gestalt •myths • vitality

The hero's journey

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My journey with Paul Rebillot

by Tony Khabaz

February 11, 2020


Paul Rebillot died on February 11, 2010. He did it in his own way, that of a human like of all us, mortals. It was on February 11, 2010 and I forgot at what time exactly.

This is about how his existence impacted mine.


Breaking free

In 1976, Paul Rebillot presented The Hero's Journey in France for the second time.

That same year I discontinued my literature and theology studies at the American University in Beyrouth and left a war-torn country to join New York University.

The culture I was coming from was one where everybody, at every moment, was intent on telling you who you should be, what you should feel, how you should behave. My hippie look, with my beard and long hair wasn't making it any easier. I did upset quite a few people, and everybody was upsetting me.

With the war, trying to be myself became still more hazardous. If you were not with the ones against the others, it meant that you were with the others against the ones. As for me, I was against the either or against system. I abhorred having to to choose. So, when I was taken hostage by a group of men armed to the teeth and was asked: “This war, whose fault is it?”, convinced that I was finished anyway and refusing to be no more than a pawn in their hands, I answered: “It's everybody's fault”. Fuming, my interlocutor lashed out at me that I had no ideology, hence no opinion. Hence I was no man. Hence, I was to be executed.

I was freed. But those who saved my life considered it to be theirs: I was now at the mercy of those to whom I owed it. The only way out was to free myself from my liberators.

Once in New York, I wanted to break free from that confining culture. To free myself — from everything and everybody — was a fixed idea. To discover who I was and whom I could be was an obsession. I was in search of a new way of being and behaving, mine.

Still, adapting to a new culture quickly appeared to once again impose on me one and only one way of behaving, simple and straight — whereas, to me, the way was nothing but convolutions, highs and lows, all of them rich of possibilities. Thus, I thought that if it had to be that complicated, I might as well make my own choices and not wonder about what others would say about me… If it must be complicated, at least, let it be my own way.

I had arrived as a student with a hippie look. On the day after a concert by Robert Gordon (renowned singer of… I want to be free), I decided to let go of my beard. Shortly thereafter, my hair followed a similar destiny. My style, presently, was: “rockabilly”! I would roam the East Village clubs and, in Tribeca, the Mudd Club. And I started experimenting with drug.

There I would find a means to intensify my sensations, especially when listening to music or poetry. I would access perceptions that would free me from the narrow, conservative, local viewpoints that had always felt so burdensome. A part of me was reaching other dimensions from which I could examine my reality and how I experienced it. I would become aware that this reality was not the only one that would define how I should behave or not. I would discover how I could get around apparent constraints and live more in harmony with the person I felt I was.

I would also recall the value of moments like those when, as a kid jumping around my grandfather on the terraces of his garden-grove in the Chouf mountains, I had seen him embody a wisdom that ignores time and space.

There were friends around me who were looking in psychotherapy for answers to their own questions, but their conversation left on me a negative impression. Far from breaking free form their limits, they seemed all the more keen to adapt to the expectations of in their surroundings and worried not to be able to, and they were getting lost in mental elaborations with never-ending ramifications, for which I felt a strong repulsion.

Such is the context in which I first heard of human potential movement approaches. I was at the Lone Star Cafe with a friend and Catherine whom I had met recently, waiting for a concert with Carl Perkins, the author of Blue Suede Shoes to start. As we were having drinks, our conversation had touched upon the subject of altered states of consciousness. This is the moment that Catherine chose to tell us about Carlos Castaneda and, one thing leading to another, her own experience “under” bioenergetics, holotropic breathwork, gestalt and the like…  She could as well have talked about architecture, I was living in another world. Only one thing mattered to me at the time, that the music start.

A few months later, she experienced The Hero's Journey in France — an opportunity that she had long been waiting for, having missed because of train strikes, two of Rebillot's workshops that were supposed to have been part of her initial training. Back in New York, she told me about her experience with vibrancy; I listened with an interest that could qualify as… moderate.

We did not stop at such differences and decided to live together. A few years later, we were living in France and, more precisely, taking our holiday not far from Trimurti where a Rebillot's group was to facilitate The Golden Fleece. I drove Catherine there. Seven days later, I came back to fetch her. I was coming out of the car when I saw her down the path, coming forward in the company of a man. She looked fulfilled, radiant, and I immediately felt she must have experienced a great adventure. The man with her was Paul Rebillot. The nature of the contact with him was utterly simple and immediately warm. In a few moments, we were on the same wavelength, and to shift from the conventional words of courteous people to sharing and understanding each other's hints was almost instantaneous.


