The Therapeutic Comeback of Psychedelics: Reflections in the Light of a Personal History

Painting by Max Reif, “Bowed At the Feet of the Master”, 2022.

It’s been more than 55 years since I first ingested psychedelics at age 20 in the fall of 1968. My personal experience with them was a rollercoaster ride that promised freedom “if only I could” face a certain fear. And even sometimes when I did, the exhilaration trailed away into vacuity and confusion when, post-trip, my perceptions collided with reality because of what I’ve since seen was my immaturity.

Composite photo of book covers and images that relate to psychedelics, including photos of Ram Dass and Meher Baba
Left: Timothy Leary. Far Right: Ram Dass. (The rest is pretty self-explanatory)

For the past decade or so, psychedelics have been making a comeback, reputation-wise, as people like the award-winning author Michael Pollan publish books such as How To Change Your Mind (2018). [The link is to a 2018 Fresh Air interview about the book.] In the past month, there was a lively discussion about the therapeutic use of psychedelics on the popular This Jungian Life podcast on YouTube. The podcasters, after considering the clinical evidence, are cautiously bullish about psychedelics as an adjunct to therapy, while insisting that “gentler” methods such as dreamwork can be just as effective in healing and transformation. Dr. Jung himself was a bit more reserved in his judgment, in a fascinating letter about the topic that he wrote to a colleague during his last years.*

Poster about Jefferson Airplane's song "White Rabbit"
The “psychedelic” style of many rock posters of the ’60s, this one for the “Airplane” mentioning a song likening Alice’s journey in Wonderland to a trip.

The book and the podcast recount documented cases of the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy in dealing with conditions like alcoholism, the fear of death and severe depression. The evidence is overwhelming that properly supervised therapeutic use of psychedelics can lead to deep and long-term change. 

Psychedelics in the 1960s

In the late 1960s, when I took psychedelics, the United States and many other countries were in the throes of extreme popularization and vast media coverage of the phenomenon. Timothy Leary was going around to campuses with a kind of “medicine show” talk, advising people to  “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

The Indian sage Meher Baba, who became my spiritual Guide a bit later and remains so to this day, was quoted saying that if the U.S. continued using psychedelics as it was doing in the late ‘60s, half of the intellectual potential of the country would be lost.**Famous authors like Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley had written books extolling the substances. Meanwhile, there were stories of “LSD casualties” that made big headlines when the daughter of Art Linkletter, a beloved American TV personality, jumped out of a window while on acid and died. 

Books about psychedelics by popular authors Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts
Books about psychedelics by popular authors Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts.

I heard a story of another suicide from a man in a Gestalt therapy group I took part in back then. This fellow, Michael, spoke up in the group to say that his wife had noticed that he’d seemed sad at home. He admitted as much, and shared the reason with us as well. It had to do with a friend with whom he’d taken acid several times had ended up as a permanent patient in a psychiatric hospital.

Michael had gone to visit him there once, and recounted that his friend had said to him, “Remember when we used to talk about how everything seemed so mythic on LSD? Well, it stayed that way for me and it’s too much! I can’t live a normal life!” The sadness Michael’s wife noticed had occurred because he’d just learned his friend had committed suicide.

Meher Baba and Dr. Richard Alpert

In India, as the news of widespread use of psychedelics made its way there, Meher Baba occasionally would address the subject with close disciples. He said once, “Taking LSD is like forcing open a locked room of your mind with a crowbar. If something you can’t handle comes out, it’s impossible to lock it up in that room again.”

Meher Baba and some close male disciples
Meher Baba with some close male disciples in 1960 (photo from Meher Nazar).

Another time, he pointed to one disciple and said, “You could take LSD hundreds of times and you would be alright.” Then, while pointing to another man, he continued, “But if you took it once, you’d never be the same again,” meaning he would suffer negative effects that could be permanent.

Dr. Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) wrote to Meher Baba, whom he believed to be the greatest spiritual authority alive, in the thick of his psychedelic days with Tim Leary and others. After hundreds of trips, Alpert was feeling baffled. No matter how spectacular a trip might be, or how much acid he and his friends took, he always came down and “became Richard again.” 

Tomb of Sufi poet Hafiz
Tomb of the Sufi Master and Poet Hafiz,
who lived in the 14th century in Shiraz, Iran.

