thinkers.
I met Robert Anton Wilson back in 1992 when I was working on a project that was going to be a large multimedia event in Prague in what was then the newly formed Czech Republic. The project fell through, but Mr. Wilson was gracious enough to grant this interview to me a few years later. Mr. Wilson has had his share of experience with death in the last decade, tragically losing his longtime friend and writing partner Robert Shea as well as his wife of many years, Arlen, in the years after this interview took place. It makes one really reflect on his answers to this little query and how they may relate to those events.
I was lucky enough to work with Tim Leary during the last few years of his life and was present at his home when he shuffled off this mortal coil. About two months after this interview was published, he was diagnosed with terminal prostrate cancer. When he announced the findings to us, he told me he was secretly relieved. In this interview you will see that Tim felt that he had lived a full and happy life and was ready to experience first hand what would or would not come next, even suggesting an assisted suicide if the cancer had not hit him. This shocked me at the time, since I was his friend, but I couldnt help but to admire how Tim dealt with his own death. Not once did I ever see him act afraid or feel like he was a victim of a terrible tragedy. He was always optimistic that he would be experiencing something wonderful. To read more about it, check out his book A Design For Dying, which chronicles in more detail what his views were on the subject of his own mortality.
Anyway, here is the interview, one that I am very proud of and consider to be the best thing I ever did for Ben Is Dead.
HH: The only thing we are fairly certain of is that death is a change. Do you think it is a change into Nothingness or a change into something else?
TIMOTHY LEARY: Nothingness or something else? (laughs) I think the way you approach and navigate your own death or de-animation is the most important thing you have to do in life. Im delighted that this issue is becoming public. Its of interest to me because Im 73; and living in the 20th century as I have, I suddenly find myself, in my senility, right on the frontier of whats become a new public issue involving individual choice as opposed to state and religious control. One of my students at Harvard, Ralph Von Ekarthburg, died about six months ago. He wrote essays about dying which moved me deeply. One of the points he was making, and I certainly agree with it, is that immortality is, in a sense, leaving some living aspects of yourself that are replicated from generation to generation. For example, the funeral is a time when people come to re-animate the corpse
in the extent that: See here I am talking about this person now
He lives and is being recorded into this electrical appliance. Ralph Von Ekarthburg made that obvious point. Thats not Nothingness. Thats something else.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON: Well, my answer to that is like what a Zen Master I heard about from Wavy Gravy once said. Somebody asked the Zen Master, What happens after death? He said, I dont know. And they said, But youre a Zen Master! He said Yes, but Im not a dead Zen Master! Confucious has a similar remark in which he says, First we should try to understand the living before we try to understand the dead. Im working on trying to understand the living.
HH: Do you feel that other cultures prepare their societies for death better than Western cultures do? That certain cultures such as the Tibetans or Egyptians, for example, promote a more positive outlook on death by bringing it out into the open more and not establishing such a fear of the unknown?
RAW: I distrust cross-cultural comparisons. I think every culture has certain virtues and certain defects. Our culture is not unanimous. We have what historian Crane Brinton called Multanimity. We have evolved into this from the time the Papacy started breaking down when Luther hung his 95 Theses on the door of the church. From that point on Western civilization has been breaking more and more into Multanimity rather than Unanimity. We have lots of people who are Humanists, Secularists, etc. We have a lot of people who are still loyal Catholics, 150 different kinds of Protestants and weve got an increasing Buddhist population in this country. There are more Buddhists than Jews! This rather surprised me. Everybody says Catholic-Protestant-Jew are the three major religions, but its not true anymore. Catholic-Protestant-Buddhist are the top three, and Agnostic is coming in fourth place. Im delighted that I got into 4th place! The Jews are 5th. With this kind of Multanimity, I dont see what you can say about our attitudes towards death. Define our. The Salvation Army refers to death as promotion to glory, and I think thats the basic Western attitude, except of course for those that are afraid of Hell
and the tiny minority who feel we enter oblivion, and the Buddhist minority who feel we enter joyous oblivion.
