FEBRUARY 27, 2007


When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb Gal. 1:15 KJV

In the dark winter of February 1972, I was living with Janis and a whole lot of other people in a big hippie house in Atlanta. My drug supplier and friend, Colin, decided he wanted to take a trip with me to my former college where I still had many friends, where we both thought he would find a large customer base. We thought it would be a goldmine, but it turned out none of my friends had any money. They were down to scavenging used cigarette butts tossed in the dorm halls. But lack of money never hindered the party, so they were glad to eat and smoke Colin’s dope all night long, and with a big scowl on his face, he kept reluctantly doling out all night anyway.

But one wonderful thing happened. We were sitting in my friend Jim’s room, high on Colin’s stash, and we started really talking. It turned out to be one of the most memorable conversations of my life. For a brief moment we became honest and began to share our true feelings about how our lives were going thus far. I clearly remember saying how I was beginning to despair of life because it seemed to me that the sum total of the whole thing was that you grew up, if lucky got a good job, maybe had a family and a nice house, and then you died. That was about it as far as I could tell.

There didn’t seem to be much meaning in that to me. And that prospect seemed to offer little hope for anything better. I saw no value in it. There had to be something more, some answer, which made it all make sense.

Almost as if driven by something else, a drive to find “my” meaning, to find out who I was and what my life was all about began to grow in me. My focus changed from what was wrong with everything “out there,” and more than ever I began to see the futility and inadequacy in my own self, “in here.” I knew a life of numbness and a perpetual party couldn’t be the final answer.

So I began an earnest search. I realized that the main despair I felt – the lack, the need, the uncertainty – was in the depths of my own being. Somewhere there had to be a KEY to fixing ME.  “I”, “ME”, I saw as the problem. Nobody had to tell me that no matter the appearances to the contrary, inside I was a real mess.

The natural way for me to turn was toward eastern mystical thought. Among the hip culture of the day, pretty much anything was OK, religiously, except of course believing in Jesus, which was thoroughly uncool. (For instance, one could say, “Hey man, I’ve just read a book that says you can experience total enlightenment if you eat wombat feces while upside down in lotus-position. This guy said he tried it and it worked for him. Now he can see auras and he says his sense of smell has really improved.” Then his friends might reply, “Wow, man, far out! I’d dig catching some auras. Where can we get wombat feces?” If, on the other hand, someone had said, “I have found Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and He turned my life around,” everybody would look at that person funny and would hope he would walk away, or at least not say anything else. That one’s a real conversation stopper.) 

So a whole smorgasbord of alternative spiritual options was available, everything from Satanism and witchcraft on one side of the spectrum, to Buddhism, Yoga or Hinduism on the other, with all sorts of things in-between.

There was a common belief among the freaks (what hippies called themselves) that there were two kinds of witchcraft, white magic and black magic. White magic was supposedly “good,” and black magic, obviously evil. My first action in this new direction was to line up an appointment with a witch to seek her counsel about how I might learn white magic. Going through my mind was the notion that if I could help people with white magic, it would wipe out any bad karma I had accumulated in current and past lives. That was my thinking for the time.

So I showed up for my life’s first “spiritual” appointment at this lady’s house near the Strip, close to downtown Atlanta. She was a bit older than I was, probably late-twenties, and quite normal looking in a hip way. I don’t know what I was expecting – giant cauldrons and a humped-back old lady with a hooked nose and a big wart on the end? But she looked normal and her house looked like most any other hip person’s house at the time: brown rice in jars, whole wheat bread on the counter and a black-light peace poster on the wall.

She asked me what I had come for. I told her my plan to learn white magic to “help people,” etc., and asked her how I could get started. Then she told me something astounding.

She said, “I’ll tell you a secret.”

“I’m ready,” I replied, thinking she was about to initiate me into some deep esoteric mystery.

“There really is no such thing as white magic. White magic and black magic have only one source. They come from the same thing, which isn’t “Good!” And it’s not for you. You have shiny bright eyes and this isn’t your path. I can’t help you.”

Well, was I taken aback, or what?! How many people get turned away from witchcraft lessons? But I felt I had no choice but to take her at her word, and that ended any career in witchcraft.

