The Ojai Foundation began in 1975 as Human Dimensions Institute/West, a nonprofit organization exploring the interface between science and spirituality, situated on 40 acres in the Upper Ojai Valley in Southern California. This particular place, once an inland sea, is the traditional territory of the Chumash Peoples, who remain today despite the impacts of colonization, and have offered support in many ways for the organization.
This 40-acre parcel was part of 450 acres purchased in 1927 by visionary Theosophist Annie Besant to provide for an eclectic community devoted to artistic, agricultural, and educational projects that would encourage a rich cross-cultural environment in a spiritual climate. The Happy Valley Foundation was created to steward the land and her vision, including overseeing the Happy Valley School, their first formal institution, founded in 1946.
The early years were guided by a young visionary, Luke Gatto, who worked to develop an ecologically self-sufficient environment—or Bio-Shelter—designed by Sean Wellesley-Miller of MIT. Then, in 1979, anthropologist Joan Halifax (at that time research assistant to mythologist Joseph Campbell) was asked to lead the organization in a new direction, which was then renamed The Ojai Foundation (TOF).
Halifax, with a background of personal study with shamans, Zen masters, Tibetan lamas, Native American elders, and spiritual leaders from around the world, had recently published two books, now classics in the field: Shaman: The Wounded Healer and Shamanic Voices. Her wide-ranging ties with indigenous peoples and her Western academic connections helped to draw an extraordinary faculty to the rustic facility that came to be known informally as the “Wizards Camp.”
Throughout the 1980s, TOF was the setting for a unique experiment in community living, holistic education, and spiritual practice. A distinctive aspect of its programs was the resident community’s commitment to dissolving the barriers between faculty, staff, and workshop participants through the council practice, a circle form of communication and wisdom sharing practiced by virtually all indigenous peoples around the world. In the practice of Council, each person learns to offer their personal story from their heart, not their head, and to listen with full attention. In Council, there are no fixed leaders, but rather facilitators; the group’s emerging spirit and the process itself are the primary guides and everyone in the circle shares responsibility and leadership for what evolves. Many teachers found participating in Council and being witnessed by their peers an inspiring and creative practice.
The faculty over these years included: Joseph Campbell, R.D. Lang, Jean Houston, Rupert Sheldrake, Jill Purce, Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna, Ralph Metzner, Francis Huxley, Andrew Weil, Heymeyohsts Storm, Jose Arguelles, Pir Vilayat Khan, Joanna Macy, and many Native American, Tibetan, Zen, and Judeo-Christian teachers.
The many “firsts” of the Wizards Camp included: seminal Men’s Gatherings with poet Robert Bly (author of Iron John); Women’s Gatherings and conferences whose faculty included Mary Catherine Bateson, Naomi Newman, Deena Metzger, Tsultrim Allione, Vicki Noble, Riane Eisler, Terry Tempest Williams, and Laura Simms. Conferences on cutting-edge topics such as chaos theory, hospice work, plant shamanism, ethnobotany, psycho-immunology, dream research, and mind-body studies made for a rich stew. The Ojai Foundation was also one of the first institutions in North America to explore an ongoing dialogue between Tibetan and Native American spirituality (an exploration undertaken at the request of elders from both lineages). Several of the first American retreats for veterans, for children, for artists, and for environmental leaders, led by noted Vietnamese Zen master, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, were held at The Ojai Foundation.
In 1990, Joan Halifax left for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she founded the Upaya Insitute and Zen Center, a center for Buddhist studies and contemplative practice.
The Ojai Foundation continued under the leadership of its Board of Directors, co-chaired by educators Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle, both of whom had worked with TOF since its earliest days. Jack and Gigi, together with fellow TOF elders Leon Berg and Lola Rae Long, played a central role in developing the facilities and disseminating the Way of Council here and abroad.
Under their direction, the Foundation’s seminal communication practices spread to schools, businesses, healing centers, spiritual and religious communities, and to many for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including the the PeaceMaker Order, Xerox Corporation, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center to name but a few.
The Way of Council, by Jack Zimmerman and Gigi Coyle, was published in 1996 and has been instrumental in helping to take Council into the world.
Jack was particularly passionate about bringing Council to the lives of children. With his guiding vision, the Foundation’s council work and “Mysteries” programs at Crossroads High School in Santa Monica (ongoing since the early 1980s) spread to include numerous private and public middle and high schools in Los Angeles, and across the country. Teachers and administrators have praised this work as vital in helping young people develop basic life skills and healthy self-esteem through clear and compassionate communication.
In parallel with these school initiatives, Gigi, in partnership with Jack, Marlow Hotchkiss, and others, explored the use of council in such divergent applications as solo vision fasts and corporate training programs. Gigi carried council into her work with wilderness rites of passage through her role as associate director of The School of Lost Borders.
Increased demand for council programs and training workshops away from the Ojai retreat center (in educational, organizational, therapeutic, and business settings) led, in 1999, to the creation of our Council in Schools (now Circle Ways) initiative and the Center for Council Training (now Center for Council). Center for Council was established to provide ongoing trainings and programs, in-service and retreat-based internships, and support for organizations, businesses and individuals implementing Council in the world.
Over the past decade, The Ojai Foundation experienced significant growth in programming and reach — at our Land Sanctuary in Ojai, in Southern California schools, in social service agencies, prisons, businesses and community-based organizations, locally and around the world.
The ever-increasing breadth and complexity of the communities being served by Council-based programs has led TOF to spin off our outreach initiatives into separate organizations, fulfilling the vision of bringing Council “off the Land and into the world.” The global reach of council and other circle-based practices and the global network of council facilitators and trainers can also be seen at virtual hub called WaysofCouncil.net.