A TRIBUTE TO STEPHEN GASKIN from Monday Night Class
by STEPHEN GASKIN appearing in The Sun Magazine, November, 2014
Reprinted from an interview Michael Thurman did with Gaskin for The Sun in 1985. That conversation, which starts on page 10, focuses on the Farm’s history and mission, but our tribute begins here with excerpts from Gaskin’s first book, Monday Night Class. Published in 1970, it’s made up of transcripts from Gaskin’s San Francisco talks. We’ve condensed the text but retained what Gaskin calls his “archaic hippyisms,” and we’ve included the wry commentary (set in bold) that he added to the book’s 2005 edition
Sixties icon and self-styled “nonviolent social revolutionary” Stephen Gaskin died this past July at the age of seventy-nine. Gaskin was a prominent figure on the countercultural scene in San Francisco in the late sixties and went on to found the long-running intentional community the Farm, which is still thriving in rural Tennessee.
In 1967 Gaskin, a former Marine turned hippie pacifist, was teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State College when the administration decided not to renew his contract. (“I’d gotten too weird to rehire,” he said.) He came up with an idea for an unusual sort of learning experience that focused on current affairs. The country was in flux, and many young adults were asking questions about the ongoing war in Vietnam and domestic issues related to civil rights, poverty, and inequality. Gaskin decided to start a public conversation about those topics and other, more esoteric ones, from Eastern spirituality to telepathic communication. And since he’d recently been experimenting with LSD, he also “wanted to compare notes with other trippers about tripping and the whole psychic and psychedelic world.”
Twelve people showed up for Gaskin’s first class, which was held on a Monday night in a room on the San Francisco State campus. Over the next three years the class grew, and the venues changed — eventually there were 1,500 people sitting on the floor of a ballroom near the Pacific Ocean — but the format stayed the same: perched cross-legged on a cushion, Gaskin would open his freewheeling seminar with a silent meditation, and then he’d share some thoughts and field questions on subjects ranging from auras and astrology to ecology, morality, and, of course, getting high. (You don’t have to use drugs to reach a higher state of consciousness, Gaskin would explain, but they can help.) He pulled religious ideas from diverse sources, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, and made them accessible. With his long hair and intense gaze, he even looked a little like Jesus. But unlike many other spiritual teachers, Gaskin wanted to inspire action. “Enlightenment,” he said, “is getting off your tail and doing something.”
The author of eleven books, including The Caravan, Mind at Play, and An Outlaw in My Heart, Gaskin described his “main occupations” as “hippie priest, spiritual revolutionary, cannabis advocate, shade-tree mechanic, cultural engineer, tractor driver, and community starter.” His life and ideas influenced many people, including Sy Safransky, who founded The Sun in 1974. In an early issue Safransky writes of Gaskin’s “emphasis on honesty, hard work, and genuine fellowship” and his compelling perspective on psychedelics. The value Gaskin placed on altruism is also echoed in The Sun’s pages. As Gaskin put it, “You must never underestimate your ability to help other people, no matter how small you are.”
Gaskin is survived by his wife, Ina May — a nationally acclaimed midwife and cofounder of the Farm Midwifery Center — and his five children. To honor his life and work, we are reprinting an interview Michael Thurman did with Gaskin for The Sun in 1985. That conversation, which starts on page 10, focuses on the Farm’s history and mission, but our tribute begins here with excerpts from Gaskin’s first book, Monday Night Class. Published in 1970, it’s made up of transcripts from Gaskin’s San Francisco talks. We’ve condensed the text but retained what Gaskin calls his “archaic hippyisms,” and we’ve included the wry commentary (set in bold) that he added to the book’s 2005 edition.
THE TIMES were outrageous. There were a couple of hundred thousand hippies on the streets in San Francisco. Tripping on lsd was pandemic. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole city smelled of reefer smoke. Grass was $75 a kilo, Acapulco Gold was $250 a kilo, acid was $2.50 a hit, and so was a rock-and-roll ticket. Every circle on the street had a joint circulating around the inside, and the rock halls were jammed with stoned trippers.
