#17 The Greatest Wonder in the World | BJ Miller

December 15, 2020
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  • BJ talks about take aways from his near-death experience. How serious illness and trauma are universal experiences of need – and it puts us in touch with others. (3:10)
  • Ronan highlights that we all live like we’re not going to die. BJ says ‘autonomy’ and ‘ego’ is an illusion. (5:00)
  • BJ just celebrated the 30 anniversary of his accident from when he was a sophomore at Princeton University. BJ tells the story of the night of his accident as he watched parts of his body die. Electricity arched to his watch from the electric line above the commuter train he climbed with his friends. (6:00)
  • When you’re not prepared for death, you suffer more in your last minutes (7:16)
  • Lessons from death are similar to lessons from psychedelics: tune into how unimportant you are – and how incredibly important you are. You're both inconsequential and amazingly consequential. (8:00)
  • How Ketamine therapy can help some people understand death (9:00)
  • BJ talks about his memories from his ICU, what it felt like, and his ‘conscious life coming back online’ (9:30)
  • The horizon of death felt ‘matter of fact’. Most people who BJ works with find it to be a peaceful zone. (11:20)
  • Conrad joins to talk about watching and helping his mom in the ICU, and how gratitude found him within the trauma. (13:10)
  • BJ talks how grief ‘blows out our capacity’ to feel it all (16:00)
  • BJ talks ironically about how he’s almost become a ‘fan of grief’ because it opens people up (17:30)
  • BJ talks about the limitation of language, and how ‘strength’ can be misunderstood (21:00)
  • Grief helps us metabolize reality. Acknowledging what we’re losing is part of the process and shift the focus from what's gone to what you have. (22:00)
  • BJ talks about how he shortcut his own metabolic process of grief when his sister passed away 20 years ago (23:30)
  • Conrad talks about how he is metabolizing the loss of his mother – and trying to exist with it all (26:00)
  • BJ talks about how religion played a role in his early life. (30:30)
  • Even rationally, we are actually stardust. When we die, our bodies transfer energy (31:00)
  • BJ tells Ronan about his experience of ego dissolution with 5-MeO-DMT and how it revealed our ‘invented existence’ (33:00)
  • ‘Death ‘ is not on the design brief in medical treatment approaches centers (40:00)
  • Strategy should be to name death as an experience in order to reframe it (41:00)

Transcripts

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B.J: [00:00:00] The greatest wonder in the world is not some crazy miracle, the greatest one in the world is humans. We are surrounded by death all the time, and yet we somehow walk through life thinking that we're not going to die. It's a stunning notion. [00:00:12][11.8]

Ronan: [00:00:18] This is Field Tripping, a podcast dedicated to exploring psychedelic experiences and their ability to affect our lives. I'm your host, Ronan Levy. In 1990, when B.J. Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, he climbed atop a parked commuter train with some friends. Then 11000 volts of electricity suddenly search through his body. He lost both legs below the knee and half of one arm - he came close to death. In recovery while dealing with pain and disability. B.J. was inspired to go into medicine and focused on disability rights and palliative care. As a cancer center physician today, B.J. is on a mission to redesign how we die. His TED talk, "What Really Matters At The End Of Life" has close to 12 million views and he's been interviewed on the topic by Oprah Winfrey. His latest book with coauthor Shoshana Berger is called, "A Beginner's Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death". It encourages readers to talk about mortality, prepare for death, and in a fun twist, encourages us to learn how to live through the process of dying. B.J. uses his own brush with death to help others take a clear-eyed view of mortality and face the end of their own lives head on. His new practice, Mettle Health offers praxis dental care, physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs for anyone contemplating their health and death. It's my pleasure to welcome B.J. to Field Tripping. And in addition, I'd like to introduce Conrad Page, who works with the team behind the scenes as the producer of this podcast. In October of this year, Conrad lost his mother to cancer, and it has been his first real experience with grief, given today's guest and our subject matter. We invited Conrad to join us and share some of his experiences. Welcome to this side of the podcast, Conrad. [00:02:18][120.1]

Conrad: [00:02:18] Thanks for having me Ronan. [00:02:19][0.8]

Ronan: [00:02:21] Thanks for joining us. And thanks for being open to talking about this, because as someone who I speak with quite regularly in another part of my life says, you speak from scars, not from wounds. I appreciate this can be a very personal and relevant topic, so thank you for for being brave and being willing to talk about this. B.J. Your TED talk from 2015 is extremely heartfelt and has been viewed close to 12 million times. In the talk you touched on several themes, including how we can redesign death and how we can learn to accept loss as a fixed part of life. Further, you tell the story of how your injury in 1990 connected you with death and what you call a stolen moment, a time when you were in the ICU and the nurse brought you a snowball and placed it in your hand. Can you just tell us the story? [00:03:10][48.4]

