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Book Review - Turn Off Your Mind The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius

Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius

Gary Lachman

Review by Joseph P. Szimhart

“Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” are the first words John Lennon read in 1966 when he opened The Psychedelic Experience, a sleek, black volume by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner (New York: University Press, 1964). The Beatle Lennon inserted the concept into his song “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the transitional Beatles’ album Revolver released later that year. Lennon listened to a recording of himself reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead when he wrote that song while tripping on LSD. The first lyrics are

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,

It is not dying, it is not dying.

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.

I was eighteen and a Beatles’ fan when Revolver appeared. I listened to it and that song over and over when it came out, but I had little experience with the burgeoning occult movement and mystical drug cultures that inspired it. I had only a vague idea of what Lennon was singing about, but I knew it had something to do with drugs. My level of experience changed dramatically in following years. I began “experimenting” with some drugs and sought out exotic spirituality, too. For many of us coming of age in the sixties, The Beatles were guideposts. They seemed to be on the cutting edge of popular fashion in everything from hairstyle to spiritual philosophies. In college I became an art student among the hippie milieu. We were reading Hesse, Jung, Camus, McLuhan, Heinlein, Rimbaud, Tolkien, Marcusse, Mailer, Yogananda, and Blake. Some of us went deeper and darker. We read Blavatsky, Lovecraft, Crowley, Gurdjieff, Hubbard, and even LaVey.

Despite the Vietnam War, there was an incredible romanticism and idealism if not rebelliousness alive on campuses across America and Europe, which culminated in the now infamous ‘summer of love’ in 1967. But the bright sunshine of Aquarius waned quickly. Woodstock notwithstanding, Charles Manson and his drugged-up, murderous Family cult became the image of all that was decadent in hippie culture by 1969. The sixties were over. However, as Gary Lachman writes on pages 392-93 of Turn Off Your Mind,

Manson didn’t ‘kill the sixties’ as some have suggested. They committed suicide, ODed [sic] on excess, high expectations, and a belief that in getting rid of all repression—what I’ve called ‘giving away to strange forces’—some pure, natural soul would emerge. They were wrong.

At age 18, Gary (Valentine) Lachman was a founding member and songwriter for the punk-rock group Blondie. He was born in 1955 in New Jersey. Just out of high school, he went to New York to be a poet. Eventually, in 1996, he moved to London, where he yet resides. His early contacts with the music industry during the seventies placed him in the midst of many significant persons who were “there” during the sixties’ ‘revolution.’ After two years with Blondie, Lachman continued as a musician with other bands, including Iggy Pop, but music eventually gave way to his career as a journalist and writer. He is a literary critic for many publications including The Fortean Times. Lachman is the latest among astute commentators on the modern occult revival and New Age sects in the genre of James Webb (The Occult Establishment, The Harmonious Circle), Bruce Campbell (Ancient Wisdom Revived), Peter Washington (Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon) and especially Colin Wilson (The Occult). Turn Off Your Mind is an early work in a series by Lachman that includes In Search of P.D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (2006) and Rudolf Steiner (2007), both of which I recommend.

In this book, Lachman plunges into his topic with the story of Charles Manson. He describes how the hippie “wizard” was able to maneuver among famous people and manipulate followers using ideas he gleaned from Scientology, The Process Church of the Final Judgment, and years of incarceration. From there, we revisit the Woodstock and Altamont music festivals that were seminal events in 1969. Lachman then discusses the roots of the sixties’ occult revival in 19th century figures such as Madame Blavatsky and Eliphas Levi. Lachman revisits these themes and personalities throughout the book.

Lachman exposes occult influences in the lives and writings of significant sixties’ heroes including Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, L. Ron Hubbard, and Aleister Crowley (whose face made it onto the cover of the Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper album). He especially credits The Occult by Colin Wilson (who wrote the introduction to Lachman’s 2003 Secret History of Consciousness) and The Morning of the Magicians by Bergier and Pauwels as particularly influential in his personal grasp of just what was going on in the mystic sixties. More characters he covers in depth are H. P. Lovecraft, Alan Watts and the Beats, Tim Leary, L. Ron Hubbard, and Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan. The book also offers insight into the mystical pursuits and substance abuse that affected the Beatles, Marianne Faithful, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Beach Boys, and so many others.

