First Steps on the Path
“Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, “This is the real me,” and when you have found that attitude, follow it.” – William James
I was truly born when I was eight. One day I was walking toward the neighborhood boys to join them in a game of marbles, when suddenly I completely lost interest in the game and in their company. I found myself turning away to wander alone along the empty sidewalks of our quiet and complacent middle class neighborhood.
Here in the late morning of this peaceful summer day, the dads had all gone to work and those moms who were going to go shopping had already gone. There was virtually no traffic on the street and since this was an exclusively residential neighborhood, the only sound was the wind in the trees and an occasional water sprinkler in someone’s yard. As I walked, I gazed up into the dappled sunlight that was shining through the waving leaves and branches of the old maple, beech and oak trees which lined the street and populated the yards, finding there a peace and solitude that felt so soothing. I watched the graceful, majestic progress of the clouds sailing across the serene sky. Their stately course across the invisible ocean of air seemed to speak of invisible rivers of Time and Meaning along which flowed the destiny of humanity and, in particular, my destiny. In a sudden, comprehensive flash I sensed the stars wheeling in the heavens, our planet spinning along its orbit and my species’ blind urge to evolve – but towards what? What did it all mean? Why were things unfolding as they were? Where was I before I was born and what will happen when I die? What does it mean to be human? Why am I here? What is the purpose of the universe?
Of course I did not articulate the whole experience to myself as I have expressed it here, but I did ask the specific questions mentioned above. I remember that day as if it were yesterday, because this episode was the defining event of my life: in that Promethean moment, I became a lifelong Seeker. Thereafter a burning quest for knowledge and an inexpressible but certain sense that there is a Truth to be found illumined my heart and fired my mind. I had experienced an intimation of the extraordinary; thereafter I began to favor losing myself in contemplative reveries in which I entertained ontological questions such as the meaning of life and the possibilities of my involvement with it over playing with other children.
That incident revealed the truth of my inner nature; but of course I had to live my life as the circumstances allowed. In another time, place, and culture I might have been sent to a master to learn the secrets of life and self-realization—but that was hardly the case for a post-War American child. I had a long, hard journey ahead of me, of which I was blissfully unaware as I wandered down those tree-lined streets and wondered about the universe.
I am a seeker, a scholar and a “recovering” person. I put quotation marks around “recovering” because my experience tells me that the connotative understanding of that term in the recovering community is that of “moving away from”; in the beginning it certainly is that. But since one is supposed to be engaged in a “program of change,” to use the applicable 12-Step phrase, for me a time came when I no longer felt that way but, instead, that I was “moving towards” realizing the potentials I was born with but which had been derailed and denied by my addiction. Each perspective is in theory implicit in the other; but whether one explicitly realizes them is another matter. After several years in “the rooms of recovery” I began to feel that my shift to a more forward-looking attitude was not being supported, so I left and began to seek my support elsewhere. Don’t think for an instant that I am not very grateful for the wonderful and vitally important support and education I received in the rooms, since their concentration on the “recovering from” attitude is the best support for the newcomer, who is in great danger of relapse. In NA in particular, that can always mean sudden death or at least prolonged incarceration, so they’re dealing with a triage situation there. I absolutely needed that environment for the first five years of my recovery, as I was already seriously damaged before I began using and then used for so long.
I was a heroin addict for 22 years until my habit nearly killed me. At the last moment, I was saved by the intervention of an experimental psychedelic treatment using ibogaine. I had to travel to an island in the Caribbean for the chance to take it because it is illegal in the U.S. I didn’t enter a treatment program but a clinical trial in which I became an experimental subject, a kind of guinea pig. That was a real step up from the status of junkie! It interrupted the cycle of addiction and gave me a new lease on life, an opportunity which I then had to grasp in order to begin the work of rehabilitation and recovery. But at last I felt that I could: I had been transformed.
A Brief Biographic Sketch
I am an only child; my mother was also an only child and my father had a brother that I didn’t meet until my father’s funeral and I haven’t seen him since. I didn’t have family even when I lived with my parents: we were fractured 21st century schizoid people, isolated from each other as well as from ourselves. Though there were only three of us, we would still separate as far apart as possible from each other in every dwelling we occupied. Suppertime was a drag, since when we came together we reached critical mass: there would almost certainly be an explosion before the meal was over. My dad was a career military officer, so while I was growing up we moved every two or three years; as a result, I rarely got to see my maternal grandparents and great-aunt-and-uncle, the only other family that I knew and liked—in fact, more than I liked my parents. Now all of them are gone; but the only people I miss are my grandparents. Sadly, I only got to see them for a couple of weeks every few years, so even that bond was weak.
Here you can see several elements of my future addiction prefigured: isolation, alienation and disregard for food. Eating would become an annoying consumption of time and resources that could otherwise go to my real sustenance: dope—junk, if at all possible.
My earliest memory must be from when I was around one; it is dreamlike, but was eventually confirmed by some old friends of my grandparents. I was in a crib around the time when babies start trying to climb out of it. We were in a second-floor apartment and Mom had placed my crib next to a window in the room next to the kitchen, where she was. She wasn’t watching me and had opened the window. I climbed out of my crib on the side of the open window – because, of course, it was so much more interesting than the room – and fell out the second story window over the driveway. That would have been my certain death if Dad hadn’t come home for lunch and pulled into the driveway just then. I bounced off the car roof and into the bushes next to the house, which caught me and broke my further fall. Since babies are made of rubber, I was scratched up but otherwise unharmed.