B.J: [00:03:10] I mean, of course there's my own personal sort of feelings and the experience I had. But anyone who's danced with serious illness or trauma, I mean, just about anything in this life, you realize it's the story is so rarely just about you. And one of the things the accident did was put me in touch with zillions of people I never would have met, put me in touch with sides of myself I may have struggled to find, to uncover and put me in touch with sides of my friends and strangers that I wouldn't have seen. So I just started there by saying, my story is a gazillion people's story. And that was one of the the great things about it was. Yeah, I think we all know that we're connected and interconnected or interdependent, but sometimes like death, that just seems like an idea, you know, like an abstract, like a thought, an intellectual moment versus a visceral moment, not a recreational driven by experience and need. [00:04:10][59.9]

Ronan: [00:04:11] I mean, what you just touched on, it reminded me of something that I had heard, which is like every person alive is living under the greatest illusion, like we all live like we're not going to die, even though we all know that we're going to die. We still make decisions based on not ever giving credence to that fact. [00:04:30][19.3]

B.J: [00:04:31] All the time and one of those grand delusions is that we're independent or autonomous, that there's a thing called an ego, that that I am X or I am. Why? What's interesting is you learn that how porous all these lines are between self and other, between life and death, between loss and gain. One of the things I realized kind of circling back, going through that experience for me, that that night in November, was actually I just had my 30th anniversary on the 27th of November. We had just gotten back from Thanksgiving break. I'm a sophomore and I was just happy to see my buddies. It was a Monday night. We weren't going crazy. In fact, I was on my way to the computer lab. I had a floppy disk in my shirt. I was printing out a paper for a religion class and got intercepted by a couple of friends and we decided to go out and have a drink. Just delight in being together again. After four long days away for the Thanksgiving holiday, we saw this, there's a park commuter train on campus sitting there and parked and not operating. This is middle night. It wasn't going anywhere, just sitting there at a ladder on the back. And we just climbed it like you would climb a tree. And we didn't really think we're doing anything very daring. But anyway, I had a metal watch on and when I stood up, got close enough to the power line - the electricity arched to the watch and that was it. [00:05:52][81.2]

[00:05:53] And so practically instantaneous. And that that began months in the burn unit, many, many surgeries, etc. So we could talk about any of those details. But I think where the juicy stuff and what I think well, I think would be most fun to talk about with you and Conrad is what stuff we started to get to, which is the lessons you start learning and what you start feeling and seeing through such an experience. So that opened my eyes to the fact of mortality. I mean, I watched parts of my body die. You know, I came very close to dying myself. Sure, I knew I was going to die someday. But here I was learning that fact in my bones. Not a word, not an idea. And that was huge. I'm so grateful for that. There's this great line from the Mahabharata, this the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text. Essentially, I'm a butcher. But the greatest wonder in the world is not some crazy miracle, the greatest one in the world is humans, we are surrounded by death all the time, and yet we somehow walk through life thinking that we're not going to die. It's a stunning notion. There's all probably all sorts of evolutionary reasons for it. There's all sorts of forces pulling us away from this basic truth. And ultimately, I think that's a shame. I think it's fascinating. But ultimately, it's a shame because I get to work with a lot of people who found it, who've managed to get through their whole lives and didn't really realize that their life was going to end until they had a few moments left to live. And one of the shames about that is you end up suffering a lot more than you need to when you're not prepared. But the bigger thing is if you can find your way to get in touch with these sort of laws, these facts of nature and the nature in you, you have a much better chance at wrapping your arms around participating in a much bigger reality. And that bigger reality is way more fascinating, way more intricate and durable at the same time. It changed everything for me in so many ways. You know, it was like I was born that day in some ways. And it's also true that nothing changed from the internal person, the person I am. And my deepest sense is the same. Both, I think are really important and lead us into some of the experiences that can be had on psychedelics, which is you have to find a way in this life to come to terms with how unimportant you are and how incredibly important you are, how little and inconsequential you are and how amazingly consequential you are. [00:08:23][150.2]

Ronan: [00:08:24] A couple of things that came up when you were talking was there's a line, I think Tucker Max actually was the one who first flagged it to me and it's in the beginning of one of Richard Dawkin's books. He says, we are going to die. And that makes us the lucky ones, which is like a unique spin. And most people don't think about that. But the fact that we get to live is is such a privilege. If you think about the expanse of the universe and one of the things I want to touch upon, because I'm just, you know, fascinatingly curious about it. And we talked about it in a podcast we did with Jackie Stang. You talked about how her ketamine therapy has helped her start to understand death a little bit. And as she was talking in that experience, I kind of got the image in my mind about almost being at the edge of the universe and thinking about what was on the other side of the universe and kind of pushing on it. Like on this side is life. On that side is death. And the closer you get to it, you don't know what it's across the horizon, the event horizon to the other side. But maybe you can start to feel it and smell it and touch it a little bit. But coming so close to death yourself in that experience, what did it feel like? Like do you remember any of it? Does any of it still with you or is it just kind of all blacked out into, you know, the physical and emotional trauma that went along with it? [00:09:44][79.2]

