New World record set in Swiss Powerlifting Championship

My younger son Felix Strong trained hard this year for the Swiss Full Powerlifting Championship in Lausanne on 25 March. He competed in the T2 (16-17 year) age category having turned 17 a month earlier, and in the 75-82.5 kg weight class. 

Felix sets a new world record of 245 kg for the unequipped deadlift during a full powerlifting competition

He did extremely well, setting new Swiss records for all three lifts and for the total: squat 172.5 kg, bench press 110 kg, deadlift 245 kg and total 520 kg (1146 lb). His deadlift was almost 15 kg higher than the current world record of 230.5 kg and the Swiss Drug Free Powerlifting Federation has submitted it to the world body (WDFPF) for approval as the new world record. Short videos of his three lifts are below.

In a full powerlifting competition, the athlete has three attempts for each lift. If he sets a record on his third attempt, he can request a fourth attempt to see whether he can improve his record. Fourth attempts do not count towards the powerlifting total.  Felix squatted 165 kg on his third attempt, and so his powerlifting total was 520 kg, also a Swiss record.

The hammer he carried with him raised a few eyebrows. Was it for deep tissue massage? Or dealing with other competitors? Or just to hammer a lug, which kept sliding out, into place on his belt?

Degrees of separation: Erdös, Einstein, Bacon and more

A basic Buddhist insight is that everything is connected, nothing exists in isolation.  The technical term is “emptiness” and the Heart Sutra expresses it as “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” One pop culture expression of this insight is the Six Degrees of Separation idea. 

This is the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. As early as 1967, Stanley Milgram tested this idea in his small world experiment, where the goal was to send a letter from a random person in Kansas to a random person in Boston via a chain of friends. The letters on average reached their destinations after five and half people. Incidentally Milgram never used the term “six degrees of separation”. This was popularized in a 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation and a 1993 film of the same name starring Stockard Channing, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland and Ian McKellan among others.

The concept has been popularized in a number of offline and online games. This Wikipedia article gives a nice overview of these, as well as more serious attempts to estimate average degrees of separation in various contexts. Wikipedia itself has become the focus of another popular six degrees of freedom game, which my sons have told me about playing, in which the player attempts to find the shortest link path between any two given Wikipedia articles.

I’ll focus below on the Erdös number (mathematicians), the Bacon number (actors), various extensions of the Bacon number, plus a couple I’ve made up myself because I score well on them (what better reason could there be). Disclaimer: none of these numbers say anything about a person’s career success, or social influence, they just shine a light on the wild and wacky ways that we can be connected and that connections are often closer than we would think.

The Erdös Number

Just for fun, mathematicians like to quote their Erdös number, the degrees of collaboration distance from Paul Erdös, one of the most prolific modern writers of mathematical papers. Someone who has co-authored a paper with Erdös has an Erdös number of 1.  Another author’s Erdös number  is one greater than the lowest Erdös number of any of their collaborators.  Some years ago, when bored with work, I decided to try to work out my Erdös number. I found paths through two different co-authors that gave me an Erdös number of 6.

A couple of years I published with a co-author who reduced my number 5. Chatting to colleagues, I boasted that my Erdös number had dropped to 5, the medium number among professional mathematicians, and one of them asked what an Erdös number was. I explained, and he obviously went back to his office to see if he could work out his, because he returned a few minutes later to say that his was 3, and I was 4 (one less than the median for mathematicians. 

Here is my Erdös pathway:

  1. Erdös, P.; Babu, G. Jogesh; Ramachandra, K. An asymptotic formula in additive number theory. Acta Arith. 28 (1976) no. 4, 405-412.
  2. Mukherjee, S., Feigelson, E.D., Babu, G.J., Murtagh, F., Fraley, C. and Raftery, A.E. Three types of gamma ray bursts. Astrophysical Journal 1998; 508, 314-327.
  3. Le Bao, Josh A Salomon, Tim Brown, Adrian E Raftery, Daniel R Hogan. Modelling national HIV/AIDS epidemics: revised approach in the U Estimation and Projection Package 2011. Sexually transmitted infections 2012, 88 (Suppl 2), i3-i10.
  4. Colin D Mathers, Ritu Sadana, Josh Salomon, Christopher JL Murray, Lopez AD. Healthy life expectancy in 191 countries, 1999. The Lancet 2001, Vol 357: 1685-1691.

