Acid Comes to the Project – Ram Dass

Acidification – December 1961 – Ram Dass

Harvard Psilocybin Project Page

Being Ram Dass




Like a high-voltage jolt, LSD changed the nature of the Psilocybin Project at Harvard. Psilocybin, as we’d experi­enced it, was a relational and unifying drug. The doses we administered were relatively small, six to eight milligrams, and the trips we guided lasted just three or four hours. Participants remembered their names and situations even as they reported feelings of oneness. Boundaries melted with a sense of warmth and understanding. Psilocybin softened the ego and opened the heart.

LSD blew all that away. It caused, not a softening of the ego, but its death. You might not remember your name or where you were or how you got there, floating out in the free space of consciousness. Michael Hollingshead’s sugary white paste offered no real way of determining dosage—a spoonful might have contained up to 250 micrograms—and a trip could last for an entire day or even longer. A few high-dose psi­locybin trips had already taken us to the existential edge, so to speak, but LSD went beyond that. LSD was transcendent.

Coming down from an acid trip, it was hard to communicate what had happened, because the drug took you to a plane that was so dif­ferent from normal waking consciousness that words were useless. Sometimes you couldn’t even remember the trip because the memory was specific to that other state. Sometimes your experience went so far beyond the discursive thought process that you saw people around you almost as artificial, mechanical figures caught in a dream world.

This was Tim’s experience. When he finally spoke after his first trip, he kept describing the puppet world we were living in. LSD had shown him how human conditioning was all mechanical, how we were all like plastic dolls. At home, he saw his daughter, Susan, as playing the per­fect teenager-puppet game. His trip had taken him to that causal planeLinks to an external site. where free will and fate are paradoxically simultaneous, so when he came down to the physical reality of everyday life, everything seemed robotic in comparison. As if to confirm what we knew about set and setting, Tim’s taste of LSD seemed to authenticate what he already felt about life: that it was all a game, in which human interaction is defined by our assigned roles and rituals and strategies.

Looking back, I see that when awareness gets disconnected from compassion and interrelatedness, it can feel robotic or puppet-like. Tim’s observations also foreshadowed the fundamental realization we’d have a few years later about psychedelics in general: that a trip is just that—a trip—and you have to come back. At the end of the day, for all your new insight, you still have to take out the garbage.

Hearing Tim talk like that scared me. It was so lacking in the heart space I’d discovered with psilocybin. I could sense that LSD might shift the paradigm of our research away from what I felt was the most important aspect of our work: psychedelics as a vehicle for internal education and spiritual growth.

I resisted the mayonnaise jar at first. Several weeks after Tim’s LSD initiation, his trusted collaborator Frank Barron, who had helped guide the research for the Psilocybin Project, returned to San Francisco to get married. Michael became a kind of all-around assistant to Tim, and it was hard to know what to make of this. Tim was well aware that there was something unscrupulous about Michael, but he was his conduit to LSD, and Tim revered him as a “wise alien trickster. ” Tim had jokingly developed a scale of moral reprehension—he’d rate you as a rascal, rogue, scoundrel, and so on—and the two of them often joked about where Hollingshead fell on this scale.

Michael was funny and good-natured and a storyteller, like Tim. But he also had a dark and untrustworthy side. There was no way to gauge the veracity of his stories, and when it came to psychedelics, he completely sidestepped our efforts to develop a thoughtful framework.

Every day at Tim’s house, he took a dose of LSD, spooning it out of his jar like peanut butter. He’d pour himself a scotch and plant him­self in front of the TV, tripping to whatever images were on the screen. In group sessions, he disregarded the sense of safety and comfort we tried to create, playing instead with how suggestible participants were. Rather than follow our code of openness, he liked to confuse and manipulate you. His approach to psychedelics was not about growth or insight. It was to freak out, to go as far as possible.

