A Congress that Dared the Unthinkable
Report on the First New Age Congress (Florence, 1978)
- / -
Printed in Transnational Associations, 1978, 5, pp. 266-270 [PDF version]
See also Emergence of Integrative Processes in a Self-reflective Assembly (Florence, 1978)
Introductory statement reproduced from the congress programme
This is a report on an extraordinary international event which took place in Florence
(19-28 February 1978) under the name 'New Age Congress'. The Congress was
unusual in so many ways that any conventional report can only contribute to the pattern of
reflections around the event rather than producing a neatly ordered overview. Consider the
'confusion' surrounding the following points which are normally very clear for
any conventional gathering:
Organizers: The 'organising committee' changed its nature, function
and composition every week or so, from its origin in 1977 right up to and through the
opening of the congress. It absorbed new individuals, who moved to Florence at various
times prior to the event, in order to contribute in one way or another. This process, and
the associated conflicts, was a traumatic experience for all concerned - but an
experience recognised and accepted (with much difficulty) as necessary to the refinement
of the vision of the nature of the congress. In most cases those attracted together in
this way had neither met before nor been members of the same association and yet they all
shared aspects of a deeply felt sense of commitment to a common but undefined purpose. It
was accepted that each such individual had something unique to contribute to the
Theme / Purpose ; The theme was only put into written form and distributed 7
weeks before the Congress and even then it was expressed in the most general terms:
'We are coming together in Florence in February to explore, experience and
celebrate human transformation. In that beautiful setting where flourished the first
renaissance of modern times, the opportunity is being presented to facilitate and confirm
the birth of a New Renaissance.
You are invited to participate as a co-equal, co-creative delegate in the colloquia
and workshops, to experience the many presentations and associated events of this World
Congress, which should prove to be an historic and unifying event.
The expansive work of all of the participants will be to consider the dimensions of
the New Age, of the New Renaissance and of alternative futures. Participants will daily
question, learn, congress and celebrate using the general principles of growth found in
the processes and structures of Nature.
Let us see with ever greater clarity that our planet is undergoing radical change
out of which arises an impulse of creative synthesis. An all inclusive unitive power floods
the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of attuned people everywhere, igniting a common
vision of renewed organic earth. A new consciousness and the energy of a new dispensation
for humankind is now emergent. The signs are everywhere. The pace of transition depends
directly upon us. Wherever we are, there is that thing which it is appropriate for us to
do, to hasten a new and better day'.
It is typical of the event, and of the attitudes of those involved, that the final introductory text
used in the printed programme consisted of paragraphs extracted from a circular letter
mailed independently by a person who had briefly visited the organising group in Florence
-- after the above text had been distributed.
Finance: At no time did the Congress have a well-defined budget. The main source
of income was composed of gifts ranging from $ 4,000 to $58 from 17 individuals, and loans
ranging from $ 2,500 to $ 500 from 8 individuals. An early budget estimate was $ 400,000,
and the Congress was finally held on a budget of $ 40,000. New sources emerged just before
disaster could have struck. Typically the down-payment for the meeting hall could only be
paid one week before the Congress opened. The other main sources of income were
registration fees (at $40 per participant, plus gifts) and film rights. The Congress ended
with $24,000 debts which had to be cleared by the same process of individual commitment.
Many of those most committed placed themselves personally in debt to make the Congress
Publicity: Circular mailings were first distributed only 2 months before the
event. Publicity was severely restricted by shortage of funds for printing and postage, by
lack of adequate mailing lists and by the well-known problems of the Italian postal
system. Much was however accomplished by word-of-mouth and personal contact - despite
the wider reverberations of the conflicts between those participating in the organising
Participants: At no period prior to the event itself was it at all clear how
many people would be attracted to the Congress. Very early hopes were for 1,500, although
it was believed by some that the event would be worthwhile even if only 60 people
participated. The actual number was 300, of which over half were present for the full
10-day period. Oddly enough, although the majority of participants spoke English, the
nationalities of participants were never a matter of interest. About 40% of the
participants were of North American origin, although many were resident in Europe. Others
were from most Western European countries and Yugoslavia with a significant number from
the UK and Italy. The kinds of person participating are discussed below.
