Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
January 25,   2012
New World Mindfulness

New World Mindfulness


Donald McGown & Marc S. Micozzi and

Mindfulness in Late America*

Just as Suzuki epitomized the intellectual reach of the Zen boom, it may be possible to capture the more popular facets of the time and continue the story through the 1960s by focusing on a single character: the transplanted Englishman Alan Watts. Watts's eccentric career as a scholar-entertainer traveled a ragged arc from the 1930s to the early 1970s, along the way touching most of the important figures and movements in the meeting of Eastern and Western religious thought and practice. The arc described here is drawn with the help of his 1972 autobiography, In My Own Way, whose punning title suggests the paradox of sustaining a powerful public self-image in order to earn a living while discussing the dissolution of the ego, and Monica Furlong's 1986 feet-of-clay biography, whose original title, Genuine Fake, carries an ambiguous truth.

An intellectually precocious and sensitive religious seeker, Watts spent his early years at King's School, Canterbury, which is next to the ancient cathedral. There, the history-steeped atmosphere and rich liturgical expression cast a spell and created a love of ritual that never left him. In his adolescent years at the school, he developed an interest in Buddhism, which he was able to defend on a very high level in debates with faculty. He corresponded with Christmas Humphries, the great promoter of Buddhism and Theosophy and the founder of the Buddhist Lodge in London, who assumed the letters were from a faculty member. When they finally met, Humphries became a mentor, providing guidance for reading and practice, and connecting Watts to other Asian scholars, including D. T. Suzuki. Watts passed up an Oxford University scholarship to, instead, study the Asian traditions that appealed to him. In 1935, Watts published his first book, The Spirit of Zen, a kind of guidebook to Suzuki's densely packed Essays on Zen. Watts's studies expanded; he came to read and write Chinese at a scholarly level, and he read deeply in Taoism, as well as in Vedanta, Christian mysticism, and C. G. Jung's psychology.

Through the Buddhist Lodge, he met Ruth Fuller Everett and her adolescent daughter Eleanor. Ruth had been a member of the ashram-cum-zoo, as Watts called it, of Pierre Bernard--known as Oom the Magnificent--who catered to the New York society ladies by teaching hatha yoga and tantrism. Through that association, she learned of Zen Buddhism, and, taking Eleanor as a traveling companion, set off for Japan. The two became the first Western women to sit in meditation in a Zen monastery. Years later, Ruth married a Zen teacher and eventually became a teacher herself. Watts and Eleanor courted, in a way, and attended meditation sessions together.

Watts's practice at the time was simply to be in the present moment, which he had learned from the independent spiritual teachers J. Krishnamurti (who called it "choiceless awareness") and G. I. Gurdjieff (who called it "constant self-remembering"). He was becoming frustrated with his inability to concentrate on the present and discussed this with Eleanor on their walk home from a session at the Buddhist Lodge. Eleanor said, "Why try to concentrate on it? What else is there to be aware of? Your memories are all in the present, just as much as the trees over there. Your thoughts about the future are also in the present, and anyhow I just love to think about the future. The present is just a constant flow, like the Tao, and there's simply no way of getting out of it." That was it. He came to think of this as his true way of life and continued to practice in this way in various guises throughout his lifetime.

The couple married and moved to the United States, just ahead of World War II in Europe. At this point in his development, after all the resistance and protest, Watts felt drawn to try to fit himself into a vocation that made sense in the West. With his rich Anglican background, the logical choice was the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. Although he had no undergraduate degree, Watts proved the depth of his learning and entered Seabury-Western Seminary in Chicago for a two-year course of study. In his second year, his standing was so far advanced that he was excused from classes and undertook expansive theological reading in personal tutorials. His researches resulted in the book Behold the Spirit, which brought insights from the Eastern religions into profound dialogue with a Christianity he painted as in need of refreshment. Reviewers inside and outside the church greeted it warmly. Ordained, he was made chaplain of Northwestern University, where his feeling for ritual, his skills as a speaker, and his ability to throw a great party brought quick success. Yet tensions in his growing family and his own tendency for excess ended his career; the church in 1950 did not take extramarital affairs and divorce lightly.

