July 26, 2023

Ecstasy at Esalen

Recently, I read an article in The New Yorker with the title, “The rebranding of MDMA,” which most people these days know as Ecstasy. The article mentions a number of people I knew when I was traveling in those circles, beginning almost four decades ago. So, naturally, it brought back my own memories of when I first experienced MDMA.

In one of my x-rated books, I wrote about my adventures when I first discovered and began to use MDMA, years before it became well known as a drug for raves and recreational uses. Indeed, it was perfectly legal then, though not for long. I was one of the lucky ones because I received my first and subsequent doses from a close friend of the chemist, Sasha Shulgin, who had synthesized it in 1965, so I could be assured that what I was taking was the real deal, pure and unadulterated.  

I thought you might be interested to read what happened to me, and where, when MDMA came into my life, so here’s the story….


In August of 1984, I was out in California on a lecture tour and to see some professional colleagues in connection with my work and my recently published book on near-death experiences, Heading Toward Omega. The last of my talks on that visit was to a medical society in the Bay Area that had been arranged by my cousin Cliff, a cardiologist. That evening, while I was still at Cliff’s house in Orinda before leaving the next day for Los Angeles, I received a phone call from another Orinda resident who was, but would hardly remain, a stranger to me. Her name was Emily.
It turned out that Emily had read my first NDE book, Life at Death, and wanted to talk to me about a professional matter concerned with that book. Since she had serendipitously discovered that I was staying very near her own house in Orinda, she wondered whether I could come over to meet her while I was still in town. I explained that that would not be possible since I had to pack and leave the next morning. Emily countered by asking whether it might be possible for me to take some time on the phone now so she could explain just a bit about what she had in mind.
She had a very pleasant and gracious manner of speaking – there was certainly something very appealing, almost seductive, about her voice – so I readily consented. She then had a bombshell to drop concerning another invitation altogether.
Emily told me that she had been working with an oncologist and that they were both concerned with trying to find ways for terminal patients to die with less fear and with a sense of some kind of transcendental revelation similar to that which near-death experiencers often report. In fact, what they wanted to try to do was to induce something like an NDE, and the means that they proposed to use for this purpose was the anesthetic, ketamine. Because Emily had read my book on NDEs, she said she regarded me as an expert on the subject, so she had suggested to her oncologist colleague that she should ask me whether I would be willing to be a “professional subject” who would take ketamine under supervision in order to see the extent to which this drug would mimic an actual NDE.
In my mind I remember thinking, “Oh, God, wait just a minute.”

I already was familiar with work that had been done with terminal cancer patients along these lines using LSD that Stan Grof and Joan Halifax had described in their book, The Human Encounter with Death. They had indeed shown that LSD employed in this way was sometimes capable of inducing an experience that had many of the same components and aftereffects of an actual NDE, including in most cases a reduction in the fear of death and an increased expectation of some form of life after death.
But ketamine was another story. I knew something about this drug from having read about John Lilly’s experiments with it and from some other sources, and what I had heard had certainly made me wary of it. I definitely had never had any interest to try it – if anything I was averse to doing so, particularly because I knew that it was administered by injection. Thoughts of heroin addiction flickered through my mind.
Besides, my days of using psychoactive drugs were by then long passed. I had experimented with LSD, peyote and psilocybin for a while during the 1970s, but I had taken them only about once a year, and had stopped for good in 1977. I had no desire to try anything new along those lines, and certainly not with anything like ketamine, which for me was a drug associated with real risk and danger.
“Ah, I don’t think this would be for me, Emily."

