Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing, 2001, Author Copyright, 1968.
Your Brain is God by Timothy Leary is an unusual book. When pondering how to characterize it, it came spontaneously to mind to call it a Manifesto. I can’t think of another expression for describe the frantic speed of Leary’s diction, his highly affirmative style, his wit and colorful insights, but first of all the communication of his unique worldview and philosophy.
The book was for years in my bookshelf—untouched. It fell in my hands just last night, when I wanted to close this manuscript for publishing. By a chance event I saw a documentary on Youtube that showed Timothy Leary in prison, in California, a radiant Leary, not as you would find inmates ordinarily, as I found them myself in my years of prisoner care, as part of my work as a lawyer. To keep one’s mind in high spirits in such circumstances is an extraordinary, if not heroic, effort, and it shows the true innocence of the man, psychologist and philosopher whom Ronald Reagan notoriously had called ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America.’
The book is written in the spirit of the 1960s, while it was actually written in the much more repressive 80s, but the author had not lost a bit of his lofty spirited style that distinguished him all his life through from the common populace of ‘adapted’ citizens.
The book, which I grabbed right away from my bookshelf, and went through just this morning—it’s just 105 pages with a quite large book font—reminds me of my own youth, and the year 1968, the year of the student revolt. I was thirteen by then, and it was a time of excitement for all of us. I will never forget that during that year an issue of BRAVO, a youth magazine in Germany, published a joyful essay entitled ‘Jugend und Sex ’68’ (Youth and Sex ’68) which retraced the ‘student liberation’ in quite open terms including photos of nude teenager couples. And we were wearing our jeans even in school only after lengthy ‘operations’, unique kind of meditations during which we cut slices in our jeans and shirts, or cut out the knees—some did it even with parts of their jeans’ bottom … which when the boy was rather ugly ended up in a rather tragicomical outfit, reminding of something in between a street peddler and Hamlet. Yet, despite this kind of freedom, our teachers were stressing old-fashioned principles of discipline, an attitude that even more accentuated the tension between the generations that was so much felt during these times of revolt versus restoration.
All this would of course be outright impossible these days. Yet I believe that despite a ‘straighter’ attitude in society today, a man like Leary would be considered as harmless compared to the ‘new social enemies’ such as Julian Assange or Bradley Manning.
To begin with, the description of the book on Amazon reads as follows:
This collection of essays, written by the poster boy of 1960s counterculture, describes the psychological journey Timothy Leary made in the years following his dismissal from Harvard, as his psychedelic research moved from the scientific to the religious arena. He discusses the nature of religious experience and eight crafts of God, including God as hedonic artist. Leary also examines the Tibetan, Buddhist, and Taoist experiences. In the final chapters, he explores man as god and LSD as sacrament.
As the book can be ‘looked inside’ on Amazon I spare to reiterate the titles of the 20 chapters. These are actually 8 Questions, which the author introduces with these very well written lines:
Religion, being personal and private, cannot produce answers to the eight basic questions. The philosopher’s role is to ignite the wonder, raise the burning issues, inspire the pursuit of answers. It is science that produces the ever-changing, improving answers to the haunting questions that religious wonder poses. There are eight questions which any fair survey of our philosophic history would agree are most fundamental to our existential condition. /13
Here are the 8 Crafts (Eight Fundamental Questions):
How, when, where did life come from? How has it evolved?
Why do humans fight and compete destructively? What are the territorial laws that explain conflict? How can humans live in relative peace and harmony? How, when, where, and why do humans differ (among each other and from other mammalian species) in aggression, control, cooperation, affiliation?
How, when, where, and why does the mind emerge (in the individual and species)? And how, when, where, and why do humans differ in their ability to process information, learn, communicate, think, plan, and manufacture?
How, when, where, and why do humans differ in their moral beliefs and rituals? Who decides what is good and right?
How, when, where, and why do human devote their energies to decoration, hedonism, art, music, entertainment? And how, where, when, and why do they differ in modes of pleasure?
How, when, where, and why do humans differ in the realities they construct and inhabit? How are realities formed and changed?
What are the stages and mechanisms of evolution? Where, when, how, and why has evolution occurred? Chance? Natural selection? Natural election? Creation? If life is created and evolution blueprinted, who did it? Where is life going?
How, when, where, and why was matter-energy formed? What are the basic units and patterns of matter/energy? What are the basic forces, energies, and plans that hold the universe together (or don’t) and determine its evolution. Where are we going?
