Now the reason that my life may be useful, although from most other standpoints it seems, even to me, quite trivial, is that I have led three lives.
I have three chapters, each of which has led quite naturally in to the next although at the time it didn’t seem very natural.
The first chapter was that of being a social scientist.
The second was that of being an explorer in the psychedelic community and the third is that of being a student of Ashtanga yoga.
And I’m going to take you through my trip to show you why each of those transformations occurred. As best as I can.
In the fall of 1961, I was at the height of my academic career. I had obtained my PhD from Stanford in psychology, more through charm than scholarship I will admit, I had obtained a assistant professorship at Harvard, and a number of research grants and a role as a therapist at the health service and at the time I had research contracts at Yale and Stanford and when I was on leave from Harvard I was teaching at the university of California at Berkeley.
So I had four major universities cornered and was on the academic ladder, climbing pretty fast. I was 28 and I was being groomed for all kinds of things. I was definitely on my way up.
Now, as a result of working these 70 hours a week, I was amassing a lot of money and I was using this money to live as a cosmopolite or a bachelor. Under these circumstances I had an apartment filled with antiques. And a Mercedes Benz, and Cessna airplane and a Triumph motorcycle, and an MG sports car and a sail boat. And I went to the Caribbean skin diving and I, you know, that kind of life.
I was an empire builder very simply, that the best way I labelled myself.
Well, with it all, although it looked awfully good on paper there was something wrong inside about it. I don’t think I’m ready yet to be able to label it because I’m probably not free enough to be able to have an objective understanding of it, to be able to label what really didn’t feel right I can give you some clues about what didn’t feel right.
One of the problems is that I was teaching these very hip courses at Harvard. I was teaching Freud and human motivation, personality development and clinical psychology. And all of these students would come seeking my wisdom. And the problem was that I knew I didn’t know. I mean I knew everything you had to know in order to be a professor of psychology at Harvard, but when you got down to the nitty gritty of what had something to do with people’s lives I knew that it all didn’t add up right. I had all these various roles, I was a researcher studying child development and so I could see how the variables we were working with didn’t quite get to what that kid was all about.
Then I was a therapist and so many hours a week I had somebody sitting on the other side of the desk, and he was playing patient, I was playing doctor I would run thru my list of theories as he would run through his list of symptoms and we’d compare them and match them up and, you know, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t quite gel. It was as if psychology had a reason to be as defensive as it was.
It was as if behaviorism hadn’t quite gotten hold of the critical variables in human experience. And I looked around, I looked at my psychological and psychiatric colleagues and they seemed to be really just about as neurotic as anybody else. They would come and they would be psychologists from 9 – 5 and then they would go home and they seemed to be roughly as hung up in their marriages. Their children seemed to be as destructive as other people’s children. They seemed to show the same personality manifestations and it seemed a fair question that if all of these theories were so good and these people were the masters of them – why wasn’t it reflected in their own human behavior?
Now I had gone – I had really tried, I had gone through five years of psychoanalysis and most people hide behind that and say well it was a didactic analysis. That is, I did it so that I could help others, it was a teaching thing I didn’t do that, I did it because I was neurotic and I paid because I was sick and I wanted to get well. Because I knew that I wasn’t making it in the world the right way, even though everything seemingly lined up.
But at the end of five years of psychoanalysis it was apparent that since I knew a lot about Freud and could keep pointing out to my analyst where he was making misinterpretations on the basis of 1906 paper or something like that, that my defences were at least as strong as his tools. That’s all that roughly twenty-five thousand dollars demonstrated to me.
I hope that those of you who are invested in those particular professional roles will appreciate that I am probably still merely acting out my negative transference.
And as far as the other things in my life, if you take the motorcycle, when I first got the motorcycle I loved to climb hills with the motorcycle and do hill climbing races with it. And go roaring off into the night into the Californian hills at 95 miles an hour, with a girl holding on to the back and the wind blowing and holding on for dear life and there was a thrill, there was something that was very great and at that moment, there would be a moment when it would just feel … just that place would feel good inside. That was about one moment, then all the rest of the time it was cold, you know, or it was rainy. And so after the newness wore off, the motorcycle sat in the garage and the airplane sat out on the landing strip. Because after a while each of the things, the possibilities of each of those vehicles to give me that thing I was looking for inside, had been explored and they were very finite and I had appreciated what their limits were.
Now it was at this time that I was settling into working for my tenure. That is I was told if you get your publications in order we’re holding a chair for you. Which meant, you know, publish or perish, get those books out, look good on paper. And so I was doing just that and although it was a little discouraging to see, I already saw that this wasn’t going to make it in life, this was my commitment for the next four years.
Now I had a big corner office at Harvard, with two secretaries and about forty research assistants and, as I say I was an empire builder. And down the hall in a little closet-like place there was this other guy who had come back from Italy. Who had been riding a bicycle around Italy, and had been found by the chairman of the department who brought him back as the new bright and shiny thing for the department and his name was Timothy Leary. And he was a fun-loving, drinking Irishman and we were bachelors and so we started to share evenings together.
He said he was going to Mexico in the summer and I said that I’d like to come down too and that we ought fly; take a trip across the north of South America in a little plane and I told him I flew, which wasn’t exactly true. I had a student licence at the time and he said great that we would meet in Cuernavaca on a certain date and we would take off from there.
So I then secretly went out and got my licence, and then nobody would trust me with a plane, so I had to buy one. Or the bank bought it actually. And off I went with the licence one day old for this hair raising trip. Believe me, quite a hair raising trip over the mountains into south central Mexico.