She had an alternative proposal ready.
“Well, you don’t have to make up your mind now, Ken. Just think about it, and let me send you a little literature on the subject, OK?”
She then happened to mention that the following spring she would be coordinating a major invited conference on psychedelics at Esalen Institute in Big Sur and wondered whether I would have an interest to be there, particularly because John Lilly himself would be attending it. She mentioned that it would be held during the very first half of June, 1985.
Now here’s the kicker.
Emily did not know when she tendered this invitation to me that I would actually be at Esalen at exactly that time. I had first been to Esalen in 1983 when its co-founder, Michael Murphy, had asked me to come out to do a program on NDEs. It was successful and Michael and I hit it off. He had recently been in touch with me again to invite me this time for a much more extensive engagement at the institute. He wanted me to come for three weeks in the late Spring of 1985 as a scholar-in-residence so that I could conduct a workshop on NDEs and so I could attend and present my work in other workshops and seminars that would follow mine, including a month-long workshop that would be conducted by none other than Esalen’s then permanent scholar-in-residence, Stan Grof. I had loved being an Esalen on my first visit, so naturally I jumped at the chance.
So I already knew what Emily didn’t – that I would be there at the same time her conference would be held.
It is a cliché among the people in my world to say “there are no coincidences.” Being contrary, I usually reply “except for accidents and chance events.” But in this case, however, I couldn’t help feeling a little unnerved when she invited me to attend. It already seemed like destiny had decided to take a hand in my affairs.
Naturally, I told her.
Naturally, she was delighted.
“I am so looking forward to meeting you,“ she gushed. But her enthusiasm seemed perfectly sincere. And besides, from talking to her, I really was starting to like this woman.
We agreed to table the whole business about ketamine for now. In due course, however, she would send me some materials pertaining to the conference. And that, for the moment, was that.
About a month later, after I had returned to Connecticut and was again teaching at UCONN, I got a call from Emily. She had just finished reading my latest book, Heading Toward Omega, and could not say enough good things about it. Again, her enthusiasm seemed sincere; I didn’t have the impression it represented only blandishment or an attempt at ingratiation.
Like a number of other women who read that book and subsequently became close friends with me or came to play a significant role in my life, Emily felt that she had really come to have a sense of the kind of person I was from reading that book. And that had made her even more interested to get to know me. “I hope we can really become friends, Ken.” Naturally, I concurred with her sentiment.
A few weeks later she called me again, but this time to tell me that, although she had not been seriously hurt, she had been involved in an automobile accident. She was pretty sure she would be fully recovered by the time of the conference, but she wanted me to know. In the course of our conversation, she also told me of some of her other health concerns – she had been ill as well - and since the same thing I had recently been true for me, we commiserated with each other.
By that time – it was now perhaps February or so in 1985 (I don’t remember exactly when this telephone conversation took place) – I had already broken up with my most recent girlfriend and though I was getting involved with the woman who would eventually become my fourth wife, I was still uncommitted. I felt open to Emily and I was already beginning to feel concerned about her physical problems, something that would persist for all the years I would come to know her. I had the distinct feeling we were getting closer to each other and that in a way, she had come to care for me, too.
In April, by which time Emily had recovered substantially, she sent me a large packet of materials, much of it mimeographed or otherwise unpublished, concerning the particular drugs that would be the focus of her June conference. It was clear that the main drug of interest at this gathering would be something that was abbreviated MDMA, but which the world later would come to call “Ecstasy.”


