All That Glitters...

Crazy Wisdom and Entrepreneurialism in the Spiritual Schools of E.J. Gold

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

Cover of Sufi Times E.J. GOLD PUBLISHED HIS SECRET TALKS with Mr. G. in 1978. It was a blatant hoax, as was a film on the same subject and another book. Gold explained in a recent interview in Gnosis magazine, "I don't believe that prank hurt anybody. It was just intended to prod some people into doing the right thing." The right thing in Gold's estimation was to make Gurdjieff's Third Series of writings public. But as anyone familiar with the subject knows, the Third Series had been published three years before Gold's pseudepigraphic rip-off. More to the point: Gold's interest was mercantile—as J. Walter Driscoll the compiler of Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography, pointed out in a letter to Gnosis. "Gold's bogus Secret Talks was used," he wrote, "to attract people into his groups and was there proffered as authentic teaching material that superseded Gurdjieff's writings. He followed this with a privately circulated second volume of Secret Talks (1979) and an eighteen-volume series of Related Workbooks (1980) that were distributed to his followers; some 'joke prod.' Please exercise stricter and more responsible discrimination in selecting interview candidates and verifying their claims." The Gnosis editor quickly backed off saying he was "in no position to say how Secret Talks was originally marketed, since I simply don't know.... As for Gold's authenticity as a teacher, I have no way of evaluating it." That it is well-known that Gold never was in the Work, yet set himself up as a self-appointed Fourth Way teacher (which he now denies) whose antics are said to have hurt a great number of people is apparently of no matter. What follows may give a basis for evaluation.

Eugene Jeffrey Gold, whose declared aim is "the education of the universe, one idiot at a time!" is the founder of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of the Human Being (IDHHB), the permanent and underground name of his organization based in Grass Valley, California. Most of his followers, however, initially encounter the master and his movement under different names and wearing a disguise, for since 1963 Gold has created, directed and closed down a bewildering number of short-lived "spiritual schools." Rarely lasting longer than a year, these spiritual centers open up in different cities in the U.S. and Canada, where they disseminate freshly printed literature, hold classes—and then close abruptly, often without leaving a forwarding address. Techniques taught in these "schools" range from astronaut training, sufi storytelling, Hassidic dancing, Gurdjieff's Sacred Gymnastics, Ethiopian martial arts, Gestalt training, biofeedback, to the Tibetan science of soul travel. Once a sufficient number of "students" are gathered and regularly attending classes, Gold will tour the centers across the U.S. and Canada, appearing one year in a turban and dhoti as "Pir al-Washi, the Sufi Master," then the following year in blackface as an Ethiopian warrior and, more recently, sporting a fez and fake moustache as he lectured to "Work Groups" as the mysterious "Mr. G."

To describe Gold's movement as "experimental" and "eclectic" is a feeble understatement. To observe these characteristics in a new religion is, of course, nothing new—for Wallis (1984), Robbins and Bromley (1992), Ellwood (1973), Stone (1976) and others have explored and analyzed the eclectic, ephemeral and experimental aspects of new religious life. The IDHHB, however, provides a particularly exaggerated and striking example of these qualities. Its founder, moreover, appears to be deliberately planning each spiritual school with built-in obsolescence, so that his organization bears a closer resemblance to street theater or a fly-by-night circus than to the well-established Hari Krishnas or the Church of Scientology. Gold's charismatic title has also undergone a series of transmutations: from "Mother Beast" to "Pir al-Washi," to "Just Jeff" to "Mr. G." to the current, affectionate "E. J." This pattern is not so unusual if one examines the changing titles of Rajneesh (Gordon, 1987), of Werner Erhard (Stone, 1982) and of Da Free John (Feuerstein, 1991), but while the institutions of these founders are far from static, Gold exceeds them by a wide margin. The table of Gold's "spiritual schools" below will demonstrate the enormous range of his experimentation:


