Robert Hendrickson's Creepy as Hell Manson Family Documentaries


I get spooked every time I get drawn back into lurid tales and dark recollections of the Manson Family. And yet, I find the illusive meanings and lessons to be drawn out of that macabre history too compelling not to keep coming back to it.

The dangerous thing to think or say about the Manson Family is that on a certain level, you can relate to the appeal. The wilderness and isolation of the desert. The unbridled freedom of naked frolicking. Tripping out and playing music. Breaking ties with straight society. Getting back at authority figures. 

These are all feelings that a lot of us can identify with and that we think about when we describe the counterculture of the hippie-era. A time many of us never lived through but wished we had. But could any of us have wished to be at 10050 Cielo Drive or 3301 Waverly Drive on those fateful and bloody nights in 1969? Nights that forever marred the entire hippie revolution of peace and love and turned it into a deranged symphony of blood and fear.

That’s where the ability to relate or romanticize goes out the window – and where the mindfuck begins.

“Always is always forever.
As long as one is one.
Inside yourself for your father.
All is none all is none all is one.”
- I’ll Never Say Never to Always


Numerous aspects of the entire Manson ordeal beg for an understanding or some type of psychological closure. All the usual why and how questions. I often rake over the multifaceted circumstances in which pure evil can be bread out of naïve idealism. It’s a struggle not dissimilar to trying to wrap one’s head around how the Nazis came to power and carried out a holocaust with the complicity of so many otherwise average people. There never seems to be any satisfying conclusions or explanations. However, it does seem clear just how devastating the disturbed and charismatic ambitions of sociopathic personalities can be.


It’s not too difficult to draw out some conclusions about Charlie himself, as complex as even that task is. Or a violent simpleton like Tex Watson. It’s the Manson girls and some of the supporting male cast members like Paul Watkins and Brooks Poston that still represent disturbing moral conundrums for me. It’s like the once ordinary Germans who didn’t conceive of The Final Solution, but played a smaller role in carrying it out. I ask myself how deep could I get caught up in something like that under the right or wrong circumstances. It's best to assume you could never fall into such a trap, even at such a young and impressionable age.

The Manson story has been with me for a long time but I didn’t dig down into the details until the last few years. Last year in particular, I got engrossed in the history by reading Adam Gorightly’s book, Shadow Over Santa Susana: Black Magic, Mind Control and the Manson Family Mythos, along with listening to the brilliant 12-part audio drama, Charles Manson’s Hollywood, produced by You must Remember This.

I had about as much as I could take and had to put it down for awhile. Too much darkness. Too much dread. But the images and voices of the Family have a permanent and haunting affect. It wouldn’t be long before the questions and research kicked up again.
 
Original Manson Poster


Which brings me to my stumbling upon a rare and once banned documentary film on YouTube simply titled, Manson. The 1973 film directed by the recently deceased, Robert Hendrickson, is an extremely dark and uncensored representation of Manson Family members following the death sentences handed down in 1971 to Charlie, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel.


My initial discovery was quickly followed by finding another documentary from the same director, released decades later from archival footage. 2007’s Inside the Manson Gang rehashes some of the same territory but serves up an entire cache of unseen interviews and on-site footage primarily at Spahn and Barker Ranch with frequent segments drawn from Los Angeles' “Trial of the Century.”


Like Manson, the footage from Inside the Manson Gang was shot after the Tate-Labianca murder arrests and lead up to the post-trial convictions on January 25, 1971. The main difference with the later film is the detailed commentary provided by Hendrickson that attempts to tell the story from his perspective and give a blow-by-blow of his inner-thoughts from behind the camera as he seemingly places his life in the hands of known dangerous collaborators in murder.



Hands down, the scariest commentaries were provided by the trifecta of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sandra Good and Nancy Pitman. These women remained under Charlie’s trance long after his conviction and imprisonment. The devoted cultists had the most eerie and empty gazes as they described what they would do for Charlie and how death is just another illusion. 





It gives pause to know just how unhinged spiritual jive-talk can make a suseptibale individual. As provided by their master, the Manson girls built a strong justification for all manors of heinous crimes. Hearing and seeing their determination and commitment pour out on camera really shook me up. Mostly because by looks alone, you would never be able to predict the extreme pathologies at work within them. All three of them would commit more crimes and see the inside of a cell not long after the release of the first film. All three, deranged for life, never to escape Manson's spell. 