Janis and I subsequently decided in the spring of 1972 to move out of the hassle and chaos of the Atlanta hip scene, back to Rome, Georgia, and to what we were hoping would be the peace and quiet of the country. We moved into a stone house out in the country where our friends Jim, Tom and Mary, and Robert were already living. What a marvelous place it was! And it was the most glorious sun-shiny spring ever.

The house itself wasn’t much of anything. It was tiny, built of field stone with only one real bedroom and one inside toilet and bathroom. There was a living room with a fireplace where we cooked for a while, along with a kitchen and a catch-all room. Since the house was already filled to capacity, I took the shed out back past the outhouse for my quarters and Janis stayed most of the time with her parents.

But oh, the outdoors! There were fields all around and forest beyond the fields. Our house was in the middle of a big meadow on three sides with a dirt road in front. That first spring wild strawberries grew in such overwhelming abundance right outside our house, that we bought box after box of cornflakes and cartons of milk which we ate all day every day until all the strawberries were gone.

That was where I began to read everything I could find on the spiritual life. A copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda, fell into my hands. I had never read a book like that. The Christianity I had known up to that point had never talked about God as though He was someone personally involved with us. I didn’t know anyone living who talked so wonderfully of God as if he knew Him and was his friend, and whose exploits with God seemed like some of the Bible stories I had read as a kid. This man seemed to talk of living with and in God in a real way and I hadn’t come across that before. I’m sure it was out there, but I had not come across it. So I wanted what he seemed to have.

Then another book, Be Here Now, by Baba Ram Dass, found its way into our house and with that I was off and running. Almost overnight we became vegetarians and began practicing yoga exercises and meditation. I turned my little shed out back into a rustic ashram. My hippie-mattress-on-the-floor got a new brown Indian-print spread. I put up pictures and little statues and burned incense. It sounds like something in some B-movie but it was my life. It wasn’t put-on. I wanted to know, to get there, to find out! I told one of my friends that whatever it took, I wanted to escape coming back to this life again for another do-over. I wanted OUT! Nirvana or bust! So I began to give it all I had.

One night I walked alone into the field in the back of the house. I was tripping, which was very rare because I had all but quit using ‘recreational pharmaceuticals.’ But what happened that night had never happened before. It was an intensely clear summer night with little humidity to steam things up. I sat still for a long time looking up, while falling into the immenseness of the universe and the infinity of the stars. On and on and on it seemed to go. As my mind started to break over what I was seeing and feeling, suddenly, the whole panorama of everything surrounding me – the stars, the light-filled blackness, and most of all the thing that was breaking me the infinity – came crashing down in one giant tornadic rush into the center of my being, so that my being seemed to contain all of that infinity. It was as if all THAT was ME, and I was ALL THAT. “I” became lost in it, and everything, for just a little bit of no-time seemed to be ONE.

When I came ‘back to myself’ I was changed forever. Somehow some opening into something else had happened, just for a moment, but it was real enough and true enough and total enough that I KNEW I HAD TO find out what that was. Now I KNEW there was something more than what we can see, feel and prove, and the desire to find it came up in me in the most serious earnestness toward anything I’ve ever had, before or since.

At first light I woke Janis and we went to Atlanta that day to see Cary, the only person I knew who I thought was seriously and sincerely looking into spiritual things. I was scheduled to work at the yarn-dyeing plant that day, but I went into work and told my boss, O.L., that I couldn’t work that day because I had to “go find God,” in just those words. O.L. didn’t know what to make of me, but he was a nice guy and a bit of a rebel himself. He laughed and joked something about “finding God,” and gave me the day off with his blessing.

Cary was living hermitlike in a little one room house behind the big Victorian hippie house where we’d all lived together earlier that year. What had started as silly fun had turned into great unpleasantness in the months we had lived there. It was a huge house and we started out with six people and plenty of room. Cary came with the house. It had been an ashram for a yoga society, the Ananda Marga (path of bliss), but because of zoning laws they had to move. The neighbors had pressed for it, since the house was in one of the nicest middle-class neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta and ashrams weren’t welcome.

So the yogi boys, as we called them back then, had to go – all except Cary. He was tired of being one of the yogi boys and wanted to get back into “real life.” And boy, did he get it when our crew moved in.