Meher Baba dictated a detailed response to Alpert. Parts of the reply were later published as a pamphlet entitled GOD IN A PILL.*** The pamphlet began with a quote from the Persian Sufi Poet Hafiz: “Alas, alas, I pity those who compare a glass bead to a pearl.” It went on to discuss the perils of using psychedelics, while conceding that under medical supervision, the substances could be useful in treating conditions such as alcoholism and depression. 

Meher Baba made it absolutely clear that 1) psychedelic drugs could never serve as an ongoing spiritual path to God, and 2) continued unsupervised use could have severe consequences, even madness and death.

My own story

My own psychedelic experiments read like textbook illustrations of some of Meher Baba’s warnings. I was “one of those people” who had no business messing with such substances. There’s only one possible scenario I can see that might have necessitated that cycle of experiences and the years of recovery it led to. Possibly, my ego was so dug into its repression of psychologically traumatic material that its shell simply had to be destroyed in order for my inner being to emerge and begin to flower. But that is pure speculation at the outer limit of my imagination.

Author Max Reif in 1968
The author in 1968 as the Sunday morning
breakfast-in-bed coffee-and-bagel entrepreneur at New College

 “Coming Into It”, a short story I published on The Mindful Word several years ago, dramatically narrates my very first LSD trip along with what led up to it and a bit of what followed. The story ends on an odd, discordant note. The totality of my eight psychedelic experiences ended catastrophically, however. I became a “living dead man” and spent several years, with an interval between those periods, in non-functionality. To this day, I feel fortunate to be alive and living a full life.

In the late ‘60s, the realization was gradually dawning on me that that I had some deep problems. After an anxiety attack one day, I made a resolution to either  go to a psychotherapist or take LSD, “whichever came my way first.” A day or two later in a public park, I passed a hippie who was whispering to passersby, “Just back from the West Coast. Pure LSD, $5 a tab, two for $9.” I bought one speckled green and light blue tablet, wrapped it in a Kleenex and put it in my wallet. (I’ve realized, in retrospect, that it was much more likely I’d pass someone selling acid than a therapist whispering, “Hey … counselling?”)

Particulars of my first trip

Painting of social life on New College campus by Shelli Pruett
A painting of social life on the New College campus on a weekend evening in the late ‘60s, by Shelli Pruett (used with permission of the artist)

The next Saturday evening, walking on campus at New College in Sarasota, Florida, the school I had transferred to that fall, I passed a friend who asked me, “Hey, wanna trip?” We went into his dorm room; then I got out my speckled tab, filled a cup with tap water and “dropped acid.”

The experience led me from the naive mental question, “How do you know when you’re high?” to a powerful sense that “Everything is electricity!” I believed that perception was evidence of my being well on the way. 

Then, one of my off-campus apartment mates happened to walk by. I was sitting alone at that point, having found my intended tripping companion to be too “electric” and had simply walked away from him. 

“How’s it going?” my apartment mate asked, looking at me with big eyes that showed he was really present and listening.

“Everything is electricity,” I muttered, hoping that would suffice.

“That’s fear  you’re feeling,” he said, clearly a voice of experience. “What do you really want to do?”

I told him I wanted to visit a certain female student I liked. He nodded understandingly, and I gave him a hug for helping me to clarify what I wanted. Then he went on his way.

At that point, my trip became an adventure. I knew where the object of my affection lived, hopped on my bicycle, and started heading there. I felt myself mythically, a brave warrior who’d broken through the barrier of fear. Entirely in the present now, I rode quite a distance to where she lived on a “cay” (small island) just off the mainland, and knocked on her door.

It was probably 3 a.m., but she came to the door and then out into the front yard to talk with me. In response to my confession of my feelings towards her, she said she liked me but wasn’t available for a relationship, having just gotten out of one.

Then she gave me a little kiss on the cheek, said goodnight and went back inside.

Mental magnifier

My consciousness, a captive of wishful thinking, took that little kiss and exponentially expanded its intended meaning as a friendly token in its own deluded way. We were destined lovers. There was no question about this. She would come to my bed after I got some sleep back at home, and our romance would begin. 

