I don’t know what that chipmunk is doing there. The instructions were precise: imagine a blackboard, imagine a pair of hands, one holding a piece of chalk and the other an eraser. There was no mention of a chipmunk, but there he is anyway, couched in the light grey fog that rolls across my “mental screen.” He is standing in front of the prescribed blackboard, wearing a cap and gown and grinning elaborately in a way that suggests sabotage. I decide that it’s important to ignore him, and so shift my attention to the blackboard which is soon to deliver me into sleep.
Our instructor begins to speak. Though my eyes are closed I am aware of her bright yellow pants-suit lurking nearby, and it is from that suit and not from the instructor herself that I imagine the voice is emanating. Here are her instructions for falling asleep: with my imaginary left hand I am to draw a circle on the blackboard and fill it with an X, then write the word “deeper” off to the side. I let the chipmunk do it—he seems to want to. Now: erase the X, write over “deeper,” write 100 in the circle, go over “deeper,” erase 100, write over “deeper,” write in 99…
But there is an important question to be asked, and it is this: do I really want to fall asleep in the Fiesta Room of the Howard Johnson’s Motel, snoozing on the same wave-length with fifteen total strangers? The chipmunk thinks not. Unlike the undercover reporter in whose mind he has taken up residence die is conspicuously biased and unfair. He lets out a conspiratorial giggle as he chalks up number 98.
But the system is working, and despite the chipmunk’s best efforts to distract me I am soon at the very anteroom of sleep, only to be snatched back as the Voice begins to read the litany of decompression. I find that my eyelids open automatically, on cue, and I return to the unspared festiveness of the Fiesta Room. The legendary pants-suit of our instructor is indeed a radiant banana color, and its inhabitant looks over her flock with an indulgent smile.
And while I’m here on Beta level it may be best to explain what is going on. It is midway through the first session of the Silva Mind Control course. My classmates and I have just been learning how to go to sleep and, but for the cruel interruption just described, would have, then and there. We are learning to take ourselves down to the Alpha level of consciousness and are being promised that, once there, we will be able to “program” positive events and attitudes into our lives, even to cure our own and others’ illnesses.
You may have guessed that my own motives are less than pure: I am in the first stage of a consciousness expansion/revision/transcendence orgy that will take me to a disorienting number of groups and disciplines. And for someone in my position there is a great deal to choose from: spooky electronic religions, mainstream and eccentric occultism, rigidly precise or freely adaptable psychic exercises, meditation, massage, machines. A feast. Inside every moribund ego there is another ego waiting to disappear, and the avenues of escape in Texas are as plethoric as anywhere else in the nation.
Why? What would cause a man in a peacock-blue jumpsuit to spend his money on astrology lessons instead of power tools? Why would a retired elementary school teacher want to slosh about in the murky waters of her own subconscious? Hucksterism? Enlightenment? Probably, but probably more. It is a turbulent time, and the turbulence has torn down barriers. It doesn’t seem that religion or work or money will be able to contain the energy and the flow of faith ready to believe that have been unleashed. The notion of heresy, even the notion of foolishness, is dwindling: people are ready to buy what once they would not let exist.
And so I begin with Silva Mind Control because its appeal seems most directed toward those who must set aside a profound skepticism to approach it. It is a straightforward, middle-class sales pitch, not much further out than encyclopedias or speed-reading. The basic Silva course runs for two weekends, nine hours a day. (At least this is the schedule in Austin, where I take it.) Each of the four sessions costs $35, though students can take the entire course for $75. When I arrive for the first session I take my place in an orange plastic chair in the Fiesta Room. There are blue and gold stripes of carpet leapfrogging around the walls of the room, and through a lone window panel the width of one of these stripes, a drizzly Saturday morning manages to penetrate the fluorescent lighting.
The room contains about fifteen people, most of them in their midtwenties, friendly, blue-collar hip. There are several older women, one or two children, and a few natty dressers who look like they might be from the anthill apartments on the far side of the river.
Our instructor, whose yellow suit seems at this point entirely reasonable and sedate, begins by explaining the history and goals of Mind Control. It began when Jose Silva, a former Brownsville TV repairman, “what we would call a lay scientist,” became interested in hypnosis and hypnotherapy and began distilling a technique for the unfolding of everyone’s innate psychic powers. This involves reaching the Alpha level of consciousness, a state in which the mind is free from the extremes of deep sleep (Delta) and plain vanilla wakefulness (Beta), and therefore at its most creative and useful.
“That’s the level we’re looking for,” our instructor says as she makes a tactical stab at Alpha on an elaborate chart. That is the level at which we will learn to control our subconscious. She herself first learned to do this in 1966, in Amarillo, in Jose Silva’s very first Mind Control class. At the time she was an art student. “As great as art is, the Silva method is quicker and more to the point,” she says. She explains that the Alpha level, where we are headed, is not limited by time or space. But while there the Alphanaut is expected to keep a tight rein on his wanderlust: only positive thoughts are allowed in these parts. This may be a little like telling someone in his own living room that he can’t track mud on the carpet. Even negative words—“pain,” “sick,” “can’t,” “nervous”—words that on a psychic level can bloom like sinister flowers and poison the whole garden, are to be henceforward stricken from our vocabularies. If we should happen to speak one, we are to say, in Mind Control jargon, “cancel-cancel.”