We thought it was a great stroke of good luck that our bunch had gotten the house, but we were unaware of the fact that we were in fact part of a plot by our landlord to get the neighbors to allow him to bulldoze the house and its grounds in order to build condominiums. The neighbors fought it and persuaded the authorities to deny him permission to build the condos. His first counter step was to rent to the yogi boys. That really stirred the local folk and they again took to the authorities to have it shut down, since it was not zoned for a “church.” Score another for the neighbors.

“Never say die,” must have been our landlord’s motto, so he thickened the plot by renting to us, who were far, far less acceptable than the yogi boys. At least they weren’t coming and going at all hours of the night with the stereos blasting at full volume and other various and sundry things. At times our place looked like Woodstock on steroids. One of our roommates, Wade, even took his forty foot red, white and blue school bus and parked it in the front of the yard, parallel to ritzy Howell Mill Road, as arguably the greatest eyesore for miles around, to be his gesture of good will toward our poor horrified neighbors (sort of a big, red white and blue middle finger!).

And more people started moving in. Things got more serious. People were hurt. People lied. Violence began to loom on our horizon.

And that made the peace die. So Janis and I went away to try to find it again.

That day we came back “to find God,” when I told Cary what I wanted, he didn’t act surprised. The first thing he told me was, “You have to be serious.” Then he went on, “Everybody is stuck in the mud and most people are playing in it, but only a few really want to get out of it.

“Are you serious about getting out of the mud?” he asked me.

I was, so I said, “Yes!” And at that moment Cary, in essence, became my “teacher.” He started me on a regimen of strict diet, meditation and reading. His thought had gravitated toward Zen and he began to teach me what he knew.

I went home and did all Cary told me to do. I still practiced yoga, restricted my diet, read the books he recommended and began a regular practice of “zazen,” which is the Zen form of meditation. No one was more dedicated, more disciplined or hungry to attain than I was. I was relentless. I loved it. I felt calm and peaceful. I gave up all drugs, but had more spiritual experiences because I knew it wasn’t the drug. What I had seen had been something real and I had no need for a drug to know the Real. I knew there was something out there. And for a while everything was magical.

As the end of the summer approached two major things were happening. One, I had asked Janis to marry me, and we decided to have a double-wedding ceremony with Tom and Mary. The other was that Cary had invited me to go on a trip with him, either to England to hear a spiritual teacher named J. Krishnamurti, a Hindu man from India, or to California and the San Francisco Zen Center. I left it up to Cary and he decided on California.

Janis and I had our wedding (another story), and less than a week later I was in Cary’s 1959 baby-blue VW bus headed out Shorter Avenue towards Huntsville, Alabama, and all points west, leaving my dear sweet trusting new wife behind, while I went on my spiritual journey to seek enlightenment.

It was a wonderful journey for a young man to take – to be a “seeker” of truth, as I considered myself to be. We would drive for hours and hours and then stop and read our books and meditate in Cary’s bus. We lived on a giant bag of huge dried figs he had brought, along with tahini, natural peanut butter and bananas. Cary was a hard taskmaster at the time, but I didn’t mind. He insisted on obsessive tooth-brushing. Every time we stopped we had to brush our teeth. And he didn’t like the way I walked, in that I walked (still do) slew-footed (feet pointed outward). He tried to train me to walk with my feet inward, pigeon-toed. I didn’t see what that had to do with being spiritual, but I gladly went along and practiced doing it.

Eventually we arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after being on the road a few days. I was really keyed up about getting to Albuquerque, because Cary was going to see HIS spiritual teacher, an American fellow who had been given a Sanskrit spiritual name that I can’t remember any more. Cary thought he lived in the same ashram where he had known him a few years before, where Cary had also lived. Since I respected Cary so much, I couldn’t imagine how spiritual this man would be and I was a more than a little intimidated at the prospect of meeting him.

We arrived in Albuquerque about sunup. We had driven through the desert and mountains all night, taking turns sleeping and driving. Stars were still swirling around in my head as we putted through the still sleepy streets. Cary drove us straight to the ashram. We found out our guy didn’t live there anymore and that he now lived at such and such address. We trekked over to the new place, a brown adobe in the midst of numerous other brown adobes, knocked on the door and someone yelled, “Come in.”  

