Monthly Archives: August 2007

Don’t let the door hit you…

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This is certainly not the answer to all our many, and mounting, problems as a nation. But as the daily news cycle goes, it was a great moment. I know this picture is a little creepy, but Doug Mills, NY Timesimages in the mirror are farther away than they appear, and the news that Karl Rove is at last leaving the White House is on the whole cause to rejoice.

I just forced myself to read Jane Mayer’s chilling article about the CIA’s torture sites in the New Yorker. I started the article a week ago, got as far as the second page, and realized that a) I really should read it all because it was so disturbing, and b) I didn’t want to read another word because it was so disturbing. So there it sat, an open magazine on my kitchen table, until I finally worked up the nerve to finish it this afternoon.

Assuming that the Democrats have the political will to actually end torture in our name, get us out of Iraq, restore habeas corpus and the rest of our eroding constitutional rights, and strip the president of his self-declared executive powers (I know, I know, that’s a big assumption), we will have a lot to atone for in the decades to come. The evils that Rove and his cronies have brought to our political system, and the evils that Cheney and his minions have created in our name around the world, are not things that we can easily sit with if we have a conscience and if we truly want to live in a democracy.

After reading Mayer’s account of the unspeakable brutality we are putting foreign prisoners through, and also the torment experienced by CIA employees pressured by the White House to carry out these tortures, I think we will need some version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in the States and abroad. We need to open up all of our hundreds of military bases around the world and have public forums where every injustice caused by our presence can be spoken without fear of retribution. And then we need to close half those bases and let sovereign nations determine their own policies free of our influence.

Thank God for Dr. Seuss, you know? He has captured so many poignant social moments in rhyme, it is almost impossible not to quote him at these moments, when words fail to capture the depth of the utter sinkhole we have fallen into. But sure enough, The Cat in the Hat has the perfect description of our current situation (and I quote here from memory, which may be faulty):

And that mess is so big and so deep and so tall,
We can not pick it up. There is no way at all.

The Cat in the HatThere you have it, folks: the current state of the union in perfect anapestic tetrameter. Though all our ills cannot be solved with clever verse, it is certainly true that reciting clever verse is an excellent way to survive times which carry more than their share of difficult, inconvenient truths.

There are few images I can think of which are strong enough to balance the creepiness of Rove’s face, but such is the healing power of the Cat in the Hat. We all need to face the hard truths, but not without some humor, please. From Mark Twain to the present, that is one of our nation’s finest gifts to the world, and something we can always be proud of.

The Navel of No Thing

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If only I had all day to sit here and write about how my life has been influenced by just a handful of trips to Esalen. If only the stories were as interesting to everyone else as they are to me. Ah well, with great restraint I will spare you and focus here on the task at hand, which is to review a mighty new book, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal.

Esalen Religion of No Religion KripalNo conversation about California Cosmology would be complete without a long detour into the history of Esalen, a venerable hot springs resort on the Big Sur coastline. Kripal’s book is an excellent, incredibly thorough account of Esalen’s beginnings as a sacred spot for the Esselen and other Coastanoan tribes, its establishment in the 1880s as a hot springs resort, its purchase by the Murphy family in 1910, and subsequent influence on American culture beginning in the 1940s and continuing today.

Kripal focuses much of his story on the journeys of Esalen’s two founders, Dick Price and Michael Murphy. In describing their travels, Kripal takes several fascinating side trips into some of their major influences: Sri Aurobindo and Hindu Tantra, Henry Miller and the Cold War, the Vedanta Society, Alan Watts and the Beat poets, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls and George Leonard, to name only a few.

Esalen from its beginnings set out to explore the intersection of Eastern mysticism, psychology, and the potential of the human body. It was successful in large part because “Esalen inhabited a liminal position between the academy and the counterculture,” in Kripal’s words. They brought in the most original thinkers and intellectuals as well as hands-on experimenters with psychic phenomena, psychedelics, body therapies, and psychology, to hold seminars and mingle with each other. Not to say that every experiment was a success, but in remaining committed to new thinking Esalen ultimately avoided becoming merely a West Coast feel-good, anti-intellectual sinkhole.

There is some fascinating back story in these pages to just about every movement in modern psychology: the Freudian Left, Gestalt therapy, Encounter groups, the human potential movement, Somatics. Everything from Cold War Russian psychics to UFO and non-local mind researchers at one point wended their way through the filters of Esalen’s workshop business and residential community, and Kripal makes the journey enjoyable with an easy writing style and an obvious passion for his subject.

There are some vignettes from the Big Sur Hot Springs that are too priceless not to re-tell, such as this one from 1961, shortly before the Institute was founded. Michael Murphy’s grandmother had not yet decided to turn the management of the property over to her grandson. Instead, she had a young (22!) Hunter S. Thompson serving as property manager. Kripal paints the Esalen scene at the time:

Thompson was hardly the only colorful character on the Murphy property, though. The folksinger Joan Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she often gave small concerts. The guest hotel on the grounds, moreover, was being managed by a certain Mrs. Webb, a fervent Evangelical Christian who had hired her fellow church members from the First Church of God of Prophecy to help her manage…the place…. The bar, on the other hand, was patronized by what Price and Murphy called the Big Sur Heavies, locals known for their rough manners, their penchant for marijuana (which they grew in the mountains), and their quasi-criminal (or just criminal) tendencies. Then there were the baths, frequented on most weekends by homosexual men who would drive down from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles to gather in the hot waters and explore the limits of sensual pleasure. These men had even developed a kind of simple Morse code…to signal to the bathing lovers the approach of straight people coming down the path.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues more than once.