The Erdös number has been criticized as having a temporal bias. The further a person is in time from Erdös (who died in ) the higher his Erdös number will be on average. However, this irrelevant, the Erdös number is nothing other than a measure of the degrees of separation from Erdös and of course it must increase with time. Measures of career impact are available that are based on citations, not degrees of separation. The sciences have widely adopted the H-index which is a measure of the number of papers published and widely cited.  The H-index has its limitations also as it varies by discipline and length of career.

The Einstein Number

Since my original research field was physics, I was curious to see whether physicists have an analogous index for collaboration distance from a famous physicist, such as Einstein. I have only found two web pages (here and here) that mention degrees of separation from Einstein, one in terms of personal encounters and the other in terms of papers cited by a paper (not co-authorship as for Erdos). Einstein has an Erdos number 2, since he wrote papers with Ernst Straus, and Straus co-authored 20 papers with Erdos. Here is one example:

  1. Albert Einstein and Ernst G. Straus. The Influence of the Expansion of Space on the Gravitation Fields Surrounding the Individual Stars. Annals of Mathematics 1946; 47(4): pp 731-741.
  2. Paul Erdős and Ernst G. Straus. On products of consecutive integers, Number theory and algebra, pp. 63–70, Academic Press, New York, 1977.

So I automatically have an Einstein number of 6 via Erdos. I also found a separate path, avoiding Erdos, which also gives me an Einstein number of 6.

And a path consisting only of physics papers, giving me an Einstein number of 7, as follows:

  1. Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, Non-existence of regular stationary solutions of relativistic field equations, Annals of Mathematics, ser. 2, 44 (1943) 131-137.
  2. Wolfgang Pauli, L Rosenfeld and Victor F. Weisskopff . Niels Bohr and the development of physics. New York: Pergamon Press (1955) – 195 pp.
  3. John M Blatt, Victor F Weisskopf. . Theoretical nuclear physics. New York: Chapman and Hall (1952) – 896pp.
  4. JM Blatt, Stuart T Butler. Superfluidity of an ideal Bose-Einstein gas. Physics Review (1955) 100: 476-480.
  5. Stuart T Butler, Robert M May. Production of Highly Excited Neutral Atoms for Injection into Plasma Devices. Physics Review (1965) 137: A10–A16
  6. Robert M May, Neil F Cramer. Energy loss of fast test ions in a plasma in a weak magnetic field. Physics Letters A (1969), 30: 10-11.
  7. Colin D Mathers, Neil F Cramer.  The Effect of Ionization and Recombination on the Resistivity of a Partially Ionized Plasma in a Magnetic Field.  Australian Journal of Physics  (1978) 31: 171-9.

Kevin Bacon and the Bacon Number

In a 1994 interview, Kevin Bacon mentioned that he’d either been in a movie with everyone in Hollywood or someone who had worked with them. The comment morphed into a popular game for movie buffs connecting actors to Bacon, via a chain of the movies they have made together.

A valid Bacon number is assessed through co-starring roles in mutual films, television programs, and documentaries verifiable by the Internet Movie Database. Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of 0, anyone who has appeared in a movie or television program with the actor has a Bacon number of 1, individuals who have appeared with one of Bacon’s co-stars (but not directly with Bacon) have a Bacon number of 2, and so on. Sometimes, this is relaxed to appearances in a movie, rather than co-starring role.

Two random examples of politicians with low Bacon numbers: Donald Trump has a Bacon number of two from his cameo in Home Alone 2, and Vladimir Putin has a three.

According to the Oracle of Bacon, based on actors appearing in movies and TV shows (excluding news, reality and talk shows), the distribution of Bacon numbers is as follows:

An astonishing 2,759 actors have appeared in movies with Kevin Bacon. The average Bacon number 3.03 and only 888 of the 1,375,157 actors had a Bacon number of 7 or greater, that’s less than 0.1%.

Erdös-Bacon Number

Because some people have both a finite Bacon and a finite Erdős number because of acting and publications, there are a rare few who have a finite Erdős–Bacon number, which is defined as the sum of a person’s independent Erdős and Bacon numbers. The Bacon number used here is often the broader form counting onscreen filmmaking collaborations rather than only actors in starring roles.

Natalie Portman has a Erdős-Bacon number of six, second-lowest among professional actors, as does Danica McKellar. The actor with the lowest number is apparently Albert M. Chan, who appeared with Bacon in Patriots Day. His number is four. Colin Firth’s number is seven. Coming from the other direction, Carl Sagan’s number was four. Stephen Hawking’s is seven.

