Arjuna Wali Ben-Zion Weiss PhD
When I was growing up in the 50s in Sydney, science was going to save the world. Well, that’s what I was being told. As a child, who was I to argue with this vision. My father was very keen on progress as he called it. It was something he wanted me to be part of. I, on the other hand, grew up with a strong sense of my Jewish religious practice. From the age of around 7, I went to Cheder at the Central Synagogue in Bondi Junction. Cheder is a Jewish religious after school program. On Tuesdays and Thursdays and Sunday mornings I’d get on a tram to Bondi Junction, and then spend a couple of hours studying Hebrew, Jewish religion and history. I enjoyed Cheder! During weekdays, I’d turn up hungry after school and be given a fresh bread roll and a half pint bottle of milk. For many years after that this became one of my comfort foods.
I loved hearing the stories of my ancestors. To this day, when I sit in a circle with Aboriginal elders, I am reminded of that time and of my teacher, Reverend Wolf, who later became a Rabbi. He would get us to sit in a circle in his little room and tell us stories of Abraham and King David, of Moses and Miriam and how we were slaves in Egypt until Moishe Rabeinu liberated us from the evil Pharaoh. The Torah stories really came to life for me in that little room. In those stories, the mythic consciousness was fully alive for me.
Then there were the weekly violin lessons at Waverley College with Mr Frangos, my wonderful violin teacher. Every Wednesday, I’d walk down the back streets of Waverley carrying my violin case. I’d go past boys playing cricket on the street or touch footy, and they would look at me like I was from another planet. Music was not exactly part of Australian culture at that time in the way that sport was. But my music, like my religious practice, somehow gave my life meaning. Music was magical the way it would transport me out of the Sydney suburban world, in which I lived, to the classical world of the European composers. This was an example of magical consciousness in my life.
At other times, I felt really alive when I walked down to Bronte Beach for a swim through Bronte Gully. This is a place full of trees and shrubs and birds and was like being in a rainforest – here nature is very present. I still visit the gully to commune with the trees, the birds and other creatures. At the beach, the ocean would enfold my body, like a return to the womb. I could feel the life force pulsating in my body as I caught the waves into the shore or swam around in the bogey hole. This was my connection to the archaic consciousness when we humans were part of nature without the separation of so called civilization or culture.
Meanwhile at school, I was learning maths and science, English grammar and history and the basic skills of reading and writing. With English being my 3rdlanguage, this was at times a painful process for me as there was no English language support in those days. This lack of support later influenced me to become a teacher of English as a Second Language for secondary schools and then a TESOL teacher for adults. I knew what it was like to sit there, barely understanding what was going on. The ignorance of some of the teaching staff in these matters of language learning was aggravated by a certain prejudice against ‘foreign’ kids from non-Anglo Celtic backgrounds like myself. One teacher kept telling me I was lazy because I didn’t understand some of the language and at times, I didn’t know what to say or do in class. I would just stare out the window at the ocean in the distance. The ocean was a place of solace for me growing up in the eastern beach suburbs of Sydney. This day dreaming was probably my first experience of natural meditation. In my middle primary school years, the mental structure of consciousness was a real struggle for me due to a lack of both Australian English language and cultural knowledge. Perhaps this was a good thing, because without the domination of the mental structure of consciousness, I was able to maintain a more balanced state of all the structures.
In year 5, two things happened that shifted the whole dynamic of school for me. One was that I had a very sympathetic young male teacher, Mr. Neil, that year. He took a liking to me, unlike the woman teacher I’d had in the two previous years. The other was that all the so-called intelligent boys went to the Woollahra opportunity school for children with higher IQs as they were measured in those days. Suddenly I could begin to shine, as I was no longer competing with the bright, middle class boys from educated Anglo-Australian backgrounds. My mental consciousness could now begin to develop, to the extent that when in Year 6 my IQ was retested it was so different to the first test from year 4, that it had to be retested again and I was sent to Sydney Boys High, as I was now considered to be at the IQ level of a selective high school. Clearly my IQ hadn’t changed, just my understanding of the Australian English language and culture had deepened and I felt more supported by my teachers.
