The AUM Conference at Esalen

This is the illustration which appeared on the September, 1973 cover of the Pacific Sun newspaper. The illustration, by Tom Cervenak, shows G. Spencer Brown in the center. 

This is the illustration which appeared on the September, 1973 cover of the Pacific Sun newspaper. The illustration, by Tom Cervenak, shows G. Spencer Brown in the center. 

The article below about the AUM Conference is by Clifford Barney, who attended the conference and worked closely with Kurt. Cliff lived with Kurt at Kurt's Diamond Sufi Ranch in Oakville in the Napa Valley for a number of years in the 1970s. 

Prolog: Guru's in the Mud
By Clifford Barney


Despite its grand name, and its spectacular setting at the Esalen hot baths in a cliff by the sea, the AUM [1] conference on the Laws of Form proved something of a bust for many of the participants, who failed to achieve intellectual enlightenment in the week it lasted. Nor was it a success for the intellectual focus of the show, British mathematician G. Spencer-Brown, who fell out with the sponsors and left after spending only two days of the scheduled seven. Without Brown, the others organized tentative seminars around various ways to ask "What do you suppose he meant?" They didn't have a lot of success.

Laws of Form, the calculus, and G. Spencer-Brown, who put it into the marked state, had enjoyed an ambiguous reputation since the book, Laws of Form, was published in 1969 [2]. Brown himself was an enigma: on one side, he was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, the logico/mathematical heavyweights of the early 20th Century, and Russell had praised the book. On the other, Brown was notoriously eccentric and had published, as well as mathematics, poetry and belles lettres in which he hinted at deeper meaning to his mathematics than mere descriptions of functionality. One epigraph to Laws of Form is from William Blake: "Tho obscured, this is the form of the Angelic land." This is not simply a pun; in the text that follows, Brown promises to show laws that operate where the concepts of mathematics and religion have degenerated and are not distinguished.

For reasons that will be suggested below, the Esalen meeting left most of its participants more puzzled at the end than when they had assembled. Laws of Form has remained almost an intellectual curiosity, largely ignored by the mainstream and investigated mostly on the fringe, both mathematical and mystical. For a long time, the book was out of print in the United States.

However a new edition has now been published [3], and a German translation, Formenkalkul, was published in 1994 [4]. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in Brown's calculus. A World Wide Web search on "Laws of Form" returns links to half a dozen url's, one of which yields a bibliography of work on Sepncer-Brown and the Laws of Form that contains hundreds of items. There is even a Laws of Form home page. One computer scientist, William Bricken of the University of Washington, has interpreted Laws of Form as a computer language (LOSP) and has built the language into a chip that is now powering a very fast video board for virtual reality applications. In 1994, EE Times, a trade magazine, printed several articles on the use of the Laws of Form in designing logic circuits (their original application). Several computer scientists, including the inventor of the computer language called Forth, Chuck Moore, were at that time designing logic circuits that use imaginary values in calculating states, thus simplifying chip design, as demonstrated in the Laws of Form.

The scientists are thus plugging onward, but the mystics and metaphysicians, not understanding math, have mostly given it up. This is too bad because Laws of Form is too rich to be left to the scientists. Therefore perhaps it is time, twenty-three years after the AUM conference, to stir this pot again. Kurt von Meier and I were among the twenty or so people present that March week at Esalen to meet and talk with Brown. It was a transforming experience. I had no idea what I was getting into, beyond the prospect of spending a few pleasant days on the California coast, steaming in the Esalen sulphur baths and basking the intellectual glow of the hip literati of the day-- Alan Watts, John Lilly, Ram Dass, Heinz von Foerster, Karl Pribram, Michael Murphy, Charles Tart, Stewart Brand, John Brockman, various other scientists, artists, psychologists willing at least to speculate that there might be some formal relationship between hard science and math and the more spiritual pursuits that were then beginning to become popular. At that time, Lilly was seriously trying to talk with dolphins and had not yet announced that he was a visitor from another star system. Watts, an Anglican clergyman, had become a cult figure in the hippie world with his lively, entertaining books on the psychedelic experience and Buddhism. (Even today, more than twenty years after his death, Watts's taped lectures are still broadcast and sold.) Brand's Whole Earth Catalog had enchanted a whole new demography with its stunning array of concise reviews and pointers to offbeat products and intellectual resources that were considered useful for living independent, productive lives.

