An intimate look at Timothy Leary and Ram Dass
By David Lewis
Leary and Richard Alpert (who later would become Ram Dass) were part of theHarvard psychology department in the early 1960s when they beganexperimenting with psychedelics as a way to reach higher levels of consciousness.Eventually, they would take vastly different paths — though those paths wouldlead them to some common spiritual ground.
After Harvard, Leary transforms into the LSD guru, and his catchphrases (“Turnon, tune in, drop out” and “Think for yourself and question authority”) serve asmantras of the counterculture movement. He also enrages Richard Nixon andlands in prison. Alpert, meanwhile, becomes spiritual teacher Ram Dass,influencing millions with his book “Be Here Now.”
Director Gay Dillingham deftly weaves in both of the men’s stories, using Leary’simpending death in 1996 as the main narrative thread. In excellent footageshowing the pair in their later years, the historical giants come off like a long-married couple. They agree that death should be a celebration, not something tobe feared. That death is a major step in unraveling the mysteries of the universe.
Throughout the film, we get a much better sense of Leary’s personal life (fivemarriages, a few kids) than that of Alpert. Ram Dass alludes to earlier struggleswith his homosexuality, but the issue seems glossed over.
Overall, though, “Dying to Know” is upbeat and fun to watch. It has beautiful,dreamy graphics, too. We can feel the bond that these two men had for each other— and it makes for a genuine love story.
Copyright 2015 San Francisco Chronicle
The Psychedelic Friendship of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass
By Marc Mohan for The Oregonian/OregonLive
The 2010 book "The Harvard Psychedelic Club" took an entertaining look back at four central figures in the popularization of LSD in the 1960s, who all met at Harvard University: Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith. The new documentary "Dying to Know" focuses on the decades-long friendship of the first two, whose exploration of the consciousness-raising powers of psychedelic drugs "ended the 1950s" and helped to usher in an era of freedom and turbulence in America.
There's not a lot of new information in this affectionate portrait, but anyone interested by the history of the counterculture in this country should find it worthwhile. Even in a time of increasingly permissive attitudes towards recreational drug use, psychedelics still conjure the image of a spinning, tie-dye-clad hippie or a brain-dead acid casualty. But it's important to remember that these guys wanted, at least initially, to explore the experiences these substances engendered in an academically rigorous way. (The movie contains eye-opening footage of Leary testifying before Congress against legalization.)
Yet Leary and Alpert can shoulder some of the blame for those trippy stereotypes. As the film chronicles, Leary became a willing outlaw, spending time in 29 different prisons in the '60s and '70s, and spending time with Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria after escaping from one of them. Whatever judgments one might have about Leary, you can't deny he led an interesting life. Sadly, "Dying to Know" does not include footage of his notorious 1982 debate tourwith Watergate villain G. Gordon Liddy, an odd couple if there ever was one.
Alpert went in another direction, changing his name to Ram Dass, authoring the perennially popular self-help book "Be Here Now," and becoming a leading spiritual teacher seemingly devoid of ego.
The heart of the film consists of extended excerpts from a conversation between Leary and Ram Dass recorded in December 1995, when Leary knew he was soon to die of prostate cancer. It's a moving reunion between two comrades in metaphysical arms. It's been nearly 20 years since Leary's death, but the other three members of the Club are still with us. Weil, who became a massively popular proponent of alternative medicine, is interviewed at length. Smith, the eldest of the four, is 96 and, according to his website, currently in hospice care.
Ram Dass, to whom more than anyone this film is an ode, suffered a stroke in 1997 but continues to teach and write. One of the film's more moving sequences involves him learning that he has a son who is a 53-year-old banker from North Carolina (long story). But nothing tops the discussions of mortality between Leary and Ram Dass, during which both of these battered but unbowed explorers of reality come off as nothing less than enlightened.
