Sixties icon and self-styled “nonviolent social revolutionary” Stephen Gaskin died this past July at the age of seventy-nine. Gaskin was a prominent figure on the countercultural scene in San Francisco in the late sixties and went on to found the long-running intentional community the Farm, which is still thriving in rural Tennessee.
In 1967 Gaskin, a former Marine turned hippie pacifist, was teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State College when the administration decided not to renew his contract. (“I’d gotten too weird to rehire,” he said.) He came up with an idea for an unusual sort of learning experience that focused on current affairs. The country was in flux, and many young adults were asking questions about the ongoing war in Vietnam and domestic issues related to civil rights, poverty, and inequality. Gaskin decided to start a public conversation about those topics and other, more esoteric ones, from Eastern spirituality to telepathic communication. And since he’d recently been experimenting with LSD, he also “wanted to compare notes with other trippers about tripping and the whole psychic and psychedelic world.”
Twelve people showed up for Gaskin’s first class, which was held on a Monday night in a room on the San Francisco State campus. Over the next three years the class grew, and the venues changed — eventually there were 1,500 people sitting on the floor of a ballroom near the Pacific Ocean — but the format stayed the same: perched cross-legged on a cushion, Gaskin would open his freewheeling seminar with a silent meditation, and then he’d share some thoughts and field questions on subjects ranging from auras and astrology to ecology, morality, and, of course, getting high. (You don’t have to use drugs to reach a higher state of consciousness, Gaskin would explain, but they can help.) He pulled religious ideas from diverse sources, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, and made them accessible. With his long hair and intense gaze, he even looked a little like Jesus. But unlike many other spiritual teachers, Gaskin wanted to inspire action. “Enlightenment,” he said, “is getting off your tail and doing something.”
The author of eleven books, including The Caravan, Mind at Play, and An Outlaw in My Heart, Gaskin described his “main occupations” as “hippie priest, spiritual revolutionary, cannabis advocate, shade-tree mechanic, cultural engineer, tractor driver, and community starter.” His life and ideas influenced many people, including Sy Safransky, who founded The Sun in 1974. In an early issue Safransky writes of Gaskin’s “emphasis on honesty, hard work, and genuine fellowship” and his compelling perspective on psychedelics. The value Gaskin placed on altruism is also echoed in The Sun’s pages. As Gaskin put it, “You must never underestimate your ability to help other people, no matter how small you are.”
Gaskin is survived by his wife, Ina May — a nationally acclaimed midwife and cofounder of the Farm Midwifery Center — and his five children. To honor his life and work, we are reprinting an interview Michael Thurman did with Gaskin for The Sun in 1985. That conversation focuses on the Farm’s history and mission, but our tribute begins here with excerpts from Gaskin’s first book, Monday Night Class. Published in 1970, it’s made up of transcripts from Gaskin’s San Francisco talks. We’ve condensed the text but retained what Gaskin calls his “archaic hippyisms,” and we’ve included the wry commentary (set in bold) that he added to the book’s 2005 edition.
The times were outrageous. There were a couple of hundred thousand hippies on the streets in San Francisco. Tripping on LSD was pandemic. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole city smelled of reefer smoke. Grass was $75 a kilo, Acapulco Gold was $250 a kilo, acid was $2.50 a hit, and so was a rock-and-roll ticket. Every circle on the street had a joint circulating around the inside, and the rock halls were jammed with stoned trippers.
I first began Monday Night Class in 1967 on the San Francisco State campus. We discussed love, sex, dope, God, gods, war, peace, enlightenment, free will, and what-have-you, all in a stoned, truthful, hippie atmosphere. We studied religions, fairy tales, legends, children’s stories, the I Ching, Zen koans — and tripping. It was easy to tell when we were onto something hot — I could see the expressions move across a thousand faces like the wind across a wheat field.
The most important thing to come out of the Monday Night Class meetings, and the glue that held us together, was a belief in the moral imperative toward altruism that was implied by the telepathic spiritual communion we experienced together. Every decent thing accomplished over the years by the people of Monday Night Class and the Farm (its later incarnation) came from those simple hippie values. It was the basis for our belief in Spirit, nonviolence, collectivity, and social activism.
Now, some people may think that I am not as religious as I used to be, and it’s true that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I might be an agnostic, and on Tuesday and Thursday a primitive animist, while partying down on Saturday and sometimes sitting zazen on Sunday. There are, however, two things that I have to say. One is, if you’ve never seen your head in more than one mode, you don’t really know who you are at all. The other is, at no time do I subscribe to any brand-name religions.
