A Collective Human Potential Movement

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It is the Summer of 2012 and for the past month I’ve been at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, co-leading a workshop with my good friend Dr. Bradley Lewis for a group of 18 “work scholar” students. Brad is a radical psychiatrist and philosophy professor at New York University. For the past decade I have been helping lead a grassroots organization with my friends called the Icarus Project that’s re-visioning the idea of what gets called “mental health” and “mental illness.” Brad and I both are really passionate about the power of stories and the healing potential of group process. All of the students in our class are here because they are at some transition point in their lives, and are trying to make sense of their place in the world. Together we have been exploring a mix of healing modalities and spiritual practices, philosophical models and group rituals, using our retreat from mainstream urban life as an opportunity to heal, grow and evolve together.

From Radical Mental Health to Human Potential

There are so many people affected by the mental health system (or simply by the alienating and traumatized society around them!), who are desperate for new paradigms, for new ways of envisioning their lives, for language they can use that makes sense in their mouths, for new systems of support that actually support, and for new models of healing and wellness. For some years now I have been part of what often gets called the “Radical Mental Health Movement”, which is creating new language, models and hope amidst the domination of the stale metaphors and oppressive structures of biopsychiatry. We identify as “radicals” because we are more interested in changing society than fitting into it. We see that it is the world around us that makes us “crazy” and not some genetic flaws or brain chemistry. We also understand that in the depth of our psychic suffering and extreme experiences are keys to some of the answers the world needs to be able to heal.

There are so many conversations happening right now about radical mental health, including: in the Occupy Movement; the Icarus Project forums; the recent Liberation Health Fair at the Allied Media Conference; the protests against the DSM-5 at the American Psychiatric Association Meeting; the recent Mad Pride events in Toronto; the Iraq veteran suicide rate discussion; and the amazing community documentation that has developed around Madness Radio. At the same time, there are the ones laying the foundations for caring and non-pathologizing support, the more radical wing of the Mental Health Recovery Movement, the folks at Generative Somatics, the Motherbear Community Action Network, and that is just scratching the surface. These days I am excited to be spending a lot of time thinking and talking with friends and allies about creative coalitions and visions for the future.

Back in the 1960s and 70s there was an incredible flowering of ideas and the development of healing modalities that became known as the “Human Potential Movement”. It was the fruitful intersection of Eastern spiritual practices and Western psychotherapy and body based healing arts that was emerging amidst the larger backdrop of the civil rights and anti-war movements and the rise of the counterculture. The Esalen Institute, this place where I have been teaching, was at the epicenter of much of it.

Esalen has been around for 50 years, as a retreat center and an alternative think tank, and it is amazing to look at the incredibly rich history of ideas and practices and healing modalities that emerged from it: the Encounter Movement, Gestalt Therapy, the many varieties of somatics and bodywork, Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies, and in more recent years what gets called Integral and Ecopsychologies.

The Human Potential Movement ended up making a huge impact on our culture: the popularization of massage, meditation and yoga classes, even jogging has its roots in the ideas of self improvement and human growth that were generated from it. They hit the mainstream in all sorts of interesting ways through the filter of mass culture in the 1970s (think: “Use The Force, Luke.”). But many of the most heartfelt and liberating ideas that were birthed and nurtured by the Human Potential Movement ended up getting crushed into obscurity in the 1980s under the weight of biopsychiatry and the backlash of conservative politics.

While Jane Fonda aerobics records made it all the way to my mom’s turntable in New York City in the early 80s, the heart connection at the center of Humanistic ideas was systematically being discredited and defunded. Neither the existentialistic critique of alienation in modern society nor the idea that human closeness could help remedy the situation mixed well with Reagan’s rejection of the social contract and the cutting of our social safety nets. The idea of “encounter”, of an authentic communication as the basis of healing, did not make it into the vision put forth by the DSM-III. The Gestalt idea that a human being can be understood only as a whole and within his or her actual environment; that neurosis consists of being out of touch with one’s own feelings and sensory experience; and that therapy can help lead to the recovery of awareness — that did not fit into the pharmaceutical drug centered model of mental health care that we’ve inherited at the beginning of the 21st century.

Currently, the Human Potential Movement is kind of a footnote in history. Within my extended activist community it is often spoken about derogatorily: as a precursor of the apolitical and culturally appropriative “New Age” movement, a product of the narcissistic “Me Generation,” a privileged escape from serious political engagement. Much of the Human Potential Movement ended up more in business culture than in social change movements, as exemplified by the popularity of EST seminars in the 1970s which morphed into today’s Landmark Forum. Many of the Human Potential Movement tools have been incorporated into “life coaching” much more than in the therapist office, let alone as the tools of a popular social movement interested in evolving consciousness and justice in the material realm.

