Archive for October, 2010

If Gurus Aren’t Real then How Come Their Followers Have Real Experiences?

October 17, 2010

Amma Grateful Dead Alexandra Palace Gurus Frauds Cults Eric Clapton

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” - Carl Sagan


* This is sort of a follow-on to my previous post (Bullshit!) which referenced Amma, the so-called “Hugging Saint.” This is my attempt to explain what is really going on when people claim to have transformative experiences by hugging this woman.

“If gurus aren’t real then how come their followers have real experiences?”

Good question, grasshopper.

It may seem like I’m changing the subject but I want to ask you if you’ve ever been to a big rock concert of an internationally renowned act?

I mean a really big one: the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Beyoncé; genre doesn’t matter, any act with millions of devoted fans all over the world will do for the purposes of this thought experiment.

If you have ever attended such an event, you will have noticed the energy in the hall/stadium/amphitheatre when everyone’s waiting for the band to come on. Some fans, as you know, take their devotion to ludicrous extremes; spending their hard-earned cash flying all over the world to catch every single performance of a tour; naming their children after the band members; dressing like them, copying their haircuts, even having plastic surgery to resemble them.

These people, if they ever ran into their heroes at the local Starbucks would no doubt fall to their knees prostrate, forget how to speak, burst into tears and/or attempt to snatch a button off their idol’s jacket sleeve.

So whilst it’s safe to conclude that Eric Clapton is not, in fact, God, it’s equally comprehensible that according to graffiti found all over London circa 1965, he once was.
At least to some people.

That’s an early preview of my point, but I haven’t gotten there just yet and may have forgotten what it was by then, so remember that for me please.

Let’s go back to the rock concert.

OK, so there you are; the place is packed with excited fans and there’s an incredibly charged atmosphere as it gets closer to show time. If the band is late on stage (and the headliner ALWAYS is, for reasons that will become clear immediately after these parentheses) then the energy goes up a few more notches during the wait. It’s positively crackling in there! You could light your joint just by holding it above your head to catch some of the sparks.

What exactly is responsible for this tingling electrical buzz? Is it the band, our modern day shamen, sitting behind the curtain in deep trance, collecting their magical forces and silently transmitting a mega-bolt of emotional flash-lightening to the awaiting massive?

In all actuality, if they’re half-way respectable rock stars anyway, they’re far more likely to be backstage with a Jack and Coke, getting a pre-show blow job.

So the energy must be coming from within the crowd then, right?

The combined anticipation of a large number of people who all share similiar feelings for the band is feeding off itself, multiyplying and gathering force. Picture a snowball barreling down the mountainside, then – using your imagination – keep its momentum, but turn it into fire and make it go in a spiral instead of down.

You have just created a mental picture of what is happening inside the auditorium. It’s like a feedback loop that just continues amplifying and doubling. It’s the magic of the vibe: it increases itself exponentially by itself. If I knew calculus I could probably express it as an equasion. Alas.

Finally…the lights go down! This can only mean the band is about to come on! The vibe triples, quadruples, making the hairs on your arms get tiny erections. People exchange thrilled glances, squeeze each other’s hands, hug and kiss, they start to jump up and down, whistle, whoop, howl, scream declarations of love, someone shouts something funny and the people nearby all laugh out loud.

omigod omigod omigod omigod!

the hubbub the buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz!

The stage lights come on. It doesn’t seem like it could get any higher, but the vibe shoots up another few notches.

Maybe some pyrotechnics go off, or a short piece of video art plays, or a cryptic voice-over of great portent. Laser beams ping all around the room in a lattice that exactly replicates the energetic spider’s web that’s drawing everyone closer in to the centre of the experience, the core of their own being; all of these techniques designed to prolong the penultimate moment before the Entrance and further heighten the uncomfortable, delicious tension.

The crowd is practically wriggling; there’s a surge to the front; but nobody minds getting crushed (yet); the screams get louder, adrenaline and oxytocin are flooding everyone’s nerve terminals. And then….

THE STARS COME ON STAGE!

The lead singer usually comes on last, often raising their arms above their head or in an outstretched attitude of embrace that implicitly includes every single person in the room. Sometimes they make a gesture of humility, like bowing with one hand on their heart or making the sign of prayer. How apt.

