(Nina Graboi)


Stepping into the Future

"I think of my body as my spacesuit which I will discard once it has grown threadbare--but I will go on."

with Nina Graboi

Nina Graboi has had a remarkable life which covers over seven decades of some of the most transformative years in human history. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1918, she fled the Nazi takeover of her country and spent three months in a detention camp in North Africa. Through a mixture of ingenuity and good fortune she managed to escape and came to America with her husband in 1941.

Arriving as a penniless refugee, she went on to become a society hostess in an exclusive Long Island community. At the age of 36 she was living what most people considered the epitome of the American Dream, yet Nina felt a great void in her life. In search of this missing link, she plunged into the study of esoteric subjects and became an avid practitioner of meditation. When she was 47 she left her husband and became deeply involved in the counter-culture of the sixties.

Nina had her first psychedelic experience in the company of Alan Watts and she frequently spent time at the famed Millbrook estate where a group had gathered around Timothy Leary to study the mind-expanding effects of LSD. She was the Director of the New York Center of the League for Spiritual Discovery , a nonprofit organization which operated to help and educate people engaged in exploring the potential of psychedelic consciousness.

In 1969 she opened a boutique in Woodstock and lived there for the next ten years. Her recently published autobiography, One Foot in the Future, chronicles her remarkable spiritual journey and has been described by Terence McKenna as "an extraordinary tale of humor and hope. " Today, Nina lives in Santa Cruz and gives talks on the relationship between the psychedelic experience and the spiritual quest. She is a frequent radio talk-show guest and is the subject of a television documentary entitled, Voices of Vision.

We interviewed Nina on January 12, 1992, on a rainy day at Two Bat Ranch, in Malibu. Her face dramatically contradicts her 72 years and she presents the demeanor ofa woman who is in the spiritual prime of her life. Nina talked with a gracious calm in the warming glow of a log fire, about the politics of sexuality, the use of psychedelics and the future of the human race.


RMN: Nina, in the fifties, when you were living in Long Island, you had what most people would consider the pillars of success--wealth, social status, a loving family--and yet you gave it all up. Why?

NINA: When I was the woman who had everything, I realized that everything is nothing. I had been busily pursuing the American Dream, and when I had it, it tasted like ashes. I was raised in an atmosphere where success was the goal and only superstitious peasants believed in anything beyond the physical. But unless I could discover that there is more to it than being born, getting married, having children and scrambling up the ladder of success, life lost all meaning for me at that time. I felt a yearning for more so profound that I was ready to die if I could not find it. That was in 1956. There were others who searched as I did, but I did not know them. I was very alone. Books were my only source of information, and for the next twelve years I read my way through psychology, psychic research, philosophy and comparative religions. This brought me to Buddhism and Hinduism, and I felt I'd come home.

RMN: You were divorced at a time when far fewer couples than today split up. Didn't that take a lot of courage?

NINA: It wasn't a sudden decision, you know. My children were both in college, and I had planned for a long time to end my marriage once the kids were on their own. But yes, it took a lot of courage to end a marriage of twenty-seven years in those days. Aside from the emotional toll, I had no legal rights because I was the party who wanted the divorce. Feminism was still a long way off, and the fact that I'd helped build the business, raised the children, and taken care of the home, counted for nothing. As I had no marketable skills, my financial future could not have been more bleak. It took courage, but it was the only thing I could do if I wanted to continue to grow.

DJB: What kind of life did you move into?

NINA: I moved from a fourteen-room house to a one-room studio in Manhattan. I was heading The N.Y. Center for The League of Spiritual Discovery at the time --a labor of love that paid nothing, but was as rewarding as it was instructive. In 1969, a few months before the Festival, I moved to Woodstock and opened a small boutique stocked mostly with craft items that I made. Later, I ran The Woodstock Transformation Center where many of the now-familiar New Age skills like meditation, Yoga, T'ai Chi, herbal lore, nutrition, Astrology, Tarot and related subjects were taught. Like the LSD Center, it was financially unrewarding, and when my money ran out, I learned to live on whatever I could find to support myself, including house cleaning, altering clothes, organizing craft shows, and so on. I led the lifestyle of the hippies, though I was not a hippie myself--more like a den mother. I saw them as my children, my friends, my teachers. They were so wise, these young ones--they had it all in their heads and hearts, but they had not yet learned how to live it.

RMN: Did you ever miss your former lifestyle?

NINA: Never. Not once. The lavish parties were behind me. I closed the door of that home with the lovely garden and swimming pool and never looked back. Looking back isn't my style anyway. I'm generally not very interested in what happened in the past--too busy with what's going on now!