I first began Monday Night Class in 1967 on the San Francisco State campus. We discussed love, sex, dope, God, gods, war, peace, enlightenment, free will, and what-have-you, all in a stoned, truthful, hippie atmosphere. We studied religions, fairy tales, legends, children’s stories, the I Ching, Zen koans — and tripping. It was easy to tell when we were onto something hot — I could see the expressions move across a thousand faces like the wind across a wheat field.
The most important thing to come out of the Monday Night Class meetings, and the glue that held us together, was a belief in the moral imperative toward altruism that was implied by the telepathic spiritual communion we experienced together. Every decent thing accomplished over the years by the people of Monday Night Class and the Farm (its later incarnation) came from those simple hippie values. It was the basis for our belief in Spirit, nonviolence, collectivity, and social activism.
NOW, SOME PEOPLE may think that I am not as religious as I used to be, and it’s true that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I might be an agnostic, and on Tuesday and Thursday a primitive animist, while partying down on Saturday and sometimes sitting zazen on Sunday. There are, however, two things that I have to say. One is, if you’ve never seen your head in more than one mode, you don’t really know who you are at all. The other is, at no time do I subscribe to any brand-name religions.
I am a believer in free will. I am not a believer in predestination. I think a belief in prophecy robs us of our free will. If you insist on wanting to know that everything will come out all right, I think you give up your freedom to affect the outcome.
I love the ethical teachings of almost all the religions, and I love the psychedelic testimony of their saints. But I do not believe in any of their dogmas.
I think each one of us has a nonshirkable obligation to figure out the world on our own as best we can. The way we behave as a result of that investigation is our real and practiced religion.
SOME PEOPLE COME to a teacher and say, “OK, if you’re enlightened, zap me straight.” As I read the books, and as I understand it for myself, no one can do that. Buddha couldn’t do that. There’s something about free will. You can be shown paths that will take you to enlightenment, but you have to walk them yourself. You have to make the effort.
THERE’S A STORY about a priest who told a Zen master, “My master can hold a paintbrush on one side of a river, and his disciples can hold a paper on the other side of the river, and he can write the name of the Lord Buddha through the air so it appears on the paper on the other side of the river. What is your miracle?”
The Zen master said, “My miracle is that when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m sleepy I sleep, and when I’m thirsty I drink.”
That’s plenty of miracle. That and a little weed, too, is even more miraculous.
MY MIRACLE is not that you can’t knock me down; my miracle is that I know how to get up. And I can teach you how to get up. After you get up a few times, it gets easier.
When I was tripping all the time, I was also trying out religions like suits of clothes. I studied Zen for a while and read koans and sat until my knees screamed. I chanted Hare Krishna and read the Upanishads and visited Indian gurus and did yoga.
I prayed the Jesus mantra and read esoteric ancient Christian texts and tripped and read the Bible, trying to make sense of it. When one is tripping weekly on lsd, and on God-knows-what all week long, it is possible, like Alice in Wonderland, “to believe three impossible things before breakfast.”
When you are trying on a religion, you can’t just put it on and step up in front of a mirror and see how it fits. You have to have at least a provisional belief in the new philosophy to see what it might be like to live that way. You have to try it out and act like you believe it for a while.
WHY DO WE CARE so much about truth? I think one of the reasons we respect it is because of the extraordinarily high signal-to-noise ratio that we have here on the planet.
Much of our daily conversation is about things that don’t exist in the material plane, because they’re in the past or they’re in the future. A lot of our conversation doesn’t have to do with here and now. Truth is accurate information about here and now, here and now.
The rise of the electronic communication infrastructure hasn’t done anything to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It has merely amplified and enhanced it. Instead of ordinary bullshit, you can now have flaming digital bullshit bounced off a satellite for your listening and viewing enjoyment.
I think that truth is the same as God. I think that love is also the same as God. Somebody said to me that it’s like a pyramid with three sides, and it only has one point at the top, and that point is God — and the sides are love and truth and beauty.
I wouldn’t use the word God so much these days; it confuses the ethical atheists.
A LIE is a communication breakdown. Whenever any of us get together, no matter whether it’s only two of us or a whole gang of us, there is a meeting happening here on the island among the monkeys. And a meeting is only capable of determining as much truth as is copped to. That’s why you have to cop to it.