-- Marc Mohan for The Oregonian/OregonLive
Review By Kenneth Turan
Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were, at least as far as public images went, the contrasting faces of the 1960s counterculture.
Leary was the LSD advocate, the exuberant popularizer of a "turn on, tune in, drop out" philosophy. He was called "the most dangerous man in America" by Richard Nixon and said of himself, "I think I've lived one of the most interesting lives of anyone in the twentieth century."
Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, was a scientist-turned-guru who saw himself as a bridge between East and West and wrote a massively popular spiritual treatise called "Be Here Now" that went through 43 printings.
But more important than their apparent differences were their similarities, that they were both fascinating talkers who never stopped getting a kick out of what the other person had to say. In the documentary "Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary," the talk often involves death, which doesn't make it any less involving.
An admiring, even loving celebration of these two men by filmmaker Gay Dillingham, "Dying to Know" had its genesis in 1995, when Leary announced he had the inoperable prostate cancer, which caused his death a year later.
Dillingham arranged for the two to have one final "My Dinner With Andre"-type filmed conversation together, and followed up with individual sessions with both men, including several with Ram Dass after he had a serious stroke in 1997. She also added in conversations with people who knew the two men and shared their interests, such as New Age doctor Andrew Weil and Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax.
Given the circumstances of their final meeting, it's inevitable that death and dying, "the taboo of all time," according to Leary, should be the starting point of the conversation with Ram Dass. Both men, it turns out, share the notion that death can be a celebration; in Ram Dass' words, a time when you "engage with the deepest meaning of the universe."
To put these comments into perspective, "Dying to Know" (improbably narrated by Robert Redford) provides mini-biographies of both men, filling us in on how they met as well as their lives before and after they connected.
Leary, according to Ram Dass and others, was an authority-questioning Irish rebel, an individual of leprechaun-like mischievousness who, someone says, "walked between conformity and chaos." For his part, Alpert, in his pre-Ram Dass incarnation, was a high-achieving academic from a wealthy background who hid being gay behind a self-confident facade.
The two met in the 1960s at Harvard, where they both taught psychology and did research involving the use of psychedelic drugs, first psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and then LSD itself.
Both were powerfully influenced by their initial drug experience, with Leary telling Alpert he'd "learned more about the mind in four hours than in 16 years as a psychologist." When Leary moved on to LSD, whose indiscriminate use he was not an advocate of, he was so affected that he didn't speak for five days.
"Dying to Know" goes through many of the permutations of their careers (there wouldn't be space to deal with them all), including the reasons for the rift that developed for a time.
Despite periods of what Ram Dass characterizes as both "deep friendship and deep enmity," the two ended with a visible mutual respect that made peace with their differences. They both saw themselves, "Dying to Know" posits, as adventurers exploring alternate realities, and hearing where they ended up is a trip all by itself.
I’m sitting watching this film on my computer with earbuds in, tears streaming down my face. My daughter walks by, and smiles sympathetically (she’s used to seeing me cry).
“Good movie?” she asks? “Good movie,” I reply.
This documentary is indeed a magnificently moving and sometimes hilarious tribute to the relationship between Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary, narrating the ways in which their paths, both together and separately, profoundly changed our culture’s ideas about consciousness, spirituality, psychedelic drugs, and death.
Narrated by actor and activist Robert Redford, Dying to Know interweaves a chronicle of their fascinating lives with an intimate and frank conversation between the two filmed just before Timothy Leary’s death in 1996. Fleshing out the sometimes unbelievable incidents they experienced (Richard Nixon once called Timothy Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America’) are interviews with others who were there along the way including Dr. Andrew Weil, Roshi Joan Halifax, and Timothy’s son, Zach Leary, to name a few.
Having just recently had the honor of holding a parent as she passed on (hence, the tears while watching this film), this documentary serves as a reminder that there is still so much evolution to occur in modern society regarding our own mortality and the idea of having a conscious death. In a culture that makes “death seem like a failure instead of a natural passage,” (as they say in the documentary) this film presses the question that these two men brought to the forefront of our society over 45 years ago: What it means to live—and die—well.
