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.
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!
Related MIA Links:
The Icarus Project: One Very Good Reason I Sleep Better at Night!
Are There Gifts In and From Our Madness That Our Culture Needs to Not Waste?
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Great essay Shascha,
I appreciate the links to the early story of Esalen.
“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 captures 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.”
I found it interesting to note your use of phrases like disciplined spiritual practice and the language of “transformation.” Trans-formative language throughout history seems to hinge on new discoveries or revelations about the nature of reality? Ideas who’s time has come, seem to evoke revolution through a new realization of what is always right in front of our eyes?
Another famous visitor to Esalen was Joseph Campbell who advises;
“If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” _Joseph Campbell.
So read with interest, of Aldous Huxley’s ideas of a chemical metaphor, something I’ve been advocating since last November when the “chemical” affect of increased synaptic connectivity enabled that well known psychotic state of eternal oneness, to breakthrough my normally “defensively” oriented, everyday conscious awareness? Consider;
“As with all intellectual systems, there were gaps, stress-points, contradictions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the realm of ethics. Thus, for example, Huxley seems personally puzzled over the strange moral conditions of his hybrid vision, that is, the suppression or destruction of the personality, which the perennial philosophy understands as the “original sin.” But he accepts the textual facts for what they in fact seem to be and then illustrates them with a telling chemical metaphor that we might now recognize as an early traumatic model for the mystical, perhaps best expressed in this story in the mystical life and psychological sufferings of Dick Price. Here is how Huxley put it in 1944:
Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is subjected to drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is in part at least composed, becomes manifest.”
I find it sad that a Radical Mental Health Movement, seems unwilling or unable to embrace a new awareness which is now staring us in the face? The super technology age into which we are firmly moving, has provided new insights into our hidden body/brain systems of motivation. And what is glaringly obvious is our internal “chemical” makeup, the very reality of life’s evolution and the cosmos within?
It seems to me that we mislead ourselves with language of self-interpretation, using external object analogies to describe our own makeup, as if we are an elaborately assembled French clock? We seem to think and communicate in a narrative of a parts like description, which reflects our instinctual awareness of duality?
A mind-body split which has become dangerously lopsided in our intellectualized, cultural zeitgeist? Is it time for a brave new world to embrace a new idea? That it really is a chemical Universe and we can learn to feel it within, if we can change our metaphors of self-awareness and stop trying to sanctify the mind? That self-deluded Emperor, with no clothes?
Peter Joseph seeks a Utopian future, based on technology and all those shiny objects of an “out there,” consensus reality, not yet realizing that the real territory and the keys to the kingdom, lie within?
Hi David – thanks for the nod to Aldous Huxley and all your thoughts.
“I find it sad that a Radical Mental Health Movement, seems unwilling or unable to embrace a new awareness which is now staring us in the face.”
I wouldn’t lose hope too quickly. I think you’re bringing up something really important points and I think sometimes it’s really hard to translate our own internal processes into language that a lot of other people can resonate with. I’m well acquainted with feeling like I’m the one stepping out of Plato’s and telling everyone they’re just watching the shadows on the wall. That’s a lonely place to be. When I think about the difference between a “Human Potential Movement” and a “Collective Human Potential Movement”, one of the immediate things that comes to mind is that group communication has to be primary. Learning how to work in groups can be really hard, and sometimes it starts really small. I love using the internet for exchanging ideas, but it can be just awful for other types of communication. Maybe we’ll continue this face to face sometime.
I can relate to most experiences you are describing, and the longing for a radical transformation, but my current thinking is the following:
– A transformation can be popular or radical, but not both.
– A transformation can be radical or fast, but not both.
– A transformation can be fast or popular, but not both.
Having a radical proposal is quite popular, but the reality is that most radical proposals floating in the world are different and incompatible on fundamental levels. The quasi status-quo, or slow evolving of society does not result from radicalism being unpopular, it results from the absence of significant commonality in any large enough group of radicals.
The only credible transformations that can be fast and popular are those that are significantly driven by technological or scientific breakthrough, or that are totalitarian in nature (democracy is slow and messy when applied to large groups).
Those principles applies even to a group of moderate size like MIA, and on issues as narrow as psychiatry. Everybody at MIA agrees that psychiatry should be radically transformed, but when you get into the details of what people want as a replacement, beyond a few consensus points, diversity is the key word (and diversity is good).
