Like so many children of the 1960’s, my awakening began with marijuana and LSD. Previously, my understanding of reality was contoured along the lines of the cultural landscape I was born into. My hobbit-like suburban existence was agitated by these chemicals of consciousness, and like any powerful initiatory experience, my youthful cocoon was shattered. Even though it was in vogue, my teenager acid trips weren’t supported by cultural touchstones or elder’s wisdom. I was in unfamiliar territory, and the dark side of my psyche sucked me into a hell I almost didn’t escape. I felt extremely isolated and depressed. My lifeline unraveled to a thin thread.
Then, when I was 19, I joined a spiritual group, Eckankar. Eckankar is the ancient science of soul travel, the practice of shifting awareness from one’s body to the inner planes of existence.
Eckankar was a blessing at the time. It gave my life meaning. It took away my doubt and anxiety of not knowing by giving me a life map that I totally believed in, while connecting me to a community of like-minded souls. I stopped using drugs, and became a devoted follower. Eckankar saved my life.
During the late 1970’s, I became very involved in the San Francisco branch of Eckankar as a student, teacher, and organizational leader. I had a burning desire to be in close proximity to Eckankar’s spiritual leader, Sri Darwin Gross. The leader of Eckankar is known as the Living ECK Master. He claims the highest state of consciousness, with the ability to be both the inner and outer teacher to Eckankar students. Why wouldn’t I want to be in close proximity to such an enlightened being?
I reasoned that if I honed my business skills, I could get a job at Eckankar’s International office, where Gross oversaw the Eckankar organization. To fulfill my dream, I majored in business administration at San Francisco State University; then I enrolled in an alternative school, Campus-Free College.
Now defunct, Campus-Free College (later renamed Beacon College) matched self-directed learners with professors and professionals throughout the world. The most famous Campus-Free College graduate was Mitchell Kapor, the designer of Lotus 1-2-3. What the college lacked in a campus, it more than made up for in the quality of its faculty. My program advisor was James Nixon.
James’ interests and expertise included democratically run businesses, political organizing, spirituality, and philosophy. Early on he told me he didn’t believe in groups like Eckankar that claimed to have the exclusive path to God. He was also skeptical of teachers claiming the highest state of consciousness on the planet.
I sincerely believed that I had found the special teachings. Eckankar teaches that there is an unbroken line of Eckankar masters descending back to the dawn of humans. Paul Twitchell (the master previous to Darwin Gross) made the teaching public in the mid-1960s. I was confident that soon James would see the light and become a disciple of Eckankar.
Eager to apply my new knowledge of democratically run organizations, I volunteered to do a work-study at Eckankar’s International headquarters. They weren’t interested, but said there was a job opening in the warehouse of the book department. I was quite willing to do humble work to fulfill my desire to get closer to the guru, so I applied for the job.
I had a late morning appointment for my job interview in Menlo Park, a city thirty miles south of San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I was up at the crack of dawn, hopping a bus from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco. I walked a dozen blocks from the Transbay bus terminal to the train station.
As I approached the San Francisco train station, I recognized a tall man walking towards me. I was enchanted to see Darwin Gross leaving the station just as I arrived. In the four years I’d been in Eckankar, I’d never run into Gross (I’d only seen him as part of a large audience when I attended seminars he lectured at). The profound meaning of the coincidental meeting brought a smile to my face as I approached him.
Gross possessed God-consciousness, so I had no doubt that he knew who I was, where I was on my way to, and shared in the wonder of our synchronistic crossing of paths. I said hello to him, then added with a folksy intonation, “I’m headed down your way.” I interpreted the serendipitous encounter as a sign from God that I was on the right track, and that warehouse job was my destiny. I was puzzled and disturbed that he was quite taken aback, didn’t know who I was, or the significance of where I was going. He acted very self-protective and cautious, the way a celebrity wards off an intrusive fan.
I was beyond mystified as I rode the train to Menlo Park. The job interview went smoothly. A month later I was informed I didn’t get the job—they thought a bright, young fellow like me would be bored with warehouse work. I wondered if their theocracy wasn’t open to my ideas of participatory management. More than my disappointment of not getting hired, what profoundly upset me was life wasn’t making sense according to my Eckankar beliefs. Darwin not recognizing our encounter created a tear in the fabric of my worldview. Despite my disappointment, I remained a loyal disciple.
Two months later, I was riding in a car from San Francisco to Berkeley with James and Michael Rossman. Michael was also on the Campus-Free College faculty. He had been a leader in the 1960’s Berkeley free speech movement. He was in the final stages of writing a book, New Age Blues: On the Politics of Consciousness. As we headed over the Bay Bridge, Michael and James were chatting about the theme of Michael’s book—authoritarian cults and gurus.
Their conversation deeply disturbed me. Their piercing insights into the dynamics of cults fit my Eckankar experience too closely for comfort. The same conversation a year earlier wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. Back then, I was too much of a believer to feel bothered or threatened by any ideas that contradicted my Eckankar beliefs. However, during the previous few months I’d been studying philosophy with James, so my critical thinking skills had sharpened considerably. My thinking was beginning to expand beyond the rigid confines of Eckankar’s belief system. Little did I know at the time, but that cognitive dissonance was the beginning of a tectonic shift in my psyche.
After James and Michael dropped me off at home, I felt profoundly agitated. My perturbed state compelled me out of the house. I walked briskly as if pulled by a mysterious force. I hiked rapidly from North Berkeley, across the University of California campus, down Telegraph Avenue, into Shambhala bookstore.
Almost out of breathe, cool perspiration on my neck, I immediately was drawn to a table in the back and gazed upon a book: The Making of a Spiritual Movement by David C. Lane. It barely qualified as a book—more like Xeroxed pages bound at the local Kinko’s. I assumed it was a book about the Moonies, but was astonished to find it was about Eckankar. I bought and devoured the book and learned of Eckankar’s plagiarism, fabricated history, and tarnished past. A few days later, I left Eckankar and came away with some harsh but valuable life lessons.
It was ironic that I left Eckankar by finding a book, because for years I’d heard Eckankar members tell their stories of how they joined by finding an Eckankar book under unusual and unlikely circumstances. They of course attributed their finding the book to the mystical forces that bring teacher and disciple together. I was confused trying to understand the meaning of the unusual events that led to my finding a book that dissolved the teacher-student relationship.