Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The passing of a giant in the exploration of psychedelics and consciousness

By David Presti


Psychedelic medicines have become, over the last several years, an increasingly prominent topic of discussion. Scientific publications, essays, books, and stories in the news media describe human clinical studies investigating the efficacy of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, ketamine, and other substances to treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.

Controlled studies have demonstrated the capacity of psychedelics to occasion what are described as transformational spiritual experiences. And the tools of modern neuroscience – measuring things as diverse as global brain activity (via fMRI, EEG, MEG, and PET) and molecular and cellular aspects of synaptic plasticity – are being applied to deepen understanding of how psychedelics act on the brain and body.

Much of the contemporary work is drawing from, replicating, and expanding upon studies at academic institutions, medical centers, clinics, and other settings in the 1950s and 1960s, conducted by investigative pioneers of that era. And prior to that, psychedelic medicines – in their plant and fungal forms – have long been utilized by aboriginal shamans as components of psycho-spiritual medicine and ritual practices.

The scientific and clinical exploration of the 1950s-60s soon enough led to widespread popular use of these substances. But the great power of psychedelic medicines and the degree to which they can open the psyche proved too much for American society in the 1960s, resulting in severe legal restriction and the ending of the first phase of the modern era of sanctioned clinical and scientific research. Following several decades of quiescence, and after a great deal of orchestrated effort, clinical and scientific research has now returned to the mainstream.

Many of the modern pioneers are gone, but fortunately the stories and contributions of some of these vanguard scientists and clinicians have been documented through their writings, interviews, and biographies. This constitutes not only an important historical record, but also serves as a source of inspiration and guidance to those who are currently carrying the investigation of these powerful substances into the future.

Recently another of the great pioneers has passed.

Ralph Metzner (18 May 1936 to 14 March 2019) died quietly last month in Sonoma, California – at home and in the company of his wife. Ralph was a rigorous academic scholar, visionary alchemical explorer, and gifted shamanic teacher – and his contributions to the contemporary world of psychedelic studies and to consciousness research are myriad. The scientific study of consciousness will surely benefit as ideas he explored continue to slowly penetrate into academic and public discourse. Throughout his life he engaged in a deep study of mind, and he had the ability to distill and articulate his findings into words and practices that he communicated to others through his many writings, teachings, and counsel.

Ralph was born in Berlin and moved to the UK with his Scottish mother following World War II. He studied philosophy and political science at Oxford University and came to the United States in 1958 to attend graduate school in psychology at Harvard University.

After a couple years of studying behaviorist learning theory and psychoanalysis, dominant forces in academic psychology at that time, he encountered the research project of Harvard faculty members Timothy Leary (Ph.D. UC Berkeley, 1950) and Richard Alpert, who were conducting an innovative investigation of the psychological effects of psilocybin. Ralph had his first psychedelic-drug experience in March 1961, about which he would later write, with deep sincerity: “I shall always be grateful to Harvard for providing me with that extremely educational experience.”

Ralph joined the psilocybin research project, although he and other graduate students were informed the following year by senior faculty in the psychology department that they could not use psilocybin-related research in their doctoral dissertations. In part this related to deep opposition to a paradigm that drew upon the study of subjective experiences rather than measurements of behavioral actions. American psychology was only beginning its emergence from decades of domination by behaviorism. And even more egregious was the fact that the researchers in the psilocybin project were actually discovering things by taking the drug themselves. This was simply considered unacceptable science.

While continuing to participate in psychedelic research, Ralph also conducted another project in reward-delay learning and used that work to complete a doctorate in clinical psychology. He followed with an NIMH postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology at Harvard's medical school. Shortly thereafter, his mentors were famously expelled from Harvard – a testament to the power of psychedelics to shake up the psyche and potentially lead to problematic consequences when this power is not effectively contained and channeled.

