George Leonard is the former senior editor of Look magazine. Considered by some to be the "grandfather" of the human potential movement, Leonard is author of "Mastery", "The Silent Pulse," The Transformation," and along with Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy, "The Life We've Been Given." An aikido master, he has taught Leonard Energy Training, (L.E.T.) to thousands of individuals around the world.
DiCarlo: Please describe the origins of the human potential movement... What was your involvement and what sparked your interest in the exploration of human potential?
Leonard: In the mid-60s, I was a senior editor at Look Magazine, one of the most prestigious and award-winning magazines of its day. I was also west coast editorial manager and I had done lots of award-winning feature articles on education, starting in 1956 with "What is A Teacher?" I did a piece in 1964 called "Revolution in Education". In the last paragraph I said something about "human potential". As a result, we must have received at least one hundred letters from readers, which essentially said, "That's what we really need to do, focus upon the human potential." It occurred to me put in a request to do an article on the human potential and my request was granted.
Those were the golden days of journalism. Look writers had total authority to do anything they wanted to do. So I began criss-crossing the country. When I was finished I had interviewed 37 experts on the subject of the human potential. Psychiatrists, psychologists, brain researchers-even theologians and philosophers. Not one of them said we were using more than 10% of our capacity. In later years, I came to realize that was a very conservative estimate-we're using about 1% I would guess. Maybe less.
During the 7 months in which I was criss-crossing the country, I had heard something about Michael Murphy and this little institute called Esalen in Big Sur, California, the programs of which ran under the banner, "Human Potentialities." When I finally had the opportunity to meet Michael, we hit it off immediately. We went to the house of a woman we both knew to have dinner. After we had left, we kept on talking, till three in the morning. We've been talking ever since. I met Mike February 2, 1965 and it changed my life.
He was really into the subject of human potential and we had what you might call a dovetailing of interests. I knew quite a bit about various social movements, such as the civil rights movement, I covered that story from Little Rock, right on through Selma and Ole Mist-the whole thing. I also knew a lot about brain research and behavioral psychology from the work I had been doing on this human potential article. Mike was very well versed on Eastern philosophy and religion, humanistic psychology and some of the more frontier developments of the day, such as biofeedback. So when we started exchanging stories, everything seemed to go together. It made a complete picture. So we just immediately started brainstorming, saying what could we both do and what should be done. A number of the events of that time indicated to us that some sort of transformation really wanted to happen. Of course these were the 60s when such things seemed imminent. So we would just toss out ideas, which I would scrawl down on a piece of paper and throw onto the floor. The accumulated paper looked like a snowstorm, we were throwing so many things. At one point I said, "How about this....we've got a civil rights movement and we've got a free speech movement...how about a human potential movement?" So I just wrote it down and threw it on the floor. I guess that was the beginning of it.
We started talking about the human potential movement almost jokingly. And that was about the same time the national media discovered Esalen. I never did a story in Look specifically on Esalen, because I thought, "Maybe I'm too close to this and maybe I shouldn't do it. Maybe somebody else should do it." Sure enough, by 1967 and 68, the media was in full force, and they picked up the term "human potential movement." About four years later, Mike and I looked around and said, "My God, this is not what we had in mind at all." In the beginning, like a child who is attracted to the brightest toy on the floor, the media was fixated upon the mixed baths, hot tubs and encounter groups. So they assumed that the human potential movement must have a lot to do with people getting into hot tubs and crying or yelling things at each other. So we said, "Let's un-name this movement." We told others there was no such thing as the human potential movement. But we found that it's much harder to un-name a movement than it is to name it.
Over the years we have come to accept it, and actually it's a wonderful term. What we had in mind was not just the emotional side of human experience. We had the idea of integral transformation-of mind, body, soul and heart- from the very beginning. So that's how the human potential movement started.
DiCarlo: In light of the many years you have been at the leading edge of the human potential movement, I'm wondering if you can help put things into their proper persepctive. More specifically, how have the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s set the stage for the new paradigm which is now emerging?
Leonard: First of all, I must say that a lot of people don't want to take a look back at the 60s. All the big 60s books really haven't sold well. We still haven't come to terms with that decade. I think that many people are still afraid of the 60s and the ideas that were presented. Some people think the 60s were a period in parenthesis-a decade that really didn't count-when our whole culture suddenly got out of step. But I don't think that's true. I think the activity of the 60s was a very much needed and long overdue reaction and at certain times over-reaction, to years, decades, and centuries of repressiveness and injustice. In think what the 60s basically did was set the agenda for necessary change that we still haven't gotten around to. And I'm hoping the 90s can be a time when we get to work on that agenda.
Look at all the things that came up in the 60s-the whole idea of ethnicity, race, of gender. The women's movement. The gay movement. The environmental movement. All of those things began in the 1960s. There was a sudden sunburst before the powers-that-be reacted by clamping down on much of it. There was a counter-60s movement. To use a body metaphor, it is true that many of us during those years were kind of short sighted, but we were literally ahead of ourselves. And a lot of things were done without too much wisdom. But it was a very euphoric and crazy time that clearly and powerfully set the agenda for change.
