Interview: Reality Sandwich
Jonathan Bricklin, author of The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time: William James's Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment, interviews Ralph White
Ralph White is the co-founder and creative director of the New York Open Center, America's leading urban institution of holistic learning. He is an international speaker on spiritually, consciousness, and the history of the Western Tradition. He is also editor of Lapis Magazine, and taught the first fully accredited course in holistic thinking and learning at New York University.
Jonathan Bricklin, author of The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time: William James's Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment, interviewed Ralph White about the contents of his memoir The Jeweled Highway, which chronicles his life's journey and quest for spiritual meaning through his world travels, from his native land of Wales to industrialized Northern England, the American Southwest, and Tibet. He talks about the profound impact Rudolf Steiner had on his spiritual philosophy, the significance of The Open Center in a pre-internet society, the spiritually oppressed times of Russia, and more.
Your whole life has joined soul and society, where they come together, and where they work against each other. There’s a dichotomy in this and your childhood also had a dichotomy from the first half of it to the second half. Let’s begin with the first half in what you call ‘The Tibet of the West.’
I was describing the Celtic world on the Western edge of Europe where there are many beautiful, sacred islands like Iona and Lindisfarne with centuries of history.
I was fortunate enough to spend a part of my childhood on the coast of North Wales on the Irish Sea. That period fed me and showed me to use language I wouldn’t have used as a child. I am a nature mystic at heart. I love to be in the natural world and to be walking those tidal pools on the Irish Sea, hearing the crash of the waves, the cry of the seagulls. the mountains of Snowdonia and Wales visible through the kitchen window. That was a beautiful and soulful time for me, very nourishing.
I wasn’t born into those circumstances. I spent my first four years in the working class row houses of Cardith, the capitol of Wales, playing on bomb sites in the aftermath of the Second World War.
I did have a beautiful interlude in the North of Wales which I will always be grateful for. At the age of nine, we moved to the north of England to what William Blake described as an area of ‘dark, satanic mills.’
Where you said you couldn’t see across the street…
Right. It’s a soot covered grimy northern industrial world where the industrial revolution got going, highly polluted. A lot of the famous moor, the fogs that the Bronte’s write about in Wuthering Heights, the mists and fogs come down from the moor mixing with the industrial toxins from the multiple chimneys. They belch into the air from the woolen mills that had been there for 150 years and create a very oppressive environment, the World’s original proletariat. This is the part of the world where Marx and Engels thought the revolution would begin. It was a difficult transition for me, but it had a great saving grace. When I was 13-14 years old the Beatles burst onto the scene.
Love me do. Those harmonica chords…
Yeah, those harmonica chords, exactly. I can still recall, to this day, the very instant I first heard John Lennon’s harmonica in Love Me Do in a changing room after a cross country race in the Cone Valley in the Panine foothills of Northern England. I was hooked from that opening harmonica phrase all the way through. One of the great things about living in England in the sixties was the outrageous music.
You got to go cover your 60’s college experience at Sussex, a wild swinging scene of sorts, yes?
Yes, that’s true. I was able to get out of that restricted world and go to the University of Sussex in Brighton which was known for its hectic heterosexuality. It was the hip place to be in England during the 60’s. It was a world of mini-skirts, Jimi Hendrix playing at the student union, Fleetwood Mac in the local pub playing for next to nothing, and the early blues clubs. It was a wonderful, liberating scene for me. It was academically stimulating, yes that’s true, but culturally it was a wonderful sense of freedom.
You were studying American Studies?
Yes. I eventually shifted to a degree in American Studies, which was unusual at the time. There were not many places in Britain where you could do American Studies. That’s what then lead me to come to America in 1970 as a graduate student. I got a gig as a teaching assistant in Chicago. I didn’t know anybody in America.
You said, “Chicago was a rich stew a great place to gain a quick understanding of the heart of American culture.”
Yeah. Well, I think it really was. I can’t say that I devoted much of my time in that year in Chicago to academic study.
