In The American Grain

Inside Don Draper’s Big Sur Nirvana: The Esalen Institute

How fitting that questing Don wound up at Esalen, still a mecca for the human-potential movement, the counterculture, and the intersection of Emersonianism and Eastern thought.

Courtesy of AMC

I once had the pleasure of teaching for a year at Harvard Divinity School. My office was on the same floor and just three doors down from the little chapel where the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous Divinity School Address on July 15, 1838. In this sermon, originally read to just six graduating students, their families, and faculty members, Emerson denied the unique divinity of Christ, affirmed the divinity of the "infinite Soul," and celebrated the inspiration, indeed revelation, of contemporary religious experience. He called on his listeners to “live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind" and to refuse the temptation of traditional authority: “Let me admonish you, first of all,” he exhorted the graduates, “to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

Emerson was inviting his listeners and readers to move beyond “historical Christianity,” an institution whose perverse mythologization of Jesus as the only divine human being and whose slavish reliance on the Bible as somehow final and complete he found particularly odious. More positively, what he wanted was a democratic, individualized form of spirituality that is fundamentally open to present and future revelations, not just past ones. The goal of the religious life for Emerson was not Christianity. It was consciousness, or what he would later call the Over-Soul. “Man is a stream whose source is hidden,” he wrote in another essay. “Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.”

Despite charges of impious offense, atheism, and blasphemy following Emerson's speech, his mystical humanism and transgressive individualism were never effectively silenced, and they have since had a long run in American religious history: most immediately among Emerson’s own Transcendentalist circles, but also among countless individuals who have lived under the broad, generous sky of what the historian Catherine Albanese has called “metaphysical religion,” that immense swath of mystical, gnostic, and esoteric traditions that encompasses everything from the early Swedenborgians, the Mesmerists, Spiritualists, Christian Scientists, and Theosophists, to the contemporary human-potential and New Age movements. There is more, it turns out, to American religious history than evangelical fervor and denominations.

“I am spiritual but not religious.” The phrase has become a well-worn platitude. It is often dismissed as superficial, vacuous, and narcissistic. In truth, it is none of these things, not necessarily anyway. It is, after all, fundamentally Emersonian and deeply American. This was brought home to me when I wrote and published a cultural history of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, one of the undisputed meccas over the last five decades of the human-potential movement, the counterculture, and the American translation of Asian religions into new, democratic forms that have taken root and spread throughout American society.

When people hear mention of Esalen now, if they have heard of it at all, they often dismiss it as “New Agey”—lacking in substance and rigor at best, flakey and irrelevant at worst. But Esalen is much more than a stereotype. It holds a legitimate place in America's religious history and spiritual landscape, offering a kind of secular mysticism that is deeply conversant with democracy, religious pluralism, and modern science. In the process, Esalen has had a profound, albeit subtle and indirect, influence on American culture over the last half century. Many of the practices and ideas the institute stood for, virtually alone, at its inception in 1962—from meditation and yoga to the synthesis of evolutionary biology and theology—are now common features of public culture and discourse.

Esalen, a kind of retreat center and alternative think tank where permanent residents, visiting guests, and invited intellectuals participate in a wide variety of personal-growth programs and symposia, was founded in the fall of 1962. It was not a child of the counterculture, as is often assumed, although it did predict much that the counterculture would come to embrace. Its deepest intellectual, spiritual, and psychological roots reached back to the ’50s, in the initiatory experiences of its two founders, Michael Murphy and the late Richard Price. Both men were Stanford graduates. Both were dedicated to the contemplative practice of meditation—Murphy’s more Hindu in accent, Price's more Buddhist. Both had experienced intense, life-changing events in the mid-‘50s. Murphy returned from a 16-month trip to India, where he had lived in the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, a psychically gifted metaphysical writer and guru. Murphy envisioned a kind of intellectual ashram where East and West, science and spirit could meet and merge. Price had suffered through a psychotic break and enlightenment experience (paradoxically woven together) that was shut down by brutal psychiatric intervention, including electroshock. He sought a kind of break-out center, a safe space where those who had been similarly abused by the medical establishment could come and be healed through a more humane integration of body, mind, and soul. These two men, in both their deep friendship and their real differences, would come to define the dynamism and debates of Esalen’s culture.

Above all, though, Esalen would be about something called the human potential. The phrase was coined as a movement in 1965 by the writer George Leonard and Michael Murphy. The terminology, though, goes back to a lecture Dick Price had heard Aldous Huxley give in 1960 about accessing latent “human potentialities” within a contemplative educational practice he had dubbed the “non-verbal humanities.” Both ideas were behind Leonard and Murphy’s “human potential movement.” The phrase captures a broad band of ideas and practices whose basic claim is that human beings possess immense, untapped reserves of consciousness and energy that cultures have repressed in different ways but that we now can actualize and develop into a more integral vision of an evolving human supernature. Explorations in psychology, psychical research, and psychedelics dominated the institute's earliest seminars; eventually Asian religions, mind-body relations, Cold War and now Middle Eastern citizen diplomacy, environmentalism, the food movement, and political activism all would enter the stream that became “Esalen.”

