Harbin’s Robert Hartley aka Ishvara

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

Robert F. Hartley (aka Ishvara) was born into a wealthy New England textile family. A self-described gawky and sexually awkward undergraduate, he was on the verge of expulsion from Harvard for showing porno movies (a story he has rarely shared) but made an arrangement with the university to resume after serving two years in the Army. With an economics degree and a flair for making money in both real estate and the financial markets, Ishvara was able to finance his dreams of building an intentional Gestaltstyle community in 1972 when the fabled Harbin Hot Springs, which had fallen into severe disrepair, came on the market.

Throughout his stewardship, Harbin grew to become a treasured clothing-optional New Age hub. On September 12, 2015, the famed Valley Fire began its destructive path that would consume over 76,000 acres in Lake County, and with it Harbin Hot Springs. Many are mourning the loss. We learned there was much media interest in Harbin following the fire, but we are proud to say that Common Ground, whose collaboration with Harbin extends four decades, was fortunate to meet exclusively with Ishvara, an otherwise very private and contemplative individual.

Common Ground: Let’s start from the beginning.

Robert F. Hartley (known as Ishvara): [Raises hands and laughs] I was born; that was the beginning. It was 1933. I went through the typical East Coast wealthy thing, including prep school. I went to Harvard and the Army. Three years of graduate school studying economics.

How did Old Money inform your life?

My family never said we were wealthy; other people did. We had enough money to put me through prep school and leave me with an endowment. When people talk about wealthy now, they are talking about much bigger amounts of money. I would say we were upper crust rather than wealthy. Old Money, yes, definitely. My great-grandfather was born in England and came here in the 1800s in his 20s. He started as a carpenter or something and worked his way up. New England was big for textiles in those days, though when I was growing up the jobs moved to the South. Now they’re going to Asia.

Anyway, my great-grandfather ended up becoming an extremely rich man, supporting dozens of us progeny to live a very nice life. In my rich great-grandfather’s days, people talked about a “substantial person.” Being a substantial person had two aspects. One was that you were wealthy. The other was that you had a cigar and a big belly, and when people saw you coming, they could see you were, in fact, substantial.

Did you have a happy childhood?

I thought I did, but I don’t think I really did. My family was so convinced of their being great parents that I swallowed that. Always telling us how lucky we were that they were our parents. I didn’t judge very much; I was just surviving. Being a 15-year-old boy, and a rich one, is no walk in the park—not in those days.

Didn’t you enjoy those privileges?

I didn’t think of them as privileges. Everyone I knew went to prep school.

Where did you go?

Middlesex. In Concord, Massachusetts; I doubt you’ve ever heard of it.

I know it. Were you a good student?

Good at first and then slacked off. I was so sexually frustrated, I couldn’t be good at anything. It’s inhumane to make 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys live in a library. At Harvard, no, I was not a good student. I was almost kicked out for a behavioral thing.

What were you doing?

Showing porno movies, which back then was a really bad thing to do. In fact, I was told by the dean that porno can “do things to you.” I wondered what the hell he meant, but I didn’t ask him.

What’s the story—they didn’t have Super 8 films back then?

Actual films, reel to reel? Oh, God! Are you really going to get this out of me? [Puts his head into his hands. Long pause.] Well, I didn’t get along with women at all. I was a mess, and I wasn’t powerful. [In Cambridge] there was a purveyor of sexual things that I went to. His name was Ileo Bosco. I went to him because I wanted to have an experience with a prostitute, which was hard for a gawky student. He set me up with one and said, “I will sell you 5 to 4. You give me $40, and you can have five shots.” So five different times, I said, “Okay” and gave him the money. Then he shined me off. But I kept pestering him. Then he says, “I will tell you what. I will rent you some movies for the amount that I owe you, and you can show them, and you can charge money and do whatever you want.” That is how I ended up with the porno movies. Every time I see these ads for Bosco [a chocolate syrup], I get a kick out of it.

That’s a wild story. So you got into the Harvard black-market porno business in order to get your investment back?

Did I make money? No. I ended up telling what happened to my housemaster, thinking he would understand that I didn’t set out to show porno movies, but that I just wanted to get laid. The housemaster was a professor of Greek and Latin history, and when he heard about this he was even more shocked that I had gone to a prostitute. He said, “Have you had a Wasserman test?”

