Table of Contents
Google listing of all pages on this website
Toby Johnson's Facebook page
Toby Johnson's YouTube channel
Toby Johnson on Wikipedia
Toby Johnson Amazon Author Page
Secure site at
Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
I was on the outskirts of so much of what Jeffrey J. Kripal wrote about in ESALEN: America and the Religion of No Religion, so it all has personal reference for me AND, I think, I experienced the same kind of mystical/gnostic transformation of consciousness that Kripal described as the core of what Esalen Institute was.
Read Toby Johnson's review of Esalen: American and the Religion of No Religion
I learned of Esalen in that LOOK Magazine story in June, 1966. (I later subscribed to LOOK in order to get the Richard Avedon photos pf the Beatles--the George Harrison poster (which hangs on my office wall still today in 2015) played an important role in my "gnostic transformation." (Here's a link to that story.) When I was a senior in college at St Louis University in 67-68, I was living with the Servites as a seminarian in the Graduate Students dorm. One of my friends, Tom Sheerin, was a charismatic sort of pre-hippie who dazzled me with stories about the changes in culture that were going on. He’d lived in California and knew about Esalen and the burgeoning of the Counterculture.
As a Servite seminarian I got transferred to Riverside CA — a tale about which my book The Myth of the Great Secret begins. (Another link to that story) From there, in 1970, I moved to San Francisco after leaving the Order — in part because I’d come out to myself as a gay man and in part because I’d read Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts and had transcended my childhood Catholicism. I moved in with, Roy Neuner and his lover Michael Alpert, fellow Servites who’d left a few months before and had found an apartment in San Francisco—on Castro St. I crashed on the sofabed in the living room for a month or so.
Interestingly, several years later when the gay ghetto was in full bloom, a gay photographer named Crawford Barton took a photo that became iconic for the Castro of two men sitting on a stoop outside a shop. (Link to a page with that photo.) The other end of that stoop, just outside the photo, was the door to that apartment, 541 Castro. Neat for my own mythologization of my life that my first home in S.F. was in the center of the Castro. (A few years later I lived at 602 Ashbury overlooking the corner of Haight—the turret behind the sign was in our apartment. So I got my mythologization of living at a "world navel" at least twice.
Part of my moving to San Francisco was to follow up on my interest in Alan Watts. HIs book The Wisdom of Insecurity had been very important to me in understanding that religion was really about consciousness and "who we reall are," rather than about God and mythological doctrines. I’d seen in the back of one of his books that he was Dean of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. I thought I’d go there and continue my study of world religion.
Coincidentally (!?!) my Servite friends had moved into a flat at 541 Castro St from a sign they’d seen in a laundromat; the guy who had the lease and was advertising for roommates, whom Roy and Michael had met only coincidentally, was Stephen Watson (who went by Dhruva). He explained to me that the school was now called the California Institute of Asian Studies, that it was a few blocks from where we were AND he was the school’s librarian. Of all the people Roy and Michael could have moved in with, that it was Dhruva is what got me to the Institute.
I went over to the school, then at 21st and Dolores, at the top of the hill above Dolores Park. And I met the Registrar, a woman named Judy Hollywood. I enrolled in the school to start a Master’s in East-West Studies. The first class I took was an introduction to the study of comparative religion by an Indian professor named Dr. Bose.
Here I was, a former Catholic seminarian, still very Catholic in many ways, strict, austere and very much in my head, coming to the school for Zen and discovering these Hindu gurus on the faculty. I'd never been exposed to anything like them before. Dr. Bose spoke in over-exaggerated, florid sing-song; his favorite word was “most excellent” and virtually everything he said about Hinduism and life in India was that everything was "most excellent." I recall having a meeting with Dr Chaudhuri, Founder and President of C.I.A.S., and explaining to him that my interest was in Buddhism. He was quite open to that, I guess. But the school was really about Sri Aurobindo and his brand of Integralism. (This photo is of Bina and Haridas Chaudhuri.)
Also that first semester I took a class from a Jungian psychologist named Kim McKell. She was the great influence on me at the Institute. (Link to a page about Kim McKell) Because I’d learned of Buddhism through a class in Jungian psychology at St Louis U, the Jung stuff all appealed to me—and much more than the devotionalistic stuff that seemed to surround the Hinduism—and the Cultural Integration Fellowship, Dr. Chaudhuri's ashram out on Fulton St in the inner Richmond District, where there were regular Sunday Services. I’d just “left the Catholic Church,” I didn’t want to join another "church.” And CIF and Dr Chaudhuri's ashram sure seemed a lot like church to me.