I am a believer in free will. I am not a believer in predestination. I think a belief in prophecy robs us of our free will. If you insist on wanting to know that everything will come out all right, I think you give up your freedom to affect the outcome.
I love the ethical teachings of almost all the religions, and I love the psychedelic testimony of their saints. But I do not believe in any of their dogmas.
I think each one of us has a nonshirkable obligation to figure out the world on our own as best we can. The way we behave as a result of that investigation is our real and practiced religion.
Some people come to a teacher and say, “OK, if you’re enlightened, zap me straight.” As I read the books, and as I understand it for myself, no one can do that. Buddha couldn’t do that. There’s something about free will. You can be shown paths that will take you to enlightenment, but you have to walk them yourself. You have to make the effort.
There’s a story about a priest who told a Zen master, “My master can hold a paintbrush on one side of a river, and his disciples can hold a paper on the other side of the river, and he can write the name of the Lord Buddha through the air so it appears on the paper on the other side of the river. What is your miracle?”
The Zen master said, “My miracle is that when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m sleepy I sleep, and when I’m thirsty I drink.”
That’s plenty of miracle. That and a little weed, too, is even more miraculous.
My miracle is not that you can’t knock me down; my miracle is that I know how to get up. And I can teach you how to get up. After you get up a few times, it gets easier.
When I was tripping all the time, I was also trying out religions like suits of clothes. I studied Zen for a while and read koans and sat until my knees screamed. I chanted Hare Krishna and read the Upanishads and visited Indian gurus and did yoga. I prayed the Jesus mantra and read esoteric ancient Christian texts and tripped and read the Bible, trying to make sense of it. When one is tripping weekly on LSD, and on God-knows-what all week long, it is possible, like Alice in Wonderland, “to believe three impossible things before breakfast.”
When you are trying on a religion, you can’t just put it on and step up in front of a mirror and see how it fits. You have to have at least a provisional belief in the new philosophy to see what it might be like to live that way. You have to try it out and act like you believe it for a while.
Why do we care so much about truth? I think one of the reasons we respect it is because of the extraordinarily high signal-to-noise ratio that we have here on the planet.
Much of our daily conversation is about things that don’t exist in the material plane, because they’re in the past or they’re in the future. A lot of our conversation doesn’t have to do with here and now. Truth is accurate information about here and now, here and now.
The rise of the electronic communication infrastructure hasn’t done anything to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It has merely amplified and enhanced it. Instead of ordinary bullshit, you can now have flaming digital bullshit bounced off a satellite for your listening and viewing enjoyment.
I think that truth is the same as God. I think that love is also the same as God. Somebody said to me that it’s like a pyramid with three sides, and it only has one point at the top, and that point is God — and the sides are love and truth and beauty.
I wouldn’t use the word God so much these days; it confuses the ethical atheists.
A lie is a communication breakdown. Whenever any of us get together, no matter whether it’s only two of us or a whole gang of us, there is a meeting happening here on the island among the monkeys. And a meeting is only capable of determining as much truth as is copped to. That’s why you have to cop to it.
In this context, “to cop to” means “to admit the existence of.” The use of the term “monkeys” has offended some people over the years, but no harm is intended. It’s used in the Zen sense of “our most basic selves.”
Otherwise we’re left with “small talk.” I don’t know many people who do much small talk, because I don’t do much myself. You can put telling the truth and telling a lie on opposite ends of a continuum, with percentages in between, and you can see that some people don’t exactly lie — but they get down into a forty-ninth percentile sometimes, and they seldom get much above fifty-one. They just hang around where some of it’s true and some of it isn’t, and some of it doesn’t matter, because they’re just shooting the shit for a while.
It’s a hard thing to say, but I’m not a social creature, and I don’t have any manners, because I find that manners and social things distort the vibes too much. It comes down to that hard thing of having to come up with extraordinary effort and do it — tell the truth to somebody, because that’s just how much truth is going to come to light in the meeting.
I have to say now that when I talk with our neighbors in Tennessee, I have manners. I also engage in small talk, so that I can talk with people without having to get heavy all the time. You need to be able to speak socially to smooth the ways of the world. Give your parents and friends a break sometimes.
When you listen to people talk, you know the truth when it’s spoken, because it has a ring to it. It rings like a bell. Sometimes the truth might be back up in your head, or somebody’s head, hidden behind a few layers of lies, and you might have to excavate to find it. But you can tell without a doubt when you find it, because everything turns golden and bright, and gets pretty, and everybody gets beautiful, with maybe the smell of nice incense in the air. That’s what truth is like when you experience it.
When you try to live the truth and be it, you try to make your every action an expression of the truth.
If you can do that, dogs won’t bite you and children will love you.
