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Psychedelic Press UK

The Politics of Ecstasy
Leary, Counter Culture and Psychedelia

January 13, 2009

Synopsis of counter-culturalist psychedelia


The 1960’s counter-culture is the umbrella name for many political, social and spiritual changes that were occurring during the period and is most readily associated with the USA. This is not to say it wasn’t occurring elsewhere in the world only to say that the principle examples of the movement are to found in the States.


Psychedelic counter-culture played a huge role in shaping people’s attitudes and perceptions at the time and it’s central theorist, Dr. Timothy Leary, is the controversial figure who tried to define the age – spiritually, culturally and socio-politically. For the purpose of our investigation this genre is named ‘Counter-culturalist psychedelia’ (CC-Psy.)


In the late 1950’s Leary was, by all accounts, an average professor, a psychotherapist, who plied his trade and research at Harvard. Then, after a now infamous experience of magic mushrooms in Cuernavaca, he returned to his college in 1960 with a new academic direction. His new research was based on psychedelic substances like LSD-25, psilocybin and mescaline and was tempered by his own spiritual and scientific beat. In 1963, amongst a growing ‘cult of psychedelia’, he was sacked from Harvard but continued his work independently; carving out many of the directions from which the counter-culture fed.


Along with a number of other researchers and professors Leary set up the (IFIF) and helped produce the journal, Psychedelic Review, for almost ten years; covering arts, scientific research and culture. Using a combination of information from the Psychedelic Reader, which features a selection of essays from the first four editions of the psy-journal and a collection of Leary’s essays entitled ‘The politics of Ecstasy’ I am going to build a picture of the counter-cultural, psychedelic, perspective.


What was it that Leary thought he had discovered? What was it that caused the whole direction of his life to shift and for him to plough his energy with such single-minded force that he gained the title ‘most dangerous man in America’? To answer this we need to look at the psychedelic event that kicked it off and how it framed his future thinking.


As a 39 year old, Timothy Leary was introduced to his first psychedelic experience in 1960. He partook in the magic mushroom, or the ‘sacred mushroom of Mexico’ to use the traditional title and it’s secret, psychedelic ingredient Psilocybin. He claims he had a “maelstrom of transcendental visions and hallucinations” and it was “without question the deepest religious experience of my life.”


The mystical experience, the high, the trip, was immediately framed in a spiritual, religious context. This does beg the question however, was he pre-disposed toward framing the experience spiritually or did the “transcendental” experience impart a new understanding, or knowledge into the mind of Leary? He would argue that it ‘turned him on’ i.e. he saw ‘reality’ in a new light.


What does the religious experience mean to Leary though?: “The religious experience is the ecstatic, incontrovertibly certain, subjective discovery of answers to seven basic spiritual questions.” In other words then, ‘the religious experience’ is an individual confronting one, or more, of a number of essential spiritual understandings.


I will explore the “seven questions” in detail at a later date, however their relevance to levels of awareness and consciousness will be touched on briefly. Although Leary had a spiritual framework around the experience he did not abandon his scientific thinking, understanding and methods. The experience of confronting the questions is the start point for his exploration of the levels of consciousness and awareness.


In different parts of the world, most notably in Switzerland by Albert Hoffman, psychedelic drugs were being synthesized; LSD-25 was discovered some years earlier by Hoffman and it wasn’t long before Psilocybin and, of course, mescaline had been produced artificially. For a time, science had the grasp of these drugs and it was legitimate object of study across academia.


In a sense, Leary carried on in this tradition but he did not regale on his belief of the spiritual element.


Leary began a wide-ranging research project on psychedelics that primarily involved human study. He made a point however of ‘guiding’ people through the experience, making sure they were in comfortable surroundings and had their needs met. To anyone who has taken a psychedelic drug this makes perfect sense but to a scientific community it was blasphemous; it was analogous to pre-disposing your results in a particular way.


It was important for Leary to not commit ‘psychological rape’ as he called it. He firmly believed that with such new, powerful energies, like those he perceived as being a constituent part of the psy-experience, that new methods would need to be developed to adequately study them. Never in his mind did he feel it necessary to give LSD to someone in a cold and unforgiving atmosphere, like a lab, knowing what harm he could do to someone mentally. He wasn’t appealing to science but to common sense.


The results of his investigation began to form into a coherent and workable theory that involved a whole new model of the consciousness. To begin with he identified seven (he later added another) levels of awareness: Silence-sleep, stupor, symbolic, sensory, somatic, cellular and Solar (soul). To each of these levels he found corresponding drugs (in varying amounts) that bring on a particular awareness. He even envisaged numerous new psychologies to deal with them e.g. cellular psychology.


The crux of it all is basically that any one individual can be ‘aware’ of all the energy processes going on at all levels; consciousness is a bio-chemical process that is by nature – self-aware.


Another reason for some scientific dissatisfaction with Leary was his reliance on the subjectivity of the experiences. Questionnaire’s, obviously with the same draw-backs that heavily weighted questions from politicians have, were used to help build the consciousness theory.  On the outside this seems like a very reasonable complaint, however, when descriptions match up from non-related test subjects, then there is certainly a case for valid inference. Indeed, according to Leary anyone, under the right conditions, is capable of experiencing the different levels for themselves.