B.J: [00:09:44] I don't remember much of the night. I have sort of pieced together things from my friend's accounts and they can kind of glimpse little moments. My first memories are about four or five days in to the ordeal, and part of that is your brain just shutting down. You're just in trauma mode. You're conserving every bit of energy. So your mind's not busy. I wasn't really thinking much, but pretty soon I was and I could kind of feel my conscious life kind of come back online. And so my memories of it all are very vague but durable. And I find myself returning to them now and again. But now just seeing the, much more with a smile and with fascination. In fact, actually Ronan it almost always was so. I think there was something, it was the drama of almost dying that only felt dramatic weeks and months down the road when I was on the far side when I was going to live, while I was in that zone of touch and go. Interestingly, it was sort of mundane. It was not like the stakes felt so high. Gosh, tomorrow I might not wake up. Again, I think that kind of thinking is much more for us folks who are a little bit removed from death. But when you're hanging out at that interface, it's almost mundane. Oh, I could die in a minute. I could live in a minute. It was just just sort of seemed like all of a piece. And it didn't strike me as terrifying or wonderful. It just was like kinda matter of fact, we were actually at that horizon. Most people I work with and myself included, find that a pretty peaceful, nonplused zone. [00:11:30][105.9]

Ronan: [00:11:31] Yeah, it's interesting you say that because I know Erwin, the gentleman I work with, talks about how the process of being born on a soul level, on a conscious level, involves numerous decisions. You know, you pick your name, you pick your parents, pick the color of your skin, you pick the color of your eyes, you pick all these things. But he's like, there's so many decisions in that. And it's like the process of dying is the same thing. It's not like you decide to die in an instance. There's a series of decisions that go into it, you know, and at the end, almost everybody and I haven't really experienced this much in my life. With the exception of my grandmother. Most people look pretty peaceful when they die. And I'm going to turn the conversation to Conrad. And certainly, if this is too raw and too real for you, feel free to say so. But, you know, what was it like? You know, you were there with your mom recently and with her as she she passed on. [00:12:26][55.1]

Conrad: [00:12:27] It was my first brush with grief, to be honest and I was really close with my mom. So, she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and systematically had some failed treatments and ended up in ICU suddenly with double lung pneumonia and sepsis. So what was it like? Well, some things were very unexpected. I mean, not only was I fully immersed and surrounded by trauma and trying to be the voice for my mom, but over the next several days, a lot of the trauma was replaced with things that that B.J was mentioning, like being grateful and having gratitude for what was going on around me, which was something that was totally unexpected. And within a few days, something else be said that really resonated is that I felt like totally different as a person, but also more myself than ever before. It was a weird thing because to be the voice. For somebody, there's a lot of pressure in these situations. She was on a respirator and was totally unable to speak. She had cancer and we were in a small town hospital where the doctors didn't really believe in her ability to beat off the infection. And then we got transferred to another better hospital a couple of days later. And she did better there and ultimately did come off the respirator. And so I had to fight for her because the organs were failing and then coming back online and then failing again. And the numbers didn't look good and she had almost made it through. So it was a really hard tightrope of being hopeful and optimistic, but not trying to be unreasonable about it. [00:13:59][92.1]

Ronan: [00:13:59] Sounds like an intense and eye-opening experience. [00:14:03][3.8]

Conrad: [00:14:04] In a nutshell, it definitely was. And I maintain that I will not be the same, and that's OK. And it's opened my eyes, to be quite honest, around the ideas of grief and how everybody around me are is walking around carrying it and almost as a testament to my mom, who I am almost 39 years old. I know I am 39 now. I went all of those years without any trauma my whole life that was from her, like she protected me from that stuff. So it's like this also weird, ironic twist that only she could have facilitated such like pain and torment, but also this side of like equal gratitude and light and beauty and love. So it was just a very serious dichotomy that has kind of forever changed me and things won't ever be the same. [00:14:48][43.7]

Ronan: [00:14:49] Did you get any sense of, like, what the experience was like for her? [00:14:51][2.5]

Conrad: [00:14:52] I hope it was minimal. I mean, I think there were some moments where we did kind of communicate. I think we did have a breakthrough moment where she did kind of just say, like, this was enough. I will tell you that the sense that, I have a sister as well who has a newborn baby. And so my mom, I think, battled this illness for us the whole time, these two and a half years. And then these days in the ICU, where it was like a terrible prognosis, she's still fighting hard. And I've never seen a fight quite like it, to be honest. And I mean, I have, I have a black belt, like I I've seen lots of fights. I've been in fights. So to see her in this way as a warrior that I had never seen before just blew my mind, to be honest. And in fact, I will tell you that for her service, like I sent my black belt with her, because she earned it, she she helped me earn it and I watched her earn it. And so I sent it with her. [00:15:41][48.8]

B.J: [00:15:42] That's beautiful bud. [00:15:43][0.5]

Conrad: [00:15:44] It feels good. Believe it or not. [00:15:45][1.4]

