Reflecting on an era

Sixties ideas on spirituality still flower, scholars say

Dallas Morning News/July 5, 2003
By Kimberly Winston

Every generation, it seems, seeks The Key To Life's Mysteries. Few were more confident they'd found it than the children of the Sixties.

Love is all you need. And if that doesn't work, try a hit of this.

Peace would rule the planet. Enlightenment was at hand. Meditate. Smile. Turn the music up.

Today, much of Sixties culture survives as kitsch (black light posters), retro fashion (bell bottoms), re-issues (the new VW Beetle) or nostalgia (Grandpa Bob Dylan, the Wheezing Stones).

But the spiritual legacy of the Sixties goes deeper. While most icons of the era are gone (in many cases, dead and gone), their influence lives on, scholars say. The individuality, openness and free expression that were the era's cultural hallmarks still influence the way Americans view and practice religion.

"The religious legacy of the Sixties was this quest for experience and authenticity," said Don Lattin, a San Francisco journalist and the author of Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape America Today, to be published in October (Harper San Francisco, $24.95).

"It's about taking chances and searching in a deeper way for what your heart is calling you to do ... There has been this incredible opening for people to find their own way, to find their own bliss."

"Or," he continued with a laugh, "to get totally lost and confused."

According to Mr. Lattin, the "birthplace of religion, California style," was an idyllic woods overlooking the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur.

The Esalen Institute, a combination hot springs and conference center, is devoted, as its Web site says today, "to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the 'human potential,' the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination."

Named after a Native American tribe that once occupied the cliffs, Esalen had its beginnings when two former Stanford University students, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, met in San Francisco and realized their shared interest in religion and spirituality. They retreated to Mr. Murphy's family farm in Big Sur and began attracting a steady stream of artists and thinkers.

"Esalen isn't one thing,' said Mr. Lattin. "You whirl like a dervish in the morning, and in the afternoon you meditate. It is a hodgepodge. And that is how many people look at their spirituality today."

Workshops offered in the current catalog - at prices of up to $3,000 per couple for a weeklong session - include "Ashiko Drum Making," "Think Like an Ocean," "Jewish Humor," "Natural Perfumery," "The Divine Feminine Within," and, covering all bases, "What is Life?"

After Esalen, and with much more noise, came Arthur Janov.

In his 1970 book, The Primal Scream, Dr. Janov traced all adult ills to childhood traumas. Patients were guided to relive those traumas - using props like teddy bears, bibs and rattles - until they wailed. The book sold 2 million copies. For a time, Dr. Janov was a household name. His most famous patient, John Lennon, set primal screaming to a thumping rock beat - and sent many a parent scrambling for earplugs - with his 1970 recording, "Well Well Well."

Today, Dr. Janov's empire has contracted. After closing clinics in New York and Paris, he oversees seven practitioners at his remaining office in Venice, Calif. He did not respond to interview requests.

'It just is'

Another pop-psychology guru from the so-called human potential movement started his career as a Philadelphia car salesman.

In the early 1960s, Jack Rosenberg left his wife and kids and moved to California. One day, while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, he later recounted, he was "transformed" to a state of "knowing everything and knowing nothing."

He changed his name to Werner Erhard and began promoting "EST," for "Erhard Seminars Training."

The training emphasized strict personal responsibility for every event of one's life. Notoriously, Mr. Erhard blamed Holocaust victims for their plight. He was fond of spouting nonsensical saws: "The truth doesn't mean anything. It just is." "The end is the end, or it isn't."

His sessions evoked boot camp - no bathroom breaks, trainers screaming in your face. Clients were said to have finished the course when they "got it." Mr. Erhard got rich.

In the mid-1980s, he changed the name of his business to the Landmark Forum and began offering a kinder, gentler version of est. According to the company's promotional materials, 100,000 people enroll in training sessions each year, generating more than $50 million in revenues. Landmark has branches in two dozen countries and 23 states, including Texas.

Mr. Erhard, however, is no longer at the helm. He sold his "technology" to his employees in 1991. Facing lawsuits from unhappy clients, former employees, even his daughter, he fled the country, reportedly for Mexico.

The elusive Don Juan

To some, Carlos Castaneda was a teacher, a guide. To others, he was a con artist supreme.

Whatever else he was, the University of California, Los Angeles anthropology student was a best-selling author. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, has sold 10 million copies in 17 languages since its publication in 1968.

The book tells of Don Juan Matus, a peyote-eating Yaqui shaman who lived in the Mexican desert. The story purported to be nonfiction - a second sequel, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, was accepted as the author's doctoral thesis. But as ever more fantastic sequels appeared, doubts grew. No one but him had ever seen Don Juan, and Dr. Castaneda refused to allow peers to review his field notes. His credibility eroded among social scientists.

