The Idea of the Golden Age

Back in the early 1970's, I was reading the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and I was enchanted by the idea of the Golden Age. In Hindu mythology, there was, once upon a time, a Golden Age, Sat Yuga, in which people were 20 feet tall and lived for 500 years. Then steadily, darkness overtook the world, and now we are living in a pathetic, fallen age, called Kali Yuga.

I have come to believe that there is something of a danger in these beliefs if we take them literally. Since they are devolutionary, and thus encourage fatalism and resignation, they can blind us to what we need to do now to ensure the evolution of human society.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are as engrossing as Lord of The Rings and the Harry Potter series. They evoke a world so vividly that you cannot believe it did not exist, does not still exist. A world filled with with arrogant and noble knights, warriors with incredible skills, benevolent kings, demented kings, wizards, and hardworking serfs.

For a couple of years, I lived inside this map of the world – here we are in Kali Yuga. The good part was, this world of way-back-when seemed almost like I could reach out and touch it. And I was part of it – everyday as I chanted in Sanskrit, I felt the connection. Whenever I was teaching meditation, I felt the connection. I felt something juicy and electric, tangible in the way a hot sexual affair is, but cool, steady, eternal.

The Best Days are Behind Us?

Then I realized that the next thought in this series is, "Oh, if you want to meditate, really the time to be born was back then. That was the day. This is the age of Darkness. All our best days are behind us." It's a mixed blessing – you can feel the Golden Age, but it is in the past. So you are worshipping the past.

Also, the people in the past – not only were they more enlightened, noble, and happy than we can ever hope to be – but they already discovered and talked about everything there is to discover, and they said it WAY better than you could ever hope to say it. So just imitate them in your pathetic, fallen way, but know that you are irrevocably inferior in every way to them. This was fine with me, by the way – I didn't rankle under the limitations. I was happy with the bread crumbs I was getting.

But then . . . . where is the reality in this vision of human history? I looked around and realized, whoa, their whole model of the world is steady disintegration. There is no evolution – everything devolves. Is this true?

Walking down Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach in 1972 or so, this did not seem to be true. Jumping in the ocean, and swimming through the cold, clean water up the coast and walking back, I could not say there was any sense of Kali Yuga. Quite the opposite. I had the feeling that my ancestors worked very hard to create a better world for their children, and they accomplished this. I was living in a world in which you can drink good water coming out of the tap, the ocean was mostly clean, you could pick up the phone and get a dial tone, roads were good, cars worked, the whole infrastructure of life was there and functioning. The real task is to figure out how to live well with such an abundance of riches and freedoms. Never in history have so many lived so well, with so many choices and so much freedom – we have to figure out how to accept the gift. This is the problem, not Kali Yuga.

In the past, there were times when there were very few people on Earth. Maybe there was a golden age feel to a few years between famines and mass migrations. At other times, when populations expanded, the open-air enslavement of the Feudal System ruled everywhere. The total rigidity would have felt peaceful to the slaveholders at the top. I think the "Golden Age" is the way that the slaveholders at the top felt –the top one percent who had everything wired, everyone working for them. They were also the ones who could afford to pay to have Brahmins write the history.

Does this sense of devolution match anything here in the world of nature? It's not very evident. I really don't like crowding and overpopulation, but other than that the world is so much better in so many ways. Yeah, the 50's were fabulous but we were also an inch away from nuclear war at all times.

As gorgeous and fabulous as the notion of the Yugas seemed, it just did not match my sense of things, and my memory of past lifetimes. Yeah, there was some nobility back then, but also people lived to be 25 on average and were old at 35, if they lived that long. There is just no evidence that life was so much better in the past.

So – I have to say, this idea of the Golden Age is one of the alluring, intoxicating, fascinating notions we get from the ancient world and it CAN sometimes hold us back, blind us to realizing the beauty around us. So it has to qualify as one of the "hazards" of meditation. This notion can entice you to take your eye off the ball of everyday life, distract you from working to make the world better. The Golden Age is support for your resignation, and actually a perfect match for the detached, aloof, passive attitude that "spiritual" meditation tries to produce.

But . . . still, on some inner level, in the realm of myth, there really IS a sense that there was a time when the whole world was Arthurian, full of noble being running around doing great deeds and wise sages saying great things.

The other day I was reading some of my junk email, actually a mailing list I subscribe to, about surfing. And the link was to a booklet a guy wrote about Surfing in the Golden Age of Malibu and Southern California surfing, and listed Ventura, Malibu, Dana Point – all places I lived in the 1950's and 1960's – and the surf spots I grew up at. See also the BBC, of all places.

I was born in 1949 and the family photos from around then look like this:

This is who I would see as I crawled around in the sand as a child.

Surfers in Dana Point

Malibu Pier

My family lived in Malibu, on a cliff overlooking a surfing beach, in the 50's and 60's. And looking back, that really was a Golden Age. My brother and I, and a couple of other people, had legendary surf spots to ourselves. And when there were other surfers there, I could go out, paddle a hundred feet to the north or south of the other guys, and have waves all to myself. There were women surfing with me, and we were all free and delighted in the sunshine. And there was very little traffic on Pacific Coast Highway when we drove along the coast looking for good breaks.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, going out surfing, I would often see the guys and girls practicing this move at San Onofre.

This is my brother Rick, surfing Rincon, which is north of Malibu. Notice the wave behind the wave he is on – it is shaping up nicely. One rideable wave after the other. We had many of these breaks to ourselves in the 50's and 60's. Most but not all of them are crowded now – there are out of the way spots, a few extra minutes of paddling, and you can be almost alone.

So it seems to me that there is a reality to the FEELING that there was a golden age, but I think this phenomenon needs to be held in the way we hold fairy tales and myths – they are in some sense more true than reality, but they are not this reality.

San Onofre, Trestles, Ventura, Malibu, Dana Point. These names are chanting a litany of great places, great times, wonderful spirit. And looking back, it was a Golden Age. But all those spots are still there. A bit more crowded, but you can still get waves. Just go out at dawn.

The boards today are much better. The wetsuits are phenomenally better. The surf camps are better, and a huge number of kids learn to surf and be at home in the water. On my way in to shore, I see these kids and they are having just as good a time learning about the ocean as I did when I was a child. There is better sunblock, therefore less sunburn. We only had Sea & Ski SPF 4 and our noses burned and then peeled a lot.

There are 18-to-22 year olds at many of today's spots who are better than almost anyone was in the 50's. The Golden Age is still happening, always happening. You just have to be alert to perceive it and follow the trail.

Dolphins in the Waves at Oak Street Beach, Laguna Beach California
photo taken by: Deb Hendrix visit Laguna Beach info

I am just as likely to see this now as I did in the 50's and 60's and 70's and 80's. Actually slightly more likely, because I have a better sense of the dolphin's timing. A peculiar sense of magic washes over the beach just before the dolphins arrive.

The dolphins do bodysurf. They usually ride the wave just under the surface.

I have been there where this guy is, several times when bodysurfing, just me and my fins, and a few times when board surfing or boogyboarding. It's a quiet awesome feeling. You can order a print of this shot from Kurt.