I’ve definitely been around the spirituality block a few times. Or, as they say out here in Montana, this ain’t my first rodeo. In one of my prior blogs, I wrote about all the many ways I went about trying to connect with what I now imagine/call “the Force” — ashrams, contemplative retreats, mantras, zazen with Buddhist teachers, etc.
But I also happened to be born and coming of age right as the “new age” was being birthed. In fact, I had a hand in it’s debut.
I was just out of college and working for a boutique public relations firm on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in New York. One of our clients was the Ladies Home Journal. Surprisingly, they had been the highest bidder to get what was called “first serial rights” (meaning, they could publish an except of an upcoming book before it was actually available in stores) for an upcoming book by actress Shirley MacLaine. The book was “Out on a Limb”, her recounting of the many spiritual experiences she had been experiencing. One of the most controversial claims was her belief that she had once been a man in Atlantis (in itself a controversial “place” that some people believe was a holy land which sank at some point in the very distant past). Our job, at the PR firm, was to publicize that month’s issue of LHJ — and there was nothing more “hot” than a huge movie star claiming she believed in reincarnation, channeling and Edgar Cayce
LHJ had on staff a brilliant editor and writer, Ed, who drafted up a press release that announced that Shirely’s new book was coming out, the LHJ had the excerpt, and wait tip you hear this — Ms. MacClaine thinks in a past life she was a man!
Today, this all seems quite quaint– but back then, this was HUGE. Ed wrote the press release, then-editor Myrna Blythe approved it, and then, it was handed to me to type up was(no computers then) and disseminate to the thirsty New York City media.
So there I was … typing the press release that turned into huge news and effectively launched the new age in one fell swoop. The media, unsurprisingly, went berserk; responses ranged from hilarity to religious folk damning her to hell. The late-night shows had a field day. It was as huge a story then as perhaps Brad and Jen’s breakup was a decade later. Everyone was talking about it. It was so huge, that the head publicist for Bantam Books called our PR firm in a fury, saying that our publicity for the except ruined the splashhe hoped to make when the book was published a few weeks later.
God bless Shirley MacClaine — she blasted open things that were previously seen as fringe, occult, heretical, dangerous, or just plain nuts.
Now,of course, not only is this not news, it’s old news; spiritual growth has, well, grown and there are few things left that are still considered “out there” except, perhaps, UFO abduction. But trance channeling, past lives, Edgar Cayce’s work, spiritual healing, energy medicine, crystals, sensory deprivation tanks, etc. are now, if not mainstream, certainly not fringe.
The MacLaine publishing experience certainly intrigued me. As a child, I was intensely curious about God and religion, and had several precognitive dreams which came true. I wanted to know about the Ouija board. I was curious about the Tarot deck (though it scare dmd) and I intuitively knew on some level that there was, a Sting wrote in one of his songs, “a deeper wave than this.” But I didn’t know how to find it.
Thankfully, the Universe, in its utter reliability, got me out of the first PR firm job and put me in the publicity office of the biggest book publishing house in the world. Because I sort of “got” this new age stuff, and at least was very interested in it, I was assigned all of the new age books to promote. And boy, were there a lot of them. After the MacClaine book got record amounts of ink from journalists, and tons of airtime on radio and TV, it then landed on the bestseller list and stayed put — for years. Publishers, always eager to chase a trend, hopped on the New Age train, and off we all went. Thousands of books were published in the next ten years that became huge bestsellers, turning formerly starving spiritual teachers into circuit speakers with mega-millions. A few publishers jumped on the wagon so thoroughly, that they only published new age authors. Jeremy Tarcher, Red Wheel, Weiser, Hay House …. they saw the niche and they published it. For years, everyone who’d ever thought they heard the voice of their decades dead grandmother, who could construct a decent sentence, got huge publishing deal. They went on book tour, they gave lectures, theysigned books, they held weekend seminars at airport hotels. In some ways, it was very cool; in other ways, it was gross. I’m sure you know what I mean. A part of me was aghast at how commercialized the new age became; tee shirts, CDs, webinars, seminars on cruise ships… somehow or another, for me, the message frequently got lost in the hoo-ha that surrounded the messenger.