So I studied Jung with Kim McKell and Nagarjuna with Nippo Syaku (December 7, 1910 - February 10, 1991), a Nichiren bishop with an Ekayana Temple down near Fillmore St, who taught classes about Zen and, particularly, the Mahayana tradition arising from the teaching of Nagarjuna about sunyata (emptiness). And I steered clear of the Aurobindo stuff altogether (too bad!).
After a year, I’d finished course requirements. I spent the next year working as Kim McKell’s general factotum, helping her remodel her house, as hippie carpenter, and proofreading and advising her on her dissertation, as literary intellectual. And I got involved with gay liberation as a peer counselor for a gay telephone hotline. (Link to the story of Gay Rap)
During that time too I got involved with the Mann Ranch. I’d seen a notice on the bulletin board at school that Alan Watts was doing a seminar in Ukiah, then a few weeks later Joseph Campbell, then a few weeks later a seminar on Building Communities. The Watts event had already happened, but I signed up for the Campbell as a work scholar and ended up then joining the crew at the conference center for the next 4 years or so. Alan Watt’s daughter Joan had somehow known Larry Thomas who owned the Mann Ranch and along with about 5 others was in the process of building a commune on the property about a mile from the main house. Joan Watts got her father to agree to speak to help raise money for the community project, and thru him, Campbell.
The Building Community workshop didn’t get enough people to sign up—and that was the end of the Commune plan. The two “New Age” religious seminars had been successful and brought in money and that got Larry and his partner Barbara McClintock into the seminar business. They’d gone down to Esalen and had connections there. (I remember we would always “borrow” the Esalen mailing list for the Mann Ranch brochures.) Larry wanted his family home to become something like that.
So I think the Mann Ranch was a kind of “second string” or “B-team” to Esalen — many of the same presenters: Joseph Campbell, John Weir Perry, Huston Smith, Stan Grof, Ken Pelletier, the San Francisco Jungians. We were a little more specifically “Jungian” and so different from Esalen and the Gestalt stuff. We did NOT have encounter groups—just fireside lectures in a big old redwood ranch house high up in the mountains between Ukiah and Mendocino. (Link to more about the Mann Ranch)
After my first summer at the Mann Ranch, I came back to S.F., got that apartment in the Haight and worked as a volunteer for a Jungian-based school for autistic/schizophrenic children in Berkeley (called The St. George Homes). We got robbed several times in the apartment, the car got broken into—my mother broke into tears when she saw the apartment (though, honestly, I thought it was awfully stylish for a hippie house myself). When the six-month lease ran out, we let the apartment go.
Thru the Mann Ranch and thru Kim McKell, I had been introduced to Dee Cameron (obviously a stage name) who was a former actress and nightclub singer (she appeared in the movie "Panic in the Streets" (I think) as the singer in the background in a nightclub where some of the action happens). She was a very glamorous blonde, very pretty, though now middle-aged (whatever we thought that meant in 1973) and she had bad arthritis. She was an Esalen regular. She had been dating Stan Grof for a while, and was expecting that they were going to get married. Then out of blue, he married Joan Halifax instead. Dee was devastated. She lived in a houseboat in Sausalito — Pier 3 1/2. (No wonder she had arthritis!) I got invited to live on the houseboat for three months while she fled to a beachhouse she had in a little out of the way town on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Californa called Yelapa.
I later met Stan Grof and Joan Halifax at the Mann Ranch — I had a very interesting conversation with Grof on a long walk we took the participants on one day about how his theories of psychedelic breakthrough happening in the pattern of passing through the birth canal fit with caesarian section. I was born by Caesarian, so in theory had no “birth trauma”?? (Or at least a different kind.)
After the time on the houseboat and the next summer at the Mann Ranch again, I went to Napa College and worked at Napa State Hospital to get a license as a Psychiatric Technician, and while I was in that training, I completed my thesis and got the Masters from CIAS. I returned to S.F. in 1975 and got a job at the Crisis Clinic at Mount Zion Hospital. I had been away from the Institute for two years, and in that time a Department of Counseling had been created by Paul Herman. In the same way that I discovered it was hard to get a job as a comparer of religions, and psychiatry was a kind of next level spin-off, so everybody else at CIAS wanted a licensable profession. So the school complied.
I rolled some of my credit for the Masters into a doctoral program and started back as a student at CIAS, now very concerned about accreditation and licensure and professionality and all that. I remember having some sort of fuss with Dr Chaudhuri over accreditation. During a meeting, it became clear he did not understand the difference between being licensed by the state of California and being accredited by WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges). That difference seemed like a consequence of Chaudhuri not seeing the differences between the US and India. I’m sure I was only one of many who complained. Our complaining did result in the Institute seeking—and getting—full accreditation a few years later (I was part of the accreditation class.)
