As Marcel Proust, the French novelist, suggested, the real voyage of discovery consists in seeing with new eyes. I did so in Skyros, the island favoured by a partial nature and a discriminating sky.
The island’s magic is everywhere, in the sunlight which penetrates ‘directly to the soul (and) opens the doors and windows of the heart’, the odour of the freshly baked bread, the fleshy figs soaking in the early morning’s dew, the moist brown eyes of the Greeks. It is in the youthful energy of the unfaltering eternity, the sculptured countryside caressed by the Graces, the olive trees with the wrinkles of generations and the rocks with the wisdom of all times.
I could even see there the sea-nymphs dancing naked in the diaphanous shroud of the golden sunset, and I could not help myself squeezing their beautiful breasts with my eyes.
The Skyros Centre was in the village under the orgulous and indomitable castle of King Lykomedes. Rebuilt by the Byzantine Greeks and reinforced by the Venetians, the castle graces the village and embodies the proud spirit of the locals.
It was in this castle that young Achilles had been hidden by his mother, Thetis, to escape his fate which had decreed that he would either gain glory in the war against Troy and die young or live long but unsung.
Not hot on heroics, Thetis had despatched the boy to Lykomedes, in whose palace he lived disguised as a girl. This did not prevent him, however, from fathering a boy, Neoptolemos, with the propitious cooperation of Lykomedes’ daughter Deidameia.
But then Odysseus arrived on the island looking for him.
‘Where’s this young man’, he was heard asking feverishly the king,. ‘He has an appointment with fate.’
The king chose to remain as silent as the Apollo statue next to him, and Odysseus, losing patience, offered him some advice of an intimate nature. He then brought loudly to his attention the warning Menelaus, the king of Sparta, had given to all the Greeks.
‘The Trojans’, he said, ‘have to be punished for their audacity. If not, nobody could henceforth be sure of his wife’s safety’.
But neither the king nor the chambermaids, who, as expected, pretended to be busy, would come forward with the answer he was looking forward to.
Achilles himself, apparently, just like President Clinton, not eager to register for a military expedition in foreign and far-away parts, kept silent, too. This did not surprise Odysseus as he himself, in order to avoid going to war, had, when Agamemnon tried to enlist him, pretended he was mad.
When summoned to serve his country, he was flinging salt rather than barley over his shoulder, Homer tells us.
Eventually, Odysseus trapped Achilles into revealing himself. He laid a pile of gifts for the girls on the floor – Guerlain, Chanel and other perfumes, various Bulgari, Van Cleef and Tiffany jewellery, Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana steamer trunks and handbags plus a shield and a spear, and then, when he signalled, his men outside trumpet-blasted and ran to position.
‘We’re being attacked’, they yelled, as if they were freaking out. ‘Trojan special forces in sight.’
They then pretended they were engaged in battle against the intruders.
Achilles could not resist the call of fate. He stripped himself to the waist, seized the shield and spear and ran to battle.
Another early resident of Skyros was Theseus, the hero who killed the dreaded Minotaur and legendary king of Athens. Theseus had decided to retire to Skyros, where he had inherited an estate. King Lykomedes welcomed him with all the splendor due to his fame and lineage, but in the time-honoured tradition surviving to our day, he questioned the titles of the estate Theseus laid claim on. He regarded it as his own.
Yet, he did not say a word about it, and, kindly, took the aged hero out to show him its boundaries except that when they reached the top of a precipitous cliff, he helped him over to his death.
Later, he claimed this most unfortunate event was due to a tragic accident.
‘Theseus’, the king tweeted, ‘had a glass too many.’
Full of ancient memories, the island is also very beautiful. I was taken by its primordial nature, wild and yet curvaceous and flowing, the pastel of its landscape, the scents of its mellow summer nights, the mellifluous breathing of the Aegean Sea in whose ‘lustral waters Zeus himself once delighted’.
I loved the old village, too. Curved centuries back up on the hill for fear of pirates, it has narrow cobblestone streets paved with unhurried intimacy and wholesome humanness.
Its white cubic-style houses, testament of indestructible innocence of caught time, are shaded by grapevines playing voluptuously with the nuances of the glittering sunlight. In the
square, the villagers, weathered by the lingering memories of the millenniums, still watch with amusement the visitors from their future and wonder in amazement what is in store for them.
