Me & My Meditations

SRI PADA, SRI LANKA

As an infant, I was trained to get on my knees every night by the side of my bed, clasp my palms together with fingers extended upward and say the same prayer every night. Only I always had a queasy feeling about that prayer….”if I should die before I wake.” Why even bring up that concept? Something just didn’t feel right. I mean, don’t you get what you ask for?

Can you imagine if millions of kids went to bed every night in that same position across the world saying: “Now I lay me down for the night, I pray my friends will never fight, a day will come we’ll all live in peace, and all these negative energies will finally cease.”

How long would it take to manifest world peace if we got something like that going in a major way I wonder? I doubt many of the religious institutions will pick up on this idea, however, much less spread it to their congregations.

I was in the 6th or 7th grade when my older brother finally clued me into the fact our Lutheran upbringing was basically a Santa Claus story. I was absolutely furious. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?” I snarled. I felt like I’d been walking around acting a fool believing some white-haired dude lived in heaven and was watching over me? It shattered not only my religious faith, but also my faith in my parents to tell me the truth, although my mom was real sheepish about the whole fiasco when I confronted her and said she’d only pretended to go along to please my dad’s parents who’d grown up in south-eastern Kansas. They went to their graves believing in that white-haired dude in the clouds.

I didn’t deal much with religion or spirituality for a long time after that and was basically a punk for many years with no moral foundation. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the hill on Yasgur’s Farm that I finally got zapped. Probably Wavy Gravy helped that process since he was the main emcee and what a wonderful job he did.

But the 1970s was a terrible time for my generation, at least those of us that choose to fight against the establishment. We were herded off on a trail to nowhere, and gradually watched our entire scene diminish and fade away. But it didn’t fade away. Around 1990, I went to my first National Rainbow Family Gathering, and plugged back into that spirit I’d felt at Woodstock in 1969.

I went to a lot of gatherings after that and even organized many on my own, only I called mine the World Hemp Expo Extravaganjas (WHEE!). I had started the concept with the clinical “World Hemp Expo,” but Ken Babbs told me it would be a million times better with another “e” on the end so it sounded like fun. The fun vibe was my main trail at the time and always had been. Babbs and Wavy were both Pranksters, although Wavy just dropped in for a brief time before starting his own group, the Hog Farm.

When Abby from Daily Beast interviewed me, I started talking about the people I’ve known and studied under, a list that includes John Cage, Julian Beck, Jasper Grootveld, Ken Kesey, and Wavy Gravy. This is basically the whos-who of Improvisational Ritual Theater, the art form they pioneered and I struggle to keep alive even though most people don’t know it exists and a some people even claim I’m a fraud mouthing a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and have no art at all? Abby had never heard of Wavy Gravy, but I think she did recognize John Cage. Maybe not. Her interview has yet to appear, which makes me think the bosses on high killed her story on 420.

Anyway, after I started going to gatherings, I’d usually be the first one up on peace meditation day, often a Sunday, or in the case of the National, always on July 4th. There’d be silence throughout the camp that morning until noon. I’d be the one who got up before dawn, however, in order to be the first at the peace pole, so I could sit there for hours, burning incense, taking a few hits of pot every hour or so, but focused on one thought, please bring an end to violence and the suffering it creates, and keep that thought until the OM broke out at noon, followed by a big drum circle and dance.

I know both John Lennon and George Harrison approached meditation the same way. When they discovered it, they’d chant for hours until both lost their vocal cords and had to stop.

Does this meditation have any positive effect? Well, it always leaves me feeling cleansed and energized. I’m always very sad to leave the natural world after living in a forest as an environmental monk for a few weeks. And I look and act like a road dog for a few days before I morph back into my Babylon identity.

The Importance of John Cage

Some people wonder how I turned out the way I did growing up in a middle-sized town in Central Illinois. They don’t seem to realize Urbana, Illinois was a hotbed of counterculture activity during the 1960s. And I think I know a possible reason why.

After Jasper Grootveld launched the Provo movement and started creating “happenings” in Amsterdam, a handful of other artists in the world began pursuing similar concepts. There was Andy Warhol on the east coast, doing multimedia happenings with the Velvet Underground as his house band. There was Ken Kesey on the west coast doing acid-drenched multimedia happenings with his house band, the Grateful Dead. And then there was John Cage, artist in residence at the University of Illinois, who, for a few years, was organizing the biggest and best multimedia happenings in the world in my hometown of Urbana.

In order to understand the impact this undoubtedly had, consider the way energy fields work. For example, if a forest is attacked on its perimeter by a predator insect, hundreds of miles away, trees on the other side of that forest will almost instantly start producing chemicals to fight the insect invasion. Similarly, if a group experienced with meditation technique holds a meditation in a town square, violent crime can go down in that town for several days after the meditation. This has been proven by science. Similarly, the events (ceremonies) John Cage instigated in Urbana helped turn my hometown into a haven for counterculture thinking and creativity.

Cage staged a “happening” at the Stock Pavilion that included one of Smitty’s Blasters.

On March 19, 1965, “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” was performed, the first John Cage production at the U of I. It was conducted by Charles Hamm, with Ellsworth Snyder on piano. (Snyder would go on to become the first person to write a PhD thesis on Cage five years later.)  At one point during the performance, Snyder crawled under the piano and began banging the bottom with a mallet. Some conservative members of the audience began screaming with rage. One even began throwing folding chairs onto the stage in an attempt to stop the performance. Suddenly, the violinist smashed her violin over her music stand, an act worthy of a Who performance. From there the concert turned into a complete melee, with the audience out of their seats and the performers improvising general chaos.

Despite intense opposition from some elements of the faculty, Cage would continue to stage performances at the University for several years, culminating in his grand finale, “HPSCHD,” which was held at the Assembly Hall, the largest indoor venue in Central Illinois. It involved 208 tapes running through 52 tape-players, 59 amplifiers and loudspeakers, 6,400 slides (5,000 from NASA), 64 slide projectors, 40 films, 8 motion-picture projectors, 11 100’x40′ silk screens, and a 340′ circular screen made by Calvin Sumsion. The show included a lot of black light and fluorescent astrological designs. It lasted about five hours and the audience was encouraged to participate in the show in every way possible. About 8,000 attended, many of whom stayed for the entire five hours.

If you go to Urbana, you won’t find much counterculture activity today. But thanks in large part to John Cage, this wasn’t the case between 1965 and 1969.