Allen Ginsberg: "I Don't See A Conflict Between Political And Meditative Activity, Because The Prospect Is Of Clarification Of One's Own Awareness, Which Necessarily Precedes Action."
Allen Ginsberg: "I Don't See A Conflict Between Political And Meditative Activity, Because The Prospect Is Of Clarification Of One's Own Awareness, Which Necessarily Precedes Action."
It is not every day that Allen Ginsberg comes to town. Yet it seems that he bestows his presence upon us here just often enough to make himself seem a true and trusted friend, rather than a welcomed visitor. He brings with him his poetics, his visions, his incredible knowledge, and an undying interest in everything about him.
This spring he came to town under the auspices of the Gay Liberation Front. He appeared "in concert" at Hill Auditorium on the evening of April 11. Along with his fellow traveler Bhagavan Das. An American who sings in traditional Hindu style, Ginsberg conducted a calm evening of chanting, singing, reading, and breathing.
The SUN and other local media-people were invited to attend a news conference-interview with Allen at the home of one of the organizers of the concert. We spent an enlightening, joyous afternoon talking with him. Starting from a description and demonstration of his present form of meditating he ran through a tremendous number of interesting and important questions and ideas: What follows is a transcript of some of our conversation.
SUN: What sort of meditation do you do?
AG: A very simple form. First you need a pillow to get your ass up so you can get a three-point landing, or any way you can do it so your back can be straight. Then ears are aligned with shoulders. the small of the back in, belly out, belt loosened if you have a pot belly like I do, just to make sure you relax the belly. Back of your head supporting Heaven, hands in peaceful posture, peaceful mind-It is a traditional Sete-Zen posture.
SUN: Do you say a mantra?
AG: Instead of a mantra, something similar. The point of the mantra is to focus attention and to interrupt the thought forms, the mechanical flow of thoughts. The main activity in my meditation is paying attention to the breath leaving the nostrils and dissolving in space, so that as mind wanders into discursive thought, thought forms, fantasies, or sleepnesses, attention is switched back over to the breath coming out of the nostril dissolving into space. Paying attention to the slight touch of the air leaving the nostril, and mindfulness of the space into which the breath dissolves, so mixing breath with space, real space, mixing the mind with the breath, and so mixing mind with space. Not paying attention to anything that goes on inside, that is not tripping, not getting high, and not looking for a vision, but accepting space as the place where you actually are. It is a basic Buddhist exercise called mindfulness and a sort of atheistic form-it doesn't require superstition and it is just sort of an elemental observation of mind forms. In the process of sitting a long time you become familiar with all the different thoughts that arise in profile and also have the experience of cutting through them and switching back to breath.
SUN: From HOWL and KADDISH to Kerouac, and Chicago to AM, and now breath-how did you get from there to here?
AG: Well, I'm 48 years old-I’ve survived. But to begin with the basis of my poetics always was a sort of visionary thing beginning with a break-through in 1948 when had a hallucination of hearing Blake's voice and thought I saw some sort of eternal space. Then about 1950 Neal Cassady, a friend and lover, got into Edgar Cayce, a weird spiritualist trip that involved a lot of reincarnation theory. Kerouac thought Neal had gone crazy and decided to check out the sources of reincarnation and spiritualism that Casey was proposing and went back and read a lot of Buddhist Works. So Kerouac went through a sort of Buddhist phase which was very beautiful and very productive, based on the one Buddhist tenet, the first noble truth which is existence is suffering-the idea dominated Kerouac's writing from Big Sur until he drank himself to death.
Then by 1955 the San Francisco poetry scene was heavily loaded with Buddhist meditation-people were going around the mountains and practicing yoga and meditation and fucking like Tibetan tantrists. In 1962 I was in India with Peter Orlovski and picked up on some Hindu teaching and the Hare Krishna mantra and brought that back and began chanting about 1963. My poetry anyway is basically based on a long breath and long lines, so I found the theory of mantra to be really interesting in relation to my own poetic practice as exercises in awareness of breath and uses of breath. That trip I also began branching out and doing some sitting in Zen monasteries with Gary Snyder in Kiete.
I ran into an interesting Hindu in '70 who gave me a good mantra so I started doing some kundalini sitting, and in '71 I ran into a Tibetan lama. He has had a lot of experience in hip culture, so he knows that whole scene, and also talks hip talk. He took off his robes and started drinking scotch, smoking grass and dropping acid to see what that was like, and he concluded that what was wrong with the American scene is that everyone was trying to trip all the time, but that the basic nature of mind-consciousness was no tripping and that the best way to arrive at a grounded state where there is no tripping at all-which is no projection of fantasy on the outside at all-was just basic sitting practice. So he began teaching the potential of the breath. I ran into him.
So what was at first considered to be beatnik bullshit about Buddhism or dilettantism twenty years ago has developed into a very firm, very strong practice for a lot of people. Sitting was always a part of the whole beatnik heritage, so everyone was mocking it, saying, well, what a bunch of goof-offs, and now we're sitting all the time and everybody else is running with ulcers.