You could say that was gross negligence on my mother’s part – but I came to know my mom. She was an addict and a professional victim and she resented a baby – unconsciously, of course – who took attention and resources from her. If I had successfully disposed of myself for her, she could have scored major victim points as a young mother who lost her only baby in a tragic accident. She would have been coddled and fussed over and nurtured and forgiven all sorts of transgressions; she could have milked that episode for years. If you think this sounds heartless and cruel, bear in mind that she played at having multiple sclerosis for decades, which gave her great leverage to manipulate us and others and to play “poor me” in grand style. In fact, she was finally found not to have it. This is not a condition that spontaneously heals.
In the summer of 1952 when I was three, my family moved from Arizona to New York by train. I was a well-behaved child, but the day we were to leave I wandered off at the last second; eventually I was found under the bleachers of a near-by outdoor stadium, where preparations were in progress for that evening’s Fourth of July fireworks. I have never found a satisfying explanation for this abnormal behavior. I have my suspicions, but I will only say here that this was my first dissociative experience, since I had no recollection of how or why I left my yard and travelled several blocks away to a place to which I’d never taken and in which I’d never been interested.
On the train, I woke up in the night and experienced an overwhelming urge to see the night sky and the desert landscape moving by. Did I hear an inner call? I don’t recall ever waking up in the middle of the night before that or being the least bit aware of the night sky. The window in our compartment was denied me by my parents’ sleeping arrangements and while trying to climb over my father without disturbing him I fell on my chin, acquiring a lifelong scar. I was always trying to climb to the top of things like trees, cliffs, rooftops and so forth throughout childhood, whenever I could escape from the short leash I was on. Mom was always looking for me and screaming at me to come down or to otherwise stop doing whatever I was doing. I felt closely watched, tightly controlled and smothered.
When I was five, some traumatic event occurred one night during the summer of 1954 which reinforced my fascination with the night sky. Dad was flying jets in Korea and I lived alone with mom in my home town in upstate New York. When I first began to recall this event years later, I thought I had been molested by my mother; later that shifted to being molested by a baby sitter who had been a high school friend of my mother. Since then I have pursued more esoteric possible explanations, but I can’t say that I know what happened for sure. Looking back, I sense this was a deeply shocking event; after that that I began to become significantly depressed. It gradually progressed to serious depression some 15 years later.
One thing I do feel sure of is that the process of alienation from my society and even from my family began in earnest after that episode. Alienation is an outstanding feature of addiction. There are biographic events in the life of any addict that one can single out as causal factors. But my experience and study of this condition, this addictive complex, indicates that egoic, Freudian analysis is inadequate to explain all its characteristics. Especially perplexing is its development in the lives of some but not all people who have been exposed to similar or even identical traumatic episodes.
Back to the Tree-Lined Lane
So at this point I arrive again at the defining moment in my childhood, when the Big Questions took over my mind and heart.
During youth a blossoming and budding forth tries to happen from inside out as each young person encounters what is seeded in them and gifted in their soul. The inner garden of the soul sends forth shoots of imagination intended to take root in the world and become an anchor for the soul throughout life. For what is native and indigenous to one’s soul will keep trying to manifest itself throughout one’s life.
Alas, I was brought up in an unconscious, or asleep, society. I could not discuss these questions with my parents, as they provided neither an atmosphere encouraging consideration of those concepts nor any forum in which to share my musings – children were seen but not heard. The whole world had just had a massive seizure for five years as a raging hurricane of fear and hatred called World War II slaughtered millions, devastated nations and razed social, economic and political structures to the ground. People In the U.S. – as, no doubt, in every country – just wanted some peace and quiet; stability and prosperity. They hunkered down to work and raise families. No one wanted to hear about social or political issues then, since those were the cause of the seizure. Conservatism was the order of the day and anything that might disrupt the smooth path to reconstruction and a quiet, peaceful lifestyle in which to enjoy the new families and their prosperity was firmly denied; blinkers were donned and arguments in favor of change or against any existing beliefs or structures were ignored. Bereft as our culture was then and, in large part, still is in matters of signs and spirits, almost no one took serious note of a child’s thoughts, questions or unusual experiences, let alone interpret them and encourage the child to act in accord with any inspiration they might have received.
This is all very comprehensible human behavior. Of course, since ours is the dynamic world of Becoming, of creative change, that situation could not last forever: after two decades had passed, an inevitable surge of repressed energy for change began to develop. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the forces for change are ever-present, but are expressed in waves due to the natural tendency of human beings to resist change. That too is understandable, since once a person has learned – often the hard way – the lay of the land and the cycles of the seasons, then that person becomes well-adapted to the environment and lives more successfully and easily. Why would you want things to change when you know how to thrive just as they are? So there is always an inertia that resists change; the question is always “how much pressure must build before the ramparts resisting change begin to crumble?”
