I laughed out loud, then tears of relief streamed down my face, all in response to a simple observation, “I noticed you were only in your eyes.” In an exquisitely timed intervention, he had broken open a decades-long pattern of relating that was so deep inside me I couldn't see it. My life had been touched by Seymour Carter, a master of his craft, an enigma, and one of the greatest mentors of my life. Here’s a story of how I met Seymour, how his life reverberated against mine, and the profound things we give to each other in our short lives on this earth.
Seymour Carter, alias Ojo Pojoque, was born in 1936 as Gary Sohns. I met him on the “50th anniversary of his first acid trip”, in the last 1% of his life, the day my massage facilitator smuggled him into our class in Esalen, a California commune said to have birthed the New Age. He had fallen out more than once with Esalen’s new management, criticizing them for straying from the founding mission that once threatened conventional society. He called himself a "Secular Skeptic in a Utopian Community." I liked both meanings of ‘secular’ for him: he was both a "non-religious" and an "unrelenting" skeptic. He paid dearly for his criticism, living out of his car after Esalen banned him from officially teaching and practicing. I had been told my whole life that I should have a mentor, but I had never found one. In this firebrand jokester, a provocateur from a once revolutionary culture, I had finally found a mentor I could trust.
In Seymour I found a rich tapestry of interwoven philosophies and lived experience, expressed in a humble, compassionate working style. He engaged our group effortlessly through Gestalt therapy, sensory awareness, and body reading, invoking our curiosity without quenching it, urging us to have and share our own experience of the work, couching his suggestions with adequate consent, sharing his observations simply and transparently while making room for a skeptic’s uncertainty. I felt in Seymour decades of thought and practice uniting diverse intellectual threads that I had been effortfully bringing together about in a blog on healing. I was relieved that he had digested them in his head, but practiced them with his heart. It was, after all, possible, to be a scientist and a healer, an academic and a practitioner, a compassionate skeptic. I introduced myself, shortening my name to “Adi” for his benefit, babbled a bit about my healing blog (in retrospect it felt like I somehow wrote my way to him), and asked if I could work with him. He smiled at my youthful enthusiasm, and we agreed on a time. He took out a magic marker and wrote on the back of his palm: “Adi 3:00 Sat”.
Seymour shh-ed me as we left Esalen’s campus for our first working session together, explaining that there were “spies everywhere”, claiming he could be thrown out if he was caught practicing. (He later giggled with joy when I told him of a moonlight tryst I had sleeping over the fence, on the cliff under the stars, thwarting the bureaucracy’s strictures.) We drove in his car a few miles north to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and walked along the coast. He asked me to recount my life in some detail, paying special attention to what he called my “family of origin.” His questions, but moreso the quality of his attention, allowed me to bring creativity to well-trodden emotional spaces, to transcend neuroticism and find the essence. I felt the generative power he brought, an engaged listener who’s rich and varied life comprehended and normalized my own experience. After listening, he asked me to state my goals for our work together. I said that I’d like to release a chronic neck pain I had developed and also to get closer to my life’s calling. I smiled, in the first of many connections I made with Seymour, and said maybe these two things were in fact related, or even the same. He followed my gesture as I made this connection for myself, and asked me to repeat it. I did the gesture again, with feeling and consciousness, allowing me to feel the connection deeply, and express it right away in my life. I used the same technique quite on accident with my mother only a few months later to provide a big clearing in our relationship. Like his mentor Fritz Perls, Seymour’s attention to minute body movements provided a powerful tool for understanding humanity and healing.
As we returned to the parking lot, Seymour placed his bamboo walking stick on the ground, asking me to lie across it. The beginning was just a “warmup”, he explained, to get me used to feeling my body and weight. Seymour was easing me into experiments with sensory awareness, a rich, experiential field developed by Charlotte Selver, another primary mentor, who, like Seymour, didn’t leave many writings. After a bit more warmup, he asked me to move so that my spine was balanced on the stick. It could be painful, Seymour warned, so it might take time to work up to the 20 or 30 minutes he recommended. He gave a thoughtful prompt every few minutes to help center the exercise, while leaving ample space for sensing. “Could I somehow let more weight down into the stick?” “Was there a way to achieve balance with less muscle tension?” “Is there anyway to be more comfortable?” As was his practice, Seymour asked me to share what I had felt at the end, whether thought, emotion, or sensation. He realized it was far more important for me to develop a felt sense of my body than any ‘advice’ he might give. While he had phrased this exercise as a salve for my neck pain, he had seeded the gift of an entirely new way of experiencing my body in the present.
