Gurus in the Mud
An unexpected Tarot story . . .
Once I started trying to write this story—I realized it is almost impossible to explain briefly. Or perhaps at all.
It’s about the time in 1973 when John Lilly and Alan Watts persuaded an assortment of academics and psychonauts to spend a week in the woods, studying higher concepts of math and logic. With comical results! And how that led to the proposal for a television series about . . .
At a simple level, its charm depends largely on recognizing some of the characters, and appreciating the spirit of a bygone time. Beyond a simple level, the story becomes so convoluted that one might reasonably give up (as either writer or reader!) within a few paragraphs.
Nevertheless, I’m keeping the story in so I can share this unique image:
Created by illustrator Tom Cervenak, this emblematic “trump” appeared on the cover of the Pacific Sun newspaper in September of 1973. Occupying center place: eccentric mathematician/philosopher G. Spencer Brown.
I think that’s Alan Watts on the right, and John Lilly on the left--it looks like them, and they were the two principal organizers of the AUM Conference. (AUM stands for “Academy of Universal Masters,” a fanciful organization made up by Watts.)
The best I can do in explaining all this is to introduce the cast of characters, and then provide a synopsis of the “plot” . . .
G. Spencer Brown (1923-2016) was a British polymath who: served in the Royal Navy, earned advanced degrees in philosophy at both Oxford and Cambridge, studied with maverick psychologist R. D. Laing, and became a lecturer in mathematics at the University of London (after being recommended by no less a mentor than Bertrand Russell). Along the way, he set records as a glider pilot.
Then in 1969, Brown published Laws of Form—a mathematical/logical treatise so advanced and original that no one could figure it out.
Many tried, however, and among them were eccentric neuroscientist John C. Lilly (1915-2001), and counterculture icon Alan Watts (1915-1973). Lilly—who invented the flotation tank--became famous for his work with dolphins and his theories on interspecies communication.
Watts is still well known today for his role in popularizing Zen Buddhism. A former Episcopal priest, Watts wove together strands from diverse spiritual traditions, from psychotherapeutics, and from cybernetic studies.
So just those three characters would have been a formidable assembly!
But the comedy of AUM begins when Lilly and Watts invite Brown to spend a week sharing his highly advanced ideas with a wildly eclectic group of invitees. Among them: Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog), neuropsychiatrist Karl Pribram (who developed the holonomic brain model), and Charles Tart—pioneering parapsychologist and co-creator of transpersonal psychology.
To appreciate the whole story, you first have to imagine these figures (along with an assortment of other characters) gathered at Esalen—a woodsy California site that was not yet famous—for a sort of super-intellectual Woodstock week.
And then you have to imagine Lilly, Watts, and Brown falling out rather fiercely over the question of Brown’s honorarium.
Despite the kerfuffle, Brown tried explaining his mathematical/logical innovations to this eclectic crew of neuroscientists and new-age celebrities. But after two days of frustration, he left in a huff—and the bewildered AUM attendees decided to create their own experimental retreat.
If you want more detail (it really is funny), just read journalist Cliff Barney’s account of the event, “Gurus in the Mud.” In which case, you can follow the story through several further episodes, which include the return of G. Spencer Brown (years later), an unfortunate party on the by-then-deceased Alan Watts’ houseboat, and the creation of a wildly detailed proposal for a Tarot-based television series, “The OMasters.”
I’d love to write more in future about how and why Tarot became intertwined with these explorations. But in the meantime, be sure and check out Transforming Tarot: “A New Revolution” for an overview of developments in the late 20th century.