What’s that?

It is the test for syphilis.

So your housemaster turned you in, and they wanted to expel you?

Yes, but I talked to Harvard and proposed I go into the Army for two years to go through some changes, and I asked if it would be okay for me to come back and have a bang-up senior year? They said, “Sure” and put me at the head of the draft list. If you’re drafted it’s only two years, but if you volunteer it’s three.

Was this during the Korean War?

No. I was in the Army from 1954 to 1956, which was peaceful, at least in Germany where I was, during the reconstruction.

So you eventually graduated. Did you keep ties with Harvard after you left?

At about the time I first made money in the stock market, the Harvard endowment approached me, explaining that every student is supported by at least $5,000 in order to make up the actual cost of being there. I thought, What you gave me, I give you back. So I gave them $5,000, and that was it. Now you and me are done as far as the money thing. When you come around asking for a handout, I’m going to say no, which I always did.

After you were in the service, when you got back to campus, was that the era of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert?

No, they were after. I was there in the ’50s, and they were in the ’60s.

Were you attracted to the psychedelic movement?

I never heard of it when I was at Harvard and was not attracted to it. I began hearing about Aldous Huxley but thought it was pretty boring sounding. I eventually tried acid when I moved to Berkeley around 1970. Those were interesting experiences but got to be the same every time. I would be wiped out for a week afterward, so I didn’t think it was worth having that same experience again. I once stopped at Haight Street in the peak of the summer of 1967. I was flying from Hawaii on the way to Miami. I didn’t know what to look for, but it didn’t look very attractive to me. Seedy people with their droopy clothes. A lot of panhandling.

Were you drawn to the music of the era?

I loved it. Jefferson Airplane was my favorite. God, I loved them. After Billy Eckstein and Bing Crosby and all that crap, to have some real exciting music. [Sings “All you need is love. . . .”] I loved the Beatles and the Stones and Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, later on.

I once heard stories that Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would come to Harbin and drink their brains out.

The Grateful Dead made acid in the Azalea kitchen. After I came along, I had all kinds of people living here, many of them growing pot. The place was in unbelievable shambles. I offered a place to live for $30 a month or an hour a day of work. That was the most I felt I could get, so people came from Berkeley and San Francisco. They also grew pot, more than I even realized. Middletown was very redneck back then. We were raided once. I call it the Great Harbin Pot Bust.

What was your original influence for wanting to build an intentional community?

The first big impact on me was the book Summerhill School. It came out in 1960 and is about a guy in England who set up what he called a “free school,” where each kid and each adult had one vote in running the school. It was a kind of children’s democracy, and apparently, the school had some good students. I was really into this kind of freedom, and it was the 1960s, so I helped start one of these schools back in 1964. I made some money in the market and bought them a campus in upstate New York and later in Florida near Orlando. I wanted to make a lot of money so I could do neat things, and I got into real estate.

How did these schools turn out?

Not very much. I married a Chinese girl in Taiwan, and she couldn’t stand the school. It had an egomaniac running it, and I didn’t like that. I was getting a little tired of it. We moved briefly to Hawaii and then bought a house next to the Berkeley campus. My wife and I had two daughters. This was the beginning of the personal transformation movement, and I got deeply interested in Fritz Perls and The Gestalt Institute.

Did you become a Gestalt therapist?

They wouldn’t take me. They had three levels of trainees and I graduated from the first level to the second level, then when I applied to go to the third level, they turned me down because I didn’t have a degree in psychology. You can’t know anything without a degree in psychology, can you? I followed Fritz Perls to Vancouver because he was starting something called a Gestalt kibbutz, where you lived and learned. There was so much going on at that time about communities, and I wanted to go into a Gestalt community.

So what happened with Fritz Perls’s community?

Very soon he died of pancreatic cancer. But I really wanted to build a Gestalt community on my own, along his ideals. So with two of the teachers at the institute, we joined up and started looking for land to create a new community. We looked at a number of properties and made offers on a couple. It was obvious that land was cheaper north of the Bay Area than south. I liked it around Santa Cruz and Felton because I liked the warmth, but at one stage they [my partners] were off in Morocco smoking pot and having a good time when a broker named Richie Money, of all things, said, “Would you like to see Harbin Hot Springs?” I said, “It’s not available.” He said, “Oh, it’s very much available.” It turns out Harbin had all 10 criteria for what I wanted in a community, one of which was the ability to be naked. To me, that was part of what free was. Most of the property to the south would have had neighbors looking down on us.

