A Second Look at Leary’s Eight-Circuit Model: Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves and the Tarot
Along with Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil, Timothy Leary was part of what has been called “the Harvard Psychedelic Club.” Fired from his position at Harvard University for failing to attend scheduled class lectures, Leary is perhaps best known as being one of the most vocal advocates of lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD-25), an extremely powerful hallucinogenic drug which Leary et alii helped to popularize during the revolutionary sixties. He was also part of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which Leary organized following a trip to Mexico during which he was administered psilocybin mushrooms. He later recalled of this experience that he had: learned more about [his] brain and its possibilities [and] more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than…in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.
The Harvard Psilocybin Project went on to conduct the famous Concord Prison Experiment, which evaluated whether psilocybin paired with psychotherapy could successfully rehabilitate repeat offenders, and the Marsh Chapel Experiment, which sought to discover if psilocybin could reliably induce mystical experiences in religiously predisposed theology students. In 1963, Leary helped initiate the Millbrook Experiment, an enormous mansion located in New York where residents spent their days experimenting with psychedelic drugs and living according to the teachings of Armenian mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff. To Gurdjieff, we’ll return below. These experiments, impressive and novel as they were, are not the good doctor’s sole claims to fame, however. During one of his many incarcerations, in 1972, Dr. Leary developed a new theoretical model of the evolution of life on earth—and of individual human consciousness—which he called the ‘Eight Brain’ or ‘Eight Circuit’ model.
Popularized by Discordian Pope, Robert Anton Wilson, Leary’s Eight Circuit model postulates that all life on earth (and indeed in the entire cosmos) evolves through a series of eight successive ‘circuits.’ This same eight-fold process, Leary adds, is recapitulated in the development of consciousness within an individual human being. Just as the human embryo at various times manifests as unicellular, possessed of gills, having a tail, etc., so too does individual conscious unfold through the same successive stages of evolution. Divided into Terrestrial and Post-Terrestrial phases, Leary’s eight ‘circuits’ unfold as follows:
1. The Bio-Survival (Marine Consciousness) Circuit
2. The Emotion-Locomotion Terrestrial-Mammalian (Territorial Consciousness) Circuit
3. The Symbolic-Artifactual (Laryngeal-Muscular Consciousness) Circuit
4. The Industrial (Socio-Sexual Consciousness) Circuit
5. The Cyber-Somatic (Body Consciousness) Circuit
6. The Cyber-Electronic (Brain Consciousness) Circuit
7. The Cyber-Genetic (DNA Consciousness) Circuit
8. The Cyber-Atomic (Quantum Consciousness) Circuit
Without entering into too much detail regarding the function of these ‘Brains,’ it is sufficient to say that each of the eight ‘circuits’ are further divided into three successive stages (thus giving us twenty-four) of what Leary calls “con-telligence.” Con–telligence is defined as “the reception (consciousness), integration, and transmission of energy signals.” The three stages of con–telligence applied to each of the unfolding circuits then constitute the twenty-four phases of the awareness, mastery, and communication-fusion of each new evolutionary technology—from spineless, floating amoeboid (as well as newborn infant) to meta-physiological nano-technician at the “violet hole” found at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The people who represent these various stages of evolution Leary refers to as ‘castes.’
In an attempt to “relate the psychology of the ancient, pre-scientific world with modern notions of stages [and] phases,” Leary was wont to apply his twenty-four periods of evolution to the Major Arcana of the Tarot, wherein he perceived a clear reflection of his own model. For example, to illustrate the three-stage ‘con-telligence’ of Circuit I, Leary employed The Fool, The Magician, and The Empress cards. In illustration of the con-telligence of Circuit II, he used The High Priestess, The Emperor, and the Hierophant, etc. However, there’s just one problem with this arrangement. The Major Arcana are possessed of only twenty-two cards, leading Leary, to the horror of every Tarot purist in the world, to invent two brand new Major Arcana cards: Starmaker and Violet Whole. As hip and groovy as these two additions no doubt are, they may not have been necessary. Had Leary paid closer attention to his Gurdjieff while residing at Millbrook—or to the Ouspensky title (In Search of the Miraculous) that Charlie Manson slipped him while in solitary confinement at Folsom Prison—he might have thought to apply the sequence of Tarot’s Major Arcana cards to Gurdjieff’s Heptaparaparshinokh, aka his Law of Octaves.
According to the Law of Octaves, everything in the universe that happens or can happen manifests according to a fixed set of cyclic vibrations, called octaves. From the initial impulse of a given thing to that thing’s final completion, this constitutes an octave; that is, from do (start) to do (finish) in the Ionian mode (do re mi fa sol la ti do) constitutes a given octave. Whether it is the birth and death of a galaxy or the beginning and end of an acid trip, taken as a unit, each of these phenomena would constitute its own octave. Considered in the key of C major (which Gurdjieff obviously intends), it becomes evident that a given octave is possessed not only of eight steps, but also of two intervals. For, every note in the C major scale is followed by a sharp—save two: mi and ti. Unlike the other six tones, mi and ti, rather than being followed by semitones, move directly into the following whole notes. To compensate for these ‘intervals,’ in order to complete a given octave, Gurdjieff postulates that two “additional shocks” are required. P.D. Ouspensky, an early student of Gurdjieff, writes:
In an ascending octave the first ‘interval’ comes between mi and fa. If corresponding additional energy enters at this point the octave will develop without hindrance to [ti], but between [ti] and do it needs a much stronger ‘additional shock’ for its right development than between mi and fa, because the vibrations of the octave at this point are of a considerably higher pitch and to overcome a check in the development of the octave a greater intensity is needed.