Spontaneous Arising: The Work and Practice of Sensory Awareness

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In the opening years of the twentieth century, in Germany, a Harmonische Gymnastik teacher named Elsa Gindler was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She did not simply accept the dire prognosis given her, but rather chose to make a gentle study of her own breathing and the working of her organism. Her attitude was something like, "If this disease came by itself, it can go by itself." As she simply gave her full attention to her own functioning--particularly her breathing--in each moment, she was able to find, and choose, what needed to be allowed in the body for fuller functioning. This was an indigenous form of consciousness exploration coming into the culture from an independent, highly original insight.

In a year of this quiet work, Gindler exchanged her diseased state for health, puzzling her physicians. She then began to teach--or to work with--others in this gentle, permissive way. There was no technique and, indeed, no goal for the participant but finding out "how it is" with each person in the moment. There was no real name for what she did. It was often simply referred to as "the work." Later, Gindler met the music educator Heinrich Jacoby, whose philosophy meshed with hers--he wished to carve over the door to his music school, "Here you should have fun making mistakes." The two together taught what is known in Europe as the Gindler-Jacoby work.

One Gindler student of the many who left Germany before World War II was Charlotte Selver, who began teaching the work in America. Through the 1940s and '50s she met and taught--and greatly influenced--such leading lights in the arrival of humanistic psychology as psychoanalyst Eric Fromm and Gestalt therapy founders Laura and Fritz Perls. In 1950, Fromm introduced her and the work--soon to be called Sensory Awareness--at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She was the only woman to present at Fromm's "Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis" conference in Mexico in 1957. And in 1963 she gave the first experiential workshop at the Esalen Institute in California.

The indigenous work was also being informed by and was informing the practice of Zen in America. Selver also met, taught, and astounded the leading lights in the nascent Zen boom, particularly Watts. Together, they presented many workshops, first in New York, later in California. Watts said of her, "She does what I only talk about." Her Zen students (who also taught her) included Paul Reps, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Richard Baker Roshi, and Zoketsu Norman Fischer.

The influence of Sensory Awareness on the development of American spiritual practice is difficult to overestimate--a great many teachers and students have been touched. Sensory Awareness brings participants into their embodied experience with profound simplicity. In just turning the head or raising an arm with attention and without expectation, layers of conditioning may be recognized and allowed to subside. New clarity comes with exploring how posture, movement, and attitude affect the breath, how the body responds to gravity, and how energy and intention develop and manifest within.

With a new wife and no job, Watts's prospects were, indeed, uncertain as he began work on a new book, The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951). An influential friend, Joseph Campbell, the scholar of universal mythologies, managed to get Watts a grant from the Bollingen Foundation, funded by one of Jung's wealthy patients to support research on myth, psychology, and Oriental philosophy. The book, fueled perhaps by the indigence and indignities of his situation, brought Watts to the directness and clarity of expression that characterizes his work from here on. Here is a description of working with pain by trusting that the mind "has give and can absorb shocks like water or a cushion."

[H]ow does the mind absorb suffering? It discovers that resistance and escape--the "I" process--is a false move. The pain is inescapable, and resistance as a defense only makes it worse; the whole system is jarred by the shock. Seeing the impossibility of this course, it must act according to its nature--remain stable and absorb.

. . . Seeing that there is no escape from the pain, the mind yields to it, absorbs it, and becomes conscious of just pain without any "I" feeling it or resisting it. It experiences pain in the same complete, unselfconscious way in which it experiences pleasure. Pain is the nature of this present moment, and I can only live in this moment. . . .

This, however, is not an experiment to be held in reserve, as a trick, for moments of crisis. . . . This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement. It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but "Look!"

In no time, Watts landed on his feet. He was invited into a position at the founding of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, a precursor of today's California Institute of Integral Studies. He also landed in creative ferment. Instead of the business people and government officials who were the anticipated students for learning Asian languages and culture, the academy drew artists, poets, and religious and philosophical thinkers who were open to the kind of exploration for which Watts and his faculty colleagues had prepared their whole lives. Students included the Beat poet Gary Snyder, with whom Watts struck up a deep friendship, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, who would found the Esalen Institute, and Locke McCorkle, who would become a force in Werner Erhard's est training. As Watts added administrative duties to his teaching, he brought in an amazing range of guest lecturers, including old friends such as D. T. Suzuki; his ex-mother-in-law Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who spoke on Zen koan practice; Pali scholar G. P. Malalasekera, Theravada Buddhist monks Pannananda and Dharmawara; and the Zen master Asahina Sogen. As the academy found its place in the community, local connections were made with Chinese and Japanese Buddhists. Through the academy, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki came to understand the need for a Western Zen institution, later creating the San Francisco Zen Center. Watts himself spoke and gave workshops up and down the West Coast and began a relationship with the Berkeley radio station KPFA, the first community-funded station in the United States, broadcasting regularly, and appeared as well on the educational television station KQED. He was stirring what was fermenting, and that would soon distill itself as a kind of renaissance.

