A LETTER FROM CALIFORNIA… from long ago and far away

Harris writes…

BEFORE. Harris in California just before being opened


In her article, Arifa Asariah mentions that she found out about Subud from a letter I wrote to my ex-wife who was living in London at the time, and it influenced her to join. (God alone knows why!)

My wife (my Australian wife) and I had been living in California and then we decided to separate. She moved to London, stopping off briefly in New York to join Andy Warhol’s entourage. (She was an extremely adventurous, attractive and popular young woman, easily able to fit into any social scene.)

During the separation we exchanged many letters and she, very kindly, kept all of mine to her, and one day presented them all to me in a folder. What a treasure.

Included amongst them is the letter, which had such an influence on Arifa.

Background to the Letter

I joined Subud in California in 1969. I found out about Subud from Husain Chung who was then running an enterprise called The Human Institute in the Bay Area around San Francisco. The business of this enterprise was psychodrama in which Husain is a master.

Husain is an extraordinary character, not your typical Subud member. We have published some things by and about him in Subud Voice from time to time and he has written his autobiography, called God the Therapist, which is available from Amazon.com. This is a really good book. It is different from any other Subud book, perhaps more honest, revealing and outrageous than any other Subud book. You should read it.

He is an audacious character. He learned to do psychodrama while employed at a facility for the criminally insane. He learned to do psychodrama working with extreme psychopaths, murderers and rapists. Perhaps that is why later on he was such dynamite when let loose in a room of ordinary middle-class neurotics.

Psychodrama was discovered by a man called Jacob Moreno, a disciple of Freud’s. Husain met Moreno who wanted Husain to to take over his mantle as the one who would continue the development of psychodrama. Husain refused, preferring to do his own free-wheeling thing.



What is psychodrama, you ask? Could you explain it a bit to me please. Certainly!

Wikipedia says “Psychodrama is a method of  psychotherapy in which clients use spontaneous dramatization, role playing and dramatic self-presentation to investigate and gain insight into their lives”… which is a pretty good succinct definition.

Suppose you are a man who is having problems with his wife. Well, you can go to a psychodrama therapist and he will have you enact scenes with a trained psychodramatic actress. In the course of acting out the scenes, you will find out in a powerful way many things. For instance, the experience may give you insights into what it is that you do that you are unaware of that causes so much trouble in the marriage.

Beyond that, you may experience an emotional catharsis so profound, that you will begin a process of transformation that you will make you less likely to do those things that cause so much trouble. You may relieve yourself of childhood traumas and guilts. You may be purified of the anger and violence within you. You may come to terms with your grief. And so on.

That is psychodrama at the most basic level. Husain took it to two further levels.

As a psychodrama would unfold under Husain’s direction, you would see  again and again and again and again how a man’s problems with his wife and women in general were rooted in his relationship to his mother, and a woman’s problems with her husband and men in general were related to her experience with her father.

The important thing about Husain as a therapist was not so much what he did, but who we was. Like all great therapists and healers he carried a field around himself and when you chose to enter it, transformation began.

(Of course, not only Husain has this gift, all great healers and therapist  do. They create a field which compels sincerity and seriousness. Ruslan Jelman is another such gifted, and of course it exists outside Subud as well. Once I had bad stomach pains and I decided to go and see a homoeopath who was popular with Subud members in the UK – Janice is her name if I recall. As soon as I rang her to make the appointment to see her, the stomach pains stopped. I had entered her field even though she lived many miles away and the healing had begun. It seems the modality they use, be it psychodrama or homoeopathy or whatever, is just the vehicle that gives form to their field.)

Husain radiated a field which because of his own sincerity and honesty, compelled you also to be sincere and honest at a level you had not previously experienced, and this permitted things to emerge from the unconscious that you had been bottling up all these years.

So in a way it is not right to say that Husain directed  psychodrama, but rather that he let it happen. Of course to some extent he did shape things, at least to some extent sometimes, but It is more true to say that he created a field in which things were permitted to emerge and unfold.

So he did not mechanically say to himself, “If this man is having problems with his wife, it is because I’ve witnessed over and over again that such problems are rooted in his relationship with his mother.” No, he created a field in which these things spontaneously emerged. It was always a fresh happening, never assumed or premeditated.


The Third Level

But then there was a third level to Husain’s psychodrama which we  witnessed over and over again. This was the level of the world of symbols, myths and legends. Time and time again we saw that a relationship with the mother or the father, if carried through to the next level, would spontaneously turn into a re-enactment of a Greek myth, or a fairy tale, or a legend. These deep bed-rock archival patterns in the human psyche were revealed.