It’s like an explosion, like an internal simultaneous fireworks display. The crowd nearly levitates, the roar is deafening, the applause like Katrina on a corrugated tin roof.

WHOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOO!

Keep in mind that no-one’s played a note yet.

At this pregnant moment of loving expectancy someone in the band has to SERIOUSLY fuck up to stop the vibe of the audience from generating a brilliant performance out of ‘em.

This does of course sometimes happen, and as anyone who’s ever witnessed a crowd “turning” can attest, hell hath no fury like an audience that’s just been badly let down.

The very same individuals who will fork over hundreds for tickets, recordings and merchandise and get tattoos of the band’s logo on their necks, have absolutely no problem whatsoever with hurling a beer bottle directly at the face of their favorite rock star in the entire world, with intent to wound, should s/he stagger onstage in a wasted stupor and, in a croaking voice, forget the lyrics to the fan’s favorite tune.

But if it’s a top pro act, then all they have to do is capitalise on the vibe that’s been fire-snow-ball-spiralling while they were backstage, and they can turn it into a collective experience that approaches the transcendental. (In fact there is very little difference between descriptions of religious experiences and a fan’s account of the best concert ever.) Ideally then, a sort of energy exchange starts to happen between those on stage and those watching. The vibe has energized the band, now the band starts to give it back to the crowd.

AND – they’ve got electric guitars and really big speakers!

Now the energy has a form, a sound: it is MUSIC!

The best and highest and most magical of all the arts I don’t care what you say. It is MUSIC that moves us to our core like no painting ever could, sorry Leonardo, because you just can’t feel the vibrations of the colours in a painting in your cunt.
(Or cock or whatever.)

Or as Dick Clark might say of the Mona Lisa “well, it’s good…but you can’t dance to it.” Neither can you sing along (especially not whilst abrasive guards scream “KEEP MOVING!” in various languages as you shuffle past it in a herd, but that’s the subject of another essay).

The music, the heavy intoxicating music; its pulse, its deep, deep beat, its soaring melodic lines, its poetry; the music fills the space like ether escaping from the alchemist’s jar and EVERYONE is super-super fucked up and loving it.

When I say “everyone”, I do not of course mean literally everyone.

If you’ve ever accidentally ended up at a concert of a massive star that you don’t particularly care for because someone had a free ticket or something, then you will know exactly what I’m talking about.

I once got dragged along to a Phil Lesh and Friends show in Concord, California, despite a life-long inability to understand the musical phenomeon that was the Grateful Dead (Lesh having been their bassist, for those who share my indifference).

Maybe it’s unresolved trauma from that time my parents took me to see the Dead as a little kid in London in the 70s?

The only thing I remember about the show is that groupies stole our home-made apple pie from where we thought it was safely hidden backstage and it upset me in a really big way. I have a very clear visual of going to the wicker basket to get it because I was starving and then just the shock and disbelief when I pulled away the tea towel and the pie had seemingly vanished. I couldn’t understand what had happened and even thought at first we must have left it at home, even though I clearly recalled it being in the basket earlier.

That was my first personal experience of theft you see. I knew you weren’t supposed to take other people’s stuff and until that instant, I didn’t fully comprehend that there were those who did it anyway. I lost a shred of innocence that night. It’s perfectly fitting that it was an apple pie too; that American symbol of all things good and wholesome.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the stolen pie can be the sole reason why I have a deaf spot regarding the Grateful Dead. While I don’t mind a couple of their songs, I’ve never been able to “get” them really or to put my finger on what it was about them that inspired such mass adoration.

Their music has always struck me as slippery. It noodles along and slides and slithers here and there in a largely inoffensive way, but then just as easily it slips straight out of my ears and leaves no trace behind. It doesn’t stick in my head or throb in my soul.
It doesn’t make me cry.

But I agreed to go to the Phil Lesh show with my raver boyfriend (the Dead having gained a whole new audience on the back of nouveau psychedelic culture) because Bob Dylan was opening (!) and I’d never seen him. As it turned out none of the boyfriend’s bonehead pals, including the driver, bothered to look up directions to the venue, so we got lost on the way and arrived just as Dylan was taking his bow.