B.J: [00:15:47] I believe it. Everything you're describing really sounds familiar, and it kind of points us back to this idea of, it like blows out our capacities, the feeling for me, like you don't have to choose between happiness and sadness, you get to have both. I mean, all the reduction, medicine's reductive, daily life is reductive. But when these big acts of nature happen, I think I don't know, you tell me, but it resonates with me. Is this understanding that we're the ones who reduce it all. Life's way bigger, more amazing than most of us can let in at any one moment. And then week after week, keep scrambling for the right adjectives for this, but we don't need to. All of it gets to exist. And it feels, sounds like to me like you saw that and touched that and that's beautiful. It gives me hope in a way. [00:16:39][52.6]

Conrad: [00:16:40] Well, good. Well, if I can inspire your hope, I mean, that's a good day in my books. I'll tell you that. You know, I actually seem to be kind of cautious about what was happening at the time in its own way, engaging with strangers who came to share their grief. Like I mean, I remember very clearly, I was I was in a Tim Hortons line at the hospital and I sort of I was just kind of crying softly, whatever. And the girl we're going to counter says, you know, I told a little bit my mom, she asked and she says, oh, don't worry. She goes, I lost my dad when I was like 12. I said, oh, I was like, that's terrible news. I mean, like, she doesn't even know what she missed. Like, my mom got to see me go into adulthood. And then I was feeling bad. And then I would meet other people who shared their grief. And their grief was like so much more impactful than I think mine, not to put a value on it, but it just showed me how what people are carrying around and we have to be grateful for what we've got. [00:17:32][52.3]

B.J: [00:17:33] I think on that note, I have a sense that the more I've gotten in touch with grief, the more, I'm almost a fan of this stuff. It's just this way we metabolize reality and reconcile ourselves with the rest of the world. It's just seems essential. And especially once you realize how empathic we are as human beings, how we feel one another, this day and age in particular, directly or indirectly, we're probably all walking around in some amount of grief all the time. And I really I wish this for the world that we would all come to understand grief a little bit better, because I think it would affect our daily lives in all sorts of important ways. And if you've been let in on a on something of a secret, that way I can I can hear it in you. Do you sense that your mother was, this gets tricky but ready to die? [00:18:26][53.4]

Conrad: [00:18:27] We never talked about it. But now after kind of going through things, I can see some preparations, you know, documents here, a group of photos there. She didn't expect it because it was like an infection that kind of happened. So it was almost like a blind side. But we were preparing because her treatments were subsequently failing and we were looking for new things. I was very fortunate in many ways. The day that she went in the hospital, I happened to be visiting with her. Me and my sister spent the day with her. We cleaned the house, we organized the cupboards. She was like in her glory, bossing us around. And she sat down for five minutes by herself and she called 911 for herself because she couldn't breathe. Before she was intubated, she called me to quickly say that she loved us and she wasn't sure what was going to happen. And I and I told her to just not be scared, to be brave. And I was with her from that side onward. So I think that she was ready because I think actually she took those 23 days to help us get ready. [00:19:22][54.8]

Ronan: [00:19:23] Did you feel you needed to be strong, because I know I'm fortunate my mom is still alive, but five years ago she got diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time and it was like triple negative, which is one of the worst kinds of breast cancer. And I remember going with her to the appointments and like I remember like trying to be strong and like holding my emotions in and be brave. And and I remember Erwin saying, like, why? Like, do you think your mom wants you, wants to see us being OK with the circumstance? Like, why was that your reaction? Because I mean, I think it's a lot of people's reaction being like, oh, they're the sick person, I'm going to be the strong one. And it struck me as being like, oh, what a weird, weird kind of dynamic and paradigm we live in. [00:20:12][49.7]

Conrad: [00:20:13] For me, it was just it was yeah, I was trying to be strong, but I saw I saw the example of strength. Like she took the lead on strength in those days in the hospital. So I really felt like no matter what I was doing, no sleep, no food, whatever it was, it paled in comparison to what she was trying to do for us. So I just drew her strength and and now I always have it. [00:20:31][18.0]

B.J: [00:20:31] Beautiful. And I, I'd add for my money, I would say got to the point where language is the thing that just drives me bonkers. [00:20:38][6.1]

[00:20:38] When you choose words and we get we pigeonhole ourselves and every time we choose a word or that we're not these other words and we have such limited definitions for ourselves. So for example, this idea of strength, strength is falling apart. Strength is being vulnerable, like once so strong about a rock that can't fall apart, that can't move. Is it strong to have no feelings? Is it strong to be unaffected? I don't think so. I think strength is that you can withstand pain and all sorts of difficulties. You can fall apart and still keep going. That's the bigger strength. That's the strength I'm trying to cultivate. [00:21:15][36.4]

Ronan: [00:21:15] You're so right on so many angles in terms of the failing of language to talk about this, as well as to recognize that strength doesn't mean being unmoved. And in fact, it probably means the ability to be moved right? And responding to it instead of being emotionless. B.J, before you said grief helps us metabolize reality, can you unpack that a little bit further? [00:21:41][25.7]