Eventually, I decided to lick the spoon myself. When I finally did, I realized that all this time in previous psychedelic sessions, I had been screwing around in the astral plane. LSD went beyond the astral, beyond form. It took you deeper, stripping away more of the layers of mind, and it lasted much longer. The peak of a trip carried you into a nova of con­sciousness and pure energy. Psilocybin had opened my spiritual heart. Now LSD opened the recesses of my mind and connected me to the very source of cosmic energy. No wonder Tim hadn’t been able to speak.

After his initial trip, Tim couldn’t tolerate large doses of LSD. He took smaller doses. I, on the other hand, embraced it with gusto, exper­imenting with the highest doses I could tolerate. Tim and I agreed to expand our approach, incorporating LSD and another psychedelic, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), into our research. The Harvard Psilocybin Project became the Harvard Psychedelic Project. We held more sessions and even introduced LSD to the inmates at the Concord state prison.

I did an LSD trip with the prison psychiatrist, W. Madison Presnell. That day still stands out in my memory: tripping on acid, I saw him as a brilliant light inside a coating of skin. The civil rights movement was just beginning to really swell—the Freedom Riders had made news headlines a year earlier—and I’d not yet fully examined any residual racial prejudices left from my Jewish upbringing. Seeing that light radiating from Dr. Presnell, I was struck by how the skin that coated each of us was just that: a coating. Inside both of us was light. This upended my thinking about any supposed differences. We were the same essence, connected.

As with psilocybin, an LSD trip was contingent on the set and setting paradigm we were developing. A successful death-and-rebirth journey depended on the intentions, experiences, and fears you brought to the session. LSD was also so much more intense than psilocybin that it was imperative to have a supportive environment and a guide, especially if you were new to the drug. It was such a powerful psychedelic that without these things to ground you, you could be terrorized by your fears and easily get lost in a bad trip.

What was most striking about acid, though, was that it made mys­ticism and spirituality practically inescapable. You’d come out of a session reeling with awe, your ego having been dissolved into colors and sensations. You were shaken to your core by the awareness of a divine life energy. Even the criminals at the Concord prison used reli­gious imagery to describe their LSD trips.

As scientists, Tim and I didn’t have the tools to really explain this. We didn’t know of any published research that tracked with our experiences. Since we’d had a few religious thinkers already partici­pate in our research, like Huston Smith and Alan Watts, we turned to them to help us explore this mystical quality. Tim also made several visits to the Harvard Divinity School to enlist faculty and students who might want to try psychedelics. Smith began hosting a Sunday gather­ing at his house for us to run sessions. People who stopped by included Walter Houston Clark, a professor of psychology of religion at Newton Theological School, and Walter Pahnke, a medical doctor who was pur­suing a PhD at Harvard in philosophy and religion.

We saw a lot of Alan Watts, author of books on Buddhism and psy­chology, who was at Harvard as a visiting professor. Alan was also a wonderful cook, and he became a good friend. As I knew from my Stanford days of listening to his Sunday morning radio show, he could put Eastern philosophy into everyday language and make it accessible. He tripped with Tim over at his house, and we often compared notes with him on the beauty and visions wrought by psychedelics, which he saw as sacraments. In early 1962, when he was writing The Joyous Cosmology, a vivid account of his psychedelic experiences, he asked me and Tim to pen the foreword. “We must provide more and more people with these experiences and have them tell us, as Alan Watts does here, what they experienced,” we wrote.

Thanks in part to Alan and Huston, who shared their knowledge of Asian philosophy, Tim and I grew more and more curious about how other cultures thought of consciousness. Tim started collect­ing books on Buddhism, yoga, and tantra. He also met a former air force major who had become a Hindu monk. The monk was a follower of a woman named Gayatri DeviLinks to an external site., who ran the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, an ashram outside Boston. An acid trip with everyone at the ashram convinced Tim of Hinduism’s insights into ultimate reality. In February 1962, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky left for India for a year and a half. Allen came back chanting “Hare Krishna” with a squeezebox harmonium.