There’s another deep chill factor that accompanies the knowledge provided by Hendrickson that he is there with guys like Steve “Clem” Grogan and Bruce Davis following the brutal beheading of Donald “Shorty” Shea and knowing full well they had. Or when we witness critical moments like seeing Paul Watkins at Spahn Ranch after he was caught in a van arson attack, most likely by other Family members in retaliation for his turning informant. 
 
Steve "Clem" Grogan and Paul Watkins

At one point Hendrickson even comments, “I think I’m bearing witness to the end of civilization.” While hyperbolic, you can’t exactly blame the guy for feeling that way at the time with the amount of societal upheaval that was breaking out while his cameras were rolling.
 
The nerves it must have taken Hendrickson and his crew to accompany the cult on excursions to the remote Barker Ranch in Death Valley or to Devil’s Canyon, is impressive. Putting all those pieces of information together in your head when watching the blurry 16mm footage is what creates a grip that most modern horror or suspense films could only dream to achieve. 

Director/Cameraman, Robert Hendrickson

To be clear, these movies aren’t particularly good from an artistic perspective, in my opinion. They actual feel pretty amateur and sometimes sloppy in nature. The craftsmanship is not where the power lies. The intense draw these films contain have everything to do with the forbidden and authentic nature of the subjects and locations on display. The voyeuristic intrigue and atmosphere of doom are what these films have in spades. 

I’ve never come across a more intimate view of the cult from the inside from the actual time period it was all going down. Manson himself granted Hendrickson permission to be the official Family documentarian from jail, and boy did that get him and his crew some up close and personal footage.

Essentially these are home movies. Albeit with subjective narration piled on in an attempt to place things into the context of Vietnam, race riots and hippie counterculture ideology. Hendrickson capitalizes on the fact that much of what film he doesn’t have to include is already baked into the minds of almost any viewer with a passing interest in the story. The gems originate from all the pieces of the puzzle that exist nowhere else. 



While many books do a wonderful job of immersing outsiders into the commune lifestyle of garbage picking, sexual escapades and psychedelic rituals – seeing some of the principles become real in such an unguarded fashion takes the drama to a whole different level. 

It also has to be mentioned that the creepy factor of these films is heavily influenced by the soundtrack provided throughout by the songs of the Family, known as The Family Jams. Songs written by Manson and sung in unison by his followers are hair-raising and riveting. I couldn't help but appreciate their innocent harmonies. More impressive than the Family Jams are the the moody songs included by the duo of Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins. (Only to be topped by Bobby Beausolei's soundtrack for Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising in 1980.) I can't find a better word than "haunting" to describe it all. Words don't do the images justice anyhow. 

Try watching these films without getting the creeps or the chills. Be forewarned, post-viewing nightmares are a distinct possibility.



“Come on home little children, come on home. When you see the children x’s on their head. If you dare look at them soon you will be dead.
Babies gonna disappear from the momma’s arms.
There’s gonna be a lot of fear
But we’ll be on the run.”
– Get on Home

Choosing the Odd Way: Fantasy Against the Machine


The odd bug bit me very early on. Vampires, aliens and superheroes were my extended family to turn to as an escape from my direct one. Being into weird characters and dark subjects has given my entire life meaning and color that made the worst of it not only bearable, but also incredibly rich.

More and more it seems I get odder as time goes on. Or rather, time has allowed me the ability to accumulate more and more oddities. All children are naturally fascinated with the unusual and extraordinary. Mythical creatures, sword and sorcery, absurd comedy and disregard for rules come with the innocence of youth. I was interested in all that stuff and more. The unusual part is that my fixation on these things has reemerged in my 30’s in a way that separates me from my peers and even from my own young son, who frequently tells me he’s bored of my obsession with mythical creatures and magic.

Granted, he has his own interests that are weird from my perspective. It probably just amounts to the generational divide. The emotional fixations with weird media and culture I developed are firmly rooted in what surrounded me as I came of age. The last generation raised before the Internet.

The NeverEnding Story

My childhood was filled with comics and action figures while my son gets his kicks from “YouTubers” and Pokémon Go. While superficially different, the feelings these outlets elicit for us are very much the same.

My adult life is filled and decorated with elaborate escapes from the pressures of mundane reality. While I have many responsibilities to keep up with, it’s the metaphysics of “reality” I have the bigger trouble with. Possibly provoked by teen drug experimentation or a general dissatisfaction with surface appearances – I don’t accept that things are, as they seem. For quite some time I have had the sense that there are multitudes of realities that coexist beyond our five senses of perception.

