Navel Maneuvers

If Adam and Eve moved to Northern California, they'd probably note on the first day that the balmy weather, inspiring vistas, and mellow vibesreminded...

This is an advertising medium,” says Common Ground Editor/Publisher Andy Alpine of his free guide to consciousness and self-help in the Bay Area. But Alpine's description comes with this disclaimer: “It's caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.”

And let the sellers make some money. In the latest issue of the 95,000-circulation quarterly, there are precisely 1,016 sellers of psychic programs and healing regimens, which, based on Alpine's estimate of a 2.5-to-1 pass-along rate, translates into about 250,000 potential buyers.

Over the last 21 years, Common Ground has grown from a hastily assembled giveaway into a handsome 176-page bible of the Bay Area human potential movement. Boasting a readership that stretches from Santa Cruz to Marin, Common Ground collects and unifies the many disparate disciplines that pass under the New Age rubric: You might not think that women-only backpacking trips, Gurdjieff study groups, rope-swinging courses, and special shoe inserts that provide invisible energy have anything in common — but in the pages of Common Ground they are all members of the conventional therapy orphanage.

Common Ground is the catalyst for the local consciousness industry, a town crier and flier for therapists, retreats, workshops, homeopathic health care, healers, spiritual practices, nutrition, and other “resources for personal transformation” whose ads are parsed into departments like Food & Nutrition, Time Out & Retreats, and Psychic Arts & Intuitive Sciences. The oldest Eastern philosophy teaches that all paths lead to wisdom of some sort, a sentiment that is echoed here, whether the path involves deep massage, hypnotherapy, clothing-optional hot springs, tree-bark vitamins, miniature Buddhist water fountains, or inflatable balls for schoolchildren to sit on.

While musty labels like “New Age” or the “Me Generation” were long ago inducted as roped-off exhibits in the California Hall of Fads, Common Ground owes a debt to their legacy since its launch back in 1974, when it became apparent that the consciousness market was larger than the Esalen Institute catalog could provide for. Working 16-hour days from a storefront in Noe Valley, East Coast refugee Alpine and company slaved away at the paste-up table, enlisting their own advertisers to help haul copies around the area in exchange for invitations to parties.

How did he find himself here, putting out a publication?
Alpine's answer rings so true that Sacramento should order it stitched onto the state flag:

“It was as far away from New York and my parents as I could get. Couldn't go to Hawaii.”

Chalk another one up to good old American restlessness, discontent, and family dysfunction. Since the first boat scraped aground, people have endured great hardship to move to this earthly paradise of the West Coast. In the case of the Donner Party, immigrants even ate one another's flesh, demonstrating a definite commitment to reach the Land of Opportunity.

Once here, the newcomers no longer can bitch about their lives. The vistas are incredible. The food is fresh and excellent; the weather moderate and healthful. San Francisco isn't ugly or riddled with neglect like Detroit. The greater Bay Area isn't bland like Des Moines. California is nowhere near as prejudiced as the Deep South. San Francisco is so pleasant other states even bus their homeless here to take advantage of the city's generous general assistance programs.

And yet, in this unimaginable Eden, this oasis of sanity in an insane world, this haven of tolerance, the citizenry succumbs to a bizarre geographical determinism. Beauty and pleasure and comfort are not enough.

We want more!
Like restless bees in a hive, Northern Californians buzz around each other, humming and roiling with psychic hunger. Followers seek leaders; leaders seek followers; the pained search for cures; and the salesmen of consciousness dart in and out of the hive, seeking monetary honey from everybody.

A browse of Common Ground's summer issue reveals an industry rampant with ideologies unknown in the mainstream. For example, its Psychology & Therapy department lists 139 advertisers, including at least three that promote EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a therapeutic process where “through a series of carefully guided repetitive eye movements you can dissolve limiting beliefs and patterns to create long-lasting positive change.” It may even improve your video game skills.

