by Ralph White, 2003
Over the last quarter century or more, many of us have clung to the notion that there is some kind of awakening of consciousness happening throughout the planet. Countless spiritual visionaries have spoken of a global paradigm shift, but in Bush’s retrograde America can we really see any evidence that this is happening? Skeptics might do well to examine a little known event that has passed unnoticed by most observers – the annual International Gathering of Holistic Centers that took place recently at Hollyhock, Canada’s beautiful island retreat in British Columbia.
Esalen in Big Sur, California and Omega Institute in Upstate New York may be well known in the holistic community but, in fact, there are hundreds of similar centers in numerous parts of the world. Some are in the heart of big cities like New York’s Open Center, while others like Hollyhock are set in secluded settings of exquisite natural charm. All have in common a dedication to the creation of a more holistic, spiritual and ecological world, and all bring in presenters from a broad spectrum of inner disciplines and philosophical and artistic perspectives. These centers have quietly and subtly evolved into an informal planetary network of alternative learning. They have become hubs of cultural and spiritual renewal. Yet they have done so entirely without any form of centralized organization and purely in response to their sense of the soul and society’s needs.
So what exactly are holistic learning centers? They are places that change people’s lives. Books and magazines are wonderful but alone their influence is limited. We need places where the new cultural paradigm can express itself, places devoted wholeheartedly to the great work of awakening consciousness. In the modern age, these are unlikely to be limited to monasteries and cathedrals. They emerge instead from a few seemingly crazy individuals who feel that their city or region needs some kind of focal point for life enhancing new ideas and practices.
Most universities are too gripped by the reductionist spirit of post-modernism or an attachment to conventional secular thinking to serve as instruments of creative change. So someone pulls together a few speakers, rents a hall, produces a few flyers and ads, and the center begins to move into manifestation. Community begins to form, people feel different knowing that an oasis exists for their kind of thinking and being, and hope stirs in people’s hearts that they are not alone in their beliefs or intentions. At conferences and workshops, fresh inspirations form in participants to bring a more holistic perspective to their professional domain or to their family lives. And thus the work of awakening and renewal goes on.
It may come as a surprise to most that since the mid Eighties, many of the world’s leading holistic learning centers have met annually to share notes and ponder the overall direction of the inner and outer changs to which they are dedicated. While the participants have changed over the years, and the location of the gathering has ranged from Big Sur to Moscow, Russia, the same feeling is always present that these centers are, in some way, all part of an emerging ecology of consciousness. This is an event that makes vague talk of planetary transformation come alive and real. To sit in a room with dozens of totally autonomous centers, often from vastly different cultural and linguistic contexts, is to realize that, without question, there is a spontaneous, worldwide movement towards holistic and ecological awakening. Yes, it really is happening.
The Gathering began on the East Coast when the New York Open Center, Esalen, Interface from Boston, Omega Institute and, soon after, Hollyhock, from British Columbia came together to share information, talk frankly about what was and was not working, and evolve a natural camaraderie. It was time to exchange ideas, new visions and best practices in an open spirit, conscious that the competitive, withholding attitudes of conventional business were not for them. The group met frequently throughout the second half of the Eighties, moving from center to center, and at the beginning of the new decade the Gathering shifted to Europe.
In 1990 the setting was the exquisite Association Les Courmettes, a delightful French center high on a mountain top overlooking Nice on the French Riviera. Centers arrived from Germany, Belgium, England, Scotland, Holland, Switzerland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, as well as the United States and Canada. It seemed that for a few days, a true united nations of alternative spirituality was in operation. All it took was a little opening of the heart, a few moments of silence at the first lunch, and the sense of unity, of shared commitment to the larger goal of global shift in consciousness was palpable, moving attendees to tears.
It was the time of the demolition of the Berlin Wall and everyone found the participation of a few fledgling centers from behind the Iron Curtain to be deeply affecting. So it was decided that the following year we would hold our Gathering near Budapest. Could it really be true that hidden among the millions on whom our nuclear missiles had been targeted for decades were people with the same yearning for spiritual knowledge and holistic living as us? From the point of view of the Twenty First Century, such a question seems almost absurd. But little more than a decade ago the communist lands were a vast black hole in our knowledge and the deep inner concerns of their inhabitants were almost entirely unknown.
The Gathering in Hungary was a fascinating and eye opening experience. It was attended by the early pioneers of alternative culture from Poland and Czechoslovakia – people who had started Zen publishing houses in Warsaw under the eye of the authorities or a rare American teaching English to President Havel’s staff in Prague and eager to bring something more worthwhile from the West than Big Macs and M & M’s. Suddenly it was clear that the post-communist world was filled with people on our wavelength, that Cold War rumors of Russian hippies rioting at Santana concerts were probably true, and that the whole holistic movement suddenly had a massive new field of endeavor.