The lowest number that anyone is known to have is three, held by mathematicians Daniel Kleitman and Buce Reznick. Daniel Kleitman, for example, was a math advisor for Good Will Hunting (which is two steps from Kevin Bacon via Minnie Driver’s appearance in Sleepers) and appeared in the film as an extra.

Elon Musk, who is neither a scientist nor an actor, has an Erdős–Bacon number of 6. In 2010 Musk had a cameo in the film Iron Man 2. Since actor Mickey Rourke played a role in both Iron Man 2 and in Diner where Kevin Bacon aso played a role, Musk has a Bacon number of 2. In 2021 Musk coauthored a peer-reviewed scientific paper on COVID-19 together with Pardis Sabeti, among others. Since Sabeti has an Erdős number of 3, Musk has an Erdős number of 4 (same as me) and consequently an Erdős–Bacon number of 6.

I don’t have a Bacon number, and the only way I could get one is if my friend James, a professional documentary producer, could be persuaded to put me in one of his documentaries. He has a Bacon number of 3, and he just needs to offer me a part in his next film.

Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number

Legendary heavy metal band Black Sabbath is famous for having more members (35 touring and session players) than albums (19). So of course there is a Black Sabbath number for people who have connected with Black Sabbath through musical performances.

To have an Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number, you must have: co-written a scientific paper with someone who eventually connects to Erdos; appeared in a film with someone who eventually connects to Kevin Bacon; and performed musically with someone who eventually connects to Black Sabbath. A perfect EBS number would be three. No-one has that number. The lowest known number is 8, held by Stephen Hawking, futurist Ray Kurzweil; and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

Natalie Portman (actress) and Brian May ( of Queen fame) both have EBS numbers of eleven. Lower EBS numbers have been claimed for both (solid 10 for Portman and 8 for Brian May, the latter through a dubious Erdos connection).

Handshake separation from Adolf Hitler

And one I won’t be adding to my CV is my 2 degrees of (handshake) separation from Adolf Hitler. Back in 2003 when I was visiting Germany, I met and shook hands with an elderly woman who had shaken hands with Hitler when she was young.

Skiing in the French Alps

I spent the first week of January at Les Gets in the French Alps during the unseasonal spring weather. No snow and no lifts running. We drove 20 minutes further up the valley to ski on two-week old heavy wet snow at Avoriaz, and a couple of days it was even raining on the snow. A taste of what global warming has in store for us.

Over the last week, it has snowed heavily on the mountains around Geneva, and in Geneva itself. So my younger son and I went up to Les Gets for the day and had a wonderful day skiing on fairly fresh snow in brilliant sunshine. The temperature was about -6 C when we got there about 9.30 am and rose to a little above zero in the middle of the day in the sunshine. Here are some photos.

My son is ready for a day skiing
View west towards Geneva, 60 km away beneath the clouds.
Looking south towards Mont Blanc, with summit covered by clouds
In the centre can be seen the Pointe Percée, highest peak of the Aravis range
Another view towards the French Alps from the piste
I wore my mountaineering goggles as the sun was very bright on the snow

Winter surfing on the Sunshine Coast

I returned to Australia with my son in late June this year. Our first trip back since the pandemic started. We stayed with my sister, who lives in Noosa on the Queensland Sunshine Coast. It was winter there, but Queensland winters are mild by European standards. We surfed at Sunshine Beach a number of times and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ocean temperature was on the cool side at 19-20 degrees C, but it was colder out of the water with air temperatures around 15-17 degrees and usually with a sea breeze.

Sunshine Beach life saver on duty

Most days there were a handful of people in the surf. On the day the photo above was taken, there were only two others in the water. The lifeguard was sitting in the truck. He did use his loudhailer twice to chastise my son, who was outside the flags and too far out.

Sunshine Beach

Near Death Experiences – Part 2

In my first post on near-death experiences (NDE), I recalled two incidents where I was knocked unconscious and would never have known if I had died (which was by no means unlikely). The following two incidents are quite different. In both cases I fell off a cliff and was fully conscious till I hit the ground below.

The first incident occurred on a solo cross-country ski trip in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. My friends and I had driven from Sydney through the night to arrive in Thredbo early Saturday morning. Our plan was to catch the chairlift up to the snow and then ski cross-country to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain at 7,310 feet. However, the weather forecast was bad with strong winds and low visibility predicted in the summit region and my friends decided it was not a good idea to go. I was not happy, having driven all night to get there, and told them I would go on my own without them.  Not my brightest moment, although I had done this trip before and knew the route.