Psychoactives like LSD and psilocybin gave me a glimpse into a visual and mental landscape wildly in opposition with exterior experience. Those kaleidoscopic visions and transformable belief structures I encountered illustrated a way of being that rebelled against all that is suggested as unalterable. My sense of self, largely constructed from interior experiences had then accessed psychedelic depths that fantasy entertainment playfully references. To grow and expand those mind-altering experiences, I later turned to meditation and then ultimately to ceremonial magic.

Legend

Some people are content to conform to the idea that flights of fantasy departing from scientific laws and societal restrictions are the aberrations of an overactive imagination or worse, antisocial psychosis. To reject consensus reality is to suffer a form of mental illness according to self-respecting citizenry. To a certain extent, my interests, practices and hobbies build a solid case for a diagnosis of asocial personality disorder. I don’t know if that says more about me, or our post-modern culture.

In my view, it is a tacit agreement to accept an existence dedicated to the acquiring of money and status that represents the real disorder. Most people sit back comfortably in all their purported “rationality” with little thought for the banking and governmental control systems that starve and kill millions. Their consensus supported by popular news media that basic morality is selective, or relative is the obvious delusion from my vantage point. To them, corruption is the only way for humans to get on with things. Militarism and imperialism are the costs of managing a “civilization.” 

It’s just those sorts of irrational utopian observations that pain all hopeless idealists. An idealist or utopian is a person that can’t accept the conditions of society as they are, and rather than sinking into cognitive dissonance or bleak cynicism, choses instead, the option of imagining alternatives. Actually, magical thinking is all that prevents the abyss of skepticism from swallowing me whole.

According to masses of corporate clock-punchers and country club members, the fact that I collect comics, practice magic and entertain anarchistic politics is representative of a deeply childish eccentricity. They all know that a serious person simply has no time for such frivolous pursuits. There are boats to be bought and stocks to be followed. While guys my age meet at cigar bars, I find my comfort at occult bookstores. This choice of going the odd way, instead of getting on whatever socially acceptable bandwagon is appropriate to my age, is a continuation of a pattern of defiance I developed from the word go.

As kids most of us believe in fantasy and relish in imaginative worlds of self-constructed reality. But even then, I took my fantasies very seriously. I pushed out to explore the fringes least inhabited. It’s not like I didn’t like sports at all, it’s just that my young idols were Freddy Kruger and The Punisher instead of Joe Montana and Michael Jordan. Tapping into another world has always been vitally important to my emotional well-being. I envisioned a world, similar in ways to our waking one, but with additional possibilities, powers and meaning. A world, run on magic.

Now in my mid-thirties, I still have the same need to unplug from the limitations of this restrictive world in order to dip into heroic realms in which I can soar through fantasies and science-fictions. The worlds of Elric, Hermes, Cthulhu, Odin, Adam Warlock or Rick Deckard. 

(It begs the question, why is that we mere mortals can do better than the creator itself to build worlds really worth inhabiting?)

One room in my house exists as a near replica of my teenage bedroom – filled with old toys, comics, art supplies and a vast music and film collection. This room also serves as a spiritual temple for rituals and meditations. It is a true refuge and sanctuary. A pure space. I can again contrast this room against the sport and beer themed “man-cave” concepts so popular among the majority of "well-adjusted" men my age.

While not every adult holds onto so many aspects of their childhood, I think that most do in fact seek forms of pleasurable escape from the stresses of daily living. Our entertainment industry of television and movies provide a socially acceptable means of fantasy engagement. Every new Star Wars sequel feeds a deep hunger to live out our archetypes that do and say the things we only wish we could.

While most adults are quick to reassume their responsible adult roles and identities, some of us resist coming back down into this world where struggles for power and resources smoother our propensity for freethinking. While I continue to show up every day to a job that presents me with deep inner dilemmas, my mind drifts into another realm unencumbered by concerns of office politics and corporate ladder climbing. I look from afar at swarms of worker bees that thrive on the success of a client meeting or making the next move that earns them distinction from the executive board. A find a certain detachment from hollow distinctions necessary to cope with the arrangement.

