Notes on the Tao of the Body Politic
by Michael Rossman
[Of Therapy and the Therapist]
I speak of therapy and as a therapist here in part because a friend asked me to contribute to his book,(1)) concerning the way new perspectives on therapy arise from our lives and pass into practice. This language is convenient, and I'm glad for the chance to reflect on some issues of my life and work and their connection. I might equally have spoken as an educator, healer, or political organizer in considering them, and sometimes do. Yet therapy is not entirely a masquerade in this essay. For overall, these reflections are themselves case-notes on an integral process of becoming whole, connected, potent, for which I know no better name than "therapy," though again the others might serve as well.
When I think of "therapy," I think of human pain and its relief; or, more generally, of dysfunction -- in terms of some notion about what it means to be human, healthy, whole -- and its remedy. When I started practice in the late 1950s, the dimension of therapy I chose was social, and its mode was political action. Yet I saw little reason then, and see less now, for making arbitrary boundaries between the practices of social therapy, personal psychological therapy, and bodily therapy. Each dimension of therapy opens into every other, and as my work evolved it came to include elements of all. For every ill has a private and a public root, a material and a psychic expression. I now see no purpose in continuing to think of these dimensions as separate or independent. We must face their conjugacy. Indeed, the key task of therapy today may be to arrive at understandings, and create practices, which treat the human spirit embodied in society as an integral organism.
In these terms, I try to be a therapist. But at a deeper level, though I often violate it I am pledged to the view that "therapist" is a dysfunctionalizing category which deepens some of the problems with which it deals. I want to melt down all the concepts and practices that perpetuate the specialist culture of our bureaucratic industrial age, for they guarantee our general disenfranchisement from power over and within our daily lives. Therapy may remain as a perspective, and skill surely will. But we must learn to be responsible for the fact that we are all therapists and that our every action has a therapeutic face; and we must make a language of some sort which reflects this, and a way of life too. I feel this as strongly about the therapeutic function of citizenship as I do about tinkering with individual psyches.
Two things strike me about therapy. One is how complex and intimate the interplay of social and personal factors is, not only in the origin of distress but in the act of its remedy, and in the life of the therapist. The other is how the practice of therapy, social or personal, changes the therapist, leads him or her (if he or she will go) through personal transformations which in turn transform practice, in a slow and integral cycling.
These two themes unify the series of snapshots which follow, in which I try to see myself as a therapist in the process of a particular transformation of work at a particular time of history. Ever since the late 1960s, a growing number of political activists, veterans of the New Left and the Movement, have been turning to disciplines of the body/mind/spirit for various reasons -- some say to retreat from politics, some say to transcend it. I'm not sure how representative I am on this score, since I see my present turn of work simply as continuing my past trajectory. I think my experience as a member of this class may be more interesting for the way it illustrates the interplay of the social and the personal, which may be recognized in more conventional therapeutic life, So I will focus here on this aspect, rather than on more technical or intimate details of practice and life.
[How I Got Back into My Body, in Good Company]
So how did this former sit-in leader come to find himself in a yoga posture? Human pain led me to politics young; I grew up in the New Left before it was named, and worked in the Movement all through my twenties. My experiences as an activist led me to focus on education as a crucible of political citizenship, and since 1964 most of my work has been in this domain. Attempts to remake educational institutions led me, with my friends, to concentrate on the processes of institutional education, which so determine the fate of our therapeutic efforts and our own skills as learners. This concern with process led us on to develop new learning forms and processes, which involved us in acting out our cognitive investigations by means of theater, through our bodies. This work led us to recognize the importance of the proposition that it's not simply the "whole person" who learns, but that learning is done in and with the whole body. This has led me in turn into empirical research on what it's like to live in and learn in and tend a body.
Thus runs the dry pedigree of my professional interest in the body as a ground of political learning, summarizing the five years before I got hooked. The fuller tale -- of how I once was in possession of my senses gross and fine; lost touch with my body in the process of learning to be a man and an ordinary numb citizen; and then set out slowly to find myself again, at first alone -- runs parallel, a story in itself, of a sort many people are telling eloquently these days. But I skip over both stories here to begin where my personal and social interests in the body fused into one pursuit.
In 1969, nine of us formed the Troupe. We had come to know and care for each other through the Movement. High on 1960s momentum, we came together to integrate and extend our work in education and to grow toward family. But the Troupe lasted less than a year. Perhaps we weren't committed enough to handle all the energy we conjured together. Certainly all our professional smarts about how to help healthy groups grow proved inadequate in the end, as we could not help ourselves -- or chose not to. I omit the complex and painful details; but after this venture's failure I entered a paralyzed depression which lasted two years. Many people were going through similar depressions around that time, perhaps as much from having tried to do too much too soon as in response to the grim theater of Kent State.
