Turn on, Tune in, Drop out

Timothy Leary convinced a generation of hippies to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” His prescription for this threefold process was LSD-25, an undeniably effective turn on. Fortunately there are other, safer and less controversial methods. Meditation for example.

Without recourse to sex, drugs or rock and roll, certain meditative techniques have the undeniable power to turn us on. Claudio Naranjo calls these techniques “form meditation”. They include all forms of concentration on a verbal or visual object, whether it be a mandala, a mantra, a prayer, a candle, a symbol, a crucifix or anything else. Any purposeful use of any form, whether physical or mental, is “form meditation”.

A second category he calls “formless meditation”. This does not rely on any specific object of meditation, but is, rather, on open receptivity to whatever spontaneously arises in awareness. Zazen and Vipassana are classic examples of this form of free-style meditation. A third category he calls “expressive meditation”, which is the opening to a spontaneous, creative, expressive impulse in movement, breath, sound, song, dance and other physical activities, exemplified in shamanic trance states.

Leary’s three stages correspond to Naranjo’s three meditation categories. We “turn on” via the deliberate use of a specific “form” or meditation technique. We engage the will. We focus our energy. For example, when you recite a mantra, you begin by applying some intentional energy, and at first repeat the mantra more or less mechanically. This is called japa.

If you are relatively proficient, you will soon feel something shift. You will know that something has been “turned on”. At this point, you can release your hold on the mantra and allow it to take its own course. You surrender to the mantra and follow wherever it leads. This is called dharma. At this point, any conscious act of will is unnecessary and in fact counter-productive. This is the gentle art of “tuning in” and following “formless meditation”.

These two stages are also related to what the Japanese call jiriki , “self-power”, and tariki, “other-power”. In self-power we consciously engage our attention and will. This is the basic definition of “form meditation”:  sustained attention on a particular object over time. This creates a certain concentration of energy, much like rubbing a stick on a stone, so that eventually we create a spark and can start a fire. If the attention wavers, it is as if we had stopped rubbing the stick, and we lose the accumulated energy needed to start the fire.

Once the fire has started and we are “turned on”, we can hand over to tariki, other-power, or other-energy (ki means energy). This is called “the Great Way of Absolute Non-Resistance” in Taoist alchemy. We are still fully aware and attentive, but our will has taken a back seat. We let go and go with the flow.

In the esoteric system described by W.B Yeats in A Vision, he describes the polarity between “Creative Mind” and “Body of Fate”. Creative Mind is the initiator. It is jiriki “form meditation”. Body of Fate is tariki “formless meditation”. It is the inexorable unfolding of “Fate” through the activity set in motion by “Mind”. This is analogous to the yin and yang of the Taoists.

We “turn on” through the form of the mantra, then we “tune in” to whatever unfolds. Then we “drop out”. What does that mean? Timothy Leary meant we should drop out of the rat race and conventional “square” society. But ignore the beatnik, hippy counter-cultural overtones and you’ll find it makes perfect spiritual sense.

To “drop out” means to abstain from those contexts and behaviours which are antithetical and unconducive to further spiritual development. It is a rejection of the “world trance”, resistance to the “matrix”, to everything that keeps us locked into our habitual, hermetic round of mechanicalness and unconsciousness. When we “drop out”, we find we have more time and space to “turn on” and “tune in” and can gradually establish a virtuous cycle of spiritual liberation. You don’t need to quit your job or drop out of college. You just need to stop sabotaging yourself.