So my thought is that either embracing diversity or embracing large coalitions implies moderation (at least of pace, not necessarily of long-term goals) rather than radicalism. And radicalism is better suited for experiments at a small scale in communities of like-minded people (like-minded always corresponds to small communities, it does not scale in democratic environments).
“Having a radical proposal is quite popular, but the reality is that most radical proposals floating in the world are different and incompatible on fundamental levels.”
I really appreciate your comments. You’re right: “popular” and “radical” are pretty antithetical, and when they’re not things are usually pretty scary! I would say that in the days of the Human Potential Movement there was a radical counterculture and Humanistic Psychology was the mainstream face of it. At the Icarus Project we’ve been talking about the relationship between the “underground” and the “mainstream” for a long time now with the metaphor of the dandelion roots and soil structure:
Also, your thoughts remind me of one of Brad’s favorite ideas from postmodern philosophy, Stewart Hall’s “Circuits of Culture”:
In both these ideas, there’s the idea of the importance of smaller groups influencing the larger whole. I think, deep in my heart, if I can say such things without sounding corny, I long for a changes on a large scale that reflect the kind of world we’re striving for. When I say a “popular movement” I don’t imagine it actually being made up of “radicals” but I imagine the radical ideas infiltrating the mainstream, inevitably getting watered down, but changing the structure of society. Meanwhile, the mystics will always live on the margins and, yes, that’s just how it is. see you around and mad love
This world is a messed up place run by a bunch of lunatics and there is something wrong with YOU if you happen to experience anxiety, depression or a psychotic episode. These people who are acutely sensitive to this madness need to be drugged but not the cold blooded corporate criminals who are profiting off death and destruction. What does that tell you about our society and medical establishment?
um, that it’s fun to rant and rave to strangers on the internet?
Not so much.
I think this tells you almost everything, Scott.I say almost–because there is that margin of possibility over which the corporate masters of death have no control. Now Sascha and I have been having this debate since 2007, and there is a long chapter on Sascha in my latest book–the chapter ends with a debate between us. My book is called The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement. AS I say in my book–and I think Sascha agrees with this part: This society is insane. WE do not have time for moderate “solutions.” We are literally on the verge of wiping out life on earth. Have you read Bill McKibben’s article on Global Warming.
I think the original Mad Pride idea–as I interpret it– is a necessary complement to Sascha’s ideas. THat is what I call a messianic-redemptive transformation of society with Mad people as messianic catalysts of transformation. As I see it this would b e another Great Awakening. I don’t know if you know about America’s Great Awakenings. You know Scott it like a positive madness to counter their ecocidal insanity.I use madness to connote goodness. Sure looking around the odds don’t look good but we have to go for the miraculous. Take a look at my book.
PS That’s McKibben MOST RECENT article–in THe Rolling Stone. On The mathematics of global warming. Scary.
Sweetie, have you heard of the Radical Faeries? They’re the Queer end of the Human Potential Movement.
Meditating Men in frocks who do therapy and flirting, often at the same time. Faerie space is my favourite place in the whole wide world.
A friend who is a trainer for non-violence groups is working on the theory that The Mad are a barometer of society. As they say in Open Dialogue, the distressed person is expressing the problems of the family and the wider social network in which the distressed person lives. So her theory is that those amongst us who are severely distressed are expressing the cruelty of a wider society and the way we treat people who are severely distressed is a barometer of society as a whole. So drugging distressed people instead of trying to understand them is an expression of a society that has been duped by capitalism and is steeped in callousness.
Yes, we need a radical change in the mental health system. Yes, it’s society that drives us mad. Yes, we need to take care of each other as we enter the world and determinedly try to change it. Yes, I’m a Pinko-Commie-Queer and living in a homophobic, or even gay tolerant society as opposed to a homo-loving one is a bit of a pain and drives me just a little bit madder than I would like.
I always watch for your posts! Thanks for contributing. I think that your friend has it correctly. However, very few in our society want to take the blame for contributing to the sickness and instead either lock us up or turn the other way and refuse to engage with us. We are a truly sick society that refuses to even try to heal itself.
Hey John – Of Course i’ve heard of the Radical Faeries! I’ve been hanging out with the anarchists for so many years and there’s a lot of overlap. I’ve never actually been to Ida and that whole scene in Tennessee but I feel like it’s been to me!
