|Nick Herbert caught off guard at his lab bench|
I had just completed my first year of course work at Stanford, was teaching a graduate physics lab and preparing for the qualifying exams for the PhD. I was a practicing Catholic then and was reading Dante's Inferno, the Book of Job, Chesterton's Orthodoxy and planning to find a spiritual advisor at Berkeley's Newman Club. I was working swing shift at the Rad Lab which seriously disrupted my sleep schedule. I had fallen in love with a woman named Audrey in San Francisco and was enjoying exploring the City's bounties with her and her two roommates. At that time (Summer 1960) the only mind-altering drugs I had ever experienced were legal and ethanol-based.
The bedroom in my loft had a small window with a view of San Francisco Bay. I was sitting on my bed in T-shirt and sweat pants with my back to the window getting ready for sleep one night when I suddenly heard a voice in the empty room. "Hello, Nick." I turned to the window but no one could have climbed up the sheer wall and spoken thru the panes. The voice was inside my head.
"Hello, Nick." The voice was male, a middle-aged man, spoken in a matter-of-fact way. The man, who I will call "Tony", did not identify himself and got straight to the point.
"You are reaching a crucial stage in your life, Nick, and must make a choice between two careers. Two kinds of life await you and I am asking you now to choose between them. One life will be regular, understandable and conventional; the other will be unusual, unpredictable and unconventional. Both of these lives are good lives. Now choose between them."
"How can I choose?" I told the voice in my head. "Tell me more about these lives."
"You know all you need to know," the voice replied. "Now choose."
"Tell me more, " I pleaded. "Make your choice," said the voice in my head.
And so it went for five or ten frustrating minutes. I wanted more info. He wanted me to choose.
"Alright," the voice said and vanished. I got the sense that "Tony" had other obligations that night and didn't have the time to waste with me. I was shaking all over during this encounter and my clothes were soaked with sweat. "What the hell was that?" I thought.
I did what any scientist would do. I went to the library.
I found that people hearing voices was not uncommon. More than 10% of folks have heard voices and now I was one of them. This experience gave me a sympathetic ear for people whom I met later in life who reported hearing voices too.
Being a sophisticated scientist, my first assumption was that "Tony" was a part of my subconscious and that I was simply "speaking to myself". However, the experience didn't feel that way. Tony felt like a real person, different from me, with a distinct personality. From his tone of voice and manner of speaking, "Tony" came across as a regular guy, a butcher or a bus driver, who was now working as some sort of discarnate bureaucrat. I call him an "angel" because he was a discarnate entity, but far below the level of God and the saints. If I was making "Tony" up, I was doing a great acting job. It really worked. The guy felt real.
A second argument against my making this up was the utter ordinariness of the transaction. If I possessed an unconscious need to star in some fabulous drama, why not invent some Egyptian king, wizard or holy man to talk to? Why did I make up ordinary Tony and not Hermes Trimegistus?
I marked this experience as "unsolved" and went on with my life. But three years later I met "Tony" again.
In three years a lot had happened. I had been accepted for the PhD program, I had (uneventfully) ceased being a Catholic, I had come within inches of losing my life in a climbing accident on Mt Shasta and, thanks to some dear friends in the Stanford psychology department, I had experienced LSD--a big dose.
I was then living in Los Trancos Woods, a semi-rural area in the hills behind Stanford, and had just dropped acid for the third time. I was awaiting my sitter (in those days we always had sitters to provide "ground control") but my friend was delayed waiting for a pie to bake. So for the first part of the trip I was on my own and exploring the sensual distortions, the merging with the walls and scenery and the philosophical paradoxes that a few mikes of this mind medicine can be counted on to produce.
What I didn't count on was that in the middle of my trip, Tony showed up. "Hi, Nick, " he said. "Same choice. No new information." "OK," I said. "I'll take that strange life." (Given the context, it was obvious what path I had already chosen.) "Thanks," said Tony, noting my decision on some invisible clipboard (Sometime later religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal dubbed this experience the "clipboard angel".) My angel vanished and though I have since had a few more episodes of voices in my head, none of them ever behaved like Tony.