Results: The organizing committee deliberately abstained from any attempt to
define the results, if any, which would emerge from the congress process. Considerable
effort was however put into the production of a documentary film (by professionals acting
in a private capacity) based on the Congress and its environment with the expectation of
distributing it through TV networks around the world. The degree to which the film could
or would reflect the actual Congress was hotly debated with the consensus being that if
would serve a useful purpose without completely conveying what really occurred or what was
most meaningful to individual participants at the event. The film itself only came about
because of a considerable personal financial commitment on the part of those directly
involved, notably the actress Diane Cilento.
It so happened that the finances precluded recording speeches (except occasionally as
part of film-making). There was no desire to push for recommendations declarations or
resolutions. A book was planned by one of the organizers, Gus Jaccaci, containing
contributions of some key resource people present but this does not attempt to reflect the
heart of the congress process. No rapporteur was appointed or desired. A number of
individuals present, including journalists, planned to report on the Congress in the light
of their own experience and note-taking. This is one such report. It is as partial and
subjective as the other attempts to reflect what occurred.
A great deal of effort prior to the Congress was put into designing and organizing a
tentative programme of lectures, plenary discussions, workshops and social events to the
extent that this was possible, since even a week before the Congress it was not certain
which key resource people were coming. Those involved were very sensitive to the need to
make the gathering as participative as possible, benefiting from key resource people
giving lectures, but avoiding the tendency to turn the Congress into a vehicle for
'superstars', particularly those anxious for ego-nourishment. It was repeatedly
stated that each participant was a resource person and the problem was how best to focus
those resources for the benefit of the whole. Suggestions were made in the program
concerning discussion group formation by any participants.
The first day was organised in a highly participative manner as planned. Already
however there was considerable pressure from key resource people to know when they were
'on'. The number of sign-up sheets for workshops (by 'middle-class'
resource people), displayed on a single wall, rose quickly from 10 to 60 as competition
for the attention of participants increased. The planned events for the second day were
thrown into disarray when one of the key 'upper-class' resource people
threatened to leave unless given a 3-hour plenary solo. This was done. And by the end of
that day of excessive conventional structure, a core group of 'those sensitive to the
scheduling problem' met to review how the schedule was to be balanced in the light of
- pressure from super-stars, particularly for long sessions,
- commitments to super-stars (made by single individuals amongst the core group of
- the participative emphasis of the congress and the desire not to over-organize.
At this meeting a compromise was reached to handle in parallel those participants
having a preference for 'structure' (namely well-ordered lectures and workshops)
or for 'process' (namely participative discussion and spontaneous workshops).
This was implemented on the third day, during which the pressure on the scheduling office
and the organising group continued to increase whether from unfulfilled super-stars or
those wanting to give workshops in the limited space available. The difficulties were
compounded by a hit-and-run 'super-stars' who could only be available for a
plenary time-slot convenient to themselves before they had to leave.
These difficulties were presented to a plenary meeting on the fourth day (together with
the issue of whether the Congress should, could or would support the position of North
American Indians before the international community). This was the first occasion on which
it was made clear to the Congress as a whole that it had a responsibility for deciding on
its own scheduling priorities for the forthcoming days. However, each group responded in
the light of its own interests.
For those who had expected a well-packaged series of events (which had never been the
announced intent), the Congress was by now evaluated in such terms as: disorganised,
discourteous to eminent speakers, too many leaders, lack of consensus, unfulfilled
commitments, lack of adequate communication, etc. A number of participants and speakers
had left as a result.
Pressure on the 'organising group' had reached boiling point by the evening
of the fourth day. (The organising group continued to consist of a core of 8-15 people who
felt strongly committed to the Congress as a whole. Because of the continuing dynamics
amongst members of this diverse group, some were always absent from any particular
The group was particularly concerned that it was concealing the reality of the whole,
disguising its acute problems under a neat schedule of events to meet every taste, and
taking authority in a manner which prevented participants from acting in a fully
responsible manner rather than as simple consumers of available 'products'.
Necessary administrative and other tasks were instigated in a very organic manner as the
need was perceived by whoever in the core group was most sensitive to it as it emerged.
