Sunday, April 27, 2003
An Interview With Ken Whitley, Kamalla Rose Kaur’s Husband
Q. Did you know anything about the Sikh religion before you met Kamalla Rose Kaur?
A little – I knew Sikhs were special enough that the British had allowed them to work all over the world but didn’t make them dress and act British. I knew they came from North India, and that the Sikh religion was newer than Christianity and Islam. I knew about Malik, the guy from Vancouver who is accused of blowing up the plane, but I knew about the Christian Jim Jones too, and didn’t generalize from either. I didn’t know what Sikhs believed or didn’t, or what they practiced.
Q. What is it like being married to a Sikh?
I suppose it’s no more complicated than, say, a Protestant-Jewish marriage, but different. Sikh practice doesn’t take up a large amount of time, but it’s always present. She is a writer, I am a musician, we both are unusual people, and there are other differences much more noticeable in our lives than that she is a Sikh and I am not.
Q. What are your spiritual beliefs and practices?
My spiritual path could, I think, best be described as a pith helmet, a machete, and a pair of good boots.
I was raised indifferent Christian by superstitious or indifferent parents — that is, they took me to church for a while, then they sent me but didn’t go themselves. Unfortunately I learned to read early, liked to read a lot, and I read the Bible at a young age. I concluded that if Hitler had thought to use the Old Testament to attack the Jews he might have won the war. The best explanation I could find for the New Testament was that Satan had sent St. Paul to corrupt the message of Jesus with hatred of self, others, and life. I was impressed at how some good people could hammer Christianity into something serving their goals, but not impressed with the wasted effort. By age 13 or 14 I pretty much abandoned the whole Judeo-Christian tradition.
Q. What happened next?
Like many American teenagers, I next checked out Satanism and its ilk. After all, if good was bad, then bad must be good, right? Elementary American logic.
Well, as it turns out, a lot of Satanism is the same as Christianity – you use the same game board, and the same rules, but you play for the other side. The Satanic theory was that there were no God, no rulers, no rules, and no rights. We were to just take whatever we wanted, with no thought for anything but satisfying one’s lusts. It was pointed out, to great effect on the young, that the powerful and influential throughout history have practiced this philosophy with great success, and they even had an official apologist in Machiavelli.
Well, I’m a teenager, right? I have no idea what I want, and in the rare case I do, it’s completely different ten minutes later. Or it is something completely stupid, like four pounds of watermelon candy, or the flu so I won’t have to get up and go to school. Beyond this, it also becomes quickly obvious that the world is not arranged so that everything I might want is close by to be taken. Take for instance my blossoming teenage lust. Scanning my domain, there’s my mother, my little sister, and a scrawny girl three years older than me two houses down. This system is suddenly not looking good.
Scaling my desires down a notch (i.e., survival), I then noticed that there were others much better equipped to take what they wanted than me – kids twice my size, with four times the body hair and one quarter the IQ. Their desires tended to be simpler — people’s hats, people’s lunches, people’s money. This Satanist thing is getting more difficult. I’m supposed to do what I want, and what I want is to stay as far from these people as the physical universe will allow. The universe, on the other hand, has seen fit to decree that we have to go to school together every day for twelve years.
Oh, and there were bigger people as well. With clubs. And guns. And special cars. And special rooms. With bars on the windows. They had really strange convoluted rules about whom they would let take what and whom they would shoot if they tried to take something. They said they didn’t make the rules, but the people who did were places that I could never talk to them. I just couldn’t see that this taking whatever I wanted was going to work for me at all.
So next, I looked at atheism, and concluded with many others that you couldn’t logically or concretely prove there was no God. Nor could you prove that there was. Besides that, logic itself had irredeemable flaws and it wouldn’t mean anything if it were proven either way.
Q. So you kept on searching?
It wasn’t really searching at this time so much as exploring. Religion was a part of life where conventional wisdom was obviously and grossly wrong, but of course I was an American and there was too much of life like that to stop my whole life for it.
