“Greetings from Utopia Park” tells the truth

Greetings from Utopia Park coverMost of the people I knew in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement were ex-hippies who had a conversion experience in young adulthood and ran off to join a charismatic guru. Not Claire Hoffman, author of Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood. She never met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual leader who popularized TM in America, although his unseen presence permeated her life from an early age.

Claire’s mother was part of the counterculture generation that discovered Eastern religion and made TM a huge fad in the 1960s. She took her children to a TM center for initiation while Claire was still a preschooler. When Claire’s parents divorced, the struggling family moved to the center of the TM movement in Fairfield, Iowa, where Claire and her brother grew up immersed in Maharishi’s world.

The Hoffman family arrived on the campus of Maharishi University in the early 1980s, a few years after I left. (Full disclosure: I’m the author of another memoir on this topic: The Maharishi Effect: A Personal Journey Through the Movement that Transformed American Spirituality.) By then, the guru’s teachings went way beyond TM.

At first, young Claire believed Maharishi’s claims that meditation would unlock magical powers and bring world peace. Doubts crept in, however. The “support of nature” that was supposed to make Maharishi’s followers wealthy never arrived for most of them. Claire’s mom struggled to make ends meet, especially with financial demands from the movement like the increasing monthly fee to meditate for world peace.

Claire was thrilled when her class at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment took a field trip to the Maharishi Golden Dome of Pure Knowledge for a demonstration of “yogic flying.” Claire expected to see the adults zooming around like Superman. Instead, they were bouncing on foam mats. Claire’s magical fantasies ended for good.

As she grew into a teenager, Claire’s doubts blossomed into full rebellion. When her mom and the other parents left home for hours of “flying” in the Golden Dome, Claire and her friends ran wild. They left enlightenment behind for booze and shoplifting. She dated local guys who didn’t even meditate.

One of the best parts of this book is the insightful portrayal of the two cultures within Fairfield. Has there ever been a town/gown gap wider and more poisonous than the gulf between the “townies” and the “gurus” in this small Iowa community? In my day, there was little interaction and it was easy for the two sides to demonize each other. Claire Hoffman took a much harder path of working to blend in with the local Iowans. She gives us intimate details of life on both sides—the totally opposed beliefs, diets, dreams, body types, and destinies. Her bridge of understanding is an achievement that borders on the heroic.

When she was old enough and she couldn’t stand life in Fairfield any longer, Ms. Hoffman moved to California to join her father. From there, her story becomes more familiar—a talented and ambitious person who works hard and attains success in her profession. That’s not the end, however. Like most of us who come out of a fringe religious sect, the past never goes away.

Ms. Hoffman returned to Fairfield as an adult when the pressures of career and motherhood left her dried out and empty. Perhaps, for all its craziness, the TM movement could offer some peace of mind. She learned the “yogic flying” technique, had her daughter initiated into meditation, and found closure of a sort.

When I reviewed this book on Amazon I gave it four out of five stars because of the questions that Ms. Hoffman leaves unanswered. Every author has to end the story somewhere, of course, but I think she closes the door for the wrong reasons.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Ms. Hoffman says that the problems in Fairfield were due to a power vacuum left by an absent leader. “I think it created a kind of screwed up community for a number of years. But I think that was our fault. I feel like we do it to ourselves and why do we do it? I think that’s a more interesting question than was he a great man or was he a con artist. Who cares?”

As I see it, Ms. Hoffman’s “Who cares?” is an eerie echo of the excuse she quotes Maharishi giving for his astronomical prices: “Americans don’t value things unless they pay a lot of money for them.” Maharishi was very good at convincing his followers that everything he did was for their benefit and any problems were of their own making.

We were so wrapped up in our inner lives that we gave a pass to the person who issued the orders. Yes, we enabled him, and that’s a fascinating story, but it’s just a small fragment. What happened to the money? How did a simple meditation program evolve into a spectacular train wreck? What are the effects of unlimited power on a spiritual leader with no accountability? How can we prevent it from happening again? We won’t answer these questions until we look beyond ourselves.

I question Ms. Hoffman’s conclusions, but that’s a minor quibble compared to her very great achievement. As a second generation member of one of the most influential new religious movements in America, Claire Hoffman’s story is unique, valuable, and extremely well written. I hope you’ll buy this book, read it, and discuss it with your friends.

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“Psychedelics: A New Understanding” panel discussion audio


Mazdak Bradberry, Diane Pasley, and Geoff Gilpin at “Psychedelics: A New Understanding”

For those of you who weren’t able to attend “Psychedelics: A New Understanding,” here’s an audio file of the panel discussion with myself and two other volunteers from the UW psilocybin study, Mazdak Bradberry and Diane Pasley. Our guide Dan Muller makes an appearance during the Q&A at the end. Please note that the audio quality is variable.

