20 Feet from Enlightenment: A Coming of Sage Story
memoir humor by J.Macon King
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. I have always been ambivalent if I really wanted a spiritual guru, trusting that if I found the ONE, it would be epiphany at first sight. But, hot damn, they all sure looked shiny and seductive. This is the story of how, so many times, I found myself 20 Feet from Enlightenment.
In the ’70s, after one year of college near my home in the rural Midwest, I solo hitchhiked to San Francisco and up through NorCal and 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, frizzy-haired fellows until late. They knew I couldn’t leave without walking miles alone 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 hippies), and the like. The worst was yet to come.
At 19, realizing I’d squandered my second year of college scholarship, I again bolted to the West Coast, first to Seattle, then San Francisco, then Hollywood. I visited (crashed for too long) with a friend from my college who had preceded me West, and his girlfriend. Jack had dreams of stardom like most callow youth who suddenly move to Hollywood. (In a few years Jack would be Second Assistant Director for John Carpenter’s seminal slasher hit Halloween.) Of course, L.A. was “shock”-full of wide-eyed and overly-enthusiastic Scientologists (mind invasion\control of actors and attractive women). Instinctively, I never succumbed to Scientology’s enticements, although I really liked science (as a teen I had a chemistry set and made some fun IEDs).
However, a cute young thing chatted with me in the Santa Monica mall, quickly inviting me to accompany her to a nearby Nichiren Shōshū event. I naively thought it was going to be martial arts demonstration. Karate and “Kung Fu Fighting” studios were popping up in L.A. like, well, like Scientology branches. N.S. turned out to be incessant, swarm-of-bees Buddhist chanting to a Gohonzon (fancy piece of paper) in an Altar (box). She persuaded me to stick it out at another N.S. chanting session and then later to the beautiful main Temple in West Hollywood. The place looked like Mr. Miyagi’s dojo on steroids. There, I chanted “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” like a man possessed for enlightenment, world peace and an end to the Vietnam War. When I mentioned this to a leader, he smiled and told me it was fine to chant for money, a new car, and a starlet girlfriend like every other guy. 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 recruiters, 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’ (i.e. Sexy Sadie Maharishi’s TM) chief mission truly was filling open-minded female converts with spirituality. (Most effective while they were 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. All of the waitresses were mesmerizingly-glowing with health and gowned in white. Diaphanous nymphets, really. I wondered that if I ate only rabbit food, I could be pretty like them. The Source restaurant later had a famed cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. What do you know? — it turned out the Source was a cult. The owner/guru, Father Yod, had fourteen wives and 139 roommates all ensconced in his 24-room mansion. The restaurant would soon close, the cult moving to Hawaii, where Father Yod made his maiden voyage on a hang glider. He bravely leapt off a 1,300-hundred-foot cliff (120 stories). Yod spectacularly crashed and burned without leaving a mark (nor stigmata) on his body. Some say this made a miracle. I would say, that with fourteen wives, this made him world-class widow-maker.
While living in Santa Monica, I began long walks along the beach (told you) to Venice, which was modeled after the architecture and canals of the real Venice. One day I became curious of a huge, gorgeous building (now Hotel Casa del Mar). Shaved-headed, scary white guys were hanging out in front. When I queried someone down the beach, I was advised to avoid them. So of course, on the way back I stopped to talk. This was Synanon’s HQ. Synanon was a residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, initially praised, then controversial (mass beatings, intimidation—aka “The Game” — disappearances, kidnappings), that would soon convince the IRS that they were Church of Synanon (cult). Considering that at that time, Venice was a playground for heroin addicts, the temptation for the baldies must have been, well, tempting. (George Lucas, a USC grad, used these skin-headed residents to act in his dystopian THX 1138.) 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 the San Francisco Examiner, KGO-TV, NBC and a tiny local West Marin paper, Point Reyes Light, which really dug in to Synanon’s HQ takeover and practices at a nearby huge property (now Marconi Conference Center State Park). Synanon sued all the media reporting (including Reader’s Digest for gosh sake), and the media all mostly settled. Even though NBC had received hundreds of threats. The Light prevailed and not only won the suit and damages, but also a Pulitzer for its brave reporting. Finally, the Marin County Grand Jury investigated. Things eventually went to hell (hopefully, literally) for the founder and his henchmen: dozens of indictments, perjury, and the capper—charged with attempted assassination by rattlesnake. (Really. I’m not kidding.)
