Center for Theory & Research

Volume IV: Somatics

Esalen's Role in Bridging the Body and the Body Politic

Don Hanlon Johnson

A hidden secret shrouds the profound effect that Esalen has had on the world by way of the many transformative body practices that it has nurtured. Attending recent memorials for two longstanding members of the extended Esalen family, I was powerfully reminded of this fact.

One event was for former California State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, held at the University of Santa Clara where John and I had been student body officers in the 1950s. Mitch Saunders, whose family held a special place in John’s life, gave an account of his last days with John struggling in hospice care.

Mostly unconscious, John suddenly opened his eyes and said “Help me, I’m afraid of asphyxiating.” Mitch described his first reactions of utter helplessness. John repeated the request with even more fear and urgency.

As he sat with his panic, Mitch suddenly recalled the work that he and John had done over the years with Stanley Keleman, the founder of the somatic method called Formative Psychology. He found himself intuitively reaching out his hand and placing it gently on John’s upper chest, just below his throat. John calmed. Mitch continued that pattern during the last few days until John gave up his very last breath under Mitch’s hand.

That account took place in the larger context of a memorial service attended by several hundred people of many ethnicities and ages, during which many people described John’s lifelong tough and plodding crafting of a more just society under his rubric, “The Politics of Trust”:  workers’ rights, AIDS research, decriminalization of marijuana, improving public education and healthcare.

In addition, a eulogy came even from his Republican colleagues about his persistence in challenging both Democrats and Republicans to learn the transformative skills that would enable them to work carefully through their differences in the service of all Californians instead of blindly sticking to particularist agendas.

At a time in national politics when the ancient craft of building a society that serves all its members is eviscerated by sectarian rigidities, John’s life stood out as a model for how radically diverse people can, if they choose to work at it, succeed in finding ways to make something together.

Images from top to bottom: Stanley Keleman; Carl Rogers; Charlotte Selver with Don Johnson and Charles Brooks; Ida Rolf; Fritz Perls; Emilie Conrad with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

But John made it very clear during his 38 years in public service that it was no accident of birth that made his achievements possible. It was many individual teachers like Stanley Keleman and Carl Rogers, as well as the community of Esalen teachers that helped him form a vision of how to cross the divide between the self-enclosed individual and the open society.

He learned at Esalen necessary skills like simple touch, pleasurable stretches, and direct communication, which he blended into his humanistic political work during his long and distinguished career in the State Legislature.

Although Mitch’s intuitive touch was inspired by the work of Stanley Keleman, it represented a broad social change involving a large community of gifted teachers, some of whose work is described in this eZine.

Stanley was one of the earliest teachers to recognize that a profound revolution was afoot at the end of the 1960s and early 70's, a recognition that the “self” could not be understood apart from our breathing, moving, posturing, tensing, and gesturing, nor apart from the shapes of our cells, organs, and connective tissues. Not Mind and Body—a much overused phrase to the point of meaninglessness—but a thinking, loving, maturing self, developing out of patterns of breathing, being touched, touching, and gesturing.

Philosopher Thomas Hanna named this revolution in the articulation of our biomorphic selves Somatics. Much of this radical change was forming out of the storm gathering at Esalen where pioneers like Charlotte Selver, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Fritz Smith, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Judith Aston, and Emilie Conrad were given the chance to emerge from their private studios and small groups of students to engage in the intense community discourses going on all over the Esalen property.

Underneath all the seemingly idiosyncratic personalities and methods there was a profound current of appreciation: for our earthiness, for our souls’ rootedness in ancient processes of evolution expressed in the patterns of breath, rushes of excitement, sudden holdings. And, by way of implication, a host of new approaches to transformation grounded in these humble understandings.

The day before John’s memorial, I went to a Catholic retreat house in Encino to the memorial of another dear friend and longtime Esalen teacher, Emilie Conrad, founder of Continuum. It was as different from John’s service as was her personality from his. Santa Clara was filled mostly with hard workers in the field of social justice and politics, of many ages and ethnicities—of necessity and training, skillful with language to express their works. Encino was quieter, mostly people working with non-verbal movement and expression.

And yet, we were there as witnesses of her 60 years of teaching methods of attention to moving, breathing, sounding, and touching that were designed to undo the bonds of what she called the Industrial Revolution model of the self. That self, within which the so-called “body” was structured as a cog in the accumulation of wealth and power, gave shape to communities pitted one against another, the “bellum omnium contra omnes” of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a foundational politics of the modern state.

A week before these memorials, I attended an evening in which Dulce Murphy, Joe Montville and others gave a report on the latest Abrahamic Family Reunion Project in Israel, an event sponsored by Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research.

As I witnessed once again the power of person-to-person encounter in the most conflicted parts of the world, and the ensuing transcendence of seemingly intractable disagreements, I had the strange feeling that the Esalen currents in which many of us in Somatics have been involved for the past 35 years are not all that different in primal inspiration, no matter how radically different are the prime strategies of engagement.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the climate among the various approaches to sensory development, therapeutic strategies of touch, breathing awareness practices, and energetic release had the feel of the clash of dogmas among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

The pioneering teachers of Somatics quarreled about rigid dogmas governing structure and function, the ideal location of various vertebrae, proper directions for kneading connective tissues, weight-lifting, stretching, and the value of emotional processing connected with these activities.

Yet over time in the dining room, the baths, and strolling around the gardens, many of us found to our surprise that the various named “enemies” were, like us, deeply joined in addressing the sad results of centuries of constructing a disembodied, mechanistically imagined society, out of touch with the basic needs of the people.

Competing orthodoxies could not long endure unchanged in an atmosphere where orthodoxy itself was on the run. In several of the following essays you’ll see a similar dynamic: teachers come to Esalen and learn from their experiences there, whether Moshe Feldenkrais, or the entire Esalen massage crew.

Despite all the technical arguments, and the large egos of the brilliant pioneers, we could not but realize that we were all involved together in a very important social movement.

Devoting ourselves to sensitive and thoughtful breathing, touching, and moving was penetrating to the heart of social change that was not simply a repeat of past forms in new clothing, but a radical transformation about how we experience ourselves with each other within the earth. And how we might gracefully move towards the end.

Don Hanlon Johnson is the founder of the first graduate degree program in Somatics, author of several publications about the role of embodiment in the life of the person, the community, and the world, and a longtime leader of Esalen CTR symposia on these topics.