The Perennial Philosophy

The novelist and visionary Aldous Huxley wrote the definitive Western text on the subject of The Perennial Philosophy published in 1948. The book was an attempt to demonstrate that at the basis of all enduring religious traditions, there lies a single shared view of divine reality. "Only when the mind is in a state of detachment, clarity, and humility," Huxley argued, "can this divine reality be experienced."

Huxley, it so happened, was teaching down the street at MIT when Leary and Alpert began their LSD research. His own interest in psychedelics had preceded theirs, and he described his first such experience in a slim volume entitled The Doors of Perception.

Huxley made an elegant case that under the right circumstances, consciousness-altering drugs had the power to enhance perception, broaden awareness, and tap more of our highest possibilities. "To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception," he wrote, "to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to a human being obsessed with survival, words and notions, but as they are experienced directly...this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone. We must each intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into a familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction."

Psychedelic Drugs

Among all the seekers who emerged from the counterculture ferment of the 1960s, perhaps no one more than Richard Alpert so dramatically turned his back on a traditional American success story. A Harvard psychology professor on a fast track, Alpert and his colleague Timothy Leary began conducting scientific research into psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s.

Richard Albert’s account in his book Be Here Now remains one of the most vivid and accessible descriptions I’ve found of the way that psychedelic drugs can prompt a shift of consciousness and a radically different view of one’s identity. The key part of Albert's trip took place while he was sitting alone in Leary’s living room. As the drug began to take hold, Alpert suddenly became aware of someone across the room. When he looked carefully, he realized that he was viewing himself, in cap and gown, as a professor.

"It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me," he wrote.

At first, Alpert was worried, but then he thought, "Well, I worked hard to get that status, but I don’t really need it."

Next, the professor vanished, only to be replaced by a succession of people whom Alpert knew to be aspects of himself: social butterfly, cellist, pilot, lover.

Finally, as he looked across the room, he saw a child, the original Richard Alpert, his basic identity.

When that too vanished, he became very frightened. How, he wondered, could he do without something so fundamental—his very self? Well, he rationalized, as least I have my body. At that point however, he looked down at the couch and discovered that his body seemed to have vanished as well.

"Nothing in my philosophical materialism prepared me for that, and I freaked," he told me. "I started to call for Timothy when the thought went through my mind ‘Who’s freaking out?’ If I’m not my body, and I’m not all my social roles, what’s left? And then something suddenly connected for me. It was like a figure-ground reversal. I became aware of a part of me, an essence, that had nothing to do with life and death."

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Alpert was having the sort of classical transcendental vision that has been described by all of the enduring Eastern meditative traditions. It was an experience of spiritual essence, the true Self.

Much later, Alpert summed it up this way: "Although everything by which I knew myself, even my body and this life itself, was gone, still I was fully aware! Not only that, but this aware ‘I’ was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion. Instantly with this recognition, I felt a new kind of calmness. I had just found...a place where ‘I’ existed independent of social and physical identity. And something else that ‘I’ knew—it really knew. It was wise rather than just knowledgeable.

It was a voice inside that spoke truth. I recognized it was one with it, and felt as if my entire life of looking to the outside world for reassurance was over. Now I need only to look within to that place that knew."

After several years of pursuing psychedelic research, Alpert decided to travel to India in the late 1960s. It was there that he met and began studying under his guru, Maharajji. By the time he returned to America a year later, Maharajji had given him the name Baba Ram Dass, Sanskrit for "servant of God," and Alpert had fully embraced his new identity.

He soon began drawing large crowds to the colorful talks he gave about his experiences in India. Be Here Now, the loose story of his search for enlightenment as well as a manual for conscious being, was published in 1972. The book became a cult best seller and helped introduce hundreds of thousands of young Americans to meditation, yoga, chanting, breathing techniques, spirituality, and the notion that it is possible to achieve higher states of consciousness and a more meaningful life.

The message that Albert eventually brought back to America, and which has remained central for him, focuses on the ways that people deceive and underestimate themselves by identifying too closely with their thoughts and concepts.

"The (ego) mind is there to protect your sense of who you think you are," he told the audience at one lecture I attended. "It keeps creating models and expectations. ‘I know what’s happening,’ it says. But you may be more than you think you are. "

After 6 years, Alpert’s belief in the transformative power of psychedelics began to fade. "I realized that no matter how high I got, I came down. It was as if you came into the kingdom of heaven and you saw how it all was, and then you got cast out again."

On one occasion, he asked Maharajji whether taking LSD had any value in the search for wisdom. It could be useful, the guru told him, as a way to strengthen faith that higher states of consciousness exist. But in the end, the guru told him, drugs were not a route to true enlightenment. "It is better to become Christ than to visit him," he said, "and your medicine won’t do that for you."