Carlos and Charlie
I had collected (borrowed and never returned) all three of Carlos Castaneda’s anthropologic, shamanistic, plant-based-nutrition infused (Mescalito, Psilocybe, Devil’s Weed) don Juan books, inspired by a Yaqui Indian sorcerer\shaman of Sonora, Mexico. For the uninitiated, don Juan was another inspiration for (tada!) Lucas in creating Yoda. (Although, hmm, did Source Family’s Father Yod inspire the name?)
Even though I was enrolled in a rigorous scholastic load at Santa Monica J.C (creative writing and badminton), I audited (poached) writing and film classes at UCLA. Castaneda’s fourth don Juan book, Tales of Power, had just been published. A classmate co-ed (yes, they were really unabashedly called that back then) mentioned that the reclusive mystic, Castaneda, had a shrub-concealed compound nearby on Pandora. (Not the Avatar planet with blue aliens, but in Westwood). I would peer through his gate (no, no—peering is not stalking), hoping to catch sight of a sacred peyote ceremony or at least a divine lizard. The Yaqui Indian shamanistic experiences in his “non-fiction” best sellers were just beginning to be debunked as fiction (i.e. bullshit). With all the royalties he made off trusting readers, in that compound, Carlos started his very own cult called Tensegrity. I don’t know what that is or does, but somehow, all the nubile female cult members magically became “witches” (right! aka Carlos’s girlfriends).
In 1998, after Carlos’s enigmatic death (not reported for months, will altered after he was incapacitated, will contested), here’s the scorecard: Six disappearing witches, three or more dead in “apparent” suicide pact, one witchy woman bleached skeleton found in Death Valley. Thank goodness for his locked gate.
Of course, there was the one and only. Charlie. Charles Manson, with his own hellish cult (sport-murdering, staring contests, forehead carving, helter skeltering), had been locked away a few years before I lived in L.A. But believe me, his dark shadow still loomed, malingering over sunny Los Angeles. Manson was larger than life (he was 5’2). Manson was THE Boogie Man. The establishment, law and media loved that we feared him—the Hippie as Satan. “See, we tried to warn you that crazy hippies on drugs will get you.” What is less known about Charlie, besides claiming that his Family was a spiritual group, the Beatles gave him coded messages, and he was Jesus reincarnate, is that (drum roll) he was a practicing Scientologist for ten years. He attended Scientology meetings and classes in L.A. before the murder spree. In Northern California, Charlie’s legacy would “X” my path again.
The ’60s psychedelic cults preached a shortcut to enlightenment— LSD. I was a little young but I knew that psychedelics were making a huge impact on society whether partaking or not, especially through rock music, art, and pop culture. In New York, the World’s Greatest Hallucinogenic Showman, Timothy Leary, glorified LSD as the second coming (which was known to happen—sometimes a third or fourth). He promoted the League for Spiritual Discovery, and melded with fellow, outside-the-Möbius-strip minds as Richard Alpert (later AKA Ram Dass), the late Ralph Metzner and Aldous Huxley. In Southern California, a group of rather bad-boys had an epiphany on acid (which they robbed) and would form The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Soon close friends of Leary, they also deified LSD a holy sacrament, particularly their own brand, Orange Sunshine™ and became the most fervently ambitious distributors of L and hashish in the universe (this one and the other shinier one). Sadly, the leader, John Griggs, O.D.ed on bad Psilocybin and died. (Not their recommended way to see God.)
Let Timmy Drop
I did meet legendary Leary (after him being on the lam, and out of prison—again), when he debated his polar opposite, Watergate break-in mastermind G. Gordon Liddy (also out of prison), at UC Berkeley in 1983. Now, I have recently met a close friend of Leary, who just happened to be a founder of the Brotherhood, and leader after Grigg’s death. More on this later.
Despite my late blooming in the ‘70’s, there were still plenty of microdots, blotters, tabs, hits, strips, and trips available. My dealer, Push (yes, the name he actually went by), in the three-river town of Alton, Illinois, had a claustrophobia-inducing garret with black lights, Day-Glo painted walls and stereo speakers in which he and select friends (customers) would drop and smoke, listening to Moody Blues (“Timothy Leary’s Dead…He’ll take you up, he’ll bring you down, He’ll plant your feet back firmly on the ground…”) or Magical Mystery Tour (“The Beatles wrote this on acid, man, and it’s about acid!”) and later “coming down” with Marx Brothers movies. Fun, but not exactly spiritually enlightening.
