When I was a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in the early 1960s, the school revoked a speaking invitation to Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who had recently been fired for unauthorized experiments with a little-known substance called LSD. Exeter was a fairly broad-minded institution and did not hesitate to invite speakers who were regarded in some quarters as dangerous subversives. However, with an unerring instinct for what was genuinely subversive, school officials acted even before anyone truly understood what was inside Pandora’s Box.
As it happened, I had the opportunity to hear Alpert speak when he visited the Yale campus some years later. By then he had parted ways with Timothy Leary and was calling himself Baba Ram Dass. Ram Dass had abandoned psychedelic drugs as a path to enlightenment and had embraced the teachings of the Hindu guru Hari Dass Baba during a pilgrimage to India. He later wrote about his spiritual transformation in a book called Be Here Now. I no longer recall much about what Ram Dass had to say, but I remember being powerfully affected by his presence. There was a kind of incandescent knowingness about him that told me he had found what others seek.
Most of what my friends and I understood about “cosmic consciousness” in those days came from experimenting with the same substances that had gotten Leary and Alpert kicked out of Harvard. Not surprisingly, we were predisposed to think of enlightenment as a kind of permanent high. Even the language of Eastern religious traditions tended to play into this misconception with their discussion of a higher self or higher planes of consciousness. Instead of dropping acid to achieve temporary bliss, you practiced meditation or some other spiritual discipline to arrive at the same destination – but without the bad trips or other unpleasant side effects of chemically induced nirvana.
The quest for enlightenment is a bit like trying to get to heaven without having to die first. Because we normally operate within the framework of a self, we can only imagine that enlightenment is an experience that the self has, albeit a new and improved self. Like moths to a flame, we are drawn toward the experience of enlightenment without realizing there is nothing to experience and, more to the point, no one to experience it. Be warned: the moth cannot become the flame without being consumed by it.