Falling Awake: The Life and Message of Joe Miller

By Richard Power and David Thompson

Originally printed in the JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Power, Richard; Thompson, David "Falling Awake: The Life and Message of Joe Miller." Quest  95.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007):7-11,17.

The Clear Light is the source of light that lighteth everyone of humankind that cometh into the world. It is the radiance of cosmic consciousness. Yogins realize it while still in the fleshly body, and all humans glimpse it at the moment of death. It is the light of the Buddha, the Christ and all masters of life. And to the devotee in whom it shines unimpededly, it is the guru and the deliverer.


—W.Y. Evans-Wentz
The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation


I know I am nothing, no-thing, no-thing, not me, not me. I'm just a wild-assed spark of the Infinite functioning in the Finite! My viewpoint is that you surrender yourself to your deeper spiritual self, and be that spiritual self. Be who you are. And that's what you are. You're all God. You're carrying around the generator of force within you. Use it. That's what you got it for. You just needed some silly-billy like me to come along and mention it to you.

—Joe Miller

Annie Besant was a person of great importance, as an orator, a writer, and a leader—not only in the history of the Theosophical Society, but also in the history of India and in the struggle for the rights of women and children. She was at home on the world stage.

One morning in the 1920s, at the Theosophical Society in Chicago, she met a young man waiting for an elevator. "Hi, my name is Joe Miller and this is the happiest moment of my life." Besant took the young man into the library and they talked for some time.

The next day, someone told Joe that Mrs. Besant had been looking for him, but that she had left for India. The same night, the young man had a dream about her. When he woke up, he wrote her a letter in which he included a bit of poetry that had come to him after their chance encounter:


Of worldly jewels and riches I have none.
My strength of will surpasses all.
Thine not mine be done.


Sometime later, a man who had been traveling with Mrs. Besant brought Joe a message from her. She said "as far as you are concerned, when the time comes, you will know what you are supposed to do."

Over sixty years later, the Dalai Lama came to deliver a sermon at the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, a block away from the San Francisco Theosophical Society (SFTS) Lodge. The cathedral was overflowing with thousands of people. Joe Miller, the same young man who had stumbled into Annie Besant at the elevator, now in his eighties, was sitting with his fifth wife, Guin, in the inner vestibule. As the Dalai Lama made his way out of the cathedral, everyone sitting in the vestibule rose and placed their hands in a prayerful mudra, out of respect for this great being who is both the spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists and the worldly leader of an ancient government in exile. Then something remarkable happened: the Dalai Lama paused as he was passing the Millers (whom he had never met or known). He stepped away from his entourage, walked up to the Millers, took their hands and silently blessed them.

The story of what happened to Joe Miller in that sixty-year stretch, between his chance encounter with Annie Besant in Chicago in the early 1920s and the impromptu reverence shown to him by the Dalai Lama in the early 1990s, is a remarkable one. What was it that Joe found to do when the time came? What was it that he used his "strength of will" to achieve? Although Joe Miller's story is a tale of morality set in twentieth-century America, its import is timeless and universal. And though the story is poignantly, indeed eccentrically personal, it is also profoundly, almost cosmically, impersonal.

Spiced up with some street-smart slang (part burlesque/part beatnik), laced with obscure and arcane Sanskrit terminology, and spiked with ribald humor and hard-nosed common sense, Joe's life and teaching illuminates the deepest teachings of the great mystical traditions, both East and West, and makes them accessible in some revolutionary ways.

The School of Hard Knocks

How did Joe discover what he was supposed to do, as Annie Besant had promised he would when the time came? How did that extraordinary fruit get to ripen to its juiciness? How did the field of his life get plowed, seeded, and watered? And what was it that the Dalai Lama bowed to in Joe and his wife?

Joe Miller was born to a dirt-poor family in Minnesota.

"We didn't get the kind of clothes or grub the other kids got. I knew it too. At Christmas time, everybody would get together, and I could see that our relatives were awful fat and we were awful lean."

Show business ran in the family. His father had been kidnapped into the circus as a young boy because of his acrobatic skills, and stayed on to become a "daring young man on the high trapeze," before settling down as a housepainter. Joe, himself, only got as far as the eighth grade in school. But as a child, he had a gift for singing. And even as a child, there was a powerful and mysterious quality in his being.