That was just beginning to happen by the late 1960s. But the forerunners of change – in the form of such expressions of discontent as, for instance, the films “Rebel without a Cause” and “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” from the U.S. and “La Dolce Vita” from Italy – began to appear in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was the attempt to assassinate DeGaulle in that period, later made into the film “The Jackal.” Thomas Kuhn spoke of related circumstances with reference to a change of paradigm, but this takes place more slowly and generally within the academic community; the greater populace only sees the final, violent stages of such a struggle. But social, economic and political struggles are typically the front page news of major media outlets, so everyone is constantly inundated with those goings-on. The problem is that what the general populace typically sees are the official, conservative responses of the forces of reaction: the entrenched power structures in politics and economics. It was that way in the French Revolution; it was that way in the Hip/Sexual/Psychedelic/Civil Rights Revolution – for me, “hip” covers it all – and it is that way today. Poor George Santayana must be rolling in his grave.
The event when I was eight changed my mind and heart and turned my course aside from the direction followed by most of the people I would meet. My values were redefined to be those which supported a search for knowledge and wisdom and a connection with the divine; other motivations, like the desire to belong to a social group, were devalued below the prominent level they evidently held for those around me. As I progressed on this new path, my membership in mainstream consensual society gradually eroded, so I became increasingly alienated. Between 1957 when I was eight and 1967 when I graduated from high school, the pursuit of esoteric knowledge was incompatible with membership in “normal” society; they were mutually exclusive lifestyles. They still are today; but as when I became a hippie, I’ve found a sub-culture of like-minded people among whom I am accepted and supported. This one is more stable, being supported by a more clearly articulated philosophical and psychological matrix than we had available to us in the Hip Revolution. It was, however, a long and painful journey to find a home at last in what I feel is my community: one amongst fellow seekers.
Losing My Way in the Twilight
The seed of spiritual life that had been planted in me at eight was paved over with the concrete mindset of the 1950s, so to speak. This dense layer blocked the efforts of my growing spiritual creeper that was straining to crack through my enculturation into the celestial light.
My parents were psycho-emotionally damaged in their own childhoods and eventually became unhappy alcoholics as a result; Mom was also a pill addict (“Mother’s little helpers”) and Dad became a gambler. My mother, brainwashed by the prevalent mindset of the 1950s which included the worship of scientism and the “doctor as god” attitude, listened to the allopathic party line and had a spinal before delivery. As a result she could not push when I was born. I recall hearing that consequently my delivery took around 20 hours and finally required that I be grabbed by the head with tongs and pulled out. Why waste time getting started on a seriously traumatized life?
My parents moved along the track of their own doom. Their generation’s sword was broken and unfulfilling; inhumane aspects of their mythic theme were beginning to be noticed. They were unconsciously bound to the externally-directed, materialist paradigm and to a judgmental Protestant worldview. As a result they slowly became disillusioned, disenfranchised and alienated from themselves and each other as well as from their community. Those processes dragged them steadily downward into depression, anxiety, constant fighting, heavy smoking and alcoholism. Their condition influenced my own progress along similar lines: I, too, became depressed and anxious, though of course I did not know this at the time. I was alienated from my peers – but then, I had never learned how to be a part of the mainstream social group in the first place. Perhaps my parents hadn’t, either; or else they gradually lost the knack of relating to others as they lost touch with themselves. A major difference between my folks and me was that they wanted to belong, whereas I cared less and less about it over time. Consensual reality as presented to me by my culture did not nourish my interests and values. My parents thought it important to stay abreast of current developments in the world, whereas I was interested in finding the governing principles behind the stage play of events. As I learned more, it increasingly seemed to me that “current events” was just a tired re-enactment of historically old themes in new dress.
One result of this perspective was that when I reached adolescence, I rebelled and became a hippie. With other sensitive and intellectual friends in similar straits, I began taking psychedelics in a quest for more satisfying and meaningful answers to life’s problems than those offered by our parents’ generation. I now prefer the term “entheogen” to “psychedelic” because it emphasizes the potential of those agents to reveal the divine nature inherent in all human beings.
However, one struggling tendril of my questing young consciousness was turned around and grew upside down into the darkness, where it became an evil root, finally manifesting as the “disease” of addiction. The tendril of light expended so much energy in breaking through the dense consciousness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s that, after a promising start, it eventually fell back exhausted; at that point the perverted root, nourished in the dark materialof the unconscious, took over as the guiding force in my life. Remember, that tendril, too, had been seeking answers; seeking the divine – but it looked in the opposite direction. In terms of archetypal astrology, the rising energies of the approaching conjunction of Pluto and Uranus sponsored in me two questing tendrils and, in my case, it was the chthonic energies of the Plutonic tendril that were favored by my circumstances.
In my childhood and so-called “family life” you can see several elements of my future addiction prefigured: isolation, alienation and disregard for food. Mom had not learned to be a good cook but was cast in that role by tradition. She ruined most of what she touched so the dinner fare was rarely appealing. Then too, an argument almost inevitably broke out between my parents, who didn’t get along together by the time I entered high school but were forced to spend time together at close range. Eating would become for me an annoying consumption of time and resources that could otherwise go to my real sustenance: dope – junk if at all possible.
It would be untrue to say that I never cared to belong; I simply had no idea of how to do it. Any actions I took in order to be part of my high school class were an unconscious mimicry of the behavior of others, but without any comprehension: I didn’t understand what other people were doing or why, what to speak of feel what they apparently felt. I was an objective observer of incomprehensible behaviors and mysterious rituals. This is an indictment of the so-called “etic” theory of ethnographic observation. I was an outside observer of my own society, in it but not of it; like a jellyfish, I was swept along currents of unknown origin towards invisible goals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my feelings were already almost entirely shut down as a result of the constant trauma of life with my family; so I was left trying to “figure out” social behavior in the same way I calculated chess moves – but that didn’t work very well. Bobby Fisher, the international chess phenomenon of my youth, was, as it turns out, a near-total failure as a communal human being – and I was in the same boat.