I imagine all the managers I ever worked for out to dinners at upscale restaurants feeling superior and self-satisfied with being all grown up with money in the bank and an impressive business card. Of course when business doesn’t go as planned, the structures of their identities come crashing down and jealousies run wild. There’s always someone else making more money or who has more fame and power. It’s an all too familiar troupe of modern capitalist America. Striving for the carrot. Playing the game.

Work, work, work
When I was fresh out of college and getting my first taste of adulthood and independence, I looked around me and did my best to act the part and get with the program. The prospects for my success in business were not the least bit promising based on my volatile past. Juvenile delinquency and a heavy drug habit were the consequences of my unfocused anger and disillusionment with authority and conformist culture. Not wanting to land in prison or dead, I cleaned up my act in my early 20’s. After completing a degree in graphic design, I worked very hard to overcome my inner-demons and prove myself in a competitive world.

Having acclimated myself to the professional world with some success, I lost touch with my youthful passions. They weren’t gone, they just went into a proverbial box in the basement while I gave professionalism my all. I rode roller coaster highs and lows of the creative business and began to feel I had finally found my place. Soon enough, I was viewing my entire identity and value through the lens of my work. It got unhealthy really fast and worse, it entirely economized my creativity, removing my own voice and expression in the process.

After getting burned out from having my creative fate always in the hands of others, I began to emotionally unravel. A permeating existentialism set in and big questions began to loom. Attachments to professional success and associated beliefs about what that meant began to dissolve under scrutiny. I was not my job, nor should I strive to be.

That was a healthy awakening, although perhaps deeply threatening to psychological factors that push people towards the complete professional commitment and success. I still don’t ultimately know what consequences of such a dramatic shift in belief will cause. Certainly, mechanizations are unconsciously at work.

I am starting to let go of some of the attachments and beliefs that come from being surrounded with materialists and workaholics. I have come to reflect on the trade-offs I made and some of the important characteristics that fuel my personal creativity. I recommitted myself to creative work that had no monetary motive whatsoever. Reengaging with art from a completely expressionistic standpoint began to take the priority, if not in actual time, in emotional connection.

This creative rebirth was and is closely connected to a spiritual rebirth I experienced through a discovery of the occult arts. Magic found me at just the right time, when my identity and belief in the material world were falling out from under me. At a point of complete openness and desire for meaning, an ancient and esoteric approach to my spiritual life reignited the enthusiastic child within. Not long into practical work with ritual and visualization techniques there emerged my lost love for fantasy, myth and folklore.

My inner-landscape became repopulated with angels, faeries, knights, gnomes and trolls. Archetypes from days long past reassembled for a reunion tour of sorts. One that I intend to keep on the road permanently. Once again, I’m the odd kid again. And it feels perfectly right. Pretending to be business and property minded never suited me well. To traverse in and out of the corporate environment as needed serves as part of my newly formed magical theatre of entering and exiting different roles and worlds. I refuse to be trapped by the zombie overlords of corporatism.

Magic has always been a taboo subject, if not an outright illegal one. The simple practice of its rituals meant that you had decided to disregard boundaries placed before you by social, political or religious authorities. You would have also been choosing to disregard the attitudes and pressures of your common peers and neighbors. Magic today, is still a wonderful tool for transgressing boundaries – within oneself and without. It gives me a sense of sovereignty and empowerment that I had too long surrendered to the fickle breeze of business.

I now and forever choose to go the odd way in this life. Knowing full well that the ways of magic, active imagination and personal world building are only odd when judged by a culture lost in the quagmire of scientific materialism, dehumanizing technology and vapid forms of entertainment. To be weird in this time is the most important and meaningful purpose to have.

Admittedly, not going with the flow is cause for setbacks in the social realms both in and out of the workplace. Going the odd way has always been a lonely road to tow. You don’t necessarily pick being odd as much as it flows from the core of who you are. Pretending not to be odd is a much worse punishment to endure than having fewer contacts to DM with.  

Self-help speakers condemn shyness as a sin. To be an introvert, or weird is some sort of condition that needs to be treated and beaten out. As they preach it, we should all be extroverts, bombasting our way through life – talking over each other at every turn. Yes, my intense quietness and guarding of inner thoughts makes other uncomfortable. At the same time I’m not sure they want to hear all about the gnostic implications of The Matrix, whether aliens are metaphysical or flesh, or which Skinny Puppy tour had the best stage props.

There’s no sense in sacrificing authenticity and weirdness in order to make others more comfortable. Really, what people seem to want is an agreement from others that life is dull and mystics are all silly. It’s the ultimate pact of middle management suburbia.