My 70’s aforementioned TV-producer roommate in Santa Monica, who I’ll call Terry Martin (because that was his name), was not only was a certified Knowitallogist, but had a private reserve of drugs (kind of like a wine cellar), which included celebrated “windowpane” (beautiful, see-through, very clean and strong acid). I “accidentally” broke the stash lock and liberated, and for some reason, decide to ingest two hits of windowpane (oops). Getting off, I rode my motorcycle up the PCH and turned to the curvy, winding road to the top of Tuna Canyon, tripping higher than a kite in the sky with diamonds. On the way back, I stopped on groovy brushy, sheer-drop-off cliff to burn one and contemplate my second navel with my third eye (to calm the fuck down). That’s when I finally felt IT. I thought at first it was just sensual, no, truthfully more horniness… but maybe it WAS the Joseph-and-the-Amazing-Technicolor-Dreamcoat effect. Maybe not nirvana, but IT, you know?Maybe what Leary was talking about, man. I was…. finally … reaching… the feeling that… Then…suddenly…without warning, disaster struck…
…out of nowhere, like from a bush burning against the bright western sun, a tall figure, head to foot in brown with a large head appeared. The figure gently inquired if everything was Ok. Smokey the Bear? God? My guru? Of course not. ‘Twas a CHP officer. He demanded my ID (my license said I was 21, old enough to drink, although I was 19). He soon got the radio report back: I was a wanted criminal, a fugitive on the lam. For FTA on an unpaid jaywalking ticket. (The L.A.P.D. used to be real blue meanies about jaywalking, even during a rare downpour like I had been). He busted me. I was obviously VeErY StOnEed, 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 CHP Malibu 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. Already in my cell was another dangerous outlaw, a fellow hippie kid busted for trespassing on a hike (at the nearby nudist colony).
I was soon transferred to the notoriously freaky L.A. County Zoo, I mean Jail, where I did have an enlighteningly sordid time “crashing” while watching hardened criminals perform standup sex. A fellow political prisoner was bragging to another regular about his most recent unnecessarily vicious robbery. I innocently queried a nuanced point of his Clockwork Orange is the New Black violence. The man rudely suggested that I was a snitch and threatened me with a good old-fashioned shanking. Fortunately, he first demanded, “Whada’ya in for?” Gulp. Jaywalking. “Say, what?!” Jaywalking in… the nude. “What the f**k?'” Uh, 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 housing with roommates in the Haight Ashbury (where Manson had originally accumulated his Family—mostly teen girls, of course). Briefly, I even lived in a commune (no shaving zone, jug wine drinking nightly, not a cult). 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 free love and group sex, including Tantric sex with mangoes).
My roomie left for his San Jose law job early A.M., which gave his girlfriend time to stroll past my open bedroom door to the bathroom, for a lingering, simmering shower and wash her lustrous waist-long reddish-blonde hair (could have been blondish-red). Every morning. (No one else in the Haight ever did this.) The girl 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 popped back into his 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.
Feeling bad about my temptation to roommate lust, 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.
Est, Hairy Har-e & Keeping Up with the Joneses
In SF in time for the glory days of Est (locked in a room with fifty strangers while the leader strips away your id and ego and does 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 perfect use (peppering unsuspecting people like me with probing personal questions until one is so exhausted we blurt out our deepest insecurities). Once I was defenseless, Weaponized-Enlightenment 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 which afforded me an actual glimmer of enlightenment. “Well, you are a special case.” Werner’s insight saved me a lot of money.
My next roommate was a certified Hare Krishna (dorky, shaved heads, single My-Little-Pony braid, electric-shock dancing, amazingly annoying “Hare, Hare” chants, pestering for donations at airports, great vegan food, yummy secret dressings). Patrick 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 PCP Patrick shared with us might have enhanced the weirdness. Note: This is not an endorsement of PCP as a gateway to enlightenment.) The colorful creepy doll shrines were massive. I’m not sure what happened to my girlfriend, but she probably made it out, too. Or, maybe she became one of those dolls. (Kidding.) I found out later that my Krishna guru Patrick was so spiritual that his chief source of income was using us two-three roomies as a profit center on the rent. Augmented possibly from PCP sales.
