Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out


Aimed specifically at young adults, this hour-long, soft-spoken piece explores Leary’s early research into LSD in New York and Mexico, how new ideas spread throughout society over the course of generations, his vision of a future society in which the psychedelic experience is revered and respected, the effects of marijuana, and how seekers can launch their own journey to tune in, turn on, and drop out of the modern rat race.



This record is a message to young people: to people under the age of 25, and certainly to people under the age of 40. If you’re over the age of 40, I’m not sure that you should listen to this record. What I’m going to say might make you mad. I don’t like to get people mad. I particularly don’t like to get people over the age of 40 mad, because these are the people who have guns and handcuffs and prisons—a wide variety of instruments of metal with which they punish people who get them mad. Young people, for the most part, aren’t so concerned with control and power. They’re much more involved in having fun, being curious, exploring their sensual equipment, making adventurous explorations, making love, trying to learn what it’s all about. I have personal experience which has taught me how fierce people over 40 can be with those who challenge their beliefs. Down in Texas there are a group of men over 40 who got so mad at what I’m saying that they sentenced me to prison for 30 years. And up here in New York state there are another group of men over 40 who want to put me in jail for another 16 years for saying the sort of thing that I’m going to say on this record.


I’m cutting this tape on the third floor of the Castalia Foundation in Millbrook, New York. The Castalia Foundation is a psychedelic center, a place for consciousness expansion, a spiritual retreat, a center for experimentation in the use of psychedelic or mind-opening drugs. As you would expect from a place designed to produce beautiful experiences, the Castalia Foundation is located in a beautiful spot. I can look down on acres of green lawn. Down there on the left, underneath the trees, I can see a meditation house: a one-room jewel box where people go for a few days, or a week at a time, to live in silence, cut off from the pressure of the world; turn on, tune in, to their inner possibilities. Just beyond the meditation house there’s an iron gate which leads down stone stairs to a meditation garden. There’s a huge maple tree, 20 feet in diameter, with ponderous, stately limbs. About 15 feet up in the tree there’s a tree house lashed with spider web roping. A beautiful elven girl with golden hair is living there this week. Beyond the tree there’s an apple orchard and an organic garden. Farther out around the house there are meadows, sacred groves, pine forests, a waterfall, brooks.


The main house itself is four stories. It has slanting copper roofs. At different seasons and at different times of the day and night we lie on the green roofs and watch the sunrise or the sunset or the full moon come up over the eastern trees. There’s a red chimney, which runs five stories, facing south. And on the chimney there are painted the interwoven triangles: the seal of Solomon, the sacred symbol found over every Vishnu temple in India. This is one of the oldest symbols in human history. For thousands of years men, who have studied the expansion of consciousness and the meaning of the inner life, have used this symbol to indicate the merging of opposites to make the new. The merging of man and woman, of dark and light, of electron and proton, of winter and summer.


The outdoors is set up for LSD sessions, because the LSD experience is too powerful, too organic, too ancient to be contained within rooms and houses made by man. There are many shrines inside the great house. In fact, almost every room in the house is designed to produce a specific turn-on. There are several rooms specifically designed for the sensory enhancement which is created by marijuana. Many of the rooms are designed for those sacred ceremonies which can only occur between man and woman, seeking to deepen and enrich their communion. And there are other rooms designed to produce a psychedelic experience by the use of light, color, and sound.


I belong to an ancient trade union of spiritual teachers, scholars of consciousness, who prefer to work not in lecture halls or recording studios but far away from cities and symbols. They’re small groups of people exploring without the pressure of time and space the endless realms within. If I had my way, and when I had my way, I would invite anyone who wished to devote his time to the inner quest to join me in a center such as this, and we would learn together and experience together how to reach the five levels of consciousness which are available to a species like ours with our particular repertoire of cellular and neurological equipment. I would teach you how to sleep consciously, how to use symbols consciously and aesthetically, how to enhance and intensify your senses, how to contact the ancient wisdom of your cells, and how to reach those flashy energies which exist inside your body, which men for thousands of years have called the inner light.