Directed by Gay Dillingham
Produced by CNS Communications
Film reviewed by Julie Devi Hale, MFT, eRYT, psychotherapist, yoga, and meditation teacher who attends to private clients in Los Angeles and runs retreats in her home away-from-home; the Sequoia National Forest: juliehale.net.
By Diana Clarke
In the decades since he became famous as a bearded countercultural icon, RamDass has cut his hair and grown older. These days the author of Be Here Now looks just like anybody else laughing in family photos, mouth open and smile tinged yellow. But when he meets with his old friend Timothy Leary, best known for advocating the therapeutic use of LSD beginning at Harvard in the 1960s, the exchange is both tender and electric.
Dying to Know explores the friendship between the two men and how their experiments and inquiries into enlightened altered consciousness radically changed the mainstream conversation on drugs and spirituality. Though sometimes clumsy or nostalgic, the film is an engaging oral history of Leary and Dass's friendship. Through a combination of archival footage, interviews with people connected to the two men, and a central, movie-long dialogue between Dass and Leary themselves, director Gay Dillingham builds a dynamic if occasionally rough narrative with an intimate feel.
The friends reflect on the lessons they've learned in a lifetime of spiritual questing and face Leary's inoperable cancer head on. Death, they suggest, is the only sure thing. By living truly now, we can meet the end without fear or pain. Leary speaks matter-of-factly about the relationship between himself and his cancer and how they both inhabit his body; it's moving and revelatory.
The final, most profound section of the film is clunky, with too many dramatic fade-outs and silences. Ram Dass might say that the succession of false endings creates for the viewer an experience of death and renewal, of unmet expectations several times over — an opportunity to cultivate the detached, accepting attitude he and Leary have spent their lives promoting.
Leary, Ram Dass, and Me
By Paul Krassner
Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary is a uniquedocumentary that serves as an important slice of counterculturalhistory. Peppered with poignant wit, it inspires boomers andmillennials alike. I’ve been truly fortunate to have this pair ofpsychedelic gurus as intimate friends.
In 1964, I assigned Robert Anton Wilson to write a front-coverarticle in The Realist, which he titled “Timothy Leary and HisPsychological H-Bomb.” When that issue was published, Learyinvited me to visit the Castalia Foundation, his borrowed estate inMillbrook, New York.
The name Castalia came from The Bead Game by HermanHesse, and indeed, the game metaphor permeated our conversation.Leary talked about the way people are always trying to get you ontotheir game-boards. He discussed the biochemical process
“imprinting” with the same passion that he claimed he didn’t believeanything he was saying, but somehow I managed to believe himwhen he told me that I had an honest mind.
“I have to admit,” I said, “that my ego can’t help but respondto your observation.”
“Listen,” he assured me, “anybody who tells you he’stranscended his ego . . .”
Leary and his research partner, Ram Dass (then RichardAlpert) were about to do a lecture series on the West Coast. At theUniversity of California in Berkeley, there was an officialannouncement that the distribution only of “informative” literature(as opposed to “persuasive” literature) would be permitted oncampus, giving rise to the Free Speech Movement, with thousandsof students protesting the ban in the face of police billy clubs.
Leary argued that such demonstrations played right onto thegame boards of the administration and the police alike, and that thestudents could shake up the establishment much more if they wouldjust stay in their rooms and change their nervous systems. But it
wasn't really a case of either-or. You could protest and explore your13-billion-cell mind simultaneously.
I became intrigued by the playful and subtle patterns ofawareness that Leary and Alpert manifested. If their brains had beenso damaged, as mythologized by mainstream media, how come theirperceptions were so sharp? I began to research the LSDphenomenon, and in April 1965 I returned to Millbrook for my firstacid experience. Tim Leary was supposed to be my guide, but hehad gone off to India.