Spouting the themes of their own complexes, my parents emphasized to me my strong suit of intelligence, urging me to sacrifice everything else on the altar of education and intellectualism. They were not unique in promoting a college education as the guarantor of a brighter future; in my case they were certainly right that higher education was a natural goal for me. They were both college-educated, so they couldn’t have helped but notice my ever-questing nature and that my native abilities were those of a scholar. Of course, hyper-intellectualism was congruent with their own motif of avoiding feelings, so in due course I became an almost disembodied brain. My parents both encouraged a single-minded focus on my studies and denied me any chance to engage in typical childhood pursuits such as getting a paper route. They said it would distract me from school and involve me with “lower,” more mundane sorts of children. I wanted to earn some pocket money so I could go to the movies on weekends, for instance, but they said I didn’t need to work because they would give me an allowance. Of course, my allowance depended on my getting top grades, which again enforced the focus they chose for me as well as their control over me, tying me to them. I was to become the blazing social success that had eluded them; they imagined that later I would tell interviewers that “I owed it all to my parents.”
Ultimately my scientific and historical studies were exaggerated into a monomaniacal pursuit of abstract theory and principles, while potentially counterbalancing activities that might have enriched the complexity of my life and world view were curtailed. In Wilber’s developmental scheme of lines and streams, one of my streams was extremely advanced at the cost of development in others. My parents’ love was conditional, dependent upon my flawless performance; it was the biscuit I jumped through hoops in order to obtain. First I grew to resent that starvation diet of affection; then I began to break down under the constant pressure of perfectionism; finally I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I came to see myself as fundamentally flawed because I was not able to satisfy my parents’ expectations – or at least my interpretation of them. Thus my parents planted the seeds of their own depression and alienation in me, even as they sought to live vicariously through me; while I came to feel shame that I could not satisfy their expectations of me. Of course, as I youth I could only imagine that what my parents wanted of me was reasonable and in my own, best interest. Clearly, I was not worthy.
Of course, neither my parents nor I were aware that I was depressed and anxious; they, because that had become their native state; I, because I had only their example to go by. On the occasions when I got to visit a friend’s house and experienced the very different atmosphere and their parent’s behavior, I noticed the difference but was simply mystified by it. Yes, I did wish that things could be more like that at my house, but beyond that I had no basis of comparison, no data base of national averages that might have alerted me to the unhealthy nature of my family situation. I assumed that the kind of parents you got was just the luck of the draw; that different parents were like different models of car. Mental health and social psychology were not topics of discussion in popular magazines like Look or Life.
Then I finally graduated from high school. I had always been in the top echelon of students and in the advanced class, but by my senior year was beginning to experience a rising level of dissonance and stress that was interfering with my performance. Also, my illusion that adults knew the answers to “The Big Questions” and had constructed an educational system to raise us gradually to that exalted level too had been rudely dispelled one day in geometry class by a teacher’s comment that deflated some of my zeal for studies. So when I took the National Merit Scholarship test, I failed to get the scholarship by one point, getting instead a Letter of Commendation. This was a major disappointment for my parents, and they didn’t trouble to hide from me that I just didn’t measure up; I didn’t make the grade. This incident exemplifies the burden of perfectionism under which I had labored throughout my childhood and youth. Under its pressure, I was beginning to break down, but no one – least of all me – saw that or recognized it for what it was.
I Wander Into the Forest
Despite being a disappointment to my parents and myself, my grades were nevertheless in the top 0.5% of the nation and so ample to gain admission to higher education. After I graduated from high school, my parents took me up to the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts, only about 20 miles from my parents’ house. I remember following my parents around the administration building like a dog while they asked questions about my education as if I wasn’t there. I don’t think they actually held my hand, but that was the sense I had. My parents’ attitude toward me – which was transparently clear to me and maybe everyone – was that I was essentially an idiot savant: a genius of abstract studies who, however, couldn’t be trusted to come in out of the rain or cross the street unaided. I clearly recall that, even in my psychologically unconscious state of the time, I was embarrassed and felt humiliated by my parents’ overt display of this attitude in public. I had gradually become keen to escape from their smothering grasp, but after this episode I chaffed to be free; it couldn’t happen soon enough to suit me.
When I went to university, I thrilled to be free of my parents’ control and eager for experience of life outside the tightly-controlled parameters that my parents had set for me. The policy of UMass at that time was that all students had to live on campus unless they were married or until they were 21, the drinking age in Massachusetts in 1967. Incredibly, my parents actually expected that I would come home every weekend to report the week’s activities for their review so they could tell me what to do during the upcoming week – demonstrating their blinkered perception of, and their disconnection from, the world. If they had actually seen me as a unique individual instead of their puppet, they would have been able to sense my barely-suppressed tension and anxiety to escape.
