One day when I was thirty I met my guru, by the side of a road in the California mountains. He was an old quack doctor, a natureopath; I had passed his faded road sign for years on the way up to the ranch where I went to recover from the crazy strain of a political life in Berkeley during the 1960s. Now it was 1971. Ever since the Kent State murders I'd been reading obituaries for the Movement, and the market for used 1960s radicals had already bottomed out. Our commune had fizzled, our work collective had exploded, only my marriage was intact, and I didn't know what to do next with myself or my life. I was searching for a sign as I knocked timidly at his door on the way back from a hike.
I was almost too late. He lay dying on a brass bed in a gloomy room, he could hardly see or hear me. As his granddaughter flirted with me, his daughter shouted at him, trying to explain what this dusty, hairy young man wanted. Whatever I said hardly made sense even to me. Finally she gave up. "He wants to learn from you!" she yelled. His huge hands floated up like phosphorescent fish in the room's dark water, played with strange life around my ears as I leaned over the crumbling rock of his body to catch his words. "Rub … your … feet … " he croaked, and fell silent, his hands collapsing. The women hustled me out. By the time I came again, he was dead.
I went home and rubbed my feet, like Aladdin with his lamp, expecting nothing. A genie came forth, who opened for me the secret doors of mystery and power. I rubbed my feet some more, I rubbed my head. A second genie came forth, to my mind greater than the first, swelling quickly from a vapor to a smoke cloud to a turbulent thunder-storm. He asked not my wishes but straightway leaped upon me, locking me in mortal struggle. Ever since I have grappled with him, and the issue is still in doubt. Nor is he my private dream and nightmare only. He is loose in the world, we have all conspired to set him free and must answer to his demands.
The first genie is the genie of psychic power. He represents the spirit of the awakened body and its energies, of the psyche and its powers, of transcendent experience -- of all the mysterious potentials of human consciousness. Many people have been trying recently, in crowds and alone, to summon him to do their bidding, to help win them their selves, their freedom, or the world. Some call the collective result the "growth" movement, the "human potential" movement, a spiritual renaissance, a massive mutation of human consciousness, the New Age. Others call it a disaster, a blind and self-indulgent retreat from the agonies of the spirit and a society in crisis, a prelude to fascism and worse.
Myself, I have no simple name for this complex motion of our lives, nor any simple judgment upon it. I am of two minds and more about it, and explore some of their tensions and contradictions in the essays which follow, inspired by my encounter with the second genie. He is the genie of consequence, who follows always the genie of power. To me he appears as a storm of questions about choice and responsibility and freedom, about human values and human meaning itself. The questions' variety is endless and their detail is essential; but broadly phrased, they ask:
How do we use our power to control and change our consciousness; what instructs us, what do we learn? What are the consequences, for the deep reaches of the self and the complex tissues of the social body, of doing what we're doing the way we're doing it? What choices are we making about the people we are becoming and the society we create together, about the human culture and meaning we extend; and what values can guide us in making them? To whom or what can we be responsible, and how?
Such questions moved me, early in the 1970s, to begin to write about the politics of consciousness, or rather of those modes of "consciousness expansion" which came increasingly to mark the character of the decade. The questions were not new to me. I had struggled with them first as a political activist, an organizer in the New Left. As my concern for what we learn deepened to focus on how we learn I became an educator, working and writing in the late-1960s higher-education reform movement, and since then more generally. The questions and my politics came with me; I engaged them on the ground of learning itself, perhaps deepening them there. In turn, both they and the educational perspectives I gathered came to inform my subsequent engagement with the spirit of wonder and power that woke within me as I rubbed my feet.
This brief resume may account for the particular motives, ideas, and feelings which dominate the following essays -- if not for their enthusiasms of metaphor, which lead me to present myself as a middle-aged child of the New Left singing the New Age blues.
Despite its subtitle, this book is modest in ambition and narrow in scope. It raises more questions than it begins to try to answer. Though its stance is personal, it deals, on the whole, very little with my own experience; though its spirit is pedagogic and political, it barely mentions the possibility of a synthesis and praxis transcending the one-dimensionality of what it criticizes. In form it is largely an historical commentary, a running report and reflection on the social theater of a decade somewhat crazier, and more depressed, than the 1960s had been.
Indeed, the 1970s have been a schizophrenic decade, or rather a schizmogenic one. The intense questioning and disruption of social reality, and the wave of experiments in reconstituting its processes and institutions that marked the 1960s, had prepared and in fair degree demanded a complementary mass questioning and re-exploration of private being and consciousness -- for when the fabric of society is torn and reconfigured, so is that of the self, the two being so nearly one. Yet as this "private consciousness" movement spread and deepened in society, the many-branched social and political movement so intimate to its genesis went into eclipse in the public mind. Or rather, it was forced there by a combination of failures (some its own, some from its outright repression, most from the natural difficulties of the changes sought) and deceits -- the key one being perhaps the quick change of media mythology following the Kent State assassinations, announcing the death of the Movement.
Few even of the Movement's own people were able to deny this, since it was not an organization with membership cards and most people depended on media to help them believe it existed in the first place. And surely the new decade's mood was different. As crises continued to multiply and the domestic consensus continued to dissolve, reaction and retrenchment seemed to rule the day. Yet within this appearance, however it could be measured -- by the numbers, ages and kinds of people involved; by the places and ways in which they worked for change; by the persistence, realism and slow sophistication of their efforts -- more people were engaged in serious work to realize the themes of freedom, democracy, and justice that gave the Movement its character than ever the 1960s had known (though their mutual isolation and the memory of the media-magnified hordes of yore left them, too, confused about the sum and meaning of their efforts).