Most recently, many of the old Human Potential ideas have been mixed with the language of science, and repackaged as “Positive Psychology.” Awareness practices inspired by Buddhist meditation have become popular and are in fact helping a lot of people. But the reality is that the Humanistic heart and soul of the practices, and its connection to its radical lineage, has been stripped away and sanitized into a sterile medical model or simply wiped off the face of the cultural map.

Of course history shifts depending on the ways we tell the stories and how we decide to enact them. I am convinced that there are so many threads of a new movement just waiting to be picked up and woven into a useful 21st century narrative. I believe that the combination of social justice politics with Human Potential is a potent one. These days I am way more interested in the potential of a creative coalition building something like a “Human Potential Movement” than I am in a “Mental Health Recovery Movement,” a “Mad Pride Movement, ” or even a “Radical Mental Health Movement.” I would love to see more people looking to this buried history for inspiration and guidance.

The Ghost of Dick Price

There is one Esalen story that I think particularly relevant to the emerging radical mental health movement. Esalen was founded in 1962 by two Stanford graduates, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, both of whom were dedicated to the practice of meditation, and full of visionary ideas that were at the crossroads of Eastern and Western thought and practice. After living in India, Murphy returned with the idea of creating a Western style ashram, where science and spirit could meet, a place which could host discussions and explorations of emerging ideas on the edge of the culture. Price, on the other hand, had experienced a manic episode in 1956 that left him locked up in psychiatric hospitals, diagnosed with schizophrenia and given electro and insulin shock treatments. He had a vision of creating a safe space where those who had been similarly abused by the psychiatric system could come and be healed. He wanted to create a place where the visionary and transformative aspects of psychosis and madness not only could be explored in safety, but used to help chart new paths for a culture that was desperately in need of evolution.

Dick Price is for me a fascinating character: as a young man he had hung out with the Beats like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in San Francisco; he studied with Alan Watts at the American Academy of Asian Studies (which later became the California Institute of Integral Studies); and he went through the depths of the psychiatric system and came through with a vision of transforming that system and the world around him.

There is so much useful mad movement history waiting to be uncovered in the Esalen story. Dick Price was instrumental in orchestrating such ground-breaking conferences at Esalen as : “The Value of Psychotic Experience” and “Schizophrenia and the Visionary Mind” and he brought together such pioneering thinkers as R.D. Laing, John Perry, Gregory Bateson and Fritz Perls to talk about creating radical alternatives to institutional psychiatric treatment. He helped organize the Agnews Project, a three-year study of alternative approaches to psychosis, in a California State mental hospital, using Human Potential practices and drawing support from the National Institute of Mental Health and the California Department of Health. That study was then used to get funding to open Diabasis House, I-Ward, and Soteria House, all medication free sanctuaries for people in psychotic states.

Dick Price considered himself part of the Psychiatric Survivors Movement and would regularly invite folks from Madness Network News and other Mad Movement organizations to come for retreats at Esalen. Starting in the early 70s, he brought Stanislav Grov, one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology and an early LSD researcher, to live as a scholar in residence and develop Holotropic Breathwork, a technique to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. In 1980s, Stan Grov and his wife Christina organized the Spiritual Emergency Network that was run from Esalen throughout the 1980s.

Dick Price died tragically in 1985 working on the water supply in the canyon on the back of Esalen land. The thread of radical mental health work that went on there for decades under his guidance and inspiration had mostly been phased out of the Esalen programs until last December when Dr. Michael Cornwall, a fellow blogger here on Mad in America, organized a weekend long workshop entitled An Integrative Approach to Psychosis and Other Transformative Spiritual Experiences with the full intention of continuing the conversation into action. With the full blessing of Christine and David Price (Dick and Chris’ son who was the general manager of Esalen for many years) Michael began laying the groundwork for a revival of this still cutting edge work. But the story has even more interesting layers.

The Radical Linage of Gestalt Awareness Practice
Arguably the most impressive part of this whole journey is that Dick Price, the psychiatric survivor who poured his life’s energy into evolving the culture to understand people like himself, developed an awareness practice based on a mix of Gestalt Therapy, Buddhist practices, and the work of many teachers who passed through Esalen over the years. He called it Gestalt Awareness Practice (GAP) and not only is it still integrated into all aspects of the daily life at Esalen all these years later (from the meeting structures to the workplace practices, to the whole culture and language of the place), it is still practiced and taught by his main collaborator and former wife, Christine Stewart Price, and a group of other teachers who have continued the radical lineage.

