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Introduction to Voices from the Edge

Introduction to Voices from the Edge

We are currently witnessing an extraordinary shift in the evolutionary winds of history. Poised on a bridge between worlds, our species swings between crisis and renaissance. Never before in the human adventure have there been so many reasons to rejoice and celebrate, yet also, paradoxically, so many reasons to re-evaluate and re-navigate. Wonderful advances in science and the interface between high technology and the creative imagination have spawned forms of artistic expression with a sensory richness inconceivable to previous generations. The imagination has never been more tangible. And yet, sad to say, never before has our own extinction via our own ignorance-hovered so close.

Within the pages of this book, through conversations with some of the most far-reaching cultural innovators of our day, we explore a variety of exciting new options made available by the cultural renaissance that is upon us and examine some possible solutions to our impending global crisis. When Rebecca McClen Novick and I finished the first volume of Mavericks of the Mind, there still remained many extraordinary individuals whom we had wished to include. In addition, friends flooded us with recommendations for potential interviewees. If that were not enough, every time we did a lecture or book-signing, we would meet people who had yet more recommendations. A number of individuals whom I did not even know called me and recommended themselves as candidates. Upon consideration of all this, we decided to do an additional collection, which you now hold in your hands. And a third volume is in the works.

In 1988, Christian theologian Matthew Fox, the Dominican priest we interviewed for this volume, was silenced for a year by the Vatican. Instead of preaching about our Original Sin, he was doing this rap on our “Original Blessing.” After a full revolution around the sun, during which he supposedly contemplated his sins in silence, the very first words that he uttered were, “As I was saying … ” It is in that spirit that this book begins. As with our first volume, the people we chose to interview represent the mavericks of their fields, the engineers of evolution, the messengers of our future those remarkable and brave individuals who stand at the front-line of the cultural frontier, taking the storms of change full in the face. However overlooked, misunderstood, ridiculed, or punished they may have been by society at large, these men and women have persevered to the point where they are now viewed as revolutionary leaders in their fields.

When putting this book together, we operated under the premise that most cultural advance is accomplished by a certain type of individual: those who resist adherence to any particular group or belief system and have an interdisciplinary approach to their work. These were the people we sought out to discuss the basic philosophical issues of life, to ponder the Big Questions: How did we get here? Why are we here? Where are we going? But while our previous collection approached these questions primarily from a decidedly scientific viewpoint (with several notable exceptions), our new collection gathers a perspective from a wider cultural arena. And though our pool of interviewees has broadened, the theme of the new volume remains the same: exploring the evolution of consciousness. Also, our approach matured. Rebecca and I became bolder in our interviewing style, and we are perhaps a little less naive than when we set out to do the original collection.

Although the collection spans a diverse spectrum, there are many areas where boundaries overlap. From the emerging gestalt, a vision of our future begins to take form, perhaps providing us with a glimpse into the twenty-first century. We discuss possible solutions to the hunger and ecological crises gripping our planet, new computer and multimedia technologies as vehicles for enhanced communication and artistic expression, future directions of psychedelic drug research, the reclamation of our bodies and our connection to the divine through more expansive forms of sexual expression, the revival of the Goddess, and the reformation of religion. These and other spiritual issues are pondered in depth, always with thoughtfulness, often with humor.

After the publication of the first volume of Mavericks, when Rebecca and I hosted a series of events at UC Santa Cruz and UCLA, we brought together individuals from the book and encouraged them to discuss and debate various controversial issues, such as the relationship between technology and the mind. As we sat there on stage, surrounded by all these great minds and their often conflicting perspectives, we realized repeatedly just how relative truth really is. No one has the answer, yet everyone makes a point and contributes a perspective to help create a more encompassing whole.

One of the topics we explore in this book is the mystery of what happens to consciousness after the death of the body. When I posed the question to environmentalist John Robbins, he replied without pause, “I think it celebrates.” Ironically, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead told us he thinks it probably dies with the body.” Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson said he thinks we move into “subtle bodies,” which “are woven into this larger angelic formation.” There is perhaps no greater mystery than death, and infinite mystery will spawn infinite theories.

This is not the first time that crisis and opportunity have danced together arm in arm, and as we evolve through time, this dynamic will most likely be encountered again and again. This is part of the Great Mystery at the center of existence, which inspires art, science, philosophy, and the spiritual quest. Stating the obvious here is powerful. There is simply no escape. Life is mostly mystery, and the mystery only deepens with time and “understanding.” A moment’s reflection will confront us with the fact that the foundation of every belief rests upon an assumption made in faith. Life is a journey through our own dream fabric.

When I was in graduate school I was amazed to discover that the majority of my professors thought that science had solved about 99 percent of the fundamental mysteries of the universe and that it would not be long before we would have the other one percent figured out. I was completely dumbfounded by this, and by the fact that much of the world appeared to follow suit with my professors. As a consequence of my commitment to the exploration of consciousness, my world view was the reverse: 99 percent mystery, one percent (or less) figured out.

The universe is an infinitely mysterious place, where consciousness and physical phenomena interact in largely unknown ways to form the adventure of our existence. Because of this fundamental truth, Matthew Fox suggested that we adopt the perspective that “mystery is not something you’re ever going to solve, it’s something you live!” John Alien poetically reminded us that “beauty attracts, but mystery … lures.” After contemplating the nature of God and other timeless philosophical questions with us, Ram Dass asked about our “relationship with the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it?” How we respond to these questions is significant. One of the few things we can state with any certainty about this grand and ambiguous universe we inhabit is that although the phenomena of the physical world will come and go, the mystery lurking at the heart of existence is forever here to stay.

David Jay Brown

Ben Lomond, California

Preface - Voices From the Edge

Preface - Voices From the Edge

“You’re going to have to explain what these people are doing in a book together,” said a close friend, looking at me with loving sternness. “What do they have in common, anyway?” On the surface, there does seem to be the need to justify why an ex-porn star and a Catholic priest are rubbing shoulders (or anything else, for that matter) in a collection of interviews, not to mention a chemist, a musician, and an archaeologist. But it seems to me that in this world of on-going cultural meiosis, it is far more necessary to justify similarity than to justify diversity. Loving the alien- or, at the very least, accepting the alien- is not just an amusing psychological pastime anymore; it’s a survival imperative.

Exclusivity breaks down communication- between neighbors, between cultures, between races, between countries- so that the farmer pollutes the upstream river, giving no thought to the farmer downstream. When we define ourselves as something more than merely a product of a culture, race, sex, or religious group, we realize how our separateness has limited us, and we begin to work on what Jean Houston refers to as the “orchestration of our many selves.” Appreciation of diversity keeps us supple, stops our minds from crusting over, and allows us to keep reinventing ourselves.

Everyone in this book is used to being judged. Snobbery lurks in the most unlikely places, even in the most decent and open of minds. If you look down your nose you will see only your feet. But to look out and across the apparent barriers that separate you from the Other (a homeless drunk gives you directions to your hotel; a toddler corrects you about the number of Jupiter’s moons) is like coming up for air and taking a gulp of the mystery once more. You take a second look- except this time, you look a little harder.

Step into a virtual reality scenario and imagine that this book is actually the stage for an exotic and eclectic cocktail party. The interior decoration is an odd mix of the titilating bizarre, the no-hold-barred holy, and the tongue-in-cheek academic. Nothing seems to match, but nothing clashes. The guests are an animated and effervescent bunch, their eyes twinkling with inner stars. Laughter of all shapes and sizes fills the room. You feel curiously at home.

