Timothy Leary’s Dead

For Timothy Leary (1920-1996) psychedelic drugs were sacraments. He first began his own experimentation with these substances using Mexican Magic Mushrooms in his forties. In fact, his book, Timothy Leary, High Priest, devotes more time and effort describing these particular “mushroomed” states with his colleagues and friends than his early LSD experiences. I like the format of the book. It’s divided into sections labeled “Trips”, or particular episodes in his psychedelic journey. Each chapter also includes pertinent segments from the I Ching, as well as references to works like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip. But as far as I know, Bilbo alone in history has ever gone beyond playing, and really done it. He needed all my help, too. And even so he would never have just forsaken it, or cast it aside. It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him. (The Lord of the Rings) [Ring=Mushrooms]

Leary also later coined the famous phrase: Turn on, tune in, drop out. The dropping out referred to dropping all the fake trappings and game playing of society. For him, the truth lay in transcendence from all that malarkey, in essence turning about from the false and allowing the “the spiritual equivalent of the hydrogen bomb” to shatter all shallowness of the gray and dull-light of the controlled matrix we call living.

[Concerning his first experience with LSD]: It took about a half-hour to hit. And it came sudden and irresistible. An endless deep swampy marsh on some other planet teaming and steaming with energy and life, and in the swamp an enormous tree whose roots were buried miles down and whose branches were foliated out miles high and miles wide. And then this tree, like a cosmic vacuum cleaner, went ssssuuuck, and every cell in my body was swept into the root, twigs, branches, and leaves of this tree. Tumbling and spinning, down the soft fibrous avenues to some central point which was just light. Just light, but not just light. It was the center of life. A burning, dazzling, throbbing, radiant core, pure pulsing, exulting light. An endless flame that contained everything sound, touch, cell, seed, sense, soul, sleep, glory, glorifying, God, the hard eye of God. Merged with this pulsing flame it was possible to look out and see and participate in the entire cosmic drama. Past and future. All forms, all structures, all organisms, all events, were illusory, television productions pulsing out from the central eye. Everything that I had ever experienced and read about was bubble-dancing before me like a nineteenth-century vaudeville show. My illusions, the comic costumes, the strange ever-changing stage props of trees and bodies and theater sets. All spinning out from the momentary parts of the central God-eye-heart-penis-light. (ibid, pg. 246)

We are two billion year-old carriers of the Light, born not just of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of the Light that flashed in the Precambrian mud, the Light made flesh. (ibid, pg.4)

*Note* Playboy Magazine later interviewed Leary and asked him how many times he tried LSD, his response was, “Up to this moment, I’ve had 311 psychedelic sessions.”

I like that image of the Light made flesh, but it must be stated that everything concerning Leary’s path was not so enlightening, but rather egotistic—something he wanted to overcome (his own ego) but failed miserably in the long run. He was a womanizer throughout his life, so much so that his first wife committed suicide. He also knew of the dangers of absorbing these mind altering substances:

This was a disturbing discovery. There seemed to be equal amounts of God and Devil (or whatever you want to call them) within the nervous system. Psychedelic drugs just open the door to the Magic Theatre, and the stages and dramas you encounter depend on what you are looking for, your state of mind when you begin, the pressure of your traveling companions. (ibid, pg. 76)

Here we have again our familiar motto from Unborn Mind Zen, “What the mind focuses on determines its reality.” Leary writes:

It has been five years since that first LSD trip with Michael Hollingshead. I have never forgotten it. Nor has it been possible for me to return to the life I was leading before that session. I have never recovered from that shattering ontological confrontation. I have never been able to take myself, my mind, and the social world around me as seriously. Since that time five years ago I have been acutely aware of the fact that everything I perceive, everything within and around me is a creation of my own consciousness. (ibid, pg. 256)

Sounds like a realization right out of the Lankavatara Sutra, or how one responds after reading and absorbing the Lanka–imagine the bodhichild on acid? What mainly interests me concerning those early years [1960-62] was his collaborative effort with Ralph Metzner, Richard Alpert (later to become Ram Dass) in 1962 with their book: The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 

This is a 20th-century visionary guide through the loss of egolessness into the further frontiers of the bardic-mind. Like the Tibetan spiritual-advisors of old, the manual acts as a “chemical key” – thus freeing the mind from its skhandic prison with its stifling structures by liberating the nervous system of its ordinary patterns of discriminating thought:

The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical − the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social −feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural − prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide−books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories which modern science has made accessible. (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)

This is all further illuminated by the texts line, “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”  If that sounds familiar it is. John Lennon would later incorporate it into his song, Tomorrow Never Knows, from The Beatles Revolver album in 1966. The text further includes a tribute to Lama Anagarika Govinda, whom we will be covering in the next blog. Govinda considered the Tibetan Book of the Dead was primarily meant for the living, rather than the deceased.