That is exactly what I did: once I was out of their house and in my dorm room, I was filled with an ecstatic sense of liberation. I discovered that the Hip Revolution, in part characterized by the drug culture, was just starting on my campus and I joined it at once, remaining a hippie for about the next eight years. I don’t think I even had to make a conscious decision not to return to my parents’ house on weekends; I understood that implicitly from the beginning. I had just turned 19 and I had never been out of my parents’ sight for more than two weeks in my life, and that was when I was in the care of my grandparents. Now I tasted the fresh air of freedom – and it was sweet! Almost at once I began to unfold, like a flower’s new bud that has just pushed above ground in the spring to feel, at last, the direct rays of the life-giving sun, which until then had only been vaguely sensed as warmth coming from above. Probably my parents forgave my failure to report for the first couple of weeks and allowed me a temporary distraction from filial duty because of the new environment, but eventually they began to come up, looking for me. I began a pattern of avoidance that went on for the next couple of years, aided and abetted by new friends who grasped my position and sympathized with it – most of them were much too far from home for their parents to come looking for them. I’d get the word – “Psst! Your parents are coming up from the lobby!” – and out I’d go, down the back staircase and racing across campus to an obscure locale, or even to leave the campus entirely.
I have always been rootless. I was a military brat who grew up moving every two or three years and when I escaped from home to go to university, I became a hippie almost at once. I tried to find family in social groups, but the people I hung with were in transition themselves. Then later I became an addict; with the passage of time and the advance of my addiction, the number of people I visited was eventually reduced to four, each singly and for specific purposes: one with whom to play chess; one with whom to talk about WW II, etc. Moving constantly, I couldn’t retain mementos of past or family. I inherited my parent’s modest estate when they died that included family albums both from them and from their parents, but eventually I lost all of that, too. Reflecting on this pattern, I see that the circumstances of my life kept me alone and in minimalist living situations like a floating jellyfish with no home. I have enjoyed a certain freedom because of it, which may have helped my spiritual search, but I’ve grown weary of it. Human beings can best discover and develop their potential in company with others.
But there were two, opposing forces developing in me at the same time. One was the Light: with the advent of psychedelics and the entrance of many new Eastern philosophies and religious forms my heart soared, my mind expanded and my vital essence leapt like a young deer among the fresh grasses and blooming flowers of a springtime field. The other was the Darkness: this undercurrent, obscured by the exciting developments of light, chilled my soul and eroded the foundations of my mental health at the same time that I was expanding above, so to speak. In the late 1960s therapy was not in the public jargon. In the minds of my parents and their generation, that was something reserved for the straight-jacketed inmates of padded cells, while “normal” people lit another cigarette, took another drink and forged ahead with the “real” business of making money and building security. My inner rift went unnoticed and unattended as my depression and anxiety gradually grew more serious; but I had felt gradually more depressed and anxious by modest increments as I grew up, so I was already accustomed to ignoring those feelings. I gradually progressed from mild though moderate depression over the course of my youth until around age 21, when I was finally diagnosed as severely depressed during an examination for possible causes of the migraine headaches I had begun to have.
Mircea Eliade said “pathological sicknesses…in themselves constitute an initiation; that is, they transform the profane, pre-‘choice’ individual into a technician of the sacred.” In The Sacred and the Profane he says (I paraphrase)
by performing initiation rites, entailing ordeals and symbolic death and resurrection, the novice imitates a divine action….The initiate is not only one newborn or resuscitated; they are one who knows, who has had revelations that are metaphysical in nature….Initiation is equivalent to a spiritual maturing….Here…there is a symbol of death; darkness symbolizes the beyond, “the infernal regions.
The orientation suggested here explains why I eventually came to see my life path in terms of that form of the mythic “Hero’s Journey” expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy: the descent to Hell, followed by the struggle to ascend the divine mountain of Purgatory and, finally (ideally), the translation into Paradise.
But at this point I was absorbed with my new-found rebellion and – finally! – membership in a social group: the hippie sub-culture; my dark developments festered unnoticed. The Hip Revolution was just breaking over the campus of UMass/Amherst like a tidal wave over the Establishment dykes when I enrolled and its electric energy was in the air – a significant contribution to the atmosphere of Camelot that pervaded the country under President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Years passed during which I became one of the first generation of hippies in the Amherst scene. Our branch of the hip movement was the inheritor of the New York City Beatniks’ coffeehouse-literature -and-chess type of consciousness, mixed with British Invasion musical influence. We were socio-cultural revolutionaries – many were political too – and psychedelic explorers seeking new horizons. We were also woods hippies in love with the New England countryside’s beauty and mystique; “back to the land” meant for us Revolutionary War history, L.L. Bean-type clothing and camping gear and cabins in the hills along with a movement towards vegetarianism and sprouts – the word “herb” covered a lot of ground. We were reading 1984, Animal Farm, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the American Transcendentalists, Lord of the Rings and, of course, Carlos Castaneda.
I remember what it was like to be free for the first time amongst other young people on campus and to join a crowd of like-minded comrades: the first hippies at UMass Amherst. I had struggled to find some marijuana – how do you locate an illegal substance? – and someone to smoke it with. Of course what I first got was the lowest-class reefer imaginable: no doubt shake from someone’s kilo of Mexican commercial grade weed. It was roughly one-third seeds and stems by volume; the only way we could smoke it was through a water pipe. Fortunately there was a popular model of water pipe available in smoke stores at the time: it had a conical brass bottom with some designs stamped by hand in on it in Morocco; a black, Bakelite bowl with brass cup on a metal tube rising from it; and another metal tube bent off at an angle to the black mouthpiece. They were everywhere and very convenient for new, young hippies just starting out who didn’t know how to roll cigarettes yet. The water took the harshness of the burning seeds out of the smoke – I and others like me didn’t know enough at first to separate out the seeds and stems. Besides, they were a big portion of the cheap weed we were overcharged for and finding this illegal substance – just a bloody weed, for heaven’s sake! – was at first so difficult that we coveted every bit of it. The result was usually a mild euphoria and a case of the giggles.