B.J: [00:21:42] Building on what you were just saying guys would be like, you know, that grief is a human response to loss, could be death, could be loss of anything. So, you know, like we're saying that there's strength in being able to withstand that, but that means going through some stuff. Grief takes some time as they're transitions that need to happen. We need to lighten the grip on the thing that we're letting go of and find what we still have. Like it's like acknowledging what we're losing. And in this metabolic process, if we if we roll with it, you get to see what you lose and you get to honor it. You get to cherish it, love it, internalize it. That's a big part of this process. So Conrad, mom may be gone in person, but she's in you. She's alive in you right? And so grief helps you internalize this thing that you've lost. And it also helps you eventually, helps shift the focus from all that's gone to what you still have. So it's very much an experience, a process. I tried to short circuit grief earlier in life, and if I knew that the idea was to get to acceptance, I tried to like use my willpower and my frontal lobe to just yank me to accepting it. Oh, it's gone now. Bye bye. OK, moving on. And I short changed this process to them, to this metabolic process where you're digesting this thing that's gone and coming to terms with what you still have. Again, that's that is that requires time. It's a process, is a transition. And we do ourselves such a disservice if we give each other a day or two to be sad and then we're supposed to buck up and move on. It just robs us like I did that with my sister's death. My sister died 20 years ago. I inherited this notion of strong one, would just OK, it's the fact she's gone moving on. And I totally tried to shortcut that metabolic process. And what I ended up doing was cutting myself off from her memory. I resisted internalizing her. It took me years to circle back to her memory and let myself sit with the sorrow and let myself be with the pain, because that was in a way of being with her. And it didn't just stay painful. Good memories popped up. Feelings, all sorts of stuff cropped up when I finally opened up to that and I could feel her growing in me again. [00:24:01][138.9]

Ronan: [00:24:02] I think that's one of the most powerful things I've heard in a long time. You know, everyone talks about like the process of grieving, right? But that kind of sounds like, to me, that sounds like a treadmill, which is like it's something you get and you've got to go through it. But what you just said is like grief. If I was going to reframe it is the process of translating one form of connection into a new form, the form of translating the physical body of a parent or a sister into more dynamic memories of of them. [00:24:34][31.9]

Conrad: [00:24:34] One thing I'd like to say is I'm sorry for the loss of your sister. [00:24:36][2.3]

B.J: [00:24:37] Thank you. [00:24:38][0.4]

Conrad: [00:24:38] And I mean it. Even though it might have been a long time ago, it's just as real and just as important. And honestly, two months ago, I would never have known that, I never would have even stopped now, to wish you my condolences. I would have just kind of breezed by it. But that's how important I see it now, because I've seen how other people's loss kind of carried them to me. And I'll let my loss carry me to others for the rest of my life. Kind of be open to that. And so part of what you say when you say to stay with it and have your sister stay with you resonates a lot, too, because for a long time, you know, I have an Italian mom and she was aggressive and could be outwil a lot sometimes as an Italian mom might be. And so at times it was kind of like trying to endure her, in ways. And other times we had great close relationships. But now when I had to be that voice for her, see, I felt like even though she was so sick, I also recognize, like we had this unique opportunity to have a fight for her that maybe she would win, that other people never even got the chance to get in the battlefield for, if that makes any sense. And I talked to other people who had such sharp, sudden loss that they never even had a chance to fight. And so I was always appreciative of that chance. But part of it was actually letting her in kind of like the tides because it was so intense and I had to really transform for her. I don't think the tides will ever leave, as so long as I'm here. And that's something that I've reconciled with. Like I've metabolized her in a way that I will almost always carry that element with me. [00:26:06][88.1]

B.J: [00:26:06] Do you like the sound of that, as you say that? [00:26:08][1.5]

Conrad: [00:26:09] If you had talked to me a couple of months ago, I would have said no. But today is totally different because I worked for it and I and I saw my mom in all these new lights through through her body, through her health, through her friends and family and people that came to mourn with us. She's almost like a totally different person for me now, better than ever. And I am her. And she is me. [00:26:27][18.3]

B.J: [00:26:29] And I guess for your listeners, I think you and I should make clear here, it doesn't mean even as we speak with some elation about what grief can do, what what it does with us, it's not easy or simple or always fun or pretty. So if you guys are hearing some sort of elation in us that's there, too. But part of the elation, at least for me, Conrad, tell me what you think, is that the elation comes with getting getting to see that all of it it can exist. I can be miserable. I can be weeping and I can be joyful. I get to do all of it. [00:27:02][33.2]

Conrad: [00:27:03] Oh a hundred percent. I mean, I wouldn't wish it on anyone as long as you can. And part of it's me is gratitude that I managed to go so long without it. But now that it has arrived, I feel that it's my responsibility to embrace it wholeheartedly and take it for what it is and see it for the for the gifts that it was. And like I said, so many people didn't even get that gift because I learned so much over those twenty three days in the ICU. I learned so much about her, so much about myself, so much about communication and what it means to be alive. [00:27:33][30.2]