Essential tasks of food preparation, cleaning, chair arrangement, registration, etc. were
performed by volunteers or by some participants in repayment for a waived registration
The situation was dramatically changed on the evening of the fourth day at a core group
meeting held as a 'fishbowl event' in the middle of the plenary room (but with
only 5-20 observers). After considerable discussion it was unanimously agreed that the
meaning of the event in all its ramifications could best emerge if the core group ceased
to 'organize and schedule' and just 'stepped back' in order for the
Congress to become aware of itself as a whole. Instead of scheduling events for the
following day or thereafter, it was simply agreed that one person would a 'focalize' a
general meeting, if sufficient participants gathered together in the plenary meeting room
on the following morning. It was agreed that even the registration desk would be manned in
an unscheduled manner by volunteers responding to the need. Such volunteers explained the
change which had occurred in case participants did not wish to register. The workshop
sign-up sheets were to be removed from the display wall.
Once this decision was reached there was truly amazing expression of joy amongst those who
had been responding frenetically to artificial pressures and needs which did not
correspond to the values which had brought them together in search for new structures and
processes. The 'organising group' dissolved itself with statements such as:
'At last we have a Congress'. The nature of the group's attitude to this
decision at the critical moment it was taken is illustrated by the Zen tale told at that
Three disciples of a Zen master were each asked to explain the nature of a beautiful
ancient vase. The first and the second were each absent a year and returned with complex
statements - which were rejected. The third smashed the vase with one blow - and
thus achieved 'satori'.
The results of this decision are described separately Emergence of Integrative Processes in a Self-reflective Assembly
The previous section reflects only one level on which the Congress could be perceived.
From first to last however it was a focus of many strange happenings perhaps the strangest
being that it occurred despite the confusion from which it was born. The printed program
carries the statement: 'Newly arriving delegates all have stories of self-sacrifice,
curiosity and faith in coming to Florence'.
It was accepted by the original organising group, which at times barely had funds for
its own food, that: 'Because of the ad hoc nature of the group of people working on
this Congress and because of the spirit of the event itself, we have discovered that we
could only receive that which we truly needed at any time and no more. These contributions
of energy and vision, and gifts and loans of money were given from one person to another
with a sense of personal trust and a hope for the common good'.
At times participants seemed to have come together mysteriously and magically
'because they thought they ought to be there', despite (or even because of) the
lack of precision as to the nature of the Congress. The variety of participants was quite
There were: architects, physicians, healers, agriculturalists, artists, poets, dancers,
biologists, disciples of a variety of sects and religions, psychologists, economists,
educators, psychotherapists, historians, organic / whole food experts, intellectuals of a
variety of persuasions (interested in sophisticated models of structures and processes),
engineers, journalists, futurologists, philosophers, company executives, home-makers,
members of communities of various kinds (e.g. Findhorn in Scotland), students, etc.
However, despite this variety, participants were accepted and assessed on the spot as
individuals, irrespective of their origins, occupations and roles which were seldom
To add to the strangeness, there was an actor who (as part of the film production)
demonstrated the role of the fool or clown in such gatherings. There was a street
'soul dancer' -- Brother Blue (with a Harvard degree) -- who functioned as
'court jester', most admirably clarifying brilliantly those points which
occasionally needed emphasis, responding to moments of tension and representing in many
ways the soul of the Congress. (Has this ever before been permitted and welcomed in an
international plenary assembly ?) As might be expected there were also musicians, jugglers
and magicians of various kinds. Needless to say the date of the event had been selected by
astrologers, who were also present.
The setting of the meeting also contributed to the atmosphere. It was opened in the
Palazzo Vecchio, once the centre of government of the Florentine Republic and now the city
hall. The Congress was held in the Forte Belvedere - a huge construction with walls
many feet thick in a star formation, built by the Medici at the beginning of the 17th
century. This is located on a direct line between the Torre di Gallo (at Arcetri above
Florence where Galileo carried out much of his work with the support of the Medici) and
the Duomo cathedral in the centre of the city. It is overlooked on the opposite side of
the Arno valley, by the town of Fiesole, a chief city of the Etruscan confederacy dating
back to the 8th century B.C. later superseded by Florence.
The setting was used to point out the synthesis between the sciences and the arts which
was a concern of the Congress. Many strange large-scale tubular 'crystals' were
created on the surface of the Fort to aid those interested in a 'infinitizing' their
awareness (Produced by: D.G. Langham. Genesa; an attempt to develop a conceptual model to
synthesize, synchronize, and vitalize man's interpretation of universal phenomena,
Fallbrook, Aero Publishers. 1969). Collectively they bore a striking resemblance to the
array of antennae at the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory next to the Torre di Gallo.