Less-well-known but influential characters include the mystical artist and writer Brion Gysin, whose “cut-up” approach to writing revived an interest in Surrealism and influenced Beat writers such as William Burroughs. The Beats aimed for “elimination of the rational ego.” There was Aldous Huxley’s friend, the “sociopathic English con man” Michael Hollingshead, whose “mayonnaise jar containing water, powdered sugar, and roughly 5,000 hits of LSD” gave Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, singer-songwriter Donovan, and countless others their first doses of acid. When they finally had enough of the schemer, Leary and Alpert dismissed Hollingshead from the Harvard LSD project. In retaliation, Hollingshead threatened to reveal Alpert’s homosexuality.

And there was the Solar Lodge of the OTO (a spin off of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientalis cult) founded by Jean Brayton and her husband Richard, a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California. The Braytons “sought absolute control over their devotees” by what some writers called “acid fascism.” The Braytons ran afoul of the law around the time of the Manson murders in 1969, when visitors to their Colorado center found a small boy chained to the ground in a crate in 110-degree heat. He had been there for days. Jean Brayton devised the punishment because the boy inadvertently set fire to their house, thus burning rare Crowley manuscripts. The Braytons were thought by the FBI to be connected to Manson.

I most appreciated Lachman’s ability in this book to ferret out the back-story to many songs, personalities, and communes that influenced the mystic sixties. For example, Leary based his esoteric community International Federation of Internal Freedom (IFIF) on Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island (1961), which “depicts a psychedelic Pacific island paradise threatened by the incursion of Western materialism” (p. 177). In the spirit of Jung’s synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) that Lachman says inspired many sixties’ notions of be here now, I read Island just before I read Turn Off Your Mind. The IFIF eventually found a home in 1962 in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, where Leary and a company of several dozen followers experimented with their LSD-based religion. Huxley’s Island provided a blueprint. Residents of Huxley’s Pala limit mechanization, control overpopulation by training young males in yogic retention of semen during pre-marital sex, and practice ritual ecstasy with moksha medicine, based on Huxley’s personal experience of mescaline. Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism combine to form the utopian religion of the Palanese who disdain theistic faiths, especially Christianity.

Lachman points out that parrots throughout Pala randomly shout “attention” to remind residents to remain in the eternal present and to continually assess consciousness. In that spirit, Be Here Now is the title of Richard Alpert’s seminal hippie manual that he wrote as Ram Dass in 1971. Alpert, Leary’s colleague at Harvard and co-champion of LSD, synthesized the LSD experience with ideas that, with Leary and Metzner at IFIF, he gleaned from Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. They added Gurdjieff’s ‘Work’ rituals to IFIF programs. “Gurdjieff would bellow ‘Stop!’ without warning” (p. 184) at his Parisian commune, the Prieuré, where cult members would have to stop in whatever position they were and hold it till let go by Gurdjieff. That meant while holding a hot cup, lifting a shovel of dirt, or with mouth open in the midst of speech. Leary and company would ring a bell four times an hour, when all participants would stop, then immediately write down their thoughts and location. Lachman does not point out that ‘stop everything now’ at the sound of a bell has also been one of the exercises during a thirty-day retreat in the training of a Catholic Jesuit since the 16th century. Leary, a sensationally lapsed Catholic, was ‘trained’ at a strict Jesuit college.

That is one general weakness I find in Lachman’s finely written study: his lack of attention to thematic Christian influences on the sixties that I find were pervasive as a subtext for the hippie revolution through ‘peace and love.’ Lachman’s concentration on the anti-establishment, reactionary themes of that era might account for this oversight. Or perhaps Lachman’s personal philosophy of consciousness bends orthodox Christianity to fit a modernist paradigm. The author positively entertains the legends that Jesus traveled and lived in India and England: “Christ spent time in India. Those feet … may have walked in England’s mountain green…” (p. 80).

If you are interested in Lachman’s personal philosophy, read A Secret History of Consciousness (2003). No matter what you choose to read by him, you will be thoroughly entertained if not enlightened by this fine writer. I highly (no pun intended) recommend Turn Off Your Mind.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009, Page