The White; Ego Death, Solipsism and Nature.
I wanted to kill my best friend. Poor Cam. He sat opposite me, unassuming. Face melted as his gaze upturned to me. I wanted to launch us out the window. Three stories below to the cobbled street. Tense, I was ready to pounce. But death did not wait on the cobbles.
If I grabbed and squeezed and pushed us through the glass falling to the ground below, I knew we would survive. I could feel us carrying on. Like the plane that pulls up and over the mountains as the peaks emerge from the fog. Yes, bodies would lie mangled on the street, but something, the thing that made me me would survive, and float, forever.
Eight hours earlier we had taken two tabs of acid, six of us in cold flat midwinter. Deliberation preceded action and decision, half a tab? One? two? Two for me. Poor decision summed up as flat owner Jack rocked back and forth on his chair, arms wrapped around himself, eyes stone still, mouth wide; “I should have done half.”
Diethylamide of d-lysergic acid, better known as LSD-25, is a semi synthetic chemical compound. Its psychedelic properties were first discovered accidentally by Swiss alchemist, Albert Hoffman in 1943. What a trip. He continued to use the drug throughout the rest of his life, dying at one hundred and two.
A recent study by Katrin Preller shows how the use of LSD affects the thalamus; the part of the brain that relays sensory and motor signals, as well as regulation of consciousness and alertness. It is argued that the real world around us is not the one we perceive, the thalamus choses what sensory information it wishes us to comprehend. LSD ‘opens up’ the thalamus, letting in information otherwise off limits; the sounds a dog hears which we can’t, the colours a bird sees that we cannot comprehend. It appears the drug itself wishes to pull its user closer to the natural world, closer to the ecosystem we’re sometimes so eager to forget we are a part of. Interesting that something synthetic creates a link to that which is overwhelmingly natural. A world unlocked on LSD.
Four hours into the trip I had gone blind. Running out into the street alone, dark night evaporated, I was left facing a never-ending expanse of white nothingness. Head turned, more white. Above, below, white. Limitless. Falling to where the ground used to be, I grabbed the pavement. No sight but could still touch. Mind yearned to be free of body, but I held tight. On the verge of bursting out of myself. I had to hold on.
Pandoras box of mind had unlocked. All perception expanded. Senses left one by one. Saw them floating off. Could have reached out and grabbed the cheeky buggers. But could not let go.
Scared but almost free. Skull and flesh and body the last constrains to freedom. Congested water pipe of my brain had burst free and released. Still, I held on. Still, I could not fully let go. In that moment, almost, merged with all that existed, became all that existed, there was nothing else.
Everything was me.
Ego death is one of the side effects of LSD. A complete loss of sense of self. Scientifically, it makes sense this would happen. Chris Letherby and Phillip Gerrans posed the idea that our sense of self is grounded in physical reality. We create a sense of I dependent on the physical world we perceive. If by opening up the thalamus, we change that perception, naturally our sense of self would change, and in some cases weaken.
The experience of ego death itself is not limited to drug use. It is a concept that weaves itself through the fabric of human history, religion and philosophy. Buddhist’s call it Nirvana, Muslim Sufis call it fana, and in the Hindu practice it is called Moksha. It is strived for, earned. Hoffman himself is quoted as saying ‘I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.’ However, the shortcut to enlightenment that comes from LSD does without many of the quality’s religion presupposes you strive for to achieve this enlightenment - peace, goodwill, perseverance and in some cases, subservience and abstinence. Can a synthetic spiritual experience be as good as the real thing?
After the experience ended my whole body longed to be back in the White. It terrified me, like being lost at sea, but I had to have it. And I thought I knew how to get it, I had to leave my body. I had to open up the flesh and bone that caged an endless expanse of consciousness. In that moment, it meant throwing myself out the window. But why did I want to take Cam with me? Scared of the loneliness of the never ending White? What struck me was that everything I had observed must have been real. If all that had happened was due to an unlocking of my brain, then there must have been a way to achieve it naturally. Sober since that night.
The experience of the White lingered long after. A constant sensation of being trapped inside my own head resounded everywhere I went. Ego death was not the right word. The White had sprung from my mind. With the window open I could see, and I saw that everything came from me. How could I be certain that anyone else, anything else, existed?
Solipsism is the Philosophical ‘problem’ that seeks to ask, ‘am I the only mind that exists?’. René Descartes in Meditations addressed it at great length. Descartes strove to understand ‘ultimate truth’. He understood that the world we perceive around us is generally attained through the senses, yet these senses sometimes deceive us. This led him to contemplate the only thing we can truly know is that we are thinking beings: Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am.
So, is there an objective reality that we all inhabit, or is reality subjective to the mind? If it is subjective, how can we be sure other minds exist?
Objective vs subjective reality has also cropped up in science. In 1961, Nobel prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner outlined a thought experiment; ‘Wigner's friend’. Before being observed, a polarised photon can exist in both a state of horizontal and vertical polarisation, this is called a superposition. Once observed one can determine which direction the photon is travelling and thus it ceases to be in a superposition state. In Wigner's experiment, one person (Wigner’s friend) observes a photon, whilst another person (Wigner) observes the experiment. To Wigner, the photon, even though he can see it, will be in a state of superposition until he is informed of the results. But to Wigner’s friend, the photon will at some point be either vertical or horizontal. Thus, Wigner hypothesises that while himself and his friend are observing the same photon, two separate visual realities will exist simultaneously.
