Many religiously significant visions and experiences take place during moments of heightened emotion and energy, but few commentators would be as frank as Allen Ginsberg in admitting that their defining spiritual breakthrough occurred while masturbating. Abandoned by his lover Neal Cassady, left behind by friends William Burroughs (Mexico), Jack Kerouac (Long Island), and Herbert Huncke (Riker’s Island), he was facing graduation from Columbia and entry into a world he felt held little opportunity for a freethinker and poet like himself. Moments after ejaculation in his rundown East Harlem apartment, a book of William Blake’s poetry open across his thighs, Ginsberg received a revelation of Blake’s voice, a visitation that revealed the mysterious depths of reality and the fragmentary nature of our ordinary perception of that reality. Immediately he made a vow to never deny or forget his experience, and from these late afternoon moments in 1948 grew a career of spiritual exploration, political agitation, and ever more self-revealing poetry that impacted an entire generation.
Spontaneous Mind differs somewhat from the other books discussed so far because it is a collection of interviews. As such, it is not designed strictly as apologetics, biography, art, entertainment, or an instructional guide, although all of these elements are present within the various interviews. Rather, the editor is attempting to portray the breadth and depth of Ginsberg’s thought, essentially establishing the argument that Ginsberg was a uniquely insightful, artistic, and important individual who deserves our attention. There are therefore a variety of voices operating with different agendas in the text: Carter, the editor, advancing the idea that Ginsberg’s life and words matter; Ginsberg, the primary speaker, telling and re-telling his experiences and thoughts over four decades; and the diverse interviewers, ranging from radical college students to Playboy reporters to born-again Christians, many of them with not so hidden motives.
Ginsberg’s vision is the starting point for his religiosity: “I had absolutely no interest in religion, God or spirituality before the vision. . . I never had any religious conditioning and I never came back to any.” (pp. 396-397). The point may be a bit overstated–he had been exposed to Judaism through his relatives and community, which shows in such poems as “Kaddish”–but is essentially correct, as his mother was a Communist and Judaism as a living religion occupied a minor place in the Ginsberg household. At the same time, Ginsberg’s sense of his cultural Jewishness was full and intact, but this did not drive his emerging religious quest. Instead, he turned to psychedelics and Eastern religions, first Hinduism and then Buddhism as a full-fledged convert with a Tibetan guru. The extent of his adoption of Indo-Tibetan ways can be seen in how he called upon Sanskrit mantras to quell violence and encourage lovingkindness during the clashes surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He even followed instructions from his guru not to write poetry during long meditation retreats, a commandment that would seem to go against the very fiber of his being.
It is significant that Ginsberg experienced a revelation from the poet William Blake, rather that a more “conventional” vision of God, Jesus, Buddha, or some accepted religious figure. Religious visions usually spring from the conditioning and deeply-held religious beliefs of the individual, such that Christian monks see Jesus or Mary, not Krishna or Mohammed, for instance. Ginsberg doesn’t get a visit from God or one of the Old Testament figures; instead, he encounters the voice of poetry, of Blake as muse and ancestor, indicating that Ginsberg’s fundamental faith is placed in verse, not in specific religious texts of any kind. Like Leary and Das, he articulates lineages of forbearers that legitimate his work, but unlike them his spiritual ancestors are all poets and writers, not necessarily overtly religious figures or seekers. Poetry for Ginsberg is an act of awareness, and it is awareness that he believes to be sacred above all else (“An unnoticed corner of the world suddenly becomes noticed, and when you notice something clearly and see it vividly, it then becomes sacred” p.524). This reflects the common theme among these counter-culture figures that the mind is the important arena where social-political battles are fought and where true religion finds its home. Religion for Ginsberg is essentially all about religious consciousness, which is to say it is about a mind attuned to find the religious element of the present moment, as well as an individual consciousness that reflects a greater universal consciousness believed to inhabit all things. This emphasis on religious experience and consciousness is a trait that characterizes religious liberals, and can be traced back at least to Schleiermacher. Because religion is believed to be about mind, particularly the mind of this moment, religious rituals and techniques become tools designed to heighten consciousness, used for their utilitarian value rather than from strict allegiance to a particular dogmatic worldview. Thus Ginsberg and sympathizers are able to move among various religious frameworks (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the indigenous religion of Mexican Indians, etc) with ease–they are looking not for traditional religious answers, but for tools by which to find their own answers, such as peyote, meditation, and mantra.