In this atmosphere participants quickly established contacts based on mutual trust and
affinity. The level of tolerance and mutual acceptance was necessarily high with such a
variety of people and interests. In many cases this was reflected in casual gestures of
affection between people who were virtual strangers by normal standards. This supportive
environment made it possible, for those who wished, to speak of their emotions or with
tears in their eyes (even in plenary sessions). This occurred on a number of dramatic
occasions and was accepted as a valid form of expression.
It is characteristic of the Congress that many participants experienced pain or
discomfort in one form or another whilst there. Some had considerable
transportation-related problems in getting there. Others suffered from odd physical pains.
Many suffered emotional mental pain and frustration from the clash between their
expectations and the realities of the Congress process. Egos were 'crushed' and
it was accepted by the core group that to succeed they would individually have to
'get out of the way' of what needed to be achieved. Anyone who clung desperately
to a particular structure or approach suffered. It was generally recognized that such
experiences were beneficial. This meant however that each had to justify his or her own
continued presence and contribution, since the support of others seldom matched the
The Congress was also experienced by many as a process of joyful personal
transformation, whether accompanied by strange coincidences, symbolic dreams, visions, or
personal re-assessments. Quite unemotional people openly declared that it had provided
them with some of the most meaningful experiences they had encountered. The variety of
elements ensured that the Congress was a 'complete experience' normally
inaccessible to most because of habitual behaviour patterns.
However, it is viewed, the Congress contained many of the elements from which myths are
made and in some ways engaged itself in a myth-making process- if only because of the many
ways in which it can be described and the lack of any written record.
Harmonies of dramatic process
One contextual thread which was voiced on a number of occasions was that the Congress
as a whole was a transformative process. In fact the stages of this process, derived from
a synthesis presented there (G. Lock Land. Grow or Die: the unifying principle of
transformation. New York Dell. 1973.), were over-printed on the program distributed to
The succession of phases were labelled: accretive, replicative, mutualistic and
transformative with each blending into the next over 2-3 day periods within the 10 days of
the Congress. And indeed, even in the depths of crisis, it did appear as though the
process was 'on schedule':
- In the accretive phase there is an accumulation of elements with similar
- In the replicative phase, there is growth by influencing other elements to take
on the form of the initiator.
- In the mutual growth phase these is reciprocal interaction between the elements.
- The transformative phase establishes a new system of order from which the
sequence can be repeated at a new level.
But aside from the intellectual overview of the process, there was also an
understanding among many that the moments of drama, of takeover attempts by different
individuals and factions, of expressions of anger and mutual accusation, of leadership
abdication, of ultimatums, etc. were all integral elements in a real and meaningful
process. As the proceedings evolved, it was quite beautiful to observe how
'incompatible' factions in the Congress played off against each other or united
in strange and moving harmonies. This occurs to some extent in most meetings but the
variety of modes of expression considered valid on this occasion was unique. A plenary
session which can move fluidly between: verbal exchange (whether intellectual or emotive),
affective display, physical expression (as dance, movement or mime), ceremony and
meditation, at any appropriate moment, is rich in dramatic possibilities particularly with
a 'court jester' as catalyst.
It is only in terms of dramatic process and interplay that excessive enthusiasm or
negativity could be appropriately handled and channelled by the Congress as a whole for
the structures which are conventionally expected to handle such energies were themselves
called into question, constantly modified and subjected to criticism. The collective
challenge was to refine and improve the drama from its crude initial forms to one which
could blend together all the elements present into a new and meaningful whole.
This should not be understood to imply that people and factions were playing artificial
games with one another or that there was a lack of discipline of any kind. The dynamics
were 'for real' and reflected attitudes that were sincerely held or genuinely
felt. Tears (but not hysteria), a sense of despair, frustration and exhaustion were all
frequent phenomena and some left when they could stand no more. It was however accepted by
others that the Congress process should provide a 'crucible' within which the
variety of elements could be blended and moulded into a 'chalice' as an
expression of the whole.
Feeding this collective awareness of a dramatic process were suggestions made by a
number of people towards the end of the Congress that the process bore some resemblance to
a breathing cycle (inspiration, expiration), to a succession of birth contractions, or to
a nuptial ritual between 'yin' and 'yang' forces. There was a widely
shared belief that the Congress was a birth process although any focus on what was to be
born was avoided an attitude of expectancy was created.
