I have been asking myself how I can best be useful towards the evolution of our (humanity’s) collective consciousness for most of my life, beginning, perhaps, when I was twelve years old, and in some ways, going back to when I was six. Asking what can I do myself, and what would be useful for those of us who share the desire to serve, to do collectively. What can I do, and what can we do? These two questions have been the driving force of my life.
I was born, of a Jewish family in the Bronx, in October of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. When I was six in 1945, I experienced the nature of the Jewish Holocaust in a very deep way, for one who was not there and never in danger. I knew that a very large portion of my family had perished in various concentration camps. I remember the eyes, from Movietone News, which they showed at the neighborhood Saturday movie matinees: big Jewish staring eyes, staring out at me, at us, from skeleton like human beings, staring through the bars; the stiff bodies, stacked like in piles of wood; and the many images, especially of the parents in their long coats, with a suitcase in one hand, and a child in the other, standing on line, waiting to board the train and knowing, deep inside, what was coming.
In those days, in the middle 1940’s, kids all across America went to Saturday matinees at our local movie theaters. We saw the same news that adults would see later in the afternoon and evening movie programs. In 1945, there would be some news about the Concentration Camps at least monthly, and frequently weekly. I would see the same horrible images over and over again: “Allied” troops liberating Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Belzec, Ravensbruck, Treblinka. The images burned into the core of my being, just under the surface, always there.
I was very angry with God. At ten, I became an atheist. I could not believe that there could be a God who would let such things happen. When I was twelve, my father gave me a copy of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I was halfway through the book before I realized that the protagonists were German. At twelve, in 1951, I had still believed that all Germans were Nazis (and there was a piece of that which lingered inside me for many, many years). I was shocked that the characters to whom I had given my heart were Germans. What could that mean? I realized that the problem was larger than I thought it was. It was not simply that Germans were evil, as I had thought. It seemed then, perhaps, that the problem was war. That “war” was some kind of a disease which humanity suffered from, and that, therefore, I needed to find a cure.
Since then, I have pretty much been primarily interested in how to bring an end to war, and an end to the horrible ways we can treat one another. I have led a rich and interesting life, but always in search of trying to understand what would be useful; what needs to change; where is, as Archimedes put it, the place to stand from which one can have the leverage to move the world.
I graduated college in 1961, and entered the Peace Movement. What else could I do? My first involvement with the social change movement, beginning in 1961, was with the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), the War Resister’s League (WRL), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). I was involved in marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of protest activity. I met and greatly admired Bayard Rustin, then Executive Secretary of the War Resister’s League (WRL), who became my hero and role model. I had first met him at a WRL weekend workshop, where, amongst other things, he sang the song, “Uhuru (Freedom)”, and moved me to tears. He had just come back from Africa, where he had been working with Julius Nyerere, and Jomo Kenyatta. He spoke of plans to form a Peace Brigade and march into South Africa. But then the WRL gave him a year’s leave to be an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and if he ever went back to Africa, I did not hear of it. Bayard was a truly great man.
Actually, Bayard was the primary organizer of the famous March on Washington. Most of the time, during those days, he kept himself out (or was kept out) of the public eye, because, at that time (and, unfortunately, now as well) being a homosexual was unacceptable to most of the black churches, and there was always J.Edgar Hoover looking for ways to discredit the movement. However, Bayard did play a primary role in organizing the coalition that brought into being what was known as (from Wikipedia):
This was the time of the famous “Freedom Rides.” All the staff and many members of the War Resister’s League took direct part in these rides, many of them were beaten and jailed over and over again, and some were so severely beaten that they never fully recovered. (Jim Peck, David McReynolds, Dave Dellinger, Ralph Di Gia, amongst others).
