From the son of New Age guru Peter Tompkins, engagingly frank recollections of an adolescent search for wisdom among the usual suspects—Tao, Buddha, and Castañeda—whose prescriptions turn out, on closer examination, to be no more enlightening or realistic than conventional nostrums.
Tompkins doesn’t trivialize his experiences, but he is also self-deprecating—which makes his account of the getting of wisdom agreeably free of earnestness or self-absorption, the usual fatal flaws of the genre. As he notes in the introduction, his family and the times (the 1970s) predisposed him to search for answers outside the mainstream. Like many others of the era, he was attracted to the “life manuals that are the sacred literature for a culture that has forgotten what to do with its original sacred literature.” After a senior year in high school spent reading about Taoism, as well as taking “a big bite of Huxleyan (Aldous) visionary bread,” he went off to Vassar—chosen because he thought its lingering “Sissy image” might be more open to the “Tao” way of living. But college turned out to be unhelpful, so Tompkins took a semester off and accompanied Nick, a practicing Buddhist relative, to Colombia to help him photograph local villagers. He found both the experience and Nick’s Buddhism disappointing, but he was determined to continue his search. Making frequent reference to the Bhagavad-gita, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Black Elk Speaks, Tompkins describes how he turned next to writing, then to hallucinogenic mushrooms, and finally to California. Frustrated that he remained unenlightened, and suspecting that his wise man were fundamentally flawed, he decided in the end that there was no single “right” way to enlightenment—and that wisdom may well lie in “turning yourself over to the process even before you knew where it was going.”
Not nearly so vague and self-absorbed as most works of this genre: a worthwhile effort.