When I later met an actual Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, I was delighted to see that state of mind in a real person.
I find that if I tell the truth, it gets me high every time. So, if you find yourself in a place where you think you’re as high as grass is going to get you, then try a little truth, and start climbing up the ladder by hand. You can get as high as you want to on truth. Just be telling it as it comes. It doesn’t even have to be about something heavy. Because it’s true, it’s heavy. If somebody asks you the right time, and you tell ’em the right time, it’s heavy, because it’s true.
Now, truth’s a funny trip, because if you really up and try to do it, there’s going to be some resistance. If you’re going to try to speak some truth, there’s going to be somebody around who’s got a hand in the till or a skeleton in their closet or an ace up their sleeve or some extra ego in their back pocket, who is not going to want you to talk. There are various ways that they’ll try to keep you from talking, and you have to pay attention to them. If you start to say something that’s true, insist on saying it until you’re finished saying it. Don’t let yourself be interrupted when you’re speaking truth, because it cheapens the truth to let it be interrupted.
It is also possible to be a pain in the rear about truth, or anything else. I have been helped sometimes by an old yogic saying, “Truth is good, but it also needs to be helpful, necessary, and kind.”
The only way to bring about anything on the material plane, like fairness, is to teach justice in the spiritual plane as hard as you can in order to educate people out of the idea of having more than they need.
Therefore, for each one of us to do our best locally — our good-hearted, straight-up, go-for-broke best — will raise the vibration equally around the whole planet, all of which needs it.
Working unselfishly for the sake of the whole world, or at least the piece of it that is closest, is also required. Taking care of yourself and your family is not selfish. It means that someone else doesn’t have to take care of you. You should work to become strong enough that your presence adds, not subtracts.
Now, it might be more dramatic to go for lifting the whole thing. My cousin used to drive a truck from Long Beach into the city, about seventy miles into Los Angeles, and he had to run the oil out of the truck into a big tank there. It took him about eight hours to do one trip: filling up the tank, driving it about seventy miles, and draining it into the other tank. When he drained it into the other tank, it raised the level of that tank three-eighths of an inch. And so what we do here is we try to raise the whole planet about three-eighths of an inch each time.
There’s a Zen saying: “Although my heart is on fire, my eyes are as cold as ashes.” It implies that you can keep your concentration really well when you’re not attached. That’s the loose place you have to be in to play music or to ride a bike or to engage in any of those loose, no-mind kinds of activities.
Attachment is really based in the idea that we think anything that we have around us belongs to us. None of this stuff belongs to any of us. We just happen to get to use it for a while. We’re masters of it, because we have binocular vision and opposable thumbs that make us good at handling three dimensions. But none of that jazz belongs to us, because it can’t belong to us; we die, it stays. It’s merely a mocked-up creation that our minds have put together and then agreed to forget that it was a joke, and it’s the material plane. None of us can claim it.
This is a metaphor. For all practical purposes it’s real, and don’t you forget it.
The thing about attachment that’s most real for us, I think, is the idea of being attached to our own feelings and opinions. That’s what I find most people are really attached to more than anything else. And they say something like “It made me really feel bad,” you know. Or “I had to do it ’cause it was just going to make me feel awful.” And it becomes an excuse for doing anything.
You can’t steer on that kind of information. For one thing, you have to be nonattached to your feelings, because feelings can be a trap. People say they do things for feelings, but they really do things for energy. Think about that. When you see a relationship going on, dig which way the energy is flowing, ’cause that’s what it’s really about, not the emotional noise that’s going on. So just cut loose and don’t consider that emotions are reliable-enough information for you to steer your head on. Your head’s a more delicate machine than that; it needs better information than that.
On Paying Attention
Your attention is not impressed by anything much. It’ll try to wander from anywhere until you get it trained. So while you’re doing that thing and your attention wanders, you’ll be there and one minute you’ll be making love and you’ll be all involved in that, and the next minute you’ll be thinking about that cat who said that funny thing to you yesterday. And then you’ll notice that you’re thinking about that cat who said that funny thing to you yesterday. And then you’ll say, “What in the hell am I doing thinking about that thing now? This is much more exciting than that was.” And then you’ll come back to the here and now — bang! Ahhh, that’s good. So here you are, and you find yourself thinking about your mother-in-law. Mother-in-law! Far out! What am I doing out there?
So you grab your attention, and here is the thing: if you just grab your attention and rip it off those wandering things — your attention is like a tentacle, you know. It’s going to look for something to grab on to. Well, you rip it loose from one of those attachment places — like, take it loose from that one, grab it, and bring it down and involve it in the situation at hand, right? Look around and see which part of your relationship in the here and now is not getting enough attention. Where are you shorting out? Where are you touching someone and not knowing it?