SUN: Well, there is now a very large spiritual movement encompassing young people and I wonder how you react to that?
AG: Well, the impulse is legitimate, so the problem is finding a sensible practice, like the revolutionary impulse of the 60's was typically legitimate, but the problem was to find a proper practice. I'm more interested in getting into something that is useful than in something that is not useful. I think the whole movement toward inwardness, introspection, meditation, is absolutely necessary and useful, socially. I don't see a conflict between political activity and meditative activity because the prospect is of clarification of one's own awareness, which, as in the case of jiu-jitsu, necessarily precedes action, so that you don't make an hysterical move, and hit the air instead of the nose. It's basic common sense, you don't act out of blind freak-out; so that if people want to take action they know what they are doing and can get it together. Like way back in '68 in Chicago I was using the mantra OM as a chant to try and cool the scene in the midst of a lot of rapid hysteria on either side. There were enough people who had the realization that some really calm center was necessary and would even cool the tear gas scene, which it did occasionally.
SUN: Speaking of Chicago, how do you find the people who organized that doing now?
AG: I went to Chicago and talked to Dellinger during the recent conspiracy-contempt trials, and one thing is that a lot of people who were carrying a heavy load during the 60's have had like physical damage from the action and the strain of time. John Sinclair has gone through such a heavy conflict with the entire apparatus of the police-state and beat them, finally. His wiretapping case was actually the first court judgement to limit Nixon and the plumber's power. John won the decision that the government did not have the right to tap, and that was a crucial decision in the development of Watergate. But now Sinclair has been warned that he has to take it easy, and Dellinger has had a whole bunch of operations on his gall bladder. Others have decided that they had better do some introspection like Rennie and Jerry. Ed Sanders has gotten more and more involved in literary work, putting his poetry together, but also into meticulously detailed research into police state structure and technologies.
SUN: You were involved with him in that whole thing about the CIA importing heroin from Indochina, right?
AG: That was more my specialty. It resulted in a very good book, THE POLITICS OF HEROIN IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, by Alfred McCoy, and also resulted in a spread of knowledge of that situation to the public, so it was somewhat successful, although it has not come to any court or congressional activity. From the point of view of local journalism there is an interesting Watergate-connected business in that most of the plumbers unit were also nares, interchangeably. Egil Krogh was head of the White House Cabinet Committee on International Narcotics Control (WHCCINC), and also head of Operation Intercept. G. Gordon Liddy was the original prosecutor of Timothy Leary and led a series of Watergate-like warrantless raids on Leary's Millbrook ashram. Hunt was White House specialist in Corsican and Syrian narcotics connections. Corsican smugglers in small planes (as reported by LIFE in the early 60's) ran the opiates from Indochina to Marseilles. After World War II American intelligence groups, in order to win allies against the commies, had worked with the gangster Corsicans to take over the Marseilles docks, and so created a situation for international smuggling there. The expert in all of this was Hunt. Barker was Battista's narcotics advisor at a time when Battista was taking a rake-off from Meyer Lansky for the drug traffic through Cuba. Barker, McCord and the others were all involved with a Cuban refugee group which was involved with taking over the heroin traffic in the east coast according to the Narcotics Bureau.
Seymour Hersch of the N.Y. Times surfaced a hitherto secret report from the CIA saying that our allies were not cooperating with us in the attempt to stop heroin traffic. The next day Egil Krogh, as head of WHCCINC, denounced that report and said there was no truth to it, yet he had ordered it up. So WHCCINC was busy attempting to denounce, deny, or suppress the story about U.S. government involvement in opiate trafficking, and that, plus the persecution of Leary and trying to get him kidnapped from Afghanistan, and Operation Intercept were apparently the major activities of this cabinet committee on international narcotics control.
Another activity was going around interrogating people to find out if they could get anything dirty on Ellsberg with relation to narcotics. That was one of the things they were stealing from the psychiatrist, to see if Ellsberg had dropped acid.
SUN: Of course, most people would totally disbelieve that the U.S. government has a strategy to bring in heroin and stop marijuana.
AG: Well, when McCoy's book came out, the CIA tried to stop it. McCord Meyer Jr. tried to stop it. He was the CIA man who had also organized the subversion of the National Student's association years before and had been the big payoff man who organized covers for cultural freedom and Counter magazine, a CIA-front intellectual magazine-interferences in domestic intelligence and intellectual life. Which means that the CIA all along has been involved with interfering in American domestic politics and discussion, just like they are to stop Marchetti's book on the history of the CIA's illegal, practices now.
SUN: I thought they succeeded in stopping Marchetti's book?
AG: No, the book's coming out with 44 blank spaces the CIA won't let them print, but everybody will know what the 44 are by gossip, and Jack Anderson will probably have them.
SUN: But the other deep question is did they desire to have a planned effect on the U.S. population through the manipulation of drug traffic?