Such a program is not an idle fantasy. In the summer of 1962 and ’63, with a group of 40 Harvard graduate students and young professional people, I participated in such a training program in a small fishing village in Mexico. We had rented a hotel there which was a mile away from town on a dead end road. The hotel was a series of cottages scattered along a cliff, with a long winding stone staircase leading down to the beach—a private beach, which stretched a mile down the ribbon of surf and sand. Life in our center there was entirely out of doors. The air was clear and scented with a salt breeze and the perfume of flowers which grew up the cliff. People wore bathing suits and shorts and went barefoot. The food we ate came from the bay in front of us or from the fields which grew behind the hotel. Nothing came in wax containers or plastic boxes. There was no electricity. At night and from the beach you looked up and saw a continuous dance of moving candles. There were no clocks, except that, every 15 seconds, the surf broke a mile down the beach and concatenating along the strand the ticking of an ancient timepiece which ourselves, our selves, have been listening to millions of years before clocks were invented.


The main business of this center was the taking of LSD. On any day, one third of the people present would be sitting on the beach or crowded around the table on the open dining patio, planning a session that they were going to have that night, while another third would be hidden in the session rooms or wandering far down on the sand in the middle of an LSD session, and another third would be clustered in awed and bedazed groups reporting on and recording the session they had just finished. There’s a lot of rain in the Mexican summer, and almost every afternoon late, and every evening, a brief thunderstorm would pass over the bay. Lightning would crackle down and the beach, the ocean, and the surrounding hills would flash into lightning view. The night sessions would usually end in the water as the LSD voyages would float out to watch the first rays of the sunrise.


In addition to being a sensory paradise and a spiritual oasis, the center in Mexico was productive and profitable. Scientific reports were written, articles published. The center paid its own way. But eventually this gentle and harmonious way of life came to the attention of the police—a group of people who are not especially dedicated to growth, pleasure, and spiritual discovery. The center was closed and the group dispersed.


There was one interesting side light on the deportation proceedings. Of the three secret service agents from Mexico City who closed the center, one was under 30 years old. I got to know him fairly well because he was intensely curious about what we were doing and what we were experiencing. He had a Cuban girlfriend and used to smoke marijuana with her. He also had a brother who was the governor of another state in Mexico, and after checking our books and interviewing our members he took me aside and said, “Señor Leary, you have going here the greatest gold mine that the tourist business has ever seen. All of your guests feel that you are not charging enough money and none of them ever want to leave your hotel. Come to my brother’s state, and we will find a hotel, and let me be your partner.”


That was our summer of pilgrim wandering. We wandered from Mexico down through the Caribbean, to the French islands, the British islands, looking for one square mile of ground on this planet where we could live quietly, expand our own consciousness, contribute handsomely to the country in which we live. But such a place was not to be found free from political or religious interruption. If, today, I could find one square mile ground on this planet, there would be several hundred thousand people who would be willing and eager to join our explorations. But no such place seems to exist. For the first time in human history there seems to be no land of exile or immigration where groups of people sharing unpopular spiritual beliefs and practices can remove to live in peace. Our own country, you remember, was founded by exactly such small groups of religious exiles.


Why is it that every generation—before it gets this lesson of the past—why is it that each generation harasses and persecutes its gentlest, wisest, and holiest men; exactly those men that succeeding generations will revere? The answer to this question has nothing to do with intelligence or social prejudice or conservatism. The answer is neurological. The nervous system of the adult human being is so set up that it registers intense neurological pain when confronted with an idea or a method which liberates man from his addiction to symbols, from his addiction to the current tribal symbol system. Early in the life of every mammal—in the first few days, as a matter of fact—the nervous system focuses on a nearby object that moves and makes noise. And around this imprinted object the conditioned symbol-system that comprises the discriminating, perceiving, and executing mind. Most human beings, in the early days of their life, have imprinted a moving, noise-making event which they call “mother.” And upon this imprint they base their conceptions of what is right and real and true. Almost everyone is painfully afraid of displeasing “mother,” is painfully shocked by confronting an idea or method which can liberate consciousness from the original imprinted chessboard.


President Eisenhower ran this country in such a way as to avoid displeasing his mother, who ran a small-town store in Iowa. President Johnson maps out national and international policies designed to please his mother. Defense Secretary McNamara moves millions of men and machines in such a way to please a mother who must have indeed been an extremely tidy and efficient woman. But who is a mother afraid of? Mother is afraid of grandmother. And grandmother imprinted her chessboard of values and realities about 100 years ago.


Now, here we come to my problem as a spiritual teacher in 1966. I can turn you, the younger generation, on to your own spiritual potentialities. But if I do so, I get in trouble with your parents. But that’s not completely hopeless, because I can also teach you how to turn on your parents, and gently and lovingly open them up to some of their possibilities. But the hitch here is that your parents are imprinted on grandmother. And grandmother is dead, and I can’t turn her on.


