Like the rest of the Netflix-watching population of the US, I spent the last month transfixed by Wild Wild Country, gripped by the allure of cult voyeurism. I'd spend hours each night watching the docuseries, and then curl up in bed to read Jonathan Kauffman's book, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. The two have strangely a lot in common: cults, dogged belief systems, well-intentioned humans, and a surprising amount of violence. Both also mirrored shards of my child-of-hippie-parents past and wellness-entrenched present. Fundamentally, both were stories of seduction—of ideological panaceas that promised to eradicate ailments physical, psychological, and spiritual.
If you haven't watched Wild Wild Country, I’ll summarize: It's the story of a spiritual community (ahem, cult) gone deeply astray, replete with a militia, private jets, machine guns, murder attempts, and mass poisonings. It's also the story of greed, immigration, xenophobia, devotion, ecstatic spiritual states, and misogyny. The story focuses on the period of time in which the Rajneesh community moved from India to a desolate area of Oregon and used the tools of the US political system to stage a hostile takeover.
Things spiraled out of control as Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh's right-hand woman and devoted disciple, plots to secure the organization’s political and fiscal dominance. Sheela, like many seekers before and after, devoted herself to an ideology and a teacher in exchange for the promise of lasting bliss, a way out of the samsaric hamster wheel. But while Twitter pundits were quick to revile her, I couldn’t help but feel I understood Ma Anand Sheela. Had I not, like Sheela, previously sworn allegiance to a spiritual belief system I didn’t fully understand? Had I not strived to serve my teachers with almost manic obsession? And had I not ultimately cast aside those beliefs when I discovered they did me more harm than good?
The deeper I got into Wild Wild Country and Hippie Food, the more I realized they neatly summarized the belief systems I absorbed growing up and took into my adult life. The two eras of my professional path—from yoga and spiritual teacher to food blogger and cookbook author—could be traced in the DNA of the New Age movement. Despite my desire to separate myself from both the easily-duped characters and the seeming villains of these stories, the more I wondered at how I was, in fact, just like them—obsessed with seeking, and the promise of freedom from suffering, both spiritual and physical.
My parents were of the generation of those back-to-the-landers and longhairs that grew addicted to spiritual seeking, to the idea that somewhere out there lay a counterculture cure for the white, Jewish, middle-class malaise they grew up with. Children of South Bend, Indiana, and Sacramento, California, my parents left their families young and never looked back. They met in a jungle hot tub on Maui in the early ‘70s, the island where I was later raised, and their first date was a road-trip to Central America in a VW pop-top van.
A half-decade later, my father traveled to India and Nepal in search of wisdom. He spent ten days studying with Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh himself in Pune, India, years before the group moved to Antelope, Oregon. My mother, queen of hippie food and herbalism, stayed home in Bolinas, California, to study plants, teach flower essence classes, and write poetry. Thank goodness she was nowhere near Antelope.
After watching Wild Wild Country, my dad recalled laughingly how he'd stood in a line to get into Rajneesh's ashram in Pune (he went pre-Oregon, remember). A human-sniffer patrolled the queue, ensuring nobody wore scents of any kind. Such olfactory individuality was not permitted; it was the sign of a flashy ego not ready to merge with the divine. Once inside, my father danced, meditated, listened to teachings, and did "some kind of wild stuff...but nothing too crazy." He says he knew quickly that this wasn't the place or the ideology for him.
Other details he remembers: Rajneesh had a brilliant mind. Rajneesh truly wanted to help rid people of their childhood conditioning. Rajneesh just wanted people to be happy and free.
But the detail that struck my father most profoundly about Wild Wild Country was that the years it depicts, 1981 to 1985, coincided precisely with my parents’ involvement with a cultish experiment of their own: the Alive Tribe. I was born into the Tribe in 1983, delivered by a doctor named Laser Nightsky and a midwife named Crystal Presence. My parents, at the time, were Marvel and Wondra.
Listening to my father’s memories after watching the documentary, it was difficult not to jump in and attack. I reminded myself that his generation—in all their attempts to eschew “conditioning” and the status quo—was equally conditioned to seek truth, even in the face of manipulation and cultism. And so it was for me: From the beginning, long before Wild Wild Country, I was primed not to think twice about psycho-spiritual communes; this, then, was my childhood conditioning.