Already pissed off, I tried to be open to Phil and Friends, and to get into the groove that everyone else was clearly deep into. I hoped that since the Dead were famous for their live shows more than their studio recordings, now I’d finally understand what their fans had been frothing about all this time – having blocked out all memory of seeing them in their heyday, thanks to the apple pie incident. But because I didn’t feel the crowd’s anticipation, only a wary kind of apprehension, there was no way I could catch their buzz, no matter how many hits of acid I ate. (I know because I tried.)

It was a very strange feeling. I was “a part of” something, because I was there, physically present along with everyone else and yet, I was outside of it because I simply couldn’t connect with the scene. I felt like an anthropologist at first contact: I’m here with you but I do not know your ways.

People are just as fanatical about the many Dead off-shoot projects as they are about the original band, and so the lively atmosphere did not reflect whatsoever what I was personally feeling. Though I tried valiantly to battle my own preconceptions, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to dig the music. So I tried to stay neutral during the wait, but my true feelings bordered on dread. I’d missed Dylan and now I was stuck at this fucking Phil Lesh show!

Alone in my bubble, nothing could penetrate it. Strangers smiled rapturously at me, assuming I was as jazzed as they were. I smiled politely back, feeling nothing.

When the band came on, it was as I feared: I don’t like the Grateful Dead much, which – no surprise – this music sounded exactly like. Maybe they were even playing Dead songs, I really couldn’t tell you. It all sounds the same.

The slippery music slid around me, mainly passing right over my head, leaving me the strangely unaffected eye of a storm that was sending everyone else flying. Gradually, my feeling further degraded. I was no longer just unaffected, I was BORED and starting to get angry. The Dead were legendary for the length of their shows and I was getting a bad, bad feeling that its former members stayed true to the old tradition.

I suddenly remembered an old punk joke.

Q: What did the Deadhead say to the other Deadhead when they both ran out of weed? A: Dude, this band suuucks!

I chuckled and wanted to share the joke with someone else, but of course, there was no one to tell it to.

I couldn’t have been more out of synch if I’d tried. Eventually I started wandering around by the concessions area, figuring that anyone else who hated the show would probably be trying to get away from the speakers too. But I never found my kin.

It was a long lonely night.

Earlier I said the Dead’s music didn’t made me cry, but it did – just this once.

Seventeen decades later, when the show was finally over, and we were trying to part the mists of time and remember where the hell we’d parked, we ran into a young hippy kid with dreadlocks and a bloody head. He was tripping his balls off and had also evidently been selling doses at the show (note to budding drug dealers: this is generally ill-advised) with the result that he’d been jumped and been divested of both stash and cash. Somebody pointed him in the general direction of something and we eventually found our car and split. This encounter seemed like the perfect exclamation point to cap the evening.

So just think: if people can work themselves into a near frenzy about what is, objectively speaking (and to those not under the spell), a few other people thrashing away boringly on electronically amplified instruments, how high is the limit for those who believe they’re about to be touched, or HUGGED even, by the divine incarnate?

I understand that Amma keeps people waiting for their hug for ten hours or even more, while the public sessions of singing bhajans, devotional music, often last all-night.

She’d have to really suck ass at hugging not to leave most people satisfied after all that build-up.

By a sweet coincidence, I noticed while researching this piece that the last time Amma came to the UK, she did her thing at the Alexandra Palace.

That’s the very same venue where my apple pie got nicked by Deadheads back in 1974.

Peace and love, man.

Sorry, grasshopper, I think I forgot the question.

But hopefully that answered it.

BULLSHIT!

October 14, 2010

gurus charlatans Amma

Peek-a-boo-hoo-hoo...

I’m dealing with a lot of Bullshit right now. It’s coming at me from every angle like some kind of horrific splatter scene in a Coprophagiac’s porn flick.

It’s interesting actually, how many levels Bullshit can exist on.

Two of the situations in question deal with large-scale spiritual frauds, two are about the untrustworthiness of intimates. (There was another one in the latter category recently as well, but it pales in significance and so I won’t include it here. Amateur night, you know.)

All are about Bullshit.

Without getting into the devilish details, i.e. the specifics of each movement of the Bullshit Symphony I am currently trying to get out of the auditorium before the feces-flinging finale of, let’s just delve straight into the bog which begs the question: why do people misrepresent themselves?

