Interview of Peter Coyote by Reinhabitory Institute

Peter Coyote
Peter Coyote

Reinhabitory Institute: Young people don’t know much about Freedom Summer or the Free Speech Movement and I think they know even less about the Digger Movement. What do you think the most important things for today’s young generation to know about the Diggers?

Coyote: One of the things about being young is you think you’ve invented everything. You think you’ve invented sex, you think you’ve invented political understanding, you think you’ve invented … everything because it’s all new to you. And it’s very hard to imagine that these old rheumy, crusty people sitting across the table were once edgy and sharp and hip and all that. So I would say the main dividing line between today and those days is was the sense of hopefulness. And empowerment. And that we actually believed that we could make a change. And we actually on some level believed in the high school civics class definitions of how government worked and operated. And so it made all of our political engagement joyous. And heady. And another problem with being young, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So what we didn’t know was how to take care of interpersonal relationships. We didn’t know that we embodied all the problems we were trying to solve. We didn’t know how to be skillful and gentle with each other.

From the standpoint of the Diggers, we were the highest, farthest out guys on the planet. We were pushing the edges of the counter-culture as far as they could go. We acted as if you should be grateful to be in the room with us, which is not a way that engenders solidarity or relationships. And then, in the intense pressure of living communally, with no money, putting 25 people in a one-family house, little indulgences and things were heightened and they increased tensions. So if I wake up in the morning and I like to wash my face in a clean sink, and my brother sees nothing wrong with using the sink to clean off his transmission that he’s just pulled out of his truck, there’s no revolutionary ideology I can bring to bear on him. There’s no ownership of the property that I can bring to bear, there’s no authority that I can bring to bear. He either has to be willing to be sensitive to my concerns and voluntarily restrain himself, or we’re at loggerheads. And there was a lot of that. One of the things that really catalyzed situations like that was the arrival of children. The Digger houses were completely anarchic, completely lawless. But children demanded certain kinds of order. You couldn’t have Wino Eddie playing the tom-tom at five in the morning if the mothers were going to be getting up at 5:30 to nurse. And so the pressure to begin to take care of our children began to exert pressure on some of our foolish ideas of “freedom.” So if I could give the kids anything today I would remind them that first of all although we made a lot of mistakes, although we didn’t win our political agendas – we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism we didn’t end oppression of other people, we didn’t end a whole bunch of stuff–we actually did win many cultural battles. Young people today live in a world now where a women’s movement is not a strange idea, or alternative medical practices– naturopathy, homeopathy, acunpuncture are not strange ideas–where organic food raised locally is not a strange idea, where alternative spiritual practices like yoga and buddhism– and tibetan buddism, zen buddhism, Vietnamese buddhism – these are not strange. And so we succeeded in interjecting those ideas into the culture. And they’re now part of the culture. And that we didn’t know it at the time, I would suggest that culture is a stronger and more enduring force than politics.

So unfortunately we made such pains in the asses of ourselves that the succeeding establishment, the Ronald Reagan people, did not want another generation of activated, engaged students keeping them overly busy. So they set about very consciously doing two things: mopping up the surpluses, the garbage we used to live on, because our free stores, our free food, our free medical clinics, all of these things were based on surplus. And we felt that if you didn’t care about having the newest, brightest, shiniest stuff, which you’d have to work for, make money for, you could have everything you needed for a full life without working, and keep your time for yourself. Not have to be an employee so you could make money to become a consumer. So what they did is they locked up that surplus and the second thing they did was they set about redefining us as a series of failures. They pointed to Altamont, they pointed to, you know, a lot of goofy guys in bell-bottom pants and some clunky peace symbols and a lot of people being stoned and behaving stupidly as emblematic of who we all were.

