A letter home

A letter sent to my younger brother – early Summer 1972

Dear Gary,

I haven’t written a letter (except to the folks) in a long while. The Farm has been going through heavier and heavier spiritual evolution as the Universe gives us more stuff to integrate. We realized that we didn’t have our shit together when we let that girl die here. Stephen said the other day that when she died the Farm just didn’t have enough energy to go around – not enough juice to sustain that one monkey that needed some.

After that we seemed to go through a resurgence of higher voltage things – Stephen’s 4-marriage became a 6-marriage (BOGGLE!), the band got picked up by a studio and put together a bunch of amazing music. Stephen’s family is going to be on David Frost on the 23rd (I’m not sure of the date) and maybe Dick Cavett on the 19th.

More and more folks have come to stay though “officially” we’re full. I was on the gate last weekend and I let about 24 people in to visit. Most of them had come to live, some to check it out. I told them all that we were having so many visitors that they could just spend the night. Our “policy” was to tell them that, then let them in the gate if they were cool,or cool them out if they weren’t. Then, once in the gate it was their karma. As it turned out it was twelve folks’ karma to see Stephen and get to live here. But Stephen said Friday that we just can’t handle no more people on the parcel of land we got. There’s 500 of us or thereabouts. So we’re tightening up the gate – being firm about being full, being picky about who we let in. We’re specifically asking visitors why they want to visit this religious monastery of which Stephen is our respected spiritual leader and teacher. Some folks think it’s a commune likeMorningstar or Wheeler’s Ranch. They’re appalled at finding a gate and even more outraged at being asked their business. Lots of them don’t get in. The way it is is that folks shouldn’t come to the Farm even to visit unless they want to learn about something. Cause, ready or not, once they’re inside the karma’s fast and can easily blow your mind. Mine gets blown pretty often still. Stephen’s getting 6-married blew the whole Farm’s mind.

The band has established their own label as a subsidiary of a country music label, Million Records. Our thing is called Mantra Records. The label will be a big, beautiful peyote button. It should be out in a couple weeks. It’ll be a double album with, I think, 9 cuts. Lots of tripping music. It will start with an Om recorded in the barn. I’d never heard one recorded before. It’s amazing. The band did all the recording on peyote and you can feel the stuff when you listen to the records. PLAY IT LOUD. They did the mixing on grass for sensitivity. All the cuts are live. The only changes are from mixing – adding tape loops, echo,reverb , raising and lowering different instruments. When you open the album there’s a big family portrait of the whole Farm – except Anita and Timothy and me. We were picking up Anita’s mom at the airport. The band is getting a Scenicruiser to tour with. They’ll always play for free. That’s only fair, music being a pure energy exchange anyway.

Timothy jabbers all the time now. He really digs standing up while we balance him. He’s gonna be a hoofer, a real explorer. He’s 15 lbs 10 oz, 27″ tall.

We almost moved into a house with 3 other couples, but we decided to hang out on the deal for X amount of time ’cause we didn’t feel like we had enough agreement to do such a heavy deal.

Get yourself a Caravan book now. First editions may someday be collectors’ items.

Tell Sharon to stay out of the cities. All there is there is the downfall of Western materialism, European and American student sexual subconscious and crazy drivers. Tell her to do a village tour. She’ll meet nicer folks.

I’m not into selling the guitar for moolah too much, but if Brian has an old bicycle in good shape that he could ship to Lawrenceburg, Tenn, I could dig making a deal. If anybody has such a contraption it would help getting around these 1000 acres. Brian could just pay shipping – I hear it’s cheap.

It would be neat if you could get down this summer to sort out your head a little. It’s good for you (GOOD) to get this sort of relativity after spending the other 360 days of the year assuming you have to make it rich on a material level. Sometimes you feel strung out on the idea of making some money so you can afford to hang out some – Then you can get stoned. Well that material plane can never satisfy you. Never, ever. If you keep looking for it there, it’ll elude you.

So with that thought implanted on your brain, we send our love and hopes that you’re getting higher.

Clifford, Anita and your nieces and nephew.

Are you gonna cut your hair for Ma Bell this summer?

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The world within, the world without

For the first time I remembered in my life, I had no access to TV. There was no daily paper. At times I’d walk back to the bus for lunch and hang my transistor radio from the ceiling to listen to the mixed format station in Nashville. Occasionally I’d hear the news on the half-hour, but there was little interest in talking about it – especially since we hadn’t officially decided that radios were cool.

All of our attention was on building the community socially, spiritually and physically. We’d become industrious rather than intellectual. Stephen warned us to not fall into the trap of being “conceptual,” but to focus on being real and in the moment. For those of us with liberal arts degrees, our educations had gone for naught. It was time to learn how to put our bodies to work and how to collaborate with our neighbors without ego.

Unfortunately, for me, the idea of the ego was conceptual. But that’s what friends were for – to let me know all about my ego and its ways. And as I learned about these flaws that, for 21 years, I’d managed to hide or at least escape awareness of, I began to practice noticing other people’s ego trips. This forced me to realize how many people I’d known, mostly through school, whose egos took great liberties with others. In fact, some of the most popular people in school had been chock full of ego – that’s what made their personalities stand out.

