The long strange trip of Ram Dass and Timothy Leary

New documentary Dying to Know explores the lifelong friendship of Timothy Leary (middle) and Ram Dass (left)

New documentary Dying to Know explores the lifelong friendship of Timothy Leary (middle) and Ram Dass (left)

Psychology professors Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert began a lifelong friendship in 1960, when they launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Doing clinical studies with prisoners, Leary discovered that guided therapy using psychedelic drugs (then still legal) dramatically reduced their rates of recidivism. While never actually advocating tripping for purely recreational purposes, he became convinced that LSD and related psychoactive drugs had tremendous potential in psychotherapy. In 1963, both men were fired by Harvard – Leary for missing too many lectures and Alpert for giving psilocybin to a student.

Staying in touch as they went their separate ways, the two intellectual renegades eventually became icons of the counterculture. Alpert delved into Hinduism, went to India in 1967 to study and was renamed Ram Dass by his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. His 1971 book Be Here Now made him a rock star of the West’s newfound fascination with Eastern religion. Meanwhile, Leary continued to conduct drug experiments on an estate in Millbrook, which was regularly raided by G. Gordon Liddy: assistant district attorney for Dutchess County long before he joined Richard Nixon’s Watergate team of unindicted co-conspirators.

Further research led Leary to believe that psychedelic drugs could expand human consciousness along pathways that would maximize the species’ evolutionary potential – even make it easier for Homo sapiens to adapt to extended space travel and life on other planets. Part serious scientist, part celebrity iconoclast, he wrote books, lectured widely and testified at Senate hearings on drug policy. After numerous arrests and several convictions, he had to flee the country for a number of years and ended up serving four years of a much longer prison sentence. Nixon dubbed Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” and the judge who remanded him warned, “If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas.”

But Leary kept on spreading those ideas, right up until his death from prostate cancer in 1996. He embraced the potential of the Internet early on, live-blogging his own dying process with characteristic curiosity, wonder and humor. His friend Ram Dass came to keep him company as Leary faced what he regarded as his final trip (though some of his cremains ended up in outer space, alongside Gene Roddenberry’s).

This decades-long friendship was closely documented by director Gay Dillingham, and she’ll be on hand in person at Upstate Films on May 7 and 8 to discuss her film, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. Nineteen years in the making, the film reassesses the lives of these two iconic figures through the lens of their work, successes and failures, their collaboration and their diverging paths. Special screenings of Dying to Know will be held at Upstate Films Rhinebeck, located at 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 7; and at Upstate Films Woodstock, located at 132 Tinker Street, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 8. Both screenings will be followed by question-and-answer sessions with Dillingham.

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