Never cease from exploring the other side of that ridge… even though you may get lost, or step on a rattlesnake. Here in California I sometimes feel a bit guilty for not being spiritually woo woo enough. I’m just a regular guys’ guy, just a little smarter, and maybe more cynical, but also very sensitive and who likes cuddling and long walks on the beach. Moreover, I have had my own authentic woo woo experiences (another story), so I was never certain I needed some spiritual guru, especially if I had to pay them. But, hot damn, it all sure looked enticing. This is the story of how I was 20 Feet from Enlightenment, so many times.
In the ’70s at age 18, I left rural Midwest and solo hitchhiked to San Francisco and up through NorCal, Pacific Northwest, to Alaska. Numerous times a willowy hippie chick would invite me to “come have dinner,” or “meet my friends,” “meet the ‘Family’” or “crash at my place.” Dinner, etc. would be invariably be out in the middle of nowhere at some rundown commune-type place (like Boonville, CA) where the girl would hide and I would be proselytized (not in a sexual way) by intense, wide-eyed guys until late. When I tried, I couldn’t leave without walking miles and risk getting lost in the dark. That right there, is a good longish metaphor for my early, unintended skirmishes with enlightenment. At least enlightenment as sponsored by Jesus Freaks (hippie stoner Christians), Moonies (unified, globalized, politicized hippie), and the like. The worst was yet to come.
I returned home for another year of college, and at age 19, again bolted to the West Coast, moving in with a couple of graduated friends in Hollywood. Why? I don’t know. Of course, L.A. was “shock”-full of Scientologists (mind control of actors and attractive women) and Nichiren Shōshū (which I thought initially to be martial arts, but turned out to be incessant swarm-of-bees Buddhist chanting). I was invited by a cute girl to a few N.S. chanting sessions in Santa Monica, and later to the beautiful main Temple in West Hollywood. I chanted “Namyo Ho Renge Kyo” to a Gohonzon (fancy piece of paper) for enlightenment, world peace, and an end to the Vietnam War. A leader smiled and told me it was OK to chant for money and a new car like everybody else. Seriously. I quit. Me, still being part hick, figured for my materialism needs, I best stick with my Southern Baptist God (hellfire & damnation), as in praying, “Lord, give me strength not to drink that whole jug of moonshine” or “God, don’t let the crops fail…again.” Praying just seemed less sneaky, less work, and less risk of a sore throat from all the dang chanting.
In L.A. I seemed to continuously encounter various cult members, mostly (yep) available-appearing young women. The leaders, in their infinite wisdom, knew the women could best serve the spiritual cause by publicly “seducing” potential devotees. After rigorous investigation, guided by my wiser, older television producer friend, we concluded that many cults’ (Transcendental Meditation) chief mission was filling open-minded women with spirituality while open-mouthed on their knees. My friend stated on TV that “being a spiritual cult leader is statistically more sexually productive than being a Hollywood producer.” We considered starting our own cult.
The Source Family health-food restaurant on Sunset Boulevard was where I ate my first alfalfa sprouts, while waited on mesmerizingly glowing, healthy waitresses in white, nymphets, really. I wondered that if I ate only rabbit food, I could be pretty like them — and what do you know? — it turned out The Source was a cult. The owner had multiple wives and 139 roommates. The restaurant had a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
Carlos Castaneda of Don Juan fame lived in Westwood, not too far from me. I bought and read all his mystical books (28 million sold), almost believing them. So even though his shamanism was exposed as a bit of a fraud, with all the royalties he made off of us, Carlos started his very own cult called Tensegrity. (Don’t ask me, look it up.) For some reason, all the female cult members became nubile “witches,” aka, Carlos’s girlfriends. Six of them disappeared in an apparent suicide pact after his death. Then of course, there was the one and only. Charlie. Manson, with his own hellish cult (sport-murdering, helter-skeltering), had been locked away a few years before I lived in L.A. – but believe me, he was still THE Boogie Man.
While living in Santa Monica, I began daily walks along the beach to Venice, passing a huge, gorgeous building (now Hotel Casa del Mar). Scary, white, shaved-headed guys always were hanging out in front. I was advised to avoid them. This was Synanon’s HQ. (Lucas used these skinheads to act in his dystopian THX 1138.) Synanon was the controversial (mass beatings, intimidation—aka “The Game” — disappearances, kidnappings) residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation\cult that would soon convince the IRS that they were Church of Synanon. Considering that at that time, Venice was a playground for heroin addicts, the temptation for the baldies must have been, well, tempting. Synanon was run like a true “Hotel California” — “You can check out…but you can never leave…” Synanon expanded, opened chapters in the Bay Area and was eventually investigated by NBC — despite lawsuits and hundreds of threats against NBC — and also by the Marin County Grand Jury. Things eventually went to hell for the founders: dozens of indictments, perjury, and the capper: charged with attempted assassination by rattlesnake. (Really.)