It comes time for our first descent into Alpha. We are told to find a comfortable sitting position, with our feet on the floor, our hands on our laps, and our backs as straight as the molded plastic nuzzling our spines will allow.
We close our eyes, take a deep breath, “and enter a deeper level of mind,” by listening to our instructor count downward. I feel an actual physical sensation of sinking, as though each number is a notch in a gigantic barber’s chair in which I am being lowered. We reach something called Level One, a kind of mezzanine of the mind, and from there we are told to project ourselves to a favorite place of relaxation. (The purpose of this descent is to teach us how to relax.)
I do as I am told and project myself to the front porch of my house, where I am sitting on an ancient flea-infested sofa reading Burr by Gore Vidal, and trying to keep Earl, my cat, from sitting on the book.
Then we are brought to the surface in an elaborate ritual, in which our instructor, in the bland cadences of a test monitor, recites Beneficial Phrases (“Everyday in every way I am getting better, better, and better…”) and Health Phrases (“I will never learn to develop heart ailments, diabetes, leukemia, or glaucoma…”) and tells us when we reach Beta level that we are “wide awake, feeling fine, and in perfect health, feeling better than before.”
Then we are told more about what Mind Control can do, about POWs who mysteriously received the will to live from their wives who had taken the course, about the woman whose nose was cut off in an automobile accident and who programmed herself not only to survive the wreck but later to win every contest she ever entered.
We are promised much—even financial success—if we but learn these techniques and apply them to our daily lives. In that respect Mind Control seems to me like the all-powerful prayer that nuns used to present us with dazzling sleight-of-hand: everything can be yours if you only ask God for it and (a major qualification) if God thinks it’s good for you.
There is another religious parallel: Mind Control is relentlessly moralistic. We are told that if we wish another person harm while we are at Alpha level we will short-circuit our powers.
“You may never use a technique to hurt anyone else, or you will not be able to function at these levels of mind,” our instructor reads, as though she were the Good Witch of the North banishing us from Munchkinland.
Three times more on this long afternoon we descend into Alpha: once to stand before the blackboard where the chipmunk has been waiting to begin the adventures already described; once to program into ourselves the method for controlling our dreams (yep, you can do that too—“I want to have a dream that will contain information to solve the problem I have in mind. I will have such a dream…”) and once to learn how to control headaches (“I will have no discomfort in my head”—repeat five times for migraines).
At eight o’clock at night, after a nine-hour day of learning how to relax, I shed my objectivity. I quit. The other sessions seem to be elaborations on the same techniques we have been using, culminating in things like how to stop smoking and ultimately how to heal others through our mental powers, but I feel that if I hear our instructor say one more time, “Everyday in every way I am getting better, better, and better,” I may respond violently. I have no real doubt that Silva Mind Control works for, well, those people it works for.
Several weeks later I hear Jose Silva lecture in Austin. Our instructor informed us that “almost everyone who meets him thinks he’s the most intelligent person they’ve ever met.”
There seem to be several hundred people in the Hancock Center meeting room ready to share that conviction, including almost every one of my former classmates, some with tape recorders on their laps. But there is a much wider cross-section of people here than there was in my class; in fact young people seem to be in a minority.
Silva stands at the back of the auditorium, warmly greeting late arrivals, acting as a kind of host. He seems to be an affable man—his features are aligned in such a way that he radiates an ingenuous sneer, and his crew cut makes his eccentricity rather charming. But, when he takes the podium, he proves himself such a horrendously dull speaker that it is a wonder the tape recorders don’t shut themselves off automatically. I take notes to stay awake aware that somewhere a chipmunk, is taking out his chalk. 850 instructors, 18 nations, 350,000 graduates. Zzzzzz.
In the interest of objectivity I stay for an hour. But just because a journalist is not supposed to jump to conclusions does not mean he has to take the leap of faith. When I leave the hall halfway through the lecture, it is with the slouching posture of a heathen. Cancel-cancel.
Even a city so ingrown into the most relentless of Beta levels as Houston must have pockets of transcendence. I am headed for one in the Montrose area near downtown. The Esoteric Philosophy Center is a sort of occult clearinghouse, a college with courses in Tarot, meditation, astrology, numerology, dream symbology, and Akasha. The Center is located far back from the street across a broad expanse of lawn that runs unaccosted from the curb to the Center’s doorstep. If there were a house in front of it, the building which houses the EPC would look like a garage apartment. As it is from the street, it looks a little like a fancy tool shed built to keep the lawn in order.
