I recently told a younger friend of mine that during the early nineteen sixties LSD was not only legal, but it was also considered to be a very valuable therapeutic tool whose uses were studied by some of the brightest young minds of the day. At first he didn’t believe me and accused me of having dipped my finger once too often into the sacred nectar. I wasn’t surprised by his response, but it reminded me how polarized any discussion of consciousness altering substances has become in our society.
The sixties weren’t that long ago chronologically speaking, but for all intents and purposes the early Harvard experiments with psychedelics undertaken by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner seem as if they took place a thousand years ago. The idea that a university would fund and encourage such research seems to belong to another era entirely. For those who came of age in post-sixties North American society, the only news they’ve read about psychedelics has been bad news.
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, the new book by Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass goes a long way to setting the record straight and couldn’t have come out at a better time.
Metzner states, “We wanted to do this book because we had not told those stories from our perspective. Leary has told those stories from his perspective in several books, most notably Flashbacks and High Priest, and there have been two other biographies that came out (recently), one of them is a hatchet job.”
Indeed, most writing about the era has failed to capture the essence of what really went on during the early psychedelic experiments. Most accounts fall roughly into two camps – they’re either cautionary tales about “a time when (people) lost their way – or rose colored idealistic rants that depict a time when all was ‘groovy’. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes, and both Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert take great care in communicating the sincerity and seriousness with which they began their research.
Many people today don’t have any sense of what North American society was like in the nineteen fifties. As young men coming of age in the post war era, there is no way that Metzner and Alpert could have had any idea of what they were about to embark upon when they started experimenting with psilocybin and LSD. For many, the arrival of these substances was the inevitable counterpoint to the cultural malaise, and certainly nothing else could have blown the lid off our collective ennui like acid did. But, Metzner and Alpert reinforce the idea that – at least in the beginning – these drugs weren’t considered as recreational catalysts, rather their effects were studied in laboratory conditions to see if they could be used as a way of addressing everything from alcoholism to violent recidivism amongst prisoners doing hard time in jail.
As time passed, Leary, Metzner and Alpert began to realize that the uses of these substances went far beyond the clinical and they began to do experiments with members of various religious and artistic communities to see what effects they would have on spiritual belief and creativity.
The golden era of psychedelic research didn’t last long. Eventually, both Harvard’s fear of repercussions as more and more students began experimenting with psychedelics, and the concerns of the larger culture as news of their properties began to spread, put a kibosh on their sanctioned use. The story of Leary and Alpert’s fall from grace as they were ingloriously turfed from Harvard is well known. It marked the end of academic privilege as far as psychedelics were concerned, and opened up their use to the larger culture.
Richard Alpert remembers, “People like Aldous Huxley wanted to calm Tim down, because he wanted psychedelics to be available only to intellectuals. Then there were doctors who wanted it available only to doctors. I think Tim just recognized these plants were placed by God for everybody. I don’t think the sixties would be the sixties without Tim.”
The authors of Birth go on to tell how – free of the constrictions of Harvard’s rigid environment – the counterculture or hippie movement really began to flower. As Metzner and Alpert take the reader through the Millbrook community experiment and through their initial voyages to India where they found cultural references to support a psychedelic viewpoint, the story becomes one of a search for personal and collective freedom in a society that was not ready for its implications.
Reading through their account, the reader is struck by the innocence and idealism of the main protagonists. They had no guides or context for their research, and rather than the idealistic buffoons or drug victims the press has often portrayed them as, they come across as fearless if somewhat naïve warriors on their own roads less traveled.
The distance of years has certainly given Metzner and Alpert perspective to tell their story. If the book had been written in the sixties it may have been a brash manifesto; if it had been written in the eighties it could have taken the form of a revisionist cautionary tale, but today as each of the authors approaches his twilight years and is the beneficiary of nearly a half century of reflection about these events, it’s possible for them to offer well considered and true reflections.
In addition to their reflections, there are many anecdotes and short interviews with some of Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s associates and experimental subjects. Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, RD Laing, Charles Mingus, Maynard Ferguson and William Burroughs all make appearances as their own reflections on the early days of the psychedelic movement help give perspective to the main story.
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture offers a mature and expansive look at one of the most important cultural and scientific developments of the twentieth century. Some have called Acid ‘God in a pill’ while others have called it ‘the most dangerous substance ever invented.’
Whatever one’s own perspective, it must be admitted that subsequent developments in computers and technology, the adoption and development of certain therapeutic models as well as interest in yoga and eastern religion may not have manifested in the way they have if it was not for the introduction of psychedelics. Every bit as important as the moon landing that took place during the last year of the sixties; psychedelics and their implications are just beginning to be understood. Birth of a Psychedelic Culture is an essential book and a riveting read. It’ll be a very long time before the release of a better book about this era.
Q and A with Ralph Metzner
Ralph Metzner kindly responded to some questions I had about his new book, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture. With Timothy Leary dead for well over a decade and Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass living in semi-retirement in Hawaii following a stroke in the mid nineties, Metzner is the psychedelic elder who is doing the most to keep the legacy of those heady days at Harvard alive in the public’s imagination.
At nearly seventy-four years of age, Metzner does not suffer fools gladly, and during our correspondence continually referred me to his published work for answers to the questions I posed. Belying hysterical assertions that LSD causes brain damage, Metzner is clearly still in possession of a lucid wit, and seems to remember the events of the early sixties as if they happened yesterday. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Dale Rangzen: If you could distill the essence of what you learned and experienced during your psychedelic sessions, what would you say were the greatest insights provided to you?
