By Ralph White
The origins of the International Holistic Centers’ Gathering came about almost accidentally when in 1985 the owner of Tarrytown Conference Center located an hour north of New York City, a former Life magazine journalist, invited the directors and program directors of a handful of holistic centers to spend the weekend discussing the trends emerging in our culture. I was fortunate to be among that original group and it has been a strong blessing, one that has opened many doors, that life has enabled me to attend almost every Gathering since over the course of thirty years.
These centers included the newly established New York Open Center from Manhattan, Esalen Institute from Big Sur, California, Omega Institute from upstate New York, and the Boston/Cambridge center known as Interface.
After spending a day or two in each other’s company in relaxed surroundings, it became clear to most of the participants that this was actually a wonderful thing to do. It was energizing, supportive, informative and simply good fun to spend time with one’s peers, finding out how much we all had in common and feeling that real benefits could emerge from time together that was well spent with a good balance of practical discussion and warm conviviality.
And thus an idea was born that has now produced three decades of mutual support and inspiration, and has involved Gatherings all over North America and Europe and involved holistic centers from almost every continent.
During the second half of the Eighties the initial group came together once or twice a year at each other’s centers on both the East and West Coasts of North America. It soon became clear that a lot of learning occurred simply by experiencing how each center operated in its own unique way and how it approached such classic issues as programming, marketing, community and a wealth of other factors that the vast majority of holistic centers must face on a daily basis. Equally as helpful, in fact down right inspiring, was the sense that we were all part of an emerging ecology of consciousness, each with our own role to play as our cultures began to subtly embrace a more holistic and ecological worldview.
The original group of four was joined by Hollyhock from British Columbia, Canada, and the Gathering took place in North America for the remainder of that decade. However, when the Nineties began, our attention shifted to Europe and remained there for the next ten years. It was clear that the emerging holistic worldview, for which these centers provided essential focal points, was a global phenomenon. Many of us were familiar with the concept of a planetary transformation, a spontaneous awakening on a worldwide basis, that was helping to usher in a new set of values and practices that offered a path beyond the dead end of consumerism and materialism that had come to dominate our societies. As the Centers’ Gathering moved to Europe in the spring of 1990, the reality of this phenomenon began to come alive in practical and experiential terms.
We met that year at the Association Les Courmettes in the Provencal Alps just north of Nice. Amazingly enough, centers came from all over the continent – France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, even Yugoslavia and Hungary, countries newly emerging from communism. When we came together it was immediately apparent that although we were all entirely autonomous initiatives with little regular interaction between us we were all on the same spiritual wavelength. When we entered the silence for our first moment of meditative attunement, there was something deeply moving in the atmosphere, a sense that here amongst us was palpable evidence that this spontaneous planetary transformation was genuinely happening, and in ways few of us could have imagined.
A center from Berlin brought us all small chunks of the recently destroyed Berlin Wall and the idea arose – why don’t we meet behind the former Iron Curtain? Could there really be a yearning for holistic and spiritual values among the countries repressed for half a century by a grey Soviet ideology? It was an irresistible suggestion, and the next year we met in a palace on the Danube south of Budapest and were joined by some of the early pioneers of transpersonal exploration in Eastern Europe.
For the rest of the Nineties, the Gathering met in a new country each year – Germany, Russia, Poland, Croatia, and Holland. In Moscow it became apparent that people from all over the former Soviet Union were very interested in starting centers themselves and so a small group from the NY Open Center, Hollyhock, Omega, and the West-East Consciousness Network began to offer workshops prior to the Gathering for those in Eastern Europe wishing to know more about the mechanics and practicalities involved in getting centers off the ground. These proved highly enjoyable and heart-expanding as East truly met West in new ways.
When the new millennium dawned, our attention turned back to North America. It was time to bring the Gathering to the West Coast where holistic culture is probably as well established as anywhere on earth. As I had attended each of the Gatherings since the very beginning on behalf of the New York Open Center, I was well positioned to work with British Columbia’s Hollyhock to re-launch our annual meeting after a short spell of quietude at the end of the prior century.
The Gathering continued to spread its goodwill and mutual support throughout the 2000’s at Mount Madonna Center in Northern California, Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, The Haven on Gabriola Island in British Columbia, and at Kalani Honua on the Big Island of Hawaii. Centers joined us from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil and the community grew strong and supportive. Friendships developed, much helpful information was exchanged, and we all found inspiration from each other’s successes and tried to bring compassion and wisdom to each other’s challenges.
After a decade in North America, the time had come once again to include Europe as a place to meet. Findhorn in Northern Scotland, where a vision has always existed of an emerging Network of Light, a symbolic picture of focal points for a new and necessary consciousness, included the Gathering as part of its 50th birthday celebrations in 2012. This Gathering attracted participants for the first time from Africa and Asia. The following year Esalen Institute in Big Sur, also celebrating half a century of transformational work, welcomed us with its incomparable baths, ocean vistas and pivotal history in the birth of the human potential movement. Then The Haven on Gabriola Island in Canada hosted and introduced us to some of its contacts in China where a profound interest seems to be emerging in the topics addressed by many of our network of centers. Who would have imagined such a thing?
Today, thirty years after our first meeting, the Gathering finds itself in the remarkable position of having our next three venues already agreed upon from now until the spring of 2016. In May there will be a Gathering in Greece, in October the first Gathering in Asia will take place in China at Hai Wen, eighty kilometers northwest of Beijing, and the following spring we will meet at the newly established Le Monastere des Augustines in Quebec City in a beautiful Seventeenth Century former nunnery now entering a new incarnation.
It is a story that no-one could have predicted – from a seemingly accidental meeting at a conference center outside New York in 1985 to a world-wide network of holistic centers connected to each other in a spirit of warmth, camaraderie, transparency and mutual support, even love. As someone who has been privileged to take this journey from its inception, I must conclude that the International Holistic Centers’ Gathering is a gift and a blessing. Those of us who have attended for any sustained period know that it opens countless doorways to new connections, fresh ideas, and practical wisdom. It strengthens our resolve to continue this vital work even if we face significant obstacles. It provides an enormous amount of sheer knowledge from the experiences, learnings, successes and mistakes of other centers – all shared in an atmosphere of openness and friendship. And it deepens our conviction that our work of cultural transformation is essential, is emerging on a worldwide basis, and benefits greatly from our growing awareness of multiple centers dedicated to the same goal of a more holistic and ecological planet.
Ralph White is the co-founder of the New York Open Center, the city’s leading center of holistic learning and world culture for the last thirty years.