A small number of researchers persisted in believing that psychedelics had enduring transformative powers. Perhaps the most thoughtful and serious-minded was Stanislav Grof, a Czechoslovakian psychiatrist who first began researching LSD in Prague in the 1950s. Appointed to oversee a clinical study, Grof began running carefully supervised LSD sessions for patients with a variety of psychological disorders.

Grof began to see a pattern in these sessions. A significant percentage of people ultimately broke through into a transpersonal realm, in which they reported the feelings of unity, transcendence of time and space, awe and ecstasy that Alpert later described.

"Worldly ambitions, competitive drives, and cravings for status, power, fame, prestige and possessions tend to fade away," Grof wrote.

One of the most profound experiences for patients, Grof eventually reported, were the encounters they had with their own death. What actually seemed to die for patients, he discovered, was the ego or the false self—a sense of general inadequacy, a need to be prepared for all possible dangers, a compulsion to be in charge and in control, and constant efforts to prove things to oneself and others." In short, what died, as it did in Alpert’s first trip, was the self-image or ego identity that people had nurtured and defended throughout their lives and wrongly assumed to be their true identities.

For those who truly went through the death experience on LSD, he reported, the terror of confronting ego death ultimately gives way to visions of intense white light and a sense of joy and rebirth. In turn, he said, this led many subjects to a more loving and compassionate appreciation of their fellow human beings and of the universe.

After LSD was completely banned by the government, Grof himself began searching for ways to prompt dramatic shifts of consciousness without drugs. Together with his wife, Christina, he developed a technique that he eventually named holotropic breathing—it is built around a basic form of intense breathing that has been used in many mystical traditions, from Kundalini yoga to Taoist meditation and most notably as part of the Indian science of breathing known as pranayama.

In the west, Wilhelm Reich was among the first to observe that psychological resistance often shows up in the form of restricted breathing, and that faster, deeper breathing often loosens the defenses and provides unusual access to the unconscious.

Human Potential Movement

I arrived at Esalen Institute for the first time in l991 unsure what to expect, but full of curiosity and anticipation. I knew Esalen only by its reputation from the l960s and l970s, when it became celebrated as the red-hot center of the human potential movement.

Gestalt therapy, encounter groups, and body-oriented therapies such as Rolfing all first came to attention at Esalen.

My image was of a place where people shed their clothes, shucked their inhibitions, allowed their most forbidden feelings to surface, and expressed them with blunt directness, to hell with the consequences.

Esalen, in my mind, was a place of intense encounters, dramatic emotional breakthroughs, and open sexual experimentation.

Still, if Esalen was once seen as the apotheosis of the "Me-decade" narcissism, a very different spirit prevails today, one that I found more respectful and reflective than I’d expected.

To begin to understand the history of both Esalen and its role in the human potential movement, I turned to Michael Murphy.

More than any single person, Murphy is responsible for the birth of the human potential movement in this country. In 1962, he and a college classmate, Richard Price, co-founded Esalen.

Murphy brought to his own search for wisdom an unusual blend of qualities. As an undergraduate philosophy major at Stanford, he developed a deep and discriminating understanding of the Eastern wisdom traditions. For most of his twenties, he meditated daily but also retained a passionate interest in how our higher potentials can be embodied in everyday life.

On the one hand, he saw that pain and unhappiness were part of many lives, including his own family’s. At the same time, he concluded that joy lay at the core of all human beings and that it was forever seeking to express itself.

There was, in short, a way through the darkness, an imperative to seek higher ground.

"I had this feeling that we all had access to the ground of being, or God, or light," he told me. "Our job in life was to get in touch with it and to bring it into the world through meditation, prayer, friendship, music, even sports."

"At fifteen," Murphy told me, "I was already pretty sold on the idea that society’s attempt to make people normal was doomed to failure if it didn’t provide them with some deeper meaning, or sense of satisfaction."

The event that dramatically transformed his life occurred when he wandered accidentally into a lecture on comparative religions, taught by a world-famous Asia scholar Frederic Spiegelberg.

Spiegelberg was openly critical of organized religion, arguing that it divided people far more often than it brought them together.

Instead, he believed that the route to higher truth grew out of cultivating the fundamental spiritual principles that lie at the heart of all enduring religions, the perspective that Aldous Huxley termed The Perennial Philosophy.

The highest form of religion, Spiegelberg told his students, was to transcend religion. Murphy responded to these ideas instantly. "Hearing Spiegelberg wasn’t just a thunderbolt," he told me. "It was more this intuitive knowing, all at once, that what he was saying was right.

Here was this guy lecturing on the concept that Atman, the deepest Self, is one with Brahman, the essence of all existence.

It’s one of the purest statements of world mysticism: we are all one. Hearing it was an electrifying event for me, like getting water in the desert.

Meditation quickly became the center of Murphy’s life. He found meditation both exhilarating and joyous, a direct experience of something larger than himself. Sometimes the experiences were absolutely overwhelming.