In this context, “to cop to” means “to admit the existence of.” The use of the term “monkeys” has offended some people over the years, but no harm is intended. It’s used in the Zen sense of “our most basic selves.”
Otherwise we’re left with “small talk.” I don’t know many people who do much small talk, because I don’t do much myself. You can put telling the truth and telling a lie on opposite ends of a continuum, with percentages in between, and you can see that some people don’t exactly lie — but they get down into a forty-ninth percentile sometimes, and they seldom get much above fifty-one. They just hang around where some of it’s true and some of it isn’t, and some of it doesn’t matter, because they’re just shooting the shit for a while.
It’s a hard thing to say, but I’m not a social creature, and I don’t have any manners, because I find that manners and social things distort the vibes too much. It comes down to that hard thing of having to come up with extraordinary effort and do it — tell the truth to somebody, because that’s just how much truth is going to come to light in the meeting.
I have to say now that when I talk with our neighbors in Tennessee, I have manners. I also engage in small talk, so that I can talk with people without having to get heavy all the time. You need to be able to speak socially to smooth the ways of the world. Give your parents and friends a break sometimes.
WHEN YOU LISTEN to people talk, you know the truth when it’s spoken, because it has a ring to it. It rings like a bell. Sometimes the truth might be back up in your head, or somebody’s head, hidden behind a few layers of lies, and you might have to excavate to find it. But you can tell without a doubt when you find it, because everything turns golden and bright, and gets pretty, and everybody gets beautiful, with maybe the smell of nice incense in the air. That’s what truth is like when you experience it.
When you try to live the truth and be it, you try to make your every action an expression of the truth.
If you can do that, dogs won’t bite you and children will love you.
When I later met an actual Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, I was delighted to see that state of mind in a real person.
I FIND that if I tell the truth, it gets me high every time. So, if you find yourself in a place where you think you’re as high as grass is going to get you, then try a little truth, and start climbing up the ladder by hand. You can get as high as you want to on truth. Just be telling it as it comes. It doesn’t even have to be about something heavy. Because it’s true, it’s heavy. If somebody asks you the right time, and you tell ’em the right time, it’s heavy, because it’s true.
Now, truth’s a funny trip, because if you really up and try to do it, there’s going to be some resistance. If you’re going to try to speak some truth, there’s going to be somebody around who’s got a hand in the till or a skeleton in their closet or an ace up their sleeve or some extra ego in their back pocket, who is not going to want you to talk. There are various ways that they’ll try to keep you from talking, and you have to pay attention to them. If you start to say something that’s true, insist on saying it until you’re finished saying it. Don’t let yourself be interrupted when you’re speaking truth, because it cheapens the truth to let it be interrupted.
It is also possible to be a pain in the rear about truth, or anything else. I have been helped sometimes by an old yogic saying, “Truth is good, but it also needs to be helpful, necessary, and kind.”
THE ONLY WAY to bring about anything on the material plane, like fairness, is to teach justice in the spiritual plane as hard as you can in order to educate people out of the idea of having more than they need.
Therefore, for each one of us to do our best locally — our good-hearted, straight-up, go-for-broke best — will raise the vibration equally around the whole planet, all of which needs it.
Working unselfishly for the sake of the whole world, or at least the piece of it that is closest, is also required. Taking care of yourself and your family is not selfish. It means that someone else doesn’t have to take care of you. You should work to become strong enough that your presence adds, not subtracts.
Now, it might be more dramatic to go for lifting the whole thing. My cousin used to drive a truck from Long Beach into the city, about seventy miles into Los Angeles, and he had to run the oil out of the truck into a big tank there. It took him about eight hours to do one trip: filling up the tank, driving it about seventy miles, and draining it into the other tank. When he drained it into the other tank, it raised the level of that tank three-eighths of an inch. And so what we do here is we try to raise the whole planet about three-eighths of an inch each time.
Excerpted from Monday Night Class, by Stephen Gaskin. © 2005 by Stephen Gaskin. Reprinted by permission of Book Publishing Company, Summertown, Tennessee.