Mt Kosciuszko on a clear winter day

I skied the approximately six kilometres to Mt Kosciuszko without any problems. As I ascended to the summit, the wind became much stronger and the clouds blew in, reducing visibility to around 10 metres or less. I reached the summit, and then turned back, skiing so I thought back down the same ridge I had ascended. Visibility was very low and not too far along the ridge, I suddenly found myself airborn and falling fast. I had skied off a cliff in the white-out. I fell for long enough to have time to think about whether I knew of any cliffs on Kosciuszko or how high they were. There was no fear, and my life did not flash before my eyes, I was simply focused on figuring out whether I was in for a big fall. I landed in a deep drift of powder snow without any injury. 

I assumed I had skied off the north side of Kosciuszko (as it later turned out correctly) and that if I skied down the valley I was in I would come within a kilometre or so to a line of snow poles that marked the track from Seaman’s Hut back to the top of the chairlift. So I set off down the valley still with very low visibility and soon enough reached the snow poles. I started to ski east following the snow poles and the visibility was just enough that I could see the next snow pole from the one I was at. However, the snow was deep and after a little while the snow poles ahead of me disappeared under the snow. I tried skiing as far as I could keeping the last snow pole in sight but I could not find another. It was now late afternoon and I was concerned that I might have to spend the night on the snow. I had come out in a shirt and wind jacket and was carrying no additional warm clothing.

Then two more skiers appeared. They had also been trying to follow the snow poles back to Thredbo. With the three of us we were able to use our packs and items of clothing to extend the search area much further while marking the route back to the last pole. We were lucky and found the continuation of the snow pole line. And were able to get back to the chairlift just before dark in time to catch the last chairlift down.

If I had not come across the other two skiers, there would have been quite a chance that I got lost again in the snow and probably would not have survived the night.

In the second incident, I was descending a canyon in the Blue Mountains with two friends. I was setting up a rope to rappel down a waterfall about 15-20 metres high, and it was very slippery. As I walked out to the lip of the waterfall to throw the rope down, I thought “if I slip I will just grab the rope”. I did slip, and I grabbed the bottom end of the rope, not the upper part closest to the tree the rope was looped around. The waterfall was close to vertical. As I fell, I bounced off a couple of rock ledges which may have slowed my fall. I landed in a shallow pool at the bottom of the waterfall that had a flat rock bottom and was about 1 foot deep. By chance, I landed with my body absolutely horizontal, and got up and walked away with some bruises. If I had landed at any other angle I would have been dead or severely disabled. I yelled to my friends up top: “you don’t need a rope for this one”.

One of my friends on the final waterfall in this canyon

In this incident, the fall happened so fast, that I don’t recall having any thoughts whatsoever. I was just in the moment, experiencing the ride and finding myself lying flat in a shallow pool before I had had a chance to think of anything at all. In this type of NDE, everything happened quite fast, and if I thought at all it was practical thoughts like do I have any idea how far I will fall?  And in both cases, stupidity was the cause and sheer luck resulted in survival without injury.

How psilocybin uncovered repressed trauma and healed my pain

My experience at a psychedelic retreat

I was in high school during the 1960s and psychedelics were illegal by the time I started university in 1971. Although I was fascinated by writings on psychedelics by Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and others, and the experiences recounted by various friends, my fear of adverse outcomes led me to avoid trying LSD when the opportunity presented.

In 2019, I read several accounts of people who had attended legal psychedelic retreats in the Netherlands and elsewhere seeking to facilitate personal development. I also read Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on the current psychedelic renaissance, Changing Your Mind. I was searching for new priorities and purposes in life after divorce and retirement. Maybe a psychedelic retreat could provide some clarity?

So I decided to attend a psychedelic retreat and this is an account of my experiences. They led in an altogether unexpected direction and led to the resolution of repressed trauma that I had been unaware of.

The Netherlands fully legalized the psilocybin-containing truffle form of magic mushrooms in 2019 and a number of organizations started to provide psychedelic retreats designed to facilitate personal growth, emotional breakthroughs and spiritual development. There is growing evidence for the transformative potential of a well-prepared psychedelic experience in a safe and supportive environment (see for example Madsen et al 2020, Aday et al. 2020, Kettner et al. 2021). . A new wave of research is also finding that psychedelics can offer significant therapeutic benefits for people suffering with depression, trauma or addiction (see here and here).

