Leary Begins To Spread The Good News

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During the early days of the psilocybin project Leary actually got to meet Wasson. Although both had received the sacred mushroom vision and had come to value the experience as highly significant, their attitudes to its use were glaringly opposed. According to Leary, Wasson tried to come across as the authority on mushrooms, more interested in his own experiences than those of Leary and his associates He was also vehemently against the current trend of widespread psilocybin use, informing Leary that disclosing the secret of the mushroom to the modern world had destroyed its power. Indeed, he would later write of his abject remorse at publicising the Indian's sacred ceremonies.

Leary, however, was soon to prove Wasson wrong on the potency of the mushroom. Psilocybin cannot fail to empower those who explore its magical effects, and, having taken it over 50 times within the first year of the Harvard project, Leary was by this time a much inspired man on the verge of attempting world revolution.

With his constant supply of mushroom pills, the heavily armed Leary soon began extending his influence to various contemporary American poets, writers, and artists, in particular, luminaries like Jack Kerouak, Neil Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Dizzy Gillespie to name but a few. Leary began to realise that whilst many were enthralled by the experience, others were overtly disinterested. Youth emerged as a salient factor in attitude toward psilocybin and this led Leary to propose that:

"The older the person, the more fear of the visionary experience. Race, religion, and caste were also important predictors. The more the person {has} to lose, the less willingness to go joyously beyond the Judeo-Christian linear mental structure."

I would surmise that this fear was the same fear that led the Spanish friars to denounce the Aztec's mushroom use as devil-worship and that lead to the witch burning by the medieval Inquisitors. Once a person has a rigidly established mental model of reality then any tearing asunder of that model, any kind of incompatible data that threaten its existence, will produce a negative and often violent reaction to the perceived threat. An open-minded approach to psilocybin is therefore essential if it is to have a beneficial effect. One must tread slowly and carefully and familiarise oneself with the new territory since pitfalls lie in wait of the unwary and hasty explorer. The experience must then be somehow integrated into life in a way which minimises social disharmony.

1962 saw the ominous arrival of LSD at Harvard and the entire cultural psychedelic momentum was to change. Leary was so struck by this new synthetic alternative to psilocybin that it fast became the focus of attention and the mushroom faded almost into obscurity. Leary claimed that LSD was superior in effect to psilocybin and his high priest standing at this time was such that others were likely to follow his recommendations. Conversely, Terence McKenna, today's leading advocate for the shamanic use of psychedelic plants and fungi (he has also popularised the term Other to refer to the intelligible presence accessed through psilocybin), argues that natural psilocybin is a far more visionary substance and ranks its worth far above synthetic LSD. McKenna holds a more contemporary organic view that links the mushroom with the natural homeostatic systems of Gaia. As mentioned, in the 60's there was no Gaia theory and ethnobotanical investigations of plant-using shamans had yet to gather much popular publicity.

At the same time that LSD flooded Harvard, opposition to psychedelic experimentation began in earnest partly due to the omnipresent influence of the CIA who still wanted a monopoly on psychedelic drugs, and partly because of the alarming growth in popular experimentation with LSD which was still legal and fast becoming available everywhere. In 1963 Leary was forced to resign from Harvard and so he duly took his 'acidic' interests out into the big experimental arena of mainstream culture where he found himself to be quite adept in the role of psychedelic revolutionary. It is unfortunate that his clarion call "Turn on, tune in, drop out" was only two-thirds commendable. Drop out? Such a negative phrase could only serve to condemn Leary. Why not 'learn', or 'listen carefully'? Still, the pop psychedelic insurgency instigated by Leary ensured that the 60's got underway, and despite the mass drop-out by the youth populous, the resulting counter culture was to spawn a wealth of innervating art, literature, and music. That the 60's ended with the Beatles bravely singing 'All you need is love' is surely proof that some benign vision had been generated within the collective psyche. I guess you had to be there.

Leary's anarchic adventures went on to include the formation of the League for Spiritual Discovery (yes, thats LSD), major court cases, his brief role as the most dangerous man in America, incarceration, a dramatic jailbreak, and his kidnapping by the Black Panthers in the early 70's. Interested readers can read of Leary's enthralling escapades elsewhere, in particular, within the pages of his autobiography Flashbacks or in Jay Steven's lively book on LSD and American culture; Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.

Unbeknown to virtually anyone at this time, mushrooms containing psilocybin were to be found growing throughout Europe and North America, and not just in Mexico. The Earth, Gaia, a far more efficient and ubiquitous supplier of entheogens than the lab-men at Sandoz, was secretly churning out millions of psilocybin mushrooms across its skin, an extraordinary fact which did not reach public attention until the late 60's and early 70's (since then it has been speculated that psilocybin was known about by prehistoric Europeans, and that its use influenced the dreamy spiral icons carved on rocks in places like Ireland. Interested readers should consult Paul Devereux's 1997 book The Long Trip for more information on this incipient subject).

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