In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, there was a degree of franticness, within the Peace Movement, in our responding to one crisis after another, leading up to Cuban Missile Crisis, during which it became appallingly clear to me that we were at the brink of World War III. I felt this so strongly, that after taking part in organizing an 8,000-person protest march to the UN, I solemnly bade my friends good-by, telling them that we might not see each other again, and went home to prepare for the end. Some of my friends felt that I was being excessively melodramatic. But, as you may know, there was a meeting of the Ministers of Defense of the various countries involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was convened by Robert McNamara in 2006 (he had been the US Secretary of Defense at the time of the confrontation), during which it was reported that the situation had been even worse than I had thought it was. McNamara, himself, had bade his family good-by that night as well, telling his wife that they might not see the morning. It turned out that the decision as to whether or not to fire the Soviet missiles, which were in place in Cuba, was entirely in the hands of the Soviet Captain in charge of the missiles, at their base in Cuba. If the United States Navy had fired a shot to stop the Soviet vessels that were cruising towards Cuba, from crossing the line that President John F Kennedy had stipulated, he (the Soviet Captain) would have opened fire on the USA with nuclear missiles, and then, Armageddon.
In any event, it was a turning point in my life as an activist. I had never been able to figure out what connection there was between our (those of us in the Peace Movement) actions and the change we hoped to bring about – that is, I could not see how our actions would lead to bringing about the desired changes. But there seemed to be no time to develop long range plans, as it seemed that our time was always running out. We were always responding to one crisis after another with no overall game plan, and no coherent strategy. I felt much like Chicken Little, running about and shouting, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Certainly the demonstration we put together was not in any way a factor in the events of the day. I was up all night. As I had no spiritual practice at the time, had never heard of meditation, and was a stranger to prayer, I spent the night listening to Gregorian Chants and drinking white wine, while dwelling upon the situation.
In the morning, a morning which I was surprised and grateful to see, I found that I had made the decision to develop/work on long range plans which had the possibility, given sufficient time, to lead to the desired changes, even if we thought that there would not be enough time. I had decided that I would rather work on plans that had the hope of coming to fruition, rather than continue short term responses, that had no real hope of being effective, to one crisis after another.
I had come to understand that governments manifest the consciousness of the people, or, stated another way, that the consciousness of the people establishes the parameters within which the shape and direction of government manifests. Therefore, if one wished to bring about substantive social change, the question became, “how to change the consciousness of enough people to make a difference?” In a sense, I have been working at responding to that question ever since. This understanding has profoundly influenced my life and my work.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1964, the WRL asked me to be their representative on the West Coast. I organized the first demonstration against the war in Vietnam on the West Coast, and then went on to found the War Resister’s League-west (WRL). The WRL(west grew, and I became its Executive Secretary, which was the same position (except local rather than international) that Bayard Rustin had with the national WRL- an important point to me, as I wanted to be like him. The Vietnam War was profoundly painful to me. The monks who burned themselves alive in protest of, what I always called, “the war on Vietnam,” had a very profound effect on me. I felt that they were the ones who really understood what was happening. I was able to see the whole horrible thing unfold before my eyes so early on. I could feel what we were doing to the Vietnamese people and knew that it would become worse and worse. I felt the changes that it would have on our country’s collective consciousness, and I saw the war in relationship to our previous idiotic interventions. I will over-simplify here for the sake of brevity: First, we decided to intervene, right at the end of World War I, in the Bolshevik revolution, with ridiculously inadequate forces, on the side of the White Russians. This was at time when most Russian revolutionaries looked to the United States as the one country (which had fought and won a revolutionary war) that would understand and sympathize with them. Instead we became the enemy, and lost any chance of playing a role in moderating the excesses of Bolshevism. Then there was the Chinese revolution, where we repeated the mistakes of the Russian revolution almost exactly: Intervening with completely inadequate forces, alienating those Chinese who were looking to us as allies, etc. This was followed by Korea, and then Vietnam.
I felt the urgency to communicate what I felt and saw at the beginning of the War on Vietnam, so intensely that it was almost unbearable. I wanted to run through the streets shouting, “stop! stop!” And would have, except that I believed it would do no good. I organized many events and demonstrations, spoke at many colleges, developed a very large staff of sixty volunteers, and seemed to make no difference at all. Some people think that the Peace Movement made a big difference in stopping the war, perhaps it did. But it certainly did not do so in a timely fashion.