And the Beat Goes On

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The core of the Beat writers coalesced for a moment in 1956 in San Francisco, and Jack Kerouac captured it in his novel The Dharma Bums (1958). Its central character is the poet and Zen student Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), whom the narrator, Ray Smith (Kerouac), idolizes for his "Zen lunatic" lifestyle, combining Zen discipline and aesthetics with freewheeling sensuality. One scene in the novel recounts the Six Gallery poetry reading, at which Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia read, and Allen Ginsberg's incantation of his poem "Howl" did, indeed, scream for a generation about the agonies of 1950s fear and conformity (and fear of conformity, and conformity as a form of dealing with fear). The Dharma Bums, coming fast on the heels of Kerouac's bestselling On the Road (published in 1957), drew a huge readership of the young and aspiring hip, who saw in Ryder/Snyder a new template for living, a chance to go beyond the confines of suburban expectations. This fueled the Zen boom from the popular culture side, prompting complaints from the Western Zen community of practitioners and academics about the authenticity of the Beat's Buddhism. Both the popular and elite outlooks drew a chastening commentary from Watts in his essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," as he showed that their differences arose from the same fundamental background and impulse:

The Westerner who is attracted to Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will be either "beat" or "square," either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting to foreign conventions, on the other.

Watts, already a friend and admirer of Snyder, whom he exempted from his criticisms due to Snyder's level of Zen scholarship and practice, soon came to count the rest of the Beats as friends and accepted many of them as "serious artists and disciplined yogis." He had connections to many seemingly disparate worlds. There were old guard spiritual seekers, like expatriate friend Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World); members of the highest circles of art, music, and literature; Asian meditation teachers from many different traditions and cultures; psychotherapists of every stripe; and the old guard bohemians, the Beats, and the students--all of whom, as the 1960s began, would come together to create a culture into which Watts was not fitted, but built.

In the revolutionary 1960s, a catalyst of the new culture was the beginning of experimentation with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and other psychedelic drugs in the 1950s, and the publicity surrounding it. Huxley's descriptions of his experiences in The Doors of Perception (1954) were illuminating, but for Watts, it was about embodiment--that his once ascetic and severe "Manichean" friend had been transformed into a more sensuous and warm man made the promise real. Watts's own controlled experiments, in which he found his learning and understanding of the world's mystical traditions and meditative practices extremely helpful, resulted in powerful experiences, followed (inevitably) by enthusiastic essays and broadcasts, as well as by a book, Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (1962). His position as a proponent of the drugs for experienced, disciplined explorers of consciousness helped fan interest--the more so when Watts coincidentally was given a two-year fellowship at Harvard just as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) were beginning their engagement with psychedelics there. The spread of psychedelics beyond the specialists added a key facet to what social critic Theodore Roszak, in 1969, dubbed the "counter-culture." "It strikes me as obvious beyond dispute, that the interests of our college-age and adolescent young in the psychology of alienation, oriental mysticism, psychedelic drugs, and communitarian experiments comprise a cultural constellation that radically diverges from values and assumptions that have been in the mainstream of our society since at least the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century."

Just as the 1950s Zen boom can be captured in the Fromm-Suzuki meeting in Mexico in 1957, the 1960s can, perhaps, be captured in a meeting (admittedly much larger), the "Human Be-In" in the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in 1967. A procession led by Snyder, Ginsberg, and Watts, among others, circumambulated the field as in a Hindu or Buddhist rite to open the day. Tens of thousands found their way there, dressed in colorful finery, raising banners, dropping acid, listening to the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and digging the mix of the crowd; the inclusion of Leary and Alpert, political radical Jerry Rubin, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, and activist/comedian Dick Gregory suggests the organizers' intention to unify "love and activism." The Be-In became a model for gatherings around the United States and the world. The color, light, and promise of the day were captured by Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane in "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon." The soaring harmonies and instrumental arrangement convey a fuller experience, but if you can't listen, try to visualize this stanza:

Saturday afternoon,

Yellow clouds rising in the noon,

acid, incense and balloons;

Saturday afternoon,

people dancing everywhere,

Loudly shouting "I don't care!"

