Saturday, December 6, 2008

It's All God -- Amen, Om, Whatever

Eliezer Sobel bowed, chanted, nude wrestled, meditated, and overdosed on 'shrooms in a 40-year search to find God. But he still feels empty inside.

Removing their pants and flapping their arms like chickens, they're hunting for God. Bowing, chanting, nude wrestling, clasping antlers to their heads and ingesting psychoactive vines, millions upon millions seek Him in workshops, shrines, and ballot boxes.

Just to be clear: Not long ago I would have scolded myself for writing "Him" instead of "Him or Her," because back then I was a neopagan who wrote books and rituals hailing goddessess but now I don't know anymore.

Eliezer Sobel has spent nearly forty years bowing, chanting, nude wrestling, meditating, overdosing on shrooms, puking out windows, playing guitar at Auschwitz and laughing with the Dalai Lama while urgently seeking God, gods, or at least enlightenment. He recounts these adventures -- which he calls "the endless cycle I have been caught in" and which he concedes hasn't quite worked -- in his memoir The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics, and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments (Santa Monica Press, 2008). Oh, he tried. At 23, he doffed his trousers so that Baba Ram Dass -- who coined the phrase "Be here now" -- could assess the size of his penis. (Well, Ram Dass asked.) At another point, Sobel paid homage at the graves of a cat and camel once owned by self-proclaimed "God-man" Adi Da (formerly Franklin Jones of Jamaica, New York) --but demurred when fellow disciples began greedily gulping water that had been used to wash Adi Da's sandals. Sobel sojourned to Israel, India, Nepal. He consulted a Brazilian "healer" who told him that astral beings preside over drugs: "The entity associated with cocaine wears all white" -- well, duh -- "including top hat and gloves. The mushroom being is an ancient, wizened little Oriental man." At a workshop led by an asthmatic who took credit for bringing down the Berlin Wall via visualization, Sobel and his fellow attendees were given name tags to wear that said "God." He paid $450 to clean toilets at a Zen retreat, $150 to haul heavy equipment uphill and work twenty-hour shifts at an est one. "Two extremely attractive young women" in a San Francisco bus terminal lured him to a backwoods Moonie camp where members watched newcomers going to the bathroom and where the mealtime grace "went like this: 'Choo choo choo, choo choo choo, choo choo choo, yay yay pow!'"

Give him credit for having a sense of humor. Sobel nurtures no sacred cows -- not even himself. "I recognize that I'm way too self-absorbed to pretend I'm doing God's work, unless he happens to be on a new campaign promoting narcissism." And give him credit for experimentation. But this is more than a memoir. This is a core sample of a society in which not only is church inseparable from state but religion is often indistinguishable from entertainment and psychotherapy. What Sobel's life and book reveal is a Western leisure class so desperate for some kind of spiritual delivery that it's scary. And funny. And scary.

Jesus Camp was just the tip of the iceberg

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