Ralph, together with Leary and Alpert, moved to a communal living setting in Millbrook, New York, where they continued their exploration of the impact of psychedelics on consciousness. By this time psilocybin had become difficult to obtain and their primary focus of exploration had switched to LSD. From these projects emerged Ralph’s first book, a collaboration with Leary and Alpert based on a translation of Tibetan texts popularly known in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Tibetan spiritual traditions, these texts have been interpreted as a guide to negotiating the intermediate state (bardo) between one life and the next. In The Psychedelic Experience: A Manuel Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964), the bardo prayers were reformulated by Ralph, Leary, and Alpert to guide one in using the states of consciousness experienced during a psychedelic trip as a framework for psycho-spiritual growth. It is a beautiful notion, poetically executed.

Their communal research program at Millbrook eventually dissolved, and Leary went on to become a provocative proponent of personal exploration with psychedelics and a highly visible lightning rod for targeting by establishment powers. Alpert journeyed to India, connected strongly with Hindu spirituality, and returned to America as Ram Dass. He authored a widely read book – Be Here Now – and through his lectures and writings contributed to introducing ideas from Asian spiritual traditions into American popular culture.

Ralph continued to edit a publication called The Psychedelic Review (1963-1971), moved to California, lived briefly in Berkeley, and took a position as clinical psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital in Ukiah, California – an institution for the “criminally insane” and other chronically mentally ill, housing at the time nearly 2,000 patients. Ralph moved somewhat later to the East Bay and worked as a clinical psychologist at Kaiser. He continued his scholarly activities and in 1968 published The Ecstatic Adventure, an edited collection of essays speaking to the psychological and societal impact of psychedelics. In 1971 he published Maps of Consciousness, a work of scholarly and personal-practice investigation into a variety of esoteric traditions, all of which spoke to deepening one’s capacity to explore the territory of the mind.

In 1975 Ralph was hired as a professor by a small graduate school in San Francisco called the California Institute of Asian Studies. Now known as the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), the school has grown in size and stature, and today is at the forefront of psychology graduate training programs that encourage investigation of frontier areas of humanistic psychology and consciousness research.

Ralph served on the CIIS faculty for three decades, and also assumed roles of academic dean and academic vice-president, during which time he contributed to the expansion of the school and its programs. I had the good fortune of meeting Ralph in the early 1990s, and thereafter paid a number of visits to his classes, offering instruction and facilitating discussion related to neuroscience and psychopharmacology.

Continuously, Ralph researched, taught, and wrote – in the academic setting and in widely delivered lectures and teaching seminars. His quest throughout was to draw from the rich bodies of knowledge and wisdom emergent from European and Asian spiritual and mystical traditions and bring this to bear in expanding a modern science of consciousness. In addition and very important to him, was the development of practices based on this knowledge that would contribute to reducing human suffering. To his last days, he maintained a small psychotherapy practice.

Ralph wrote many essays and some 20 books; a few representative ones (in addition to those already mentioned) are: Know Your Type: Maps of Identity (1979); The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe (1994); Green Psychology: Transforming our Relationship to the Earth (1999); Sacred Mushroom of Visions: Teonanacatl (2005); Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (2006); Roots of War and Domination (2008); Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Millbrook and the Sixties (2010); The Toad and the Jaguar (2013); Allies for Awakening (2015); and Ecology of Consciousness: The Alchemy of Personal, Collective, and Planetary Transformation (2017).

In his 60s he learned to play jazz piano and recorded an album of songs he composed and sang – Bardo Blues, and Other Songs of Liberation (2005). He wrote poems and published a book of poetry – Diving for Treasures (2015). His last published book – Searching for the Philosophers' Stone (2018) – describes his relationships with and gratitude for important teachers in his life, and appeared in print only weeks before he died.

Ralph Metzner leaves a legacy of written scholarship and teaching, and a widely distributed circle of students and friends, deeply grateful for what he gave to his expansive community and to the world. Thank you, Ralph!

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.

Photo credits: 2012 photo of Ralph courtesy of his daughter, Sophia Metzner. All other photos are from Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, by Dass, Metzner, & Bravo, Synergetic Press, 2010.