Blue Velvet

What is most important to me is if I’m being as true to myself as possible. At an age in my life when adding adjectives to my professional title is supposed to be important, I’ve never been more into developing my unprofessional life. I’ve never been more into delving into the weird and unexplainable. On a practical level, it would be easier if I went along with the program and truly committed myself to being a company man. If I don't want to make waves, I could shove all my misunderstood fascinations in the closet and clear my mind of unpopular ideas. But that's not feasible at all, is it?

Once you a certain threshold of normative illusion is crossed, it's fairly impossible to uncross that bridge. From that point in the journey it becomes a matter reconciling and reshaping. The thought of demolishing and abandoning is tempting. Making sense of confusing circumstances is often a daily quandary.

I can confidently say that workplace boredom; depressing political conditions and a lost sense of purpose are being managed by my renewal of childlike imagination and magic. With a magical worldview, I’m don't feel so powerless against the unfolding circumstances of life. With a free and unshackled mind, the play of fantasy, myth and paranormal possibilities are recreating my life experience and replenishing my spiritual energies.

It seems the elements most critical for engaging the spirit world were introduced to me in childhood. To pretend. To dream. To wonder. To explore. To play. To create. Through intention and new practices, living a life filled with mystery and enchantment has regained primacy.

The only thing more important than awakening and claiming this magical birthright, is consistently remembering to. To not forget that life is mystical and full of hidden meaning and symbolism; while living in a world designed to distract us and separate us from truth. The simplicity of noticing and discovering can make all the difference. The ordinary and boring people of the world will judge you and mock you for being odd. For not fitting in with their boring construct of reality.

Each day we can choose between the ordinary and the odd. I seem to land on the latter more often than not. And that's a good thing. 


Self-Actualization Through Hierarchy: Risks and Rewards


I find myself caught between the tension of rejecting top-down societal constraints imposed by an old, privileged classes bent on control and the desire to preserve ancient principles grown up out of cultural traditions that have a long track record for developing notable individual achievement.
Hierarchy and regimentation is not something I’m a big fan of in most cases. In fact, playing by the rules and being obedient are concepts I have spent my entire life rebelling against. The thought of bowing down to an authority figure gives me the creeps. Nowhere do I feel more strongly about this dynamic of human interaction more so then in the realm of politics. The very notion of an individual or small group of powerful elites enacting a monolithic standard of ethics and moral law is the epitome of unnatural subversion against free people. It truly makes my stomach churn. These abusive and liberty corroding control systems play out in any number of other social arenas such as can be found in education, law enforcement, work places and within the family unit.

Patterns of hierarchical control and concentrations of power have been a part of human history for so long it’s easy to understand why we more or less accept such arrangements as perfectly natural and downright necessary. Without an elite cast to look out for the interests of the lesser masses, we imagine wide outbreaks of famine, chaos and violence spreading like a plague from coast to coast. It becomes incredibly difficult to make a strong case for abolishing hierarchy in favor of horizontal networks of cooperation when history has so few examples of successful free societies to offer. The lust for power and control looms like a dark shadow across all cultures of our world – quick to snuff out even a whiff of transgression against the authority of the state.

When educated and free-spirited people appear with anarchistic models of freedom that attempt to work out in reasonable ways how we can operate outside of the triangular paradigm of trickle-down liberty, it brings about a real crisis of conscience as to what sorts of social arrangements are most harmonious to our fundamental humanity. Do we need to be ruled by the “strong,” the “learned,” or the “exceptional?” Or should we be completely free, only answering to ourselves, disregarding titles or ranks? Is there a legitimate place and function for hierarchy, or is it as a rule, a manifestation of a corrupt dark side of the psyche that has fallen for the seduction of power?

I don’t have any simple or quick answers to satisfy the depth and breadth such a topic deserves. What I would like to explore are the arenas in my own experience in which I have found hierarchy and a limited role of authority not only acceptable but an attractive path for personal development and growth. The teacher-student relationships that characterize many fields of specialized learning and training have provided a level of accessible engagement for most of us entering unfamiliar and complex fields of study to such an extant that I’m hard-pressed to believe that personal mastery of such arts and crafts are attainable without some degree of acceptance of such a relationship.