Looking at these four very different instances from the sort of safe distance that allows pattern and design to emerge from the crap-sprayed mess, I find that it is helpful to assume the detached and objective stance of a forensics professional analyzing a crime scene.

The M.O. may be different, the repercussions varied, but people who present themselves and their lives with a high degree of “spin” are basically all operating from the same dead battery.

Shame.

The user is ashamed of his need to exploit others; of the fact that s/he is so incapable of honest ascent. The poseur is ashamed of his/her inherent lack of cool, of the creeping certainty of mediocrity that gives rise to the uncontrollable urge to self-aggrandize. The hustler is ashamed of the truth, of the honesty that would make her/his scams less palatable to the gullible. The plastic shaman is ashamed – scornful actually – of humanity itself, and ashamed at being a piece of it; getting over on the fellow-fools is a way of soothing the shame.

Although it is not grammatically correct to use “they” in place of “he” or “she” if wishing to make a comment about a person without indicating “their” gender, I have done so anyway below because the English language is bastard stupid on this point, plus his/her s/he become clumsier with each repetition, and most crucially I am trying to protect myself from the guilty by being vague:

One of the four makes promises they cannot keep; cuts sweet deals that always turn sour.

One tells lies to hide how much they take from others; creates squabbles amongst their critics that they may divert attention.

One falsifies history in order to give themselves unique access to “ancient wisdom” which snake oil they then sell to the anxious seekers.

One uses psychotropic drugs to mesmerize the overly-earnest and then claims this ownerless force as their own (for which of course they charge a pretty penny).

Doesn’t it just suck?

Everywhere you look there are people making false claims, bigging themselves up, donning tin tiaras and getting drunk (and rich) on the illusion of being special.

I’m sicker of it even than I’m sick of the trouble I perpetually land in when my finicky nostrils detect the concealed pile of shit and, goddamn it Diana, go and communicate the sensitive information to my mouth which of course then vomits out the obvious question: what the fuck you trying to pull?

If you think I make a lot of friends this way, you’d be dead wrong. It’s not the kind of thing people generally thank you for, even the people you have just dragged half conscious from the pile of Bullshit, upon which they were about to choke.

And that is what I find even weirder:  the desire to swallow Bullshit: whole.

Logically, it would progress therefore, that both the purveyor and consumer of Bullshit are getting off on the exchange somehow.

Here’s a little example, not one of the Big 4 Bullshit Artists teasingly referred to above, but of some silly twat I’ll never see again, and who will most likely never see this.

I think I’ll even give her real name here, which if I remember correctly, was Venus (depends what you mean by “real” I guess) which makes it just that bit more amusing.

At a recent gig of “healing sounds” in Camden Town, in which I’m proud to say I was the only performer whose spiritual lyrics included the word FUCK, I met Venus out on the patio by the canal after I’d sung.

Gushy and wuvvy at first, she somehow managed to steer the conversation towards “living saint” Amma, (you know, the one that hugs) with whom she had clearly become recently infatuated.

I always bite my tongue at least one and a half times before saying what I really think, when someone is spewing Bullshit, in order to give them a chance to voluntarily emerge from the mental sewer and start either talking sense or about the weather. And so I did.

Unfortunately for Venus, she didn’t take the hint and kept talking about Amma. Finally, she shoved her watch in my face, which had Amma’s face on its face. This was too weird; a timeless divine being telling the time. Priceless. As I’m sure Venus would agree.

Pitying the lacerated sides of my tongue I ventured forth with the mild remark, “uh…I’m not really into gurus you see…” To which Venus, glowing from within, replied knowingly “…ah yes, that’s just how I used to feel! But then I met Amma and felt such divine love ..”

I couldn’t hear the rest because a humongous volcano of Bullshit erupted at that very moment, coating us all in a fine layer of putrid filth.

Politely ignoring the stench and inhaling deeply on my fag (part of the reason I smoke is for sensory survival in situations such as these) I decided to risk continuing. Maybe Venus was ready to hear the truth after all.

In my mind I flashed upon an exposé I had read of the whole Amma cult in which it was pretty well inarguably demonstrated that her image, hugging shtick, and Western presence had been skillfully stage-managed by PR professionals.  Having been to India and seen the enormous commerce in gurus that thrives there, this made sense to me. I also recalled a personal account of a horrific visit to her ashram in India by a well-trusted friend whose observations are on the level.

