The Diggers talk about change agents. They were a memorable group of sixties radicals and performers whose formula for building a new society was equal parts utopianism and indulgence, idealism and irresponsibility. In Sleeping Where I Fall, actor Peter Coyote remembers his life as a Digger and the values that changed America. He spoke to Shambhala Sun editor Melvin McLeod.
After reading your book, I found myself haunted by this dedicated, talented, crazy group of people. You don’t romanticize anyone, least of all yourself and the hard drugs and the violence and the foolishness almost overshadow the ideals you wanted to bring out. So, what were the Diggers trying to achieve?
I think the core value was to create a culture in which it was possible to be something more than either an employee or a consumer. We wanted to create a culture in which it was possible to live a life predicated on the more human impulses and values, with room for one’s personal eccentricity.
We were part of a huge wave in the sixties that called in the nation’s markers and promises. We were the products of high school civics classes and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and we were smacked in the face by the civil rights movement. Remember, this was a culture that had just gone through the paroxysms of the McCarthy period.
So we were a generation of kids looking for something authentic and real, a generation that I think produced a great deal of substance that still exists today in our culture. When you think of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, the alternative health movement, the alternative spirituality movement, the environmental movement, the organic food movement-all these have permeated the culture and changed the way people live.
These are manifestations of the intentions of the sixties. I don’t care at all about the institutions of the sixties-I don’t care if I never see another peace symbol or bad psychedelic poster or pair of bell bottom pants – but the important thing is that the intentions of the sixties have been manifested.
The key term for the Diggers was “authenticity.” Yet you were performers who treated your own lives as art, and you say that as you look back now, you see what you achieved then as essentially a work of art. What is the relationship between authenticity and life as performance?
To me, authenticity means being responsive to your true feelings, thoughts and impulses. That’s what authenticity is. One of the things the Diggers had in common was that we were actors, and when we were performing, we were trying to invent vehicles to talk about the subject of authenticity. For instance, if we wanted to give people the opportunity to explore the issues that come up around profit and ownership and the roles of manager and shop person, we would invent a theater in which we would be ourselves, but the setting was made highly theatrical. For instance, we had a free store, where not only the goods were free but the roles were free. When someone came in and said “Who’s the boss?” we said, “You are.” We could deliver the lines as ourselves; it was the setting itself which was startling.
We felt we could undermine the culture. People will not cross the street to see Bill Clinton, but if you put Tom Cruise in the parking lot of a mall, you’ll need police to keep people away. If the people have an image of something they want, they will organize their aspirations and activities to get it. What we realized early on was that a vision was much more compelling than a foot in the back.
We were trying to create compelling visions of the kind of society that people would want. So our challenge as performers was how to invent situations and contexts that would expose people to their own conditioning and the expectations held out for them by the culture, and offer them the opportunity to respond in a fresh and authentic way.
This reminds me of the vajrayana concept translated as “crazy wisdom,” in which a highly accomplished teacher may manifest a true sanity that transcends or even violates convention in order to wake people up.
Like the Zen master who kills the cat: “If someone can show me their true self this cat will live.” The only thing was, we were not highly evolved wisdom people.
Yes, the key element in such a risky endeavor is a great deal of internal discipline, which was outstandingly missing in your cases.
That’s right. Part of the arc of my book is the precise stages and mechanisms through which a lack of internal discipline and a submission to indulgence erodes high personal callings and intentions.
Unless you’re coming from a point of view of genuine selflessness and discipline, how do you draw the line between a political choice to free oneself from social conventions and plain personal indulgence? In practice, are they really separable?
Well, we didn’t know. If you believe the culture is your enemy, and that you’re going to imagine your way out of it, and you’re going to make your imaginings real by acting them out, one of the dilemmas you have to face is the possibility that your imagination has been co-opted by the culture. One of the reasons we took drugs, aside from just curiosity and peer pressure, was to consciously try to bust out of the envelope, to make sure we scrambled the mix thoroughly that the ideas that emerged would be authentic by-products of our own imagination.
But we’re talking about a lot of heroin and amphetamines, not drugs known for their consciousness-expanding qualities.
Except that when you look at the great artists of our time who were our mentors and heroes – Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday and all the great be-bop musicians and the Viet Nam vets coming back – basically we joined that chorus of people singing through the flames after setting themselves on fire. I’m now talking from hindsight, having been a Zen student for twenty-five years, but at the time we thought that this was selfless behavior. We felt that we were giving up concern with health, with identity, with fame, with wealth, so we could achieve this kind of compassionate reworking of the culture to liberate other people.
Much of your book is devoted to life in various rural communes, in which people attempted to eliminate any manifestation of the personal or the private, often to the point of obsession.
Well, I think it was an adolescent misunderstanding – going to the opposite end of the spectrum without discrimination. In point of fact, there’s no such thing as freedom, but you learn that late. You learn that freedom, if it’s anything, has to do with accepting absolute and unalterable interdependence. Certainly part of authenticity would have been admitting that we all had possessions that we liked, and that we had certain senses of order that we liked in our private living spaces.
I think you have to look at it as a kind of experiment which found the edges of the envelope. I think that if we had tried to create a village instead of a commune, for instance, it might still be going. But it was too radical a leap to try to put thirty souls into a one-family house and rethink everything. It was too exhausting.
Which is to say that the revolutionary approach, which is to go back and redo everything in life, failed where a more moderate approach might have worked.
I think the middle ground is the most effective, although that’s not necessarily the way that young men and women think. For instance, I think the extremes of the sixties may have led the country into the hands of Reagan. I don’t think the American public embraced his conservatism. Rather, I think they embraced his avuncular old fashionedness, because the sixties raised so many questions that people couldn’t answer, that they looked for a kind of holding action, a place to rest. They didn’t know they would be opening the door to a kind of home grown fascism.
