Having interviewed both Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, seen both speak many times, not to mention lived through the tail end of the psychedelic era, I was particularly interested in seeing what I hoped would be a fascinating film. It is that, but it is also quite moving in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Leary describes death as the “greatest adventure of your life,” but their deep friendship was clearly a close second.
Beautifully edited, Dying to Know weaves together archival footage and stills of the two icons together and individually, with more recent footage of Ram Dass and reflections by friends and admirers celebrated in their own right, such as Huston Smith, Andrew Weil, Joan Halifax and Ralph Metzner. What emerges is a stunning portrait of two brilliant men—Leary had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) had one from Stanford—who met in their late 20s when both were teaching at Harvard.
Their adventures in psychedelics at a time when LSD and psilocybin were completely legal have been well documented. Both were ultimately asked to leave their teaching positions and veered in very different directions, continuing to dramatically affect the cultural landscape but in divergent ways.
What surprised me most in the saga was how much Ram Dass initially felt in awe of Leary. Leary was indeed a brilliant thinker, but Ram Dass is by far the more deeply spiritual. It’s difficult to know if one has a higher IQ than the other, but Ram Dass (in my experience) has a higher EQ. Both have been widely admired, and Ram Dass is still widely beloved.
Steve Postel does a fine job threading his own musical compositions amongst well-known sounds from the psychedelic ‘60s. And psychedelic art, and even an animated short film within the film, add visual interest.
Ultimately this heartwarming and inspirational film is about LSD and the kind of shifts that can result from its use, including how one approaches death. And on this the two men agree in a clear and touching moment of oneness.
Leary promised to “give death a better name or die trying,” while Ram Dass assures us that, “If you have identified with your soul when you’re alive, death is just another moment.” Either way, it’s a sure thing for all of us, so we would be wise to give it some thought. And as Leary reportedly repeated like a mantra in his final moments, “Why not?”
This article is a part of the June/July 2016 Healing Connections issue of Whole Life Times.