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Into the Center of the Circle

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

By Nicholas Gagarin

ONE OF THE slogans of Esalen's five-day Sunday to Friday "More Joy" workshop is that "Joy comes on Thursday." The boy had climbed the mountain on Tuesday. He felt together, strong, whole far out. He did not know that more there was. He thought joy had already come, so he settled down to wait for Thursday and see.

Tuesday night and Wednesday were quiet, relaxed times. After the initial frenzy of Susie's life and death trip, the boys, group had settled down to a slower pace. There were, of course, personal statements of hostility, aggression, weakness, importance, schizophrenia -- but these were becoming standard fare. A pattern was developing: it seemed that each of the people in the boy's group had come to Esalen with a single, very intense hang-up, and had brought it there to release it. That, after all, was why they paid $165 for five days.

June wanted to tell someone about her husband's sterility, so she came to Esalen and told the group. She wanted to get laid more, so she told the group. Another woman, Mary felt her husband made too many demands on her. "Why won't he let me alone? I just want to be myself." So she came to Esalen and told the group. Jimmy didn't think he asserted his virility enough, so he told the group. And on it went.

In one sense, the boy knew that this was good. He admired the ability of these people to be honest, to talk about themselves and face the truth about themselves. He admired their willingness to try to break out of the ruts of their lives, their willingness to come to a far out, experimental place like Esalen. But something bothered him. It all seemed too easy, and two things seemed to be implicit. The first was that after each person confessed, broke down, cracked, poured out his should the others in the group should love him. The boy did not love these people. They were not his kind; he did not want to spend his life with them. He could see the horror of their lives, he felt sorry for them, he could even accept them, but he could not love them.

The second thing bothering him was the unstated assumption that since everybody else had come with a confession to make, the boy must have one too. From the start, even though he had been quiet, he had felt the group's curiosity about him. They were confessing themselves, and they wanted something from him; he was ten years younger that any of them--he probably would have a very exciting trip; it would be different from theirs--and they wanted to see it. He had seen them in their weakness; they wanted to see him in his.

THURSDAY morning was crisp and clear, so the group decided to break its pattern and take a walk. "It's nice to do things together," John had said. It was a lovely walk, single file, in total silence, along a roaring stream. The redwoods towered overhead--it was very peaceful, very calm.

The walking was not difficult for the boy, but there were many places where other members of the group had trouble. He saw them joyfully reaching out to help each other, the men anchoring the women, helping them, helping each other up the narrow path--reaching out and holding on for probably the first time in their lives. It was fine, the boy thought, but that, too, was too easy. There was something cheap about it. Joy comes on Thursday; on Thursday, people reach out and help each other; on Friday they go back to their homes and start lying to each other all over again.

When the walk ended about 11 a.m., the group went down to the baths for some body work. After four days, most of them had lost their inhibitions about nakedness, so it was nice to slip into the hot mineral water, to sit crowded in this funny bath, relaxed, letting arms and legs and thighs sprawl out; it was even nice for the boy to feel the naked flesh of one of the ugly women pressing against his side.

At John's command they all stood up. "Just let your eyes roam around the circle," John said. "Don't be embarrassed, but notice where your eyes want to stop and look; notice where they want to speed up and move on. Look at each other. Look at yourselves."

So there they stood. And the boy stared at breasts and genitals and public hair, and laughed to himself to think how these forbidden, erotic parts of the body were in fact its ugliest parts.

"If any of you would like," John said, "I invite you to talk about your own body. Tell the group what you like about yourself, what you don't like."

There was silence, and then Jessica, the physical education teacher, complained that she was too flabby and that her breasts were too large.

"Would you like to know what the other members of the group think?" John asked her.

The boy looked at Jessica. Yes, she was flabby and her breasts were too large, but he said nothing.

"I like your breasts," one of the men said.

"Yes, I think they're lovely."

Jessica, blushed. "Thank you," she said, and then the group talked about someone else's body.