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The Badger Herald covers UW psilocybin study

The Badger Herald has a feature article about the UW psilocybin study. “‘Magic mushrooms’ study challenges stereotypes of psychedelic drug use” quotes me, fellow volunteers Mazdak Bradberry and Diane Pasley, and our guide Dan Muller.

Geoff Gilpin, an area author, said this study changed everything for him.

“It’s like going through a door,” he said. “You can’t go back the other way, but it’s a completely different life. I gained a strength, an inner peace and a sense of perspective that made it possible for me to survive what turned out to be the hardest year of my life.”

Gilpin said he still thinks a lot of misconceptions are held from the ’60s and the war on drugs. As study volunteers, he said they have a unique experience and perspective to share, especially to people in the public who might be hesitant about supporting psychedelic research.

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Meditation, Psychedelics, and the Hall of Maya (Part 1)

Meditation and psychedelics are the most powerful tools I know for busting out of ignorance. Both have a unique ability to dissolve boundaries and open up our perspective on ourselves and the world. Both offer hope to people trapped in fear, depression, or self-destructive behaviors.

Nobody really knows why meditation and psychedelics work so well. There’s a lot of research and speculation about their effects in the human nervous system. I’m not qualified to have an opinion on those issues, but I can report on the subjective effects which, to me, feel very similar.

My experience of both was like a reprieve from a prison sentence. It felt like I’d been stuck in a small box forever until somebody opened the door and I stood up and stretched and walked out into the daylight. It was a powerful experience of liberation followed by a lasting sense of freedom.

Like a lot of other people, I’m extremely grateful for the help I’ve received over the years from these uniquely valuable tools. I think I’m pretty well acquainted with their benefits by now, but I’m also getting a sense of their limitations. In some cases, the limitations may be a consequence of the benefits.

Both meditation and psychedelics shine a light in the darkness. The light is indiscriminate, however. It shines on all things good and bad, on eternal truths and shiny baubles.

I wish that there was some innate wisdom in human nature or meditation or psychedelics that would have us choose eternal truths over shiny baubles, but it just isn’t so. If you spend any time in spiritual communities you’ll meet plenty of individuals—intelligent, compassionate, enlightened folks—who insist they can read minds or travel to Alpha Centauri or live forever because of quantum mechanics.

I try to speak up for reason when engaging my brothers and sisters on the spiritual path, but I haven’t changed many minds and I don’t expect to. However, I don’t think our paradoxical beliefs have to end at an impasse. I sense an opportunity to work together for our mutual benefit.

I think we can all agree that spiritual practices—including meditation and psychedelics along with plenty of others—open up new areas of the mind.  When I learned to meditate forty years ago I was amazed by the new insights and experiences that bubbled up from the depths. I took it all pretty much at face value. For instance, I had an experience of controlling a traffic light with my thoughts. It was unusual, sure, but I believed it because it was one of my own experiences, qualitatively not much different from putting on my shoes or eating a peanut butter sandwich.

I understand now that experience isn’t neutral. It has an agenda. It comes out of a mind programmed by thousands of years of human evolution for survival and not truth. Our minds show us whatever will keep us alive and help us procreate, truth be damned. We see illusory patterns in random events and hear phantom tigers in the dark and it all seems as real as our minds can make it.

Our inner environment is booby trapped. All humans live with this danger, but spiritual people take extra risks. The deeper they travel through the inner realms, the more likely they are to set off a landmine. The techniques that free us from bondage to illusions can also create new illusions. Round and round.

But now we know. We understand that meditation and psychedelics shine a light on all things good and bad. We know that the choice is up to us, and we can remind each other to choose wisely.

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Psilocybin documentary in Madison


You’re invited to the Madison premiere of A New Understanding: The Science of Psilocybin. From the press release:

The compelling and touching story explores cutting edge research that uses the psychoactive compound found in ‘magic mushrooms’ to dramatically reduce anxiety of death in terminally ill cancer patients. Over the past decade, government-sanctioned, human psychedelic research with psilocybin has been conducted at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and UCLA. The research serves as the narrative backbone for the documentary.

The film presents an intimate look into the lives of several terminally ill cancer patients participating in the studies, and opens an intriguing discourse of the dying process and our role as a society in that process. By informing current misconceptions about psychedelics, A New Understanding utilizes a collection of accomplished minds to discuss psilocybins’ role in culture, evolution, mystical states, and even life itself.

