By Ellery Littleton
Ben Wong at the Cold Mountain Institute, 1970s. “His groups up in the big teepee-like session house in the trees unfolded like rituals of coming alive, joyous and revelatory.”
In the days following Bennet Wong’s death on September 25, 2013, hundreds of e-mails poured into the Shen blog, expressing sorrow, loss, grief, gratitude, profound appreciation, and most of all, love. The vast majority of these e-mails contained the word “love” – sometimes several times in one note. Many thanked Ben for his love; many expressed their love for him. This extraordinary outpouring of feeling says a great deal about Ben’s life, his impact on other people and his remarkable legacy.
Ben reflected deeply on the meaning of love, and what it came to mean to him as an important theme in his life and work. “Loving is my pleasure,” he wrote in an article for Shen several years ago, in which he told a story about a young patient of his who had occasionally borrowed his car, but refused to help with its maintenance. Ben was indignant. “But Ben,” the young man said. “I thought that what you have done for me has been out of your loving. You get so much pleasure in loving, why do you think that I should owe you anything for it? You’ve already had all your pleasure.”
“These words struck home,” Ben wrote. “I was astounded at his wisdom and at my myopia. Since then I have often pondered the dilemma that most people are obsessed with being loved when the real pleasure is in loving.
“Now, when people tell me that they love me, my response is no longer the inner voice of ‘how wonderful for me.’ Instead I am apt to respond with my outer voice: ‘How wonderful for you!” Indeed, they are so fortunate to have been able to discover their own loving, which, if true, will expand their very beings. How wonderful!”
So, how long does a man live finally?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret, and ask so many questions –
Then when it comes to us
The answer is so simple after all.
A man lives as long as we carry him inside us,
For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
For as long as we ourselves live,
Holding memories in common, a man lives.
– From “So Many Different Lengths of Time” by Brian Patten
I wrote an article about The Haven – entitled “The Healing Resort” – 27 years ago, for Victoria’s Monday Magazine. The first paragraphs of the article go as follows:
“It was the autumn of 1972 and I remember it well. I was teaching high school in Port Alberni and was invited to attend a weekend ‘experiential’ workshop in Parksville, with a group of 20 or so other people, most of them teachers. The workshop leader: Bennet Wong. The experience: enlightening, exciting, at times terrifying. Wong demonstrated a remarkable knack of ‘seeing’ you – or seeing right through you – and the ability to help you begin to move beyond the traumas and self-defeating habits of a lifetime. In short, he could help you to grow – if you were ready, if you could handle feeling scared; if you could trust your senses; if you wanted to experience your own strength.
“At one point in the workshop, I recall being frozen with anxiety, sitting on the floor in the middle of a circle of people, while Bennet Wong took the role of my father and provoked me out of my catatonia and into a shouting rage. I pushed him to the floor and wanted to punch him in the face. I remember thinking later, if Ben doesn’t care deeply for me, why would he do something like that? Something so daring and deep and … yes … loving. On that day, I began to really understand my relationship with my father, and took a huge step forward toward letting go of some useless old emotional baggage. And I believe that Bennet Wong is a master of the fine art of helping others find – and heal – themselves.”
I also met Ben – and Jock – at the Cold Mountain Institute on Cortes Island, shortly after this first workshop. I remember those days vividly as well; it was a thrill and a tremendously exciting adventure to go to Cold Mountain and do a workshop with Ben and his brilliant new partner, Jock. Together, they created a potent force for good, if I can put it that way, and transformed the encounter group format into the phenomenally successful program called Come Alive, which has flourished at The Haven for over 30 years now.
Ben took the traditional elements of encounter, as they were initially presented at Cold Mountain – fear, pain, anger and sexuality – and added love and joy to the mix, sweetening and deepening it with the addition of music – which enriched the experience immeasurably.
Ben was a master of working with people in a group, in a circle, of course: he was elegant, intuitive, incisive and wise. And although he could be angry and stern on occasion, he always knew what he was doing and never lost touch with his compassion and lovingness. Watching him at work, I was reminded of Rilke’s comment, “There is nothing so wise as a circle.”
