Some of my friends—those of us who used to say things like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”—now joke with each other that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. Our memory gaps from the countercultural era have nothing to do with our encroaching senility.
As a college student, did I really run into a friend at a Grateful Dead concert, where, already high on pot and hashish, we did a line of cocaine for good measure? Did we really wear tie-dyed bandanas and our hair halfway down our backs as we wandered through a haze of incense and strobe lights set to the opening riffs of “Purple Haze”? Did we really take LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and other hallucinogenic drugs to explore the outer frontiers of the cosmos, with its “deep” insights? Insights that produced deep responses like, “Far out, man”?
Our band of cosmic travelers was on a quest—to right the injustices of poverty, racism, and war, but also to fill the void of loneliness. We questioned authority; we questioned everything. The Moody Blues’ song “Question” described us perfectly:
Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door?
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war?
’Cause when we stop and look around us
There is nothing that we need
In a world of persecution
That is burning in its greed.
I had not always been such a questioner.
I was raised in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago by nurturing, pious Catholic parents alongside a sweet, near-perfect sister. I went to a school where nuns administered doctrine and the occasional light corporal punishment. At age 7, I became an altar boy, learning to pray my Confiteor (forgiveness of sins) in Latin just prior to Vatican II. As an altar boy, I first experienced the love of Christ. During an Easter vigil, before the sanctuary light, I felt bathed in his warmth and peace. But by the time I reached high school, I had mostly forgotten that experience.
I chose a psychology/premedical college major, which would prepare me to become a psychiatrist. That’s when the trouble began. A heady mix of experimental psychology, left-wing politics, drugs, and Eastern religion became the elixir that would lead me to pursue utopia on earth.
I attended College of the Holy Cross, the liberal arts—and liberally minded—Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Students and faculty held a strike against the Vietnam War; our ROTC building was bombed. With the Kent State shootings providing a backdrop, our school brought in “direct action” priests who expressed opposition to the war by pouring blood on Army draft records. I became a conscientious objector before my draft board and eventually joined the Revolutionary Students Union. I was arrested for participating in a sit-in protest at a federal building, but was soon exonerated by a liberal judge.
Meanwhile, college courses like “Mind Expansion and Self-Knowledge” exposed me to various states of consciousness and Eastern religions. I embraced Zen Buddhism and meditation, seeking a final answer to unlock the door to love, meaning, and purpose. But ironically, my Buddhism training taught that the quest was silly, without an answer, and that I must transcend such false dilemmas.
My friends and I also explored shamanism—the practice of reaching altered states of consciousness with the aid of peyote to get in touch with the spirit world. One night, we swallowed too many peyote buttons. There in the dark, I had a vision of Christ hanging on the cross. He looked at me with compassion, as though I had put him there.