By age 10, I was still able to maintain some balance in my 5 structures of consciousness as I began to excel at the mental consciousness in my academic work. At that stage I was studying religion and music, and as I entered high school at age 11, I was also part of a boys’ choir at the Central Synagogue in Bondi Junction. Around that time, I began to study for my Bar Mitzvah with my tutor, Mr. Heidingsfeld, as is typical of Jewish boys as they approach the age of 13. This involved reading in Hebrew from the Torah text on Shabbat as well as deepening my understanding of Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. My violin studies were also excelling as I moved through the NSW Conservative Exams, which I passed with Honours each year. While I was not a great athlete or sporty type, I did athletics and swimming as a sport in summer and played football in winter, as was required by my very middle class Anglo-Australian boys’ high school. As well I was quite a good swimmer and body surfer and as a teenager I got into Rock ‘n’ Roll dance. This was part of the synagogue dances that were popular in those days. Thus, my body and my mind were still in some kind of balance.
It was at high school that the message that science was the career for the future was really driven home to me. Therefore, I assumed that science and maths should become my primary focus in my studies. As a selective high school near the city, Sydney High attracted boys from all over Sydney. Even architecturally there was a big change. Whereas my primary school building was just a typical suburban brick school building of the 30s, Sydney Boys High had a classical Graeco-Roman style of architecture, with the front of the building decorated with big columns painted pale blue. The school also had a quadrangle with a marble statue of Apollo in the midst of a green lawn. Apollo was the God of the Sun, of light, of music and prophecy. A real symbol of the mental consciousness that this selective high school was devoted to. Apollo was the symbol of the European enlightenment, when science and mathematics began to flourish in Europe, as the mental consciousness replaced the mythic consciousness of the medieval world. It was also symbolic of a place where European classical education was a major focus, as I studied Latin and some of my friends studied Classical Greek as well.
Another reason I excelled at science was that unlike English and History, I was not at a disadvantage because of English being my 3rdlanguage. For in the humanities subjects, I lacked the cultural knowledge of my fellow students, most of whom were Australian born from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. However, a subject I did excel in was music, which I chose in later years as an honours subject for my Leaving Certificate, as I was planning to be an orchestral conductor in those days. I enjoyed my Latin and German language subjects – Romanian, a Latin language, is my first language, and German was my second language. There was cultural significance for me in both these languages and that enhanced the learning process. All this contributed to the development of my mental structure of consciousness.
What was interesting was that the Latin and German stream that I was in at Sydney High, had a much larger proportion of Jewish boys than the Latin and French streams, where the majority of students were from British Australian backgrounds. There was an irony here in that some of us were children of Holocaust survivors. However, in those days little was being said about the Holocaust. No doubt it was too soon and people who migrated as refugees to Australia, like my family, just wanted to focus on survival and getting on with life in a new country. Still, occasionally I wondered about the fragments of the stories I heard. Furthermore, we had a German surname ‘Weiss’, which means ‘white’ in English. Many Ashkenazi Jews had such a name, as our ancestors would have been living in German speaking countries in the 17thcentury when surnames came into use. On the other hand, I grew up with so much negative information about Germany and the Nazis and anti-Semitism, due to the Holocaust, that when we first drove into Germany from Austria, as part of our travels in Europe in the early 70s, I felt physically ill to the extent that we had to drive out the next day into Switzerland. This feeling of strong discomfort around German people has revisited me a number times in my life.
I was conscious of the fact that the German culture had greatly excelled in science and technology, as well as the great composers I studied in my violin lessons. Germany had been considered by many to be the workshop of Europe prior to World War II. This paradox had driven the cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser, to dedicate much of his life in a quest to understand how these contrasting aspects of German culture could coexist. As part of my doctoral research in social ecology into the phenomenon of racism, I was guided to read the work of Jean Gebser, the most significant of which is his book: The Ever Present Origins. My research into antiracism was my way of trying to understand anti-Semitism and reflect on how it had affected my life and that of my Jewish family. As well I wanted to understand more about how we could address racism at this time in a multicultural Australia. Through teaching recent arrival migrants and refugees, I had developed some effective strategies through teaching Drama, ESL, Literacy, Aboriginal studies and conflict studies and I wanted to research their application in wider social contexts.