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Though Marvel and Wondra left the Alive Tribe when I was two (my father was being shamed for his love of watching football), seeking dies hard. My dad returned to India in the 90s to study with another teacher, and I grew up with that insatiable desire for spiritual growth that is the norm in many New Age communities. We chanted Buddhist mantras, om’d at every meal, and kept a translation of the Tao Te Ching and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart on the back of the toilet. And the way we ate was as much a part of our spiritual well-being as any other.
My parents came of age as hippies in California, the cradle of hippie food in the US, according to Kauffman. As early as the first part of the twentieth century, California was the propagating grounds for philosophical and dietary movements imported from abroad. Kauffman details the influence of the German lebensreform (life reform) movement, “which embraced nudism, vegetarian diets, and drugless medicine,” on broader dietary preferences. Decades later, my parents were the perfect embodiment: practicing naked yoga with the Alive Tribe before sitting down to vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners (clothed, one can only hope). My mother spent hours concocting elaborate mandala flower salads and perfecting her lentil nut loaf.
While I was growing up, spiritual retreat centers sprouted across the country like mushrooms, from Tassajara and Esalen in California to the Omega Center and Kripalu in New England. Wellness tourism eventually became a $563 billion industry, rivaled only by beauty and anti-aging at $999 billion, and healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss at $648 billion. In the past five years, the revenue of the yoga industry in the US alone has nearly doubled, reaching nine billion dollars in 2015. As spiritual materialism took hold in the west, our desire to capitalize and consume teachings that promised lasting happiness surged.
I never resisted its call. In fact, I ran straight toward it, assuming the identity of a consummate student of yoga, meditation, and Sanskrit. In college, I spent hours each day studying yoga asana, Sanskrit, and meditation. I met a teacher in the lineage of Jivamukti Yoga, a westernized derivative of Pattabhi Jois’s ashtanga yoga practice. The founders of Jivamukti, Sharon Gannon and David Life, were radical artists and self-proclaimed spiritual activists. They were also animal rights activist vegans, and encouraged all their students to be the same. A solid part of our training involved watching PETA-produced videos about factory farming. By the time I completed my teacher training I was vegan.
Veganism was not only positioned as an environmental and humanitarian choice, it was also touted as a spiritual one: I’m sure this was never said outright, but there was a tacit understanding that those who chose to eat animal products were just not quite as far along on their spiritual path. Those of us evolved enough to harm less of the planet by being vegan were, obviously, wiser. Though we were well-meaning, we walked around shrouded in a holier-than-thou incense cloud of spiritual promise and spirulina.
By the time I was 21, armed with a degree from Yale and a 300-hour yoga teaching certification, I had abandoned every professional pursuit besides teaching people how to meditate, chant to Hindu and Buddhist deities, and stand on their heads. I moved home to Maui to teach yoga, which I believed to be the best avenue for my burgeoning spiritual activism. I was devastatingly sincere. My first gig on-island was assistant teaching yoga to hundreds of equally sincere seekers at a retreat led by Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg. I had made it.
A few months later, I left Maui to reunite with a spiritually devout man I’d met at my yoga teacher training. We spent the better part of a year writing to one another, quoting Gurdjieff, Rilke, Emerson, and the Bhagavad Gita, reading poetry over the phone, and falling in love the long-distance analog way, as one could still do in 2005. Less than a month after my visit to him, I moved from Maui to Michigan to further my studies and bask in the ethereal glow of our vegan diet, yogic meditation, and hours of tantric sex.
Life as an animal rights activist vegan wasn’t too rough. My hippie food upbringing—mornings spent smearing tahini on sprouted bagels, topping yogurt with spirulina, making brown rice in preschool, and eating bucketfuls of millet, tofu, and nutritional yeast—now came in handy. Where my boyfriend had grown up with chicken wings and hot dogs, I knew how to make avocado chocolate mousse and tofu that actually tasted good. I was primed for this life.
But one night in 2006, a few months before my mother would be diagnosed with late-stage endometrial cancer, my yogi boyfriend didn’t come home. When he returned at 7 the next morning, he announced he’d spent the evening receiving a Vedic astrology reading from one of his teachers, the infamous Bhagavan Das (who was subsequently banned in almost every retreat center in the US for inappropriate behavior with female students).
Das told him that his Vedic astrology chart revealed he should never be in a committed romantic relationship in his life—if he did, it would only be a burden. Within months, yogi boyfriend ended our relationship. Years later, a man making a documentary about Bhagavan Das informed me that my boyfriend’s “reading” was just Das’s standard party line with young men, a projected justification of the way he left his own wives and children.
