Seeds of the Sixties

The following transcript is taken from the 1974 documentary of Timothy Leary’s appeal letter from Folsom Prison and submitted to the Center for Contemporary History.

Seeds of the Sixties

“These days each decade is a statement in the age-long global human conversation.” Timothy Leary

In the cultural message of the 1960’s every American was, actively or passively, engaged. It so happened that I was most centrally involved in these social changes as member of, and shamanic spokesman for, a small group of innovative intellectuals who sought to receive, integrate and transmit emerging cultural signals. The meaning of this explosive decade will be evaluated by history in the light of subsequent developments. It is natural that those who were engaged in the transaction present their versions of what happened and their predictions of the events to come.

In January 1960 I accepted an invitation to come to Harvard University to initiate new programs in what was then called Behavior Change. I was convinced that mental illness could be cured; that drastic limitations on human intellectual and emotional function were caused by inflexible states of mind, static imprinted and conditioned neural circuits which created and preserved artificial and malfunctional states of perceived reality.

I believed the nervous system to be a bio-chemical-electrical network capable of receiving and creating a changing series of adaptive realities if and when the chemical key for altering consciousness was found and employed in the context of an adequate theory. In the then-zeitgeist of Salk, Fleming, Pauling, I believed that the right chemical used correctly was the cure. The “career ailment” I had selected as curable was human nature.

A new science is defined. I have suggested the term neurologic: the understanding and control of one’s own nervous system. To oversimply, I believed that man did not know how to use his head, that the static, repetitive conditioned circuit known as the normal mind was itself the source of “dis-ease” and that the task of the psychologist-neurologist was to discover the neurochemicals for changing mind, i.e., to allow for new imprints of new realities and new conditioned sequences. Our initial experiments at Harvard suggested that L.S.D. might be such a drug.

In the early sixties we tested these hypotheses in a series of controlled experiments sharing LSD with several hundred persons under the following conditions: the expectation was for philosophic exploration and self-discovery; the setting was supportive, secure, and respectable. There was not one casualty or “bad trip.” Our subjects would routinely experience meta-mind intensities and were encouraged to contemplate the personal and social implications of these new signals.

The results of these and other psychedelic drug experiences led us to conclude that organic neurochemicals could be used as instruments for studying the nervous system, for freeing brain from the limits of mind, for training human beings to develop new neural circuits (new minds) for reception, integration and transmission. The implications of these conclusions for human freedom were far-reaching. More important, a new mythic conception of human nature emerges. The human being is seen as having several “minds” (defined as neural circuits) which evolve during the course of individual development and which can be turned on and off selectively and adaptably as one “turns on and tunes” the many external electrical circuits surrounding the modern human.

In 1960-63 we tested these theories in a series of objective studies of prison rehabilitation, psychedelic psychotherapy, and personality change. The hypotheses were confirmed. We cut the prison-return rate by 90%. We demonstrated quantitative psychometric improvement in personality. It was prize-winning elegant research. Our subjects shared our enthusiasm but the medical directors didn’t. We were naïve enough to be surprised that many administrators didn’t really want to eliminate the pathologies they administer.

God knows they liked me personally, respected our results and in their secret hearts hoped that we were right. But there is this larval inertial fear of change. Three times I was offered tenure at Harvard (and the post of chief psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital) if I would just play down the drug research. But by then more than careers were at stake. We had entered the dialogue of myth, tapped into that ancient current of passionate hope and risky belief that humanity can evolve into a higher consciousness.

We were thinking far-out history thoughts at Harvard, some thirty graduate students, young professors and theologians believing that it was a time, (after the shallow, nostalgic fifties) for far-out visions, knowing that America had run out of philosophy, that a new empirical, tangible meta-physics was desperately needed, knowing in our hearts that the old mechanical myths had died at Hiroshima, that the past was over, and that politics could not fill the spiritual vacuüm

It was the familiar Gnostic, hermetic, Neo-Platonic, alchemical, Faustian, Jeffersonian belief in the individual as microcosm, the all-out vision of multi-centered universe that gives life to individual existence, perennially recurring, always opposed by the Inquisition, always mocked by the current version of cynical cool-out stoicism.

