Your subtitle is "The Spiritual Experiments of My Generation." What experiments are you referring to?
It's my understanding that the Baby Boom generation developed a kind of spiritual hunger, and that many of the religious institutions that we were born into didn't explain life to us in an adequate way, didn't give us the stories that conformed to what we were learning in school about the scientific revolution, really didn't give us the spiritual tools to deal with the modern world.
We were lucky enough to be given good educations, but we began to see that the worldviews we were being offered in our institutions were very limited. And so we began experimenting with drugs and we began to see some other realities. And we decided to go exploring.
I was part of this great wave of young Westerners in the late 60s, early 70s, who went to Asia. Many of us had been reading in college about Buddhism and Taoism and had been reading the beatniks, who were also exploring. And [in Asia] we found teachers and we studied meditation and various martial art practices, and philosophy and music-and we brought it back. We smuggled these foreign gods into the country and you can see the result today. In every American city there are yoga centers and meditation centers, and Buddhism is one of the fastest-growing religions in America. So we really planted seeds that are now sprouting all over the world.
You point out that some criticize the Boomer generation because they don't think its revolutions succeeded.
There is a lot of criticism of the Boomers having been self-indulgent and unsuccessful in our revolutions-but I don't think we were unsuccessful, at least not in the spiritual revolution.
I heard the Dalai Lama a while back when he was in the United States, somebody asked him about the situation in Tibet and he said, "Well, I think the Chinese will eventually leave us alone and it will be alright. We'll get our independence." And they said, "Really? You think that?" And he said, "Yeah-maybe, two, 300 years." It takes a long time to shift a paradigm, it takes a long time for really deep changes to actually take effect and become part of the social fabric, and I don't think we failed at all.
You say part of Buddhism's appeal was that it offered the concept of "no-self," which in a way was a sort of relief for a generation obsessed with self-improvement.
The emphasis on individualism came to a real head in the '60s, where everybody was supposed to be someone special and sort of shine and prove themselves. We were all pampered, and the burden of being a special individual was really not pleasant. And I think a lot of us were seeking a way out of that intense self-focus, I think through drugs, through communal living, I think even the rock concert was a way of sort of joining a generation, joining something much bigger than yourself.
"Self-liberation" is what the Buddhist path is about; it's seeing through the illusion of a separate self and that, I think, attracted us a lot because we were burdened with too much self-the land of individual license plates and special little monads of selfhood buzzing around.
Well I think my motto now would be "Make love, not war OR money." [laughs]
You know, Thomas Wolfe called the '70s, the "Me Generation," and I thought well I guess that means the '80s was the "Me, Me Generation," and the '90s was the "Me, Me, Me Generation." I think that this whole, capitalist industrial world and the whole idea of the growth economy-that everything has to keep growing and getting bigger and more profitable and more, more, more-it's got a few years left. It has to sort of disprove itself to more and more people as the source of happiness and the way to live. Then some of the seeds that we planted in the '60s, some of the alternative ways that have grown up since then-alternative institutions, people thinking about new economy, new agriculture, new spirituality-will be there to offer an alternative-but definitely not in America. I don't think our people are ready for it yet. America certainly isn't ready for it yet.
You write that in our culture, it's almost subversive to meditate, because it helps you gain control over your desires. Do you see meditation as an antidote to materialism?
Sit-down strike-yes, absolutely, because we're going to have to want different things. We're going to have to find another source of happiness because the limits of nature are dictating that we can no longer consume at the level that we consume here in the U.S., unless we want to live in a gated nation. And meditation offers the alternative kind of happiness, an inner, spiritual happiness based on awe and wonder at life itself and the mysteries of life and consciousness. So I do see it as a real antidote to materialism, an antidote to our consumer culture.
Some argue that the New Age movement is a kind of commercialism in the spiritual realm, that it represents those who are, in your words, "spiritually promiscuous," they're shoppers. Do you think that it's the same thing or analogous?
In any kind of movement you are going to have people who are misunderstanding it. You have people promoting the self: Come and make your self more. [But you also have] people who truly understand what the new spirituality is-to see yourself as human; to, in some ways, diminish the emphasis on self. So you'll have many schools and many interpretations, and there will always be the commercialism, it's huge.
But somebody may go to a yoga class and say, "Wow, there is something different here." Maybe the five minutes of meditation after the yoga class, they will begin to see and question the nature of mind and the source of thought and go deeper into Hinduism or Buddhism or Neo-Paganism-I mean who knows? The new spirituality is taking many, many forms.
You point out that songs that served as anthems for your generation-like "Born to be Wild" and the Beatles' "Revolution"-have recently been sold to companies like Nike and Ford for commercials. But you admit to "selling out" yourself (doing radio commercials for computers and cell phones).
It's hard to be pure. It's really hard. [laughs]
But that begs the clichéd question, what is sacred?
Most of our religions think of the earth as a training ground where you get a chance to get eternal heaven or hell; it's where you learn your lessons, and then you move on to a better place. [But I believe that] life itself is sacred.
One of the things that I think is so critical for us at this time is for us to shift our mythology from [the belief in] the divine being somewhere else, up there somewhere-and return it to the earth, and begin to shift the story by which we arrange our lives. Shifting our mythology is really one of my major concerns and I think that's what the New Age is about.
It sounds as if you've found a home in Buddhism, but many New Age seekers seem to search and search, and are often criticized for skimming the surface of different traditions without ever going deeply into any one.
Yeah, I think that our national Attention Deficit Disorder leads people to jump around a lot, so that if you don't get immediate results from one practice or one tradition, you jump to another.
You can shop around and look for something that really resonates with you as a tradition or as a practice and when you find one, then go as deep as you can. Stay with it for years. The spiritual path is not an easy one, and there are always obstacles. If you're looking for an easy way out, you're not going to find the depth of a practice that's really transformative and really offers you a refuge.
Because of the stereotypes, many people object to being labeled a "New Age" thinker. But you seem to embrace the term.
The Dalai Lama was asked if he was afraid that Tibetan Buddhism would be lumped together with the New Age. He replied, "No. I think we would all be happy to have a New Age." So, if it's not a problem for him, it's not a problem for me. I think we're all trying to envision a New Age because we really see the competitiveness and the aggression and warlike nature of our society and capitalism as a dead end, and we really do want a New Age. I think it's time to reclaim it and honor it as a viable vision.
I think we're definitely at a watershed moment, and the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says we're lucky to be alive at a watershed moment because then we get to be Bodhisattvas. We get to test our mettle. We're called to try to change the direction of civilization, and those who have the vision of a different way are called on to really bring their gift forward, and really it's a great challenge. It's a great moment to be alive.