I learned a lot about America fast because this was not very long after the Democratic riots, the Riots of the Democratic Convention in 1968. The Vietnam War was still raging. The students I was teaching at the University, quite a few of them had just come back from Vietnam, others were Black Panthers or about to be, or semi-black and part of the black radical movement. Others were really desperate to keep their grade point average up so they wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam.
I came straight into the thick of America in one of its most compelling places. Chicago was a set of ethnic city-states and you had to get street-wise very fast. My first American friend who taught me how to become street-wise in Chicago was about to be drafted. He had himself committed to a mental asylum to avoid it and then he escaped.
You called him the sanest person you met?
Yes. His name was Dennis. I have no idea what happened to him, but he was one of the sanest people I met. He was, in theory, an escaped lunatic. He was my first guide to Chicago.
After you left Chicago, you’re on Route 66 and it’s actually American Southwest…
It was the American Southwest that opened me up spiritually. I grew up in the time that I did, with a father and a grandfather involved in the horrors of the first and the second world war and so I grew up with a strong awareness of the holocaust and awful events like Stalin’s starvations and purges and so on.
As a young man, I thought about if there be some deeper order to the cosmos, some deeper divine level of reality. It was certainly nothing that was perceptible around me. I set off on a search and the first journey was the Christmas of 1970 down route 66 into the beautiful deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, with those huge starlight skies, the vast empty spaces.
I heard The Sound of Silence for the first time at the site of the Native American ruins in the painted desert in Arizona. Those were truly transformative experiences for me and that’s what began to open me up. I think the open skies, the open landscape it really helped to open my heart and I realized that some of the more negative take I had on reality was derived from the fact that I had shut myself down.
I realized that I had a lot of freedom to open myself up to a richer experience of the world.
In some ways this brings you back to Wales and your childhood. You said your heart lifts up to the empty sky in Wales.
It was the mystery and beauty of nature that really stimulated that for me.
It’s a real turn in your life…you were struggling to find your place in society and yet you had this incredible cosmic experience that made you identify with the oneness of the universe.
I knew that I was experiencing fresh states of consciousness. States of expansiveness, openness, peak experiences, states of unity with the universe.
There’s many in the book, but let’s talk when then you found yourself in Vancouver where you heard George Harrison’s song “Beware of Darkness” from All Things Must Pass. Frank Sinatra called “Something in the Way She Moves” (George Harrison’s song) the greatest love song ever written.
You called Beware of Darkness, “the greatest intuitive knowing of the love that appeared to me, the very engine of the cosmos”
Yes. Actually, that was back in Chicago after the experience in the Southwest where I had an experience listening to George Harrison’s great album All Things Must Pass, and particularly that song Beware of Darkness. It spoke to me very personally because I had been predisposed through my youthful take on reality to a dark view of the world.
That song is about not getting too sucked into a negative take on reality, despite the fact that we’re surrounded by all kinds of frauds and horrors. So that was an insight that came to me. I had a sense that the very motor engine of the universe as it were, is love.
I think I had just reached a point at that time in my life, I was 21 or 22, when something in me, my own soul, was emerging in a fresh way and I was discovering the inner mystic, spiritual person, or the inner esotericist.
Conventional career paths do not suggest themselves in that state of being and mind. You certainly didn’t take one. With very limited means you took yourself to South America, yeah?
Well, when I left Chicago I went to Vancouver because I loved the West Coast. I felt very at home there and for VISA reasons it was difficult to stay in the U.S. The Vietnam War was still raging, so I went to Canada. I had a very mixed experience. I loved the counterculture but it was difficult to make a living and I found it a little too dull for me.
One day day I saw a picture of Mach Picchu on TV and just had a tremendous intuitive prompting, “I’ve got to go there.” I started hitchhiking when I was 16, and I always wanted to keep on going until the end of the road.
On January the 3rd 1973, I set off from Vancouver and I made it all the way to Machu Picchu.
You called Machu Picchu, “a feeling of organically generated magical reverence.”