Beach at sunrise

Riding my bike back to the apartment on the mainland, I stopped at a beach as dawn began to break, a mythic hero offering all the fruits of his daring to the brilliantly rising sun. Then I rode the rest of the way home, and after decorating the walkway to the apartment with sand dollars and flowers to welcome her when she came, went to bed and slept.

To my surprise, she didn’t come that day. Nor did she come the next, or the one after that. I finally saw her one day on campus, but she didn’t even acknowledge me. I began to question my absolute faith in this “vision” I’d had. But what about my courage? Wasn’t that real? Wasn’t I entitled to whatever I’d so bravely pursued?

With every passing day, my mind felt more raw, more utterly confused, as I attempted to go about the business of attending classes, studying and living. 

I finally booked a session with a professor who sidelined as a counsellor. A friend had described her to me as “all sympathy and no help,” and indeed, that turned out to be the case. After awhile, I came to the conclusion that the only way to free up enough energy to resolve my painful dilemmawas to acquire and ingest another hit of LSD!

The downward spiral

Looking back after so many years upon the “shell game” I was playing with my mind and life, it’s obvious that, as I wrote earlier in this piece, my sense of judgment was nowhere near mature enough to negotiate the formidable challenges that went beyond facing tests of courage to interpreting the experiences I was having in mature and realistic ways.

I had no capacity to evaluate my experiences and their likely consequences with any accuracy. I naively believed them to be what I wanted them to be, and then had to face the utter failure of what actually followed to conform to my expectations. I’ll give two more examples:

Listening party

White Album by The Beatles
The Beatles two-record White Album, released in November 1968

During the second or third of my eight psychedelic excursions, I was at a small, intimate party celebrating the release of The Beatles’ new two-record White Album. About a dozen of us were seated on pillows on the floor in the softly-lit living room of someone’s apartment, enjoying the music. I felt unusually comfortable emotionally, and hoped the event would go on and on.

At that point, the host came around to each of us with a plate on which he said were tabs of “100 percent pure Orange Sunshine,” and we were each welcome to take one. When he came to me, I reached out, lifted a bright orange pill off the plate, and immediately swallowed it with my soda, thinking, “In this atmosphere, yes!”

Shortly after, though, the album ended and the party quickly broke up. I found myself alone out on the dark campus, mounting my bicycle. It was a weeknight and there was really no place to go but home. I rode to the apartment, half a mile away, and spent the entire night in bed trying to mentally suppress the effects of the powerful drug. It must have been excruciating. My mind won’t let me remember just how bad.

Late-night adventures

The next trip I remember involved me walking around campus in the late-night hours, and the sun was starting to come up. The sky had turned beautiful colours and I felt inspired! For the very first time, I was stoked to realize that I seemed to be starting to “see something”—swirly green patterns in the air that looked  like Chinese writing. They weren’t really spectacular, but might they turn into one of the elaborate visual hallucinations I’d heard and read so much about?

Palm Court at New College
A daytime view of the Palm Court, the centrepiece of the dorm area of the New College campus, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei

I was near the dorm room of my best friend at the school, and I thought I’d pay him a visit to tell him how happy this trip was making me. (I seem to have had no concern about other people’s hours of convenience in those days, apparently believing they’d love nothing more than a visit from yours truly at 3 or 6 a.m.!)

Walking into my friend’s room, I found him stirring a bit from his sleep, probably because of the sounds of the metal door opening and closing. To my surprise, he was sleeping naked on a little floor mattress, alongside a lamp in the shape of a large white plastic swan. My friend looked so much like a  baby! Suddenly, I felt my love for him and wanted to take him in my arms!

Then, just as suddenly, my mind—what the Freudians call the superego—put a label on the feelings I was having: homosexuality! The gates of my mind clanged down a big “NO!”

I could feel the violence being done to my psyche. The superego had the upper hand by far. Totally taken aback by this lightning turn of events, I made a quick, polite excuse and exited my friend’s room.

Hitting bottom

The above incidents clearly demonstrate my unfitness to navigate the quicksand of such a rapidly changing mental terrain. The additional ingestions during my psychedelic period, which lasted less than a year, took place on a farm in upstate New York, on a commune I moved to along with a number of fellow students from our college. On two occasions, in the six months I spent at the farm, pitchers of “electric Kool-Aid” went round the circle of us in the living room of the farmhouse.