The memory of that mixed time with people I love is still precious, and in one way the Troupe was a pure and lasting success. For the vehicle we chose for our work together was theater, and its medium was our bodies. We made ourselves a training program in which we worked with Jerzy Grotowski's exercises and our own, and with Anna Halprin, a fine movement teacher. We each had messed a bit with yoga and what-all before on our own. But working together for nine months was different; it broke us each through into some new space, some different kind of connection with our bodies. And a new line of cooperative work opened. Doing improvisation postures, we observed that we had idiosyncratic forms. We speculated about them, tried to adjust their imbalances by motions, asked each other to lend a hand, finally got around to touching each other with our own hands in deep exploration. By the time the Troupe blew up, we had developed the rudiments of a praxis of body therapy,
I worked at it alone thereafter, in odd hours stolen from my other life as an intellectual, using improvised yogas, anatomical and medical texts, and psychedelics to feel out a slow program of undoing the warps and blockages I could recognize in my flesh. The details are humble and not for this report, except to say that as my body changed, how I am who I am changed; and that I found some connections between these changes, during the years it took me to begin unraveling the defensive hunching of my shoulders and the supermanly tightness of my diaphragm and belly. Since lazy childhood mornings with my mother I had always been into back rubs; now I gave them with a new and increasingly clinical eye, applying what I'd learned from working on myself and from the workshops I sought out to extend this. All this body work turned out to be an intense form of meditation, though I did not seek it as such. It affected me slowly beyond my awareness, and drifted me into a subtler consciousness of the body and its processes than I knew how to speak.
Meanwhile, life went on. I finished two books; my kid learned to argue; my erstwhile comrades went through their own cycles. Some also had found themselves committed to major programs of body reinhabitation, and to plumbing "the mysteries of the organism." Two years after the Troupe exploded, three of us trickled back together to form a nucleus for the Body Group, to carry on together this work that had become important in our lives. As I write, the six of us in Body Group have been meeting for eighteen months. We have completed one cycle of exploration, in which we came to know each other's bodies and used them as a laboratory to develop and test out a common practice of body therapy. Now we begin another cycle, more public, finding ways to share our learning with others.
From one angle, we are just a group of friends who hang out together once a week, poking at each other's bodies with lazy laughter, a bit stoned, discovering amazing things. From another, we are a political cadre. For the repression of bodily energies is a key element in the functioning of authoritarian social systems, and the freeing and re-balancing of our bodily vitality is perhaps essential to the struggle against them, as well as for the re-creation of a freer order. And we are a political cadre in another, more immediate sense: for the very processes by which therapies of any sort are developed and learned and transmitted are political, and we are trying to change them.
In our innocent research we find ourselves in the milieu of "your wallet or your soul." Abroad now are dozens of therapeutic disciplines, from structural integration to Arica, bioenergetics to Silva Mind Control, which deal with the mind-body-energy interface. We study in a welter of partial bodies of practical knowledge, each in a ferment of development, on a wide front of breakthrough whose connection with the broader culture and meaning within it have barely begun to be articulated.
It's a rich new terrain to explore, but the entrance lies through old portals. To connect with the action more seriously than buying a piece of experience at a workshop or as a client permits, you must seek "training" from a proprietary source; for the action is guarded as jealously as any magic spell or key patent might be, and is parceled out through this apprenticing relation. And to get training, you have to pay, either a price that only the affluently alienated upper middle class can afford, or -- what may come to the same thing -- by turning the better part of your life to service in someone's brand-name enterprise, becoming an "inner groupie."
I resent both these options bitterly, not simply because I am poor and independent but because their effect is to reproduce the worst aspects of therapy -- psychological, physical, political, spiritual -- in our society, by which therapeutic skills and goals become, as commodities, the private property of specialist, upper-middle-class elites; the people's capacity for exercising therapeutic power in their own lives, private and shared, withers undeveloped; and therapy itself, as an occasional commodity received by those with no means or roles to integrate its continual practice in their everyday lives, becomes an expensive entertainment, an alleviant to the general distress rather than a root remedy of re-empowerment.