This is REALLY important:
As they say in Open Dialogue, the distressed person is expressing the problems of the family and the wider social network in which the distressed person lives…those amongst us who are severely distressed are expressing the cruelty of a wider society and the way we treat people who are severely distressed is a barometer of society as a whole. So drugging distressed people instead of trying to understand them is an expression of a society that has been duped by capitalism and is steeped in callousness.
I’m going to walk around with this all day and think about it. I’ve heard the theories of Open Dialog and listened to the Madness Radio interviews. I wonder what would happen if we made this dialog more public. It’s one thing knowing it, it’s another to have the tools to do something about it.
Thanks so much for writing!
Hi Sascha – Thanks for writing at such length about the overlay of ideas, the maps and the territories. I must note that this is the 3rd time this week that Theseus/Ariadne/Minos/labyrinths have come up.
That being said, my thoughts are a little turn-around and dead-end this evening. Tangled up in threads. Still, thanks.
I appreciate this:
“I’m well acquainted with feeling like I’m the one stepping out of Plato’s cave and telling everyone they’re just watching the shadows on the wall. That’s a lonely place to be.”
Seems to me that notions about mental health are a natural gateway to inquiry about the human condition in context and with ample opportunity to build narrative awareness at a personal and conceptual level. Ooooh, micro/macro narrative studies.
The trials and tribulation and triumphs of madness make for lovely allegory, too.
As part of my job, I spent about 6 months facilitating general Positive Psych. classes/discussions for adults in recovery and, I tell ya, nothing seems to heal a bad idea (hopelessness, anomie, fear) like perspectives that support good ideas (gratitude, strengths-awareness, opportunity for meaning) and these practices don’t even have to be called anything or even be “about” anything other than an exploration of conscientious human living and self-directed participation in one’s life and interpretation of experience.
I used to really resent some factions of the counter-community for laying cultural claim to truths that, really, are about us all and making relatively simple ideas about human worth, dignity, and function out to be esoteric or radical. I like thinking about ways to make liberation a reasonable and accessible goal for all humans. This is sort of a reversal of the co-optation call-out, I guess.
I think that your (de)delineation instinct is a good one re: a generalized human potential movement rather than a parsed movement that promotes the liberation of a single culturally identified group. I have realized more and more that what it is that I’ve been recovering is my sense of what it means to be human. Not human with a mental health disorder, and not human without a mental health disorder, but human as a member of a species that existed long before mental health disorders were even invented, a member of a confused species in a beautiful world that has gotten terribly bungled by character and word and bad ideas about what it means to be human.
You want to hear something sort of sad? So, I joke about this a lot, but it was actually pretty serious. In the middle of my biggest undoing, I really did try to get in touch with people whom I, at the time, imagined might have the power to step up and make some sort of big announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the past several hundred years have been a tragic mistake. We understand that systems of profit and power have been systematically manipulating and oppressing human societies. We’ve really screwed up and we’re sorry. Things are going to change around here. They have to. It’s the right thing to do. There are a few things you need to know about human beings and the world…”
Isn’t that an absurd hope?
I spend so much of life taking apart ideas and playing with perspective, looking at what works and what doesn’t and how it might, measuring efficacy and effect. I cry about it, I laugh about it and then I try again to mind-craft strategy for a unifying thread, some reparative/restorative truth that maybe we all could reckon with, something that no one can argue against. Peace? Oh, yeah, they tried that already…
Tonight, I’m tired and I really just wish the “bad guys” would be the good guys for once in history.
Quickly Re: History
They laid their hands on the soil
and they watched the winds
whip the cape
and the world was still a wild place
that we lived in
A stake here, a stake there,
a mistake a mistake a mistake.
This is history.
We wrote it
to be ours for the taking
and the making.
We gave it shape in technicolor
handed down from folds of the robes
behind dark wood
in the light of colored glass
and in the form of flesh
made with soft wheat
and wine that is simply wine.
A spectacle here, a spectacle there.
It’s all so very magic and yet it’s not.
We were one thing
and then we became something else.
“notions about mental health are a natural gateway to inquiry about the human condition in context and with ample opportunity to build narrative awareness at a personal and conceptual level.”
for real. and that’s why when we started the icarus project we had no idea the kind of crazy pandora’s box of stories we were opening up. i hope we’ve given a lot of people tools and language for building their narratives.