Consequently, there were annual Gatherings in Russia, Poland and, eventually, Croatia. In each location, people would emerge from these spiritually repressed countries ravenous for information on how to start and develop holistic centers. Although they new little of Western counter culture, they were eager to learn and to create nodes for the healthy renewal of their battered cultures. And they were willing to give years of their lives to making available teachings and practices long held at bay by the iron fist of state censorship.
There was a special sweetness in the early Nineties as former political and military enemies greeted each other in the spirit of warmth and mutual support. Obviously it was not possible to create major holistic learning centers in the economic turmoil and chaos that pervaded the Slavic world at the time, but inspiration, encouragement and models of holistic thinking could be successfully offered and gratefully received.
The Gathering returned to the West in Amsterdam and France in the latter part of the decade, and then shifted back to North America last year when western Canada’s remote but exquisite Hollyhock became the host. The attendees included the Findhorn Foundation from Scotland, Naropa University from Colorado, the Institute of Noetic Studies, the Ojai Foundation and the University of Creation Spirituality, all from California and, as ever, the Open Center from New York. In addition to these well established centers, there were embryonic initiatives from Brazil and Australia eager to learn from the elders.
As always, the sense of warmth and connectedness between all participants was evident from the start. These organizers who devote so much of their lives to creating nourishing and transforming experiences for others need to take time to nourish themselves. They need to escape the notorious sense of isolation that can afflict even a well attended center in a society whose media largely ignores the activities and interests of Cultural Creatives. For those behind the scenes, too often the least holistic aspect of their work is their own lives. Harried, stressed, overworked and underpaid, rushing for the next deadline, planning the next event, they need to take time to slow down, meet their peers, and try to put their fingers on the pulse of the overall holistic movement. Where are we now after thirty or more years of effort to bring holistic perspectives to society at large? Have we made any progress? Do our efforts need to shift focus?
In this year’s Gathering, held again at Hollyhock in May, participants grappled with these concerns. Are we businesses or sacred places or both? Should the constant appearance of new centers make us feel threatened, or should we take this as a sign of our success, part of the inevitable and appropriate expansion of awareness to which we are all committed? The days of a few spiritual misfits trusting their hearts and their attunement to the divine to start a center may be fading fast as alternative approaches to health, lifestyle and personal development become increasingly mainstream and major investors begin to realize the size of the potential market.
Veterans in the business saw possible patterns of change. One suggestion was that from the late Sixties to the early Nineties we saw a kind of new dispensation, a time in which new teachers and teachings were constantly appearing and it was the job of a center’s program director to stay abreast of the latest Tibetan lama to emerge from the Himalayas, or a new shaman, bodywork technique, or fresh dimension of complementary medicine or contemplative practice.
For perhaps quarter of a century the supply of new ideas seemed limitless as we mined the eastern religions, the esoteric traditions, the body/mind disciplines, the indigenous cultures and the world’s mythologies for new insight. Now, it can be argued, that time of dispensation has largely ceased and we live in a period when our goal has shifted toward the integration of these new riches into the heart of society. Thus for the next quarter of a century, perhaps the future of holistic learning lies increasingly in the direction of professional trainings and degrees. Might centers rely less on people’s spare time and money, and more on the funds participants devote to serious, in depth education? And finally, is the new edge the integration of all these holistic and ecological insights into a social and political life that has become so dangerously out of balance?
Certainly Hollyhock‘s Leadership Institute is doing pioneering work. Its goal is to bring together two worlds that really need to interact more fully. On the one hand we have the social and environmental activists whose understandable anger and confrontational tactics can so easily lead to early burn out. On the other, we have the meditation practitioners, the devotees of inner work, bodywork and artistic expression, who can run the risk of New Age narcissism if they ignore the larger political context in which our lives take place. As these worlds meet and inspire each other, the transformed planet that we all long for moves a big step closer.
The heart, however, of the International Centers Gathering is the meeting of so many diverse groups in a spirit of love and unity. Whether they come from Australia or Siberia, Scotland or Santa Cruz, a similar noble vision lives at the core of most centers and changes for the better the lives of the many thousands who attend their programs. Centers take courage, inspiration and insight from each other’s work. Ultimately they know that their very existence worldwide is powerful evidence that the awakening for which we all yearn is alive and well, and probably living in a center near you.