AGAIN the boy had mixed feelings about what was going on. On the one hand, it was very good that they were all looking at their bodies. A person cannot love and be loved until he loves himself; a person cannot love himself until he loves his body. That was fine--but it was again too easy. The boy honestly did not like Jessica's body, and could not quite believe it when everybody else said they did. What kind of honesty was this they were discovering? Was Esalen selling them a pack of lies about themselves that would send them back to the real world and sustain them for the next few days, or weeks--until they ran out of steam and had to come back to the Big Sur to be recharged?

The boy had found out that Susie had had a trip similar to her Monday night orgasm-childbirth trip only a month before. She had a third, alone with her husband, Tuesday morning. Was Esalen helping people out of one rut only to leave them stranded in another? The boy did not know; but neither, for the moment, did he care. He relaxed in the baths, happy about his own body, and thought perhaps that was all that was important for him.

There was one body in the group that really stood out -- June's. June was the one whose husband did not lay her enough, who could not have babies because he was sterile, and who felt that because of this she would never be a woman.

June had, the boy saw, not one body but two. Her first body went from the top of her head to just below her breasts. It was s slender, lovely, gentle body. Her neck and shoulders were soft and nicely rounded--her breasts were small, but firm and tender. It was on attractive, almost sexy body.

But below her breasts, a second body began that seemed to bear no relation to the first. Her stomach bloated out. Her hips, thighs, and legs were fat, ugly, repulsive. As he looked at her, the boy could see the absurdity of these proportions. Neither body bore any relevance to the other. It was as though there were a line, running straight across at the breastbone, that seperated one body from the second.

The boy knew very little about the kind of therapy that is practiced at Esalen -- but there was something about June's double body that made a great deal of sense. For each part of the body had its won emotions and desires. There is drive in the legs, lust in the genitals, tenderness and hunger in the stomach, pride and bearing in the chest and shoulders, attentiveness in the neck and head. And it seemed as though June had simply cut off everything below her breastbone. There was no tone in her lower body, no proportion--and with the physical cut off, all of the emotions of her lower body were cut off, repressed, denied. She did not feel like a woman--how could she, when she only had half a woman's body?

After a while, the group left the baths for lunch, but the boy stayed behind because he was scheduled to have a massage at 2 p.m. So for the next hour, he alternately lay in the baths, and out in the sun, yielding himself to the water, and then absorbing the great strength of the open air, feeling the mountains around him, feeling the ocean far below, sitting cross-legged on one of the rest tables, naked, naked and free, staring out into the endless time and endless space of the West.

HE WAS going to have his massage with Gabrielle. He had heard about these Esalen massages. For some people they were the most intense part of the five days; some has reported mystical, even psychedelic experiences during them. But the boy was skeptical; he had had massages before, and he did not expect that this one would be very different.

A little after 2 p.m. Gabrielle came outside to find him. He was in the baths, and since she had just finished a massage she wanted to rest for a minute, so she climbed in with him. He liked that, for Gabrielle-unlike the people in his group -- was very beautiful. She had very white skin, a lovely body, and a strange, intriguing, enigmatic, beckoning face. Yes, he liked that--and once again he began to sense the aesthetic rightness of the situation.

Gabrielle led him into her room--in which there was both a massage table and a double bed. The boy chuckled, dried himself off with a towel, and sat on the table, looking at Gabrielle. There was no need to talk. He lay down on his back, closed his eyes, and discovered that she had lit incense which was filling the little room with its beautiful, mystic fragrance.

Gabrielle did not dress, but remained naked. The boy liked that too; and as she began to oil his body and gently but strongly masssage it, he felt at total peace. What was most beautiful was that Gabrielle was not treating his body like a sausage to be pounded, not like some piece of meat that had to have a sauce rubbed into it to give it taste--but with respect, with great care, and with love. She did not say it; he did not need to have her say it; because her whole body was saying it; her arms and hands and fingers were treating his body with love.

It was very sensual, and his body showed it--but that, too, was fine, that was good. For as Gabrielle was giving him a massage giving him love, he thought that he, in return, could give her his body, totally, utterly, mindlessly, give her his body. That would be his expression of love--a love, like hers, which not words, only the body itself, could express. And he knew that she knew. This was not a job--although he would pay her for it. It was more than a job, more even than a ceremony--it was a ballet, a ritual, a kind of religion, and his part in it was as great as hers.