That went on for a few months, during which time I also found LSD. This was a different caliber of experience altogether. After my third trip I realized that I was changing rapidly from the person I had been when I came up to campus: I began to feel that a new name would be appropriate to express the whole, new person I was becoming – in fact it was my sense that I was beginning to become the person I was always supposed to be, but who had been repressed from self-expression and development by my parents and their society. Here is how I acquired my name:
I tripped with a girl I was attracted to and after we came down (mostly) from wandering around the campus all night, I expressed this feeling I had to her as early morning began to change the magical night back to the more prosaic, normal world. She immediately responded that she felt the same way. Shortly she proposed a means of doing this: we would part company for a day or two, during which time we would each think of three names for the other person they suggested to us by virtue of their total demeanor and appearance: “You seem to me to be a ___.” Then, when next we got together, we would tell the other person the names we had thought of for them and they could choose the one they liked.
We did this and of the three names she imagined for me, I like Adrian best because it flowed; it seemed euphonic and romantic and poetic and it felt best to me; in fact I imagined a butterfly when I said it – very transformative. She picked Monique. We used these names for each other for the next couple of weeks until a major event occurred for me: I was introduced to a circle of friends who turned out to be the real hippies on campus, as opposed to curious experimenters, and of course I introduced myself as Adrian. I very quickly gravitated to this new crowd and lost touch with Monique and the few other people I had managed to meet thus far at school. My new friends, unaware that I had any other name, called me Adrian and we began to hang together every day, so my name stuck. Unfortunately, Monique ODed on something a few months later and her part of the experiment was lost. For me, it was finding my crowd shortly after finding my name that made it stick. In fact, about two years passed before my friends discovered that my legal name was something else.
So I became part of the original hip crowd at UMass Amherst. At the time – fall of 1967 – I don’t think there were more than about 50 of us, loosely organized into about three circles of friends, based largely on where we lived. Two crowds were centered in two of the residential colleges on campus and my crowd was (illegally) located off-campus, in an old farmhouse that someone had somehow been able to rent. All of us technically had dorm rooms, but we rarely stayed there. We spent as much time as we could in that wonderful old house in the woods next to a stream. We all loved New England’s mystique and most of us were woods hippies.
I recall clearly what it was like to walk around campus those days. The Baby Boom had swelled the student population to around 24,000 – and they all looked the same. Almost all the male students wore grey sweatshirts with the sleeves cut off with blue jeans with penny loafers – proto-Grey Flannel Suit types – while the girls were barely more colorful. Basically all men and women were wearing a kind of “collegiate-casual” uniform so they could feel secure and supported as members of the mainstream culture. Why not? The U.S. was still the primary world superpower, our dollar was still the strongest currency and we were in the process of beating the Soviets in the Space Race. But for those of us who chose to opt out of the Power Elite, all of those external advantages were had at the cost of a stifling, soul-killing lifestyle that denied or suppressed the call of heart, the call of nature and any sense of world brotherhood. Of course Vietnam was reaching a boil as well and, aside from not wanting to be dragged off to fight somebody elses war, we also didn’t feel that killing lots of Vietnamese and destroying their countryside was morally defensible in the way that fighting the Japanese, for instance, had been. They had actually attacked the U.S., but no one in their right mind could imagine that the Vietnamese were such a threat and the rhetoric about “Domino theory” carried little weight. Those of us who had looked into it a little discovered that Uncle Ho had first approached the U.S. for support, not wanting to be co-opted by Communist China. The whole thing stank and we wanted no part of it.
I went to class if one caught my attention as harmonious with my developing set of values, but mostly I was fully absorbed in exploring both the new sub-culture and the new me that I was meeting as if I were a total stranger – and an exciting one! I participated in demonstrations and our crowd was in regalia for street theater most of the time, but I didn’t go as far as political violence. My philosophical interests merged with my scientific ones in a fascination with the brain/mind problem, but I didn’t take it up in school at this point, being still too intoxicated with my freedom; so I confined my query to talk and psychedelic journeying.
