From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 12

© 1990 Far West Editions

On Growth Centers

This issue marks the 20th anniversary of Material for Thought. It seems appropriate to acknowledge John Pentland, who initiated and guided this journal, by reprinting the following essay he wrote for the Spring 1971 issue, published when the personal growth movement was beginning its spread outward from California.

Returning from vacation, I find the catalogues of no less than six Esalen-type weekend spiritual resorts on my desk, including the sump­tuous forty-page illustrated brochure of Esalen Institute itself. Not only these, but a copy of a new magazine devoted to this so-called Personal Growth movement and a directory of two hundred Personal Growth centers now existing in America, including a few in Mexico, Canada and England.

These books have come to me, by the way, in the trash mail, not be­cause I asked for them but because someone put my name on a list. It is true that for many years I, too, have spent my Sundays with others in activities designed for self-study and the search for life’s inner mean­ing and once we even wrote a brochure about ourselves, although this never made the mailing lists.

Is it possible that everyone is doing it now? Perhaps a glance at these programs will give me ideas about what is missing in our own activities or at least some feedback about what in general people find most attractive and necessary.

For example, there are a great many courses dealing with body awareness. Here is a weekend about: “the sense of reality, pleasure and coherence in what we do depends on our not being alienated from ourselves as bodies” (October 25-31, $270 per person). This is growth center language but it has the ring of truth. Certainly, if we had really made our peace with our bodies, were physically normal, so to speak, we would not be the prey of those tensions and nervous habits—drugs included—which cloud our lives, and particularly the lives of the “livingest” among us. But what has body awareness (“bring sweat pants and leotards”) got to do with the values in life—with my philosophical outlook, with my relation to God? This is not made clear.

I notice in another catalogue the word “ongoing.” There are on­going groups at this resort for couples, ongoing groups for adolescents, for mothers and so on. Strange to say, I notice that all this ongoingness made me stop, or is it hesitate? Instead of writing this, I had intended to think over the plan for our own season of activities. Do I want them to be ongoing? It is true that I used to fear they might peter out, leaving many of us with empty weekends. But as a matter of statistics our gatherings have been going on so long now that this danger has grad­ually lost its fascination for me. Instead of searching for the secret of an automatic momentum, we have accepted movement itself as a fact of life, and it was even one of the principal mysteries we decided to study. But that was last year.

What about live-in communities? “The most critical need and challenge [today],” says the introduction to one of these booklets, “is to understand and deepen the relationship between learning styles [a la growth centers] and new life styles. . . In the deepest human sense living and learning are inseparable.” This center sees an evolution in the present form of weekend seminars. Plans arc outlined for providing opportunities for people to be together longer than merely on Sundays and for a living-learning residential community which will open next year. We too are faced by that challenge but we are not sure this is the best way to meet it. Although the learning at weekends desperately needs to be continued in our weekday lives, live-in communities, as we discovered by experience, almost inevitably come under the control of one or two personalities whose organizing ability is more durable than their potential for fostering new experience. Community living is, at most, only part of the answer.

Here is another catalogue. This place describes itself as “. . . a center working with kindred organizations, for the exploration and de­velopment of human awareness, the goal being the realization that all things are ultimately One and harmonious.” A splendid expression of aim, but not entirely paralleled by the dreary list of lecture sub­jects—encounter group for couples, restoring joy to everyday living, the phenomenon of LSD, Tibetan Buddhism: its Meaning and Practice (ah, that might be worth going to)—or the too familiar names of guest speakers on the first page. If there are two hundred of these growth centers, how is it that these same speakers seem to be at all of them?

Suddenly, in tiny print in the list of “People Involved,” there is an even more familiar name—my own. What is it doing there? Now I am glad I visited this place several years ago; it raises a question about what it means to lead any serious discussion group and what is my own relationship to these increasingly professional weekend institutions for growth.

People all over the world are meeting together, particularly at weekends; in general people cannot bear to be alone for very long at a time so they meet together. We who are engaged in spiritual search and personal growth also come together; whether we are organized professionally or make the arrangements ourselves, we take part in the same social movement. Since we happen to have become aware of the abnormal staleness and poor quality of our thinking and feeling and put these down to the many contradictions in our lives, the announced purpose of all our meetings, professional and amateur, is to study how to re-integrate our lives and thereby awaken thoughts and feelings that are purer and more creative. In religious language, which for us laymen is not precise or popular but seldom without effect, we might say that our purpose is to experience a relation with an energy or an entity greater than the human—with soul or God. Only God has absolutely pure thoughts and feelings.

The leader of the meeting or the group is in a special position with re­gard to this purpose. “In the truest sense,” says one of these booklets, “all those who share space with us here are our teachers. They exemplify, inform, challenge, aggravate and charm us, and so we learn about our­selves.” But unavoidably there will be many occasions when the attention of the whole group is focused on the leader and the search of each individual will, at least to some extent, reflect the leader’s experience and preferences. To quote the same booklet, “the teacher is one who fas­cinates, who has an awareness of what the individual needs—then takes responsibility for presenting information in a way that he is capable of understanding.”

