TURN ON, TUNE IN, DROP OUT: The promise of self-sufficiency in the age of COVID
By: Forrest Rivers
In 1967, before a gathering of hippie youth in San Francisco, California, Timothy Leary coined a phrase that perfectly captured the mindset of an entire generation. The phrase was, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
In just six words, this counterculture icon profoundly conveyed a message of direct spiritual seeking and non-engagement with the dominant culture. If one lives by the wisdom of this phrase, they will inevitably find themselves standing on the outside, looking in at society.
This reality begs the following question: What is a seeker of truth supposed to do when their consciousness expands so dramatically that compliance with the conformist values of their culture is no longer possible?
The answer is that one must become self-sufficient in both thought and action. The thought part means turning your mind to the truth within and not to what is being propagandized on the outside. The action part means things like growing your own food, learning to build your own home, collecting your own rainwater and finding an alternative energy source to power your community. It also means working out an independent and workable system of direct democracy and being a participant in a more local, just and sustainable economy.
Being truly self-sufficient in both thought and action go hand in hand. The move to become so in action is born from free and independent thought that sees a different way of relating to the world as possible.
Become a revolutionary
Stephen Gaskin, the late co-founder of The Farm (founded in 1971), a well-known and remarkable off-the-grid hippie community in Summertown, Tennessee, once said the following about the promise of self-sufficiency in his book This Season’s People:
“It’s revolutionary growing your own food instead of supporting the profit system. It’s revolutionary to deliver your own babies instead of paying thousands of dollars a head to profit-oriented hospitals and doctors. It’s revolutionary to get the knowledge out of college and make it so you don’t have to sell your soul to learn something. It’s revolutionary to learn how to fix stuff, rather than junk it or take it in to be replaced.”
For Gaskin, The Farm’s successful experiment in living Leary’s wisdom was itself a powerful expression of opposition to our dependency on societal structures. In many ways, the events surrounding COVID-19 have revealed the extent to which most of us are not at all self-sufficient in the ways that both Leary and especially Gaskin imagined.
Indeed, the first few months of the pandemic showed just how reliant we are on big corporations and the government. A dramatic example was the overwhelming fear among many that grocery stores would run out of food. This irrational fear, driven by our dependence on the commercial for-profit food system, subsequently led to mass panic shopping not just in the United States and Canada, but across the world.
As a side note, the pandemic has taught us that if you want to witness the breakdown of modern society, just threaten to shut down its food markets!
The staggering number of Americans who had little choice but to file for government unemployment benefits when the shutdowns went into effect was another striking example of our lack of self-sufficiency. In a culture that values the notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” it is ironic that many of us (out of necessity) have been made to feel dependent on our government for support.
Thankfully, these times have provided us with two profound revelations as they relate to self-sufficiency. The first revelation is that becoming so is highly possible now, in this age of ever-sophisticated modes of communication through the internet. Today, one can literally pick up any practical skill, such as building a tiny home, canning food or installing solar panels on their house.
No longer do we even need to go into the military or become an apprentice to acquire the very skills that we can now learn through our phones and computers.
A second and even more profound revelation is that becoming self-reliant is food for our souls. There is something inherently beneficial to our own spiritual growth when we learn to be truly self-sufficient. For one, we become more confident and able beings when we gain the skills needed for our own survival. The struggle of learning these new talents also makes us more resilient in the face of navigating obstacles along the way, and we feel a great sense of gratitude when we are able to add new skills to our personal repertoire.
Becoming self-sufficient will also inevitably deepen our relationship and sense of connection with the Earth. Practices like farming, foraging and building shelters have the effect of reverting us back into a state of communion with the Earth and all her natural cycles.
Get out of prison
Not long ago, I spent a very hot summer (even by Southern Appalachian standards!) working on a hemp farm in the mountains of North Carolina. Much of the work I did in the field was physically exhausting. Yet, despite enduring the hard labour and many pains in my body, I recall feeling strangely fulfilled while working there.
I was learning how to farm, getting my hands dirty and putting in an honest day’s work. Furthermore, as the weeks went by, my bond with the land and the surrounding mountains grew stronger. So much so, that the farm began to feel like an extension of my being. As the plants began to mature, my connection to the land was only heightened.
It was only then, working on that farm, when I began to truly understand what my farmer friend, Rick, had meant when he once said to me that he “feels closest to Christ” when he works the land behind his home. What I found in that summer on the farm is that learning self-sufficient skills not only makes us more confident, able, resilient and fully connected beings, but it also brings peace of mind.
In the end, becoming self-sufficient in action requires that we first become it in thought. To this point, G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian spiritual teacher, said the following: “If you wish to get out of prison the first thing you must do is realize that you are in prison. If you think you are free, you can’t escape.”
As long as we continue to think we need the mass corporate machine to feed and supply us with our life necessities, we will remain locked in our own prison of dependency, while believing we are free. The same idea applies to our relationship with our government. The more we think we need their financial assistance, the more reliant we will be on our rulers who want us to remain dependent.
These times are ripe to pursue the promise of self-sufficiency in thought and in action. “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” may well become the mantra of yet another generation!