TL: I think other cultures prepare their societies for death better than Western culture does. Its because monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of control, domination and totalitarianism. So naturally they are going to train us to think that if someone is severely injured, you call the ambulance, and if the person is Catholic, you call the priest. They come like black vultures circling around the corpse. To make sure that the Catholic church controls the conception, they control choice
and they fanatically control dying
Prolonged death. Sacrament.
HH: In what way do you feel that death is related to enlightenment?
TL: I have written about this for 25 years. Its cliché to repeat the ancient perception that people who have a near death experience report that their life flashed through their consciousness as they came close to this bright light
they entered the tunnel and sensed not a tragedy, but a sense of triumph. This is interesting because these are people who would interpret neurologically the body sending signals to the brain saying Hey, were turning off here! Were dying! At that moment, like a computer, your dying program clicks up. At that moment youre out of your mind. Youre out of your body , and your brain is delighted! Because your bodys been such a drag all these years
shitting and feeding and all that. What that means is just as people say during a psychedelic experience, you relive billions of years of evolution, with mystic experience its the same thing. It seems obvious that many people, when their bodies are signaling their brains to fall over, have a full blown classic mystical experience. You have a hundred billion neurons saying VROOM! Suddenly youve got all this stuff going on in your brain that would confuse you if you had to drive cars or get toilet paper to wipe your ass. Thats one of the obvious things about any experience that knocks out the mind and the word processing system to get Timelessness. The Tibetan Book of The Dead was the first insight I had into this, which we re-did in 1964-1965. This book tells you the stages of de-animation.
RAW: There is some kind of similarity. I think every kind of extreme expanded consciousness, or degrees of expanded consciousness, partakes a lot of what people who have had near death experiences describe. The film Fearless (with Jeff Bridges) is a fascinating study of someone who has been through a near death experience. It leaves Jeff Bridges character in a state that is very similar to that of advanced mystics, only not quite, because he wasnt in the mystical context of a lot of training. So hes got his own weird slant on it, which is what happens to a lot of people who get shoved into those altered states unexpectedly and have to figure out for themselves what it means. I think being threatened by death is a really horrible learning experience. Dr. Johnson said that
Being sentenced to death centers your mind like no other experience.
HH: Do you feel there is a relation between death and orgasm?
RAW: Obviously. The Elizabethans Shakespeare, John Donne a lot of them use death as a metaphor for orgasm. Orgasm was called Little Death. Yes, there really is a similarity between near death experiences, orgasm and drugs like LSD. They all knock out your usual ego into non-ego states of awareness.
TL: What do you mean by orgasm? If youre talking about the climax of sexual experience, then the orgasm is a brief period of convulsive mindlessness which causes great pleasure. There are many kinds of orgasms. Basically its a neurological state which can knock your mind out. Youre out of your mind with sexual pleasure. The plumbing involved with orgasm is a wonderful thing. The great thing about the orgasm is that (ideally) it involves two or more people. If youre lying in bed dying or if youre in the Himalayas having a religious experience, youre usually alone. The great thing about orgasm is that its a lovable and wonderful thing to do with somebody else. A basic of all quantum physics and Socratic philosophy is: Do it with a friend! Theres nothing as sad as someone having an orgasm by themselves. Whether it is mental or neurological
do it with a friend! Arthur Kessler, a Hungarian writer who was in Nazi prisons and Stalins prisons, he wrote a great deal about evolution and about self-deliverance and he and his wife died at the same time in each others arms. They left a note to the maid on the door saying: Dont bother coming up as they were planning their suicide.
HH: Do you feel that the Judeo-Christian ideas of Redemption and Salvation might be attributed to the individuals ability to let go of Ego without fear at the moment between life and death? If not, what are your opinions on these concepts? Is there a Heaven and Hell?
