Then in 1958, a remarkable event occurred: the number of potato-washing monkeys reached what is called a “critical mass”— 99, say—and when the next potato was washed, it caused a tipping point, and suddenly, not only did the entire monkey population on Koshima Island start performing the new procedure, but all of the monkey populations on neighboring islands spontaneously began washing their potatoes as well.
“The 100th Monkey” became the name New Agers and futurists used for this unusual phenomenon, and they extrapolated from monkey experience to show that this is also the way the human community makes dramatic, collective paradigm shifts into new ways of thinking, being, and behaving. Once a critical mass of people have transformed their essentially materialist worldview to a spiritual one, for example, the entire population of the planet will spontaneously choose to come along for the ride. The dirty sweet potato of being a self-centered, acquisitive, power-hungry creature, blindly bent on the destruction of life as we know it, will be gently washed in the stream of loving-kindness, peacefulness, and the desire to serve God and humanity, ushering in a golden age of peace and prosperity for all people.
(If it makes you feel any better, I recently learned that this whole story about the monkeys and the potatoes is not accurate, that it didn’t really happen that way at all. That really annoyed me, considering that I’d just based a whole book on it.)
I experimented extensively with psychedelic drugs, ancient spiritual techniques and outrageous new ones. I was massaged, shiatsu-ed, and rolfed; took hundreds of consciousness workshops, human potential seminars, and self-improvement courses; sat with psychics, channels, and tarot readers; experienced Primal, Gestalt, Bioenergetics, Object Relations, generic talk therapies, and anti-depressants. And that’s the short list. (The complete one gets embarrassing. Suffice it to say that it includes learning the Tush Push exercise in a Human Sexuality weekend—you don’t want to know—as well as having an obese female therapist sit on my head at Esalen Institute, so I could re-experience being smothered by my mother.)
As editor-in-chief of The New Sun magazine in the ’70s and the Wild Heart Journal more recently, and through being a freelance spiritual journalist, it has often been my job to do all these things. Like a scout sent ahead to report back, I often saved others a lot of time: “You don’t have to go deep into Brazil to do all-night rituals involving the ingestion of ayahuasca, chanting in Portuguese to Oxum, the Mother of the Waters, and throwing up out of a church window at four in the morning—I already did that.”
Most stories like this end with an epiphany: the seeker finds what he or she was looking for, writes a book about it to inspire others, and then, with any luck, appears on Oprah and becomes very wealthy. Unfortunately, in my story, I remain more or less the same guy—or as my friend Eddie Greenberg would say, the “same old schmuck”—at the end as I was at the beginning.
Buh-buh-buh-but, I thought: This is a memoir; this is autobiographical . . . I am the main character!
But he was right. My story doesn’t hang together. Whose does, really? Nothing bugs me more than those self-help authors who start out as a complete mess, find a magic solution, and then try to sell the rest of us on a new and improved way to live, while getting very rich in the process. At least this much I can promise you: apart from a few laughs and some good stories, this book will very definitely not change your life. Fortunately, every bona fide spiritual teacher worth their salt will remind you again and again that you don’t need to change your life in order to get enlightened, find God, or be your true Self.
Again and again, we seekers of truth are told that our primordial, essential nature is always already the case, always and only available now, no matter what the circumstances of our inner or outer lives, and therefore all desire to change our inner or outer lives in order to somehow get closer to the ever-elusive spiritual prize is not only fruitless, but is actually the problem itself. Seeking truth, God, enlightenment, or Buddha-Nature is the equivalent, it has often been said, of a fish swimming endlessly in search of water. Once our great quest has commenced, we have already missed the point and are on the wrong track.
Had I only known.
Nor do I presume that you should spend your time reading about my life. Unless, of course, it’s funny. And ask anybody: I’m usually a pretty funny guy, apart from those times when I’m lamenting the fact that, like Ivan Ilyich, I may have lived my entire life completely incorrectly and now it’s too late to make it right. It isn’t too late, of course, given that another thing the sages often like to chuckle about is that enlightenment is “only a thought away,” or that God is “closer to us than our own breath.” Nevertheless, we all know time is short, and so it’s good to always keep in mind what the famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa once said:
You people who gather here
I got caught in a riptide in the Outer Banks of North Carolina a few summers ago, and didn’t know that the trick is to swim parallel to shore, as opposed to panicking and thrashing about wildly and coming extremely close to drowning. Close enough to get a glimpse of the shocking recognition, “Oh my God, I’m actually drowning, this is it. I can’t believe I’m dying today.” Milarepa was right: it did feel like lightning, coming out of nowhere when I least expected it. There are lots of stories about people who emerge from such experiences with a renewed sense of aliveness and appreciation, and begin living with more passion and making major lifestyle changes and so on. Leave it to me to be the one guy who manages to blow a near-death experience and just carry on as if nothing much had happened.
Be that as it may, if you’re going to take the time to read a book, it ought to, at the very least, have an impact. Father William McNamara, a Carmelite monk, once said: “Never read good books. There’s no time for that. Only read great ones.”
