The other night on Netflix I watched a documentary, directed by Gay Dillingham (2016), titled Dying to Know. It’s about the death of Timothy Leary, and focuses on Leary’s long friendship with Ram Dass. The film serves as witness to a great friendship between two extraordinary Americans, academics turned icons of the 1960s counter-culture.
We get an overview of their careers, the arc of their personal transformations. The director counters the popular view that Leary promoted the promiscuous use of LSD when in fact he was persecuted by the state and spent four years of his life in jail, one in solitary confinement for possession of half an ounce of weed.
Dying to Know is also a dialogue, especially at film’s end, on death. I was curious about Leary’s views. I had met him not too long before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We were speakers at a conference in Miami, Florida, where we ended up not being paid the 5K promised for our talks.
We also shared an unpleasant experience in the hotel. Leary, my wife and I got stuck in a packed elevator between floors. I happen to be claustrophobic, and immediately saw I had to master myself or I would start screaming and punching. Good news, I mastered myself. I glanced at Leary who looked startled and was trying to climb up the wall of the elevator, looking for a way out. But we were stuck. Then my wife, Louise, suggested that we tell jokes, and that calmed us down for about ten minutes until they fixed the elevator.
Leary invited us to his house in California and we met there and talked about UFOs and life after death. His general view seems to have been that both were “bullshit,” then added with a charming smile, “but nice bullshit.” Around the same time I met Ram Dass at a conference and tried to engage him in on topic of evidence for life after death. Without smiling, he said, “too rational,” and walked away.
That was then. Now I found myself watching Leary on Netflix, grizzled, much thinner, older-looking, and near death. Ram Dass is visiting with his dying friend and hasn’t yet had the stroke he would later suffer. In line with Leary’s insistence that he have fun and make a party of dying, there were lots of people present in the background, all very thoughtful participants in Leary’s last party.
In what looked like the final scene of Leary’s life, the camera lets us see from outside the frail figure in bed, surrounded by a few people, with others, silently, reverently, standing outside and peering in. The camera dwells on this scene briefly, leaving a powerful impression on my mind. His last words were “Why not?”
That closing image of Leary whose death was so public and closely observed reminds me of two other highly public deaths, each of them, like Leary’s, providing a kind of model for how to die. Both are figures in history.
I’m thinking of the death of Socrates, a public event, reconstructed and vividly described by his talented pupil, Plato. Due to a religious holiday, the execution is delayed, so his companions join him in prison and they discuss philosophy, tell stories, and invent arguments.
In the Phaedo, there is a rather good argument about the indestructibility of consciousness, similar to one of Irwin Schroedinger’s, borrowed from the Upanishads. The weakness is that there are no specific cases cited proving that a particular person has in fact survived death.
But something else is going on here. Socrates, great father of rationalism, was in touch with an extra-rational dimension. The master dialectician also had a daimon--a “spirit-guide,” we say today--and his spirit-guide did not oppose him on the day of his trial, construed by Socrates as an omen of his immortality.
Leary didn’t spend his last days arguing or calculating about his afterlife prospects.
His model of how to die was as original in its own way as that of Socrates who led a philosophical discussion concerning his own death. Nor did Leary have a psychic sense that might help widen his perceptive powers. But what Leary and Ram Dass had were hundreds of powerfully expansive psychedelic” (“mind-clarifying”) or entheogenic (“god-awakening”) experiments and experiences.
Ram Dass knows that Leary is a materialist, and so theoretically turned off from the afterlife hypothesis. But Leary remained open to the possibility that his neurons may have transcendent potentials and surprise him. The miraculous powers of neurons, he knew from experience, allowed him to soar into psychedelic heaven, so why not carry him all the way beyond death?
Ram Dass, not a materialist, appears confident that he will survive the death of his brain, and happily espouses his belief in reincarnation; but without bothering to muck about with the evidence. In the end, the two men embraced and seemed to say that death is conquered by love alone, nodding to the Beatles and St. Augustine. They also have packed in their knapsack countless hours of wandering to and fro in the entheogenic zones of consciousness, thus priming them to be optimistic about the last adventure.
I did have in mind a third publicly observed death that went on for a while and was recorded in detail by many observers. Fresh in my mind from having done the research is the astonishing death of Joseph of Copertino, a 17th century mystic who had extravagant supernormal powers. Joseph’s performance as a model of how to die may be fascinating to contemplate, but in practice is inimitable and impractical.
Joseph Desa, in Plato’s sense, practiced death constantly, by killing his ego, as proven by his Zenlike practice of total obedience; by striving with all his might to become nulla (nothing); by killing his body slowly, ascetically; by keeping his mind fixated on the divine, on heaven, on eternity.
So this was a person that when he was actually dying was chomping at the bit with eagerness to fly away from his mortal body. Moreover, given a lifetime of fixating his attention on heaven, he was constantly disposed to ecstatic flights that took place in public—I mean literal flights—so that in a sense his whole career as a mystic under house arrest was a ritual practice of death. He did this to a degree of such intensity, that imagining himself in heaven, his body obeyed his imagination, and he rose into the air and flew like a bird.
What was the motivating force that inspired Joseph to make light of the glue of the universe, which is gravity? Joseph’s main answer to this question was, quite simply, love, which word, he often repeated and was his mantra. (In this case, Dante was right; love is the force that moves the stars.) If your idea of death is that it will release you into the arms of infinite love, then in a sense, the problem of death is not so much solved as dissolved. Not that different from Leary and Ram Dass who also saw love as dissolving the intellectual conundrum of death.
All three models have something going for them. I admire the detachment, the dance of intellect and spirit, in Socrates’ style of checking out; and the jovial camaraderie and experimental openness of Tim Leary and Ram Dass; and I’m in awe of Joseph’s ecstatic assault on the unknown abyss that death appears to be to most people.