Gold's "Spiritual Schools"
Name of Organization Duration Tradition/Theme
le Maison Rouge 1963–64 Gurdjieff, shamanism
Cowachin 1972 Gestalt therapy
Le Jardin Electronique 1972 Biofeedback, sci fi
Shakti! the Spiritual Science of DNA 1973–74 Bardos, genetics
Anonymous 1974 Survivalism, street theatre and charity
Wud-Sha-Lo 1974 Ethiopian martial arts
Center for Conscious Birth 1975 Natural childbirth, Lamaze, shamanism
Bunraku Theatre 1976 Japanese puppet shows
Institute of Thanotology 1977 Tibetan Book of the Dead
Work Groups 1978 Gurdjieff
Fourth Way Schools 1979 Gurdjieff, sufism
The Gabriel Project 1984 Gourmet feasts, readings, theater
Internet Teaching 1995 Electronic gaming, angels


Institutionalizing "Holy Madness"

In attempting to explain Gold's peculiar brand of charisma in sociological terms, the most relevant framework (aside from Weber's familiar observations (1946) on "ethical" versus "exemplary" prophets), is found in Georg Feuerstein's recent book, Holy Madness. Feuerstein (1991) embarks on perhaps the first systematic study of spiritual masters whose teaching methods involve pranks, ordeals of terror and ritual obscenity. He finds in the lives of these "crazy wisdom" gurus authentic "relics of an archaic spirituality," and explains their controversial tactics as techniques designed to shock their disciples out of preconditioned responses and social conditioning. Gold himself acknowledges his affiliation with this particular sadhana, for he refers to his spiritual movement as "the heartless school of E.J. Gold," and his sudden outbursts of temper and off-colour jokes are explained as "the way of malamah," or "the sufi way of blame." The absurd and outrageous ordeals which students undergo are spiritually validated by core group leaders as "the quick way of head bashing and ego-squashing" (Gold, 1977). Many more colorful examples of "holy madness" might be found among the founders of new religious movements, but the career of Gold appears to be a particularly interesting case, because his organization is the only example (to my knowledge) which clearly reflects and closely embodies the "crazy wisdom" pedagogy. Gold has apparently succeeded in institutionalizing the "holy madness" type of charisma which, more than any other type, is intrinsically opposed to, and resistant toward, the process of institutionalization and routinization (Weber, 1946; Feuerstein, 1991).

The purpose of this study is to unravel this enigma and to attempt to explain the modus operandi of Gold's personal and institutionalized charisma in sociological terms. In order to do so, the IDHHB's social organization will be analyzed within the framework of Roy Wallis' cult/sect typology (1975). After demonstrating the ways in which Gold's movement resembles the cult type of NRM (New Religious Movement) and yet, paradoxically, also resembles the sect, it will be argued that the unique syncretism of the two different types found in this NRM appears to serve two functions:

Marketing Charisma

First, the short-lived "cults" are effective as a marketing strategy. The eclectic and ephemeral nature of the "school game" extends the IDHHB's outreach into the California "spiritual supermarket" (Greenfield, 1973) attracting a wider range of inhabitants of the "cultic milieu" (Campbell, 1972) than might be drawn to a narrower religious tradition.

Second, for the inner circle of disciples, the intensity of Gold's ordeals, unpredictable pranks and harsh disciplinary tactics provide the necessary conditions in which to cultivate a personal sense of charisma. At this level the IDHHB offers the satisfying commitment, doctrinal certainty and elite community of a sect. The peculiar features of Gold's organization—its inefficient recruitment techniques, its ephemeral institutions, its massive drop-out rate begin to "make sense" if we interpret the IDHHB as an experimental teachers training college where "crazy wise" adepts may test their own leadership skills.

Very few studies of the charisma of new religious founders have, in their use of Weber's well-known model (1946), allowed room for the possibility that the leader might actually be genuinely interested in sharing his/her knowledge and authority with the disciples, or in encouraging followers to graduate as spiritual masters in their own right. Stone (1982), for example, creates the amusing term, "pseudo charismatic redistribution" to explain one of Werner Erhard's craftier charisma-building processes: "[Werner] attributes extraordinary powers to others, who in turn attribute even greater charisma to him. The effect was one of reciprocal reinforcement." Wallis (1982) analyzes the wildly erratic behavior of Moses David as "resistance"—a deliberate strategy to destabilize the Children of God movement, so as to undermine the institution-building efforts of COG local leaders and keep his own charisma untrammeled. Both accounts imply that successful leaders must, of necessity, selfishly hoard their store of charisma, and if their disciples persist in developing viable charismatic careers of their own, these must be truncated or aborted. In Gold's case, however, the evidence suggests that here is at least one example of a spiritual leader who, in his "holy madness," has set out to create a viable "master class" for younger, budding "crazy wise" adepts. Some of these have graduated and moved on to found their own "crazy wisdom" schools, and many have remained on good terms with their former teacher, even collaborating occasionally in his latest projects.