While I favor the dismantling of hierarchical political power to better free the individual and honor the God-given principle of sovereignty, I favor small-scale and localized models of hierarchy for the dispersal of self-empowering tools of wisdom and skill crafts. Under those conditions we will have individuals who are in a much better physical, spiritual and mental conditioning to thrive in a more horizontally deconstructed political climate.

Initiation in the Cult of Mithras

Graded systems of learning go back centuries, with Rome’s Cult of Mithras serving as one example. In the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda there is an entry "Mithras", which states "no one was permitted to be initiated into them (the mysteries of Mithras), until he should show himself holy and steadfast by undergoing several graduated tests." We can see many more of these schools extending forward in history from the Rosicrucian orders to the lodges of Freemasonry. In the Middle Ages we find the establishment of an organized system for the training and development of knights, based on longstanding relationships between young aspirants and their senior mentors.

These days there are many self-styled gurus and masters of the occult or martial arts just to name a few examples. Self-taught practitioners who have trained with YouTube videos and books in their own living rooms have tried to convince others that entry into a school or temple of learning has become irrelevant due to advances in technology. These are people who scoff at tradition or the notion of lineage. Honoring past masters and paths of wisdom tracing back hundreds of years means nothing to them. The idea of ancestor devotion or paying respects is beneath them or simply a superstition at best. Perhaps I would buy into the same post-modern individualism if for not having my own direct contact with entering into such schools and temples to be able to compare my results and comprehension there against the limited gains I’ve acquired working alone.

Many really great practitioners across a wide variety of fields often do retain a teacher even after decades of study. It is however possible that one may not always need a direct teacher. Sometimes an individual can naturally outgrow their master and need to branch out on their own to continue to grow. On the flipside, an impatient or ego driven person will break off to gain the position and stature of being a teacher themselves while offering a less than coherent path to their future adherents. How often do we see new schools of martial arts, yoga studios or spiritual temples open up only to discover a muddled hodge-podge of teachings repackaged and presented as something new?

The temptation to claim personal titles of our own devising is strong. The urge for status or the harnessing of social influence exists in the fields of self-development as much as they do in the realm of the political. We expect a greater purity and idealism from people who dwell in spirit work, but experience shows us the pitfalls of power, are all too commonplace there too. 

That being the case, why should I not advocate solitary practice as a skeptical rule? There are a few factors that I find compelling enough to endorse wadding through potentially dangerous waters in the hopes of finding authentic teachers. An authentic and inspiring teacher fulfills a role that I believe still has a place in our culture as it had in ancient China, India or Africa. The Wise Man, Shaman, Sifu, Priest, Mage or Guru have become symbolic archetypes across the world for a reason. These are experienced and disciplined men and women who have risen to a place of mastery through decades of their own study and practice, more often than not, under the tutelage from their own teachers. They do not hold perfect knowledge but their insights are hard earned.


When a teacher is humble and filled with a genuine desire to transmit what they have learned in order to keep a tradition or experience alive, their students can rise up and amass tools and skills that have been battle tested and proven over time. Of course nothing can replace personal exploration of such techniques to test whether or not they are suitable for the given individual. This is quite a natural outcome of taking on any skilled tradition or practical system.

A true teacher understands that not all people learn or adopt tools in the exact same way. No art is meant to be as rigid as a cookie-cutter. However, I have found mentor models to be invaluable for getting any practice going, whether it is creative design, ritual magick or martial art. Tiered and level based training provides a framework for basic operation and advancement. I have never worked with a teacher that didn’t also advocate for personalization or evolution to any system, once their student has gone through the trouble of internalizing the basic fundamentals. 

The trouble as I see it is in the mentality of skipping over completely the humbling process of trying, failing and persevering through a coherent system of development under the misguided and naïve presumption that anything they think of doing is just as valid as material that has been honed and refined over centuries of labor.

Everybody wants a quick fix, a fast track or instant credentials. Otherwise, why bother? In the digital age, all learning and knowledge seems easily accessible. The confusion comes from believing accessibility leads to actual ability. As far as I know, there are no short cuts in the realms of spiritual, creative or physical excellence. This is precisely the value I find in ancient teachings and practices. Personally, I find that they act as some measure of counterbalance to the unnatural demands the digital-age mind has come to make in an era of instant gratification. 

Fewer people are bothering to take the time to learn in the flesh due to the perception that we can all know anything with just a few clicks. As an experiment, simply face off a self-taught, Internet novice of martial arts against a student trained under a master in real-time at a physical dojo. It will be obvious which path leads to effective results. (The Internet is an invaluable tool, to be used for certain, most effectively in conjunction with some face-to-face interactivity.)