The Synthesis retreat centre in Amsterdam has been running 3 day retreats since April 2018. After speaking to several retreat facilitators at Synthesis, I decided to enrol for their first five-day retreat in October 2019. This would include two psilocybin ceremonies on the second and fourth day. Before enrolment, I undertook an interview and a health screening process, similar to that being used in clinical studies of psilocybin.

I also accepted an invitation to participate in a research study being carried out by the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London to investigate changes in wellbeing associated with the retreat process. This involved answering questionnaires at six different points in time; before, during and after attending the retreat, as well as wearing a bracelet during the retreat days to monitor various physiological variables.

Synthesis puts a strong emphasis on preparation before the retreat, support from facilitators during the retreat, and integration of the experience and its lessons into daily life after the retreat. The three-week preparation phase included weekly group Zoom calls and preparatory activities including journaling, meditation and the development of three intentions for the retreat. These intentions play a crucial role as the expectations of the psychedelic voyager usually have a strong influence on what is experienced. My two main intentions were: to reach closure on the end of my marriage, and to clarity on my goals and priorities in retirement. My third intention was more of a wishful hope that I would experience the ego-dissolution that psilocybin can cause, and that I had previously experienced several times when practicing Zen meditation.

The first day at the retreat – flight instructions

The retreat was held in a converted church in near Amsterdam, now decorated in a mix of Buddhist and shamanic symbolism. There were around ten of us, together with five guides. We came from Europe, UK and North America and ranged in age from around twenty up to me in my sixties. Most of us had not had any previous experience with psilocybin.

Each of us was paired with an individual guide who would help us prepare for and integrate our psychedelic experience. My guide emphasised the importance of being open to the experience and not resisting it. He recommended that I work on this in the breathwork sessions later that day and the next morning.

The guides also gave us “flight instructions”: advice on the process, what to expect, and what to do if the experience became uncomfortable. They emphasised the importance of our three intentions in creating expectations that would influence psychedelic experience and maximize its potential benefits. We were given a mantra “Trust, let go and be open” to use when we recognized that we were resisting. The first ceremony would be a medium dose of psilocybin followed during the second ceremony by a deeper dive if requested.

First ceremony

The second day started with silent meditation and then a guided breathwork session to further prepare us for the afternoon ahead. The breathwork surprised me by releasing some quite strong emotions, resulting in tears and bodily shaking, and I used the mantra to stay open to the experience.

After a light lunch, we prepared the truffle tea. We ground up truffles and ginger, then added boiling water to make a ginger tea. Mattresses were arranged in a large circle in the ceremony room, each with pillows and a gravity blanket. When everyone was settled on their mattresses, we were served our truffle tea. I drank it all and then ate all the ground truffles left in the cup. I put on my blindfold mask, lay down on my back and covered myself with the gravity blanket as music from a curated playlist started to play. I was to lie there for the next five hours, apart from one trip to the toilet.

After maybe 15 or 20 minutes, I started to notice light and patterns. As I looked more closely these would break up and extend into intricate moving geometrical patterns or distinctive rainbow bands of colours shimmering and rippling. Every time I looked at something it would expand into fractals, or geometric patterns of immense detail and dynamics. I could drill down into these dynamic patterns and every level would expand.

And then my mind was totally caught up in the music. The music was much more than sound, it was colour, emotions, patterns, and very real and very solid. I experienced tones or chords as solid objects, that changed and grew with the music, building dynamic structures.

As the afternoon went on, the music and the visual patterns became less distracting. I started to get visions and to experience changes in my sense of self. I saw my parents and I was a child. I experienced myself as other people and even as four separate people.

I rummaged through the traumas of my life, revisiting periods when I was with my first wife and now-estranged daughters. I also revisited periods in my second long-term relationship. I re-experienced the love that I felt at those times, as well as the grief and sadness at the failures of those relationships. Curiously, the end of my most recent marriage did not come up.

When eventually I surfaced from my inner voyage and took the mask off, I looked at my hand. It looked gaunt and wrinkled and was going black and blue as I looked at it. When I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror, I saw an old man, a stranger, looking back at me.

