From the Editor
In the early 1960s two prominent Harvard University clinical psychology professors, Timothy Leary, PhD, and Richard Alpert, PhD (also known as Ram Dass), were researching the effects of LSD and psilocybin in a study named the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Two of the experiments known as the Concord Prison Experiment and the Marsh Chapel Experiment observed the effect of these hallucinogens on prisoners and priests. Due to clear ethical professorial and research violations, both Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard in 1963. After Leary’s departure from Harvard, he continued to lecture and write about the mind-altering effects of hallucinogens, which he himself had taken frequently with meaningful personal experiences.
Alpert followed a different path. After several years of pursuing a pathway to “higher consciousness,” initially through continued experimentation with hallucinogens and then with spiritual practices grounded in meditation and yoga, Alpert decided to travel to India in 1967, where he underwent a personal transformation. Alpert was searching for a drug free path to achieve the experiences of higher consciousness that he attained under the influence of hallucinogens. After studying under a guru in India and intensively practicing meditation, he felt personally transformed, and his guru gave him the new name Ram Dass. Upon returning to the US, he has spent the rest of his life teaching meditation, working with various non-profits, and promoting the practices of conscious living and conscious dying.
One of my favorite parts of Dass’s personal evolution is his relationship with his guide when he first travelled to India—still under the persona of Richard Alpert. Alpert would start to talk with his guide about how he had a PhD from Stanford University, was a professor of psychology and clinical researcher at Harvard University, and routinely bragged about his other personal achievements. Each time, his guide would interrupt Alpert and say, “none of that matters . . . just be here now,” the important lesson that Alpert would eventually internalize. This lesson later became the title of his first book as Dass “Be Here Now.”1
I have been an explorer of philosophy, spirituality, and the world’s numerous religions since my high school years. However, not knowing the difference, this exploration was intellectual and not experiential. Unlike Dass, who underwent a tortuous journey to his discovery of the transformational power of meditation, I was fortunate to meet my teacher and mentor while a second-year medical student at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School in Worcester.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, had started the first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic in a US hospital at the UMass Medical Center to help medical patients with chronic pain and stress. He presented a lecture to my medical school class in 1983, teaching us about his MBSR program, and the impressive results he had demonstrated in these patient groups. I was impressed, as Jon seemed to have bridged the gap between the practice of mindfulness meditation and improved quality of life. I remind myself often of Jon’s definition of mindfulness: “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, in the service of self-understanding,” and I frequently re-read sections of his first two books.2,3
My third year of medical school was extremely stressful for me. After reveling in the first two years of medical school, which focuses on the basic sciences and lecture format classes in the many disciplines that are foundational to the practice of medicine, as you recall, the third year consists of clerkships where the medical student is immersed in the many basic specialties of medicine.