I was a little young for ’60s cults like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which preached a shortcut to enlightenment — LSD. Particularly their own brand, Orange Sunshine™. (One of the Brotherhood’s founders, Michael Randall, now lives in my little town, and we’ve had some interesting chats.) Richard Alpert, Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary glorified LSD as the second coming (which was known to happen, sometimes three or four times). I saw Leary, fresh out of prison, speak at UC Berkeley in 1983. Despite my late blooming, there were still plenty of microdots, blotters, tabs, hits, strips, and trips available. My dealer in Alton, Illinois had a claustrophobia-inducing garret with black lights, Day-Glo painted walls and speakers in which he and select friends would drop and smoke, listening to Moody Blues or Magical Mystery Tour (“The Beatles wrote this on acid, man, and it’s about acid!”) and later “coming down” with Marx Brothers movies.
Working at the Brentwood Ralphs Market in L.A., an enlightened co-worker took me to Redondo Beach home. Each wall was painted a different color and the place was filled with tile and carpet remnants, giving it a Joseph-and-the-Amazing-Technicolor-Dreamcoat effect. Truly horrible, but I guess it all really came together when on acid. My TV producer roommate had a stash of celebrated “windowpane” (very clean, very strong). I somehow ingested two (oops) hits, and ended up riding my motorcycle through Tuna Canyon, tripping higher than a kite in the sky with diamonds. I stopped here and there on groovy sheer-drop-off cliffs to contemplate my third navel. That’s when I felt IT. Maybe not nirvana, but IT, you know? What Leary was talking about, man. I was…finally…reaching…EN…LIGHTNING…MENT. Then…suddenly, disaster struck.
I was arrested. A CHP officer appeared out of nowhere, like from a bush or something, ran my ID, discovered that I was a wanted criminal (for FTA on an unpaid jaywalking ticket) and he busted me. I was obviously stoned, yet he actually let me r-i-d-e my Yamaha d-o-w-n all those s-n-a-k-i-n-g, cliff-side curves to sea level while tailing me. (Maybe he wanted to see a hippie ride off a cliff.) Inside the Malibu CHP station, I became lost in a straight, dead-end hallway. I was finally led into a big birdcage, or cell as they called it. Still tripping. Good thing I had training in claustrophobia. Timothy Leary might have been jailed for acid but I was jailed on acid. I was soon transferred to the notoriously freaky L.A. County Zoo, I mean Jail, where I did have an enlighteningly sordid time “crashing.” There in the animal enclosure, hardened violent criminals demanded, “Whada’ya in for?” “Gulp. Jaywalking.” “Say, what?!” “Jaywalking in… the nude.” “What the f**k?'” “Yeah, riding like this, big dog.” “This boy be crazy, stay away from him.”
Lost and Found
After I made the Escape from L.A. and moved to San Francisco, I went through a flurry of roommates in the Haight Ashbury, and even a commune (no shaving zone, jug wine drinking nightly). Growing tired of all the “Sandrea’s stuff—don’t eat” notes on the granola and sprouts, I moved into a house with a lawyer whose gorgeous girlfriend had been to Poonatang, India to study at the feet of guru Bhagwan Rajneesh. I had already encountered a few Rajneesh (“orange people,” “red people,” Buddhalicious Babes in flowing orange clothes with a reputation for group sex, including Tantric sex with mangoes). My roomie left for his San Jose law job early in the A.M., which gave his girlfriend time to stroll past my open bedroom door to the bathroom, take a lingering, simmering shower every morning and wash her lustrous waist-long reddish-blonde hair (could have been blondish-red). She took her “wash, rinse, repeat” very seriously. After, she pranced naked past my bedroom door, naked, (yes naked twice, OK, maybe with a towel, but I wasn’t looking at the towel) and pop back into bed. She didn’t work, so I wondered how could her hair possibly be that dirty, or could it? And it really must be a chore washing all that hair every damn day, and she just really aroused my curiosity. I became so curious about the whole affair that, well, the lawyer issued a “cease and desist.” (Kicked me out.) A few years later I heard she moved to an ashram ranch in Oregon. The Bhagwan and thousands of his Rajneesh loving, spiritual followers took over a tiny village, creating widespread fear and loathing, amassed 93 Rolls Royces, poisoned 750 people in an attempted election coup, and plotted to kill the U.S. Attorney General. Good times! Namaste.
I felt bad about my temptation to roommate lust, so to lessen my devilish temptations I moved into a huge Victorian with four gay guys. I have to say, that lifestyle also seemed kind of a cult, the Gay Cult (sex, party, go to Moby Dick, drop MDA, go to The Stud, fawn over the cutest guy, dance, sex, end up at The Endup, sex, repeat). For further study see: “Castro Clone” and “Bear Culture.” I was not a successful convert to the lifestyle, so they kicked me out, too.
I was also in SF in time for the glory days of EST (locked in a room with strangers while they strip away your id and ego, and not allow you to pee). I acquired a trendy EST girlfriend, and as a questionable bonus, her ever-present Super-EST Mom. Mom put her expensive EST training to good use (peppering unsuspecting people like me with probing personal questions until they are so exhausted they blurt out their true insecurities). Once I was defenseless, Super-EST Mom insisted I go with them and meet Werner Erhard at the Masonic Hall on Nob Hill. I asked the handsome, engaging Werner numerous questions, to demonstrate that I was a quick study. Most of which started with, “What if…” and “Yeah, but what if…” until he eventually gave me a reply affording me a glimmer of enlightenment. “Well, you are a special case.” That answer saved me a lot of money.