While an academic paper is not the appropriate place to address the complex issue of the authenticity of a spiritual leader's particular sadhana, or to join in the debate concerning ethical questions raised by the controversial methods of "crazy wisdom," the author hopes that, through a phenomenological study of the IDHHB's history, sociological and perhaps aesthetic insights might be gained into the charm Gold's teaching holds for his disciple students, and into the peculiar niche his movement has carved out in the Californian "cultic milieu" (Campbell, 1972).


Cover of Sufi Times The process of data collection was mainly confined to two participant observer periods. Initially, the group was investigated as part of an ongoing research project on new religious movements in Montreal at Concordia University (1973–1978), directed by Dr. Frederick Bird. Between April and December of 1973 this researcher enrolled as a student in one of Gold's groups, which bore the unlikely name of Shakti! the Spiritual Science of DNA. This involved regular attendance at the Wednesday evening "White Room Training" and spending every Sunday at the center practising the "Nine Obligatory Movements," and keeping detailed field notes and conducting interviews (Palmer, 1976). Further data was gathered by participating in the "Chronic" workshop, directed by E.J. Gold in New York City in August, 1984, and by joining local study circle workshops in 1985: a "Sacred Dance" class and a "Mask of the Fool" workshop. Conversations with students, ex-students, and fans of Mr. Gold, have also proved a useful source of information.

The Charisma of E.J. Gold

Eugene Jeffrey Gold is an American Jew in his mid-fifties who grew up in New York City. His father was Horace L. Gold, the late founder/editor of Galaxy magazine, and the young Gold's imagination and religious sensibilities were nourished by his father's involvement in an esoteric spiritual group composed of science fiction writers, which included Asimov, Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert Silverberg.(1) This group met every Sunday in a large water storage tank in Manhattan that had been converted by one of the writers into a self-regulating tropical forest—complete with plant, insect and bird life and with waterfalls. Horace Gold brought his son to these meetings which were a forum for philosophical speculations and scientific extrapolations, where oriental meditation techniques and ESP training were tried out. Gold left home to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles where, in 1970, he helped create the original Earth Day. Since the early 60s Gold has since been active in the West Coast Consciousness movement and has directed many Gestalt therapy groups and spiritual training workshops. He has made recordings of experimental music and, in recent years, has dedicated himself to his vocation as an artist, sculptor and painter.

The Hypnotic Effect

E.J. Gold is deceptively conventional in his appearance. He is well-fleshed, middle aged, of middle height, but likes to wear scratchy woolen long-johns (with stripes, thereby suggesting the outlaw or jailbird) and keeps his head and eyebrows clean-shaven (the latter contributing to the bald intensity of his gaze). Disciples have reported conflicting first impressions: "He scared the shit out of me!"; "He was the greatest comedian I'd ever seen"; "He had the kindest, wisest eyes." He might be mistaken for a truck driver, a construction worker or possibly a Hell's Angel. The stories of his conversion triumphs are testimonials to the power of his native charisma, which (reputedly) needs no props or "transcendence mechanisms" (Kanter, 1972). A flyer distributed in the Chronic workshop in 1984 relates the tale of how Gold intercepted a stockbroker rushing to work one morning, and simply asked, "Do you have the time?" That stockbroker never reached his office, nor even glanced at his watch, for he recognized the call to participate in the "Work," and followed his master to California. Gold's former wife, Cybele, offers a similar account of her first meeting with her future master while browsing through a perfume stall in a "hippie" crafts market. She had barely observed his disheveled appearance when he gazed into her eyes and said, "Well, ready to work this time round?" Her immediate reaction was, "Boy, am I ever!"(Autobiography of a Sufi, 1977).

