Nearly two decades in the making, Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began with a single conversation. After Leary announced, in the mid-1990s, that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, filmmaker Gay Dillingham organized a reunion between the writer and ’60s cultural icon and Ram Dass, author of the New Age spiritual tome Be Here Now (and Leary’s one-time partner), in a pioneering set of Harvard experiments on the psychological benefits of LSD. Dillingham filmed the ensuing conversation, which served as a platform for the two men to share the lessons of their disparate life journeys and discuss what awaited Leary at the end of his own. Following Leary’s death in 1996, Dillingham spent much of the subsequent 18 years researching and crafting a documentary that simultaneously serves as comprehensive biography and a bifurcated manifesto for two leading voices of the 20th century counterculture.
Dillingham spoke with us about liminal states, her inspiration in conceiving the film, and the dichotomous quality of Ram Dass and Leary’s ideas. Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary will screen in the Walker Cinema at 2 pm on Saturday, February 13, as part of the Walker’s Winter of Love celebration.
Filming for what would become Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary began in 1995, yet the project wasn’t completed until nearly 20 years later. Did you have any idea the form the film would take when you organized that initial conversation between Ram Dass and Leary?
I had no idea I would spend 20 years of my life marinating on this story that covers 80 years of footage. Some things we begin with enthusiasm, but they don’t hold our interest, and some things/stories will not let us go. This project literally haunted me over time until I finished it. I knew these two characters were seminal figures in history and I was interested in their perspective on expanded consciousness and death. My original instinct as a director was guided by their idea of “set and setting.” I wanted to create an atmosphere for two old friends and psychedelic warriors to get together in a relaxed, loving setting to reminisce on the past and contemplate the eternal future, as Leary was facing the end of his life, shedding the mortal coil as his spacesuit wore out.
What made this story one that you would return to over such a long period of time?
It kept drawing me back because it spoke to the bigger questions I consistently ponder and has contemporary relevance. Deeper conversations about taboos like death and drugs interest me. Death has been an important doorway to me since I lost my bother when I was 17. I began to see how upside down we were as a culture and that it has been our undoing. Spending time in cultures that see themselves in the cycle of nature and hold life preciously because it has an end, I felt [they] did a better job at caring for each other and the earth.
How familiar were you with Ram Dass and Leary prior to beginning this film? In what ways has your understanding of these men and their ideas changed over the course of the project?
I’d seen Leary in the ’80s on his lecture circuit in his cyber-tech manifestation, promoting LSD (Leary Software Design). I was not all that impressed at the time, as I experienced Leary, the showman, not the man. I also remembered my brother, whom I adored, getting in trouble for driving 2 hours to the City one school night in 1978 to see a guy named Timothy Leary. I would later realize why he took that risk. In college, like many others, I had read Be Here Now, the so-called hippie bible written by Ram Dass.
Like most of us, I knew these men as caricatures that my media culture had fed me. So this film was largely a process of my reconciling those caricatures with the truly interesting, intelligent, humorous, loving men I met: Leary on his deathbed and Ram Dass, who is alive today, and, I’m grateful to say, my friend and teacher. Diving into all the archival footage, interviewing people about him, and knowing him personally for 20 years, I’ve witnessed the remarkable arch of his life. As John Perry Barlow says in the film, Ram Dass “is a truly wise man.” After a lifetime of practice, I witness him resting in a place of unconditional love.
In 1964, Leary, Ram Dass (then known as Richard Alpert), and Ralph Metzner published The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an informative guide to psychedelic drug use based on Tibetan religious beliefs about the passage from one incarnation to the next. What parallels did Leary and Ram Dass see between tripping and the death process?
This is one of the main reasons I was attracted to these men. Their book and their work was meant to help people practice ego death or rather to sense that we are more than our bodies, which helps relieve much of the anxiety around death.
You have described the film as an “archetypal conversation” between the heart and the mind (as epitomized by Ram Dass and Leary, respectively). While their relationship is clearly a loving one, their conversation seems to at times border on argument. Do you understand the two men’s ideas to be at odds or complementary?
I have to say both, which is why I chose the symbol of the yin yang. It’s used to describe two primal, opposing, but complementary, forces found in all things in the universe. As complementary, interdependent opposites, neither man could have impacted the culture as profoundly without the other. Each can transform into the other, and contains a seed of the other within it—hence Ram Dass has a keen mind and Leary had a big heart. I’ve experienced that life happens in relationship and we tend to forget that in the Age of the Individual. Neither of these men were as interesting to me individually as they were together. Yin and yang consume and support each other. I think that will make more sense after someone has watched the film.