DJB: So much has been written about the sixties, it is possibly the most overanalyzed decade of this century, and yet many people, even those who were a part of it, often find it hard to express what was going on. What do you think the sixties were about?

NINA: The main characteristic of the sixties was idealism. America's youth in the Eisenhower years was dull and apathetic; all they wanted was to prepare for a safe, secure job. And then suddenly, only a decade later, youngsters who had lived in middle and upper middle-class homes were seeing that their parents in split-level homes with two-car garages were not very happy, so they said, "Screw it, I don't want to live like that!" And they burst out of their suburban homes and landed in crashpads and huts and tents. The materialistic lifestyle of their parents made no sense to them. It was the same thing that had happened to me a decade earlier. As I see it, the sixties were the beginning of a quantum leap forward in human consciousness. Customs and beliefs that had long been taken for granted were challenged by a generation that did not blindly obey authority. And simultaneously, the heavens opened and showered down all the spiritual goodies that had for so long been the secret knowledge of the few. What followed was so threatening to the existing order that a backlash had to come. Nixon, Reagan, Bush, the greedy eighties. The forces of inertia do not willingly make room for the new.

RMN: How do you think your perspective was influenced by the fact that you were older than most of the people who were experimenting with consciousness change at that time?

NINA: I was 47 when I left my former lifestyle. Unlike the hippies, I'd had plenty of experience; my feet were firmly planted on the ground. I was enamored of the hippies, though it wasn't easy to adjust to the irresponsibility that often went along with the idealism. Still, I felt more at home with them than I had ever felt before, and my years of esoteric studies helped me to help them see the spiritual path a little more clearly.

DJB: What did you think about the sexual revolution?

NINA: I deplored it. It was another male chauvinist ploy, though that term was still unknown at that time. It was a perfect example of male domination. Most of the young women I knew did not want to sleep with everybody who came their way. In the sixties, it was considered ill-mannered to refuse to get in the sack with anybody who asked. "We're all one," they said. The boys loved it, but few of the girls did. Besides, I don't believe that freedom means license. Everybody was so interchangeable-bodies, bodies, playing musical chairs.

RMN: Tell us a little about your time at Millbrook, the psychedelic research center where you often stayed with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass).

NINA: Well, I didn't exactly stay with them, but I saw a good deal of them on my visits to the Millbrook mansion in upstate New York. As a setting for the exploration of the psychedelic consciousness, the vast estate could not have been more perfect. The sixty-four-room mansion and other outbuildings on the estate were in sufficient disrepair to lend a note of funky eeriness to the scene. Inside, the bizarre mingled with the sublime. It was a combination of research center, monastery, country club, mental hospital and testing ground for all the New Age methods of spiritual growth and physical healing. Add Indian music, jazz, incense, beautiful people clad in loose, lovely robes--that was Millbrook. The people who lived there took LSD together in the spacious living room. They lay on mats listening to music. You know, when people think of what went on in those group sessions, they think of orgies, wild, Dionysian revelries. I'm sure that these went on in many places, but in my experience, group sessions at Millbrook appeared quite sedate. I remember a video crew from a major TV station filming a small group on acid, and all they saw were some people sitting cross-legged on the floor chanting "Om, Om, Om"

RMN: In the sixties, many individuals experimented with mind-altering substances like LSD and marijuana, and yet, as you mention in your book, you observed very few negative effects. Why do you think that was?

NINA: There were some negative effects, but the great majority of experimenters before psychedelics were made illegal had predominantly positive experiences. Some of the negative effects can be traced to the disinformation put out by the government and the sensation-hungry media, but in most cases, those who were pushed over the edge had been close to it before. It is unfortunate that there is no way to screen out people who are at risk, as there would be if these substances were legally controlled instead of criminalized.

RMN: Could you tell us about the dangers involved in taking psychedelics and can you specify who should and who shouldn't use them?

NINA: I don't believe psychedelics are for everybody. People who are already pretty spaced out need first to get grounded. Others with rigid belief systems may find themselves shaken to the core by the collapse of their valued beliefs. Then there are those with weak egos. I define the body as a spacesuit and the ego as the survival kit that contains the instructions that ensure survival on this planet. The weak ego has not developed its survival skills. It can also get inflated and believe that it needs lots of money and power and possessions to survive. Before we approach psychedelics we should understand that we are not what we think we are e are more! We are more than our bodies. Out-of-body experiences may occur in a psychedelic session, and the unprepared person can have a profound panic reaction. Psychedelics can be used as a therapeutic tool, to go deeper into oneself; this may best be done in the presence of a therapist. They can also be used as an aid to creativity and to problem solving. But their noblest and most ancient use is as a bridge to the ineffable--the Higher Self. The most dangerous and wasteful use is to take them simply for kicks.