Freud of course had stumbled upon this truth, most famously in his realisation that the Greek myth of Oedipus, who murders his father and marries his mother, is an enactment of the male experience as a child of loving and wanting his mother exclusively, and therefore on a deep unconscious level wishing to reject and eliminate the father.

So in the psychodrama we saw these ancient archetypal patterns springing to life before our very eyes. Here is this woman who has a problem with her father and so we see the myth of Electra emerge.

Sometimes these ancient patterns and stories would emerge in ways mediated by popular culture. I remember one psychodrama with a man who was fearful turn into the story of  the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz.

There is much more to be said about Husain and his psychodrama and I hope to write it one day.


Finding out about Subud

I became involved in Husain’s psychodrama. I had gone to California to join the Creative Writing Department at Stanford University, but quickly became  seduced by all that was going on in California at that time. Hippies, Haight-Ashbury, drugs, free love, anti-Vietnam demonstrations, rock ‘n roll concerts in the park, “sit-ins” at the University protesting this and that.

But like a lot of people I found that the drug taking became a dead-end. I took many LSD trips which fortunately for me all went okay. But after doing it for a while, it no longer felt right to have this extremely powerful chemical racing through my system, and there was always in the back of your mind the dread spectre of of “the one acid trip too many”, the one that you did not come back from. So I stopped taking drugs.

Then like many people, especially around San Francisco at that time, I turned to what might loosely be described as the “human potential” movement. What this meant was that certain kinds of experiences, particularly in the field of group therapy, which had been developed in a clinical setting, now became available as more of a “lifestyle” or “personal development” experience” to people who were not clinically unwell but suffering some contemporary malaise of heart or soul. People who were searching, seeking emotional wholeness, spiritual direction, whatever you like to call it.

This was the context in which Husain worked and which for a time he was a leading figure

Those of us who became closely involved in Husain’s psychodrama picked up hints and gossip that he practised some kind of “spiritual thing”. One day I decided to go and ask them about this. He told me it was Subud. As as soon as he said the word “Subud”, I knew that this was the thing I’d been searching for. That was all I needed to hear. Just the word “Subud”. I know this is not an uncommon experience that someone will just hear the word and they need to know nothing else. They know that this is the thing they have been searching for.

Many years before, I had had a premonition that the thing I was looking for was to be found in Indonesia, and I had gone to Indonesia looking for it. So when I heard that Subud had originated in Indonesia, I thought that this must be the thing that I had unsuccessfully searched for before.

I became an applicant in Subud at the Los Altos group, a town near Stanford University. Perhaps several hundred people came into Subud around that time through Husain’s psychodrama and a hard core have stuck it out. We still see and recognize each other from time to time, hardened veterans of the “psychodrama wars”.

This is the background to the letter that had such an influence on Arifa…


Dear C…

So I became what they call an “applicant” or “probationer” in Subud. Strange terms, but that is what they call it.

One Sunday night, Husain took me to this shop-front in Los Altos township, where they do the “latihan”. Yes, it’s just a shop in the main street, nothing fancy. You walk in and it’s completely empty except that there are a few chairs standing around and a curtain divides the space in two.

When we arrived, there were about 20 men sitting around, and behind the curtain, you could hear the women finishing their latihan. A lot of moaning and groaning, and a few shrieks and wails, and then things felt quiet. You could feel the atmosphere. It was palpable.

The women came out from behind the curtain, looking none the worse for wear, and over the next ten minutes or so, some thirty men came into the room and went behind the curtain. I had hoped that Husain might tell me some more about Subud but the only instruction I received from him was “Sit here”, indicating a chair in a row up against the curtain. I sat there with a few of the other “probationers”.

All was quiet for about 15 minutes and then a terrific din broke out. It sounded like “all hell broke loose” or to put it another way, the latihan began

The way you join Subud is that you come along to the group and announce that you want to join and then you wait three months before you are actually “opened” (like a can of sardines!) It was eventually explained to me that the purpose of this is so that you can get to meet the members, ask questions, and find out about Subud.

At the end of three months it is supposed that you are able to make an intelligent and considered decision about being opened. They don’t want people rushing in and then being sorry about it. I guess this is a good safeguard and keep Subud from being regarded as some kind of cult that sucks people in and “seduces the innocent”, breaks up marriages and families and so on..

From behind the curtain came howling and shouting, screaming and laughing, grunting and weeping, moaning and groaning. There was clapping and stamping and the sound of bodies thumping about. Mingled with this, were snatches of singing of great beauty. Most of the sound was inarticulate, but amongst it were fragments of prayers and invocations.