I didn’t spring out of a lotus blossom knowing where it was at. I figured out where it was at by paying attention for a long time, sometimes when it was really hard. That’s what works.
I didn’t pay any attention to prophecies. I didn’t pay any attention to things that were supposed to happen some other time and some other place. I paid attention to what was happening in the here and now, and took care of business in the here and now. I got straight with the people who were closest to me in the here and now.
Life mostly isn’t random. You get back out of it pretty much what you put into it. If you put the real thing into it, you get the real thing back out of it.
And sometimes you get shot in a drive-by shooting that didn’t concern you except for killing you. Karma isn’t fair; it’s just the way it is.
The way that you tap into the Great Spirit is to relax — and to appreciate. Appreciate is a word that means “put value into” — to make precious. So make precious these trees that are around us and this grass that we’re sitting on. Make precious the very rocks and the dirt that the grass grows out of. When you expand and become large in yourself, and large in your soul, and you know that you’re a large thing that reaches out a long way, you can tap into the Universal Spirit, into the Divine Ground of All Being, into the One Mind. You can tap right into it just by knowing that it’s there and reaching for it — and it will reach back. That’s how you know you’ve tapped into it: when it reaches back.
I think that we tend to devalue grass by toking up and running out to do something else. When you turn on, you ought to sit down till you come on — relax and let it happen to you. You shouldn’t waste it, because it’s a precious thing — sunshine energy that God puts into a green plant to help us relax and open up. If you never get a meditative state out of your grass, you are wasting it.
Grass is really a miraculous thing. It’s one of the few things that help you open up without desensitizing you. Tranquilizers help you open up to a degree, because they make your insides so numb you can’t feel how uptight you are. That’s one way. But a little grass can open you up and leave you compassionate.
On Political Action
To manifest peace, you do not oppose with arms — and you do not oppose by political action — because those are confrontations.
One does too have to oppose by political action, even if it is a confrontation. As long as we have a political system that gives us a chance for peaceful change, we need to use it. The alternative is war and violent revolution.
To manifest peace, you be peaceful. You be peaceful real strong — that’s how you manifest peace.
This is still true. I would also add that hippie revolutionaries, to change the world, need to be able to win the love of an honest square. The Vietnam War ended when the straight people understood.
You don’t have to do anything to tear this system down, because this system is so corrupt it’s just falling down. You don’t have to tear it down — just stay out of the way. Just stay cool. Be friendly and nice. Be nice to the guy you buy gasoline from, because you might have to buy gasoline from him again someday.
The thing is, some people are afraid. They’ve been put uptight by a lot of strange things. They shouldn’t be put uptight. Nobody should be uptight, because it puts uptight energy into the universe and makes everybody a little more uptight. Defuse those people — they’re only scary when they’re scared. You dig? Don’t be scary. You don’t have to be scary.
I’m not scary to folks I run into, and I look just as outrageous as anybody. But I’m not scary. You have to pay attention to how you come across to folks. You can be mostly any way you want to, as long as you’re not scary. But if you put people uptight, you’re going to carry a circle of uptight energy around you that sooner or later will be triggered into psychic or physical violence.
If you have good vibes, people want to relate with you, and all you have to do is give them a handle. If you give them a handle, they’ll forgive reefer, they’ll forgive long hair, they’ll forgive funny talking, they’ll forgive new-age sex trips, they’ll forgive anything, as long as you’re not scary and on an ego trip.
I have come to realize that my personal freedom is not the measure of freedom in this country or the world. I have come to realize how fortunate I have been to be born in this country and in the twentieth century and to middle-class parents, as a male, and tall, and with a deep voice, and white. Also there has been a great change in our country and the world in the thirty-five years since this book was written. I used to think of England as a bastion of the class system, and I didn’t like the vibes in France. But the United States in 2005 has a bigger social and financial class gap than any of the other industrialized nations. The gap between rich and poor has grown, and the common people have suffered greatly. I remain nonviolent, but I see the necessity for a great social revolution to redeem modern civilization.
The following discussion took place shortly after the May 4, 1970, killing of four unarmed students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio. The shootings had occurred during a protest against the Vietnam War. Emotions at the Monday Night Class session were high, and there was talk of violent retaliation against law enforcement.
As Gaskin offered his thoughts on the question of violence, he began to feel the effects of a dose of LSD that someone had given him during a break; the drug had been in a piece of candy, and he hadn’t known he was taking it.
You know, there’s quite a few people here who sound like they could get into some revenge. You can’t get into violence, because violence is a turn-up-the-stimulus kind of trip. A little violence means more. You can’t buy into just a little bit. It grows.