It took me six months to get there and it was worth the wait. I experienced Machu Picchu as one of the sacred places of the Earth. Sacredness had nothing to do with the actual structure, but a sense that there are certain places on the face of the Earth that just have a special quality where the Earth and the Heavens meet in perfect harmony.
That made me open and interested in visiting other places in the world that had that sacred quality to them. It also spoke to the beauty. One of the reasons I set off to hitch-hike to Machu Picchu was to visit those ancient cultures. I had a sense that there are some deep mysteries that haven been lost and that we need to regain. At the Open Center I’ve done a twenty-year series of esoteric quests for the lost spiritual history of the West. It has turned into a real theme of my life. Maybe one day I’ll actually do one in Peru and go to Machu Picchu and do what is known, what scholars and others have pieced together from that remarkable culture.
You spent a year as far away from a metropolis setting as one can pretty much get. When you came out of that you saw an American movie and what you remember was the strained faces…
After I had spent some months in the Andes, traveling with indigenous peoples, hitchhiking and being under those vast starlit skies. I had a sense that some of those tiny specks of light were not just stars, or even planets or galaxies.
I learned later when I was at Berkeley, those specs of light are galaxies of galaxies! When you spend months under those starlit skies with the indigenous peoples of that part of that world, it does something to your consciousness. When I came down again to sea level, I hadn’t seen a film in months. I went to see WUSA. It was about a radio station and has Paul Neuman in it. Being in the city again, and seeing that movie with the contortions in people's faces, the stress, the anger, the worry, the hatred…it was a wild time in America.
It all added up to a moment of complete intuitive clarity. I saw very clearly that Western industrial civilization was destroying the biosphere, and was deeply damaging the Earth and our souls as well. We really needed to create some kind of alternative. That came to me when I was 24 years old. You could say that’s provided a kind of agenda for my life, creating an alternative, a holistic and ecological alternative to mainstream culture - this has been an ongoing theme of my life.
At the end of that year-long adventure in South America you were in Bogata, Columbia of which you write, “No one who has spent a year of their youth in the poor quarters of Bogata, Columbia can claim much innocence still intact.”
Well it’s true, it wasn’t really my choice, I ran out of money in South America and did wind up living a year in Bogata in essentially the slums. This was 40 years ago of course and Bogata at that time was a decantian kind of city. There were schools of pick pockets. There were abandoned children sleeping under the doorways with their only companions abandoned dogs. It was a world very rife with corruption.
When I finally left it a year later I came away with a real appreciation for constitutional democracy and a fair legal system, because it was an education in street life and a politically regressive environment. Most people suffered as a result. I would say Columbia is a highly eroticized society and also a Catholic society so you had all kinds of issues there.
You speak of the wounded women…
Some of the women I was close to in Columbia carried major traumas. A lot of it related to the fundamental disparity between those two elements of Columbian society. Yes, Bogata was a great place to spend a year if you were 24-25 and you wanted to really push the edge of experience. I think a lot of young men want to do that, want to step outside the normal bounds of conventional existence and live out there on the edge, which I certainly did for that year.
And then you followed that year with California, a lonely, open eroticism of a year?
I went to see a wise Chinese doctor, a pulse diagnostician, who could tell you how long it was since your last cup of coffee. I’ll never forget Doc Wong feeling my pulse when I got back from Columbia. He laughed and he just looked at me and said, “You carry on living like this you’ll take ten years off your life.” I remember that felt very true to me. It was my first real introduction to Chinese medicine.
I was in the San Francisco Bay area for a year after that, a joyful participant in the freedoms, the spiritual and erotic freedoms of West Coast counter-culture at that time.
To go to CA after being in 8,000 feet in the freezing nights of Bogata in a politically oppressive environment, and to be in the more liberated sun-drenched, flower-filled world of Berkeley in 1974-75, felt like a blessing. To be exposed to all the multiple different spiritual paths that were going on there. To be able to return to an exploration of these different forms of consciousness development. I had many different mystical experiences in the mountains, in the Andes. Now the task for me was, how can I replicate, or taste them again through a more disciplined spiritual practice.
