The college closed and the president, knowing that I admired both Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers suggest I call them to perhaps learned how I could pursue a graduate degree in humanistic psychology. Both seemed very accessible and Rogers told me that he was heading a program for educators at his Center for the Study of the Person in La Jolla, California. I accepted and found myself in a most unique learning environment that was totally different than anything I’d ever known. The night before the program started many of the 100 participants, supposedly educators, were dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, and I felt I’d come to the wrong place, dressed in my best tweed jacket ready to discuss the state and remedies for modern education. Feeling so different than the others, I almost left, but was convinced to stay by a nice middle aged lady that turned out to be a teaching nun. In spite of her efforts I was not prepared for what was to happen. There’s not the space to say what the next three weeks were like. But perhaps you can imagine my reaction when, sitting in a circle with twelve strangers,
the first words to be spoken were addressed to a gentlemen with a very busy black beard sitting next to me, by a lady from across the circle. In a challenging voice, that words that came dangerously close to me, were, “What the f are you hiding behind that beard of yours?” I grasped the arms of my chairs in mild panic, wondering what had I gotten into, knowing only that they were called encounter groups. Much to my amazement, my bearded neighbor called Armenack, hesitated for no more than a second replied with a calm and enticing slice, “Wouldn’t you like to come over and find out?” The lady declined and conversation continued that I had never before encountered, with no apparent leader of facilitator in charge. I decide to sit back and observe and try to figure out the rules, and the best way to succeed at whatever was happening. Even though there were no stated rules whatsoever, I realized soon that no one would be interested in anything like an opinion or an intellectual comment. Only feelings and wants were communicated. No judgment, no limits, except if someone said, “I really feel attracted to the blond lady across the circle, and I would really like to go and sit next to her. At that point someone asked the lady how she felt about that.
She emphatically declined the invitation and the issue was over and complete in less than a minute. Finally, my attempt to stay hidden was foiled by someone asking me, “Tim, where are you at?” I knew from observation this question was calling for a response at the feeling level. My answer were words to the effect that I felt quite out of place, a little bit superior, with the absence of anything with intellectual content, and frankly I was feeling quite lost and a bit scared. To my surprise this self-disclosure was greeted with great compassion and warmth and I unwittingly had become a little “star” in this thing called an encounter group. Two days later, I was jumping out of bed eager to join the group and thinking, “wow, people can really be quite interesting when they are telling honestly what’s going on at a feeling level. In short, a door was opened in this strange environment which made it legal to feel whatever you were feeling, and to share what you were wanting to share of yourself. My fear turned to engagement, My wants when given freedom to be anything they wanted were no where near as devilish as I thought they would be in an environment where you could propose anything without being judged. The worst that could happen, was a even spoken decline of any invitation that didn’t fit the want of the other. Something in me was thriving.