Dick Alpert was supposed to take his place, but he was tooinvolved in getting ready to open at the Village Vanguard as acomedian-philosopher. I chatted with him for a while. He wassoaking his body in a bathtub, preparing his psyche for the Vanguardgig. He had taken 300 acid trips, but there I was, a first-timer,standing in the open doorway, reversing roles and comforting himin his anxiety about entering show business. When I told mymother about taking LSD, she was quite concerned. She warned me,“It could lead to marijuana.” And she was right. It did.
After Leary got arrested in Texas for possession of pot, the
notoriety of his research in Millbrook spread. Law enforcement innearby Poughkeepsie, led by Assistant District Attorney G. GordonLiddy, raided the estate. In the summer of 1966, Leary and hisassociates ran a two-week seminar on consciousness expansion,culminating in a theatrical production of Hesse's Steppenwolf legendthat weaved its way around the Millbrook grounds and buildings.Leary invited Liddy and members of the grand jury that indictedhim, but none showed up.
Leary told me about prominent people whose lives had beenchanged by taking LSD: actor Cary Grant, director Otto Preminger,think-tanker Herman Kahn, Alcoholics Anonymous founder BillWilson, Time magazine publishers Henry and Clare Boothe Luce.Of course, it wasn't so difficult to drop out when you had such astimulating scene to drop into. On the day that he announced theformation of a new religion, the League for Spiritual Discovery(LSD), I signed up as their first heretic.
Alpert and I enjoyed what he called “upleveling” each otherwith honesty. On one occasion, we were at a party. I was particularlymanic and he pointed it out, choosing an eggbeater as his analogy. Iappreciated his reflection and calmed down.
On stage at the Village Theater, Alpert was sitting in the lotusposition on a cushion, talking about his mother dying and how thereseemed to be a conspiracy on the part of relatives and hospitalpersonnel alike to deny her the realization of that possibility. He alsotalked about some fellow in a mental institution who thought he wasJesus Christ. Conversely, I teased him about discussing his motheropenly but concealing the fact that the man who thought he wasChrist was his brother--death obviously carrying more respectabilitythan craziness. At his next performance, Alpert identified the manas his brother.
The essential difference between Tim Leary and G. Gordon
Liddy was that Leary wanted people to use LSD as a vehicle forexpanding consciousness, whereas Liddy wanted to put LSD on the
steering wheel of columnist Jack Anderson’s car, thereby making apolitical assassination look like an automobile accident. But whocould have predicted that, sixteen years after the original arrest,Leary would end up traveling around with Liddy in a series ofdebates?
I attended the debate in Berkeley in April 1982. Leary warnedthe audience that Liddy was a lawyer – “trained in the adversaryprocess, not to seek truth. I was trained as a scientist -- looking fortruth, delighted to be proved wrong.” He confessed that “Liddy isthe Moriarty to my Sherlock Holmes -- the adversary I alwayswanted -- he is the Darth Vader to my Mr. Spock.”
“As long as it's not Doctor Spock,” said Liddy. He argued that“the rights of the state transcend those of the individual.” Not thathe was without compassion. “I feel sorry,” he admitted, “foranybody who uses drugs for aphrodisiacal purposes.”
“Gordon doesn't know anything about drugs,” counteredLeary. “It's probably his only weakness.” He looked directly atLiddy. “It's my duty to turn you on,” he said, “and I'm gonna do it
before these debates are over.” Then he made a unique offer: “I'lleat a rat if you'll eat a hashish cookie.”
Liddy turned down the offer--one can carry machismo only sofar, and he had to draw the line somewhere--but he did provideappropriate grist for my own stand-up comedy mill. According toLiddy's book, he actually ate a rat. He did it to overcome his fear ofeating rats. Certainly a direct approach to the problem. None of thatgestalt shit. Now, I'm not sure how he ate the rat, whether he juststuck it between a couple of slices of bread, or barbecued it first, orchopped the rat up and mixed it with vegetables in a stew.