DJB: How have your experiences with psychedelics affected your perspective of yourself and the life process?

NINA: One of my first discoveries when I entered the psychedelic consciousness was, "It's all upside down!" The absurdity of the things on which the world places the greatest value came home to me in Day Glo colors. I had seen it before, when I lived among the wealthy suburbanites, but now the willingness with which people enslaved themselves to a life of producing unnecessary services and consumer goods so they could buy more unnecessary services and consumer goods struck me with great force. In one of my LSD sessions, the words real estate came into my mind, and I laughed hysterically for half an hour. The idea of owning a piece of the planet! Do you see how ludicrous it is? On LSD, I had flashes of the cosmic consciousness of which the saints and yogis speak. I had had brief hints of it in my solitary meditations, but they didn't come close to the actual mystical experience. To know, not just to believe, that we are part of the stream of being and that we exist, even apart from our bodies--inevitably, this must affect every aspect of our lives. Like thousands of others, I "dropped out" of a lifestyle that seemed meaningless to live with the hippies who shared my quest and my ideas.

RMN: Of all the major religions you relate to Hinduism the most. What is it about this religious philosophy that attracts you?

NINA: What I find particularly attractive is the lack of dogmatism in eastern philosophy. It is very broad in its acceptance of all forms of worship and all kinds of manifestations of God. Most people need to relate to a personal divinity before they can see that all is God. Hinduism has a variety of divinities and spiritual disciplines to choose from--a brilliant approach to psychology that has no equal in the West. And then there is the impressive fact that only Buddhism, of all the world religions, has never been responsible for a Holy War. There is also their approach to desire; they say that it is caused by ignorance--the ignorance of our own true nature which is no other than the Atman or Buddha nature --the in-dwelling God. In my pre-psychedelic meditations, I was shocked to discover that my mind is a chattering monkey, as the Hindus and Buddhists say. To still it even for a minute is no easy task. Today, millions know the benefits of meditation, but before the sixties, yoga was widely assumed to be no more than a set of physical exercises.

DJB: What do you think happens to human consciousness after death?

NINA: I know nothing about that except that my consciousness, when it is liberated from the body, goes into strange and unfathomable yet somehow familiar dimensions. The only certainty I came away with from my LSD studies is that I am not my body. Strangely enough, today many New Agers see this as heresy. They call it dualism. "I am what I eat. I and my body are one", they say. True, I'm no more separate from my body than from the air I breathe, or from a rock, or from a worm, or from anything at all. So I wind up in a cosmic goo. But we have learned to name things so we can distinguish between what's me and what's not me. I am not my body any more than I am the air, the rock, or the worm. I think of my body as my spacesuit which I will discard once it has grown threadbare--but I wil1 go on. People in our culture think of death as the enemy, yet death is as natural as eating. There are two possibilities: either we die and everything is over, we're just simply, you know, goneso what's there to be afraid of! Or else life is a spiral that is eternally ascending. We may or may not come back to this planet in physical form, but I think that we are travelers, and that our journey is endless. I don't like the idea of being in pain and all that stuff that leads up to the actual death, but death itself doesn't frighten me.

DJB: What are your thoughts on euthanasia? There is so much fear of legalizing it.

NINA: I can understand it. We're all too human, and no doubt there will be abuses. On the other hand, to be spared the agony that precedes death is a blessing that many people would welcome. As for myself, I hope to be able to end it once my spacesuit is beyond repair!

RMN: I'd be interested to know your ideas on abortion, Nina. Is it a crime from the spiritual point of view?

NINA: The crime is to bring an unwanted child into the world. I believe that the soul enters the body at birth, and that the embryo is a spacesuit in the making. I see no reason to be any more sentimental about our biological container before birth than after death. To me, it is simply matter not yet or no longer animated by life. It's interesting to note that the Catholic church is as ready to bring masses of uncared-for children into this overpopulated world as to bless troops that are going into battle. Could there be a connection, I wonder? Are these unhappy masses needed for cannon fodder? The pro-life stand of the church is a desperate attempt to continue to rule by appealing to the flock's self-righteous emotions, and in many cases, this appeal succeeds.

