Oh California! How could anyone deride you as the land of fruits and nuts? And no, it isn’t a reference to our beloved state’s impressive agricultural bounty. That unflattering assessment would be the bleating of envious outlanders and intolerant weasels trying to attack the uniqueness (O.K., oddity) and spiritual bent of those who dwell on the Left Coast. Still, every time I hear that pejorative description, I shake my head in contempt for the small-minded haters. Then, I muse over Cali’s Bohemian history and smile at the lofty concerns and, at times, divine or debilitating madness that seem to be endemic to the Golden State.
With our craggy tide-sculpted coastline and its sun-kissed beaches, our lush forests of redwood and eucalyptus trees, our majestic mountain ranges, and our stark and expansive desert landscapes, it was almost preordained that Californians would feel in touch with the sacred amid such natural beauty. Even a cynic like your columnist feels a heady connection to a higher power when standing on a cliff overlooking the pounding surf along the Pacific Coast Highway or at the heart of a verdant wooded grove in Big Sur.
And so it came to pass that San Francisco in the 1950s was a haven for the progenitors of the Beat Generation — poets, novelists. random artists, and free thinkers who moved here from New York City and elsewhere and would mix a little idealism with their hedonistic concerns.
Along with the black-clad, antiestablishment acolytes that followed them, they were saddled with the label “beatniks” — purportedly by San Francisco columnist, gadabout, and legend Herb Caen. Some under that umbrella were nihilists, some were existentialists, and some were self-identified anarchists. But at least two of the Beats’ leading literary lights — Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg — embraced life-affirming Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism. More than Kerouac, Ginsberg spent most of his life as a vocal adherent of the Buddha. One of my most vivid memories of Ginsberg was seeing him spend much of a lecture playing a harmonium and introducing his rapt young audience to Buddhist chants. Om, sweet om.
ATOP HIPPIE HILL
Spirituality played a large part in the next wave of counter-culture that hit our shores: the coming of the hippies during the 1960s.
As San Francisco became a destination for the long-of-hair, the anti-Vietnam War protesters, and the pro-sex-drugs-and-rock-music tribe, there was a contingent actively concerned with switching on their inner light. Those seekers were encouraged by one Dr. Timothy Leary who proselytized about the mind-expanding capabilities of the chemical hallucinogen LSD, also known as acid — as in something that burns the brain or burns it out if abused.
Searching for meaning in their lives, many young adults studied the work of author Carlos Casteneda whose 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan delved into shamanism, including the use of peyote and other natural hallucinogenic substances to achieve a connection to the cosmic. In turn, some of those youthful readers would journey to secluded places like Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert to eat a dose or three of mescaline, hoping to hear the universe reveal its secrets.
Meanwhile, yogis were gaining cachet at a time when most people on the planet didn’t know a guru from a kangaroo. The Beatles abandoned their snappy rockin’ mod style for flower power and began to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, all the way from the U.K. to his ashram in India where they joined him in the study of what he called Transcendental Meditation. The Beach Boys — SoCal’s own avatars of surf music — were close behind their Beatle brethren, going Maharishi-mad and bringing T.M. back to an idealized Surf City, USA, where hodads, gremmies, and bunnies now sat cross-legged on tie-dyed beach blankets and meditated before grabbing their boards and hitting the water. (Full disclosure: I meditate today, and most days, for that matter, although I try not to do it while driving.)
ME FIRST — AND FOREMOST
Then, there arose the self-actualization movement of the 1970s, an era tabbed by pundits as the Me Decade. The foremost program of that ilk was est (lower-case letters intended and standing for Erhard Seminars Training), an organization founded by a savvy businessman named Werner Erhard in 1971, ostensibly to help people reach their full potential through personal transformation, accountability, and responsibility. Erhard had investigated the cult of Scientology and had studied Zen with teacher and writer Alan Watts, and used what he learned to develop est. Erhard’s seminar-style two-weekend course at est captured the imagination of many paying clients in search of empowerment in their lives.
It’s telling to note that the first est seminar was held at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco. Where else? And though Erhard, his est team, and their graduates have been disparaged over the years for a variety of reasons including greed, hypocrisy, and cult-like behavior, the program became the template for many comparable seminars and workshops that have survived, and in some cases thrived, into the 21st century. And as far as I can tell, they’ve never descended into the dark and evil depths of certain other 1970s-spawned groups that purported to show their followers “the way” — Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in San Francisco and the Manson Family in Los Angeles.
Nowadays, folks who crave enlightenment (or a reasonable facsimile) can still visit the Esalen Institute, a peaceful retreat dedicated to humanistic alternative education, located in Big Sur since 1962. Or they can zip across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, hit the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, and center themselves with a round of meditation. Or get as close to nature as the rangers and the bears will allow at Yosemite.
It’s all in the name of getting to a higher state — something we do well in California.