Or funny ones.
1) The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The day I finished The Fountainhead, I dropped out of the music department at Northwestern University, having decided to be an architect like Howard Roark, the hero of the book. However, I then discovered that Northwestern didn’t have an architecture department, so I enrolled in the closest thing to it, Interior Art and Design. I went to the first day of classes where we were asked to make little couches out of construction paper, and I dropped out of college completely. And thus began the sequence of adventures recounted in this book.
2) Nearly everything by Jack Kerouac, particularly The Town and the City and Desolation Angels. He stirred the passionate, poignant prose-poet in me, the vagabond artist-seeker, albeit with a credit card, very generous parents, and a suburban, upper middle-class Jewish sensibility. In other words, I was absolutely nothing like Kerouac.
3) The Outsider by Colin Wilson. Like a million other people, I thought the book was about me. Someone finally gave me a label I could get behind. And while I still romantically fancy myself an “outsider,” it could also be argued that I simply do not like to work and, with one exception, have never had a real job in the world for longer than about nine months.
The true Outsider, Wilson explains, is someone who has somehow intuited or glimpsed the vast, empty, infinite possibility of eternal life and spirit, but is now somehow separate from that experience except as a nagging memory, and their life is fueled by the intense and obsessive desire to “get it back.” Their art and their religious life become an expression of that quest for authenticity and essence.
The most difficult part for Outsiders, Wilson says, is the realization that although as humans they have been given the most extraordinary and abundant gifts and an infinitely mysterious and magical existence filled with beauty and love, they seem to be ironically lacking only one thing: the simple ability to appreciate and enjoy any of it. Ahab said it like this:
This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is
I hate that “ne’er enjoy” part. And considered in that light, I truly am an outsider. I once interviewed Colin Wilson via e-mail for the Wild Heart Journal. Here is our conversation, verbatim:
Me: Please elaborate on the connection between the artist’s impulse toward creativity and expression and the religious person’s yearning for spiritual freedom or union.
Colin: Ooof! I don’t feel like writing you an essay to answer that question. Norman Mailer once said to me that he got fed up with people who, after a lecture, asked ten-cent questions that required ten dollar answers, and this is an example. I just don’t have time to write you pages and pages on religion and creativity. Ask more down-to-earth questions, like how old are you, have you ever had syphilis, etc. and I’ll answer. (The answer to those is 67 and no.)
It was a very short interview. (And FYI, that conversation was about nine years ago, so Wilson would be 76 now, and hopefully, still free of sexually transmitted diseases.)
Interestingly, in Judaism, one of the last-ditch methods for healing someone is to change their name, thus tricking God, who might otherwise have had their name inscribed in the “Sayonara Sucker” column of the Book of Life. I once took a workshop in which we were asked to take on a new name just for the weekend. People chose names like “Fun,” “Gentle Being,” and “Millionairess,” trying to cultivate specific desired qualities. I became “Crescent Jewel.” My friend Eddie chose the name “Jim.”
By the way, ordinarily Jews write the word God as G-d, never spelling it out on paper. This avoids the possibility of being suddenly burdened by a piece of paper that is considered sacred because it contains the Holy Name, and which you therefore can never throw away; but since you don’t really want this scrap of paper, you wind up with a box of them in the attic. What’s more, if we avoid spelling out “God” and the document in question does get thrown away, we’ve only thrown out a hyphenated word, and not the actual name of God. Predicated on the prior assumption, I guess, that if wedid spell it out and the paper got thrown away, it would be akin to trashing our G-d, the presumably Untrashable One.
And now I never get to see them anymore.
I’ve always been interested in reading the enigmatic dying words of great people—particularly Zen masters. My favorite was Suzukiroshi, whose last words to those assembled at his deathbed were simply, “I don’t want to die.” There was no hidden meaning, which is the essence of Zen.
Allen Ginsberg, who spent his life writing so many meaningful words and wonderful lines of poetry, apparently ended his life with only one word. But it was a great word, one of his best ever: “Tootles.” (It’s possible I’m completely misinformed about this, but I like the story whether it’s true or not.)
Timothy Leary’s last words were “Why not?” And his last words to William Burroughs were, “I hope someday I’m as funny as you.”
My friend Karen’s father was shoveling snow when his wife came out on the porch, screaming, “STOP SHOVELING, OR YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A HEART ATTACK!” to which he responded, “IF I HAVE A HEART ATTACK, IT’S GOING TO BE FROM YOU SCREAMING AT ME!” Then he dropped dead.
Another friend of mine was standing around having a conversation with a 55-ish male acquaintance, and in the middle of a sentence he too just dropped to the ground, dead. His last words, she told me, were “Hey, it was good seeing you.”
Finally, they say that Gandhi was such an evolved devotee of the Lord that at the moment of his death—when he was shot—he had the presence of mind to utter his sacred mantra, one of the Hindu names for God: “Ram.” But when they depicted this in the film, it was in English, and came across more like the way it probably happened: when Gandhi was shot in the film, he said, “Oh God,” which is more or less what any ordinary schlub like you or me would say if we were shot.
