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Wild Wild Country: Tea with a Druid 18

April 9th, 2018

A few days ago I watched the fantastically well-made new Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country about the Rajneesh story and how it ended, and it’s one of those ‘You couldn’t make this up’ tales that seems utterly unbelievable and yet it happened: a clash between Christian Conservative America and blissed-out nude-sunbathing meditators that ends in bombing and bio-terrorism. It’s a fascinating study in the extraordinary ability we seem to have to not see one another’s point of view, to justify our own behaviour however outlandish, and the incredible egotism and narcissistic pride that can exist amongst followers of a spirituality that seeks to transcend ego, and is sincerely trying to build a greener, more caring world.

Most of the crazy guru stuff happened amongst my generation – the baby-boomers, and what a marvellous time some of us had. I think it was the Rajneesh lawyer featured in the series, who was a guest at one of the most sensuous and delightful dinner parties I’ve ever attended – at the Prana Centre in the Coromandel, New Zealand, ten or so years ago. After chatting about many of the events that are depicted in the film, we swam in a palm-fringed heated ‘Watsui’ pool, as Pink Floyd played through underwater speakers and the southern stars sparkled high above us.

Now that was just sheer fun, but why was my fun-loving generation so stupid? Wasn’t the fact that Rajneesh had 20 Rolls Royces a clue that something was amiss? And that everyone was wearing uniform – the obligatory orange that became maroon?

It all seems so obviously wrong in hindsight, but I think there was a development, an evolution going on, and I don’t think people are so easily misled these days (do tell me if you think I’m wrong!) Just before watching the series I heard a great TED talk by a young woman trying to create solutions to the pandemic of loneliness. And when I look around at what is happening now – the cutting edge, what the younger generation are doing – I see such a passionate commitment to tackling social and environmental problems. There’s an acceptance of the need for self-care, of the value of meditation, yoga, wholesome food – a broad SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) approach – but it isn’t as obsessively focussed on the Self as was my generation at their age.

So there’s hope I reckon! I know this is a gross over-simplification, but I’d be interested to know if you agree, or if you think I’m kidding myself and have a different take on things.

Meanwhile here’s the trailer for the series I mentioned:

11 Responses to “Wild Wild Country: Tea with a Druid 18”

  1. Thank you for this, and for all your teas, Philip!

    Just out of curiosity, are you familiar with the work of Gregory Bogart, and in particular with his book In the Company of Sages: the Journey of the Spiritual Seeker (1997, 2015)? I’ve personally found it to be a useful guide for sorting out (in my own head) the various types of issues that can arise in student-teacher relationships that take place in a spiritual setting. The first version of Bogart’s chapter on “Separating from a Spiritual Teacher” was published in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and it may be read for free at this link. Although much of the book is about guru-disciple relationships, the underlying dynamics are arguably applicable in many types of close mentoring relationships. Bogart uses Otto Rank’s split with Freud as one of his illustrations in this chapter.

    Maybe we really have learned some useful things about how this all works, particularly from the latter half of the twentieth century onward.

  2. Hi Philip,

    My wife and I finished watching Wild, Wild Country on Sunday and we were both shocked as to how things panned out. Whilst I was watching it I was thinking ‘Were these people just blinded by the idea of a perfect commune and oblivious/ignoring the blatant multi-million dollar business that surrounded them or were they brainwashed like so many ‘cult’ followers?’ To see a seemingly passive woman coerced into attempted murder twice (!!!) in the name of her leader was shocking and even today she talked about how it affected her, and not the people she attempted to kill. The amounts of money that the Rajneesh were making was astounding and, like you say, the fact that Osho had 20 Rolls-Royces, private jets, his own police force, 100’s of AK-47’s and other guns should have been enough for any peace loving individual to take a step back and think ‘Hhhmm, this is not what I signed up for’. The way they treated the ‘street people’ was just disgusting as well and all in the name of politics.

    Fascinating viewing, but, also terrifying to see how seemingly normal people can be made to do unthinkable things in the name of religion.

    • Hi Stuart,
      Terrifying yes but as you can see from Tara’s comment below, it’s quite a complex situation. Most people wouldn’t have known about all the skullduggery going on behind the scenes, and the idealism of their dream can’t be disputed. That seems to be one of the tragedies of the human condition that being idealistic offers no guarantee against one’s dreams turning into nightmares. (The story of politics all over!) I found one of the most intriguing aspects of the film was the way Sheila was so seemingly blind to the nature of her conduct.

  3. Hadn’t thought of this lot in years – knew some of them. Cult behaviour does not allow critical thinking. We had a worse group in Bangor called the Teachers, their leader was a serial abuser of power also.

  4. With the trend towards more ’embedded’ spirituality, we can already see an effect on religious organisations, from falling numbers in churches to lack of enthusiasm for pagan moots and gatherings. I have been wondering since Monday, how this could affect OBOD? Currently we seem to have it about right – small administrative base, not too many large events, good use of social media and an emphasis on the teaching, which rather than training people to serve the organisation, encourages that very self-awareness and outward-looking aspect Phillip was talking about. I do hear of people sad that they can’t find groups/groves and wonder if it is because organising such can be hard work/ time consuming and again, not what younger people are into. Perhaps we need to find more informal ways to meet up as well. Tea with a druid on-line is great – lunch or a few beers with one or more face-to-face might be good too, even if it involves a bit of travel. We don’t always need a full-on ritual every time we meet.
    Incidentally, Peny Billington’s ‘Druid’s Hide’ project is a great way to get us going observing and engaging with our local environment, something we can all do.

