Voluntary Peasants: Part One, Birth of The Farm Commune (New Beat Books, 2013) is a far-out adventure in search of enlightenment in the 1960s. Author Melvyn Stiriss was a founder, builder and 13-year resident of The Farm—America’s biggest commune—a collective village on land twice the size of Central Park. In this excerpt from chapter one, see where the great social experiment began.
Cool ocean breezes—gentle rhythm of rolling waves; breaking surf. Plaintive seagulls squawk. A California state of mind—where it all began.
Far out across San Francisco Bay, at a distant horizon, where the great curve of Planet Earth meets the sky—sunset transforms the blue—shades of purple, gold and tangerine. The sun melts and spreads as it squats and morphs into a fiery Buddha—dripping myriad gold Buddhas into a sea of liquid jade. A million micro suns sparkle and dance on rolling waves.
Behind us—The Great Highway, a wide, sand-blown boulevard—across The Great Highway, aglow in the sunset—landmark rock hall, The Family Dog—wildly-popular, hip venue for the Grateful Dead, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, the Doors, Steppenwolf, Mothers of Invention, Commander Cody, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Iron Butterfly.
Hundreds of cool, hip-looking people are entering “the Dog.” What in the world is going on? Today is Monday. No rock and roll tonight. What’s the buzz? Curious, feeling drawn, we follow the crowd in through old, movie theater, glass doors—everyone in sharply-slanting shafts of amber sunlight.
Inside the large, high-ceilinged hall—a thousand flower children—hippies, magical-looking, colorful people—aspiring wizards and shamans, a few older Bohemians, and beatniks; sweet, young, sparkle-eyed, rosy-cheeked love children, Hobbit wannabes, and all manner of free spirits. The Family Dog filled up. Folks mingled, chatted, hugged and sat down on the big, wooden dance floor—forming a wall-to-wall, crazy quilt of friendly people, bedrolls, paisley cushions and zafus. The air was scented with an intoxicating blend of patchouli, sandalwood, sage, and a hint of frankincense and myrrh.
A tall, lanky hippie stepped up silently onto a simple, low stage and sat down cross-legged—facing the crowd. A thrill of anticipation ran through the hall. Conversations tapered off, and the hall grew silent. People sat up and began to meditate. Palpable peace and a fun sense of being in on something cool washed over the crowd.
After several minutes of silent, informal, group meditation, the man on stage took hold of a cow horn—which hung, bandolier-style, from a cord across his chest. Slowly, with solemnity like a rabbi blowing shofar, the man raised the horn to his lips and blew one, loud, sustained note. A powerful vibration filled the hall and cued the crowd into an instant choir of a thousand voices. Each person sang out one syllable, the ancient Eastern chant, OM (AUM)—
The whole Family Dog, from floor to high ceiling, vibrated OM. Walls echoed OM. Exquisite, complex melodies-inside-melodies sprang briefly into existence, spontaneously forming constantly-changing, serendipitous combinations. Strange, beautiful, harmonies emerged from chaos—sounding like ancient, sacred song. From bass through soprano—young, old; male, female; soft, strong—all voices merged into a choir of angels—all from OM—a simple, one-word powerful expression of human spirit and universal prayer for peace—
Suddenly, as if by telepathic cue from an invisible conductor—everyone stopped. For several moments, a golden, acoustic, afterglow OM hung suspended in mid-air. The man on stage looked around the room, slowly, silently—pausing to look into the eyes of each person, exchanging energy, mind to mind.
The man on stage broke the silence. Projecting his voice without aid of a sound system, in a strong, friendly voice, he spoke—
“We drank some peyote tea this week and got to a very, high place—a pure, holy-feeling place and I realized—Attention is energy, and God is real, and where we put our attention, we get more of. If you are tripping and start to think everything is weird, you’ll get more weird, but if you shift your attention from weird to beauty and love, you get more beauty and love. How many here have seen that on acid? Raise your hand. How many have thought something and then saw it manifest right in front of you? (laughs and shouts of “Right on!”) You know the words I am have so much magical power, we have to be very careful what we say right after we say I am.” He let that sink in while he looked around the room and then added—
‘We are what we think, having become what we thought.’
I love Zen. It’s so clean.”
We sat there mesmerized, as the man paused a long while and then continued—
“Each one of us is like a valve from which universal energy is metered into the world, and each one of us can point ourselves at whatever we want to. We have free will. When you put your attention on me really solidly and understand what I'm doing and pay attention, then that gives me juice. That makes me able to be sure when I'm talking.”
