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I was born of a Jewish family in the Bronx, in October of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. When I was six, I understood the nature of the Holocaust. I knew that a very large portion of my family had perished in various concentration camps. I remember the eyes, from the Movietone News at the Saturday matinees. Big Jewish staring eyes, staring out at me, at us, from skeleton-like human beings, staring through the fences. And the stiff bodies, stacked like wood.
I was very angry with God. I could not believe that there could be a God who would let such things happen. At 10, I became an atheist. When I was 12, my father gave me a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front to read. I was halfway through the book before I realized that the protagonists were German. At 12, in 1951, I had still believed that all Germans were Nazis. I was shocked that the characters to whom I had given my heart were Germans. It seemed that the problem was larger than I had thought it was. It was not just that the Germans were evil, as I had thought. It seemed then, perhaps, that the problem was war. That war was some kind of disease that humanity suffered from and that I needed to find a cure for.
I started college at 16, and wound up majoring in philosophy, to learn what “the good” was, so that I could then do it. What I learned was that philosophy could not tell me what the good was. I had recently read Thucydides and Herodotus on the Greek and Persian wars. It was very discouraging. It seemed to me that the Greeks fought wars with each other in every possible combination until they were not able to fight anymore. Just like what seemed to be happening with respect to Europe.
I entered the peace movement. I met and greatly admired Bayard Rustin, then Executive Secretary of the War Resister’s League (WRL). I wanted to be like him. He had just come back from Africa, where he had been working with Jules Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta. He sang of Uhuru. He spoke of their plans to form a peace brigade and march into South Africa. But then he went south to be an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and if he ever went back to Africa, I did not hear of it.
I moved to San Francisco, and the WRL asked me to be their representative on the West Coast. Then there was another set of eyes. A single pair. A Vietnamese father running down the road, his mouth an “O” of horror, carrying his daughter, who had been in a napalm bombing. My son was the same age as that little girl. Do you remember the monks who burned themselves alive in protest? It felt to me that they were the ones who really understood what was happening. I started the WRL-West and went around like Jeremiah, making angry speeches everywhere. By 1967, I had been a full time antiwar activist for six years, and I was weary.
Then along came psychedelics. I attended the famous Be-In. I remember telling my closest associates in the WRL that I was resigning to become a hippie. They laughed at first, as I seemed much too old, and a rather stuffy person to be doing such a thing. I thought I was following the most efficient path to changing the national consciousness. It was good to break out of my ponderous seriousness. I wound up organizing most of the famous Summer of Love concerts in Golden Gate Park, first as a helper and later as the primary organizer. This led to a close relationship with the Grateful Dead and ultimately to my becoming a manager and a longtime close friend of Jerry Garcia’s.
There was a period of time when we were filled with hope. It really was the summer of love, a beautiful evanescent bubble. It burst in 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. By the end of 1969, psychedelics no longer seemed like a road leading to higher consciousness.
In 1970, I made the decision to find a teacher and enter into a spiritual practice. I felt that if I were going to play a role in helping people to shift to a better state of planetary consciousness, I had better develop a higher state of consciousness myself.
I attended an event in May 1970 called “The Holy Man Jam at the Family Dog at the Great Highway.” This was a transitional event at the close of the hippie era, with many spiritual leaders, including Yogi Bhajan, Swami Satchidananda, Pir Vilayat, Schlomo Carlebach, Stephen Gaskin, and others. When Yogi Bhajan spoke, I felt the immensity of the energy flowing through him and how easily it flowed without being distorted by his ego. I found that I was greatly attracted to him and shortly thereafter, at Summer Solstice 1970, became his student.
The years have gone by. Most of the time I have been working at one social change issue or another. For almost all of this time, I maintained a clear separation between my spiritual practice and my social change work in the belief that the role of my spiritual practice was to shape and improve my consciousness while I worked at social change as an activist or organizer. It was only just recently, while speaking at a meditation session I was leading at a big rock festival, that I realized that I had been missing the fundamental connection between my understanding with respect to planetary consciousness and social change.
In my speech, I said that the most important contribution each person could make in the effort to change the consciousness of enough people to make a difference was to develop the ability to love themselves and their fellow beings. Make the great journey—from dwelling in lower, self-oriented consciousness to opening the heart center. I heard my higher self (the great gift of teaching Kundalini Yoga is that our higher-teacher self manifests while we are teaching it), and I realized that I was speaking to myself as well as to the audience.
The separation between my spiritual practice and social change work has disappeared. If the fundamental issue is how to change the consciousness of enough people to make a difference, then the major work for each of us to undertake is to learn how to transform our own consciousness—to open our hearts and love one another and ourselves, and then to share that ability with as many other people as possible.
What does it mean to be a person of consciousness in these times?
• Have a regular spiritual practice.
• Identify and acknowledge wounds and scars to your psyche and self-esteem.
• Master your fear: Act fearlessly in the face of fear.
• Master your anger: Use it as fuel for effective conscious action.
• Release negative self-images and replace them with positive life-affirming images.
• Envision a better world and implement a plan to create that world.
• Be open to and aware of the pain, grief, and suffering of others, as well as your own.
• Be aware of the consequences of your actions, of cause and effect.
• Understand your skills and limitations.
• Understand that our work must model the world we wish to build.
• Understand that our government is a manifestation of our collective consciousness.
• Develop your intuition through spiritual practice.
• Take care of yourself: Know when to stop, how to renew.
• Work effectively with others: Know how and when to lead, when and how to follow.
• Speak and act for the public good.
• Find the opportunity inherent in any given set of obstacles or challenges.
• Listen to one another, see one another, and value the diversity of our species.
• Learn to live with an attitude of gratitude.
• Act with wisdom, intuition, compassion, and intelligence.
• See God in all: “If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all.” (Yogi Bhajan)
Sat Santokh Khalsa is a leader in the field of transformational workshops and applying yogic technology to living in the world with care and consciousness. A former manager of the Grateful Dead, and Snatam Kaur’s father, his presence generates a magical and sacred space in which one’s heart is deeply touched.
[Reprinted from Aquarian Times, Summer 2003]