What is the timeframe for all this? How much were they asking for Harbin?

It was 1972, and they were asking $180,000. At that price, they also wanted to keep all the geothermal rights, which was a big thing, since it meant that drillers could come right in the middle and sink a noisy, dirty well. I figured I would make a real low offer where we would retain half of the geothermal rights. I figured they would turn it down, but then when my partners came back from Morocco we could decide what to do next. But they took my offer of $140,000, and I was sitting there with Harbin on only a $5,000 deposit.

How were the geothermal rights handled?

The broker told me it would be very hard for them to do anything with us as a partner—that half was pretty close to nothing. The contract stated they could put in a well 200 yards from any erected structure, but I was imagining putting cabins all over the hills, so they couldn’t possibly put it within 200 yards of any structure. They never found any steam in this general area, so we were lucky that way.

How did it work out when your partners came back?

They were very happy, but we soon came into a difference over money. One of the guys—I guess he’s old enough now that I can talk about it—said he had $30,000 that he could put into the kitty. In order to make the deal, I had to borrow $20,000 from my wife and scratch up another $20,000. I had a lot of real estate in Miami but was real estate poor, if you know what that means. Then he says, “Okay, the $30,000—that’s a loan, and you’re going to pay me 12% interest.” My answer was, “But we’re partners!” It quickly became obvious that because I was just a student and they were big professors, they expected me to pay for the whole thing and they were going to run it. Anyway, since in Gestalt you expressed your feelings, that’s what I did. I told them just what I thought of that, and they said, “If that’s the way you think, we don’t want to do business with you.” So, boom, there I was on my own. Incidentally, that $30,000 went on to buy Wilbur Hot Springs.

Oh, I had no idea until now that you’ve been talking about Richard Miller [founder of Wilbur Hot Springs].

When we were in the institute, I was 38 and he was about 30.

Boy, your lives have many parallels. Wilbur had a big fire last year and was nearly blasted again this summer.

They did have a fire, but not a poof [makes a fizzle sound and gesture] wipeout fire like we had.

Take me back to that fateful Saturday a few weeks ago [Sept. 12]. How did that day unfold?

Julie [Adams, Harbin’s manager] gave me a call and said, “This fire is something.” She said it is up in the west and it is 40 acres. I thought that was funny, because all the smoke I saw was to the north. She said, “We’re all going to Bar X to get away from it. Are you coming to Bar X?” [Bar X is a Harbin property in Middletown formerly owned by the philanthropic Skaggs family. It was bought by Harbin after the 2009 death of Lucy Skaggs, who was 109.] I was not so worried about it I don’t see any smoke over there.

I had Leland Hooker and Rebecca Ferguson with me, and they were saying, “We have to get out of here! We have to get out of here!” I’m looking at them, seeing where it was coming from and that it wasn’t threatening the town. I wasn’t in any hurry at all. I thought, Maybe it will stop.

Do you remember what time of day it was?

One o’clock in the afternoon. And then they started saying, “Harbin is evacuating. We have to get out of here!” I didn’t think of what to bring; the only thing I thought to bring was my computer because I had all these records in my computer. I asked Leland to disconnect my computer. I grabbed these pants [points to the blue sweatpants he’s wearing] and a jacket and toothbrush and toothpaste, and that was it. So I could’ve done a better job of packing, but I had these people going out of their minds.

Hey, I’m 82 years old and I’m going to die one of these days. If I burn up in a fire, I burn up in a fire. I’m a yogi for Christ’s sake. I’m not really supposed to care about that stuff. I mean, I want to live because I want to do more creating because I’ve accumulated a lot of ability and power and so forth, and I want to use that to create more and help more people. But if that is not meant to be, I am not upset about it.

So you were in a Sattvic [balanced] state of mind?

That’s a comparative term. Peaceful. I’d say unattached. Fires are fascinating, and we had gotten used to having them around all summer long. So at first there was all this smoke and then suddenly there was this flash of orange coming down the hill, and I could see that, all right, this is serious. And we could smell it. So we drove to Bar X, and the flames were coming there too, so we drove all the way to Calistoga and stayed with a friend.