B.J: [00:27:34] And isn't it cool that your mom still teaching you stuff,. [00:27:36][1.9]

Conrad: [00:27:37] Still yes, 100 percent. [00:27:39][2.3]

Ronan: [00:27:47] There have been few guests whose words, thoughts and experiences have moved me more than the conversation Conrad and I had with B.J., his strength and resolve, yet tenderness and understanding represents, I think, some of the finest of human qualities. As we were speaking, I kept coming back to a poem that is read every year during Yom Kippur services in the Jewish community. And I want to share it with you as it seems so fitting to our conversation. It goes: Birth is a beginning and death a destination, and life is a journey from childhood to maturity and youth to age, from innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing, from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom. From weakness to strength or from strength to weakness, and often back again from health to sickness and we pray to health again, from offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love, from joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion, from grief to understanding. From fear to faith. From defeat to defeat, to defeat, until not looking backwards or ahead, we see that victory lies not at some high point along the way, but in having made the journey step by step. A sacred pilgrimage. Birth is a beginning and death a destination, and life is a journey. If there has ever been anyone in the world who so perfectly exemplifies this poem, it is B.J. [00:29:22][94.4]

Ronan: [00:29:25] Curious to know about your path, because it sounds like you've touched into the mystic side of things and the metaphysical and, you know, is that something that was part of your experience going through what you went through? [00:29:37][12.1]

[00:29:38] As a kid, actually, I was raised Episcopalian, but in a casual suburban kind of we went to church when there were pretty services and candles and stuff. It was it was an aesthetic pursuit as much as anything else for our family, it was in the background. But I as a kid, took it pretty seriously, actually, and or tried to not just the ideas, but it was really, I was active in the choir. I used to love to sing choir music and was really through the church music where I was really moved. And there was a period when I was in my early teens where I figured out, gosh, I think I should head for the cloth. I was so moved by the message of forgiveness, of love, of equality in God's eyes, those messages, the golden rule, do unto others. These things just felt like really right on to me. They still do that coupled with liturgical music, really moved me to the point where I thought maybe I should go to seminary school. But I went to boarding school and talked with enough priests and pastors and stuff to realize that the church for me was not where I was, that the church for me was outside, that the church was real life. I then went into college years, I was much becoming much more heady around these things. I felt compelled to push on the ida front, on the intellectual front to try to to reconcile these things, to see life in this rational way. Even if you stick with the rational zone, we are actually stardust. We know that when we die, our bodies just transfer energy. This is not mysticism. This is science at this point. So pretty quickly, even if you're following the rational line and the observational line, you get to some pretty amazing places. And then from there you have to at some point come to a jumping off point where the things you can't explain, where the rational mind won't get you all the way there. And then you talk to enough really, really smart people who in the end have to say, I don't know, I don't know why. So sort of like I was mystical as a child, rational as a young adult and then much of my life has, since then has been trying to square all that. Nothing can be excluded. And this is one of the things I love about death is everyone's affected. Everything must go. So that's the quest I'm on and it doesn't require much faith. Again, that's some of the beautiful part about and spending time around Buddhism, I worked at a Buddhist hospice for years that didn't require any faith. It may require you to say, I don't know, which is a way of backing into the idea of mystery and things beyond your perception and your own cognition. On that note, I must say I'm quite enamored with mystery. Mystery's a lovely, beautiful thing. It keeps me curious, keeps me humble. It's like looking up in the night sky and you have to square like, wait a second. The three of us are on the same planet at the same time and they're awake. Like one hundred million zillion planets in this galaxy in two hundred mill...what? It's just like even if you just stick with what we know, things get quickly pretty mystical. And I guess my where I'm going with this is as much as I love mystery because it allows for imagination, creativity, humility, all the things I was describing. There's also a caution in there, which is when we see this playing out these days, too, which is willful ignorance, where we pretend to not know things that we actually know, that's a real hazard. [00:33:15][216.6]

Ronan: [00:33:15] What are the things that you see most commonly that we pretend to not know? [00:33:19][3.8]

B.J: [00:33:20] That we die is the big one. [00:33:22][1.6]

[00:33:22] Like we're talking. That's that's the mother one. Not to pretend that our love of independence and autonomy is though those are absolute states, those are completely farcical. I don't think an independent person has ever lived. I don't, I can't imagine ever one, one ever will. And who would want to be that independent person who needs nothing from no one? What's the fun of that? [00:33:42][19.4]

Ronan: [00:33:42] What's your best sense of the why? Why all of this? Maybe I'll give you a bit of a stepping off point. But like Erwin talks about, you know, how the fact that contrary to the belief that the only certainties in life are death and taxes is like the only certainty in life is growth. We're all here and everything is conscious right? Like and actually, I'd be curious to know your thoughts on that, that, like, consciousness is not just in the realm of the biologically living. That consciousness exists throughout the universe from every star to every quote on quote, dead planet, you know, maybe life forms that are of a higher level of consciousness than than us. [00:34:20][38.5]

