Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Many Layers of Truth and Lies

I walked down McAllister in a mood of gentle openness and curiosity. The sky was bright blue, there was a chilly wind that roamed over my skin and the sun was just starting to break through the clouds. It was about eleven in the morning and I was coming back from my court appointment where my former wife had not even bothered to show up, leaving me with the white angry bull dog face of her attorney and the apologetic round little face of mine. As I walked away from the Civic Center, I talked on the phone for a while and I let my eyes roam over the people that walked beside me: a little group of young students in bright T-shirts and shorts, a beautiful woman across the street in tight jeans and a dark brown sweater, a short black guy with a thick black jacket that stared back at me in anger when I looked at him, a fat homeless woman that told her strange tale in a constant flow of gibberish that trailed off into the wind. I looked southward as I crossed Leavenworth to the medium sized building across the street and I realized that the Church of Scientology was no longer there. I realized that I had seen it many times and I’d had the impulse many times of walking in and posing as an innocent and curious seeker ready to be swallowed up by the waiting jaws of their institutionalized machinery. Now it was gone and I wondered if I would ever figure out where it had moved to. For a moment I imagined that maybe San Francisco had rejected them so profoundly and completely that they had been forced to move away, giving up their elegant building for a two story flat eyesore in the midst of a suburban corporate park. I regretted never having walked in but I shrugged my shoulders and continued walking.
I walked eastward on Market and arrived at Powell. There I could have kept on walking down Market but I decided to turn north and take some pictures of the cable cars and the tourists that mobbed around them. Up the block, I was stopped by two blonde girls in elegant dark clothing. They both smiled at me in the vaguely cold and friendly tones of salesmen and they handed me a flier for the Church of Scientology. I read it carefully: "From L. Ron Hubbard himself – An Introduction to Scientology- the only filmed interview". "Only" was underlined and I remembered a black and white clip I had seen of him talking behind a desk and I wondered if it was the same. I asked one of the blonde girls when the video was showing and she said: "Every hour, for free." And she smiled broadly, clearly pleased with my curiosity. I asked where the place was located and she said about fifteen minutes from where we were, right in front of the Transamerica Building. I smiled and nodded and said thanks and kept on walking. I remembered Vollman’s statement that he couldn’t really understand a writer until he had at least seen a picture of them, a video or film would be even better. There were subtle messages that could only be communicated through the face and the hands and the body, subtle messages that could drastically change the meaning of the cold statements of fact. I continued walking calmly, but moving in the general direction of the Transamerica building.
A short time after noon I arrived at a narrow corner where Columbus Ave met Montgomery at a sharp angle. There, at the tip of the triangular city block, was the new Scientology building, marked by a stylized cross and a strange symbol involving two triangles and a curved "S" shape that resembled a snake. I walked directly inside and saw two young men in white shirts and black pants and very trimmed short hair cuts. They both resembled Mormon missionaries and, as I listened to their last few words before they turned towards me, I realized that they had just walked in from a missionary expedition through the streets of the city. Behind them were two blonde girls, one of them behind a circular desk. All of them were standing and they all looked at me intently as I walked in. I spoke up first: "I got a flier about a film that’s being shown here every hour… a filmed interview with L. Ron Hubbard." The blonde girl behind the desk smiled and said: "Yes! I remember you! Come right in!" I then realized she was the same blonde girl I had met just about twenty minutes earlier by Powell. She extended her hand and said: "I am Audrey." I shook her hand calmly and said: "Hi Audrey, I am Juan." She pointed to her fellow blonde girl, a very thin and young little creature that reminded me of another friend I had once had under similar circumstances, in the entrails of a structure devoted to the search for life beyond structures. "Abby will show you in. Just follow her." I realized that they were all wearing white and black. It wasn’t exactly a uniform because they wore it in different styles and in different combinations, but in a group it clearly showed a semblance of unity.