TL: Oh, thats an impossible non-issue there! Its all bable words anyway! Number one, when you say Judeo-Christian, you should say Judeo-Christian-Islamic, because those are the three monotheistic religions, and they all stem from Judaism. Its not considered correct in America to say Judeo-Christian-Islamic because youre granting the Arabs a plot to have a religion of their own with different code numbers. Even though throughout most of Christianity theyve been very anti-Semitic, Judeo-Christian is still considered a politically correct statement. All three of these religions say you must totally submit to the One God. The very word Islam means submission. The word monotheism means totalitarianism: God and the priests control every aspect of your life; conception, pregnancy and dying.
RAW: I very much doubt a Hell because it sort of makes a bad joke out of life. Who created Hell? Presumably God, or the Devil did it with Gods permission and supervision. I dont believe in that kind of God or that kind of Devil. Whos in Hell anyway? The universe has so many, as Carl Sagan says, billions and billions of galaxies with billions and billions of star systems, most of which probably have planets with all sorts of life forms
why would God (presuming there is some sort of God behind all of this) pick us out of the whole universe and decide that if it didnt like our behavior its going to torture us for an infinite number of years? I cant believe in that. I mean, the ordinary Sadists get tired after a certain period of time and have to rest. The idea of a Divinity so sadistic that it can go on for an infinite number of years torturing creatures from one planet is obviously the delusion of some kind of paranoid and unbalanced individual. Theres still a lot of nuts around, and they start religions. People who get unbalanced in certain ways get followers who believe in their paranoid visions, but I dont. If you left it up to me, I cant think of anybody I would put in Hell. There are some people I would put in prison for life because they are too dangerous to be allowed to wander loose, but I wouldnt put them in Hell for an infinite number of years! Thats unbelievably sadistic! Even the Marquis de Sade read books, wrote books, went to the opera, etc. He didnt spend all his time torturing people, which is what this God is supposed to be doing.
HH: In what ways do you feel the media has shaped our perception of death?
RAW: The movies, television, popular novels
the popular media entertainment fiction tends to accept the Judeo-Christian belief, with very little emphasis on Hell and a lot on Heaven. Every now and then they toy with reincarnation. The news media tends to be Coverse Humanist, and they regard death as absolutely the end, falling into oblivion, extinction
lights out. I think it tends to give people a sense of ruthlessness and alienation. The kind of attitude you tend to get in a lot of modern European writers like Beckett and others from the more absurdist school. I felt that way up until I took LSD, and then suddenly it seemed to me that all beliefs are uncertain and for all I know I might go on after death in some other form. I just dont know! Maybe Ill become extinct. Maybe Ill transform into something else that I can imagine
like a cow. Or something I cant even imagine
like a point of light in infinity.
TL: Media is the modes of communication and the words used. All three totalitarian religions have totally censored the words you use. The Islamics put five million dollars on the head of Salman Rushdie because he said three or four sentences in a book printed in English about Allah. Yes, the control of words and the control over the modes of communication
is what totalitarian religions hope to establish.
The LA Times, in the front page article by their medical writer, said that tobacco is the Number One Killer. It attacked tobacco, it attacked another culprit
alcohol. Turns out cocaine is way down on the list. They use words like culprit, preventing death, fundamental
What they were basically saying was that sex, drugs and rock and roll kill you, and you can prevent death
HH: By avoiding sex drugs and rock and roll.
TL: Exactly. Im always amazed at how respectable, fairly intelligent publications like The LA Times could splash an article like this one, which is totally non-specific. Scientists never use words like culprit. See, theyre personalizing. Demonizing. Turns out that there are two kinds of substances that can cause death. One is something immediate, like the overdose on heroin or a gun or a car crash, which are the leading causes of death. But nobodys ever overdosed by smoking a cigarette. People rarely overdose on alcohol. What tobacco and alcohol do is lower the lifespan. Smokers are affected day to day, so smokers will die at 75, and the intelligent smoker realizes that those are going to be the five years of your life youre going to be in a basket anyway. I heard this argument in my debate with the head of the DEA: Dont say that marijuana is a personal thing. The taxpayer has to pay for the Amtrak train which was wrecked. The taxpayer has to pay for all of the lung cancer. So, in other words, it is their business because they have to pay the cost when youre hooked up in tubes
which is called Health Care, which I call the ultimate humiliation.