After I had experienced a particularly neurotic Gestalt open seat at Esalen, Seymour said to me, “True Gestalt is always grounded in the body.” Seymour described Gestalt emotional work as his left hand, sensory awareness and presence as his right hand, his primary tools as a healer. His work with Charlotte, his time teaching massage, and many other experiences brought him into an intimate understanding of human body sensations, allying the emotional and physical with the sensual.
When I met Seymour, I was not looking for a therapist. I was more interested in striking a relationship as a mentee who discussed readings or observed him in action. I reluctantly agreed to be his client (as is customary in professional psychological mentorship) despite my rebellious nature. I submitted to the Gestalt method, enacting dualities with mother, father, lover, anxiety, anger, or death, playing with gestures, sometimes dancing. Eventually I realized that the richest learning happens in us, that by submitting we create a vulnerability poised for learning. Still, throughout our sessions, I expressed a fear of compromising my own coping mechanisms or creating an artificial dependence on a therapist. Here, too, Seymour was both compassionate to listen, graceful to handle my periodic defenses, and polished in his thinking. Seymour criticized the lifelong relationships Gestalt therapists had struck with their clients. Somehow the scrutinous examination of each and every dependence in a client’s life disappeared when it came to the therapist’s payday. Seymour believed, like his intellectual influence Karen Horney, that self-actualization is possible, we need only spend some time dissolving childhood idealizations to reach it. With Seymour, being independent is not only possible for humans, it is the only rational goal of any psychotherapy. Sometimes we just need a little push, and we are free.
Seymour suggested reading material for me as he traveled to Europe to work for a few months. In Germany, and a few Eastern European countries, I got the sense that Seymour got the respect that he deserved and craved, having regularly visited, taught, and done therapy since the 70s. Maybe it was fitting that he died there, relaxing in a hot tub. I mentioned to my friend who told me the news “I don’t think he was afraid of death.” She laughed out loud, as if it was the funniest joke in the world, the same kind of joke whose truth had streamed tears down my eyes as Seymour’s client. Seymour was not one to be afraid. I heard he cursed the guy who resuscitated him from his heart attack a few years ago. He modeled quite beautifully the Samurai’s acceptance of death: dying in his mind, he was able to live more fully.
|An intellectual history of Seymour I scribbled down.|
I was both impressed and put off by one of Seymour’s primary influences, Fritz Perls, a looming figure in Gestalt psychology. On the one hand, Perls’ conceptual frameworks of homeostasis, introjection, manipulation or neurosis were compelling and useful. On the other hand, Perls’ style evoked for me the experimental, doggedly confrontational, tear-you-open psychology of the 60s in and out of Esalen. In this dangerous land, you might become aware of your infantile dependency in any relationship, feel the vicissitudes of antisocial desires, or find a desolate loneliness. No gradual realization, only shock treatment. If you weren’t healed, you might be broken. Seymour took great pride in devising, with Esalen founder Dick Price (victim of shock treatment himself), how to bring Buddhist compassion back into the harshness that Gestalt psychology became at Esalen. Never coddling clients or sacrificing Gestalt’s ideals, Seymour nonetheless found a way to listen and connect, a way to experience love and fellow feeling, in both working philosophy and manner of listening.
