Harbin’s Founder, Ishvara, On His 80th Year
[Excerpted from his book, Oneness in Living, available from the Harbin bookstore and Amazon.]
I was born Robert F. Hartley in a wealthy, socially advantaged family. I had the best of private education, but was tied in knots from social inadequacy and sexual frustration. I was so scared of girls I never kissed one goodnight until about 25. At Harvard College, I was on probation and was almost expelled. My social and financial advantages felt like disadvantages, for they came with a huge burden of expectation I felt incapable of meeting.
Gradually, my life changed. While at Columbia, I spent three years in psychoanalysis and was president of the small International Students Club. At 27 I went to Mexico, hoping to use my study of international economic development to get a job or join a business. Legal obstacles against North Americans made it impossible to find employment, so while I was deciding what to do next, I started reading. I devoured the books of Erich Fromm [who] became my first real teacher, leading me to Zen, to my first experiments in meditation, and to Alan Watts and Fritz Perls. Wide-ranging study and practice of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality became my main path and remained so until my middle fifties.
At 31 I became involved in the movement to create schools like the Summerhill School in England. Part of my stock market profits went to support one such school and to start another, where I went to live and teach.
Fritz Perls, who founded Gestalt Therapy, was the most exciting author I had read. I had tried two times to move to where he was, to Miami and to Los Angeles, only to find that he had moved on. Now he was at the Esalen Institute on the California coast and my move to Berkeley was partly to be near him. I realized that he would not spend time teaching a psychological mess like me, I needed to make myself ready for him.
In Berkeley, I attended all sorts of encounter and other groups, the best of which was a “Gestalt Encounter Group.” I thought the leader was a genius, until I found that the genius was in the new techniques Perls had invented and described in his new book, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. While his previous writings had been primarily theoretical, this book focused on these new, amazingly effective practical methods.
The discovery of these techniques began a very creative period for me. I worked alone with my dreams by alternating roles with a tape recorder. First I would be the client and tell my dream to the recorder. Then, as therapist, I would listen to the recorded dream, and give and tape an instruction. As client, I would listen to the instruction and carry it out. Taping everything, I would alternate these two roles until the work was finished. This system allowed me to record my dreams when I woke up and work on them later, and I could review and critique both roles whenever I wanted.
With this method, I did not have to worry about incorrect therapeutic interpretations or what the therapist thought of me. I could act stupid or crazy and do embarrassing things whenever the therapy called for it. There were no head-trips about projections onto the therapist, just resolution of inner conflicts. If there is a single event that changed me from being a psychologically troubled person to a person who could resolve problems and move beyond them, it was this self-therapy.
The teachers at the Gestalt Therapy Institute asked to have one of their teachers guide me privately, and I agreed. She approved what I was doing and recommended me as a trainee. The training was a series of group sessions with a few teaching pointers added. It was very helpful, but not nearly as important as my self-therapy and individual sessions with students. Most other trainees were more interested in how they looked than in serious work on themselves, for which you have to be willing to look like an idiot.
I emphasize the Gestalt Therapy period of my life because it changed me from being an inhibited person to a powerful one. It radically revised my idea of what I could accomplish and taught me to adapt to an accelerated rate of growth and development, a rate that has continued and accelerated ever since.
I had bought Harbin Hot Springs in April 1972, but did not move there until June 1973, for it had no housing suitable for my wife and two daughters. The Summerhill-type school I had helped to create and where I had lived was foundering, so I had to act to protect my investment. The school had 120 students and 60 staff, so it was a significant operation, though it had changed from a Summerhill orientation to a medical one. I made substantial changes, but at a much slower pace than I thought necessary. My wife was very unhappy to be back, and my kids did not like it either. Moving back to Green Valley School pretty much broke my marriage.
When I bought Harbin Hot Springs, it was a run-down mess. The health department had thrown out the previous occupant, a commune, and the property had been thoroughly vandalized. There were seven inches of debris on all the floors made up of broken glass from the windows and paper from the short-lived commune newspaper called the Harbinger, which was centered on LSD and UFO’s.
After having been owner at the Florida school and in some other situations, I did not want to live in a community as the property owner. I called a meeting of those who seemed interested in more than a place to live, six in all, and we decided what kind of place it was to be. I created Heart Consciousness Church in 1975 and donated the property to it. After the first few months, I was its secretary and later its president.
While progress at Harbin Hot Springs was rapid to most people, it was slow compared to my dreams. I did not feel fulfilled. Years earlier I had said, ostensibly jokingly, that my ambition was to be both a Buddha and a billionaire. I had given up personal fortune, but I was creating wealth for Heart Consciousness Church. The Buddha part was not happening.
Yogeshwar Muni taught Kundalini Yoga, which had interested me for years, but I had never met anyone who really knew about it. From my reading it seemed the highest and most powerful form of Yoga, avoided for that reason by most yoga students and teachers.
After nine months of practicing, what he then described as kundalini awoke, and I was on my way to more advanced stages. I was now meditating eight hours per day, which he said was the maximum one should do. Two and a half years after I started, I was told of secret practices that rapidly took me past the next two stages. In my fifth year, I went through a very difficult stage which made me sicker and weaker than ever before in my life, but I continued to practice.
After four more years, I was feeling stuck. An excellent psychic said I would die soon if I continued what I was doing. Other psychics said similar but less threatening things. Later I learned that I was making a serious error: in trying to follow what I thought was an instruction, I was forcing rather than surrendering. In these circumstances, I eased up my meditation, so I thought, but I was wrong again and was actually stopping it.
Without the heavy drag of purification induced by my meditation, my life became more active, and in 1989 I was married again. In early 1994, Yogeshwar Muni returned to the United States and gave a seminar on his yoga. My previous errors became clear and I resumed my meditation… and continue at an even more intense level today.
Meditating is now my biggest activity. It has so much momentum, I cannot imagine being without it.
When I was young I wanted to undertake the greatest and noblest work I could find, especially if no one else was doing it. I did not expect to blaze trails in the spiritual realm, because others seemed so much more qualified – I would have been laughed at to think otherwise! The book Summerhill inspired the main goal I chose: to create a more humane and effective living environment than most people thought possible.
Many are better endowed than I. At Harvard, I was below average in intelligence, diligence, maturity, and ability to focus. To the extent I have risen since then, it is because I am willful, bold, flexible, and persistent. Accomplishment is far more a result of will than of natural, social, or financial endowment.
I have taken what seem like great risks. Each time I failed, I came out all right – frequently better than if I had succeeded. Failure often guided me to see and give up mistaken thinking, and to “Turn adversity into opportunity!” I have found that whenever I fail, I can always, and I means always, see the situation in such a way that I gain instead of losing. Someone who thinks this way and acts on it can never be kept down.
My love to you all.