Over in the corner, spiritual teacher Ram Dass and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier seem to be having a heated but friendly discussion on the virtues and dangers of technological highs. Fakir Musafar, decorated in nipple-rings, tattoos and nose-quills, is at the snack table with archeologist Marija Gimbutas, exchanging insights into the Western mortification of the body. In the kitchen, musician Jerry Garcia and radio host Elizabeth Gips are involved in a conversation ostensibly about rye bread, but stick a Babel-fish in your ear and you hear they’re really discussing the ever-expanding mystery of the universe. And out on the porch, chemist Alexander Shulgin and ecologist John Robbin s are pondering the alchemical potentials of the human body. Is this a great party or what?

We chose to interview the people who move us- move us to wonder, to contemplation, to inspiration, to action. They are all works in progress, receiving at least as much as they transmit, their commentaries barometer readings of the weather changes at large in this wild and woolly world of ours. Ritual love-making, sticking spears in your skin, listening to music, sitting with your eyes closed, taking drugs, hooking your brain up to a machine- the methods of raising the curtains of consciousness vary, but to get hung up on the validity (or invalidity) of any one is to miss the boat to spiritual independence. There are so many ways to get high, but once you’re up there, everyone gets to share the view- the view of a dynamic universe within which we are all engaged in the most interactive process imaginable.

As you meander through the pages of this book, you begin to sense an ambiance, a link between these seemingly disparate individuals: a common ground of unfettered creativity, deep compassion, personal courage, childlike curiosity and more than a standard dose of chutzpah. It is that common ground from which these interviews grew, and upon which we hope, a few forbidden fruits will fall.

Rebecca McClen Novick

Malibu, 1994

Acknowledgments - Voices from the Edge

Acknowledgments - Voices from the Edge

Putting this collection together was a great deal of fun and a wonderful learning experience, with more than a few epiphanies along the way. It was also a lot of work, taking about two years to complete. Many people helped make it possible. We would like to extend extra special thanks to Nina Graboi and Carolyn Mary Kleefeld for their endless support and belief in our work over the years. For their essential help with the book, we are also extremely grateful to Randy Baker, Marie Devlin, Denise Dufault, Patricia Gaul, Alex Grey, Laura Huxley, Oscar Janiger, Fonda Joyce, Dennis McNally, Marlene Rhoeder, Dale Robbins, Tango Pariah Snyder, Rasa Julie Thies, and Jonathan Young and Carolyn Radio at the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

In addition, we would like to express our sincere appreciation to Gabrielle Alberici, Phil Baily, Peter Bartczak, Debra Berger, Faustin Bray, Brummbaer, Kutira Decosterd and Raphael, Sue Espanosa, Robert Forte, Lauran Freebody, Liane Gabora, Peter German, Dieter Hagenbach, Deborah Harlow, Krystle James, Robin Ray, Barbara Clarke-Lilly, Jeff Mandel and Steen, Arleen Margulis, Jimmy Mastalski, Fumiko Takagi, Jerry Snider, Victoria Sulski, S. Mark Taper, Silvia Utiger, Brian Wallace, and Nur Wesley for their help and contributions.

We would also like to thank our farsighted publishers, John and Elaine Gill, as well as our publicist, Dena Taylor.

Most of all, we would like to express our deepest appreciation to all the remarkable men and women we interviewed for sharing their extraordinary lives with us.

Ram Dass

Here and Now

“What is your relationship to the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it?.”

with Ram Dass


When Ram Dass speaks, his voice contains the gentle sanctity of a Gregorian chant. His presence is filled with the warm fuzziness of that favorite stuffed animal you cherished as a child, and he nudges out of you, just by being there, a sense of your own divinity.

As Richard Alpert, he sewed on the psychology faculties at Stanford and the University of California, and in 1958 he began teaching at Harvard. His pioneering research with LSD and psilocybin led him into collaboration with Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner; Aldous Huxley, and Allen Ginsberg. His mind expanded in an inverse relationship to his professional reputation, however and in 1963, together with Leary, Richard Alpert was dismissed from Harvard in a flurry of hyperbolic publicity.

He continued his research, however; and in 1967 he made his first trip to India. There he met the man who was to become “the most important separate consciousness in my life, ” his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. It wss Neem Karoli who gave Richard Alpert the name Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God, ” and baptized his spiritual path through the transmission of dharma yoga.

In 1974, Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation to spread spiritually directed social action in the West. The foundation birthed the Prison Ashram Project and the Living-Dying Project, which still operate today, offering spiritual support to prison inmates, and to the dying and terminally ill. In 1978 he co-founded the Seva Foundation, (Seva means “sight” in Sanskrit), an international service organization working in public health and social justice issues, which has made major progress in combating blindness in India and Nepal. Ram Dass is the author of a number of self help hooks, and in the past ten years has lectured in over 230 cities throughout the world.

He has consciously reincarnated within his own lifetime, for when his knuckles began whitening on the ladder of success, Richard Alpert took a leap into the void and, as Ram Dass, has become a bosom buddy of emptiness. He is probably the only person with a photograph of Bob Dole on his altar: It is nestled among images of his guru, Christ, and the Buddha, and at his puja, Ram Dass attends to how his heart expands as he greets each of the first three, then flinches when he reaches Bob-an exercise that shows him where his spiritual homework lies.

We conducted this interview in his home in San Anselmo, California on August ~6, 1994. The house, of Chinese Victorian architecture, is a fitting vessel for a man who is a living bridge for the philosophies of the East and the West. The interview was punctuated with sweet silences and bubbling laughter; and took place in a magnetic field all its own. His perspective on the bends and wiggles in life ‘s road has elicited a humor that ensures that wherever Ram Dass goes, the cosmic giggle is not far behind.


David: I see that you have Bob Dole on your altar. That’s a nice touch.(laughter)

Ram Dass: I take the person who most closes my heart and I watch my heart close as I look at their picture.

David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the evolution of human consciousness?

Ram Dass: I’m inclined to immediately respond - mushrooms, which I took in March 1961, but that was just the beginning feed-in to a series of nets. Once my consciousness started to go all over the place, I had to start thinking it through in order to understand what was happening to me. It wasn’t until after I’d been around Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, that I started to reflect about issues like the evolution of consciousness.

David: Was there a common denominator between what drew you to study psychology and what drew you to spiritual transformation?

Ram Dass: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. I didn’t want to go to medical school. I was getting good grades in psychology and I was charismatic and people in the psychology department liked me. It was as low a level as that. My whole academic career was totally out of Jewish anxiety, and issues surrounding achievement and adequacy. It was totally socio-political. It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all.

David: You talk about that time in your life as if it was a period of simple bad judgment, but wasn’t it also a necessary part of your evolution?

Ram Dass: Well, that’s different. I was, after all, teaching Freudian theory. Human motivation was my specialty, so I thought a lot about all that stuff. That served me in very good stead because it’s an exquisitely articulated sub-system. If you stay in that sub-system, it’s very finite and not very nourishing. But when you have a meta-system, and then there’s the sub-system within it, then it’s beautiful, it’s like a jewel - just like with chemistry or physics.

But when I was in it, it was real. When I was a Freudian, all I saw were psycho-sexual stages of development, and as a behaviorist all I saw were people as empty boxes.

Rebecca: You seem to be able to incorporate and apply some of the things you learned as a psychologist to this larger understanding of the human condition.

Ram Dass: Everything I learned has, within that relative system, validity. So, if somebody comes to me with a problem, they come to me living within that psychological context. I have incredible empathy for their perception of reality, partly because of what I’ve been through in it. You’ve got to go into the sub-system to be with the person within it, and then create an environment for them to come out of it if they want to. That seems to me to be a model role for a therapist.

It’s also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in Western science. Here was Western science really ignoring the essence of what human existence was about and presenting it as if concerns about that were some kind of bad technique.