I was also in San Francisco during the lethal reign of Jim Jones and his “new religious movement,” the Peoples Temple (Christian activists, paddlers, paranoids). I heard the soon to be suicided Jones speak at a couple of political rallies at Civic Center Plaza for the soon to be assassinated Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. Little Jimmy grew up in small-town Midwest, like me, just a couple of hundred miles away. And like most rural boys he made extra money by holding funeral services for dead animals in his home and selling pet monkeys door to door. Yep.
Jones’ San Francisco Temple on Geary Boulevard was next door to a beautiful former synagogue, which somehow my original local friend Dave and friends had taken over for a private, tripping party pad, with a long rope dangling from way up in the dome or whatever it was. The place was really a trip. (It later become “Temple Beautiful” for live rock\punk shows where I saw The Clash). Local politicians, such as Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk (note reverse foreshadowing) and the press (like celebrity columnist Herb Caen) fawned over Jones not only because of his charisma and deeds, but he was proficient at tipping local elections by intimidation and registering and bussing in fraudulent “voters.” 5,000 as reported by (take note election deniers deniers) The New York Times.
Those good times finally came to an end — in a once-in-a-lifetime Flavor Aid & Cyanide party at this infamous bungle in the jungle. The devout parishioners re-established at People’s Temple’s South American compound by Jones, who was now speed-fueled, along with Quaaludes, morphine and yummy Thorazine. Jones and the 917 members were slowly, sickeningly suicided, almost a third of them children. Plus, five investigative visitors were shot to death including U.S. Congressman Ryan. (Praise the Lord and pass the knock-off Kool-Aid. Amen.)
To wrap up San Francisco on a better note, while in North Beach (where I would soon live), I ran into Paul Krassner, member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, founding member of the Yippies, writer, satirist, friend of Lenny Bruce, and a crazy amount more. He inscribed for me his little book, I Dropped Acid with Groucho. Krassner wrote that, “the acid with which Ram Dass, in his final moments as Dick Alpert, failed to get his guru higher was the same acid that I had the honor of taking with Groucho Marx.”
In the mid ’80s I moved north of the Golden Gate to Marin County, CA (known for redwoods, Mt. Tamalpais, nude beaches, hot tubs, Zen hipsters, rock stars, swingers and “It’s the Real Thing” un-enlightenment). Guess who beat me to Marin? Charlie Manson was there, in San Quentin Prison. Marin is where the wealthier and smarter hippies and musicians absconded, after the Haight Ashbury’s Summer of Love turned to the Winter of Hard Drugs. Ironically, it is also home to the aging hard-core prison.
Charlie and Carlos Redux
Helter Skelter co-author, Curt Gentry, and I chatted with at a literary remembrance at a San Francisco private club. This was two months before he passed. In Marin, Tom Snyder, the famed, former TV late-night talk show host, became a client of mine. Snyder was the first, and only one of a handful, allowed to interview the imprisoned Charlie. (Video site available in references section.*) At Tom’s Corinthian Island (near Tiburon) home, while playing in his sizable, magical-realism toy train room (O-Gauge, very cool), the realization hit me: I was hanging with a man who had been face-to-face with Charlie. I asked Tom: What was it like, sitting in a barred and locked room, staring into the mad eyes of an uncuffed Charles Manson, asking hard questions. Snyder replied, “About what you would expect.” He thought before adding, “Times ten.”
Later, I was given a tour of San Quentin (voluntary), the site oft protested by racial and social justice warriors. I wanted to see how the other half lived. My tour was replete with Manson bedtime stories (Charlie and the Crazy Factory), plus a still-bitter guard’s graphic story of the notorious ‘71 black militant George Jackson escape attempt\riot there. This was one of the bloodiest in prison history—three guards murdered, one guard horribly mutilated, blood “one-inch thick,” six dead, including Jackson. The alleged smuggler of the handgun and wig for Jackson in this cluster-cluck escape attempt was (white) civil rights activist and attorney, Stephen Bingham. Bingham split and became a fugitive (ah, Europe) for thirteen years before surrendering. I did not know it at the time but this was another “coincidence” in my expedition to enlightenment: Bingham was a fellow Yale chum of my brother-in-law, and they remain in touch.