When did you get the news that Harbin was, well, gone?

The news filtered out, and I just didn’t believe it. We had put in all these fire breaks. I never imagined it would burn across all the grass, and if it did the fire people would stop it, but there weren’t any firemen anywhere. The fire went around Middletown, I don’t know how the hell. It’s just totally arbitrary the way it hit.

This morning I saw what happened to the Skaggs house [at Bar X]. That main house had stood alone, and it seems as if a meteor or a cyclone just landed there and razed it to the ground—absolutely arbitrary. Nothing around it was affected. It is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

We called that house Rose. I didn’t think that would get burned. There was green all around it. That was the prettiest house we owned anywhere. It was so beautiful. [Begins sobbing] That one hurts. It hurts because I know about all the effort that went into building it and all we put into it. That is the only one I am attached to. Funny how that one burned. All that effort was wasted, and that hurts. The property was so beautiful. God. [Looking at me with wet, swollen eyes] So there, you got your tears.

How did this inform your sense of mortality?

When I die that’s what’s going to happen. The funny thing is I went down to Calistoga, and I was high as a kite. I slept and slept and slept. I don’t know if that was some inner reaction that is so deep I don’t understand it. Or if I was sick and tired of my routine. Something in my life just burned up. I am having new experiences. I have no idea. Maybe I was in a rut, but I have been high ever since. I didn’t joke around nearly as much before the fire. In fact, I think I’m a little cartoon character, a jokester. People say it’s helping them feel better, lifting some of the hopelessness. I hope so.

There’s a lot I just don’t know. Part of the surrender is that you just keep chugging on. You don’t know what you are doing. You just follow the best impulses you can find. And you work at it and apply yourself. I imagine there’s a god up there deciding what would be the best next step.

In your spiritual panorama, do you try to find an explanation? Why?

Fritz Perls said there are two swear words in Gestalt therapy, why and but. Why because it puts you in your head. And but because it means everything you said before doesn’t count.

Isn’t that what New Agers do—figure out the underlying explanation of things?

It’s a distant intellectual thing. You think, Is there someone out there trying to tell us something? Did we do something wrong? The best answer I’ve got is that we’re supposed to build an even better Harbin. The old one was constrained by its history. I’m not in a game of knowing. I don’t know the why of anything. I mean, for me reality is absolute existence, consciousness, bliss. That is reality. “Why” does not enter into it. I’m in the “I don’t know” kind of New Age, just struggling on.

Fire is symbolic. Like Shiva, the destroyer.

There’s a lady here who wears this shirt that says, “I’m not lost in the shuffle, I just shuffle in the loss.” I love it. I struggled all my life to be unattached, and I guess I’m pretty unattached. Do you know what time it is? Is it past one o’clock? If it’s past one o’clock, it [the stock market] is closed. There’s nothing I can do.

It’s 1:20. You spend a big part of your day following the markets. It seems you’re good at it, which is rare. I have a lot of shame over the fact that I once spent a lot of time trying to win that game. It’s gambling under the pretext of “private investing.” I feel pathetic because I wiped myself out many times over doing that. It sapped a lot of creative energy and time.

There is one word you said that just went “ooohhh” to me. [Makes a sad whooshing motion to his heart and belly] That word is pathetic. I think the only thing I’ve ever not wanted to be is pathetic.

Getting wiped out, whether by fire or by one’s own folly teaches a lot, spiritually. The theme of this upcoming issue is gratitude. What does gratitude mean to you?

When I heard my yoga teachers telling me about gratitude it resonated, and I experimented with it as a meditation, to be thankful. It’s a very healing thing to do. Somehow I don’t take a lot of credit for what I do. Therefore, there isn’t an “I” to be grateful. In other words, if I am grateful, it is because I got something. But I didn’t do anything to get something. So I am grateful that I was able to play a part in a nice drama, but it wasn’t for me, and so why should I be grateful? I often say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” because I feel that way. I don’t know why I feel that way. I’ve read that that is a good thing, but I don’t have any structure around it.

What else are you grateful for?

