Introduction to Timothy Leary's "Owner's Manual"

How to Operate Your Brain

The complete owner's guide (linked near the bottom of this page), How to Operate Your Brain, is a 29 minute, guided, electronic (spoken/musical) meditation. In it, Dr. Leary tries to impart to the listener essential aspects of his visionary LSD experiences. While it may have been intended for use with drugs—to provide some of the positive "set" and "setting" that he saw as essential for a good "trip"—it stands alone as a profound, guided meditation. In it, you will hear some of the central, sacred principles of Yoism.

"Chaos" is good!?!

In this piece, Leary repeatedly refers to "chaos" in rather idealistic terms, as if chaotic experience is the goal. In contrast, his other writings make it clear that he saw chaotic experience as a necessary means to an end. While it should be valued—prized and delighted and even reveled in—it is a place to visit (and revisit), not to live.

But why value chaos at all? Simply because chaotic experience is not highly organized, i.e., it is not "foreclosed." It is fluid and reflects the fluid nature of the energies impinging on an open nervous system, that is, a nervous system ready to receive, to experience fully, and to construct novel, creative configurations of experience out of the patterns of information exciting its nervous tissue.

Relatively Unstructured, Fluid Childhood vs Relatively Fixed, Adult Beliefs and Attitudes

While even newborns experience the world with a significant degree of organization, there is far more flexibility in how they feel and experience their world than in their later years. Will they learn to organize their experience to perceive patterns of meaning in spoken Chinese? Or will their internal mental conversations eventually take place in English? Will they feel the world is full of wonder and delight as they did in childhood, despite the mysteries and dangers they faced? Or will they experience the world as a dangerous, unhappy, depressing journey?

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She said, "I know what it's like to be dead.
"I know what it is to be sad."

I said, "Who put all those things in your head?
"Things that make me feel that I'm mad.
"And you're making me feel like I've never been born."

When I was a boy,
Everything was right.
Everything was right.

When I was a boy . . .

(John Lennon/Beatles)

Will a child gradually learn to transform yos immature, raw, unhesitating, bodily immersion in the world into the ability to revel and delight in mature sensuality? Or will yo learn to deny and hide yos sexuality and end up wallowing in guilt and shame? Unfortunately, we would expect to see the latter if parents have misguided—typically, because of religious notions—attitudes and beliefs such as these:

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In the chaotic, relatively unorganized child's experience, things are open, fluid. They have yet to coalesce into the relatively fixed forms of the typical human adult.

Of course, there are negative aspects to fluidity and openness, to disorganization and chaos. A child is more vulnerable and less capable of functioning without parental structure to prevent panic or overwhelming distress. Thus, we seek structure and organization—both internalized ways of organizing our experience as well as external, social conventions—as a natural part of growth and maturity. For the purpose of obtaining the full benefit of Leary's important insight, consider that chaos, despite its problematic aspects, is simply a necessary aspect of openness, creativity, and a readiness to learn. To the degree that one's experience is open to new organization, one must also be open to the experience of anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion, i.e., to chaos. To be truly open-minded, one must learn to tolerate a significant degree of chaos.

And we also know that a loss of the experience of a vital, vibrant self can result from the overzealous pursuit of certainty and organized experience. Like an over-eater on a binge, when we swallow whole and compulsively cling to comforting ideas and beliefs in the effort to avoid the anxiety of chaotic uncertainty and confusion, we also lose touch with important aspects of ourselves that are foreclosed and kept out of experience.

C'mon! We can't create our own reality, like Leary claims!

No, we can't create reality out of whole cloth. Not only is much of human experience dictated by What Is (what we call "Yo"), but the forms that our experiences can take are also limited by our nervous systems, by our brains. Our nervous systems structure our experience of the material world in three spatial dimensions. Try as we may, we really can't feel, sense, or perceive what ten dimensional space is, even though our leading physicists tell us that, according to string theory, we live in an eleven (!) dimensional world (ten of space plus time).

So what does it mean to say our brains are "designed to design reality?" Is that some kind of post-modernistic jargon about how reality is merely a social construction? Not at all. Deeply entwined in Leary's writings are the notions of discovery and the importance of listening to what our ancient, evolved nervous systems tell us. Within the constraints of being biological, evolved organisms with limits on how we can construct our experience, within the constraints dictated by reality, there is a wide range of interpretation possible.

Experience is an act of creation

Indeed, our brains need to "construct" the familiar four dimensional world of space and time out of patterns of nervous excitation sent to it by our sensory organs. All of our experiences are constructions in a brain; our brains were truly designed to construct reality. Furthermore, there are many aspects of experience that are open to interpretation and imagination. When we envision possibilities, believe they can be made real, and then act to make them happen, we are designing reality. Just the first two of these three steps—envisioning a possibility and believing that the possible can be made real, without any "act" of creation—are creative acts that bring into existence things that did not exist, i.e., the vision and the belief.

Orville and Wilbur could have had more constrained brains, capable of only impoverished designs. They could have imagined the possibility that humans would fly someday, but that they were incapable of solving the problems, i.e., they could have envisioned a possibility but had beliefs that foreclosed action. Or they could have had a certain type of "religious brain" in which even the possibility of human flight was foreclosed by clinging to comforting notions offered by righteous authority. For example, their brains could have been infected with a common, debilitating religious meme, such as, "If God meant us to fly, we would have been born with wings. It is blasphemous hubris to think that we will fly!"

For Leary, the first step toward full creativity is the tolerance of the anxiety of chaotic experience, to open one's mind to the possibility of new configurations of experience. The next step is to learn to surf the chaos, to learn to ride the uncertainties, until we are open to experiencing reality and its possibilities anew. The next step is to be explorers of possibility, to dance and play with reality, to see what we can actually do. In this sense, our brains are indeed "designed to design reality."

At times, it is surely wise to heed warnings from those who speak with voices that ring true when compared with your own experience. Yet, you should let no authority dictate to you what you can and can't discover, what you can and can't do. Explore, learn, imagine, experiment, and discover for yourself what is possible. Leary is imploring you, hoping to free you to make full use of your "designer brain."

The Manual

Another excerpt from Leary's "Owner's Manual"

Think for Yourself
"Philosophy Is a Team Sport"

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So, when you are so inclined and have
the time, you might want to open up

Timothy Leary's Owner's Manual:
"How to Operate Your Brain."