Cigarette smokers, because they die five years younger, end up saving the taxpayers $250,000 for so-called Health Care. You can attack this argument the other way around.
When I signed my living will, it said I cannot be kept in a hospital longer than 48 hours. I absolutely will not have any of that so-called government health care. My lawyer said to me: You just saved the taxpayers probably a million dollars! I intend to de-animate when the quality of my life is such where I cannot think or emote. This is a normal desire for human dignity and freedom.
The way the article is twisted, that these Culprits, Sinners, who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol and get involved in reckless sex, end up costing the government lots of money
but they dont. They just eliminate the 1 to 50% or more of health money that goes to people in their terminal years.
Now this study that says Tobacco kills, #1 killer is a total lie. Guns kill. Accidents kill. AIDS kills. It is simply lapping off the last terminal, senile years. This is done, by the way, by government researchers. You would think that any intelligent person, including the editors of the LA Times, would know that nay research done by government scientists, paid for by the taxpayers, is going to come out with results that will support government policy. The way the government is demonizing tobacco smokers and drug users and alcohol
its more flagrant than anything done in the Puritan days.
I have a table as to the behaviors or the factors that lower the lifespan. Tobacco: Five years. Alcohol: Probably five years. The statistics say that people who die prematurely are mainly poor people and they may be black people. Thats the cold, blunt, horrible fact. They did mention something which Ive known for many years; that the #1 behavior that lowers the lifepan and causes inflation of health funds is gluttony. I would say that the average American is dangerously overweight. This is known in Europe. They laugh at Americans because they see a busload of tourists that are all fat, and they know theyre Americans. Can you imagine the problems in the heart of a 250 pound middle class women? The strain on her heart pumping blood and oxygen through a body that is swollen twice its size? The thin person
well, as William Burroughs would say: You never saw a junkie with a head cold.
I must confess to you, Howard, for two days Ive suffered one of those sudden enlightenment insights
that our government and all of our mass media are as bad as the Stalinists were. What puzzles me is how aware they are
of the way they are manipulating the news. The big issue coming up is about death and the right to choose your own de-animation. It turns out people like Dr. Kevorkian got the majority of people in the country on his side, but of course government people
the District Attorneys and the Public Health people are literally throwing him in prison. This is based on certain religious assumptions which they may not even be aware of. The patients whose suffering he alleviates are (no question of it) desperate, not to mention humiliated
Having to have their diapers changed, not being able to think. Thats of course the scariest thing --- Alzheimers and all that. With the approval of the family and videotapes and discussions and several weeks of planning, Doctor K. just helps them to deliver themselves. He is considered to be a demon. The bottom line which the bureaucrats never admit: Doctor K. is saving the taxpayer, with the 19 people he has helped deliver, millions of dollars! Not to mention the thousands of people that de-animate consciously and voluntarily that rarely get in the papers.
HH: What would be your ideal death? How would you want to be handled after you die?
RAW: I think the ideal death is to go on living. The ideal death is temporary, psychedelic experience, then you have all the advantages of death and you still come back to enjoy life some more. Im really in favor of abolishing death. Its the #1 killer and its time we made a concerted effort to wipe it out.
TL: Ive given this a tremendous amount of thought. I intend to press a button or to make a decision which is going to lead to my de-animation. Its a very complicated and tricky thing because I want to do it in such a way that doesnt put a burden on or embarrass my family and the people who love me. But I intend to de-animate in this home. Theres no way youre going to get me out of this little plot of land here
high in the hills. I hope to die
or to put it bluntly
under the circumstances of the greatest harmony, the greatest dignity, with the least amount of physical suffering to me and those that I love. I would say in two or three years from now.