Towards new adventures

A year later, Rebillot was facilitating with Tina de Souza The Dance of Life: Afro-Brazilian Mythology. This time, I was fully intent on being in the game!

Did I look fulfilled and radiant at the end of the week? Nobody quite told me so but as for me, I was far from disappointed.

Rebillot's way of considering people was devoid of any norm or judgement. As somebody who abhorred theories, labels and dictums, I was thrilled. He expressed no message, no project, no will to take you anywhere specific. He only presented you with propositions that you could go along with… or not.

I felt free from any reservation and would dive into the activities he proposed with absolute spontaneity, and my pleasure was total. All I had to do was to let myself be carried away and play with whatever emerged, exactly as I had learned in the past to do while on drugs. And I did indeed discover that only by playing with my energy, I could experience altered states of consciousness and journey within myself, in a way that I had not experienced for several years.

This experience was all the more liberating that Rebillot was grounded in reality more than most people. While you were straddling another dimension, he would hold the reins. And in this respect, he was discerning, he was strong, you could trust him.

I came back from this journey charged with energy and vitality… — all the more so that Paul, Tina and the whole group had offered Catherine and myself a memorable ceremony of vows renewal.

A year later, I embarked at long last on The Hero's Journey. I had a lot of fun doing it. Playing with my energy, my sensations, my emotions, my images, my thoughts… I had a blast! This was a perfect fit for a nature like mine. Everything seemed normal to me, nothing was taking me aback. I was taking off like an arrow, ready to try everything and telling myself that I could understand later. To me, everything was play.

In the course of The Journey, my path has been marked out by strong sensations and intriguing images. I left with unforgettable symbols that still inspire me today. When I feel doubtful, all I have to do is reconnect with the inner experience… and I am in touch again with the desire to take risks.

The Hero's Journey has taught me many lessons. What is their value? They apply only to me, on the basis of who I was then. What is their interest? I may appear quite dumb not to have understood these “teachings” earlier. Yet I will have needed The Hero's Journey for them to reach beyond the level of purely intellectual understanding and become fully part of myself.

Regarding myself, I learned that I could reconcile the antagonist forces in me only at heart level. Regarding how I used to relate to others, I was then a rather blunt person, with a tendency to either act stubborn or break off. I became more prone to take the time to let things happen, to show interest in what was going on, to welcome whatever came out. I also became more discerning in choosing my allies, and able to distinguish between benevolent persons and those who, in fact, were condescending. Most of all, The Journey influenced how I performed my role as a consultant and coach. While accompanying persons or groups, my propositions gained in depth, they became more genuine.

After The Journey, I joined Paul Rebillot again as he was facilitating Rituals of Transformation, Just for Fun, Death and Resurrection… Each time, the experience was powerful — and rich in lessons. I was more and more intrigued by the sharpness of his propositions and the transformational power of his facilitation. In short, I was ready to move from the role of journeyer to that of apprentice designer and facilitator.

I asked Rebillot to train me. As soon as a training group could be put together, I joined in. I devoted four years to it. Very soon, he asked me to assist him in facilitating his workshops. To my regret, I was not available on several occasions, but every time I could free myself, I went and joined him in France, in Germany or in Ireland. And I was able to organise my schedule so as to assist him in facilitating the last three-year training cycle  that he conducted in France.

This training in action, marked out with supervision sessions, was for me a constantly renewed opportunity to dive into the spirit of his approach and his way of being with people as well as with groups.


In the presence of Paul Rebillot

As journeyer as well as facilitator, I witnessed many feedbacks addressed to Rebillot. What did I experience myself? What did I hear others mention? What did one learn with him? Comments touched mostly on presence and authenticity, freedom and responsibility, and equality. These few points will never sum up the richness and complexity that, over the years, hundreds of people have experienced in contact with Rebillot; they are hardly a few salient points.

Rebillot was present. His clear eyes, his penetrating gaze, his deep, powerful voice, his confident posture, his poise: everything about him meant “Here I am”. And to be here, only to be here, and to fully be here, was at the very heart of his work. He was here, he listened… and he would propose how you could direct your attention and energy.

To be authentically oneself, was his only motto. Included if this meant, within the group, having to go through some socially incorrect talk or behaviour. He would then call on his talent as an actor to put everyone at ease — and he knew how to do that in a very funny way. When, for instance, he would mime a hero packed with ideal confronted by a priapic, flatulent and belching “demon”, the whole group was dying with laughter…  It would have been easy for him to rub it in, then. But he would never forget the intention that would define each of his actions as a facilitator. Had his intention been to encourage the journeyers to live the experience without censoring themselves? As soon as he would feel that he had gotten the point across, he would come back to the specific, demanding indications that would safeguard people through the next activity.

