The Life & Teachings of Joe Miller, 1904–1992
By Shabda Kahn, written as a book review for Yoga Journal after the publication of Richard Power’s book about Joe
Joe Miller is one of the great “homemade” American Mystics of this century. He was recognized as an enlightened being by many spiritual authorities and revered as a mentor by many young seekers.
He and his wife Guin, best known for taking hundreds of people on their weekly walks through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, were true torch-bearers of Love. They were hard to miss on the walk, two white-haired elders wearing T-shirts that read: “No Religion higher than Truth, no Power greater than Love” “Don’t bother just listening to the words, but try to get the feel of what I’m putting out! Realization can’t be taught, it can only be caught.” He would roar at his audience: “There are three things one needs for the spiritual path—common sense, a sense of humor, and more common sense!”
In the words of Richard Power, who wrote the book, Great Song: The Life and Teaching of Joe Miller, “Joe was an authentic American revolutionary of the spirit. He challenged his young friends to issue their own declarations of independence from the empire of fear and wanting. Joe wanted people to seek the truth for themselves within themselves. He felt that each person had an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life—as in ‘the resurrection and the life’; liberty—as in spiritual liberty from the tyranny of opposites; and the pursuit of happiness—as in the inner contentment that flows unceasingly from the depth of the heart if you ‘let go and let God.’”
When giving a rap, Joe often introduced himself as “a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks.” In his autobiography, Joe offers insights into both his worldly life and his inner development. Born to poor parents in the frigid north of Minnesota, with an eighth grade education and beautiful tenor voice, Joe became a vaudeville entertainer by night and a Wonder Bread truck driver by day. He recounts how several episodes of pre-cognition and sudden spiritual ecstasy, together with a misplaced book on a library shelf, led him to join the Theosophical Society in his early twenties.
His T.S. membership was just the beginning of a life-long inner quest. Joe experimented with many other groups, taking correspondence courses from the Rosicrucians, dabbling in Aleister Crowley’s “sex magic,” learning the sales pitch for the I AM movement with its “Ascended Masters” and purple Cadillacs. Searching to unlock the healing powers of color and music, Joe encountered charlatans and bold innovators. Along the way, Joe read voraciously, and used himself as his own laboratory for the various techniques that attracted him. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that most of the groups he had investigated and much of the popular literature he had studied boiled down to “astral real estate, just pretty pictures in your imagination.”
While Joe pursued his interest in the mystical and occult, his personal life provided him with plenty of what he would call “the manure that makes the flowers grow.” His early life was a painful American patchwork, moving from town to town for work, staggering through three marriages and raising two sets of children. After moving to northern California, Joe began to find books and people with the answers he was looking for. In the works of Ramana Maharshi, the Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch, and Dr. Evans-Wentz’s translations of sacred Tibetan texts, Joe found practices that made sense to him and he began to dig deeper into the inner mysteries.
Dr. Evans-Wentz, the original translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and other sacred Mahayana texts, considered Joe Miller “the only man he had met in the West who understood the Doctrine of the Clear Light.”
Near retirement, Joe’s quest received a great forward impetus when he met his fourth wife, Guin, a woman of his own age (for a change), an accomplished pianist and a fellow Theosophist. Together, they vowed to “grow geometrically” toward “falling awake” (a term they coined to express Enlightenment). His marriage to Guin provided Joe with the emotional equilibrium and spiritual camaraderie he needed to unlock that inner door. The key was love, unconditional love. After decades of inner searching and outer turmoil, Joe was able to turn the spiritual ecstasy that he had first touched as a young man on and off at will. The inner and outer worlds began to mirror one another. Joe called his friend and mentor, Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz on the phone and sang him a verse from one of the sacred scriptures that Evans-Wentz had translated. Guin had set it to music. Although ill and very old, the good Doctor shouted into the phone: “You’re there now, stay there!” As Joe told it later: “When he said that, it didn’t do anything to my ‘kundalini,’ it did something to my heart.”
From then on, in their late fifties, when others of their age had settled down to mahjong, Joe began to walk in the Golden Gate Park, singing and expounding to the many young people who came along. Always, balancing him beautifully, was his opposite and “better half,” his beloved Guin.
Without taking any titles, Joe was known among the Sufis as Murshid (Master) or Madzub (one crazy for God), among the Buddhists as Roshi or the “Sufi Lama,” and among the Vedantists as “Swami Joe.” Virtually every high Lama, Swami or Murshid visiting San Francisco would make their way to his door to pay their respects. The Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called the musical meditations that Joe sang to his wife’s piano accompaniment “the first American mantras.” On his deathbed, the American Sufi Master Samuel L Lewis (a.k.a. Sufi Sam), entreated Joe to: “Take care of my disciples,” and for more than twenty years, Joe lovingly fulfilled his friend’s request. But as Power writes: “Joe didn’t take any money for public speaking or private consoling. He absolutely refused the role of Guru or spiritual teacher. He referred to himself as ‘just a friend.’”
In Joe’s voice, “This isn’t something you can go to India and get, or the moon, or South America to get! It’s inside you. Just be still and find it and start living from there.” “The truth is, nobody can say it. You’ve got to be it!” Joe used his vaudeville flair: “You can get more stinkin’ from thinkin’ than you can from drinkin,’ but to feel is for real! And I Mean Really Feel!”. His advice on meditation was disarmingly simple: “Just take a gentle in-drawn breath into the heart and feel unselfish love flowing out. If you can do that you’re cooking on the big burner.”
Joe’s message was simple but powerful, direct but subtle: “Just be. But just be who and what you really are, in depth. Not what someone else tells you to be, or what you think you should be. Be. When you first wake-up in the morning, who are you then? When you say “I,” you put your hand to your heart, don’t you? Well, that’s headquarters, not in your head. Your head is just an outpost. You’ve got to get out of your cottonpicking mind! Go deeper.” Joe was always trying to break-up people’s fixed ideas and biases about how to get to the goal: “You’ve got to do it for you. No one can carry you piggy-back to the Reality. You’ve all got your own do-it-yourself kits. You don’t have to go to anybody else, pay out a lot of loot, do a hundred thousand gyashos, and contemplate your navel till it gets as big as a wash-tub. Just be still, be very still.”
“I know I’m Nothing, no-thing, no-thing, not me, not me. I’m just a wild-assed spark of the Infinite functioning in the Finite! This is the magic that each of us has within us.”
Joe Miller left his body Aug 19, 1992, but his presence and message live on.