18 February 2010

By Peter Bebergal

In 1964, a year after he was fired from Harvard University, Timothy Leary, together withRichard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, published The Psychedelic Experience, a how-to-manual for taking LSD. Key to a positive undertaking is what Leary calls “set and setting.” Make sure you are in a safe and comfortable place with someone you trust who can guide you along the trip: “The role of the psychedelic guide is perhaps the most exciting and inspiring role in society. He is literally a liberator, one who provides illumination, one who frees men from their life-long internal bondage.” Like indigenous peoples who use mushrooms, peyote, or other psychotropic plants within the context of a community, Leary was trying to reproduce a kind of tribal context for drug use in the modern age.

He was lucky to be in a position to do so. After leaving Harvard and spending some time in Mexico, Leary was invited by Peggy Hitchcock – an heiress to the Andrew Mellon fortunes – to squat at a sprawling rundown mansion in Millbrook, New York, where he could continue his experiments with psychedelics unabated. Even so, for all his credentials, not to mention the constant stream into Millbrook of artists, musicians, and popular intellectuals, what the post-Harvard Leary was able to accomplish sure just seemed like a lot of smart people getting stoned out of their trees and calling it research. More to the point, “set and setting” became a privileged sort of warning. While Leary wanted everyone to turn on, without the benefit and support of the bored and the rich and the beautiful, most people were sort of left to their own devices.

This extraordinary, and dare I say serendipitous, time, when a select group of people had the privilege of protective and insular drug adventures shaped by psychological and spiritual discourse, is the stuff of Don Lattin’s new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club (HarperOne). Lattin’s account is a sometimes funny, sometimes inglorious, and often sad story of how four men – Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil – were utterly transformed by psychedelics, and how they tried to use those same drugs to transform American culture. Yet, Lattin’s book is less about their overall cultural impact than how these men affected each other. Unlike most other books on the infamous days of the sanctioned Harvard drug experiments between 1960 and 1962, The Harvard Psychedelic Club takes up the petty jealousies, the closeted sexualities, the urgent spiritual desires, and the parties – the endless, bombed-out, stoned immaculate parties.

Journalist Lattin offers a narrative of Harvard Psilocybin Project where Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert worked hard to show how psychedelic drugs had social and spiritual benefits. Their efforts are mostly remembered for two research experiments, one where they gave psilocybin to divinity students in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel to see if the drug would “occasion” a mystical experience, and the other where they gave prisoners at Concord Prison the same drug to see if it would affect recidivism rates. But despite their best efforts to maintain their work’s legitimacy, it was just too much of a drag to keep the acid and the mushrooms on the Harvard campus alone. This, and their colossal personalities, was the force behind the proceedings. In the book’s most surprising twist, it’s revealed that Andrew Weil, the hirsute New Age shaman of all things vitamin and wellness, was the person who alerted the authorities to the group’s unsanctioned activities. Weil would go on to tout the potential spiritual value of psychedelics, but during his days at Harvard, he felt left out. Lattin’s account teaches that while intentions shape personality, ego, pride, and fear can screw up even the best laid plans and the ablest personalities. When it comes to drugs, this is no more apparent than in the stories of these four men.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is about people less than experiences, and in this way fills an important niche in the already niche genre of sixties and psychedelic histories. But because it’s not a cultural story so much as it is a biography of four people during a very particular time in their life, their legacy – if one really exists – is left mostly untouched until the very end. Lattin keeps telling us that they changed the world, but he never really tells us quite how. It’s easy to read Lattin’s book, only to put it down thinking about how four very interesting and charismatic people spent their younger years doing little more than tripping their brains out. Leary, whose personality was shaped in many ways by alcohol and ego, loved getting high just as much as he loved the idea of turning on the world. Eventually, when most of his preferred indulgences became illegal, Leary found himself in jailRichard Alpert, at least as Lattin writes him, often struggled more with his homosexuality than with his spiritual life. Weil, despite his belief in the efficacy of psychedelics, let envy turn all their lives upside down. The only difference between them and a whole host of others was that for a short while they did it with the blessings of Harvard University, and only Smith seemed to steer clear of rivalry, complicated romance, or the police. Lattin makes it clear, however, that for each of them LSD offered a different sort of awakening.