Join us for this important film at the Marquee Cinema at UW Union South at 5:00 PM on Monday, April 25th.

In addition to the movie, the program includes appearances by several people from the psilocybin research study at the UW School of Pharmacy. Guides Karen Cooper and Dan Muller will present “Trusting the Medicine,” a report based on their experience working with research volunteers during the psychedelic journey. Five participants from the UW study will appear in a panel discussion moderated by yours truly.

I hope to see you at Union South on April 25th.

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WPR interviews UW psychedelic research team

Here’s an interview from Wisconsin Public Radio with two members of the team that conducted the research study on the effects of psilocybin. (See this blog entry for more on this study and my participation.) The host of WPR’s “Central Time” program interviewed Paul Hutson, the lead researcher, and Karen Cooper, the head of the training program for psychedelic guides.

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The right stuff

I’ve received a bunch of interesting reactions to the Wisconsin State Journal article about the UW research study on psychedelics. One of the senior members of the research community compared me and the other study volunteers to the early test pilots who first broke the sound barrier.

It’s fun to take this metaphor and run with it. NASA test pilots and psychedelic test pilots both “earn their wings.” They both have “the right stuff.” Both have the occasional hard landing. However…

When NASA test pilots crash, they have a team of doctors to put them back together. When psychedelic test pilots crash, they have to put themselves back together.

Come to think of it… maybe putting yourself back together is the whole point.

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State Journal article outtakes

In my interview with the WI State Journal (see the previous post), I gave the reporter a bunch of quotes that wound up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of the outtakes:

First, on the topic of trust, especially of one’s guides:

My first trip ended with a major trial. I had a vision of a monstrous animal that embodied my fears. I was scared at first, but I remembered what my guides told me. They said that, if you encounter a being like that, don’t run away. Go up to it and look it in the eye. Then keep going and pass through its eyes, turn around, and look back out of its eyes.

I followed their instructions and my fear vanished. I realized that the fear was of my own creation and unnecessary. I also realized that my guides knew what they were talking about. I figured that, if I could trust them enough to make it through this trial, I’d be in good hands for the rest of the journey.

You don’t get this kind of expert guidance in a recreational setting. To be safe and to make real progress with psychedelics, you need trained guides.

Second, on surrender:

When I was at the peak of my second trip, I had a typical psychedelic experience of seeing the universe as a spinning mandala. It was a cosmic dance with everyone and everything in creation circling the divine source. I wanted to join in and I started to let go and dance, but I felt my individuality slipping away and I reflexively pulled back. I remembered that my guides had encouraged me to persevere and go with whatever happens. I let go and dissolved into the dance.

Oddly enough, this act of surrender continued into everyday life. You know those times when you’re sitting in traffic gnashing your teeth? Now I can relax and appreciate those moments as another turn in the cosmic dance.

Third, also on the topic of trust:

I’ve always had issues with authority figures. During my second trip, a bunch of these people showed up.  It was a parade of old guys from my home town, coming at me from the center of the cosmic mandala. I was intimidated at first, but then I realized that they were exactly like me, doing their best on life’s journey.

Since then, when I encounter these guys in real life, they don’t bug me as much. I see the humanity in them and I understand that our similarities are much greater than our differences.

Fourth, more thoughts on trust and surrender:

My third trip, the one with the big dose of 40mg, was difficult. With psychedelics, however, the most difficult trips can also be the most rewarding.

At the peak of the journey I had experiences of birth and death. They might have been psychological visions, but that doesn’t mean they were easier than the real thing.

At the climax, everything disintegrated and I left this world. I came back into a chaotic universe with no place for me to hold on. My guides saw that I was having a hard time and said ‘You’re doing good work’ and ‘Your physical body is safe.’ Their help gave me the courage to keep going and tackle the labor of reassembling the universe.

Eventually, I asked my guide ‘Did I die?’ He gave me the wisest, most loving smile and said ‘Every day. But today, not clinically.’ I laughed and I knew it would be okay.

That trip put everything in perspective. Big problems seem smaller now. It’s all part of the journey.

Finally, some thoughts for the hallucinogen naive:

I feel that psychedelics can be valuable because they take you to the core of human nature. They strip away all the everyday distractions and show you the extremes of wonder and uncertainty at the center of your heart. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but psychedelic experiences aren’t alien, they come from within us. I was astonished when I got to the bottom of the tunnel and discovered that it felt familiar. If you’ve ever been in love or cared for a child or aging parent, you might not be too surprised at what you find if you take a psychedelic journey.

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