I went back to the mat and kept drifting in and out of a meditative state, seeing difficult times in my life as if watching a movie, and still avoiding feelings. Towards evening, I went outside in the wind and watched the leaves and trees against the sky. I was cold but invigorated and feeling somewhat more open and connected.

Uncovering repressed feelings about my estranged daughters

On the third day of the retreat, I had a one-on-one session with my guide to understand and integrate the previous day’s experience, and to discuss strategies and intentions for the next day’s ceremony.

I was surprised that my trip had not focused on recent issues, but on the trauma and grief dating from the estrangement of my two daughters twenty years previously. I separated from my first wife in 1992 when my daughters were five and nearly eight. We divorced the following year and reached an agreement under which I had the girls about one-third of the time over the next seven years.

When I told my ex-wife in 1999 that I was going to work for a UN organization in Geneva for a year, she and my daughters refused any further contact. I have not seen them again since late 1999. Despite my close relationship with the girls, she convinced them that I was seeking to avoid my child support obligations. My efforts to show that I was not avoiding child support or seeking to avoid it were fruitless.

I was close to my daughters until they cut off contact, and the estrangement was hard for me to accept. I found a psychologist in Geneva and saw him for two or three years, reaching a point where I felt I had come to an acceptance of the situation and dealt with the grief and loss.

More recently I started counselling with another therapist about current issues and some of the emotions around the estrangement of the girls came up again. She spent time helping me to address that, and I thought I had reached acceptance of the situation and was no longer troubled by it.

Lying in bed falling asleep after the first ceremony, I became aware of the presence of buried feelings about my daughters’ estrangement. It felt as though they were encased in thick armour, like a spherical steel container. During the next day and night, I was always aware these encased feelings. It seemed like they were partly buried and partly protruding into my consciousness.

I very much wanted to get rid of this armour, to release whatever was inside. If I was ever going to explore what was buried deep inside my mind, this might just be the best place to do it. I determined to take advantage of the higher dose of truffles planned for the second ceremony to do this.

Second ceremony

We prepared the tea starting at 12 noon, this time with a higher dose of truffles. Almost immediately I was engrossed by extraordinarily intricate dynamic mandalas of bright lights, crystals, diamonds, endlessly unfolding, filling all space. I went deep into this space and was floating in front of an enormous spaceship. I felt I had a huge crushing weight on my chest and found that I stopped breathing unless I consciously took breaths. For a while I was worried that I would die if I forgot to breathe. Then I realized that I had guides sitting beside me and a medic nearby. They would notice if I wasn’t breathing, so I relaxed and stopped worrying.

The deep black space then transformed into an extraordinarily beautiful kaleidoscopic space filled with endlessly changing crystalline lights and colours. This went on so long that I started to worry. I wanted to go deeper and get past the light show to “important” stuff. I became very restless and repeatedly pulled off my blindfold.

My guide asked if I wanted more truffles and I said yes. After taking a second dose, about half the amount of the first, I put my mask and headphones back on. Now the music dominated and took me with it, and I started resenting it. I realized I was resisting, and said to myself several times “It’s me, don’t blame the music”. I then had a series of quite intense visionary experiences which became increasingly emotional. Some of these involved dramatic changes in the sense of self. I did not resist but leaned into the uncomfortable emotions that arose.

I saw my girls as they were when they were last with me. I experienced an intense feeling of loss and grief. Over and over, I said to myself “I miss you” as the feeling intensified. And at some point, I let go of the young girls and experienced the presence of my daughters as adults now. The grief transformed into love and I started crying and shaking.

One of the guides had noticed how overwhelmed with emotion I was, and sat next to me and held my hand, and his simple presence reassured me and encouraged me to open to my feelings.

After some time, I had an extended vision of the evolution of the universe, the earth, life, my ancestors and my place in the chain of life with my children following. And I saw myself getting very old and dying. I did not experience the dying itself but did experience that I was gone and that life goes on. And how crucial love is to that journey.

I was the last one left in the room by the time evening came. And still in an altered state. People came back into the room for a final closing and sharing circle. I was still there. Hadn’t left the room for close to 8 hours, apart from 2 trips to the toilet. On my second trip to the toilet, I looked in the mirror. Unlike in the first ceremony this time I saw a strong and healthy man looking back at me.


On the last day of the retreat I had another one-on-one session with my guide. I realized I had suppressed the feelings of loss, probably a decade ago, because they were too painful and had genuinely thought that I had accepted the situation. But in reality I was still caught up in the need to get the girls to realize they have been misled about me. Letting go of that need freed me from the anger and resentment I had been stuck in. My guide advised me to practice connecting with the deepest parts of myself and experience and express my love for all my children. That love is unconditional and does not depend on what the girls might believe. I don’t need to demand a response and the armour is gone.