But not among diehard followers, many of whom traveled to Mexico in search of the old sorcerer (or, in the alternative, peyote).

Dr. Castaneda became a recluse. In 1993, he surfaced to teach "Carlos Castaneda's Tensegrity," a series of movements or "magical passes" he claimed to have learned from Don Juan before the Yaqui's death in 1973. Never mind that the movements closely resembled the kung fu and tai chi he studied for more than a decade. Fans lined up to take the workshops ($200 to $1,000) and to buy the video ($29.95).

Dr. Castaneda died of liver cancer in his Los Angeles home in April 1998. There was no funeral. "The author was cremated at once and his ashes were spirited away to Mexico," the Los Angeles Times reported.

(Tensegrity survived. A center in Los Angeles still offers the workshop, at $125 for four sessions.)

"He was poetic. Those books are still beautiful," said Amy Wallace, the daughter of novelist Irving Wallace, who has written a memoir recounting her romantic involvement with Dr. Castaneda.

The teachings of Don Juan, she said, became "a religion, though Carlos would never have used that word. He ridiculed religion."

A crowded bookshelf

Other spiritual volumes from the era are still going strong.

Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) has sold 40 million copies. Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) was re-issued by HarperCollins in a 2000 anniversary edition. It has sold 4 million copies. Be Here Now (1971) by Baba Ram Dass (who was Richard Alpert, a Harvard University professor, until he trekked to India to study at the feet of a Hindu master) has sold 2 million.

They and other authors in the hippie-guru genre remain popular because "they tended to be positive in their approach to spirituality," said Timothy Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. "You don't find lists of 'thou shalt nots' in their work. And they...spoke to timeless concerns."

Mr. Bach became a multi-millionaire, married three times and found his way into and out of bankruptcy. He is said to be living on a remote island off the Washington coast, working on a five-book series about ferrets. (Yes, ferrets.)

Mr. Pirsig reportedly lives in Maine and declines all requests for interviews. Christopher, his son and traveling companion in Zen, died in 1979.

Ram Dass is still teaching and writing, to a sizeable following, despite a 1997 stroke. A 2001 book, Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying was a well-received attempt to escort the Be Here Now generation gently toward the twilight.

The story of author John Allegro had a much more bittersweet ending. A member of the original team of scholars who studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, he published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970, positing that Christianity stemmed from an ancient cult based on sex and psychedelic mushrooms. Jesus' last words on the cross, according to the book, were not a cry to heaven but "a paean of praise to the god of the mushroom."

The book earned Dr. Allegro a cult following, but ruined his career as a scholar. He died in obscurity in 1988.

The head head

It's impossible to understand the spiritual ethos of the Sixties without understanding that millions of young people - and more than a few of their elders - saw drugs as a legitimate path to enlightenment.

Most of the credit, or blame, for this notion goes to Timothy Leary.

In the early 1960s, as an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard, he was doing experiments involving the clinical use of psychedelics. When he started "experimenting" on himself and students, he was fired, along with his colleague, Dr. Alpert.

Dr. Leary never recanted his belief in the spiritual benefits of psychedelics, even after his imprisonment on a drug charge. Richard Nixon once called him "the most dangerous man in America."

He died of cancer in 1996.

Intellectually, the LSD guru's legacy isn't entirely bad, or loopy, according to Dan Merkur, author of The Ecstatic Imagination (State University of New York Press, 1998), a book about religion and psychedelic experiences.

He said Dr. Leary's insistence on the worth of firsthand experience helped change the way religion is taught.

"Sixty years ago, professors didn't bother doing field work, they just obtained texts and studied the words without really understanding the personal experiences that went with them," Mr. Merkur said. "But now they try to understand what religion is and how people go about it, and I think that colors the whole higher education understanding of religion."

And so, to steal Ram Dass's title, the Sixties are still here. They live on, religion scholars say, in the way many spiritually minded individuals challenge assumptions, in the way they look around corners for God. "The Sixties raised the possibility that everything can be questioned," said Robert S. Ellwood, author of The Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion from Modern to Post-Modern (Rutgers University Press, 1994).

A professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, he said the desire to directly experience God's presence is found today in every American religious tradition, from evangelical Christianity to Zen Buddhism. For that, he said, many of today's spiritual seekers owe a partial debt to the adventurers and experimenters, the survivors and casualties of that Long, Strange Trip.

"The country is far, far different than if the Sixties had never happened," he said. "There is just a whole attitude of acceptance that is there that would not be there if we hadn't passed through them."

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