Well, when I got there, Tim had just had this experience in which he had taken the sacred mushrooms of Mexico, which he had gotten from a woman called Crazy Juana, a curandeira up in the hills, who would put one in your hand and two in her mouth.
And I heard many stories about what had happened to him in this experience.
There weren’t any more of the mushrooms around and we didn’t take the trip across South America, we just hung out down in Tepsilan and Cuernavaca, then we flew back to the US together in the plane with his son and an iguana and I went to Berkeley so I couldn’t do anything more and he went back to Harvard to start exploring these chemicals because he said he had learned more in this one experience than he had learnt in all of his years as a psychologist.
So when I came back to Harvard in the spring I was quite eager to have this experience. And he had gotten ahold of the synthetic of these called psilocybin, so on March 6th in 1961, it was the night of the biggest snow storm of the year and my parents home was about two blocks away from Tim’s big house. And I went to my parents to visit and then I trudged though the snow and went over to Tim’s house to turn on. Which we did in the kitchen with a variety of assorted people, in our usual highly controlled manner.
The first part of the experience had that certain unpredictability about it that er …Tim’s son’s dog had been out running in the snow and came in and in our timeless minds it seemed like it was gasping for breath for too long and we thought it was going to die. And it was by then, midnight on a Saturday night in a raging blizzard and we imagined ourselves carrying this dog to the veterinarian four miles away. So we called his son down from upstairs to ask him, to see how he would act with the dog and he came down and the dog played with him so we assumed everything was alright.
And then I went off into the other room, and I was sitting in the living room by myself after all of this tragic comic hallucinatory revelry.
I was sitting in the semi darkness, the light came in from the street, it was snowing, and it was very beautiful. I was sitting there and suddenly in the dark across the room, I saw a figure standing there and as I looked more closely I realized that the figure was myself.
It was dressed in a cap and gown strangely enough, and what I saw was my ‘professorness’ across the room. It was what you call in psychology, what I called at the time a dissociative experience.
And so I looked at this ‘professorness’ and I said well, and it wasn’t me any longer I was here and there was it, and I said ‘Well I guess I don’t really need that anymore’ and I sat back and relaxed. And the minute I said ‘I don’t need that anymore’ the figure changed and it was somebody else and I sat forward and there I was again except now I was the young cosmopolite. My ‘cosmpoliteness’ was sitting over there, alright well I guess I can do without that. Sat back. And in a sequence went by all of my social roles, ‘loverness’, ‘wise man’, ‘kind person’, all of my roles and each one: ‘OK, well too bad about that one’, there it goes.
And then went by ‘Richard Alpertness’. Now, this was another matter you see. This was, this was who I learned to be, way back then. What happened when you gave that up? And I went through my mind the thought ‘What have I taken with this drug that this mad man Leary has given me?’ See it’s already his fault!
And what’s clearly going to happen now is that I’m going to be an amnesia case because I’m losing my identity. I wont know who I am. alright well I can always get another social identity. I went through this thought process. I’ll give up ‘Richard Alpertness’. At least I am my body.
As those of you that have experimented with this world l know, I had spoken prematurely because as I looked down at the couch nothing below my knees was visible any longer and as I watched, slowly, it all disappeared until there was only the couch, on which I was sitting.
Now the kind of panic I experienced at that time has been reported, usually in the tabloids, as the dire consequences of irresponsible use of psychedelics. Because there was nothing in my model of the universe that led me to believe that if I was not in my body there would be anything left, so as far as I was concerned I was dying or ceasing to exist. That was it. And I recall the feeling. I recall the adrenaline flowing. I recall the sweat breaking out. I recall wanting to scream out for help. I recall all those feelings and as the panic was mounting in whatever it was mounting in since I wasn’t seeing anything, a voice inside of me said, very quietly and rather jocularly it seemed to me, in view of the gravity of the situation, “But who’s minding the store?”
And I became aware at that moment that although everything by which I knew myself was gone, still there was something in me that was watching this whole process disappear. There was what I at the time was calling a scanning device or a point of awareness; something in there that had no reference to body; no reference to personality; no reference to any of my social roles and yet there it was clear and lucid and watching the whole thing and just, you know, watching it all happen.
And the minute I defined it or labelled it or named it, I experienced a tremendous exhilaration, a tremendous feeling of liberation.
And I remember jumping up and I ran out into the snow and danced in the snow. And then later I recall going back through the drifts to my parents home around five in the morning and deciding as a young tribal buck that I would shovel the snow in the front and I was shovelling and my parents came to the window and opened the window and said “You damned idiot come in, you don’t shovel snow in the middle of the night.” And I looked up and I heard this voice which was the kind of voice of external sanction to which I had always responded since that’s how I got to be where I was, and I listened to the voice inside and the voice inside said it’s cool if you want to shovel snow, its all right, there’s nothing immoral about that. And I looked up at them and I smiled and I danced a bit of a jig and I went back to shovelling. And the window closed and I saw them smiling behind it.
Well now I was presented with a peculiar dilemma, because the next Monday when I had to get up and give my lectures in human motivation – the theory of ego psychology which I was expected to present as a responsible member of the psychological community, I saw, was not adequate to the experience I had had. Because that place that I had gone to, I couldn’t find it in the book. I couldn’t find it in the book anywhere.
Freud’s unconscious had too much to do with the uniqueness of the individual and too much to do with personality qualities. Even Jung’s collective unconscious wasn’t quite the place – as I later explored more carefully. And I couldn’t find the words to tell anybody about what had happened and I hid behind what we all got to use quite frequently of ‘This was an ineffable experience. I’d like to tell you about it but it’s ineffable. Sorry.”
- Ram Dass, 1964
Transcription by Sue Friston