We had weekly group video sessions over the next three weeks with the Synthesis guides to support and guide the integration process.

Two years later

After the retreat, I wrote letters to my daughters. I enclosed documentation of the child support payments made over the years. They can examine the facts if they want to. I no longer worry about what they might believe about me. I continue to write to them from time to time, so they know about my life and that I think about them and am open to communication.

I was somewhat disappointed that I did not have a profound no-self experience at the retreat or come home with clarity on what I wanted to do in retirement. It was not until around ten months later, when I volunteered to participate in a research study on the association of positive outcomes with psilocybin-induced experiences, that I realized that I had indeed had an extraordinary outcome, though not one I had anticipated. The pain and trauma that I had repressed, and did not know was still there, has now been replaced by openly experienced love accompanied by some sadness. Two psilocybin journeys in a supportive environment with appropriate integration has made a profound and long-lasting change, a change that I was not able to achieve through several years of psychological counselling. I feel like I’ve taken a very heavy weight off my mind and that has been incredibly liberating.

Research has shown that psychedelics have the capacity not only to retrieve past traumas, but to simultaneously dampen an overactive emotional response when it is relived. Even so, I doubt I would have had the courage to press through the resistance and repression if I had taken psilocybin on my own. My confidence that I was in safe surroundings with expert guides to assist if I got into difficulties allowed me to drop my resistance and surrender to the experience.

I have spent some time thinking about whether to share this deeply personal experience but decided it might be helpful to others to document my experience of the potential of psychedelics to resolve past traumas and issues.

Near-Death Experiences – Part 1

I’ve had a number of near-death experiences over the years. Almost all of these were the result of sheer stupidity doing risky things. I recently read an account by someone who survived having seen certain death approaching. That and other recent circumstances have got me thinking about my own experiences and meditating on death and dying more generally.

In this post I remember two incidents in which I was knocked unconscious and would never have known about it if I had died. These experiences had a far greater impact on me and my feelings about death and dying than any of the incidents where I realized that death was a probable outcome.

The water slide in question

In the early 2000s, I was in South Africa for three weeks as one of the staff for a WHO global training course. The course was being held in a small game park and resort, which was closed to general visitors. There was a water slide which was also closed, but several of us persuaded the staff to open it one lunch time for us. The water slide was a fully enclosed tube with water running through it which ended over a small swimming pool about 2 metres deep. My friend J and I were the first two there and each did a slide down the tube. I sat up in the tube and found there was too much friction so that I went down quite slowly.

For my second slide, I lay down completely flat in the tube. I do now remember the initial moments, going quite fast and bouncing around in the tube. I must have hit my head on the side of the tube on the way down because I was unconscious when I entered the water and went to the bottom of the pool.

J had gone down before me and was already walking back up the path to the top of the slide. Halfway up he looked back and saw me lying on the bottom of the pool. He initially thought I was clowning around and kept walking. But when he looked back again, I was still in the bottom of the pool. He ran back down to pull me out of the water. I was bleeding heavily from a cut over one eye, and he told me later he thought my skull was broken and my brains were coming out.  I regained consciousness a few minutes later, I don’t know whether he did resuscitation or I started breathing on my own. I asked him what happened and where was I. When he told me we were in South Africa, I was astonished. I had no memory of going to South Africa or any idea why I would be there. I was as astonished as if someone had just told me I was in Siberia.  I knew who I was and who J was, but I had no memory of anything that had happened in the last few weeks.

An ambulance came, and I was taken to the nearest town with a hospital, where they took X-rays of my head and neck. And debated for some time whether the signs of fractures in my neck vertebrae were new or old (they were old). I was fitted with a neck brace and they stitched up the split skin over one eye. My amnesia gradually disappeared over a period of a day or so, until eventually I could remember the initial part of going down the slide and starting to oscillate. But the actual blow to the head and the aftermath before I came to has remained a blank.

After the accident

It was an existential shock to realize that if I had not been pulled out, but drowned, I would never have known. I would not have known I was about to die. Amnesia meant my mind was a blank in the minutes leading up to possible death. It was profoundly disturbing to realize it was entirely possible I would die without ever knowing about it. And it continues to be a realization that I keep revisiting.

