When Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD, Experiencing “the Most Serene, the Most Beautiful Death” (1963)

The “spir­i­tu­al adepts” of Tibet’s mod­ern peri­od, writes Hus­ton Smith in his com­pre­hen­sive intro­duc­tion to the Bar­do Thodol, or “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, “were inner-world adven­tur­ers of the high­est dar­ing, the Tibetan equiv­a­lent of our astronauts—I think it is worth coin­ing the term ‘psy­cho­naut’ to describe them. They per­son­al­ly voy­aged to the fur­thest fron­tiers of that uni­verse which their soci­ety deemed vital to explore: the inner fron­tiers of con­scious­ness itself, in all its trans­for­ma­tions in life and beyond death.”

West­ern modernity—its ener­gies focused entire­ly on shap­ing, sub­du­ing, and expro­pri­at­ing the mate­r­i­al world—did not begin to take such com­plex inner jour­neys seri­ous­ly until the 20th cen­tu­ry. When it did, it did so large­ly through the pop­u­lar influ­ence of pio­neers like Aldous Hux­ley and Tim­o­thy Leary, who intro­duced the inner jour­ney through a syn­cretism of East­ern spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, Indige­nous reli­gious prac­tices, and psy­chotrop­ic drug use—something of an accel­er­at­ed course to the fron­tiers of con­scious­ness for those who had failed for so long to inves­ti­gate its lim­its.

Huxley’s first psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ence, described in his 1953 The Doors of Per­cep­tion, “was in no sense rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” he wrote, in that he did not, as he had expect­ed, expe­ri­ence “a world of visions” like those in the Bar­do or the writ­ings of William Blake. On the oth­er hand, he describes a shift in con­scious­ness in exact­ly the terms spir­i­tu­al prac­ti­tion­ers use to talk about enlight­en­ment. He ref­er­ences Meis­ter Eckhart’s Istigkeit or “Is-ness”—“a per­pet­u­al per­ish­ing that was at the same time pure Being.” He uses words like “grace” and “trans­fig­u­ra­tion” and refers to D.T. Suzuki’s essay “’What is the Dhar­ma-Body of the Buddha?’”—“another way of say­ing Mind, Such­ness, the Void, the God­head.”

His faith in this expe­ri­ence per­sist­ed to the end of his life. It was, for him, an ini­ti­a­tion, a “great change… in the realm of objec­tive fact.” So pro­found were Huxley’s exper­i­ments with psy­che­del­ic drugs that on his deathbed ten years lat­er, he request­ed that his wife Lau­ra inject him with 100 micro­grams of LSD. In the short video up top, Lau­ra remem­bers the day, the same day John F. Kennedy was assas­si­nat­ed. And in the let­ter above, which you can read in full at Let­ters of Note, she describes Huxley’s last days in vivid detail to Hux­ley’s broth­er Julian and his wife Juli­ette.

Accord­ing to Lau­ra, Hux­ley strug­gled in his last two months to accept the fact that he was dying of can­cer. She read to him, she writes, “the entire man­u­al of Dr. Leary extract­ed from The Book of the Dead.” Hux­ley remind­ed her that Leary used the man­u­al to guide peo­ple through their acid trips, and that “he would bring peo­ple, who were not dead, back here to this life after the ses­sion.” After sev­er­al painful days, how­ev­er, he came to terms, “all of a sud­den,” and made out his will. Lau­ra had already con­sult­ed with Sid­ney Cohen, “a psy­chi­a­trist who had been one of the lead­ers in the use of LSD” and learned that Cohen had giv­en the drug to two dying patients; “in one case it had brought up a sort of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Death, and in the oth­er case it did not make any dif­fer­ence.”

After she had offered it to Hux­ley sev­er­al times over those two months, he final­ly wrote out his instruc­tions to her for the dosage. She inject­ed it her­self, then, a few hours lat­er, gave him anoth­er 100 micro­grams. As he died, under the effects of what she calls his “mok­sha med­i­cine,” Lau­ra coached him “towards the light” as the Bar­do coun­sels. “Will­ing and con­scious­ly you are going, will­ing­ly and con­scious­ly, and you are doing this beau­ti­ful­ly; you are doing this so beau­ti­ful­ly.” After sev­er­al hours, Hux­ley died.

These five peo­ple all said that this was the most serene, the most beau­ti­ful death. Both doc­tors and nurse said they had nev­er seen a per­son in sim­i­lar phys­i­cal con­di­tion going off so com­plete­ly with­out pain and with­out strug­gle.

We will nev­er know if all this is only our wish­ful think­ing, or if it is real, but cer­tain­ly all out­ward signs and the inner feel­ing gave indi­ca­tion that it was beau­ti­ful and peace­ful and easy.

You can hear Lau­ra dis­cuss Huxley’s LSD-assist­ed death in much more detail in a con­ver­sa­tion here with Alan Watts, who calls it a “high­ly intel­li­gent form of dying.” In her let­ter, she defies the judg­ment that Huxley’s use of psy­che­del­ic drugs, in life and death, was irre­spon­si­ble or escapist. “It is true we will have some peo­ple say­ing that he was a drug addict all his life and that he end­ed as one,” she writes, “but it is his­to­ry that Hux­leys stop igno­rance before igno­rance can stop Hux­leys.” Indeed, in the same year that Aldous died, his broth­er Julian—the renowned evo­lu­tion­ary biologist—published an arti­cle called “Psy­chometabil­ism” in the sec­ond issue of The Psy­che­del­ic Review, the research jour­nal co-found­ed by Leary.

“In psy­che­del­ic drugs,” wrote Julien, “we have a remark­able oppor­tu­ni­ty for inter­est­ing research.” Like­wise, he argued, “mys­ti­cism is anoth­er psy­chometa­bol­ic activ­i­ty which needs much fur­ther research… some mys­tics have cer­tain­ly obtained results of great val­ue and impor­tance: they have been able to achieve an inte­ri­or state of peace and strength which com­bines pro­found tran­quil­i­ty and high psy­cho­log­i­cal ener­gy.” In his infor­mal, lit­er­ary way, Aldous Hux­ley con­duct­ed such stud­ies with him­self as the sub­ject, and wrote of the results and pos­si­bil­i­ties in books like The Doors of Per­cep­tion and Island.

A few years after Aldous Hux­ley’s death, the US and UK gov­ern­ments banned the kind of psy­che­del­ic research Julien rec­om­mend­ed, but it has recent­ly become a seri­ous object of sci­en­tif­ic study once again, and thanks to the report­ing, and exper­i­ment­ing, of writ­ers like Michael Pol­lan, West­ern­ers may soon once again use psy­che­delics to take the inner jour­neys our cul­ture does its best to dis­cour­age and den­i­grate.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Use Psy­che­del­ic Drugs to Improve Men­tal Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

Watch The Bicy­cle Trip: An Ani­ma­tion of The World’s First LSD Trip Which Took Place on April 19, 1943

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

Alan Watts Explains Why Death is an Art, Adven­ture and Cre­ative Act

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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