And then you found yourself with one of the most magical centers in the World…
Yes I went from there. One weekend I was up at a little Sufi community in the Napa Valley and came across two books that were really pivotal to me. One was a little pamphlet by Paul Hawken called Findhorn: A Center of Light, and another was John Michelle’s famous book on the lay-line system of Britain called The New View over Atlantis.
I resolved at that point that I should go back to my native country. I wanted to go to those sacred places scattered throughout Britain. I also wanted to visit this place Findhorn, which was an alternative spiritual community in the far north of Scotland, about 25 miles east of Inverness. It had been going for some years then and thought of itself as a center of demonstration, a place to demonstrate that you really could live in a harmonious way as a community. It was not spiritually affiliated with any one particular path. It didn’t have gurus. I’ve never been interested in gurus. I believe that we’re living in a time of freedom and we have to figure it out for ourselves. So, I thought yes, I’m going to go there next time I’m in Britain. I did wind up going there. I arrived in Findhorn in the North of Scotland in a snow storm late on New Year's, walked in through the community center, and immediately had that sense that I knew half of those people even though I didn’t. I had certainly not met them during this lifetime and yet here I am all these years later and many of those people are still good friends of mine.
Findhorn today is an eco-village and a holistic learning center as well as being a spiritual community. It’s continued to flourish and thrive. At Findhorn they have this concept of the network of light. There are various points of consciousness, some are the kind of consciousness that we need to go into the human future. There’s spiritual, holistic, and ecological emerging on the planet. I’ve always felt a lot of truth to that. As I write about later in the book, there is now an emerging global network of holistic centers and holistic learning centers. We’re going to know each other more and more and there is a sense that we’re part of something much larger. We’re facets of that larger diamond of an emerging consciousness.
The fusion of the spiritual and the practical?
The thing about Findhorn is we weren’t just talking about it, or meditating, but people were actually building. They were building a pentagonal, sacred, universal hall that was just done purely out of intuition, and somehow the universe supported it.
Today it’s one of the major performing arts centers in the North of Scotland. It was a very practically oriented thing. Everything I know today about maintenance, which is not much, I learned there.
It was great to be grounded. The main thing was building the community and creating the place. I was there when Clooney Hill came along, which became a big ‘ol nineteenth century hydrospa that had been abandoned and that we wound up taking over. It was a great place to be in my late twenties. I needed to heal in a way from some of my wilder adventures in more distant parts of the world, I needed to find community, and I still love a lot of those people all these years later.
But you did, at least at that time at that age in your life, find them to be a little naive or you felt a sense of naiveté about being in the world?
Well I’d had a broader life experience than most of the people who were of my age. Although people of all ages have lived hard. Including people of most unlikely backgrounds, like guys who’ve been in the British military and so on. I say in the book that I’d had this idea that anybody who’d made a career of the Military had to be stupid or somehow unconscious. I was very surprised to learn that there were actually some wonderful and noble people, the Chairman of the Board of Findhorn, Captain Aaron Roth Steward, had commanded a battle cruiser in the second world war, and he was a great guy.
I learned many things on many levels while I was there are Findhorn, but most of all it was about the heart opening. When you entered the community it was almost as if you stepped through a palpable wall of love and into a different world. It was a special time and I’m not sure it’s still the same all these years later, but I felt privileged to be there during this in the mid-to-late seventies.
You were heading that way because you were coming back to America, right?
Yes. I came back to America after three and a half years in the North of Scotland there. I thought it was important to make clear in the book that my life didn’t just unfold from one interesting episode to another, that there were fallow times, confusing times, difficult times.
After Findhorn I was back in the Bay area, I was just surviving doing this that and the other, nothing was really working, and then through a twist of fate, just a fortuitous synchronistic development I wound up being invited to come and work in the programming department at Omega Institute which was still in its early years.