"The old man and I would be working in a joint, wall-papering the place, and he'd say, 'Joe, what the hell, give us a song.' So I would sing "Irish Eyes Are Smiling" or "A Little Bit of Heaven." Once when I was singing that way, there was a sick guy in the other room. Afterward, he told his daughter that he was going to commit suicide until he heard me singing."

The "Force," as Obi Wan might say, was "strong in him." Indeed, in later life Joe was fond of invoking the Jedi mysticism of Star Wars. He would often declare, "May the Force be with you." And some of us who were fortunate enough to spend time with him saw him as our Master Yoda.

As a young man, Joe went into vaudeville and burlesque, and worked odd jobs. He drove a Wonder Bread truck, but only briefly.

"There I was, selling Wonder Bread and working the nightclubs after dark. Now that's a hell of a combination. I'd log about a hundred and twenty miles a day and then go work four or five hours in a nightclub. One fine, snowy morning, I fell asleep at the wheel, drove the truck off the road and turned it over."

He had some mystical experiences.


After joining the Theosophical Society, I was visiting a friend of mine back in Minnesota, on Lake Minnetonka. We were walking along and went into some trees. I smelled sandalwood incense. There was nothing like sandalwood anywhere near there. Then I just took a gentle, in-drawn breath and was filled with ecstasy. Well, it was about two years before it happened again. I wanted it to come back so bad I cried. . . After awhile, I got so that I could do that with a gentle, in-drawn breath. But it wasn't me. It was just tuning into that Thatness, the It-ness, God, love, whatever you want to call it.


He also had some heartbreaking human experiences.

I had a wife and two kids. The little girl loved the fat, and the boy only ate the lean. We had great times together because I was like a little kid with them. We were living in Chicago and I was working in Detroit. I took the day off, and went back. I had been tipped off she was playing around with somebody else. (Of course, I had been doing the same thing with whole chorus lines.) When I got to the door, there was a rumbling inside. Then I went to the back door and there was a guy going down the steps . . . She met someone with a lot of money . . .The divorce papers she had made up claimed "desertion," I got her to sign a paper that said I wouldn't contest it if she changed it to "incompatibility." Then they sent me a notice that they wanted to adopt the kids, but the notice wasn't sent from Chicago until three days after I would have had to notify them, so I couldn't do anything about it. I never saw the kids again . . . I never heard anything from my first two kids.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Joe traveled around the country doing gigs in hick towns and big cities. Along the way, he pursued his fascination with the mystical and the occult, "astral real estate," he would later call it. He was particularly interested in the use of color and music in healing. Wherever he went, he would look up mystics, occultists, charlatans, quacks, and true-blue experimenters, getting glimpses of inventions like the "Clauvilux" and the "Luxatone," i.e., "color organs" that could allegedly alter a person's psychic or physical condition. (Many years later, buried away in his steamer trunk, stuffed behind bookcases, and shoved underneath his and Guin's bed we would find the evidence of his explorations: prisms of all shapes and sizes, rose-tinted sunglasses, colored light bulbs and little booklets from obscure groups claiming to explain the hidden mysteries of healing with color and sound.)

Meanwhile, Joe continued to struggle in show business and in life:

"I was in LA. I had applied for a job, and I went out to see my aunt and uncle, thinking I could horn in on a Christmas dinner. But they said, 'Well, Joe, we're glad to see you, but we are going out to Christmas dinner with friends.' I didn't have a nickel. I did have a boarding room. When I got back downtown, I looked through all of my clothes and I found fifteen cents. At that time, you could get a box of soda crackers for a nickel and buy a dime's worth of cheese." He cried himself to sleep that night.

It took Joe several broken marriages, several decades of show business and odd jobs, and much inner searching before he found out what Annie Besant had been talking about and became the person that the Dalai Lama picked out of the big crowd. 


Cooking on the Big Burner

In the 1950s, and in the fifth decade of his own life, Joe found his bearing and set his course. It was then, as Joe would say, he "started cookin' on the big burner."

