Rick Archer emerged from a troubled youth to become a leading teacher of Transcendental Meditation. 12 years ago, he left TM and started Buddha At The Gas Pump, a podcast where he interviews spiritual teachers. It now has millions of views and downloads. I talked to Rick about how spirituality has changed since he first started meditating in 1968, and how he thinks New Age culture has fared during the COVID pandemic.
How did you get into spirituality?
I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut. I’d had a troubled home life. My father was an alcoholic. My mother nearly succeeded in committing suicide three times. One summer day in 1967 I was driving with three friends and one of them was reading aloud from Timothy Leary’s and Richard Alpert’s (Ram Dass’s) commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It dawned on me: ‘That’s it! Enlightenment! That’s what I’m supposed to do!’ But at that stage I rationalized that doing drugs would somehow be relevant to enlightenment, and besides, they were fun, at least at first. So, I kept doing them for a year, during which time I dropped out of two high schools, got arrested twice for marijuana possession, became increasingly confused and paranoid, and started dabbling with hard drugs. One night, high on some psychedelic, unable to sleep, I picked up Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. Reading stories of the Zen masters, I thought, ‘these guys were really serious and I’m just screwing around. If I keep on like this, I’m going to live a short, miserable life. So, that’s it. I’m going to stop drugs and learn to meditate.’
Two weeks later, in July of 1968, at the age of 18, I learned Transcendental Meditation. From the first sitting, I had beautiful results. I wasn’t a particularly consistent person, as I’ve just described, and most of my friends thought it was a phase that might last a week or two, but I soon dropped those friends, got a high school equivalency diploma, and enrolled in college. I became a TM teacher in 1970, was successful at it, lived a semi-monastic life for 15 years, and got married in ’87. My life is blessed. I’m happy, healthy, energetic, enthusiastic. I haven’t missed a twice daily meditation since the day I leaned. I started with 30 minutes twice a day, and for most of these 53 years, it’s been two or three hours a day.
You left TM?
I left the TM movement, or it left me. I live in Fairfield, Iowa, the home of Maharishi International University. I’ve been a student and adjunct faculty member there, but when I started getting involved with Amma, they uninvited me from participation in the group meditations on campus. But it was a good time to step back, re-evaluate my ingrained assumptions, and become more independent in my thinking. I have nothing but friendly feelings towards the people at the university.
I started Buddha at the Gas Pump in 2009. For many years I had participated in a weekly satsang with friends, talking about spiritual experiences, and I tended to ask the participants probing questions. Finally, the idea dawned to start an interview show. I thought I might do it at the local radio station, but they weren’t interested. (Here’s a pilot episode I recorded there.) Eventually, someone in the satsang said, ‘get it out on the internet’. So, I began learning and doing the things necessary to do that, and it started to take off.
How many interviews have you done now?
Over 600. I average one a week.
How many downloads?
13 or 14 million views on YouTube, and quite a few million audio downloads, maybe a quarter of a million people access it a month.
Is it your main business now?
Yeah, although it doesn’t feel like a business. We registered it as a 501(c)3 non-profit. My feeling from the beginning was that I didn’t want it to have a mercenary vibe. I wanted it to be free and readily available and grow it to the point where voluntary donations would enable me to do it full time. It took eight or nine years for that to happen, but it did. At first, I was working a full-time job (self-employed) and doing BatGap stuff at night and on weekends. Gradually, as donations increased, I could ease off on the job and focus more on BatGap. That’s thanks to many small donations and one or two bigger donors. We’re not getting rich — we live in a modest home and live frugally. I’m 71; time to retire anyway. But this isn’t a job to me, it’s something I would still do if I were wealthy and hopefully can do until I reach a ripe old age.
What advice would you give spiritual entrepreneurs?
Don’t sell your soul. Money should not be your priority. If it is, become a stockbroker. I don’t have a problem with spiritual teachers charging money. They need to support themselves. But if money becomes the priority, then things are out of alignment, and they probably aren’t serving their students as well as they should be served.
How has doing these interviews changed you?