One Tuesday in early 1962, Tim and I sensed we were finally circling around some answers. The Saturday before, I’d had an LSD trip that was completely ineffable. I’d traveled through planes of consciousness that left me utterly mystified. I was still searching for a way to under­stand it when Aldous Huxley stopped by for a visit. Aldous, who often described his own first psychedelic trip as a religious event—he called it a “gratuitous grace”—brought a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Walter Evans-Wentz translation, under his arm.

This classic Buddhist text, otherwise known as the Bardo Thodol, outlines the conscious experience of death and the interval before the next rebirth. It is used by Tibetans as a guide for dying. It was as if I was reading a travelogue of the worlds I’d just passed through. The process of dying described in the book was eerily identical to the dis­solution of the ego on psychedelics. Here we had reference points for our acid trips, though from a very different cultural perspective.

As Western psychologists, Tim and I had thought we were delv­ing into unknown territory, making up theories as we went along to explain our experiences. But this ancient book from the East offered a detailed understanding of this very terrain. Other beings had traveled before us, charting how to navigate the inner planes. The maps we’d been searching for already existed.

Our faculty colleagues were less than enthused by our discoveries. In February 1962, I distributed my memo describing the effects of psy­chedelics we were tracking with prisoners, theologians, and therapy patients. This seemed to quell the skepticism within the psychology department, though not for long. A week or two later, Andrew Weil reported in the Harvard Crimson about our plans to lead a “mushroom seminar” for graduate students in theology, behavioral science, and philosophy. The notion that drugs were on Harvard’s syllabus—even in a controlled setting and with no undergrads—put other faculty members on high alert.

My boss at Health Services, Dana Farnsworth, wrote a letter to the Crimson about the dangers of mescaline. Dave McClelland asked us, again, to collect more observational data. Two other professors, Herb Kelman and Brendan Maher, maintained that certain graduate stu­dents were feeling pressured to take psychedelics against their better judgment. We were abusing our power as educators, they said, and behaving irresponsibly by not recognizing the potential ill effects of psychedelics. When Maher saw a letter on one of the secretary’s desks that Tim had written to Sandoz requesting more psilocybin supplies, he tore it up.

Kelman asked Dave to call a meeting with clinical students and fac­ulty to address concerns about our project. In mid-March, Tim and I showed up at 5 Divinity Avenue to find a packed room.

Things got heated as soon as Kelman took the floor. Kelman had been one of the government-sponsored research scientists who participated in the surreptitious CIA mind-control experiments at Harvard a decade earlier. If he’d taken LSD himself back then maybe he would have been more favorably disposed toward our work. He accused us of being anti­intellectual and creating a cult-like atmosphere around our research. He said our project should be restructured or terminated. Maher brought up psilocybin’s medical risks and accused us of carelessness.

Tim, though surprised by our colleagues’ vehemence, shrugged off the anger coming in our direction. We were cognizant of the risks, and there was no evidence the amount of psilocybin we were administer­ing in our sessions was dangerous. I said our research followed on that of William James. It was innovative and showed evidence of positive behavioral change. Harvard was known for supporting exploration and discovery. Wasn’t that what we were doing?

News of our department’s tense clash appeared the next day in the Crimson. The story was picked up by Boston newspapers and the newswires. “Hallucination Drug Fought at Harvard—350 Students Take Pills” read the headline in the Boston Herald. The headlines were annoyingly sensational. We’d given psilocybin to many subjects, yes, but they weren’t all students, and now suddenly the story was two Harvard professors running a wild drug ring.

This was not exactly good press for Harvard. The story caught the attention of the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health opened an investigation. The inquiry led only to a requirement that a licensed physician be present whenever we administered psyche­delics; otherwise, the state allowed, our research could continue. Tim and I took this as a good sign: the state considered our work safe. But Harvard administrators were not happy with the scrutiny from gov­ernment agents. Soon afterward, Tim and I were ordered to turn over all of our psilocybin to Farnsworth at Health Services—our research and personal stashes—for him to keep under lock and key.