As Leary became the public spokesperson for LSD, Richard Alpert went to India in search of a different path. He returned with a new name – Ram Dass – an even more direct transmission of Eastern spirituality than those he had written about with Leary in The Psychedelic Experience. Ram Dass was to have a major influence on not only the spirituality of the sixties but of the late New Age movement. Andrew Weil, the bad guy of Lattin’s book, has become a populist health guru, making millions from advice both spiritual and nutritious. Huston Smith went on to be one of the foremost scholars of religion, and his book The World’s Religions, is today found in innumerable undergraduate classrooms.

While Smith had the least obvious impact, he rises as the wisest of these four men. Even during the sixties, Smith became disenchanted with what he saw as an immorality that seemed to immediately attach itself to the psychedelic Weltanschauung. His more ascetic tendencies were at odds with the way these drugs can make pleasure seem much more interesting than illumination. While Smith saw that psychedelics could open the soul to God, by themselves they couldn’t provide the cornerstone of a religious life: moral instruction. Smith called out psychedelic advocates for making a “religion of religious experiences.” He would always regard his own experiences with psilocybin in particular as some of the most important of his life, but always knew, as well, that true spiritual development required more than just blasting open the doors of perception.

What Lattin doesn’t ask with The Harvard Psychedelic Club is how the idea of religious experiences without religion captured the hearts of seekers and why people still continued to turn to traditional Western religious communities even as LSD and other drugs revealed what they had always been lacking – that is, an emphasis on personal experience with the divine. But that was only one of the many paths people took. Even before the sixties were over many in the counterculture were full blown addicts, trading in their love beads for syringes. Replete with conspiracy theories, the counterculture spiraled into a kind of madness. The promise of the Aquarian Age and consciousness-liberation ended up on the shelves of the New Age bookstoresthat had replaced the head shops.

The real legacy, however, is the continuing question of what exactly is the real intention behind the human use of psychedelics, ecstasy or illumination. By ecstasy I don’t mean simply feeling good. Ecstatic states of consciousness are responsible for many hierophanies that have led to real religious insights and even social change. It’s not even clear if the method need be suspect. Is fasting, for instance, a more legitimate technique than LSD for changing biochemistry? But ecstasy, especially when divorced from a rigorous religious life, can become its own kind of addiction. Smith’s warning of a religion of religious experiences was Leary’s raison d’etre.

The more powerful disconnect to inform the American counterculture specifically and American spirituality in general comes from the two closest of the men, Leary and Alpert. At a 1966 press conference, Leary delivered his now infamous quote, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” and for many, the psychedelic experience became synonymous with a middle finger to the mainstream and a prescription for ecstasy as a way of life. One year later, Alpert would meet the guru Neem Karoli Baba who would change not just the man’s name but, as it happened, his entire life. Richard Alpert left India as Ram Dass and with a different idea on his mind. When he asked his guru the meaning of life, Baba replied, “Serve people, feed people.” The four men at the center of Lattin’s book indeed all struggled with which of these two maxims – one concerned with pure experience, the other about service – would do the most good.

Nearly fifty years later, research into psychedelics is once again considered legitimate work. At Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital researchers are studying the effects of MDMA on late-stage cancer patients who suffer anxiety and are close to starting a research project involving psilocybin and cluster headaches. For the past four years, psychologists at Johns Hopkins have been testing whether or not psilocybin can engender a mystical experience. Bumping up close to these FDA approved studies is the counterculture, in full force as ever. Phenomena such asBurning Manshamanic tourism, and the psychedelic mythology around the year 2012, are often at odds with rigorous control groups and double-blind studies. The question for today’s researchers is how to maintain their legitimacy alongside an underground that still has to traffic in illegal activities simply to score some magic mushrooms. The question for the underground is how to ensure consciousness exploration does not turn into an excuse to simply party. Lattin’s book, however, is warning sign to everyone interested in psychedelic drugs. As Richard Alpert would teach in his new incarnation as Ram Dass, don’t get caught up in your method. An exploration of consciousness is all well and good, but while we are grooving to the music of the spheres, the people around us are clamoring for response.

Peter Bebergal is co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). His next book, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.