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Transmissions from The Timothy Leary Papers: Hesse, Gurdjieff and Minor White


Early into my project, I opened a box and found a folder that caught my eye. It was labeled “Minor White.” A famous American photographer (b. 1908, d. 1976), White is known for his work with Aperture Magazine, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Most research libraries and museums with major American photography collections own his works, including the NYPL Division of Arts, Prints and Photographs.

How does this folder relate to Timothy Leary? It contained a summary for the Millbrook Workshop in Creative Photography offered 12-21 June 1964 held at the Millbrook School for Boys. One of the more interesting aspects of processing a collection is discovering the purpose and meaning behind the records.

Inside this file is a twenty page outline written by an unidentified attendee. Did Leary attend this workshop, or did his organization simply retain this handout in their files? The course description references "beer and socializing" with the Headmaster and coffee offered in the mornings, clearly targeting adults, not boarding school participants. Did Minor White come to Millbrook because he shared similar interests with Leary and his associates at the time?

The previous year, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were dismissed from Harvard University amid controversial publicity surrounding their psilocybin drug studies. Their methods were questioned as early as 1962, pushing them to take their studies off campus under the research organization, The International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF).

In 1963, Peggy Hitchcock, a follower of Leary and Alpert, offered to host their research on her family estate in Millbrook, New York. The organization then changed names from the IFIF to the Castalia Foundation, taken from the society of scientific mystics in the novel The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.[1] They lived communally at Millbrook, continuing to run LSD sessions and other non-drug workshops.

Leary and his associates were influenced by the teachings of Georges Ivanovitch Gurjieff, (b.1872? d.1949) a mystic from the Caucuses region who developed unorthodox teaching methods to “awaken” consciousness based on spiritual theories of self-awareness.[2] The Castalia Foundation adopted some of his methods for their non-drug workshops offered at Millbrook.

Like Gurdjieff, they were trying to awaken consciousness. Leary and members of the Castalia Foundation believed one could achieve this through mind-expanding drugs, but were also interested in exploring non-drug methods. This was done through exercises, such as those employed during their "Experiential Weekend" offered at Millbrook. These exercises would be punctuated with alternating moments of meditation in the dark and reading "messages" in the light. The purpose of these exercises in silence was to clear the mind from routine thoughts and open the mind.

Minor White was also a follower of Gurjieff’s methods. In the book, Mirrors, messages and manifestations, White is described to have gone through a few spiritual transformations: “In his youth, he was for a time a devout Catholic. He studied Zen Buddhism, devoted himself to I Ching, and in later life plunged into the teachings of Gurdjieff.”[3] It is likely that Castalia Foundation members took part in this course, held at The Millbrook School for Boys. Did the Castalia Foundation introduce White to Gurdjieff's teachings, or vice versa? Perhaps a deeper look into his and White’s correspondence will answer that question.


[1] Greenfield, Robert. Timothy Leary: A Biography. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2006. 208.

[2] "Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff." Religious Leaders of America. Gale, 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 4 May 2012. Document URL

[3] White, Minor. Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations: Photographs and Writings 1939-1968. New York, N.Y: Aperture, 1982. Preface.


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Dear researcher The

Dear researcher The likelihood is that Minor White introduced Leary and others at Castalia sessions to the Gurdjieff teaching, which he almost certainly encountered, while he was teaching in Rochester, through his friendship with Louise March, director of the Rochester Folk Art Guild in those years. Leary may well have known of the teaching and read some of its literature before his times with Minor White, but Minor was familiar with Gurdjieffian practice.
Leary's interest in Gurdjieff, which may well have been initiated by Minor White, continued throughout his life. He told me of his delight in discovering that a text exists about Gurdjieff's experiments with hashish and the mystic's interest in its consciousness-expanding qualities. Another major figure in Leary's intellectual development was Aleister Crowley, a fellow mystic and contemporary of Gurdjieff whom he probably knew. Crowley himself experimented with hashish in the early years of the 20th century to alter his consciousness and later went on to explore mescaline which had recently been synthesized. Like Crowley, Leary became the subject of scandal, had to flee the country (of which each had became known as "the most dangerous man") and live in exile. Of the three, only Leary was the object of an international manhunt and sentenced to prison. In that regard, his karma was more like that of another writer who explored some of the same venerable mind drugs, (opium and hashish) Oscar Wilde. Leary preferred the scientific approach both Gurdjieff and Crowley took instead of the wishy-washy mysticism that was evident in the writings of others mystics. He modelled his own neurological systems after their pioneering work in categorizing non-ordinary and often drug-induced states of consciousness.

Narcotics and Consciousness

Narcotics obviously affect one's consciousness, but Gurdjieff aimed to teach the command of consciousness by will, not by narcotics. Since man is born without will ("robot" as mentioned above), he must use artificial means to verify his possibilities. Here is thought by Gurdjieff on this topic, as quoted by Peter Ouspensky: "There are schools which make use of narcotics in the right way. People in these schools take them for self-study; in order to take a look ahead, to know their possibilities better, to see beforehand, 'in advance,' what can be attained later on as the result of prolonged work..."

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