I felt I had arrived at an integrated, unflappable world, at peace with itself, serene in its wisdom, ethereal as a Turner painting and yet as solid and nurturing as Mother Earth.
On a stone, a surviving vestige of what was once a Homerian wall, I had let my imagination glide back in time and acquaint itself with the shadows of posts long lost.
There, in front of me, were children of the prehistoric era playing games, Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax, glorious Theseus telling King Lykomedes all about the dreadful Minotaur of Crete, and Athenian Kimon arguing ferociously with the surly and fierce Skyrians.
There, too, were Byzantine priests urging their flock to repent before God lost patience with their sinful lot, Venetian sailors and Algerian pirates carrying on their back flanks of wine and young women, Ottoman officials, obese, debauched and drowsy, and
coltish kids Mussolini had sent to conquer the world.
And, then, Nicos Pavlis, our Skyros Centre neighbour, passes in front of me, on his donkey, with his goats and a friendly smile on his sun-hardened, lined face. ‘Good morning’, he says and offers me a bunch of red grapes as delectable as Aphrodite’s nipples. I recall Democritus, the father of the theory of atomism:
‘Enough’, he said, ‘is as good as a feast... True riches are found only in contentment.’
And, Oh God, I had more than enough. The odoriferous grapes, the convivial smile, the sensual delights of nature’s breathtaking pastiche, the simplicity of life and the ancient breath of every stone had all engulfed me in a cloud of spiritual bliss. They had penetrated my soul and tuned me into the eternal rhythms of life.
Without even knowing it, I was on a spiritual journey. I listened to the whispering of the sea and I became that whispering, I absorbed the fragrance of the jasmine and I became the
fragrance itself, I watched the eagles flying over the mountains and I became a proud high-flying bird circling the sky together with them.
I had extended myself spatially and diachronically, being what my eyes could embrace and what my psyche could trace in the fragmented memories of the mythical and more recent past. I felt part of it all, humbled in reverence, ennobled by the experience, mesmerised by, and grateful for, the beauty revealing itself in all its simplicity.
In this world, all I had to do was re-build my thinking and re-position myself vis-a-vis the unresolved issues of our time.
Obviously, I still had not learnt how to control my aspirations, particularly as Skyros at the very beginning was for me neither an arrival nor a departure point. For the Skyros Centre did not exactly reflect my own interests.
It flourished as a psychotherapy centre just as much of Vienna which in Freud’s time had been taken over by the power of the unconscious.
But that had nothing to do with me. Myself, I had no interest whatsoever in inner invisibilities
or intimate therapeutic communities in the sun or in the shade. Psychotherapy was as alien to me as the wedding rites of the Shamans before the industrial revolution.
Personal growth at that time meant the unleashing of primal screams, something I was anything but familiar with. Unacquainted with such therapeutic techniques, the neighbours, too, alarmed, wasted no time in reaching the conclusion that what had been established on their island was either a torture chamber, a mental home or a sadomasochistic clinic. And in their kindness, they often rushed in bravely to save the ‘victims’.
‘No! Don’t worry – it’s all play. A kind of theatre.’
‘Oh good. When are you going to perform?’
At the end, there had to be an impromptu, if somewhat incongruous performance, in Brooke Square, high above the village, in front of three hundred breathless villagers and Costis
Ftoulis, their befuddled and mystified mayor. Surprisingly, it turned out, however, to be something of an occasion made possible thanks to my grotesque optimism and the creativity of the group.
We did not become honorary citizens of Skyros, but the locals needed some time to recover.
That was the first ever Skyros cabaret, the predecessor to those which have rounded off virtually every session ever since.
The Centre had been named by the locals ‘The English Villa’, a term which had an automatically sinister connotation. In an English villa mysterious forces are at work and egregious things happen as a matter of course. By implication, some Australians
ventured to suggest the place had thereby acquired a distinct touch of class. The French, evidently failing to appreciate this, shrugged their shoulders.
The place was also euphemistically called The Centre, ‘Of what’, an obviously untrustworthy member was once overheard asking.
Yet Skyros under the direction of Dina Glouberman, who had studied in the US under Herbert Marcuse and Abraham Maslow, turned into a resounding success story from day one. The venture – powerful human bonds, fantasy parties, romantic meals by the sea, extraordinary coincidences, apocalyptic dreams – captured the imagination and gave people an emotional home.
