Strawberry Shortcake and After
- An old-time premie's views on community and keeping it together
Midway into her fifth year of trying to practice satsang, service, and meditation in the free-for-all of the world, Marsha Willis is one of the oldest members of the Denver premie community. She has some keen insights into the nitty-gritty of community development.
We spoke to Marsha sitting on the steps of her back porch. It is a peaceful moment in the middle of her busy day. Gary, one of the people who lives with her, is making the appropriate Saturday afternoon, end of February, preparations in their little garden. Inside, her husband Doug, and his partner Chuck, both laid up with flu, are resting at midday from the woodworking business they operate out of their garage-shop. Ethan, Marsha and Doug's 15-month-old son, is sleeping upstairs in a special little bed that Doug has designed and built for him. The laundry is in the washer and tea water's on the stove.
MARSHA: A fellow came to Denver from the Western Slopes of the Rockies and he was asking me what he could do to receive Knowledge. I didn't know what to tell him because it's almost like now, to get the full experience of satsang, service and meditation, you have to live in a community of premies because you need that support - you need that constant interchange to help you develop. I didn't want to tell him, "Move to Denver," but I didn't want to encourage him to learn the techniques of meditation and then let him go off by himself without that support to grow.
PAUL: So when does a person start being part of a premie community - when they live in a house with other premies - in the neighborhood - in the city? What about you? Your husband isn't a premie and neither is anyone else in your house. How do you get that community ty support?
MARSHA: Well, there are a couple of factors. One, of course, is just whether there are other premies around you can get together with. The other part is making the effort - realizing the importance of coming together and then actually doing it.
As you know, I don't live or work with premies - which has some advantages for me personally - but I live near enough to premies that we do share a lot of our lives. I like to go to an ashram during the day sometimes just for a cup of tea and some satsang, or sometimes to sing arti and meditate with those people. And I try to be as involved as possible in the community, to put myself in as much contact with other premies as possible; I definitely feel it helps me grow.
PAUL: What do your husband and the other people in the house think about all this? Doesn't Doug think it's a little odd for you to be jumping out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to go sing arti at the ashram?
MARSHA: Probably, but he's used to it by now. We've been together for five years, and we try to love each other and respect each other's eccentricities and understandings.
PAUL: I find that really interesting. What's your history with Knowledge? How is it that you received Knowledge and Doug didn't?
MARSHA: Actually, I see us as just one more case history in time - you know? But as far as the history goes: Before I received Knowledge and before I started living with Doug, we both worked at the Denver Free University. (Bob Mishler was there then, too.) About ten of us lived together in a yoga commune Bob had started in his house. One day, Doug was over visiting and while we were all sitting around eating strawberry shortcake, Bill and Jane Patterson came over and they were telling us about the thirteen-year-old guru Bill had found on his trip to India. Somehow it really moved and excited most of us, and I said, "I don't really see how anyone could not want this Knowledge if all you have to do is ask for it," and Doug said, "I do, I can see how someone wouldn't want it." It's still a great mystery to me. It just has never touched him somehow. Once we went to see Maharaj Ji at Macky Auditorium in Boulder and I walked out saying "Yes, yes!" and he came out shaking his head and saying, "No, no."
But my understanding of Knowledge was that it shouldn't be just another thing to create separation among people. And if it was that, then it wasn't what I thought it was. It wasn't Knowledge. It was a religion or something else that we didn't need more of in this world. I instinctively felt that when you love and respect someone, you can't discard them and the validity of their life experience just because they aren't attracted to Knowledge. And you have to retain respect for the process that they're going through that has them where they are. After all, what moves and motivates the human being?
I also began to understand that I had all these things in me like arrogance and self-righteousness -things that maybe he didn't have as strongly as I did. Who knows? Maybe he didn't really need Knowledge like I did at that time.
So when I came back from India in '71 1 moved out of 1560 Race St. and in with Doug. … Of course, there are many conflicts in any sustained relationship, but when I look at some premie marriages which are breaking up I think, why? I mean, it seems like if you have the potential to find love together at some time and you have Knowledge, you have it knocked; you have all the tools to work with; what could be bigger than that?
There came a time when I thought Doug and I would naturally evolve apart because our interests in life are really different but it hasn't happened. I don't quite know why, really, but …
In the early days of the mission, premies used to see my lifestyle as unnatural. When I would go to the ashram to do service, people would try to persuade me to leave my foolish attachments and move into the ashram. It was as if that were the only way you could practice Knowledge - that I had to either live in an ashram or leave the Knowledge.
PAUL: That's funny, because before we were talking about the supportive nature of the premie community, but it seems like at that time you were almost practicing Knowledge in spite of the premie community.
MARSHA: I think maybe all of us were. Our understanding was definitely quite a bit tighter then. We acted like community support meant to bolster up a common belief system, to homogenize ourselves and blot out all differences of perspective. Sometimes a community can be a negative force in the growth of consciousness as well as a positive one. It seems to take consciousness to breed consciousness.
That's why I think my living situation has helped me keep a bit of balance. When we only come in contact with other premies we - at least I do - tend to fall into an in-group kind of identity process. Sometimes that identity can be mistaken to be Knowledge, and it can lead to a real insensitivity and a self-righteousness that actually works against Knowledge. It can get really closed and in-bred. You develop concepts and even a whole way of talking within the group which reinforces all of your interpretations of your experiences and gets in the way of seeing freshly. After a while you're living in your own little elite world.
To break a group-held concept, it takes such a mammoth effort. I mean, even now when we talk sometimes we say "real" and "honest" instead of "blissful" and "devoted" just like a fill-in-the-blanks rap. It's still the same head; it's all one-dimensional.
That's why I was saying it's good for me to live here. In this house a string of words which are considered "satsang" doesn't go over. Nobody wants to hear it. They can spot a rap. They know me" too well. I have to translate satsang into something personal and alive; I have to constantly he working on it because nobody's into letting me off too easy. It's good; helps keep me honest.
PAUL: I heard someone saying at satsang or in one of the workshops that realization was the point when the part recognized its relationship with the whole. It seems to me that what we have been saying is that in order for our communities to be a continuously positive force in the growth of consciousness, they themselves need to always be in touch with their little part in the whole. We are one part in the large of humanity.
MARSHA: For sure. To me that's not lofty; it's true. Now I just have to learn how to work it all into my everyday life.
Marsha Willis is one of the 'founding fathers' of Divine Light Mission in the United States. Her signature appears on our original incorporation papers. For two frantic years, she was one of the principal typesetters on And It A Divine and Divine Times. Now she lives in Denver and finds the majority of her time taken up with her year old son, Ethan. She typeset this interview herself. - Ed.