After the spring semester was over, I flew out to California, first to give a lecture in Los Angeles, and then to head up the coast for my engagement at Esalen and – to resort to the most banal of clichés – “my rendezvous with destiny.” However, as you will soon see, those weeks at Esalen were to change my life in a dramatic way and send me reeling onto a different course altogether. 
Once I had got settled there – they had found an apartment for me, not on the Esalen grounds, but about two miles north along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway – toward the end of May, I was ready for my first workshop. This was the one I was to conduct on my work on NDEs and was to be held that weekend. Since I didn’t have a car, I would have to walk down to the Institute itself, but that was no problem. The weather was glorious, the views spectacular, and I was feeling great.
There were only six people signed up for my workshop, however, only one of whom I had previously known. But the small size conduced to a certain intimacy, of course, and it came off pretty well, I think.
Aside from the one woman I knew – an NDEr herself who had gone on to found a healing center in northern California – there were two women who came to interest me. One, named Dorothy, came from the Boston area and was quite a delightful and charming person with an antic and playful sense of humor. She was a little on the dumpy side and in her forties, but we connected – and after the workshop, we more than connected. She stayed an extra couple of days, and during that time, we encoupled ourselves in my apartment and otherwise enjoyed the pleasures of Big Sur under the stars as well as under my sheets. Before she left, she gave me a t-shirt with the phrase, “Smiling Broadly,” and we stayed in touch for some years after we both returned to the East Coast.
The other woman, a beautiful and extremely articulate blonde, was named Melanie, and she was indeed the most interesting person at the workshop to me, but not just because of her looks and intelligence. She also had a lively interest in the subject matter of my workshop, had been a psychoanalytically-trained therapist when she lived in New York, and was now living near Esalen and hoping to create a new kind of professional life for herself in California. She, too, was very friendly toward me and offered to give me a ride if I ever need it since it turned out that we were living only about a third of a mile apart up on Route 1.
Meanwhile, I had begun to attend Stan Grof’s month-long workshop where I was able to present some of my work on NDEs. At Esalen, there is a cafeteria with a large outdoor deck so it was natural for me to congregate there and have my lunches with some of the people who were enrolled in Stan’s workshop who came from all over Europe as well as the United States.
At one of these lunches, one of these attendees said something to the effect that, although Grof’s workshop was first-rate, by far the most important thing that had happened to him during his stay was his experience with MDMA, the very drug I had already read quite a bit about on the plane to California in preparation for Emily’s conference. It was and presumably still is illegal to take drugs on the Esalen campus, but this person was not on the grounds at the time he had ingested MDMA.
Here is where this story takes on some “Twilight Zone” qualities, so be prepared.
The next day, sitting with another group of people from the workshop, someone else said essentially the same thing. It seemed as if more than one person was finding MDMA to be some kind of mind-blowing experience the way they raved about it.
The very next day I found myself having lunch with a German woman, also from Grof’s group. We were chatting as usual, and then – I swear I am not making this up – like a broken record, she started enthusing about what she had experienced recently on MDMA!
I remember thinking something to this effect: I feel like I am being set up. This must be some kind of a plot. It seems almost pre-destined that I will have to try this drug myself.
I had certainly become intrigued, first by what I had read in the materials that Emily had sent to me, and now, even more, by these three unsolicited testimonials.
After lunch that day, I headed back to the “Big House,” as it was called, where the afternoon session of Grof’s workshop was to take place. Outside the house, on the porch, there was a bench where people could sit for a moment in order to take off their shoes. As I was removing mine, Melanie happened to saunter by. (I had bumped into her one or twice previously at Esalen; she seemed to be a habituée of the place.)

“Oh, Ken, I’m so glad to run into you.” (Pause.)

“Say, Ken, I was wondering – would you like to MDMA with me?”
In an instant, I seemed to have several rapid-fire thoughts, but since I have more than an instant now to recall them, they seemed to go like this:
Can this possibly be happening?

I feel completely flummoxed!