From the standpoint of the scientist he had created his method, analyzed the results and evaluated the outcome. From the standpoint of a spiritualist he had defined the experience in terms that others could understand, examine and ‘test’. Epistemologically speaking, he created a synthesis of ideas whereby transcendental knowledge could be communicated through language outside of the sensory experience.


“Ontologically there is an infinite number of realities, each one defined by the particular space-time dimension which you use. From the standpoint of one reality, we may think that the other realities are hallucinatory, or psychotic, or far out, or mysterious, but that is just because we’re caught at the level of one space-time perception.”


Two points remain central in Leary’s scientific understanding of the spiritual. Firstly that the psychedelic experience is able to distort space-time, without which we wouldn’t be able to experience an awareness of different levels of consciousness. Secondly is the scientific principle of ‘expansion and contraction’. The perpetual motion and change, or as Leary would have it, “the rhythm of the universe.” This not only had ontological priority but also huge implications for the socio-political outlook.


Leary was a defendant in a number of legal proceedings during his life. The impact of his work, and his character, left an indelible mark on the States in the 1960’s. Leary pictured society as a symbiotic duality between what he termed as the ‘drop-outs’ and the ‘cop-outs’; through which the great expansion/contraction equation played out over history.


In the simplest of terms this means; for every great ideal that claims knowledge and power over the world, i.e. the cop-outs who are interested in power/control/structure, there is an underground world where new ideas blossom. Eventually the blossoming idea becomes the central crux – consciousness expanding and contracting – and is itself eventually superseded by a new understanding that has again grown organically from below.


This process has been repeating for thousands of years and is why Leary thought that the greatest danger LSD posed was to the socio-political  make-up of the world; but that the greatest danger in the world was ignorance and fear. The political standard of left/right was seen as bogus duality of reason; the real political split was between drop-outs and cop-outs. He characterized this problem as the ‘politics of age’.


Copping-out is a system of behaviour: “Any external or social action, unless it’s based on expanded consciousness, is robot behaviour – including political action in favour of LSD and marijuana.” Consciousness getting hooked on routine behaviour is the ‘ends’ of external power plays and drives at solidifying a standardized pattern of humanity. Philosophically speaking, it tries to put a stop to the eternal flux, the expand/contract equation.


The vast majority of people who were members of the ‘psychedelic cult’ were college students. It is therefore of no surprise that Leary chose age for his method of delineating politics and comprising the ‘drop out’ culture; although he also cited the racially and nationally alienated, and the creative. Essays like ‘How to start your own religion’ and written ‘commandments for the molecular age’ sliced further between the age disparity and went a long way to creating the ‘most dangerous man in America’ quote. He was anti-establishment, he was anti-cop-outs.


His instruction, which was clearly aimed largely at the youth, ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ pretty much coined the era for the counter-culturalist. But it was these simple set of six words which scared the hell out of the establishment. That’s not to say his re-thinking on education and LSD, amongst other things, didn’t have a similar effect, but that they surmised perfectly the whole process of social disparity within American culture.


‘Turning on’ was simply the switch of a psychedelic experience. Then the next step for Leary was ‘tuning in’: “I have devoted most of my energies to trying to understand the revelatory potentialities of the human nervous system. His expression had a basic form that applies to everyone. Devote your time to understanding and creating an awareness about your conscious self.


Dropping out was jumped on by the establishment. The apparently irresponsible Leary was telling the youth of America to become ‘lazy bums’ with no direction. Clearly not however: “By drop out I mean to detach oneself from the involvement in secular, external social games. But the dropping out has to occur internally before it occurs externally. Objectively, the establishment could not react any other way though. A cursory glance at Machiavelli will tell you the very plain reasons why a ruling party must maintain it’s subjects in a state of order.


The socio-political argument boiled down to the right to religion, the right to pursue knowledge and the right to privacy; all reasons why a psychonaut should be allowed to partake in psychedelic drugs. However, there was a much more intrinsic freedom that Leary fought for:


Freedom to find your own inner potentiality and to develop it without coercion from an external centralized authoritarian political entity.”


Whereas many of the debates that were opened in the 1960’s about drug legislation still rage on today without conclusion; this one appears to have slipped by the wayside. It is surprising because it is the most tangible freedom that we can all relate to – the inner freedom to think, explore and reason. This in itself is a huge area of research and one that I hope to return to in some detail soon.


Leary died in the 1990’s after a long and colourful life. He’d been jailed, discredited and, relatively, forgotten. However, one gets the impression he never lost his internal freedom and therefore one cannot feel sad for him. Whatever life threw at him externally, he was always happy in the knowledge that his own interior journey continued; regardless of wider society’s perspective.


Several avenues of research that I wish to follow in the future include a historical analysis of psychedelic thought leading toward the counter-culture psychedelia (Leary mentions many including Eastern philosophy, Blake, Hesse and Huxley – but readings into the pantheistic undertones of Spinoza and Schopenhauer would also lay light on the philosophical position of CC-Psy,) the understanding of ontological primacy coming from DNA not human individuality and it’s associated science. 

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