The inside of the building was a mixture of a corporate bank and an old fashioned church. Along the windows that ran parallel to Columbus avenue there was a sequence of desks, arranged to give the illusion of slight privacy as they were covered by semi circular displays. Each desk had a phone, and office supplies and a comfortable chair on one end facing a couple of smaller chairs on the other. All of the desks were empty. Across from the desks was another set of semi circular displays. Behind those displays was a large meeting room where there were wooden chairs arranged in concentric semi circles. At the heart of the circles was a podium with a sculpture of L. Ron Hubbard upon it and a large cross with arrows crossing at its center, the same symbol that was displayed outside the building. The little blonde girl carefully walked me into a small room with a TV set, a DVD player and a few chairs. "This is from the only full interview that he ever gave. It’s the best way to hear about it, direct from the horse’s mouth, you know? It’s been carefully colorized because it was filmed back in 1967 or 1968… something like that. I will leave you here to watch it and then I will come back so you can fill out a survey to let us know what you thought about it and if you have any questions. Do you want the light on or off?" I asked her to turn it off. Then she closed the door and I was alone with a smiling L. Ron Hubbard.
My first impression was of strength, a man with a lot of experience and ability that was overflowing with confidence in himself. His face was wide and white, his mouth curled downward as he talked and it opened up further than seemed reasonable. It vaguely reminded me of a strange underwater monster that one might encounter in the midst of a colorful dream. His eyes were alive with expressiveness and calculated warmth. After the first wave of pure strength, calculation was the next layer that seemed dominant in his manifestations. Every word was carefully planned for effect. In this complete and masterful calculation he reminded me of a very good salesman or a politician, one that knows what to say, how to say it and when to say it. As he talked more, as he claimed that all he knew he had discovered on his own, as he claimed that there could be no contradiction between Scientology and any other religion, as he said that the only purpose of his organization was to help "able" people to become more "able", I began to notice the layers. There was a very thin layer of communication where he was simply stating the truth as he knew it. There was another layer under that where he was turning on a linguistic fog machine that would obliterate all detail from his speech making sure that nothing could be narrowed down to any kind of specifics. There was yet a third layer where he simply was not telling the truth. Each of these three layers further subdivided and overlapped into each other, constantly moving, constantly shifting, never staying long enough to be locked down into a simple specific statement of fact. As I opened my eyes wider, I saw a trickster avatar in action, a hustler of the highest degree, the kind that once upon a time sold snake oil to unsuspecting farmers in the lost little ghost towns of the American west. But, like I said to my friend a couple of hours later, "just because it’s snake oil, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes work …"
He talked about his quest for knowledge, how he had lived with men of all kinds as he traveled throughout the world, asking himself: "What is man?" How he had come to understand that nobody could give him an answer. He told of how he came to understand that philosophers didn’t have the answer and neither did psychologists. And he saw the answer in spirit. Man was a spirit clothed in a body and a mind. As long as your work with man focused on the body and the mind, it would go nowhere. But if you approached man as a spiritual being, then real progress was possible. Through Scientology, man’s intelligence could be raised, the real intelligence that came from the spirit which only used the mind as a tool. He said that they did not work with insane people. "The insane people are just… well, they are just insane," and as he said it, there was a hint of disgust in his face. He also said that they did not allow people into their organization with "bad backgrounds". The interviewer asked him if good and bad meant the same to Scientologists as they did to the rest of society. He said: "Yes, it’s the same. Exactly the same." He said that it was possible to be a Scientologist while still being part of any other church. He claimed that Scientology unified all religions into the one common purpose of making man be good, and that it clarified that process and accelerated it. All this work would lead to man, individual men, becoming smarter, more able to "deal with the world around them", more able to be "successful", more able to "fulfill their ultimate purpose in life". The interviewer asked what that was and he said: "We have been dropped as spirits onto this planet and it is up to us to figure a way out." To which the interviewer asked: "You say we have been dropped here but what dropped us here?" and he responded: "A Supreme Being… a higher intelligence…" "What other people would call God?" "Sure… what we believe in no way contradicts other religious beliefs."
At one point during the interview he stood up, leaned against the wall with one foot crossed over the other and talked in a more forceful voice. It seemed clear to me that he was voluntarily invoking a different state, a different "god" from the archetypal maelstrom, through a nearly invisible ritual that he knew well and that he had adapted into modern civilized habits so that a sleeping modern man would see it only as a regular man standing up to stretch his legs. In the end, he talked some more about how Scientology could bring about the change that all religions were asking for, that it was not enough to advise man on what to do, he had to be changed through very specific means. He smiled broadly with each statement and his lower lip kept on curving down like a strange kind of big white toad. The DVD ended with a simple written statement that moved up over a moving picture of the Earth floating in space and ended firmly static on the middle of the screen: "Scientology is the fastest growing religion in the world. For one simple reason: It Works." I felt clear and simple sympathy for that statement.