The vision we offered was the “head-trip” a scientific, experimental neurologic. Whereas the pre-scientific oriental philosophies and the western mystical off-shoots speak vaguely of the divinity within each person, we tried to operationally redefine the old teachings and to offer an experimental Neo-Platonism. Your brain is the center of your universe. Read any basic text on the nervous system. Learn which of the seven types of drug-yoga turns on which circuits of your nervous system; learn to dial, tune and focus your time ship. Then you learn to accept total responsibility for the realities you intercept.

The basis for this new meta-physics was the belief that advances in modern science now makes it possible to develop an understanding of the nervous system, its evolution in the individual and the species, and the effects of chemical and electronic adjuvant on its expanding function. This new understanding of the source and instrument of consciousness is leading us to a truly scientific philosophy of a self-responsible human nature.

The alert and reasonably educated person in 1960 was familiar with the following scientific concepts which, if known by the philosophers of antiquity, would certainly have influenced their theories: (1) The Einsteinian equations concerning relativity and the co-variance of time space. (2) The nervous system as bio-computer organized in hierarchical centers selectively mediating the reception, storage, analysis and transmission of messages. (3) Elementary computer theory. (4) Electrical and electronic technology providing for selectivity of frequency, intensity and clarity of signal. (5) The D.N.A. code as source of instructions for constructing, maintaining and evolving both body and nervous system.

With these scientific concepts as suggestive text, L.S.D. as instrumental sacrament and prayers for grace, we began to write and to talk publicly about the possibilities of a new philosophy, a new individual scientific theology. All of this educational work was enormously successful. Millions of Americans accepted the “head philosophy”, the belief that Ego and “Social Reality” are neural fictions.

At this point (1963) I left Harvard, abandoned the role of conventional, academic scientist and became, without knowing it, a shaman. This shift in occupational role was accomplished slowly, hesitantly, exploring and not without self-conscious humor. First, a diligent study of religious history revealed that psychedelic plants had been used in the great philosophy-generating cultures of the past; Egypt, Persia, India, China and Greece, always for initiation into adulthood, entrance into the spiritual life and for the training of shamans, prophets, and special priests who played colorful and apparently necessary public ceremonial roles. At the same time I began personal training in Hindu Vedanta, Buddhist Tantra, and Taoist techniques for understanding the flow of various energies. The “obligatory pilgrimage” to India occurred.

In 1963 we started centers for training in consciousness expansion, a scientific journal and lecture tours for communicating the results of our research. We were particularly concerned with the development of neurological language of both verbal and, more important, electrical and electronic patterns to communicate the broadened range of consciousness. Our Castalia Foundation in Millbrook, New York was visited by musicians, electronic sound technicians, painters and light technicians. The new modes of art we developed (based on the capacity of the nervous system to receive, synthesize and transmit accelerated, compressed and multi-media presentations) have since been taken over by commercial film and television people.

All of this educational work was enormously successful. Millions of Americans more or less accepted the “head philosophy,” the belief that Ego and “Social Reality” are neural fictions, clusters of synaptic connections; consensual paranoia’s. What might be called a neo-radical-nominalism characterized this philosophic revolution, an invisible, implicit, amused, sometimes pious, detachment from reflex social conventions and the fears which they are designed to induce. A general “hip” rejection of partisan politics, war, violence, military service, racism (white and black), enslaved careerism, erotic hypocrisy, sexism, establishment religion, local orthodoxies of dress, grooming, posture, art. A rejection too of pomposity of mind, including one’s own, and the platitudinous hippie philosophy itself. This signal of hope and freedom was sent throughout the world. Poets in Soviet prisons heard it. And young people everywhere.

The inevitable backlash from this new message of individual power began in 1966 when various legislatures and Congress began considering bills to criminalize LS.D. and similar drugs. In this year I testified before two Senate committees urging that control of all mind-changing drugs be assigned to the medical profession supervised by Federal and State health agencies. I predicted that if control of drugs were administered by law enforcement agencies, the result would be a black market more irrational and widespread than that of alcohol prohibition and the growth of enormous police-state repressive bureaucracy. And who, indeed, wanted that? History may well decide that the second great belligerent disaster of the Johnson administration was the decision to turn Drug control over to the police.