The people the Centre attracted were people who wanted to rethink their lives, discover their own truth and determine their future. As Joan Scales put it in The Irish Times:
‘Our lives are “always on”, but sometimes you want to just stop, get off the super-highway and breathe. You need to say “stop, I’m getting off’ and have some “me time”.
Skyros, the retreat that ‘promotes the ethos of personal growth, creativity and self-discovery’ was the place for her to do just that and burst the framework of her day to day reality.
And so it was for numerous other people who joined Skyros, individuals who, as John Torode described in The Guardian, were – ‘...successfully holding down “good” jobs, lots of creative folk and characters from the caring professions alongside academics and the occasional business person. They had all achieved and now shared a fashionable unease about whether the game was worth the candle.’
Among the ‘achievers’ were at times bishops, members of parliament or top police officers, all looking for the key to a happy life lost in the corridors of their daily routines.
Writing in Time Out, Olivia Maxwell was more specific.
‘Let me introduce the members of my group’, she said. ‘Elsa was a committed socialist living within a politically motivated community in Denmark, Thomas an engineer from Sweden, Martine a biology teacher from France. Sid was a doctor practicing both orthodox and homeopathic medicine in London, Christe a medical assistant in Innsbruck, Hannes a psychiatrist from Zurich and Rosemary a language teacher in Basel.
‘We all shared a common need – the need to grow, to confront ourselves deeply and honestly, find our inner selves and resources, uncover the games we play with ourselves and others, the different roles, unidentified fears, anger.
‘But it wasn’t all painful encounters with long-buried feelings. In the Disco on the Rocks we grappled with Greek dancing, ordered Marguaritas, were served Tequila Sunrises, and consumed copious quantities of ouzo. Later we’d pile back to the cave on the beach, light candles, banter, laugh, and drink more wine. That’s the other side of the Skyros experience – the sheer, crazy, overwhelming joy of letting go and feeling alive. It’s a time of change and a time for growth. A twilight time of selfrecognition, of saying goodbye to tired games one has played our for the last time. It’s not a reformation, but a transformation.’
What people were experiencing was nothing less than a minor miracle I could hardly believe I had witnessed myself and impossible to describe to friends and acquaintances back home
A group of people who had never met before were able in a day or two to create a real, not contrived, atmosphere that exuded warmth, friendship, camaraderie and a feeling of unbridled joy and hilarity before moving together beyond all well-established social boundaries. Amazingly, most of them were going round the Middle Age Cape.
Still the people were greatly reassuring, the atmosphere enormously supportive, and the actual holiday aspect of it most rewarding.
Ann Shearer highlighted the benefits in a feature in The Guardian.
‘For me’, she said, ‘there was not just the delight of the island but the chance to learn from the mirror others offered me and to try out bits of myself I’d forgotten were there.’
Fergus Lalor went further in an article in The Irish Times.
‘I have to say’, he wrote, ‘that there is no other way to describe it than to admit that it changed my life.’
Excited to hear about Skyros from someone she knew, Maeve Binchy, the Irish novelist and playwright, advised likewise people again in The Irish Times to have a go fearlessly. I am sorry that, despite all my efforts, I never managed to bring her to Skyros. Ill-health had made it impossible.
Similar sentiments were expressed in January 1985 in the respected Dutch daily de Volkskrant.
The concept behind the Skyros Centre venture was to be traced to the ideas of people such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm, leaders of the humanistic psychology
movement that has its roots back in the 1960s.
Looking for the good life outside the parameters of the market economy, its technocratic culture and the various social and professional functions, they all anchored their approach on the full development of each one’s potential. The problem, as they saw it, is the fragmentation of personal identity, the alienation of the individuals from their own nature and their transformation into abstract and functional units.
Self-actualisation, incomprehensible within the retail price index, requires, however, guts to be ‘you’, the ‘real you’ as opposed to a self conditioned by the requirements of socially
determined patterns of behaviour. But who the ‘real you’ is?
To ‘know thyself’, as the Delphic maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi urge us, requires the disarming of the inner defensive mechanisms which block
unconscious contact with one’s ‘real’ self, even if that self is fragmented, and one’s ‘real’ needs.
Hence the conflict with the self-preservation impulse and the inhibitions activated by tiresome routines.
It also requires an understanding of our world as a network of human relations rather than structures and systems, and a sense of oneness with an environment in which people find everything of value in and through each other.