AG: Simultaneous with Operation Intercept there was this enormous flood of pure heroin into New York City, while they were busy just trying to stop the grass. But also, since there were attempts on all levels of police bureaucracy to isolate, identify, infiltrate and disrupt left wing and anti-war movements, to what extent was the local drug scene infiltrated by cops or intelligence of some sort, and sort of corrupted from a flower-power acid grass scene to a downer, Quaalude, junk and speed scene? There is a great deal of knowledge now that most narcotics cops were also involved in peddling and have a working relationship with organized crime, as police busts across the country have proved. And we also know that the Narcotics Bureau and Army Intelligence were always conferring with each other on the dope counter-culture-the threat of it and the threat of underground newspapers. And we know that narcotics always was an instrument of the police bureaucracy for repression of political activity.
SUN: What does an individual who is aware of this do? How does he try and stand up against the government or country that is based on this?
AG: For one thing, go around and do actual research on information. I did a lot of research, and helped conceive McCoy’s book, contributed to it. One thing I did was sneak through the files of TIMELIFE in '71 and xeroxed everything I could find. So general infiltration and search, and of course, mass education. A poet can contribute poetry also. What the poet does is write the truth. I thought It was a really important part in the demythologization of the police bureaucracy to show that they were involved in dope pushing.
The police bureaucracy is really so huge that nobody knows its extent or its plans or its penetration. So, what to do? Propaganda in a general consciousness is necessary so that people understand how vast it is, and what a threat it is. For political change techniques probably the only effective way is to have a totally transparent head, you know, so that every gesture that you make is public and open. That purifies the motives in a way by political necessity. You can't have secret paranoic cells organizing aggressive violence.
SUN: Like the SLA?
AG: The SLA gestures tend to be supportive of police bureaucracy groups. The traditional tactic of the police was to send in agent provocateurs to provoke crazy secret actions. Like Fred Hampton's chief of security was an FBI agent. He was the loudest mouthed violent talker and the one bringing guns and making sure that everybody had the right kind of gun, he knew which guns they had. Turns out that he brought guns that day to Hampton’s house, and also brought some downers and knocked Hampton out so that Hampton was downed, dead asleep in his bed when the police burst in and started shooting.
SUN: Then it seems that you are implying that the actions that are most effective at this time are mass-based, mostly legal actions, public and open?
AG: The actions that are most effective are the actions that are not manipulative. Because the purpose of the police groups is to manipulate and create distrust and paranoia, open non-manipulative actions by people with transparent heads are necessary to create trust again. The left went into a long period of manipulative hysteria or fear and paranoia, and the police agencies took advantage of the situation and made it impossible to have mass meetings. Everybody is scared of it; nobody wants to call one for fear they'll call a confrontation with the police and get people shot down like at Kent State.
I think that basically it would be a good idea for everybody to have knowledge that the situation is hopeless to begin with, and until people stop tripping and actually realize the extent of the situation and the vastness of the police bureaucracy-until then I don't think people can begin to take clear action to try and deal with the situation as it is. The Buddhist suggestion is that the first noble truth is that existence is pain, existence is hopeless-that's like a very sensible attitude from which to take whatever clear straight-forward action can be taken to relieve pain and suffering. Until you hit the bottom you can't really begin to act compassionately. Until you realize the full extent of the difficulty you can't measure it or take steps to alter it at all.
Like late 60's people were assuming that the entire American public would want dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the streets, which actually was a sort of charming mantra, or poetic imagination, as an ideal thing. It was the Fugs and Ed Sanders who came up with that and everybody blamed it on Sinclair. Why does the Gay Lib group attack Sinclair for that phrase-the context is obviously such a cheerful thing?
SUN: It was the emergence of a naïve, but future looking movement.
AG: I don't think it was so naive, and if not future looking, at least a platonic ideal to measure our present degradation, or to measure the hardness of the streets. The gay lib group thought that the word fucking was sexist, but I don't. We went over to Sindair's last night with Harry Kevorkian and Stephen Miller who had never met John, but who had all sorts of ideas about John's machismo. It turned out that John was sitting there in a completely gentle awareness of his own physical doom: he apparently has a problem arising, a very painful back problem. It has deepened him enormously. He always was very sensitive, but now his sensitivity is clear and near the surface. He is having to reappraise his entire world view and his life-style. I don't think he regrets all that activity he did because it was a major contribution to whatever success the movement had in the late 60's.
The reason John actually got in trouble was that he was organizing in Detroit the first communal mixing of black and white artists on a large scale that was having international reverberations with black and white musicians and poets poets. I was involved with his Detroit Artist's Workshop; I used to come in and do benefits. John published a piece of mine in the Artist's Workshop Series.
SUN: It's a history that a great many people are not aware of.
AG: Yeah, well he did pretty good. Ten years of it-it all started back in Detroit. It's amazing-I wonder to what extent the gay community here is aware of what it involved. John has a tremendous historical memory and experience with both police bureaucracy and the law, on the national level, and local organizing. So they have great fundamentals and obviously should be included in any kind of community organization, in terms of local politics. They sort of led the way to try and organize locally, way back early.
--interviewed by Lauren Jones, Barbara Weingberg, & David Fenton