Another popular entry is for legal drugs that mimic the effects of illegal ones — get stoned without the fear of seeing your arrest on the nightly news. A product called Cloud 9 promises the euphoria of MDMA and “an overall enhancement of the five senses.” Extracts of yohimbe and yohimbara bark are also prominent for their apparent psychedelic/aphrodisiac properties.

Other advertisers are peculiar one-offs, even more intriguing because there seem to be no imitators. The Middendorf Breath Institute of San Francisco continues the work of Professor Ilse Middendorf, who said “Aahh” in 1965 and opened wide the doors of her Institute for the Perceptible Breath in Berlin; its approach “allows us to experience the Self through connecting with the natural breath, free from control of the human will. … Individual 'hands-on' sessions offer the same profound connection to the Self, as the practitioner places his or her hands gently on the client's breath and creates a 'breath dialogue.' ”

The Bay Area's Gurdjieff Work Circle, based on the teachings/writings of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, accepts no wussies, and issues a stern warning: “Healing is always respected but this is not a therapy. You are objectively forewarned that sincere application of this teaching will radically upset your philosophy of self and others, and change the direction of your life.”

Tree Top Challenges organizes motivational rope-swinging courses and workshops in the forest, its logo depicting a person lunging for a suspended ring as a crowd below cheers their brave airborne compatriot. Enthusiastic copy promises “a supportive and exhilarating laboratory for exploring trust and leadership, and for going beyond perceived limitations of personal and team performance.”

And then there are those businesses that make the reader wonder if maybe you're just too damn stupid to figure it out. Perhaps the rest of the world has finally broken through a believability barrier to the other side, where everything is soft and wrapped in strands of fluffy white optimism, and those miserable bastards who didn't make the leap of logic are out of the club. [page]

“Every day when we get to school, we sit on balls,” boasts the Marin Waldorf School sixth grade, flaunting their special Gymnic Ball, recommended for your child as an alternative to a chair. “We find that the gentle, cheerful rocking and bouncing of a ball keeps our spines and sacrums in gentle and constant motion like life itself.” An accompanying photo shows a youth sitting on some sort of a handleless Hoppity Hop, reading a book at a desk, shyly hiding his sacrum from the camera. The 55-cm size sells for $20; the 65-cm model is just $5 more.

The back cover of Common Ground is the most riveting page in the publication, and at $2,750 also the most expensive. Advanced Tachyon Technologies of San Rafael runs a full-page color photo of a beatific, smiling dolphin; the accompanying copy eagerly effuses:

“Tachyon energy has been identified as the fundamental particle of creation, responsible for the formation of matter. It is life force energy. … Tachyonization is a complex scientific process that restructures and optimally aligns natural materials at the sub-molecular level. This creates a permanent and powerful Tachyon antenna … we have provided the world with the first directional silica-based Tachyonized cells … it also gives us the capability to restructure almost any natural material into a permanent, non-dimensional Tachyon antenna.”

Now that everyone's filled in on the details, let's reach for the checkbooks: Tachyon headbands are $20 a pop, Tachyon wristbands $20 a pair, and for that constant Tachyon fix, shoe inserts are $24.95 a pair.

Even after rereading the Tachyon brochure, it's still difficult to grasp exactly what this energy is, except that in a picture a rose cut and thrust into a glass of Tachyonized water looks healthier than a cut rose in ordinary water. The Tachyon line of products is an astounding achievement in niche marketing, not to mention a handy travelers checklist: Flexcell 100, a silica-based cell with contour pocket-belt, $165; Panther Juice, a painkilling product, $17.50; Chakra Balancing Kit (seven Tachyonized cells in corresponding chakra colors, storage pouch, and instruction card), $100; and the Personal Tachyon Cocoon, a nine-piece kit including bodysuit, strip that goes from crotch to head, and little bags that go over the feet for a chakra-gouging $398. One may also send the company articles of personal clothing, which, through some energy-soaked dry-cleaning process, can be custom Tachyonized within four to six weeks. Imitation Tachyon products are apparently circling the globe pilfering profits, because the catalog minces no words: “Buy with confidence directly from the leading manufacturer and save 40% to 80% over the imports!”

