Last night I went to the Texas Theater in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, and watched a movie called The Source Family. The film is based on a book by Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian called The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Yo Ho Wha 13 and the Source Family. The Source Family was a colorful LA-based cult active in the early 1970s who also produced some of the freakiest psychedelic rock ever made. I’m looking forward to the release of the movie’s soundtrack album in a few weeks.
In many ways the Source Family was a lot like other crazy cults such as the Manson Family, Jonestown, the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo. They were led by a charismatic spiritual master, took lots of drugs, engaged in tons of sexy sex, wore weird clothes, lived in a commune and had an urgent message for the whole world that was completely incomprehensible to anyone outside of their group. But unlike those other cults I just mentioned, the Source Family’s story didn’t end in mass suicide or mass murder. Though there were scandals and allegations against them, most of the scandalous stuff tended to be fairly mild, at least by comparison. The worst crime they were accused of was harboring teenage runaways. Their brief flirtation with arming themselves never really got off the ground because, as a bunch of vegetarian hippies, nobody ever really wanted to fire any of those guns.
Since I’ve been interested in weirdo religions for a long time I’ve been aware of the Source Family for a while. They used to run a popular health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip, which was featured in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall and I remember that. I never knew a whole lot about them until last night, though.
The documentary was put together by former members of the Source Family. Isis Aquarian is listed as one of the executive producers of the film. This usually does not bode well for a movie about a group like this. These kinds of organizations tend to want to whitewash a lot of their own histories the way Chogyam Trungpa’s group did in the recent documentary about him. So coming into it I wasn’t sure how much honesty to expect.
I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by just how much the group were willing to reveal about what happened back in those days. The film is open and honest about the sleazier side of the Source Family. Father Yod is not presented as a perfect master nor are his “children” presented as innocent victims to be pitied. Many members of the cult are interviewed and are forthright about both the good and the bad sides of what they went through.
What I noticed most keenly in the film is something I’ve been saying a lot especially in the past couple of years. And that is that having some kind of genuine spiritual revelation or glimpse of God or whatever you want to call it does not necessarily confer any of what one might call “Godlike qualities” upon a person. It does not bestow upon the recipient any sort of moral perfection nor erase any of the nastier qualities that person might possess before the experience happened.
It does tend to make a person powerful, though. Because it’s a powerful and real experience. It’s the experience of the core truth of what we all really are. Since few of us ever get that far, we find those who have attractive. We want to be near them because we all seek to return to that source.
But the kind of power and attractiveness that comes with such experiences can also be damaging in the extreme. This is because the ego can latch on to absolutely anything — including the realization of its own ultimate unreality — as a way to strengthen and enlarge itself.
A lot of people in the movie question whether Father Yod’s spirituality was genuine or if he was a brilliant con man. I have no doubt that his experience was genuine. Yet he was also a con man. He was the ultimate con man in that he even managed to con himself. He clearly believed in what he was doing. That’s what made him so powerful and so attractive.
The problem was that he was only able to teach his followers to depend upon him. Their devotion never translated into anything else. Once he was dead, following a weird hang gliding accident in Hawaii, the family had nothing. He left them only a legacy of dependance, not real spiritual growth. They may have had genuine spiritual experiences within the commune. But their was no foundation to these experiences. And so when the “Father” was gone, his “children” were lost and eventually scattered.
This kind of thing happens a lot with spiritual sects of this sort. It’s not that their leaders are frauds. Well, not always anyway. Sometimes they are. It’s just that these spiritual masters get so caught up in their own experiences and in the ways that others respond to those experiences that they become even more lost than they were before they had their great awakenings. It’s sad when that happens. But it’s a far more common scenario than one in which a person genuinely integrates their awakening with their regular work-a-day life in the real world. Folks who manage to do that are often not nearly as sexy and exciting as people like Father Yod who jet off into the spiritual stratosphere. And so we don’t hear a whole lot about them. But the folks who manage to stay grounded in spite of their so-called “enlightenment” are the ones we really ought to be paying attention to.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the inner workings of offbeat spiritual organizations.
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