Esalen in Australia: A Personal Experience-FINAL EDIT COMPLETE

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John Cooper

For years I have heard Esalen described as the Shangri La of the Human Development Movement; Esalen, on the Californian coast, with its Encounter Groups, hot spring baths, Gestalt Psychology sessions, beautiful country, and its theory of how man can be liberated. When I heard that Dr William C. Schutz was giving a six day Encounter Workshop at the University of New England in Armidale, I booked for the Workshop.

Will Schutz is Associate-in-Residence and a Director of the Residential Program, Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California. Will received his doctorate in psychology in 1951 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and then joined the University of Chicago's Psychology Department. He was later at Harvard and then at the University of California as a lecturer in psychiatry. Will is the author of four books, The Interpersonal Underworld, Joy, Here Comes Everybody, and his latest called Elements of Encounter.

My own background is in the field of Yoga. I have worked in the Hindu and the Buddhist, including the Zen, schools of meditation. I had never before worked in the field of Encounter. I was prepared to see it as some type of American hokum, as an example of the American tendency to see the transcendental in the ordinary, the key to human relations in the formulae of a Dale Carnegie.

I first saw Will Schutz at lunch on the first day. He looked lonely and sad. Later, he told us that the reason he had written a book called Joy was because there was so little joy in his own life. Later on in the week I did find joy in him, but it was not the kind of joy that is pinned on the shirt sleeve. Much of his energy seems to lie deep and to come only occasionally to the surface. 

That day Will set the pattern for the week. He laid down two basic principles. First, that we are all responsible for ourselves. If we suffer because of another's action, then this is a copout for we have allowed ourselves to suffer. He felt that each person is totally responsible for his or her own life and also that we generally choose our own sufferings and illnesses. He even suggested that we are responsible for the type of parents we have in that we may have chosen them before birth. This idea did come as a sort of blessing to me for it forced me to face my own failings without excuses. No longer could I blame life, or the environment, or the existential condition for my inadequacies for I had chosen to allow life to impose upon me. 

The second point that Will emphasised is that we remain with our feelings. We were not to stay in our heads and think about how we felt. Rather we were to stay with the feelings and to trust them. Will believed that if we were really in touch with our feelings, then they would become an ever changing inner Guru that, from moment to moment, would communicate what we needed to do.

On each of the six days we began a session with Will, followed by three Encounter sessions each lasting for about two hours. The last of the groups finished at 10 p.m. and was followed by relaxation and dancing. On the first day Will talked of the need for honesty and for self-responsibility. On later days we did exercises in body movement, tours into ourselves in guided fantasies, observation of the tensions in the bodies of the people around us, and demonstrations of Rolfing, the deep message techniques developed by Ida Rolfing, which are said to move the surface muscles into different positions. Most certainly the man that Will worked on had a different posture at the end of his Rolfing. We were also shown the exercises perfected by Moshe Feldenkrais which are said to teach the nerves to work in more complex patterns and thus allow us to perform more simple tasks with greater ease.

However, the Encounter groups were where things really happened. The structure of the groups was very simple. In our group were thirteen people, including two trainers who were not there to lead, but rather to facilitate whatever happened in the group. For a long time we sat in silence. Then we started to talk along the lines of a True Confessions magazine. Then we realised that we were talking from our heads, confessing part of our problems in order to hide deeper difficulties in ourselves.Next, we started to hug one another, but soon saw that this was a cop-out in that it allowed us to hide our deeper feelings. So again we just sat in silence. But in this later silence was a great tension for we were all too attuned to each other to allow any falseness to grow. Therefore what came out was either genuine and was then allowed to grow, or it was seen as false and was then ruthlessly shown up.

From this true speaking, I saw miracles occur. People who had been buried in childhood pains relived them and were, for the moment, released from burdens they had carried for years. A face that was tensed and forcing a smile all the time relaxed and really smiled. A girl found that the role she had been playing all her life was not what she really wanted to do. Another lass who was normally timid was able to speak with such truth that I listened to her with awe. Yet the truth she spoke was not some deep metaphysic, it was just the way we all felt at that moment. In my group there occurred what can only be described as a Primal Scream. It arose from an induced fantasy in which the chest was full of fire, burning through the constriction in the throat in the form of a scream. According to one famous Yoga teacher to whom I described this experience it could also be seen as a form of Kundalini experience affecting the heart and throat chakras.

I found changes in myself. I realised that all my life I had been living in my head more than in my body. That, in spite of preaching in favour of living with nature, I had preferred to sit back safely in my intellectual fortress and not get involved. This eased the pain in me, but I was left isolated from the group. It was with the help of the group that I was able to contact my feelings which kept changing all the time, from deep sorrow to deep joy. I felt freer and more spontaneous.

Since then I have lost more than a stone in weight. I am selling many of my books. But I no longer read in order to know. I now read to enjoy, and I prefer personal stories to philosophical writings. I no longer feel the need to write. When I meditate, I no longer use a mantra. I simply watch the feelings arising in me and sink down into them. I find it easier to say no, when I don't want to do something, whereas before it was a matter of doing something to be polite.

The last day was an incredible energy trip. The more energy I gave out, the more I seemed to have. I could feel vitality flowing through my body and out through my arms.

Now that I have been back in Sydney for almost two weeks the brilliance of the Armidale experience is fading. Some of the joy and the energy is gone, but when I again contact my feelings, I can find the same joy and energy. The problem is in the environment, for it is true that the more sensitive one becomes, then the more ugly the city and city life appears.

Possibly the answer is, that in changing ourselves, we must also change our environment.

This article was first published in Cosmos.


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