ESALEN WITH A PASSING REFERENCE TO GURDJIEFF
John Robert Colombo looks at a new book about the Esalen Institute
I am about half a year behind in my reading so it has taken me six months to catch up with the appearance of a mammoth book about the Esalen Institute titled, simply and inevitably, “Esalen.” The title may be one word long but the subtitle is seven words in length: “America and the Religion of No Religion.” The book itself weighs in at 575 pages (roughly 300,000 words, plus notes, bibliography, and index). It is the handiwork of Jeffrey J. Kripal who is identified as J. Newton Rayzor Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University.
At least that is what the jacket flap says. I checked Rice’s website and learned a few curious facts: the university’s slogan seems to be “Unconventional Wisdom”; it is located in Houston, Texas; it hosts a Space Institute (that seems reasonable given that nearby there is a rocket command centre); it also hosts a Tibetan / Bonpo Textual Collection; it may or may not have Jeffrey J. Kripal as the J. Newton Rayzor Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies – I could find no reference to him on Rice’s website and a query to its information officer went unanswered (as of this writing). What happened to Professor Kripal?
The University of Chicago Press issued “Esalen” as it did Kripal’s two previous books: “Kali’s Children: Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom” and “The Serpent’s Gift.” In time I will “catch up” with these titles. The author identifies himself as an American who was raised as a Roman Catholic, but it seems he holds a torch for Buddhist studies of the Tantric variety. Buried in a footnote is an acknowledgement of the influence of Bubba Free John (now known as Adi Da). He excels as a researcher-writer and is able to handle masses of information and to conduct in-depth interviews with people like Michael Murphy, one of Esalen’s two founders, and extract from his subjects all the information that is relevant to his purposes without the strain of show or effort.
The problem I have is that Kripal’s name keeps reminding me of the semi-sound-alike Kripalu Centre of Yoga and Health set amid the Berkshires of Massachusetts, near Tanglewood, where two decades ago my wife Ruth and I once spent an intriguing weekend. The Kripalu Centre is housed in an imposing structure, once a Jesuit seminary and hospital, which now serves as a residential centre for Hindu practices and studies. So given its Catholic background and its Hindu foreground, perhaps Professor Kripal is appropriately named.
I am not going to review Esalen. Any review, by my estimate, would require at least 5,000 words. Instead I will go to the heart and core of the book and identify what I take to be four main ideas plus some allied thoughts: Esalen as an institution and movement; Esalen as the centre of “the religion of no religion”; Esalen as the focal point of Tantric yoga; Esalen as the root of the “human potential movement.” The author does not pluralize Esalen, but there are many Esalens, certainly more than four, perhaps as many as nine. But here goes … by way of the book’s sole reference to Gurdjieff.
This passing reference occurs in connection with Ida Rolf (of Rolfing fame) and it runs in its entirety alluding to yogi Pierre Bernard as follows: “The tantric yogi from Nyack, however, was hardly Rolf’s only influence. She also studied with F. Matthias Alexander and imbibed the esoteric teachings of the ‘rascal’ mystic Gurdjieff with a small group in London. In New York she met Greta Garbo and Georgia O’Keeffe, both of whom she would later take on as clients. But it was Fritz Perls who finally got her to Esalen.”
This passage gives you a good idea of Kripal’s prose which is stylish and studded with names and clever classifications. It never occurred to me that Gurdjieff was a “rascal” or a “mystic,” but I am somewhat sympathetic to the author’s attempt to characterize if not categorize him. The author writes with verve and occasional excess, but he seems omniscient when it comes to tracking and tracing to their roots the origins of American exceptionalism in religious and spiritual matters. This exceptionalism refers to the unique blend of transcendentalism and individualism identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Richard Maurice Bucke (a special interest of mine). It also extends to the commercialization of everyday life and thought, what might be called the shopping-cart or supermarket version of “mystical materialism” (a line of thought largely unexplored by the author).
1. Esalen as an institution and movement. The author documents the early history of the Esalen Institute which began informally in the early 1950s but formally only in 1962 on the site of a resort hotel with hot springs on a breath-taking promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean off U.S. Route 101, El Camino Real, between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This region, so primordial and elemental, has attracted its share of seekers, for instance the founders of Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and other retreat centres.
Esalen, named after the local native tribe, owes its past eminence and present reputation to Michael Murphy and Richard Price, two highly educated and sophisticated spiritual seekers who turned their property into a centre that would attract seekers of similar natures and backgrounds. This has taken the form not of a seminary or monastery but of a centre for conferences, seminars, and workshops. From its early days, it has combined the openness of an off-campus college with the concentration of a quasi-religious retreat. Early on it attracted free-thinking academics, largely psychologists, and then religious teachers, mainly Hindus and Buddhists. Its ripples continue to spread outward, so that today it has influenced pretty well every countercultural thinker in North America.