Im a disabled veteran so Ive got total access to veterans hospitals, Ive got Medicare and Ive got SAG and all these health plans coming out my ears! I can run up a bill of about 1 million dollars; getting tubes, implants, staffs of people who will carry me to the toilet and change my diapers and wipe the drool off my chin. Yeah!
Nothing is more scary to me than a government administering health care. That is the ultimate oxymoron. The bureaucrats in Washington and all the institutions and hospitals, the Senior Citizens homes and all that. About three years ago there was a front page article in the LA Times that said there was between 60,000 and 80,000 senior citizens who are physically tied down in homes. Physically by bonds and of course by narcotic drugs. So heres a vegetable with Altheimers who can do nothing but drool and shit and is not conscious. I have a great sympathy for people who are forced economically to work in a place where you have to take care of these vegetables. That is the bottom bottom bottom of the economic food chain. If they are callous I can certainly sympathize with that.
I have the greatest admiration for families who, faced with the intolerable suffering and loss of dignity with a loved one, father, mother or grandparent, and who in violation of the state and violation of religion and common morals, accept and support the dying person in his or her suicide. I have great respect. When you read the stories about the relatives of Doctor Kevorkians patients, I have not failed to be impressed by the deep sincerity, by these middle class people in the mid-west who are faced with the ultimate issue and out of love and wisdom choose to have their sister go along with what is called a criminal act. I admire these people a lot.
HH: Do you feel that we as a species can evolve beyond death? Is immortality possible? If it is, in what ways do you feel we would have to adjust as a society to deal with eternal life?
RAW: I think its worth aiming for. Maybe the only way we can do it is by transferring our consciousness into silicon chips. Maybe we can transfer our consciousness into lasers. Maybe we can find a way to have the biological body regenerating and rejuvenating itself. These are all interesting areas of speculation and theres actual research going on that may yield some answers to this. I dont think we should just accept death with equanimity any more than slaves accepted slavery. We should rebel against it. Its degrading! Its insulting! Its painful! I think its one of the things we need to get rid of. If life does become eternal, I think were going to to have to become an interplanetary and interstellar species, because longevity will make the population crunch get even worse if we stay on one planet. With longevity looming and immortality a theoretical possibility, were going to have to start exploring extra planetary living. Theres so much energy/resources out there, that will quickly solve all our energy/resource problems. I think its a coincidence, or more than a coincidence, that interplanetary travel and longevity are dawning at about the same time.
TL: There are two issues here. One is the preservation of the brain. Your brain is put in a brain bank and when nanotechnology has reached the point, say in 40-50 years, when they can hook your brain up to a body either through cloning or through brain implants
Its inevitable. Theres a tremendous taboo here. A tremendous taboo about dying. I have a silver bracelet here which is my Alcor Cryonics ticket to have my brain frozen and possibly put in a brain bank. Its shocking to most adults when I say that Im having my brain put in a brain bank, so if some poor person has a healthy body but theyre brain dead, they can put my brain in their body. That taboo which you intersect here is almost inevitable. So the sensible thing to do is to have someone preserving your body or certainly preserving your brain. Then the question is: If they can hook your brain up to a body or a series of robotic behavior movers, what about memory? What about soul? I have written about 200 pages about scientific preservation of the soul. I consider the soul, and I dont think the brain is the soul. The brain hangs around the soul. If youre gonna find the soul youre going to have to get involved in operating your brain. In a way you might say that your soul is your own personal software which programs your brain and is totally unique to your computer brain, and the differences between your brain and mine, even though you and I are as close in harmony as two humans can be who are not lovers
are totally unique and thats as close as you come to defining the soul. The problem is: How do you maintain memories? Well, if you were to go out into my garage right now, youll see over 100 cartons containing records --- just of the last 5 years. I have probably 1000 cartons in places all over the valley, San Francisco and here. Every record which has anything to do with my own personal life, anything I put my handwriting to, letters that have come to me
I also save any papers I get of causes, charities
Most of them I get are counter-culture: AIDS, womens liberation, various forms of non-monotheistic religions. Ive got the largest collection of counter culture records probably than any other person in the world. Which means if and when I come back, Ill be able to access my memory bank. It seems almost ludicrous that I have every restaurant check that Ive signed. Ive got a record of April 1962 that I had this and that at a restaurant on the Italian Riviera. Its not that I consider myself that important, but I consider myself a record keeper. I think that with computerized/digitized record keeping and lingusitic acceleration, anyone will be able to access my memory bank and know more about what it was like to live in the counter-culture of the last 40 years.