Okinawan Master and students

Honest spiritual wisdom is much harder to outwardly gauge, but spending time listening to what a person has to say and offer goes a long way in alerting our intuitions to hollow claims. Internet gurus set off all kinds of alarm bells when they claim to be able to transmit the secrets of the ages for a nominal digital currency transaction. Unfortunately, our intuitions don’t function without error, even when we met a alleged teacher in the flesh. 

Many a masterful con artist has swindled large numbers of people out of time, money and mental space. This does happen and we can only do our best to vet our potential teachers as well as we can before making any commitments to enter into a relationship with them. It is incumbent upon the student to exercise common sense and have a healthy skepticism about whether or not a person lives up to the task of being a legitimate and honest advisor.

There is a real danger when a person enters this territory coming from a place of desperation or blind-faith. Often times this is a necessary phase of growth where we come to realize the risks in uncritically submitting ourselves to an unworthy guru who prays upon the weakness of the lost and vulnerable. This happens quite often in spiritual self-realization scenarios, but is just as likely to happen to someone in a martial arts environment. 

Unhealthy expectations paired with a lack of healthy self-esteem and personal identity can lead to disaster with consequences ranging from brainwashed delusion, financial ruin or in the worse case, death. We only need to recall cults like Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown or the Order of the Solar Temple to see how tragic it is when thoughtless devotion is given over to a teacher who has gone off the rails.

Order of the Solar Temple

As Manly P. Hall brought to attention in his text, Words to the Wise: A Practical Guide to the Esoteric Sciences, “The legitimate schools of the ancient wisdom, and the legitimate teachers of the doctrine offer spirituality to no one. They merely indicate a path of action, which, if followed with consecration and intelligence over a long period of years, will result in certain improvement of character and knowledge.”

Proceeding with caution is a must but I do advise walking out the journey – messy as it can be. Keeping one’s wits is imperative. With the right amount of discernment, we are able to find life altering spaces and relationships for boundless inner-growth. It must also be noted that through finding a quality teacher, we can then become connected with typically high-quality peers that end up being just as valuable to our progression and commitment as the teacher. Our contemporaries working alongside us on the arduous road often fill in many gaps left by the teacher. No teacher is flawless or suited to cover every nuance that will be faced by wide ranges of unique individuals. A teacher worthy of the title wants nothing to do with being placed on a pedestal of idolization.

While centralizing information and curriculum can lead to abuse, there are very practical reasons for dividing and segmenting lessons. In a healthily functioning environment whether it be a Freemasonic lodge, magical order or dojo; the graded dispersal of teaching is for the benefit of the student. Growing the students inner and outer powers without providing checks and balances against arrogance and recklessness is considered irresponsible in traditional disciplines. I think we can all agree it would be in bad form to dispense incredibly powerful physical and mental tools to the wrong sort of character. This has and is a long-standing rationale for keeping these secret teachings guarded and protected for the sake of our society at large.

In the classic book, Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams explained the teacher-student relationship this way - “The martial arts sensei is very much like the Zen master; he has not sought out the student, nor does he prevent him from leaving. If the student wants guidance in climbing the steep path to expertise, the instructor is willing to act as a guide – on the condition that the student be prepared to take care of himself along the way. The instructor’s function is to delegate to the student exactly those tasks which he is capable of mastering, and then leave him as much as possible to himself and his inner abilities. The student may follow in the footsteps of his guide or choose an alternative path – the choice is his.”

When entered into on a voluntary basis, hierarchy in this context is a mark of emotional and mental maturity on the part of the aspirant. It’s not a sign of old-fashioned hang-ups from a Victorian age, but one of being rooted in timeless principles of humility, reverence and earnestness. The freedom to leave a system to pursue another is critical. In this sense we clearly see the marked difference between soul-crushing and destructive hierarchies and the varieties that lead to soul enrichment and liberation. 

We are all students for a lifetime. An abandonment of this attitude strikes me as a mark of a culture that has lost its philosophical footing and risks sacrificing the development of excellence moving into the next generation for the sake of chasing fads or appealing to a consumer mindset. Beware of the frauds and predators but don’t isolate yourself from a teacher or system that can present a genuine path that that is incomparably marked by rubbing shoulders with other breathing and thinking beings. That, I would argue is the truly revolutionary action to take.
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