‘Distilled Spirits’ traces birth of New Age spirituality

BERKELEY, Calif. — Gerald Heard is the most influential religious thinker you’ve never heard of. Without Heard, some of the … Continued

BERKELEY, Calif. — Gerald Heard is the most influential religious thinker you’ve never heard of.

Without Heard, some of the major spiritual developments of 20th-century America — the introduction of Eastern mysticism, the development of the human potential movement and the spiritual use of psychedelic drugs — might never have happened. And at least one skeptical California newspaperman named Don Lattin might never have sobered up, stopped using, and found a measure of serenity and faith.

All bear the fingerprints of Heard, who has been called “the godfather of New Age” — an Englishman born at the end of the Victorian era who migrated to California and died here in relative obscurity.

That’s the gist of “Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk,” a new book by Lattin that traces the influences Heard and his friends Aldous Huxley and Bill Wilson had on the American religious landscape and, eventually, on Lattin himself.

“In a way, this book is part of my recovery,” Lattin, 58, said from a booth in a Thai restaurant, a short jaunt from the University of California, Berkeley, where Lattin delved into Huxley’s writings as an undergraduate. “One of the things you do in recovery is you make amends, you tell your story, and that is one of the things I am trying to do in this,” he said. “It is the redemptive power of storytelling.”

And “Distilled Spirits” is quite a story. Part group biography, part memoir, Lattin details the somewhat unlikely friendship between Huxley, whose books “Brave New World” and “The Doors of Perception” are still widely read, and Heard, whose more than three dozen books are unknown outside philosophy circles. Heard’s Trabuco College, an alternative spiritual retreat, lasted only a few short years in the 1940s.

Bill Wilson met both men after he co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, joining them in their belief in the spiritual power of psychedelic drugs. Wilson hoped LSD would help recovering alcoholics tap into the “higher power” that AA holds as necessary for recovery.

All three men emphasized spiritual experience over religious institutions and dogma, and the spiritual progress of the individual over religious adherence to a group. As Lattin writes in the book, “Huxley saw the social problem. Heard charted the spiritual course. Wilson recruited passengers for the journey.”

“I think the legacy of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley and Bill Wilson is the new emphasis people place on their own spiritual experience rather than on doctrine and dogma and denominationalism that anyone who’s covered religion knows is where the culture is going,” Lattin said, his beard only a little more gray now than in the pictures he includes of himself in the book. “They are not the only reasons for that, but they are three very important reasons for that.”

Lattin has made a specialty of the 1960s — three of his four previous books deal with its esoteric religion and spirituality. The most successful, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” is another group biography of Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Andrew Weil and religion scholar Huston Smith. But in those books, Lattin confined his overlapping experiences to an afterword.

Not so in “Distilled Spirits.” Early readers of the manuscript insisted the real story was how the lives of these three men managed to have lasting effects on the spiritual lives of millions, including Lattin himself.

So along with the stories of Heard, Huxley and Wilson, the reader learns that Lattin, a longtime San Francisco religion reporter, was often binging when he should have been writing. His second book, “Following Our Bliss,” was written almost entirely under the influence of vodka and cocaine.

Eventually, he had enough. He checked himself into rehab — which didn’t work the first time through — and left the newspaper business in 2004. Along the way, he joined AA and cobbled together three or four other things — none of them explicitly denominational, but all with an emphasis on spiritual experience — that he calls “his spiritual practice.”

“I had to stop covering religion to let religion cover me,” he writes toward the end of “Distilled Spirits.” ‘’I had to stop writing about religion to get right with religion.”

Part of Lattin’s practice includes a regular Saturday morning meeting with a group of men — some in recovery, some not — who meditate and read scripture.

“I may be the only one of us who realizes it,” he writes in the book, “but our little group would never have come together without the work of Huxley, Wilson and Heard. In our approach to God, we, like these three men, draw wisdom from several faiths, seek spiritual experience over religious doctrine, and focus on personal growth. We — like so many other seekers in our generation — see ourselves as’spiritual but not religious.’”

Embedding his memoir in the biography was freeing — he finished the manuscript six months ahead of schedule.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.


    Really al that is needed to find God is to be humble and available-he’ll do the rest! Essential Christian doctrine in a nutshell is loving God and loving others-what a horrible world view huh? Yes. we Christians are broken, disfunctional and have been know to do religion-there’s room for one more!

  • wt_rd

    Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and Inayat Khan brought eastern mysticism to the west in the first decades of the twentieth century, not this guy.


    How well has this new age world view worked in India? Would you consider these practices worthy of transferrring to America in the name of best practices because it’s worked so well over there? That’s what I thought!

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.