In we walked. There sat Cary’s “teacher” at the kitchen table, eating his breakfast, and EATING BACON!!!! BACON???? We were shocked and horrified!!!! …. Devastated!!!! …. Destroyed!!!! …. BACON!!!! How could he??? We didn’t drive 1500 miles to meet with somebody eating BACON!!!!

He rose up from the table to embrace Cary. They caught up a bit as he told us he had gone back to his original name, something along the lines of Jeff Goldstein. Then Cary asked Jeff why he didn’t live at the ashram anymore. He told us a story that really blew our socks off and upset the total equilibrium of our trip, as well as the rest of our lives.

This is Jeff’s story (as remembered thirty-four years later).

“After you left, Cary, I got into the further depths of Ananda Marga, and was eventually made a teacher at the national center in Palo Alto, which is where my parents live. I got high up into the organization and became a knowledgeable teacher. Everybody thought I knew everything and had all the answers.

One night I was walking home from the center, going to my parents’ house, and I started talking to God. I was saying to God that I thought I knew all this stuff, this deep yoga stuff, all these spiritual philosophies and had knowledge about oneness and all that, but that I didn’t know HIM. I felt false inside. And then this incredible thing happened. A VOICE spoke to me and it was so powerful that it knocked me down onto the sidewalk. The VOICE said ‘ACCEPT MY SON!’

“I had never, ever, given that a thought because I was Jewish. But I ran home to my parents’ house and came into the foyer where the Bible was sitting on the table. My family was not religious and the book was just there for show, but for some reason it was sitting open to this passage in Isaiah 53:3-6: He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“I KNEW that was talking about Jesus. At that moment I fell down on my knees and asked Him to come into my life, and that I would follow Him. The only thing I can tell you is that I was born again. I can’t explain it, but He came into me and changed my life and I began, for the first time, to know GOD, instead of just about Him.”

He said lots more, but his story was NOT what Cary and I wanted to hear, not what we were in Albuquerque for, not what we were on a journey for – or so we thought. One thing Jeff said that caused me terrible trouble, was that “Salvation is a free gift.”

This had been my problem with Christians all along. It was “too easy.” You didn’t have to do anything. To me it was a religion for middle-class Americans who weren’t very deep or thoughtful, or for uneducated, simple or narrow-minded people. Obviously, I thought, you had to DO SOMETHING to find God, or find “truth,” or experience “enlightenment.” For me it was obvious that you at least had to eat correctly – and to especially eat no meat, because of the violence associated with it. Then, I was convinced, one had to meditate; you had to do this; you had to do that, but you certainly didn’t have to “DO NOTHING” except “believe.” That was, to me, absolutely ludicrous!

But Jeff’s story was so sincere and told so matter-of factly, without argument or condemning us for where we were, that we were completely bumfuzzled. Later, after we ground our own wheat and made ourselves a fresh loaf of bread, we drove up into the mountains above Albuquerque that night to camp. There Cary started reading aloud from the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

We went back the next day and spent more time with Jeff and then we left, neither of us saying much at first, heading due west into the setting sun on I-40 to continue on our journey. Cary began irritating me because he took more to Jeff’s story than I did and I became angry with him. We would stop and camp and he would read more from John. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

The next to last day of our journey to San Francisco, we went up the east side of the Sierras into Yosemite Park. At times the angle of ascent seems almost straight up. And the poor bus could only make 10 mph in first gear most of the way up, so when we finally rolled through the park gates we were followed by a long line of angry tourists who could’ve walked up faster than we drove. It was the last night of our journey. Bears rummaged through the camp here and there and Cary and I sat around the fire. He was reading John to the crackle of the fire and the flicker of its light.  I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

It was beginning to be obvious that something was passing away, and something new was coming. I could feel it in the air as we descended the west side of the Sierras the next day.

Finally we arrived in San Francisco in time for rush hour (such as this Georgia boy had never seen), but we made it to the Zen Center in time for the afternoon zazen session, a forty minute period of meditation in lotus position. That was followed by a meditative vegetarian supper served to each of us individually in our little zazen cubicles. The session culminated by marching in silence upstairs to the temple for a service of Sanskrit chanting and a teaching by one of the monks. The service consisted of marching around the room for a while, chanting Sanskrit words that they gave us on a piece of paper, and then bowing down nine times towards the giant statue of Buddha in the front of the room. After that we all sat on the floor while the monk delivered his lecture.