Feuerstein (1991) describes the radical style of initiation into spiritual values of "crazy-wise" adepts who seek to jolt their apprentices out of their cognitive boundaries by using trickery, clowning, obscenity or threats, and frequently employ the breaking of taboos associated with drugs, sex, and nudity. A uniquely American and secularized version of "holy madness" seems to surface among Orrin Klapp's five different kind of American heroes. Klapp (1962) identifies the "Winner" (or smooth operator), the "Splendid Performer" (which would correspond to the "crazy wise" characteristics of Trickster and Clown). Stone, in his study of Werner Erhard's image, adds the "Versatile Entrepreneur" (one who is successful at a wide field of endeavor) to Klapp's list of heroes. As the examples below demonstrate, Gold embodies these characteristics of the American folk hero, as does Werner Erhard, and other "exemplary prophets" (Weber, 1946) arising out of the Human Potential Movement.

Trusting the Con Artist

Cover of Sufi Times Stone (1982) notes the appeal of the American mythic hero, the snake oil salesman, the brash and outrageous huckster whose behavior assaults the norms of genteel respectability. The 1960s witnessed a revival of interest in cynical heroes like the "con artist" the "smoothie" and "sharpie," according to Orrin Klapp (1964). Stone (1982) argues that contemporary Americans are inclined to trust the con artist hero, once he has been identified as such, if only because they can predict that his behavior will always be based on self interest. Like Werner Erhard (Stone, 1982), Gold's "bad act" has turned away some potential followers but it has intrigued others. One Montreal core group leader claimed it was exactly this quality that initially drew him to Gold:

A friend of mine was telling people he'd met a real teacher. I decided to check it out. Then I got the whole truckload dumped on my head. 'Interesting!' I thought. 'It's either true or else this guy al-Washi has the most phenomenal way of dealing with people, or else he's the most incredible con man going.' My initial reaction was either this is right on and there is nothing else to do, or else I'm being totally conned, and either way this is a good place to hang out because if I'm being conned I want to find out how, so it won't happen again, and if not there is nowhere else to be.

The theme of fakery and chicanery is rife in IDHHB literature. One poster, for example, blatantly advertised "Fake Sufi Dancing/ Snake Fufi Dancing." The Shakti Handbook (1974) features a photograph of Gold and his wife posing in white robes and turbans at the entrance to a Disneyland cardboard mosque. The cover of Autobiography of a Sufi displays Gold sporting an obviously false wig and beard. In The Seven Bodies of Man (1989) Gold tells us how he was engaged in a dinner conversation with a wealthy dowager who was about to write out a generous donation to the IDHHB. Gold, at that moment, impulsively bends forward, leering and drooling into her plate, and begins spouting nonsense—causing his would-be benefactor to close her bank book and retreat in disgust. Paradoxically, this strategy is often successful as a "double bluff," attracting experienced seekers who have learned to be wary of the hustle of "fake" or incompetent gurus on the North American spiritual scene.

Gold plays the role of charlatan or quick-change artist in his public appearances. When this researcher attended an IDHHB "sufi dance," Gold bounded into the room, clad only in a loose dhoti and a turban decorated with a sequined dollar sign. When Gold visited the Montreal Shakti center in August 1973, he appeared for his lecture in an orange sari, his eyes ringed with kohl and spoke for several minutes on samadhi with a thick Indian accent. Then he turned around, whipped off the sari, wiped his face clean, and donned a fez and moustache. Suddenly he was Mr. Gurdjiev, talking to the sophisticated Moscovites in his rustic Russian accent. Next, he proceeded to mime a Kentucky farmer humping his mule while declaring in a southern drawl that any activity could become a path to spiritual awakening. He concluded this performance by asking his audience what criteria they would use to distinguish between a "real" and a "fake" master?

Gold, the Joker

Gold once described himself as "a master of the anticlimactic punch line." A brilliant comic (his students claim he once worked professionally as a stand-up comedian in Hollywood nightclubs) he will eloquently build a suspenseful narrative only to conclude with a feeble, meaningless punch line. The puzzled silence which ensues is explained as "equivalent to a Zen koan." He maintains, however, that the purpose of his humour is to administer shocks to "wake up the machine." When a woman in the Chronic workshop complained, "I love your sense of humour, but when are you going to tell us something useful?" he explosively denounced her "ignorance" and reduced her to tears—but then kindly explained that through telling jokes he could "convey information more quickly."

