Not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Outsiders, hearing about the new fad of encounter sessions, wondered what their appeal was:

Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.


The encounter session — although it was not called that — was also a staple practice in psychedelic communes and, for that matter, in New Left communes. In fact, the analysis of the self, and of one another, was unceasing. But in these groups and at Esalen and in movements such as Arica there were two common assumptions that distinguished them from the aristocratic lemon sessions and personality finishings of yore. The first was: I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me. Scientology uses the word “clear” to identify the state that one must strive for. But just what is that state? And what will the Real Me be like? It is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere. In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago: namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God. In most mortals that spark is “asleep” (the Gnostics’ word), all but smothered by the facades and general falseness of society. But those souls who are clear can find that spark within themselves and unite their souls with God’s. And with that conviction comes the second assumption: There is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals. But he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it.

And with that… the Me movements were about to turn righteous.

By the early 1970s so many of the Me movements had reached this Gnostic religious stage, they now amounted to a new religious wave. Synanon, Arica, and the Scientology movement had become religions. The much-publicized psychedelic or hippie communes of the 1960s, although no longer big items in the press, were spreading widely and becoming more and more frankly religious. The huge Steve Gaskin commune in the Tennessee scrublands was a prime example. A New York Times survey concluded that there were at least two thousand communes in the United States by 1970, barely five years after the idea first caught on in California. Both the Esalen-style and Primal Therapy or Primal Scream encounter movements were becoming progressively less psychoanalytical and more mystical in their approach. The Oriental “meditation” religions — which had existed in the United States mainly in the form of rather intellectual and bohemian Zen and yoga circles — experienced a spectacular boom. Groups such as the Hare Krishna, the Sufi, and the Maharaj Ji communes began to discover that they could enroll thousands of new members and (in some cases) make small fortunes in real estate to finance the expansion. Many members of the New Left communes of the 1960s began to turn up in Me movements in the 1970s, including two of the celebrated “Chicago Seven.” Rennie Davis became a follower of the Maharaj Ji. Jerry Rubin enrolled in both est and Arica. Barbara Garson, who with the help of her husband, Marvin, wrote the great agitprop drama of the New Left, MacBird, would later observe, with considerable bitterness: “My husband Marvin forsook everything (me included) to find peace. For three years he wandered without shoes or money or glasses. Now he is in Israel with some glasses and possibly with some peace.” And not just him, she said, but so many other New Lefters as well: “Some follow a guru, some are into Primal Scream, some seek a rest from the diaspora — a home in Zion.” It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.


  1. Kirk says:

    Surprising amount of communist-style brainwashing was embedded in a lot of that crap, which the various left-wing forces themselves had adopted from the ecstatic religious cults of yore…

    Examine the reported techniques of the Ismaili hashishin conversion and indoctrination process, then compare those to the anarchists, the communists, and all the other “-ists” out there. You’ll find a disturbing amount of congruent similarities, enough so that one wonders precisely where the rational thought even came in for many of these supposedly “rational” sects.

    There is a space within the human soul that aches to be filled with the profound and the spiritual. Leave it empty of something like a formal religion, and that void will fill itself with whatever specious bullshit you encounter. Which is why so many areligious types are prone to believe in crystals, new-age healing techniques, Wicca, and anthropogenic global warming…

  2. Kgaard says:

    I have a lot of experience with this. I get everything the author is saying and it is THE problem with these spiritual-based hippie retreats and communes. They are all very lefty. That said … a tremendous amount of good can come out of these places. Where ELSE can one really explore the spiritual path? I mean seriously … where? Nobody else does a good job anymore of cultivating the mystical experience itself. Churches are all run by priests, who are basically community organizers, rather than, say, monks — who might actually impart some wisdom.

  3. Kirk says:

    Interesting point about the various “church” entities, and one I’ve never really considered. I think you’re on to something there, in that I’ve been to many worship services in many different churches over the years, but I will be damned if I can remember any of them really addressing anything truly spiritual or providing much in the way of useful guidance beyond the rote.

    Which probably explains why so many of the weird fringe movements are so damned popular and effective. Has organized religion lost the knack for addressing these things, I wonder?

  4. Wang Wei Ling says:

    Imagine this on a large scale — like the self-denunciation sessions during China’s Cultural Revolution.

  5. Sam J. says:

    “…Imagine this on a large scale — like the self-denunciation sessions during China’s Cultural Revolution…”

    It would be madness. I’ve read about 4 or 5 books by people who went through this in China. Really interesting.

    I saw this movie and read the book,”First.They.Killed.My.Father.2017″ about what happened in Cambodia. Worth watching or reading. I remember seeing the “pussy hat” march and thinking the perfect foil would be to go around and around them with a bullhorn saying, “Angkor will take care of you”. They wouldn’t understand but it would amuse me to no end.

    I’ve done something like this. I went to EST back in…1976??? or so. This was before Scientology sued them and made them strip out a lot of stuff. They took a lot of Scientology and stripped it down into a two weekend shake and bake enlightenment. Very much a part of the human potential movement type stuff. I found it useful though I would be very hard pressed to explain exactly what it was about or what they were getting at. I guess the simplest explanation that I got out of it was that your life is going by minute by minute and the things that happening are just things that happened are just things. They’re not always necessarily personal they just “are” and how you react to these “things” is up to you to decide. A little like the Stoics and Buddhist with a little NLP thrown in for good measure, though NLP wasn’t around yet. There was definitely techniques of brainwashing being used. Very, very long hours and at one point they group hypnotized us. I have no idea what they said at this time. At this point in time they were not on the hard sell, join us type thing. It was all about “shake and bake enlightenment”. Many years later I went back after they had renamed it the forum and it let a really bad taste in my mouth. Lots of pressure to sign up all kinds of stuff which I didn’t.

    Some of this stuff can be very good for you to knock you out of your element and get something useful ingrained in your head. The potential for abuse…well it’s very, extremely, high. The military does exactly the same thing. So do tent revival tent preachers.

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