With the sorts of training now available comes also a subtler cost, which reinforces the same effects. However new their subjects, most involve equally a retraining in the old lessons of relation between teacher and learner, therapist and client. These lessons define again the authority of expertise; teach trainees the justice of selling it for the most the market will bear, fiscally and psychologically; and ensure that the new knowledge will continue to be created, transmitted and used in contexts of dependency. Of course, one can try to separate out these lessons and to imagine better ones, but that is the point. This is how we are choosing to structure these matters in society. There is no freer court of inquiry and creation, accessible to the public and not organized around a royalty, in which this basic wealth of human discovery is shared in and shared out -- nor indeed is it easy to imagine its transactions, so bound are we to the narrow notions of clienthood and traineeship.
Against this grain, our small group has fumbled on, exploring other ways of learning and sharing power. As a learning collective (a name we have never formally spoken), we have learned how to move collectively and democratically on a complex frontier -- together enough for mutual support, loosely bound enough for each to pursue his or her idiosyncratic exploration and development. To this home base we bring back the fragments of learning that we discover in privacy, swap with other friends, or buy on the expensive market. With no leader, but each in turn teaching when ready or directing our processes as appropriate, we share them, compare them, take them apart, puzzle them into new combinations, apply them to our cases.
We find that many pressure points of polarity therapy can be understood in terms of the acupuncture meridian net and used to deepen the effect of bioenergetic release exercises, and we begin to learn how to work with the emotions released. We are cautious, for there is more power open here than we yet know how to use, and no expert at hand even in one subject, let alone the blend, to tell us what is safe or how we put ourselves at risk, but only our trust in each other, our respect for each other's capacities and sensitivities, to guide us. We try to package the theory we achieve, design simple dance forms that two people can help each other through, whose habitual practice will open and harmonize their energy flows, work into the knotting at their shoulders and thighs. Beyond our modest particular knowledges, we have learned new processes, as much social as technical, of learning how to take care of one's body and how to learn collectively; and now we each in various ways move on to teach them to others. We begin to share our developing praxis with our children; we take first steps with friends and peers to pass on what we have learned free or for trade, and encourage them to explore together; we work to free the learning processes of the workshops we attend. Very low-key proselytizers, still we think in terms of power to the people.
So much for the political sermon; we do what we do more naturally than it may suggest. Meanwhile, most of all, it is good to be among friends, engaged. The group has been the best ongoing cooperation I've had in many years, warm and intimate without being mushy, strengthening us each and all as we move slowly into the unknown waters of our being.
[A Bit of Strange]
It is 1970, Cambodia time; the Troupe is coming apart at the seams, my child is about to be born, the streets are full of tear gas, and four are dead at Kent State. In this instant I sit writing, sobbing like a kid, about all this and a decade of the Movement, and about the holy language of Energy we are investigating, which manifests in saints and social fire. I write of how the currents of transformation flow strongly through Berkeley and out across America, and how, if you stay open to them, "you are transformed into an active conduit for the common sea of our Energy, lines of its organizing come to flow through you. I think I am learning to feel them in my body. It is frightening not to have a language in which to wrap the nakedness of your experience ..."
The odd thing is that what I wrote then wasn't true -- at least, not yet. In retrospect, it seems clear that the years I spent as a political therapist, opening myself to intense flows of social energy in crisis and in intimacy, did indeed have much to do with what I came to experience in my body. But at the time I thought I was only making a metaphor -- I couldn't begin actually to feel those lines of energy, and had no intention of trying to, nor real consciousness of what it would be like: all this started to emerge only a year and a half later. Who was writing through me in that torn-open instant, and what did he know?
This uncanniness continued, through my hands. The next year, teaching at a new school in the desert of Los Angeles, I lived through again, in weary, vicious five-month miniature, the whole cycle of founding an institution and seeing its progressive essence destroyed by inability and repression. Too much! Twelve years of organizing experience were useless, I could do nothing but suffer; we were all too weary or innocent, and there was no real base of mutually grown purpose to withstand the purge. I had come to teach the politics of institution-building; but in the context of the Disney millions, all I could do that was useful, besides be a friend and analyze the fall, was give people back rubs to ease the pain. I found myself doing this a lot, before I realized what was happening. When I did, what surprised me wasn't the completeness of my political impotence there, but this weird pursuit of touch.
For I became aware that my hands had acquired a life of their own, or at least a sense. Like blind snakes seeking warmth, they nuzzled unerringly to the stagnant clots of energy in whosever frame I touched. Since then it has grown somewhat embarrassing: I touch a friend casually in conversation or greeting, or am deep in sexual interplay, when suddenly I realize that my hands are actively poking into secret pain buried in the other's body, intent on knowing and easing it. This habit has grown less obtrusive but more vivid as my awareness and action have begun moving from naive material poking toward pure energy manipulation.
