Alt Psych

There has been much discussion surrounding the Esalen Alternative Psychiatry conference publicly and privately. I would say that much of this discussion revolves around a lack of clarity about what it is and who it is for. To begin with Esalen itself called it an “Alternative Medicine” conference. And maybe it is. But this conference grew out of an Esalen workshop on extreme and altered states which joined the anti-psychiatry movement to the human potential movement in an effort to revive this lost project. Awakening to these movements as a young man in the 80s I just as excited to find inspiration as I was saddened to see them disappearing. The spirit of rebellion of the 60s and 70s had grown into conservatism, complacency, fear, greed, and narcissism in so many ways. My elder colleagues appeared jaded and cynical except for my true mentors like R D Laing, Felix Guattari and Chogyam Trungpa who were quickly dying off. These were the ones who – like at Perls, Price, Murphy and others at Esalen had promoted the “Crazy Wisdom” of Shamanism and Tantrism. Esalen – like every other institute, method, and movement of those times – has had to endure the questions of sustainability within radicality and this remains the question for the future.

The new mad “movement” to which the old ones were joined through this Esalen “Alternative” is a complementary movement of survivors themselves become activists. But we must not make the mistake of creating another in-group – a co-dependency group, fight/flight group or messianic group. It is these unconscious “basic assumptions” as Bion called them within groups which are the problem with all movements. The desire to create a movement falls prey to unconscious projections and unshared Ideology which either recreates oppressive judgment or tears itself apart in in-fighting.

The so-called “movement” against psychiatric oppression has recognized the intertwined problems of capitalism in its project. But let us recall that for Hegel and Marx the bourgeoise trap was not a struggle of rich classes against poor but a struggle of both against their mutual enslavement to capital itself – the accumulation of material and rank instead of the desire and love of spirit found in the mutual recognition of human subjective freedom and sovereign co-creation.

The Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa taught that the Bardo realms were developmental states of existence each with its own psychological challenge. These are: 1. tortured demons, 2. hungry ghosts, 3. ignorant animals, 4. desiring humans, 5. jealous demigods, and 6. complacent gods. Each of us passes through each of these states. In our time we have evolved but still face the challenges of jealousy, envy, complacency, and superiority. The questions we are asking plague the realms of therapy, spirituality, art, and politics. The spiritual teacher Alice Bailey called it “glamour – a world problem.”

What are we to do with our joy? Hide it. Deny it. Feel guilt. Certainly a form of totalitarian socialism which suppresses individuating creativity and desire is not the answer. And neither is the capitalist consumer model of competition in a zero sum game of winners and losers. But only these extremes prevail and continue to polarize. It is a testament to the Esalen Alternative community that we are even asking these questions. Who goes to an academic conference and asks why one person is paid as keynote speaker and all others pay. Who asks in a hospital why allopathic obstetricians make the decisions on questions of birth and midwifes with more experience are silenced. How do we preserve desire and achievement while remaining empathic, caring and loving. It is my hope that we can continue to discuss these questions openly with the same intentions of trust and commitment achieved at this recent gathering – something achieved with great difficulty and in person.

I hope that we are able to continue the magic and militancy of our momentum by any means necessary and I urge again that we focus not on the pros and cons of Esalen itself, but on how we can make this happen more often. We should celebrate those who have donated so much to get this started and move perhaps to a more collectivist form of participation in which anyone who wants to come can come by contributing time, money, effort, or whatever is possible. “From each according to his ability to each according to his means.” True communism is a spiritual state not a political state.

In this vein, we should remember that “the state” was to wither away under communism. Ihave come to believe that a major mistake made by Hegel, Marx, and their followers is the stress put on the state. In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit he believed that the ideal state had arrived in modern Europe and that the rest of the world would follow suit. This is the state where humans mutually recognize one another in their essential being. There is no longer work for a sovereign god, king, or master outside and neither is there war or rebellion against that sovereign. Rather there is work and struggle to bring spirit into existence in the form of a common human project. But this spirit is not outside of us, it is inside of us, in the form of absolute subjectivity, inner experience, and freedom: desire, choice, and autonomy. Only when the sovereign autonomy of each human – and each human moment – is recognized will man achieve mutual recognition in his radical difference – not as a part of any state or movement. In this case “the state” grows out of and is a loose conglomeration of autonomous beings or even autonomous moments of communion in and among those beings. To the degree that a practical state and its functional bureaucracy needs to exist it emanates from this spirit. The spirit of freedom and recognition will not grow out of this state. A state which guarantees citizenship will never achieve this goal, whether in Athens, the United States, or Elysium.