And so the next generation of kids said “oh, ok well that didn’t work.” And so they went into materialism. They went into buying BMWs, they went into Wall Street, they went into business. And the parallel reaction to that was the punk movement. But the difference between the punk movement and our movement is that the punk movement is based on a kind of hopelessness. When you see people with their skin pierced and their eyelids: I see people who are telling me that they’re in pain. They no longer feel empowered. They no longer feel able to change the world. And with some reason. Is you look at the degree to which our democracy has been changed into a corporatocracy. If you look at the degree to which money has taken over the political process making wealthy people more equal than poor people – They have a lot to argue. So I think if I were to tell them anything it would be that we laid down a body of knowledge and skills and we’re still around. And if you want to set up an intentional community we can show you how to do that and not make the same mistakes. We’re taking care of ourselves and each other: we can show you how to do that. And there are some pitfalls and some analysis that you only come to understand as an old man and an old woman that might be useful for you to learn so you don’t reinvent the wheel. If you go to Haight Street now and look at the scene, it’s grim.

So what were the Diggers all about?

Just in shorthand, the Diggers were about imagining a life and making it real by acting it out. That’s what we were about. Most of the alternative solutions posed during the sixties were basically socialist and communist, at least highly inflected. And we were all artists. And we didn’t want to have to write plays about heroic bus drivers or paint heroic elevator operators. We wanted to build a world where we could be authentic in it and live as we were and we felt that Americans would never throw themselves on the barricades to be the lumpen proletariat but that if they developed lives they enjoyed, that were beautiful and supportive, they might defend them. So what the Diggers did is we created these theater pieces. Obviously “free” is not an enduring economy. But what we did is we went out and scavenged enough food to feed six hundred people a day for a long time. And to get the food, we made them pass through a yellow frame called “the free frame of reverence” six feet by six feet. And then we gave them a little one inch by one inch to get frame around a shoelace. And we invited them to look at the world from a free frame of reference. What if it were free? And we had doctors come down to take care of them once every week, medical students, and we had this free store where we took everything from bicycles to dresses to televisions and radios, made sure they were working, and set them up in a beautiful store to play with “store-ness”. So you might come in and say “who’s in charge here?” I’d say, “you are.” And if you drop the ball, if you just go “huh?” then there’s no sense blaming the “pigs” or the “man” or the system for your difficulties. You’ve been offered a gift and you’d missed the ball. But you could say “oh I am? Well, I hate the way these clothes are displayed I want everyone over here….” and if you came out with something fun we’d do it. So it was a way of investigating all these things artistically. And for my money, a lot of people turned it into a religion, so that years afterward I was getting flack on the internet for having gone to work. I didn’t inherit any money. And when we put together a group of a hundred and five people to take care of our aging indigent Diggers, there were a number of my really close friends who didn’t want any discussions of money on the Digger website, so we had to start a new website. So we’re actually doing it. I don’t know how these people were living before. They obviously were using money, they were paying rent, they were paying their utility bill. But it has such a grip on the imagination that it’s prevented some people from changing with reality.

There is something to breaking with the whole frame of reference that people that people grow up with about money, success, money-grubbing and all that – so it sounds like that was a main focus of the Diggers.

Yes, but what we didn’t understand was we have all those impulses inside us. And just because we’re breaking them in one realm, we’re not breaking them in the other. We had status competitions in the Diggers. We had people who would oppress a room full of people, screaming “freedom.” We had jealousy. We had covetousness; we had everything because we’re human beings and if we had looked more deeply we would have understood that the counter-culture condemned us to marginality. That our attachment to the style of long hair, free sex, feral children, whatever, separated us from a lot of people who might have been our allies. Who wanted a fairer shake from the economy but didn’t want their children growing up around kids like ours. Or didn’t want dope and craziness in their homes. So…you never see gum under a table in a Zen restaurant. You have to look at both sides.

Artists have an understanding about how their art relates to the world and to changing it. Could you talk about that? You do various things, and you “go to work.” And not every TV show is your vision of changing the world.