About six years ago, after my first series of psychedelic sessions, I realized that it was within my power to select and play almost any game, or even to deal myself out of games entirely. I decided at that time that the game I wanted to play was to become the holiest and wisest man of my generation—specifically, to expand and elevate the consciousness of the entire human race. Now, this may sound like a surprising ambition, but I don’t see why. If you can select any game, why not pick the most exciting and challenging game around? With full knowledge, of course—the knowledge that comes from a contemplative series of LSD sessions—that all human games end in a tie, and that the chances of succeeding in any human game are always statistically dubious.


After six years of trying to become the holiest and wisest man of my generation, I’m ready to make a progress report. The way it looks from here, I have about one chance in ten of reaching my goal. It still looks like a good gamble to me. In the last six years we have witnessed an astonishing expansion, an elevation of human consciousness in this country, and an equally predictable reaction of panic and anguish against this psychedelic revolution. When we started researching the use and benefits of psychedelic drugs at Harvard six years ago, we ran into a puzzling situation.


We discovered very early in the game that we could predict the reaction of anyone we talked to about LSD by knowing one thing about the other person, and that was his age. The competent and distinguished psychologists and philosophers at Harvard—exactly those men who we would expect would be most entranced and delighted at a new tool for studying consciousness—responded with boredom, impatience, and irritation at our reports about the psychedelic experience. The graduate students were interested and eager to do research in this new field. The undergraduates were enthusiastic and unstoppable in their search for this experience. And what was most shocking and dangerous to my safety and tenure at Harvard was the fact that high school kids were the most interested of all.


We thought about this situation for some time, and then reached the obvious solution. Of course, what we were running into was the oldest law in the history of human knowledge. It always takes one generation for a new idea to become accepted. The imprinted symbol-systems of the older generation cannot tolerate—and indeed shriek with neurological pain—at any idea or method which promises to change the game. Since we had no desire to cause pain, we redirected our communications and deliberately chose to beam our message to the younger generation. In the imprinted symbol-system of mother and anyone over the age of 40, the word “drug” means two things. Drug: doctor, disease. Or drug: dope-fiend, crime. No amount of reason, logic, or experimental evidence is going to change this deeply conditioned reflex. On the other hand, to people under the age of 25, the word “drug” means a wide variety of possibilities. Drug can mean fun, energy to study for a test, ecstasy, enjoyment of music, enhancement of the senses, religious revelation, expansion of consciousness, acceleration of learning.


For the last few months I have been lecturing to audiences about the psychochemical revolution. I have pointed out that almost every neurological laboratory in the country is working with some chemical which can accelerate learning, expand consciousness, enhance memory, increase creativity. I tell these audiences that, in the future, a question will be asked—not, “What book do you read?” but, “Which molecules are you using in your learning process?” As I make these predictions I watch the faces of the audience. And I see the men over 40 frown in amazement and irritation: “Is this fool suggesting that our college students become dope addicts?” And I watch the faces of the young saying, “Sure, where can we get it? When do we start?”


Any pioneer in the field of knowledge must—if he’s going to retain his sanity and good humor—remember the lesson of history. It takes one generation for a new breakthrough to become absorbed and used. The young graduate students and psychiatric residents who were working on our project six years ago have now moved up to positions of responsibility in the universities and clinics. The undergraduates are now just about ready to take over. And the high school students of six years ago are now graduate students. The next six years will be a period of dramatic change in regard to the social acceptance of such psychedelic drugs as marijuana and LSD. By 1970 we’ll have our first LSD congressman and our first marijuana-smoking judges.


You can see this slowly evolving change taking place right now. The New York Times, which used to be considered a liberal magazine, is written by lovely, dignified gentlemen in their 50s, who are horrified and confused by a psychedelic revolution. The New York Daily News, which is considered a highly conservative right-wing newspaper, takes a breezy, open, and amused posture towards LSD and marijuana. Why? Because the average news reporter is in his 30s. Over one third of the researchers and editorial assistants on Life magazine have smoked marijuana or used LSD. And by 1970 this figure will have doubled.


But now that the psychedelic battle has been won, where do we go next? What should be the goals, the strategies, of the psychedelic generation? I have three things to say to young people who are growing up in a psychedelic world: turn on, tune in, and drop out.