One cusp in this unfolding came two years after I started serious work in my body, and shortly before I helped organize Body Group for the comfort of company in the Mysteries. On a night of full moon and transcendent community, I broke through to actually feeling the energy centers within someone's feet instead of imagining them. It was actually a relearning, for in passing on the knowledge later I remembered the precise incident in my ninth year when I forgot the feeling or repressed it, through having no language and no sanction to express it. This time, through a little diligent work, the feeling quickly grew into a sense of having eyes in my fingers and toes, and certain unfamiliar modalities of sensing apparently centered in my head. I learned to feel the ch'i flow in the acupuncture meridians, in others' bodies and my own, and am learning to direct energy flow into and along the meridian system, through bodily force or by mind alone.
All this sounds much more grandiose than is the case. Though amazing enough to me, the experiences are almost too simple to bear description; and as their flash recedes I learn how widely shared they are and how primitive my own grasp of them is. With regard to these senses I feel like the first organism to develop a rudimentary light-spot, barely able to differentiate between day and night, yet trying for dusk. There are many such organisms in our sea now; as for myself, I doubt that these senses will ever have the clarity that born clairvoyants display, even if I did not cultivate them indifferently at best.
And now I teeter on a thin edge. If I have been away from the public front lines of political action for the past few years, after a decade there, it's not only from broader social circumstances but because much of my energy of daring is committed internally. For I ask myself, what manner of creature am I? I have had experiences, now sufficiently reinforced and verified by others', which cut totally across my Western concept of being human and being in a body. I start to feel like some astral starfish, a creature of vivid filmy lines, luminescent in the dark waters, flowing through this meat and able to leave it. Meanwhile I wash the dirty dishes and drive carefully, having learned from acid a decade ago how to endure the dissonance between the transcendent and the mundane. If I allow myself to feel mainly the wonder and not the terror of this opening of my frames, it ain't because I'm not scared. Indeed I sense a thin layer of terror beneath all my consciousness these days on this account, and an increasing one. Lord knows my progress seems so tentative and slow, reluctantly trying to move on through chest-deep mud and constantly lapsing.
But it is the quality of this motion that is surprising, to a political man accustomed to being a conscious swimmer in history, making my own choices about direction, if not destination. I mean, it's hard to evoke this sense of my hands having a life of their own. It's not as if they were detached from me, alienated; but as if I were a part of them, perhaps their ass, facing backward to what was. If I judge the displacement accurately, it seems that my hands are leading me into experiences that become comprehensible to my conscious mind only a year or so later. It's like working for a big corporation that moves slowly, so that decisions at the top filter down to the lower echelons only a long time later. Weird! Sometimes it seems that this whole body excursion is like the hands part, leading me on in a fashion not independent of my will, but anticipating it.
[The Politics of the Body]
Much fell away as the 1960s turned 1970s, many illusions and some hopes. Emblems of death had been in the air since the Chicago convention in '68; the ideological chaos and disorganization of the Movement was mirrored in people's lives and minds. If we in the Troupe turned to body to go on, it was in part an attempt to ground ourselves in something essential and inalienable. I really felt it this way, that I had chosen to cast myself back on the original solid ground of being. A retreat, perhaps, from the inclement clime? But it came at a high point of venture, and was more an entrance into Mystery.
For we had come to a curious place together, all of us. As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials: the organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought, and for its harmony. This chaos left us free to roll our own, from the materials available.
So I turned to body not only for solace and diversion, but also as a political man seeking essential tools and programs. We are a long way yet from making actual the fancy potentials of this perspective. But I approach the body now recognizing, in the tangible dear flesh of my friends, the imprint of "anti-faggot" conditioning that leaves us men tight-pelvised and stiff-wristed; the constricted breath that goes with emotional repression and is taught for the sake of industrial homeostasis; the numbness that permits us to ignore what our bodies are telling us about the environments and ways in which we live and our reactions to the orders we obey; and so much more that follows from the simple thesis that our social condition is reflected in our bodies, and can be approached through them as well.
More broadly, I think the politics of repression which maintain our culture's inequities have dictated that we cut ourselves off from awareness of the many ways in which we so intimately intermesh with each other. The barriers seem thick, yet we can see through them: as we find through such primitive disciplines as "mind control" training, as little as twenty hours of gentle deconditioning, via practice in letting images form while in light trance ("alpha") states, is sufficient to enable many people to sense in some beginning detail the inner condition of another person's organs and moods, and perhaps to influence them as well, help him or her move toward health. It is impossible not to recognize what this means about the intimacy with which we do cohabit the universe, and the social space we share.