“I used to really resent some factions of the counter-community for laying cultural claim to truths that, really, are about us all and making relatively simple ideas about human worth, dignity, and function out to be esoteric or radical. I like thinking about ways to make liberation a reasonable and accessible goal for all humans.
This is sort of a reversal of the co-optation call-out, I guess.”
i love this. it’s not esoteric or radical to be free! it’s 101!
“I think that your (de)delineation instinct is a good one re: a generalized human potential movement rather than a parsed movement that promotes the liberation of a single culturally identified group. I have realized more and more that what it is that I’ve been recovering is my sense of what it means to be human.”
i’m glad to hear you say it. i obviously think so too. and we ain’t the first.
“We were one thing
and then we became something else.”
so it goes. be in touch. scatterATtheicarusproject.net
Sascha, this is a wonderful, spacious and nourishing vision you are sharing. Thank you for opening the doors to others to join us in the sacred space and energy you have been creating with other “potent humans” over the past month at this Esalen workshop.
I just returned from a Somatic Experiencing workshop on Trauma and Dissociative/ Disorganized Attachment. Which sounds dreadful but was truly amazing. Whole people exploring deep and troubling emotions and life events in a group of 50 individuals who were collectively committed to holding a sacred space for exploration of fears and felt emotions, bearing witness, mindful awareness and, most importantly, a belief in every human’s capacity for transformation and healing.
You may not be surprised that those re-living and healing deep trauma and life wounds in community were PhDs, therapists, healers, public servants and little old me, a mama bear. I was struck again, and again, and again, how all that is really true about human beings is our precious potentials and possibilities. The language, perception or paradigms of pathology are dangerous life-stiflling detours from these potentials.
Community and collective sacred trusts and experiences like the ones you describe are so helpful for reminding us that our potential is always whole and intact (no matter how horrible the trauma we have encountered, no matter how long the dark night of our soul). But it is so much easier, even necessary, to do this work together—mindfully, carefully and with the greatest respect for each other.
I say, bring on your collective and collecting human potential movement. If compassion, diversity, wholeness, creativity, sensitivity, brilliance and the desire to love and affiliate are innate human capacities, keeping them on the radical fringe does humanity a disservice. Radicalizing our birthright is a fetter. That said, I am so grateful for all the radical, paradigm game shifters who have challenged us, throughout time, to question the shadows and seek what is real and true. Guess there is room for us all!
Thank you again for encouraging us to continue to transform and grow…
This is interesting piece. It is a development with a different twist from your last letter in my book. ARe you aware though that Michael Murphy was a disciple of the messianic mystic to whom I dedicated THe Spiritual Gift of Madness?? THat is Sri Aurobindo.(I gave you a copy of one of Aurobindo's books in 2009.) I'm not sure if Murphy met Aurobindo who died in 1950 (he was 78) but Murphy spent months if not years as a disciple of "the Mother." The Mother was Aurobindo spiritual partner. THEy were not physically intimate because they thought that would get in the way–that was the Hindu idea. But Aurobindo said "the Mother and I are one, one spirit in two bodies." THey were both the spiritual "heads" of the ashram.Murphy completely believed in Aurobindo's vision–and the Mother's vision- of the divine life on earth.i have read biographies so I do not know what role if any Murphy thought Esalen would or could play in realizing Aurobindo's vision of the divine life on earth–which Murphy embraced.Or if not specifically Aurobindo did he talk anywhere of how Esalen would help foster new age. How did Murphy sees this change happening here, do you know? Is it in the books?. I read two books Murphy wrote on body but he did not discuss this. Central to Aurobindo's vision –and this was emphasized by the Mother when Murphy was studying under her–was the attainment of physical immortality. The condition for this immortality of spiritualized body was the death of the ego, although not the self. It's a long story..
Anyway your piece gives me the idea to do a piece on the defense of Mad Pride–which as I construe it has a metanarrative–which I sketched out in my book.Because you and I still disagree on that.SO asw far as I know I'm the only advocating that now–although it seems Michael Cornwall agrees…
IT seems as if you and I agree now that we ought to have such a narrative–not just a narrative about healing the self but about world transformation,. You write"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." THat's exactly what I was talking about in our debate:a movement that uses the language of “transformation”,[and], has the ability to capture many people’s imaginations…."