He opened his eyes only once during the entire hour and a half. That was when, as he still lay on his back, she stood over him and massaged his neck. He opened his eyes and looked up at her beautiful breasts, at her beautiful hair, and smiling a very, very broad smile, closed his eyes again.

When she was finished, she laughed softly and said, "You're beautiful." He said nothing, but put his hand on her neck, leaned up, and kissed her.

Then they talked about commonplace things, and both laughed when she said she had married a Yale man. It was, the boy thought to himself, as though they were talking after making love. He was filled with joy. It was Thursday, after all.

FOR SOME of the other people in the boy's group, however, there was less joy that day. When the boy left Gabrielle, he went back outside to lie in the sun. Jimmy, Susie, and June--the triangle--were all in the bath behind him. He was not aware what they were talking about--he was on a trip of his own--but he suddenly looked up to see Susie frantically pulling on her clothes. He realized that June was still in the bath, but that Jimmy had left. Susie stared at him, then screamed, "You uninvolved son of a bitch." He looked back at her, expressionless. He did not like her at all. And then she raced toward the door, slipped, and with a loud smack, fell to the floor and screamed.

"Jesus Christ," the boy thought to himself (That was one of his favorite thoughts.) "She's broken her back." He did not move, but several other people crowded around her, and began to ask questions like "Did you hurt yourself?" and "Are you all right?" Then, in a flash, the undaunted Susie was back on her feet and screamed, "It's not me. It's Jimmy. He's gone off in the car. He's going to kill himself."

THAT WAS all the boy saw, for he lay back in the sun, not caring very much about either Jimmy or Susie (who he later found out were also planning to write an article for a newspaper) and decided to let time run its course.

Later, he found out more of what happened. Jimmy and Susie, he knew, had not been hitting it off too well ever since their arrival. They had been married 12 years; neither had slept with anyone else, although the boy sensed that each would have liked to. He had noticed in the baths that morning that Susie, at 35, had a very old, very withered body--more withered than the bodies of several of the older women.

Jimmy, it turned out, did take off in the car, actually contemplating suicide, though he would later confess that he was more in favor of going to a movie or buying some magazines. He drove south on Route One; but Susie quickly alerted John and several members of the group to what was happening. As it turned out, Paul became the leader of the search party, so he--who had an even finer appreciation for the aesthetics of a situation than the boy--had borrowed Stewart's white Mustang, put down the top, turned on the radio to some very fast music, and, feeling more than a little like Steve McQueen, had started south on Route One to look for Jimmy. Before he had gone very far, however, Paul saw Jimmy driving back toward Esalen. They waved, and stopped, and Jimmy confessed that he had decided neither to kill himself-- there had been only one suicide in Esalen's seven-year history, and that was by a staff member--nor to go to a movie, so the two of them talked a little and then drove back to Esalen to rejoin the rest.

THAT WAS Thursday afternoon. The boy felt good at dinner, but when the night session began, he felt the same nervousness in his body that he had felt early in the week. "Do not wait for Friday morning if there is something you want to do," John had said several days before. It was Thursday night--the boy did not know what he wanted to do; but he suddenly could not control the throbbing in his body; he knew it wanted something. He sat forward, kneeling, eager, anxious.

A few minutes passed uneventfully. And then the boy started to speak. "I want to say something to the group." He looked around. They were all looking at him; he knew he had their attention; that was good; he liked it.

"This afternoon, when I was down by the baths, Susie called me an uninvolved son of a bitch. I can understand how she would think that, how many of you would think that. I want to tell you I am not an uninvolved son of a bitch." They were still looking at him. He breathed deeply, but he did not feel very safe.

"I sense that many of you want to know something about me," he went on. "I sense that those of you who have been in the center of the circle think it's time I was in the center. I have had a look at you, now you want to have a look at me." He was trying to speak slowly, deliberately, like John. "I don't think I have a show to put on for you. I don't think I have a thing that I want to get down on the floor and do. All I can do is to tell you how I feel: I like you. I like you much more than I thought I would five days ago; I feel I understand you--but I don't think I love you." He paused.