Among the entries in the Catalog was a review of Laws of Form signed by Prof. von Foerster. And what a review it was! "At last the Laws of Form have been written," it began, surely one of the most arresting sentences possible, implying compactly that Laws of Form existed and that at least one person had been eagerly awaiting their publication. Laws of Form, von Foerster wrote, was "a 20th-Century transistorized version of Occam's razor."

The review was accompanied by a brief excerpt from the book -- terse, even cryptic:

  • Draw a distinction.
  • Call it the first distinction.
  • Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by this distinction.
  • Call the parts of the space shaped by the severance or cleft the sides of the distinction or, alternatively, the spaces, states, or contents distinguished by the distinction.
  • Let any mark, token, or sign be taken in any way with or with regard to the distinction as a signal....

Draw a distinction? What did that mean? Why did it matter what we called it? What was Brown getting at? That was the point of the AUM conference, since a lot of people, none of them principally mathematicians, were beginning to read into the idea of "distinction" something basic about the way that human beings organized information and in fact constructed their entire reality. So if one could in some way codify the idea of distinction, hmm, well, perhaps that might be worth looking into, especially if one were a psychologist or a therapist or an anthropologist or any kind of religious, artistic, or social analyst looking for a firm scientific peg on which to hang one's aura. Lilly and Watts prevailed on George Gallagher, a Hawaiian psychiatrist, to put up some money, rented part of Esalen for a week, hired Brown as a lecturer, and sent out invitations to their friends and colleagues to come and hear him, gratis. It was an invitation not to be turned down.

I obtained entrance to this illustrious group only through my association with Kurt, then as now a professor of art and mythology at California State University, Sacramento, and an old friend of John and Toni Lilly's. I had just moved in with Kurt and his family at the quaint Diamond Sufi ranch in the Napa Valley, and we were casting about for intellectual pursuits. The AUM conference looked like just the ticket. Kurt was a natural for the list; a true polymath, he combines a thorough grounding in his academic discipline, art history, with a wide-ranging interest in all of the arts and sciences, and a willingness actually to learn and practice other disciplines, rather than simply to read and write about them. Kurt has shown his classes a thousand ways in which all human culture is one, in lectures delivered with the precision and detail of a Joseph Campbell and frequently in the style of the late Lord Buckley.

I had no such claim to entry but had long been trained in the art of free-loading by the profession that knows it best, journalism. I called a friend who was an editor and wangled an assignment to cover the AUM conference for the Saturday Review, a venerable magazine then publishing its final feeble editions from San Francisco. The editors cooed over the guest list, chortled over the site (a hot springs where people of both sexes took off their clothes and sat naked together in the baths), and gave the piece a working title: Gurus in the Mud. (They must have confused it somehow with the mud baths in Calistoga north of San Francisco.)

So it was that we rolled up our magic carpet and piled into my Volkswagen bus one Sunday and rolled down the valley toward Esalen -- not just Kurt and I, but his lady friend Mary Evans as well, with their baby Amanita, and our friend Paula Reineking and her current boyfriend Chuck, who were then also living at the ranch. The others hadn't exactly been invited, but in those days we went everywhere together.

In 1973, Esalen was at the beginnings of its popularity as the center for innovative therapeutic and psychological activity. Its hot baths, steaming out of a Big Sur cliff high over the Pacific ocean, had been made the centerpiece of a bustling commerce in spirituality and health. Fritz Perls had done much creative work on the practice of Gestalt therapy while in residence there. Pioneering research on psychedelic drugs had taken place in Esalen's friendly environs. The practice of communal nude bathing hinted at sexual adventure. Doing a weekend at Esalen soon became fashionable for many folks searching for new answers to existential angst. So many came that the Esalen management invested in a motel a few miles up the road from its main center to handle the overflow. It was here, in the South Coast motel, that the AUM conference took place.