WE don't agree about the role of the Mad but you certainly sound closer to a messianic narrative–by that I mean a collective transformation that is both spiritual and political. Am I correct in my interpretation of your new position? Because that seems to be a change.
Here is where I 'm confused. Why do you want to take visionary power and "remix it" "into a 21st Century Radical Mental Health Movement"?
You wrote "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 Mental Health Movement Radical Mental Health Movement."
THe language of "mental health" is morbid. And the institutions are authoritarian–as opposed for example to self help movement which is democratic and non-pathologizing. THe Hearing Voices NEtwork Movement has de–pathologized hearing voices which shrinks consider hallucination, schizophrenia etc. If you are talking about reaching the "lower" social classes, the HVN did that fine–just ass 12 steps movement did–although I disagreed with ideology of the latter. So I'm completely confused why you advocate going forwArd to transformation and then going back to "mental health." Frankly "radical mental health" is an oxymoron.Mental health entails mental illness–the medicalization of life is reactionary
AnywAy I won't take up any more of your time now.
Sorry the piece above is a bit disorganized.
One typo–I did NOT read any biographies oif Murphy/
Second did I makeb this clear. It seems that although you and I disagree on Mad Pride we are in agreement now about projecting a vision of spiritual AND political transformation, wghich is a messianic vision. Which is a change from what you wrote in my book,. SF
thanks seth, let’s keep the conversation going – i like the direction it appears to be heading…
A series of interconnected threads led me to this blog post, starting from a link to The Icarus Project. What a wild and wonderful journey of an afternoon at the beach.
You talked about your interest in what a successful movement could look like. I believe that a successful movement like the one you’re talking about has to have a few factors to make it solid.
I’d love to stay connected and learn more about your work, and see if I can help. Each time I connect and create a tiny interpersonal thread it helps me weave a network of healing that spreads out wider and wider. Thanks for doing watcha do.
Here are the factors I think are essential:
– COMMUNITY (sangha) . it seems obvious to me after years of continuing healing that we just can’t do it alone
Community can take many shapes including literal groups or workshops that exist in person, like your workshop at Esalen, or online, like in forums. I think for a popular movement we’d need both, not one over the other.
-DISCIPLINED SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
It seems to me that part of creating a successful movement of human potential is having some disciplined practice that helps us connect to ourselves and something bigger. If we recognize that these practices are boxes,and they can create either freedom or death, we can be mindful of if they are serving us. Any spiritual practice, when taken on with discipline, can serve as an awesome container for supporting immense healing and freedom. If that container, or box, becomes dogmatic, or constraining, then it doesn’t lead to more freedom it just leads to choking and death.
– FREEDOM + CONNECTION
I think that a real transformative movement won’t be made of a single group, it will be a collective of many driven by the respect and recognition that it takes all kinds to make the world change. Some basic acceptance of the differences amongst all of our practices, ideas, theories, as well as the similarities, are bound to be deeply transformative. Have you read, Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken http://www.blessedunrest.com/?
So, I recognise it’s been a long time since you wrote this, but I’ve only just now read it, and it really resonated for me, where my thinking is at the moment.
My question for you is this – how do you navigate the class dimensions of this issue (nourishing this Collective Human Potential Movement)?
To give you some context to what I’m asking – my life has been shaped radically by both the radical mental health movement (I am a psych survivor, I’m involved in peer healing communities, my history is as an activist, I am part of critical consumer academia, Intentional Peer Support and the Hearing Voices networks) and by the contemporary manifestations of the Human Potential movement (I do yoga, I meditate, I do Kriya breathing exercises, I see a Gestalt therapist and have found it to be the profoundly healing professional support, etc). These two are related for me – my continuing well-being depends on these spiritual, healing practices, and these represent real, healing alternatives for me to psychiatric “treatment.” But there’s *such* a disjunct between them in my social community – the former (psych communities) tend to be more more diverse and more working class, while the latter tend to be *very* white and middle class. My yoga studio, for example, would not exactly be the most welcoming place for a hearing voices group!! And I pay a truck tonne for these supports. Critiques of “New Age” stuff are often right on the money (pardon the pun).
I’m also in a tiny community here in Australia. I’m interested in your thoughts (or anyone else’s reading this). Thanks!