Such dubious curatives provide an entertaining chapter of Bay Area history, marching in the parade alongside self-made prophets and con-man preachers, but it is the early '60s that deserve special credit for planting an entirely new species of flowers to not only attract truth-seeking bees, but fry their brains.

Alex, I'll take LSD for 200.
“The openness to ideas like Zen and all the yoga disciplines,” says Sausalito psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld, “certainly it was because of the experience that people had with LSD, opening themselves to new realms.”

For over 30 years, the Bay Area has ranked as the world's largest manufacturer, exporter, and consumer of lysergic acid diethylamide. Thanks to clandestine chemists like Augustus Owsley Stanley III and his progeny, as well as colorful proselytizers like Ken Kesey, most Northern Californians have endured a continual high — or at least a contact high.

San Francisco's acid flash began in the mid-'50s, when an ongoing mind-control program run by the CIA dosed unsuspecting johns who were collected at bars and brought back to a “safe house” by prostitutes. Later, an acid culture surged its way up the Peninsula in the wake of the volunteer experiments at Palo Alto and Stanford, making LSD West Coast-style the hip experience among upper-class, overeducated intelligentsia who were exploring the unlocking of the human mind. The founders of Esalen dropped acid. Alan Watts, father of the American Zen movement, gobbled it — even dosing his daughter. Hansadutta, guru of the Berkeley Krishna temple, was an acidhead. Newly published books on Eastern philosophy devoted chapters to the connection between an LSD-inspired mind-riot and the ancient search for enlightenment.

But acid is not a drug you simply shake off the next morning like a cheap Chianti hangover. It pitches things around upstairs to the point where you are hyperaware of your own body as a sovereign organism on the planet. You may find yourself dancing like a discombobulated forest sprite. You give more credence to the possibility of aliens than you used to. You mull over personal insights of great consequence, investigate your own spirituality, and listen more closely to people who seem to make sense amid the white noise of society, like religious gurus or the Grateful Dead.

“Drugs helped break down those barriers which are taught as our social morals,” explains Schoenfeld, who once penned a medical advice column under the name of Dr. Hip Pocrates, and who now hosts a talk show on Live 105. “Take drugs and you'll see where those things come from. People were saying, 'We're not willing to learn from the experience of prior generations.' That's why there was all kinds of experimentation. Some good, some bad, in the sense of undesirable consequences. There was a lot of incest which occurred during that time. People had to relearn certain things. And people eventually would see — well yeah, there are reasons for some of these things that developed over generations.”

Beginning with the explorations of John Muir, appreciators of California's redwoods, mountains, deserts, and pristine beaches have found the cosmic in nature. But rather than sating man's lust for the holy, nature has only encouraged Homo californius to buzz the bay in search of additional psychic and ideological nectar, for that next tempting flower to stick their antenna into. The bees aren't dumb, either. Often they will select a new queen (for instance, an associate of est founder Werner Erhard, John P. Hanley, flew off to form Lifespring) and swarm to another tree, creating a new hive of programs and workshops that's just as bustling. [page]

Like Darwin's Gal‡pagos Islands, a precise speciation by environment has taken place, with the disciplines and programs finding specific geographical niches for establishing world headquarters. The Financial District still has the no-nonsense estlike group called The Forum. The Sunset has the Iyengar Yoga Institute. The Western Addition is home to the Zen Center, Muir Beach hosts the Zen Green Gulch farm, and the mountains above Big Sur have the Zen Tassajara Monastery. Oakland boasts the A. Justin Sterling Institute of Relationship, Carmel the corporate Kroning programs, Palo Alto the Ananda commune. San Rafael has Lifespring. Lafayette has Morehouse. Menlo Park once had Eckankar and the Living Eck Master. Marin had Synanon. Berkeley has the Krishna Temple. Big Sur has Esalen. The Upper Haight once had the Kerista computer commune and the Church of Jimi Hendrix.