Spencer-Brown showed up, British to the nines, and plunged gamely into a discussion of the Laws of Form; but from the very start, the audience's unfamiliarity with mathematics caused the discussion to flounder. Brown tried to make clear the difference between mathematics, a calculus, and the interpretation of that calculus; but the conferees had trouble with even this simple distinction. We got tangled up in the idea of the mathematics of a state of mind -- how could there be such a thing?

Even more subversive to our goal of understanding, however, was the difference of opinion, unknown to us at the time, between Brown and the sponsors, particularly John Lilly. Apparently it concerned money, but whatever its substance, it resulted in Brown packing up after two days and heading back to England, leaving the rest of us with the rest of the week to tease out some of the clues he had left. Lilly and Watts organized a series of seminars in which individuals could give their own interpretations of the Laws of Form, in the hope that from this rough collaboration could come some sort of consensus. This was not, alas, to be, although some of the presentations, particularly that of Heinz von Foerster (himself a logician of note) managed to shed light on the process of calculating without numbers. Kurt, who from the very first understood Brown's method, if not his matter, gave a version of the Buddha's Flower Sermon -- he silently covered a blackboard with symbols of the calculus, wrote at the bottom "Homage to all teachers," and bowed himself out. A rump underground, led by Stewart Brand, washed its hands of the whole affair on grounds that Brown himself had let us all down, and a few people actually went home, foregoing the remaining days of Esalen hospitality.

I was as lost as the rest until Heinz, at the end of his lecture, illustrated the formal nature of Brown's calculus by singing us a couple of the mathematical expressions. This is not as silly as it may sound. Written music is, after all, simply an agreed-on set of notation in which musical intervals are represented by steps on a scale. All Heinz did was map certain notations in the calculus into musical scales, assign values to the notes, and read the music.

Later he and I discussed this idea privately, and even managed to harmonize on some of the expressions in the calculus; and from these exercises I got my first inkling of what Brown meant by Laws of Form, not thought or idea or physics or anything else, simply form -- and how it was represented -- and of how powerful a tool it was to isolate purely formal values.

While still enchanted by the idea of setting the calculus to music, I providentially encountered a group of musicians who were staying at Esalen. They picked up on the process immediately and had no trouble whatever understanding the process of making music from mathematics. We found rehearsal space and began to compose; our initial (and only) work, based on Consequence 1 of the Laws of Form, was performed at the closing session of the conference, Sunday morning on the deck at the main Esalen lodge [5].

Despite this minor triumph, however, the mood on that occasion was anything but clear. It had been, we all agreed, a most interesting time, quite stimulating, a great deal of fun -- but what had we really learned? No one was willing to commit. The prevailing emotion was relief at not having to think about Laws of Form any more.

Not for Kurt and me, though. By now thoroughly imbued with the magic of the Laws, and convinced that Brown, willingly or unwillingly, was a major teacher and discoverer, on the order of a Dante or a Newton, we went back the Napa Valley and spent the next three years studying his texts and puzzling out some of the hints he had provided. We had the Laws of Form, of course, plus two other Brown books: Probability and Scientific Inference, an earlier publication, and Only Two Can Play This Game, a book of poetry and belle lettres that Brown had published under the cabalistic name of James Keys. (It is the latter book that got Brown into his deepest trouble with his mathematical colleagues, since in it he specifically relates religious forms like angels with mathematical theorems.)

We began to look at formal structures, dice, and probabilities with new eyes. From purely formal structures we were led to labyrinths, and from labyrinth to the Morris dance, and the Cretan double axe, and from Crete to Dedalus, and thence to James Joyce, and gradually we began to see some of the larger patterns, and the Laws of Form began to make sense.

We knew we could never calculate with them. Painstakingly, I had puzzled out the process of pattern recognition by which the Laws of Form carries out its transformations; having done so, I could see that one would need intensive mathematical training to become adept in their use. (I have never seen this aspect of the Laws of Form discussed. Transformations in the Laws of Form are made by substituting one pattern for another, the patterns being shown by the calculus to be equal in value. The patterns themselves may be of any scope and may change from step to step in a demonstration. It is not always obvious -- in fact it is seldom obvious -- where to look to see pattern similarities.)

