Sunday, September 5, 2010

throwing a freudian punch

I cannot (with any consistency) see into someone else's subjective experience, whether it be a dreamscape, a mystical encounter, or a schizophrenic nightmare. And my rational mind tells me that spirits do not and cannot exist outside our imagination. Never mind that I too (like everyone else I know) encounter them on a fairly regular basis.

No djinns, No dybbuks. No haouka. No angels. No God. No Holy Spirit. Even if I feel it's there. Can touch it, taste it, merge with it. Hold the conversation. I just don't believe it. I have no empirical evidence of its existence — ie, no independent verification, no replicable methodology...

But people do get dispirited. So the question arises— do people become psychologically demoralized and dejected or have they quite literally, lost their spirit, their soul? The work of Michael Harner and others leads us to ponder this one.

The scientist insists on the former answer: the psycho-dynamic interpretation. The psychological reality. The shamanic practitioner holds to the latter, the ethereal conclusion. The spirit hypothesis, if you will.

The debate is epitomized by the fight that Fritz Perls got into with Carlos Castaneda and Pomo shaman, Essie Parish.

Both Michael Harner and Michael Murphy told me this story on separate occasions. Both of them were there. Murphy set up the whole debate. He thought a forum on the question might lead to a resolution of the matter, once and for all. So he invited them all to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur to discuss whether or not the spirit world really existed or whether it was all in your head.

Fritz Perls, as you probably know, was a big, hostile, son of a bitch at times. Founder of Gestalt Therapy, but before that, a Freudian (and Reichian) psychoanalyst. On the one side, Fritz Perls insisted that all this spirit crap was simply the work of the very talented and ingenious unconscious. Good metaphor, if you will, but not objective reality. On the other side, Essie Parish insisted that the spirit world was out there, independent of her, her desire, her will, or her unconscious. Harner, I can imagine, chuckled through the whole encounter. Castaneda, according to Murphy, kept floating away quite literally to the other world, thereby frequently exiting the debate. Perls became more and more frustrated. The debate became more and more heated. When Castaneda got up to speak, he rambled on and on. You know: Don Juan this, don Juan that... Story weaving, which is his forte.

Finally, Perls couldn't stand it anymore. He stood up, strode over, hauled off and punched Castaneda full force, smack in the face.

"IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD!" he boomed, to really sock it in.

Castaneda, who was maybe half Perls' size, stopped only for a moment, then went back to his tale, unchanged by the force of Perls' argument. Essie Parish too remained unmoved. Harner chuckled his shamanic chuckle. Murphy shut the forum down. Perls was spitting fire with rational indignation. These people just didn't get it.

So this was the Esalen attempt to settle the matter of spiritual vs psychological reality once and for all.

What it demonstrated was the degree of irreconcilable differences between the two camps. So much for trying to solve the big problems of the nature of the universe before or after soaking one's brains in those infamous moonlit hotsprings on the rocky Big Sur coast. I wonder if they might have made more progress in a conference room with florescent lighting? Would Fritz Perls' point have gotten through if they'd been overlooking the Atlantic instead of the Pacific?

Nobody published what went on at Esalen that day, not for a long long time. Then a couple years ago, Kripal finally recounted an abridged version of what happened in the book he called, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Not even a paragraph's worth. According to Kripal, Claudio Naranjo was present as well, though neither Harner nor Murphy mentioned him in their telling of the tale. The incident was to have been documented for posterity by a local television station that filmed the debate and that final blow that ended the argument between science and religion. And the station (either KRON or KQED, depending on who you ask) managed to lose the film.

Harner laughed his head off when he spoke of the incident. Better to just teach people to go to the Other World to find the answers for themselves.

"Spirits? Unconscious? Who cares what you call it?" says Harner. "As long as it gets the job done."

And Perls? What did a slap in the face or sock in the jaw mean to him?

It was as tangible a piece of objective reality as he was capable of conveying in that moment. A graphic and reasonable contribution to the question, 'what is consensual or socially constructed reality, after all?'

Kripal recounts a part of the tale that I had not heard. Naranjo, he says, was deeply moved not by Harner or Castaneda or Essie Parish at the time — but by Perls. For Naranjo, it was Perls who was the powerful shaman, albeit from the Germanic persuasion.

Score one point then, for the Freudian punch. But only one point. And a subjective one at that.


  1. Doesn't Freudian punch come with one of those little umbrellas? But if you play with it you're reverting to your power animal's latency period.

  2. Score two points then, for the Freudian punch. And: depends which end of the umbrella you focus on...