“I wanted to talk a little about the way we're going to be. We can all be really stoned in here together. There is over a thousand of us. There is gonna’ be a lot of things happening here this evening, because we brought this many heads together. (pause)
How many people here have experienced a contact high? Raise your hand.”
A thousand hands shoot enthusiastically into the air, and the crowd shares a good laugh.
“You see that?” he said, smiling broadly. “The fact that we all have witnessed the contact high shows us there is more to us than just the meat part. When we get high, we see energy fields that extend out past the meat. That’s your soul, your aura.”
“See, here's the thing. When we split fields with someone who is high, say on grass, we pick up some of their energy and we get high too—thus, the contact high! (laughter) When we all come together like this, our energy fields all merge together into a group mind, and we have our own unified field, and the whole, the gestalt, is greater than the sum of its parts. You dig that? We are all sharing energy, right here and now. This is energy communion, and all this energy feels so good. It gets us all high and is healing for all who partake. (pause) The vision in here just got better. How many folks saw that? Put up your hand.”
It was true! I saw it. The whole room looked clearer. I had never seen anything like it; never heard anyone speak of the quality of group vision. Everyone smiled and raised their hands. The hippie guru smiled and beamed good vibes.
“It feels really stoned in here, psychedelic. (vocal and visual assent of the crowd) You know what the word psychedelic really means? The word psychedelic comes from Greek. Psyche is Greek for soul, and delic means to show, to make evident. Psychedelic means ‘to show soul, to make soul evident.’ That’s far out. When we get high—our third eye opens to this level of spiritual vision in the astral plane.”
The intriguing man speaking in the focal point of attention—the man who called this meeting, drew this crowd, and brought order out of chaos to a motley mob of hippies, trippers, free spirits and anarchists—was Stephen Floyd Gaskin—combat Marine veteran of Korea, former San Francisco State semantics professor, teaching assistant to future U.S. Senator, S.I. Hayakawa.
Stephen Gaskin, now-turned-hippie-spiritual-peaceful-revolutionary guru, stood a hair over six feet, four—nearly as tall as Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne and Michael Jordan. Naturally, people looked up to him, and he kept them looking up with his spellbinding talk. The whole room hung on his every word. Every Monday night, for a couple of hours, Stephen captivated his audience and was the focal point of attention of a juicy, thousand-plus-person, psychedelic energy-bubble/community.
To say Stephen was an effective speaker, would be understatement. Stephen was a one-of-a-kind, amazing speaker. What a voice! Big, strong baritone—commanding, yet warm. Though Jack Kerouac was not writing about Stephen Gaskin in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s description of Jaffe Ryder (Gary Snyder) fits Stephen to a “T”—
“His voice was deep and resonant and somehow brave, like the voice of old-time American heroes and orators.”
Stephen was a strikingly intelligent, articulate, entertaining monologist with a fun, down-home, folksy manner that evoked Will Rogers and Mark Twain. At times, Stephen seemed a peyote road chief—a skillful manipulator of energy and consciousness. Stephen spoke with authority. He spoke clearly, distinctly—packing high energy into each word, to project his voice to the back of the hall.
Stephen clearly had charisma. People were drawn to him. In today’s parlance, Stephen would be considered a kind of spiritual, Wi-Fi hot spot. Being in Stephen’s energy field was a way to connect with heavy energy and get a contact high.
Stephen seemed to be a human tuning-fork, to whom people came to tune their mind and energy—a time-honored practice from the East where, for millennia, people have placed high value in “splitting fields” with swamis, gurus and other spiritual heavies. At thirty-four, Stephen Gaskin looked ageless, cool, and impressive. The San Francisco Chronicle called Stephen—“The Rainbow Maker.” High Times later dubbed Stephen—“Gandhi of the American counterculture.”
Always on the cutting-edge of all things far out, the Bay Area was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual trips—everything from Alpha to Omega, from Astrology to Zen—swamis, gurus, Hare Krishnas, hip Hasids and Sufis—self-proclaimed messiahs and prophets, new cults and religions, and everything seemed up for grabs.
Monday Night Class was one of these popular, spiritually-oriented trips that had an impact on the lives of many and gave birth to a great social experiment that would turn into The Farm commune. Monday Night Class was free—a mind-blowing, high-energy, tripping workshop, and, for many—a lifeboat. Monday Night Class was also launch pad for Stephen Gaskin's career as a guru.
The way a Buddhist life works is that when you need to learn something bad enough, the right teacher comes along. Tripmaster Monkey, His Fake Book—Maxine Hong Kingston
Reprinted with permission from Voluntary Peasants Save the World: Part One, Birth of The Farm Commune by Melvyn Stiriss and published by New Beat Books, 2013.