Nevertheless, one could still invoke the power of the calculus simply by seeing how it is structured, how it inevitably grows and develops out of the initial instruction quoted above, "Draw a distinction." The difference between this kind of injunctive language and the descriptive language that we use most of the time took on ever greater significance. As a student and teacher of Gestalt therapy, I was familiar with Fritz Perls's remark that injunctions, commands, constitute the clearest form of communication; however I still considered the indicative mood as the main vehicle of speech and the imperative as a mere appendage. Brown insisted that instructions must maintain an inner coherence that is not demanded of descriptions, and pointed out that it is not a matter of opinion what the result of carrying out an instruction will be, whereas descriptions constantly give rise to differences of opinion. That is, if I give you a musical score, which may be interpreted as a series of instructions, and say "Play this music," it is not a matter of opinion what the music will sound like. (Whether the music is pleasant or not may definitely be a matter of opinion.) After many years of living with this distinction I find myself increasingly uninterested in anyone's opinion about anything.

The first thing I did on returning home was to write, with Kurt's felicitous assistance, the piece for Saturday Review. Given their vision of the various Masters rolling around in mud, the editors did not look favorably on my account of turning the calculus into some form of New Age music. Before they could reject it completely, however, the Saturday Review itself folded, and I was left with an orphan manuscript. I sold it for $100 to my friend Don Stanley, who was then editing a lively Marin County weekly called the Pacific Sun, and in due course it saw print, plugged on page one and with marvelous illustrations by a staff artist, in one of which Brow's visage replaces the Charioteer on the seventh Tarot key. The piece drew two letters, both of which cast aspersions on my intelligence, if not my basic sanity; still, I was happy enough to be published.

Kurt, meanwhile, began teaching Laws of Form to his art history classes at Sacramento State. Together we devised a syllabus and put together a reading list that embraced texts as far apart as the I Ching, Robert Graves's The White Goddess and D'Arcy Thompson's classic On Growth and Form, with the transcript of the Esalen conference as a centerpiece. "Learn to draw distinctions," Kurt told his astonished students, who were accustomed to being told "Repeat after me...."

And together, we began composition of "The Omasters," our fantastic fictive account of how the Laws of Form could be promulgated to the world. It was Kurt's idea to tell it as a kind of Sufi teaching story, and he began to make up characters and situations, mingling Tarot cards and current headlines into an utterly riotous adventure that combined space opera, a parody of the American dream, and an East-West fantasy farce. We would haul our typewriters out on the deck and write alternate pages, exchanging them and cackling with glee as we read aloud to whoever would stay around long enough to listen. There weren't many of the latter, and although Kurt and I had a lot of fun, we wound up with stacks of manuscripts and tapes and a reputation as possibly loony or possibly onto something really big, with no possibility of anyone else ever knowing which it was.

We had one flirtation with mainstream publishing, when John Brockman induced an editor from Doubleday to make a special trip to the ranch to consult with us; but although he laughed more heartily than most at our pages, he, to put it kindly, could not see their commercial possibilities. Stewart Brand agreed to consider publishing the Esalen transcript in the WEC, and then managed to lose the manuscript, an event that led to some coolness on both sides.

After three years, the Napa Valley community began to break up and I found myself needing to go back to civilization and start earning a living. It was time to move on from the Laws of Form. We made a big bundle of all of our manuscripts and mailed it off to Brown at his last known address in Cambridge, England, together with a letter saying how much we had enjoyed writing them and that we hope he liked them too.

A few weeks later he called us on the telephone from Cambridge. We were the only people at Esalen who'd got it, he said. He'd love to come to the States and visit us and how would we like to get together on a new publishing venture? He would offer as capital some fifty thousand copies of his latest book, a dictionary of music in which tunes were classified according the sequence of their musical intervals. (I have never actually seen this book [6].) He also sent along a wonderful manuscript, a group of fables called Stories Children Won't Like (never published, so far as I know), and announced that he had discovered a proof for the four-color theorem using the Laws of Form [7].

Of course Kurt and I were delighted and immediately put ourselves at Brown's disposal. We had been working with no outside encouragement for three years, and here the fellow calls up and says yep, that's it, let's play ball. We knew we were right, understand. We had already shrugged off the feedback, from a well-known biographer of Wittgenstein, that we were mathematical innocents whose interpretation would be laughed at by Brown. Still, to have direct contact with the source was stimulating, to say the least.