I walked out of the dark little room and looked around the empty space. There was an older Latino man looking at a computerized display down the hall. Otherwise, the whole place seemed to be quiet and alone. I took a quick picture of the church and then the small, thin blonde girl came out of nowhere. She had a clipboard in her hand and she said: "Well? How as it?" I said that it was very good, very informative and that I was glad I had seen it. She asked me to fill out her form and I did so. I responded as honestly and as vaguely as I could to each question. Then I pointed to the display that ran along the little train of desks. "Are those all pictures of him?" She explained that it was a showing of pictures of him and also by him, that he had been an avid photographer most of his life so he had left them with a lot of pictures to document his travels and his very adventurous life. I asked if I could look at the display closely and she invited me to do so. I started with his childhood pictures and even in the earliest of them I could see the same strong eyes, the downward smile, the eagerness for life. In both the vibrancy of his presence and his abilities as a huckster and even in his smooth dismissive arrogance, he reminded me of other teachers I had known, old teachers with a long tail of cosmic dust behind them that lifted them up beyond the ordinary and new teachers just pushing up into their waiting translucent thrones. In his quest there was truth, in his arrival there were lies. The journey that was life always ended with the conclusion that was death. A place like this could then be seen as the propagation of death beyond its single momentary presence. Once he had been a strong fierce skinny boy facing the strange mysteries of the world, travelling through the Far East, through Africa, through the Caribbean, through Europe, all in an endless quest for something that he carried with him all along. Then he came to conclusions, to finished truths and perfected methods, and there he found something to hide, something to protect, something to guard, and the only way to hide it was with lies, and the only way to protect it was with lies and the only way to guard it was with lies. So the many layers of lies protected a kernel of truth, a kernel that may have been a living flower deep in his heart at one time but which might have suffocated a long time ago under the thick blankets of a protective hierarchy.
As I finished looking at the display, another girl I hadn’t seen before came towards me and said: "Don’t leave… Aubrey wanted to talk to you." I assumed it was one of the same girls I had already talked to and I had simply misheard the name. Meanwhile the little blonde girl looked all over the building for a book I had expressed an interest in: a book on Art. She said she created art as well: "Not as a serious profession. But I do like to create, I like to paint, you know?" I said: "Yes, I know." Someone else walked by me, and suddenly there seemed to be at least five or six women of different ages running around, all very aware of me. There was another sequence of displays which I looked at for a moment. These were all about the community work that the church did throughout the world: work with drug addicts, work with criminals, work with entire countries in need of guidance. There was a picture of L. Ron Hubbard handing an African nation the gift of a constitution. There was another picture of a long row of black men auditing each other in a dirty wooden building. Through the many words and images, the colorful displays communicated one clear message: "Look at us. We are good. We do good. Whatever bad things you have heard about us, they are lies. We are good normal people. We are good."
Just as the little blonde girl came back with a thick hardcover book on art and just as I had started to open it, I was called over to a desk by a young brunette. Her demeanor was very corporate, it said to me in unspoken gestures: "You are a potential client. Now I will show you what we can do for you and I will start you on your way into our organization." She introduced herself as Aubrey and shook my hand. Another girl handed her the survey card that I had filled out. She looked at it carefully and smiled at me. I was seated across from her and I was still looking briefly at the thick book on "art". One page said "Message". Another page said "Technique". I looked up at her and smiled and closed the book. Her hair was tied back in a tight little pony tail, her eyes were a little sunken and she was making a distinct effort to hide a bit of anxiousness that coursed through her small body as she dived into her predetermined script.
"So do you have any questions?"
"No, not really. I found the video to be very interesting."
"What is your impression of it?""I see that there is a lot of truth in what he says. I see it as being very similar, at least in principle, to the teachings of Gurdjieff."
"Of who?"
"Gurdjieff. You’ve never heard of him?"
"No," she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders and returned to the sequence as she knew it, "So it says here that you would like to wake up. What do you think prevents you from doing that?"