But I missed ole’ good-time Charlie. He had been transferred to another one of the various and sundry prisons in sunny California. Ironically, while incarcerated, Charlie was, get this, set on fire by a Hare Krishna. Really. The man serenely justified this because Charlie objected to his chanting. (Up to the readers if they find this funny or want to think it was my ex-roomie.)
While driving in Mill Valley, I would see the older woman from staff at my kids’ school, short, nut-brown, invariably dressed in her “uniform” of denim bibs and engineer’s cap, always walking. I began offering the carless woman lifts to or from the elementary school where she ran before\aftercare for the kids and was leader of the Girl Scout Troop. Tia Maria (not really her name) was comfortable, somehow energetically serene, easy going yet practical and firm with the dozens of kids in her care. She was very well liked. One day, after knowing her for some time, as I drove her home, I asked what was her ancestral roots. She said that no one had ever asked her that, just assuming that she was Mexican. She told me she was Yaqui. I stopped the car. I excitedly questioned her about experiences with Yaqui shamans and sorcery and Toltecs and Devil’s Weed and all that stuff. At long last, I was having my very own Yaqui mystical experience. She said, “What?” You know, what do you think of don Juan and Carlos Castaneda? She said, “Who?” Aha, I thought, there really is a “separate reality.” I exclaimed that I was amazed that as a Yaqui, she didn’t know. She replied that her people and family were very private about many things.
At home I researched the Yaqui and was horrified to learn that they had been persecuted, hunted, enslaved, hunted, and relocated—perhaps worse than our natives. No wonder they were so close-mouthed and concealed their ancestry. I didn’t recollect any of this in the Castaneda “anthropological” books. Regardless, that afternoon I levitated my entire set of mostly hardbound Castaneda books to the Yaqui’s home, circled them around her porch a few times like a dog, so they could choose their perfect “place of power” spot (reference to surreal story in one book). I left them and disappeared in a puff of smoke (exhaust).
Lucas and Scientology Redux
In the ’90s, I gained a contract as an OEM marketing and sales consultant with LucasArts. Of course, I spent as much time as possible at the mythical Skywalker Ranch (4,000 acres but George Lucas doesn’t live there). In the village of San Anselmo where George and I live (not together), one of my neighbors was working on The Mandalorian and another was the brother of a man who played Chewbacca at official events. In 2013 “Imagination Park” was financed in town by George, with a fountain featuring life-sized bronzes of Yoda and Indiana Jones. I have talked to George Lucas many, many times (twice).
Disclaimer: I am not implying Star Wars (now Disneyfied ad infinitum\ad nauseam) or the Jedi, are cults, but, um, they do have a rabid cult following (notably rabid cosplaying at Star Wars conventions). Fan boys even peer in the Ranch gate. And I have the dog breed, Brussels Griffon, like George has had, on which he based Chewbacca and Ewoks. (That’s all. I know it’s a stretch, but I wanted to brag.)
Scientology resurfaced for me when a literary friend, Sands Hall, published her expose memoir Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology. The book, based on her Hollywood years, is “…about how an educated and skeptical person could get so deeply into, and then struggle to escape, what everyone around her warned was a dangerous cult…” (The Underground Bunker review). Sands and I did a reading together at a Marin County bookstore in 2018.
Oh. Now You Tell Me
The man I referred to earlier, as a friend of Tim Leary, was one of The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s founders, Michael Randall. The BEL was the 60’s legally registered Southern California church that used LSD and hashish as their sacrament, and which would soon become the largest distributor of LSD in the world (try counting 130,000,000 hits of Orange Sunshine). I discovered that Michael and his wife Carol, also one of the original BEL founders, were living in the little Marin community where I had moved after Mill Valley. Michael is the man who broke Tim Leary out of prison! That’s right. I literally bowed before him.
We’ve had some interesting chats, including my interviewing him, and he remains (after twelve years as a fugitive and five years in prison) a true believer. Michael was in disbelief that I had only tripped the light fandango sans enlightenment. I.E. Led Zeppelin concerts, weird places like an abandoned, creepy meat-packing plant, with a girlfriend at the St. Louis Zoo, San Francisco’s long-closed and emptied gigantic Fleishhacker Pool (where on the bottom a friend and I played chess), and often just by myself, like while riding a motorcycle. I joked to Michael that I really hadn’t known I was supposed to commune with the universe or see God, or how—because no one gave me a manual. He smiled and gave me his and his wife’s little book, A Psychedelic Guide.