(However, I secretly believe Jesus Christ was also a Jewish Buddhist Sufi New Age hippie, albeit probably without the use of pot. Although some claim he spent a lot of time in India before starting his Son of Man career, and if that’s true, then he easily might have smoked some hashish chillums with the local Shiva babas—what young guy backpacking through India on a spiritual quest wouldn’t?)
Milarepa’s “lightning of death” struck the people I ministered to in the hospital all the time. But in that situation nobody ever had the opportunity to say their last words, because they were always on morphine, fentanyl, and various other medications, which allowed them to remain unconscious and without pain as they made their passage to the Great Beyond. When I saw this again and again, I quickly made out a living will in which I asked that I not be sedated at the time of death, that I’d rather be awake, even if in pain, so I could at least come up with some pithy, enigmatic last words. My wife Shari laughed when she heard this, pointing out that I tend to take five Advil for the slightest headache, so intolerant am I of enduring pain of any sort.
But what a disappointment it would be if, in addition to whatever else was causing me to be on my deathbed, I also suffered from writer’s block, just when it was time for my last words. As a writer, if I am to take death seriously, I must always remain aware that these may very well be my last words.
has led intensive creativity workshops and retreats at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, the Open Center in New York City, the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, and similar venues around the United States. He was also the editor in chief of The New Sun magazine in the late 1970s, the publisher of Wild Heart Journal, and his articles, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, Yoga Journal, Tikkun, Quest, New Age Journal, and many others. Sobel was awarded the prestigious Peter Taylor Award for his novel, Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken. He is also the author of Wild Heart Dancing. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.
“In The 99th Monkey, author Eliezer Sobel takes readers on an extraordinary and challenging journey through the contemporary worlds of spiritual exploration and the human potential movement. Sobel reveals, with delightful humor, both the enlightened teachings he experienced and the shadow sides of many well-known teachers. This author, in his unique and intimate style, does not hesitate to call attention to hypocrisy, contradiction, or duplicity when he sees it and his critiques shatter many myths. He is widely traveled and has explored a variety of worlds that will astound the reader. This is a ‘must’ read for anyone interested in the phenomenon in the West of spiritual growth over the past forty years.”
—Rabbi David A. Cooper, author of God Is a Verb and Ecstatic Kabbalah
“I read it with immense pleasure, frequently breaking off to read pieces aloud to my wife. I found it funny, beautifully written, and often extremely moving and thought-provoking. It is going to reach a very enthusiastic audience, and deserves to.”
—Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and The Occult
“While a romp through the New Age is not everyone’s cup of tea, novelist, publisher and editor Sobel (Minyan) does a fine job making his 30-year quest for spiritual awakening widely identifiable with a funny, clear-eyed account that takes readers around the world and through a gauntlet of gurus, shamans, workshops and retreats, not to mention sex and drugs (legal and otherwise). Sobel’s twin assets are his willingness and his sense of humor, both apparent from the start in his encounter with a guru named Ram Dass, whose first instruction to Sobel is to take off his pants (‘So I did’). Other episodes include Primal Therapy training with a teacher who rents his office space for porn production, the ‘est’ training that teaches people to accept reality as it is (and then rope everyone they know into the program), and tours through Jerusalem, India and Brazil. Sobel’s spiritual journey doesn’t provide any answers (these days, the title on his business card is ‘Human Being’) but provides lots of engaging, regular-guy perspective on modern man’s confounding array of ancient and contemporary fulfillment schemes.”
“Let The 99th Monkey be a warning to seekers of truth everywhere: Eliezer Sobel is living proof that the New Age disease of self-improvement is incurable. Thankfully, Sobel’s utter failure to get enlightened is chronicled with laughter, irreverence, insight and raw truth.”
—Gabrielle Roth, dancer, director, author of Connections and Sweat Your Prayers
“Eliezer Sobel dances along the path of his spiritual quest with considerable style, wit, honesty and insight. He manages to survive his journey through a gauntlet of gurus—balancing between reverence and skepticism, between wisdom and absurdity—and in the process, he provides a generous contribution to countercultural history.”
—Paul Krassner, author of One Hand Jerking: Reports from an Investigative Satirist
“I urge you to stumble along the spiritual path with Eliezer Sobel. Even though he promises that his book ‘The 99th Monkey’ will not change your life, you will surely find a few nuggets of wisdom in between the laughs. This book made me happier than most of the spiritual books I read these days. Enjoy.”
—Wes “Scoop” Nisker, Buddhist meditation teacher, author of The Essential Crazy Wisdom
“By all means follow The 99th Monkey down the road apiece that passeth understanding. It looks like big fun.”
—Wavy Gravy, author of Something Good for a Change
“Sobel’s humor and self-deprecating manner make this journey a fun one. . . . In the end, Sobel is really like anyone else on this earth, which is why the book is so endearing and encouraging.”