Emma Goldman once said, “no film will change your life unless you’re in it.” So when we were young, we ascribed to this very romantic idea that “the artist is the antenna of the race.” That was Ezra Pound’s dictum, that the artist reached out into the ethers and found the forthcoming changes before everyone else. And it certainly served to make us feel special and in the vanguard.But I think of it differently now. I think that everybody feels the changes, but it’s the artist who can express them. Because if they didn’t understand them, when you express them you’d just get uncomprehending stares from your audience. But we had people cheering and clapping and laughing and going “yay yay, go go go” so once again, I think we have to include ourselves within the larger population. Yeah, we were artists, we had special skill sets but everybody knew President Kennedy had been killed. Everybody knew Martin Luther King had been killed. Everybody knew the Vietnam War was a horror story. And maybe no one knew what to do about it, but people who came up and could express that were immediately perceived. But we were not separate from our audience. So by the time that I had to go to work and make a living as an artist I gave up the idea of using art to preach. What’s that going to do? So I thought, ok, being an artist, being an actor, it’s not exploitative, I’m not exploiting other people, I’m being exploited. I’m earning a living. But the way that I make the movie, can be enlightened. And what I mean by that is there’s no pure place to stand outside the world. The Diggers thought we were pure. We weren’t pure at all. We stole money, we used phony credit cards, we fucked each other’s wives. We were far from pure. That was a comforting notion that we could apply against other people who used money. So what I realized when I began Buddhist practice was that every environment is some admixture of pure and profane. It’s all mixed up together. You’re never going to get a pure world without evil, without greed, without anger, without delusion. So the best you can do is pick the most enlightened possibilities that are offered to you in any situation. And if you do that consistently, you’re doing the best you can do. So that’s what I tried to do as an actor – but within that, I picked the best of what I was offered. Sometimes I was just offered a variety of shit. But within that, what the absolute edict was, you treat everyone kindly, you do your best, you treat everyone equally, you show up on time, you don’t complain, you work hard, and out of a hundred and forty movies, in well over half someone has come to me and said, “Hey do you have some kind of religion?” and I say “Why do you ask that?” And they say, “Well, I don’t know, you never get uptight, you’re nice to everyone, you treat me they same way you treat the director or the star, and you seem really calm.” And I say, “I do, and if you’re interested I’ll talk to you about it.”

So it’s the difference between propaganda and ideology, which is the content of the story, what the story is about, and the way you live your life. The way I live my life touches people on the movie set who are rightwing, leftwing, Republicans, blue collar, high collar – no lines between us. My ideas about politics and what is right and wrong and acceptable and unacceptable is a series of lines drawn between me and other people.


So it’s not that I give up. But I wait for a skillful opportunity after trust has been established. Because until someone trusts you, they won’t venture even a toe beyond the perimeters of their comfort zone.

Bioregionalism is an important core concept of Reinhabitory Institute, pioneered by people involved with the Digger movement, which developed into a movement itself. And you have been involved in different practical projects stemming from this core practice as well. How does bioregionalism approach helpful living on or saving the earth? Does bioregionalism address the bigger, more fundamental problem of a capitalist world that is despoiling the planet?

Bioregions are the way that the earth organizes itself…in other words, by watersheds, by plant/animal climate communities. That’s first, before any people arrived there at all. For instance, Northern California bioregionally, is attached to everything north, all the way up to the Cascades in Canada. Our bioregion is almost all fir, fog, salmon, raven, deer, heavy moisture – we have almost nothing in common with Los Angeles from a bioregional point of view.The Los Angeles bioregion is high Sonoran desert in Mexico. So what that means is that straight lines of counties and states cross all these varying climate/animal/people communities and they impose kind of one-size-fits-all solutions on very variegated areas of the earth. Bioregionalism is a kind of exhortation to learn where you live, to learn how it functions, and to protect it. Yes, it’s a roll of the dice whether you live in a wealthy area or not, but if you live in the deserts of Arizona it seems very clear that you should not be pumping a million gallons of drinking water every day to send coal to Los Angeles or to fuel golf courses. People in Arizona shouldn’t be having lawns.