Ralph Metzner: The importance of set and intention primarily. Second to that, setting and context. Related to that is the importance of preparing one’s mindset and environment. The ability to integrate the experience into one’s ordinary life afterwards is critical.
DR: Do you think that society changed as a result of psychedelic use? If so, how?
RM: It’s impossible to say. I believe that the important thing is not drugs per se, but the notion and practice of expanding consciousness and taking many more perspectives into account in all situations. The use of drugs is almost a red herring in that it focuses on the particular media, which becomes sensationalized. After all, Charles Manson used LSD and look at what he did with it. What good was that?
DR: Did you and Timothy Leary ever differ on how to expose or introduce psychedelics to the larger culture? At a certain point, Leary jumped out of his academic framework and opened the floodgates and wanted everyone to have an experience with psychedelics. Was this wise? What did you think at the time?
RM: Again, you should go back to my book. In it, I relate a conversation with Leary about the Turn on, Tune in, Drop out slogan, explaining my idea of how it should be extended and how he disagreed with me. As regards leaving the academic framework, that’s simply what Leary felt was important to do at the time. He felt the implications and possible applications of psychedelics were too significant to limit them to academic, medical and psychiatric uses. Still, he was not opposed to those applications. I agreed with him about the importance of them being made more available, though I also think the research and medical/therapeutic angle is worth pursuing. Ultimately, it was not a process any of us directed or controlled – it was first a cultural and then a mass movement that had its own momentum. Even Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters didn’t control or direct it – they just went along with the energy waves.
DR: As a person who’s a little older than the average tripper, I often wonder what role psychedelics play in understanding life as we age. Do you have any insights into this? In other words, are psychedelics still useful to you though you’ve done them many times?
RM: The age of the individual and their stage of life of course plays a crucial role in shaping the kinds of experiences one has with psychedelics as with everything else – sex, food, spirituality, exercise etc. Again, the intention or set with which you approach these experiences is more important than your age, gender, profession, education or context. Also, the cultural and historical situation has changed. Being basically conservative and cautious by nature, I’m not sure I would even be interested in psychedelics if I came to them now. There is just so much sensationalism and misunderstanding – not to mention the threat of jail terms or serious consequences from contaminated drugs and the like.
DR: Why do you think there’s so much interest in the early days of psychedelic research at Harvard at this point in time? There have been other books on the same subject published recently. The Harvard psychedelic club by Don Lattin comes to mind.
RM: It’s curious that the Don Lattin book came out at the same time as our book. Its approach is quite different. It focuses on the biographies of four celebrities who happened to connect at Harvard in the sixties. They in no way constituted a ‘club.’ Andrew Weil was the self-appointed hit man who got Alpert fired. Nor, did those four people ‘kill the fifties’ as the ridiculous publisher’s subtitle suggests. It was a sub-cultural movement involving thousands – perhaps millions – of people from many walks of life who shared a passionate interest in exploring and expanding their consciousness. They found a relatively easy way to do so. John Perry Barlow’s introduction to the book has wonderful reflections on all of this.
DR: You called Andrew Weil a ‘self-appointed’ hit man. Have you altered your perception of him over the years in light of the ‘good’ he’s done? I think many people have been surprised by how he’s been recently portrayed as his youthful ‘exploits’ have been exposed. Has your rift healed?
RM: I said that Andrew Weil was a “self-appointed hit man” because that is the role he chose to play in the Harvard firing of Richard Alpert. He has frankly, and remorsefully, described what he did in an interview in the book edited by Robert Forte, which we quote from in Birth of a Psychedelic Culture. I had very little awareness of that story when we were at Harvard, and did not even know Andy Weil at that time. So I never had a rift with him that needed to be healed. Years after we all left Harvard, he has become a good friend of mine and we have often participated together at various conferences and workshops, both in the US and in Europe. In the Birth book, I say “Weil went on to become a major proponent of and model for a healthy diet and lifestyle, and holistic and integrative approach to medicine.” I have tremendous admiration and respect for the work that he has done in extending the prevalent paradigms of medicine.
DR: You call yourself deeply conservative and cautious. Thousands of people with similar natures tried psychedelics once or twice and then fled in terror. What made you stay the course? Were your only trepidations to do with legality and purity of the substances? Or, was there something very special about the community you were experimenting with that made you feel safe and secure no matter how far out you traveled?
RM: It’s a complicated situation. The social context around psychedelic drugs has changed so much, with media constantly playing up the putative dangers of psychedelics in a sensationalist manner. In the early 1960s, it was all unknown and the potential values and benefits of these substances made their scientific exploration and application in healing and related areas (creativity, religious experience) enormously interesting. These potential benefits and values remain and are being explored again, now that the genie is out of the bottle, with the established methods of scientific research. In the meantime, an underground culture (not counter-culture) has grown, with unknown numbers, worldwide, in which knowledge is shared and communicated in communities of like-minded individuals. For myself, I did stop using psychedelics in the late sixties and immersed myself for about 10 years in the exclusive study and practice of an esoteric school of Agni Yoga, in which meditative methods of transforming consciousness were used. I found it very valuable to combine these yogic methods with selective use of psychedelics – for example with MDMA when that substance became available as an adjunct to psychotherapy in the 1980s. Certainly, the community of individuals with whom you share your healing and spiritual practice is as essential as the “set and setting” and the “drug.”