I refused to hand over my personal supply, invoking my rights as a citizen. I suspected, too, that because of the incident in which I flaunted my bravado over my sexuality, Farnsworth was going to make my life even more difficult. Tim, on the other hand, agreed to hand over everything. As far as he was concerned, we had plenty of LSD to keep us busy.

During a gathering at Huston Smith’s house, Walter Pahnke, proposed an idea for his thesis dissertation. He wanted to create a careful study in experimental mysticism to establish whether psychedelics could induce a genuine religious experience. He proposed giving a group of divinity students psilocybin during a church service on Good Friday.

Tim and I helped Pahnke maximize every factor of the set and set­ting to produce a religious experience. Thanks to Walter Houston Clark, we found twenty volunteer subjects at Newton Theological School, whom we pretested and screened with psychiatric interviews. Huston Smith was among the volunteers. Half the group would receive psilo­cybin, while a control group received a placebo. There would be trained graduate-student guides to work with the students, and afterward,

Pahnke would chart participants’ reactions with a questionnaire he devised about the mystical experience, based in part on the work of the Princeton-based philosopher W. T. Stace.

If what our Harvard colleagues wanted was systematic research with controls, this was it, the gold standard, a double-blind, medically supervised experiment. The only problem was that our psilocybin was under tight control, and Farnsworth and a newly formed supervisory committee were dragging their feet on approving the study.

Tim tracked down the psilocybin we needed by contacting a psy­chiatrist in Worcester. On April 20, 1962, we convened at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. No one could predict what would happen, so we agreed to isolate the participants in the basement. Half the group received an envelope with a pill of psilocybin; the other half received an envelope with a pill of nicotinic acid, which mimicked the onset of a psychedelic trip by producing a mild niacin flush. The inspiring sermon by the chapel’s charismatic preacher, Dean Howard Thurman, a mentor of Martin Luther King Jr., was piped into the basement from above. As hymns began to play, the students settled in on the base­ment’s benches. None of them were told what to expect.

Neither the students nor the observers knew who got the psyche­delic and who got the placebo, but it was soon obvious. The nicotinic acid wore off, and students who had taken it sat listening attentively, whereas those on psilocybin lay down or wandered around the room, fixated on their visions. They recorded their experiences in Pahnke’s extensive questionnaire immediately afterward, as well as a few days later and again six months after that. The psilocybin subjects, it turned out, experienced states and levels of consciousness that were indistin­guishable from classic mystical experiences. The control group by and large did not.

As far as we were concerned, the experiment was a complete suc­cess. It laid to rest doubts about psychedelics as a vehicle for mystical insight. Although for us it was one experiment among many, it quickly became famous in psychological and religious circles. It was eventually even written up in the mainstream press—Time magazine ran a story called “Mysticism in the Lab”—and it stirred a public debate about whether a religious experience was valid if induced by chemical means as opposed to spiritual practice. The Good Friday Experiment, also known as the Miracle at Marsh Chapel, would turn out to be our most public project at Harvard, a landmark event of the Harvard Psychedelic Project that left a lasting perception of our work.

This isn’t to say there wasn’t pushback. Dave told our graduate students Ralph, Gunther, and George that they were not allowed to do their thesis research with psilocybin, and after the experiment, there were rumors that Walter Houston Clark would get fired from his semi­nary. Walter Pahnke got his PhD, but a few follow-up studies he had planned were canceled.

Still, to most of us in the Harvard Psychedelic Project, the conflicts over our drug supplies and methodology were mostly an annoyance. This was the dawn of the sixties, and we saw ourselves as part of the growing cultural push to move beyond the political status quo, sexual mores, social institutions, racial barriers, old concepts and limits. We took note of Harvard’s strictures, but they didn’t seem terribly con­sequential. We were inner explorers and revolutionaries. I was sure Harvard would catch up.


Harvard Psilocybin Course