Last fall I used the “research” requirement of my MFA to investigate a long-time interest, researching the roots of California guru and spiritualist culture. Charismatic leaders, cults, performances and rituals of power, the usual suspects. Aimee Semple MacPherson doing vaudeville skits in her Sunday morning (God as a traffic cop, pulling over the speeding sinner on the road of life). Guy Ballard’s cult, the Mighty “I AM” (always in capital letters), which he was inspired to create after being met on Mount Shasta by the Comte de St. Germain and taken on a whirlwind tour through riches secreted in the center of the earth.
Katherine Tingley (the “Purple Mother”) and Annie Besant’s Theosophist rivalry–Point Loma proto-kibbutznik colony vs. Hollywood Vedic fantasia.
There is A LOT there. Southern California’s particular flavor of seeking enlightment–uniting physical health with spiritual awareness with this idea that if you pray for it you will be very very successful in a worldly way–is seeded in the various economic and spiritual forces that collided in the founding of this fantasy land, between 1890-1930. Pentacostalism started in LA. The excitement about holy truths uncovered in Mayan and Egyptian archeological digs influenced the architecture. Aleister Crowley occultism and Christianity and yogic methodology synthesized and was performed performed through Theosophy. After World War II, you can add Scientology and UFOs and Aliens to the mix. The 1960s bring Synanon and death cults and Manson. And hippies.
So I was in yoga class the other day (ahem), and thought–what is it about this particularly Californian style of ritual? Uniting a physically arduous act with some spiritual intention, a religious framework, individual desire, glamour, in order to make manifest…something bigger and somehow truer (and yet never true at all) in its imaginative fusing of multiple cultures and yearnings?