I joined in private yoga lessons (agile women, second-skin Lycra or Spandex or whatever that stuff is…men, too, I guess) at a friend’s mansion. The instructor was a lovely yogini (I love that word) in flowing white, the daughter of a well-known yoga family, really Yoga Royalty. I found it hard to focus. Not just because of the yogini (ah), but because at eye level with the floor I was distracted by pet toys and dust bunnies hiding under the furniture.
The old Synanon headquarters property I have visited numerous times on my coastal motorcycle rides. Green Gulch Farm Zen Center was twenty minutes from where I lived in Mill Valley, winding up and down Mt. Tam. I was twice invited by the yogini to the Eden-esque center for silent weekend retreats for yoga. From my experience, two caveats—do NOT drink black tea before going to the temple for the hour-long, even-silent-ier meditation in the lotus position. And the amount of damn Zen bell ringing and gonging—not very silent.
Baseball fans will appreciate this tale from one of my zany Zen weekends. Of course, the silent retreat turned out to be scheduled during San Francisco Giants Pennant playoffs. The Giants were poised for their first ever World Series. Zen monks, I discovered (ransacking their quarters—silently), have no TV and no radio. “OMG,” I thought (to myself). “I mean, Om. What would Yogi Berra do?” So, during the “yoga in the yurt” with about twenty-five fellow yogurts posing in harmony, I covered my cell phone (one bar) with a t-shirt by my mat. I took peeks at ESPN’s animated stats between downward dugs and sun solicitations. A few other 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 add, 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 he so fat? There is a nickname for these spiritualists, which is “Jew-Bu.” I’m not making this up (or Jewboo, Jubu—Wikipedia has a listing). I know a few Jew-Bus who have, like, 10th Degree Black Belts in Buddhism. They 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 and smoochy-faced influencers of Cults Technologique—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Xbox Live, et al, with untold millions of addicted followers. I have a pretty good life with one wife, no roommates, one pug (named… Buddha), two surfboards and three mountain bikes. I am satisfied with reading, writing, and ruminating, God (the classic old, bearded, old faithful one in heaven), the outdoors, and elixir of the gods (up, very cold, two olives). Not always in that order. My vegan wife is a yummi yogini/Pilates/fitness trainer who has, like, A PHID in enlightenment, and is happy as a pearl in an oyster. She can stay safely spiritually superior while I take care of reality and the material world. She sits in lotus, does downward dog and is enlightened. I squat to pick up our dog shit and get high by climbing to 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.
The Source Family doc trailer: https://vimeo.com/58953915
LSD the Brotherhood http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170112-the-lsd-cult-that-terrified-america
Leary debates G. Gordon Liddy: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread1120632/pg1
Jim Jones organized campaign of election fraud: https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/17/archives/followers-say-jim-jones-directed-voting-frauds-busloads-of-voters.html
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill
What authors have said about this story:
T.C. Boyle, best-selling novelist, author of Drop City, Outside Looking In, The Road to Wellville: “Thanks, John–beautifully done. I especially like the wisdom of the last paragraph. We are definitely on the same page.”
Christie Nelson, author of Beautiful Illusion, Dreaming Mill Valley, Woodacre: Bravo, J.M.K. I swear, “20 Feet from Enlightenment”, your story has me gasping for breath. I’ve just read it out loud to my husband Ron, again, howling with laughter, and mopping tears from my face. It’s hilarious, brilliant, and nails every cult guru and community that’s come down the 101. Were we really that stupid? That old-timey bearded fire-and-brimstone-God, the one I grew up with at West Portal Lutheran Church, never did answer my prayers, but it’s so comforting every now and then, in whipping out a “Our Father who art in heaven.”
Mark Susnow, Life Coach and author of Dancing on the River, The Soul of Uncertainty: “John I loved this piece…..sounds like you did more things than I did and that’s saying a lot because i was there for most of it…..”
Jeb Harrison, musician, author of American Corporate, Hack, and more: “Brilliant comedy!”