Through all of this, Esalen has demonstrated a quite remarkable synergy with the broader culture and its actors. Consider, for example, what happened in the summer in 1962, just before the little institute got its start. Murphy had bought the staff copies of Abraham Maslow's just published book Toward a Psychology of Being, which they were discussing together as a kind of visionary reflection of their own goals. That same summer, Abe and Bertha Maslow were driving down the winding curves of Highway 1 looking for a motel, in the dark. They pulled in to Big Sur Hot Springs, the motel establishment on the cliff that would, within weeks, begin its seminar series. Abraham Maslow appeared at the front desk to check in. It was as if the staff had somehow magically conjured the psychologist through their reading and enthusiasm. Maslow was as shocked as they were, and as deeply moved. He would embrace Esalen as a model of what he was trying to say in his own writings on self-actualization, the peak experience, and the psychology of being. If Huxley gave Esalen its language of human potential, it was Abraham Maslow who taught its early founders and students how to think about actualizing those potentials.

Although Esalen was not a product of the ’60s counterculture, it emerged in tandem with it and sought to further many of its goals. Both were reactions to the fear and stunted staidness of what the writer Henry Miller had called “the air-conditioned nightmare” of American society in the ’50s. That decade’s racial segregation, unquestioned gender roles, McCarthyism, conformism, and backyard bomb shelters gave way, in the ’60s, to the full bloom of the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and gay rights, the sexual revolution, psychedelia, a creative explosion in popular music and the arts, and a widespread fascination with Asian religions. Certainly Esalen played a role, usually behind the scenes, in many of these cultural upheavals, mostly as a place where people gathered to explore, develop, and experience new ways of being, knowing, interacting, and creating. Huxley's nonverbal humanities again, with a vengeance.

The institute received its share of sensationalist media attention, especially in the late ’60s. Such attention almost always missed Esalen's deeper intellectual and religious roots, but the sensationalism was not entirely unearned. It is indeed a sensational place. The institute is perched on magnificent cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and it understands its mission as revolutionary and catalytic—nothing less than the eventual integration of consciousness and energy, soul and body, mind and matter. People of all ages come from all over the world to learn, heal, explore, chant, dance, drum, massage, and meditate, and many of them eventually find themselves bathing together in outdoor, cliff-top hot tubs in full view of the sea—swim suits optional. A parade of colorful characters have written, talked, thought, and sang their way through the Esalen story, people like Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Baez, Fritz Perls, Ida Rolf, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Terence McKenna (a modern-day shaman who advocated the use of psychotropic plants), to name just a few. So it is not difficult to understand the sensationalism.

But it is the activist, intellectual, and metaphysical dimensions that have struck me as both the most significant and, oddly, the least known aspects of Esalen's story. Esalen has always been a place of gnosis where the intellectual and experiential have intersected and coexisted, giving birth to new ideas and practices. Through its role as a kind of research center for human potential, Esalen played a catalytic role in gestalt and humanistic psychology in the early ’60s, educational reform in the late ’60s, the embryonic alternative-medicine movement of the early ’70s, and the development of citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union in the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The institute has also been an active player in the environmental, conscious, business, and food movements.

Esalen’s diplomatic adventures in the Soviet Union are a particularly surprising story. In 1979, after years of excursions “behind the Iron Curtain” to explore psychical research being conducted there on telepathy and related matters, the institute’s leaders attended the International Symposium on the Problem of the Unconscious, in Tbilisi, Georgia. The conference sought to address the problematic status of Freudian psychoanalysis in Russian history and culture. As it turned out, the conference functioned as a kind of cultural cover for other, alternative interests—such as sports performance and creativity studies—many of which were captured by the phrase “hidden human reserves.” Of course, Esalen leaders immediately recognized this notion as a clear analogue to their own “human potential.” It was precisely in these hidden and potential realms that the Esalen actors were able to engage their Russian colleagues and hosts.

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In 1989, the institute, now well-known among top-ranking Soviet and American officials, was chosen to sponsor Boris Yeltsin’s trip to the United States. Throughout that trip, his communist stereotypes of "imperial America" fell like so many zapped flies, until they were burnt to a crisp before the fruits, meats, and vegetables of a Houston grocery store and the simple answers of a random female shopper. Yeltsin's biographer, Leon Aron, tells the story of what happened. In response to his polite question, the woman told Yeltsin that she spent $170 a week of her family's $3,600 monthly income on groceries. Her answer shocked and angered him, as average Soviets were spending about 56 percent of their income on food of poor quality and limited availability—about three times what the American shopper was spending on abundant groceries of extremely high quality. Yeltsin was standing on a tank before the Russian parliament a few months later.

Esalen’s multiple interests and activist pursuits can all be traced back to the metaphysical commitments of its founders. Many streams fed into those commitments—too many to recount here—but one flowed directly out of academe and became a kind of preview for American culture’s “I am spiritual but not religious” sensibility.

Murphy and Price both studied with Frederic Spiegelberg, a refugee from Nazi Germany who taught comparative religion and Asian religions at Stanford University. During his lectures at Stanford and elsewhere—often to immense, spellbound crowds—he advanced what he called "the religion of no religion."