Barn at commune
The barn at the farm on Virgil-Dryden Road outside Ithaca, New York.

My mind had already shut down almost completely, and these final experiences put a seal on that process. I ended one of those trips in an upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, pounding the floor with my fists, and when I “came down” from the active drug, nothing was any different.

That led to a year of “second childhood” at my parents’ home, followed by extremely strong antidepressants, which the “mad scientist” of a psychiatrist I was seeing explained “inhibited the inhibitor” that was causing my state and re-balanced my system. This explanation didn’t hold water for me for long, but these pills did kick in after awhile, giving me the energy I needed to get to “my appointment” at which a deeper spiritual Presence could reveal itself. 

Thus began a new life for me. In its early phases, there was to be yet another cycle of living in the black hole in which my last trip had ended. But Spirit eventually saw me through, and has done so to this day, assisting me in getting squarely back on my Path again after several blunders over the years.

Looking back, I see a trail of miracles. (The stories of my first powerful spiritual experience and of the healing of deep sexual shame that I’d been the victim of since the age of seven are told in COMING TO BABA: My 43-Year Romance With Meher Baba and HAPPY RE-BIRTHDAY TO ME!, both in The Mindful Word.)

Painting by Max Reif
“Bowed At the Feet of the Master”, a painting done in 2022.

Looks like a happy thing for humanity

Because of the difficulties I personally encountered on psychedelics, I don’t intend to use them therapeutically in my current lifetime, barring a dramatic spiritually given intuition that it’s necessary. (Extremely unlikely, in my estimation, but one learns in life to “never say never.”)

However, the current evidence of positive therapeutic results with psychedelics (sometimes using microdoses)—exactly as Meher Baba had said they could legitimately be used (even as he pointed out the dangers of misuse)—is impressive. Such treatment, administered properly, appears to have the potential to significantly alleviate certain psychological conditions. That looks to be a happy thing for humanity.

Om symbol


* C.G. Jung letter to Victor White:

Is the LSD drug you’re referring to mescaline? It has indeed very curious effects, of which I know far too little. I don’t know either what it’s psychotherapeutic value with neurotic or psychotic patients is. I only know there is no point in wishing to know more of the collective unconscious than one gets through dreams and intuition. The more you know of it, the greater and heavier becomes your moral burden, because the unconscious contents transform themselves into your individual tasks and duties as soon as they become conscious. Do you want to increase loneliness and misunderstanding? Do you want to find more and more complications and increasing responsibilities? You get enough of it.

If I once could say that I had done everything I know I had to do, then perhaps I should realize a legitimate need to take mescaline. If I should take it now I would not be at all sure that I had not taken it out of idle curiosity. I should hate the thought that I had touched on the sphere where the paint is made that colours the world, where the light is created that makes shine the splendour of the dawn, the lines and shapes of all form, the sound that fills the orbit, the thought that illuminates the darkness of the void.

There are some impoverished creatures perhaps, for whom mescaline would be a heaven sent gift without a counter poison, but I am profoundly mistrustful of the pure “gifts of the gods”, you pay very dearly for them.

This is not the point at all, to know of or about the unconscious, nor does the story end here. On the contrary, it is how and where you begin the real quest. If you are too unconscious, it is a great relief to know a bit of the collective unconscious. But it soon becomes dangerous to know more, because one does not learn at the same time how to balance it through a conscious equivalent. That is the mistake Aldous Huxley makes, he does not know that he is in the role of Zauberlehrling, sorcerer’s apprentice, who learned from his master how to call the ghosts, but did not know how to get rid of them again.

** In the late ‘60s (he passed away on January 31, 1969), Meher Baba tasked a small “committee” of three young men (two of whom had visited him in India and the other who’d engaged him in correspondence) to travel around America and the West sharing Baba’s Message about drugs on college campuses, on TV shows, in print media and wherever possible. It required a certain grit for Rick Chapman, Alan Cohen and Robert Dreyfuss to go against the strong currents of youth culture in America, but they had signed up to follow Baba, and that included obeying him. And they did so, steadfastly. Some of their stories are told in the book named in the footnote just below this one.

*** GOD IN A PILL was updated and expanded somewhat in 2003 by Laurent Weichberger, who titled the new publication A Mirage Will Never Quench Your Thirst: A Source of Wisdom About Drugs.

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