Kripal is not just a scholar and careful historian of the institution, he also drank the Kool-Aid. Kripal can take an overly credulous tone about the synchronous events that contributed to Esalen’s mystique. For instance, Price and Murphy met with Aldous Huxley shortly before his death, just before the two founded Esalen. When referring to Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, Kripal writes:

“Somehow, Aldous knew what Esalen would come to know. And then he died. An earthquake struck Big Sur that day.”

Holy shit! Man the lifeboats!

But this is also part of Kripal’s mystical approach to his subject. He believes that there were a series of spiritual or energetic transmissions from both Eastern and Western traditions that created a unique energy at Esalen. The value in this is the depth of understanding Kripal brings to every stream of thought feeding into Esalen’s crucible. He understands mysticism, and mystics, and in many ways illustrates through his writing what he describes at Esalen: the ability for personal gnosis and critical thinking to co-exist and even enhance one another. Kripal appears to agree with Michael Murphy’s basic premise that there is in fact an evolution of human potential going on, and he seems to have intended his book to be at one level a vehicle for further transmission to those who read it a certain way.

Kripal has been at the center of controversy with some of his earlier works on Hinduism in particular, where he has suggested that much of Eastern mystical experience derived from sublimated homoerotic urges, and he has examined more than one Indian mystic through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis. In this history, just about every person connected with Esalen was either influenced by Asian tantric traditions or contributed to tantra’s integration into Western culture. Page by page he bangs that drum, until you either cry uncle or get zapped by a divine transmission of spiritual unity. For me it was mostly the former, but perhaps that is because I am already a child of the California mindset and need no further zapping. If so, I will take it as a blessing.

This book surprised me by vindicating one of my initial criticisms of Jone Salomonsen‘s book about Reclaiming, Enchanted Feminism. In my review from 2002, I argued that Jone tries to tie Reclaiming’s praxis exclusively to Judeo-Christian origins, when in fact it was highly influenced by yoga, meditation, and other Eastern influences. There is much more than a passing connection between Starhawk‘s 1994 novel The Fifth Sacred Thing and Michael Murphy’s 1977 novel Jacob Atabet. Jone missed these major regional influences, and any future history of the Pagan movement in the Bay Area will have to take this up more seriously.

The “religion of no religion” (a phrase originally coined by Frederic Spiegelberg, another important Esalen influence) is Kripal’s unified field theory of West Coast mysticism: a mixture of nature religion, the non-theistic strains of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Western somatic psychology, and the tantric union of opposites. To Kripal, Esalen stands as a central broadcasting tower, transmitting these ideas into the weave of world culture.

In ancient cosmology, the mountain was the center of the world. Here we have a place at the bleeding edge of a continent, clinging to the cliffs of the most unstable mountain range in North America, at the confluence of 3 sacred waters: sulphur, fresh, and salt. Any alchemist can tell you that big juju lies there. Try it yourself, I highly recommend it. And if you really want to understand California Cosmology, you need to read this book.

Lammas Tide

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Last weekend I went to a lovely Lammas dinner at my friend Victoria’s house, a feast fit for the Gods and a few dozen people as well. I love a good harvest meal, and any menu that starts with home-baked bread, whole poached salmon and fresh tomato slices is just bound to be good. The company was splendid, the fog came in like a blanket without too much wind, and I got back to find I had blessedly missed much of my daughter’s late summer Buffy-fest, wherein she watches an entire season of episodes in a shockingly short amount of time. Ah, to be young and bored again!

Harvest is a rewarding and also a nerve-wracking time. To reap the benefits of long months of work is good news, but it is not always easy and rarely goes completely according to plan. You never know what will wash ashore from the deep as you go about the business of finishing off projects and tidying up loose ends.

In my case, there are a few really big projects I’ve been working steadily on, and while they all seem to be nearing resolution, this week it dawned on me that unfortunately they were all going to get more difficult towards the end.

A long and very complicated property issue which has been held up for a year now shows signs of resolution; however, this means that for the next month the outside of my house will be completely torn apart as siding and everything else is replaced. That wouldn’t be so bad, but all the banging comes right at a time when I have a couple big writing deadlines looming and need to concentrate.

So naturally for the first time in my life I am also experiencing tendonitis caused by too much typing. A crash course in ergonomics is not exactly what I wanted right now, while I just have to keep writing, but like it or not it’s what I get to do—while my house is reverberating with the sounds of demolition, and I am being distracted by the myriad decisions one faces during a construction project.

The list goes on, but suffice it to say this will be one hell of a month. To top it off, this afternoon a friend and I were looking at a potential workshop space, and the guy renting it turned out to be really insufferable. Apropos of nothing, he started in on how he really appreciates it when things are hard, because then he knows he’ll get a lot out of the experience. Yes, he is really a fan of difficulties, he welcomes them with open arms, because you know you get what you pay for and who wouldn’t want the wisdom that comes with living through difficult times?

Right away I thought of several (to my mind) really funny things to say, none of which would probably help us in procuring the space. So, with the wisdom that comes from years of enduring insufferable people, I just quietly said, “This is not a good day for me to philosophize on how lucky we are when things get tough.”

My friend, who had been watching me closely, picked up the cue right away and steered the conversation to a more practical vein. That was a close call, but we made it through and had a good laugh about it afterwards.

It is a time for bringing in the harvest, but remember to wear gloves out in the fields. Take care of yourselves in the process, don’t take unnecessary risks, and when in doubt keep feasting those Gods. All will be well in time.