New Age Journal Interview

July/August issue 1998

by former editor Joan Duncan Oliver


What the '60s Taught Us

Actor, activist, and author Peter Coyote remembers the counterculture.

MOST PEOPLE KNOW Peter Coyote as an actor, from his film and TV roles: the idealistic scientist in E.T., the ruthless district attorney in Jagged Edge, the sadistic novelist in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, the dissipated writer in Pedro Almodovar's Kika, to name a few. Californians know him as their former Arts Council chairman who raised the state's arts budget from $1 million to $14 million. Or as their Marin County neighbor active in environmental, Native American, and quality-of-life causes. But until recently, only a handful of people knew that over the past decade the actor and activist has been writing a no-holds-barred memoir of the 19605 and '70s West Coast counterculture in which he played a pivotal part.

Sleeping Where I Fall (Counterpoint). chronicles the history of the Diggers, the anarchic communal movement that rejected private property and money and sought to "reinvent the culture from scratch," as Coyote puts it. The book was on its way to a third printing even before the author had completed a modest eight-city book tour.

He wrote Sleeping, Coyote says, to set the record straight for future generations, including his 29-year-old daughter, a Ph.D candidate in psychology; his 13-year-old son, and their friends. "I wanted to speak directly for the people who were pursuing a kind of moral vision and an alternative possibility for the United States. I didn't want those efforts to be translated by the conservative columnist George Will and Time magazine.

Born Peter Cohon in a prosperous East Coast family, Coyote went west in 1964 after Grinnell College to study writing. But he was side-tracked into the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical street theater group that morphed into the Diggers, who turned everyday life into a performance piece. Named for a 17th-century English movement to allow common folk to cultivate public lands, the Diggers dispensed free food and medical care in Haight Ashbury But their main message was not charity; it was an invitation to transform your life. (They coined the phrase, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life") By the late '60s, the Diggers had fanned out into the Free Family, living in communal houses and truck caravans.

The book is an unvarnished account of the people and events in that fertile period, but there are lessons in the text as well. Coyote is candid about the limits to freedom, such as the terrible toll drugs took on the "edge dwellers," including him. The experiment in living free ultimately unraveled, he says, because of "small, daily betrayals and indulgences in personal behavior that were unhealthy or immoral or dishonest." It was his own near-death bout with hepatitis that began to turn Coyote's life around. After the movement wound down, he served on the Arts Council, then returned to acting.

Recently NEW AGE caught up with Coyote at the Marin County house he shares with his fiancee. He had just finished the movie Patch Adams, in which he plays a dying patient; Robin Williams is his doctor in the title role (see "Patch Goes to Hollywood," New Age's Guide to Holistic Health 1997-1998)

Tall, graceful, meticulously groomed and cordial, Coyote, now 56, was personable, if not personal, in a conversation that ranged over politics, the environment, movies, the media, Native Americans, and Buddhism (he has been a Zen practitioner for more than twenty years), as well as where and how the spirit of the '60s counterculture lives on. "It's not in the forms, it's in the intentions," Coyote says. "You see it in paralegals, in nurses, in mothers, in psychologists. at the office, everywhere" that people are manifesting progressive values. We learned," he says, "that being in the counterculture condemns you to marginality If you want to change your culture, you have to be inside it."

What follows are more of Coyote's observations.

NEW AGE: In the book, you describe on peyote and feeling an idention with the coyote, even seeing pawprints where your footprints have been. Was it the medicine Rolling Thunder who suggested you take the name "Coyote"?

COYOTE: He didn't tell me what to do. He told me the experience was a gift and that it was up to me to decide how I was going to acknowledge it. To me, unless you express your consciousness in action, it's like mind candy that you're sucking on to comfort yourself. It's not doing anything for the world or to the world.

NEW AGE: Many Native Americans at through our interest in their we are trying to co-opt their sacred heritage. How can we approach with reverence and respect?

COYOTE: I think it is unconscionable for white people to be running weekend vision quests and sweat lodges, ripping off a native idiom and themselves up as teachers with no one to check their shingle. You can't do that in a tribe. Crow Dog can't just go up and say, "I'm a medicine man." He's got to show his stuff.