"Everything I have in this life," he told us years later, "I owe to the Theosophical Society." It was not rhetorical boast; it was a profound truth of sweeping personal and impersonal dimensions. Joe had been a member of the Theosophical Society since his early twenties, but it was only thirty years later, in the San Francisco Lodge (SFTS) that Joe found a home. He met his fifth and final wife at the Lodge. Guinevere Robinson Miller was a concert pianist, an accomplished astrologer, a graduate of University of California at Berkeley, and a dedicated member of the Theosophical Society.

Joe and Guin shared what they called "falling awake" (i.e., enlightenment) as a common goal. Working together, they said, two people could grow faster, evolving "geometrically" rather than "arithmetically." They were in many ways (family backgrounds, temperaments, education, etc.) polar opposites, but they complimented and amplified each other and, in turn, balanced one another. Together they became a force to be reckoned with.

Joe met another important person in his life at the SFTS, Agnes Kast. She was the Lodge librarian and had a knack for fitting the book to the person.

"If you came in and asked Agnes Kast for a book from the library, she wouldn't ask you what author or title you wanted, she would just walk over to one of the bookcases and get a book out and hand it to you. The happy part of it was that nine times out of ten she was right and handed you a book that would fit with what you were looking for."

Agnes introduced Joe to the work of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was the first in a series of four compilations of Tibetan Buddhist teachings edited and annotated by Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who like Joe, had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Evans-Wentz worked his way across the country, talked his way into Stanford and then into Oxford, traveled to Egypt, India, and Tibet and did some of the most important scholarly work of the century in terms of bridging Eastern and Western philosophy. And yes, of course, he too was a theosophist.

After reading his books, Joe wrote a letter to Evans-Wentz. Miraculously, like Joe's letter to Besant many years before, his letter to Evans-Wentz followed its recipient around the world, somehow fell into his hands, and got answered—from San Diego, only a few hundred miles away from Joe's own home in San Francisco. The correspondence was the spark of a unique and precious friendship, and led Joe on to deeper spiritual realizations.

I was working in a barbershop quartet—making people laugh, making people cry and hoping that on the overtone there would be some help going out to them, so that they'd come a little loose . . . I got a ticket [to see Evans-Wentz in San Diego]. I had to leave after the late show. I only had one day a week off. I looked at this guy. After all, I was talking to someone high on the hog. I didn't know how I would be received. Me, with my eighth grade education…He asked me which of his books I liked best, I told him Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine. He asked me which part of it I liked best. I said I like 'Clear Light' and the 'Six Rules of Tilopa.' He said there was a book coming out that would be the answer for what I wanted to know. That's all he put out. Does he tell me the name of the book? No.

It turned out to be Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. Joe read it to himself every morning for six months until he thought he was going to lose his mind. Suddenly, he had a breakthrough—not in his thinking, but in his being.

I was working in a burlesque house. If I did a midnight show, I wouldn't get home until three o'clock in the morning. I would go up on the roof until sunrise. And as the sun rose, all my little friends, the birds, would be singly madly, throwing themselves into it and singing. That's one of the reasons I can't eat birds, chicken, or turkey. Because they told me something, those birds were saying that each day in life we go into deep sleep and come out of it in the morning, just as the planets move around, and catch the rays from that source from which we receive our greatest energy, the sun. They felt it. They were singing the sun up. They weren't only singing that, they were singing because in their hearts they were a conscious part of it in their own way, in their form of consciousness. They'll find out how tough it is when they come into these human physical bodies later on.

Some poetry and messages came to Joe up on the roof, just as the words "of worldly jewels . . ." had previously come to him in his dream about Annie Besant back in his early twenties. This time, he heard, "The manifested universe is the keyboard upon which the master artist of spiritual reality plays the symphonic arrangement of life."

The occasional ecstasy that Joe had experienced through a "gentle, in-drawn breath" had expanded into a realization of the oneness of all life, and Joe's quest to unlock the mysterious powers of sound and light had been turned into a reverent understanding of how those mysterious powers were already unlocked and at work within everyone and everything at every moment of every day.

