“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” That saying has turned into the slogan of Timothy
Leary’s mind-expanding movement. Although a graduate of both West-Point and
Berkley, and a Harvard professor, these were not his greatest lifetime achievements.
Throughout his publicized life, he became the spokesperson of the psychedelic age. His
devotion to the belief that LSD and marijuana were gateways to enlightenment resulted
in a new church, numerous prison sentences, and a following of both celebrities and the
When people think of Timothy Leary their immediate response is
“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” his trademark line, although the meaning of it has often
been misinterpreted. Playboy Magazine had thought that his message was advocating,
“getting high and dropping out of school,” (Marwick 311). When asked by the magazine
to explain the meaning of the phrase he responded, ” ?Turn on’ means to contact the
ancient energies and wisdoms that are built into your nervous system. They provide
unspeakable pleasure and revelation. ?Tune in’ means to harness and communicate
these new perspectives in a harmonious dance with the external world. ?Drop out’
means to detach yourself from the tribal game.” (Marwick 312). This was not the first
time his methods were questioned.
Leary was first publicly noticed, and criticized by then fellow Harvard professors,
for his interest in LSD when he and friend, Robert Alpert, wrote an article for the
Bulletin of Atomic Scientist. In the article they described a circumstance that in the
event of war, the Russians might try to lace the American water supply with LSD. Then,
when everybody in America is stoned, the Russians would seize power. They explained
that in order to prevent the scenario from happening, everyone should take a dose of
LSD so they can get used to the effects (Sterns 278). Although the article shocked the
Harvard staff, it didn’t cause him to get fired.
Leary was dismissed from Harvard in 1962, only four years after he began
teaching there. Leary had experimented with psilocybin, a mind-altering chemical, on
his own and the university repeatedly asked him to stop, he refused (Brash 139).
Although it angered university
authorities, they couldn’t do anything more about the subject since it was a legal
substance. While conducting one of his experiments he gave a dose of psilocybin to all
of his students except for one that refused. The result of this left him unemployed. In
the meantime he published “The Fifth Freedom: The Right to Get High” (Sterns 279).
The loss of his job did not discourage his fascination of LSD, but gave him the
chance to expand his objective. Before he lost his job in August 1960, Leary said, “[I]
had the deepest religious experience of my life,” after eating seven “sacred
mushrooms,” which have the chemical psilocybin in them, in one setting (Marwick 310).
He repeated this fifty times in three weeks. Soon after he converted to Hinduism. Later,
on August 30, 1963, during a lecture in Philadelphia he explained the occurrence, “A
profound transcendent experience should leave in its wake a changed man and a
changed life. Since my illumination of August 1960, I have devoted most of my energies
to try to understand the revelatory potentialities of the human nervous system and to
make these insights available to others.” (Marwick 311).
Leary attempted to make the insights available to others by making the religious
experience that he encountered and the cause of it into a church. The League for
Spiritual Discovery (notice initials) was created with the church maxim, “You have to be
out of your mind to pray.” The church advocated one LSD trip per week and marijuana
everyday. “The sacraments marijuana and LSD should only be used by initiates and
priest of our religion and used only in shrines.” (Sterns 279). Followers of the church
wore flowing robes and meditated “The aim of all Eastern religions, like the aim of LSD,
is basically to get high: that is, to expand your consciousness and find ecstasy and
revelation within,” Leary explained. (Brash 139).
Along with followers and friends, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, he campaigned for the
Numerous times Leary was caught for possession of illegal drugs and put into
prison. Once again, in 1970, he was put back in prison for a drug violation in California,
within a month he escaped and fled to Afghanistan. He was caught by the FBI and
made a deal with them to lower his sentence (Marwick 330).
Once free Leary continued to spread the word of the wonders of LSD. His
message was helped by the band Moody Blues, author Ken Kesey, poet
Allen Ginsberg, and many others. Leary progressed with the times and had a web page
made to offer insight to his life and lifestyles. Leary was dying of cancer and believed
that death should be a happy occasion rather than a sad one. His last words were “Why
not?” and after his death his long time friend, John Barlow, wrote, “Timothy Leary died
unashamed and having, as usual, a great time. He made good on his promise to ?give
death a better name or die trying.’ (Marwick 345).
Timothy Leary has influenced many people throughout his life by his contribution
to society. Whether he advocated the use of drugs or not doesn’t make a difference,
although the are what stuck out in people’s minds. The greater message that his life
taught was the will of man, and the lengths a person will go to in order to get the point
across to the masses. His focus was not money, he gave that up when he lost his job at
Harvard, but in his belief that he was right. He truly believed that LSD could enlighten
people, and his intentions were to help.
Brash, Sarah. Turbulent Years The 60s. Alexandra: Time-Life Books
Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties. New York: Oxford University Press,
Sterns, Jane And Michael. Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. New York: