Devin Lander

League For Spiritual Discovery


1920 (October 22) Timothy Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusetts.

1960 (Summer) Leary, at the time a PhD and psychology lecturer at Harvard University, ingested psychedelic mushrooms while on vacation in Mexico.

1960-1963 The Harvard Psilocybin Project conducted a series of experiments by giving psilocybin to volunteers.

1961 Leary ingested the powerful psychedelic LSD-25 for the first time. The Harvard Psilocybin Project began to substitute LSD for psilocybin in some of its experiments.

1962-1963 Leary, his Harvard colleague Richard Alpert, and other members of the Harvard Psilocybin Project established the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) as a not-for-profit organization that sought to continue the group’s research on psychedelics in a mystical and religious direction.

1963 Leary and Alpert were dismissed from the Harvard faculty.

1963 Leary disbanded IFIF and renamed it the Castalia Foundation.

1963-1966 Leary, Alpert and a close group of former Psilocybin Project members took up residence in a large estate in Millbrook, New York.

1966 Leary established the League for Spiritual Discovery (L.S.D.), which was incorporated as a religious organization in New York State.

1968 Leary and the League for Spiritual Discovery were evicted from the Millbrook estate. Leary and several of the group members moved to California.

1970 Leary was sentenced to 10-years in prison on drug charges. He escaped from prison that same year and left the country, effectively ending the League for Spiritual Discovery.

1996 (May 31) Leary died from prostate cancer.


Timothy Leary was born October 22, 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the only child of a former Army dentist and his homemaker wife. After completing high school, Leary initially experienced an unsettled academic career as he was dismissed fromseveral universities, including the United States Military Academy and the University of Alabama. However, Leary subsequently successfully completed a Master’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Washington in 1946 and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950. Leary spent nearly five years on the psychology faculty at Berkeley before joining the Kaiser Family Foundation as Director of Psychological Research. In 1957, Leary published a ground-breaking book on the subject of interpersonal interactions and their value to psychotherapy, The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, which went on to be named the “Book of the Year” by the Annual Review of Psychology (Strack 1996:212).

Leary resigned his position at the Kaiser Family Foundation in 1958, moved to Europe for a brief time, and then in 1960 assumed a lectureship at Harvard University in the Department of Social Relations (Greenfield 2006: 104). It was during his years at Harvard that he began a spiritual career that lead to the formation of the League for Spiritual Discovery. During a vacation trip to Mexico in the summer of 1960 Leary ingested some psychedelic mushrooms given to him by an anthropologist studying in the area. The experience was shattering and Leary (1990:33) later wrote that “Since psychedelic drugs expose us to different levels of perception and experience use of them is ultimately a philosophic enterprise, compelling us to confront the nature of reality and the nature of our fragile, subjective belief systems….We discover abruptly that we have been programmed all these years, that everything we accept as reality is just social fabrication.”

Returning to Harvard that fall, Leary immediately set out designing a research project utilizing psilocybin, the synthetic derivative of the active psychedelic ingredient in the mushrooms he had ingested in Mexico. Acquiring a supply of psilocybin pills directly from Sandoz Laboratory, Leary received permission to begin clinical research on the substance and its effects on volunteer test subjects under the name of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Leary collaborated with Richard Alpert (who went on to become Ram
Dass) and Ph.D. student, Ralph Metzner. The aim of the Psilocybin Project was to study the effects of the psychedelic substance psilocybin, which is the synthetic derivative of psychedelic mushrooms, on a variety of volunteer test subjects that included graduate students, writers, artists, and prison inmates. The more powerful LSD-25 was later substituted in these experiments. Despite the announced scientific nature of the project, Leary and Alpert also began experimenting outside of the clinical setting and in their homes and the homes of friends. Due to the frequently overwhelming effects of psilocybin and LSD, Leary and Alpert began searching for other means of description beyond psychology and science to express the effects on a person’s consciousness during the psychedelic experience. As a result, the Psilocybin Project began utilizing the religious metaphor as a mode of articulating the meaning of what happens under the influence of psychedelics (Leary 1982:85).

Because of the Psilocybin Project’s failure to follow the established scientific method in its psychological experimentation, colleagues in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard raised serious questions as to the validity of Leary and Alpert’s work. In an attempt to capitulate to the demands of the Harvard faculty and administration, Leary and Alpert created the non-profit International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) in order to separate the scientific research of the Psilocybin Project from the mystic-religious research being conducted outside of the clinical setting. The board of the IFIF included religious scholars Huston Smith and Walter Houston Clark, and a close associate of the group was the Zen philosopher Alan Watts (Smith 2000). However, in the end, Leary and Alpert’s desire to move beyond science and psychology and into the realm of the mystical and their violation of Harvard’s established codes of research led their termination from the faculty in 1963.

IFIF’s initial plan was to establish a psychedelic retreat center in Zihuatanejo, Mexico where paying visitors could go to undergo the psychedelic experience in a calm, tropical setting (Downing 1964:146). However, due reportedly to the fact that Leary refused to pay-off local officials, the Mexican government exiled the group after less than six weeks (Fisher 2005:108). A similar attempt to establish psychedelic centers in the Caribbean failed in less than a month.

What remained of the IFIF group then returned to Massachusetts without any plan for the future. It was at that moment that a friend of Leary and Alpert’s, Peggy Hitchcock, came to their rescue. She suggested that Leary and Alpert reach out to her twin brothers, Billy and Tommy Hitchcock III, who had recently purchased a large estate with several buildings in the small Dutchess County village of Millbrook, New York. The Hitchcock’s were heirs of the Mellon fortune, and Peggy had been a test subject of the Psilocybin Project. Leary and Alpert met with, and gave psychedelics to, Billy and Tommy Hitchcock, and in November, 1963 the seven adults and six children making up the IFIF communal group moved onto the 2,500 acre estate and into its 64-room mansion (Author Unknown 1963: 64).

Shortly after arriving at Millbrook, Leary disbanded the IFIF and renamed his group the Castalia Foundation, after a group of elite thinkers in Hermann Hesse’s novel, The Glass Bead Game. They began work on a scholarly journal, the Psychedelic Review, and continued researching and writing about psychedelic substances while living communally. Besides conducting research on the religious and mystical implications of psychedelics, the Castalia Foundation began hosting weekend retreats on the estate where paying customers came to undergo the psychedelic experience, although without drugs. Castalia Foundation members would lead these retreat goers through meditation and yoga, hold group therapy sessions, and otherwise attempt to replicate the effects of psychedelics. (Ram Dass et al. 2009: 121-25). The Castalia Foundation also put on theater events in New York City, which they termed the “Psychedelic Theater.”

fLeary’s attempt to utilize religious freedom as a defense for his legal problems continued the mystical and religious theme in his growing media exploits. Following the lead of the Native American Church, as well as the Neo-American Church, Leary sought to create his own religion as a means of protection against law enforcement and as an attempt to fully portray psychedelic use as a truly religious experience (Lander 2011: 69-71). In September, 1966, Leary announced to the media the creation of the League for Spiritual Discovery and shortly thereafter he published the pamphlet “Start Your Own Religion,” which acted as “how-to” guide for creating one’s own psychedelic church (Lander 2011:72). The L.S.D. was short lived, however. Due to increased negative media and law enforcement attention, Leary and his group were evicted from the Millbrook estate in 1968. Leary moved to California with his fourth wife and his two children, along with several of the L.S.D. members. In California, Leary continued to be a major media presence and continued to be in and out of court-rooms, eventually being jailed in 1969 for possession of marijuana.


The League for Spiritual Discovery’s belief structure was based on Timothy Leary’s mantra: “drop out, turn on, tune in.” Though the more popular “turn on, tune in, drop out” became synonymous with Leary, his actual definition when forming the L.S.D. was:

Drop Out – detach yourself from the external social drama which is as dehydrated and ersatz as TV.

Turn On – find a sacrament which returns you to the temple of God, your own body. Go out of your mind. Get high.

Tune In – be reborn. Drop back in to express it. Start a new sequence of behavior that reflects your vision (Leary 1970:183).

For Leary and his followers, the sacrament meant psychedelics, and to fully drop out meant one should join together with similar-minded individuals to form first a “clan,” and then a “religion.” Leary (1970:186) wrote that “you must form that most ancient and sacred of human structures – the clan,” and “the clan must be centered on religious goals…religion is the turn on, tune in, drop out process.”


The L.S.D. had no true rituals beyond the ingestion of psychedelics. Leary’s (1970:187) definition of religion included ritual, but he emphasized that each religious clan should create its own ritual. He also emphasized that through utilizing psychedelics and marijuana for more than just “kicks” one would “be helped by making explicit the religious nature of your psychedelic activities.” He did not, however, give specific instructions on how to do so.


During its brief history, the L.S.D. was estimated by Leary to have 411 members and had a board of 15 “guides” who all resided atthe Millbrook estate and who, according to Leary, “resigned from their jobs and were dedicating their lives to the religion” (Dallos 1966:33). Given L.S.D.’s loose organizational structure, the actual number of adherents is difficult to estimate with any accuracy. At one time Leary stated that the membership limit of L.S.D. was 360 and that individuals should form their own independent religious groups. Whatever the actual number of L.S.D. adherents, the cultural influence of Leary and L.S.D. clearly surpass its membership numbers. The League for Spiritual Discovery became defunct for all practical purposes following Leary’s drug-related arrest in 1969. In 2006, a group claiming to represent the L.S.D. tradition announced its formation; the group appears to have a presence only on the internet (Greg Vanderlaan website n.d.)

Leary later moved into a career as a writer, lecturer, and celebrity personality. During the 1980s he became fascinated with space colonization and then computers, the internet, and virtual reality. His primary spiritual interest was in Neo-Paganism. Leary was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1995. Following his death his ashes were blasted into space along with those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, where they orbited for almost six years before burning up in the atmosphere.


Leary’s life and L.S.D were fraught with controversy. His experimentation with Psilocybin and LSD led to termination of his employment at Harvard University. He and his followers were evicted from the Millbrook Estate. By 1966, the main “sacraments” of the religion he sought to establish were made illegal, and possession and use of any of them was a criminal offense. As law enforcement pressure increased along with psychedelic drug use in the general population, Leary, who was viewed as psychedelic substances most vocal and recognizable proselytizer became a primary target of the anti-drug enforcement campaign. Leary himself was arrested several times between 1965-1970, although never for possession of LSD or any other psychedelic substance.

Two days before Christmas in 1965, Timothy Leary, his teenage son and daughter, and his girlfriend were stopped at the border in Laredo, Texas and denied entry to Mexico. Upon returning to the United States side of the border, the party was searched and a small amount of marijuana was found in Leary’s daughter’s underwear. Leary and his lawyers attempted to establish religious freedom as a defense for the charges brought against him. He argued that daily marijuana use was part of his religious observance as a practicing Hindu. This defense was initially unsuccessful, and Leary was sentenced to thirty years in prison and a $30,000 fine. He then appealed his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court overturned the Texas court conviction in 1969 and ruled that the Marijuana Tax Act under which he had been prosecuted was unconstitutional (Lander 2011:71). Leary was again sentenced to prison in 1970, this time for ten years. However, aided by the Weathermen and the Black Panther Party, Leary escaped from prison and fled the country, first to Algeria, and eventually to Switzerland and Afghanistan. He was subsequently captured in Afghanistan and sent back to prison in the United States ( Greenfield 2006:399-455). Leary was released from prison in 1976 by California Governor Jerry Brown.

The League for Spiritual Discovery also gave rise to other controversial groups. In California, a local off-shoot of the L.S.D., the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, began as a group of surfers and petty criminals who owned and operated a surf shop in Laguna Beach. By the mid-1970s, the Brotherhood became one of the largest narcotics importing networks in the United States ( Greenfield 2006: 327-332). Though Leary was closely associated with the Brotherhood as guru and spiritual leader, he had little to do with their narcotics network beyond introducing various members to key LSD chemists and distributors (Tendler and May 1984:22).


Author Unknown. 1963. “Psychic-Drug Testers Living in Retreat.” New York Times, December 15, pp. 64.

Dallos, Robert E. 1966: “Dr. Leary Starts New ‘Religion’ with ‘Sacramental’ Use of LSD.” New York Times, September 20, pp. 33.

Downing, Joseph J. 1964. “Zihuatanejo: An Experiment in Transpersonative Living.” Pp 142-77 in Utopiates: The Use and Users of LSD-25, edited by Richard Blum. New York: Atherton Press.

Fisher, Gary. 2005. “Treating the Untreatable.” Pp. 103-17 in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, edited by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Greenfield, Robert. 2006. Timothy Leary: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Inc.

Greg Vanderlaan website. n.d. Accessed from on 1 January 2012.

Lander, Devin R. 2011. “Start Your Own Religion: New York State’s Acid Churches.” Nova Religio 14: 64-80.

Leary, Timothy. 1970. The Politics of Ecstasy. London: Granada Publishing.

Leary, Timothy. 1982. Changing My Mind, Among Others: Lifetime Writings. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Leary, Timothy. 1990. Flashbacks: An Autobiography. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Ram Dass, Ralph Metzner and Gary Bravo. 2009. Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Millbrook and the Sixties. Santa Fe: Synergetic Press.

Smith, Huston. 2000. Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Strack, Stephen. 1996. “Introduction to the Special Series—Interpersonal Theory and the Interpersonal Circumplex: Timothy Leary’s Legacy.” Journal of Personality Assessment, 66: 212-16.

Tendler, Stewart and David May. 1984. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. London: Granada Publishing. Accessed from…/brotherhood_of_eternal_love.pdf on 25 January 2012.

Post Date:
30 January 2012