The door is opened by a woman-with a towel on her head.
“Excuse me for looking like a swami,” she says. “I just washed my hair.”
She is a former Fort Worth accountant in her middle twenties named Gabriel Cornwall, who acts as secretary for the Center and also teaches a Tarot class and gives private readings.
As I peer about the room, looking at the vitamins and books for sale (Uri, The Seed of Wisdom, Sex Talk) and trying to suppress a monumental hay fever attack, Cornwall asks me what I know about the Center.
“Hmmmmm.” She removes the towel and begins to comb out her hair. We decide I should hear some statistics: classes run for eight weeks, with between 200 and 300 people a session each paying a $40 tuition fee, $30 if they’re students. The teachers receive 50 per cent of the tuition from their classes and the rest goes into overhead. As with Silva Mind Control, graduates can repeat a class without fee.
“We have all kinds of people,” Corn wall says. “A lot of young people, sure, but also physicists, artists, hairdressers. They all have basically one thing in mind—awareness of self.”
Cornwall hands me the latest Center newsletter, and as she fends off a few phone calls I skim through it. The prose style could have come from a church bulletin, but the message it embroiders is, well, esoteric:
“Greetings once again… All is in motion and the “E-motions” are definitely in for lots of transformation… Leon Brown was particularly saddened at the death of Charles Lindbergh. He recalls being taught how to fly by him in his last past life.” “Truly everything in the world is esoteric,” Cornwall manages to blurt out between sneezes. “Here we are, just sitting here rapping, but it’s all esoteric. I mean now why would I react to your hay fever? I’ve never had hay fever in my life! Maybe there was something in our past lives that causes me to relate so strongly to your sneezing.”
Past lives. We pursue that topic of conversation as we climb into a station wagon and head off toward the house of another faculty member.
“I believe my soul resides in my body, that it’s connected to a higher plane,” Cornwall says. “This whole earth existence is just experience for me.”
“I believe there’s a purpose to reincarnation. It makes you more aware. Like I learned in my Larmerian existence to be in touch with my body. In my Atlantean existence I learned emotional awareness. This time I’m learning mental awareness.”
She learned about her past lives from William David, the Center’s co-founder and director, who for thirteen lifetimes has been training himself in Akashic meditation, and who now has the ability to vibrate down to a person’s frequency and read his past existences. Cornwall says she has also done time as a Mayan, and as I look across at her profile I find that it does indeed seem to have a slight Mayan cast to it.
We discuss cycles and spirals even as we negotiate the more immediate intricacies of the Houston freeway system, which is as effective a paradigm for the Myth of the Eternal Return as I can recall encountering. Cornwall tells me that we choose our own incarnations of life situations in order to work out inter-existential problems. She is even willing to suggest that Richard Nixon might have been on a “spiritual mission” to expose corruption to the world.
We arrive at a neighborhood of what at first seem to be houses, but which are really condominiums joined to one another at the sides in a mournful way that makes me think of Siamese twins. Perhaps it is because the architect sensed the vulnerability of such a mutant form of dwelling that the houses all face inward, leaving a breastwork of unornamented backsides and garage doors to scare away intruders.
Here in the field one must be willing to dispel the notion that occultists live in cobwebbed garrets among out-of-date globes and vials of murky liquids, but it is still a shock to come across someone like Freddie Conboy Sawyer, an articulate and aggressive esotericist, living in the very heart of the beta-beast.
When Cornwall and I walk in with her daughter, whom we have just picked up at school, Sawyer is unloading a pile of laundry. She is a dark, sturdily attractive woman somewhere in her 30s who for sixteen weeks has been working with a schizophrenic using meditative and telepathic therapy.
She is philosophical about the chances of her bringing about an actual “cure.”
“I feel that it would seem to be that the decision lies toward his wanting to give up his own schizophrenia,” she says.
And of course there is the possibility that he has taken on his schizophrenia voluntarily, to help others relate to him or to work off some karma on his own. There are no credentials for this kind of work, and Sawyer does not seem to be defensive about admitting that what she is doing is not an established therapeutic practice.
“Nobody has any formal training in this because there is none. I wish I could tell you I graduated from Texas Esoteric A&M, but there’s no such place.”
While she tells me about the article she wrote—“The Validity of the Soul”—which was recently rejected by Psychology Today, I overhear Cornwall talking on the phone to her husband, who apparently developed hay fever about the time I walked into the Center’s office. Pollen, probably.
Sawyer brings me some orange juice in a fake Tiffany glass with “Jack In The Box” written on it, and we spend the greater part of the forenoon discussing some of the precepts of the EPC. One is that there are no precepts, save for a generally shared belief in reincarnation.
“One reason I was attracted to the Center,” says Cornwall, back from the phone and more certain than ever that I have psychic sinuses, “was because you could think for yourself, use your own brain capacity.”
