By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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A little over a year ago, I was involved in a rigorous form of Buddhist practice. I often sat at a meditation center in Cambridge. Passers through — spiritual tourists — came through that center all the time to stay for a while, some of them actually using the book A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spiritual Communities in America, to hop from ashram to retreat center to meditation halls all over the country. I remember a particular fellow who squirmed every fifteen minutes during an all-day meditation. He was dark-tanned, glowing, large, handsome. At every break he went into the kitchen to get himself a super nutrition shake: double dose of brewer’s yeast, tiger’s milk, yogurt, acidopholous, soya powder, etcetera. Then he would stand in perfect posture in the doorway of the kitchen and go “AHHH,” and go sit back down in the meditation hall and recommence squirming. He was wearing pants with a flap over front that tied on the sides (nothing so unnatural as buttons or zippers) which gave a loin-cloth effect. His shoes were the Birkenstock flat-molded sandals, that never disturb so much as a cell of the vital skin between the toes. He had something going for every pore. On discussion nights, he always wanted to know how to get high. I wanted to take him and shake him finally, to find out why he was so desperate to feel good.
I remember another one who described to me how he had spent a year with this master, a year with that one, received shakti-pat, studied kundalini yoga. I asked him what he wanted from it. “I want to be perfect in every way” was his answer. “I want to be every kind of master: I want to make money, I want to have sexual power, healing power, guru power, spiritual power.” I thought at the time that so much desire might get in the way of any kind of attainment. He soon dumped that particular style of Buddhism and went on to something else.
Some of the spiritual tourists I am talking about (and I have qualified as one myself) eventually settle down to one path. Once they settle in, they may feel they are fulfilling the desires the fellow above outlined: That is they mold themselves into something perfect in the terms of a particular movement. They begin to sleep, eat, chant, beg or slop brown rice or curry exactly like the guru says to. And bit by bit, people who don’t do it that way seem a bit deviled, unclean, polluted, imperfect. One of the worst days of my college life was when my senior roommate told me she was going into an ashram. “I don’t want to think anymore,” she said. Seeing her a year and a half later, I think she has successfully stopped. The people around her all believe and eat and say and walk and wear the same things.
The thing is, some people feel they have to go to extraordinary measures these days to feel right and straight and whole and perfect on every plane. By the time they do, given the times, they are respectably paranoid (sometimes) of everything outside their own scene. The paranoia, in some instances, I have it by hearsay, creates its own objective evidence: i.e., arsenals of guns are stockpiled to ward off the Bad Bad Fat Inorganic Middle American when everything comes down and he’s on his way to loot the Good Good Ashram (or Retreat or what have you). This sort of thing is a manifestation of what I call the Rise of Spiritual Fascism in America. A collective attitude of superiority (not always with guns, of course, but with a certain brutal attitude of Personal Purity, and of Us-Them) is more pervasive than you might think.
Much of this can be attributed to the people in the movements, their attitudes upon entering (“I want to be perfect on every plane,” . . . “I don’t want to think anymore”) as much as to the Gurus. These people are, after all, Americans, from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Our history-myth is all about people busting ass to remain individual, separate, and “free” in the sense that they get to decide what they want to do utterly independent of one another. Along with the history-myth there are a lot of instances where the big guys gang up on little guys to make sure the big guys keep all their great individual freedoms out of the hands of anybody else (read Cowboys versus the Indians, or Busing in Boston). This latter is also known as acute paranoia.
A problem for anyone deciding to surrender to a Religious Master in our culture is that he can’t have every bit of his personal-individual-separated-everything consciousness and be spiritual too. The very critical, skeptical American mentality can’t surrender all its pretensions to separateness overnight. So, first, they gather into camps, get the team rooting, and take swipes at all the other collective or non-collected consciousnesses around. I have never heard a more entire list of The Other Guy’s Faults than at the ashram of my friend from college who became a yogi to stop thinking. The members took swipes at Christians, made ugly pregnant nun jokes, discussed various Buddhist masters who drink, gossiped about the gurus who have a lot of money, and discussed which gurus were sleeping with their consorts among the ones who profess celibacy. There is much converted anger and fear that takes the form of pettiness and tiny-mindedness that goes on under the name of gurus and new religions in this country, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist alike.
This all ends as an observation, for I think the situation is unsolvable for the time being. A friend of mine who teaches at Naropa Institute told me on the phone from Boulder: the Age is getting more and more collective, people are thinking in groups. Individual conscience and consciousness is waning. That is where it is going, and there is a lot of resistance to that. Yes, there is. Group-think is a very significant feature of the seventies. On one end there is drug-based and behavioral psychology, on the other end, the T.M. people are getting themselves rounder and rounder. (T.M. people have an intensive meditation practice that they do on retreats called rounding. I get the image from that of a German folktale about a woman who washed her children so much she rubbed the features off their faces. Once they all had faces flat as plates, she couldn’t tell them apart.)
Two books with the titles Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and The Myth of Freedom are current — one was written by behavioral scientist, B.F. Skinner, the other by a Tibetan lama.
But we live in a nation whose very identity is based upon freedom of the individual. Group-think is alien to America’s ideas of itself. Among many who are involved in current spiritual movements, privacy, individual freedom, personal choice, discriminatory intellect, etc. have lost their meaning or their meanings have been altered immensely. One has a new understanding of privacy, for example, after spending three days sitting Zazen with silent people. You are alone no matter what you do. The fears and patterns underlying everyday distinctions and discriminations can be revealed in meditation. The surrender to a master for religious growth — and with it the loss of certain individual choices — is important for progress on any path. All of this is something I imagined, maybe, and Spiritual Fascism is something sprung from my own paranoias.
But it’s not, entirely. We have to have spiritual Fascism in this country because America has always been so radical in the direction of individual freedom. It’s inevitable, scary sometimes, startling at others (certain mass rallies come to mind). Maybe in another two hundred years this thing will settle in, and Group-Think will become as everyday as I-Think. Hundreds of religious nations will spring from the union, and the Libertarians (who have made a religion out of individual freedom) will take over Idaho or Nebraska and fight it out among themselves. None of this will seem to make any difference any more. It’s the folks today, raised in the Land of the Free, and headed into a time when everything has already been decided, who have the trouble. Crazy lines get drawn. These days, we are utter skeptics, and want to be Absolute believers (all Jimmy Carter says is “I will never lie to you”). Or we have become Absolute believers, and won’t let one ounce of anything outside the particular movement dogma taint our purification. And somewhere in between the new American religious reactionary, and the old line skeptical paranoiac, intervenes that other, unmentioned thing: the pursuit of Happiness, the pursuit of Happiness. . . .