Saturday, March 01, 2008

Spiritual DVD Reviews

Last month, I watched a couple of "spiritual documentaries" on DVD. Aliens From Spaceship Earth, though available from UFOTV, isn't about space aliens. It's a collection of video clips from a wide range of famous gurus from the 70s. I got it from Netflix. Closer Than Close films seven friends who meet to discuss their quest for enlightenment 'n' stuff. Their discussions are intercut with footage of a few teachers who seem to think they've found It. The DVD is available from PoetryInMotionFilms.

Aliens From Spaceship Earth, filmed in 1977, is peppered with music, graphics, and narration that are beyond cheesy. Folk singer Donovan strums his guitar, walks down a beach, gushes about the world's great spiritual awakening, and introduces segments on lots of big names: Muktananda, Satchidananda, Guru Maharaji, Hare Krishnas, and on and on.

If you can stomach its dated style and terrible production values, Aliens is absolutely wonderful as a "time capsule" of that sub-culture. It took me back to a time and mind from my youth. I spent four years with Muktananda, and this DVD has rare footage of him from his early days in the West. For each of the teachers included in this doc, there are talks and interviews with the guru, and clips of their swooning followers and "scene."

I guess I'd forgotten how much different things were in those days. Everyone was so spaced out and hippy-dippy. Almost as if these meditation traditions were viewed as strictly a means to get high.

The segment on Ram Dass was a highlight. I saw him in person in the mid-80s, but here he's shown in an earlier persona, much more stoned-out. Whatever else you say about the guy, he was a remarkable speaker. Elizabeth Claire Prophet was another standout. Her teaching is incomprehensible, but she's captivating in her creepiness.

As for the followers of these gurus: they're goofy, irrational, and naive. Still, I have to respect them for being the advance scouts for the big wave of Eastern spirituality hitting America. They made embarrassing mistakes, like all pioneers. They were like the first troops to land on D-day, taking huge casualties, but making it easier for those who came later.

Aliens swallows the gurus' claims whole, as so many of us did in the beginning. It exemplifies the blind adulation that led to so many human train wrecks in America's spritual underbelly. In the decades that have passed, maybe we've moved a bit beyond such blind faith.

Closer Than Close illustrates this change in the spiritual zeitgeist. The seekers in this DVD are professional and college student-types, soberly discussing enlightenment and the meaning of life. They speak of "enlightenment" as some special state to be sought in the future, rather than what's already appeared in this moment. I don't share their views... but there's something moving about the sincerity that these subjects bring to the filmed discussions. I can respect them for simply stopping to question what life is or should be about. Maybe that willingness to question is the important thing, and the rest is just details.

The "teachers" profiled in Closer were less impressive. It was initially interesting to hear the stories about how meditation and inquiry had connected with their lives. But they each seemed to go on too long, and get too theoretical in attempting to make sense of the experiences they'd had. It sometimes came off as lots of talk trying to explain the unexplainable. It was sometimes unclear how their stories connected to practical, ordinary, everyday life.

There was subtle "spiritual materialism" in how these teachers described their big experiences. I wondered if this was connected to their paths being too solitary. It's strange for me to say this, because I always look at meditation practice as a matter of personal intention. Most important is believing in ourselves, not following a guru or group. And yet the teachers on this DVD may suffer from being unconnected to a tradition.

We don't need a tradition to get moments of wonderfully clear mind. My formal meditations are personal, simply devoting myself to "What am I?" But each time we discard old concepts and identifications, and find a moment of clarity... we can always fall into newer, subtler attachments. We give up some material wants, but hold onto spiritual wants. We get less attached to stuff, but more attached to beautiful concepts. Or to stillness, or to freedom. Or to "enlightenment."

We can find truth and clarity on our own. Yet maybe working with a teacher has helped "keep me honest." That is, each time I get an idea that I've attained something, there's someone there to "hit" that attachment, helping me to return again and again to simple questioning. To just this moment, to "what am I doing right now?" The teachers in these videos sometimes seemed to have awakened from some common human attachments... only to fall into ideas of "I've got something."

7 comments:

Steven Sashen said...

It sounds like it has a different flavor, but another film from that time (also on Netflix) is Marjoe, the Academy Award-winning documentary made by, well, Marjoe, who was the youngest evangelical preacher (at 3) and who, in this movie, reveals all the tricks he used to get money from a believing flock as he makes his final, I'm-only-doing-it-for-the-cash, preaching tour.

Stuart said...

steven sashen said...
It sounds like it has a different flavor, but another film from that time (also on Netflix) is 'Marjoe'

Yes! Netflix is so wonderful... since I pay by the month, I feel free to "take a chance" on odd little documentaries like Marjoe. I'd never seen anything like it, the way it goes behind the scenes of the preaching biz. It exposes the scams... but does so in a way that I don't think is disrespectful to the "flock."

Informantomatick said...

It is helpful for me, a guy from a younger generation, to hear you compare all those dirty hippies to the first guys off the boat on D-Day.

"In the decades that have passed, maybe we've moved a bit beyond such blind faith... They speak of "enlightenment" as some special state to be sought in the future, rather than what's already appeared in this moment."

It's my suspicion that maybe in a way we've moved too far beyond blind faith, to the extent that people don't even follow the directions because they don't believe them to be realistic, and instead are spending 12 hours a day getting butt-rot trying to be psychiatrist to themselves. which I figure you could get paid to do in an office anyway. I'm basing that on the way that many people I've sat around have parsed what they've heard with a bunch of psycho-babble... it's trading one set of preconceptions for another.