“What we are doing,” Sawyer says, “is obeying an inner command to flow and to grow. Everything in the world has a need to be balanced. But there is constant flux and growth, wider and wider inclusiveness. For instance, this interview has a nebulous framework, but our meeting is going to be a lot more involved than you just writing this article.”
On that note we part company, until the evening’s gathering to watch William David’s appearance on a local TV talk show. Cornwall drives me back to the Montrose area to the Phoenix Bookstore, where for $2 I can have a Kirilian photograph taken of my aura. The Phoenix is a pleasant occult bookstore with complimentary tea and a grab-bag inventory ranging from the sublime to the shameless. For an aura photograph (fingers only) it is necessary to put my hand through the black sleeve of a film bag and rest my fingers on a Polaroid film cartridge. Matt Hughes, the owner of the Phoenix, slips her hand through the other sleeve and guides my fingers onto the film so that I won’t receive a shock when she turns on the electric current that somehow or other contributes to the capturing of the aura.
“Nothing but pure white light,” Hughes says, looking at the developed photograph. “You have good energy,”
Shucks. I guess I do. The photograph reveals two circles of white light where my two fingertips were placed. Cornwall decides to have her aura photographed while she is meditating. She had had one picture made already but the light was diffuse and unconcentrated. Now, after slipping easily into a meditative state, her fingertips form unbroken coronas of light on the film.
The Dick Gottlieb Show, the talk show on which William David will be appearing, comes on at 7:30. I spend the three-hour interval eating a beta-burger at the House of Pies and then going to the zoo and trying to vibrate to the frequency of a miserably mis-located Kodiak bear.
At the Center that night about twelve people are gathered in front of the television. There is a delicate penetration of the atmosphere which I first attribute to a collective aura but which turns out to be the unfamiliar scent of perfume. Except for three or four people who look to be college age the gatherings is, at least in the exterior trappings, solidly middle-class. Freddie Sawyer walks in with so much eye make-up that at first I fail to recognize her.
“You been going through anything strange?” a woman asks her in a nervous giggle.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely.”
William David is not the first guest on the Gottlieb show. He is preceded by a representative from the United Fund, an easy-listening high school vocal group, and a former executive of Kraft Foods who is now director of the Poetry Society of Texas and whose message is “Poetry is alive and well in Houston, Texas!”
Finally, after a poetic tribute to Big Bend, Gottlieb peers toward the camera portentously. “Ladies and gentlemen, in 25 years we’ve never had an interview like this one. But there comes a time when a man must open his mind…”
“Well, good for you, Gottlieb!” Sawyer exclaims.
William David, looking confident and indulgent, is now on camera. Neatly bald, with a pleasant and peculiarly forceful face, David replies to Gottlieb’s first question with a moderation worthy of a Chamber of Commerce president.
“The Esoteric Philosophy Center is an educational institution for courses not available elsewhere.”
“I see. And what practical purposes are served from entering the esoteric-philosophy field?”
David handles all the questions smoothly, even garnering an invitation from his host to return sometime for a debate. After the show there is a scattering of academic applause for the image that has just disappeared from the screen, and Sawyer and Cornwall and her husband and I take off for the Maharajah Restaurant where the panel discussion is to take place. When we arrive, David, as if directly teleported from the TV station, is already on the podium and in the middle of a talk about his experiences with reincarnation. He speaks in a compelling monotone laced with a faint Slavic accent that was not noticeable on television.
“When I lived in Rumania,” he is saying, “I remember standing among some trees. I began to see an abbey, to hear singing. I began to feel warm, joyous. I had fantastic remembrance of several lifetimes. Since then, year after year I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all different suns [he spells it out that way] of God. In that realm I call Force Fields of God, there is no good or evil, no karma. We are increasing the force field of energy, consciously to become pro-creative.”
The other speakers are John Woodsmall, the founder of Houston’s Metaphysical Arts Center, Carol Huffstickler, a palm and Tarot reader, and John Rankin, a Unitarian minister whose church is built in the form of a golden pyramid.
It is a pleasant discussion, intelligent and full of beautiful metaphors—swarming, spiraling, pulsing interpretations of reincarnation. Rankin, dressed in standard mod-minister’s clothes, is a riveting speaker with a voice slightly drier than Richard Burton’s and a clarity of expression I have never heard equaled in someone speaking without notes.
“Reincarnation suggests a series of stories,” he says, “a series of life stories, in which we ourselves are our own ancestor and our own successor. As a Christian minister, I’d say we come back because of sin. Occultly, I’d say sin equals inertia. Man is hooked on the inner vision that he is divine. And it teases him, it teases all hell out of him, until he is manifested as divine.”
There is a question and answer period in which William David is asked to be more precise on his notion of the ultimate goal of reincarnation.
“There is no absolute,” he answers, smiling almost beatifically. “There is only expansion.”