Joe had begun to "fall awake," and Guin was right there with him. She had sharpened her understanding with the Diamond Sutra, just as he honed his with the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. They began to set words from the great mystical traditions to music (e.g., the Upanishads, the New Testament, the Psalms of David, and the Sutra of Hui-Neng). They call them "Songs to Live By" and performed them at the SFTS Lodge. Joe would belt them out and Guin would accompany him on the piano. Later, Chogyam Trungpa, an important Tibetan Rinpoche whom the Millers befriended when he first came to the United States in the 1960s, would call these songs "the first American mantras."

One of the teachings that they set to music was the "Six Rules of Tilopa," the one Joe considered his favorite from Evans-Wentz's book, Tibetan Yoga and the Secret Doctrine: "Imagine not, think not, meditate not, reflect not, keep in the natural state." (130)

By this time, Evans-Wentz was older, in ill health, and living in a hotel he owned called the Keystone, but Joe and Guin wanted to share their new consciousness with him.

"We called up the hotel. We got through to his room. The nurse put him on the phone. I said, 'This is Joe Miller.' He said, 'Are you downstairs?' I said 'No, I'm in San Francisco. My wife, Guin, has written some music and I would like to have you hear it.' So she played it, and I sang it into the phone. His voice had been very feeble, but after listening to the song, he shouted 'YOU'RE THERE NOW, STAY THERE!' That was my OK from him that I had dug what it was all about." Ken Winkler, who wrote Pilgrim of Clear Light, a wonderful biography of Evans-Wentz, wrote that Evans-Wentz considered Joe Miller the only person he had met in the West who understood the doctrine of the Clear Light.

My wife and I Just Take a Walk in the Park Every Thursday

After cooking on the big burner for a while, Joe and Guin Miller were discovered by a young generation of seekers during the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s, and served as friends and inspiration for a growing number of young people until their deaths in 1992. They were an open secret. Word of them spread throughout the world. They influenced countless people in immeasurable ways, but they started no organization, they did no marketing, they offered no titles or degrees. They didn't charge money for their time or their teachings; they didn't hide behind the pretense of being special in any way. They simply shared themselves and their love for life and for truth.

Here is David Thompson's first person account of his twenty-five year friendship with Joe Miller. It offers some of the ineffable flavor of this phenomenon, a flavor that had to be "caught," because it could not be "taught":

I first met Joe Miller on one of his Thursday "walks" in Golden Gate Park. He was standing at the entryway to the park's arboretum, greeting people, hugging them, and talking with whoever was close at hand. I watched but did not go up to him, being a bit standoffish and more than a bit taken back by all the people seemingly clamoring to get near him. He spotted me, came up, stuck out his hand and said: "Hi, I'm Joe. What's your name?" We talked a bit. I told him I had seen him earlier at a Sufi dance and was interested in finding out a bit more about him and what he was up to. He said: "I'm up to nothing! My wife and I just take a walk in the park every Thursday and a bunch of kids show up to walk along with us. We celebrate various religious expressions and I give a 'rap,' which is nothing more than what's going thru my head and heart at the time."


He continued: "If you stick around till the end of the walk, I'll buy you and everyone else an ice-cream, thanks to Uncle Sam. See, I'm on Social Security and that's how I get the money to buy the ice-cream. I don't take any contributions and I don't advertise anything. Just walk and talk. One more thing, and remember this. If things get too crazy around here, you can always leave." He gave me a hug and was off to the next person.


I walked with him for a while and joined in a large group of people doing "Sufi dances." We held hands, went one way then the other, sang a song, bowed to one another, walked forward, and then outward. It was kind of like a square dance, but with a spiritual bent. After a few dances, Joe got into the middle of the circle and talked to us. Quite frankly I don't remember much about what he said except for this. He said: "I don't care if you remember one thing I say, but if you remember the feeling, then you got something to take with you —because, to feel is for real!" Then he said: "Enough of this serious stuff. Let's go feed the ducks." And we were off to the duck pond where he handed out Wonder Bread for us to break into pieces and feed to the ducks that eagerly awaited our offerings.


We continued the walk, taking a short break to sit beneath an enormous cypress tree where together we chanted a Buddhist mantra: "Gate, gate, para gate, para sum gate bodi swaja."


