It's Feb. 17 and I'm standing in front of a full room at Gatsby Books in Long Beach, Calif. Once again, we've filled up the seats and people are standing in the back as I deliver my opening line, "If you told me several years ago I'd be here talking about Jesus and ayahuasca, I would have laughed my ass off." But perhaps more incredible than tales of spiritual awakening is that here I am on the final night of my "Electric Jesus" West Coast book tour, knowing we have shattered the odds.
Enthusiastic crowds have greeted me at almost all of my 16 stops. This shouldn't be happening as first-time author in a wilting publishing industry. But I've had a secret grassroots weapon, one that a lot of mainstream America doesn't know about: the flourishing new spiritual counterculture.
The audience in Gatsby Books is dressed in hipster vintage printed tees and American Apparel cotton hoodies with esoteric flares of spiral plug earrings and Peruvian indigenous bracelets. I've come to realize this isn't simply the Whole Foods sustainability crew, Yoga Journal aficionados or New Age healers. There's a weird and intricate alchemy of deeper ecological and spiritual activism, where new design systems meet vipassana firmness of mind, plant medicine wisdom engages with Occupy ideologies, permaculture principles with a global festival culture, and a rising planetary awareness with radically practical solutions to address global challenges tidal-waving toward us.
I ask the crowd, "Who here is going through some type of initiatory or healing process?" By this final night in Long Beach, I'm confident that at least nine-tenths of the audience are going to raise their hands. "There's something unusual going on," I tell them. "I think we're pioneers."
But where did all these folks come from? Over the last couple of decades transformational tribes have been actively building communities -- some for fun, like the psytrance/rave movement and festival scene; some for spiritual/health reasons, like the ashrams, alternative health centers and ayahuasca plant medicine retreats; and some to combat the immense environmental, economic and political threats on the horizon. This includes the eco-villages, urban homesteaders, alternative energy organizations, complimentary currency groups and digital democracy advocates.
My work over the last few years, having helped co-found The Evolver Social Movement, has been to connect members of these diverse groups and foster better collaborations, information-sharing, and build a larger transformational network. In our 2.5 years, we have grown from having one Evolver Spore (as we call our regional chapters) in Atlanta to facilitating an international community with 40+ thriving groups in the U.S. and abroad. Every third Wednesday of the month, we synch up our efforts across the network, hosting events based on themes such as water, food, shamanism, climate change, spiritual activism, visionary art and technology. We've created our own successful distribution system for a "market" unrecognized by most companies, hosting spiritual counterculture film screenings, book tours, consciousness parties, salons and festivals.
Our cross-network building is what facilitated the uncommonly high attendance for my speaking engagements. But I admit the idea of bringing together multifarious tribes under the same umbrella didn't originate from our second floor office in downtown Brooklyn. It came from the strangest city on earth, a temporary municipality in the middle of the desert that lasts only one week a year. I'm talking about Black Rock City where the Burning Man Festival takes place.
Covering five square miles of Nevada desert with a grid infrastructure, street lamps and enough bathrooms to accommodate 50,000+ people, the festival's mantra of "radical free expression" fosters an eclectic city able to accommodate the various yoga dens, permaculture training centers, psychedelic lectures, "Thunderdomish" battles and all-night dance camps. This "future-tribal" alchemy has become a cultural incubator inspiring participants to start up their own organizations, projects or even regional Burning Man groups (there are around 100 hundred regionals in North America) back home.
In terms of the counterculture, one of the biggest surprises over the last year has been the spiritual components of the Occupy Movement. In 2004, when protesting the Republican National Convention in NYC, a group of anarchists laughed at my suggestion to calm tension with police by meditating. Now Occupy Wall Street has its own "Consciousness Committee," hosting meditation flash mobs, based on the viral MedMob model, which started in Austin in 2011 and has spread to more than 300 cities.
Pop gurus like Deepak Copra, Vandava Shiva and Robert Thurman are being greeted like war heroes at Occupy rallies. Spiritual activists, such as "The Fifth Sacred Thing" author Starhawk in Oakland, have organized healing circles for Occupiers affected by police violence. Even the signs on the back of cardboard pizza boxes relay spiritual messages: "The revolution must be a revolution of consciousness," "Welcome to the Paradigm Shift" and "Occupy Consciousness."
Generally I've found this new spiritual counterculture believes that our monochromatic, corporate society has failed us, given us information over wisdom, consumerism over community, false advertising over deeper healing. Many seem to have given up on fixing the old systems ("Look what happened to Obama," they say) and are now building new models of coexistence and sustainability, ones that enable us live and share our unique gifts, and to reconnect with the sacredness of nature and each other.
Together we are creating a richly diverse ecosystem of organic farms, solar-powered earthships, mystery schools, reskilling trainings, ceremonial spaces and gift economies. But there is no way to tell if we will be engineers of a Civilization 2.0 upgrade or post-modern Don Quixotes lancing at techno-industrialized windmills with our flimsy, rolled-up yoga mats.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously stated, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I pray she is right, but one thing is certain: We aren't so small anymore.
Jonathan Talat Phillips is the author of 'The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic.' He will give readings in Richmond, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston April 17-26.
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