So when I come this year to ask certain old questions -- How do authoritarian structures work, and at what levels of the psyche do they breed and persist? How does the middle class manage to remain insensitive to the suffering of others which secures its privileges? How can people be led to that opening of self-awareness in which any real politics involving them must be grounded? How can we construct participant-democratic groups and organizations in which information and decision making are truly and deeply shared? How can we devise a "political" process that pays harmonious attention to the inner and the outer aspects of being and change? -- when I come to ask these again, I have some "new" material to put into the search for experimentally verifiable answers. For if telepathy/telempathy, for example, is as basic a human power as I'm coming to understand it to be, its repression or deliberate cultivation is a political matter, bearing importantly on all such questions.
I speak of bodily and psychic matters together, for one leads to the other if you don't stop short. In this day of Wilhelm Reich's belated popularity, it may be faintly credible that living in touch with our vitality in reawakened bodies is integral to the pursuit of the revolution we dream is necessary. Yet no one I know in the political branch of the Movement has gone beyond to argue that we must take the matter of the "vibes" between people more seriously, to the point of realizing ourselves in strange dimensions of being in this pursuit. Yet such might be the case. Sometimes when I see all the Nixonian ugliness perpetrated in my name, I feel impotent and guilty, and long again, despite the guns, at least to be throwing tangible wrenches into the machinery, to cry it stop. But confronted with an imagined legion of Movement brethren who accuse me of pursuing an idle bourgeois indulgence in experience and entertainment while the Empire triumphs and crumbles, I reply that no such stupendous change in our conception of humanity and reality can come about without the most profound social and political ramifications. Though for the moment these appear confined to the rise of Uri Geller and the Growth industry, deeper images and consequences are brewing.
Meanwhile we pursue a modestly social aim, banding together in Body Group to make a non-exploitative model of sharing the knowledge of healing. For here is the political core of therapy: is fixing body-minds, like fixing cars, to continue to be a specialist matter, or is power to pass to the people? "As long as there are doctors," said Lao-tse "the people will be sick." The truth of this is measured by how unable we are to maintain our own health. And so beyond Body Group's humble backyard molehill of mutual learning looms a mountainous sector of the capitalist economy, the $140-billion-a-year medical industry. Liberation here means first, for all people, power over our own lives: if not yet a non-carcinogenic environment, or a government (unbought by industry) to get us this, then at least good nutrition and new access to the objective knowledge and internal powers we need to maintain our own and our loved ones' bodies in health.
For me, even the modest goal of taking adequate care of my family seems many years off; but already I feel the broad power behind an integral praxis of health that can be learned and passed on by its users. With a clarity of potential I see in few other fantasies, I can see changing our culture's consciousness, person by person, and just wiping out one indelibly exploitative way of handling precious health. And I see that to do true transformation of medicine as a power institution, rather than just to re-engineer its techniques and redistribute its fruits more equitably, will require measures of no less depth and magnitude.
Life is slower than dreams. At present, friends are starting now and then to come to me for relief from some minor distress; and I try, as in organizing, to learn to teach what healing I can catalyze. In precious irreversible experiment, which I handle casually for fear I botch it, I pass colored flows of energy back and forth with my young son as we lie in long wordlessness on the summer bed. I fumble for a way to help him find validation and language and exercise for realities and skills be has not yet learned to disbelieve; and wonder how much I'll be able to help him avoid the long blindness and minuscule rediscovery that has been my experience. I already see some minor but real integration of these mysteries in my everyday urban experience, and wonder what kind of cognitive climate that will create for him, what sorts of political and therapeutic sensibilities might grow up in such soil.
[The Cycling of Personal and Social Change]
The Movement gave me much occasion to see how healthier social conditions, often no more than a mist around our collective action (or a perspiration generated by it), freed people's energy for therapeutic personal change, often in directions outlined by collective analysis but still inalienably private; which in turn freed energy and pointed directions for action to make the society healthier. As I grew from a brash kid of seventeen in the New Left through a struggle that kept evolving to a weary warrior of thirty-four in some confusion, I lived through enough of these cycles of private and public therapy, and saw them enough in the lives of my friends, to recognize them as such, to chart their periods and grow familiar with their rhythms -- and with what happened to individuals and to movements when these rhythms, and the needs beneath them, were not honored. I came to believe that we must know these cycles, go with them, tend them; and that this in itself is as important as the pursuit of either of the two great conjugate streams of therapy which are the cycles' ground.