I smiled and took a breath. I could see L. Ron Hubbard still playing in my mind, I could sense his masterful use of half spoken truths and vague lies. I decided to try the same approach.
"It’s a matter of mastering my thoughts."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I have to be able to control my thoughts."
"Is this something that has been troubling you?"
I laughed slightly. "I think it’s something that troubles all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not."
"What has this prevented you from doing?"
"When left unchecked, it would prevent anyone from being able to fulfill their goals."
"So you are interested in fulfilling goals?""Yes, of course."
"And the problem with your thoughts has prevented you from doing that?"
"As I work more on it, it gets better."
"What do you mean by that?"
I looked at her. I looked at her foot bouncing back and forth as she crossed her right leg over her left. I looked at her eyes as they flew back and forth from me to the other people to the survey note in front of her and then back at me.
"Just like with you right now, you can’t prevent all that movement from happening. It happens unconsciously. It wastes a lot of energy that goes nowhere. It would be the same with my thoughts."
Her eyes opened wide for a moment. Something had gone down the wrong tube, this was not going as planned, but she recovered quickly and returned to her script.
"But specifically, what has this prevented you from doing in your life?"
I grasped at the word "specific". That was exactly what L. Ron Hubbard did not do in his interview, he never talked specifics. In his world, to show specifics was a weakness, it implied vulnerability. This girl had been trained by experts to make her clients vulnerable before she flew in for the close.
"When unchecked, it prevents me from fulfilling my goals."
She asked me a few more questions. As skillfully as I could, I tried to invoke the vague truthfulness of Hubbard with each answer. In doing this, I realized that I had learned something from him, something that was not spoken in language but was communicated through movement, through gesture, through posture, through raw physical invocation and through the shaping of the vibrational quality of the chamber. I cleared my attention and placed it back on her. She invited me to a short course. I said I might be interested in it. She said that it would cost $70 and it was one on one. I was still interested. I said that first I would like to read his book again, his first book "Dianetics" which I had read a long time ago. She suggested another book and gave me a free DVD. She asked me if I had any further questions. I said: "Yes. Can I take your picture?" She immediately jumped up and said "No!". I nodded and asked: "How come?" She said: "What is it for?" I said: "I make art with the pictures I take. I might write something and I would use the picture with it." "She hesitated for a moment and blushed and looked around. Once again, this was not in the script. "I don’t come out good in pictures. I just don’t look good in them. " I shrugged my shoulders. "I think you would look fine." She thought about it some more and then shook her head once more. I shook her hand and slowly walked out the door.
As the cool wind hit my face and the now full blazing sun warmed my skin, I held my thoughts and let the full wave of impressions make its way through me like a full delicious meal that hasn’t been digested yet. All the many girls I had just met inside the building probably had felt something very real upon encountering the church. This thing that they had felt was true and living. Then they had become enmeshed in the layers of protection, in the power structure that held a vast organization together and the glimmer of truth had become ossified, only accessible once again at the moment of converting another. I felt a sincere sympathy for them. Like many others, known and unknown, far away and very near, they were beyond my reach. The organization that stood behind them had the weight of a giant monster and I was just a little clueless musician taking pictures of doors and hallways and lampposts. The only effort I could fulfill for them was to take them in fully, to breathe in their presence and allow their full manifestation to wash through me like cool water. In return for being seen as a "potential convert" I would see them as true individuals, as full people whose spirit had entered the labyrinth of a vast complex church, not unlike the other people around me who had entered a vast corporation, or a military institution or a little school. In opening myself to their full reality, I was touched by the little blonde’s wide innocent eyes and the brunette’s blush when I asked to take her picture. I felt then a clear resonance with the young L. Ron Hubbard, wearing a sailor cap and posing against the railing of a ship against the background of an African jungle. He had lived fully and strong and furiously and had scratched desperately for wakefulness and presence much more than most ever would. If these people chose to make him into a God, then so be it. There were much worse things to do. As for me, I would continue to swim through the layers of vagueness, of lies, of slurred facts and half stated conclusions. In the distance there was truth, and it sometimes became visible through the mist.

The inner church meeting space.

L. Ron Hubbard through the many colored layers.

The second mysterious symbol in the walls outside.

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