Esalen at 50: A Memoir about America's Spiritual Reformation

By Richard Gull

Fifty years ago the human potential movement started at Esalen. That same year, 1962, The Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society appeared, a political manifesto challenging a new generation to live authentic lives in a participatory democracy. I attended both 50th anniversary celebrations in October 2012. I had taken a class on memoir writing at Esalen two years earlier, in 2010, six months after my wife, Sara, died of cancer. I returned last year to take the memoir class again, this time with the purpose of writing a memoir about Esalen’s own spirituality and its connection to the cluster of transformational political movements of the 1960s. Since a memoir should show how its author has changed, this memoir explains why I don’t call myself an atheist any longer. I explain my version of “a religion of no religion” inspired by Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal.

1. Arriving at Esalen

I was driving south on California Highway 1 below Carmel headed to the Esalen Institute just south of the village of Big Sur that is also the name of this fifty-mile stretch of coastline. It was early October 2012. The two-lane highway hugs the side of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the left, and on the right are guardrails in front of a precipice with Pacific waves pounding the rocky shore hundreds of feet below. 

Esalen is located on a 27-acre shelf of land on a mountainside, bordered by Highway 1 on the back, and on its outer edge are cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

Aldous Huxley, whose idea of “the human potential” was an inspiration for Esalen.

When I drove this stretch down to the Esalen Institute two years earlier in heavy rain the highway was treacherously strewn with rocks loosened by the downpour. But on my return visit the sun warmed the mountainside. I remember two years earlier slowing around this point so as not to miss the approaching small sign on the right marking the entrance: Esalen Institute by Reservation Only.

I drove down the long steep road to the gatehouse: “Richard Gull — here for Katy Butler’s workshop ‘Straw into Gold: The alchemy of memoir.’” The gatekeeper checked a list and directed me to an uphill road off to the left; on the right were rows for parking enclosed by large pines and bushes that make the parked cars invisible from the rest of the grounds. Esalen is located on a 27-acre shelf of land on a mountainside, bordered by Highway 1 on the back, and on its outer edge are cliffs overlooking the Pacific. A cool breeze off the ocean carried a whiff of salt sea air.

I picked up my room key in the office inside a one-story redwood lodge that also houses a dining area where abundant healthy food is available cafeteria-style. Large windows provide unobstructed views of the seascape. The smell of fresh-baked bread wafts from the kitchen. I instinctively scanned the kelp beds near shore for sea otters while birds glide low looking for fish.

“As the saying goes, ‘I am spiritual, not religious’; but I now say, more paradoxically, that I have ‘a religion of no religion.’”

Attached to the lodge is a meetinghouse called “Huxley,” named after writer Aldous Huxley, whose idea of “the human potential” was an inspiration for Esalen. I recall two years ago attending yoga, sacred dance, and meditation sessions there in the early mornings. I danced wildly one morning, freely improvising movements in a group of people doing the same thing, led by a dance instructor in a flowing black dress wearing a red boa. My first time at Esalen, two years earlier, in October 2010, my wife, Sara, had died of cancer the previous March. I had spent five years as her caregiver. A close friend from high school had died four months before Sara’s death. Grief drew me here the first time to write a memoir. I remember looking at the ocean then and recalling a mystical passage from Moby-Dick.

From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.

A tear in the sea; human emotion engulfed by a vast oneness. I wrote a memoir about the shared memories the dead take with them and then how their memories will disappear when I do.

The reason for my return visit two years later was different from the first: to celebrate Esalen’s 50th anniversary. I would also attend the 50th anniversary celebration of The Port Huron Statement in Ann Arbor in three weeks. Esalen was the epicenter of America’s spiritual reformation and The Port Huron Statement was a manifesto for political transformation. But how were they related? Why were neither spirituality nor religion mentioned in The Port Huron Statement? I also wanted to write a memoir to explain my own spiritual epiphany: that I would not call myself an atheist any longer. As the saying goes, “I am spiritual, not religious”; but I now say, more paradoxically, that I have “a religion of no religion.”

My room this time was on the edge of a cliff up stone stairs just south of the lodge in a suite of wooden cabins called “Rolf,” named after Ida Rolf, whose bodywork technique, Rolfing, was made famous here in the 1960s. With a view of blue sky meeting ocean at the horizon and waves crashing over rocks below, the deep sound will cradle my sleep for the next five nights.

