What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).
The “rise and fall” framework informing Jessica Grogan’s book Encountering America leaves much to be desired, not least because it imposes onto history an imaginary moral economy, one that equates moderation with virtue and radicalism with vice. I found this unexamined framework to be particularly intrusive, for instance, in the chapters of the book dealing with Esalen and LSD. Throughout these chapters, Grogan pins the blame for humanistic psychology’s alleged downfall on what she repeatedly refers to as the chaotic “excesses” of the counterculture — by which she seems to mean some combination of romanticism, hedonism, popular withdrawal of support for institutional authority, and unsupervised experimentation with mind-altering substances. Figures linked with these tendencies include Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Frederick Perls, and William C. Schutz.
My seeking returns me to the Stanford Research Institute, and to Willis W. Harman in particular. I first heard of Harman about eight years ago, while I was researching writers connected with SRI whose paths intersected with the Whole Earth Catalog and its various 1970s offshoots. Harman, it turns out, was a close associate of CIA operative Al Hubbard. Some have called Hubbard “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” Because of his connection to Hubbard, Harman proved instrumental in launching and directing SRI’s “Alternative Futures Project,” the main goal of which was to “turn on” business and thought leaders by introducing them to LSD. Harman also led “The Expanding Vision,” the first seminar at Esalen Institute. Later on, he founded an equally strange, equally “New Age”-oriented organization called the Institute of Noetic Science. Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain mention him several times in Acid Dreams, their social history of LSD and the counterculture. For more on figures like Harman and their links to LSD and the Human Potential movement, check out James Dennis LoRusso’s Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business: The Neoliberal Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capital. Take a look as well at Marion Goodman’s book, The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege.