The unique blend of Eastern and Western mysticism, science, and parapsychology that characterizes California Cosmology makes so much intuitive sense to me that it is difficult to even describe why that is so. In my review of Jeffrey Kripal’s book on Esalen I gave it a pretty fair shot, so I won’t spend time tonight trying to say more. Instead I want to introduce its evil twin, what I call Hotel California Cosmology.
California cosmology is what I grew up on, catching glimpses on the radio, tv, and on the streets as a Bay Area youngster in the 1960s and 70s. It was wild and free, challenging, esoteric, erotic, and hinted of a grand future for humanity. It was also what I was looking for as a teenager, the lucky number on which I placed all my chips as I extricated myself from the staid environment I was raised in and headed out on my own.
My chief concern, once I moved to Berkeley at 17, was being able to tell the difference between the real thing and the cheap or dangerous imitation. My first success was landing a job at the Lhasa Karnak herb store on Telegraph Ave., where I learned a lot about healing plants. In a near miss, I went down to Shambhala Books one evening when Robert Anton Wilson was scheduled to speak.
I got halfway through the door when I caught sight of him in his bulky Alpaca sweater surrounded by acolytes, and a strange thing happened. He creeped me out instantly. I was physically repelled by his energy and by the whole scene around him, so I turned around and left. That was the first time I’d ever had such a strong negative intuition, and I consider it a minor miracle that I had enough sense in my innocence to pay attention to it.
But when you are searching for transformation, you can’t stay safe all the time. Sooner or later you will be sucked in by something and lose your bearings, because that’s the only way to undergo a powerful change. Finding yourself again is the tricky part, of course, but that’s kind of like waking up from a dream. First you have to fall asleep.
In my case, I was again fortunate to land in the Bay Area direct action community in the early 1980s, where anarchist coffeehouses, collective living and Pagan spirituality brought together a wonderful cast of characters. There was a whole lot of transformation going on, and the good outweighed the bad most of the time. I think if you can say that about the pivotal times in your life, you’ve done pretty well.
At a certain point, though, you grow up. The charismatic charmer is revealed to be a narcissistic jerk. The clever facilitator is actually a control freak. And moments where it seemed something was being accomplished turn out to have been anomalies rather than progress.
If your goal is to find yourself again after going through a life-changing transformation, this is the time when you need to bow out and forge your own path. But some people take the opposite tack. While others are working to individuate from the group, these folks decide that what the group needs is to become more enmeshed with each other. More Kool-Aid please, and double the dose.
These are the conditions in which Hotel California Cosmology (HCC) thrives. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” as the song helpfully informs us. HCC is all about manipulation, not of experience but of how you perceive and are allowed to talk about your experience. And whereas the best examples of California Cosmology merge personal gnosis and critical thinking, with HCC there is only room for uncritical thinking and emotion—lots of emotion. Analysis and logic are thrown out the window like so much old-paradigm hooey, and in its place we can all agree with each other some more about how we are experiencing something truly radical and life-affirming.
The best example of this is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which has produced the most mind-numbing blather, and the most sanctimonious adherents, of any fad I have ever encountered. NVC completely strips dialogue of any accountability. It considers not just judgment but educating, praising, apologizing, and correcting to be coercive, blame-based communication patterns.
Intention is king in NVC, and if I tell you I will do something and then don’t do it, number one you can’t blame me because blame is a throwback to violent communication. Number two, I can hold the space for you to express your feelings if you can do so in a non-judgmental way that at no point asks me to apologize for my failure. Number three it was not a failure, and I appreciate the connection I feel with you around hearing your authentic experience. Number four, I hear that you still need me to do what I intended to do, and I am expressing that it is still my intention. Now, don’t we both feel better?
NVC is such a deep study in grandiose irrelevance, I’m sure I will have more to say about it at a later date. For now, though, I will close with a handy list of things to check for if you suspect you are caught up in a HCC vortex. I wrote these reality-check points in a comment to an earlier post of mine, but have rewritten them here in a way that is relevant to a broader range of Hotel California groups and ideas. If you suspect you are in a group that is under the influence of its own Kool-Aid, here are some things to check for in meetings, ceremonies and conversation.
- Is deference always paid to the person with the biggest personality?
- Are moments of real connection repeatedly broken by a call to arms over a signature issue?
- Is the “ideal vision” invoked at times when questions or divergent opinions are expressed? Does that effectively end the debate?
- Do the leaders play on the emotions of others to mask a lack of integrity in themselves?
- Are policies and goals framed in an either/or, good/bad manner, rather than acknowledging a range of beliefs or possibilities?
- Are ethical concerns re-framed as issues of personal choice or group diversity, in order to deflect personal accountability? Is this maneuver successful?