Going off on a weekend sweat, it's not harmful, it's not evil. It's just superficial - what [the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam] Trungpa called "spiritual materialism." It's trading a esoteric ritual for one you've grown up with. Go to temple, go to church.

NEW AGE: What is your spintual affiliation at this point?

COYOTE: I'm a Hopi-Jew-Buddhist. Some amalgam. I realized after living at Hopi-land a while that the Hopis were under no obligation to ever take me deep inside the old spirits of their culture. But the Buddhists had to take me; they're a world religion. It was a path that was accessible.

NEW AGE: What were the signs in you growing up that would have led one to say, "Ah, this is what made Peter Coyote the man he is today"?

COYOTE: I was struck very early by the arbitrary and capricious use of power. My dad was a real pirate. For all his wonderful characteristics, he was a man with an inflexible will. I grew up with a sense of "That's not fair." Maybe when I was a child I was looking for a champion. So as I grew older and made a decision to be my own hero, I adopted the role of champion for those who had none.

The other thing that happened very early in my life was a series of direct communications with animals where it was incontestable that they were speaking to me and I was understanding what they were saying. From the time I was about six on, I had a concrete sense that all living things had a kind of integrity and independent life and will.

I spent a lot of time in the woods One of my early heroes and teachers was the manager of our ranch, an ex-game warden. He used to lecture me all the time about the laws of nature and balance and circularity. When I was about eight, he gave me a book called Kinship With All Life, about a guy who spent time with the famous movie dog Strongheart and learned how to communicate with him. Eventually he could communicate with a housefly. That book reinforced my certainty that you could communicate with, and get agreements from, everything if you were sensitive enough.

NEW AGE: What do you hope the book will do for readers?

COYOTE: It's always bothered me that the '60s have been perniciously redefined People blame every contemporary social ill on the '60s as if it was nothing but a collection of indulgent, voraciously greedy, lazy, inept morons trying to take the easiest road. And they blame the '60s for a kind of permissiveness that has permeated society since. That's a very one-sided vision. Those critics never castigate the permissiveness advanced to capitalism that allows it to grow without limits, eat nations, subsume cultures, oppress people, create vastly uneven distribution of wealth and access to lifesaving necessities - food, utilities, water. So they use the '60s as a kind of scapegoat, and they've re-translated my peers into a bunch of idiots wearing bell-bottom pants and corny Nehru jackets.

We didn't invent the word "hippies." That was Time magazine. And it was picked up because it deliberately infantalized a generation that was calling in the nation's markers This was a country supposedly based on freedom and equality. And we who had grown up inside it were saying, "Bullshit" The moral example was being set by black people, the poorest, most disenfranchised population of the United States. They galvanized a generation of white people from privileged backgrounds to join them and say, "No, we can't really accept this privilege if it turns us into racist camp wardens." This spilled over into the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the holistic health movement, the organic food movement, the environmental movement.

NEW AGE: Your description of daily life back then sounds as if it was hard work just to sustain yourselves.

COYOTE: And ultimately we rejected that as too easy. As hard as it was living on $2500 a year, it was too easy to just take care of yourself. There's a difference between being poor and being broke. We were all broke. But none of us were poor. None of us had been spiritually broken or imaginatively broken to feel that we couldn't invent our way into whatever reality we wanted. Just taking care of yourself seemed like too diminished a perspective. Why did I want to be OK if my friends weren't? Why did I want to be OK in a community where people were living on the street? It seemed much more interesting to put the skill and intelligence and imagination that would normally go to developing personal profit into coming up with some notion that would redound to everybody's well-being

NEW AGE: The other side of the Diggers was that you used stolen credit cards and engaged in other behavior that might be seen as Robin Hood justice but was in fact criminal. How did you justify that?

COYOTE: The model justifying it to us was that we were guerrilla warriors trying to unhinge the system and we bad to live off its spoils. The object lesson is not that that's OK; it's to see how easily anyone can be misled by a high-sounding ideology into transgressing basic moral values.

NEW AGE: The Diggers were opposed to private property, but what about personal privacy?

COYOTE: One of the hardest things for me was the lack of refinement in the way people did things But there was a kind of raw, in-your-face quality to the Diggers that I loved, and I learned to develop a sense of interior privacy, which is the kind of privacy that you have as an actor, where you operate as if you had a clear cylinder surrounding you that protects you not from the sight of the audience but from being too impinged upon by them. Even today people will be amazed that I can sit in a room with crying babies and people arguing, and be reading or writing or thinking and detach if I want to.

