Eliezer Sobel is the author of The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics, and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments, as well as Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which was the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and Wild Heart Dancing. His short story, Mordecai’s Book, won New Millennium’s First Prize for Fiction, and his articles and stories have appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun Magazine, Quest Magazine, Yoga Journal, New Age Journal, and numerous other publications.
Sobel was the Editor-in-Chief of The New Sun magazine in the 70s and was Publisher and Editor of the Wild Heart Journal more recently. He has led intensive creativity workshops and retreats at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Open Center in New York City, the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, and Elat Chayyim Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. Sobel lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife, Shari Cordon, and three cats: Squarcialupi, Peanut, and Plum.
Q: Thank you for visiting us at Divine Caroline, Eliezer. Let’s begin with Eliezer Sobel, the author behind the book. Can you tell us why you chose to write about your life’s experiences?
A: My life experiences were so unusual and over the top that I knew my story would provide a vicarious and entertaining glimpse of a world that many readers would never really get to see otherwise. Also, throughout my life, friends kept bugging me to write a book about all the weird things I did in the name of finding myself, getting enlightened, meeting God, or just to feel better about being here on this scary planet. So I wrote the book to get them off my back. I also wrote it because writing teachers were always telling students to “write what you know,” and you’d be amazed at how little I know about virtually anything apart from my own story. My lack of knowledge is a bit embarrassing.
Q: You call yourself the 99th monkey . Can you explain why?
A: There’s an idea called “The 100th Monkey” syndrome, which has to do with the way new ideas and practices spread rapidly through a group, a culture, even the world. It requires reaching what’s called a “critical mass” of people getting on board with it, thus causing what today we might call a “tipping point,” where suddenly the idea springs up everywhere, seemingly overnight. I bought a new car recently, and it came with an MP3 audio input in the sound system. That’s because some time ago enough people bought iPods that even the Toyota people got wind of it. My title is tongue-in-cheek: I’m playfully declaring myself to be “The 99th Monkey,” meaning I am the last hold-out among spiritual seekers, and through my lifelong resistance to transformation, I am single-handedly holding back the next great paradigm shift of the ages.
Q: You have lived such a colorful life in your quest to find your inner self. Do you think after it was all said and done, you found it?
A: Yes, but please don’t tell anyone, because I’m promoting the book based on the idea that I completely failed to find it! The truth is actually yes and no. Or sometimes. On some days I am more or less surrendered to “what is”—the whole complex mystery of this present moment of life on Earth—and feel appreciative, mystified and grateful. At other times, I find myself still falling into depression and anxiety, two lifelong assailants, and on those days I yearn for something more than what’s actually present and available to me, which is a prescription for even more unhappiness. I guess I was either blessed or cursed early on with a mind-blowing, direct experience of an extraordinary version or aspect of myself, and I then spent over thirty years trying to integrate that Self, reconnect with it, and express it in the world. Sometimes I succeed.
Q: Can you tell us one of the most bizarre experiences you had when you were searching for your inner self?
A: At Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which was where the Human Potential Movement began, I was in a group therapy session with an extremely obese, female therapist, who, while working with me, decided to sit on my head for about a half hour so that I could re-experience being smothered by my mother. Another example would be participating in the Tush-Push exercise in a Human Sexuality Workshop, which was conducted in the nude with about eighty people. The exercise involved partners, Vaseline, and little finger condoms. It wasn’t pretty.
Q: Can you tell us about one of your most enlightening ones?
A: I was in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) in India, which Hindus consider to be an auspicious place to die. Spiritual teachers in the literature were always telling their disciples to go down to the “burning ghats” in Varanasi to meditate on the bodies that were being cremated, in order to contemplate and grasp the inescapable fact of death and impermanence. So I went down there, intending to have my little spiritual experience, and as I was standing next to a burning body, a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to another man, who was squatting at the head of the pyre, and said, “This was that man’s mother.” In a flash, I recognized that while I was busy being a self-absorbed spiritual seeker trying to have some sort of experience for myself, that in actual fact, I was attending the funeral of a very real man’s mother. As he watched his mother burn, I felt mortified to be intruding on such a sacred and private moment, and quietly bowed my head and backed away. It was very humbling and enlightening, a real wake-up call.
A different sort of example would be when I took the highly controversial est training in 1975, the original crash course in consciousness that eventually evolved into The Landmark Forum, which is still being taught around the world today. As with many things of this sort, some people considered it to be a cult that was merely hell bent on recruitment, while others absolutely loved it and felt it transformed their lives. For me, at twenty-three, it was in fact the catalyst for my first genuine, powerful spiritual awakening, and it directly shaped the direction my life took for the next thirty plus years. (I’m fifty-six now.) The substance of my epiphany at est was the recognition, for the first time, that I am not my mind, that I am not the voice in my head that calls itself “I” or “me.” Rather, I experienced myself as a greater awareness, within which the mind occurs. And that’s a very powerful distinction to discover. It basically means you can have some say in the quality of your life regardless of what your complaining mind is babbling on about!
Q: Would you suggest others to follow your path?
A: Absolutely not! I would suggest they follow their path!
Q: Your book, The 99th Monkey, is all about spiritual awakening. What do you hope to accomplish in publishing this book?
A: That’s a hard question, considering that I mention in the book that I approached Barnes and Noble and asked them to create a new category for my book in their stores, right next to “Self-Help,” to be called “No Help Whatsoever.” Because I’m really not in the self-help business, not out to change anyone’s life with a magical formula or answer. If anything, my story is a warning, through my example, about the perils of always searching and waiting, striving and hoping. But there’s a paradox, in that when we truly give up all hope of self-improvement or a better future coming along someday, it leaves us smack in the present, for better or worse, which, fortunately, is where God lives.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Eliezer. It has been a pleasure! Do you have any final words?
A: There was a sign at a monastery in Thailand that said:
“Cut yourself some slack;
100 years from now,
All new people.”