When Jung was asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ he responded, ‘I don’t believe in God, I know.’ Well, that was absolutely so for me."

Encounter Groups

One of the teachers who wielded enormous early influence at Esalen was William Schutz. Trained at UCLA as a social psychologist, Schutz went on to teach at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Berkeley. Although he didn’t invent the concept of the encounter group, Schutz was responsible for bringing it to wide popular attention with his best-selling book Joy: Expanding Human Awareness.

The book was published in 1967, the same year that Schutz took up residence as a teacher at Esalen. He spent much of that year traveling the talk-show circuit, promoting his book, and talking about Esalen. The result was that encounter groups became almost synonymous with Esalen even before Schutz had a chance to try them out there.

Within Esalen, no one was a more articulate cheerleader for the cathartic techniques that characterized the early Esalen than George Leonard.

"You have to understand that until the 1960s, everything was still in the closet," Leonard told me. "You didn’t speak of homosexuality. There was no talk of battered wives, or date rape, or sexual abuse. You didn’t talk about your feelings. Then along comes a guy like Schutz who throws out all the taboos. It’s almost impossible to describe what an extraordinary experience it was to be in one of his groups.

Suddenly, with all this confrontation, you're expressing emotions you’ve never shared before. And what happens? The world doesn’t end, which is what you have expected. Instead, it actually looks better.

While Leonard retained his enthusiasm for Schutz’s ground-breaking approach, Murphy’s support for encounter diminished steadily over the years. "Schutz was mostly focused on breaking loose," Murphy told me. "He was the caboose on a train that began with Freud and Reich. In the name of openness and honesty, he honored and encouraged integrity and courage in his groups, but there was often a shortage of kindness and empathy." It turned out, for example, that anger was the emotion most commonly elicited in encounter groups.

The problem was that ventilating intensely angry feelings didn’t mean that they got spent or resolved. As the psychologist Carol Tavris wrote recently in Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion,

"The people who are most prone to give vent to their rages get angrier, not less angry."

In addition, as Tavris and others have noted, the expression of anger often deflects attention from the more vulnerable underlying emotions that anger often serves to mask—among them fear, helplessness, disappointment, sadness, and despair.

"I began to recognize that what we were calling the Big Bang approach didn’t work," Murphy told me, echoing Ram Dass’s conclusions about psychedelics.

"It got people started. What we didn’t provide them with was a lasting set of disciplines. We didn’t talk about the dark night of the soul, the ups and downs along the path and the fact that it can get worse before it gets better. We didn’t say that change has to be reinforced with disciplined practices and that the learning curve has long plateaus. In the end, we were in too much of a hurry."


In the spring of l970, Murphy traveled to Florence to meet Robert Assagioli, a psychiatrist then in his mid-80s. A contemporary of Freud, Assagioli began as a psychoanalyst but eventually came to the same conclusion that Jung and Maslow did—namely, that Freud’s theories didn’t take into account higher human possibility.

Assagioli didn't simply discard Freud. Rather, he hypothesized that finding one’s true self requires not just resolving conflicts in what he called the lower unconscious, but also developing the higher unconscious, which contain one’s highest intuitions and inspirations. "We have first to penetrate courageously into the pit of our lower unconscious in order to discover the dark forces that ensnare and menace us," Assagioli wrote in Psychosynthesis, a book that Esalen published. "What (then) has to be achieved is to expand the personal consciousness into that of the unite the lower with the higher Self."

Murphy was moved by the breadth of Assagioli’s approach. "I was especially attracted to his idea that modern psychology could be integrated with the perennial wisdom," Murphy told me. "He was a far more comprehensive thinker than either Fritz or Schutz, with a more encompassing world view. It was a reaffirmation for me of the need for comprehensive practices." The challenge of developing comprehensive transformational practices became the cornerstone of Murphy’s work over the next two decades.

Today, Murphy remains passionate in his conviction that beneath even the darkest moments, ecstasy and higher possibilities are always fighting to break through. For sustenance in his own time of need, he renewed his commitment to meditation, focusing particularly on practices of the heart. "Out of the broken heart comes the love. This joy passes all understanding. Part of the lesson, I now realize, is that incomplete as we all are, we can nevertheless keep growing."



What Really Matters - Searching for Meaning in America by Tony Schwartz In 1988, at the height of his career as a journalist and co-author of a #1 bestseller Donald Trump’s, The Art of the Deal, Tony Shwartz hit an unexpected wall. Why did the success he’d sought for so long suddenly feel empty? What was a truly meaningful and complete life? His search for answers took him from a meditation retreat in the mountains of Utah to a biofeedback laboratory in Kansas.

"It is because we don't know Who we are, because we are unaware that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, that we behave in the generally silly, the often insane, the sometimes criminal ways that are so characteristically human." -Aldous Huxley


"I became aware of a part of me, an essence, that had nothing to do with life and death." - Ram Dass


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