I spent my first year of organizing activity trying to persuade people that there was a war going on. The war (the invasion of Vietnam) was reported in the Christian Science Monitor (one of the best newspapers I know of) long before any other newspapers seemed to be aware of it. I would bring copies of their articles to journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, some of whom I wound up being friends with for many years, asking them to report on what was then called a “police action.”
I became deeply involved with the Experimental College (the first of its kind) at San Francisco State College (SFSC). In 1996, Michael Rossman (from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement) came to one of our sessions, and said that psychedelics were going to change the consciousness of the world. That got my attention. A tool to “change the consciousness of the world” was quite interesting to me.
I attended the famous “Be-In” with the whole WRL volunteer staff (January 14, 1967). If you have ever seen any pictures of the event, with people carrying the peace symbol on the top of a staff, those were all from the WRL. I had my first psychedelic experience not very long after the “Be-In”, and, shortly thereafter, stumbled upon a meeting of the “Haight-Ashbury Elders” in the meeting room, below the WRL office. I was walking past the meeting room, and heard this quote: “Artaud said that the creation of the stage was the destruction of the theater.” What an interesting statement, I thought, and stepped into the room to learn more. I was strongly drawn to this group of powerful characters. This group went on to be known as “the Diggers,” (http://www.diggers.org/top_entry.htm). I was invited to speak at a gathering in the Haight-Ashbury. I spoke about peace, love, and consciousness, and felt heard, appreciated and understood; I thought, “These are my people.”
I remember telling my closest associates in the WRL that I was resigning to become a “hippy.” They laughed at first, as I seemed much too old (I was not yet thirty), and a rather a stuffy person to be doing such a thing. I thought I was following the most efficient path to changing our collective consciousness. It was good to break out of my ponderous seriousness and ongoing pain from not being able to do anything to stop the war, and other inner stuff.
The third time I took LSD was at a concert at the Polo Fields, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco early in 1967. The “longhair” community, as Rolling Thunder later dubbed us, was still pretty small back then. There were seven different bands playing at the same time, each from their own flatbed truck around the field. Amongst the bands were: the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver, Anonymous Artists of America, etc. Each perhaps with 100 to 350 people listening to them perform.
I was standing with my friend, Ron Thelin (founder of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street), watching the Anonymous Artists of America (AAA) play a Mothers of Invention song. The main chorus was: “I’m dying. I’m going out of my mind.” This was accompanied by one of the first synthesizers, called a “Buchla Machine,” which wailed and shrieked with a cacophony of horrible sounds. This was not the best possible accompaniment to coming onto one’s second LSD experience.
In my mind, I was dying and going out of my mind. I crawled away. I do not know whether I literally crawled or figuratively crawled, as the distinction was a bit fuzzy. Anyway, down the field I went. After a while, I began to feel somewhat better, then pretty good, very good, and, finally, extremely excellent. I stood up. There was Danny Rifkin, one of the first managers of the Grateful Dead, leading a long snake dance of several hundred people, in front of the Grateful Dead. The music, and the moment, was overwhelming. It was my first experience of awe. Not as in the expression, “that was awesome,” but in its literal meaning. I was awed. Moved profoundly. It seemed to me that all magic that was flowing around us in the Haight-Ashbury emanated from the Grateful Dead, and most particularly, flowed out of Jerry’s guitar. I thought to myself, “imagine being a manager of that band, being around that music all the time.”
Not very much later, I was a manager of the Grateful Dead. How that came to be, and where that went, is a very interesting story about those times. I began organizing, or helping to organize, most of the famous “Summer of Love” concerts in Golden Gate Park, first as a helper, and later as the primary organizer. This led to a close relationship with the Grateful Dead, and ultimately to my becoming a manager, and developing a very close relationship with Jerry Garcia. There was that brief period of time when we were filled with hope; it really was the “Summer of Love,” a beautiful evanescent bubble. It burst in 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. By the end of 1969, psychedelics no longer seemed, to me, like a road leading to higher consciousness, but an end in itself.