I continued reading, and learned about other beliefs, and other attempts to reinterpret the western tradition. Buried in among the dross was a hint of a mystical tradition that actually seemed to work, but the closer you got to the part that seemed to work for its followers, the more you were warned away from the path with whips and scourges. And the nearer you got to fools and charlatans, the louder became the promises and the more enticing the ads.
This was a path for those who were called, and for no others; or at least it was not for me.
I also read about other cultures, and the things we called ‘pagan’, if not ‘savage’ or something worse. I learned how intensely religion is rooted in the way people actually live, and how difficult it is to practice a religion based on the life cycle of corn if you get your corn in cans at Safeway, and about how silly Shona tribes people thought we Westerners were for traveling all the way to Zimbabwe and living with the rural farmers in order to learn to play and sing songs of worship to the Shona people’s ancestors.
“Umm…why don’t you sing to your own ancestors?”
“Well, yours have better songs.”
I learned about Westerners trying to revive pre-Christian belief and practice, and thought it noble but futile. I myself was too thoroughly modern and could not relate to practice so deeply based in a thousand-year-old farmer’s experience of God and nature. Still Neo-Pagans seem to do as much good, and less harm, than most branches of religion.
On another hand, I could look to the East, and confuse myself with blither like so many other Westerners. The first thing I found confusing was that here in the West, living on the west coast, the East is to the west and the center of Western civilization is to the east. So we have to look to the west to look to the East, and if we look to the east we see the West advancing on us from the east coast.
Somehow, I could not see the spiritual value of confusing myself. I can’t tell the difference between ‘no mind’ and ‘brain dead’, and always considered the part of my mind that decided whether I was practicing ‘no mind’ or not, was still part of my mind. It is like doing your taxes, where you get to say you have ‘no income’ because in fact your $633,000 all disappeared in investment deals that will conveniently pay off later in tax-free dividends.
I was also a puzzle fan when I was a kid so I have mostly found paradoxes to be games in logical typing rather than profound mystical experiences. As far as mystical experiences go, perhaps advances in biofeedback will put the guru competition on a more objective basis. Then, once we can agree on how high which guru is, we could then begin to study when and how much getting high may actually be useful.
Q. So if Christianity, and Judaism didn’t work for you, and you rejected Satanism, atheism, and the lure of the East, where else could you look for religious truth?
Since religion needs to be rooted in everyday life, American folk religion was, I suppose, another option. Most everywhere that there is some ‘official’ religion, there is this other thing that most people actually practice, usually more magical and animist than the official version. So I thought I’d see what the homegrown version looks like.
The official USA religion seems to be the worship of the experience of consuming a new product. This is by far the most widely advertised transcendent experience available to Westerners. Apparently having used, or being seen with, the right product at the right time, can change everything — your personality, lifestyle, luck, attractiveness, wealth, even your past.
The effect seems to be even more temporary than the glimpses of transcendence provided by esoteric meditations or psychedelic drugs, but this too, its very evanescence, is turned into another selling point. You can have as many consumer satoris (Buddhist mystical experiences) as you can afford, and they never impact your life like the near-insanity of the more primitive kind of religious ecstasy.
Informally, people practice this ritual with apparent devotion, but don’t appear to actually get the promised transcendence. More energy seems to be devoted to getting back at the person who just reamed you, or alternatively getting a chance to relax and do nothing at all, but mainly we’re too busy doing the endless series of mindless rituals that get us through our urban days to think about doing mindless rituals for religious purposes.
The scoring system for the game of USA popular culture is as follows:
1. Rules are bad. Breaking them gets points.
2. You get fewer points if you break rules for personal gain.
3. If you break the rules for personal gain you get to keep the personal gain.
4. You may punish others for breaking rules, but only if they are both
A. Smaller than you, and
B. Enjoying breaking the rules
5. Points may be bought, but only if you can figure out where for yourself.
6. Morals, ethics, behavior, attitudes, and teachings have no bearing on points.
7. It matters whether it matches the carpet. It is worth points.
8. It matters what other people think, especially gossips. They can award points.
9. We will be graded on a curve. Bad behavior makes things easier for all, and trying too hard only raises the bar for everyone. Remember that when faced with a moral choice.