When I was in psychology we were getting correlations of 50 on personality variables which was very good - you are accounting for 25% of the variance. But that means that at least 75% was error. It could have been anything! So, it left plenty of space. At the time we really thought we had the theory down cold, but I realize now how hungry I was in that situation.

Rebecca: To fill in that space.

Ram Dass: Yes. I think that everything I went into or was, gives me a legitimacy with people in that field. The whole game of communicating dharma is metaphor - and, in a way, I can talk the metaphor of this culture.

David: Would you say then, that someone who has demonstrated a high degree of success at playing society’s games, becomes a more credible spiritual voice and gains more respect?

Ram Dass: Well, it depends on who the respect is from. There are people who respect me because I was at Harvard and Stanford, and then there are people who respect me because I left Harvard and Stanford, or I was thrown out of Harvard - even better.(laughter)

What’s fun is that I went from being a really good guy in the society to becoming a bad guy, to then becoming a good guy again. It’s fascinating to play with these kinds of energies. When you’re playing on the leading edge, it’s like surfing. There’s a big wave which pushes a little wave in front of it. The little wave is the exciting one because hardly anyone is on it, and everyone thinks you’re nuts. The meeting at Harvard where I got found out was extraordinary. It was a moment where I knew I had left my supply wagon far behind. I was called into the office beforehand by the heads of the department and they said, “we can’t protect Tim, but we can protect you - if you shut up.”

Then, in the meeting, all our colleagues got up and attacked us: our research, our design, our data - everything. They saw it as defending the department against a cult that was in danger of taking it over, because out of fifteen graduate students, twelve wanted to do only psychedelic research.(laughter)

So, when they had all finished attacking us Tim was stunned, because he had had the feeling of everything being wonderful, of loving everybody and everybody loving him. So, I got up and I said, “I would like to answer on our behalf.”

I looked at the chairman of the department and he gave me a look like, well, you’ve made the choice. And I had, because I realized that I could not have lived with the hypocrisy that would have been demanded of me otherwise. The feeling I had was that I was home. It was so familiar and so right that I couldn’t leave it.

But then when I became the good guy again, I find myself riding the bigger wave. I can make a lot of money now, people love me. It’s playing with a different power but it’s not as much fun as being on the little wave. (laughter)

David: How has your experience with psychedelics shaped your quest for higher awareness?

Ram Dass: It had no effect on me whatsoever and nobody should use it! (laughter) The predicament about history is that you keep rewriting the history. I’m not sure, as I look back, whether what appeared to be critical events are really as critical as I thought they were, because a lot of people took psychedelics and didn’t have the reaction I had. That had something to do with everything that went before that moment. In a way I just see it as another event, but I can say that

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Francis Jeffrey

Plugging into ElfNet

“…we are separate entities with boundaries that collide…we are entities with boundaries that overlap.”

with Francis Jeffrey


Francis Jeffrey is a pioneer and forecaster on the frontier interface between communication technologies and neuroscience. He is a consultant on ethical applications of science and technology co-founder of civic and environmental organizations, and CEO of Alive Systems Inc., which is devoted to the application of biological principles in computer software design.

Francis devised the “Linguini code, ” an intercultural and human-computer communications “language. ” He originated the concept of “communications co-pilot, ” an electronic co-personality that works along with you while it learns to emulate and support your communication and computing activities. His magnum opus is a project-in-progress called ElfNet, an interactive network that will use telephones or interactive television to access global information resources in a personalized way, while building meaningful relationships and perfecting programs of action. A psychological theorist, his theory on the nature of consciousness in isolation was published in Woman & Ullman ‘s Handbook of States of Consciousness.

In 1973, after studying computational neurophysiology at the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California, Francis began studies with John C. Lilly, M.D. (interviewed in our first volume) on sensory isolation and on human-dolphin communication research, studies which continued over the years. Recently Francis helped dolphins gain civil rights, at feast in Malibu. His concept was first enacted as public policy by the Malibu city council on January 7, 1992-apparently the first legal recognition in the human world of dolphins as individuals. In 1986 Francis co-founded, with Richard B. Robertson, the Great Whales Foundation, an organization that has called upon the international community to recognize whales as “living cultural resources ” rather than consumables.

Francis is the author of the well-known biography John Lilly, So Far. His thinking has been provoked over the years by interactions with the twentieth century ‘s best and brightest innovators and nonconformist thinkers, including Timothy Leary, Carolyn Mary Kleefeld (both of whom are in our first volume), Herbert Marcuse, Gregory Bateson, Lawrence Stark, M.D., Heniz von Foerster, Roland Fischer, and Ted Turner.

In interview mode, Francis demonstrates an extremely quick mind that is knowledgeable about an extraordinary scope of interests, free-associating surprising connections among conventional topics. Keenly perceptive of the hidden structure of ideas and systems, he possesses a special gift for making complex scientific concepts easy to understand in essential terms. He is also very unny, in an off-beat sort of way. Dark, piercing eyes dart amid birdlike features in a combination that seems to personify the archetype of the alchemist-wizard. I conducted this interview with Francis at his Malibu Beach home on June 29, 1994, at sunset. As we began, just off the deck, dolphins slid through the waves of the Pacific.



David What inspired your interest in computational neuroscience? How did you become interested in the interface between the computer and brain science?

Francis: I started reading Carl Jung as a teenager and found him fascinating. By the time I was about fifteen, I had read just about everything he wrote. But it seemed to really lack any explanatory power, so I started looking for something that would help to better explain the mind. After reading Jung, I thought, “Well sure, maybe the mind does this, but how and why does the mind do this?” It became apparent that this had something to do with the brain, and I began looking into that in college.

When I was in college studying psychology, computers were just coming online in a big way. So you had the first transition from these very elite mainframe institutions that everyone had to schedule their time on and share. They were originally installed with money from the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission to encourage research in physics, and virtually every university had one. Then minicomputers be-

came available, and we had laboratories that had some of the first minicomputers in them. So your lab actually had a computer, and it was obvious that the way to do experiments in psychology was to program them, because this was much more flexible than the old fashioned way of doing experiments.

I was fascinated with what cognitive science now calls the binding problem. What is it that holds a perception together as a unit? Behaviorism, which is the psychology that was widely being taught at that time, contributed absolutely nothing to this question. The stimulus-response perspective didn’t give you a clue as to what made a perception. A more universal spin on the question would be “What is consciousness?” There is somebody who is having an experience, and that experience seems to hold together. You’re not just little bits of a picture, like an insect eye, but there’s a whole thing going on that you’re involved in.

David That’s the Big Mystery.

Francis: You can analyze it in different ways, and it’s kind of like a quantum phenomenon. Depending on how you analyze it, what experiments you do, you conclude that perception is broken down into different units in different ways. Recently reputable academic scientists started saying that the binding problem-what holds a perception together-is something that they’re going to start looking at. But that’s just a way of getting the large question-“What creates a mind?”-in the door.

Well, there are a lot of ancient answers to that question from people who, without the benefit of any external technologies, just experimented on themselves. I think one of the best traditions of that would be The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. A contemporary roughly of Plate and Buddha, back more than 2,000 years ago, Patanjali is the legendary and perhaps actual author of The Yoga Sutras, which is a very concise presentation of the basic ideas of yoga. Of course, that is tied to all the Hindu philosophy, and on and on. But there’s something very crisp and concise about The Yoga Sutras, and a lot of scientifically minded people, including John Lilly, have gotten way into it.