And as I’ve said before, the Farm’s founding members were far from a bland, homogenous bunch of subdued personalities. There were many characters, including some whose personalities had become notorious in the Haight Ashbury years before they arrived on the Farm. Some of them – sadly, I thought – came with the baggage of being well-known trippers. They knew it and, once word got around to those of us who’d never been part of the San Francisco scene, we knew it, too. My father always taught me to judge people only by my interactions with them, so I tried not to reflect back on these folks the expectations that others had taught me. And yet, I could see why they were regarded differently.

But I was also prone to seeing the telltales of ego in people who were otherwise regarded as cool. Even Stephen’s personality stood out, for me, as somewhat affected. Not always, but in certain settings.

In the first years, one room in the House became known as the place where Stephen would hang out and talk with folks. Being part of the Gate crew, I would sometimes need to enter the House for one reason or another, and if I didn’t need to return immediately to Gate duty, I’d stick my head in the room where Stephen and a dozen or so people were sitting on chairs, pillows and the bare floor. There were even a few times when I’d take a seat myself.

Stephen sat in a corner on a stuffed chair. At his feet would usually be a couple of women – married and/or single – one on each side, often leaning up against his legs. Joints were being passed and, while some people like myself seemed to be there just to be part of the scene, others would be there for a purpose, seeking Stephen’s wisdom and feedback. Sometimes it was clear that a person had been summoned to appear before Stephen and receive a teaching – for a transgression, for an attitude, for ego-tripping. He’d be stern, then would end with a joke and the whole room would laugh.

It seemed so exotic to me, like a tableau from a Renaissance painting, and combined with the stoney atmosphere my visits would leave me with a sense of having witnessed magic. And yet I would find myself not wanting to be the recipient of those teachings in such a setting. And I would find myself feeling uncomfortable with Stephen’s almost royal style – as if he was sitting on a throne, surrounded by courtiers. There must have been something wrong with me to think that way about my teacher.

I was much more at ease simply working and getting shit done than I was when plumbing the depths of people’s psyches. I could accept that I had problems about which I was blind, but I was trying hard to be a good person and I didn’t know how much room I could possibly have for improvement. Could I become enlightened? If so, what would that mean? What would I do? Would I still dig ditches and bury pipes?

The Gate exposed me to people who didn’t have such issues on their minds. Generally, we’d deal with three kinds of visitors:

  • Pilgrims were spiritual seekers who’d heard about the Farm as an ashram for Stephen or at least as a spiritual community. They came to investigate the possibility that this was where they were destined to be. Some of them would end up joining us – once we opened ourselves to new members – and some soon learned that we did not fit their needs or styles. Our lifestyle was a hard yoga if you were used to comfort and day-long contemplation.
  • Locals were people from the region who’d heard about us as a curiosity or phenomenon and just had to see it for themselves. They mostly had southern accents, and represented a spectrum of people from farmers to merchants and white collar folks. Some were suspicious and fearlful while others seemed excited by the fresh new variety that we’d introduced into their culture.
  • The third type of visitor I used to call Rascals. These were a mix of locals and pilgrims, intent on testing us at both the verbal and physical levels. They’d open with friendly questions, but you could feel the underlying mistrust and hostility. Soon they’d be challenging or even threatening on the subtle plane.  Perhaps our most important duty in keeping the Gate was to not let these people in.

Being smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, we understood that we might be seen as a threat to religious morality – a settlement by the Devil himself, delivered to test local pastors and congregations. The Sandy Hook Church of Christ, which we would pass whenever driving to and from Columbia, had sent its members to our Gate repeatedly to feel us out as potential converts. What a trophy we would have been for them, if they could just bring us to Jesus!

We realized that we needed to co-exist with these close-by neighbors, and we did honor Jesus as one of the true avatars who’d taught the truth to the masses. So we invited them to visit us as a congregation on Sunday mornings. For several weeks, after we’d meditated in the horse barn (accompanied by the natural sounds that large draft horses tended to make), the Christians would arrive – sometimes dozens of them – with their pastor. Then would ensue some of the sweetest liturgical debating you could imagine.

Why wouldn’t we accept Jesus as our only god and savior? Well, we did, except that Jesus was also the Buddha and the many other spiritual saviors who had appeared through human history. The discussions were deep and interesting and hilarious. No one was converted either way, but we proved ourselves to not be threatening or scary to these neighbors. Weird, incomprehensible, kooky maybe. But not the Devil.

I could better relate to other groups as a member of my new group than I could to my group as an ego-plagued individual. I felt at ease representing the Farm group to visitors. But not all visitors could be converted to trusting us. One morning I arrived for Gate duty to find that the Gate house had been set on fire and burned.