One of the revolutionary acts I was a part of was a demonstration against Dow Jones recruiting on our campus. At the end of the school year, big corporations would come on campus to hold job fairs and try to attract graduating students to come work for them; Dow was one of them. But among other things, they made napalm for use in Vietnam. So a group of 15-20 of us hatched a plan for a spectacular demonstration to protest the administration allowing this criminal organization (as we saw it) to seduce young men and women down a morally indefensible path. The job fair covered a large area around the central campus pond and was both inside and outside. So we secured the rights to hold a bonfire for some ostensibly harmless purpose outside by the pond during the height of the job fair. Some of us went down to the School of Stockbridge where animal husbandry and agriculture were taught (UMass began its career as Mass Aggie, a state agricultural college over a century before when agriculture was still a major industry and mainstay of state life). There they secured quite a stash of animal parts from the slaughterhouse, like cow heads, tails, guts and so forth – things that aren’t used for food by people. Meanwhile the rest of us built an enormous bonfire: the conical woodpile was at least ten feet high and 15’ across at the base. On the day of action, most of us dressed in black, taped black pieces of paper all over us and covered any exposed skin with black soot, completing the project by wearing black pullover caps. At the very height of the middle of three recruiting days, when student attendance was normally at its height, we lit the bonfire. While about two-thirds of us lay on the ground around the bonfire in contorted positions, those of us who remained threw animal parts on the roaring fire for that authentic, burning-flesh smell and began chanting slogans through bullhorns and carrying signs detailing Dow’s involvement in Vietnam by its production of napalm. What a scene! The campus police came pretty quickly, but it wasn’t exactly clear what we were doing that was illegal, since people char flesh over fire outside all the time, calling it “barbecue.” We’d secured the right to have a fire there in advance from the appropriate authorities; we weren’t assaulting anyone or even using profane language. Because there wasn’t really anything they could do to us, they were all the more pissed – a delightful side benefit of the action. Fuck the pigs! Fuck Dow, the bastards! I don’t recall exactly what happened, but nobody really got into any trouble and…guess what? Dow wasn’t among the roster of corporations that came to the job fair next year! Right on! Power to the People!
The Music! The music of the revolution carried our philosophy and our message; it was our anthem and the energetic wave that carried us along. There were exceptions as in any generalization, but by and large musical groups felt that they were serving a higher purpose than just entertaining us: through The Music we were all connected, no matter where you were in the country. So for instance, a band called The Electric Flag remade “Killing Floor” – originally a blues lament about a bad woman who ruined a man’s life so he killed her, as so many of them were – into a political challenge to the Vietnam War. But after eight largely delightful years (aside from being busted) of being an active part of the Hip Revolution and thus belonging somewhere, I became a severely depressed heroin addict for most of the next 22 years –belonging nowhere.
I first got busted as a hippie: for the simple possession of four joints, I became a felon. Later that was downgraded to a misdemeanor when the law was changed, but it was a shocking introduction to my new state of disenfranchisement by society. Not surprisingly this drove me to disparage and rebel against The Establishment to a degree I had not before. Of course, such patent nonsense as the movie “Reefer Madness” and other hysterical propaganda, which even I – young and relatively innocent – had come to recognize as such, drove masses of young people away from accepting almost any guidance by adults. I began going to therapy, both one-on-one and group therapy, each week about one-quarter of the time for the next six years, thus accumulating my first 100 or so hours in therapy.
The inexorable progress of my illness finally broke through my attention filters when my anxiety, unattended, generated a level of inner tension that began to produce devastating migraine headaches. I had progressed from mild though moderate depression over the 15 years since a childhood trauma at age 5, until around 21 when I was finally diagnosed as severely depressed during an examination for possible causes of the migraine headaches I had begun to have. Since I was not aware of my depression or anxiety, the headaches were a dreadful surprise and a mystery to me and to the medical community as well, as it turned out. Much less was known about migraine when my attacks began in 1974 than is known today. I began making the rounds of various physicians and clinics, getting CAT scans and taking allergy tests and so forth. Finally it was clear that the headaches were not a result of a gross physiologic insult or allergic response. During the course of these tests, one doctor suspected that I was depressed and anxious, so he took a personal history as well as giving me some questionnaires to fill out. He concluded that I had PTSD, that I was severely depressed and was highly anxious, so he prescribed medication for all three conditions; I was given five different prescriptions. This was long before the advent of modern SSRI medicines for depression; the tri-cyclic and quadri-cyclic anti-depression meds in use then were much less effective than the SSRIs and had the side effect of reducing life to a drear, grey blur; while the Valium I received for anxiety homogenized my emotional state so that mild interest or annoyance were the only deviations from a generalized, flat disinterest in everything. For the migraines I had ergotamine to dilate the blood vessels in my head – that helped a little – and Percodan, an opiate, for the unendurable pain. My condition deteriorated until I could no longer go to class or do much of anything, really. Life was reduced to mechanically repeating pointless acts that produced no satisfaction as I felt steadily worse about myself and began to question the value and meaning of life.
Notice that no one thought of suggesting therapy; the reductionist nature of biomedical science holds that consciousness is a byproduct of brain activity; so all conditions must arise from physiology, which can be manipulated by drugs. Like my parents, I was supposed to take my medicine and tough it out, because it isn’t a fair world and that’s just the way of it, right?
Brief Respite in a Clearing
I had been engaged in a spiritual search since my disillusionment in geometry class in 1964 when I was 15. In the summer of 1972 I happened across an ISKCON preaching program and for the first time heard the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita. I was transported: suddenly, answers were provided where I had either found none before or those that I had been offered were unsatisfying; or perspectives were added to the explanations I had discovered but had found insufficient until then; and/or an enrichment of understanding was added. The founder of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, had followed the orders of his guru to bring a Gaudiya Vaisnava explanation and practice of bhakti yoga to the West. This yoga of loving devotional service, a theistic expression of the rich and complex body of Indian Vedanta philosophy, focuses on the use of mantra meditation – most commonly a chanting of the Holy Name – rather than asanas, well-known postures that most people associate with yoga. As a theistic expression of religion it is closer in nature to the Western, Abrahamic religions than the more non-dual expressions of Vedanta. Of the many translations of Bhagavad-Gita, I think Srila Prabhupada’s Vaisnava translation is more thematically sympathetic with the bhakti nature of its contents. The story therein is one of direct, personal service to an avatar of the Godhead; other translations render other expressions by virtue of taking the story as only metaphoric. The truth is no doubt a combination of the two, as in the parables of Christ.