It is our understanding that an ‘additional shock’ in an ascending (evolutionary) octave may be constituted by anything from a physical or emotional trauma, a mental break with mundane reality, a mystical initiation, a ritual working, or even by a psychedelic experience. It is the application of ‘super effort’ at two points in an ‘octave’ that will aid in bringing its process to completion.
Possessed of eight steps and two ‘intervals,’ Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves neatly solves the problem of what Leary saw as two ‘missing cards.’ If we allot the cards of the Major Arcana in sets of three to Leary’s eight ‘circuits’ while keeping true to Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves, we arrive at the arrangement below. Let the Arabic numerals indicate Leary’s Eight Circuit model. Let the Roman numerals represent those attributed to the Major Arcana cards. Let the asterisks represent Gurdjieff’s ‘additional shocks.’
1. 0 – I – II (do)
- III – IV – V (re)
- VI – VII – * (mi)
- VIII – IX – X (fa)
- XI – XII – XIII (sol)
- XIV – XV – XVI (la)
- XVII – XVIII – * (ti)
- XIX – XX – XXI (do)
As the reader may observe, these ‘shocks’ fall into the ‘transmission’ (per his theory of ‘con-telligence’) slots of Leary’s third (Symbolic-Artifactual) and seventh (Cyber-Genetic) circuits, precisely in the places where the ‘additional shocks’ are necessitated, per Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves—no invention of cards required. The suggestion here is that ‘additional shocks’ serve as bridges for the transmission gaps between a) the integration phase of the Symbolic-Artifactual Circuit and the reception phase of the Industrial Circuit and b) the integration phase of the Cyber-Genetic Circuit and the reception phase of the Cyber-Atomic Circuit—thus providing the individual (and the species) with the momentum necessary to break the barriers between one evolutionary circuit and the next.
In the Tarot, these ‘shocks’ appear between a) The Chariot and Strength and b) The Moon and The Sun cards. In the system popularized by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, The Chariot corresponds to the zodiac sign Cancer. Strength, on the other hand, corresponds to Leo. Conveniently, as Cancer is ruled by the moon and Leo is ruled by the sun, combined with the second ‘additional shock’ which occurs between The Moon and The Sun Cards, we see that both the ‘shocks’ take place at ‘intervals’ between symbolic diametrical moon-sun relationships. These ‘shocks,’ then, both practically and symbolically, serve the same ‘bridging’ function of a mercurial mediator between alchemical opposites. Coincidence? Perhaps. Granted, we may be guilty of ‘confusing the planes’ by comparing the zodiacal attributions of one pair of cards to the titles of another. However, one cannot deny the symmetrical neatness of the structure.
For this arrangement to work, it goes without saying that all the cards and explanations following The Chariot in Leary’s model must be rearranged and reworked to accommodate for Gurdjieff’s ‘shocks.’ And, in fact, in Info-Psychology, his 1987 revision of Exo-Psychology, Leary kindly invited the reader “to engage in an ‘interactive co-writing’ of these important issues.” That’s all we’re really doing here. In any event, at the very least, we’ve arrived at what would appear to be a totally novel mode of Tarot analysis. The notion that hidden ‘additional shocks’ appear in the major arcana sequence between cards VII and VIII and between cards XVIII and XIX is, to our knowledge, unprecedented. But, does this innovation mean that two of Leary’s ‘castes’ must be sacrificed in favor these ‘shocks?’ Or, is the implication that two of Leary’s ‘castes’ are the ‘shocks?’ Further analysis is required to know. One thing we can say with certainty, however—and that, along with Leary’s friend, Dr. Israel Regardie of the Golden Dawn—is that “posterity […] will have a finer appreciation of what [Dr. Timothy Leary] has contributed to the world than we have today.”
Alpert, William. Ram Dass: Fierce Grace. Zeitgeist Films, New York. 2003
Hollingshead, Michael. The Man Who Turned on the World. The Psychedelic Library. http://www.psychedelic-library.org/hollings.htm. Accessed Jan. 9, 2017
Lattin, Don. The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. HarperOne, San Francisco. 2011
Leary, Timothy. Info-Psychology: A Manual on the Use of the Human Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers. New Falcon Publications, Las Vegas. 1987
Leary, Timothy. Neuropolitique. New Falcon Publications, Las Vegas. 2006.
Leary, Timothy. The Game of Life. New Falcon Publications, Las Vegas. 2015
Ouspensky, P.D. In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. Harcourt, Inc., New York. 2001
Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati. Hilaritas Press, LLC., Grand Junction, CO. 2016
Wilson, Robert Anton. Prometheus Rising. Hilaritas Press, LLC., Grand Junction, CO. 2016
P.D. Newman is an independent researcher located in the southern US, specializing in the history of the use of entheogenic substances in religious rituals and initiatory rites. He is the author of the books, Alchemically Stoned: The Psychedelic Secret of Freemasonry, Angels in Vermilion: The Philosophers’ Stone from Dee to DMT, and the forthcoming title, Day Trips and Night Flights: Anabasis, Katabasis, and Entheogenic Ekstasis in Myth and Rite. The Secret Teachings of All Ages (TV Series documentary) 2023.
Theurgy: Theory and Practice: The Mysteries of the Ascent to the Divine by P.D. Newman, published by Inner Traditions, Bear & Company will be available on December 5, 2023
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