Andy Alpine has been there to record most of the enterprises' ups and down.
“The most dramatic thing was when Shirley MacLaine became public about being a psychic, and then the Psychic Arts & Intuitive Sciences section would blossom,” he says. “And then channeling became OK. And then there was a time when everybody was into prosperity consciousness — there was a circle of gold, a circle of love, circle of this and that — where people were focusing on making money.”

Alpine takes another bite of his lunch and continues.
“There was a time when colonics became very popular, and then the California Medical Association and the state board came down on colonocists, so we would lose five or six colonocists. There's been a proliferation over the last several years of feng shui, the Chinese art of placement. … The mainstream might pooh-pooh it, because the mainstream might not be as sensitive to certain energies as people who have been meditating for a while — or [are] Oriental just by nature.”

The Common Ground offices are white and quiet, located in a three-story modern rectangular building in San Anselmo, a surprisingly rigid atmosphere for a project of such higher consciousness. The elevator seems a cold cage of steel and Formica. Picture windows are tinted against the blazing Marin afternoon sun. Above the receptionist's desk is a photo of a band named Protein.

Most major metropolitan areas now have publications that offer listings of therapists, workshops, and retreats, but Common Ground beat them all to it.

“We started as a hippie business,” says Alpine in the rapid yet mellow tone peculiar to New York refugees. “We were the first.”

The office supports a full-time staff of five, sharing duties with Alpine's other venture, a quarterly directory called Specialty Travel Index, but during peak production cycles balloons up to an elbow-jostling 14 bodies. Today is a slow one, a single woman handling ad sales, a receptionist, and Alpine, his spoon scraping at the bottom of a takeout container. He's created a successful, self-sustaining venture. Every other Monday, his business partner and he have a hot tub and massage, and then go out to dinner.

Unaffiliated publications use the same Common Ground name in Puget Sound, Vancouver, and other cities, but Alpine shrugs. He doesn't feel like franchising it. The more the merrier. This summer he is most concerned about opening the mail and watching the gradual results of his first-ever readers' survey, even though, after 21 years, he has a good idea of the readership.

“A lot of people have gone from irresponsibility of youth, shall we say, and then having families, and settling in and having jobs, and trying to bring that same consciousness — and get a book on how would Confucius deal with problems in the office. How would Confucius make a decision about hiring somebody, or going public, or getting a stock option? So it has entered the mainstream. It's not just a bunch of hippies doing this. It's not just alternative. …You can have computer programmers in Silicon Valley using Common Ground because they're interested in meditation, and then you'll have people in the Haight who want to go to a palmist. It's the full spectrum.”

This busy buzzing of bees on their quest for wisdom and improvement has given rise to an entire publishing subculture. At the megalithic SuperCrown bookstore on Van Ness, the combined health/psychology sections measure seven shelves tall and approximately 85 feet across, and the New Age section spans four shelves high, 21 feet across. Enough words to answer most of life's questions — simultaneously.

“If any one of them resulted in what they say will happen — Six Steps to Love and How to Keep It — then you'd need only one or two books,” says Dr. Christopher McCullough, San Francisco therapist and author of the newly published Nobody's Victim: Freedom From Therapy and Recovery.

“But they don't work. Obviously they don't work, because they keep writing more.” And making the best-seller lists.

A similar proliferation of choices is available in Common Ground.
“People who used to be practitioners of massage, over the years have created schools of massage,” says Alpine proudly. “And now their students advertise in Common Ground.”

Using Common Ground as a benchmark, the therapy/consciousness field is burgeoning. Alpine publishes his gross receipts in each issue, revealing that his clients are spending $500,000 a year on advertising in his book alone. If the healers and seekers who buy ads in Common Ground are spending 20 percent of their gross revenues on advertising — a conservative estimate — then the consciousness business is at least a $10 million enterprise in the Bay Area. It's probably more, seeing as organizations like Lifespring don't advertise. (They're not even listed in the San Francisco phone book.) [page]

Flipping through the pages of Common Ground's therapeutic offerings, it strikes the reader that anybody with a desire to make money — and get laid — can crank up his own hive of Weltanschauung. It may be true that no man is an island, but every man is a potential queen bee. You don't need to die and become a god like the Mormons. Why not become an ultimate deity right now — while you're still alive to enjoy it?