There are a lot of scientists, such as Deepak Chopra, who have benefited from association with this yoga tradition. Now, Patanjali said-among a great many other interesting things-that artificial minds can be created by … how to translate it is difficult … “egotism.” Artificial minds can be created by the drive to selfhood. Okay, so I translate this as follows. “If you want to create an artificial mind”-which sounds very modern and technological, almost like artificial intelligence [AI], but he’s talking about how a yogi can project his mind into form and clone himself-“what makes it possible is that there is a universal tendency to create coherent consciousness.”

David To individuate?

Francis: To individuate, exactly. That’s the basis of the phenomenon. So I applied this in my recent thinking, and this insight guides the communication-software development I’m currently into. What you need if you want to create an artificial mind-now in the modem technological sense-is you must somehow capture that drive toward individuation, toward consciousness. But it’s not a matter of building up a bunch of rules on how some expert does things, which is how AI has turned out to be.

David How does your understanding of computer science give you insight into how the brain works?

Francis: It gives an insight in a negative sense, because computer science is a completely vapid subject. As far as I can tell, there isn’t any. There are departments of computer science at universities, but is it science? It’s like they’re studying the history of the evolution of computers or something.

David Well, it’s a systems approach to a certain type of technology.

Francis: That’s the problem. You see, a system is like an artificial framework that you build, and then you try to fit stuff into it. To again use the quantum theory paradigm, you know what you observe depends on the kind of experiments and measurements you make. There’s a certain complementarity there. You make certain measurements and observations, and you exclude others. So I think the hierarchical-systems approach is the

ultimate extension and reductio ad absurdum of that approach, because you end up with a created system that has no subject matter but its own constructs. It’s like what Wittgenstein said, “Can it be that in mathematics what I am studying and seeking … is to know that which makes it possible for me to create these things.”

David So then, the study of computer science can also be the study of the brain’s ability to model things in a way that creates powerful computational tools and digital technology. Francis: Well, in kind of a backdoor way. But that’s just psychology. The tool building is

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Fakir Musafar

Skin Deep

“Your body belongs to you. Play with it.”

with Fakir Musafar


By the age of four; Poland Laomis was regularly dreaming about his past lives; by six he was experiencing psychedelic visions while riding his bicycle; by twelve he was poking his mother’s sewing needles through his skin. By the age of thirteen he had pierced his foreskin in the coal cellar, by fourteen he was experimenting with his newly found psychokinetic powers; and by seventeen he had a full-blown mystical shake-up of the kind recounted by saints, sages, and madmen.

Gradually, the puzzling elements of Roland’s childhood began to slip into place, like the ribs beneath a whalebone corset. This odd and awkward boy from a strict Lutheran family in whitest South Dakota had been born again in the regal personage of Fakir Musafar: Fakir Musafar was a misunderstood shaman in thirteenth-century Persia who entered mystical states through manipulating his body and died of a broken heart after a lifetime of ridicule.

This could also have been the fate of Roland had he remained within the walls of his family cellar; where his experiments began. Instead, Fakir came out, and now, at sixty-three, he has not only been accepted by the tribe but has been granted something of the status of an elder statesman. He is undoubtedly America ‘s master guru of body ritual, offering wisdom and experience in a movement with more than its share of neophytes searching for identity.

Fakir’s role models are Hindu sadhus who sleep on beds of nails, African women with necks elongated by metal rings, and New Guinea tribesmen with belts that reduce their waists to a whisper. It was he who coined the terms “modern primitive, ” and “body play, ” terms that now, thanks to the information revolution, have become almost as familiar as “cyberpunk” or “generation X. ” The modern primitive movement is a tribal concoction of neopagans, lesbians, gays, artists, punks-creative misfits who have taken the term “queer” from the exclusive domain of homosexuality and applied it to all who find themselves trying to squeeze their round pegs into the square nipples of society.

His twenty-seven years as an advertising executive allowed Fakir piercing insight into the power of symbolism, a knowledge he exploits beautifully in his quarterly magazine, BodyPlay. He is also the founder and director of the School for Professional Body Piercing, the first in America.

I interviewed Fakir on October 17, 1992. Sitting in the garden of his suburban bungalow in Menlo Park, California, bespectacled with a button-down haircut, in sports shirt and slacks, Fakir could still be that executive. There is little to suggest what lies beneath, except that poking through his nose is a five-inch porcupine quill. Fakir is a misfit who, unable to find a mold to fit into, simply fashioned one for himself


Rebecca:. What first inspired you to start changing your body state?

Fakir: I always seemed to have that inclination. When I was growing up all the people around me lived under Judeo-Christian principles and rules, and the whole thing was operating under a very hard, patriarchal society. My biggest problem as a child was spacing out and I would literally go into trance states at the drop of a hat. It was very difficult for me because I thought I was going nuts. I would try and stay there but I couldn’t help it, I’d fade away. Bells would ring, I’d have audio and visual hallucinations. I remember riding a tricycle and having wonderful hallucinations like on acid.

I had a particular problem in social situations which still bothers me today. I guess it’s an escape, a coping mechanism. This family was so repressive and dysfunctional that it was natural for me to use this ability to space out, to cope with the boredom and abandonment.

Rebecca: What were you like as a child - apart from spacy? (laughter)

Fakir: I was very much alone, I was very thin, I didn’t do too well with other kids, I didn’t do too well in sports. I couldn’t catch a baseball because I was blind as a bat. But I was also very bright. I devoured books because that was my only escape from this very limited society. I started on Volume A of the best looking encyclopedia. I read the whole thing from cover to cover and then I started on Volume B and so on. When I got through that set of encyclopedias I went to another set and read that one. And I found out that I was really interested in how other cultures lived.

Rebecca: And when you first saw pictures of people with scarification, tattoos and piercings, did you suddenly go, aha! this is it?

Fakir: Oh yeah - instantly the light went on. Very often I could recognize that whatever they said about these people in the photo caption was not what was going on. I could look at them and feel how that person felt at the moment the photograph was taken. It was a mixture of fear, pain, intense sensation, awe, and I thought my God! they’ve got something! And I would secretly try to do these things, the Ibitoe of New Guinea which is the waist reducing belt.

One of the abilities I had when I was young was psychometry. We lived in an area that was heartland for Indians’ last stands and the last survival of Indian culture, so there was a lot of Indian atmosphere. The towny’s would just plow over Indian graves, but I would go out on my bicycle and find Indian campgrounds, burial spaces, places that were blessed and had a charge in them. At a very early age I could touch a tree and get a whole vision of what had happened there. I could take a stone from an Indian burial ground and it would speak to me. I still do this.

Rebecca: And you used to visit the Indians and hang out with them.

Fakir: Yes. They were treated very badly, worse than dogs. I found a kinship because I was a loner. I always felt I was on the edge, on the fringes of society. My search through life has always been to find the disenfranchised, I always had more in common with them. I had a very hard time with the establishment.

Rebecca: What kind of reactions do you get from Native American people to the things you do?

Fakir: I have a lot of friends who are Native Americans. I did some rituals at a place called Rancho Cicada and Hawk (could you describe briefly who Hawk is?) was one of them. He was quite taken with it, we exchanged presents and energies and he participated in some of the ceremony. In general I’ve had nothing but respect and awe from Indians.

Rebecca: You don’t ever come across people who think it’s just another example of the white man encroaching on Indian terrain?

Fakir: In Boston I was on a television program and they had Native Americans on there who were very un-native compared to the ones I grew up with on the Lakota reservations. They had always lived in cities and they were very Catholic or Lutheran. They didn’t seem to have much connection with Indian culture, but I had objections from them that I was ripping off Indian culture and exploiting it.

Rebecca: Going back to your childhood….

Fakir: I was the head of the class in the Lutheran confirmation. I knew all the dogma and all the theories and the doctrine of transubstantiation. We had a very aristocratic pastor who came from New York. He was quite a maverick because he didn’t preach hell and brimstone as much as he did love. He used to think the world of me.

One of my favorite meditation spots was church. I was in the choir and we sat in this separate space in front of the organ which had all of these beautiful vibrations coming out of it. And I had some of the most beautiful fantasies including erotic fantasies in that choir loft.

Rebecca: Was there anyone you could share your true urges and visions with?

Fakir: I couldn’t share what I was doing with anybody at all. It was so way out and bizarre compared to how everything was. In school I was an avid lucid daydreamer. I was near-sighted so I couldn’t see the board, it was so boring and the way they did everything was so rigid. They’d explain something and I’d jump twenty-eight steps before they’d even got to step three with the rest of the kids.

So I’d look out of the window, I’d look at a tree and I’d become sunlight falling on a leaf - I learned how to have visions. Some of them were alarming.

Rebecca: If your environment had been more interesting perhaps you wouldn’t have been encouraged to develop your inner world so much.

Fakir: Yes, that’s true. At home on Sunday afternoons you had to wear your Sunday best which was always very uncomfortable and you had to sit in an upright chair for hours while the family droned on and on about the crops and Aunt Tilly’s tumor - all this neat stuff. (laughter) I would sit in this room and stare at my Uncle Milton and all of a sudden I would start going into a trance state.

All the voices would go vzzzzzzzzz, like turning down the volume control, and everything would start to get dark except for Uncle Milton who’s head would get brighter and brighter. Then it would start to recede until it was a pinhead and then it would come back, but instead of Uncle Milton it would be an old Chinese man and he would be speaking Chinese! I was totally fascinated by this.

Up until I reached puberty I had some

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William Irwin Thompson

The Science of Myth

“The history of the soul is always the history of the voicelss, the opressed, the repressed….”

with William Irwin Thompson


He spends his time contemplating such nuances of thought as the relation ship of birdsong to light changes in a sunset, the mythic levels of meaning in the fairy tale of Rapunzel, the relationship of oral sex to the development of consciousness, and the rain dances of chimpanzees. He is a cultural historian, poet, and mystic, weaving his imagination deep into the fabric of scientific theory.

William Irwin Thompson received his doctorate from Cornell and has taught at Cornell, MIT, New York University, and the University of Toronto. In 1972, feeling the needfor a more improvisational forum, he established the Lindisfarne Association, an intellectual community where artists, humanists, and scientists can share their ideas and insights, beyond the con fines and agendas of academia. A meeting of minds and friends, Lindisfarne is a modlel for the realization of a planetary culture. Over the years, it has attracted some of the most envelope-pushing thinkers of our day, such as Bucky Fuller; Marshall McLuhan, Gregory Bateson, and more recently, Ralph Abraham, James Lovelock, and Lynn Margulis.

Thompson is known for his staggering trapeze acts of thought. Performing without the safety net of empiricism, he spans the subjects of sexuality, cultural origins, science, and mythology in giant sweeps, grasping them in metatheories of poetic grandeur He is completely at home at the hearth of his intuition, where his rational intellect can sit and warm its hands. He received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986 and is the author of fifteen books, including the classic At the Edge of History, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He brings a mythic perspective to just about everything, from homosexuality to Darwinian theory. His beef with sociobiologists centers on what he perceives as the arrogant assumption that their theories, with terms such as evolutionary momentum, are free from the flights of imagination that characterize the language of the mystic. Thompson prefers “to take my mysticism neat. ”

Every fall and spring he serves as the Lindisfarne Scholar in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In the winter he is the Rockefeller Scholar at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where this interview took place on June 11, 1994. He declined to be photographed, so Victoria Sulski, an artist and friend of mine, came along to sketch him. I think that the drawing captures the spirit of this inteview better than any photo could.

A strong upholder of European standards of excellence, William Irwin Thompson seems a trifle out of place only two blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. It ‘s hard to imagine him with flowers in his hair-bur then, his Celtic soul is already decked with the garlands of his private spring.


David: What was the source of your inspiration for becoming a cultural historian, and how did you gain your mytho-poetic perspective?

Bill: It was from Stravinsky. Before I knew how to read my mother took me to my first experience of a public theater. I was a four year old child, seeing the creation of the solar system, set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Disney’s Fantasia.

While I was watching the camera’s point of view approach the planet from the outside, I had a shockingly familiar experience and it triggered a deja vu in my mind of, “yeah, that’s exactly how I got here. Finally, here is a human experience that makes sense!” The rest of the time, when you’re a child, you’re surrounded by stuff that doesn’t make any sense, whether it’s cribs, punishment or whatever, and you wonder, “what is all this? How did I get here?”

When I was in the theater, Stravinsky’s music was so overwhelming and uninterrupted that it had something of the effect of an Eleusynian mystery rite. It imprinted my imagination with visual mythopoeics and I became fascinated with cosmology and the story of the universe.

Then I went home and discovered that I could turn the dial on the radio. I would turn on the classical music station and lie down on the couch and go into Samadhi.

David: I’m curious about your formal educational process.

Bill: Well, grammar school and the nuns were a little after the fact. They were trying to teach me Roman Catholicism when I had already discovered yoga! (laughter) But I was a good boy and I won lots of medals and I got A’s, but I didn’t find Catholicism spiritual enough.

The movie theater seemed to be a really sacred space but the church seemed just to be filled with images of mutilation and torture - with a mangled Jesus on the cross. When I went to church mass on Sunday, Father Quinn would just scream at us that we weren’t giving enough money to the church. So religion was very unappealing.

At age seven and eight I was sent to a Catholic military school. There, if you were bad, you were punished by having to stand to attention for five hours, and some children would faint in the sun. Today they would be sued and charged with child abuse. (laughter)

I remember one time I went into a library and opened up a children’s encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. There was a picture of a spiral nebula and it told the story of the creation of the universe. It connected me back to my original Mind. I realized once more that there was this larger universe out there that wasn’t controlled by nuns.

The Catholic military school was a double whammy because the headmaster was a shell-shocked major from WW II. He had a paddle that had holes put in it so that it would scream through the air as it came down.(laughter)

The patron saint of the school was St. Catherine who, as Ralph Abraham points out, is actually Hepatica. She was tortured and killed by the Catholic mob. Even the namesake of the school was a figure of torture! So, as soon as I had the opportunity to get out of all that stuff I did.

David: So your primary orientation was spiritual rather than intellectual.

Bill: Oh totally. And also artistic. From the very beginning I was writing poetry. The Europeans have the understanding that a writer doesn’t have to be a specialist. In America, if you’re a poet you’re Robert Bly, if you’re a philosopher, you’re Dan Dennet and if you’re a scientist you’re Gerald Edelman.

In America they’re always trying to figure out what it is you’re trying to sell and how you can put it in a sound-bite. This explains why I’ve spent a lot of time out of the country. I’ve lived in Canada and Ireland and for twelve years in Switzerland.

Rebecca: You got disillusioned with academia after a while and in your books you describe how you went on to explore other modes of learning in community.

Bill: But I liked academia in some senses because since I came from the working class, it gave me a chance to move up and get out of that kind of life. So I had a good career in terms of going from instructor to full professor in seven years and being promoted every year at MIT.

I didn’t leave academia because I failed, but I went through it so fast that suddenly I was a full professor at thirty-four. I thought, am I supposed to keep doing this for the next thirty years? - I’m bored so I’m leaving. In the seventies, a lot of people were doing the same and trying to create new institutions.

Rebecca: Tell us about the community of Lindisfarne. How did it begin and what goes on there?

Bill: Lindisfarne has been going for 23 years, and every year it’s different. It’s more of a distributive fellowship and a concert rather than an institution, although at various times we’ve had functions and courses and things.