10. The afterlife starts when you first find yourself buying more health aids than toys.
Needless to say, I didn’t find materialism to be a religion that met my needs either, and like Satanism, it seemed to require that you have a certain something that I just didn’t have enough of. Money.
Q. Where did your quest take you next?
Well, I had always been unusual. I thought maybe I’d look at other weirdos…very entertaining, but not particularly enlightening, though I would recommend a solid study of a couple of classic hucksters, such as Blavatsky, for anyone considering a spiritual practice.
Someone else I read had recommended the scientific method. Do actual experiments on religion, and be prepared to act on what you discover. The author (Aleister Crowley) was known as ‘the wickedest man in the world’ in his day, and called himself the Beast 666, but I did not let that dismay me.
After all, what’s in a name?
This sounded good. The scientific method. I knew that. I trusted that. I knew a fair amount about its history. So, what was I looking at?
Experiments with the universe. Experiments with Hell. Experiments with existence and nonexistence. Experiments with death.
Now just studying the regular old stuff we live in every day, scientists had killed themselves with arsenic, or mercury, or radium, or snakes no one else even knew bit, let alone were poisonous? Blown themselves up, dosed themselves with deadly diseases, or jumped off cliffs with machines that didn’t fly yet?
Experiments with Hell?
This was definitely a situation in which discretion was the better part of valor, and valor probably wasn’t as good an idea as caution anyway.
I had acquired, by now, a long list of what religion was not to be, and so far, not much that it should be. It came up repeatedly, in various traditions, that religion should bring joy, but this was rarely part of the mainstream message.
No. In the 1970’s I was more anti-cult than anything. As a teenager I was really unsocial and really unhappy and the whole positive tone of anything New-Age, let alone cult like, was unpleasant for me. I was in the position W.C. Fields described regarding social clubs, i.e. “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me for a member”. Also, by the mid to late seventies, a number of famous cults had already gone belly up, or been exposed as frauds, and things were changing in other ways.
By 1980, when I entered college, mainstream America was saying, “greed was good”. We had looked the Aquarian Age in the eye, and then thoroughly beat it down, with the help of the CIA, old-line fascists, and venture capitalists on cocaine. We had pretty conclusively redefined six of the seven deadly sins into virtues, or at least into forces for virtue, and the jury was still out on sloth. Although there was, and is, a “joke church” in the USA called the Church of the Sub-Genius, that preached sloth as the primary virtue, albeit slightly renamed as “slack”. Hmmm…. a “joke church”? What does THAT tell you about religion in America?
Most cults had reformed themselves along the lines of an expensive business-training seminar, and many were doing quite well. They had mostly scaled back from even trying to be religions, and had taken the selling of meditation as a relaxation technique as far as American gumption could push an idea. It had indeed been a long strange trip from stilling the mind so that God could be perceived, to stilling the mind to play better golf, to stimulating the mind so as to get high, to studying how spiritual teachers read the thought processes of their students through their eye movements, in order to better sell them used cars.
As a whole religion hadn’t really sold in the USA. For a while what cult like groups had to offer was an altered state of consciousness. One kind was the “how high can you get” version, where people tried to fry their nervous systems with too much kundalini, or hyperventilate themselves into permanent brain damage, or otherwise attempt to not be here without the mess of dying. This just wasn’t my idea of a good time — it sounded about as much fun as huffing gasoline and smoking at the same time. Another was the “mission from God”, by which you could invest door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales, pyramid investment schemes, or suicide bombings with an utterly driven sense of superhuman, and therefore apparently divine, purpose.