Omega’s survival was hanging by a thread and I wound up becoming Program Director. We found this old family camp in upstate New York, which was really run down and had been empty for a decade. I had this interesting experience in the late seventies and early eighties of creating these centers from scratch from big, run down neglected things that seemed to have no purpose any longer in this world.
In Omega it was a small team of us and initially we took on this huge great task. I describe getting to Omega for the first day and it was covered in snow. It was not an encouraging site, an icy wind was blowing across the snow. Broken doors were swinging on the hinges, collapsed roofs.
It’s been amazing what’s happened to Omega when I think of that really desolate icy beginning, the run down, debilitated quality of the whole place.
That was a fascinating experience because it was the beginning of the holistic world. I write about what it was like in those days when there was always a new shaman coming out of the Amazon, a new Tibetan teacher coming out of the Himalayas, some new body work technique coming in from California, or some form of African dance we hadn’t seen before and so on. It was a vibrant and colorful. There were a lot of young people and it was very energetic and multicultural.
Were you coaxing some people out of retirement? People who hadn’t thought to teach because there were no centers for them to teach?
There may have been some people like that. When I came to New York and started the Open Center from scratch I remember I brought R. D. Laing over to America, the great Scottish psychiatrist. He hadn’t been in America in years. I remember bringing over Colin Wilson the writer, the multitalented writer on many aspect of consciousness.
These were both people who were challenging the paradigms of the field that they worked in?
Absolutely. People like R.D. Laing and Colin Wilson. It was wonderful to bring them over when they hadn’t had an American audience in a long, long time. I’m sure there must have been a few people who were more or less in retirement. It was a vibrant time and there was a lot going on and it was new and it was fresh.
Today a lot of these practices have become well established. But in those days it was fresh and new. At Omega and then at the Open Center we were pioneers in bringing the holistic world view and holistic learning into the City. Conventional wisdom in the early 80’s was something that would never work in New York, maybe in California. Of course it had worked up at Omega, but not in the City, the City was the real world.
I know if I go to IMS for nine days I can have this beautiful retreat mind. But three days in the City, it’s gone. The environment of the City is stronger. Maybe I need to go ninety days, I don’t know. Is it your experience?
That is what I used to think. Whether it was Findhorn or Omega, people would have great experiences, but then the dreaded moment would come of, I have to go back to the real world.
Part of our thinking in doing the Open Center was let’s do it in the real world. It didn’t get more real than New York, or grittier in the early 80’s. The City was at a nadir (getting worse and worse) of crime and violence and mayhem. It was a challenge to think that we could create a place that was devoted to higher, nobler, spiritual and ecological values.
The thought was, let’s do it in the city. You’ve got to step outside the door, but that’s about the biggest challenge. You’ve got to get on the subway, but I think in doing it in the City, the Open Center to this day remains one of the few major urban holistic centers. It’s a difficult thing to do.
We’re talking 1984, well before the internet. Now it’s so accessible finding out about holistic and the new paradigms, anybody can hit YouTube. But in that day it was no not so easy to find, these visions and these ways of looking.
You actually had to come down and see the people in person, or read their books. The internet has changed all of that. It’s hard to believe that I used to come into the Open Center in the morning and there’d be a pile of ten letters waiting for me that had just come in overnight from people wanting to teach at the Open Center.
There was a lot of new age flakery, crystals and channeling being approached in an ungrounded way, it was important from the beginning that the Open Center should be devoted to programs that had substance, depth and integrity. That’s what we always shot for. I was always looking for the deepest most profound teachers in all these areas.
I think that early Open Center in the 80’s down on Spring Street had a very beneficial impact on New York. I meet people today who came regularly all those years ago. Of course, now the Open Center has been open so long that we’ve actually educated generations of people. You’ve got active people in the consciousness world now who were educated in many ways. I met some guy who was brought by his mother to the Open Center in 1985 and is now a very well published writer. It’s been sweet to see how this has impacted the culture over the course of decades.