At the "Chronic" workshop in 1984, Gold told us the tale of how he went out and got his first job at fourteen. He walked into a large New York City department store and asked to speak to the manager, who assumed he was offering his services as a delivery boy. "I'm not applying for a specific job," Gold said. "What I want is your permission to hang around for three days and observe how this store operates. Then, when I find a job that needs to be created I will apply for it." Sure enough, the young Gold drew up a proposal for a high level managerial post and the manager, impressed by his initiative, awarded it to him. For "Chronic" participants, the moral of the tale was, "I'm not offering you a job, I'm encouraging you to create your own."

Breaking Taboos: Gold's Idea of the Sufi "Way of Blame"

One of the most baffling features of Gold's leadership is his sudden, shocking aberrations in behavior which are referred to as "turn offs" and "gross outs" by his disciples. Gold's teaching method is rationalized by core group leaders as a test of loyalty:

The sufi way of malamah... which means the real master offers the student an excuse to leave, so he does something to destroy his own credentials, so that only the serious, discerning student will remain....

Feuerstein offers an alternative explanation; that the "crazy wisdom" method of administering shocks is to awaken the disciples. Cybele Gold provides a striking example of this pedagogical method during her birthday party in the mid-sixties:

Mr. Gold smilingly and gracefully cut a piece of cake for me, and suddenly smushed it in my face, inviting me afterward to do the same to him.... Pretty soon everyone was laughing and throwing cake around the room. 'Remember this is food and food is sacred!' he shouted.... I said, 'Hey, I need to go and shower.' So I went upstairs and turned on the water but before I could close the door or take off my clothes, Mr. Gold and a few of the older students ran in and grabbed me.... There we stood in our party clothes... in this very small shower stall with melted wet cake running down our socks and over our toes (My Life with Mr. Gold, Part III, by Cybele Gold).

A well-known spiritual therapist and colleague of Gold, Claudio Naranjo, describes a particularly outrageous terror tactic perpetrated by Gold on his unsuspecting followers:

Let me tell, as an instance, how after a certain night of snowing, E.J. managed to convince everybody that they were not only snowed in, but (through simulated radio news to the effect that the orientation of the North Pole was rapidly changing) created a confusion to the effect that a new glaciation age was upon us. After some time of illusionism those present were convinced that they would never be able to get out of the house and that the best they could do was to prepare for death by lying down on the floor and listening to readings of the American Book of the Dead. And so they did, for days, I was told (The Seven Bodies of Man, by E.J. Gold, 1989).

A similar event occurred at the "Christmas party" held at the Crestline California headquarters in 1973. Visitors arriving were greeted by a "guard" dressed in Nazi uniform carrying a toy machine gun who informed them that they were entering a Nazi concentration camp. Several students balked at this prospect and turned back home, but the 300-odd members who remained spent three days living in a crowded room, ate only lentils, peanut butter and water, were deprived of adequate sleep and were issued passes to go to the outhouses, escorted by the "guards." At the end of the third day, "Herr Commandant" Gold descended the spiral staircase to the bottom landing with his fellow "officers" (all wearing Nazi uniforms) and proceeded to perform a slapstick comedy which "broke up" the prisoners—until Gold announced it was their turn. Everyone had to stand up and entertain the company for five minutes. Then one hundred single dollar bills came floating down the staircase, and Gold announced it was time for a "beer bash," which reputedly turned into a "drunken orgy" (Palmer, 1976).

Paradoxically, Gold's students appear to derive a sense of security from the surrendering to the insecurity of their relationship with Gold. One woman who had lived in the Grass Valley community for five years commented:

Sometimes he will ask you to do something that is stupid, pointless and then he will yell at you for being stupid enough to obey him. He'll say, 'Don't listen to me! What the Hell makes you think that I know what I'm doing!'

—Susan Palmer, Department of Religious Studies, Dawson College, Montreal, Quebec.


(1) Gold related this biographical account on the occasion of his visit to Montreal in August, 1973.

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