Well it’s that time of year, carols playing at every turn, sales, shopping frenzies, screaming kids, toys, toys and then more toys and just when you think it can’t get any worse, there are 15 million Santas, one in every shop, street and café you venture into. Do you need any reminding that it’s Christmas?
Vague recollections of past thoughts and questions, the wall you have placed between yourself and your inner self is melting away, as you begin to relax and take time to think.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to be introduced to a rather interesting man. An author, musician, artist and retreat leader, he has been on a 30-year journey in search of enlightenment in whatever form it takes, culminating (but not concluding) in the writing of his latest work: The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments.
I give you one of the most enlightened persons I know: Eliezer Sobel.
What motivates and inspires you?
Cats, the ocean, stars, and our backyard full of autumn leaves. Old friends. Chagall, Renoir and Van Gogh. Leonard Cohen, John Lennon and Brian Wilson. Debussy and Erik Satie. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Kurt Vonnegut. Woody Allen, Isadora Duncan. My wife Shari, my mother who has Alzheimer’s, and my Dad who takes cares of her. Snorkeling with the giant sea turtles in Kauai. Snow.
I read in the Prologue to The 99th Monkey some of your numerous adventures, including:
“…completing the est training in Boston, which was several months after having spent one and a half years screaming my head off in Primal Therapy. I was desperately trying to cure myself of being me, a futile pursuit that would continue for three decades, and would take me all around the world to meet shamans, healers and gurus, stay in ashrams…”
“I experimented extensively with psychedelic drugs, ancient spiritual techniques and outrageous new ones. I was massaged, shiatsu-ed, and rolfed, took hundreds of consciousness workshops, human potential seminars, and self-improvement courses, sat with psychics, channels and tarot readers, experienced Primal, Gestalt, Bioenergetics, Object Relations, generic talk therapies and anti-depressants. And that’s the short list. (The complete one gets embarrassing. Suffice it to say that it includes learning the Tush Push exercise in a Human Sexuality weekend-you don’t want to know–as well as having an obese female therapist sit on my head at Esalen Institute, so I could re-experience being smothered by my mother.)’
So what was the catalyst that started you on your quest, and kept you going and searching?
All the usual reasons people go on a spiritual journey, namely and primarily, suffering! I had a fundamental inability to enjoy my experience of existing as a human being on Planet Earth. To put it very simply, I wanted to feel better, happier and make a contribution. I had a burning desire to know my true nature and express it creatively in the world, and to use whatever gifts I’d been given.
Most people would simply attend the occasional retreat or meditation session, eat vegan and wear dreadlocks–what was the driving force that lead to such (some might say) extreme lengths?
See my answer above! Plus, I’m an intensity junkie. I need to have BIG experiences to shake me out of my complacency and habits. And actually, the mind is like a rubber band, and has a tendency to snap back into its original position, even after big experiences. But I kept hoping if I expanded enough, I would stay that way. It never really worked. I also had the great privilege of excess leisure time and money, and looking for God can be very time-consuming and expensive. The irony, of course, is that actually being with God is timeless and free of charge. It’s only the search that can be costly, and even that doesn’t have to be. The poet Kabir once said, “I felt the need to go on a long journey. So I sat still for three days.” Sitting still is not expensive, (except at fancy meditation centers!) I just published an article about this, called “Is God Expensive?” on www.realitysandwich.com.
You attended a 10-day retreat at Auschwitz–was this part of the Bearing Witness Retreat through the Peacemaker Organization? What drove you to attend? And what did you find out at the end?
Yes, it was with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman and his Peacemaker group.
My mother was forced out of Germany with her family in 1939, and had to leave loved ones behind who would be killed soon after. On the night of Kristallnacht, several Nazis broke through my mother’s front door with an axe. It seemed to me, when I looked back as an adult, that I had grown up in an atmosphere poisoned by Hitler, characterized by great terror as well as mistrust of most people apart from our immediate family.
I was an extremely fearful child and I carried that tendency into adulthood. I went to Auschwitz to look at these “Second Generation Survivor” issues head on.
What did I find out in the end? That the Holocaust was worse than I could have ever imagined.
.Out of all the amazing people you have met, who has inspired you the most?
If “inspired” means “inspired to take action,” then it’s really a matter of timing. Because I was only 23, very impressionable, and very new to the exploration of consciousness, I would say the teachings of Werner Erhard and Stewart Emery, who created the est Training and Actualizations Workshop, respectively, had the biggest impact on me in terms of actions I took in the world. They inspired me to create a magazine devoted to transformation (The New Sun) and to lead my own workshops, and to start on a path that I would stay on for the rest of my life.