The Open Center looks like a huge lobby that gathers people in, and then they can be exposed to a teaching they would not have known otherwise. They can go off in a room and explore it on their own. It’s constantly introducing people to new concepts and new options. After your first year at the Open Center you went to Hawaii, and you found your teacher? Or your main teacher?
One of my most significant teachers I’ve had. After that first year at the Open Center I made the mistake of writing and producing four catalogs, which was crazy, I’ve done three a year ever since. I was fried and exhausted. I’d poured my whole life blood into getting the Open Center started and even though I was just in my 30’s, I needed a break.
I went to Kauai, the most Westerly of the Hawaiian islands, and I decided to trek the Napali coastline trail, which was this beautiful ancient Hawaiian trail that clings to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. I was gone there for a week and it was exactly what I needed. It was deeply restorative. My consciousness slowed down to the slow rhythmic crash of the Pacific waves, those beautiful clouds, and the turquoise ocean.
When I got back I was camped out on a beach. I already had a mystical and spiritual world view, but I’d been feeling it was time to gain a deeper understanding into what happens at different levels of consciousness and how destiny, or even reincarnation actually works.
Some of our readers may remember the old B. Dalton’s bookstore on 9th street and 6th avenue. The night before leaving for Hawaii I picked up a book by Rudolph Steiner called The Tension Between East and West. I thought, oh, that’s a good topic to read in Hawaii.
That’s what you’d been working at so…
One day out on Heiner Beach it started to rain. I got in my tent I picked up a book on Zen, but it didn’t really do it for me. I picked up another book, and then I picked up the third, which was The Tension Between East and West. I read the first three pages and it was like, BOOM, as if I had walked straight into a profound and beautiful reality. The character Rudolph Steiner was speaking exactly on my wavelength and was addressing the major concerns that had been arising in my mind.
He was a philosopher unlike the philosophers I’d been introduced to at University. In those days logical positivism was at its apex, but unlike that this was a philosopher who had every bit that same level intellectual rigor, but who had a real feeling for the human soul, the dimension of feeling, as well as this empty semantical logic all the time.
I’d been aware of him for years before but I’d never really entered into his work. The next few years after that I spent as much time as I could reading everything. I realized the man had produced and given six thousand lectures. He died in 1925.
All without notes?
Yeah, none with notes. Compiled into over 300 books.
By your fruits you shall know him…
It’s surprising to me that in this massive explosion of consciousness and interest in spirituality we’ve had in America in the last 40-50 years that Steiner still remains a relatively obscure figures. People know about him through the Waldorf schools.
But if you apply that old line from the Bible by their fruits shall ye know you them, you do have to say that Steiner left without question the greatest holistic legacy of the 20th Century. There’s no one else even close. Most of it, the practical stuff, came out of the last five years of his life. He’s known for that if anything today.
The main body of his work was a massive treasure trove of esoteric wisdom. I have been reading and practicing some of the spiritual meditations that he was able to give us. I’ve been doing that for some time now. He saw himself more or less in the lineage of what he called initiates. The people who were initiated into the deeper cosmic and spiritual. He see himself in that lineage. The last thing he wants to be is a guru. He doesn’t want to be on anybody’s pedestal. He wants people to subject everything he has to say to the most rigorous intellectual analysis, to not believe anything just on faith alone.
But he’s a direct conduit to what we call ancient wisdom?
I engaged in Steiner’s work for over thirty years and he is a man of unquestionable integrity. Many people knew him, including people like Albert Schwitzer and no one ever had a bad word to say about him. He is a person of intellectual brilliance, beautiful heart, and really an unparalleled level of esoteric and spiritual insight in the 20th century. He himself felt that his most important contribution was to return a correct understanding of karma and reincarnation to the contemporary world.
Hawaii and 1985 really opened me to that perspective.
Throughout the adventure of your life I find instance after instance of courage, and to take risks. Nowhere is that more in evidence than your Tibet experiences, which really astonished me.
