The Saints of Todos Santos: Spiritual Leader Robert K. Hall

by Todos Santos Eco Adventures

It was 1968 and Robert Hall was living The American Dream. He had a thriving psychiatric practice, a huge house in Mill Valley, and a wonderful family with his childhood sweetheart of a wife and their children. The only drawback was that it was killing him. He was working 24/7 – a Rolfing practice during the day and a Gestalt therapy practice at night – and he was exhausted, drained and he needed some answers. As has happened at every critical juncture in his life, he got them – immediately. He went to a friend’s house and, while waiting for him, saw a piece of paper on the floor. He picked it up and found it was a transcript of a talk by an Indian spiritual master. As he began to read he found it was like a voice speaking in his mind, a light literally shining in the darkness. It was a light so bright that his wife actually saw it too. He dialed the telephone number at the bottom of the page, and it was his next-door neighbor in the geodesic dome. The signs were clear and Robert didn’t hesitate.

Charan Singh, Robert’s Spiritual Master

Robert and his wife Alyssa left their 3 children with a friend and went to India for 4 months to study with Charan Singh, the man whose talk Robert had read on that fateful day, and the man who was to remain Robert’s spiritual master for the rest of Singh’s natural life…and beyond. As Singh’s guests their 4 months in India were completely free, but not without some costs. Alyssa contracted typhus and Robert was frantic as there were no doctors in the area they were living except one who didn’t like to work on Westerners, despite– or perhaps because of – the fact that he was an Austrian-born American himself: Dr. Randolph Stone. He also happened to be Charan Singh’s personal physician, who was finally able to persuade him to see Alyssa. When Robert and Alyssa arrived at his garden office, they saw lots of Indians sitting around in various stages of distress, many with metal clamps on their fingers. There was screaming coming from Dr. Stone’s office. Robert, an army veteran, pressed on. When Dr. Stone worked on Alyssa with his hands he swayed and sang like the religious ecstatic he was. Robert tried not to freak out. When Dr. Stone finished working on Alyssa he had completely healed her. On the spot. Robert became his apprentice.

Robert’s career to that point had been shaped by his apprenticeships with two leading lights in the psychiatric world, both of whom were focused on mind-body integration in treating patients: Dr. Fritz Perls who developed Gestalt Therapy, and Dr. Ida Rolf, originator of the body-work known as Structural Integration or “Rolfing”. In fact, he ended up with that house in Mill Valley when Dr. Perls asked him to move to the Bay Area to start the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco. Robert’s apprenticeship with Dr. Stone took his approach to mind-body work to a whole new level. Dr. Stone, the founder of Polarity Therapy, taught Robert how to work and heal with the energy of the body.

Randolph Stone, Robert’s Teacher, Partner and Friend

Inspired by his experiences in India, the teachings of Charan Singh, and his 3 main apprenticeships, Robert co-founded the Lomi School in Santa Rosa, California in 1970 “to bring together a group of far-out modalities into one practice. Lomi was founded on the principle of the integration of mind, body, and spirit, with particular emphasis on the life of the body.” Robert, his wife Alyssa, and two other couples formed the core of the school, and Dr. Stone became their partner and teacher. Robert earned an international reputation for his innovative and pioneering therapies and the Lomi School thrived. Robert no longer had to do Rolfing during the day and Gestalt at night – he had integrated it all into one unique, inclusive and embracing practice. Turns out The American Dream just needed some Indian spice.

But this wasn’t the path that Robert had set out on in life. When he was 15 and living in upstate New York, his passion was to go into surgery, and he managed to get himself apprenticed to the town surgeon.  He paid for medical school at the University of Buffalo by working nights as a surgical nurse, then took a year of internship and beginning surgery residency in Salt Lake City. Surgery was his calling. But in Salt Lake City Robert was hit with the realization that surgery residencies didn’t pay enough to support his growing family, so he joined the army as a captain and enjoyed a pay grade that covered his family’s needs. The tricky part was that at that point the army didn’t want more surgeons, it wanted more psychiatrists. So Robert agreed to a psychiatric residency under the army’s auspices, with the result that his first job out of residency was as Chief of Neuropsychiatry at Fort Knox (where his job description covered something called Mental Hygiene). When contemplating his numerous accomplishments in a field chosen for him by the army, a field that he so obviously loves and thrives in Robert says, “I didn’t do any of it. I didn’t make any of it happen. There is no such thing as free will. You just have to say yes to life.”