You are a way-shower, servant of the universe,
Pouring iridescent water into my open mouth
So I may speak up and speak out.
– Virginia McKim
The biographical details of Ben’s life – his background and training, his early career, the establishment of Haven with Jock, his family and friends, his travels around the world, particularly to China – are clearly delineated in other places, and do not to be repeated here. My concern is to attempt to capture something of the essence of a remarkable man, one of the few individuals I have ever met in my lifetime who I can say without hesitation, was a genuine wise man, an authentic shaman of sorts, a gifted teacher and healer, who was always an advocate of humanistic and loving approaches to dealing with people, helping them to develop more self-awareness and personal responsibility. He was also an intellectual, who turned his omnivorous intelligence to creating the remarkable series of Phase programs, and several books, with Jock.
Ben worked intensely, intimately, passionately, with people for over 50 years, and touched the hearts and minds of literally thousands. His work will be continued at The Haven, and by the hundreds of people who have trained there with him and Jock and their cadre of talented program leaders. How long will his wonderful, life-enhancing ideas live? As the poem says … “For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams, For as long as we ourselves live…”
So I find myself walking in the oak grove near my house in Victoria, just having learned of Ben’s death. It is a beautiful afternoon; there is a break in the clouds and the rain has stopped briefly. Shafts of sun shine down through from the sky, and from the top of the hill in the oak grove, I can see far up-Island, to the distant curve of the Malahat, and beyond, to the mountains of the Cowichan Valley, dusted with early snow. I know that further north lies Nanaimo, and the ferry to Gabriola Island. In my mind’s eye, I trace the route I have followed so many times to The Haven over 30 years. Recollections of Ben are flowing through me, and I find that I am crying, and feeling grief welling up inside from a deep well of memory.
I remember Ben as I first knew him, in 1972, when he came to our little house on the lake near Port Alberni, for a visit. He smoked then, and wore a medallion around his neck the size of a saucer. He was funny and charming and I was in awe, even though he was only eleven years older than I. I remember him at Cold Mountain, where his groups up in the big teepee-like session house in the trees unfolded like rituals of … well … coming alive, joyous and revelatory. I remember him at dinner time in the lodge at The Haven, with Jock by his side, and the ever-present complement of admirers and acolytes. I remember sitting with him, drinking coffee, talking about life. Even then, after knowing him for 20 years, I wanted his attention, his approval. I remember him charging around the property with Jock, talking intensely together about the session just finished, or the session about to start.
I remember that although I learned an incredible amount from him – about myself, about people in general – it was not always easy. A couple of times, he flared up into anger and was quite directly critical of me, especially if I disagreed with him. At least, that’s how it felt to me at the time. Ben carried within him, embodied in his personality, a firm moral/ethical approach to life, and could be a formidable critic or opponent who seldom apologized or explained to those who incurred his wrath. At other times, almost all the time, he was compassionate, curious and full of good humor.
I gradually learned to accept Ben’s criticisms as opportunities for learning, rather than occasions for defensiveness, because his remarks – even if they were expressed rather bluntly – usually hit a nerve or a sensitive spot in my psyche that probably needed some attention. It didn’t occur to me at the time that he wouldn’t have been so direct with me if he felt I couldn’t handle it.
As I said, it was a difficult way to learn. But Ben forced me to stop projecting onto him as a guru by allowing me to see that he was human and fallible – just by being himself, warts and all. I wanted him to be perfect and infallible. But I came to see that he wasn’t, and our relationship benefited greatly as a result.
I benefited greatly as a result also, and after some time passed, I didn’t need his approval anymore, and didn’t feel compelled to dine at the head table in the lodge. I sensed that Ben understood and approved, and after that, until the last time I saw him in the spring of this year at the Haven, he was as gentle and loving as always, and made a point of inviting me to join him for coffee from time to time.
Close your eyes.
Listen for my footfall in your heart.
I am not gone but merely walk within you.
– From “The Smoke Jumper” by Nicholas Evans
Ellery Littleton has offered writing programs at The Haven for over 20 years. He currently teaches From Memory to Memoir and The Spirit Journal.