After the first five years at the Open Center, I definitely needed to take a break. I needed to travel the world and renew, refresh. I did wind up in Dharamsala where the Dali Lama is based in India. I spent a month at the Nechung monastery there, the monastery of the State Oracle. I was there when they were doing their invocation of Pehar Gyalpo, the Nechung Chogram, the protective deity of Tibet.
It’s the world’s last functioning political oracle and still provides political advice to the Dali Lama and to the Karsha, the Tibetan parliament. I’d actually asked the monks if I could join them for the last part of their ritual invocation. I had always loved Tibet since I was a child. I felt very fortunate to be there. There was only one other Westerner at this monastery. Anyway, the senior monk came to me and said that they had some material they needed to get into Tibet, he’d heard that I was planning to take the first flight of the year from Katmandu to Lhasa. It was impossible for a Tibetan to do it, they felt it had to be a Westerner, and that was the only person who had the chance. He wanted to ask me if I would do it. They felt I was the right person. They said they would put me under the protection of the Nechung Chogram while I was doing this.
To cut a long story short, I agreed to do it. This was the time of the Tiananmen square massacre. It was thirty years after the uprising against the Chinese that lead to the flight of the Dali Lama in 1959 so there are demonstrations in Tibet, the demonstrators are being shot and murdered on site. They didn’t want any Westerners around to see this so all foreigners were thrown out of the country.
Tibet became once again the Forbidden Kingdom, as it was for so long. One day I met a guy in Katmandu whole told me about a route into Eastern Tibet, last done in the 1920’s by an Austrian-American explorers called Joseph Rock, who wrote a series of articles called Journey to the Land of the Yellow Lama. It was into the world of Eastern Tibet, the Southeast Region of old Tibet, he world Muli the world of Kham, and the world of the khampas, warriors, fierce horsemen..
All the men had long hair. They all carried swords. A lot of them had guns. They are very bejeweled. They say a man without an earring will be reborn as a donkey. I was careful to wear my turquoise earring when I was among the Khampas. It’s a long story. It’s the longest chapter in the book called, “Request from the Oracle of Tibet,” the story of me following that route into the Eastern Himalayas…
Yeah with ‘Harrison Ford’ in the lead role…
The Tiananmen square massacre took place while I was in the mountains of Eastern Tibet. It was the most politically dramatic time since the cultural revolution in China. I’ll leave people to read the book to read the whole story. It was one of the most gripping and demanding things I’ve done.
After all those risks and dangers, at the end there was a synchronicity that you felt like as if it were a blessing.
That’s true, but I don’t want to give that away here, I’ll let people read that chapter. There is something that happens at the end there that is remarkable…
Another exotic part of the world, at least to many Americans, is the Eastern block of Europe that you spent some time in. This was at a time when they were trying to strongly ‘atheize’ the country, that’s a word that the Polish government used right before Pope John Paul came, but you found a whole different spirit there resisting that.
When I got back from that round-the-world trip, including Tibet, it was just as the Berlin wall was coming down it was the Fall of ’89. Suddenly the whole world of Eastern Europe that had been so alien, so distant, so hidden behind the iron curtain was becoming accessible again.
We used to hear rumors in the 70’s that ten thousand Russian hippies had rioted in Leningrad because they’d cancelled a Santana concert. You’d hear vague rumors like this and think, could there even be Russian hippies? Is this possible? So it was a mystery, but I had gained the sense that there are people on this kind of holistic and spiritual wavelength all over the world.
I don’t care what culture you are or what kind of miserable oppressive existence you’ve just come out of. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Russia itself had just come out of, in Russia’s case, 60 years of Communism in Eastern Europe, ever since then second world war. It was a challenge for me. Something I’d been involved with for a long time, this international gathering of holistic centers where we’d been meeting for ages. We had a gathering in Hungry and I wound up being invited to Prague and Russia eventually. I wound up stepping into this world just as it was emerging from decades and decades of intense political and spiritual oppression. I found all kinds of wonderful courageous people, people in Poland who’d been managing to get small Zen centers going during those years, and the Secret Policemen who were sent to cover them. It’s hard to think of something more appropriate for a secret policeman than to have to sit staring at a wall doing ZaZen for hours when he’s actually just trying to think of the report he’s going to be handing in to the Polish counterpart to KGB. That was a beautiful experience for me.