Many years later, in meeting the Dalai Lama face-to-face, I was extremely and joyously inspired and moved, and only later did I realize that it was not so much because I was staring into the eyes of a “Living Buddha,” as his followers think of him, but because I recognized that he had been staring into the eyes of a Living Buddha-namely me! In other words, he seemed to have the natural capacity to look directly past my mind and personality into a very deep and whole part of my being which I am ordinarily not in touch with, and I came away from that encounter spontaneously beaming from ear to ear.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about meeting truly great and enlightened beings is that they truly view you and know you as their equal. When you meet a supposedly enlightened teacher and you feel “less than,” I’d be suspicious.
We have a few cynics amongst us at Flowers, and many more believers, and still several fence sitters. Given all the places, cultures, faiths you have encountered, the spiritualists, psychics, seers etc., has any event taken you by surprise and given you proof positive that this is for real or is it a matter of faith or spirit?
Paranormal or supernatural experiences are of a different order than the spiritual path. I’ve had many experiences of both, but ultimately, the most important and meaningful ones have nothing to do with unusual events OR faith in something unknown.
The direct human experience of a loving connection to one’s own best self and to that of other people is neither other-worldly nor does it require belief.
But in terms of surprises, yes there were some that were unexplainable in ordinary, rational terms. For example, I was living in New York at one time, trying to write a book, and I fell into a great depression and stopped writing. I went to meet a teacher named Hilda Charlton, hoping to get some help.
While I was waiting in a crowd to get close to her and ask her about my depression and my book, she marched right over to me, a complete stranger, and tapped me on the chest three times, saying, “
Whatsa matter kid? Depressed? Why don’t you write a book!”
Any clues as to what is true enlightenment?
The “spiritually correct” answer these days is to say something non-dual, such as: “Enlightenment is the resting in one’s true identity as that which is not a separate, thinking individual, but is the whole of consciousness and awareness itself.” But for most of us, most of the time, those are just words. The more accessible and human answer would be “To be in a continuous process of lightening up; to be more and more moving in the world from a place of loving-kindness and compassion, recognizing one’s interdependency with the whole of creation, and acting accordingly.” Or something along those lines.
In your book The 99th Monkey it has been said you come across a little cynical although the book is light-hearted and from all accounts very funny. Your quest has been a very serious one. If you had to take one thing, out of the culmination of everything you have learned, what would it be?
My book ends by quoting Aldous Huxley, the great spiritual scholar, seeker and philosopher, who was asked the same question toward the end of his life. I loved his response, which was,
“We should all just be kinder to one another.” I don’t think I can improve on that statement, except perhaps to add, “and be kinder to ourselves as well.”
Is there one defining moment, one single experience which has told you that you are on the right path, or one which has said, “Turn back now, you’re going the wrong way”?
The second one. I spent some time doing “shadow work,” looking into the dark parts in my own being and psyche, often using drugs to help the process along. At some point I realized that this wasn’t just some New Age or Jungian therapeutic exercise, that there really IS the capacity in each of us to choose a path that leads down a very dark tunnel, the place from where evil actions emanate, and I sort of freaked myself out and realized I was playing with fire. It taught me a great respect for the range of possibilities each of us has within us, and a great respect for the power of our choices, our intentions and motivations.
You appear to ooze creativity with writing, painting, music–which is your favorite genre?
Music. I was actually a music theory and composition major in college, but dropped out after two years to address my depression. If Prozac had been available back in 1972, I might have become a professional musician. As it is, I still greatly enjoy playing classical guitar and piano, as well as jazz, rock and roll, and Broadway show tunes. I also love to sing, and I’m very good at getting other people to sing, and have done a lot of work as a coach and accompanist in workshop settings, using music as a tool to assist people in opening their hearts and finding their full self-expression. Painting is also a great joy when I can relax and release all judgment and paint with the freedom of a child. Writing is only fun when I know what I want to say. I never just write for the fun of it.
With the world in turmoil what do you see as the greatest challenge facing humanity today and do you see a way through it?
I think you’re asking the wrong guy-it’s way too big a question for me to come up with anything intelligent or meaningful to say, other than “God help us.”
Is there any one line or statement from the books you have read over the years that resonated in you and sums up your past 30 years?
That’s a hard question!
I could give you the comic answer, which would be to quote Woody Allen: ”My one regret in life is that I am not somebody else.”
The “heart” answer, which would be the Aldous Huxley quote I mentioned above, that “We should all just be kinder to one another.”
But I think that the very last bit in my book, which is another quote from Kabir, has always resonated the most with me:
Kabir says: When one is longing for the Guest,
it is the intensity of the longing
that does all the work.
Look at me
and you will see,
a slave of that intensity.