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Discovering our beginner’s mind

Stephen was very clear about this: he considered his teacher to be the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. Although he drew from many spiritual traditions and histories for his teachings to us, Suzuki Roshi – the founder and abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center – was “the real thing” from whom he’d learned firsthand. I’d heard of Zen, but had never learned a whit about it. The closest thing I’d encountered to Eastern spiritual practice was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. But as we’d be instructed each Sunday after meditation, Stephen’s lecture, some Q&A and socializing, there were spiritual books to read, many of them traded and circulating around the Farm.

At some point we found ourselves with a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – a small compilation of transcribed lectures by Suzuki. I’d already had a chance to read some of the writings of D.T. Suzuki, an unrelated Japanese citizen who’d lived as a Zen monk and went on to explain Buddhism and Zen to Americans in the 1950s. From his books I began to get some conceptual understanding of the Zen philosophy. But Stephen was adamant about the need for us to “don’t get conceptual.” Our path was supposed to be one of paying attention and experiencing what was happening in the moment. Sitting zazen – the style of meditation Stephen taught – was “practice” for being in that immediate state of mind.

Reading Suzuki Roshi’s talks gave me something akin to an understanding of what that was about, but the essence was elusive. I read the entire book over the course a few hours and could boil it down to two words: Just Sit. This was both troubling and comforting. Troubling in that I had some idea that I was living on the Farm in order to attain enlightenment. Could I just sit and get there? Wasn’t there some kind of process I had to go through to break through? The comforting part was that Suzuki de-emphasized the attainment part. You could not become enlightened by trying. You had to give up trying.

Stephen assured us that if we extended “just sitting and paying attention” into all of our activities, we could make much of our work and life into a meditation. In that context, he would refer to the Farm as a “family monastery” where we were all student practitioners who worked and were not celibate. We were “householder yogis” whose practice included marrying, having children, working and living with one another, internalizing our spiritual discipline with the daily challenges of a new from-the-ground-up society.

There were many people on the Farm who’d seen and studied with Suzuki Roshi. Their respect and love for the man was clear and deep. So when Stephen left for California in the late fall of our first year on the land, word got around that his teacher was seriously ill. In fact, Suzuki had been suffering with cancer for the past year and Stephen was able to visit with him in his last days. (Here is a video of Shunryu Suzuki lecturing during that last year). He passed from this life on December 4, 1971 and I had to accept that I’d never have the chance to sit with him.

Though Zen was a core element of our spiritual practice, it was not the only one. Stephen had his own identity as a teacher. We did not live and practice like the Zennies in California. We incorporated nuggets of mystical wisdom from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Native American, and precursor ideas from the likes of Hermes Trismajestus.

Stephen emphasized truth, not only with one another but “unto thine own self.” About this, he was willing to get up into our shit, and following his example, we were prone to get up into one another’s shit. This forced considerable discomfort and unfortunately became our social signature in those early days. We all came with bad habits and if we didn’t leave them at the gate when we joined the Farm, the Farm would serve as our rock tumbler as we psychically tumbled against one another and knocked off our respective jagged edges. Eventually, we would make one another smoother if we could not get to that state by ourselves.

Buddhists speak of the three jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Sangha – the community – is right up there with the wisdom and the teaching. Sangha comprises the social support of your fellow practitioners. But sometimes that support could be roughly provided. Having earned my Bachelor’s degree in psychology, I would often recognize what Freud called “projection” being used as a defense mechanism in the guise of community teaching. I would come to understand that I resorted to it myself, not just with Anita and my new friends, but with my distant family members who wondered, from the letters I’d send – what had come over me.

Just as four-marriages stood for a higher level of commitment to the rock tumbler metaphor – being married to three others providing more opportunities to straighten up than being married to only one person – singlehood seemed to hold a stigma of avoiding this therapeutic friction, so singles were especially vulnerable to being regarded as trippers. Especially single men, many of whom had led rambling, free-spirited hippie lives for years before the Farm. Stephen’s wary eye would catch them exhibiting a range of uncompassionate, selfish and cavalier behaviors.

On several occasions, he sent them off the Farm for 30-day missions, which happened often enough that we all knew what “a thirty-dayer” was. Out the gate with nothing but the clothes on your back. Don’t come back for at least 30 days and bring some organic sacraments for the community. From these missions we got necklaces of fresh peyote and psilocybin mushrooms (preserved in honey, no less) .

Stephen also established a living arrangement for single men prone to selfish behaviors and assigned it the offical name Rock Tumbler. The residents of this 16-by-32-foot Army squad tent were expected to learn how to live cooperatively while being diligently up in each others’ things about every detail of personality. The rest of us anticipated graduates from the Tumbler to be fine, gallant, upstanding gentlemen. This did happen occasionally, though there were no guarantees. There were also some exceptions to the singles-only condition; some married men also spent time tumbling or on thirty-dayers.

Spiritual practice was the environment in which we were immersed. We adopted the language as well as the perspective, and most of the time it brought joy and fulfillment to living experiences that were as primitive as those of early settlers on the American frontier. We would get hot, cold, wet, dusty and miserable, but we had a purpose that overcame doubt. I’d made it through my first year of practice when my first child was born – a little Buddha in the Shades of Blue bus.

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