Timothy Leary: Psychonaut Pioneers

Timothy Leary was born October 22, 1920 in New England. He was an American psychologist and author, best known for his devout advocacy of psychedelic drugs like LSD, DMT, Psilocybin and Mescalin.

He was a polarizing figure, someone you either love or hate. Many of his peers describe him as a hero of consciousness, and an outspoken oracle. Others call him a publicity hound, and someone who just likes to get high. No matter how he is remembered, one thing is for sure: Timothy Leary was a huge voice in the movement to understand psychedelics as we know them today. For this reason, he joins the ranks of Faded’s Psychonaut Pioneers.

Leary worked at Harvard in the early 1960’s

In the early 1960’s, LSD and psilocybin were still legal in the United States (or should we say, not yet illegal) and Leary worked as a clinical psychologist at Harvard University. His main focus was the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Some of the studies included the Concord Prison Experiment and the Marsh Chapel Experiment, both of which were highly questioned from an ethical point of view. This is because Leary took psychedelics with the research subjects, and pressured his students to join in as well. As a result, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert (who later changed his name to Ram Dass) were fired from Harvard in May of 1963. Ironically, many Americans first heard of psychedelics as a result of the Harvard scandal.

After Harvard and pop culture

After leaving Harvard, Leary continued to publicly promote psychedelics and became an infamous figure of the counterculture of the 1960’s. He coined catchphrases that promoted his philosophy, some of which we still use today. Some of the most famous ones are “set and setting”, “turn on, tune in, drop out”, and “think for yourself and question authority”. Leary’s outspoken personality made him famous in pop culture, and he often gave lectures promoting his worldview. He loved the spotlight, and sometimes referred to himself as a “performing philosopher”.

Some interesting facts about Timothy Leary

  • Leary was arrested countless times, serving time inside 36 prisons over two decades in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • Richard Nixon once called Leary “the most dangerous man in America” for his worldview and ability to spread it.
  • Leary recruited John Lennon to write a theme song his California governor’s campaign against Ronald Reagan. However, this campaign was interrupted by a stint in prison for cannabis possession. This inspired Lennon to write the hit Beatles song “Come Together” in 1969.
  • One of Timothy Leary’s books, The Psychedelic Experience, inspired John Lennon to write the song “Tomorrow Never Knows”. This song was on the 1966 Beatles album Revolver.
  • Leary coined the influential term “reality tunnel” which is similar in meaning to “truth is in the eye of the beholder”. This basically means everyone has a lens that they see the world through differently, shaped by their life experiences.
  • In his final moments on Earth, Leary repeated the phrase: “Why? …. Why not?” in numerous different intonations, until breathing his last and final word: “beautiful”.
  • Leary had a strong interest in cryogenics, and in the ideal of freezing his body posthumously. However, nearer to his death, the decision changed to cremation. 7 grams of his ashes were encapsulated aboard a space rocket in 1997.

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