We finally arrived at the Pacific Ocean, and sure enough, there was Joe with a bag of ice-cream sandwiches, giving them to one and all, including the many little children who clamored about waiting for their ice-cream as if they were going to receive the keys to the universe. He gave another short talk where he summed up the experience of the walk and the essence of his "teaching." He said: "Remember one thing about all this spiritual stuff—it can't be bought, it's got to be caught."


Years later these words still ring clear. I found out in an instant that I could "catch it," if only I lived long enough and was lucky. But that's another story. I hung around Joe and his wife, Guin for the next twenty-five years.


Joe introduced me to books, music, meditation, people, prayer, thoughts, ideas and wonder. He also introduced me to the Theosophical Society in San Francisco where I attended many meetings—the Wednesday "Study Group", the Thursday "Music Hour," the Friday "Member's Meeting" (which was open to anyone who cared to visit), and the Sunday "Guest Lecturer's Meeting." During Lent, I attended the morning readings held at 6:30 a.m. when Joe read the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, and returned at 6:30 p.m. when Guin read the Diamond Sutra.

The Theosophical Society was Joe's window to the world. Over and over he would say: "All I have in this world I owe to the Theosophical Society." He meant it, and he lived it.

Once he said to me: "Stay still for a while. Don't go gallivanting around the world looking for some magic potion to hit you. Just stay put and watch. You will be amazed at what happens."

That's what he did. He sat in his apartment upstairs from the Theosophical Society and watched television, read books, and waited for the doorbell or telephone to ring— and ring it did. One day Ram Dass or Ken Wilber would visit, and another day some crazy kid who had taken too much LSD and thought he was the new avatar of the world. Joe listened and talked to them all. Sometimes he gave out very specific advice and other times he just said: "You have to do it for you!" Sometimes he was soft and other times he was stern. Sometimes he let one stick around his apartment all day and other times he would say: "Now get the hell out of here and go do something." The Sufis tried to make him a "Sheik," but he told them that "Sheik" was sometimes just another word for "Jerk." The Buddhists tried to make him an Abbot, but he told them that he really wasn't into titles, and besides, he already had a name: "Joe."

During the 1980s most of us were pretty fed up with the political situation in the United States, especially its leadership. But Joe would have none of our "bellyaching." He loved this country like he loved everyone who came into his presence. He refused to talk politics but insisted every Fourth of July that we stand and sing "God Bless America." It was amazing to see and hear dozens of disgruntled people standing and singing, while one voice—a very high pitched tenor—rose above all others: "…Land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above."

I loved Joe, and over the years grew closer and closer to him. He allowed me into his world and his heart. His heart was huge and in it there was room for everyone. He would often say: "You don't have to like everyone, but you do have to love everyone." He meant it and he lived it.

And he got old. In his late eighties he had a couple of strokes. He recovered from each one, but as time went on he came to realize that his time was approaching. He didn't want to die; he loved to live and intended to live to be at least one hundred. But after a short stay in the hospital, he came home and began his preparation for death. One day he got into his bed and said: "I'm going to give it a try." He died about two weeks later. But during the ensuing two weeks, his "kids" attended to him. And by his "kids," I mean those of us who were closest to him. We weren't the famous or the most literate. We were the sign painter, the cabbie, the nurse, the schoolteacher, the student, the dancer, the unemployed, and the unemployable. We sat with him, first giving him a little water and as time went on, just being there, sitting, watching, and waiting. I was one of those who sat, watched, and waited. A day before Joe died, I was sitting with him reading from the discourses of one of his favorite teachers, Ramana Maharshi. Again and again, Joe would ask us the famous question of the guru, "Who am I?" I never really understood the significance of the question, but dwelt on it many times over the years. As I sat and pondered this question, I recollected reading about the death of Ramana Maharshi. His disciples were gathered about him and one by one he said to them: "Thank you." Then he died.

When I finished the discourse, I looked at Joe who was lying in his bed looking straight above. He slowly turned and looked into my eyes and said, "Thank you."


Power, Richard. Great Song: Life and Teachings of Joe Miller. Athens, GA: Maypop, 1993

Winkler, Ken. Pilgrim of Clear Light: Biography of W.Y. Evans-Wentz. Berkeley, CA: Dawnfire, 1982

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954

Price, A.F. and Wong Mou-Lam. The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng. Boston: Shambhala, 1969

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