Perhaps the worst part for me was that I ended up having to publicize many of these “new age” authors’ books, which often meant knowing them up close and personal, and even traveling with them while they did book signings, media interviews, and events. The reason why is was the ultimate disillusion was that guess what? Every one of these teachers had … a dark side. I could write a whole other blog about some of the truly bad behavior I witnessed coming from these folks. Yelling a cab drivers, smiling warmly at fans then rolling their eyes at me in disgust after we would get into the limousine, having their agents call and scream (yes, scream) at me because their book tour wasn’t long enough or going to enough cities …. and the perennial question, why was Oprah not calling to schedule them for her show? I just found out recently that a new age big shot therapist we published, who sold millions of books at the time, was just arrested for drugging and then sexually assaulting some of his patients. Nice.
I thought, naively, at the time that because someone talked the talk that they would naturally walk the walk. There are legions of stories of gurus sleeping with their students, of new age stars embezzling money, laundering money, of having non-profits formed so they could keep MORE of the money… we published that woman, too. Imagine how much fun it was to have to tell all the media outlets we’d begged to interview her that, well, she was kind of a fraud. Whoops!
So after the initial froth of the New Age subsided, I was more than a little jaded.Many of the idols were now millionaires. Some my work had helped make them such. And then, the Catholic Church molestation stories started coming out. Wha was a spiritual seeker like me to do? It seemed everywhere I turned, there were idols with feet of clay. Somewhere along the line, I assumed that anyone who could write a book with the poetry and depth of some of the authors I read and/or published nada to be genuine, authentic, spotless. I obviously had not yet read enough Jung.
I finally realized that very few idols– maybe none– can be “spiritual” 24/7/365. It was a rude awakening. I have since come to learn that “enlightenment” is NOT ascending into some white cloud blue sky atmosphere, soaring with angels and released from humanity. I came to understand that “enlightenment” is a moment — maybe several — when we release from the heavy bonds of our ego, and move into a vast, loving, anxiety free space. There’s a great Zen story that teaches quite clearly this idea — that teachers are not the teaching — called Pointing To The Moon. In the piece, a Zen master reminds his student that if someone shows you the moon by pointing his finger at it, you might well only notice the finger, and not the moon.
It is this way with spirituality. The teachers are the fingers and the moon is the teaching. We so often get them confused.
Interestingly enough (no accident, I suspect) the next trend in “spiritual” books were all about the “shadow” an idea Carl Jung had theorized back in the ’30s. In a nutshell, he said that everyone had a shadow, a place in our psyches where we put parts of ourselves that were forbidden or loathed by consciousness, and that we could not achieve wholeness until those parts were made conscious. Non-scholarly fans of Jung scooped up his idea and wrote popular books about the phenomena. Suddenly, “shadow work” was what therapists were offering. God bless us all; we were trying so hard! While I never did shadow work in or out of a therapists office, I did take to heart (and read the original work of Jung on this topic) and it made sense. Suddenly, all those experts and star spiritualists with nasty little porn-watching habits (I’ll never say who, but you would definitely recognize his name) were never going to be pure. I traced it back to a desire that was clearly still in me to have my idols be without stain. I wanted both my parents to be perfect. Neither was. One of them failed pretty badly at the job. Inside of me there was still a deep longing for someone to hold the high watch and do it without sin.
When I got clear on that, things changed. 24/7 spirituality was not possible, and probably not desirable. The great saints and mystics and teachers and gurus and Rinpoches spoke of “perfection” and “enlightenment” but I finally got it that they were ideals, not goals. I could sit on meditation a cushion for 365 days and on the 366th, have very sore and stiff legs and perhaps, more space in my mind. But I was not geeing to get “enlightened.” I could, and did, spend thousands of dollars on retreats, conferences, private sessions with famous gurus and get in the car to drive home and swear at the truck driver who cut me off on the freeway. What happened to that enlightened state?
I think now, the movement towards “mindfulness” and “non-duality” is a good thing. I think that divinity and perfection and at-one-with can be had, in glimpses, any day. It’s just a matter of getting the ego out of the way. I will write more about the ego in another post, but my great teacher Winifred Clarke once said to me, “The ego only gets you to balance your check book and food shop.” the point being that we need that part, but it’s not the whole picture of who we are by any means.
The best image I’ve ever found to illustrate the idea of what’s conscious in us versus what’s not, is below:
Food for thought, no?
Meanwhile, let’s ease up on our teachers, and take more responsibility ourselves to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is a lot of wisdom out there, if we can let go of the need that the source is perfect.