I also realized that the state of being dead is nothing to fear. I experienced “not being there” in any form and its nothing at all to be afraid off. You don’t exist, and there is nothing to experience the not existing.

The second experience occurred a couple of years later in Geneva. I had left work to ride to the gym on my bicycle. I was riding in the bus lane on a road which went down a long slope from the World Health Organization. I was riding quite fast and became worried that a bus might be coming up behind me. I looked back and in doing so steered the bike into the gutter. I hit the gutter at speed and went over the front handlebars. 

That is the last memory I have until I suddenly became aware that I was on my bicycle and covered in blood. I was bleeding quite profusely from skin loss on legs and arms and riding in heavy traffic. I had no idea where I was at all but knew from my injuries that I must have been in some sort of accident. I got off the bike and rang my wife on my mobile. I explained I had been in an accident and had no idea where I was. She told me to go to the nearest street corner and tell her the names of the streets. I did that and it turned out I was near the main train station about three and a half kilometres from where the accident occurred.

She came and got me and took me to the hospital, where they diagnosed concussion (duhh!), cleaned and bandaged my wounds, and kept me overnight under observation. When I returned to work and told colleagues what had happened, one of them told me he had seen me on my bicycle riding in the traffic and had not noticed anything unusual. Apparently I am capable of riding in traffic while unconscious. Or perhaps conscious but without any memory-retention ability. I could easily have ridden in front of a car and been killed. As with the first experience, if that had happened I would never have known.

I guess death was a more certain possible outcome for the South African experience. If my friend had not seen me on the bottom of the pool and got me out in time, I would have almost certainly died. This was a much more traumatic experience (after the event) than other “near-death” experiences where I was conscious and realized I was likely to die. I’ll write about them in a later post.

I recently read a blog post by Nathan Hohipua in which he argues that it is impossible to (truly) imagine our deaths, and that the only possible attitude towards death is one of anxiety. He claims that “The light of consciousness cannot really, truly imagine its own extinction” and concludes that “Anxiety is the only possible response to death because it’s just what it is to contemplate something that literally can’t be contemplated because it is the end of all possibility of contemplation.

I think he is wrong in generalizing his own inability to imagine the state of being dead to others. In the waterslide accident, I truly feel that I came back from an experience identical to that of being dead. No memory, no awareness, no experience, nothing. If I had not come back, I would never have known it. That realization has been profoundly disturbing. But the state of being dead? I experienced “not being there” in any form and its nothing at all to be afraid off. You don’t exist, and there is nothing to experience the not existing. I may be missing something, but I don’t have any problem accepting that there will be a future point after which I simply don’t exist. Its exactly the same as before the point in time at which I started to exist (some time after conception).  I have not existed for billions of years and I will also not exist for billions more.

The process of gradually losing function and experiencing pain and possibly loss of mental functioning, whether through ageing or illness, that is a completely different issue. And something that does worry me. I am working on accepting and letting go of the mental drama about it. And eventually when needed, do some contingency planning and prepare a living will. Nathan Hohipua says that if someone tells you they have completely accepted their death, they are deceiving themselves. That likely is true in some cases. And might be true if you are referring to the process leading up to the point of death. But completely untrue for me, if you are referring to the state of being dead. I’ve experienced it, and its nothing to be afraid of.

Christmas skiing in the Swiss Alps

A couple of days before Christmas, my younger son invited me to join him for a day skiing in the Swiss Alps.  Champéry lies in a side valley of the Rhone valley under the Dents du Midi (“Teeth of Noon”) mountain range. I’d last skied there years ago (see earlier post). At less than a day’s notice, I rang the hotel he was staying at and booked a room for the night. The hotels and the ski slopes were half empty because of the Covid travel bans, particularly for the many British who had planned ski holidays in Switzerland and nearby France.

Les Dents du Midi (Teeth of the Noon)
My son at around 2000 m with the Dents du Midi behind him.
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Conquest of the Wall of Death

Not far down the corridor from my office in WHO was a floor-to-ceiling bronze relief sculpture showing the struggle of Man against Death. It was a gift to WHO from the Vatican in 1966, and was located very appropriately, given that a major focus of my unit was to monitor trends and improvements in death rates and their causes.

The floor to ceiling sculpture occupies the wall of a corridor joining the two main office corridors on the 3rd floor of the WHO Headquarters in Geneva.It is approximately 5 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall.
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