For a while there, back in the day, he was at the center of the cyclone. The Sixties were just beginning when three professors published a book that set the tone if not the tempo for a revolution in consciousness, if not society itself.
It was called “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Its authors were Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, colleagues at Harvard University who were researching LSD, psilocybin and other chemicals and their potential for therapeutic use. Leary took his enthusiasm for LSD to extremes few could follow, was sentenced to and escaped from federal prison; he died in 1996. Alpert changed his name to Baba Ram Dass, wrote the best-seller “Be Here Now” and, dropping the Baba, is still alive at 87.
Ralph Metzner died at his home in Sonoma, in bed with his wife, early in the morning of March 14, of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 82.
Unlike his co-authors, Metzner kept a relatively low profile throughout his life, focusing on a more practical approach to consciousness expansion, keeping busy in private practice as a psychotherapist, teaching at the California Institute of Integral Studies, traveling and writing.
“He loved to write, that was his favorite thing,” said Cathy Coleman, his wife of 33 years and mother of their daughter Sophia and step-son Elias. “When he got everything else situated – the bills paid, the books balanced, the repairs made – he would spend several hours writing into the evening.”
The range of his interests was lengthy, and broad. Psychedelics was an early one, though he moved into many others over the years: actualism, meditation, the goddess culture, ecology, even astrology. In fact Coleman and Metzner met at the California Institute of Integral studies, where among the seven classes she took from him, one was about astrology – a tradition she continues to practice professionally today.
When they became a couple they lived in Fairfax until 1990, when a confluence of coincidence brought them to Sonoma in August of that year. “We landed in a magical place with great neighbors,” she said. “And magic has been with us throughout our 29 years in Sonoma.”
Stephen and Brigitta Benko were among those neighbors, European immigrants like he was; and Jay and Becky Jasperse, whose children were the same age as their daughter Sophia. Another was educational administrator Adam Stein, who only gradually learned of what he called Metzner’s “powerful history.”
“He made me think of how I view the world and how I interact with others, and to appreciate what good fortune I have in this life,” said Stein.
Coleman told the Index-Tribune, “He was an unknown secret in Sonoma, though he didn’t intend for that to be so.”
She recounted that he quietly went about his work while walking dogs on the bike path in Sonoma, shopping at Sonoma Market, going to the Tuesday farmers market and having picnics, and going to movies at the Sebastiani Theatre.
“I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I liked to,” said Roger Rhoten of the Sebastiani. He loved to come to the theater, he loved magic and good films with substance. He was always on the edge of mind exploration – I had some good philosophical talks with him.”
Making people think was what Metzner was particularly good at, doubtless because he was such a profound thinker himself.
Throughout his life in Sonoma he was teaching, lecturing and writing – there are three books awaiting publication even now. In the past few years he published a number of books on topics as varied “The Ecology of Consciousness,” “The Roots of War and Domination,” and the retrospective “Birth of a Psychedelic Culture” about those notorious days with Leary and Alpert.
He also took up jazz piano, which astonished even his wife. “It shocked me when he picked that up. He was such a serious scholar and intellectual, and then he decided to branch out and become more creative – in his 60s!” His musical enthusiasm led him to record and release a CD, appropriately titled “Bardo Blues,” in 2006.
The title derives from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the inspiration (one of them, anyway) for his most well-known book, “The Psychedelic Experience.” Though his maverick mind led him in many directions, he didn’t refute his interest in psychedelics, but he was skeptical of the recent faddism of “microdosing,” taking small amounts of LSD or psilocybin on a daily basis.
“He was pretty much just a straight shooter,” said Coleman, though she acknowledged that every now and then he’d “do something to see if it would enhance his creativity… But not too often.”
Yet consciousness remained his core interest. He described himself as a “consciousness researcher,” and in a recent interview, he explained, “Consciousness expands every time we wake up – and contracts when we go to sleep.”
“And when we meditate, consciousness expands inwardly.”
“He was always working on a new theory,” said his wife. “It always had to do with personal development or consciousness expansion or something. He was working with those concepts until the day he died, literally. He was always thinking about the next thing.”
“The Psychedelic Experience” begins with a quote from Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception,” about the author’s own experiences with LSD; and Huxley famously took the drug the day he died – on Nov. 22, 1963.
“He thought of doing something like that before he died,” said Coleman. “Then a few months before he died he decided no, he didn’t want to do that. But he was really working with all of the conscious dying processes that he knew, but not from an altered state, just within his own mind.”
Postscript: Among Metzner’s last projects was to speak publicly on death and dying, according to Anthony Bossis, a professor at NYU. He and Metzner had been planning a public event this spring on the subject, but it had to be cancelled. This is how Metzner described the planned lecture:
“Our book The Psychedelic Experience – A Manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, became a best-selling guide to psychedelic experience in which ‘dying’ was regarded as a metaphor for going beyond egoic interests and beliefs, encouraging people to treat psychedelics with serious self-discovery intentions. Here I want to revisit the Bardo Thödol as a preparatory guide to the process of actually, not metaphorically, dying. The text can then be seen as a profound expression of the esoteric teachings of the Buddhist masters concerning the eternal cycles of death and rebirth and the in-between (or bardo) phases.”