Self-Enlightenment v. Social Change

Cover Image for Remember, Be Here Now

Baba Ram Dass (ne: Richard Alpert) was different from the host of gurus and their followers who came out of the 1960s and 1970s. He worked with prisoners and the dying for a time, but was part of the self-enlightenment ethos that enticed so many from the generation of baby boomers (Dass was older than the generation of baby boomers). Born into comfort, he dabbled with psychedelic drugs, worked with Timothy Leary, gave up fancy cars and motorcycles, and earned a Ph.D. (“Baba Ram Dass, Proponent of LSD Turned New Age Guru, Dies at 88,” New York Times, December 23, 2019).

But the story behind Dass and the host of gurus and their followers who came out of the 1960s’ and 1970s’ quest for self-actualization involved shedding their politics (if they ever had politics) and becoming sometimes wealthy self-promoters.

Much of the impetus for the growth of a generation of New Age gurus was that their audience and soon-to-be adherents from the 1960s and 1970s were tired and needed a respite from the overwhelming effects of war and the momentous changes that rocked societies worldwide. Others dropped out and became apolitical in communes or returned to the land and sought association with others in efforts to forge new lives. Some became dyed-in-the-wool careerists, holding that expertise in a field of one’s choice was the way to change in the world, or at least to exist without having to answer the constant drumbeat of war and injustice and the need to pay bills.

The phenomenon of searching for self-actualization and higher consciousness led to some bizarre outcomes. If going outside one’s self to change the world didn’t work, then surely going deeply within would give a person ample reward… change yourself and you change the world, as if in some magical system. The latter became almost comical with the Transcendental Meditation movement where some adherents claimed that they could levitate and that by spreading the movement observable changes could take place in specific communities that would cause peacefulness. None of these claims have ever been documented by rigorous scientific peer-evaluated studies, but common sense informs that if enough people sit down in a geographic area and chant a mantra, that the result will be calming. Forget the strains of the outside world with its injustice and relegating whole classes of people to second-class existence. Forget the war zones that proliferate by the day. Forget the racism, poverty, and hate!

Similar attempts by gurus from several disciplines during the same era gave way to programs to sensitize those who carry out plans and acts of war and bring those people to a higher level of personal consciousness. Imagine trying to intervene with a program of self-awareness with fictional characters like Dr. Strangelove and General Ripper in the movie How I Learned to Stop Worrying and  Love the Bomb. But in real life, that’s what the aim of some programs of self-awareness training were about.

There are some benefits to many kinds of meditation that increase consciousness, but that does not mean that meditation needs to become a way of life and stand in the way of fighting for change. A guess is that the numbers of those seeking enlightenment have fallen precipitously.

The many Buddhist monks and nuns who fought and died for freedom during the Vietnam War stand as an example of those who sought both higher consciousness and were willing to make a serious commitment to the cause of peace. Interestingly, they were thwarted, in part, by the repressive US-supported government of Ngo Dinh Diem (ultimately assassinated with support by the US) in South Vietnam.

The 1960s and 1970s movements for self-actualization were largely populated by white middle-class young men and women who had sufficient resources to contemplate the cosmos without the masses of humanity and poverty knocking at their door. Some strains of meditation and movements for higher consciousness took on cult-like attributes. Many of the movements were closely tied to organized religion, although that aspect was sometimes minimized to win adherents.

It’s hard to determine whether those involved in the arts benefitted through the programs of self-enlightenment that were all the rage during the 1960s and 1970s. Would some of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, or Donovan have created fewer great songs had they not been exposed to meditation? It’s hard to say, but it was those who were at the barricades that changed the world for however a short time. John Lennon seemed to have gotten it right, as he was involved in meditation snd social change. The creative process is much more complicated than pointing to achievements resulting from a single variable. Who knows what mix of variables produced creative results? Maybe confronting life straight on has the same effect? And why did the movement for self-enlightenment seem to impact largely pop music performers from the pop music industry? Where were those from the visual and performing arts?

While the popular culture turns out wealth beyond imagination, readers might wonder where enlightenment is going today with those on the streets tying to make ends meet on the cash from returned bottles and cans (“Fighting to Survive on a 5-Cent Deposit,” New York Times, December 26, 2019).

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).