NEW AGE: Is that a result also of your Zen training?

COYOTE: Zen training is so useful for being concentrated and one-pointed and knowing what's inside you and what's outside. I never talk about Buddhism, but neither do I ever lose my temper or get impatient.*

When I went into the world from the Diggers, I had to make a decision that if interdependence is real, it follows that there are going to be equal admixtures of positive and negative in any realm you inhabit. So wherever you find yourself, if you make it your practice to always reach for the highest and most enlightened possibilities in the moment, you're doing the work. Consequently, it's not what the movie I'm making is about, it's how I make the movie.

If I treat every person as unique and with courtesy and respect, and if work is punctual and professional and not indulgent and I don't make undue demands, and if I behave as if I'm nothing special and don't get seduced by self-importance, that's the work. So that's what I practice. Understanding that is what gave me the permission to go into a realm that deals so exclusively with money and power and status and fame. The heart of the beast, if you will.

Tenshin Reb Anderson, who's one of the dharma heirs of the San Francisco Zen Center, said, "You know it's easy to be enlightened in a monastery - everything is calculated to work to make life easy. It's really hard to learn to do that out in the world." And that's kind of where it counts.

NEW AGE: You wrote, "Inventing a culture from scratch is an exhausting process because everything comes up for review." Are you constantly inventing the culture now?

COYOTE: Well, I'm constantly critiquing this culture. I just stopped in at the Disney store with my son, and just amazed. You think of France, you think of the Eiffel Tower. You think of Rome, you think of the Coliseum. And you think of America, you think of Mickey Mouse. It's an embarrassment like we're just these big, friendly, overgrown kids with this lethal arsenal. It's a culture of capital Anything that generates money is considered OK.

I feel like the Wandering Jew walking around looking at this stuff from the outside. So I am a critic in that sense. But I'm no longer trying to reinvent the culture. It's more like, this is what we've got to work with, so we'd better understand it.

NEW AGE: So you are no longer the agitator but the witness who keeps us honest?

COYOTE: Two images come to mind. In Judaism there's a tradition called the Lamed Vav. It holds that the virtue of the world is upheld by 36 righteous men. Andre Schwarz-Bart in his novel, The Last of the Just, calls them "the hearts of the world multiplied," who hold all our suffering. Some don't know they're Lamed Vav, Schwarz-Bart says; for them the situation is the most pitiable because they have no explanation for their suffering.

The other image is of a famous Zen monk during the Shogun wars in Japan. All he could do was witness the carnage on the battlefields by walking through them after the battles. He couldn't alter the forces that created those deaths. Sometimes I feel like that. I feel like I'm watching the unfolding of American karma. All I can do is be an honest witness.

NEW AGE: The other aspect of the witness is your namesake, Coyote - the trickster who can turn the culture on its head, change its perspective.

COYOTE: There are two senses to Coyote. In indigenous cultures, there are very few rules. But the rules are pretty absolute. If you're not supposed to look at your mother-in-law, you're not supposed to look at your mother-in-law. But somebody is gonna think, "Well, what happens if I bend her over a stump and fuck her?" Coyote will do that and bear the consequences for the whole tribe. So it's a way of accommodating the aberrant and wild aspects of imagination.

On the other hand, very often the Trickster discovers fire, or is the one who responds to a changed situation and leads the people out. But it's sort of like genius for the Chinese: They find something slightly repulsive about genius. When the Chinese train a painter, he paints classical paintings for 25, 30 years until he has the form so down that when his genius finally breaks out, it breaks out through that form. As much as they may love the new work of art, they also find something slightly repugnant about this display of personality, of individuation. So there's a kind of ambivalent attitude toward real freedom and wildness of mind.

People want loyalty. They want you to belong to a group. If your loyalty let's say, is only to the truth, you're always going to be suspect.

NEW AGE: What about the voluntary simplicity movement - is this a step in the direction the Diggers were taking?