Clearly, I am poised on the edge of a cliff. I can either remain the somewhat reserved professor and NDE researcher from the East Coast or I can throw off my professor’s robes and take a leap into the unknown. (I had already learned to do without my clothes at Esalen whenever I went to its famous baths and people in those days often paraded naked around the grounds.) 
This was clearly the moment of choice – it’s now or never….
“Er, ah, well….”
Melanie looked at me. She was smiling. She was very pretty.
Oh, what the hell!
“Well, it’s really strange you should ask me to do this with you, Melanie.” And I explained to her why.
We made a date for a couple of days hence. I could just walk up to her place – she told me she lived in a little cottage in a closed compound just up the road from me. All I would have to do is to let myself in by unlatching the wooden gate. I should call her before coming over.
It turned out it wasn’t so simple.
Fate had this time intervened to complicate things. In the meantime, perhaps because of speaking so much at Esalen, or perhaps because of psychogenic factors, or both, I had developed a really bad case of laryngitis. I could barely talk. How could I even call Melanie?
On the morning of the day I was to go to her cottage, I did try to call her. I could barely make myself understood. I told her that under the circumstances, I felt we would have to postpone our date. The problem was that I had some other people to call in order to cancel other engagements in the area (I was to meet some other people for dinner, etc., in the next few days), but Melanie said I should come over, anyway, and she’d be happy to make those calls for me. Even if we couldn’t do MDMA together that day, as long as my ears were working, she would like to tell me about a research project she had in mind to conduct with hospitalized patients.
She was very pretty.
I remember very clearly what I found once I had let myself into her compound. Melanie’s cottage was at the end of a little dirt trail. She was waiting for me, sitting outside on a little grassy promontory, wearing a sleeveless V-necked white dress. Behind her was the glorious Pacific Ocean, shimmering under the brilliant sun on another postcard picture-perfect cloudless day in California.
I hadn’t just entered Melanie’s compound; I was in Paradise.