I take a certain amount of responsibility for that. One of the things you learn is that being in a counter-culture condemns you to marginality: if people don’t like your style, they’re not going to go for your ideas. Had we not been so insistent on our own style, with our own vocabulary and our own everything, we might have frightened people a little less and kept the debate going a little longer.
On the other hand, the sixties had a significant positive impact on the culture, which it might not have had without the extreme element which you represented.
Well, Malcolm X used to say that Martin Luther King ought to thank the Lord that I’m around, because every time I go out there and frighten everybody, all those white people go running to him and write him checks. So there is a way in which radical forces push the edge of the envelope, and I do think we have moved the cultural ground in a progressive direction.
One of the most fascinating-and frightening-parts of the story is your deep involvement with the Hell’s Angels, who in that period were close to radical elements in San Francisco. The Angels were nothing if not authentic.
Well, it’s a complicated bag. First of all, I don’t know anything about the Angels now; they may be just another organized criminal class. But at the time, we had to come to terms with these guys who lived on our streets. And my experience was that by approaching them as men capable of intellection and decent people – until I knew better-they would respond and they did. I had unprecedented access to the Angels for a number of years and met some of the most intelligent and lucid men I’ve ever met in my life, and also some of the scariest and most psychopathic men I’ve ever met.
Tell me about your transition from drug-addicted radical to serious Zen student.
That was in a period where I suddenly was forced to think about a lot of things that I’d never thought about before. Suddenly I was alone; I did not have this nurturing community supporting me, and I realized that a lot of my predilections and impulses had been unhealthy. I realized that I’d damaged my health, and I began to get curious about what constituted good health. I put myself in a course of psychotherapy, I began Zen practice, and I met this woman who seemed like a very healthy person. I wanted to live a life that included good health and respect and reverence for my body and other people’s bodies, which had been an enduring criticism of mine of the Diggers. There were a lot of things I couldn’t go along with-a lot of our events were so chaotic and unbeautiful that I felt estranged from them. That wasn’t the way that I perceived the universe.
And ironically, beginning with a desire for simple good health, you ended up involved in something that may be fundamentally far more radical than anything the Diggers ever did.
Without a doubt. Buddhism is far more radical, by far the most radical thing that I have ever been involved in. Healthiness was just the path I took getting there. A lot of people didn’t have to do that; a lot of people at the monastery where I lived were just innately intuitive and healthy people, who got there by a much gentler and less dramatic path. And god bless ’em. I did a lot of damage along the way, karmically and physically, to myself and other people.
Why do you think that young people today have turned back past the sixties to the Beats in their search for cultural heroes? Is it because it’s hard to see one’s own parents as rebels, or is it deeper than that?
I think there’s something deeper than that. First of all, you have to remember that from the sixties to the present there’s been twenty-five years of aggressive disinformation and re-estimation of the sixties. The Reagan/Bush people did not want another generation of committed activists stirring things up. They’ve spent millions of dollars paying pundits to dismiss the sixties as a failure, to dismiss committed social activism as somehow unhip. They have created icons like David Letterman, whose attitude of cynicism about everything is the supreme goal of adolescence.
So one way in which they can co-opt the counter culture is to go back to the Beats, who were primarily interested in self-exploration. Certainly the most radical elements, like Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, were political, but the effect of the movement was not specifically political.
So cynically, you could say that the mainstream can promote cultural rebels like the Beats, but not political rebels like the Diggers.
David Foster Wallace has an essay in which he tracks down the strategy of television ads. What they do is create a sense of irony that kind of washes over everything. Like, yes, of course you’re being pitched as a stupid consumer, and we know that you’re smart enough to know that, and we know that you’re not going to take it seriously because you’re so hip you don’t take anything seriously. Wallace’s essay is a brilliant examination of the kind of convoluted argument that TV has to make to keep a sense of cultural rebellion alive at the same time that it makes you part of a herd of consumers and television watchers.
The mainstream culture is far more pervasive and sophisticated than it was when you were young – capable of instantly co-opting whatever it wants to. How much chance does a young person today have to genuinely rebel?
Well, I think young people are telling us that they don’t have a lot of hope they can change things. When I see a kid walking around with pins through his nipples and twelve rings through his eyebrows, what it makes me think is that he’s m a great deal of pain; that’s what he’s showing me. They’ve come up against a culture so monolithic that all they can do anymore is reflect how it feels. It makes me feel really bad, because I think there are ways in which they can contribute, if they can get outside of their own pain and they can link up with other people who are in pain. There are things they can do which may not look flashy but which are conscientious. You can start buying less, using less, wasting less-any place your life touches the culture you can make a difference.
As you look back at the Diggers, what beyond the basic impulse do you think still has validity today?
The notion of doing what you do without thinking about fame and fortune is pretty valid. I think the notion of doing things for free is pretty valid. It doesn’t work in all contexts, but it certainly works in some. I really trust that compassionate intentions will find the appropriate ways to make themselves manifest and that each generation will think up their own ways to do it. Just as we related to the Beats, kids will be relating to what we did and correcting it and altering it to be more appropriate to their time.
I think it’s a new game because we have exhausted the idea of having a pure place to stand outside the culture. I think this is now the time of mahayana culture-this is the big vessel, the big boat, and we’re all in it. Things are going to be played out not as outsiders, but as insiders, and I trust that young people will work out their own ways of doing it. You know, things are coming around. It looks like capitalism has won but it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings. They’re creating a global proletariat, they’re creating global oppression, and people are not going to dry up and blow away. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to change.