Much effort is spent these years on finding ways to make our society healthier; much effort explores ways for people to realize their wholeness individually. We are coming slowly to realize that these processes are vitally interwoven; but our consciousness of how is pretty dim and rhetorical, and we nourish the cycles mostly by happenstance. Both ideologically and practically, it seems to me more important now to construct the connections between personal therapy (learning) and social therapy (change) than to seek to extend either as such; for attention to their cycling will itself give rise to their extension.
Under their grand face, these abstractions reduce for me to the rhythms of my life, as I go on striving to be a healthy person in a healthy society. Fourteen years, an adulthood, in the Movement kept alive a part of my soul, gave me a program for personal reconstruction that I shall not accomplish in this life, even with the thin, dear help of my friends: to be open in my emotions and present in my experiences, accepting of my spectral sexuality and non-oppressive in all my relations, capable of deep commitment and ultimate flexibility, empathetic with human and plant alike and connected to the Infinite. All this and more was outlined by the thrust of the various streams of our collective movement for liberation and justice. And I am somewhere following this program, more alone than I would like to be, struggling and indifferently successful.
It is the summer of a fallow year; rain will reveal how much the soil has been nourished. My last tour of active duty, running around America trying to organize change, lasted six years. By the time I understood the cycle, it was clear that I was running too long and would pay in down time; but work has its own momentums, and it took two years more to disengage. I was off-rhythmed by the general contagions of energy in the late 1960s: so much was opening, so much needed to be done. When I turned inward, literally, it was partly because I needed a change of pace, a time and way to integrate the inner implications of what was going down in public. (I may be wrong in assuming that only in our time have social therapists begun broadly to be aware of such needs; but it seems clear that personal therapists rarely face their complementary need to investigate periodically the outer implications of their work in the world which surrounds it.)
Part of growing up is coming to see the cycles in longer perspective. Turning thirty, I grew able to see them in years instead of months, and to plan for them somewhat. When I finished the two books which brought to closure a phase of my work in the Movement, I knew I should need some long-term R-and-R before I could engage so actively again. I kept a professional toe in education, but mostly drew back to savor my son's first years, tend my love for my lady, and write privately in my journal about being a father and a son, about death, about the body. This time of tending private gardens has stretched four years and is not near ending, as my son's life leads me into deeper perspectives on education and my hands lead me on at their own pace. At times I think of my excursion into the body and psychic domains in this light: that six years of heavy-duty service on the social-change line, with only partial rhythms of rest and recuperation, built up in me a charge, a potential for personal change, which, when I let up, might have spun me in any of a number of intense directions, but which spun me in this one (for reasons dynamic in my work, in the time, and in who I was) and perhaps toward an intimate breaking and re-creation that is quite as radical as anything I proposed for society.
I use this perspective to counsel myself when it seems, as it often does, that I have abandoned a struggle faintheartedly, lapsed into a safe (if not entirely comfy) privacy whose social relevance I only rationalize. The daily and chronic atrocities of the System confront me, call to be dealt with, while I consider how memory is cramped in muscle. I observe how minimal my progress is, seemingly with a tenth of my will, and energy sapped from the days to I don't know where. I know now how slow something new grows, while old projects uncompleted beg me to attend them. Still the matter of values seems constant to me: even in the context of occult and spiritual knowledge, it seems right, it is just, to use power to better the material lives with which my own is intertwined, as well as their other aspects. Yet doing massage is not by itself enough to satisfy my need for political engagement and my sense of social purpose.
The line that distinguishes radical politics from vague goodwill is drawn, I think, by the deliberate choice to work to reconstruct the collective structures of power which determine our lives. I mourn somewhat for my father's day, when it was still possible to believe that an informed electorate and workers' control of General Motors were a sufficient program. Now a sufficient politics must root itself more deeply, in educational process and in the body, among other places. It wasn't hard for me to see and justify the consequences for social action of educational reconstruction. But the body is a stranger ground; and though I already see in its lessons applications to the process of social action and the re-creation of the medical industry, I imagine that the full integration of its mysteries with politics will take a long time, and unfold in ways for which we have as yet no adequate language.
Meanwhile I slog along, in the early stages of a progress that leaves me somewhat necessarily blind to where its energies are bearing me, and to how they will mature in social application. When I am not chiding myself for failing to press for a strategic position in the guild of healers now forming in Berkeley, I counsel myself against an impatience born of all my past active engagement, and tell myself not to anticipate too early the form reengagement will take.
