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Timothy Leary and the 1960’s Counter-Culture

October 29, AD2013 40 Comments


I found out I was an adopted child when I was six or seven years old. Years later when I struggled with an addiction to alcohol and suffered from various forms of depression, I spent a lot of time in therapy, and because one of the most important aspects of any kind of therapy is finding the root of the problem, the subject of my adoption was always dissected. While I know that the simple fact of being adopted must have left its imprint on me, I mostly joke about it now. I tell people that because I was born smack dab in the “Summer of Love,” I was most likely conceived on an acid trip which subsequently led to my mental problems.

While there is no proof of this, I have always had a fascination with the Sixties, and more specifically, with the years between 1965 and 1971. Prior to becoming a Christian, I romanticized this era and truly bought into the idea that was a wonderful time of “free love”, rock music, and of course, hippies. Indeed, hippies were defined by virtually everything so-called straight society was not. This was all very attractive to me until I found out about the down side of this era. In short, two consequences from the times were drug addiction, and rampant sexually transmitted diseases. And among the heavy weights of the era was Timothy Leary.

Born on October 22, 1920, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Leary had a career as a noted psychology professor and researcher before becoming a controversial advocate of psychedelic drugs during the 1960’s. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1943, and earned a Doctorate in Psychology in 1950 from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked as an assistant professor at Berkeley until he accepted a lecturing position at Harvard University in 1959. After taking mushrooms while in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Leary conducted behavioral experiments with psilocybin, an active ingredient of the fungi that was allowed for use in that particular research.

He also used the drug in studies with seminary students, inmates, and colleagues. Leary began using LSD in the early 1960’s. By now the well-respected, brilliant psychologist had become convinced that to alleviate psychic suffering, something more than behavioral analysis was needed, and he believed LSD was the be-all, end-all. What is the most interesting to me, was finding out that by December, 1961, he was dropping acid nearly all of his waking moments, and according to Barry Miles, author of Hippie, the more Leary took acid, the more he claimed to have seen God. As a Christian, I learned a long time ago that what we are all seeking is union with God, whether we think we are or not, and whether or not we believe in Him.

For Leary, he found his god in LSD, and while many of us try to fill ourselves with anything other than God, most of us don’t think our drugs of choice are any form of a Higher Power. Most of us know full well that temporal “highs” are just very good feelings, or even euphoria, but not very many of us claim we “found God.” That is the difference between Leary and most others, and may be why certain illegal drugs are extremely difficult to quit, especially drugs as powerful as LSD. Miles said that by early 1962, Leary’s drug sessions included ministers and theological students. “One time,” Miles said, “They took LSD in goblets and read aloud from the New Testament. This, however, was also balanced by Hindu ‘sex rituals,’ held in the attic in a room filled with erotic tapestries.

This is truly evil, but common when we come upon anything that gives us euphoria. It also was hardly a new concept. Perhaps a new drug, a new chemical, but it affected the same part of the brain back then as it does today.

What follows the euphoric feelings is: if we do “it” enough, we begin to mistake that feeling of being “high” for happiness. “Our hearts are restless ‘till they rest in thee,” said Saint Augustine, from his famous Confessions. He is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers, and is the patron saint of brewers because of his conversion from a former life of loose living, which included parties, entertainment, and worldly ambitions. His complete turnaround and conversion has been an inspiration to many who struggle with a particular vice or habit they long to break. As Augustine told it, his conversion was prompted by a childlike voice he heard telling him to \”take up and read\” which he took as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw. Augustine read from Paul\’s Epistle to the Romans – the so-called \”Transformation of Believers\” section, consisting of chapters 12 through 15 – wherein Paul outlines how the Gospel transforms believers, and the believers\’ resulting behavior. The specific part to which Augustine opened his Bible was Romans, Chapter 13, verses 13 and 14, to wit:

Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in clambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.

“Confessions” has since become a must-read classic of Christian theology. Leary became a media icon with his much-quoted line, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” This phrase alone speaks volumes in contrast to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and its insistence on making no provision for the flesh. Illegal substances such as LSD are always used to satisfy the flesh, and of course, the user is left wanting…always chasing the dragon. Whereas when we rest in Christ, we want for nothing more.

During the Sixties, and over the next two decades, our American human ‘individualism’ was let go. And as Kurt Anderson, from the New York Times observed on July 3, 2012:

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, never intended for ‘self-love’ to become what it has. Indeed, Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, ‘Self-love is no part of morality. In fact, it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.’

It’s therefore no surprise that selfishness is winning today in terms of worldliness. But we as Christians know there is more to come – the story doesn’t end here. I am forever grateful to know who comes out on top in the end.

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Filed in: Symposiums

About the Author:

I am first and foremost a devout Roman Catholic. I am also a happily married mother of four children. I graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, and recently graduated from St. Mary's University @ San Antonio with a Master's degree in Community Counseling. As an active member of my parish, I am the pro-life coordinator who loves our Catholic faith, and is constantly seeking to grow as close to our Lord as possible. My favorite quote is: "You can do no great things, just small things with great love." - Blessed Mother Teresa

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