I had been really impressed with Michael Murphy’s work at Esalen, but it was too wild, sloppy, Dionysian, psychedelic, American and consumer-oriented. It wasn’t really disciplined enough for my sensibility. I didn’t want to do it in California because I felt that California would encourage those qualities, so I decided to set it up in New York.

It started out as an alternative to academia and as another way of doing the humanities in a technological society. Originally I tried to cross religion and science at MIT and create an honor college within M.I.T., but the president didn’t want to do it. It was during the Vietnam war and they had another political agenda. So that’s when I quit and went to Canada.

Rebecca: Who were the original people you worked with in setting up Lindisfarne?

Bill: A lot of it was inspired by the Mother and Sri Auribindo, and Findhorn, and the whole spiritual evolution of consciousness movement of the late sixties and seventies. I had gone through the training of Yognanda and did the whole seven year program of Kriya yoga. My approach has always been yogic and I always had this interior yoga that was in conflict with the institutions I was in.

For example, when I was at LA. High they sent the cops to get me because I would never go to school on Friday. I wanted to stay at home and read Melville and Dostoyevsky instead. They got really tough because it was during the McCarthy era. Being an intellectual in America at that time was kind of like being a Darter snail - you’re really a vanishing species. The father of my best friend came out in a drunken rage and called

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Elizabeth Gips

Pilgrimage of Change

“…you get the cosmic badge of honor pinned on you…when you can dance on totally nothing.”

with Elizabeth Gips


Born half-paralyzed in 1922, and dictating poetry four years later Elizabeth Gips had interviewed most of the people in the two volumes of Mavericks of the Mind long before we even got started Her infamous radio show Changes, which has now aired in northern California far over twenty years, has inspired countless individuals to explore new realms of heightened awareness. She is well known for her lively interviews with virtually everyone who is anyone in the alternative cultural matrix. Her recently published book Scrapbook of a Haight-Ashbury Pilgrim is an important historical document, a timeless epic adventure that overflows with contagious enthusiasm inspired during the peak of San Francisco js citywide hallucinogenic experience during the late sixties.

Needless to say, Elizabeth has been through a lot of changes herself: She discovered her power to arouse the emotions in others in 1939, when she got out of high school a year early because her English teacher threw an ink bottle at her in frustration. She then attended Mills College, discovered beat poetry, and marijuana, and had a number of experiences “falling in love with the wrong boys. ” In 1964 her son turned her on to the peyote cactus, and she metamorphosed into an “errant hippie, ” wandering around the U.S. trailing after charismatic commune-founder Stephen Gaskin. She landed on “the Farm” in Tennessee (the well-known commune at which, according to Gaskin, a young Al Gore spent some time). In 1971 Elizabeth left the Farm and started doing radio at her son ‘s station, KDNA in St. Louis. She began her Santa Cruz radio show, Changes, in 1975 and soon started writing articles and reviews for many alternative magazines.

At the age of seventy-one, Elizabeth, now a grandmother; is still very much at the forefront of cultural evolution. She still loves doing radio, is working on several new books, has apparently fallen in love with the “right man, ” and says that she no longer seeks “enlightenment. ” We interviewed her in her cozy home in Santa Cruz on June 10, 1994. Her house is decorated with compelling psychedelic art and exotic religious artifacts from around the world. Youthful optimism and vibrant enthusiasm stream from Elizabeth ‘s spirit. She is filled with curiosity, and her eyes and heart both seem wide open. A passion-filled fireball of energy, Elizabeth gets very excited when she’s talking, and laughs a lot. Sometimes like a fountain, other times like a volcano, she is just bursting with life, spewing forth a stream of amazing adventures stories and rainbow revelations, reminding us of those feel-good times in our lives when laughing, loving, and learning all danced hand in hand.


Elizabeth: Do you want to know all my names?

David & Rebecca: Okay.

Elizabeth: Isis, Tara, Sisyphus….(laughter)

Rebecca: Who’s Sisyphus?

Elizabeth: He was the guy who had to push a big stone up a hill indefinitely and every day and every night it would tumble down. I did a picture a few years back which shows Sisyphus sitting up on the top of the hill like Rodin’s thinker. There’s a large crowd of people down at the bottom and he’s saying something like, “I got wise, there’s hundreds of people who want to push this stone up the hill, I don’t have to do it any more!”

David:: How did your experiences in Haight Ashbury during the sixties influence who you are today?

Elizabeth: There’s a film called St. Simon the Skylight. In the end Simon is in a rock club and the devil is tempting him. He says to the devil, “I think I’d like to go back and stand on my pillar again for the rest of my life,” and she says, (the devil’s a woman) “it’s too late, someone else is doing it.” Well, someone else is doing the Haight Ashbury trip, and I’m hardly enough of that person anymore, except in my book.

I’m sure that it freed me to a great extent from the American need of identification through stuff - money and business power etc.. I went through a long period of poverty, although I didn’t experience it as poverty, I just didn’t have money. So that made the new acquisition of some stuff very joyful - I’m really enjoying having things around again.(laughter) But it was a dramatic shift in values.

Rebecca: What were you doing before?

Elizabeth: I was a big business woman. I had 52 employees. My jewelry business did just under half a million in the last year before I left. Then I opened a store on Haight street.

David & Rebecca: (Knowing laughter)

Elizabeth: Well, I bought a mansion on Ashbury and that was the significant thing because I took acid shortly after that. And I walked out of everything - my marriage and my business and my whole way of life. I took all of my clothes and jewelry and threw them into the middle of the floor and said, “everybody dig in - I’m gone.”

Rebecca: Could you describe the quality of that time, and what were your hopes and dreams of what would come out of the sixties?

Elizabeth: A word that I use a lot in my book is `spirit.’ It’s as though for the first time, a whole bunch of people took part in the mystical experience, and there was that camaraderie of shared experience beyond the realm of the American standard. If you wanted to merchandise the American standard experience, experiencing Godhead was not it.(laughter)

Rebecca: So the fact that the experience was shared and not just personal made a big difference?

Elizabeth: I think so. You are here doing an interview to share more of what I am and more of what you are and that sharing of experience is how evolution happens.

Rebecca: Many people feel that during the `80’s, the last vestiges of the sixties idealism got swept away. Do you think that’s true or did some lasting influence come out of that time?

Elizabeth: I think that there are more young people aware today than there ever have been in the history of the world and that the best part of the rave generation is proof of it. Hundreds and thousands of people all over the world between 18 and 25 are sharing a spiritual experience with tribal overload and huge sensory input. There was a continuity of spirit that got bigger and bigger, and even though many people became yuppies (it’s okay to be yuppie and be comfortable, but we didn’t know that in the Haight Ashbury) I don’t think that they have entirely forgotten who they are.

But in that time we really thought that in five years everything would be changed. We thought we would find better ways of communicating, which we have, that marijuana would be legal and that people would be nicer to each other - that’s the bottom line.

Rebecca: Do you think people are nicer to each other?

Elizabeth: (pause) I think there are more people working on how to be nicer to each other.

David:: What relevance do you think this period will have on the future?

Elizabeth: It was the first time that a significant number of people assumed that evolution could be consciously directed. I think that’s what the future holds as we travel around in the mystery - the idea that we can mold a world that’s better for everyone. I know it’s simplistic, but I think that’s one of the things that came out of the Haight Ashbury period. And I’m not sure that it isn’t happening under our very noses, but we forget and let the media play on our negative feelings which we’ve still certainly got plenty of.

David:: How would you say psychedelics influenced your perspective on life?