I think a lot of that stemmed from the first generation not really knowing what they were getting into. There's some process called "awakening", and there's some charismatic figure talking about it, but beyond that, what is it, what should i do with it, etc., find no answer but in that figure. Then you have a lot of people with a lot of tailbone pain who still aren't sure what they're doing, so they repeat what they've heard, which didn't make much sense to begin with... Needless to say the next round of folks will probably shy away from this into something they believe pragmatic, which here in the west is psychoanalysis.

"We get less attached to stuff, but more attached to beautiful concepts."

Well, better to desire gourmet chocolate than crack, and better to desire and suffer over a concentration state than salivate over gourmet chocolate. Desiring something that you condition into existence causes subtle suffering of self, rather than an interdependent suffering of many beings, is more wholesome. That, and once we've calmed down a little and seen the process of attachment even at that subtle level, hopefully we can change our relationship to all desire or hatred, since there isn't even any refuge inside your own head. My teacher and his have both said as much, and I suspect that sort of advice might have saved many of those "human train wrecks". The point isn't to meditate until you levitate into outer space (though that can help) but more like what somebody said, "Noticing more, suffering less."

"And yet the teachers on this DVD may suffer from being unconnected to a tradition."

Who are the teachers? All I can gather is they are from a "previous generation".

Stuart said...

informantomatick said...
It's my suspicion that maybe in a way we've moved too far beyond blind faith, to the extent that people don't even follow the directions

Hi, info. I've been practicing Zen in Berkeley for 20 years. Maybe you're talking here about a dynamic I've noticed sometimes. There are sometimes old hippies, or lefties, in the sangha, who resist following rules. They don't want to keep the tight form of practice in the Dharma room etc, since they're champions of defying authority and conformity of any sort. They have problems with putting down personal opinions and acting together with others... a key aspect of the practice.

My comments about "blind faith" refer specifically to what we believe. I find it a wonderful practice to act together with others, but I never want to think along with the group. Zen practice works for me because it only requires following rules externally; I'm never even asked to think or believe what anyone else tells me to.

I think a lot of that stemmed from the first generation not really knowing what they were getting into.

Yeah, lots of people, including me, have gotten caught up in chasing the good feelings etc from practice... while losing sight of why we do it. These days, I pay much more attention to intention.

better to desire gourmet chocolate than crack

OK, some "wants" cause bigger, more obvious suffering than others. My teacher used to say that wanting to get a clear mind, for example, isn't a bad want -- it's a good want -- but it's still a want. If we're really examining and inquiring into the root of suffering, we have to ultimately question whatever it is we want.

Who are the teachers?

"Closer Than Close" has clips of: Mike Conners, Art Ticknor, and Bart Marshall. In the DVD "Extras" section, it says that more info on these teachers is available at the TAT Foundation website. TAT ("Truth And Transmission") was founded by Richard Rose, a backwoods teacher who died in 2005, after a decade of senility.

The film itself has no narration, and no mention of TAT (though a couple of the teachers mention Rose in passing). It's impossible to tell from the film exactly how these teachers (and indeed the "seeking" friends) are connected to the TAT organization. I'd have preferred the film included some info on this.

My view of the Closer teachers may be colored by the fact that I've read a bit about Rose himself. He exemplifed a teacher who got a big experience entirely on his own (through reading and pondering etc), and tried to pass it on, without connecting to an existing tradition.

Rose knew of Zen only through books, and felt that his experiences connected him to that tradition. It irks me that his admirers refer to Rose as a "Zen Master." Had Rose tested his ideas by practicing formal Zen and checking his understanding with an actual Zen master, it may have helped him better cut through the spiritual/material, high/low distinctions in his teaching.

Even though Truth appears fresh in each moment... maybe there's something that could be considered "accummulated wisdom" of a tradition. I haven't quite gotten clear on that conundrum.

Kat said...

Hello Stuart. I just found your blog and it seems there is wealth of interesting writings here that someday I can spend more time with. I'd like to see the movies you wrote about, they seem very nostalgic.
I'd like to spend more time writing in my blog and sharing in other's blogs; here I am on Friday morning reading and writing in blogs when I should be doing my work (the pitfalls from working from home).
I will visit now that I've found you. ~kat

Stephen C. Rose said...

Thanks Stuart. I am off to Netflix immediately. Hope it is instant view. I once got kicked out of the knowledge room of the then 14 year old Guru Maharaji for admitting that I thought God was greater than the Guru. I did an article about him for The Christian Century. Cheers, S

yomamma said...

If we're really examining and inquiring into the root of suffering, we have to ultimately question whatever it is we want.
This is a question I've come to also, and it seems that a lot of what we think we want could just be old patterns we haven't been able to get a handle on or see clearly or give up, ideas about how to practice, what is right or wrong. I realize i don't even want some of the things i've grown very attached to, or that i've based my spiritual striving on. It seems better for me to just notice that meditation does something for me, I can't always know what of course, and that's a blessing really, then your much more open in your practice it feels more like just part of life, which it is.
As regards traditions , one of the things A.H. Almass says is that some cultures acknowledge states of being more than others, and some not at all. he sites Tibet and sufi culture, but you could also put most buddhist traditions in there i believe. so they have thousands of years of people practicing these being traditions and it just seems to permeate the culture and can be passed on. It seems maybe a bit mysterious , but it make sense to study with the teacher that knows what it is you want to learn, instead of just making it up there on the spot.