The Spiritual Meaning of the Sixties
(An essay written at the request of the author and included in his book)
The spiritual meaning of the Sixties is a mixed bag for me. I see elements of optimism, spirituality, and idealism in contrast with hypocrisy, childishness, and cynicism. Sorry: “turn on, tune in, and drop out” is not a legitimate interpretation of the Bodhisattva Vow. On the other hand, few Westerners even knew what the BV was before the Sixties. America, at least, was a different place in the Fifties. A rigid repressive conformity and cookie-cutter aspiration seemed the norm. The horrors of World War II encouraged families to seek security. Men traded their uniforms and military discipline for the regimentation and adherence to authority that was familiar to them. There was little room for rebellion among a generation that literally had the hell scared out of it by a fight for survival against gigantic odds and faced the very real specter of nuclear annihilation.
Father Knows Best may have had a universal appeal, but The Rebel Without a Cause lurked in the dark underbelly of our culture. Bill Haley and the Comets rocked us all. But when Elvis leapt onto the scene, the world went nuts. Shaking and seducing, bringing a black soul beat to white rock and roll, the King flayed the nerves of the Establishment, serenading the young like the Pied Piper. Buddy Holly followed, dragging the reminder of mortality in his wake. I remember The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. The next day, one of the kids in our high school combed his hair down in dangerous imitation of the Fab Four. It was a time of awakening.
Then LSD literally blew the lid off and we never looked back. The collective unconscious was rocketed into the Fifth Dimension overnight. Tie-dye and hippie beads, psychedelic rock and sexual liberation, the peace movement and anti-authoritarian ethics, native ethnic culture and holistic consciousness, communes and crash pads. Zen Buddhism and Indian gurus replaced whatever remained of Sunday school. Acid was like a cultural nuclear explosion with the youth as Ground Zero. Acid decimated the last vestiges of the Fifties. We, who had hidden under our desks in countless drills of nuclear war preparation, woke up to the fact that we’d have been fried crouching with our heads between arms under our desks just as easily as if we had been standing about or sitting in our chairs. It was a chilling insight into the phoniness of the world we knew.
But I also can't shake the corruption of “our” side. I read the House Committee on Un-American Activities transcripts of the anti-war hearings of 1967 at the time and was nauseated by Jerry Rubin and his self-aggrandizing behavior. He went on to become an overweight stockbroker who got killed jaywalking in front of his penthouse apartment. Abbie Hoffman, who I found more interesting, committed suicide, not exactly the behavior of an enlightened adept whose path I should be following. Leftist hero Eldridge Cleaver “practiced” his rape skills on black women before graduating to white women. Even in 1968 when I read his Soul on Ice, I thought he should go fuck himself. Carl Oglesby, co-founder and past president of SDS, told us in class at Antioch in 1967 that he had punched his mother. Maybe I am revealing myself as a bourgeois, but I was mortified. He described himself as a Marxist and I still fail to understand how that works with the Bill of Rights. When I reconnected with him briefly in the 1990s to suggest a book collaboration, I found a bitter man.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was “before my time,” in 1962, but it is depressing to see it morph into the modern politically-correct Speech Code Movement. Today, Berkeley Fascists run around campus with sledge hammers, tire irons, and boxes of matches. The peace and love generation with flowers in their hair raising the Safe Space Snowflakes. No thank you! Hillary Clinton as my champion of Sacred Liberty? Gag me with a spoon. Maybe it’s because Uranus and Pluto are in square today rather than the conjunction they formed during the Sixties.
Three people who were sincere shining examples of the Sixties to me were older than the rest of us. I was close to Harry Smith and Don Snyder, and ran into Tuli Kupferberg from time to time in New York City. All seemed like real non-sellouts. Harry was a true Magical Adept in every sense of the word. Don was the quintessential artist, a photographic genius whose work demands preservation and exhibition. Tuli Kupferberg struck me then and now as a true rebel, a poet who maintained his integrity in the face of much suffering and temptation. And I frankly love the commitment to art, growth, and survival shown by the more popular Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. None of them ever stopped doing what they loved best, Cohen nearly to the day of his death. Many other Sixties folks have also not stopped, despite the process of “growing up.” I have a couple of precious friends who survived those days. They are as beloved today as they were then. We aren’t as close as we used to be, the consequence of loss-of-proximity and adulthood, and we have our disagreements (mainly on politics), but we have never lost the affection and enthusiasm we shared half a century ago.
The Sixties lightened the girders of the soul of the West. As Crowley wrote to Grady McMurtry in 1944, “1965 e.v. should be a critical period in the development of the Child Horus!” I hope we can get beyond the Collectivist Qliphoth of the period to the Immortal goal of human Liberty—which I believe to be the true spiritual message of the Sixties.