Expanding Consciousness

The Influence of the 1960s

There were three parts to the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. The first part was the civil rights moment. The second part was the effort to end the Viet Nam War. The third part was what some people called — for lack of a better term — the Human Potential Movement.

The Civil Rights movement is best remembered by the March on Selma, Ala. and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. The Anti-War movement is best remembered by the violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the photo of the dead student lying on the road at Antioch College. The Human Potential Movement is best remembered by the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco.

Today, in looking back over 5 decades, we understand the legacy of the civil rights movement. And we are still grappling with the race issue. We understand the legacy of the anti-war movement. And we are still grappling with the issue of using military means to impose capitalism on the rest of the world. But how do we understand the legacy of the human potential movement?

The Human Potential Movement did not have a clear-cut focus in the 1960’s and it still has no clear-cut focus today. The movement included forays into LSD and other drugs. it explored Buddhism and the realms of Eastern mysticism. it challenged the current orientation of both psychology and psychiatry. It raised questions about what is—or should be— normal in our experience of human life.

We still grapple today with these basic questions.

The Human Potential Movement was a reaction to the conformity and conventionality of the 1950’s. My parents’ generation lived through two wars, a major pandemic, the roaring ‘20’s and the Great Depression. They have been called the Greatest Generation and rightly so. By the 1950’s my parent’s generation was exhausted. Thy just wanted to relax and unwind. Who could blame them?

But for those of us who were the children of this generation, the 50’s was a time of conformity and conventionality. We were told to be nice and get ahead — and don’t make waves. By the 1960’s there was a lot we saw that we didn’t like — and we reacted to it. This was the backdrop to the Human Potential Movement.

The Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s

The HPM arose from a confluence of influences in our society. It was a reaction to the Freudian emphasis in psychiatry which suggested we all had deep unconscious drives that impact how we behave. It was a reaction to the behaviorist emphasis in psychology that believed our actions were driven by animal instincts in the body. The first implied that we were all sick, the other implied that we were little more than instinctive animals. Nowhere was there a discussion of normal human behavior. Instead we were told how to behave.

Lost in all of this was any sense of how normal people could get more meaning out of life.

As a broad generalization, there was an East Coast branch and a West Coast branch of the Human Potential Movement. The East Coast fostered the development of “T-groups”; the West Coast fostered the development of Encounter Groups.

The East Coast and sensitivity training.

The East Coast version began with the development of sensitivity training groups and the National Training Laboratories. This east coast movement took root in the business world, had a lower profile and was much less controversial. It focused on effective group behavior which made it popular in the business world. This is where I first got involved with it.

Sensitivity training began almost by accident. A group of psychologists was doing research on how people behave in groups. Their research design was simple: a group of volunteers were given a project to work on together as a group. As they sat in a circle and worked, they were observed by psychologists who sat in an outer circular around them. There was one observer assigned to observe the behavior of each member of the group. The work group would work together for a period of time, then they would leave the room and the researchers would discuss what they had observed.

But they ran into a glitch. When the researchers were discussing their observations, the volunteer group had nothing to do. The sat around idly wondering what the researchers were talking about. Eventually they went and knocked on the meeting room door and asked if they could sit in the outer circle and listen while the researchers discussed their observations. The researchers did not really want to do this, but they had no good reason to turn them down. They offered to let the volunteers observe so long as they did not interrupt the researchers. The volunteers agreed.

The pattern was now more uniform. The volunteers would meet and work while the researchers observed. Then they changed places. The researchers sat in the center and the volunteers sat on the outside listening to their discussion. But then something important happened. The volunteers started behaving differently. The volunteers, who had heard the researcher’s evaluation of their individual behavior, began to behave differently. As a result, they became more effective as a work group

At first the researchers were bummed. These changes of behavior had contaminated the results. The research project was ruined. And then it slowly dawned on the researchers what really had happened: people changed their behavior after they got feedback about how they acted. Members of the group were now more effective in what they did. In fact, they were a lot more effective. The researchers realized they had stumbled upon a very important insight. When people get feedback on their behavior, they reduce their negative behaviors and increase their positive behaviors. The group works better, gets better results, and everyone is more pleased with the experience.

The researchers had found a simple yet powerful tool for increasing human effectiveness: feedback. It was decided that what was needed was to create opportunities where people can work together and then give and receive feedback. This led to the development of sensitivity training. Sensitivity training involved groups which had no leaders, no roles and no agenda. If you are not prepared for this it is stressful. Each group had to figure out how to work their way through the ensuing conflict. People began to give feedback to one another. The feedback led to more effective behaviors, and most groups would finally come together and jell. For most people it was an exhilarating experience. But not always.

In time sensitivity training was replaced by more structured activities in which people worked together on specific tasks. After they finished their tasks participants evaluated their results and exchanged feedback on working together. The broad term for this is experiential learning.

Experiental learning caught the attention of the business world. Training which resulted in more productive behavior definitely had value to them.

The West Coast and Encounter Groups

The West Coast went in a slightly different direction. This direction had its roots in the Beat Generation of the late 1950’s and the East-West Institute in San Francisco. It came to be focused on Esalen Institute , a former hot springs resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of Big Sur, California. Esalen wanted to explore the overlaps in humanistic psychology and eastern mysticism. Its approach was hands-on and experiential. Most of the thought leaders in the Human Potential Movement spend some time experiencing Esalen. It offered, in its own way, a Rite of Passage experience. (I had mine in 1967.)

The human potential movement posed a great existential question: what is our ultimate human potential? The primary vehicle for this movement was encounter groups. These were small, unstructured groups where people interacted to help one another work through their “issues.” Different teachers developed an array of group therapy techniques to use with these groups. Abraham Maslow introduced the concept of self-actualization, which seemed to illustrate what the Human Potential Movement was striving for. Aldous Huxley came up with the term Human Potential Movement.

It is hard to convey today how new and exciting all this was for someone who had grown up in the 1950’s. My parents would have found this “outlandish”.

What was not clear at the time, and which remains fuzzy to this day, are the two main threads that weave around and through all the various activities that the Human Potential Movement encompassed.

The first thread is what Abraham Maslow talked about: self-actualization. Here was the sense that, within each of us, is a distinct self and this self needs to be developed. Life is the exploration of this self-development.

The second thread comes to us from the mystical traditions of the Far East, especially Buddhism. This tradition tells us that we are not what we appear to be. If we surrender the notion that we are a separate self, we can discover another reality in which everything is an expression of a single, undivided Oneness. This Oneness is the experience of Universal Love.

What is the relationship between Maslow’s “self” and Buddhism’s “Oneness?” This was the unanswered question of the 1960’s and it still remains the unanswered question of today.

In these 7 websites we explore possible answers to this question.

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