Excerpted from "The Visionary State; A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape" (Chronicle, 2006) by Erik Davis with Photographs by Michael Rauner, with permission.
When I’m abroad, I usually tell people I am from California rather than the United States. I’m not just trying to be clever, or to slough off the increasingly heavy load of being an American in foreign climes. I actually identify that way. I was born in the Bay Area in June of the Summer of Love, and grew up in Del Mar, a town of university profs and mellow longhairs name-dropped by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” When I was a teenager, my family moved to Rancho Santa Fe, into a rambling ranch house that lay about a mile from the Spanish Revival mansion where the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult later committed mystic suicide. Since 1995, I have lived in San Francisco, where my great-great-great-grandfather I. C. C. Russ disembarked with his family from the Loo Choo in the fortuitous year of 1847. My roots are here, in this rootless place.
When I tell people I’m Californian rather than American, I’m also letting them know something about the forces that shaped me. Like Texas and New York City, California seems in some ways separate from the rest of the United States, a realm apart. Even as a little kid, I knew that my home was different: the granola state, the land of fruits and nuts, the space-case colony with a moonbeam governor that collected, like a dustbin, everything in America that wasn’t firmly rooted down. Time has not dulled this reputation. Californians are still routinely mocked for our flakiness, our self-obsession, our fondness for fads and health regimens and strange notions. But the familiar jokes also reflect something much more substantial about the place: its intensely creative and eccentric spiritual and religious culture. If the American West is, as Archibald MacLeish once said, a country of the mind, than California is clearly a state of mind—an altered state, for sure, or better yet, a visionary one.
After the United States seized the territory from Mexico in 1848, California became the stage for a strange and steady parade of utopian sects, bohemian mystics, cult leaders, psycho-spiritual healers, holy poets, sex magicians, fringe Christians, and psychedelic warriors. There are many and complex reasons for this efflorescence of marvels. Between its Edenic bounty and multicultural mix, its wayward freedoms and hungry dreams, California composed an imaginative frontier exceptional in the history of American religion. Less a place of origins than of mutations, California came to host a laboratory of the spirit, a sacred playground at the far margins of the West. Here, deities and practices from across space and time are mixed and matched, refracted and refined, packaged and consumed anew. Such spiritual eclecticism is not novel, of course, and similar scenes have popped up throughout history, often with more rigor and depth. But nowhere else in the modern world has such unruly creativity come as close to becoming the status quo. I call this spiritual ethos “California consciousness”: an imaginative, experimental, and often hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary.
Defining California consciousness is no easier than defining the New Age, which is really not very new at all. Though world faiths like Buddhism and Christianity have marked the West Coast’s alternative spirituality in fundamental ways, many of the paths that cross California are, in the words of the religious scholar Robert Fuller, “spiritual, but not religious.” Even that wan word spirituality barely works, since many paths crisscross the realms of sacred and profane, and look more like exercise routines or art or crazy fun than sacred pursuits. But that is the point, since the quest for insight, experience, and personal growth can take you anywhere: a mountaintop, a computer, a yoga mat, a rock ’n’ roll hall.
California seekers could be said to have taken the bait that William James dangled in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, where the psychologist defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” For James, personal experience was the cornerstone of the religious life, rather than dogma or institution or even belief. Because of his interest in individual experience, James opened up the wunderkammer of consciousness, accepting mysticism and so-called “altered states” as valid points of departure. Experimenting with psychedelic compounds like peyote and nitrous oxide, James argued that such exalted states of consciousness had to be integrated into any philosophy worth its salt. Though James’ approach hardly exhausts our understanding of religion, it certainly helps illuminate California consciousness. Solitude, especially, is key: though California has hosted scores of sects and cults, seekers are often driven by the sneaking suspicion that, in crucial ways, they are largely on their own. In California, though, James’ “individual men” are as often as not women—the feminization and even “queering” of the sacred being one of California’s defining, and most controversial, characteristics.