One final thing I have to say about issues of immortality and suicide
killing yourself, reanimation, memory retrieval, nitrous oxide overdoses (laughs)
Youre dealing with very heavy concepts here. You gotta keep a sense of humor. You gotta keep a sense of humor which means a sense of humanity. I really dont care that much if I come back, but I want to leave a model because I was lucky enough to have lived in this century. To see the arrival of computers and telepresence and television
an enormous explosion of knowledge and information and communication.
The Alcor Cryonics people are extremely serious. They have to be because they are personally responsible every minute of every day for the bodies and brains of about 19 people. So theres a lot of technical heavy hacker here they have to deal with to keep the current going. Im tremendously impressed by their intelligence and by the fact that theyre all Libertarians. I deeply believe in the principles of Libertarianism, which is Humanism, but most of the people involved in the Libertarian movement have no sense of humor. Thats one of their problems. Theyre so fucking RIGHT! (laughs)
HH: Have you had any personal experiences with the paranormal in relation to death? For example, have you ever seen ghosts, had past life regressions, contacted or channeled spirits? If not, do you feel this type of experience is possible?
RAW: I have never had the experience of contacting the dead. I have had experiences that I estimate
that I evaluate as ESP. They can always be explained away as coincidence, and its an endless argument, but to me it seemed like ESP. Ive had a lot of synchronicity, much more than most people who study Jung. Everybody who studies Jung has some synchronicities, but I seem to get them in boatloads.
One psychic told me I sometimes channel a medieval Irish bard; another told me I sometimes channel an ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher, an alchemist. I think every writer channels Entities and I suspect we all have thousands of Entities within each of us that can function as they were independent spirits. I dont believe in the single ego. I think we have multiple egos and when one starts communicating were likely to think its the spirit of the dead or something like that, but its just another part of ourselves.
HH: Have you had any near death experiences? If you have, describe them. Did they affect your outlook on life?
TL: I have a near death experience every morning when I wake up! (laughs) I review the whole situation and I groan, until I get a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Many experiences that Ive had with LSD and Ketamine have been out of the body. The most powerful aspect of any altered state experience is alienation. Thats what the bad trip on LSD is about, when youe totally alienated. Alienation. The totalitarian monotheists say that Hell is being alienated from God. In a way theyre right, but to me divinity is in every human being, so the ultimate Hell for me is to be alienated from other human beings.
RAW: Yes. Ive been in two auto crashes and the outstanding thing that struck me was how calm I became when I thought I was about to die. I think Hollywood generally gives the wrong picture of how people behave under stress when theres a plane disaster in a movie and everyones screaming. I dont think anybody has energy to scream. You go very much into yourself and you get very calm. At least that is what happened to me when I was in the car accidents. Ive had experiences with Ketamine that definitely suggested to me that I had left my body and entered another form, which is rather vague but I dont want to be dogmatic about it by saying I was traveling in the astral plane or something like that. All I know is that it was a non-body experience. I think that occurs much more often than we used to think like the out-of-body experiences that people have on operating tables or when they are wounded in the war. It happened to Hemingway in World War I when he was wounded. Those things are very interesting and very suggestive and give me the feeling that if I dont live long enough to see the Longevity Revolution, I still may survive in some other form.