Elizabeth: Holy Mackerel Andy! Well, I was an atheist and now I’m nothing. Boy, that’s a big change! (laughter) I just had the experience! You can’t talk about it, c’mon!

Rebecca: Well, if we met you before the experience and then met you afterwards, what differences might we notice?

Elizabeth: Well, let’s talk about the similarities. You’d see the same bounciness and intelligence and creativity and insecurities. But right after I began taking psychedelics I was kind of messianic - I wanted everyone to get on board because otherwise maybe it was all just a dream and it never really happened. My hair was long and I painted my face and I wore elk skin dresses - it was kind of romantic but too outrageous for society. It became too much trouble to stay in that place.

Rebecca: Do you think that if you hadn’t taken psychedelics you would have still arrived where you are now, through a gradual process of natural selection?

Elizabeth: They switched me to a whole other quantum level. If electrons jump from one ring to another I made a jump, and things are not the same. I’m a human chauvinist in a way because I think there’s something very special about the human brain. If I can take a tiny pill and 45 minutes later I’ve died to my personality and am in contact with realities that are seemingly infinitely unfolding, then it seems that the human brain has some special place in the whole drama of the universe.

David:: Was there any link between your taking psychedelics and getting involved in broadcast media?

Elizabeth: I followed Stephen Gaskin and I only lasted about seven months down on the farm in Tennessee.

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Jean Houston

Forging the Possible Human

“There is a revolution going on! We’re moving towards planetization within one century.”

with Jean Houston


When the search was on to find the girl to play Joan of Arc in the Hollywood movie, she was second in line for the role. It was eventually given to Jean Seberg, but Jean Houston is a mover and shaker with an epicenter of equal mission and purpose. it’s easy to believe that she has well over a million ex-students scattered around the globe, and that her plans and strategies are listened to by heads of state and other government officials in over forty countries.

A past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Houston is the co-director-with her husband, Robert Masters-of the Foundation for Mind Research in Pomona, California The foundation has been running for thirty years, and her work has inspired over 1,000 teaching learning communities. She received the Distinguished Leadership Award from the Association of Teacher Educators in 1985, and in 1993 she received the Humanitarian of the Year award from the New Thought Alliance. She is the author of twelve hooks, including The Possible Human and The Search for the Beloved. Holder of two Ph.D. ‘s, a psychologist, scholar philosopher, and teacher; she specializes in a multi-level approach to education that blends various learning techniques to elicit the potential within each individual.

Houston works both at the grassroots and government levels, offering her skills to local and international development agencies as they attempt to bring about cultural growth and social change. Most recently she has been collaborating with UNICEF and other NGOs in Bangladesh. Of all the people in this collection, Houston is the most intimately involved with the organizations and institutions engaged in the day-to-day running of planetary affairs. She is also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most optimistic.

For someone who moves around the globe at a rate of a quarter of a million miles a year; Houston is remarkably present-a mountain with wings, a dynamic combination of philosophy and action. She carries her six-foot height with the grace of a person at ease with being larger than life. She is an ancient Greek philosopher ruminating on the hidden mysteries of the universe, yet in the same glance she is a rudely peasant girl, gazing with delight at the wings of her first butterfly.

She has an uncanny ability to unearth potential. We interviewed Houston on May 27, 1994, but I had seen her speak at a conference a few weeks before, At the conference’s end she conducted the entire audience in singing Pachabel’s Canon in rounds-and in tune! When someone congratulated her on the remarkable feat, she just shrugged Like the protagonist of a Wagnerian opera, her voice resonates with ancient Teutonic tones. Her eyes beam a millennial come-on: “Won’t you come on board? ” And as she speaks about the hidden potentials of the mind you feel a bit like a jury, listening to the defense lawyer ‘s impassioned plea for clemency for her client, the human race.


David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in awakening human potential?

Jean: Well, when you ask questions of origins, one necessarily has to go way, way back. In a sense I was born for it. I am a person of a very great deal of hybridization. My father comes from an old American family. Sam Houston was my great-great-great grandfather, Robert E. Lee was my great-great grandfather. And there’s also a Jewish Indian great-great-great grandfather, whose name, so help me, was the equivalent of Scarecrow Rose and Blood. My father, Jack Houston married Maria Anunciada Seraphina Graciella, a Sicillian. So I came into an enormous mix and match of cultures.

My father was a comedy writer who was writing for people like Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen. I went to 29 schools before I was twelve. Often I would go back to the same school after a year and half absence, and I would notice that in the first grade, everybody was full of potential and capacity. If you could have plotted from the first grade what those children would be, you would say that you had an extraordinary band of geniuses. Then I would come back in the third grade and about half would have fallen off and then in the fourth grade, another half.

So this began to trouble me even as a child. I was being educated on the road by my parents. Geography was something that went by at eighty miles an hour.(laughter) My mother decided that the way to put muscles on the brain was to learn huge sections of Shakespeare and poetry and sing Italian opera. So, I was allowed to stay quickened and not to fall into habitual learning patterns. I asked myself, why is it that we have a million keys within ourselves and we learn to play only twenty? Why is it that the child plays about 400,000 and gradually there is that cutting back and down?

My father had to become a Catholic to marry my mother. He and the young priest traded jokes instead of theology, and finally the priest said, “Jack, you’re just a natural born pagan. I’ll give you a learners permit so you can get married, but any kid comes along, you make sure you bring them up Catholic.”

When I was five I entered the first grade of Catholic school. My father gave me questions to ask the poor little nun every morning. “Sister Theresa, I counted my ribs and I counted Joey Mangabella’s ribs, and if God made Eve out of Adam’s ribs….” I had thirty little girls and boys lifting up their undershirts all at once. (laughter)

Or, “Sister Theresa, when Jesus rose, was that because God filled him with helium?” She got angrier and angrier. Finally I asked a question I had thought of myself. “Sister Theresa, did Jesus ever have to go to the bathroom?” She blew up. She had this bad lisp and she started screaming, “blasphemy, blasphemy!” She showed me a piece of paper and at the top it read, `Jean Houston’s years in purgatory.’ Every time I had asked a question there was a big X, and each X represented 100,000 years.

At the end of the first grade, on my birthday, we had the great addition. It came to 300 million years in purgatory. I went home crying and my father found it hilarious. He picked me up and put me on his shoulders and ran down the street saying, “you think you’ve got problems? Hah! Wait and see what they did to a real saint!” He took me to see The Song of Bernadette which was about a little girl who had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The whole theater was packed with rapturous Sicilian Catholics - old ladies sitting next to me going, “aaah, Santa Regina!” every time Jennifer Jones would show up on the screen. Then came the great moment, one of the most religiously luminous moments in motion picture history, when the Virgin Mary appears in the grotto.

Suddenly this horrible whinnying mule-like laugh fills the theater. It’s coming from my father. I say, “daddy shush, this is the holy part!” He says, “but do you know who that is playing Mary? That’s the movie starlet we met at that party in Beverly Hills who was coming on to me. That’s Linda Darnell - hot damn!” And the Sicilians are turning around saying, “diablo! diablo!”(laughter)

As I was going home after the movie, I was heady for purpose. I knew that I could see the Virgin Mary - the real one, not Linda Darnell. I went home and up to the second floor where we had a closet. Chicky my dog had just had her pups so it was a dog nursery. I pulled the dog and the pups away and I got down on my knees and I prayed, “please Virgin Mary, please show up, I want so much to see you.”

Then I remembered that Catholics tend to bribe the saints. “If you show up, I’ll give up candy for a week - two weeks, okay? I opened my eyes and Chicky had brought one of her pups back. So I tried again. I said, “I’ll give up candy and cannelloni and ricotta pie.(laughter) I kept counting to higher numbers each time. I counted to 167 and opened my eyes, sure she was going to be there - but she wasn’t. Chicky had brought all eight pups back into the closet.