COYOTE: I'm no longer willing to make macro-speculations. That is the problem - those bozos in Washington making macro-decisions. All you can deal with really is a kind of micro-management. You can try to take care of your family and your community; and try to make larger and larger circles of resonance and affinity. It's not my job to say whether voluntary simplicity will work for everyone. But if the United States continues to use 60 percent of the world's resources while most people are trying to scrabble together enough firewood for one hot meal a day, there's not going to be enough for everyone. And while we're trying to figure out where to store our third snowmobile, the people in Ethiopia are sifting seed to try to get a meal.

NEW AGE: But what do we do, then? You can't preach voluntary poverty in the ghetto.

COYOTE: I would never urge poverty on anyone. But the Beat poet Lew Welch dedicated a poem to me, called "Olema Satori," in which he wrote, "You can have the whole thing with fur-covered pillows at the same price."

When Vogue walked through the Haight Ashbury in the '60s and saw the girls shopping out of the Salvation Army, they photographed the look, and the fashion designers replicated it. But their look came from necessity. - girls with a high sense of style and no money. They invented it.

You can define a problem as a limited number of alternatives, all unacceptable. To solve it would be to create infinite options, to use imagination as a way of inventing a can opener to get out of a seamless room.

NEW AGE: You wrote that your book "attempts to describe what the pursuit of absolute freedom felt like, what it taught me, what it cost me." What did it feel like?

COYOTE: It felt ceaselessly improvisatory. You could take that positively and negatively. If you're always on the run, there's no place to rest. You're continually taxing the powers of your imagination. Nothing is left to form.

NEW AGE: Do you live less that way at this point?

COYOTE: Well, yes. That's one of the things you learn in a monastery. Things are on a schedule, and once you learn the schedule, you're liberated from having to consider it. So there's actually more freedom with a strict form than with random chaos.

The other thing the pursuit of freedom taught me is that rules and laws in their truest sense are an agreement to make the world work We agree to drive at a certain speed limit. We agree not to cheat one another. The laws that don't work are the laws that are imposed from the top down that don't have social agreement.

NEW AGE: What did the pursuit of absolute freedom cost you?

COYOTE: It cost me a lot of friends. It cost me the deaths of a lot of people. It cost me my health. It caused me a lot of suffering, and I witnessed a lot of suffering that was passed on down the line by people who were paying attention to the macro-picture but not the micro-picture. People who wanted to save the world but didn't want to stop shooting Methedrine.

NEW AGE: What does freedom mean to you now?

COYOTE: The idea of absolute freedom is a fiction. It's based on the idea of an independent self. But, in fact, there's no such thing. There's no self without other people. There's no self without sunlight. There's no self without dew. And water. And bees to pollinate the food that we eat. And take it from there to the whole universe. So the idea of behaving in a way that doesn't acknowledge reciprocal relationships is not really freedom, it's indulgence.

NEW AGE: The Diggers invite people to change their lives. What are the invitations to transformation today?

COYOTE: Not much. But I think anything can be a door. Those women who discover that their environment is being poisoned and start printing a little newsletter and mustering political power to change it - that's a door, but they made it. I think the women's movement was a door, but they made it. It's not like the culture is offering you doors to change your life. But I think anything can be invitation to change your life if you seize the opportunity.

* (Letter to editor from Coyote) Many thanks for the nice article about my book I have only the tiniest of quibbles. On page 84, you quote me as saying, "I never talk about Buddhism, but neither do I ever lose my temper or get impatient," implying that this is my daily state of perfection. My memory is that this sentence was uttered in the context of working on a film, as an example of "secret practice" and how people, noticing my professional discipline, often asked if it was related to spiritual practice. If I asserted that I never lose my temper or struggle with impatience in other contexts, anyone who knows me would tell you I am practicing wishing thinking, since anger is a long-time companion. Thanks very much for treating my words so carefully in all other regards.

Letter to editor concerning this article from Marc A. Catone of Lansing, NY:
Peter Coyote is correct in his assessment that the cultural and political accomplishments of the 1960s have undergone a very cynical but well-orchestrated revisionism by our country's media and the handful of giant corporations who own it. The 10 percent of our nation's population controlling 90 percent of its wealth prefer that we think of the '60s as a silly, arcane decade in which a bunch of kids were rebellious for a while, but eventually got it out of their systems. The people who attended Woodstock and their many peers across the United States helped to stop the war in Vietnam and also encouraged the type of spiritual renewal resulting in magazines like New Age.