The dry, murky and uninspiring message of divinity preached in the High Episcopalian church my parents dragged me to from childhood to early youth was swept away by the vast and glorious vision revealed by the coherent message of the Gita . Its scientific cosmological system seemed logical to me and struck me with the force of revelation. It would perhaps be accurate to say that my first exposure to the philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, around age 23 or 24, was the second major transformative experience of my life; the first being the spontaneous episode when I was eight. I was also naturally attracted to this expression of spirituality because bhakti yoga is heart-centered and mine was in a pitiable state as a result of my near-complete shutdown of feelings, so I intuitively knew that I had found a source of healing.
I had no idea of how damaged I was, but I knew that life was becoming rather unpleasant and I didn’t feel too good about myself; so it was easy for me to misuse the Vaisnava philosophy and say to myself, “This is all just Maya” – meaning illusory – and resolve to escape it via a transcendental practice. Today I would call that spiritual by-passing. I don’t know whether to be reassured that we understand this phenomenon now well enough to have labeled it, or disconcerted that it is so prevalent that we need a label for it. Anyway I didn’t consciously choose this path for escapism; I was strongly attracted by other trappings of the Vaisnava faith besides the philosophy and by the practices.
I entered an ISKCON temple and remained there for a year, living as a brahmachari, or celibate student monk with duties around the temple, where I also meditated and studied in scriptural classes with the others. During that period I had an extraordinary, transcendental experience one day while attending morning services –psychologically speaking, I entered an alternative state of consciousness. I was in a transport of bliss and felt as if I were floating around the temple all day, aware of my external environment and interacting with my fellow devotees but completely supported and enveloped in a soft, warm cocoon of pure delight in the divine.
I had many other wonderful experiences while there and generally enjoyed the company of the other devotees, the murtis (forms) of the Lord on the altar and a growing grasp of Vedantic philosophy. I was very happy in the temple and my stress levels dropped markedly while my depression evaporated. I stopped having migraines and stopped taking my medications, apparently without any consequences. This is not too surprising in light of the formulation by Leary, Alpert and Metzner of the concept of “set and setting.” My mindset was positive and hopeful, having been illumined by the philosophy and stories of Bhagavad-Gita; while the setting was insular and spiritual, surrounded as I was by other dedicated devotees, the murtis of the Lord, paintings of scriptural themes, traditional Indian music accompanying devotional songs, incense and the intensely dedicated atmosphere of the temple and supported by the Indian lacto-vegetarian diet of prasadam, or consecrated food. The temple was an alchemical alembic: a container crafted for the purpose of personal transformation. The devotees were generally excited and engaged in the same process, so we sponsored and supported each other’s efforts and possibly even co-created each other’s experiences to some extent.
But eventually the senior monks began to suggest that I take initiation to become a full-fledged monk. The notion appealed to me, but somehow I had an inner sense that I wasn’t ready to make that big commitment. After a year, I left the temple and returned to Amherst, planning to go back to school and continue my secular as well as my spiritual studies.
I Resume the Downward Path and Enter the Gates of Hell
Things didn’t go that way at all. Within two months, I was as miserable as I had been before I entered the temple. This doesn’t invalidate my work there, or the legitimacy of their philosophy and practices; it just means that I hadn’t done my dirty laundry. I was running away from it; thus the charge of spiritual by-passing. It was like trying to fly with lead weights around my ankles. My return to the wretched condition I was in before going to the temple seemed all the worse by comparison with the wonderful state I had enjoyed while there. My migraines returned. I started taking my medications again and my life once again grew dull and pointless. It was like drowning: slowly sinking below the water’s surface and watching the light grow dimmer as you drift downward.
After a year, I awoke one day with a bad though ordinary headache, but discovered I was out of aspirin. I grudgingly though I might take some Percodan just this once so I could get to the pharmacy to buy aspirin. But without a migraine to contend with, the oxycodone easily dispatched the headache with plenty of potent effect remaining. Suddenly, I felt much better! For the first time, I realized how depression had robbed me of any sense of participation in life; how dreary my world had become. I also realized that my anxiety made me feel guilty for taking up space and using resources that real people might use, because I felt hopelessly inadequate as a human being.
But now, life was great! I could do anything and damn it, I was as good as anyone! Now I could actually live life! I had a great day where the sky was bluer, the sun was brighter, the birds were singing and I felt as though I belonged; that I was “good enough” for the first time in… it dawned on me that I couldn’t actually remember when I started feeling “less than,” but it was a long time ago. Not only that but instead of making me feel dull and lethargic as the prescribed medications did, the opiate energized me and also relieved me of my crippling doubt and fear – temporarily. Then the next day dawned and it was back to grey nothingness and feeling that I couldn’t look my fellow human being in the eye; that I was a thief for using what resources I did – like food, air and a place to live – and that I was an interloper in the world. How could I deliberately return to that miserable way of being now that I was acutely aware of the condition AND now that I knew how to feel decent again? I had that prescription bottle in my medicine cabinet! Two pills and …voila! I was a happenin’ human being!
That, of course, was the beginning of the end. That discovery in 1975 sealed my doom: with it I entered the opening to the underworld, too absorbed in feeling good again to notice the words over the entrance: “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter In.”