My next roommate was a certified Hare Krishna (dorky, shaved heads, cutesy pony tails, electric-shock dancing, weaponized “Hare, Hare” chants, pestering for donations at airports, great vegan food, yummy dressings). He kept inviting me to the ISKCON Temple in Berkeley for feasts (better than dinners). I finally went, along with my Norwegian girlfriend for protection — “take her, take her — she’s cuter!” It was truly one of the weirdest nights of my life. The little creepy doll shrines were massive. I’m not sure what happened to my girlfriend, but she’s probably all right. Maybe she became one of those little dolls. I found out later that my Krishna guru was so spiritual that his chief source of income was ripping off us roomies on the rent. And possibly from PCP sales.
Sadly, I was also in San Francisco during the reign of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple (Christian activists, paddlers, paranoids). The Temple was 20 feet next door to a beautiful former synagogue, which somehow my friend Dave and friends used for a big party pad as Jim Jones ascended. (Later this became “Temple Beautiful” for live punk shows where I saw The Clash.) Local politicians (Agnos, Moscone, Milk) and the press fawned over Jones not only because of his charisma, but that he was very good at tipping the local elections by intimidation and bussing “voters” in. Of course, we know how those good times ended — in a once-in-a-lifetime Kool-Aid party at a bungle in the jungle.
In the ’80s I moved north of the Golden Gate, to Marin County (hot tubs, swingers, drug-lightenment). In the ’90s I joined in private yoga lessons at a friend’s mansion. The instructor was part of a well-known family of yoginis, really Yoga Royalty. I found it hard to focus, not because of the lovely teacher in flowing white, but because at eye level with the floor I was distracted by pet toys and dust bunnies hiding under the furniture. 20 minutes from where I lived in Mill Valley lay the Eden-like Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, at Muir Beach. I twice went to silent weekend retreats for Yoga (agile women, second-skin Lycra or Spandex or whatever that stuff is). From my experience, two caveats: do NOT drink black tea before you go to the temple for the hour-long silent meditation in the lotus position. Also, you may be surprised at the amount of damn Zen bell ringing and gonging — it’s not very silent.
If you’re a baseball fan you’ll appreciate this tale from one of those weekends. Of course, the silent retreat was the weekend that the San Francisco Giants were in Pennant playoffs, poised for their first ever World Series. Zen folks have no TV, no radio, no excited sports chatter. I figured out a workaround. During the “yoga in the yurt” with about twenty-five fellow yogurts posing in harmony, I covered my cell phone with a t-shirt by my mat. I took peeks at ESPN’s animated stats between downward dugs and sun solicitations. A few fans caught on with interest and I would covertly signal runs and updates.
I’ve heard Swami Veda Bharati (Hindu) speak twice at a Christian church, interestingly enough, and I have nothing funny to report, because the Swami was an unexpectedly humorous fellow. Example: “I much enjoy to get a delayed flight at the airports, so that I may spend my time in silent medication.” Cool, I go straight to the bar, too.
Speaking of meditation—renowned, picturesque Spirit Rock Meditation Center in West Marin is 20 feet from… I mean 20 minutes from where I live now. I have visited several times, including for guided meditations. Guess what? There are a ginormous number of Jews who have forsaken their family’s ethnic religion to wholeheartedly embrace Buddhism. Now, for the record, I’m not saying Americanized Buddhism (meditation, intellectualism, paradoxically non-materialistically wealthy) is a cult. But, here’s the bad news: it is forbidden for a Jew to worship any deity other than God (best-selling author of “The 10 Commandments”). Now the Good News. Their lawyers found a way for them to break their sacred covenant with God with a legal loophole — that their clients do NOT worship the little fat Buddha belly statue but only “revere” it. Although I still wonder, if true Buddhists forsake materialism, why is he fat? There is a nickname for these spiritualists — “Jew-Bu.” I’m not making this up. I have met some of these ex-Jews, who have, like, 10th-Degree Black Belts in Buddhism and can spiritually kick your ass.
Now, well into the 21st Century, our cults are no longer led by philosophical bearded masters but baby-faced gurus of Cults Technologique — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, et al, with untold millions of addicted followers. I have a pretty good life with one wife, one pug (named Buddha), two surfboards and three mountain bikes. I am satisfied with writing, marriage, God (the classic old bearded one in the heavens), the outdoors, and martinis (up, olive). Not always in that order. My wife is a yogi/Pilates/fitness trainer who qualifies as enlightened on paper, and is happy as a pearl in an oyster. She can stay safely spiritually enlightened while I take care of reality and the material world. She sits in lotus and does downward dog. I pick up our dog shit and change the light bulbs. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb? None. Change must come from within. Apparently, some of us are destined to remain 20 feet from enlightenment. I mean, if we all were enlightened, there would be no one left to hustle.
–J. Macon King