So I gave up. I walked to the window seat and looked down at the fig tree in the garden that was blooming. Suddenly it happened. I cannot say that reality outside changed, but suddenly I was part of a seamless web of kinship with all of reality and I knew absolutely that I and that fig tree and the pups in the closet and my idea of the Virgin Mary and my chewed up pencil, and fish off Sheep’s Head Bay, and old ladies dying in Shore Road hospital, and new wheat in Kansas, was all dynamically related to everything else in symphonic resonance that made for an extraordinary unified cosmos. It was very good.

This went on forever. Lifetimes went by, but technically it was probably only two seconds. Then my father entered the house laughing (he was always laughing) and immediately the whole universe began to laugh - great, huge, joy. Years later when I was able to read Dante in Italian, I recognized the truth in the line deriso de l’universo - the joy that spins the universe. I was regrown out of the field of that experience - it became the template for everything in my life.

Rebecca: So the studies that you developed after that were to

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John Robbins

Food for the Soul

“…how can we live so that our participation is for the greatest good and the greatest healing for all beings?”

with John Robbins


As a vegetarian, I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of the inside dirt On animal husbandry. But it is one thing to know, it is quite another to feel. The fact that I can ‘t eat meat didn’t protect me from the onslaught of shame and sadness that crashed through my head when I read Diet for a New America. I found it hard to believe that we had gone so far. I cried harder than I had in years.

As John Robbins points out, you don ‘t have to be an animal activist, or even particularly love animals, To be appalled, horrified, and outraged at what is being done in factory farms all over the country, all day, every day. It is so extreme. The book reads like sci-fi horror; a prophetic warning of the ripening of humanity ‘s faceless brutality. But the fact is, it been going on for years.

John Robbins surfaced from the Baskin Robbins ice cream family gene pool like some Strange new mutation-the thirty-second flavor who was destined to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the National Dairy Council. In his two books, the international best-seller Diet for a New Americaand May All Be Fed, he explains with straightforward clarity the link between our food habits and the health of our planet, our bodies, and our souls.

His manner is filled with the contagious buoyancy of a person who is being true to his conscience. He speaks with an impassioned sincerity-never patronizing, never self-righteous. We interviewed John at his home in Felton, California on June 9, 1994. In his mid-forties he still looks like a schoolboy, his wide blue eyes, elfin face, and Disney smile radiate with a childlike innocence. This is the man at the top of the Meat and Dairy Board’s most-wanted list, you wonder? The man they consider so dangerous that they have meetings on ways to discredit him?

He is the founder of the nonprofit organization EarthSave, which concentrates on educating the public about health, nutrition, and sustainable energy consumption. He has spoken to a variety of audiences, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States, UNICEF and the United Nations Environmental Program, where he received a standing ovation. Do you know that colon cancer is directly linked to meat consumption? Do you know that you save more water by not eating one pound of beef than you would from not showering for a whole year? Do you know the extent of the suffering involved in factory farming? Once you know, you can never act without that knowledge again. Here is the information, says John Robbins. Now it ‘s up to you. Bon appetite!



David: How did growing up in the `heart of the American food machine,’ influence your motivation to research and write Diet for a New America?

John: There was a tremendous investment, in my family, to deny any link between diet and health; particularly between ice cream and health. It wasn’t just ignorance about the subject, it was a real commitment to denial.(laughter) I understood it, given the livelihood involved, but I could feel the pressure of that denial like a lid on top of me. As I was growing up and reaching out beyond the assumptions, values and world-view of my parents, I encountered a lot of information that was taboo to them.

Rebecca: How old were you when you began questioning those taboos?

John: Very young. I don’t know how to account for it, but the fact of the matter is that I seemed to be destined to do this. From my earliest childhood I was living two lives; I was being groomed by my father to succeed him; being trained in the factory, in merchandising and franchising and all the other aspects of the business, and then my inner life was involved in questioning and challenging everything I was being taught.

I couldn’t talk to my father about this, or my mother, or my sisters, or my aunts and uncles.(laughter) It was two separate worlds. In one world ice cream made people happy, and in another world, ice cream was high in saturated fat and cholesterol and contributed to diabetes and heart disease.

Rebecca: But that’s not something that you could have known as a very small child.

John: No, not the details of it. It was more of a feeling.

Rebecca: You never enjoyed ice cream?

John: I loved ice cream! Did I say that for a moment? Are you kidding me?! (laughter) When people find out that I don’t eat ice cream anymore, they get this pained look on their face as if I’m deprived, and I say, “please don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve eaten enough ice cream for ten lifetimes!”

Rebecca: So the style of your inspiration was more of an unraveling process rather than a revelatory flash?

John: There were moments that catalyzed me or where I became aware that I had progressed to a certain point, but I can’t pin the development of my consciousness on those moments. For example, in 1960 I was living and going to school in Berkeley. I had been working with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement had become very important to me. I was this privileged upper-class white kid and sometimes I wondered what business I had being involved in this, but then I felt that I had a lot of business because it was such a profound thing that was happening to everyone.

To put this in context, I have to back up a little. When I was in high school and working closely with my dad, I knew only the world of wealthy people and the country club scene, but I did not feel privileged by that. I felt restricted and limited by the fact that I only felt comfortable with what I was familiar with. I would look around at everybody else, and I felt completely disconnected.

And I noticed that at Baskin Robbins, most of the store owners were white and most of the customers were white and that it was basically an upper-class trip - it was a luxury ice cream. And then when I was a senior at high school I was offered scholarships to Harvard, Stanford and Yale because I had been very successful on the debate team. But I chose not to go to those schools because it would have been more of the same - the privileged few.

So I chose to go to the University of California at Berkeley which is a public school and was then fairly inexpensive. I thought, here would be an opportunity to meet people outside the very narrow socio-economic group that I had been in. I had a very powerful desire to understand more kinds of people.

So, in 1965, I left Los Angeles and went to Berkeley. I immediately became involved in the free-speech movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. It was an incredible time to be alive. Openings of all kinds were happening. I took the civil rights movement very personally, and when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 I felt as if a bullet had gone through my heart too. Any thoughts of business as usual felt just ludicrous and empty.

I had seen in my own family a high level of material success attained - and I had seen its limitations. Within the circle of my family’s friends were some of the richest people in the world, who also happened to be some of the most neurotic people in the world.

David: What about your sisters? Were you the only rebel in the bunch?

John: Yeah. My two sisters share a great deal of assumptions and perspectives with my parents.

Rebecca: How do they feel about what you’re doing now?

John: It’s hard for them. They don’t feel comfortable with it - except my father. When I left the business, he was very hurt and that caused a lot of distance between us. He respected me and he knew that I was sincere, but he felt that I was crazy. Here I was with long hair walking away from an opportunity to be extremely wealthy in order to do - what? He couldn’t see it, and I couldn’t explain it either, in terms that made sense to him.

My uncle, Bert Baskin died of a heart attack in the late `60’s. I said to my dad, “do you think there could be any connection between the amount of ice cream that Uncle Bert would eat and his heart attack?” He said, “absolutely not, his ticker just got tired.”

Then five years ago my dad’s health was very precarious. His cholesterol was almost 300. He had very high blood pressure for which he had to take ten - what he called horse pills - every day, which had serious side-effects which he hated. His diabetes was out of control and he was in danger of going blind or ending up on a kidney dialysis machine or lose a foot to gangrene.

He went to see a physician who told him that the prognosis was pretty grim and that all they could do now was shuffle his medications and make his last years more comfortable. Then the physician said, “but if you are

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