Non one spoke. Then John stood up, moved over behind his body, and held him at the shoulders and neck. The boy felt John's fingers digging into his muscles and he grimaced.

"Do you feel that?" John asked.

"Yes."

John went back to where he was sitting. "It was a mind trip. A perfect mind trip. Did you hear yourself speaking?"

"Yes."

"Where were you speaking from? Where was the cut-off?"

The boy remembered how John's fingers had torn into his shoulders; he remembered June's double body in the baths that morning. "Probably as high as the back of my neck."

"That's right." John paused. Then he stared straight into the boy's eyes and said, "Do you want to take a far out trip?"

The boy did not know what to say or think. He almost said no. "Yes."

"Lie down on your back in the middle of the circle."

And the boy did, and smiled to think that two minutes after announcing that he would not get into the center, here he was, flat on his back.

"Will everybody please hold onto a part of his body and gently stroke him." The boy's eyes were shut. He could feel hands moving all over him. He was a little afraid. John's hands were on his stomach, and he was glad to know that John was there.

"Please don't touch my left big toe," boy said. That was the toe he had injured.

"Somebody take his left big toe," John commanded.

"No, no, he injured it." That was Paul's voice. It sounded far away, but the boy knew he was there, watching out for him.

"What!" the boy said. "Did You think I was hung-up about my left big toe?" John laughed.

Then there was a long silence, but all the time the boy could feel hands everywhere on his body. His eyes were shut, but he felt John above him. John was leaning over him, and then the boy heard his voice, so strong, so quiet, so close, heard his voice like the voice of a lover lying next to him in bed. "For she's touched your perfect body with her mind."

The boy felt his body tremble. But he only said, "It's a beautiful song."

John laughed softly. He put his hands on the back of the boy's neck. "Feel that. It's a total cut-off."

The boy could feel a big knot of tightness in his neck. Gabrielle had worked on it that afternoon.

"Why?"

"Because you go to Harvard. Because you want a B.A."

Again there was silence, and the boy became aware that his body was still being massaged all over.

"You have a Ph.D."

"Yes"

The boy had known that before. He also knew that John had been through a severe three-month breakdown during his training at Esalen.

"Can I have both--my body and a B.A."

"Yes."

"Without a nervous breakdown?"

"Yes."

"How long would it take?"

"A couple of months."

"That would be in time for the summer," the boy said wistfully.

John laughed softly again, and then made the boy arch his stomach high, high into the air, then slowly lie back on the floor.

"Now breathe."

The boy suddenly felt deep, deep gulps of air pouring into his body, felt the air pouring into his arms and chest and stomach, felt it reaching far down into his thighs. His whole body was breathing, and it was very good. He smiled, and laughed out loud.

"It's as easy as that. Now open your eyes."

The boy opened his eyes, looked at John, and held him by the arm; then he looked at Elizabeth, to whom he had come to feel close, and said, "Thank you, Elizabeth." He held her hand, and then looked around and said, "and all the rest of you too." He saw that everybody was smiling, and then felt within his won body that same high, other-world, free and beautiful feeling that he had seen on other people's faces. He returned to his place in the circle and lay on his back to practice breathing. There was silence in the room. He sat up. "Don't worry about me. I'm just lying here happily breathing," he said.

Paul would later tell the boy that he and John had been speaking so quietly that no one could make out their words. And looking back at what had happened--although it was undramatic, uneventful -- the boy sensed that when he was on his back, the whole room could have caved in and he would not have known it.

All he had done was to learn something about his body, something about his breathing. That by itself was good. It was good to feel his whole body breathing. When he opened his eyes and looked at the group, however, he felt very strange--a little closer to them, a little warmer, a little more ready to accept them. But it was not the felling toward them that was strange; it was the feeling within himself, a feeling of tender, beautiful, balmy peace -- a feeling that seemed to exist beyond words: it seemed to lie closer to truth than words can reach.

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