Jean Gebser, was born Hans Gebser in Prussia of a Francophone family in 1905. In the 30s with the rise of Nazism in Germany, he was deeply disturbed by the Nazis and so he went to Spain to join the revolution against General Franco and the Fascists. He became friends with Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish playwright, who was also a part of the revolutionary movement. He even translated Rilke’s poetry into Spanish. One day he left Madrid for Paris and his flat in Madrid was blown up the next day. Did he have some guidance? He then spent a couple of years in Paris in conversation with Picasso, Aragon and other intellectuals and artists and then escaped into Switzerland 3 hours before the borders were closed by the Nazis. Was this again a sign of guidance?In Switzerland he worked at the Jung institute, and while there he began developing a theory on how we humans have moved through various structures of consciousness, the latest being the mental structure of consciousness. I was guided to his theory by Ian Mills, an Australian philosopher, who was passionate about Gebser’s work on Integral Consciousness. Ian mentored me as part of my later research process for my doctorate in Social Ecology and after reading about my theory of an ecology of culture, which had emerged from my research, he suggested I read Gebser. I will return to this theory of an ecology of culture later in the paper.
Gebser’s desire to address the phenomenon of Nazism and attempt to understand it, has also been one of my basic desires as a child of Holocaust survivors. However, in my case, this desire only came out much later in my life. Just why that is so is an interesting question. Part of the reason relates to challenges and traumas I experienced as a child. It took some years to get to the stage where I could work through some of those challenges and traumas. Initially I became a chemical engineer, in my desire to save the world and because of the influence of teachers and peers and my father, as I mention above. However, after an industrial accident I had second thoughts. Ironically, given my Jewish ancestry, the accident involved me being gassed by inhaling chlorine and a whole host of organo-chlorides. That event was like a near death experience for me. It led me to completely rethink my life. It is a good example of how a major trauma and potential tragedy can challenge us to shift our consciousness. After this event I began to seriously question the mental consciousness that had created our industrial world and that I had so fully embraced. Much as fascism and Nazism challenged Gebser to question the dominance of the mental consciousness in Germany, which had become a deficient cause under the Nazis. Both for Gebser and myself this crisis was the beginning of a search for another structure of consciousness.
Initially, this led me to want to become a filmmaker and I began a process of retraining myself in acting, photography and filmmaking. Within a few years I was studying film and TV production at Swinburne College in Melbourne. Eventually it led me to drama studies and practice in theatre; then to English language teaching to migrants and refugees; then to cross cultural work, and finally to peace and conflict work. My search for other structures of consciousness, drew me to the study of yoga and Zen meditation and from there to peace studies and non-violence training with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Quakers. I was looking for more peace and serenity in my life, as well as in my world, and these practices each contributed to that process. However even within these well-meaning socially conscious groups of people, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. These experiences of anti-Semitism led to my doctorate in social ecology on the theme of antiracism using drama education. There was something very mysterious and insidious in these forms of discrimination and I felt the impulse to find out what that might be.
Initially, the research was largely with youth workers and teachers, as by this stage I was training teachers and youth workers in non-violence strategies, cross cultural communications and conflict resolution, but later it also involved youth, some of whom were indigenous. Initially I was interested in researching anti-Semitism as that in the Eastern European culture I came from, anti-Semitism was endemic, however in Australia it was Aboriginal people and especially the youth, who were some of the major victims of racism. I also worked with indigenous youth from Pacific Islands who were now living in Australia. They too experienced high levels of racism. Through drama education, conflict studies and peer teaching, we developed anti-racism programs that could begin to address this issue, both individually and as part of the culture of a school or a community. It led to a program called Cooling Conflictsthat was introduced to as many as 100 schools in NSW over a number of years.
One of the unexpected outcomes of this research was the theory of an ecology of culture.This theory was inspired by my experience within indigenous cultures of the complete congruence between the culture and the ecology. Every tree, river, mountain, lake, rock, animal, bird or other natural feature, had cultural significance to indigenous people. In Maori culture, when people formally introduce themselves, they introduce their ancestors as well as their river, their mountain, their totem animal and other features of the natural and human world that they identify with, such as their ancestral canoe. Therefore, there is no separation between the culture and the ecology. However, with the cultures that invaded and colonised this land over 200 years, the cultures and the ecology they embodied were very different. British culture grew out of a Northern hemisphere ecology and climate, which it attempted to recreate in their new Australian colony. This worked to some degree in the wetter parts of the country, like in the south east coastal areas of NSW and Victoria, but was a disaster in the more arid parts like Western NSW, South Australia, Central Australia and for different reasons it was also problematic in the more tropical parts like North Queensland or the Northern Territory.