Enough reasons to not join anything? Here’s some more. Anything that charged money, out. Anything with a human guru at the head, out. Anything that had its members talking nonsense — out. Fasting until you got delirious, while holding down a job and driving to work — nope! Reptilian invaders from another planet — the earth is hollow and we are on the inside — the dinosaurs will return — I think someone is channeling the Disney channel! Walking on fire — umm…what’s going to happen so that I have to be GOOD at this? And what’s that hand basket for? For flying, I prefer planes to astral bodies (and I don’t like planes) – they get my luggage there in better condition, and no, I am NOT going to hop all the way to Hawaii on my butt in lotus position. Living on air (and Burger King) — is there a Thai food sect? Drinking weird potions in the South American jungle, hallucinating and vomiting for eight hours — sign me up! (Just kidding).
And then there’s the small detail that (didn’t I mention this before?) I am an American, and we are often so fanatically individualistic that virtually ANY organization of humans that is not a profit-making corporation (and some that are) looks like a cult to some. I could join the cult of the Peace Corps, or Kirby, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, or Mensa, or Big Brothers, and what about the Masons, who really are a cult? And don’t even mention socialism at all; it’s a bad word. Never mind that this makes it difficult to talk about European politics, we’re America, we don’t care. We don’t have to.
Meanwhile, back in college, I read more widely, if not more, than before. I met more different kinds of people than I had before, and went to a handful of introductory meetings for various groups, religious and otherwise. I had a couple of college instructors, in education and philosophy, who taught about how people learn, and they taught some of the techniques that cults used, along with theories of mind and learning. A lot of what they taught was actually pretty basic information from various sciences, but since it was economically valuable when packaged properly, it wasn’t commonly available, and was often buried in noise when it was. I mean, what would happen if Americans in general spent as much time studying how to resist being manipulated by advertisements as they did looking at and reading them?
Totally separate from these experiences with “religion”, I had concurrently been having a different set of experiences of the divine. Since childhood, I had had the occasional ability to perceive what I considered the divine in two places. One of these was “nature”, or any place where the forces involved in a functioning ecology were more powerful and visible than human ego. The other was the contemplation of certain kinds of pattern, such as music, mathematics, or physics. It was a long time before I learned that most people, instead of learning to not talk about such experiences, learned to not have them.
Something else I did at the same time I was in college was to spend a few summers traveling, camping, and working outdoors, mostly alone or with few people in informal settings. As most mystics had noted, the divine was easier to access here than within large cities and societies. Anywhere I looked that hadn’t been developed into soulless gray, God was there. Anywhere they had destroyed generations ago, and abandoned to heal, God was there. If I looked inside others, God was there. If I looked inside myself when I wasn’t driven, egotistical, or fearful, lo and behold! God was there. Somewhere in this time I also learned that selfless service was another place where the divine showed up regularly.
God was starting to look more and more like a wave function. Or superstrings. Or any of an infinite number of views of something too large to ever be viewed. In one way, God appeared in the personality of every being, and in another, to put a personality on God seems as silly as to put paws on God. That is, from God’s perspective, there was only one thing, and God was not separate from that thing. It also seemed clear that God was not in anything that was not, such as lies or illusions, but that is a different story.
Then it wasn’t long before I noticed I couldn’t necessarily find God anywhere, just because I wanted to. I started to see what I wanted a church or religion to do, what I thought they ought to do, and this was to provide a place and structure to help access this when it is difficult, rather than when it is easy.
So there I was – armored to the ears against religion and cult hood, seeing God in everything that my culture saw as resources to be exploited, seeing God in none of the constructions we build to conceal ourselves from the workings of the world, and faced with religions that advocated, among other things:
Selling the “right” to sin
Collecting removed body parts of enemies
Compulsory ‘belief’ or public statement of an astounding array of nonsense
Missionary invasion, up to and including genocide
And pretty much everything else they elsewhere condemn as evil.