Perhaps the first thing is to clarify is what I’m talking about when I say “spiritual teacher.,” and why I have chosen to let Stephen, and others, play that role in my life.
Let’s consider basketball. If you really like to play basketball, you don’t just shoot hoops in your driveway. You get together with other people who want to play, and, if you’re really serious, you find a coach, somebody who knows the game well enough to teach it well. Life is like that. We all find our teachers, spiritual or not. If you want to make a lot of money, you might find a mentor who will show you those ropes. If it’s your perception that the best things in life are not things, and if, for you, unselfishness is more important than selfishness, then you might want to get together with other people who feel that way and find somebody you respect who can show you those ropes. Christians call that a congregation and a preacher. Eastern religions call it a sangha and a guru.
That’s what I was looking for when I first went to California in 1968, but, raised as a secular Jew, I didn’t have a name or even a concept for it. I just knew, when I went to my first Monday Night Class at The Gallery Lounge on the San Francisco State College campus, that I had found what I was looking for, like a drowning man who encounters a piece of flotsam big enough to support him and save his life.
Yes, meeting Stephen saved my life. Just as some people, even when they’re very young, know “I’m not heterosexual,” or “The sex of the body I’m in is not the sex I feel I am,” I grew up feeling that the society I was expected to enter on adulthood was not the society I wanted to live in. Like many a young sexual misfit, this disconnect was the source of a great deal of anxiety, neurosis, and self-destructive behavior for me. Connecting with Stephen, his teachings, and the Monday Night Class community that ultimately became The Farm pulled meout of the steep dive my life was in. Stephen and the Class opened a magic door for me, into a world where I could have a life, a family, and a community that were more in alignment with the kind of society in which I felt I belonged. The Farm, “Stephen’s family monastery” for all its imperfections, was the best home I ever had, a home I have been trying in vain to recreate ever since the community came unglued in the early 80’s.
Thank you, Stephen, for helping me and so many others live in a better world, even if only for a few years, and thank you for pointing me to Buddhism, which in so many ways has carried on the changes in me that you helped initiate. Thank you for my first marriage, for my children, my grandchildren, and my soon-to-be great-grandchild. My children, and their children, are all here because of you.
Thank you for encouraging me to maintain a friendly but uppity attitude towards authority/mainstream culture. I am who I am because of you, and I have always been grateful to you for that. Now you are one with the Light!
To me, the overall importance of Stephen’s life is contained in one of his aphorisms: “There’s something you can do that will make a difference for everyone.” His life was a perfect illustration of that.
He didn’t set out to be a “hippie guru.” He was teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State; the department head was famed linguist S.I. Hayakawa, and, by some accounts, Stephen was in line to be Hayakawa’s successor. Stephen started noticing that many of his best students were losing interest in academics, dropping out of college, moving to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, and doing something called “exploring expanded states of consciousness,” aka “tripping.” Curious, he followed them and soon found out what they were talking about, a transition chronicled in his delightful memoir, “Amazing Dope Tales.” Inspired, he quit his formal teaching position at the college, but started a class at San Francisco State’s “experimental college” to explore and discuss this phenomenon. The class started with a dozen people, shrank to six, and then grew, first to a few hundred and then to a couple of thousand people, becoming a coherent community in the Bay area, as class members began to share housing and evolve a common vocabulary and set of standards for interpersonal relations and group etiquette. He began to talk of establishing a “home base” for the class–initially a storefront, but by mid-1970 he and others were looking for land in northern California. Then Stephen was invited to speak at a number of college campuses around the country. A couple hundred class members asked to join him on the tour, travelling in their own converted schoolbus campers, and he assented.
Stephen’s original intention had been to settle back in California when the tour, which became known as “The Caravan,” was over, but the San Francisco scene, which had been in serious decline before the Caravan, had slid still further into cocaine and cash, while the “community that meets twice a week” (for Monday Night Class and Sunday sunrise meditation) had coalesced. The heart needed a home. Stephen conferred with his inner circle, took the pulse of the Caravan, and decided to head back to Tennessee to settle because the people had been friendly when the Caravan had passed through, the climate was mild, and land prices were cheap, cheap, cheap–we would end up buying land for seventy dollars an acre. He also favored heading for the middle of the country to get away from the counter–culturally crowded Bay area. “We asked the people of Tennessee, ‘can we be y’all’s hippies?’ was one of his lines.
He always insisted that he was a teacher, not a leader, because “if you lose your leader, you’re leaderless and lost, but if you lose your teacher, maybe he taught you enough that you know how to keep going without him.” Well, he’s gone now, and, while I moved beyond Stephen and The Farm into Vajrayana Buddhism, he was the teacher who set me on the path, and I deeply appreciate him, for all his very human faults, and miss him, and am doing my best to keep manifesting his vision–creation of a sane, caring, sustainable society. His life was a testimony to what one person can accomplish, starting from doing one little thing. His class of a dozen-thinned-down-to-six turned into a movement that altered, in a very good way, the lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, moving them towards spiritual awareness, political and community activism, and more compassionate life choices. The Farm, imperfect as it was, was an immersion course in a new, more open, trusting, and sharing paradigm, where, for a few years, at least, compassion was paramount and money matters were peripheral. I view my years on the Farm as a delicious taste of what life on Earth could be like for everyone, and I will always be grateful to Stephen for having dared to take the steps that created the reality we shared on The Farm.
My understanding of what friendship is and means was developed on The Farm. The forever quality of those connections has molded my standard of what relationships mean. Being (brought up with lots of other kids) influenced my ability to cut straight to the chase and recognize genuine qualities in others, (enabling us to) bond in meaningful ways….. when we meet someone who is actually genuine, we appreciate it immediately. This is one of the most important things in my life and my moral code….always be genuine….. it isn’t always easy, kind, tactful, or convenient to be truly genuine with others, but it remains a goal….always on my horizons. …. that was one of the issues of integration into mainstream social interactions….I have had to (still have to) work at distinguishing between those situations when it is and isn’t useful or appropriate to expose the entirety of my self. Honestly, I’ve found that sometimes folks just can’t handle it….by ‘it,’ I mean the big picture perspective, or the honest-to-gosh truth about matters at hand. Sometimes people aren’t to be trusted with the entire package of truth the way (we spoke it on The Farm). They might not know what to do with it or how to integrate it or want to hear it. Sometimes it’s obvious that people don’t just want to be bothered with a genuine version of things, nor do they … care. I can think of several times when it would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had recognized falsity in what I thought was genuine…. As transplants, we have had to navigate through seas and oceans and bogs and jungles and deserts of social clues and insinuations, of customs and traditions, of unspoken rules for which people are held accountable.
There you have it, folks, from an independent witness. I’m not just making this up. Stephen’s one small step opened the door into a saner world for thousands of people. Not every effort we make is going to pay off like his decision to start a class. In fact, it seems like most of our attempts don’t lead to much at all, and the same could be said of The Farm which, as a radical spiritual/political experiment, foundered in the early 80’s.
Whether this was purely the result of its internal difficulties or at least partially the result of government disruption of a group whose spokesman called for the reinvigoration of the movement that had ended the Vietnam War and toppled President Nixon is a question that may never be answered, one which I have dealt with in depth elsewhere. Even without The Farm as a flagship, the movement for a saner world continues to gather steam; but we are, it seems, still a long way from recreating the free, open ambience of that community in its heyday. Nevertheless, the overall lesson I find in Stephen’s life is that the mere possibility of success makes every attempt to make the world a better place worthwhile.
music: Kate Wolf, “Brother Warrior”