In the centre of Australia, which British Australians called the ‘dead’ centre, this did not work at all well. It took some 150 years after the initial invasion and colonisation in 1788, to colonise the centre. Inappropriate forms of agriculture and domestic animal cultivation, have had disastrous consequences on the ecology of this land which previously had no cloven hoofed animals. By contrast people from the Mediterranean cultures like Greece, Italy, Spain and the Middle East have brought a culture that came from a climate that is closer to that of Australia, as have people from Pacific Islands and parts of South East Asia. In these cases, the more similar climates made the separation between ecology and culture less problematic.
All these findings made me aware of ways we can begin to offer a solution to some of the ecological and social challenges we are facing, as the Australian culture begins to discover its own ecology and the phenomenon of the culture of our own indigenous people. However, here too racism becomes a major obstacle because the people of British descent, who are the major corporate leaders, land holders and political leaders, feel superior to the people they used to call the ‘natives’, who they once considered ‘primitive savages’. These racist views result in the loss of the depth of understanding that indigenous people have for their own country, thus maintaining the colonisers’ ignorance of this vastly different ecology. Often decisions are made out of ignorance of the ecology of the diversity culture in Australia, which is why they actually can aggravate a problematic situation. My research into social ecology, inspired by these challenges, led me to the work of Gregory Bateson, who I consider to be one of the seminal thinkers in this field. Bateson saw this as a wider contemporary human problem related to the difference between the way people think today and the way nature works
Gregory Bateson, who wrote the classic workSteps to and Ecology of Mind, was one of my inspirations for my wanting to pursue my studies in social ecology. The title to this book inspired the subtitle of my PhD research ‘Steps to an Ecology of Culture’. Bateson eventually gave up his biological studies to become an anthropologist and later met and married and worked with Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, who became famous for her research of indigenous people in the Pacific region. Bateson, on the other hand, later went to the US, to study North Americans in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, in psychiatric Institutions and above all in learning institutions. Bateson was a major proponent of systems theory, to which I was introduced by Joanna Macy in the mid 80s, when I did her training in ‘Despair and Empowerment work in the Nuclear Age’. It was around the same time I connected with the Zen master and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, who I sponsored to come to Australia in 1986, the International year of Peace, as a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Sydney Zen Group, and along with the Vietnamese community, with whom I had connected through my Adult Migrant teaching work. In Buddhist teaching, systems theory is represented by the Net of Indra. This is an image of the Universe as a vast jewelled net where every jewel reflects every other jewel. So, if you change any jewel in the net, then the reflections in all other jewels will change. Each of us as individuals are a jewel in this net, as are ‘all our relations’, to use that Native American term in LakotaMitakuye Oyasin.
Systems theory, the Net of Indra and this indigenous view of the Earth as our Mother, all focus on the influence that relationships have on each other, whether in an ecosystem, a social system or a family system. As a result, family therapy has adopted Bateson’s ideas on the family system. He was particularly interested in the way we think and the way we learn, in what philosophers call epistemology, or how we know what we know. It was little wonder then that he was a founding thinker of social ecology. However, what I didn’t know until very recently was how his work was so strongly influenced by his father William Bateson, a Professor of biology at Cambridge University. William Bateson emphasised the ecological and evolutionary relationships that led to genetic modifications and adaptions, whereas Western Science was more focused on the individual in its atomistic and mechanistic view of reality.
It was in a recent talk in Sydney, by his daughter Nora Bateson as part of the Anthropocene Transition Project, in which I’ve been involved, that I learnt of this aspect of Bateson’s work. This has strong resonances with Jean Gebser’s work. For Gebser this atomistic and mechanistic science was the result of the deficient cause of the mental structure of consciousness. The deficiency particularly came into evidence with the industrial revolution, with its exploitation of both people as slaves and of nature reduced to a source of raw materials for greedy industrialists in their giant factories. Nora is a filmmaker and educator in diverse fields and is continuing her father’s work in the Bateson Institutewhich she has set up in Sweden. While a more holistic organic science could be used to help save the world today, our current mechanistic, atomistic science appears to be doing just the opposite. This led Gregory to his powerful observation of the phenomenon of the double bind. One of its most serious forms for us today may be expressed as follows : ‘We created a world which we need in order to survive and which involves the use of so much technology; and yet our unsustainable way of survival is destroying the very world that supports our life process.’
Clearly, to save the world we need to find new ways of thinking that begin to transcend this destructive double bind. Albert Einstein made a similar observation in his famous quote about needing to find new ways of thinking that addressed the challenges of our time. Gebser got stuck at this point with his description of mental consciousness as a deficient cause, which was another way to describe the destructive nature of our contemporary urban industrial world. Since the mid 20thcentury we have entered a post-industrial world or one that is undergoing a 3rdindustrial revolution, which may make things even worse.