We tend to think of Russia in that time as being very drab, in these same block apartments and people living drab lives, but you penetrated something else.
I haven’t been to Moscow in quite a long time now. It used to be that you’d get to Moscow and it was like one enormous federal housing project, people just living in these huge bland looking high rises surrounded by chimneys and the like. Yet, you can walk into one of those little anonymous apartment buildings and find that it was an intimate and as welcoming as a log cabin in the birch forests. I found the Russian people to be tremendously hospitable. There was an enormous interest in what was coming from the West. Of course, they hadn’t seen the dark side of the West at that time, for them it was a source of freedom.
When you’ve had enemies, when you’ve had thirty-thousand nuclear missiles trained on each other for most of your lives and suddenly these enemies come together and recognize that they’re basically on the same wavelength. It’s absolute madness to be considering obliterating these people because of some ideology that’s passing through there at that time. It was a very beautiful experience.
We all thought that all Russian women looked like old Babushka’s so it was a stunning thing to get there and find that Russian women were extremely beautiful.
Well the Beatles let us know, “…back in the USSR, don’t know how lucky you are.” In fact, you heard the Beatles, didn’t you?
There’s a wonderful feeling for melody in places like Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic as it is. So you’d hear these beautiful old Beatles b-sides that would come surging on the radio out of nowhere, songs I hadn’t heard in years, but that had been preserved there. The whole world of Eastern Europe opened up as so soulful, so deep, so rich, so receptive, frankly to everything that the Omega Center Omega, Findhorn the whole holistic world view, for the values and practices that they stood for.
Of course, they had to go through the whole seduction into consumer capitalism, etc. I’m not suggesting that the whole culture went green, although that is happening in Africa now. I’m glad to say, we’re trying to prevent Africa from developing into a polluting culture. There’s a lot of effort now going into the greening and the creating of a sustainable Africa.
Again, it’s the pre-internet society and the way people would come together and the meals that went on all night and the singing and the songs. I fear that culture is in jeopardy
That was before rap and rock and disco, and all that stuff made its way into Russia. Even though I couldn’t understand the language it was the melody and the soulfulness. One day, I would like to do an esoteric quest for the soul of Russia, what a beautifully deep culture. I loved Russia,
It’s important for us to remember how wonderful the people are, even though Putin’s in power now and there’s a lot of ugly posturing. The Russian people are some of the most soulful and hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life and I look forward to going back there someday. It was a privilege to be there on some rickety old train, in the darkness, singing old Russian folk songs that could have been sung by soldiers going to the front lines in the second world war, to feel embraced and welcomed into that Russian world. I’ll never forget that.
There are whole societies that have that feeling. It seems now in New York City, the Open Center is one of those places where there can be a feeling and coming together in a more love-based environment. We’ve become a protectorate of that within the City. I don’t think that was your original plan. But you did say that one of your signs that the Open Center was working was you saw couples coming together, relationships starting up and wherever Eros reigned that was a good thing.
Yeah! I’ve always taken that whenever Eros appeared to me it has always been a sign of life or vitality. If you’re creating some kind of a program or some conference or some event, I take that as a blessing personally.
I always remember that first New Years Eve party we did down on Spring Street at the Open Center and we didn’t know who would show up. 100-150 people showed up. I think it was a group of 9 single women came, together, and every single one of them found somebody and left with someone that night. I don’t know how long it all lasted, that to me was just an incredibly good sign. That 9 individual people could come and all find somebody they were interested in. It said to me that we are on the right wavelength, we are doing something right.
It was a little blessing from the Cosmos to say, “Keep it up.”
Jonathan Bricklin is a Program Director at the New York Open Center and the editor of Sciousness. He is author of The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time: William James's Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment