NTL and the Human Potential Movement

I don’t know how many people today remember the Human Potential Movement of the 1970’s, and I guess if you don’t know and are really interested you can Google or Bing it, but in its time, it was quite interesting.  Its basic assumption was that people could be made better and more effective than they were.   It had two centers, one on the West Coast (in California, where else?) at a place called Esalen, and the other, NTL (the National Training Laboratories for Applied Human Interaction) founded by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, on the East Coast, in Bethel, Maine.  There was also a Zen monastery, Tessejara (also in California), which became popular, but it was quite expensive and people had to get out of bed too early.  The California places really led into what are today New Age spiritual beliefs, while the one on the East Coast tended to be more “rational”, more business oriented, many corporations sending their emerging leaders there to learn to become more effective.

NTL came to me while following a footnote in a text on social psychology (yes, I sometimes follow footnotes).  The experience in the anti-drug workshop and what it had done to me kept me on the lookout for a similar experience.  I knew there were groups meeting informally throughout the city, but they sounded too cult-like, and I really didn’t want to turn into a crazy, although I appreciated the buzz obtained by the participants.  Besides obtaining the buzz, I was really after the “how”, as in why did it work, and how did it work?  When I found the footnote about NTL, it seemed that if I attended one of its two week workshops I would get the answer to my questions.  So, paying my own expenses, I went off for a two week workshop at NTL in Bethel, Maine.

It turned into one of the most remarkable learning experiences of my life.

Some of the days were spent doing outdoor exercises, and I don’t mean physical training.  There were blindfolded trust walks through the forest, mirror exercises, and all sorts of other exercises that I really don’t remember today.  There were also endless small group discussions about how we felt, what we thought, the “here and now,” and what we did at home, what we wanted to do, and what the group thought we should do.  Not very flatteringly, the group thought I should have been a stand-up comic.  We also watched
the movie Twelve Angry Men twice, at the beginning and the end of the two weeks.  It was amazing how differently we saw it the second time.

What was also amazing was the changes it brought about in me.  I no longer could stand listening to Mozart, particularly his piano sonatas.  His music just sounded too mechanical, little numbers following one another in an expected rhythm.  When it came to dancing, I had always been somewhat of a clod, not quite comprehending the joy of repeated mechanical movement to music.  Now I had become a quite graceful, responsive dancer, or at least I thought myself so.  You may not believe any of this, but it was quite real to me at the time.

There were many other changes, some of these quite fundamental, but more about those in tomorrow’s post.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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