My own personal encounter with the destructive nature of this industrial world came after I graduated as a chemical engineer back in the late 60s. I had chosen this particular field of work because I liked chemistry and physics and to some degree mathematics, and I was told that this was a career of the future. I was young, naïve and idealistic and I had believed what I was told by my elders and peers while at high school, that science was going to save the world. This view of science completely overlooked the fact that in the second world war that had just ended, science had almost destroyed so much of the so-called civilized world, through the use of gas chambers in the Holocaust, the use of the atomic bomb in Japan, and many other destructive inventions of the military industrial complex.
Once I completed my studies and began to work in the chemical industry, I could see like all business, the maximisation of profits was the primary focus, not the safety or welfare of the workers or the environment or even the quality of their products. Pollution was considered an inevitable consequence of the industry, as it was considered too costly to fully clean up the gasses and liquids that were being released into the environment. ICIANZ, the chemical factory I worked at in the late 60s, and similar factories, dumped their waste products into Botany Bay, now one of the most polluted water ways in Australia. Similarly, Union Carbide at Rhodes, where I worked for 2 years as a cadet chemical engineer in the 60s, dumped dioxins into Sydney Harbour where they remain to this day. This Union Carbide plant was a major manufacturer of Agent Orange that was used to destroy the rainforests of Vietnam.
The Universe decided to awaken me to the negative nature of the industry I was in. It set up a serious industrial accident, where I inhaled a toxic mix of chlorine and organo-chlorides. By the evening of the accident, I was in Prince Henry Hospital at Malabar, with a lung capacity reduced to a third and a raging headache. Over the week of my recovery, I had plenty of time to reflect on my life and each day I went out and communed with the ocean and the coastal heath lands around this coastal hospital. In the afternoons I played snooker with other men in the ward and we’d talk philosophy. Sharing a ward with men who had had serious industrial and other accidents, revealed our vulnerability as human beings. These experiences and conversations led me to decide to go in a different direction in my life. I decided I didn’t want to continue to pollute my body and my planet. Instead, I chose a creative path to become a filmmaker, because I loved the medium of film so much. I fondly remembered being taken to Saturday matinee sessions with my mother and attending European art films with my first serious girlfriend at university. I also had a vision of creating a kind of film music and poetry to celebrate the beauty of the natural and the humanly created worlds.
What is interesting in this decision is that I was moving out of the dominance of the mental consciousness of the world of science and technology into the mythical and magical consciousness of storytelling and the magic of film special effects. It was a way to begin to heal the damage of this domination of the mental consciousness, which I realised in its deficient form was not saving the world through science but destroying it through unsustainable forms of technology and material production. Furthermore, this decision was eventually going to take me back into the archaic structure of consciousness as I wanted to make films about the natural world, which is what I began to do when I went to film school in Melbourne.
The shift away from the world of industry also allowed my music to once again return to my life in the form of folk singing and guitar accompaniment. I became part of the protest folk movement at the time of the war in Vietnam. I took lessons in jazz, flamenco and classical guitar. My classical guitar teacher in Melbourne, Gabby, became a friend. He liked going out to the bush and camping, so that also reconnected me to the natural world as did my partner Karen, who took me to places she loved like Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges just outside of Melbourne.
I can now see that this was a healing process through which I was able to integrate the archaic, magical and mythical structures of consciousness with the mental structure that was still necessary to the use of the complicated film science and technology as well as the writing and editing processes required by this medium. It would seem that it was at this time that I began to intuit the need for an integral consciousness. Jean Gebser discovered this need when he went to India after the war and met Sri Aurobindo who had created integral yoga. In India Gebser went to the Deer Park where the Buddha had taught some 2500 year ago and there he had a satori(enlightenment) experience. He connected with the holistic consciousness of Aurobindo’s yoga and the interbeing of the Buddhist teachings. This inspired the idea of an integral structure of consciousness as the answer to overcoming the deficient form of the mental consciousness, which he observed had already begun to happen around the beginning of the 20th century. Becoming aware of Einstein’s discovery of the relationship between matter and energy in his relativity theory and of the 4-dimensional nature of space time, Gebser was able to move beyond the 3-dimensional world of the mental consciousness.