Robert in Mexico. Photo by Alvaro Colindres

In 1999 Robert decided that he was ready to retire, so he and his partner Alvaro began searching the world for the best place for them. (Robert and Alyssa had divorced, although they remain very close to this day and share 6 grandchildren.) They traveled to Italy and Spain and points beyond, but never found exactly what they were looking for. Then one of Robert’s apprentices called to tell him about a great artists’ colony he had heard about from a woman named Catherine Wall, a Todos Santos resident and artist. Robert and Alvaro came to Todos Santos to visit soon after, and within 10 minutes Robert fell in love with it. In fact, he remembered driving through Todos Santos on a vacation in 1987 and sensing “something very special in the air.” Alvaro, however, was less enthusiastic. Robert returned by himself a few months later and asked Janet Howey, the owner of El Tecolote Bookstore, if she knew of any places to rent. In short order Robert had signed a lease on La Ruina, a house in as good a state of repair as the name implies. He didn’t mention it to Alvaro until he returned home.  Within 6 months Robert (eagerly) and Alvaro (reluctantly) had moved all their belongings to Todos Santos and made the town, and La Ruina, their home.

Robert at home in Todos Santos with his paintings and an Erick Ochoa original

Like many Americans, Robert had the bulk of his retirement encased in his home, a beautiful old Victorian in Tomales Bay, Marin County. With the final move to Todos Santos Robert put his house on the market and – as was common and expected at the time – it was quickly snapped up and placed in escrow. But at the last minute the buyers found some termite damage and abruptly withdrew from the deal. Robert and Alvaro found themselves shockingly, jarringly and absolutely flat broke. Literally no funds to survive on. They decided that prayer was in order, so they got down on their knees and prayed for guidance. While they were kneeling on the floor a knock came at the door. Alvaro got up to answer it and there stood an American woman whom neither of them had ever seen before. “She said ‘I heard that Robert was a follower of Charan Singh and thought he might like to have this.” She handed a book to Alvaro, who went inside to give it to Robert. When they both returned to thank her, she had left. The book was the memoirs of Robert’s spiritual master in India, Charan Singh, now long dead but clearly not gone. Two weeks later the Tomales Bay house sold, Robert and Alvaro bought their current home in Todos Santos, and Robert settled in to enjoy retirement. As added grace, Alyssa bought a house nearby, and Alvaro grew to love Todos Santos as much as Robert, becoming a real estate agent and a great photographic chronicler of the town and its surrounding natural beauty.

One of the many results of his first trip to India was that Robert became a serious practitioner of meditation, and a firm believer in its benefits for the mind and body. In 1974 he befriended several dharma teachers who practiced Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. He started going on 10, 11, 12-day silent retreats with them and saw that these types of retreats strongly dovetailed with Gestalt therapy, helping people to really focus on the here and now, on being in the immediate present. He also came to embrace Buddhism because he saw how practical it was and how it actually answered the question of the meaning of life. He became an ordained Buddhist priest and started leading his own silent retreats in 1980. He also became affiliated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and currently serves on the Center’s Teachers Council.

When he retired to Todos Santos Robert had no intention to teach again. He had taught thousands of people all over the world and served as a mentor to hundreds more. He loved teaching, but now just wanted to sit back, relax and enjoy the serenity of Todos Santos. “Then one day Alvaro told me he thought I should teach again. I was against it, but he finally persuaded me to at least give it a try. So we advertised a dharma talk at La A.R.C.A., and to my surprise over 30 people showed up. And Alvaro was right, the teaching really stimulated me and I realized then that I would like to continue.” Now residents and visitors alike find that one of the best things about being in Todos Santos is the opportunity to participate in Robert’s weekly Sunday morning dharma talks at L La A.R.C.A. They also have the opportunity to participate in the week-long silent meditation retreats that Robert offers several times a year in Todos Santos. Robert does not confine his activities in Mexico to Todos Santos alone. A fellow student of Fritz Perls contacted him a few years ago and persuaded him to hold workshops in various cities around Mexico, and he now conducts several of these every year. “I absolutely love teaching my Mexican students.  Mexico is my home now and it’s wonderful being able to connect with young Mexicans in this way. This has been a great part of my so-called retirement.”

Robert Teaching in Puebla. Photo by Alvaro Colindres

On the Easter Sunday when Robert was 12, he took his young boy’s worries up the hill to seek some solace in nature. As he sat there, he was struck with the forceful inspiration, with what seemed like Word from on High, to be open to all of life’s experiences. Robert embraced that inspiration, and built an inspired and inspiring life around it. Luckily, Robert is willing to share some of the knowledge, some of the learning, some of the magic that flowed from that moment, and thereby inspire the rest of us in this pueblo magico. Thank you for prodding him on Alvaro!

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2011