In 1970, I made the decision to find a teacher, and enter into a spiritual practice. I felt that if I were going to play a role in helping people to shift to a better state of planetary consciousness, I had better develop a higher state of consciousness myself. I had come to the firm conclusion that I had nothing more to learn from psychedelics; that I had to learn to impact my consciousness from within, rather than from externally applied substances.
I attended an event in May of 1970, called “the Holy Man Jam at the Family Dog on the Great Highway.” A transitional event at the close of the Hippie era, with many spiritual leaders including Yogi Bhajan, Swami Satchidananda, Pir Vilayat, Schlomo Carlebach, Stephen Gaskin, and others. Just prior to attending the event, I had concluded that in order to do the work before me, I needed to find a way in which to allow a great deal of energy to flow though me without the energy being wrongly directed by flaws in my ego or personality; to have power flow though me in service of humanity, but not to crave or seek power. When Yogi Bhajan spoke, I felt the immensity of the energy flowing through him, and how easily it flowed through him without seeming to be distorted by his ego. I found that I was greatly attracted to him, and shortly thereafter (at Summer Solstice 1970) became his student. I entered into spiritual practice in order to become a better social change agent.
During most of the seventies, while the War on Vietnam, continued, growing worse and worse, I immersed myself in my new spiritual practice. However, organizing events was in my bones. I became the main conference organizer and frequently chairman of Meeting of the Ways, which was an association of newly emerging spiritual organizations. We hosted quite a few three-day conferences (averaging 3500 attendees) bringing together spiritual leaders/teachers from many diverse paths, looking at and seeing our oneness manifesting in many different ways.
Then in the early 1980’s, I felt called to weave my worlds together, and we organized the first of a series of social change oriented Meetings of the Ways conferences (the first one called: Aspiring to Enlightened Action in the Nuclear Age – at Stanford University), which brought together much of the anti-war community and spiritual communities. This first conference (of this kind), which Joanna Macy called, “an historic event,” gave birth to a nine part PBS TV series (coordinated by Joseph Tieger) called,” How Then Shall We Live?” By the end of the eighties, I had developed an understanding that perhaps I could be most useful by training young people to be effective activists.
In 1987, my daughters and I organized Creating Our Future, a social change action/training organization for high school students. Ram Dass was involved from the beginning, as were Bobby Weir and Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. We started with two experimental workshops in the summer of 1987, and were rolling along by the fall of 1987. For the next several years, I pretty much averaged leading three workshops per month, with 25 to 35 students per workshop. Most of the participants were girls. There were rarely more than five boys in a workshop, as most boys of that age are more interested in gross physical motion that the state of the planet and talking about how they felt about it.
Through the influence of Joanna Macy and Interhelp, and their work with Despair & Empowerment workshops, we started out asking moderately deep questions, such as:
How do you feel about yourself?
How do you feel about your parents?
How do they feel about you?
What do you like about yourself?
What do you not like about yourself?
What are your fears about the state pf the planet?
This process could get very deep and I had begun to learn a great deal about the kinds of issues that these kids were dealing with. During our first Summer Camp, I noticed that one of the girls, aged 14, was acting extremely promiscuously. I went for a walk with her and asked her to tell me about herself. It turned out that she had been sexually abused at ages 3, 5, and 8. The abuse came from friends of her stepfather. Her mother and stepfather told her that the abuse happened because she was being wanton and provocative, and, of course, she believed it.
We organized a circle of the girls (high school students) with the boys sitting around them. For this circle, the boys were not allowed to speak, but could only witness. Later, they would have an opportunity to do their own sharing. There were 32 girls in the circle. In turned out that 18 had been raped or sexually abused, and that 8 of those had never spoken of it before. It was an enormous relief to the girls to be able to share their experiences. All of them carried a substantial degree of both guilt and shame in relation to these attacks on their beings. Needless to say, this experience profoundly changed the agenda for that summer camp, as we had to spend the next several days processing what came up for everybody.