Gebser saw in Picasso’s Cubist paintings another example of integral consciousness. These showed the same image at different times and was thus 4 dimensional. Integral consciousness was also evident in the discovery of the unconscious by Sigmund Freud and his creation of the psychotherapy movement, allowing people to explore other layers of consciousness through dreams; the collective unconscious of Carl Jung and the psycho-dramatic worlds of Jacob Levy Moreno. Moreno’s psychodrama was a form of spontaneity training and was also inspired by the work Henri Bergson in his Creative Evolution, in which he proposed the existence of the elan vital or the lifeforce. This was well known in the East as Pranain Yoga, Chiin Tai Chi or Kiin Aikido. It also relates to Wilhelm Reich’s discovery of Orgone Energy linked to orgasm and life. Another example was Salvador Dali, and his surrealist landscapes with their melting clocks, also a reference to 4-dimensional space-time. Meanwhile, the world of physics was discovering the quantum world which stretched our consciousness well beyond the mental domain as did the later discovery of psychedelic medicines and meditation practices by Westerners.
Eastern philosophy and practices were also part of my personal journey, as they were for Gregory Bateson, who eventually ended up at the Zen Centre in San Francisco in his quest for other ways of learning and thinking. And now his daughter Nora, has taken his work into her version of an integral consciousness as a filmmaker. Her film Stretching the Edgesis beautiful and is a presentation of integral consciousness. Bateson’s work with systems theory and cybernetics are also examples of the integral structure of consciousness as are the Dances of Universal Peace that the American Sufi, Murshid Samuel Lewis created in the late 60s. Inspired by the Sufi teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the creative sacred dance of Ruth St Denis and his studies in Zen Buddhism, Yoga, Jewish Kabbalah, Christian mysticism and the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski, he created an embodied way of practicing integral consciousness through a form of sacred folk singing and dancing inspired by the major spiritual traditions on the planet.
My own introduction to Eastern Philosophy came from reading books like the Way of Zenby Alan Watts, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanceby Robert Pirsig and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones published by Paul Reps with teachings of Nyogen Senzaki. Nyogen Senzaki was one of the first Zen teachers to go to the US and was a teacher of both Murshid Sam and Robert Aitken Roshi. While living in a communal house in Melbourne, with other students from the film school, I was introduced to Indian teachings of the Divine Light Mission which came to Melbourne in the early 70s. I rediscovered for myself the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg who visited Melbourne at that time. Ginsberg was later involved in antiwar protests and the founding of the Buddhism inspired Naropa Institute.
From 1972- 75, my partner Karen and I spent 2 ½ years living and working in London and travelling around the UK and Europe. We went to the UK initially to apply for the National Film School, as we both decided that the Swinburne film course, where we met in 1971, was very limited. When we weren’t accepted into the school we both found ‘temp’ office jobs in London and began to explore the UK and Europe. It was a time of exploring our cultural roots. We’d both grown up in Australia with stories of our European and in Karen’s case, her British ancestors.
So, after years of primarily focusing on the mental consciousness in my studies of Applied Science, I was by then exploring the mythical structure of consciousness in the form of stories. Initially this was through my creativity and my imagination, but later it was through my travels, in which I was tuning into the stories of my ancestors in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. So, we visited Romania, Hungary and Austria, as part of these travels, as well as Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey and Israel. It was on this trip that we drove into Germany, but then had to leave the next day because of I felt so sick in the stomach all the time I was there. Workwise, the climax of this trip was working on lighting at the Mermaid Theatre, the London Palladium and Covent Garden Opera House in London, the latter for about a year on both opera and ballet. Once again this was an experience of the mythic consciousness, with some magical consciousness as well, given some of the special effects that contemporary theatre makes use of. Consequently, the trip connected me to some of my relatives for the first time in Romania and Israel, as well as all the diverse European cultures and ecologies that had shaped much of the culture I came from.
There was some things that were quite unsettling about aspects of this trip. One was the experience of Germany, where I could viscerally feel the Nazi propaganda against the Jews which had come through my parents. The others were the repressive feel of communism in Romania, where I had uncles, aunts and cousins; and the militarism in Israel where I felt the oppression of the Palestinian peoples. The mythic consciousness had opened deep cultural wounds of my ancestors and at that stage I had no idea of how to heal them. When I returned to Australia the healing process could begin.
In the late 70’s, the inspiration I had to write the book: The Buddha Nature of Theatreled to my finding a yoga teacher, John Cooper and through him, Zen Master Robert Aitken Roshi. Through the yoga and Zen practices, I was able to truly integrate all the 5 structures of consciousness, of which I had first become aware intellectually in my filmmaking journey of the early 70s. What added to this process of integration was reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, through which I began to make sense of the new physics and abstract algebra, both part of my engineering studies in the 60s.