B.J: [00:34:21] If I had to guess the why, I would hedge and say you know one of the things that psychedelics have taught me, one of the things that death has taught me, one of the things as a part of our conversation here is another way of seeing the illusion, is that we're another way of saying is that we're separate from each other and everything else. That's an illusion. Then you can sense that in ways and I certainly experienced that through psychedelics. So even the question of presupposing like why are asking really any question reflecting on this thing called life that we're talking about requires a little bit of distance to look at it, to reflect on it, to ask the question of why. And when I'm really in a flow state, when I'm under the influence of psychedelics in my past, there's no need for that question. That all is life. It's all conscious. It's not like we humans have a lock on that. Basically, my answer your question here, Ronan, is that if I'm to guess a why, I suppose it would be to realize for us to find our way to realize that has something to do with love, that it has something to do with this, that everything is life, that is just this churning mass life, death. Those are just these sort of these are constructs. They're not the real thing. They're constructs. They help us digest reality, help us begin to see to begin, deduce our way to the truth. And the truth is that we are not separate, we are entirely entwined. [00:35:49][87.6]

Ronan: [00:35:50] It kind of reminds me of the first time I thought about the concept of, like, there is no beginning, there is no end, it just is. And how I still struggle to comprehend that. I think I've gotten better over the years to make it make sense. [00:36:05][15.1]

B.J: [00:36:05] Which is why I think it's so important to find your way to experiences that prove the point that it just is. [00:36:11][5.6]

Ronan: [00:36:12] I think that's a great segue to talk about psychedelics. You know, curious to know what's helped show you. [00:36:17][5.0]

B.J: [00:36:17] Overarchingly, the theme for me personally is probably much the theme generally. And we've been talking much about it, really, which is sort of reconciling all these things which seem different or all these contrast moments and seeing the relationship and seeing them as part of a whole. Grasping both the truth of my body and my physical form and the consequence it portends with the bigger field where those are just variations on themes. [00:36:44][27.4]

[00:36:45] So it's been much about a way to get beyond my ideas in a way, while not annihilating the brain while not being willfully ignorant. So that's generally speaking, what I've been seeking and that's what I've gotten. You know, the most profound experience with psychedelics was with 5MEODMT, which was so much what we're talking about now. My ego was nowhere. It was just just gone. For me, it was not scary. At least the part of the experience that I remember. What was most interesting about it was coming on sort of descending or ascending into the experience where your egos, you know, there's a little bit of clenching and clawing as it's dissolving. And then towards the end of the experience where my ego, my constructs, the ways I know I'm alive, the way I can sense and believe things, the reality and the thing we call physical reality, I could see that coming back online. First of all, you just get to see the truth of how much of, we're just the way they just made up stuff, it's just just invented it's all these inventions, I mean, which is fascinating and I love them as inventions. I just it's I think it's such an important thing to call so much of our daily life an invented existence of so much of our sense of self as an invention. I don't mind that at all. In fact, I think that's fascinating and also gets me in a kind of a creative mindset with myself. I can play with myself. I can move these things around. So when I was coming out of that 5MEODMT experience, seeing my structures set up again, kind of come back in place, I could see them for what they were. And what I'd like to do over time would begin to to really shape that moment of coming back online. And maybe I can move within there. Maybe I can change some assumptions. Again, the realization that all of this is made up, if it's all, then then I get to make up more stuff. You know, I can keep making stuff up but playfully and call it what it is and not confuse it with the life that's humming underneath it. And then lastly, I would say that that experience in terms of these constructs, well death's a construct, I don't know, like you're saying, death and taxes. First of all, a lot of people don't pay taxes and death, all I can say is for sure is it's a change. It's as much as I can say is it's a change. [00:39:13][147.9]

Ronan: [00:39:14] You know, you talk about redesigning how we die and just curious if you could translate that into more specific, tangible things that maybe someone could start to to think about. [00:39:26][11.8]

B.J: [00:39:27] Like we're talking here some of the ways that we humans struggle and suffer and we all do. So much of it has to do with our constructs, the things that we make up. And so it goes with navigating illness, health care, the health care system, the dying process, because we struggle to include death in our frame, in our view of reality. Consequently, we have this very immature relationship with it. And so it's unexamined. And so it's not on the design brief. When we create the health care facilities, we create social structures and it shows. You know and some of us become exhausted to see all this suffering that humans go through and to realize it's made up. So the design idea here, is it OK because so much of our experiences is something that we create. If we can introduce this truth, this reality of mortality into that mix, then we can begin to design towards it. So it's not an afterthought. So it's not a anomalous event or a failing is the way we usually talk about it. So if we can stop calling it a failing, if we can call it the thing that makes space for the reality that it is, we won't be ashamed to do it. We will design different health care structures that make space for it. The role of the senses of the felt world, the perceived world is so powerful, so amazing, it's so wonderful. It's such a great part of having a body in the first place. So the whole idea here Ronan is to name death as an experience and part of the experience of life, bringing it into everything we're prepared for and designed for. [00:41:09][102.3]