There’s a saying — that to which you give your attention grows stronger in your life. It’s been very enriching for me. Typically, I spend the week reading the upcoming guest’s book or listening to their talks, often while walking in the woods — skiing in them when there’s snow. Over the course of the week, I feel that I get to know the person. Then I have a two-hour conversation with them. The whole process really wakes up my brain and enriches my understanding. In fact, I feel so energized after interviews that it’s sometimes hard to sleep that night. Then that one is in the rear-view mirror, and I start on the next one.
What changes have you seen in spirituality since you started the podcast?
The Science and Non-Duality conference comes to mind. It’s a nice sampling of the broader spiritual community. When I first attended back in 2010, a lot of speakers were Neo-Advaita types — “the world is an illusion, and you don’t exist” — that sort of thing. Now, most people have realised that doesn’t work well for the average person. It may be true at some levels but not all of them. It contributed to a lot of spiritual bypassing and disembodiment. A lot of people have matured beyond that and realized they must deal with their shit and can’t just hide out in some transcendent state, or idea of one.
Lately, the organizers of the SAND conference are focused on trauma. They feel that people in the world are deeply traumatized and need to be healed. They just published a very successful film with Gabor Maté, the trauma specialist, and got four and a half million paid views.
I feel that the spiritual path should be one in which the scope of one’s experience expands to incorporate the multidimensional nature of life, from its Absolute foundation — Brahman, or the Self — to the various relative and personal dimensions related to living a human life.
I agree. The latest thing becomes the only thing. Is there a risk of that with the trauma-informed perspective?
Could be. Even at the conference in recent pre-pandemic years I sometimes felt, ‘This is getting too psychological and cultural. Let’s not forget about spiritual awakening’.
How well do you think New Age / spiritual culture has responded to the pandemic?
There’s a spectrum, as with most things. You can’t generalize too much — spiritual culture is not a monolithic thing where everyone thinks the same. Here in Fairfield Iowa, the administration of the university has been very practical and scientific. 87% of the active TM teachers have been vaccinated.
But then there are local anti-vax extremists sending out wild emails claiming that everyone who has been vaccinated will die of mad cow disease or Alzheimer’s in a few years. I have friends in Sedona — a very New Age, woo woo place — who say that 75% of the spiritual types there have gotten into QAnon, voted for Trump, and are anti-vax.
One key point is that the spiritual enterprise by its very nature is one of discovering something that is hidden — the more fundamental levels of reality are hidden from ordinary awareness. So, spiritual people are accustomed to thinking the truth is hidden. It’s a small step from that to believing that anything allegedly hidden must be true, and that mainstream sources of information must be false. If you buy into that, it’s easy to dismiss scientific evidence and fall prey to misinformation. Many spiritual people have made themselves susceptible to indoctrination. They can be quite impressionable.
That’s funny, isn’t it. Our culture can be sceptical to mainstream truths but wide open to quite out-there beliefs.
In my opinion, the missing ingredient is critical thinking. I think pandemic or no pandemic, developing critical thinking skills is important on the spiritual path. Many traditional teachers such as the Buddha and Shankara emphasized this, and themselves were sharp, precise critical thinkers. Shankara’s logic, for example, is very subtle and precise. And they emphasized that this subtlety and precision become increasingly essential as you proceed. Experiencing subtler levels of creation requires a refined ability to discern reality from unreality. Failing to develop that ability can result in getting lost in imaginary realms and fanciful thinking, as we are now witnessing.
A lot of contemporary spiritual teachers have not emphasized that sort of development or even undergone it themselves. As a result, some spiritual aspirants have become more susceptible to indoctrination than even the general public.
Why has critical thinking not been emphasized in contemporary spirituality?
Perhaps one reason is that many spiritual teachers are self-appointed. They don’t acknowledge any lineage and don’t have traditional training. They haven’t studied science, which tends to culture critical thinking skills. They’ve had some spiritual awakening and felt motivated to teach. Sometimes this works out just fine; sometimes it doesn’t.