Until recently this remained simply a thought experiment. However, a new study by Massimiliano Proietti created the conditions of Wigner’s experiment and proved Wigner’s hypothesis, observing two simultaneous states of the photon. The results confirmed that there may be no such thing as objective reality, rather reality is subjective, observed differently by each individual. Still, this gave me no clarification of how to achieve the White naturally.
“You want to leave me to go and meditate for the rest of your life? Really?” Angry words from concerned mouth. Pain and hurt in loved one’s eyes. Girlfriend stared at me from the corner of the room. Light slipped through the half pulled blind, illuminating the soft curves of her face in the dark. Tears in pale blue eyes began to show such pain. “Do you know how horrible it is, to tell your girlfriend you don't think she exists!?” No answers for these questions. Poor Emily. Was this it? Meditation seemed the only logical path back to the White. The only natural path. Give up everything to understand everything. What did I care, according to me, no one existed anyway. But I didn’t want to go. The White was freedom, but freedom was loneliness.
Consoling distraught tears, soothed girlfriend back to bed. In the dark, small slices of light cut through like a savior. Instances of heaven on earth. I stretched a hand out into the sun, twirling in the light. It danced around my fingers. Uncontrollable, untamed. The White was astounding. But this felt real.
Slits of sunlight awakened something more powerful than LSD, in those dark delicate moments inside our flat. I knew why I wanted to take my best friend with me out the window. I knew why I didn’t want to live on a monastery without my girlfriend. For the same reason the White scared as much as inspired me, I did not want to be alone. Solipsism translates as lone soul. For as much as it is a view that may never be able to be disproved, for I may never be able to know if my girlfriend is anything less than a figment of my imagination, it does not mean I want to be without her, my friends, or family.
Still, If LSD simply opened up the brain, there must have been a more communal, more natural way to unlock it again.
Unlike the effects of acid, our sensory system is at its most habitual in nature. Human beings evolved in nature; we are our most comfortable in its surroundings. Once in nature, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, our inner command center, relaxes, almost switches off. The effects of this are overwhelmingly positive, A national Geographic study showed that participants performing creative tasks outdoors performed 50% higher than those inside. Cities with more trees generally have lower crime rates and having plants in classrooms and hospitals has shown to lower anxiety levels in those environments. These benefits can be seen throughout history. Cyrus the great of Persia was one of the earliest known creators of ‘relaxation gardens’, to be used as a breakaway from the busy Persian street life.
As the sun danced around my fingertips in the darkness of our flat, and my girlfriend’s chest rose slowly and softly with each breath, I knew this felt a more rewarding path to happiness.
“If I don't exist your brain must have come up with me for a reason.” She murmured from soft sleepy mouth. And it was true, if nothing existed, I still felt happiest with others. I felt more alive in the sun, which for a start, didn’t make me want to throw my best friend out the window.
Relentless footsteps pushed harder on. The uneven paths of Corn Du rolled under feet like passing seconds. Sprouts of ferns and whitebait tickled the side of the rocks, blowing lightly in the summer breeze. Shade enveloped immediate vicinity. Sun lay perched on peaks, taunting, an old friend waiting for our arrival. Emily’s smile looked up at me as I turned to face her. Both out of breath. Full of life.
Approaching the peak, the valley spread out below, crags and rivers, glorious greens and splendid sparkling blues. Cleansed. What had we done but put one foot in front of the other. Yet it had led us here. To the top of the earth. Sun welcomed us with open arms. Warmth that spread over the skin and into the heart.
For a moment there was nothing left to do but breathe. Eyes closed, letting sun fall lightly over me. No sound but the breeze. It sang, softly over the mountain path and deep off into the valley. With eyes closed I was back in the White. But a real, natural White. Not an artificial explosion of fear and confusion that left me searching for death in the hopes of freedom. A pure never-ending sensation of calm and happiness.
Eyes opened to innocent face. Emily looked at me. As beautiful as the open valley. The air weaved between us, pulled us together. If this was all a product of my imagination, then it must have held a reason. She existed for a reason.
Eyes glazed over the valley, over the earth that spread out before, either from my mind, or from somewhere else. As the grass danced lightly in the breeze, river sparkled below, and the sun slowly fell away behind us, we were left with nothing but nature and ourselves. Real or not, it was ours, and I was going to lap it up, unyielding. Forever.
Written by Dominic Forte
 Katrin H. Preller, et al., “Changes in global and thalamic brain connectivity in LSD-induced altered states of consciousness are attributable to the 5- HT2A receptor,” eLife Sciences, (October 2018).
 Chris Letherby, Phillip Gerrans, “Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience”, Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2017, no. 1, (2017)
 Massimiliano Proietti, et al., “Experimental Test of Local observer – Independence,” Science Advances Vol. 5, no. 9 (September 2019)
 Florence Williams, “This Is Your Brain On Nature,” National Geographic, Accessed March 11th, 2021 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/call-to-wild