But there were rumors that when Leary and Liddy were ontour, the Psychedelic Liberation Front found out their itinerary andbegan feeding hash brownies to rats and releasing them, one by one,in Liddy's room at the various motels he stayed at, while he wasdebating, in the hope that nature would sooner or later take itscourse, and one night Liddy would feel in the mood for a midnightsnack, catch the rat that was left in the room, eat it and, by extension,the hash brownie the rat had eaten, and then Liddy would think he
got stoned from eating the rat. This would, of course, be right on theborderline on the ethics of dosing.
Each tablet of Owsley White Lightning contained 300
micrograms of LSD. I had purchased a large enough supply fromAlpert to finance his trip to India. The day before he left to meditatefor six months, we sat in a restaurant discussing the concept ofchoiceless awareness while trying to decide what to order on themenu.
In India, he gave his guru three tablets, and apparently nothinghappened. Alpert's postcard to me beckoned, “Come fuck theuniverse with me.” Instead, I stayed tripping in America, where Ikept my entire stash of acid in a bank vault deposit box.
Richard Alpert returned as Baba Ram Dass. Eventually, hedropped the Baba. He was now just plain Ram Dass. His fathercalled him Rum Dum. His brother called him Rammed Ass. Oneafternoon he was visiting me, and I taped our conversation.
“In 1963,” I said, “I predicted as a joke that Tiny Tim wouldget married on the Johnny Carson show, and in 1969 it happened.You and I talked about that, and you called it 'astral humor,' but Inever knew exactly what you meant by that phrase.”
“Well, it's like each plane of reality is in a sense amanifestation of a plane prior to it, and you can almost see it likelayers, although to think of it in space is a fallacy because it's all thesame space, but you could think of it that way. And so there arebeings on upper planes who are instruments of the law. I talk aboutmiracles a lot, but I don't live in the world of miracles, becausethey're not miracles to me. I'm just dealing with the humor of themiracle concept from within the plane where it seems like a miracle,which is merely because of our very narrow concept of how theuniverse works.”
Ram Dass knew of my involvement with conspiracy theory.“I'm just involved in a much greater conspiracy,” he continued.“You can't grasp the size of the conspiracy I understand – but there's
no conspirator – it's the wrong word. That's why I say it's just naturallaw. It is all perfect.”
“Would you agree with the concept--what William Blake said,that humans were created 'for joy and woe'--the implication of whichis that there will always be suffering?”
“I think that suffering is part of man's condition, and that'swhat the incarnation is about, and that's what the human plane is.”
And I asked Ram Dass, “If you and I were to exchangephilosophies--if I believed in reincarnation and you didn't--how doyou think our behavior would change?”
He paused for a moment. “Well,” he said, “if you believed inreincarnation, you would never ask a question like that.” And thenhis low chuckle of amusement and surprise blossomed into anuproarious belly laugh of delight and triumph as he savored theimplications of his own Zen answer. I would find myself playingthat segment of the tape with his bell-shaped spasm of laughter overand over again, like a favorite piece of music.
Lorenzo Hagerty – Blog podcast (#457) July 2, 2015
Finally, there is one more movie that I want to tell you about. A week ago I heard about this film anddecided to give it a plug, but then I had an opportunity to watch it, and I'm here to tell you that this ismost definitely a movie that you want to see. It deserves much more than a simple plug.
It's by filmmaker Gay Dillingham and is titled “Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary”. And you'llfind several links about it in today's program notes, including a link to its trailer. But, trust me, the traileris barely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. You see, while there is a significant amount of historicalmaterial in the film, ultimately, what it is about is something that each and every one of us has incommon. We are all going to die one day. Like it or not, that is a fact, and as the movie points out, it isalso a topic that is more or less taboo in polite company.
What our older saloners will remember, at least if they were online back in 1996, is that Timothy Learyfor a while was saying that he wanted to stream his death experience live over the Internet. I canremember sitting in my home in Florida at the time, following all of the announcements on Leary'sWebsite, but also making a firm decision that there was no way I was going to watch anyone die overthe Net. Ultimately, as it turned out, Timothy decided to keep his death on a more intimate level and itwasn't Webcast. Nonetheless, the months of posts and comments leading up to his death were awatershed for many of us in that it actually did cause us to give more attention to the fact that ourdeaths should be a time of excitement and happiness rather than a time of fear and dread.
Yet, while the film makes an important statement about the true nature of the death experience, thebulk of the film is about Leary and Alpert, and the history that they created together. While you mayhave seen a few of the news clips before where Leary testified to a Senate committee and wasquestioned by a very young Senator Teddy Kennedy, there is a lot of historical footage that I haven'tseen before.
For example, there is one scene with Leary and Alpert (who, as you know, is now known as Ram Dass)are looking through a box from Leary's extensive archive. That scene really struck home with mebecause I've actually looked through many of those boxes myself, thanks to the amazing efforts of DenisBerry, who almost single-handedly preserved Doctor Leary's archive over many years until the New YorkCity Library took the collection over. But seeing Leary and Ram Dass happily sorting through the detritusof Timothy's life should be a thrill for anyone who has or will have visited the Leary Archive in the librarytoday.
This is a well produced and high quality film that is narrated by Robert Redford and features a significantnumber of famous people, both in old clips and in recent interviews. And for me, there were severalloose ends that were taken care of. One of them involved some of the specific details about why RichardAlpert, Ram Dass, was fired from Harvard. (In case you didn't know. Timothy Leary was never fired from
Harvard. He resigned after Alpert was fired.) Now I've known the background story about the firingbefore, but like most people who have heard the story, I've never spoken about it because I had onlyheard it from third parties. Well, this movie tells the complete story, and it is told directly by the peopleinvolved. For that reason alone this is an historic movie.
But don't let me lead you to believe that this is just another documentary about the Sixties. To me it'snot a documentary at all, but rather a film about how a man came to the end of what can be called oneof the most extraordinary lives in modern American history, and how he came to accept and evenembrace his final days and the end of this life.
I'm going to post the four theaters in California where this film will preview on July 10th. My advice toyou is that if you are anywhere near one of those theaters then please don't miss the chance to see thismovie on the big screen. Just like the great movie about Sasha Shulgin called “Dirty Pictures”, it may notget a wide release. Hopefully it will. But as someone who has missed out on seeing several interestingmovies on the big screen, the way they are created to be seen, I'm here to tell you that you'll regret it ifyou miss the July 10th limited release.
So if you are young and barely know about Ram Dass and Leary back in the 60s, then this is a trulyimportant film in that it will give you a significantly deeper understanding of what all has taken place toget where we are today. Just think of it. In about half of the states in this country medical marijuana isnow available. And it is already even legal as a recreational substance in some places. Yet, did you knowthat Dr. Timothy Leary was sentenced to 30 years!!! in jail for possession of just two joints?
Now there is still another reason for some of our fellow saloners to see this film, and that has to do withits focus on the process of dying. In a few weeks I'll be 73 years old. That's just three years short ofTimothy Leary's age when he died. And if I told you that death was never on my mind I'd be lying to you.My guess is that the same is true for most people my age. And if they are anything like me, they willcome away from this movie with a much more peaceful attitude about dying. So I'm recommending thatif you are young you should see this film for the knowledge you will gain about the history of your Tribe.But if you are old you will get much more than a history lesson. Maybe you can take your grandparentsto see it, or if you are a grandparent, perhaps you should take your children and grandchildren to see it.I guess that I'm running on now and overselling it. And rest assurred that I have no financial interest inthe movie. My only motivation here is to do what I can to encourage you to watch a truly inspiring film.I'm sure that you won't be disappointed.