First, let me tell you about turning on. There are as many levels of consciousness as there are anatomical structures in your body for receiving and decoding energy. The five most important levels of consciousness are sleep, symbol, sense, cellular awareness, and molecular consciousness. Each of these levels of consciousness is based on anatomical structures in your body, and each level is attained through chemical means. In the future, the educated man will be the one who can move his consciousness deliberately, planfully, and precisely from one level to another for specific and harmonious purposes.


The religion of the future will be based—as were the religions of the past—upon the human body and the myriad wonders within this temple. Any external event which distracts you from learning how to understand and use the machinery of consciousness within your body is irreverent and irrelevant. Within the temple of your body there are hundreds of shrines, each of which can produce a revelatory and ecstatic experience which is unique and meaningful in its own right.


Psychochemicals are the instruments of the new knowledge and the sacraments of the new religion. But do not be deceived. The yoga of drugs is the most complicated, difficult, and demanding discipline of them all. Our present adult culture is based on two levels of consciousness and uses drugs promiscuously and lavishly to produce these two levels of consciousness: sleep and symbolic game-playing awareness. The average American knows how to put himself in a state of somnambulance and stupor by using our most popular drugs—barbituates, tranquilizers, and alcohol—all of which are addictive, narcotic, and toxic substances. They dope you and they can kill you.


The average American is heavily addicted to the symbolic level of consciousness, hooked to external tribal patterns which he calls normal reality. The average American uses drugs to put his consciousness in a state of symbolic game-playing. The first thing he does in the morning is take coffee or caffeine. The American who is involved in hectic, demanding game-playing sequences takes an energizer. At five o’clock, with symbols and symbolic sequences whizzing around in his head, the average American rushes home and puts himself in a mild state of stupor with alcohol.


Drugs which stupefy and drugs which energize are simple, coarse, and vulgar procedures. They require no sensitivity, training, or skill. Chemicals which open up the mind, accelerate mental activity, and deepen consciousness demand lengthy training and disciplined, systematic study. Marijuana, for example, is a chemical which enhances the sensory level of consciousness. Marijuana is used to tune out the symbolic game and to turn on the senses. The retina of the eye quivers as light hurtles into it at the speed of 186,000 miles a second. The delicate membrane of the ear trembles to the dance of sound waves. This is why marijuana adepts turn on before they go to a museum or to a flower garden, or why musicians have, for many years, used cannabis as an enhancer of their auditory sensibility and their musical creativity. It is also well known that marijuana enlivens the senses of taste and touch and smell. Just mention food to the novice smoking marijuana and he suddenly discovers that he’s ravenously hungry and that food has never tasted quite so good before. Of course not! Because eating—to the symbol-addict—is like fueling a car. But to the person turned on with marijuana, each grain of food sets off grenade-explosions of sensation in the taste buds of the tongue.


The aspect of marijuana which is most frightening to a prudish, puritanical culture or to an impotent generation is the enhancement of the tactile sense. Marijuana is a powerful intensifier of the sexual experience. This does not mean that marijuana leads to sexual activity. I would estimate that there is less sexual activity during marijuana sessions than in drinking bouts. But the sexual moments are exponentially expanded in the direction of heightened receptivity. Alcohol, of course, is the drug which leads to sexual excesses. It is well known that alcohol is the easiest instrument for seducing a woman. You load her up and roll her over. But the problem with alcohol as a sexual instrument is that, the morning after, neither you nor she remembers much about what happened the night before. And that may be merciful, because what you would remember is a crude, brutal, fumbling sexual encounter which is best forgotten. By contrast, the sexual union under marijuana is a slow, rhythmic, mythic, highly ceremonial unfolding and unifying.


I would say that very few of the millions of Americans who smoke marijuana know how to use this delicate and subtle instrument. Most marijuana is smoked in highly stylized cult situations, which fail to take into account the sensory and intimate nature of the experience. I predict that, in the next ten years, we will see dozens of manuals outlining methods for harmonizing the intersection of external energy and sense organ by the use of marijuana. But the training and sensitivity required for the use of marijuana is nothing compared to the knowledge and preparation required for the harmonious use of the stronger psychedelic drugs such as LSD. Of all the methods of consciousness expansion, education, and spiritual growth developed by man in the last 4,000 years, the most demanding, the most challenging, is LSD. LSD and similar drugs are direct chemical keys to the ancient texts of cellular wisdom. They put one in direct contact with RNA and possibly DNA species wisdoms which have been stored up for some 2 billion years.


