Allen Ginsberg: Mindbreaths in the Night

It would have been a magical evening--except there was no magic. I had been trying to find Allen Ginsberg for a couple of months, and I had just learned that night that he was in Cambridge to do a poetry reading at Passim.

So I rushed out of my room into the early December night. With winter just on the border, I strutted briskly over to Passim. The little underground coffeehouse seemed to be pulsing with energy, occasional peals of laughter and cheer burst into the night, followed by silence save for the ragged-sounding folk songs. It was packed with people watching, people smiling, people laughing, people focusing and clicking, people straining to hear every word, and sing every line along with Allen Ginsburg and Peter Rolovski. Ginsberg and his troupe sat at the front of the basement room wailing, and reading lyrically with little compunction. Rolovski is a burly-looking guy with his long blond hair pulled back into a pony tail, packing the peaceful power of a waiting wrestler. Ginsberg was the usual Ginsberg--unpredictable hair straggling out into space, tinged with gray. His face had wrinkled since those early photographs in Life, yet the gurulike beard gave him an aged, if not a sagely air.

After the show, a group of students gathered as Ginsberg talked about changes in his life. He was thin and very passive; his actions and speech were slow and deliberate. He spoke in quiet tones.

"Here's one quote for you," he said: "LSD is okay because LSD teaches you not to cling to anything, including LSD." This was the Ginsberg who, along with Dr. Timothy Leary (former Harvard professor of Psychiatry), Baba Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert, one of Leary's close associates at Harvard during their LSD experiments in the late '60s) and other artists and political compatriots are now regarded by many as relics of the psychedelic age. Still, Ginsberg burned bright, and it was clear he had changed a great deal since those days, when Leary and Alpert locked themselves inside a building and dropped 400 micrograms of LSD every four hours for three weeks. Ginsberg said he hadn't tripped since 1973, and he wouldn't care if he never saw another dose of acid again.

The conversation disappointed me. Everything Ginsberg talked about was dead and gone; Kerouac, who depicted Ginsberg as Carlo Marx in his novel, On the Road, is dead; so is Neal Cassidy. Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters have since faded into twilight.

But here was Allen Ginsberg, in his simple, meditative manner, still writing poetry and singing and earning a living from his art. The counter culture rebel of the '60s said he no longer saves articles on heroin smuggling and the intelligence community; he no longer peers out of national magazine covers from behind a cloak of marijuana smoke proclaiming that the government makes criminals out of "the most sensitive people in America." I thought of a title for the interview: "the mellowing of Allen Ginsberg."

"When I was 20," he said, "I had a visionary experience in which I got fixated--an epiphany. I got hung up on the sensation of eternity--I tried to grab it. I got disillusioned with my youth. The disillusionment itself is the great vision."

Today, Allen Ginsberg sticks to his art. A recently published book of his poetry, Mind-breaths, expresses many of the lessons he said he had learned from his life in the last decade--many of the lessons that changed Ginsberg into the quiet but significant artist he is today.

"It took me a while to chafe through things like drugs and meditation. I got fixated on something and tried to catch it. It takes a while to realize, but reality dissolves as soon as you look at it."

Ginsberg now sees LSD as one of the catalysts that raised his consciousness. "LSD shows you more of what isn't there, and having realized that there are many perceptions of reality, there's no more urgency to explore any one reality like it's the answer, the truth. Everyone's always looking for the truth. The truth is there is no truth. Everything's constantly changing, and the pain from existence seems to come from clinging to some concept of truth or reference point.

So Ginsberg meditates now. He makes it clear that he does not believe in God, having substituted a belief in relativity. One student asked him with a note of skepticism if raising consciousness through LSD wasn't a bourgeios excuse for hedonism.

"Meditation is a practice which leads to understanding--acid is a catalyst to that." And then he broke into a tale of his Columbia University days, pointing out the difference between himself and his classmates.

"Most of my classmates were getting a Brook Brothers suit and getting a job to wear a Brook Brothers suit to. I was into: 'What is the nature of my consciousness?'-- a deepening realization of life,--'Who am I?' 'What is self?"'

He paused then tried further to explain himself. "That's why it leads toward the non-theistic realization that there is no 'self'--that's why it's so mysterious," he said, exaggerating his voice, "it doesn't exist!"

The students in the room looked puzzled. Ginsberg looked around in the silence, then looked at me and said, "Here, try this." And he began giving me instructions in classical Buddhist meditation:

Get into a comfortable position where your spine is straight--you can relax--eyes open, resting on the horizon. Now the question is, 'What do you do with your thoughts.

Be mindful and identify with the outbreath. In other words, if thoughts arise, return attention to the breath, identify with the breath until you exhale and the breath ends.

So everyone in the room sat in this position, blank eyes on the horizon, lips lying straight across the face.

It was 3 a.m. and even Ginsberg, who had been able to occupy at least 80 per cent of the conversation with his "knee-bone-is-connected-to-thigh-bone" type monologue, had to leave.

The city was coming to life. The first car whooshed unchallenged by any traffic down Mass. Ave, at 4 a.m., and the newspaper bails were thrown out onto the sidewalks. People began emerging from the subways like sudden shadows, and like some collective incarnate, the city stoked its fires and started to roll.