Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation


Transmissions from The Timothy Leary Papers: Evolution of the "Psychedelic" Show

When you think of the word, "psychedelic," what first comes to mind? Depending on your age and experience, you might think of the term coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond to describe "mind-manifesting" reactions from a class of psychotropic drugs. You might also think of the term to describe the graphic design and art created out of the post-drug 1960s and early 1970s. One might associate it with visuals aimed to alter perception, such as kaleidoscopes, lava lamps, neon colors, strobes, and possibly a Pink Floyd laser light show.

Timothy Leary was a key figure in the development of psychedelic performances and his papers contain material documenting this interesting time in history.

Psychedelic Sessions

In my last post regarding the Castalia Foundation, I described Gurdjieff-influenced attempts to help "awaken consciousness" without the aid of drugs. Leary and Ralph Metzner went on to take these exercises on tour as the "Psychedelic Sessions." Described in their 1965-1966 program, they reiterate their purpose and previous study of psychedelics for "designing language systems for receiving and communicating non-symbolic levels of energy and techniques for programming psychedelic sessions... experimentation with these sacred biochemicals has been restricted by federal law to mental hospitals. The Castalia group has adapted to this government repression (not unfamiliar in the history of visionary research) by working out non drug methods of producing the 'going-out-of-your-mind' phenomenon."

Three types of methods are outlined for altering consciousness:

1. Eastern Psychedelic Methods, including meditation and yoga

2. Western Psychedelic methods, including gestalt therapy and Gurdjieff techniques

3. Psychedelic Art Techniques, including multi-media combinations of light, sound, tapes, films, and stroboscope.

Psychedelic Explorations

The last method reflects the Castalia Foundation's collaboration with artists, such as the multi-media art collective, USCO (The Company of US) to reproduce the LSD experience. "Psychedelic Explorations," was performed in New York City at the New Theatre, 154 E. 54th Street in 19 July 1965 and featured artists Jackie Cassen, Don Snyder and Richard Aldcroft. These multi-media artists complimented the Foundation's approach to providing an "audio-olfactory-visual alteration of consciousness (AOVAC)." The advertisement to the right is another example of material found in the Timothy Leary papers documenting these LSD inspired presentations.

Gerd Stern

While filing a letter into the International Federation for Internal Freedom (predecessor to Castalia Foundation) correspondence files, I happened to come across a letter from Gerd Stern, multimedia artist and a founding member of USCO, requesting information regarding Leary's organization prior to their collaboration on Psychedelic Explorations. Stern, a poet living in Sausalito, California at this time, expresses his interest in the "bare physical energy represented by language--the word in the air..." and to organize, "a group to investigate this area."

Stern goes on to collaborate with the Castalia Foundation a couple years later. He describes the experience working with Leary in his oral history, conducted by and accessible from the Regional Oral History Office in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Psychedelic Religious Ceremonies

By 1966, questions into the legal status of LSD and other mind-altering drugs threatened and influenced the work of the Castalia Foundation. In an attempt to secure legal rights for the use and distribution of psychotropic drugs, Leary established the League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD). This "church" would serve as the legitimate, religious use of drugs, modeled after historical peyote use by the Native American Church.

The League's performances were dubbed "ceremonies," borrowing from various religious traditions and directed by Leary, Jackie Cassen, Rudi Stern, and Ralph Metzner. The "Psychedelic Religious Celebrations" were performed in New York City at the Village Theater, 105 Second Avenue. Officially, the service included a sermon/lecture by Leary to guide participants through different levels of consciousness, with each voyage "a celebration of one of the great religious dramas of mankind: Catholic, Buddhist, Judaic, Hindu, Tao, et al."


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

more please

please keep it coming, i love reading this stuff!

Post new comment