[An Anecdote About the Interplay of Personal/Social Therapy]
When I finished my second book, On Learning and Social Change, a chapter of theory about decentralized educational institutions was missing. The book implied it, and I knew its demonstration was already present in the "counterculture's" learning experience; but strain as I would, I couldn't get my mind around its concepts. For a year more they brooded in me, while around me grew the funky sub-institutional structure which embodied them, and while I worked on body. Shortly after I first felt clearly the ch'i flow in someone's meridians, I went on business to New York. For nights before my trip I was inhabited by vivid dreams. I saw my body as a space of fiery points, dark and vast as a galaxy; and among them tendrils and webs of energy arching, glowing through strange colors, constantly changing, as if the aurora borealis were strung on the stars and gone wild, I think now. At the time, it seemed like the mysteriously ordered flickering of lights on the face of a vast computer, but with sensate shimmers and washes of color, like the skin of an octopus flushing with emotion.
When I got home, with a dozen other things on my mind to write about, I sat down at the typewriter. What came out was unplanned: an essay sketching the structure and process of a decentralized institution of alternative education (or therapy, if you will), involving ten thousand working nodes, small groups alive with energy and interlinked in mutating connection, a network of seasonal flushes, fields of radiance. (2) And I was illuminated with more than the pleasure of having got my mind at last around these few simple concepts which extended an old line of thought. For pretty clearly, it was my body experience which fed through my dreams and set my mind free to conceive.
I suppose the process ran something like this: We see the world outside ourselves as our extension (though not only this), imagine it shaped in our image, imagine ourselves in the image it reflects back to us. In particular, we see the social body as we see our own, with sharply differentiated heads, stomachs, nerves, muscles, etc; and so our images of change in it are cast in terms of bodily mechanics and metabolisms. In coming, simply but profoundly, to see my own body differently, in terms of different governing metaphors (not replacing but extending my culture's set), I was establishing a ground from which to begin to re-envision and revise those matters for which we use body as metaphor, in particular the structure, metabolism, energetics, and health of the social body.
I have no idea how deep this revisioning will go, or how slowly. What made it visible as a process was the fortunate coincidence of a problem on my mind, which let a radical shift of internal perception be reflected directly in analysis of external forms. Here personal therapy and social therapy feed back and forth through one person, a Movement writer in a body; for equally it was my experience of years of trying to organize decentralized learning forms which opened my mind to accept the reflection of metaphor and see myself vividly as a decentralized learning form. If I had not had around me, and helped to make, a deviant social environment which was, at an archetypal level, already somewhat harmonious with the image of self dawning in me, would I have had so readily, or at all, the experiences which prompted me to accept this new image and explore its promises and considerable fears?
[A Broader Perspective of Therapy]
I started out oppressed by social wrongs, and tried to oppose them. I learned that we had to clean up the operations of social power, and tried to do so. I learned that for this we had to re-form the structures of power, and tried to do this. I learned that for this we had to re-form the processes of power among ourselves, as radical political actors and as citizens, which meant to re-form ourselves as human beings -- not independently of the other projects, but in and by their processes, and as their ground. In this sequence, I shared what I see as a key development of Movement consciousness in the white middle class: from action on behalf of unknown others who were wronged, to seeing myself as among their oppressors, to action on my own behalf, as well and first, through coming to recognize myself as victimized and oppressed in ways which ultimately were key to the oppression of those others. A parallel development in the psychology of radical political process took place during this time (1958 to 1970). The belief that the cutting edge of radical action was change in political and economic institutions was faced with competition from the belief that the vanguard action was to lead personal lives which as far as possible embodied the conditions of society we wished to bring about.
The potentials for active harmony between these thrusts were rarely sought, or, I believe, understood. Instead a conflict ensued, for sufficient reasons; and the streams of our action divided all too much between the pursuit of traditional political goals by traditional means, and the attempt to live differently. I found myself often isolated and lonely on the tangled ground between these streams. My late 1960s were marked by fruitless visits to the SDS National Office trying to convince people that educational process was important, that the way we learn together affects how we are able to function in political action; and by equally fruitless attempts to talk usefully, in country communes, about the relevance of the war and racism. Often enough I felt like a freak, unable to be at home in either stream of action save by denying half of who I was. If therapy is to heal, make whole, what therapy was there possible for me but to try to remake my surroundings?