That I got to play with money in my life. That I’ve had an interesting life. That I’ve been able to do what makes me feel good. That I’ve been lovers with some beautiful women. That I got over that shit stage in my college years and high school when I couldn’t do a damn thing with women. That I can walk. I’m grateful I haven’t had some horrible thing happen to me where I have to crawl everywhere or use a walker. I’m grateful for the night sky and Venus. [Voice quivering] I love to look at Venus [weeping]. Not often do you get to see her when you are surrounded by mountains. I think that is part of the bhakti [devotional] thing.

Are you drawn to the bhakti path?

Kicking and screaming. I’ve looked down on bhaktis, but on a deeper level, it’s so big and so powerful. It all flows together, [knowledge and devotion] at the highest levels.

You have plenty of money, but you’re not a materialist. I am told that your simple clothes are from the Salvation Army. That you couldn’t care less about luxury.

I’m an ecologist. I don’t want to use any more of the earth’s gifts than I need. I turn out lights all the time. I segregate and recycle and put all my wet garbage on the land somewhere. That is how my gratitude shows itself—by respecting all the beauty that has been in my life.

I was asking Julie [Adams] about what she thought made you tick. The word she said was sustainability—that’s your core worldview and that can come across as frugality.

Sustainability with a capital S. It’s part of worship. Whether it is a piece of meat or a tree, if you worship the ultimate essence in everything, you respect. If you respect, you don’t waste.

What is your desire for the future, after the fire?

Are you aware of the Oneness Institute, my idea of the New Age University? That’s long been my dream. The ultimate goal is build a New Age university, like Harvard, based on the principles of Common Ground and the human potential movement. We bought this huge 4,000 acre property, the Diamond J Ranch. Of course, it looks like shit now because it is all brown and empty.

How about for rebuilding Harbin?

I already rebuilt Harbin once. I am worn out; I am not going to do it again. So it’s the next generation’s problem. The managers who will be running it when I am gone will rebuild it. All the county bigwigs want us to rebuild because we were a substantial part of the business around here. You could say we have a responsibility to rebuild the economy of South Lake County, but I have dreamer-type fantasies about finding the right partner who is going to build the Oneness Institute with us.

I was in Joshua Tree when I learned about the fire, and I just cried. I have some beautiful memories, mostly with my young son in the heart-shaped pool. Last Christmas he watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time here on the cushions in the auditorium. Makes me weepy as I am picturing his face after seeing that beautiful movie. So you could say that I am a big fan of your work.

Thank you. Thank you. Common Ground does wonderful work. It seems we’re both celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. We began at the same time. I have a question, an egotistical one. I know Harbin is known, but am I well known in the Bay Area? As an individual?

You’re definitely something of a mystery. I was always intrigued by your name, Ishvara. I thought that with a name like that you were spiritual, and I hoped to meet you one day. I had heard you were private, a bit eccentric, which is cool. Why do you ask?

The reason I ask is because when I was young at the Gestalt Institute, there were a lot of things people didn’t like about me. Recently, I was surprised to be informed that Michael Murphy [cofounder of Esalen] knew all about me. When I was young, Michael Murphy was really up there, so I didn’t think he’d even remember me. As part of Harbin, I didn’t go out broadcasting about myself and being on panel discussions, so people wouldn’t know anything about me. I like it that way. Harbin is a special and distinctive place, and I wanted it to speak for itself, so my anonymity was rather deliberate.

Do you have any pet peeves you care to mention?

Vladimir Putin. People who are ugly to other people. Hey, I’ve said some pretty stupid things. You’re not going to take this verbatim, are you? You not going to put that stuff about the porno movies in there?

That’s good stuff. Do you want to add any parting words for Common Ground readers, many of whom are Harbin lovers?

In my 20s it seemed that everything worthwhile was already being done by people far more able and qualified than I could ever be. Many are better endowed than I. At Harvard I was below average in intelligence, diligence, maturity, and ability to focus.

To the extent that I have risen since then, it is because I am willful, bold, flexible, and persistent. Accomplishment is far more a result of will than of natural social or financial endowment. I have taken what seemed like great risks. Each time I failed, I came out all right, frequently better than if I had succeeded. Failure often guided me to see and give up mistaken thinking and to accept new ways that made me better off than before. My motto is “turn adversity into opportunity.” I have found that whenever I fail, I can always—and I mean always—see the situation in such a way that I gain instead of lose. Someone who thinks this way can never be down. My love to all.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.