As we became friends, Seymour shared quite vulnerably his family history and life, especially surrounding a trip he had taken up north to see his troubled brother, his children and grandchildren. He drew ancestrally and imaginally from Native American cultures, growing up near reservations as a youth, renaming himself “Ojo Pojoque” ten years ago after a vision quest in Pueblo ruins near Santa Fe. I was awed to see the cycles of tragedy and revitalization that characterized his growing up. He steadily steered himself out of trouble, into the kiln of Esalen’s team of psychotherapists, becoming a wounded healer whose compassion could bring us back into connection. I was also thankful at times for the cautionary tale of radical independence brought to its natural extreme. For it seemed to me that Seymour’s changing names alluded both to his ability to reinvent himself and also a struggle for identity and belonging in community and family. I began to think of Perls’ anomic words, “I do my thing, you do yours. If we meet, it’s beautiful, if not, it can’t be helped.” Seymour was a legend in some circles, seeking legend in others. Unsatisfied with his place in community, he settled in the tenuous place of provocateur, “unmasking pretense.” I got the sense that the Seymour that I knew and loved was not a saint, or even someone I might have had a stable relationship with, decades ago. Against his life, I place my own: my own ambiguity around community, desire for freedom, acclaim, provocation, connection, or healing. I am richer for it. I continue to find my place between freedom and relating, between independence and compassion, and I imagine it will be a lifelong learning.
It’s amazing the kinds of kinship you can have with someone who’s not with you. I felt closer than ever to Seymour during a mystical experience I had that summer, a few months after meeting him. Dwarfing progress I had made in years of struggling to “get behind my eyes” or understand the cryptic Merleau-Ponty Seymour recommended, I had a sudden and intense reality adjustment. I could see the filters we place on our sensations, the incredible reality stabilization project that connects past identity to present, past moment’s perception to present. I could literally see better, see more, in the everyday. I wrote a detailed report to Seymour, telling him, “I felt like I entered your trip”. Seymour responded, “Adi, Wonder of Wonders, Call Me, Ojo”. When we talked later, he thought I could relate to Doors of Perception, an account of the nobleman Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic spiritual awakening, and there was indeed much I identified with. However, while Huxley’s journey inevitably acquired the ornate imagery of Vajrayana Buddhism, I felt my own journey was as valid from a non-spiritual perspective as a spiritual one. I could see Buddhas in the sky, feel the earth vibrate, be carried into mystical rapture by Brahman, but I didn’t need these for the experience to be vital. The mystery of our perception of the world is incredible on its own terms, and I think in that, I see (more) eye to eye (ojo to ojo) with Seymour.
Seymour smiled at me one day and said that he thought I was becoming “a real friend”. I was touched by this sentiment. We hugged, my long black hair and his long grey hair intertwining, and it seemed to me his language expressed love in words from another time. We had found a real fondness for each other, surely riddled with identification and idealization. He simultaneously enjoyed the quick intimacy I formed with him and considerately expressed his suspicion -- that somehow I might just as quickly turn away from him. Even in our short time together I could feel elements of oscillation in my love for him, as I periodically struggled with the therapy relationship we had. I learned about my own capacity for conditional love -- the conflicting urges to merge and separate with love objects. Thankfully, what we could talk about in my psychology we could also practice and normalize in our relationship as friends. As I saw more of me, Seymour was big enough to hold it all.
He drove us to Indian food one day after we had a session together in my house in San Francisco. Not adequately appreciative at the time, I was fortunate to have home delivery of one of the greatest teachers Esalen ever had. He would stop by on his way from another client in SF, or after one of the sensory awareness classes he led here. He was proud of his new lease, a hatchback upgrade of his old VW, with a peppy new automatic engine. As we pulled the car uphill out of the restaurant parking lot, the car stalled repeatedly. I asked if he might be having trouble with the automatic transmission, instinctively going for the clutch when he was actually depressing the brake, stymied by a lifetime of muscle memory driving stick. He said no. I asked him if I could try the car myself. Stubborn as ever, he said no, I couldn’t try, and a man came to tow the car. A few days later, he told me that there was indeed nothing wrong with the car. But I’m so thankful for his stubbornness! Because of it, I got the opportunity to host him for a few days, allow him some peace of mind after he was suddenly deprived of his home, pay him back in a small way for his immense gifts to me. A few months later after Seymour passed away, the same tow-truck guy came by to tow a car near my house. Quite a bit more sentimental and superstitious than my mentor, my heart warmed at the coincidence, I daresay synchronicity. I thought about how Seymour’s wild hair and skin and voice had flaked out onto this man and in my house. It was all over the place. I really felt then that he lives on. Seymour is embodied in us: his atoms, his words, his way of being, his spirit. Aho, Ojo.