December 5, 2008


(The following review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 13, No. 3.)

The 99th Monkey
A Spiritualist’s Misadventures
with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex,
Psychedelics, and Other
Consciousness-Raising Experiments

by Eliezer Sobel
Santa Monica Press ($16.95)

Review by Kelly Everding

Eliezer Sobel’s The 99th Monkey, a recounting of his personal life-long search for enlightenment, is an entertaining guidebook through the last thirty years of spiritual movements in America and beyond. Sobel’s humor and self-deprecating manner make this journey a fun one, despite the fact that Sobel can’t quite get with the program of spiritual awakening. The title of this book is one that refers to a moment when a critical shift occurs that results in a dramatic change in behavior. Researchers of monkey behavior noticed that once a certain number of monkeys, say 100, adopted a helpful behavior, then somehow this would be passed on to all the monkeys and their offspring, perhaps psychically or through the collective unconscious. Says Sobel in his Prologue: “‘The 100th Monkey’ became the name New Agers and futurists used for this unusual phenomenon, and they extrapolated from monkey experience to show that this is also the way the human community makes dramatic, collective paradigm shifts into new ways of thinking, being, and behaving.”

Playfully, Sobel dubs himself the stubborn 99th monkey who can’t quite take the plunge, no matter how much he wants to. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now describes this vicious cycle:

Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it. Even their — usually unsuccessful — search for an answer, a solution, or a healing becomes part of it. What they fear and resist most is the end of their drama. As long as they are their mind, what they fear and resist most is their own awakening.

As a horny young man, Sobel was eager to build self-confidence and was willing to try just about anything. “My spiritual search actually began in about 10th grade, when I took a book out of the library called How to Develop a Million-Dollar Personality,” he writes; “I thought the one I had stunk.” We’re never really quite told why he thought this, but this was the late ’60s/early ’70s, so enlightenment was in the air. He tried Primal Therapy, hugged Ram Dass, and finally enrolled in Werner Erhard’s est program.

Like Tolle, Erhard’s teaching focused on the now. “All suffering . . . is a function of ‘this isn’t it,’” he tells Sobel. To which Sobel’s smart-alecky response is: “The problem becomes, for most of us, that the present moment of our lives, just as it is, is not all it’s cracked up to be, so if ‘this is it,’ we conclude, basically, that ‘this’ sucks!” This is the crux of the problem for enlightenment — if you can accept this fact, then how do you sustain it? Sobel was happy and enlightened for months after his est training, but gradually it wore off, and he was eager to find that “high” again.

“The paradox of the path to enlightenment is that the only place to go is here, and the only time to go is now, and yet to truly be fully present in the here and now may require years of striving to seemingly get somewhere.”

As the self-proclaimed “Zelig of religions,” Sobel moved from ashram to retreat to workshop, traveling all over the country and to India, meeting self-proclaimed gods, gurus, saviors, and seekers like himself. As editor of The New Sun, a New Age spiritual magazine, he had the opportunity to meet many spiritual advisors and discover many new ways to find that elusive satori. He admits that being exposed to so many “ways” rendered him unable “to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, although I suspected that if it involved having to wear a pyramid on your head, it was probably bogus.” A non-practicing Jew, Sobel admits he believes “neither in the God of religion nor the non-God of science,” and goes on to say:

My exposure to so many paths and traditions has left me with a not-uncommon New Age amalgamation of a spiritual life in which the Brahma of Hinduism, the unnamable God of Judaism, Buddha Nature, Islam’s Allah, and the Christian Father in Heaven are all one and the same, exactly, identically, and all equally existent or non-existent, so I am simultaneously a born-again Hindu, a Jubu, a contemplative Christian, a singing Sufi, and a secular humanist.

Indeed, his experiences have led him to many interesting experiences, from workshop leader to chaplain in a university hospital where he had to pray with patients (even though he “was not the praying type”). It’s a bit hard to determine how Sobel supported his “habit,” although there are some vague hints to some independent means, possibly, but it’s clear that his life-long search, although entertaining and funny to the reader and speckled with peak moments for Sobel, was riddled with self-doubt and bouts of depression (for this, we discover, he has taken just about every pharmaceutical known to psychiatrist-kind). And often his desire for spiritual awakening gets conflated with his desire for women — that age-old push and pull between mind and body.

In the end, Sobel is really like anyone else on this earth, which is why the book is so endearing and encouraging.

As the 99th Monkey, committed to seeking rather than finding, it is very difficult to confront letting go of wanting some big or miraculous change to occur in my essential make-up. Yet after all the things I have done to grow, change, and improve myself over the years, I must confess that I still feel pretty much like the same person I was when I was about four years old.

Intellectually, Sobel knows very well that a grand spiritual awakening would mean the end of his search, but he’s not ready to give up, for to do so would be to give up the “I” of ego — which is difficult to maintain. And maybe he’s not quite ready to end his drama. “Most of us prefer our enlightenment to be more special and dramatic, with, if not a choir of angels, then at the very least a little white light. Something, anything, besides simply this. And this is where God lives, with or without special effects.”


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