After welcoming me, Melanie was kind enough to make a few phone calls on my behalf, explaining my vocal indisposition. Then we sat outside opposite each other while she told me about her proposed project, which had to do with using hypnosis to help accelerate the healing of surgical patients. By then, I could manage to eke out some occasional brief verbal responses, but mostly I just listened.
After a time, the question came up again about whether I should consider taking MDMA with her that day. I wanted to – but I was afraid it might result in causing more problems with my larynx about which I was already preoccupied. Could I really focus on the experience with MDMA under these conditions? Although the day certainly seemed favorable, even propitious, I was very unsure about the wisdom of preceding.
Melanie essentially left it up to me, but was reassuring and tried to give me a sense of what would be involved and where we would “do it.” It turned out that it would not be where we were now or inside her cottage since we might not have privacy there. Instead, she indicated that there was a cabaña at the base of the cliff on which we were now sitting (so I could be going over a cliff – literally – after all; it wasn’t just a metaphor!). Melanie advised that we could take a steep trail down there and then sit on some chairs on the deck of the cabaña, facing the ocean, where we would have complete privacy and an unimpeded view of the ocean.
Melanie was not only very pretty, she was beguiling, too.
For the second time within a few days, I said farewell to caution.
I followed her down the trail, watching my footing carefully. All I needed now was to sprain my ankle or have some other mishap. How would I ever be rescued then? I had a worried mind, but at the same time I was still eager to have this experience with Melanie as my guide.
After we had arrived safely, Melanie explained the procedure. It was apparently her custom, and maybe that of others, that before taking MDMA (it was in the form a capsule to be swallowed with a glass of water) one go through a kind of ritual – a ceremonial statement of intent in which one expressed what one hoped to learn through the experience and essentially asking for the blessings of whatever the gods might be invoked to watch over us. Melanie spoke hers aloud – she was unusually eloquent, I thought. I hadn’t had a chance to give my statement any forethought, but I remember asking for clarity for my relationships since at that time in my life that problem had been very fraught.
With those preliminaries now dispatched, we each swallowed our capsule of MDMA and then sat mostly quietly, although with some occasional brief desultory conversation, until the drug began to take effect. Even after all I had read and recently heard about MDMA, I really had no idea about what I might experience.
After a little more than a half hour had passed, I began to feel it – a kind a tingle, an inner buzzing in my head, combined with a certain sensation of coldness. Melanie herself became restless and started pacing around the cabaña. I got up from my chair and went to lie down on the warm platform of the cabaña, gazing raptly at the ocean in front of me.
It had been eight years since I had used any drugs, and maybe for that reason, this one, once it really took effect, hit me hard and soon had catapulted me into a mystical experience of such beauty, purity and power that I was completely overwhelmed by it. I remembered and re-experienced what LSD and the other psychoactive drugs I had taken had taught me – the complete unity of all things, and I was not separate from any of it. The ocean, the blue sky, the trees I could see in the distance, the fly that had alighted on my arm, the planks of the platform I was resting on, the great earth itself – all was one. And all was beauty beyond words. Everything was perfect, and I was an indissoluble part of that perfection. Wave after wave of bliss poured through me. This truly was paradise, or maybe this was just the real world as it really is but which we never can perceive until we are it.
I had, however, lost almost all awareness of Melanie, who must have been behind me, sitting again, after her brief perambulation.
I don’t know how long I remained in this state, but probably it lasted at its most intense for a couple of hours as I continued to stare at the ocean. (I have a permanent but now insignificant bit of skin damage near the bridge of my nose as a result of facing the sun for so long.) 
After I came back to myself, Melanie and I must have talked some – I’m sure we did – but I have no memory of that conversation. I was just blitzed – and full of love. And gratitude for Melanie. I don’t think I thought about my voice, or lack of it, at all. It was probably neither better nor worse for the experience; it just didn’t matter anymore.
We stayed there about six hours, as I recall. I know it was late afternoon by the time we had finally hiked back up the cliff. But we didn’t go back to Melanie’s cottage.
On my way into the compound that morning, I had noticed a large and handsome house, surrounded by a stunning stone wall, down below the hill before reaching the trail that led to Melanie’s cottage. It was a Saturday that day, and Melanie happened to mention as we approached that house on the way up that the woman who lived there and her sister who was visiting were also doing MDMA. (I remember thinking to the effect: Is this the usual weekend recreational activity for people in Big Sur? Of course, my actual thought was not that coherent at the time, but that was the nub of it.)
Melanie suggested we look in on them. 
“But what about my voice?” I mentioned to croak, suddenly remembering it.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Melanie, as I followed her into the spacious and elegantly appointed house in which I was soon to spend another very memorable time.
The two sisters were also just coming down from their trip. They both appeared to be in their forties. The sister who was living there was the wife of a doctor from whom she was separated. The sister who had come to visit was a gardener who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both were very mellow and friendly.
Melanie explained about my voice. 
These are some of the memories I have of our time when the four of us were together.
Melanie and the women talked. I massaged the hair of one of the sisters.
Melanie went out to dance on the patio overlooking the ocean. She was exceptionally graceful. She looked like an angel.
At one point, we were all sitting at a wooden table on benches – it was rather like a picnic table. The sisters were drinking some wine. (I don’t remember whether I was or not.) A few edibles had been put out.
Melanie came in after having danced.
At one point, she placed her forefinger into the top of the wine bottle.
I knew immediately that she either was or had been suicidal.
I whispered, “I’d give anything if you’d take your finger out of that bottle.” 
She looked at me strangely, but I had meant it. I even offered to pay her ten dollars to remove it (and days later, I actually did).
Of course she removed it; I was relieved.
When you are under the influence of MDMA – and all of us still were (we constituted a field of sorts) – you can tune into people and know things intuitively about them. To some degree, you are them. I was finally tuning into Melanie, and I know I had begun to care for her as of then, if not before.
We stayed there a very long time and didn’t leave until close to 3 in the morning. I was still in a daze. 
As we were headed back to Melanie’s cottage, I didn’t think I could manage to walk home at that hour in the morning along a dark highway, and I certainly couldn’t ask Melanie to drive me.
Her housemate happened to be away that day, and I knew there was a loft where her roommate normally slept. I asked if I could possibly sleep there until the morning.
“Of course, honey,” Melanie said. She was from the South, you know. “Of course, honey, of course.”
By 3 a.m. or so, I lay down but I couldn’t sleep for long. By 6, with Melanie still sleeping, I tiptoed out of her cottage and made my way home in the early morning light, the sun still hidden by the towering Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, which rose up from the highway in steep cliffs.
I thought: “So this is life in Big Sur. This truly is Paradise.”
For most of the rest of my time there, I rarely slept more than three hours a night.
I had taken and experienced Ecstasy at Esalen, and my life would never again be the same.

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