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Catching Up with the Children of the ’60’s Spiritual Revolution

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October 2nd, 2009

People whose minds travel back to the turbulent 1960s typically see images of long hair, loud music, sexual experimentation, protest movements, and mind-expanding drugs.

These images are so pervasive that a recent episode of The Simpsonsdealing with Homer’s mom, a former radical who now lives underground, featured a TV news anchor telling engineers to run the station’s stock footage reel.

But one aspect of the 60s that has received less attention than it should is the impact this revolutionary decade had on the children of the young people who, as Jimi Hendrix put it, let their freak flags fly.

Druid Day

Novelist T. C. Boyle’s bestselling Drop City, which tells the story of a fictional hippie commune, explores the lives of the commune’s children, most of whom are forced to fend for themselves as their parents experiment with various partners, lifestyles, and drug cocktails. In one unnerving scene, hippies celebrating Druid Day with unusually large doses of LSD are brought crashing back down to earth when one of the tribe’s tykes nearly drowns in a fetid pool.

“How could anybody be expected to do anything at a time like this?” writes Boyle. “It was Druid Day. They were wiped out, all of them. They didn’t want to save children, they wanted to be children.”

Multiple Messiahs

A more recent study of 60s spirituality by the San Francisco Chronicle’s ace religion reporter provides some of the details Boyle only hints at. In his more than two decades of covering the Bay Area’s ever-evolving religious scene, Don Lattin has probably done more firsthand reporting on contemporary alternative spirituality than anyone. “Oh, the messiahs I have known!” he writes in the preface to Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today.

Born to a Jewish mother but raised in Presbyterian and Congregational churches, Lattin came to Berkeley in the 60s to follow his own bliss. Today he’s a non-denominational spiritual seeker who follows in the footsteps of Jesus and Buddha. And though childless himself, Lattin devotes significant portions of his book to tracking down contemporary adults who were born into the confusion and uncertainty of the 60s spiritual fervor.

“We were a restless bunch,” he writes.

“We were a generation that was not content to stay in the suburbs and pray to God on Sunday morning. Many of us wanted to see God, to be God, or to at least recapture the ecstasy and revelation of that eye-opening acid trip we couldn’t get out of our system.”

Family Life

Whether he’s making a pilgrimage to the Esalen Institute, an ocean-side human-potential center he labels “the birthplace of religion, California-style,” or sitting in on a retreat for Buddhist families at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Lattin champions sixties ideals like hope and idealism while he examines the impact of these ideals on the children of sixties spiritual pioneers. And as Lattin shows, the obsessive quest for Nirvana often resulted in neglect of loved ones.

In some cases, that neglect resulted in outright abuse, as was the case at some of the Krishna Consciousness communities that valued duty to Hindu deities over duties to family. In other cases, family values were actually strengthened, as Lattin discovers by talking to some of the people wed in the mass marriages arranged by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. “The Sixties were a mixed blessing” for the children, writes Lattin. “To many of them, it was an era of shattered institutions and broken homes, a time that saw the rise of no-fault divorce and no-fault religion.”

Interestingly, Lattin says that 60s parents were both laid-back and obsessive about their spiritual quests. “Having rejected the faith of their fathers, they were hesitant to impose their newly formed beliefs on their children,” he writes. “They didn’t want to lay their trip on the kids.”

On the other hand, sixties seekers “practiced extreme religion, and the kids had no choice but to follow their parents down a pre-determined spiritual path. While their parents were out spreading a counterculture gospel, the kids were often left behind at nurseries, boarding schools, and communal farms. Some were abandoned and abused and then left the fold as soon as they could. Others have kept the faith and even passed it on to a third generation.”

One of Lattin’s more interesting chapters focuses on David Price, whose father Richard was one of the founders of the Esalen Institute, where hot tubs, free sex, and encounter groups unleashed a new approach to spiritual growth. David was conceived in a tiny cabin on the retreat center’s grounds, but his mother and father’s relationship floundered and David was left largely on his own.

“My father was not very available when I was growing up,” David tells Lattin. “He was focused on the ‘I’ stuff then.” David’s mom went off to India to study Hinduism, leaving David with relatives, where he often wished he could have “normal” parents like the ones portrayed in TV sitcoms. “We were the only people who weren’t Christian,” he says.

Today, David is back at Esalen, where he works as the center’s operations manager. A father himself, David is more committed to spending time with his young daughter than he is to raising her in any particular religious tradition. “I feel quite pessimistic, not about spirituality, but about religion,” he says.

Lattin also devotes a chapter to the day he spent at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California’s Marin County. Here, concerned Buddhist parents enroll their children in the center’s Family Practice Day. Just about every Christian youth worker has those moments of despair and fear where she feels nothing she’s doing is getting through to the kids. But if the Buddhist youth workers at Spirit Rock experience such moments, they weren’t evident to Lattin, who described some of the day’s activities as “Mickey Mouse meets the Dalai Lama.” (Lattin also has fun describing the DharmaKids Collection of Buddhist-inspired kids products sold by Lexington, Mass.-based DharmaCrafts. The products include flannel meditation clothing and miniature yoga mats.)

“A New Spirituality”

Lattin’s isn’t the only recent book to explore the legacy of 60s spirituality. Mark Oppenheimer, a staff writer for the Christian Century, is the author ofKnocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. While Lattin looks at alternative spirituality, Oppenheimer investigates changes in America’s mainstream religious denominations.

And Amy Wallace, the daughter of best-selling writer Irving Wallace, describes her years as a member of Carlos Castaneda’s inner circle of disciples and sexual partners in Sorcerer’s Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda.

But if you want to understand how 60s spiritual seekers helped transform the way Americans look at life, God, and parenthood—the results of which you’re seeing in their own parenting styles with the kids in your group—Lattin’s book is one of the best sources of information and insight. The 60s were just a step along the way to a new spirituality for the western world,” says James A. Herrick, a professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich. and author of The Making of the New Spirituality.

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