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Esalen and Harvard: Looking at Life From Both Sides Now

By Nicholas Gagarin

(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.

When he went to Esalen, he had worried that it would be anti-intellectual. There would be no plays, no novels, no poetry: how would be relate to anyone? And if he did relate, would he have to abandon his mind, give up the parts of it that were good and strong, give up thinking and writing?

In five days he came to see through this fear. What had happened was not a brainwashing, not an emptying of his mind that threatened to turn him into a living dead man, an intellectual zombie. What he had experienced was a slowing down, a clearing away of the garbage that made it possible to sit for hours with a single thought to play with a thought, to draw it out, and enjoy it like a poem, to contem- plate its fullness, to exhaust it, and then move on to the next.

It was the same with conversations. He used to think that silence was very near to dumbness. A person who talked a lot was a person on the go, on the make, a person with things to say, a person with ideas and drive and initiative. In silence, there was only boredom, barrenness.

This was another thought that he came to see through. When he returned to Cambridge, he started for the first time to listen to all of the words that flew at him, and he began to see that in his world of the mind only words have meaning: people surround themselves with words, people vomit words, people become words, and can be nothing else.

HE HAD thought, going to Esalen, that people were unhappy because they were trapped in themselves and could not break out. No one was talking to anybody. But he saw, coming back, that is was just the opposite: everyone was talking and on one was listening. No one would let anyone in. For at Esalen, he had learned that it was possible to listen not just with his ears, but to listen with his eyes, and his face, and his entire body. To listen with his entire body--that was very beautiful too.

He had also thought, going to Esalen, that although the world of scholarship was neurotic, and schizoid, although his friends seemed to be losing their minds, beaten down, torn apart--he still believed that there was good in this. He thought that despite the horror of this battle--worn, war-crazy, falling-apart world, there was still room in it for men to be heroic, to love, to experience joy in all its intensity. The greatest artists, the brightest people -- they were all fucked up. Maybe this was alright. What kind of happiness was he going to Esalen to buy? Would it mean giving up the tremendous pleasure that he was able to find in the real world, no matter how castrated it was?

Once more, he came to see through his fears. For what struck him coming back to Cambridge was that this was not the real world at all. This kind of scholarship was not the truth, or the quest for the truth. It was a game which men had set up for themselves; and they had made the rules so that they would always win. One can always take a poem and analyze it. One can always trace the images of light and darkness in a novel. It is all a game--a game which we all play, with whose answers we all content ourselves--but it is not the truth, and it is not reality.

THE BOY remembered the drive up to Esalen with Stewart, Sara, and Paul; and he remembered how Stewart had said they ware on to something very big. What the people at Esalen have got, in the simplest terms, is the body. For 15,000 years civilization has repressed the body, forcing man to deny it. Now, suddenly, it is coming awake.

The boy had worried, however, that body awakening and sensory awareness were simply euphemisms for sexual looseness. He knew little about Freud, but he had a vague, unsettling feeling that what would happen would show men, and himself, to be nothing but sexual creatures, bent upon lust, and upon their own fulfillment. Much as the boy enjoyed the thought of this, he could not intellectually accept it as a way of life.

As it turned out, of course, he was in a rather asexual group. There was on one he wanted to sleep with in it; and although other members of the group had talked a fair amount about sex, none of them had actually gone through with anything. This is not, of course, the way it always was; the boy knew that on occasion there had not only been love-making at Wsalen, but love-making in group sessions. He could not, therefore, say anything for sure, but his thoughts all pointed in one direction.

Perhaps Freud saw sex as the dominating force in life because civilization had forced it to become just that; and the time in history at which man first became conscious of himself as apart from the animals may have been the first step in his undoing. Man had to constantly reassure himself. He knew he was different from the animals; but, perhaps because the distance was so small, he grew up tight about it. Man had to constantly reassure himself, as we are reassuring ourselves today. He had to persuade himself over and over of his superiority to the animals--and to do this he had to deny his own very real animalism--in all its fury and all its beauty. Thousands of years ago, the first mind-fuck began.

Harvard, even more so than society, reinforces this mind-fuck because it credits only the world of the mind with truth.

At the same time, however, it at least recognizes the physical need of the body which is as great, probably greater, than that of the mind. To meet this, society has made one thing possible, and given its approval--that is sex, because sex is the strongest and most urgent need of the body--next, say, to the need for food.

But because of this structure, sex rapidly becomes the only alternative to the world of the mind. It becomes an equally absurd ritual. Sex is real. There is certainly no doubt about that. But it is only real as part of our animalism. This should not be denied, and we need not be ashamed of it. Sex is one part, one fiber in the tapestry. If I love you, I will love your arms and legs, your hands and feet, your elbows and ankles and toes. My body will love your body, and sex will be part of that.

ESALEN, however, is onto much more than just the body. What the boy had found there was a totally different way of being from any he had ever seen or experienced before, and one of its fundamental concerns seemed to be the reinjection of spiritualism into life.

As society has progressed and science has pushed its way relentlessly forward, spiritualism has found less and less room on which to stand. We seem now to be at the point of destroying spiritualism--for it does not conform to the mechanistic, analystic, structured, impotent life that people in America lead.

But throughout history, there is one phenomenon that science has never been able to explain: that is the mysterious energy flow of the body that has been documented in cultures in all parts of the world. Something exists in us, and we do not know what it is; it is enough to come in contact with it.

One of the exercises in body awareness that the boy's group had done ended with a hint of this energy flow. To feel it, members of the group had

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