It's a time for growing,

and a time for knowing love.

And another shift had already begun. At the leading edge of cultural change, seekers had learned what was to be learned from psychedelic experience and were turning toward the practice of meditation. As Watts put it in his unique blend of the pontifical and the plain, "When one has received the message, one hangs up the phone." Where an infrastructure for the teaching and practice of Zen Buddhism already existed, such as in San Francisco, seekers turned in that direction, following Watts and Snyder.

Another infrastructure had also been building, since 1959, using a mass marketing model to encompass much of the Western world: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation (TM). This was an adaptation of Hindu mantra meditation for Western practitioners, in which the meditator brought the mind to a single pointed focus by repeating a word or phrase; in TM, the mantra was secret, potently exotic, and specially chosen for the meditator. The Beatles, among many other celebrities, discovered (or were "recruited" into) TM in 1967, bringing it to prominence on the world stage. The connection seemed direct. Perhaps the psychedelic experience linked more directly to Hindu meditation than Zen, as well. Watts describes this from his own experience:

LSD had brought me into an undeniably mystical state of consciousness. But oddly, considering my absorption in Zen at the time, the flavor of these experiences was Hindu rather than Chinese. Somehow the atmosphere of Hindu mythology slid into them, suggesting at the same time that Hindu philosophy was a local form of a sort of undercover wisdom, inconceivably ancient, which everyone knows at the back of his mind but will not admit.

The TM movement was able to aggressively take advantage of the publicity available to it. In 1965 there were 350 TM meditators in the United States, by 1968 there were 26,000, by 1972 there were 380,000, and by 1976 there were 826,000. (Later Deepak Chopra was able to vault onto the New York Times bestseller list with appropriated ancient ayurvedic wisdom by asking each of the TM meditators to buy ten copies of his first book.) The marketing strategy targeted specific populations, giving the practice and its benefits a spiritual spin, a political-change spin, or a pragmatic "self-help" spin depending on the target. The pragmatic approach, designed to reach the middle-class, middle-management heart of the market, was given impetus through scientific research into TM's physical and psychological outcomes, which subsequently captured the attention of the medical establishment. The result was the development of and research on medicalized versions, such as the Relaxation Response at Harvard and Clinical Standardized Meditation. The factors at work here--translation into Western language and settings, popular recognition, adoption within scientific research in powerful institutions, and the use of sophisticated marketing and public relations techniques--represent a model for success in the building of new social movements.

On both the substantive and popular levels, then, the market for Eastern and Eastern-inflected spiritual practices grew steadily. Looking from 1972 back to himself in 1960, Watts provides perspective on this growth:

In my work of interpreting Oriental ways to the West I was pressing a button in expectation of a buzz, but instead there was an explosion. Others, of course, were pressing buttons on the same circuit, but I could not have believed--even in 1960--that [there would be] a national television program on yoga, that numerous colleges would be giving courses on meditation and Oriental philosophy for undergraduates, that this country would be supporting thriving Zen monasteries and Hindu ashrams, that the I Ching would be selling in hundreds of thousands, and that--wonder of wonders--sections of the Episcopal church would be consulting me about contemplative retreats and the use of mantras in liturgy.

At the turn of the decade of the 1960s, through political dislocations, waves of immigration, and economic opportunism, new teachers from many of the Eastern traditions became available to offer instruction in the West. At the same time, Westerners of the post-World War II cohort who studied in the East, or with Eastern teachers in the West, began to find their own approaches and voices for teaching as well.

The 1970s were a time of institution building at an unprecedented scale, a time in which, for example, Buddhism in America took its essential shape. Watts only flashed on this, only saw the promised land from afar. He died in 1973, at age fifty-eight, of a heart attack. His health had been in decline for some time, due to overwork and problems with alcohol. And in that, his example was again prophetic, foreshadowing the revelations in the 1980s of many spiritual teachers' feet of clay.

*This Excerpt Reprinted by Permission of the Publisher, Healing Arts Press. Copyright C 2011 Donald McGown & Marc S. Micozzi All Rights Reserved


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