Ronan: [00:41:10] I'm sure this is not what you intended, but I always tell my wife that when I die, I want her to load me up into a big slingshot and fire me into outer space. That's my way of touching the cosmos. [00:41:20][10.1]

B.J: [00:41:23] Why not buddy? Why not? [00:41:24][1.1]

Ronan: [00:41:26] And just one last question I have for you, and then I will thank you graciously for your time, because this has been a fascinating experience and I feel like I could talk about this for hours and I certainly could learn a lot from you. And I think a lot of people could learn a lot from your perspective. But tell us a little bit more about what you're doing with Mettle Health and the vision and aspiration for that, because I think based on my understanding, it ties in pretty closely to to what you're talking about. So Mettle Health, is is a place where you can come to get a palliative care, basically come to get support for your emotional state, your social state, your physical state, your spiritual state. And one of the things in the US palliative care is a beautiful thing, but it's hard to access. Not every system has it available, etc. so what we wanted to do was set up online, no need for a doctor's referral so that anybody just about anywhere could access this kind of care. And so we have hour long sessions where I and other counselors will talk with you just about anything. And the whole idea is much like our conversation here. Sometimes those conversations have to do with process and grief, either in advance or in real time, preparing yourself to make medical decisions, preparing your end of life documents. My favorite is what we're talking about now, sort of reframing yourself in your own life so that you feel like you belong, so that you're not at odds with reality or at odds with yourself, which is so common in the course of illness, but to unpack that and reframe our experiences so that we feel engaged rather than yanked around. So that's what mental health is. It's a website, it's an online portal. So we can have these conversations with just about anyone, anywhere. Eventually, we'd love to have places where you can come and get this care. [00:43:13][107.2]

Ronan: [00:43:14] It's awesome. I mean, it I think it inflates so much of what talked about today. Thank you so much for both for joining us today. It's really been a great conversation. [00:43:21][7.7]

B.J: [00:43:22] The fact that you're hosting conversations out in the world long way. We don't have to be embarrassed. I really appreciate it. [00:43:28][5.6]

Ronan: [00:43:31] I received some of the most powerful insights and takeaways from the conversation with B.J and Conrad. First, the thoughts shared on grief shook me to the core. I used to think that grief was something that was important, but was also something that had to be endured. It was like part of a wound healing, essential, but not necessarily pleasant or positive. Our conversation completely changed my perspective. I now see grief as the energy that transforms love from one form, the physical into another form the memorial or emotional. It is a wonderful, powerful tool and unique aspect of the human experience full of potential for meaning. Through it, we can gain so much and give our lives and our experiences and our loved ones new color, new texture, new meaning and new love. B.J reminded me of something that I have long known, but often forget to appreciate that we are separate and distinct entities, but we are all connected. Yes, we have unique attributes, but we're all part of one universe and we are all made up of the same stardust. Love, life and death are just constructs to help us understand and experience the truth of that reality. As Tom Robbins says, when it comes to making love stay, I got no advice. But here are the two most important things I know, everything is a part of it, and it's never too late to have a happy childhood. Finally, death is just a part of the experience of life. As Richard Dawkin says, we are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones. Or as I learned from a project on euthanasia that I did in grade 11, death is life's greatest ride, that's why we save it for the end. [00:45:16][104.9]

Ronan: [00:45:27] Thank you for listening to Field Tripping, a podcast dedicated to exploring psychedelic experiences and their ability to affect our lives. I'm your host, Ronan Levy. Until next time, stay curious, breathe properly, and remember, every day is a field trip if you let it be one. Field tripping is created by Ronan Levy and produced by Conrad Page. Our researcher is Sharon Bella. Special thanks to Quill. And of course, many thanks to B.J and Conrad for joining me today. To learn more about BJ's new practice, visit www.mettlehealth.com, with mettle being spelled m-e-t-t-l-e. Finally, subscribe to our podcast and sign up for our newsletter at fieldtripping.com [00:45:27][0.0]

About Ronan

An entrepreneur and a visionary, Ronan is one the founders of Field Trip – with a mission to bring the world to life through psychedelics and psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy. Concurrent with his work at Field Trip, he is a partner at Grassfed Ventures, a venture capital and advisory firm focused on the cannabis and biotech industries and is Chief Strategy Officer and Member of the Board of Directors for Trait Biosciences Inc., a leading biotech company in the hemp and cannabis industries. Prior to his current roles, Ronan co-founded Canadian Cannabis Clinics and CanvasRx Inc., the latter of which was acquired by Aurora Cannabis Inc. (NYSE: ACB) in 2016, after which he served as Senior Vice President, Business and Corporate Affairs for Aurora. A lawyer by training, Ronan started his career as a corporate lawyer at Blake, Cassels Graydon LLP and Legal Counsel at CTVglobemedia Inc. (now Bell Media Inc.) He holds a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Commerce degree, both from the University of Toronto.