It is an interesting synchronicity, that Capra’s book about Quantum Physics and its relationship to the Eastern philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism appeared in my life, at the same time as I was being guided to write a book about Buddha Nature. Initially, I had little idea of what that term may mean, as it was something I had only read about up to that time. This is typical of the mental consciousness, which enables us to know about things intellectually, but is a limited way of understanding something as profound as Buddha Nature. This was something I intuited at the time, although I could not have articulated it. What I was aware of was that my life was in serious crisis, as the planned transition from being a chemical engineer to becoming a filmmaker, seemed to have become seriously stuck by the late 70s. I was working as a buyer of non-fiction paperbacks in Angus and Robertson’s, a big city bookshop and doing theatre lighting at the Sydney Opera House, as well being involved in more experimental fringe theatre productions. I was in the process of writing a novel that I envisaged as something that could become the basis for a film script. It was called Laszlo is Seeking Paradiseand was a way for me to explore both the spiritual search I was on and my Hungarian cultural background. I was taking photographs, playing music, reading widely, but overall, I felt rather lost at the time.
I was at an in-between place in my life. I had dropped out of an Arts degree after a very successful 2 years of study doing double honours in French and Drama at NSW University. However, by the end of the second year, I felt completely full. It was like I’d reached some kind of limit of the mental consciousness. There was also the influence of several years exploring my creativity as an actor, a director, a filmmaker and photographer, as well as my physicality as a theatre mechanist and lighting technician. I’d been working with the general public selling books and with theatre workers and performers at night. Perhaps it was a deep wounding that I was beginning to connect with after my travels, my creative theatre and bookshop work and humanities studies. It was only when I started to direct in and write for theatre that I began to use my full Jewish first name ‘Ben-Zion’. Previously I used only ‘Ben’ for fear of being visibly Jewish.
At the beginning of the 80s we made another grand tour to Europe and the Middle East, but this time it was only for a year and our base was France, as we could both speak French by then. On that second trip we went to Germany, but on that occasion we had people who we could stay with. They were friends of Karen’s family, as her father used to make yearly trips to Germany as an electrical engineer to visit special trade fairs. The Frankes were a German family, and this time we stayed with them in Aachen, at the beginning of our trip to Germany. This proved quite transformative for several reasons. The first was that they were very surprised when Karen from Australia turned up with this Jewish man who was born in Romania. It seemed that Elfriede and Lothar had met in Romania in 1941 as part of the German occupying forces. He was an engineer and she was a nurse. They clearly didn’t feel comfortable about being there at that time.
After a couple of days staying with them in Aachen, Elfriede took Karen and myself out to a hill outside the city where there were some Jewish graves. Then she popped the big question: ‘How could you come to the land of your murderers?’ In that moment something monumental changed for me and I found myself saying: ‘It’s not exactly like that!’ The sickness in my gut I’d felt on my previous visit to Germany in the early 70s was no longer there. In that moment I realised that not all Germans were Jew hating Nazis. She clearly felt a great discomfort about the Holocaust. A couple of days later Lothar took us down to his cellar where he showed us a slide show of their time in Romania 40 years apart. There were photos he had taken in 1941 and in 1981 in Brasov, a town in Romania. Again, there was a feeling of subtly asking me how I felt about their predicament as part of the invading German army to my country of birth. I felt no hostility towards them, as I realized they were just part of the German war machine, that was not in their control at the time.
We also met their son Bertholt, who was studying Sociology and Germanistics at university. He explained that when he went to school, German history stopped in 1930, and he was determined to understand the history that had happened after that. Again, I could see that there were people in Germany, who felt shame and guilt over what their nation had done in World War II. This transformation of my feelings about being in Germany meant that I felt able to continue our trip to Cologne, Mainz and then Nuremburg. We also spent some time travelling along the Rhine by boat and train and visited Bingen, a beautiful little medieval town where the mystic Hildegard of Bingen came from.
In Mainz we visited Cornelia, who was the Franke’s daughter and her husband Wilhelm, who took us to Heidelberg for a day. I’d always wanted to go there to see the famous university. It was this experience that was to have resonances 36 years later when Cornelia came to visit Australia with her 5 offspring and 2 of their partners. Just the day before they were due in Sydney, I had a chronic gastric attack. And for the whole time that members of the family were in Sydney, I felt unwell. This was quite unusual as I rarely get sick. In a session with my counsellor I realised that it linked back to my first visit to Germany, when I felt so sick in the gut I had to leave the next day.
Over the years since that first visit, I researched a PhD on anti-racism; I had been part of a German Jewish reconciliation dialogue; I’d been present when a young German woman was being counselled on her feelings of shame and guilt about the war; I’d met a group of Lutheran nuns whose founding mother had focused on revealing the anti-Semitism embedded in the Christian Church and was part of a group of Christians who had gone to Jerusalem around 2001 to apologise for Christian anti-Semitism. I’d worked with a German Australian lecturer, who was a colleague in the Social Ecology Faculty of the university where I taught for 15 years. So, much changed in my relationship to Germany, its culture and its people. For example, all the people on the German side of the German Jewish reconciliation dialogue were involved in Steiner education or Anthroposophy, and this resulted in my feeling OK about my daughter going to a Steiner School for her high school. The question then arose: ‘Why did this illness reappear now?’
It took the session with my counsellor and a talk by Nora Bateson to reveal the answer to this question. What came up in the session was the link with the work of Jean Gebser that was driven by his need to understand what had happened in Germany under the Nazis. What I only realised after Nora’s talk, was that Gregory Bateson was, along with Margaret Mead and other intellectuals in the 30s, part of a parallel movement which wanted to develop an anti-fascist form of science. Given my connection to the work of Gregory Bateson, this was a massive realisation for me to see that he too was part of the same process of inquiry that Gebser and I had been engaged in all these years. In that session with my counsellor I was struck with the awareness of how Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious was so revolutionary and so much part of the integral consciousness manifesting at the beginning of the 20thcentury. Suddenly, acts of so called evil could be explained by traumatic experiences that were present in the unconscious. Both Hitler and Stalin were beaten mercilessly as children by their father according to Robin Grille , a psychologist who had researched more peaceful ways of parenting .
Nora Bateson, in continuing her father’s work, who himself had been continuing the work of his father William Bateson, as I mention above, was presenting integral consciousness through her films. These were the kinds of creative, ecological and politically engaged films I wanted to make back in the early 70s. This was the key to my crisis! I had once written an essay, years before on how the Holocaust and the atom bomb changed my perception of science as a positive force in the world. At that point I saw science as the destroyer. However, when I discovered social ecology and integral consciousness, I came to realise that this was not the whole story. After all, my very attraction to film and photography and to recorded music, all relied heavily on technology and science, as does the computer I’m using to write this piece. As is the case with the simplest tool, the knife – it can be used to kill by a murderer or to heal by a surgeon, to prepare food by a chef or to carve a wooden sculpture by an artist. The cinema itself is a 4-dimensional medium with its space time presentation of images and narrating of story. It is thus an appropriate medium for the 20th century and the integral consciousness. My attraction to this art form and my passion for it suddenly made sense at a deeper level. The films of the great directors of European films like Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Milos Foreman, Vittoria De Sica, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and English directors like Lindsay Anderson or Peter Brook were major influences on me.
In conclusion, this recent experience of illness, triggered by the German visitors, with whom I had made a previous connection some 36 years earlier, has made me aware that we need crises in our lives in order to shift our consciousness and grow. My attraction to great playwrights – like the writers of the Greek Tragedies, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Racine or theatre artists like Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud and of course Peter Brook – has been a major force in my life in deepening my understanding of what it means to be human. That the Universe set me a life koan by inspiring me to write a book called The Buddha Nature of Theatre back in the late 70s, has now an even deeper significance as it sent me on a mystical search through yoga, Zen, Shamanism, Kabbalah, the Tao, Sufism, music and poetry and ultimately the Dances of Universal Peace, as an embodiment of integral consciousness. It was through this process that I have been exploring my own energetic healing and how to live a life of integral consciousness, which is so needed at this time.
15 – 4 – 2019
A Dance of Universal Peace Circle
at the Brahma Kumaris Centre, Wilton NSW
Salvador Dali’s surreal sculpture of a Melting Clock in Sydney
an example of the integral consciousness art – 4 dimensional space time.
Initially developed by Griffith University, I was part of a team who implemented and adapted it to NSW schools see
see my PhD thesis for more details:
Verbatim at a Social Ecology residential lecture by Robin Grille (2013), author of the book, Parenting for a Peaceful World,