Esalen’s speakers are a who’s who of ground-breaking writers and thinkers and inspirational speakers, one dozen of them being Henry Miller, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, Claudio Naranjo, George Leonard, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, John Heider, Will Shutz, Don Hanlon Johnson, Stanislav Grof … I could go on and name a second dozen. Esalen’s salad days of influence were the 1960s and 1970s when it gave impetus to the New Age movement, a designation despised by founders Murphy and Price.
In the anglosphere, but not elsewhere, developments are chronicled by decade, so I will attempt just such a calendar/catalogue here: 1950s – Huxley’s perennialism, psychedelia, “human potential movement,” interpretation-free centre for contemplation and study influenced by Vedanta; 1960s – Maslow and Perls and “bodywork”; 1970s – Stanislav and Christina Grof, Cold War activism, ufology, Tantra and Tao; 1980s – “the religion of no religion,” “the transformation project,” “the future of the body”; 1990s – regrouping, “the future of the past,” “the Mystical Idea of ‘America,’” etc.
Esalen continues to operate in the 2000s, mainly through “invitational conferences.” References to its activities are more likely to appear in the footnotes of scholarly texts than in the headlines of daily newspapers. Up to 150 people are employed at any one time to run the place, from maintaining its fabled hot springs to programming. It has become a popular centre for executive retreats. Part of its role has been assumed by the Internet, perhaps, but its influence in the past has been substantial. From Kripal’s book I learned, for instance, Esalen organized the visits to the United States of Soviet leaders Yeltsin and Gorbachev.
2. Esalen as the centre of “the religion of no religion.” The author sees this one of Esalen’s principal contributions; indeed, as its “final philosophy.” The fact that this notion is expressed in a cliché – “being spiritual without being religious” – is no doubt a tip of the hat to Esalen.
3. Esalen as the focal point of Tantric yoga. This is another of the author’s main themes, though I search in vain for any real articulation or elucidation of what constitutes Tantra. His point seems to be, simply, that there is no spirit-matter dualism, or mind-body opposition, but that everything takes place in the human body and the vital spark is kundalini, or sexual energies. There is the philosophical opposition – “consciousness, awareness, and spirit” versus “energy, emotion, and body” – that is somehow overcome in practice, perhaps through bodywork. From the first the hot springs attracted lovers and gave it its early reputation as a place of sexual experimentation. There are repeated references to the influence of Sri Aurobindo through Murphy in particular. A column and a half of references to Tantra appear in the book’s index.
4. Esalen as the root of the “human potential movement.” The movement’s birth here is eloquently expressed and well documented, as it grows out of an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s insightful phrase “human potentiality.” It too became a cliché of the New Age movement and has become the kit and caboodle of innumerable motivational speakers. The author sees it as the contemporary expression of siddhis, psychic powers, or today’s “enhanced facilities,” subliminal powers of the mind so described by British psychical researcher Frederic Myers whose general contribution to consciousness studies is currently undergoing a revival of interest.
A word that recurs throughout the book is “integral” and it may well be what Esalen is remembered for being integral to a mending of (or at least a recognition of) the body-mind dichotomy. An idea that recurs is “the future of the past,” the notion that by imaginatively keeping the past alive in the present one gains greater strength, the strength of one’s ancestors. Islam and kabbala, as well as Western occultism, or “mystical realism,” have been the subject of conferences, but Esalen has less in common with these subjects than one might assume.
Schematically, it may be surmised that Esalen began as a centre for the study and experiments inspired by perennialism but that half a century later it finds itself the centre for pluralist studies. Its countercultural and advanced thinkers, for all their pronounced personalist and historicist views, seem to have been as much taken by surprise as the rest of us, what with the emergence (and not the convergence) of religious principles and practices, in the form of the rise of militant Islam and religious fundamentalism generally. The divergence leads me to believe that Esalen is an object lesson in how ideas turn into their opposites: the philosophy that what was once on the cutting edge – perennialism – is now passé, having been replaced by its opposite – pluralism. If religion is a puzzle, there are pieces that will not fit together. If spirituality is a mystery, there are pieces that are missing.
The author returns to the phrase “no one captures the flag” to refer to the fact that Esalen as an institution and as a movement, as an inspiration and as a value-free model for inquiries into human and non-human values, remains free of dogma. It is something of a forum for advanced thinking. It is what in the long run Kripal defines as “a place of gnosis,” “a gnostic community,” where one acquires “a learned pantheism or nature religion.”
P.S. The information officer at Rice University subsequently replied to my query that that Prof. Kripal is indeed Professor and Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice. I wonder why he is not, then, listed as being among faculty staff.
John Robert Colombo’s single visit to the Esalen Institute was as a tourist who found the grounds and buildings to resemble a summer camp, albeit impressively sited and one for intelligent and inquisitive men and women. His latest book is “The New Consciousness” (Battered Silicon Dispatch Box), a collection of R.M. Bucke’s papers on Walt Whitman and consciousness studies.