According to Mr W.:
One of the most disturbing aspects of ketamine is how it can pitch even the most experienced psychonaut straight into hell. There's really no other word for it and even if you are not a believer, you know it's hell. It's the most dreadful feeling you can imagine. It's like being frozen in time (perhaps Dante was right). There's no way out and the overwhelming sense is that this awful state is eternal. You just know it's going to go on and on for ever.
It has been claimed that ketamine experiences tend to be more hellish than 'natural' near-death experience (Moody 1975; Strassman 1997; Fox 2003) and also to feel 'unreal' in comparison (Fenwick 1997). However, it is unlikely that there is a 'natural' NDE as such. As we have seen, most near-death experiences have an obvious trigger circumstance, such as cardiac arrest, sensory deprivation, meditation and even stimulation of certain parts of the brain.
A systematic analysis of the 36 ketamine accounts shows that these 'more hellish' and 'unreality' claims can easily be contradicted. One of the most striking conclusions is that the majority of those interviewed (72 per cent) felt a strong sense of peace and pleasantness, and in 40 per cent of the cases, 'joy' was described.
In Fenwick's NDE study, a sense of peace and pleasantness was higher at 93 per cent, but only 26 per cent felt joy, less than with ketamine. This result indicates that the NDE-like ketamine experiences are not more 'hellish' than standard NDEs. Such a conclusion has recently been reinforced by Mark Fox's observation: the fact that most reported cases are overwhelmingly positive in nature 'does not necessarily indicate that negative experiences are in the overwhelming minority, and may simply be indicative of the fact that respondents are more likely to report positive experiences than negative ones' (Fox 2003: 260-1).
It has also been pointed out that the assumption that transcendental experiences are very positive and pleasant experiences is false, driven by baseless 'New Age' optimism. For instance, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is full of references to hellish moments. Why should the NDE always be a blissful and positive experience? As noted in Chapter 4, further evidence of negative NDEs emerged from the research work of Yoshia Hata and his research team at the University of Kyorin in Japan (Hata et al., in Hadfield 1991). The team interviewed 17 patients, who had recovered from comas with 'minimal signs of life' after heart attacks, asthma attacks, and drug poisoning. Eight reported memories during their apparent unconsciousness. Five were of negative experiences, dominated by fear, pain or suffering.
One finding of particular interest was the case of Mr P., mentioned in Chapter 4, who had a negative NDE as a result of a suicide attempt and a positive experience after taking ketamine. This is a rare case of someone who had both experiences. The first was the result of an attempted suicide at the age of 18:
I suddenly felt that I was travelling down a tunnel and at the end there was much light. Everything was exceptionally bright, although my experience was dreadful. I was sure I was in hell. I saw three sumi. They tried to torture me. They didn't look very human.
Several years after this episode, he tried ketamine for the first time while he was at home listening to some music:
I thought I was dying and the feeling was very similar to my suicide. I went to the toilet and I had the feeling of passing through the door. Then I went back to the room and I lay down on my bed. I gradually lost my senses. The music was very distorted. I tested myself by asking basic questions about mathematics, the names of those I love, etc., then suddenly I wasn't interested in this any more. So I tried to concentrate on 'who I am' and I lost interest again. Visions become blurred. It wasn't meaningful who I was anymore, because I existed anyway. Then I tried the experience of death. I was going down a tunnel. I saw the planet Earth. I could feel the relationship between the human soul, Earth and the planets. I thought I was a doll, you know the matryoshka? I was the matryoshka of the entire system. I understood that Earth is inside something else. I felt its gravity. All this is embraced within a system. I was nothing, but I knew that my place was on Earth.
Another example is quoted in Jansen's Ketamine: Dreams and Realities (2001: 99-107). In this case, it was clear that the near-death experience and the ketamine experience were identical. The person interviewed was a man who had lost his partner in a fire. He had an NDE while trying to rescue her, and then had the same experience while taking ketamine for the first time a week later.
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