Meanwhile, the personal-growth-and-consciousness movement developed largely in isolation from this continuing social movement and its influences -- but not in isolation from the reaction to these. Indeed, the consciousness movement seemed to evolve more in response to the conclusion that the social movement had failed, and to the social forces inclining it to failure, than in response to the more progressive forces and potentials at hand. The idea that each movement might evolve to deepen and complete itself through the other received scant attention, and few people found ways to pursue it actively (other than in near-isolation). Nor did a shared language form in which it was even possible to speak of this integral potential. Instead, as the 1970s wore on, the ideas, languages, practices, and meanings of these two broad movements continued to diverge, more to contradict than to complement each other; and many people, if still a distinct minority in each movement, were agonized by the contradiction.
Thus the context; thus my divided seat in the social theater, with a foot in each box, as I review below some performances mounted on an extreme stage of this decade's play, which show -- as extreme cases so often do -- some things quite clearly about the general case, the spirit of the time (and its observer), and show others not at all. I wish this were only an historical review, but it is not. The issues discussed here are all more pertinent as the decade closes than they were when it opened -- not least because the growth/human potential/New Age movement continues to develop and seems likely, with its ideas and forces, to become a major influence in our politics, from personal to national, during the 1980s.
In this light, this book is a reflection on certain themes now entering further play. It begins with some brief previews (Portents) of the decade's acts and of my axe to grind. In Notes on the Public Carnival, six shorter essays discuss public performances by gurus of one sort and another, marvel at the way we recreate authoritarian processes and forms in our experiences of deep change, and imagine that we have alternatives to this. Courting the Strange explores these themes further, its first two essays extending them more explicitly to social events and theater, the last two reviewing some individual ways of dealing with issues raised earlier. Of these the last is my own, and at best a preliminary report of a few tentative steps toward integrating the "contradictory" poles of personal and social change.
The last two essays stand by themselves. "A Phenomenon of the Seventies" studies the one enterprise of the many in the consciousness-development industry that seemed and still seems to many, as to me, to embody the authoritarian contradiction most fully and most mystifyingly, and to suggest the potential for its further development in society. As for "On Some Matters of Concern in Psychic Research," which takes up the last third of this book, it is necessarily more narrow and formal than the other essays, and no longer than seemed necessary to take an uncharted area seriously and be taken seriously in turn. In fair part, it concerns the military development of "psychic" technologies of warfare and control, as this is now proceeding in the Soviet Union and the United States. This matter is of the moment as well as of sharp concern; yet, as this goes to press, to my knowledge there is available to the public not even so sketchy a survey of the situation as is attempted here.
Though my ultimate interests are synthetic, this book is still largely concerned with critique. Even so, its essays barely begin to explore the social mind, the social teachings and textures and implications, of the human potential/New Age movement as it is now developing. Beyond this exploration lies the question it prepares. How can we bring together the practices of personal and social change, the divided realms of public/private, spiritual/political, and all the rest, into some integral understanding and practice of self-determination, as singular and collective within the person as in society? An essay meant originally for this book, to explore this question further, may yet become a book in itself.
In my last book, I was proud to claim that the thoughts I recorded about education and its reform were in fair part the product of many minds and people at work with me on the same front of change. I wish I could say the same here. More than it usually is, writing these essays has been lonely -- for this decade has left me, like many others, more alone than I would like to be to shape my understandings from its conflicting evidences. I do know that the issues which concern me concern many others, and I am often reminded of their appreciation for almost any effort to discuss them. Yet on the whole, despite the media attention these issues began to receive in the late 1970s, I heard remarkably little serious discussion of them (considering how deeply they affect people) either in public or among my friends.
It was not that we were all so unwilling, perhaps -- although the contradictions were as difficult to face squarely outside the consciousness movement as within it -- as that we were unable. Something had made it hard for us even to begin to express articulately our discomforts and forebodings, let alone to speak of dangerous and promising potentials in the same breath and language. Whether it were only the unquestioning ultra-positivism that this movement encouraged -- and the polarized reaction to it -- that so inhibited and confused us I do not know; but there was not a great deal of active and articulate thought around me on these matters to crib from as I wrote this book, and I felt its absence keenly.
Nonetheless, for sharing somewhat in these ideas and their development I am honored to thank Lee Sanella, Michael Symonds, Stanley Krippner, John White, and Carl Oglesby; Shana, Gary, Ronnie, Russell, Barbara, and James of the Body Croup, and the whole small collective of Berkeley psychics known as FOG, in whose democratic companies I have found homes for serious talk about such issues of our lives (and the Association for Humanistic Psychology, which has invited me among others for such talk); and Ira Einhorn, Peter Marin, and James Hurd Nixon. Of these the last three, and more distantly John R. Seeley, have had particular influence on my thought. The encouragement of all, and others unnamed here, has been invaluable.
This book is dedicated to its editor. Bill Whitehead -- both for the broad personal responsibility he has taken for promoting serious writing about the psychic (and affiliated) domains, and for his continuing support and openness as this book developed. One can have an editor "on one's side" for many reasons; but to have him there because he grasps the cogent issues and shares one's particular concerns as an ally is to be befriended indeed.