The story of what happened when Brown -- or James Keys, his alter ego, as we came to know him personally -- came to live at the Diamond Sufi ranch in Oakville is one of the best in the whole saga, funny and embarrassing and strangely bittersweet. It deserves telling if only for the truly mortifying events surrounding the reception we gave Brown on Alan Watts's houseboat in Sausalito. Watts had by then died, but left behind a Society that continued (and still continues) to promote his tapes and books; this group very kindly lent us the houseboat and invited haute Marin County over for wine and cheese on a Sunday afternoon, to chat with the visiting Master. James never showed up, having found a popsy and driven her down the coast for a Big Sur weekend, and I found myself making apologies to a crowd that was only slightly more puzzled by not seeing the guest of honor than they had been for being invited to meet him in the first place. Brown and the lady showed up ten days later and took me to lunch at the Cliff House in San Francisco, and no one said a mumbling word about the Alan Watts Society.

We had many other adventures of a similar order, some of them uproariously funny, and we never got anywhere in promoting Brown's literary venture. In fact I never found out what it was. We did promote a couple of Brown seminars, at Nepenthe near Esalen and at Wilbur Hot Springs in Colusa County, and then we went our separate ways. James moved to Palo Alto, where he taught for a while at Stanford University and at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The last time I saw him he was living in a house with no furniture, and he took twenty dollars from me at Frisbee golf.

Enlightening as it was, our experience with Spencer-Brown himself was only a coda to the sessions Kurt and I held in Oakville during the writing of the ur-text, the Omasters. The fact that we are not accomplished writers of fiction (consider how few people are) does not affect our vision of the Laws of Form as a powerful paradigm. And Brown himself remains a figure worth study. I am unqualified to comment professionally on the Laws of Form as mathematics; I have, however, earned my bread for forty years as a writer and editor, during which time I learned something about prose construction, and I am perfectly clear on the fact that, whatever his merits as a mathematician, Brown is one of the great prose stylists of the century. He uses words with great precision, he writes clearly and simply, and he has command of the basic forms of English.

Some of this mastery spills over into Brown's speech, and the Esalen transcript is a remarkable document. Brown talked for four sessions over two days, presenting in one form or another his vision of what amounts to the mathematics of consciousness. The text is witty and subtly funny, as well as explicitly descriptive of some of the connections Brown makes between the language of mathematics and the language of experience.

Whether this text can still find an audience 23 years after its creation may be questionable. Still, a considerable literature has grown up around Spencer-Brown and the Laws of Form; the Internet bibliography ranges over mathematical, metaphysical, practical and even fictive aspects of the Laws of Form. There is apparently an audience for this material, although it is formed of many distinct parts.

A few years ago, when the editor of Formenkalkul sought to print the Esalen transcript, with our introduction, along with the German text, Brown demurred. He no longer fully supported his remarks at Esalen, we were informed. Nevertheless, though old and disowned, the Esalen text yet retains baraka, we think, and is certainly worth reading if only for pleasure.

It currently exists as a 110-page typescript, which I transcribed in 1973 from tapes made by Kurt von Meier.

Cliff Barney

Introduction to the Transcripts of the Sessions
Conference Session One
Conference Session Two
Conference Session Three
Conference Session Four


  1. "AUM" is an acronym for "American University of Masters," created by the always inventive Alan Watts.
  2. George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London.
  3. Cognizer Connection, Portland, OR, 1995.
  4. By Suhrkamp.
  5. This performance was recorded and still exists on reel-to-reel tape.
  6. Parsons, D., The Directory of Tunes and Musical Themes. Spencer-Brown & Co., Cambridge, England, 1975.
  7. At this time two American mathematicians had announced "proof" of this classsic theorem (which states that four colors are sufficient to color a map on a surface of genus 0) that was actually a kind of demonstration, since it used a computer to exhaustively test all possible maps. Brown took a different approach and tried to prove that any map could be generated by four colors. A book by Brown on the four-color theorem was announced by Scribner's in 1974, but it apparently never saw print.