  5. Misled? I think a bit part of the phenomenon of Rajneesh and other strong spiritual personalities then was that there was a feeling that we were all being misled by all authorities. People like Rajneesh offered an alternative from war, malignant patriotism, and televangelism. This was the era of Reagan, whose people ensured that the rescue mission to remove USA diplomats from Iran would fail until Reagan had been inaugurated.

    I remember in 1980 hearing the news that John Lennon had been murdered. My sense was that there were people in positions of authority that wanted anyone who had a vision that was different than creating a population designed to serve corporations ,had to be silenced one way or another. There was a prime minister in Canada at that time who was a visionary, Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) who was as visionary and a believer of practical social justice. In 1982 a US military base was built on the US-Canada border that was there to threaten the Canadian capital city. A year later Trudeau resigned.
    This was a bad and hopeless time.

    Around that time I considered joining an intentional community. There were still a few places with people guiding them that believed in the possibility of a just society based on spiritual principles. I’ve also taken steps towards being a sishya of an Indian guru. I didn’t follow through on either, one through lack of opportunity, and the other through being circumspect about the individual. Since then I have been a practising Hindu although avoiding groups who focussed more on the teacher’s personality than the teaching. The orange garb worn by the disciples is the traditional dress of Hindu people who give up all on the quest for moksha (freedom/enlightenment).

    Thank you for recommending Wild, Wild Country. It was brilliantly done and had me binging for the first time in awhile. My sympathies were with the sannyasins for their devotion to a cause they believed was worthy, and would make the world a better place. It was great to see things coming together as they built Rajneeshpuram and felt the camaraderie in being together and their achievements.

    I sympathized with the plight of being attacked and slandered by religionists in the area where they lived. In the mid 80s I was living in a place that was a bit dilapidated when we moved in. On the front gable there was Victorian gingerbread with one of those decorated posts at the top. I cleaned them up and at the same time aded a little decoration on the front that I felt represented our spiritual perspective on life. The decoration was a square contained within a circle, representing that the world of form (the square) is an emanation of the world of spirit (the circle) as is the child within the womb. On the back of the house, which could be glimpsed from a street behind, I put some planetary symbols – Moon, Sun and Neptune. I heard stories later after moving from the house of people who had lived in my old neighbourhood who were running a Satanic cult, and who tortured children and killed babies – for bizarre and evil rituals. When I dug into this story some more, it turned out that a lot of people knew about this cult, and where it was. Can you guess where? Sadly it was the old brick house at 769 Water street where I’d lived.

    I’m currently reading a book by Michael Gorman called “The Celtic Philosopher’s Stone”. He describes in part of the book how the church establishment took control of the reigns of society and perpetuated the oppression of most people. It validates what I’ve witnessed at times through my life where Christian religious authoritarians have gone out of their way to demonize and destroy people of groups that threaten the status of the well to do and their own authority. In the series this was shown as the Christian fanatics mischaracterized and abused both their religious, then secular authority, to smash Rajneeshpuram. It was sad to see and sad that this has happened repeatedly before and after the events in Oregon. Last year I was planning on moving to Orkney and was shocked to discover that the similar unjustified demonization had taken place there, resulting in innocent families having their children taken away. In the USA there were recently some people who after decades won their appeal of extended jail sentences they were given because they ran a daycare facility and were accused of Satanism. They were convicted on the testimony of children who had been forced by their parents to lie in court.

    So my opinion on what is to be learned from this series is a little different than a lot of people. To me the question is not “Why were those people so stupid to be in this Rajneesh group?” I feel that the leaders of that group did a poor job of directing it – both Ma Anand Sheela and Osho (who let go of the reigns when he should have paid attention). My question would be “Why are some people always so quick to destroy alternatives that could ultimately be good for them?”. I think that Rajneeshpuram was never a threat to the old-timey Oregonian folk. It was they who created the conditions they didn’t like by preventing the Rajneeshis from using the facilities that they constructed well away from others. It was the local’s ill intentioned activity that nurtured the apparently overly strong reaction from the commune leadership.

    This is something to keep in mind for the Druidic community as well. We’re small and largely not on the Evangelical’s radar. We would be classed as a “New Religious Movement” which is now the term they use to condemn those whom they see as their enemies (http://ow.ly/colY30jyp7y). We are potential targets of organized groups who I believe would go to the same lengths to suppress us, had we a stronger public profile. I feel that we are a good lot, and should prosper and grow. We need to think about the lesson of Rajneeshpuram and prepare to deal with the same adversaries so that we can succeed.

    • Hi Tara!
      When you write “My sympathies were with the sannyasins for their devotion to a cause they believed was worthy, and would make the world a better place.” I totally agree and one of the brilliant aspects of the film was to show how weird and dysfunctional the ‘straight/normal’ society around them was. Meditating, skinny-dipping and growing organic food vs. living in ‘Conservative small-town America – it’s a no-brainer! However, what the film also showed was how a few (perhaps even ultimately one – Sheela) people could subvert the whole project. I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t been around? The other question I have is around what degree of PR, or attempts to communicate with the local people occurred? The film conveyed the impression that not much was done, but that may not be correct. You are right about Orkney here, but thank heavens it seems all in the past and Christian Fundamentalism is considerably less prevalent in the UK than in the US. I guess if there is one lesson from that whole story it is for us all to be really cautious when pursuing Utopian ideals. I think Intentional Communities are a fantastic idea, and I guess one just has to build in safeguards.

It's great to read your comments!