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Navel Maneuvers 

If Adam and Eve moved to Northern California, they'd probably note on the first day that the balmy weather, inspiring vistas, and mellow vibesreminded them of Eden. On the second day, they'd pick up a copy of "Common Ground" and enroll in a self-help cour

Wednesday, Aug 23 1995
This is an advertising medium," says Common Ground Editor/Publisher Andy Alpine of his free guide to consciousness and self-help in the Bay Area. But Alpine's description comes with this disclaimer: "It's caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware."

And let the sellers make some money. In the latest issue of the 95,000-circulation quarterly, there are precisely 1,016 sellers of psychic programs and healing regimens, which, based on Alpine's estimate of a 2.5-to-1 pass-along rate, translates into about 250,000 potential buyers.

Over the last 21 years, Common Ground has grown from a hastily assembled giveaway into a handsome 176-page bible of the Bay Area human potential movement. Boasting a readership that stretches from Santa Cruz to Marin, Common Ground collects and unifies the many disparate disciplines that pass under the New Age rubric: You might not think that women-only backpacking trips, Gurdjieff study groups, rope-swinging courses, and special shoe inserts that provide invisible energy have anything in common -- but in the pages of Common Ground they are all members of the conventional therapy orphanage.

Common Ground is the catalyst for the local consciousness industry, a town crier and flier for therapists, retreats, workshops, homeopathic health care, healers, spiritual practices, nutrition, and other "resources for personal transformation" whose ads are parsed into departments like Food & Nutrition, Time Out & Retreats, and Psychic Arts & Intuitive Sciences. The oldest Eastern philosophy teaches that all paths lead to wisdom of some sort, a sentiment that is echoed here, whether the path involves deep massage, hypnotherapy, clothing-optional hot springs, tree-bark vitamins, miniature Buddhist water fountains, or inflatable balls for schoolchildren to sit on.

While musty labels like "New Age" or the "Me Generation" were long ago inducted as roped-off exhibits in the California Hall of Fads, Common Ground owes a debt to their legacy since its launch back in 1974, when it became apparent that the consciousness market was larger than the Esalen Institute catalog could provide for. Working 16-hour days from a storefront in Noe Valley, East Coast refugee Alpine and company slaved away at the paste-up table, enlisting their own advertisers to help haul copies around the area in exchange for invitations to parties.

How did he find himself here, putting out a publication?
Alpine's answer rings so true that Sacramento should order it stitched onto the state flag:

"It was as far away from New York and my parents as I could get. Couldn't go to Hawaii."

Chalk another one up to good old American restlessness, discontent, and family dysfunction. Since the first boat scraped aground, people have endured great hardship to move to this earthly paradise of the West Coast. In the case of the Donner Party, immigrants even ate one another's flesh, demonstrating a definite commitment to reach the Land of Opportunity.

Once here, the newcomers no longer can bitch about their lives. The vistas are incredible. The food is fresh and excellent; the weather moderate and healthful. San Francisco isn't ugly or riddled with neglect like Detroit. The greater Bay Area isn't bland like Des Moines. California is nowhere near as prejudiced as the Deep South. San Francisco is so pleasant other states even bus their homeless here to take advantage of the city's generous general assistance programs.

And yet, in this unimaginable Eden, this oasis of sanity in an insane world, this haven of tolerance, the citizenry succumbs to a bizarre geographical determinism. Beauty and pleasure and comfort are not enough.

We want more!
Like restless bees in a hive, Northern Californians buzz around each other, humming and roiling with psychic hunger. Followers seek leaders; leaders seek followers; the pained search for cures; and the salesmen of consciousness dart in and out of the hive, seeking monetary honey from everybody.

A browse of Common Ground's summer issue reveals an industry rampant with ideologies unknown in the mainstream. For example, its Psychology & Therapy department lists 139 advertisers, including at least three that promote EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a therapeutic process where "through a series of carefully guided repetitive eye movements you can dissolve limiting beliefs and patterns to create long-lasting positive change." It may even improve your video game skills.

Another popular entry is for legal drugs that mimic the effects of illegal ones -- get stoned without the fear of seeing your arrest on the nightly news. A product called Cloud 9 promises the euphoria of MDMA and "an overall enhancement of the five senses." Extracts of yohimbe and yohimbara bark are also prominent for their apparent psychedelic/aphrodisiac properties.

Other advertisers are peculiar one-offs, even more intriguing because there seem to be no imitators. The Middendorf Breath Institute of San Francisco continues the work of Professor Ilse Middendorf, who said "Aahh" in 1965 and opened wide the doors of her Institute for the Perceptible Breath in Berlin; its approach "allows us to experience the Self through connecting with the natural breath, free from control of the human will. ... Individual 'hands-on' sessions offer the same profound connection to the Self, as the practitioner places his or her hands gently on the client's breath and creates a 'breath dialogue.' "

The Bay Area's Gurdjieff Work Circle, based on the teachings/writings of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, accepts no wussies, and issues a stern warning: "Healing is always respected but this is not a therapy. You are objectively forewarned that sincere application of this teaching will radically upset your philosophy of self and others, and change the direction of your life."

Tree Top Challenges organizes motivational rope-swinging courses and workshops in the forest, its logo depicting a person lunging for a suspended ring as a crowd below cheers their brave airborne compatriot. Enthusiastic copy promises "a supportive and exhilarating laboratory for exploring trust and leadership, and for going beyond perceived limitations of personal and team performance."

And then there are those businesses that make the reader wonder if maybe you're just too damn stupid to figure it out. Perhaps the rest of the world has finally broken through a believability barrier to the other side, where everything is soft and wrapped in strands of fluffy white optimism, and those miserable bastards who didn't make the leap of logic are out of the club.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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