Then there are issues of narcissism and ego. You start teaching and you have a little charisma, people start revering you, flirting with you, and it goes to your head. I’ve seen many examples where people’s egos have inflated.
You need a lot of maturity to be immune to this. Everyone is a work in progress, we’re all capable of slipping up in various ways. There are some teachers who are aware of the syndrome and keep an eye on themselves. Miranda Macpherson is a good example. She regularly attends spiritual retreats taught by another teacher, and periodically goes to a therapist, just to check in and make sure nothing is creeping into her psychology. As Buddhist mystic Padmasambhava put it, ‘Although my awareness is as vast as the sky, my attention to karma is as fine as a grain of barley flour’.
I know I might sound overly judgmental here, and I’m certainly far from perfect, but just look at all the scandals that have rocked various spiritual groups over the years. The harm this has done to many sincere seekers really bothers me and motivated me to give a talk on the “Ethics of Enlightenment” at the 2017 SAND conference. After my talk I had lunch with Jac O’Keeffe and a couple of other teachers and we conceived the idea of founding the Association for Spiritual Integrity, which we did in the succeeding months.
How do you think spirituality has changed since the 70s? To my mind, one of the big things is obviously the internet and the rise of Instagram influencers. To me it seems much more decentralized — fewer mega-gurus and instead a galaxy of smaller influencers. Anyone can set themselves up as a teacher.
And anyone can set themselves up as a publisher — you and I wouldn’t have been able to do what we do before the internet came along. Anyone can say anything and get an audience. When I first started exploring this stuff in the late 60s, there weren’t too many options — TM, Silva Mind Control, Yogananda, the Hare Krishna’s, a few other things. These days there are literally thousands of teachers and teachings people can pick and choose from. Rather than a one-to-many pattern, there’s now a many-to-many pattern. A lot of people are handling this well. I have friends who have small groups of students. They maintain a high degree of integrity and are really helping people. Others seem to see spiritual teaching or healing as being more enjoyable and lucrative than a regular job, but it’s questionable whether they’re really benefitting their students or clients. Of course, this is true of other teaching and healing professions, but at least those have governing bodies and legal constraints to which practitioners must adhere.
Someone told me they were at an Adyashanti retreat, and they heard someone say, ‘I really hope I get awakened soon because I want to quit my day job and become a spiritual teacher.’ In some Zen traditions, if you have an awakening, you’re advised to wait ten years before you teach.
Now it’s barely ten minutes.
Exactly. And there are people out there whose claims to awakening are dubious. This takes us back to discernment and critical thinking. You really need it now because the world of spirituality is such a minefield; it can be very confusing.
Another thing that’s changed a lot since the Sixties is there are a lot more women teaching, particularly on Instagram, which seems to me the main site of teaching these days. And on there, spirituality is often fused with wellness. What do you think of that?
I hardly use Instagram. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation. On BatGap we make it a point to interview as many women as men. As for the wellness thing, there’s an overlap — the body is the temple of the soul. A healthy body is conducive to spiritual advancement. But the wellness business is another quagmire which needs to be navigated with discernment. Most of the so-called Disinformation Dozen [a group of 12 leading anti-vax influencers] are peddling products that they claim will cure or prevent COVID. They are modern day snake oil salesmen preying upon people who lack the medical or scientific training to evaluate their claims. If you listen to a qualified scientist debunk them, their unethical irresponsibility becomes glaringly obvious.
I should add, there are good reasons to be sceptical of mainstream medicine. To take one of many possible examples, look at Purdue Pharma, which recently went bankrupt because of their role in the opioid epidemic, although the founders — the Sackler family — worked out a legal deal which enabled them to walk away with billions of dollars. You can’t blame people for losing trust, but you also can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Last summer it looked like my wife might not live much longer due to a chronic lung condition that had suddenly worsened, but she took antibiotics for a month and got well again, so hooray for Big Pharma.