As time went on I became more and more aware of the degree to which abuse of various kinds (physical, emotional, substance, sexual) became the central issue in the lives of those who were abused. And most frequently, a central issue that while all pervasive with respect to the impact on the person’s life, was most often never acknowledged or dealt with. Girls who were leading well balanced lives suddenly taking to relatively extreme drugs or alcohol; who were close with their parents, becoming profoundly alienated from them; who were good students, started to fail and cutting classes; who were relatively chaste, becoming promiscuous. These were all typical signs of abuse, and if the onset was sudden, most typically sexual abuse.
I began to see the profound effect that self-esteem issues had on all the major aspects of a person’s life, and that these issues could be substantive even of there was no overt abuse in a person’s life. All the major decisions (substance abuse as a lifestyle or not; going to college or not; which college? with whom to try to build a relationship? what kind of work or profession to choose? etc) a person makes are shaped by how one values oneself, and whether or not you feel that you deserve to do well. If life’s exigencies have resulted in a person’s believing that they do not deserve to do well, they will spend their life proving that they do not.
There is also a strange flaw in our basic design. If a person has an abusive father, they are most likely to select an abusive spouse. People tend to re-create the circumstances of their childhood household .The more negative the circumstances, the more likely they will be re-created. Alcoholism has been, for the most part passed down through generations upon generations. I find myself asking God sometimes, “what were you thinking of to shape us this way?”
The thing is that the child’s frame of reference is quite small, and the parents are the center of the universe. If the parents are abusive in some way, there are several things that almost always happen. The child unconsciously works out how to blame itself rather than the parents, resulting, in most cases, in both lack of self-worth and guilt. If a parent is beating the child, for example, this is frequently accompanied with verbal abuse, reinforcing the message to the child that the child is “no good,” “worthless,” “too much trouble,” “should never have been born,” etc. To the child this is taken as literal. The image of the self as “no good” penetrates deeply into the core of the being. The guilt message is, “If I could only be better, then they wouldn’t have to beat me.” The life path is determined, always trying to prove that one is OK, but never being able to do it. “Doing” cannot do it, as there is nothing that will ever be enough. The child could become another Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Bill Gates, Dr, Salk, Jerry Garcia, and still feel unworthy.
Quite some years ago, I led a Self-Worth workshop that was sponsored by the Young Women’s Social Entrepreneurs Association, which was founded by Sara Ellis. It was quite a successful workshop, although all we did was create a space to talk about wounds and scars to the psyche. After a while we did another three-hour workshop. At the end, when we were doing evaluations and appreciations, it was suggested that we really needed to do a full weekend to give the subject the attention it needed, to do something other than just bear witness for one another.
I sat with that for a long time. In spiritual circles, I had often heard the advice given that one should just drop the past. From my own experience, that is much easier to say than to do. The image that comes to mind about “dropping the past,” is to imagine that one is holding some really sticky substance. Then when trying to “drop it,” you try to shake it off, opening your hand and shaking it vigorously, but it remains stuck. When you try to pull it off with the other hand, then it is stuck to that hand, etc. So, what to do?
I was discussing this with a friend named Fleet Maull, a Buddhist teacher, who had spent many years in jail related to dealing drugs, and who had started two different prison organizations while in prison. He had done quite a bit of work in dealing with self-worth issues, and spoke of developing a process in which a person’s head would be held while he was sharing the pains and wounds he had received.
Sometime after learning about that process, while sitting in morning sadhana, I developed a clear vision as to how to lead a self-worth workshop for women. The idea of a man, in this day and age, leading a self-worth workshop for women, seemed very presumptuous, and I sat with it for a very long time. I discussed my ideas with Sara, and she agreed to work with me in leading the first workshop. I do not know if I would have ever been able to start without her help and support.
For more on Self Worth see the Self Worth Page of this website