The next day Cornwall introduces me to David, who has soon taken me off into a side-room of the Center and is filling a blackboard with schematic representations of the female nature of magnetism and the male nature of electricity. David is a dapper, vibrant man. His ideas, to one who has recently come from Siiva Mind Control, are rather alluring in their precise reliance on ambivalence.
“How can one experience love if one has not experienced hate? How can you experience health if you have not experienced disease? We teach people not to avoid but to confront. The idea is not to transcend something, but to experience and transmute it. And what we try to do here is to give anyone interested an opportunity to experience vibratory frequencies and other dimensions.”
“Vibratory frequencies” is one of David’s favorite phrases and it fits nicely as the centerpiece of an attractive and (as I sit here listening to it) fairly reasonable cosmology: a universe in which everything vibrates, in which the present vibrates concomitant with the past and the future, but on different frequencies.
I ask him about his specialty, the past life readings for which he charges $75.
“Quite a few people come to me for past life readings. These readings are to give you an idea of what has not been completed in your past-lives, because those uncompleted actions are part of your force field right now. It’s not done to inflate the ego.” (He has just come from refuting the charge that he told five separate people that they were Mary Queen of Scots.)
I ask him if he would agree to do a past life reading for me.
He regards me sternly.
“Why do you want me to do this? For yourself or just for the article?”
It would be pointless for me to try to differentiate, I tell him.
“Uh-huh. Well, that’s an honest answer.” I am aware that, with some hidden equipment of his own, he is scanning the atmosphere for negative vibrations. Apparently he does not find enough of a concentration to worry him, so he agrees to schedule the reading at his first opening, a week hence.
“Wow! This has really been an expansion for you!” Cornwall exclaims as she lays out the Tarot cards. By a certain combination of the Tower and Death and Magician cards she is able to suggest that I have just been released from some sort of ideological bondage, that I regard my energies highly, that I am materialistic, and rely on physical experience for security.
All of which is fascinating; but there is a man from the telephone company installing an extension under the very desk in which Cornwall sits nonchalantly revealing and/or inventing my innermost secrets. I marvel at my own insouciance every time he peers in my direction.
“Do you feel helpless sometimes?” Cornwall asks.
I think of the phone company. “Yes.”
“Overall,” she concludes, “the reading tends to imply that you have gone through a very revelatory experience concerning your own nature.”
The Houston Center for Human Potential lies a block or two from the Esoteric Philosophy Center. It’s an old two-story residence that used to be known as the Espiritu Center. I’m here because I’ve been told that this is where people come to get “Rolfed,” which has been defined to me by some people who are slightly acquainted with it as a grueling and long-range massage in which your entire body is fundamentally rearranged. That may be an extreme description, but fortunately I entertain no obsessions about testing its validity firsthand. Nevertheless, the concept sounds hard-core enough to fetch my consciousness back from the vagaries of the ever-spiraling-world-without-end syndrome, in which it has been wallowing with characteristic self-indulgence.
And though the people who work at the Houston Center seem to share in a general way the same esoteric beliefs of those at the Esoteric Philosophy Center, their programs for the most part are more grounded in physical activity and more concentrated on an individual’s awareness of his or her own perceptive and emotional powers. The programs fit snugly into what is known as The Human Potential Movement, of which the Esalen Institute is the most famous exponent. Besides Rolfing, the Center offers courses in Gestalt, Bioenergetics, meditation, massage, and yoga.
“Rolfing is a really deep massage,” Debbie Starret, a yoga teacher and assistant Rolfer, explains. “The purpose is to allow your body to balance. It removes tension and energy blocks.”
Not everyone can be a Rolfer, she explains. To do that you must train like Leland Johnson, the Center’s director, has with Ida Rolf herself, the method’s 80-year-old namesake and inventor. There is strict accreditation: at the moment there are no more than 175 people with a license to Rolf.
I ask her how much it costs to be realigned in this manner, and she replies that there are ten sessions, $40 each.
Can a person just attend one session and then quit?
“Sure, if you want to walk around unbalanced for the rest of your life.”
Back in Austin I persuade a friend to accompany me to the free introductory session of the Arica Institute, an organization whose classes are a synthesis of all sorts of disciplines, Eastern and Western, and whose brochures proclaim “Life Begins With Total Realization” and “Survival of the planet depends on humanity evolving to a new level of consciousness.” Arica (it rhymes, sort of, with “eureka”) is located on the lower floor of a high-rise, high-security women’s residence near the University. The room it occupies conveys an immediate and nearly overwhelming sense of peacefulness. It also looks, with sliding rice-paper screens and unoccupied red carpet, like a bankrupt Chinese restaurant.
There is so much literature available that it becomes discouraging to look for a precise statement of Arica’s purpose. The well-printed brochures and the room (soon to be forsaken for earthier quarters) in which the institute is housed suggest that Arica enjoys more affluence than other organizations of its ilk. Certainly, in terms of sheer gracefulness, it would be difficult to surpass the environment. We encounter such a drowsy charm on first entering the room that I find myself half-suspicious of the incense.
