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“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Is Timothy Leary speaking to us again?

In Insight and Experience by Stephen DenhamLeave a Comment

Cultivating stillness and presence in the moment are keys to our future in this age of information; liberating us from ‘time poverty’ and making possible the ‘ethical norm’ of creativity and mental excellence that Leary describes in his book Chaos and Cyber Culture.


Watershed moments from a bygone era sometimes reach out to us many years later. In this way, American psychologist and consciousness pioneer Timothy Leary’s famous catchphrase from 1967, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, may serve as an enlightening touchstone for us today.

As our world has become faster, smaller, and instantly accessible, we have become busier and busier. With hindsight, the age of leisure naïvely predicted 20 years or more ago was a mirage on the horizon. It underestimated the explosion of online commerce and opportunism that has accompanied technological advance.

Business has become busy-ness. And if that is true for now, we can only wonder where this climate of accelerating change is taking us; because today, we find ourselves poverty-stricken in quite a different way from socio-economic hardship or destitution. We are time poor. And as life goes faster, this so-called ‘poverty of time’ is also intensifying. For the more there is to do, the less time we have.

In a world teetering at the edge of what is mentally sustainable, an important key to the future lies with our willingness to marshal the God-given resources of our inner dimension – attention, will, consciousness, breath, sensation, thought, creativity. These nurture and enrich the quality of our being and open us to the present. Making this kind of effort fosters human ‘be-ing’ in the sense of a process – the evolutionary journey of becoming more and more human.

But, in the grip of this poverty of time, our attention is scattered. We may find ourselves racing through each day preoccupied with deadlines and competing priorities, while our so-called ‘free time’ is taken up with social media, SMS, email, internet-based commerce, games, eBooks… the list goes on. In our distractedness we have ‘turned off’, as Timothy Leary might have said. Yet there is hope; if only we can acknowledge where we are at, find ways to slow down, stop, focus, learn to direct our attention inward; and begin to cultivate stillness in day-to-day life.

So what might Leary’s popularisation of this slogan from the sixties – in the midst of that decade’s questioning of the status quo across politics, sexuality, morality and social mores – have to offer us today?

Turn on. In a sense, this has already happened. The world engages our senses whatever we do, wherever we go. Ever smaller and more powerful technology encroaches our personal and professional zones. But without understanding why and how we need to set boundaries, we may find ourselves conscripts in today’s stressed out army, stuck in a prolonged state of ‘fight or flight’. Not surprisingly, therefore, the turning on we need today, is quite different from the stimulation or over-stimulation we are accustomed to. Here the call is to go within, know thyself; learn to be in the present moment and open yourself to other dimensions of experience and consciousness.

Author Maria Arpa provides a real life testimony to what this means in the second decade of the 21st century. Her book Mindfulness at WorkFlourishing in the Workplace, is a little gem of wisdom for people stuck in today’s fast lane. For one-time formidable businesswoman Arpa, turning on began first and foremost as an inner journey of getting to know herself. “I define mindfulness as a conscious awareness of the present moment and recognition of what is really happening”, says Arpa. “This requires us to observe rather than judge events – which is easier said than done, because we are usually unaware of the lens through which we are examining the world.”

Tune in. This too has already occurred globally via the internet and mass media communications. Whether you are talking about Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, online commerce or business communications, it’s all about connecting: people to people, business to business, clients to products and services. In this sense, we have never been so tuned in to each other.

But today, a deeper, more human interpretation of Leary’s tuning in recognises our innate capacity to connect, empathise and harmonise with others. In information terms, this is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather it gives us the possibility of creatively harnessing the information we really need and identifying ways to collectively make a difference. In a state of distractedness, we receive information superficially, and transformation is not possible. But when we make efforts to be mindful and make information our own; when it is matured by life experience; wisdom can be distilled about what direction we need to take and what we need to do to make the journey possible.

For Arpa, tuning in flowed naturally from mindfulness. She consciously examined her ingrained attitudes and day-to-day habits in the key areas of home, career and relationships. “Mindfulness is a ‘waking up’ process”, says Arpa. “It asks us to live consciously, to have regard for our sensations, feelings, thoughts and actions. Mindfulness brings empowerment and self-responsibility and this leads to better self-care, decision making and participation in life.”

Drop out. Unlike in the sixties, this doesn’t mean now to cop out or escape; but similar to what Leary said in 1983 that he’d actually intended, to disengage from the conditioning of the herd without withdrawing from society; finding ways to cultivate stillness in the midst of daily life, explore your unique individuality and build the foundation of a self able to embrace change and become a creator in its own right.

Here practical disciplines like meditation, mindfulness and breath awareness become essential to any lasting transformation.

Through stillness we invite an entirely different experience of time. We see that it is not an expendable, physical resource or something we lack. Rather, time is simply a mental construct that allows us to order and share our life experience. In reality, we do not experience the past or future – only the present moment. This direct experience of stillness liberates us from our time poverty and allows us to experience the reality of the present moment, free of our thinking.

After nudging up to the question, ‘What do I really want for myself?’, for a couple of years, Arpa was finally able to acknowledge what it was she was looking for  “ … more control over her time, more authentic communication with people, development of her intuitive and creative skills and a sense of contribution”. She became a counsellor and reiki master; then later, a mediator and expert in conflict resolution.

In his futuristic opus Chaos and Cyber Culture Leary makes an observation that offers both hope and a warning: “In the information-communication civilization of the 21st Century … the world will be too dynamic, complex, and diversified, too cross-linked by the global immediacies of modern (quantum) communication, for stability of thought or dependability of behaviour to be successful.” In this volatile environment, Leary anticipates, “… creativity and mental excellence will become the ethical norm”. The key word here is ‘ethical’, highlighting the role of human conscience in a sustainable future.

For any genuine seeker, there are many ways and means – ancient and modern – for cultivating stillness and balance in the midst of the day-to-day hubbub. These allow us to get back in touch with the inner resources we are born with. If the seeds of the future lie in what we can take from history’s learning and bring to bear in the heart and soul of who we are in this present moment, then we must act now, as a matter of conscience. And through that transformation foster a future worthy of a switched on, tuned in, mindful humanity.

About the author
Stephen Denham

Stephen Denham

Steve Denham is a published writer of non-fiction, fiction and poetry. His ebook “A Plate of Eggs” is dedicated to the mateship of soul.

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