On Beatnicks and Be-Ins

Posted on in On Our Radar by Wes Nisker

Musings on the Hippie Era


Brothers and sisters, lovers and friends, are you hip yet? Can you dig it? If not, just put some flowers in your hair and some flowers in your pipe, and suddenly we are in San Francisco during one of those dreamy summers of love. You have started the day with a toke or two, and now you’re heading toward the park to see what’s happening, and you’re groovin’ on the scene as a Volkswagen van full of laughing hippies drives by with “Sergeant Pepper” blasting away on the radio, and suddenly you can’t decide whether to spend the day trying to save the world or just savor the world . . . and so you have another toke.

I’m just trying to explore some of the history behind the fact that you are now reading the 40th anniversary issue of Common Ground. It’s a matter of honoring the ancestors and giving a nod and a bow to those who gave birth to what is now known as the “new age.”

Our magical mystery tour begins just after World War II, when the baby boom was born and America became a superpower, taking over the former European colonies with television and Coca Cola and dreams too rich to ever be fulfilled. It was an America where the cars had started to grow fins, and the terrorists were called communists, and the American dream was just starting to put everyone to sleep.

And in the heart of the new empire, a bunch of young rogues and visionaries began to articulate a different sensibility—a counterculture—a movement that drew on the ideas of European dada and existentialism; a movement that turned toward the East, to the Tao, the Buddha, and the Jai Jai Ram; a movement fueled by the drumbeats of essential Africa and that found its American voice in the musical forms of jazz and rock ’n’ roll and in the writings of the beatniks.

It was the gang of Jack Kerouac, mad to live and to dig every note in the great riff of life, driven along the road by the crazy looping solos of Charlie Parker and the offbeat chords of Thelonious Monk. The beatniks were romantics and mystics at heart. As Ginsberg said, they were “beatifically beat,” searching for what Kerouac called “the golden eternity.” And in their travels they saw the light come shining down from the East, and before long they were introducing strange new words into the hipster’s jive lexicon—words like “karma” and “dharma” and “mantra” and “Tantra.” And it all sounded so exotic that I finally decided to come to San Francisco to become a beatnik. But I was too late to make the scene, so I got assigned to the hippies instead. And I am proud to say I was a hippie! Can I get a witness?

The hippies were idealistic and optimistic and became known as “flower children.” That’s because we dragged Bohemia out of the dark bars and coffeehouses for a few brief years of colorful frolicking in the sun, celebrating the Age of Aquarius, always accompanied by the ecstatic wail of electric guitars. And we spent a lot of our abundant free time experimenting with consciousness—yes, by ingesting illegal substances—but also through meditation and yoga and the new psychologies of gestalt and bodywork and breath-based therapies.

I was part of that grand conspiracy of young people who—at least for a few years—refused to join the “straights” and their consumer economy, known to us as “the system.” We rejected the old-world mentality of our parents, with their Depression-era fears of scarcity and war, and their uptight puritan morality. Instead, we sought a new ethos and mythology, one that would celebrate life and sexuality and nature…. One that would embrace the world as one.

Okay, so maybe we were a little naïve. Or maybe we just had it too good. As the psychologist Paul Goodman wrote in his famous book Growing Up Absurd, “It was destined that the children of affluence, who grew up without toilet training, and freely masturbating, would turn out to be daring, disobedient, and simpleminded.”

So maybe that’s why we started chanting, “We want the world, and we want it now!” We were poorly potty trained and prone to tantrums!

But we were just trying to create a better world, and especially trying to stop our government from conducting a criminal, horrific war. But at heart, the hippies weren’t very political. We had no analysis or five-year plan. Instead, our revolution was expressed in gatherings known as “be-ins,” communal celebrations of just being. Here’s the San Francisco Oracle—once a Haight-Ashbury journal—announcing that the first “human be-in” would take place in Golden Gate Park: “The spiritual revolution will be manifest and proven. We will shower the nation with waves of ecstasy and purification. Fear will be washed away. Ignorance exposed to sunlight. Profits and Empire will lie drying on deserted beaches.”

Yes, it was a spiritual revolution! And if the hippies have a legacy, it’s in this journal you are reading and in the yoga and meditation centers now in every town in America. And it’s also in the modern environmental movement that got its start in the late ’60s with back-tothe-land visions of “eco-topia,” plus a Whole Earth Catalog of appropriate technologies, now becoming a testament to our vision and prophecies and also necessary for our survival.

The hippies were right, and still right on! It’s time to scale down and simplify. It is time to re-create community, and celebrate existence and make a whole new world full of peace, love, and good vibes.

So, in honor of the hippie legacy, I propose that somewhere—maybe on the mall in Washington, DC—there should be a statue erected to “the unknown hippie.” People could visit and leave old buttons, beads, flowers.

And maybe in honor of all the offbeat ancestors who seeded the so-called “new age,” we could hold an annual day of remembrance and tribute, a day when we turn off all our isolating computers and just go out into the streets and start talking to people about life, or about how to end all the disgusting wars or deal with climate change. Or else we could go to the park and just sit down and feel the earth, and maybe even give her a big hug like the hippies used to, and then vow to do everything we can to see that this little biosphere project continues—this awesome experiment in life and consciousness. And then, brothers and sisters, even if it’s just for a few hours, let’s banish our sorrow over what is happening to the world, let go of the fear and the greed, and then have ourselves a good old-fashioned be-in. Let’s celebrate life and the mystery of it all!

And remember, as always, if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Wes “Scoop” Nisker is a Buddhist meditation teacher, author, radio commentator, and performer. Wes’s famous tagline is: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” WesNisker.com

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