No doubt we leaders prepare ourselves most seriously for this task—by learning to listen attentively, to communicate our insights as simply and with as much true feeling as we can, as well as by oc­casionally monitoring the discussion to avoid distractions that might be too boring or painful. We try to show a pathway toward those more universal levels of questioning which alone can bring a group of diverse people into harmony with each other. And whether by the manner in which we allow new approaches and solutions to appear, rather than suggesting them ourselves, or by sitting in with the others rather than in front of them, we try to by-pass a conventional teacher-pupil situation. No doubt all these preparations for leadership, and many others too, are useful in producing better participation and exchange. But so long as they spring from a subjective feeling and sense about the position of leader, their value must be relative. Only a conscious examination of the forces working in a group exchange can throw true light on the leader’s place and role. And this examination may in its turn throw some light on the arrangement of forces through which growth itself can be possible.

If the purpose of the members of the group is to open their minds and hearts toward an energy which is greater than themselves and which in a sense is divine, what is the exact function of the leader? Is he an intermediary between them and this energy? Do his opinions and choice of forms have an authority which lends itself to “worship” by the members? Or is he merely a moderator, taking part with others, but having, as a result of greater experience, the necessary freedom to direct the activity? What makes these questions awkward, and even unpleasant, is the introduction of traditional concepts like “divine” and even “God” into a psychological framework—say, that of the encounter group—which seems too small to hold them.

Obviously, psychologists and psychiatrists have had to study and find methods of freeing patients from their own authority. The great religious traditions, at least in their origin, also include safeguards, which have been renewed from time to time by reformers, against the abuse of its position by the priesthood. But here at our meetings and at the meetings of the growth centers, what in fact is the attitude to the leaders?

Let us go back for a moment to how it all began. According to the editorial in Personal Growth (Vol. 1, No. 1), the Personal Growth movement had its origin in psychotherapy. “Once a patient’s disabilities are treated and he becomes able to function more or less effectively in the world, he wants something more. That something more (beyond symp­tom removal, and beyond adjustment) is often summed up in the term personal growth.” The editor goes on: “At this point he is embarked on a voyage of discovery that began historically with Socrates and Plato and that has its counterpart in Eastern meditational practices. It is a voyage and a search that encompasses philosophy and religion as well as psychology and psychiatry.”

This brochure provides ample evidence that the leaders of these centers draw freely, in the various techniques and conditions they offer, on traditional and religious knowledge.

Probably something new enters when humanistic psychology reaches into the domain of traditional knowledge. However desirable it may be that these two approaches to human truth should meet, the fact is that they start out from different, even contradictory, assumptions, and this must mean that the crossing of the line between them should not pass unnoticed. Unfortunately, our Western traditions have been so sec­ularized that the line is barely recognizable.

In the East, where traditional religion still has a popular hold, a carved Buddha or other statue is felt as a representation and reminder not only of the divine but of the idea of self-development. The priest is the one who least of all forgets to acknowledge the divine presence in everything by bowing to the symbol.

Western educated man looks with distaste on this idol-worship. Bud­dhas have mainly artistic value, passing through auction rooms to the museums. The symbol of the cross, often looked on with a vague distaste, is made by the priest with his own hand, and he is apt in many cases to occupy a position of authority on religious matters which is parallel to the position of an elected political leader.

Such general statements about East and West are no doubt greatly exaggerated but it appears that “Personal Growth” leaders have felt something of the dangers which are inherent in what has just been described as the Western approach to spiritual leadership.

In their final goal, which is expressed as “Inner Freedom and Auton­omy,” they seem to indicate not only what has been their own way of searching but how they intend to free their pupils from their own authority. “No one teacher, no system of ideas can ever give us ultimate truth. Each inevitably has some defect. Each can only help us, in a very limited way, give birth to truth within ourselves. So we begin to give up the search outside ourselves for a single way, an ultimate system. We no longer accept the words of authority figures unquestioningly. . . We begin to be selective about our teachers, and we reject those who try to impose an ideology. When, from time to time, we find a teacher who helps us grow in our own way—who acts as a kind of midwife, helping us liberate the potentialities within us—we stay with him as long as we are making progress.” (Personal Growth, Vol. 1, No.1)

That the teacher should act as a kind of midwife, helping us to relate our everyday lives to the higher possibilities within us, and that we stay with him only as long as we are making progress, is a striking statement, striking because it is just in this relating of everyday functions to our higher energy that growth seems to consist.

Although the brochure goes on to suggest the discovery of still greater possibilities, it is, we find, in forging, in the center, a re­lationship between higher and lower that real human growth consists. For the appearance in us of our higher potentialities we depend on the help of a group and its leader, acting as a kind of midwife. Real growth will consist in the study and development in each of us, for himself, of a real relationship between these potentialities and our everyday functions. Just as our bones grow in the middle, so can we. To follow one’s ordinary bent toward growth at the ends, upward toward acquisition of greater psychic powers, or downward toward more efficient functioning, can only produce an abnormally-structured man.

It follows that, although the leader is bound to use what means he understands for effecting the appearance in us of higher and purer energies, he has a further task and discipline—to arrange that these higher energies are related by each individual’s active effort to his own person and his own everyday life. The point is that unless this is done, the higher energy released under the leader’s direction has to go somewhere and will inevitably become associated by the members with the leader’s person and organization, causing an emotional cycle: first affection, then loyalty, and finally disappointment at the lack of “progress.”

As a step toward the “inner freedom” goal of leaders and members alike, we need a teaching that will address itself to exactly this question. Thank you, “Personal Growth” movement. Your enticing programs have made this clearer.