I moved home to care for my mother, and though I continued to teach yoga, mantra, meditation, and philosophy, it all felt increasingly hollow. As my spiritual idols faltered, my continued devotion to them left me feeling emotionally and spiritually manipulated. I began to question the beliefs I espoused to hundreds of students each week. I no longer felt comfortable asserting these ideas—about spirit, body, mind, and food—as truths.
During my mother’s illness, she, a nearly lifelong vegetarian, was urged by an oncological nutritionist to start eating more animal protein. The day she asked if I would buy a chicken to make bone broth for her—shame and timidity clouding her gaze as she hesitated to burden her vegan daughter with such a request—was a turning point. Of course I would make her bone broth. I would have hunted an animal for her if I knew it would abate her cancer. I realized, with humiliation and fear, that many of the panacea-promising ideologies I clung to—like veganism—might not bear out in the grit of real life.
As I wrestled my first chicken carcass into brothy submission, I watched my mother grapple with the sturdiness of her own beliefs in the face of death. I realized that many of the ideas I took as my own because they sounded good were just exactly that: palatable sound bytes that translated well to the western mind. I needed to find my own answers, and I wanted to do so without the obligation of broadcasting those answers to the public. I stopped teaching and returned to my writing desk to ask more questions than I could answer.
The relinquishing of my cultist spiritual beliefs went hand-in-hand with letting go of my vegan diet. I didn't go crazy; I had an omelette, and a couple weeks later some yogurt, and then some cheese, and then, several years later, I decided it was time to try some of the foods I was taught to be afraid to eat. Much as the microcosm of a cult is in part controlled by fear of the outside world and an insistence on its practices as the singular right way, I'd been taught to fear all kinds of foods that were not a part of a “healthy” hippie diet. Refined sugar, flour, and meats of all kinds topped the list.
In the years that followed, as grief unraveled the dietary and spiritual beliefs that stitched together my identity, I realized my tendency to cultify was pervasive. I could, it seemed, join a micro-cult of just about anything, so rampant was my (and our collective) desire to make a singular option or path the choice and the way. Slap-on identities like vegan, yogi, and spiritual seemed to be fill-ins for a kind of obsessional mad-libs, with the comforting bonus of suddenly belonging to an ideology greater than yourself. Today, the cults of yoga, mantra, and meditation; tomorrow, adaptogenic mushrooms, jade yoni eggs, and magnetic manifestation.
In the wake of my mother’s death, I saw all this seeking in a new light. Each path was lit by fear and FOMO: If I don’t know what turmeric is, I don’t have the right mantra or meditation, or I don’t believe in invisible healing powers, not only am I missing out on resplendent health and spiritual awakening, I’m also occupying a lesser atmosphere than those who have access to such physical and spiritual material.
Which is to say nothing of the classist implications inherent in our seeking and micro-cult–joining. Like the thousands who gave every cent they had to Rajneeshpuram, we’re only of use to the cult if we surrender our financial means to its leader—human, ideological, or physical. Those of us who can afford to do so join macro- and micro-cults with abandon. The rest of us live on in (perhaps blissful) ignorance.
Today, the recipes I share and the food I photograph on my blog and in my book are vegetarian, but that’s only because it’s what I know how to cook. I’m careful to state publicly that I’m an omnivore, regardless of how little meat I may actually consume. Orthorexic thinking and cultish eating has no home on Kale & Caramel (despite a susceptibility to hippie food trends du jour, which evoke my childhood comfort foods).
Watching the cult exit interviews with so many of Rajneesh’s former disciples, Sheela included, I could relate. It’s been eight years since I set foot in a yoga studio. For a while, my PTSD was so severe I could barely stand to utter the word yoga. The seeking, it seemed, had become something bigger, and darker, than myself. Instead of answers and lasting inner satiety, it yielded only more seeking. Hunting for a panacea, turns out, is exhausting. I was done. In 2008, finally listening to my own inner voice, I stopped teaching.
I put away my statues of Hindu gods, wrapped up my malas, gave away the harmonium I’d played in every class, and tried steak tartar and bacon for the first time. All of it—these transgressions against the cultist mentalities of hippie food and New Age spirituality—made my heart race. To my great shock, however, I didn’t become a lesser human being for any of it. My soul didn’t shrivel. My spiritual awareness didn’t shrink. Instead, I just got to be myself.
And the steak tartar wasn’t bad, either.
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