Maybe I should break it to Venus gently?

Nah.

Best just spill it.

“..actually…” I countered, “..I believe that Amma’s mission is a carefully constructed example of the corporatization of Indian spiritual culture…”

I would have said more but to my surprise, 10,000 volts of electricity suddenly coursed through Venus’s slender frame, jettisoning her from a cross-legged position next to me to a warrior stance about 12 feet NE of her former situation.

“I’m NOT having this conversation!” she said with a holy defiance that owed a lot to popular representations of Jean D’arc.

Thanks to my terrible addiction to tobacco, I was still extremely calm, extremely cross-legged still, and still by the canal. I spoke quietly.

“It’s OK. You can close your mind any time you want.” (puff)

Venus/Joan, gripped her invisible sword in its scabbard and spoke with the conviction of a thousand martyrs.

“But my HEART is open!”

(Oscar nod.)

(puff)

“..well, it’s not really an either/or you know. You could always go for both.”

(puff)

I wish I could remember Venus’s exact words that follow but my chief recollection is of spontaneously diving into the canal, to wash off the thickly caked layers of Bullshit that were starting to congeal on my favorite pashmina, and all I could hear from beneath the water was this WHOMP WHOMP oscillating thrumming as her distorted face collapsed and kaleidoscoped, shape-shifting through the entire pantheon of Durgas.

The general gist though was that the mind couldn’t be trusted whereas the heart could.

I do not concur.

“…I think you’ll find,” I continued in what I hoped was a reasonable tone of voice, “..that actually the mind is a terribly useful tool, particularly when the heart gets confounded. Abandoning the intellect in order to have a ‘spiritual experience’ doesn’t seem like a smart move to me.”

(puff)

Venus was still trembling with incandescent self-righteousness; she was the defender of the grail, the keeper of the key, she was the Cathars at Montségur, she was Sally Field in Not Without My Daughter!

I could only really see her out of the peripheral vision of my right eye at this point. Once the chapatti flour of her half-baked convictions had mingled with the peroxide of my skepticism and the resulting explosion had blasted her across the deck, I saw no reason to twist from the direction I’d originally been facing, with the result that she was holding court with my right shoulder, whilst I studiously addressed the barge hitching-post in the centre of my field of vision.

Remembering that she was a New Age Mamma Bearing Unconditional Love, I believe she then said something along the lines of: “Peace sister, we don’t have to agree.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I affirmed to the hitching-post.

(puff)

We smilingly avoided one another for the rest of the evening. (That is, Venus and I – the hitching-post cleverly stayed put.)

What have we learned from this object lesson?

Well, to me it’s simple: bullshitters peddle bullshit for various reasons, most to do with money, fame, prestige, sex, and the other popular void-stuffers that mask the gaping, aching, hole within.

Bullshittees swallow bullshit because they (think they) need to be fed things to believe in that not only don’t require proof, but which reject the very idea of proof at all. Why else would Islam be the fastest-growing religion in the world despite its obvious flaws? Why? – because it’s the mack daddy of all responsibility-abdicating faiths with its unshakeable tenets that govern practically every situation of life. If you wanna come on this ride folks, please leave that pesky brain at the door.

Maybe that’s what’s always bugged me about the word “believe” – it’s almost like an admission that you are putting your trust in something that’s as likely to be cubic zirconium as diamonds. You’re saying you don’t care; that the buzz you get from thinking you’re wearing real diamonds is worth being duped.

So, then maybe it’s not even worth bothering to enlighten the willing victims of a confidence trick, maybe there’s no point in busting people whose endless tangled lies and manipulations waste countless precious hours and generate fathomless tears.

But what else you gonna do?

Sit there covered in Bullshit? Lapping it up happily like pigs in…uh… shit?

I can’t tell you what to do, but in the immortal words of Hall and Oates I can definitively state that: I won’t go for that/no-wo-wo-oh/no can do

The bummer, of course, is that when you reject Bullshit, you can for sure expect one thing: for your trouble, you are going to get a lot of shit. 

As I once said, un-ironically, to myself, upon having a heavy bowel movement whilst high on ayahuasca and realizing that there was no toilet paper in the cubicle: 

oh shit!