“Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary”

An Epic Friendship

Amos Lassen

In the early 1960s, Harvard Psychology Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began their probe of the edges of consciousness through their experiments with psychedelics. Leary, as we remember, became the LSD guru and he challenged convention, questioned authority, and was responsible a global counter culture movement. He went to prison after Nixon called him, “the most dangerous man in America.” Alpert went to India and became Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher for an entire generation and still today teaches about service through compassion. The film challenges us to think about life, drugs, consciousness and death.

Timothy Leary was a controversial figure in the counterculture. He experimented with drugs in order to expand his consciousness and his slogan “turn on, tune in, drop out” animated millions of alienated youth in the 1960s to find their own way of living and disaffiliate from the once that he felt was too controlling at the time.

Director Gay Dillingham, tales us through Leary’s life which ends with his death in 1996 due to prostate cancer. Both he and Ram Dass (who is still alive) lived fascinating lives.

Ram Dass traveled to the East and brought back to the West a fresh brand of spirituality which he writes about in his book titled “Be Here Now” which became an international bestseller that to date has had 43 printings. Dass suffered a near-fatal stroke in 1997 and spent many years in rehabilitation yet he is still teaching today. Leary was convinced that death remains for many “the taboo of all time” and that we try to flee from it and/or deny its power. Both men reveal that they are familiar with suffering and are willing to befriend death. Death, said Dass holds “the deepest meaning of the universe.”

The two met in the 1960s at Harvard where they taught psychology and conducted a series of scientific research projects using hallucinogenic drugs and then LSD. They became soul mates and were pioneers of the exploration of inner space and the possible meeting points between science and spirituality. As the drug culture spread in the 1960s, Leary testified before Congress on the need for responsible research on psychedelics. He described hallucinogens as simply “the nervous system having experiences we don’t have words for.” He seemed to love being considered a “bad boy” as he walked the edge between conformity and chaos. He was arrested and sent to prison multiple times.

Ram Dass was Dr. Richard Alpert and came from a wealthy background and kept his homosexuality hidden. As an intellectual with ambition, he had a successful academic career before discovering another path for his life. As a spiritual teacher, he became a pioneer of the conscious aging movement.

Robert Redford narrates this documentary that includes commentary from integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil, Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax, and family members and friends of Leary and Dass. Director Dillingham organized the documentary into chapters on Birth, Life, Death and Soul each of which is totally illuminating. The chapter on the topic of death feels the most provocative and compelling because, as Leary said, it’s a very taboo topic that’s rarely discussed. Dillingham combines archival footage, including the final discussion she filmed between Ram Dass and Timothy Leary in 1996. Through the footage of Dass and Leary engaging in intelligent conversations, we see their bond of friendship and their platonic love of one another. In the film there’s animation, comic relief and the voice-over narration by Robert Redford invigorates the film making it quite an experience. Dillingham found t the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually and emotionally. The film is totally captivating.


We are taken into the philosophy and psychology of death, as we have a history lesson that reminds us of just how important the work really was (or still is regarding Ram Dass.

The film reflects the overt intellectual ideas that are part of Leary and Dass we sense the substance of each man and the freedom and openness in their capacity to embrace life and death simultaneously. The thread running through the film is truly about having an openhearted love for each other and for life. We see them as flawed, remarkable, transformative individuals.

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