My political position then was by no means radical or solitary. Indeed, during the Johnson administration, a bitter battle was fought on this issue. Medical and scientific people (backed by the Kennedy’s) urged that drugs be administered by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, while law-and-order people politicked for the Department of Justice. L.S.D. was made illegal and most of the top drug scientists began their steady exit from government responsibility. Another war on heresy had been declared.

At this time the “new consciousness” became a political issue indissolubly intertwined with peace, sexual liberation, reform of education, racial equilibrium, ecology, and “end the draft.” I suppose the political manifestation was inevitable. So I joined the circuit. Peace, love, and free your head, we said. Well, if they can make laws we can repeal them. With the other dissenting spokesmen I opposed the war and defended marijuana and L.S.D. against unscientific slanders. We warned of the heroin peril and unlicensed, ill-informed drug abuse. I advocated, not drugs (no one had to do that), but a rational, philosophic, scientific understanding of drugs. It was the time (can we remember?) of civil rights, nonviolent dissent debated openly, registered in the polls and litigated in the courts.

I was followed, set-up and busted like everyone else, fought test cases, got the Federal marijuana law declared unconstitutional. It was in the American tradition to defend what you believed. Every court decision and every poll showed that the “new consciousness” was growing. The love-ins, hippie beads, the Beatles and the demonstrations were the silly froth. The real thing had to do with the way people looked each other in the eye and smiled knowing that something new and self-responsible was happening in their heads. The world listened. Messages came to us from the dissenting underground in Russia and Brazil. The real revolution of the sixties was neurological.

The emergence of a new philosophy occurs at rare, crossroad points in history. Political, social and economic changes follow changes in the conceptions of human nature. The consciousness revolution of the sixties challenged every one of the institutions and moral principles upon which our society was based. This systematic questioning of the orthodoxies led inevitably to the Nixon counter-reformation, the attempt to re-impose the old authority by means of police power. But the history of Inquisitions teaches that cultural-philosophic matters cannot successfully be legislated despite heresy trials, sumptuary laws, informer-provocateur espionage tactics, and secret police.

A second classic reaction to the collapse of authority is existential loneliness. Once you have accepted that your nervous system creates from the Heraclitan flow your own reality, what guideposts, what compass readings, what new goals? The divergence, individualism, and Utopian optimism of the sixties were crushed by violent reaction. This philosophic vacuüm was temporarily filled by a renaissance of old dogmas which latched on to the new energies; experiential Christianity homogenized Buddhism, TV Hinduism. These pessimistic, nostalgic creeds served to turn-off, shallow-out, and calm-down the explosive expansions of the last decade.

I believe that a new philosophy will be created by those who were born after Hiroshima which will dramatically change the human condition. It will have the following characteristics: (1) it will be scientific in essence and science-fiction in style. (2) It will be based on the expansion of consciousness, understanding and control of the nervous system, and will produce a quantum leap in intellectual efficiency and emotional equilibrium. (3) Politically it will stress individualism, decentralization of authority, a live-and-let-live tolerance of difference, local option and a mind-your-own-business libertarianism. (4) It will continue the trend towards open sexual expression and a more honest, realistic acceptance of both the equality of and the magnetic difference between the sexes. The mythic religious symbol will not be a man on a cross but a man-woman pair united in higher love communion. (5) It will seek revelation and Higher Intelligence not in formal rituals addressed to an anthropomorphic deity, but within natural processes, the nervous system, the genetic code, and, without, in attempts to effect extra-planetary communication. (6) It will include practical, technical neurological-psychological procedures for understanding and managing the intimations of union-immortality implicit in the dying process. (7) The emotional tone of the new philosophy will be hedonic, aesthetic, fearless, optimistic, loving.

It is my folly to believe deeply in the Jeffersonian vision and the First Amendment. I accept this Merlin heritage, this national trust. Could this first America be saved? Everyone knows that something is going to happen. We are now experiencing a quiescent preparatory waiting period. The seeds of the Sixties have taken root underground. The blossoming is to come. “

Best Wishes,

Timothy Leary