This list of inquiry is highly interesting and unique. It reminds of the beginning of a Socratic discourse. In fact, we know from IQ research that the highest evolved thinkers stand out not by the intelligent answers they give, but by the intelligent questions they ask. And here we have such a smart question catalogue, that in my view would be an ideal way to start a philosophy class for college students. When you ponder these questions a bit, you will see that they really cover all the essential questions man has been asking over the course of human history, again and again. And while the answers constantly changed, and change, the questions remain. Is it, then, not true that questions are actually more important answers given that all answers are temporary while questions, most of them, remain valid over time?
It was really in the spirit of Zen, with its Dharmic rule to fulfill any task ‘With a Beginner’s Mind’ that Leary wrote out this list. It reminds me a bit of my own questions as a child and adolescent. In this sense, these questions are ‘seeds’ and are full of potential for each and everyone of us could and would answer them differently, yet despite these differences, there would be something like a consensus at the end.
This being said, I am not attempting to paraphrase any of the content of this highly condensed book that is written in a perfectly witty style that would contrast with my simple academia style as a non-native English speaker and writer.
Despite many of the esoteric ideas of the author, the book is highly readable, and for many a reader can possibly help dispel fears and doubts in the task of self-expression, because the boldness of Leary’s approach to life is really refreshing and uplifting!
I will not comment a few quotes I have taken from the book:
Our political experiences at Harvard also pushed us in the direction of the religious metaphor. When it became known on campus that a group of psychologists was producing revelatory brain-change, we expected that astronomers and biologists would come flocking around to learn how to use this new tool for expanding awareness. But the scientists, committed to external manipulations, were uninterested. Instead we were flooded by inquiries from the Divinity School. /3
I find this highly uncanny. Leary, after long hesitation, and with encouragement by his friend Ram Dass, approached religion with a scientific mindset—which is, as we know today, not a bad approach at all. What he calls ‘Do-It-Yourself Theology’ is today embraced by authors like Thomas Moore who in his latest book A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (2014) advocates an approach to religion that is totally personal and individual, in the sense that religion is a question of the soul, and doesn’t need organization or dogma to unfold for us, individually. This is so much the more compelling as Thomas Moore spend twelve years in a monastery with all that this implies.
—See my review of Thomas Moore’s previous book Care of the Soul (1994)
Many of the observations Leary makes, for example as to our origin as living cells, have in the meantime been corroborated by and large by systems research.
Sometimes it seems to me that Leary deliberately exaggerates or rather amplifies his message, as for example when he depicts the Mediterranean—which is after all the cradle of European culture and philosophy— as ‘a bunch of semi-illiterate Bronze-Age Greeks, Italian and Semites.’ /24
His ‘Psychedelic Prayers’ are very highly original meditations that are worth reading. Here is the first:
Sheathing the Self
The play of energy endures beyond striving
The play of energy endures beyond body
The play of energy endures beyond life
Out here float timeless beyond striving.
Finally, his famous motto Turn On—Tune In—Drop Out explained in chapter 18 which is entitled: ‘You are A God, Act Like One.’ Turn On means to realize that we are not isolated, separate social egos, but rather transient energy processes ‘hooked up with the energy dance’ around us. Tune In means to shape our environment according to our level of consciousness, in order ‘to harness your internal energy to the flow around you.’ And Drop Out means to ‘reflect the grandeur and glory of your vision’:
But this process must be harmonious and graceful. No abrupt, destructive, rebellious actions, please start ‘tuning in’ through your body movements. Walk, talk, eat, drink like a joyous forest-dwelling god. /87
Despite the exuberant mindset of the author and his literary skills, the book is not an easy read for its diction is rather dense. Sometimes Leary says more in one sentence than other authors convey on an entire page. Here is an example from the how-to-do Tune In:
Let us consider a sad illumination. The Manhattan office worker moves through the clutter of factory-made, anonymous furniture to a plastic, impersonal kitchen, to breakfast on canned, packaged anonymous food-fuel; dresses herself in the anonymous-city-dweller costume, travels through dark tunnels of sooty metal and gray concrete to a dark metal room, foul with polluted air. All day s/he deals with symbols that have no relevance to hir divine possibilities. This person is surrounded by the dreary, impersonal, assembly-line, mass-produced, anonymous environment of an automated robot, which perfectly mirrors hir ‘turned-off’ awareness. /86-87
How to better describe, in one single paragraph, the misery of a society that has lost its soul?! (By the way, s/he or hir are spellings made up by Leary to convey he’s not willing to use sexist language, thus forming a mix between ‘he and she’ and between ‘his and her.’
Reading this book in 2014, which was written in the spirit of an epoch almost 60 years away is a refreshing experience. It shows that the spirit of social rebel of grand style has not lost a bit of its originality, not a bit of its juicy wit, not a bit of its large and intuitive wisdom. I leave this review with the motto printed in big and bold letters on the last page of the book: