It's All God -- Amen, Om, Whatever
Removing their pants and flapping their arms like chickens, they're hunting for God. Bowing, chanting, nude wrestling, clasping antlers to their heads and ingesting psychoactive vines, millions upon millions seek Him in workshops, shrines, and ballot boxes.
Just to be clear: Not long ago I would have scolded myself for writing "Him" instead of "Him or Her," because back then I was a neopagan who wrote books and rituals hailing goddessess but now I don't know anymore.
Eliezer Sobel has spent nearly forty years bowing, chanting, nude wrestling, meditating, overdosing on shrooms, puking out windows, playing guitar at Auschwitz and laughing with the Dalai Lama while urgently seeking God, gods, or at least enlightenment. He recounts these adventures -- which he calls "the endless cycle I have been caught in" and which he concedes hasn't quite worked -- in his memoir The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics, and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments (Santa Monica Press, 2008). Oh, he tried. At 23, he doffed his trousers so that Baba Ram Dass -- who coined the phrase "Be here now" -- could assess the size of his penis. (Well, Ram Dass asked.) At another point, Sobel paid homage at the graves of a cat and camel once owned by self-proclaimed "God-man" Adi Da (formerly Franklin Jones of Jamaica, New York) --but demurred when fellow disciples began greedily gulping water that had been used to wash Adi Da's sandals. Sobel sojourned to Israel, India, Nepal. He consulted a Brazilian "healer" who told him that astral beings preside over drugs: "The entity associated with cocaine wears all white" -- well, duh -- "including top hat and gloves. The mushroom being is an ancient, wizened little Oriental man." At a workshop led by an asthmatic who took credit for bringing down the Berlin Wall via visualization, Sobel and his fellow attendees were given name tags to wear that said "God." He paid $450 to clean toilets at a Zen retreat, $150 to haul heavy equipment uphill and work twenty-hour shifts at an est one. "Two extremely attractive young women" in a San Francisco bus terminal lured him to a backwoods Moonie camp where members watched newcomers going to the bathroom and where the mealtime grace "went like this: 'Choo choo choo, choo choo choo, choo choo choo, yay yay pow!'"
Give him credit for having a sense of humor. Sobel nurtures no sacred cows -- not even himself. "I recognize that I'm way too self-absorbed to pretend I'm doing God's work, unless he happens to be on a new campaign promoting narcissism." And give him credit for experimentation. But this is more than a memoir. This is a core sample of a society in which not only is church inseparable from state but religion is often indistinguishable from entertainment and psychotherapy. What Sobel's life and book reveal is a Western leisure class so desperate for some kind of spiritual delivery that it's scary. And funny. And scary.
Jesus Camp was just the tip of the iceberg.
As his search progressed, Sobel sometimes diverged from merely consuming dogmas, products and events to create them. Basically, he made shit up. And folks went for it. He wrote a book called The Manual of Good Luck that sold over 40,000 copies via mail-order. At the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Sobel and a friend "thought we could promote a new healing approach, to be called Chicken Therapy, in which people would be asked to flap their arms and squawk like chickens, and we even developed a theoretical underpinning for the practice, in terms of how the flapping stimulated certain acupuncture meridians, and the clucking used the vocal cords to transmute the energy, or something along those lines." Granted, it's not out-and-out genuflection, but it mixes Taoist notions of yin, yang and qi with, well, barnyard fowl. "As we practiced flapping and squawking a few times," Sobel recounts, "we had our first converts to the chicken cult. And I have no doubt that had we pursued the idea people would have reported receiving amazing benefits from it. You get what you pay for."
You have to admire his honesty. His own close encounters with "a long list of spiritual masters" left him feeling "essentially nothing" -- as if, he muses, he has "missed the point."
"If I look truly honestly at my own spiritual path historically," he writes, "every experience I've ever had that felt like 'it' has passed so by definition wasn't really it." (Yet still he searches, undaunted.) But Sobel's saga -- shared, apparently, by a hefty percentage of college-educated intellectual Westerners born during and after World War II -- is also a manual of multiculti pick-and-mixing, blithe duty-free shopping for deities. I have done it myself. Forgive me, Father, for I have intoned Buddhist chants while burning braided sage and I have languished in a sweat lodge invoking a santería goddess. Plus I took a yoga class. But hey. Never ever venturing outside one's own natural-born culture or heritage is provincial. It implies incuriosity at best and xenophobia at worst. And it's wimpy. Why not look around? But in this era of identity politics, what do we say of the white middle-class Westerner who arranges her furnishings based on feng shui, gives himself a new Native American-sounding name, adorns an altar with Tibetan tingsha chimes and big-headed Ghanaian Akua'ba figures, or habitually greets people by pressing palms together, head inclined, in the pose that Hindus call namaste and Japanese Buddhists call gassho? Do such ventures signify sensitivity, integrity, audacity -- or colonialism, patronism, fetishism? Is it immersion or pretension? Respect or theft?
We've all seen it. Oooh, I'd like some of that nirvana. Do you take Visa?
Brought up Jewish, "being of a shamanic bent," and ever searching, Sobel has sampled the spiritual smorgasbord: "My exposure to so many paths and traditions has left me with a not-uncommon New Age amalgamation of a spiritual life in which the Brahma of Hinduism, the Unnamable God of Judaism, Buddha Nature, Islam's Allah and the Christian Father in Heaven are all one and the same, exactly, identically, and all equally existent or non-existent, so I am simultaneously a born-again Hindu, a Jubu" -- that is, a Jewish-born Buddist -- "a contemplative Christian, a singing Sufi, and a secular humanist."
Amen. Om. Whatever. (Is it any surprise that another book published a few months ago is Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen?) He led Chanukah menorah-lightings at Sai Baba's ashram in India. To a Brazilian church whose libation was nauseating, mind-altering ayahuasca -- "the nastiest-tasting stuff available" -- Sobel brought along a traditional Jewish prayer shawl and even tefillin, biblical scrolls encased in tiny leather boxes used as a prayer aid. "I decided to wear my yarmulke kind of like a Jewish good luck charm," while singing hymns under the cross with the congregants.
During a stint as a hospital chaplain, this self-described "Zelig of religions" -- a reference to Woody Allen's 1983 film about a human chameleon who transforms into whatever type of person he's near -- performed Catholic prayers for the dead over one patient, gave another a Native American-flavored recitation, and baptized a brain-dead infant using a cup bought at Bodh Gaya, India, near where Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree. For the baptism, Sobel sprinkled water over the newborn's head and "blessed him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and offered his soul up to Jesus."
I stopped being an active neopagan because, as I practiced it then, it was an organized religion that required saying and doing the exact same things at the exact same time as others. That's great in principle, but my personal aversion to performing anything in unison has made me a spiritual exile, sensing the divine only sporadically and in unexpected settings, such as Dumpsters.
Sobel, on the other hand, is sociable. Forty-day solo retreats aside, he delights in the group experience, as do most God-seekers. He writes vividly of confabs where templesful and hotel ballroomsful of participants wept together, worshipped together, took Ecstasy together, and danced themselves silly -- following the leader's instruction: "Sweat your prayers!" At that Brazilian church, he and the congregation spent several days, for six to twelve hours at a stretch, "doing a simple two-step dance movement in perfect unison." (While the native Brazilians had only good reactions to the ayahuasca, Sobel watched his fellow visiting northerners "drop like flies" -- upchucking, freaking out and even "defecating in their pants, right there in the church. I couldn't help but think to myself that this was madness. What kind of path to God required bringing along a change of underwear?") For over a year, he made several visits every week to primal-therapy sessions in a "dark, padded room, filled with patients lying on mats crying and screaming their guts out" as "the air filled with wailing and screaming, piercing shrieks and heartbraking sobs. Sometimes people threw up. Sometimes they took their clothes off." He describes two million people from all over the world converging on a single Indian ashram to celebrate Sai Baba's 65th birthday. The rest of the year, the ashram hosts tens of thousands at a pop.
Reading about these hailin' hordes, it's hard not to wonder how much of what passes for religion is just a longing to belong, how much apparent piety is a ploy for the comfort of conformity. In this era of identity politics, spiritual identity is nearly always shared identity. Consumer culture trains us to flock in huge numbers under flags and logos. Consumer culture turns everything into brands. So from Sunday Mass to Mecca pilgrimages to sipping the Master's sandal-washing water, how and whom or what one worships can become yet another logo, however soul-deep and authentic it feels. Just as it is in stadiums and superstores, part of the thrill of most spiritual experiences is social. Hallelujah, I am not alone. And reverence is contagious. Seeing others swoon on their knees or speak in tongues or insist that they can see the messiah, we too become electrified. We do not want to be left out. We do not want to miss what Sobel calls "the Ultimate Boat." What a bummer that would be.
Consumer culture wants everything to feel like shopping. So presidential campaigns are ad campaigns. And candidates and gurus and marketers all use the same techniques. Sai Baba, whose birthday attracted two million and who is famous for seeming to materialize magic dust and jewelry from thin air, tells visitors: "I give you what you want until you want what I have." Mmm, free jewelry. Those religious allusions suffusing Barack Obama's candidacy were no accident: that halo effect in photographs, those rays of light extending outward from his image on posters --all numinous touches meant to suggest not so much that he is religious (which worked for Clinton and Bush) but that he is a religious figure. "Hope" is a godly word, right up there with faith and love.
"Hope" -- along with "change" -- is also a classic antidote for fear. And if Sobel glimpsed any astounding revelation during his journey, then it "has to do with the utter terror of being a living human being on this planet. Fear, fear, fear makes the world go round." All his experiments, every sob and prayer and puke, "has all been just this one thing: an attempt to cure myself of terror."
There's a seeker born every minute.