It seemed completely unorchestrated, pure cacophony, though over the next half hour, I did detect a kind of shape or rhythm to it. There was a build up of intensity which seemed to reach a crescendo after twenty minutes or so, and then it gradually died away until there were just a few isolated moans and groans and the odd sob.

The men emerged from behind the curtain, also looking none the worse for wear. On the contrary, they were relaxed, bright-eyed, smiling. I learned later that this latihan is a completely spontaneous experience. Nobody organises or directs it. There is no set form, no prayers or ritual movements. Everyone follows their own feelings and whatever sounds and movements might arise from inside.

They believe it is a contact with the Power of God. It was started by a man in Indonesia whom they call “Bapak” (father) who had some big spiritual revelation way back in the 1920s. He is still alive.

Spontaneous Opening

After I had been coming along to the Los Altos shop front and sitting in front of the curtain and hearing the latihan quite close, a strange thing happened. Of course, this whole period has been a time of turmoil for me. Our separation, various other “relationship issues”, the drugs, the psychodrama etc. sometimes I sit there in front of the curtain feeling that cats have clawed my soul.

Anyway on this particular Sunday night, after I’ve been going there for about six weeks, I struck up a threesome with another guy who is a probationer, a full-on hippy, and a girl who is also doing psychodrama. And we went up into the hills to a cabin that this guy is living. It was miles and miles, and we drove for hours and hours, and eventually arriving at this cabin in a forest.

Then things took an unpleasant turn. It was clear that a powerful attraction has developed between the hippy and the girl from psychodrama from which I was excluded. Is there any more painful and embarrassing situation than that? I felt  increasingly tense, uncomfortable and isolated. I went into that awful autistic state I sometimes go into when I am incapable of speaking. I was not wanted. I wanted to escape but I couldn’t move. I was frozen there, stuck, speechless, locked inside myself.

But suddenly I raced out of the cabin and I stood there in the night air. The moon was shining above the forest and then this process began. I started retching, dry retching, as if dragging up from inside myself and releasing great gouts of dead energy.

Then I felt as if there was bowl of molten gold in my solar plexus, and the bowl broke,  and this warm fluid of molten gold ran out through my veins  and nervous system to touch every part of my body. I could even feel it forcing its way through the tiniest capillaries in the tips of my fingers.

Afterwards, all my senses were acutely alive. I could see every leaf on every tree distinctly outlined. I could hear acutely every sound of the forest night. It was as if “the doors of perception” had been cleansed.

Eventually, the three of us regrouped and drove back down to Palo Alto. They dropped me off at a late night diner. There I had a strange experience. It was full of people happily eating together, laughing and talking. I could read the life story of every person in their faces. I knew everything about them.

I was sitting at the counter with my back to the door when suddenly I felt this shift in the room. There was a hush, an unease or an anticipation in the room. I don’t know how it was conveyed exactly, a thousand little signals, but something had changed in the atmosphere.

I  turned around and saw that two black guys had entered this restaurant which otherwise was filled with white middle class people. There was nothing menacing about these two black guys. They were completely innocent, but I guess their entry had triggered that subliminal racial tension that always exists beneath the most innocuous surfaces.

My “Official Opening”

I went to see Husain and told him that I thought I had had a “spontaneous opening” (I had heard that such things occurred). I asked him if I could start doing latihan with the group straight away. He said, “Better you wait for the three months.”

So, six weeks later, I was officially opened in Los Altos. Husain was present as well as other “helpers”.. It was not such a dramatic experience as I had anticipated, but totally pleasing. I guess the ‘real” opening was the one six weeks ago.

My experiences since then as a “probationer” have been profound, so the opening wasn’t a dramatic new revelation, but rather a continuation of what was already on progress. But it was deeper than any of the previous experiences.

I feel very cleansed and pure now. (Ha ha, I hear you say!)

Get up and Walk!

A few weeks later I had this experience to do with Catholicism.

As you well know, I was brought up a Catholic, but my faith crumbled when I was in my teens, and my Catholic education left me with a residue of bitterness and fear. In latihan I began to say the Catholic prayers over and over again. The “Our Father”, “Hail Mary” and “Glory Be”.

I have been living, I should tell you, in a cottage in the back garden of a big old Palo Alto mansion. The mansion is inhabited by a group of medical students from Stanford and their girlfriends. The cottage, it is said, belongs to a Greek Orthodox monk who is believed to be wandering in Mexico somewhere but has not been heard from for many years.

The tenant immediately before me was a medical student who had somehow acquired a lion cub. The first thing I had to do upon moving into the cottage was clean out about half an inch of dried blood from the bottom of the refrigerator, the residue of the lioness’s food.

I met this lioness once when she was still a cub. The most amazing thing about her was her eyes. You could look into her eyes and they just went on and on forever. You could look right into her soul. There were no barriers, no evasions, no looking away, no fears, no hesitations, none of the inheritances of civilisation. Completely fearless.

But the lion cub grew up and when she was about seven months old and pretty fully grown, she escaped from the yard one day and went loping down the suburban street and playfully knocked over a little girl. That, unfortunately, was the end of the lioness. She was given to a zoo. Grief-stricken at the loss of his pet, the medical student disappeared and I inherited the cottage.

M. came to live with me there for a time, but after a brief romantic idyll, she abruptly went off to a commune in New Mexico, leaving me with her cat. It  seems to be a feature of my life at this time that girls are always running off leaving me with their cats. I have quite a collection. Just as well I like cats.

One night I was lying in bed in the cottage surrounded by cats when an inner voice said: “Get up and walk.” I ignored it, but it kept on. “Get up and walk.” Finally, feeling ridiculous, I got up and put on my clothes – lots of grumbling from the cats at having their slumbers disturbed – and walked out of the house. Where was I supposed to walk to? But it seemed that my feet were guided. I walked down the drive and came to the street. Which way should I turn? My feet turned to the left.

I walked down the street until I came to a crossroad. Left or right? My feet took me to the right. I walked for a mile or two in this fashion. Every time I had to make a decision about which way to go, it seemed as if my feet were guided.

I was moving through a part of town now where I’d never been before. I wondered where it was all going to end. Would there be a an end to it, or would I walk on forever like this?

I was walking down a street and I looked across and saw a Catholic church and I knew this was what I was supposed to see. I walked across, but the church was locked up and in darkness and I walked home.

I came back the next day and sat in the church. All the bitterness and anger I felt about the church dissolved away. I didn’t want to go back to it, but I didn’t hate it anymore.

I was free and at peace.

Love, Peter (as my name was then)


This is a note for people who are unfamiliar with Subud. I want to stress that the experience I had of coming into Subud was very much part of being in California in those free-wheeling days. These days, applicants would not be so exposed to the latihan before their opening as I was. “Spontaneous openings” may still occur. But they are not encouraged.

Story of C

She was just seventeen…

It usually seems to be the case that my ex-wives do quite well after they have left me. After they are released from the purgatorial process, or “season in hell” involved in living with me, they pick themselves up and do OK. This is a great relief and a mercy to me, to know that I have not damaged them irretrievably.

C. was no exception. I had brutally disrupted her life. When I met her she was  “just  seventeen”, just like in the Beatles’ song to which we so often danced, and she was already working as a journalist. One of her accomplishments, which made her almost a goddess in our eyes, was that she had interviewed the Beatles for a magazine when they came to Australia.

If things had proceeded normally for her, she would’ve gone on to university, and no doubt become a writer and journalist of great achievement. Who knows where it would’ve ended? Editor of the Times in London or the New York Times. Anything could have been possible for her.

Instead at the age of 18 she married me and we went off to live in California. It is hard to credit it now, but at that time I seemed to have some magnetic gift that drew unsuspecting young women to me and involved them in my mad schemes and fantastic aspirations.

But after we separated, she picked up the threads of her former life and at the advanced age of 28 began her  undergraduate studies, eventually leading to her Ph.D. in French literature. Her thesis was on Marcel Proust, her favourite author, whom I am incapable of reading, although I enjoy his stories of the agony and ecstasy of romantic love when they are made into movies.

She is now one of the world’s leading experts, if not the world’s leading expert, on the novels of Marcel Proust, and has written countless books and scholarly articles about him.

She holds professorships at leading English universities and a couple of years ago she won a prestigious medal for services to French Literature awarded by the French government, rarely awarded to someone who is not actually French. I cannot remember whether the medal is for services to French literature generally, or for services to the Proust industry in particular, but whichever, she won it.

I on the other hand work in telephone call centers. Isn’t it interesting how life turns things around, and the top becomes the bottom, and the bottom the top, and so on and so forth, life with all its amusing twists and turns.

Of course, I not only work in telephone call centers; there are more glorious aspects to my life. I edit Subud Voice for example, and continue to harbour schemes and aspirations, perhaps no less colorful and fantastic than in the days when I first met C.

One thing about many of us Subud members is that we do not let life defeat us, but maintain our youthful vigour and  hopeful outlook. “Age cannot wither us, nor custom stale our infinite variety.”

Some details in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.


AFTER. Harris with his wife Piata in 1991 after doing the latihan for only about 23 years.