Another understanding, shared to some degree, was that the Congress process was a
- of processes between similar factions, forces and viewpoints in the outside world, and
- of processes and attitudes held in different ways within each individual present,
especially including oneself.
To observe the process was therefore to observe both oneself and society as a whole.
Any struggle for a greater harmony in one was seen as reflected in the others and
reinforced by them. This made the Congress experience triply significant as one responded
to the battle and balance between the old and new forms and contending forces. It was
suggested that the transformation of the Congress could then also be seen as a
transformative process for oneself and for society as a whole.
It was also very characteristic of many who made the Congress happen that there was a
definite willingness to focus on the here-and-now. An extreme instance of this was the
number of pew pie who had made no personal or professional plans for the period
immediately following the Congress. They had risked much to make something happen in the
As the Congress evolved and conventional planning was abandoned, participants were
obliged to focus on a moment-by-moment reality. New program elements were scheduled at
very short notice in response to the needs of the moment. All the usual features of a
congress were constantly called into a question, whether deliberately or through the lack
of importance attached to them. Participants were encouraged to be self-reliant, to
improvise and to take initiative if there was something they specially wished to achieve
(e.g. give a workshop, show slides, etc.). In such a context it may well be asked what
prevented the Congress from falling apart (or exploding !). The answer lies in the level
of mutual trust, whether intuitive or affective, which by-passed individual differences
and the lack of explicit consensus.
(For a detailed report on the consequences of the organising
group's decision to stand back, and on the process evolved by the plenary group, see
The 'Court' Jester and 'Foolishness'
The Fool: an enigmatic catalyst The Joker: messenger from the
'The fool who was sitting beside the fire, heard these words,
leapt to his feel, came before the King, and skipped and danced for glee, saying: "Lord
King, so God save me, your adventures now begin, and often you will find them perilous and
hard" Perceval or the Story of the Grail
The court jester, the clown, the fool or the buffoon, is a mythic figure representing
the inversion of the powers of the king (as the possessor of supreme powers) - or as
his alter ego. He is therefore often the victim chosen in folklore as the substitute or
foil for the king in rites whereby the people respond frankly and unceremoniously to such
Court jesters were first recorded in the courts of the Egyptian pharaohs and were in
vogue up until the 18th century in European courts, salons and taverns. They were often
physically mishappen, if not also psychically disturbed. Ideally they were a powerful
reminder of the distortion of the human condition - more immediate than the
photographs disseminated via the media of today. Additionally, due to the freedom from
censure and responsibility for their actions which they were accorded, they were able to
mirror, parody and mimic court situations in such a way as to bring out truths which would
otherwise be collectively and carefully ignored. They were often masters of song and
dance, and could be a dramatic foil to pomp, superficiality and falsehood of any kind. As
an ambiguous and often androgynous figure, the jester could function as a powerful social
catalyst - for good or for ill, depending upon the response of those by whom he was
The fool is an enigmatic symbol of the point of crisis when the normal or conscious
appears to become perverted or infirm, and in order to regain health and well-being is
obliged to turn to the dangerous, the irrational, the unconscious and the abnormal. As
such, the fool is to be found on the fringe of all orders and systems, outside all
conventional categories, processes and social rules. He is the bridge between the
conscious and the unconscious (and between the attributes of the right and left
hemispheres of the brain) - a reminder that, after having failed in our effort to
order and understand the universe in the light of our intellect and instinct, there
nevertheless remains another way.
Eliminating the jester from the court is as risky as allowing him to play his role.
For, if 'foolishness' is not given a channel through which to express itself, it
seeks its own channel anyway. Parliamentary and international assemblies, particularly
those in which each is conscious of the high purpose and seriousness of his role, run a
considerable risk of incorporating distortion into their proceedings and results because
of an inability to accept what a jester would reveal. (Political cartoons offer a partial
remedy, but they lack the significance of being accepted as part of the proceedings and
thus have little affect on them.)
It requires greater maturity on the part of all participants, especially the
chairperson and principal speakers, to play their parts in the face of such instant
feedback. In the absence of children at international assemblies, who can say whether our
international emperors wear any clothes?
References on the court jester:
John Doran. History of Court Fools. Richard Bentley, 1858 Barbara Swain. Fools
and Folly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Columbia University Press,
Enid Wellford. The Fool; his social and literary history. London. Faber and Faber.