The Quest for Cool: Radical Belief Systems of the 60's and 70's
In the 60's and 70's we were swamped by radically different belief systems ...different from the mix of Christianity, Judaism and Humanism that had dominated our culture for centuries. It was as though traditional belief systems were like glass vases that were suddenly and inextricably shattered. On the scene in Height Ashbury were imported systems from the east: The Sufi's, Rebirthing, Gurdjieff spiritual discipline, est, and Rolfing, a form of body torture that ripped tissue from the bone, zen meditation, time travel, past life regression, drug experimentation with marijuana, LSD, Cocaine and Hari Krisna. Experiences became the foundation for belief and beliefs became experiences. Aldous Huxley tried to make sense of it all and became enamored with one system after another. Some intellectuals like Timothy Leary were swallowed in the mÃªlÃ©e. Traditional philosophy looked askance at these belief systems, but never again were quite the same.
In this article I will explore my recollection of est and hari krisna. Est, founded by Werner Erhard in the early seventies, was an eclectic system that glued many systems into one under the concept of est..meaning "it is" and also, Erhard Seminar Training. The basic idea is that instead of going into the mountains for a few years and living on air and rice and searching for the meaning of life, one could go through the training that Erhard had devised and get the same effect: the realization that things simply are. The training started with an assault on belief systems. No matter what one presented, the trainers dissected it. The trainers, trained by Werner, were like logicians, lawyers, and actors rolled into one. Above all, they were cool. No matter how hot the dialogue become they floated above it. The est trainers declared that rape was just rape, that murder was just murder, that stealing was just stealing and our thinking these act immoral was an illusion based on agreement. These things were wrong because we agreed they were wrong. There was no intrinsic reason that made them wrong. And on and on..No matter what was introduced,. it would always come back to the fundamental est principle: It is. This was a fundamental radical belief system.
On a day to day level, est stressed doing whatever you were doing with the greatest speed and yet the greatest accuracy possible for you. For example, one would have to run for a mile every morning and run with abandon, but still in control. You were not doing the exercise if you were not running full out and you were not doing the exercise if you lost control. This challenge put you into a hyper state of awareness. Every aspect of living was explored and looked upon as a challenge: Money, Sex, Health, Attractiveness/Charisma, and Salvation. There was a lot of emphasis placed on responsibility. It seems one could do anything one wanted as long as they were willing to take responsibility for it. There was great emphasis on keeping one's promises. One's word, they taught, was law. I wonder, still, if they had had psychic conversations with Emmanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps this belief system was not so radical. Kant explores the moral commitment that arises out of agreement and Wittgenstein explores the nature of language agreements. Here we have a radical belief system that is virtually impossible to pin down.
On the six day training, we went through a rope course, starting with repelling. We repelled down the side of a mountain and enjoyed the sheer exhilaration of moving down the side of the mountain. We moved on to the Tyrolean Traverse, where we crawled belly up across a cavern propelling ourselves with a line. Finally, we did a zip line over the trees in the valley below and all these experiences were later interpreted as metaphors for living. Courage and Trust. Fear and Doing...For example, on the zip line we were to think of it as confronting fear, not by denying fear, but by acknowledging it and doing the feat anyway. I would not have been able to get through this experience had I not trained for it months before the training began. I went to the gym every day and did upper body reps. Such is the doing nature of est as a radical belief system.
This was est. Humanistic, Challenging, Athletic, On the Edge, Alive., utterly confounding in respect to the analysis of language and core beliefs expressed in a conceptual sense. One would be better off deciphering Zen Koans. Nevertheless, a radical belief system.
Another popular movement in this period was that of Hari Krisna. My cousin was in this movement, so my knowledge of it is mainly filtered through his perception. He and his roommate made several trips to India and in the mid sixties met their spiritual leader in New York, on the lower east side. His name was Prabupada. My cousin wrote several books on his life as a Hari Krisna monk. This system of thought was based on the teachings of The BagavadGita, an ancient Indian belief system that was now being taught to hippies in New York. They would gather on the roof tops at four or five am and chant and receive lessons on the life of a Hari Krishna monk. Many on them took new spiritual names and made lifelong vows.
They were strict vegetarians. They had rules for eating and for sex. They were not totally peace loving. They emulated the attitude expressed in the Battle of Kurisatra, told in the Bavagad Gita, which purportedly took place thousands of years ago. They would fight to defend their land as they did in New Vrendaman, located in Moundsville West Virginia. They were a society apart. They rejected almost every tenant of conventional society. The guru would often assign wives to select monks. Ones who did not conform to the guru's desires were sometimes beaten
They have their own culture, their own myths, music, art and contests. The Hindu concept of reincarnation is basic to this system of thought. They will come back as an animal ...even a non human animal. Depending on how they have lived in this life, they will awaken to a new life upon dying. So, they are constantly in meditation and chanting to build up spiritual reserve to forward them into the next spiritual life.