We are led, along with twelve or thirteen other people, into a room created from a rearrangement of the screens and rimmed with small round pillows. Our instructors are Wayne Batchelder, a dark, lanky presence who rises a head or so above most of the rest of us, and Janet Goldman, who seems seriously and irreversibly serene.
Both of them move with the controlled fluidity of some species of deer, and, though both have deep and soothing voices, Goldman’s is truly remarkable: it seems to be transmitted in some manner other than through sound waves, and in the acoustical shell of the room it takes up a lingering residence among the audience before it subsides.
Goldman explains that tonight we are going to run through a few of the techniques which are taught in greater length in the upcoming weekend session ($25) and in the 40-Day intensive and 40-Day extended training sessions (both $500, with a $350 student rate for the former).
But first it is necessary to introduce ourselves and to tell why we’ve come. Most of the group say they have heard about Arica from friends, two or three have taken the 40-Day workshop and have come to get back into touch. Most are, again, young, though there is one middle-aged woman who has come with her daughter and granddaughter.
Then Batchelder leads us through a series of “psychocalisthenics,” exercises to help us get in touch with our own breathing. We begin with an “Integration Breath,” in which we inhale and pretend that the incoming breath is causing our clasped hands to rise over our heads and to rest at the backs of our necks. Then we do the “Axe,” using our breathing as a kind of hydraulic power for the imaginary swinging of an imaginary axe. By and large the exercises are fun, except for a grotesquerie called “The Grape Picker” which reminds me of a very complicated, sinewy version of the Hokey-Pokey.
Then Goldman takes over and we sit down for a little “A-O Rowing.” She demonstrates, rowing a fictitious boat, chanting “Aeeeeee” on the outgoing and “Ewuuuuuuu” on the ingoing strokes. The entire group then recites and rows, the chant sounding as sinister as the benediction at a black mass. The class moves in and out together, and from overhead must look like dancers in a Busby Berkeley number. After that we close our eyes and breathe, filling our lungs from the bottom first, as we have been taught.
“Listen for the Father of Sounds,” Batchelder says. I listen and, not hearing the Father of Sounds, think back eleven or twelve years to my initiation into the Order of the Arrow, the mystic, honorary Boy Scout Indian society. We had spent a long day pointlessly shoveling caliche, subsisting on only one slice of Mrs. Baird’s bread and one hard-boiled egg, and that night we were formally ordained into the organization. A kid dressed as (he thought) a Karankawa, with his jockey strap showing through his loincloth, gave us a special handshake and whispered into each of our ears the shattering secret of the OA that can be spoken only once and never repeated. He was a bad mumbler and though the sounds of the secret came close enough to tickle my eardrum I never found out what it was.
Now I feel that disappointment surface again as I listen in vain for the Father of Sounds. And though I learn later that what Batchelder actually said was “the farthest of sounds,” the damage is done and my ears remain cocked.
Next Goldman demonstrates a mantra. A long, long “Ooooooooh” followed by a sharp “Tauuuuwwwww” whose duration is even greater and whose minimal pitch is superbly sustained. I close my eyes according to instructions, and in the dark, with all our voices contributing to the swarm, Goldman’s voice is still discernible, as singular and forlorn as a jew’s harp.
We continue with mantras. “This is a song to your inner essence.” We are told to put our hands over our hearts and sing these words to a lullaby melody: “Ora Namo Naria Nia.” It works. I find myself struck with the realization that, were it not for the hand on the heart, I could sit here all night in the lotus position and be reasonably content.
But all too soon it is time for “Trespasso,” and I flinch, knowing that an activity that sounds like a quiz show can only be a disaster. The object is to “contact the essence of another person” by looking him or her in the eye. I studiously avoid being teamed up with my friend, knowing it could only lead to us both cracking up in laughter. She is paired off with a man whose eyes project nothing short of an actual lust for her “essence.”
I fall in with a woman named Eva Goetz with (dutifully noted) grey-green eyes. Batchelder calls the shots: close your eyes, breathe awhile, then open them and look into the left eye of your partner. There she is—as resolute as a statue. A pro. In the next three or four minutes she will not blink once. I try everything to be cool: I look on her left eye merely as an inorganic focal point, a target for the darts of my concentration. But it is a human eye I am looking into and though I am not embarrassed I do feel a little, well, trespasso. I don’t know this Eva Goetz on whose eyeball my attention must try to rivet itself, and am cynically aware that the shadow of intimacy that, of necessity, is passing between us has nowhere further to go.
Soon her eye seems to enlarge. Her stare is too steady—she means business, while I shift my own eyes every now and again to new terrain, to follow the delicate Florentine ridge of her nose or the dark hair that frames her face so perfectly it seems she was measured for it.
“You were really nervous. I noticed that right away,” she says after the ordeal.
