A Time for Authenticity and Awakening
Esalen Team
September 1, 2020
"One of the key tenets of authenticity is congruence, being congruent. The course I'm offering is designed to gently deconstruct students’ belief systems, enable them to make healthy long-term choices, empower them to declare what sort of lives they wish to lead and people they wish to be—and then give them all of the tools necessary to lead those lives and be those people." —Ira Israel

Like many people during COVID-19, Esalen faculty Ira Israel was forced to create significant shifts in the ways he interacts with his extended community. One of the more enterprising endeavors he recently launched is a free online course for the Esalen community. Authenticity and Awakening for Lovable Idiots! can be accessed here and it is designed to assist people in learning all of the skills necessary to keep them at the high end of their happiness spectrum—for the rest of their lives. Who’s game?

“As a psychotherapist I work with many extraordinary human beings who lead extraordinary lives on the outside but who are unfulfilled or dissatisfied on the inside,” says Ira, a licensed psychotherapist and author of How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You're an Adult: The Path to Authenticity. “One of the essential components of my book is getting people to be authentic because authenticity is our best shot at long-term happiness. One of the key tenets of authenticity is congruence, being congruent.

“This course is designed to gently deconstruct students’ belief systems, enable them to make healthy long-term choices, empower them to declare what sort of lives they wish to lead and people they wish to be—and then give them all of the tools necessary to lead those lives and be those people.”

One of the main components found in Ira’s work is the concept of “hacking the system,” a process that involves learning more about how the mind was built to function and how to make it work more smoothly, preferably with grace and in your favor.

“The mind’s primary objective is to try to stave off future trauma,” Ira explains. “All of us were traumatized, probably several times, when we were children and our minds said, ‘Wow, that really sucked. I’m never going to let that happen again. I’m going to build this array of defense mechanisms, such as sarcasm, material success, physical strength, academic degrees, etc.’ So by the time most people are 25 years old, they are responses—defense mechanisms—waiting for stimuli to occur.

This is inauthentic and living in the past.

“These prejudgments and prejudices that enabled us to survive our childhoods are now hindering us from being truly vulnerable and living in the often-precarious present moment—like a trapeze artist without a net: our facades are our safety nets," Ira adds. "I hope this course helps people stop living by other people’s measures of success and to shift their priorities towards love—away from ego gratifications, which are ephemeral.”

The Way Toward Service and Community

Ira’s path toward being more authentic and in service to the community is filled with curiosity, determination and, perhaps, several sparks of wit and serendipity. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he studied with Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic; Freud: Mind of the Moralist) and philosophy with Alexander Nehamas (Nietzsche: Life As Literature).

After graduating in 1988, he garnered a Master of Arts degree in philosophy at the University of Connecticut and concentrated on aesthetics, semiotics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind.

To be sure, these were among many significant turning points for Ira, who was determined to understand the mind more deeply. What followed was a real-life course. A memorable two-year collaboration with other creatives in singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s office at Warner-Elektra-Atlantic in New York City found him producing Russell Donnellon’s Ursa Minor CD.

When he later moved to Paris, he worked with Luc Besson on the screenplays for The Professional and The Fifth Element, and then with Chantal Akerman on the screenplay for A Couch in New York.

The power of community was at work in these settings and when Ira explored Thailand in 1994, his desire to be of service deepened. He became fascinated by Buddhism, yoga and meditation and eventually went on to study the histories of mindfulness and yoga with icons such as Alan Wallace, David Gordon White, Barbara Holdrege and the late Ninian Smart.

As his work in the world continued to expand, he also had the privilege to have sat with His Holiness The Dalai Lama on numerous occasions and study Buddhism at Spirit Rock with Jack Kornfield, Rick Hanson, Fred Luskin, James Baraz and other luminaries.

When asked what he loves most about the work he is doing in the world now, Ira reflects back to the Esalen community and the many workshops he taught on campus. In fact, for the entire time he has taught at Esalen, Ira provided “Drive-Through Therapy” for all of his students who are usually seeking fresh perspectives on their lives. “I set up a little booth by the pool and each student had 10 minutes to ask one question,” Ira reflects. “It’s so unbelievably intense and intimate. But I get texts and emails years later thanking me for mirroring back to people what I hear their souls yearning for.”

Ira loves that particular practice so much that he will offer it to anybody enrolling in Authenticity and Awakening for Lovable Idiots! who may have questions upon completing the course.

Expanding our potential requires, among other things, becoming more aware of ourselves and what is occurring within. To that end, Ira shares several key actions we can take in an effort to spark our authentic self.

  1. Employ the quote “I don’t know who discovered water but I doubt it was a fish” (Marshall McLuhan). This allows us to get a fresh perspective on what Gaia (Mother Earth) is saying. “We are operating under many systems that we consider to be ‘normal,’” Ira explains. “Capitalism, energy from fossil fuels, our bizarre form of supposedly representative democracy, the myth of romantic love including marriage for life, ‘science,’ a thankfully moribund patriarchy, Western medicine, etc. We are amidst the implosion of many of these systems. And these systems are imploding because they are unsustainable—they exploit, they oppress, they engender inequality.

    If you tried to tell my grandmother in 1972 that one day there would be transgender bathrooms, a black man would be president, gay people could marry, and marijuana would be legal, she would have replied 'Never!' So what if I told you that in 2070 people would look back at us and say, ‘Those imbeciles: they had to use iPhones—they didn’t realize they could communicate telepathically!

    Those imbeciles: they had to use airplanes—they didn’t realize that they could teleport themselves! Can you believe that once marijuana was illegal and now it’s mandatory! They used to have armies—they didn’t realize they could live peacefully together.’ We need to use this time to get fresh perspectives on our Dharma and our roles on Team Transition as we help guide humanity to the next iteration of civilization—one based on compassion and abundance rather than scarcity and zero-sum, survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all economics.
  2. Learn all of the available tools to keep yourself at the high end of your happiness spectrum. “If you know that hiking, long meals, great literature and meditation make you happy, then make time for them,” Ira says. “Anyone reading this isn’t running from lions and tigers or working 18 hours per day in a coal mine. Irrespective of COVID-19, Westerners are the most privileged human beings to ever exist: so why do 22 million Americans take anti-depressants every day? We know what it takes to lead fulfilling lives so it’s time to overcome our fears, create and step into our own auspiciousness, and make the world a better place.”

    3. Be the change. Ira says it’s really up to us to make a huge change and do everything in our power to eradicate racism, homophobia, misogyny and design a new way of interacting with other people. “We are interdependent creatures who have become estranged from Gaia and each other,” he adds. “We need to learn a new way of being. I’m 100 percent convinced that I do not have the answers. I just want to engage in the most efficient and interesting conversations. As I say in Authenticity and Awakening for Lovable Idiots, nobody wants it to say, 'Worked Really Hard' on his tombstone. We all want it to say, 'Beloved.' So we have to re-engineer our daily activities so they all point in that direction: Love.”

Through Sept. 15, Ira is offering his course free to the entire Esalen community: Please sign up here (use coupon code: ESALEN). After Sept. 15, use coupon code: ESALEN1.

Learn more about Ira Israel