In analysing what was happening Richard Alpert – as he was known then – appreciated that his Jewish high-achieving, anxiety ridden background played its part but that he felt there was a lack of validity in him about what he was doing and this was exacerbated by the need to be ‘scientific’ about his research which felt like intellectual games.
‘There was not enough human beauty, human fulfillment, human contentment. I worked hard and the keys of the kingdom were handed to me. I was being promised all of it but… the whole thing was too empty. It was not honest enough… Not enough was happening that mattered- that was real.’
His work as a therapist felt equally false:
‘And as a therapist I felt caught in the drama of my own theories. The research data showed that …Freudian patients ended up talking about their mother because of subtle reinforcement clues – it was so obvious.’
It was this general malaise that then led Alpert to experiment taking magic mushrooms with Timothy Leary who was working down the corridor: ‘I found him extremely stimulating and the students found him exciting to be around, because of his openness the new ideas and his willingness to take wild risks in thinking.’ So Alpert ‘turned on’ with Timothy Leary and some other colleagues by taking psychedelics. During this first trip he describes going through various revelations including:
‘I saw a figure standing about 8 feet away, where a moment before there had been none. I peered into the semi-darkness and recognized none other than myself, in cap and gown and hood, as a professor. It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me….I thought “Well I worked hard to get that status, but I don’t really need it”’
This process repeats itself with Alpert seeing himself as a social cosmopolite and then all the different aspects of himself …cellist, pilot, lover and so on. ‘With each new presentation, I again and again reassured myself that I didn’t need that anyway.’ Then there is the basic identity – the Richard Alpert-ness followed by his body – at this point the trip becomes a panic and frightening but he heard an intimate voice asking ‘but who’s minding the store?’
‘I realised that although everything by which I knew myself, even my body and this life itself, was gone, still I was fully aware. Not only that, but this aware “I” was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion. Instantly …I felt a new kind of calmness – one of a profundity never experienced before. I had just found that “I” …that point, that essence – that place beyond. A place where “I” existed independent of social and physical identity. That which was I was beyond Life and Death. And something else … It was wise… it was a voice inside that spoke the truth. I recognized it, was one with it… ’