And I am admitting as much when it comes time to change partners for another session. This time I am to trespass with the grandmother, who identifies herself as Mrs. Hugh Beck of Abilene. She is wearing a yellow pants-suit and I feel a tinge of dejá vu as we begin attempting to look through one another’s glasses. There is at least a quarter-century age difference between us but I can’t help feeling that we also share a cynical comradeship. We have both gained, though, from our previous experience, and we are able to remain admirably poker-faced.
“Personally,” she says afterward, “I’m a Methodist, and I’ll be one till I die.”
Okay. Here is where it starts to get tricky. There is this thing, this formless, thingless thing, called the ECK, the “Audible Life Current, the eternal truth and eternal paradox within all.” In some ways the ECK is distinct from the SUGMAD, “the formless, all-embracing, impersonal, infinite, the Ocean of Love and Mercy,” but when you are talking about a plateau of beingness four or five levels up from the traditional concepts of God, a level that exists as the area that opposites have in common, you really can’t expect precise definitions.
Let’s move down ten or twelve levels. Let’s slip into the ozone, into the world of physical objects where I was last seen holding the ECKANKAR DICTIONARY, one of the many volumes that the late Living ECK Master (LEM) Paul Twitchell left for our perusal. ECKANKAR (I’m requested to write it always in capital letters, and also to mention that the word is a trademark of ECKANKAR, Las Vegas, Nev.) is, to quote the dictionary again, “The Path of Total Awareness.” It is the way by which a chela (disciple) manages to become a “co-worker” with God, but not the God you think.
So I am sitting in the living room of an apartment on Austin’s Scenic Drive, overlooking a much-maligned but still beautiful Colorado River. My Host and local ECK representative, David Stewart, is in the next room digging up some visual aids. I need them. ECKANKAR is a whopper, and it is easy to sympathize with Stewart’s dogged but seemingly impossible attempt to pull its concepts together into an explainable package.
When he returns he has a fierce-looking chart, a diagram that shows a series of ever-expanding ovals laid on top of one another, and an encyclopedia-style painting of Sri Paul Twitchell receiving the Rod of the Power of the Mahanta in the Valley of Shangta at the Oracle of Tirmir at midnight on October 22, 1971.
Sensing perhaps that the painting (which shows Twitchell wearing a conspicuous sport shirt as he “beams down” to the Valley) may contain a few too many allusions for us to linger over, Stewart sets the chart up on a table and takes a deep breath. He is a genial lease-broker and multiple-vitamin salesman with a mustache that is just beginning to sprout. There is a stuffed armadillo in one corner of the room, and though the former occupant’s consciousness may be awash in the Audible Life Current, its physical form provides a sort of touchstone for one who is not yet ready to shuck the old mortal coil and go out stalking the ECK.
Not that ECKists are that careless about their earthly existence—careless people don’t sell vitamins. It’s just that they believe the body is only a tool for perception inside the physical plane, a manifestation of a consciousness that runs consistent and individual up through all the layers of the chart. The lower worlds, or the Dual Worlds as they are also known, are the levels of body and mind and emotion where the ECK stream, filtering down those ovals as through the coils of a giant percolator, begins to split, creating opposition and negativity.
Yes, Stewart says, the Dual Worlds are pure spirit diluted with matter, and as such they are the lowest of the twelve spheres on the chart. A chela’s goal is to travel upward, to become a co-worker with SUGMAD, to ascend to a realization that he or she is Soul, one with the essence of God but never actually one with God. This level of self-realization is Number 6 on the charts, and from there on up there are six more levels, but they seem to be elaborations on an unknowable theme, since each represents a consciousness so overwhelming from the one it has just transcended that there is no point in trying to imagine it.
But it’s possible for a chela, in one earthly lifetime, to rise to that level of self-realization. But, though the way is bejeweled with intimations of immortality, it’s a long road. Stewart, for instance, is only a Second Initiate. He has studied for two years, has participated in the ECK Satsang Discourse ($5 a month for a subscription—“There are no spiritual welfare programs”) and practiced the spiritual exercises that accompany them. At night, in his dreams, he has traveled to the City of Retz on Venus, where he has had satsang with other chelas, and then gone in turn to each of the other Temples of Golden Wisdom, to the one in the Gobi Desert, and to those that exist only in astral and spiritual worlds. There he has been taught the Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad, the timelessly ancient book of ECK.
ECKANKAR has received a modest reputation as being the science of astral projection, but Stewart says that the phrase is erroneous. What ECKists do is more than that: they soul travel, move upwards through the spheres of consciousness, shedding levels of diluted awareness as they go. Astral projection implies nothing more than an ability to swarm about in the astral—or emotional—planes, but with true soul travel the chela has carte blanche to go anywhere, on any level, at any time, at all times at once. No strings.