The Skyros innovation was to take this concept for the first time into a community context, and this in the serene environment of Skyros island where people could, like Odysseus, when he woke up on the Phaiacian shore, rise up, look around and see who they are. They could unwind, take a good, deep and honest look at their lives, explore pain, fears, inhibitions and habits that are getting in the way of a more fulfilling life, understand, accept and respect themselves for what they are and relate to other people more openly, deeply and effectively.
All this was for me a novel and vertiginous experience which nevertheless won gradually my full respect.
Some of the courses offered for the purpose focused on particular life themes or skills while others were open-ended and deep explorations of a variety of themes. They were all experiential and not formally taught.
The course facilitators used a variety of personal growth approaches, including psychodrama, gestalt, massage and bodywork, encounter, bioenergetics, art therapy and visualisation. The labels attached to these techniques were relatively unimportant as what mattered was the effectiveness of the help people received to get in touch with their deepest selves, project their genuine feelings instead of their imitations, and bring their subliminal energy into harmony with their conscious awareness and choices.
The dominant feeling in the groups, Bernard Burgone wrote in Self and Society, was
‘Trust, hard work without silly, false reassurances or cosy agreements, and a steady, firm commitment to reach the parts of the self that have for far too long been shut away.’
The result was truly miraculous.
‘It worked on every level’, Gail Tresidder, the Fitness magazine publisher, wrote long after the experience had left a scent that was still lingering on the fingertips of her memory.
The people who would dismiss such claims as shenanigans or give me odd, subvocalized looks were anything but missing.
But when ‘I went there’, Deborah Hutton, one of them, wrote in Vogue magazine, ‘surrounded by people I came to know better in seven days than many I had known for seven years, I was forced to swallow my cynicism. It worked. Very well. I felt great. Alive and inspired.’
To do that, several had to come face to face with their pain caused by problems that shadowed their lives: career or relationship problems, issues of health and sexuality, difficulties within the family, financial pressures or a range of bewildering choices that in today’s world go far beyond those of the previous generations.
Or with problems, as Saki, the witty and mischievous Scottish writer, might say, related to men who probably knew exactly what to do if they found a rogue elephant on a lady’s croquet-lawn but were just hopeless with women.
I discovered the pain behind the mask and touched its textured face in the very early stages of the Skyros Centre’s life. It was when a guest, an established journalist whom I see often on television, had joined Dina’s course in order to file later a story for his London daily newspaper.
‘I am here only to observe’, he said with the hapless expression of a spokesman for the emotionally deserted street of his middle age, ‘as I have no problems whatsoever’.
His uncertainty seemed, however, only the cover of a deeper uncertainty which became evident two hours later. It was then when he burst into tears, which he was mopping with a
handkerchief the size of a small tablecloth, and started walking around with a pair of dark glasses to hide his anguish. Dina took him off the course as, she said, he was not ready to deal with the issues that came up.
He accepted it without protest and then surrendered himself to the pleasant lassitude of the afternoon idleness.
The issues that in this context do come up are sometimes quite dramatic. A German doctor, for example, could not practice his trade because he did not want in the process to inflict pain to his patients.
‘We, Germans’, he said, ‘have caused so much pain in the world that I don’t want to add to it, even if it’s for healing purposes’.
Other people had to deal with broken marriages, family splits, low self-esteem and feelings of social inadequacy, excessive burdens of family responsibility, loneliness combined with an inability to sustain new relationships, emotional vacuums, failed plans and expectations, sexual abuse during childhood or feelings of being stuck in a world in which they did not feel they belonged.
A woman even complained, while drying her hair in the sunlight, that she felt neglected because her husband never hit her back. Another one started to talk about her sexually wretched married life though, as parsimonious with clarifications as she was with cash the day before, she failed to elaborate – in public.
Others would frequently raise issues relating to a work-life balance, questioning their commitment to a career that deprived them of all else life can offer. What they all wanted was the opportunity to stand back, review their lives, seek new ideas and insights and get all the support they needed to change course.
The funny side to it all, often hilarious, was anything but missing. It highlighted the absurdity of the human condition or the peculiarity of the means used by the Skyros Centre in dealing
with life’s puzzles. Absurdity often is part of our reality.
The Skyros Centre was taking itself seriously, but not too seriously.
But, as importantly, people were able there to amuse themselves rather than go places to be amused. That in itself was an achievement as in our days people have lost the ability to entertain themselves without help often offered from the cyberspace.