That potent little phrase was based on a mystical encounter with the natural world Spiegelberg had experienced as a young theology student. He was walking in a wheat field on a bright, spring day when his consciousness suddenly shifted, and he found all of nature lit up from within by the palpable presence of what he understood to be God. He was stunned. When he later encountered a gray church on this same life-changing walk, he was horrified. How could such a boring building claim to contain the awesome, conscious, cosmic divinity he had just personally experienced in the sky, poppies, and birds? Could such a being be contained in any building, in any tradition, in any religion? From that experience came his notion of the religion of no religion, a ground of being both within and beyond all its local cultural expressions.

Spiegelberg's religion of no religion is profoundly resonant with Emerson's insistence on the individual's ability to experience the divine directly, "without mediator or veil." Spiegelberg's religion of no religion, along with Murphy and Price's own experiences of a reality that seemed to transcend what their normal senses could perceive, provoked them to create a place they hoped could change the rules of the religious game. Essentially, they wanted to reject the dogmas and literalisms of all religious systems and replace them with a deeper spirituality of transcendent consciousness and transformed flesh—an enlightenment of the body—that, like Spiegelberg's walk through the wheat, could unite God, humanity, and the natural world in a single integral vision.

The natural world was central to this vision, and Esalen fervently embraced matter and the human body as the most potent sites of mystical experience. No churches or priests are required for this democracy of the soul. This is a secular mysticism that is distinctly American because it encodes in theological form one of the core principles of the American Constitution—the separation of church and state. In America, anyone can be religious precisely because there is no official religion. The religion of no religion is not just a theological expression of one man's mystical experience, then. It is also the metaphysical ground of our constitutional and legal polity with respect to religion.

Seen in this light, "America" becomes a truly subversive mystical ideal, and thus not a surprising foundation for Esalen's iconoclastic vision. Precious few religious traditions, with the possible exceptions of groups like the Quakers and the Unitarians (that is, Emerson's lot), seem to be aware of what such an America could mean. Few realize that the deepest psychological, social, and spiritual implications of democracy are far more radical than any society—including our own—has yet realized. What sense does it make, really, to speak of the integrity of the individual, of human rights, of personal freedoms, and then obediently bow down to an imagined King, Lord, or Father in the sky? Alas, our religions appear to be more or less (mostly more) stuck in monarchical notions of hierarchical authority and patriarchal power. Put another way, our political ideals have far outstripped and embarrassingly outdated our scriptural traditions. Hence in his Divinity School Address, Emerson bemoaned "this eastern monarchy of a Christianity" that dwells so noxiously, so slavishly, on the person of Jesus instead of the divinity of the one mind, of the infinite soul shared equally by all.

On some level, Esalen actors have always understood this historical mismatch or anachronism that defines so much of the modern world. They have thus offered what might be called an Emersonian spirituality, a vision of the infinite Over-Soul that is radically democratic, rooted in a much beloved nature, and profoundly committed to new revelations in the here and now. Perhaps most relevant of all is the fact that Esalen authors have turned to modern psychology and natural science to catch a glimpse of these potentials of the human spirit. Evolutionary biology, for example, has always been central to the founding vision of Michael Murphy. Evolution is not a "theory" here to debate alongside creationist fantasies. It is both a biological fact and a cosmic spiritual process through which God wakes up in and as the universe, in and as us.

Here, in the Esalen gnosis, we can glimpse a third option beyond the dualisms of the intelligent-design movement, where faith demands that reason fit its biblical literalisms, and the antireligious polemics of the new atheists, whose otherwise refreshing reason and justified moral concern too often slide into their own kind of troubling fundamentalism. Esalen's tertium quid, or "third thing" beyond all of that certainly finds deep roots in the history of science itself. Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection with Darwin, was both a great field biologist who cared little for the orthodox faith of his century and a psychical researcher who attended séances, performed mesmeric experiments on his students, and asserted the postmortem survival of our mental and spiritual natures. Jonathan Rosen, in The New Yorker, quotes him as speculating that “there yet seems to be evidence of a Power which has guided the action of those [evolutionary] laws in definite directions and for special ends.”

What the history of Esalen finally suggests, to me anyway, is that there are always more than two options, that we need not choose between our sexual bodies and our spiritual lives, between our heads and our hearts, between matter and metaphysical mind. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, we can choose to be concerned about consciousness, not religion, the Over-Soul, not the religious ego. We are indeed a stream whose source is still well hidden from even our best science (and our best religion): “Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.” Certainly Esalen's religion of no religion, which simultaneously affirms and denies each and every religious tradition, has given witness to this hidden source of mind and energy. Its turn to the universal and yet ever-particular evolving mind-body makes Esalen one of America's most sophisticated metaphysical expressions. Even if its consciousness has not yet become culture, even if it remains only a utopian hope or a still-unrealized potential, such a vision prophetically counters precisely that which we now suffer: religion itself.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion at Rice University. This essay, based on his book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (University of Chicago Press), originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Copyright © Jeffrey J. Kripal.