An eager junior guru could budget for some advertising in the next issue of Common Ground, but those with loftier goals should keep in mind the following steps to infinite omnipotence:

Begin With the Message Borrow a vague doctrine or belief system from other operations that have worked in the past. Esalen successfully mixed Eastern with Western philosophies. The People's Temple threw together the teachings of the Holy Bible, Karl Marx, Hitler, and whatever else Jim Jones was reading at the time. Not only is it confusing, it makes you look smart.

Invent a Lingo Or borrow from some exotic-sounding language. If your followers get to talk in a secret code, it makes them feel special. Werner Erhard's organization, the Forum, held that “languaging is the house of being.” Lifespring has its “dyads.” If there's ever any problem, remember whoever invents the jargon gets the final say. Think in terms of catchy slogans. Synanon founder Charles Dederich's talent for words ranged from the optimistic “TodaR>y is the first day of the rest of your life” to the more blunt “The only reason to permit anyone to have children is to indulge the woman. I understand it's more like crapping a football than anything else.” And refrain from referring to your organization as a “cult” — the word carries too many negative connotations.

Make It Sexy People aren't going to drop out of society and join your flock unless sex figures into the equation. Either offer your followers ample sex, as with Synanon, or none at all, like the Krishnas. In either case, you, the leader, get to have sex with anyone you want. It shows your superiority and animal prowess.

Do Your Homework It's advisable to have a solid background in sales, as well as a layman's knowledge of interstate fraud and income tax preparation, especially if you're courting corporate clients. Once your operation takes off, you can then hire people to worry about these things, and fire them if you feel the heat.

Queen Bees, Drones, and Workers Establish a hierarchy of menial chores for your congregation. Keep the minions involved in the cause, horribly mistreating them if they show any loss of faith. Physical abuse, even torture could be necessary, but if you must murder, by all means delegate. Emphasize the importance of volunteering, and tell your followers they either find new recruits, or the party's over.

Be a Media Mogul Don't fight the media; own it instead. Not only is technology available to beam your radio, television, and computer documents around the world instantaneously, this means you can also edit all information received by your followers. If someone posts your wisdom on the Internet without asking, don't whine about it and sue like the Scientologists. Build your own home page and do a better job!

Sell Out Your community should run an above-ground business to keep government officials away. If you can't teach workshops, at least open a bookstore or sell trinkets — Synanon made millions on contracts stamping pens and pencils with coR>rporate logos; the Krishnas sold cutout record albums on the streets. Or like Jonestown, simply rent out your followers as registered voters, and bus them around as needed.

Don't Forget to Have Fun! If you don't act like a leader, you won't have any followers. Cultivate the lifestyle. Demonstrate the attainable. Live in a big house, eat well, abuse drugs and alcohol, travel if it suits you, and amass a fleet of cars that you can't drive very well. Father Riker loved Cadillacs, the Rajneesh had his Rolls. Collect and believe your own press. Appropriate a patriarchal name everyone has to call you — guru, abbot, father, reverend, swami — something that invites respect and deference. (Erhard was “the Source”; see “Invent a Lingo” above) Remember, it's your bed, you get to sleep in it — with the followers of your choice.

The Bay Area has never been satisfied with the basic human needs of three hots and a cot, but we're probably never going to be satisfied with cranio-sacral spinal alignment, chanting for a new car, or obtaining a erection from tree bark, either. But given the geographical and psychic curse of the Golden Gate beehive, we've got three choices for peace of mind.

We could subscribe to someone else's feel-good program and convince ourselves that the more money we spend, the more effective the results. We could devise our own brand of vitamins and hang a shingle outside the door, offering instant relief free from FDA confines. Or we could be smart shoppers and heed the advice of Alan Watts: “Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.” (And try to forget he died an alcoholic.)

Let's dig up some of that pioneer spirit and remember why we moved here, or we might find ourselves with a bellyful of Kool-Aid, food for worms in a jungle grave far from home.

And that's no way for a bee to end up.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories