Dr. Kimberley McKell was the popular--and
stimulatingly avant garde--professor at the
California Institute of Asian Studies in 1970 when I first enrolled at
the Institute. She taught classes in Psychology and Myth.
She was a delightful
a few years older than me (I was
25), with a wry and wonderfully ribald sense of humor. In her very
delicate way, she loved to shock people with her honesty and
directness. She was an acute judge of character--and the most amazing
thing about her playful and shocking jokes was that she was almost
always right. She was very widely educated and clearly brilliant,
though usually as a maverick, original thinker and contrarian.
She comes from a long line of
Philadelphians (the first person in the family plot was buried in 1799,
a Burke related to Edmund Burke, the
Irish orator and political philosopher). The family name was Raquelle.
In 1952, she graduated of the Univ of Southern California. There she
had met Alan Watts while he was giving a seminar.
After college, she attended the Art Students' League in New York City
and studied portrait painting.
In the mid-50s, she moved to San Francisco looking for Alan Watts. Thus
she connected with Haridas Chaudhuri and the California Institute.
She changed her name as a sign
of personal independence. She was certainly a
counter-culturalist, though in keeping with her contrarian,
she called herself a conservative and registered as a Republican.
Kim was writing a magnum opus
dissertation on psychological themes in
Tantric Tradition in Hinduism and Buddhism. I proofread the final
draft. It was titled "The Psycho, Physical and Spiritual Aspects of the
First Two Chakras."
The hypothesis was that the various
movements and trends of thought in
the development of modern psychology could all be correlated with the
mythology and imagery of the seven chakras in Tantric spiritual
analysis was really quite astute. There's a way in which it's obvious,
once you see it. But making these connections was a original insight.
And it certainly proved helpful to me in conceptualizing the Tantric
system. What she was writing about in the 60s was very similar to how
Ken Wilber would conceptualize the continuum of consciousness a decade
Very simply, this tradition identifies
7 major spiritual centers that
characterize human personality and associates these levels of
consciousness with locations in the body.
From bottom to top, they are:
First chakra -- dealing with physical
materiality, survival and bodily
health -- associated with the anus.
Second charka -- dealing with sex,
sexuality, attraction/repulsion --
associated with the genital organs
Third chakra -- dealing with anger,
aggression, fear, emotionality --
associated with the abdomen
Fourth chakra -- dealing with love,
affection, compassion -- associated
with the heart
Fifth ckakra -- dealing with
seslf-expression and communication -- associated with the throat
Sixth chakra -- dealing with
consciousness, awareness, self-image,
self-experience, world creation within the mind -- associated with the
"third eye," pineal gland, and frontal cortex of the brain
Seventh chakra -- dealing with
transcendence of self, mystical vision,
connection to God/Higher Self (Brahman/Atman) -- associated with the
space just above the head
insight was that these also
correlate with the history of
psychology and modern psychiatry.
chakra with Freud,
oral/anal//genital stages of ego formation,
survial anxiety, hysterical symptoms
chakra with Reich, orgasm,
bioenergetics, relaxation of muscle
tension involved in personality patterns
chakra with Adler, the
will to power, inferiority complex,
The higher chakras
then with Jung,
individuation, dreams, myth,
religion, spirituality, the collective unconscious. In Jungian thought
the evolution of personality moves through the stages of the heart,
awareness of the shadow, being able to see clearly without neurotic
"blinders," and transcendence of self -- the issues of the 4th, 5th,
6th, and 7th chakras.
psychologists would break from this original "psychoanalytic"
approach created by Sigmund Freud. The issues of the higher chakras
were dealt with by Rogers (and the notion of "unconditional positive
regard," a 4th chakra experience), Albert Ellis (and rational-emotive
therapy, a 5th & 6th chakra approach), and then in the 1960s, when
Dr. McKell was writing about this, the development of so-called
Transpersonal Psychology (which understood psychological maturity in a
spiritual, not a mental illness context, clearly a 7th chakra
young woman, Kimberley had lived in Haiti and could speak very
authoritatively about Voudun-- "Voo Doo," the ecstatic trance/spirit
possession religion of the Caribbean. She was amazingly fluent in the
world's religious traditions, a great advertisement for her own
intellectual and professional education.
Here she is in an Elizabethan gown with a statue of Tara
California Institute of Asian Studies logo
The Sri Yantra
She was a student originally at the American
Academy of Asian Studies; Alan Watts, the
great interpreter of Zen Buddhismto America in the 1950s
was Dean and President of the school. Kim stayed friends with Alan
Watts till his death in 1973.
When the American Academy went into financial crisis in the
early 60s after Watts left the administration and faculty and then lost
its accreditation through the University of the Pacific, a group of
students and teachers at the Academy joined with Haridas Chaudhuri to
create the California Institute of Asian Studies in 1968. Chaudhuri was
a disciple of the renown Indian philosopher and modernizer of Hindu
Vedanta thought Sri Aurobindo. Haridas and his wife Bina came to
America as apostles of Aurobindo's idea that Hindu tradition and
Western philosophy could be unified in a great synthesis he called
"Integral Philosophy." (The on-going conversation at the C.I.A.S.
during my own years there was "what does 'integral' really mean?" In
1980, the Institute changed its name to the current title: California
Institute of Integral Studies.)
Kim followed Chaudhuri to CIAS. She
did her Masters thesis on "The Trinity Goddess in Ancient Britain,
Egypt and India"; she was a real pioneer in Goddess study. She then joined the faculty. And at
the time I arrived in fall of 1970 was one of the beloved and most
are photos of her with
the Tibetan Buddhist abbess, Ani Pagmo, who had initiated her into
Tibetan Buddhism, giving her as an initiate name,
that of the "Goddess of Compassion," Tara.
On Alan Watts' houseboat and in front of the Buddhist temple in
Kim dressed in "hippie chick"
garb in the doorway of Watts' Sausalito houseboat
Along with another CIAS student,
had traveled to India; she and Steve Krolik explored not only the
the consciousness and the experience of India. And came home with lots
Kim was an accomplished oil painter. Many of her paintings were of
sites--she'd seen in India. She created amazing canvases, some of them
reminiscent of Marc Chagal's style: mythological images floating in
space, floating in consciousness, as it were. Her home was literally
overflowing with canvases. And with holy objects from India.
It was from Kim that I learned of the Tibetan meditation implements,
the vajra sceptre and vajra bell that Tibetan
Buddhist monks hold in their hands during meditation (my own set is
pictured here), and of the image of
the two vajras crossed that, after my first editor at William Morrow
chose it for the cover of my book The
Myth of the Great Secret, became
a sort of personal spiritual logo for me.
From Kim McKell and her classes in World Mythology, Jungian thought
and Tantra, I learned a whole series of lessons that changed my
life--all for the better, I believe. Among those lessons are:
sex-positive attitude, based in the tantric spiritual traditions of
• techniques for visualizing and conceptualizing the chakras in
• a mistrust of religions that teach guilt and so-called "patriarchal
values"-- like authority and righteousness -- the Abrahamic Religions
• skepticism about spiritual systems that use numbers. Except for the
seven chakras, Kim did not like system that assigned rigid hierarchies
-- which she always said were revealed in the numbers.
• the vision of the continuum of consciousness
• appreciation of mythological painting
• appreciation of the unconscious and of techniques for reaching into
the Deep Unconscious (like trance dance and spirit possession)
• the notion of "The Matriarchy," the semi-mythological idea that there
was once a "Golden Age" on Earth when women ran the world and sex was
• and the understanding that in our time there has been a resurgence of
"faith" in the Great Mother archetype. Modern feminism grows out of
this newly recovered respect for women and women's power.
had completed course work for my Masters in comparative religion at the
Institute, I began working for Kim as a kind of personal assistant,
janitor, and hippie carpenter. Kim lived in a neat house just off Holly
Park Circle in the Outer Mission District. I worked for a year or so
helping her convert the unfinished basement to an apartment. In the
mornings, I'd work in the basement (singing the "Dies Irae," she
reminds me), at lunch we'd go to the hardware
store together for supplies, and in the afternoons I'd proofread her
dissertation or consult on psychotherapy clients. I only half-joking
called myself her General Factotum.
What a grand experience!
Here's a cute cartoon I came across that shows a yoga teacher coming
with hammer and crowbar, saying "Let's work on opening up that fourth
chakra." The fourth chakra controls the ability to experience love and
affection. In many ways, Kim McKell was the yoga teacher, yogini/dakini
who taught me how to open my fourth chakra--and, in a very real way,
the tools of the carpenter were part of the lesson.
lives part of the year in Washington, D.C. and part in Northern
California. She still occasionally teaches seminars in mythology and
McKell, current day, wise woman wearing purple! (There must be a red hat somewhere.) --with another Tara in the background
Toby Johnson, PhD is
author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of
teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and
religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual
issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's
spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor
of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth
of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the
real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual
qualities of gay male consciousness.