It is a book of the dying; which is to say a book of the living; it is a book of life and how to live. The concept of actual physical death was an exoteric facade adopted to fit the prejudices of the Bonist tradition in Tibet. Far from being an embalmers’ guide, the manual is a detailed account of how to lose the ego; how to break out of personality into new realms of consciousness; and how to avoid the involuntary limiting processes of the ego; how to make the consciousness− expansion experience endure in subsequent daily life.

Under the guise of a science of death, the Bardo Thodol reveals the secret of life; and therein lies its spiritual value and its universal appeal.

If the participant can be made to see and to grasp the idea of the empty mind as soon as the guide reveals it − that is to say, if he has the power to die consciously − and, at the supreme moment of quitting the ego, can recognize the ecstasy which will dawn upon him then, and become one with it, all game bonds of illusion are broken asunder immediately: the dreamer is awakened into reality simultaneously with the mighty achievement of recognition.

Liberation is the nervous system devoid of mental−conceptual activity. [Realization of the Voidness, the Unbecome, the Unborn, the Unmade, the Unformed [emphasis mine], implies Buddhahood, Perfect Enlightenment − the state of the divine mind of the Buddha. (ibid)

I would also say that this work is spot-on when describing the early stages of the Bardo, with the “Clear Light of Reality,” “the infallible mind of the pure mystic state.”

In this state, realization of what mystics call the “Ultimate Truth” is possible, provided that sufficient preparation has been made by the person beforehand. Otherwise he cannot benefit now, and must wander on into lower and lower conditions of hallucinations, as determined by his past games, until he drops back to routine reality. (ibid)

As our Dharma-series, The Lankavatarian Book of the Dead, emphasized time and time again—it is the preparation of the mystic ointment, that when mystically applied will drop the scales from eyes long blind. However, what Leary’s collaborative work missed was a major emphasis on Buddhaic truths, those that lead the mind adept from a path of re-becoming into an encounter with the Dharmatā Buddha, drawing one away from the shores of impermanence into the nirvanic Unborn Light of the Dharmakaya. Instead, he and his colleagues were more like radical puritans condemning the “sin-stained idea of the individual ego.”

By all accounts, after this initial early-sixties framework, Leary’s ego got the better of him from late 1964-onwards. He was staying with devotees at Millbrook Mansion in upstate New York and started to become fully immersed, even possessed by all the adoration of flocking fans. We know the rest of the story as he set-off for California and became the Guru-overlord of the Psychedelic movement, one that poisoned the minds of millions. Today (Late August 8th to the early morning of August 9th) marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Manson Murders, when a pregnant actress Sharon Tate and her four companions were horrendously butchered to death in their home. That demonic action marks the dark-side of the LSD story. Charlie Manson had used LSD to breakdown the minds of his disciples into carrying out the most appalling of all possible acts. Manson had twisted their minds into believing that a song on the Beatles White Album, Helter-skelter, was heralding the beginning of a race war and that they were somehow the chosen ones to initiate it.

During the psychedelic experience the heavy shackles of the mind are loosened. And then what? On the plus side, consciousness is free to move in any direction; but on the minus side, consciousness becomes helplessly vulnerable and can be swung by the slightest pressure. A frown. A gesture. A word (e.g., from Charlie Manson, inclusion mine) . . . and whoom! You are catapulted into unexpected orbit. (Timothy Leary, High Priest, pg. 159)

Yes, the LSD and Psychedelic Revolution of the 1960’s died that dark summer, which also coincided with the wild orgy of Woodstock. I believe that it was all well and good when Leary and his collaborators pursued these mind-trips in closed settings, or in controlled environments, but when he chose to just thrust it onto the masses, well, what could one expect but all hell breaking loose.  In closing, the title for today’s blog, is not in reference to Timothy Leary’s actual death in 1996, but refers to a song (written in 1968) with the same title that was written by the Moody Blues—a group that, perhaps even more than the Beatles, had that cool mystic-sound:

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