The cops are not the problem, and neither is the National Guard. You know, the police are human beings, and you can’t come up in anybody’s face and call them names and hit them and throw things at them without them doing something.
Those cops are just some more people doing a thing, caught in it. That’s what samsara [the world of illusion] is about. Buddha speaks of the world of sorrow — that’s it, man, right out there happening, and it happens and has happened. The only thing that can keep it from continuing is for enough people to not do it.
The thing is that you’ve always got to say that there’s enough room on this boat right now, the way it is, for everybody. I will not agree that it is necessary to kill anybody to make me happy. No way. [Shouts.]
Q: I say that, and you say that, but they don’t say that. How do you walk away from a bullet? How fast do you run?
Dig this. Psychic violence is just the same as physical violence, you see. That’s the riff. People put psychic violence on the cops, and the cops respond with physical violence. Then the people say, Oh, looky what they did to us. But, man, look what they did to them. They are doing it to each other.
Jesus said, “Resist not evil.” Resist not evil. It means that if you put juice into it, you stir it up and make it worse than it is. Like, the cops are wearing plastic helmets because people threw rocks at them. The cops didn’t use to wear plastic helmets, because people didn’t use to throw so many rocks at them. You don’t oppose it. That’s it. It thrives on being opposed. If you don’t oppose it, you pull its plug, and it runs out of juice.
Q: What can we do?
Something you might do is that when an action or a deed or an idea comes up in front of your head for review to find out whether you are going to do it or not, pay attention to whether it’s a groovy thing to do before you do it. Only do groovy things, you know. You make a choice. It’s called free will.
Q: Do you think you can get it together without putting yourself into revolution?
I didn’t know I wasn’t putting myself into it.
Q: I mean, like, violent revolution.
No, man, I’d rather let somebody kill me. We are not separate. I started off this evening by saying we are all one. We are all one. All us monkeykind are all one. Never mind what color suits we have on. That doesn’t make any difference. We’re still the same kind. We shouldn’t be killing ourselves.
The reason we’re talking about violence tonight is that there is violence in our subconscious. That’s what we’re having a manifestation of. Like, it shocked the monkeys. It shocks everybody to kill somebody. It’s a heavy thing.
Q: We gotta get guns.
What do you want with a weapon?
Q: I don’t have to carry one, but somebody could break into my house with a gun.
Nobody has to carry one.
As long as you call it “us and them,” you’re stuck. As long as you call it “us and them,” you’ve had it. If you say, “We don’t make it,” then you can work it out. If you call it “us and them,” it’s harder to get “them” to cooperate with “us.” Basically, it’s all “us.”
I could sit here and go on and have class for a few more hours tonight, but I think someone has hit me with a tab of acid. I’d rather take it out in the country, if you don’t mind. God bless you all. I think I’ll turn you loose for the night. OK?
[Noise from audience. Man objects.]
OK, I’ll hang in, but I just want to hip you that I’m stoned, man.
Q: We all are.
Another man: I hope we aren’t stoned when the gestapo breaks in.
I hope we are. I really hope we are. [Cheers and applause.] I hope we are just ripped.
Q: It’s apparent that we are not making it in this country, and I’d like to know how we can get it together. How can we bring people together?
When enough people have the real courage to come on and be peaceful. That’s the secret. When people will come on and be peaceful.
Q: How are we, practically, going to deal with it?
How we practically deal with it is that . . . one thing is like this meeting that I call here once a week, and the reason that I don’t go away is that we can come here and draw strength and courage from knowing that there are at least this many people who want to be peaceful.
Q: [With a sarcastic tone.] And our vibrations will reach the others who are not peaceful?
They will reach the other people who are not peaceful. Love is a stronger vibration, because you can get more people doing it.
What we are doing is raising our kids so they are honest and not bullies or liars, so they will grow up to be human beings who can be trusted to be in public office without being liars and bullies. That’s a lot of what we’re doing. A lot of what we’re doing is trying to deepen and widen ways that we communicate with other people, because the more that we can make that communication, the more that load is carried. Because one man can’t say it all. Everybody has to say it, all the time.
I’ve been saying all these months that we won’t make it unless everybody makes it, and everybody has been saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” When I say, “You don’t make it unless everybody makes it,” everybody says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” OK: You don’t make it unless everybody makes it.
Several hundred people at once: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
All right. Now I want to go out to the beach and finish coming on. Good night. Thank you.
Excerpted from Monday Night Class, by Stephen Gaskin. © 2005 by Stephen Gaskin. Reprinted by permission of Book Publishing Company, Summertown, Tennessee.