At every step, at any time, something might come up and nobody knew what it might be. Of course, you knew where you were heading to, but wind and waves were rocking the boat. On your left, Charybdis; on your right, Scylla… The compass would tell you the North and Rebillot would teach you how to stay on course.

Within this context, you were free. How swiftly you would get involved in an activity; how intensely you would pursue it; how you would move straight to the point, or go through all your inner convolutions, or bypass some steps; how tenaciously you would hold on to get to your own truth or how you would choose to let go… All this was possible, and any of these possibilities could be your choice. Nothing would oblige you to go any further, any faster than you would wish. Everything that you would do or not do was acceptable and accepted — within the framework of a few groundrules meant to ensure respect and security for everybody.

However, these choices were yours, and you were responsible for them. Rebillot was adamant about this: “I'm not here to force you to work, he would say, I am not fascist. But I'm not complacent either. What you do is your responsibility”. And this responsibility, yours, went hand in hand with your honesty. To leave the boat was a possibility and a free choice. But you had to assume this choice, and to announce it frankly, explicitly…

Thus, being present and authentic was one part of the contract; and assuming your responsibility for your choices was another one.

In the way he related to people, Rebillot was immensely generous. He would never judge anybody — his personal experience was probably critical in this respect. In his eyes, everybody deserved the same quality in attention, listening, consideration, whatever your path or wherever you were at. For him, all people were equal, including himself. This was both an intangible human principle and an essential component of the group dynamics which he would rely on in order to support everybody's own dynamics.

Compared to the other journeyers, Rebillot would never place himself higher than them or in the centre. And if ever his charisma lead some to believe that they could place him at the top or the centre, he would immediately discourage this. He had nothing to sell, nothing to prove and was not the kind to make himself look good or to talk big in front of an enamoured audience. “You could not pay me a better compliment, he would say, than acknowledge me as part of the circle together with everybody.”

As much as he would encourage each person in their own journey, Rebillot was weary that nobody would stand out from the group, even in all innocence. If this would ever happen, he would promptly bring you back to the basics, and the group too by the same token, just as in the following anecdote.

After a guided meditation, Rebillot was checking where everybody was at. Somebody took the floor and described her experience. She had gone up a mountain and found, gathered at the summit, Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha. Rebillot was listening intently. After the person finished speaking, he waited for a short while. Then he asked: “And while this was happening, how were you breathing?” The person answered: “But… I was breathless!” A few seconds went by. Rebillot took a breath, then, in a friendly manner: “Next time… Breathe”.


Until… here and now!

In 2008, Rebillot definitely left Europe to live permanently in San Francisco. Among his students, some small groups work together while others move forward as free electrons. All are keen to spread a unique approach.

Long before the cinema industry, long before the rise of coaching, Rebillot was the first one to take The Hero's Journey into something else that a narrative scheme to be accessed through the intellect. Some forty-five years later, his approach is unequalled — in terms of the unprecedented synergy of various disciplines and the possibility it opens for everybody to delve into the mystery that we are to ourselves.

In June 2010, Rebillot fell very ill.

I received regular news about him and I would sometimes telephone him. I'm part of the people who trust the depth of feelings and the ineffable, rather than gauge how much time I spend with others. I did frequent him a lot in spirit (I still do).

But on February 11, 2010, I missed him a lot. I had to talk to him, now.

Melissa, the friend who had accompanied him for so long answered the telephone.

“Ah, Tony, it's you, she said. Paul doesn't talk.”

Fright downed on me. Just like Paul, I went straight to the fact. “What do you mean? Is he dead?”

“No, no, she answered, he just keeps silent.”

I asked her to let him know that I had been on the phone and I prepared to hang up.

“Wait, she said, he's signalling to me. Hold on, I'll put the receiver on his pillow, next to his face”

I said: “Hi, Paul, this is Tony…”

One moment of silence, then: “Hi, Tony!”

What do you say to someone who is dying, thousands of kilometres away?

I said: “Paul, I love you.”

One moment of silence, then: “ I love you too”.

Those were Paul Rebillot last words — as Melissa reported.

A few hours later, he drew his last breath.

You can separate with “Goodbye”, “Until later”, “Adieu”…

A gestaltist from good stock, Rebillot favoured the “here and now”.

So, “Until here and now”?

Then… what?

“Breathe…”

Tony Khabaz (with Catherine Lagarde)

Illustration: François Bourru