By having people organize that way and having spokesmen begin to raise those issues, you begin to engender the possibility of people learning to take care of the place they live. Imagine how different San Francisco Bay would be? It used to be during the Gold rush, when you went into a restaurant, you got a soup bowl full of shrimp while you were reading the menu. Right? So much food. So many ducks and geese and eggs and mussels and fish, right? The Bay didn’t always serve as a dump for chemical effluents.

Bioregionalism is just a way or using the earth’s instruction as a guidebook for taking care of where you live and spurring you to learn about it. And you can see that if you took it all the way out, and if every bioregion in the United States was organized, and sent representatives to some kind of Congress that our dialogue would be very different. Maybe there are some places where it is okay to plant the chemical company. But maybe there are a lot more places where it’s not. And maybe there are places where you can plant a storm door factory, but maybe not on the breeding ground of salamanders and newts. So we didn’t propose to know all the answers, we just decided to put our trust in nature.

One of the things you learn as an older person that you don’t know as a younger person is what you’re capable of. How much of an impress you can make on life, in one lifetime. When I was twenty: revolution. Overthrow the whole thing. Turn it over. Start anew. It was such a simple problem because I had so few facts constraining my thinking. I had so little life experience of greed, hatred, delusion, treachery of people. As you get older you see, “Oh wait a minute. How could I have overthrown capitalism?” I couldn’t. But what could I do?

Well, I could diminish my requirements for a high income. I could keep stuff longer. Repair it. Share. Barter. It was never going to be a pure substitution for capitalism, but I could do that. And so I chose to do that as opposed to doing nothing. Like The Big Chill which was a movie I hated. A Bunch of people who flapped their wings a few times and said “Fuck. I might as well be a stockbroker.”

I think on the one hand, it’s fair to be realistic. We made all sorts of explorations around the realm of feminism. A lot of men like myself had a great deal to learn. To uproot thinking that was just self-indulgent. But my daughter is a feminist who wears lipstick and high heels and goes out dancing all night. And she’s a psychologist, she’s a PhD, a healer of people. The guy who invented television didn’t get to play with it. We invented a lot of this stuff that our children are playing with and are much more intuitive with than we were. I like to look at those cross-generational legacies. My father’s last words to me was that “capitalism is dying of its internal contradictions” but I thought it was going to take five years – it’s going to take fifty or sixty and I better hang in for the long haul, take care of myself and my family. Stay out of the way as it falls apart.

I understand you have a book project, would you like to talk about it?

Sleeping Where I Fall was my first book. My second book is about learning to identify and find the place for wisdom in this world that’s predominated by the quests for love and power. The book is about my various mentors, teaching me about the realms of love and power which I thought were the only two available realms until I was much older, in my fifties or sixties. And then I intuited that there was another realm: wisdom. I decided to set my camp up as close to it as I could. To heed its quiet little voice as attentively as I could. And I determined that this would be the most valuable thing I could contribute to the world and the rest of my life. So that’s what the book is about, it’s called The Rain Man’s Third Cure and it comes from a verse in a Dylan tune where he says

Now the rainman gave me two cures, Then he said, “Jump right in. “
The one was Texas medicine, The other was just railroad gin. An’ like a fool I mixed them An’ it strangled up my mind, An’ now people just get uglier An’ I have no sense of time.

Yeah, the song is Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Bob Dylan is our Mozart. So I thought for my purposes “Texas medicine” would be peyote, and I’ll make it stand for the ecstatic, the cooperative, the counterculture: the world of love. And “railroad gin” is the go-juice of the robber barons, men and women who compete with one another for status, material wealth, power – so I’ll let it be, the world of power. It’s about getting the right admixture – you know, love without power is flaccid, and power without love is fascism or cruelty.

In my thirties I got introduced to Buddhist practice. It didn’t grab me at first, but it was just there, something I persevered in.

The last chapter of the book is about a big wakeup that I had during a seven day retreat where I got it. All my doubts were resolved, and I realized there was another world there available to everyone. You don’t have to be a Buddhist. It’s the human birthright: Wisdom. And I decided to stay there.