Then suddenly Dr Chaudhuri died (1975). And soon Dr. Frederic Spiegelberg appeared as interim President. He'd actually been the founder of the American Academy and it was he who in 1951 had invited Haridas Chaudhuri to come to America to teach Sri Aurobindo's transcendent world religion in the first place. I had seen Spiegelberg around the school off and on but had never known who he was. A Sanskrit scholar was all I think I'd heard. (Too bad.) For me, he was just an old man who was another part of that Hindu clique from over at the Cultural Integration Fellowship (which I suppose was all tied up for me with the questions about the school professionalism and accreditability).
Because I didn’t know Dr Spiegelberg I didn’t really appreciate how important he was for the "New Age," for Esalen, for the Institute and, specifically, for Haridas's widow Bina Chaudhuri. She'd suddenly been left the school by her prematurely departed husband, and she needed help. It was a wonderful thing the venerable old man did coming out of retirement to assist her.
Here's a photo of Spiegelberg as a young man.
He was 28 and studying with Jung and Heidegger
I graduated with a PhD in the Integral Counseling and Psychotherapy track of the Counseling program. The ceremony was in the afternoon of Gay Pride Day, 1978. I’d been at the march all morning. (Link to the story of that March) And by this time I was working in a community mental health program and was very “professional” and medical—and licensed (both as a psych tech and as a Marriage-Family-Child-Counselor-intern). I was an activist, a go-getter, an over-achiever—and a hot-head.
The ceremony was at CIF. Dr Spiegelberg gave the Commencement Address. It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak or lecture. Well, the place, the time, the occasion, etc, etc—all “pushed my buttons.” I was just infuriated with Spiegelberg’s demeanor and performance. It was more of Dr. Bose and all that flowery talk. He seemed to me the "attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.”
Polonius—at least in T.S. Eliot's words. It seemed to me the school was going backward.
I wrote a letter complaining about Dr Spiegelberg’s speech and sent it to all the members of the Board.
Oh, looking back now, that was an awful thing to have done. He resigned that year, so I think my diatribe might have embarrassed him.
From the school’s perspective, it was probably a good thing. The Institute moved ahead as C.I.I.S. and the job of President was taken over byJohn Broomfield and later Dr. Subbiondo. And the school has prospered and grown enormously.
Oh, but what a strange role I played in that. Like Judas being given the dipped bread by Jesus!
I love Spiegelberg's expression—that I have now learned from Jeffrey Kripal's book—The Religion of No Religion.
It is a direct parallel to my own expression of The Myth of Myth.
Writing about these experiences of the California Institute of Asian Studies and, particularly, Dr Spiegelberg and my letter of complaint about his address that—may have—caused him to resign has brought me a whole new understanding of what might have been happening back then.
Perhaps, instead of embarrassing Dr Spiegelberg and causing him to retreat, I gave him the excuse to get out of having to be President of CIAS. Perhaps it was liberation for him from some sort of personal debt to save the day after Haridas’s death. Perhaps he was grateful.
At any rate, the Esalen lectures in Steve Donovan's apartment in the Marina from 1978-83 that Kripal wrote about would not have happened if Dr. Spiegelberg had been sitting over in Dr. Chaudhuri’s old office at 21st and Dolores minding the store those years.
I was holding that thought in mind in my meditation this morning. Then curiously as I was pouring myself a cup of coffee afterwards a phrase from my childhood suddenly popped into my mind, as if out of the blue: “Needs Must When the Devil Drives.”
I recognize this as the title of a short story in a collection of books that had been in my parents’ library when I was a kid. I recall being fascinated and confused by the syntax in that title. What does that mean?
I looked it up and discovered that back then there’d been a certain magic about that collection of stories because, as a child fascinated with paranormal phenomena and watching, religiously (as it were), “One Step Beyond" and "The Twilight Zone," I already had learned that the author of this 3 volume collection of stories, Morgan Robinson, was credited with prophesying the sinking of the Titanic in a story in that same collection called "Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan” written 14 years before the actual Titanic.
So I also looked up what the expression “Needs Must When the Devil Drives” means. It’s based on a line from Shakespeare. And it means "if the devil drives you, you have no choice but to go, or in other words, sometimes events compel you to do something you would much rather not.”
That describes exactly what I did to Frederic Spiegelberg. “Events compelled me.” Were those events in my life? or his? or Esalen’s? or, Dear Reader, yours?
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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