The altered states of a baby boomer’s youth

Sometimes we baby boomers talk about the “wisdom of our years.” Perhaps that is justified when you read this reminiscence by New York author Liane Kupferberg Carter, who looks back on the altered states of her youth.

“Are you saved?”

The boy’s eyes glittered as he tried to thrust a wet pamphlet in my hand. I sped past. It was the 1970s and I was a college student. In those years, the streets of Boston seemed filled with seekers: dreamy, beaming God’s Children, Krishna’s dazed devotees, Werner Erhard’s smug EST graduates.

Liane Kupferberg Carter
Photo by Gary Kane

But I did look at the pamphlet. “Are you interested in spirituality?” I asked my freshman roommate. Patti paused, mascara wand in hand, meeting my eyes in the mirror.

“No.” She picked up her eyelash curler.

I, however, was. My older boyfriend Charlie was pursuing a peculiar mash-up of half-digested religion, spirituality, and parapsychology. I was 19 and impressionable, so I followed him down the rabbit hole.

Charlie bought a do it yourself home biofeedback unit, and we tried to coax alpha waves from our brains. He responded to an ad in the back of High Times magazine and wrote to the secret society of Rosicrucians requesting more information. He took me to introductory meetings for Transcendental Meditation, Silva Mind Control, and Eckankar, the Ancient Science of Soul Travel, where a whispery-voiced young man in a leisure suit said, “If you concentrate your energy hard enough, you can shatter light bulbs.” Why, I wondered, would anyone want to?

I never joined any of these groups. I was a dabbler, an ordinary middle class Jewish girl from Queens, living away from home for the first time and longing for certainties. Did I feel a spiritual void, or the sway of a persuasive pothead boyfriend?

All that year I subsisted on macrobiotics and the pickings in the philosophy aisle at the Paperback Booksmith in Cambridge. I read books like Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology, Baba Ram Dass’s popular Be Here Now, Charles Tart’s Altered States of Consciousness. Occasionally I even altered my own. People were busy opening the doors of their perception with psychedelics, or seeking more natural methods to prop open those doors.

Liane Kupferberg Carter

Charlie had an older roommate, Earl, who always reserved Sundays for two hits of acid and an encounter with Krishna (even after he graduated and went to work as a computer programmer for Traveler’s Insurance in Hartford). Charlie and Earl heard that the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa from Tibet would be paying his first visit to North America. Charlie told me the Karmapa was going to perform the Ceremony of the Black Crown at an event called the Dharmadhatu Tail of the Tiger. We had to go. “He’s second only to the Dalai Lama himself!” Charlie said. “Did you know the Dali Lama levitates himself at state functions?”

I was dubious, but trailed after Charlie and Earl to an auditorium near Macy’s in Manhattan. As we waited, I flipped through a copy of the East-West Journal. Charlie studied his copy of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller. Earl described a trip he wanted to take to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California: “Man, it’s a great place to realize your human potentialities.”

An event organizer who reeked of patchouli oil stopped us at the door. “Seven dollars each,” he said. I hesitated. “It will settle your karmic debt,” he assured me. Earl and Charlie as usual were broke, so I forked over $21.

Inside, the air was heavy with incense and expectation. “This is a momentous moment in the history of the Western world,” Earl said. “They say anyone present will receive unique spiritual elevation.”

We chanted. We sat. We stood. Monks prostrated themselves. A man on a throne intoned “Om mani padme hum” a hundred times, and placed a crown on his own head. I didn’t understand a word. The service lasted ten interminable minutes. Finally an event organizer stood. “The Karmapa will now bless everyone,” he said. A sigh of longing rippled through the auditorium. “Please line up slowly at the left side of the stage.” We filed up steps. Finally it was my turn. I stood nervously before a large Tibetan monk with half-closed eyes. He didn’t look at me. He raised a wood block and rapped me on the head. Dismissed.

I moved on to the next robed monk, who draped a red string around my neck. I wondered what it symbolized. Blessing? Protection? My Western mind sought symbols.

Twisting our red strings self-consciously, the three of us returned to the car. Earl tied his string on the rear view mirror. We’d gone seeking transcendence. I didn’t feel particularly elevated, but I didn’t want to break the mood, until Charlie said, “All that money for that?” (Actually, we’d just spent all my money. But that was a whole other story.)

I’d emptied my wallet so the three of us could get bonked on the head. The sound of one hand clapping was just the clink of counting coins.

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