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.
the mind is in a state of detachment, clarity, and
humility," Huxley argued, "can this divine
reality be experienced."
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.
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."
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.
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.
was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor,
had separated or disassociated itself from me,"
Alpert was worried, but then he thought, "Well,
I worked hard to get that status, but I don’t
really need it."
professor vanished, only to be replaced by a succession
of people whom Alpert knew to be aspects of himself:
social butterfly, cellist, pilot, lover.
as he looked across the room, he saw a child, the
original Richard Alpert, his basic identity.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
ambitions, competitive drives, and cravings for status,
power, fame, prestige and possessions tend to fade
away," Grof wrote.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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."