The 1970s, on the other hand, was a period of what I would call "cultural diffusion." The ideas that had been circulating around college campuses-mostly in certain enclaves on both coasts but also scattered throughout various pockets in the country-began to diffuse throughout the whole culture. Some of the ideas were better absorbed than others. The sexual revolution, according to Yankalovich surveys in the late 70s, was the most pervasive. Certain sexual practices that were only being promulgated by hippies and the like on the West Coast began to show up wildly throughout the culture- in Des Moines and in Texarcana-wherever you wanted to look. Many have said, "Well, these ideas were co-opted. They have lost some of their fine purity." Well, that's OK. Compromise is part of change. But there was a tremendous cultural diffusion.
Also, the 70s was a period of rationalization and commercialization of a lot of good practices. Organizations like "est" took ideas from gestalt therapy and Zen, and so forth, and packaged it very neatly and put it out in hotel ballrooms. I think those organizations probably did more good than harm. But here again, it was a little too pro-forma, it was a little too pat. Of course some people who wouldn't go to Esalen might go to a hotel ballroom where they could still wear their coat and tie where they could see there was another world and that other possibilities could exist. And we really are a bizarre culture in not recognizing these other spiritual possibilities that have been our birthright since the human race became human. Humankind emerged on this planet with vision, with tremendous vision of an unseen world, of a spiritual realm that held meaning and guidance for us all. The consequences of lack of vision are quite clear- "Where there is no vision the people perish" as the bible says. So all these things were part of the cultural diffusion. Some of these new, "old" learnings, which go way back yet seemed new in the 60s, spread. Ideas found in Eastern philosophies were introduced in the 1960s and spread widely in the 1970s.
Then in the 1980s, it continued spreading quietly, but at the same time, there was a tremendous backlash against it. The twelve years of Reagan and Bush presented much opposition. They were very, very opposed to many of the ideas. Of course, a lot of democrats were also opposed to the ideas of the 60s. It's interesting, Reagan was elected to be governor of California on the basis of his promise to clobber the University of California. That was his primary platform. And he did it. He held back the free-speech movement. The Reagan administration sent helicopters to drop tear gas not only on the university but all over Berkley. I was over there during the People's Park uprising and I was gassed-we were all gassed. All the Look people were trapped right in the middle of the campus. We were the only ones there on The Terrace who were watching this battle unfold beneath us. It was very bizarre. But there was that kind of backlash. So the movement entered into national politics in the 80s.
Now, during the 90s I think we are kind of teetering on the brink. We can go forwards or backwards, but I feel necessity will force us to realize that the old ways are simply not working. That repressiveness is not the answer. On the other hand, total license is not the answer either. Total freedom to do anything, the freedom to buy assualt weapons or do anything one wants, doesn't work. There has to be some kind of long-term, disciplined practice. There has to be this understanding that that's the way things work. I think there are quite a few hints that's now happening.
DiCarlo: Do you think the 60s represented a kind of a "dress rehearsal" for the true transformation taking place in the 90s?
Leonard: The 60s certainly put the agenda for transformation up there. Now we've got to do it. There is so much more transformative activity going on now than in the 60s. Everybody thinks the 60s was radical. What was considered radical back then is kindergarten stuff compared to what's going on now.
DiCarlo: What are some of the more hopeful signs that you see that we will move forward?
Leonard: A lot of things.... For example, never before in human history has so much of the great wisdom teaching of all ages and all cultures been so available throughout the world. It really is a global village. You can go to the corner drugstore and buy the Tibetan Book of The Dead. The easy availability is something new. Even a thinker as wise as Hagel did not have as much access to Oriental thought as an average college student does today. And of course a lot of information is being spread throughout the world via the satellites, through the communications network-the bad as well as the good. And that is something new. Very revolutionary. It contributed towards the downfall of communism. Havel said rock-and-roll caused the Berlin Wall to go down. That was his quote.
Another significant development is all the understanding we're getting now on human evolution. You see new headlines constantly about the new male Lucy, the early ancestor of our species, for example, and the understanding of the power of the evolutionary process. One of the hallmarks of the project that Mike and I are working on, is the idea that evolution has not ended. The Future of The Body is about the next step. We are still evolving and I think things are really moving.
We have such a rich legacy of positive accomplishments. Just consider the Eskimo, Aruba tribesman, East Indian, Japanese Samurai, Christian Desert Fathers, the shaman, the Penitenti, Victorian Novelists, 20th century scientists...consider all the different kinds of governments, governance and philosophies that we have had. Embedded in this flamboyant richness, we've always had hints of further evolution. But now, all this diversity is becoming accessible everywhere on the earth. No one living before the mid-20th century-even the privileged king or monarch or greatest scientist of the time-has had as much access as we do today to the descriptions of metanormal capacities in people. Never before was there a medical science that could precisely measure the physiological changes produced by transformative practice. At no other time have so many people practiced so many different disciplines for growth and transcendence.