Esalen and Harvard: Looking at Life From Both Sides Now

(This is the last of a series of four articles.)

The modern mind has so reduced life to a science that after each experience there must be an assessment--as after each chemical experiment there must be a weighing of results. Perhaps in some future world, men will experiment of the pure joy of experimenting; but such a world is not ours. One must evaluate and assess. One must make sense out of things so that the mind can understand them.

THE TROUBLE with the world, the boy modestly thought to himself, is not very hard to pin down: the trouble is that the world is unhappy. Jesse Kornbluth wrote in the CRIMSON, "I am a bit lonely here, I'm bored. . . We've felt so much, tried so hard in so many ways to bring some real humanity into the academy, and we've failed." Ten days ago Joel Kramer described the "incompleteness" he felt as he prepared to graduate. "Will I ever stop feeling so leaden-lazy; will I ever find something I want to do? . . . Harvard pulls hard at both ends, and you are left hurting in the middle." The unhappiness is there. Look around. You don't have to look very far.

We are unhappy, we learn at places like Harvard, because we are adolescents, and we are going through that turbulent phase of existence called Adjusting to Reality. If we learn well, if we are successful, we learn to control our tempers and emotions. Control, control, control. "What sets man apart from the animals is his ability to adapt," I heard a professor say a few days ago. "During adolescence, one learns this process of adaptation."

An analogy with economics is useful. The strength of an enterpreneur lies in his ability to invest, putting aside part of his profits in order to make greater profits the next year. He controls his desire to consume, he adapts to the competitive rigors of the economic world, he invests, and by this method, the capitalist accumulates. But what happens to capitalists is that they learn so well this science of accumulating that they are no longer able to stop, no longer able to be content and enjoy. The struggle has to go on.

Likewise, society has taught men the lesson of adapting and controlling so well that they become increasingly incapable of living. Society wants to make us deny our desires, to make us adapt so thoroughly and put off our wants so far into the future that we lose touch with what we are. This is an evil game that society plays--and its name is castration.

THERE IS, however, one solid reason for the unease of adolescence, and it is very simple: one's body is literally changing. You grow taller, stronger, features change, the need for sex becomes greater. As your body changes, you feel out of touch with it, unfamiliar, uprooted, disoriented--and the quest of adolescence is a quest for something solid to hold on to.

When the boy was young, he had tried holding on to philosophies. For a week he would say to himself, "I am a stoic." The next week, "I am a Christian." The next, "I am an existentialist." And he would map out systems of thought, meanings for life, and ardently believe in each, until it gave way to the next.

There were other things to hold on to. Friends? They change and leave you. Family? Falling apart. Church? School? Government? Society? All empty shells. Love? Yes, love's not time's fool; but when your lover leaves, you are as lonely and as empty as before. What else it there?

At Esalen, the sudden and over-whelming knowledge had come to the boy, when he was climbing up the mountain, that he had his breathing. "I am safe in my breathing." And he laughed and laughed because it was that easy. Until the very moment of death, he would always be safe in his breathing, always secure. He could always take a deep breath and say, "I am safe there, that is my breathing, that is my life, that is me." His breathing was his anchor, it was his starting point. And he thought that it was not by coincidence that God had appeared to Moses in a whirlwind.

AS THE BOY started to breathe, a second remarkable thing had happened: he was breathing with his entire body. Often in group sessions there had been Indian wrestling, a simple way for people to exhaust hostility. The boy had carefully watched John wrestle; and what was most amazing was that he Wrestled--arm wrestled--with his entire body. It was not a test of his arm against the other man's arm--it was his entire body, his whole self, and he always won. This was being together. This was wholeness of being--feeling one's whole body, every muscle and every nerve.

The boy's own cut off point had been high up in the back of his neck. And he suspected it was because Harvard sets up on entire world of the mind, divorced from the body, totally self-sustaining, totally real within its own boundaries, totally whole -- but totally cut off from the body. One learns to live in the mind, and one stops listening to the body. That is the "incompleteness."

The condition of total body-mind cut off has been aptly labeled "mind-fuck." The boy had felt this before going to Esalen. There were nights when he would lie awake in bed, unable to sleep, his whole body shaking, because the thoughts flew through his mind in a frenzy. He could not stop them. Harvard had started his mind going, and he could not stop it. It was like HAL the computer, and it threatened to destroy him.

To soften the horror of this mind-fuck, society, has set up a new earth-mother of its own--television. The boy had often sat for hours at a time watching the images flicker before him. Here, indeed, was the goddess of the modern world; here was the new muse calling, the muse of totally destructive mindlessness. Hour after hour, he could stare at the grey screen, giving himself to it; and he was grateful to it because it made him stop thinking, it took over his mind, and gave him the peace of forgetfulness that he could not find for himself.

When the boy returned to Cambridge, he could see this mind-fuck all around: endlessly people talking, talking in classes, talking at meals, talking on the telephone, talking, talking, talking -- communicating with their minds, with their voices, but never with their bodies. A whole generation hung up on Hamlet. The boy could feel his own mind speeding up again, and it frightened him.