So from that time, I began becoming a Buddhist priest. I’m in the beginning of what’s called my transmission. By this time next year, I’ll have finished a year-long process of being made an independent Zen Master, free from my responsibility to my teacher. He decides “you’re cooked, you’re done” and sends you on your way. From that point on, I could create my own lineage of priests and so on if I choose to – I don’t know if I will.

This sounds like a very serious book….

No, it’s actually very funny in many parts because the mistakes I’ve made are very hilarious. Even if I’m trying to be serious, I’m unintentionally comedic.

I am writing something right now; I am thinking it might be a Ted Talk. It begins with an analogy: Your House is on Fire. And as the fireman rushes up, a man appears and tells him that the hose he’s using is not regulation. He’ll have to shut it down. And a Chinese man runs up and says “I can sell you a new hose for 30 % of the cost of the old one.” And a tax payer rushes up and says “You have to do it our way or we will sue.” And a union guy runs up and says “If you buy this hose from a non-union, labor exploiting shop we will sue.” What do you think the fate of the house is going to be?

The allegory has to do with all of the ideas, philosophies, theories, ideologies that stem from a certain kinds of thinking that makes the world impossible and unable to respond to critical problems.

In this piece, I describe two ways of looking at the world that are absolutely true, and… mutually exclusive. The normal way we look at things is that every grain of sand, every butterfly, every human being, every leaf, is a discrete, independent entity, unlike anything else. And I call that way of looking, “the relational.” Because discrete entities are always looked at in relation: I’m taller than you, I’m kinder than a cruel person. I’m meaner than a saint. I can’t go West without knowing where East is.

But there is another way of looking at things which is rarely looked at. And that is that the entire Universe is one interdependent, interpenetrating ball. If the Earth was any closer to the Sun, water would boil off. If it was any farther away, Earth would freeze. Life as we know it would not exist. So right there our idea of a separate, individual self is completely related to the Earth’s place in the Solar System.

And on this Earth, you and I have never been free of sunlight, we’ve never been independent of oxygen, of microbes in the soil that allow plants to dissolve the nutrients, of pollenating insects, of birds which control the pollinating insects and pests, of the thousands of humans who have planted, woven, carted, dyed, shipped – our clothes, food, whatever…. If you take it all the way out, you can see that the whole world is interconnected. I call that view The Absolute.

So the problem is that you cannot maintain both worlds at the same time. Language prevents us. The rules of syntax. The rules of words: a “tree” does not describe all the interpenetrating systems of that organism. It’s easy to cut down a tree. But if you describe a tree as all the interpenetrating systems, you might be a little more thoughtful.

Each of these realms has a certain way of thinking that is associated with it. The thinking that is associated with The Relational is intelligence. And intelligence is this acute, left-brain, problem-solving mechanism. Finds a problem, sets a goal, and sets about reducing the problem and doing it. And it’s brought us our wealth, our life-saving techniques, our medicines, our abundance of food, our free time. It’s phenomenally powerful.

But it’s also morally neutral. Intelligence can plan a hospital or a concentration camp with equal skill. It can be used by a race car driver, a pimp, a scientist, it’s just a skill. It doesn’t imply any morality or empathy or compassion. But because it’s so valuable to us, we privilege intelligence. We say this is the most important thing that there is. And we never look at this realm, The Absolute.

So because of that, everything we think in The Relational is always half wrong. It’s half wrong because it doesn’t account for the shadow. For the unintended consequences of what we do, which you can only see from looking at The Absolute. So The Absolute’s mode of operation is the intuitive. And the intuitive is the human way of understanding, which is much faster than intelligence and logic, where it collates a thousand disparate impressions into an actional picture, very very quickly.

There’s something about that which produces a kind of empathy for the world. By seeing all the interconnections, seeing how everything is changing, seeing how everything is passing, the world becomes precious. And there is a kind of built-in impulse to take care of it when you dwell in that realm.

And this is why all cultures all over the world, spiritual adepts have set up various forms of transcendental practice: meditating, fasting, prayer, ayahuasca, peyote, to try to get back to this wholeness where we look at both sides.

© Sitio Tiempo Press 2010


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