And to help the chela reach the state of self-realization required for soul travel he has LEM. The current Living ECK Master is Sri Darwin Gross, who took over from Paul Twitchell when the latter retired or, for our purposes, died. Stewart demonstrates on the chart how, once the LEM has brought the chela up to the necessary level, he considers the chela saved and concentrates his energies on others. It looks like an elaborate checkers game in which chelas are pieces moving forward to be crowned.
But if it is a game, it is one in which the players have left the room. On the higher levels, nothing is at stake. All is in of accordance with the Law Non-Interference, and in that realm in which opposites are in common there is no conflict, no black or white magic, no good or evil (is it heretical for a heretic to say it?), apparently not much of interest. The ECK just sorta stands around and chews its cud.
But there are some circles in which that would be a minority opinion. Four to eight thousand ECKists, for example, are expected to show up for the Ninth World-Wide Seminar in Houston next October, to take place squarely in the Dual World at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel. Stewart takes out his wallet to check this date and I notice that, in the plastic window where pictures of wives or girlfriends or mothers usually appear, there is a small photograph of Sri Darwin Gross.
The afternoon has waned into a deep twilight before it is time to leave. Stewart loads me up with back copies of the ECK World News, the ECKANKAR Dictionary, a few of Paul Twitchell’s books, and an ECKANKAR catalogue through which the chela (or anyone else) can order portraits of the Masters, ECK key-rings, charm bracelets, rings, decals, a 5×7 color photograph of Darwin Gross and his wife Gail (they look a little like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans), ECK records and sheet music, science fiction, novels by the prolific Twitchell, bookmarks, children’s books, and bumper stickers.
“ECKists have a lot of fun with these outer things,” Stewart explains sheepishly, “because they keep them in perspective.”
I steal a last wistful look at the shellacked hull of Stewart’s armadillo. Fellow traveler.
William David removes his glasses, revealing two small, dark, and perfectly round eyes.
“What I am going to do,” he says as he leans over to turn on his tape recorder, “is to go into your force field and see where there are certain blocks in your past lives and discover what they mean.”
He rubs his eyes. “I can immediately go into these other levels of consciousness. It’s a technique I must have learned thousands and thousands of years ago.” There is no outward signal that he is now in a trance and slipping into my frequency. His eyes are, and will remain, closed, but I feel no change in the atmosphere of the room as he begins to tell me about my past, speaking in a rapid, rolling manner as though his thoughts come in waves that swell and then subside.
“Your background is from the following planets:”—he holds up a finger for each one—“Uranus, Neptune, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn.”
I have been on earth for 125,000 cycles (“we call, them years”) and for a thousand lifetimes I was autistic, without awareness. Then in ancient Australia, at a time when the planet was expanding, the poles were shifting, and there was terror and diffusion everywhere, I emerged as a leader, pulling together the population’s energy and generally salvaging the situation. But they wanted me to be a god, a role I had the good taste but the bad judgment to turn down. I was eclipsed and embittered by those who were more than willing to proclaim their own divinity.
As I look at David’s blue velour shirt and watch his fluid arm gestures I cannot help thinking that I have seen that movie too, and have the feeling that he has accidentally slipped into Charlton Heston’s frequency. I feel nothing, no sense of kinship with this Australian he’s just described. Then I remember that all the past life descriptions I’ve heard about from the people at the Center have involved princes and royalty and the misuse of power in vanished lands. And even as I am unmoved by what seems to me the starring role in an arbitrary historical drama, it is fascinating to watch David draw conclusions from each life, charting the grand design of what he obviously assumes to be my attributes and failings.
And so I was an alchemist in Atlantis, who thought he could conquer people’s emotions and fears and inner chaos through the use of chemicals. In India I was an incredible athlete who took a vow against his own success. In 320 B.C., in the time of Constantine, I helped design the vaulted doorway, and in England I was a peasant who joined the insurrection against Richard II, and my head ended up stuck on a pike on the London Bridge.
In a way, I’m impressed. David has a skillful metaphorical sense and a firm enough grasp of history to be able to combine the two in a consistent pattern of behavior for his subject. It is almost beside the point if the pattern is based on an initial misreading of the personality involved, as I think it is with me. (I am not now, nor have I ever been, an unwilling god-head.)
No, David uses his subjects the way a painter uses a model: they “sit” for him and he sees certain elements that strike him more than others and he then creates a context for them. Whether the new character he unravels runs consistent with the one seated before him is, as in any art form, immaterial. (I’m speaking here of my own experience, since others seem to have forged a strong image of themselves through the readings. I suspect that those who pay for them generally find a stronger resemblance than I did.)
He slips out of the trance as unobtrusively as he entered it. The session has lasted an hour and a half and I suspect he is much more tired than I am. David hands me the tape of the reading. It’s been a long chase. As I walk to my car, Alpha waves and ECKs and evolutionary spirals and the Father of Sounds all merge into an academic vapor on my mental screen. I drive out of the Montrose area, past the Phoenix book store, and down a whole block lined with palmists and fortune tellers, and head, with an almost preternatural longing, back to the House of Pies.