What strikes me about the overlap between spirituality and wellness is that wellness is such a huge industry, with its pampering, massage, elite spas. So, spirituality becomes associated with affluence and luxury. [See this piece on ‘toxic wellness’]
I don’t interview too many people in the wellness field, but when we are checking out people to interview, we look at their website, and if things look too commercial it’s a turn-off for us. But there are teachers who have become very wealthy, like Eckhart Tolle, who are really helping people. He hit the sweet spot with Oprah Winfrey’s support. But money can be alluring, like sex and fame. A lot of people get sucked into that temptation. Most of the Disinformation Dozen are easily making six figures. One of them, Sherri Tenpenny, who said the vaccines will magnetize your body so spoons will stick to you, among other nonsense, taught a $600 course to train people how to talk other people out of getting vaccinated. She made a quarter of a million dollars from that one course.
I co-taught the course in which Deepak Chopra learned meditation, and he’s become a multimillionaire. I may be biased since he’s an old friend, but I think he has helped and inspired a lot of people. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have become so popular. Even though it’s very expensive to go to the Chopra Clinic, I’ve seen situations where Deepak has gone out of his way to help people who didn’t have any money and gotten personally involved in their situation.
Obviously traditional religions emphasize generosity and charity. Does western spirituality do enough in that department?
Not much that I know of, other than some traditional churches. But there could be some good projects offered by spiritual groups that I don’t know about. There are eastern teachers who are influential in the west, such as Amma, who have huge charitable projects. Ram Dass and Larry Brilliant also did and do good work at the behest of their guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
New Age culture is divided over issues like lockdowns, vaccines, and masks. What is the balance between taking a stand for what you think is right and healing polarisation?
I sometimes have been too confrontational, and it hasn’t had the desired effect. You have to have compassion and understanding, remain friendly and decent, these are qualities spiritual people are supposed to possess. But rarely do people seem to change their minds on these issues, unless perhaps they end up in an ICU. As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.
How can we encourage or disseminate critical thinking in spiritual culture?
I do what I can. I often mention it in interviews. This is one of the initiatives of the Association for Spiritual Integrity. The Buddha was alleged to have said, “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” Note that he didn’t say “be sceptical of everything”. He said, “make sure that things withstand critical scrutiny before accepting them”. I think it’s possible to develop a balance of open-mindedness and healthy scepticism.
But people want to go on workshops about healing your emotions or manifesting abundance or having ecstatic experiences. A workshop on critical thinking?
I would love a workshop like that.
Have you ever felt dispirited by spiritual culture?
I was very inspired by TM, became a TM teacher, and spent a lot of time around Maharishi. I was very impressed by him and devoted to him. From the start I heard rumours that he was having sexual affairs despite claiming that he was a life celibate. That’s why John Lennon and George Harrison left his ashram in Rishikesh (Paul and Ringo left earlier. Paul had other commitments and Ringo didn’t like the food). I always dismissed those rumours as preposterous. But then about 20 years ago I received a lot of evidence that convinced me that they were true, including conversations with some of the women. This made me cynical for a while. But eventually I processed it. And what I’m left with is gratitude. Maharishi’s teaching saved my life and has enhanced it many times. My father had PTSD from WWII and was an abusive alcoholic, but he also took me skiing, fishing, camping, and he was a great cook and talented artist. The greatest saint has some flaws, and the greatest sinner has some positive qualities. People do the best they can. I think it’s best if we try to see the good in people and appreciate whatever benefit they bring to our lives.
What advice would you give people if they’re feeling dispirited?
I would say, spirituality is real, and there is something priceless to be gained. If some teacher is caught with their pants down or their hands in the money pot, maybe you should leave them, but don’t leave spirituality. If you can still find benefit in their teachings, fine. Even if there’s no teacher you can relate to, you can still put your attention on wisdom and higher knowledge. I don’t have any doubts in my mind about the reality of higher spiritual attainment. Spirituality gives meaning to life and can enrich it immeasurably. So, keep on truckin’.
Here’s the BATGAP podcast
Here’s the Association for Spiritual Integrity
Here’s a piece I wrote in April 2020 on conspirituality
Here’s a piece I wrote on ‘Nazi hippies’ — when the New Age and far-right overlap
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