January 10, 2010
By Don Lattin
Don Lattin was formerly the religion writer at the San Francisco
Chronicle. He's the author of a new book about the pioneers of the
psychedelic movement,"The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy
Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and
Ushered in a New Age for America" (Harper). Lattin wrote an essay
for Speakeasy about his own experience with altered states of conscious.
My long and somewhat strange trip began in high school with Aldous
Huxley. It was the late 1960s. I was probably fifteen or sixteen
years old when I read "Island," Huxley's final novel, the one about a
cynical reporter who gets shipwrecked on a mysterious Pacific island
where the natives live in cosmic harmony with all and everything.
As a novel, "Island" does not fare well with the passage of time, but
it led me to "The Doors of Perception," a book Huxley published in
1954. It describes Huxley's first experience with psychedelics, a
word the writer would later coin with an assist from Dr. Humphrey
Osmond, the British researcher who guided Huxley on a mescaline trip
in the spring of 1953.
I was in utero in New Jersey when Huxley had his baptismal trip
in his home in the Hollywood hills. He later wrote of how he was
amazed at the "is-ness" of his gray flannel trousers, how they showed
him all he needed to know about "the miraculous fact of sheer existence."
"The Doors of Perception" gave birth to the psychedelic drug culture
of the 1960s, and it also sparked something in me - a desire to
alter my consciousness in another way, not just with beer and pot at
high school parties, but to take a deeper journey into my own heart and mind.
There would be many such journeys in the 1970s, ecstasies and
agonies. Some trips were filled with profound, joyous revelation. One
kicked off a terrifying psychotic break and hallucinogenic flashbacks
that lasted for weeks.
Both the joyous revelation and the bad trip from central casting
unfurled in the fall of 1972, shortly after I arrived in Berkeley to
begin undergraduate studies at the University of California. The bad
trip scared the hell out of me. I swore I'd never do psychedelics
again, but, of course, I was back at it in a few months.
I fell in with an older crowd in their mid-thirties. They'd been in
San Francisco in the early and mid-'60s, and experienced what I
always imagined were the best years of the scene. I'd missed most of
the fun, and became the kid who always wanted to keep the party
going, a role I played out for more than a few years.
My love and fear of psychedelic drugs eventually led me to discover
some kinder, gentler ways to look into my own heart and soul. It also
sparked an interest in religious mysticism and a long career as a
religion reporter for the secular press. In the end, I realized that
it's not about the drugs. It's about remembering all the
life-affirming moments along the way - those glimpses of wonder and
awe, empathy and interconnectedness - and finding a place for all of
that in the rest of our lives.