You are the tool you make yourself, as well as more. If I had pursued radical politics in an era when its strategies seemed clearly determined and its tactics engaged fewer dimensions of life, I might have grown into an adulthood and professionalism as stable, in their way, as those of any ordinary bourgeois. But I pursued politics (therapy) in a time when its nature was changing radically. What is wrong, what needs to be reformed, what constitutes political (therapeutic) action -- all these questions have opened up drastically in my mind and many others'. In trying to keep on dealing with them, the law that "making change changes the changer" has led me through evolutions of work and, more slowly, of personality, which might well have been less variegated and more secure in a stabler clime.
Once it had been established in many minds -- I believe for the first time in history -- that members of the "privileged" classes could relate genuinely to revolution as a response to the pain in their own lives, rather than only the pain that others felt; and once the American mystification which restricted the adjective 'political' to describing the electoral process had broken for many, admitting even sex and the biochemistry of madness to its domain . . . well then, a great wilderness opened to us, and we are not even recovered from the shock, let alone finding our way.
In politics is reflected our culture's general state of shock. Here it can be seen that the visionary task is no longer "simply" to redistribute equitably the material privilege and power of the few among all, itself a task in which we are losing ground; but to re-form even those conditions of life which recently we offered to the world as model, in view of the stifling of life and freedom we now can recognize in them. The Soviet bureaucratic state tells us about revolution too narrowly conceived; China tells us each culture must find its own way. And we are here, with all the colors and genders and ages and occupations learning to demand the basic rights: just at a time when technology forces us to recognize the gestalt organism we have become through it and the many varieties of general death we have set ourselves up for; just when our concept of human nature is breaking open radically; just when the handwriting on the sky says that we must change our middleclassamerican way of life, change it more deeply and abruptly than any civilization has been called upon before to do.
In this circumstance, I think it no wonder that the positive function of ideology has disintegrated, leaving adrift citizenry and radicals alike. No one, no group, has been able to grasp all the needs and implications which have opened and offer us a formulation of goal and strategy which embodies them fully enough to deserve allegiance. We are left to formulate from the morass, each alone, some sense to apply to the tiny patch of turf on which each of us labors. We are in a chaos. It has some healthy aspects, for from the rich bewildering drift of old and new input many different patterns of dealing with reality are emerging. But too many are adrift and paralyzed by the overall lack of sense; and the rest cling overtight against this to what they think they understand.
[Fadeout on Therapy]
In this chaos I experience the stripping away or radical transformation of my definition of myself as political actor. At first I saw as political only my actions of social protest and electoral citizenship. Fifteen years later I see as political every use and limitation of my consciousness, how and where I shit and touch my ]over and repair my car. Do I retreat from my Marxist forebears or go beyond them, in seeing not a single prime determinant of our condition, as they did in productive relationships, but a total web of factors which will not permit the mechanisms of homeostasis and change to be single-mindedly approached or explained in terms of linear causality? Talking with the other parents about playgroup sexuality seems as profound politically as piling another brick on Watergate, planting a garden and hugging people as essential as wildcat strikes. After ten years of mulling them, the connections among all these matters have become familiar, I can hardly recall what it was like not to see them.
This collapse of traditional categories -- for that's what I'm talking about -- didn't just happen to me while I was standing in the crumbling mind of the time. I sought it actively, as a consequence both of my own psychological proclivities and of the understandings I was reaching through my work about education, authority, specialization, and the very process of Western thought; in general, about what was dawning in our culture and what was to be desired. And having in my mind smashed some of the barriers that divided an integral society and self into fragmentary processes, I find myself in the odd experience of seeing everything with almost equal vividness through the lens of ultimate politics. On one extreme this invokes in me a deep terror: not being able to define political actions as those which are so primarily in themselves leaves me unable to continue defining myself as political man in any familiar way, and my sense of who I am falls apart in an area quite important to me. On the other extreme there is a modest but transcendent bliss involved in coming to experience myself no longer in fragments, but with my political man and my learner and my lover and my parent and my technical man and all those folks somewhat inescapably one.
"Political" is still a useful term for me, though beyond a small circle I feel like a relativist among Newtonians, making sense only in limiting cases. When I look through the political lens now, I see that all that I do is an essential test of holiness, politically speaking. And I begin to think of myself as political man now as I did of the Taoists who, I used to imagine, finally pursued the Way intensely enough to disappear from what they were doing, and came back later to resume those same lives, outwardly indistinguishable but transfigured and transforming.
(2)) "How We Learn Today in America," Saturday Review, August 19, 1972.