I don’t remember one word of the lecture because it was then that I heard a voice, too, not an audible voice like Jeff said he heard, but still clear in my inner being to this day, that said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before ME.” I didn’t know what to make of that, and began to be really disturbed by the whole thing.

After the service was over Cary and I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and camped near the ocean in Marin County. No place on earth could offer more beauty! But all my thoughts through the night were on my search. Finally, by morning light, I knew what I had to do. So when Cary awaked, I told him I couldn’t stay any longer and for him to take me to the airport.  I was going back home.

I got a flight out that night so that gave us a great day sightseeing in San Francisco. There was a mourning and sadness between us, because we were about to go our separate ways, so we thought, and finally I boarded a flight at 10 PM headed for Atlanta. Arriving in Atlanta at 5 AM, I caught a shuttle from the airport to the Greyhound station, from there caught a bus to Rome, got a taxi and arrived at the stone house in the country before 8 AM, where I woke Janis up and SURPRISED the ever-living daylights out of her, because she didn’t expect me for months!

But, I came back different, as they say. I was still as zealous for Zen as I had been, but with a new “koan” to ponder. A “koan” is a Zen question, asked by Zen masters for the purpose of breaking the minds of the disciples, to propel them into kensho or sunyatta, which is the Japanese Zen term for Buddha-hood — enlightenment. Koans are questions such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?”

My new “koan” became “Who is Jesus?” Was He simply another “Great Teacher” among the pantheon of many other “great teachers” who had come to enlighten humanity, or was He somehow more than that? How could I know? It obsessed me. And it seemed as logically unanswerable as all the other koans.

I began reading the New Testament, as well as continuing with my Buddhist books. I started hedging my bets, I think. I had a picture of Buddha where I sat zazen, but I put up a picture of Jesus there as well. I made up a regular “ritual” to aid in my meditation, to which I added a prayer from the Episcopal Prayer Book. Once I went and knocked on the door of the Catholic priest’s house next to the church, surprising him because I didn’t have an appointment, and asked him if I could talk to him and could he answer certain questions I had about Jesus and Christianity.

But I still couldn’t make the plunge, because I just couldn’t believe it could be just so easy as “to believe.” And to top it all off, Cary had been writing me frequently (with old-fashioned envelopes and stamps – remember them?) and more and more his Buddhist talk became less and his Jesus talk became more – and I wasn’t liking it one bit!

The end of this part of my story came, finally, on Christmas Day. We decided to attend church at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, since it was Jesus’ day, and I thought it was right to honor His day. More bet hedging. My dad appeared at the service, which was abnormal, and we were among only about six people attending in a church that sat hundreds. When the service was over Dad came and said that Cary had called their house (we didn’t have a phone) and wanted me to call him when we came over for Christmas dinner.

Everybody chowed down heartily for Christmas dinner except Janis and me, still keeping to our vegetarian regimen. We filled up on maybe some rolls and cranberry salad, while mightily coveting the turkey and dressing. After the meal we put in a call to Cary in the late afternoon. (A “long distance call” was still a big deal in 1972.) Janis got on the extension when Cary got on the line. 

Cary said, “Well, Fred, I’ve found the answer we’ve been looking for.”

“What‘s that, Cary?” I asked.

“It’s Jesus!”

“Aw, c’mon Cary, I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know if I can believe that. I’m not sure I can handle the Bible being the “Word of God” like they say – and all that stuff about the devil and hell – I just don’t know!”

Cary replied, “Well, all those things sort of go along with it.”

“I’m not so sure, Cary.”

Finally he asked, “Will you pray a prayer with me?”

We said, “OK,” and he led us in a simple prayer asking Jesus to come into our lives. We said, “Amen,” and that was that. We could hear people in the background on the phone shouting, “Hallelujah,” while Cary told us we could rejoice because now we were part of the kingdom of God and belonged to Christ. He said goodbye and we were left to ourselves. 

It was true. Christ had come. He had knocked. And now somehow we had opened the door and let Him in. In a moment, a twinkling of an eye, everything changed.

That is the end of the beginning.

HIPPIE TALES from LEVIS to DOUBLEKNIT [Fred Pruitt] 2-27-07          1


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