Chris Price refers to GAP as a congregational model for exploring awareness. Like Gestalt Therapy, one of its primary goals is to reestablish contact with lost and deadened feelings in order to become more fully alive. Gestalt Awareness Practice is a form of active group meditation, less like therapy and more like peer education. It is explicitly understood that participants are not patients but persons actively consenting to explore in awareness. The aim is unfoldment, wholeness, and growth, rather than adjustment, cure, or accomplishment. Dick Price broke down the barriers between “therapist” and “client” in Gestalt Therapy, renaming and re-visioning these roles as “reflector” and “initiator.” The goal for an initiator is to learn how to become aware of what they are sensing, what they are feeling, what they are doing, and enhancing their capacity for awareness. The central practice is moment to moment presence and awareness of “what is”.

I have come to think of Gestalt Awareness Practice as one of the most important but mostly unknown pieces of Mad Movement lineage. It is made even more interesting because Gestalt Therapy was originally developed in New York City by Fritz and Laura Perls, with another fascinating character whose role in its history has been lost, the anarchist philosopher and novelist Paul Goodman.

Dick Price, and the counterculture lineage of people he worked with to evolve society’s consciousness around psychosis and transformation, is one of the main underlying threads of the Human Potential Movement story. I look forward to being part of the new wave of remembering that happens in the coming years which embraces this fascinating and useful lineage.

Practices of Freedom and Golden Threads
Now back to the year 2012. On the first night of our month long Esalen workshop, my co-teacher Brad and I gave every student a really nice journal and pen, and encouraged them to document their lives. We talked about using the month together to actively develop a relationship with ourselves: talking to ourselves, giving ourselves guidance, helping ourselves remember what we stand for, teaching ourselves new wisdom, finding ourselves community and purpose, and most of all developing a good life for ourselves. We used the metaphor of Theseus in Greek mythology: leaving a trail of golden thread to mark the path of the labyrinth in order to develop ways to make it through life. We talked about the power of writing down our own stories so that we don’t just accept the stories that get told about us.

During the month we mixed up postmodern philosophy, mystical and spiritual practices, and anarchist politics and visions. Brad is in love with the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and much of our workshop was organized around Foucaldian ideas of “The Cares of the Self” and “Practices of Freedom.” We had a lot of conversations about our own personal wellness and the well being of the rest of the world. We talked about how to go back out into our communities and integrate the lessons we were learning into our lives. No matter how heady our discussions got, we always brought it back to awareness of the body and breath with the ringing of a bell every 15 minutes during the session.

There is something sacred about building a safe container for a group of people to gather in and get to know one another. I was moved to tears on numerous occasions watching the kind of individual growth work that was happening with our students. We regularly broke up the group into dyads and groups of three and four in order to build trust and intimacy. We focused on paying attention to breath and spirit and incorporating awareness practices into our daily routines. We did gestalt-based writing exercises every few nights. We brought friends in to lead practices and discussions, including: group singing, zen meditation, Christian centering prayers, dancing, breathwork, and Generative Somatics exercises.

I once lived in a yoga ashram for a year where everything we did was “for God”, all of our group energy was directed in a single force. It was incredibly powerful to be a part of that kind of collective energy, but it did not leave much room for working on our own individual process (or having a nuanced analysis about world affairs!) This past month there was something amazing and fulfilling about orchestrating group exercises where everyone was working together–working as a group—while at the same time was very much on their own individual journeys. A lot of new journals were started and friendships were made.

Conclusion
I’m really interested in what a popular movement would look like at the intersection of radical mental health, social justice politics, and disciplined spiritual practice. To change the way our society thinks it is going to take a combination of inspiring vision, face to face organizing, while being grounded in practices that enable us to tune into something greater than ourselves. A Mental Health Recovery Movement is a good start, but frankly I am more interested in a movement that uses the language of “transformation”, a movement that recognizes the powerful of our collective potential to transform the world, that isn’t willing to compromise our visions of a better world, has the ability to capture many people’s imaginations, and is capable of building coalitions across many boundaries. I want us to resurrect the visionary power of the Human Potential Movement from where it got lost in the 1980s so that we can remix it back into a 21st Century Radical Mental Health Movement. If individual human potential ended up getting used to sell cars and toothpaste and life management seminars, maybe its time we start thinking about ourselves as a Collective Human Potential Movement.

I want to encourage others to study the history of the Human Potential Movement with critical eyes for what we aspects can leave behind and what we can take with us into the years ahead. There are two very well written books about the history of Esalen that I’d recommend: Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion and The Upstart Spring. It is worth mentioning that Esalen is no longer at the cutting edge of this movement and is having a lot of internal political issues at the moment. Recently, even Christine Price publicly made a break from Esalen. But that is a whole other story for another time.

I would love to hear from readers out there who have opinions on these ideas. I am really grateful to Mad in America for giving me a platform to reach a bunch of people with similar interests. I also know that there are a lot of other folks who are thinking along these lines. This September is the 10th anniversary of the Icarus Project and there are a lot of people who are waiting to come out of the woodwork to get involved in this next round of visionary activism. Get in touch and lets take this party to a whole new level!