I have taken LSD 311 times. Each time I’ve found the experience awesome and awe-ful. And what I’ve learned from these many voyages is the humiliating lesson that there is more to learn within my own body than I could grasp in a thousand lifetimes. Each second of an LSD experience renders one a baby, crawling on hands and knees in a thousand Smithsonian Institutes and Libraries of Congress, all built into each cell of your body.


Lesson number one, then, is: turn on until you have made contact with the wisdom within the temple of your body. All your external activities are those of a robot performing stylized but automatic motions. Lesson number two is: tune in. Begin to harness the energies which you are releasing into a harmonious exchange with the external environment. Take LSD and then look at your house. You will see—as someone from another planet would see—that you are living in the home of an insane robot. Slowly and planfully, you begin to change your house so that it becomes an external representation of the beauties you are discovering within yourself.


As you continue to listen to the wisdom of your cells and to the direct energy explosions on your nerve endings, you will find yourself systematically altering where you live, with whom you spend your time, and what you allow to contact your nerve endings. You will find yourself moving out of stereotyped routines, moving out of cities, moving away from repetitious, tribally imposed sequences. You will find yourself slowly dropping out. As you tune in through turning on, you will realize that you belong to a new and mutational species, that you are sharing this planet with a highly energetic, rather destructive, and tragically robot species, namely: the older generation.


Every baby that is born is a mutant. Every baby is the genetic code’s newest and most creative answer to the problem of adapting to the other forms of life and energy on this planet. The generation of adults, human society, attempt systematically to block this mutant promise. Your job is to drop out planfully, lovingly, gracefully. Detach yourself from the insane rituals and social pressures which surround you. You cannot drop out externally until you have detached yourself internally. You must leave your job, you must leave your school, you must leave the city, you must leave all of your social connections which do not make sense to your sense organs and yourselves.


You cannot do this alone in acts of isolated rebellion. Detaching yourself from the insanity of society requires group action. Your cells will tell you that you are primate: a tribal animal, one who moves in groups or packs. No man can escape the prison of robot society by himself. Once you have tuned in by turning on, you will see that it is easy to leave the game. You have been born into an insane asylum. And it is simple and obvious to take advantage of the insanity around you to make your escape. One of the most obvious symptoms of the current social insanity is man’s lemming-like rush to the cities. Take advantage of this insanity. You will find within three hours’ drive from any American city deserted towns, deserted farmhouses, vast regions of forest and meadow and farmland which can be rented or bought.


As the insane society that develops around you rushes to enslave itself to machines, you will find an increasing market for craftsman-like work or for the production of articles which are too beautiful or too private to be made on a mass-assembly line. But not in rebellion. Drop out by tuning in. As you drop out you will find that you do nothing which is not an act of beauty. And this is how you’ll make your living. Because nothing made by a machine can please a sense organ of a human being or can make sense to the cellular wisdom inside a human being.


Every time in the last few weeks that I’ve repeated this message—turn on, tune in, and drop out—I have been besieged by entreaties from my middle-aged friends. “You can’t say that,” they tell me. But what I’m saying is not reckless advice. It happens to be the oldest message about human wisdom: look within, find your own divinity, detach yourself from social and material struggle. What is reckless is the American education system today, which puts young people on a mass assembly line geared to produce robots. American education does neurological damage. The schools and colleges of this country are designed and supported by parents who wish their children to become like them—which means: like grandmother.


One final word to the young people who listen to this record. Be cool. Remember: overt rebellion is part of the game. Be cool. Evolution is a silent, invisible process. When the first young amphibians began to slither out of the water, they didn’t print manifestos or join picket lines. They did it in small, private, loving groups. The wisdom of your cells will tell you that the work of evolution does not involve political action. Remember, too, to be kind. Do not frighten your parents unnecessarily. Turn on your parents. I don’t mean, drop LSD sugar cubes in their coffee cups. Start turning them on at the first level of the psychedelic hierarchy. Turn them on sensually. You see your mother as a symbolic creature, but she’s actually a bundle of millions and millions of sense organs; of sensory cells. However symbol-addicted mother may be, she’s basically a living organism with billions of neural cameras tuned to external energy. Don’t use symbols to frighten her. Don’t upset her symbol system. Go to visit her and delight her sense of smell with a flower. Delight her sense of taste with a new food. Delight her sense of sound with the rhythm and harmony of your voice. Turn her on without drugs. Be cool. Be kind. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.

Timothy Leary


Document Options
Find out more