Former generations took it for granted that it is woman's destiny to bear children. Women were bred to be breeders, but when girls began to receive the same education as boys it became clear that not all women are cut out to be mothers. I thought that the pill and other contraceptives would generate a new approach to bringing children into the world, making the act of conception a free, conscious choice rather than a haphazard accident. Today, as in past generations, more than ninety percent of all children are the result of an accident, but even some who desire children do so for the wrong reasons. They submit to peer

pressure, or they wish to have something that belongs to them, something that will give them the love they can't find anywhere else. A child is not property. It is an incoming soul--a visitor from another dimension who is entrusted to our care. The visitor needs to learn the native language and the use of the spacesuit and has to be taught, nurtured and loved. One of the best-kept secrets is that bringing up a child requires a great deal of self-sacrifice and the willingness to subordinate one's own needs and desires to those of the growing child. Parenting can't be done with one hand tied behind one's back. In the utopia I envision, people will make informed choices about welcoming a soul into this world, and they will do so in the full knowledge that their children are not their children but the sons and daughters of life.

RMN: What is your personal understanding of God?

NINA: God! You know, devout Jews will neither write nor pronounce the word G-d, holy be His name! I think they're right, because as soon as you try to define God, you're no longer talking about the omnipresent power that set all this in motion and pervades all there is. I think the Jews and the Christians are wrong about giving God a masculine pronoun. God, as I conceive it, is neither a he, a she, nor an it. God is everything, or God is nothing. Trying to put a gender on the ineffable is like trying to drain the ocean with a sieve. When you question the Hindus about God, they say, "Tat twam asi," which means, "Thou art that." Or they answer, "Not this, not that." Can we limit the illimitable by calling it this or that? My understanding of the divine is of a force that is the sum total of All There Is, which includes, but is not limited to, nature.

DJB: Why did you write One Foot in the Future and why did you choose that title?

NINA: The events of my life, which spans most of the twentieth century, are dramatic enough to make the book "a good read," as an English friend put it. I wanted to entice the reader to view the psychedelics in the context of the life of a mature, rational woman who used them as a means to touch the noumenon. I also wanted to try to set the record straight about the pioneers of the psychedelic consciousness. The Harvard trio of Leary, Alpert and Metzner had been researching consciousness long before their involvement with psychedelics, and this has remained their primary interest throughout the years. The title of the book calls to my mind the Fool in the Tarot deck. All he has kept of the past is the little bundle on the end of his stick. One foot is firmly planted in the present, on the earth, the other extends over the abyss--the unknown, the not-yet. Most of my life, I've been just half a step ahead of the crowd and have looked to the future instead of the past.

DJB: One of the things that delighted me when I read your autobiography was your undying sense of optimism, and your continual willingness to let go of your past, as you Journeyed through life. Are you still optimistic about the future, and what gives you faith in the life process'

NINA: I'm no Pollyanna. I see that we've messed things up, but I believe that at this time in history we're making an evolutionary quantum leap. My view of evolution begins where Darwin's leaves off. An ancient Hindu text declares that the aim of evolution is not just survival of the fittest but the manifestation of the perfection that is already present in all of us. Teilhard de Chardin's idea that we are advancing toward Christogenesis, the Christ consciousness lived and personified by us all, appeals deeply to my intuition. My faith in the life process comes from the same source as the willingness to let go of the past. Go with the flow, we used to say in the sixties. I believe that surrender is the key to the psychedelic experience as well as to life; when we impose our will on it, we're sure to have a bummer.

DJB: How do you feel about, and what type of potential do you see for some of the new scientific advances in technology that will influence the future evolution of consciousness, such as designer drugs, brain stimulation machines, and Virtual Reality?

NINA: Wow! The words "designer drugs" and brain stimulation machines bring all sorts of possibilities for behavior control to my mind. In the wrong hands, a sci-fi horror movie could result. I'm impressed by the practical applications of Virtual Reality, but my God, do we need more high-tech toys? We're living in a Disney world, even without TV. Does the fact that I can't wholeheartedly cherish the thought of a future laden with all kinds of toys for changing our brains mean that I now have both feet in the past?

DJB: How do you see human consciousness evolving in the future?

NINA: OK., here goes: I believe that the knowledge that we are all eternal spirits who will continue our adventure after the body's death will bring about a profound change of values. Science has already demonstrated that what we perceive as solid matter is only a hunch of atoms that have come together for a while to form an object. In the last few decades, science and mysticism have begun to resemble each other more and more, and I don't doubt that it will eventually find the means to prove the reality of life after death. A technology that fulfills its promise of freeing us from hard labor will make an unprecedented amount of leisure time available to all. It was the financial ease of the fifties that allowed the spiritual awakening of the sixties to occur. Perhaps the poverty of the nineties will bring us back to the ideals of respect for all life, for the gifts of the earth, and for each other.

RMN: Can you explain the theory that you have about androgyny and the evolutionary end of biological sex as you see it?

NINA: I once read somewhere that long ago, when we still lived in caves, we had the ability to close our earlaps so that no insects could enter while we slept. I don't know if this is fact or fantasy, but it struck me as a good example of Nature's adaptability. When she's through with a feature, she impartially discards it. I believe that the future of mankind is we-mankind. I think we're evolving toward androgyny, neither male nor female nor bisexual, but beyond sex. The old system of procreation is becoming obsolete. Pleasure is the carrot Nature holds up to keep us alive and reproducing, so she gave us pleasure in eating and in sex. But we have over-reproduced. Overpopulation is the biggest threat facing the human species. We cannot continue to cover the earth with our progeny. I think that we will transcend gender. An astonishing number of today's younger generation already looks neither male nor female. Nobody can watch the present volcanic upheaval in the relationship of the sexes without being aware that a gigantic reshuffling of the sexual card deck is in progress. Something new is happening. The boundaries between the genders are getting more and more blurred while the war between the sexes rages. To me, it looks like the last anguished gasp of an evolutionary dead end, the chaos before a new order appears. Perhaps in the future there will be neither males nor females, but androgens who are complete within themselves and not subject to the eternal dance of attraction-repulsion that dominates the sexual scene. Human love, as we now know it, is possessive and exclusive. I believe that true love is possible only where no motive of self-interest is involved.

RMN: What are you doing these days? Can you tell us about any projects on which you're currently working?

NINA: Well, actually, I'm just sitting back letting it happen--whatever it is. I wrote a scenario for a Cosmic Soap Opera. It begins with the cosmic egg splitting in two and the Divine Couple trying to come together on earth through many incarnations. I give talks about the relationship of the psychedelics to the spiritual path, but beyond that--hey listen, kids! I'm 73 years old. Don't I have a right to sit back and enjoy the breeze?

RMN: Yes, you do. You've certainly led an active and adventurous life. Looking back over it, how do you see the various stages that you've gone through contributing to the person you are today?

NINA: The person I am today...But who is that person? I'm not very self analytical. I like what G. B. Shaw says in Joan of Arc: "Thinking about yourself is like thinking about your stomach--it's the quickest way to make yourself sick." I could say I'm a writer, a mother, a senior citizen, an iconoclast, a researcher of human consciousness, but you know, none of these labels really describe me. I could say I'm an energy blip in the cosmic void, or that I'm a crazy quilt of attributes, good and bad--but I'm more than that. I'm more than the sum of my parts. Trying to define oneself, I think, is an exercise in futility that can put us in the self-concentration camp. As you know, Freud was my compatriot; we both came from Vienna, but while I greatly appreciate the quality of his writings and his scholarly grasp on mythology, I can't help feeling that he was to a large extent responsible for putting great numbers of people in the self-concentration camp. His imaginative way of looking at mental dis-ease and neurosis made them seem most attractive, and people began to watch their emotions with the fascination of Narcissus beholding his own image in the lake. America fell in love with Freud's ideas years before they were accepted in Europe. When I came to this country in 1941, everybody was talking about Freudian slips and Oedipus complexes. Phallic symbols were everywhere. In the fifties, it was very "in" to have a shrink. People went back to their childhood to search for the subconscious roots of their present mental quirks, and what they found was that Mom was to blame--it was all her fault. It seems to me that when people are so busy observing their subjective feelings, they lose touch with the great big world around them.

Who I am today is who I became in the years of peeling the onion of my conditioning and attempting to relocate the center of my small self in the Higher Self. The Nina Graboi self is transitory, an instant in an ocean of being, but the Self is undying and unborn-or so the Hindus say. Let me quickly tell you, before we go on, that there is nothing any more today that I absolutely and positively believe. Everything is possible, but our ignorance is abysmal and so is our tendency to embrace belief systems that we find attractive. In an LSD session, our self-transcendent experiences seem a thousand times more real than our everyday world, but that does not mean that they necessarily embody ultimate truths, no matter how attractive they are.

DJB: To the people who know you, you appear to be a happy person. Can you tell us what your secret is?

NINA: Happy? I don't know. Content may be a better word. I think it's because I buy the Buddha's idea that all suffering is caused by attachment to the objects of desire. It makes good, practical sense to me. If this is as clear to you as it was to me when I read it for the first time many years ago, then desire and attachment will start slowly to fall away. Besides, all I am is a blip in the cosmic soup. Life is ephemeral, an instant in eternity. So why get hung up? I go with the flow, as we used to say in the sixties.

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