Suspended animation always looks so easy in sci-fi movies and television shows – enter a windowed cylinder, someone pushes a button and sets the timer and you wake up months or years later in another place and time, looking the same age and feeling great. Making it happen in real like is a daunting challenge. The European Space Agency and NASA are studying animal hibernation as a technique. Meanwhile, Russian space scientists are studying … Tibetan monks! Cosmonaut trainers, with the blessing of the Dalai Lama, are trying to learn tukdam – the technique of posthumous meditation in which monks who are allegedly clinically dead continue to sit upright without signs of decay for weeks. Will cosmonauts survive long trips from home sweet home by chanting ‘oh sweet om’?
“We asked the Dalai Lama to give us the opportunity to study the electrical activity of the brain from the most successful monastic practitioners. In turn, the Dalai Lama proposed to investigate the phenomenon of "posthumous meditation", which has not been studied by Western science - tukdam, when, after the death is declared, the body of a monk is in the heat for weeks without signs of decomposition.”
Slowing down the body’s metabolism naturally rather than in a machine is the goal of Professor Yury Bubeyev - a leading planner for long-distance space travel and head of the Department of Psychology and Psychophysiology of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He tells Moskovsky Komsomolets that the Dalai Lama put 100 monks at his team’s disposal for study – the Dalai Lama wants the West to learn more about the practice of meditation. They selected eight monks with different levels of meditation experience and found using EEG that they were able to completely disconnect their brains from external stimuli. This technique would allow cosmonauts to spend long periods together without the interactions that could cause conflicts. Using other forms of meditation from the monks, they would slow down their metabolisms to conserve energy.
Then there’s ‘tukdam’. Bubeyev and his team watched as five monks recited certain mantras to prepare for tukdam. After the monks died, they observed the bodies. They were laid in a house in the heat and “did not undergo any changes characteristic of the dead.” Some were even sitting in a lotus position. The team was allowed to conduct examinations of the bodies.
“Yes, not only EEG, but also electrocardiograms. We also examined the body with a thermal imager and examined the oxygen tension in the tissues. We were interested to understand how the body does not decompose? Usually, how it happens: the blood flow stops in the deceased, brain hypoxia occurs, then brain death, decomposition begins. For days and weeks they seemed to be asleep. We expected that their state was more like a dream, we measured the electrical activity of the brain. But it was not, as well as the electrical activity of the heart ... That is, according to the instruments, they were dead, but according to what we saw, they simply slept deeply. The temperature distribution was even, as it happens with all the dead.”
While Bubeyev and his team were not able to conduct all of their tests due to pandemic restrictions, they saw enough to be convinced something unusual was going on. After two to three weeks, the effect of the tukdam ended and they observed the bodies decompose rapidly in a matter of hours. According to Buddhist teachings, this is a sign that consciousness moved to another plane and the body can be cremated.”
Of course, the space programs don’t want their crews to arrive on Mars dead but looking good. So the Dalai Lama also introduced the team to "Delok" – a technique where a healthy person enters a semi-lethargic state -- a kind of suspended animation – and remains there for a month before returning healthy. Bubeyev plans to research this when the pandemic ends. His goal is to find a good combination of meditation and mechanical suspended animation -- start with conventional psychotechnics, add some deep Tibetan meditation, and then achieve a full state of hypobiosis with xenon, hypothermia and drugs lasting several months.
Can Tibetan monks help space travelers achieve and survive suspended animation? Would you bet against the Dalai Lama?