Two years ago I had a room with a more distant view in a suite called “Maslow,” named after self-actualization psychologist Abraham Maslow, who contributed to Esalen’s early days. Stretching north of the lodge is a grassy open space and a garden with neat rows of flowers and organic vegetables that supply the kitchen. Red trumpet vine and sunflowers attract colonies of monarch butterflies. In the garden is a statue called the The Red Lady symbolizing the spirit of Esalen. She is earthy red, nude, arms extended upward, head tilted upward toward the sky above the Pacific; her right foot is on the ground, her left knee is raised.

Beyond the gardens is Hot Springs Creek. Its rock chasm must be crossed by a small wooden bridge in order to reach “The Big House” and “Price House” where workshops are held. “Price” is named after Esalen’s co-founder Richard Price, who died in a hiking accident in the mountains above Esalen in 1985.

   The Red Lady  symbolizing the spirit of Esalen. She is earthy red, nude, arms extended upward, head tilted upward toward the sky above the Pacific; her right foot is on the ground, her left knee is raised.

The Red Lady symbolizing the spirit of Esalen. She is earthy red, nude, arms extended upward, head tilted upward toward the sky above the Pacific; her right foot is on the ground, her left knee is raised.

Mineral hot springs supply the nude baths and massage center. Esalen is named after the ancient Esselen tribe of Native Americans who, legend has it, regarded it as sacred place of healing and burial because of its confluence of mineral, salt, and fresh waters. As Walter Truett Anderson, a biographer of Esalen, writes: “If a place can have charisma, then surely this one has it. It is difficult to imagine any pursuit for which this enchanting piece of land would not be an asset.” Cell phones don’t work here, a sure sign that you’ve entered sacred space.

 

Esalen has been referred to as a “secular monastery,” yet it has no architectural monastery. What makes it a secular monastery is its confluence of spirituality, nature, and democratic ideals. Esalen is an experiment in a uniquely American form of mysticism.

2. The Birth of Esalen and Esalen Today

2012 was Esalen’s 50th anniversary. Its co-founders Michael Murphy and Richard Price were both students at Stanford in the 1950s. Both were psychology majors, both were turned on to Asian religious thought at Stanford by professor of comparative religion Frederic Spiegelberg, both shared his concept of “a religion of no religion,” and both had served in the military. But Murphy and Price did not meet until 1960, in the North Beach Beat scene in San Francisco. 

Esalen has an intellectual side that Murphy cultivated, bringing in an eclectic array of scientists, psychologists, biologists, politicians, and theologians.

Murphy had been toying with the idea of starting a meditation and study center guided by ideas of non-dualistically (holistically) synthesizing Eastern and Western thought, science and religion, mind and body, the built environment and nature, and developing what Huxley had called “the human potential.” Murphy and Price decided to become partners in this endeavor. Murphy’s paternal grandmother, Bunny, held the deed to this property that had been owned by the family since 1910 and was called Slate’s Hot Springs. She reluctantly granted them a long-term lease in late 1961; she suspected that Michael would bring a lot of “hindoos” to the place.

On the grounds, at that time, there were cabins for rent, a restaurant and bar, and a few local residents, including a folk singer named Joan Baez and novelist Henry Miller. Miller often frequented the mineral baths during the day.

At night, the baths were taken over by gay men from San Francisco and Los Angeles and roughhewn local types from the bar. One immediate problem was that, by 1961, the bath scene had turned ugly. Bunny had hired a young Hunter S. Thompson, later to become the famous Gonzo journalist, to guard the place and break up fights. One night he was assaulted by a group on the path down to the baths, beaten, and nearly thrown over a cliff. The rowdy night bathers refused to leave. After a gated fence failed to keep them out, eventually Murphy, Price, and several others, including Joan Baez, accompanied by three snarling Dobermans, drove them out. The sound of the dogs cleared out the baths even before the group arrived to find them empty; they heard car doors slamming and engines starting near the highway above.

Esalen today offers hundreds of workshops and events each year. Most participants are women. Women hold positions on the board of directors and one woman managed programming for 25 years. Topics offered this year include writing, leadership, worldviews, ecology, painting, bodywork, yoga, meditation, gay men thriving at midlife, and biblical stories. One workshop is called: “From Me to We: The change required to rescue the planet and your life.”

Esalen has two levels, a community and a think tank, reflecting the difference in the personalities of its two founders. Richard Price wrote nothing; his interests were making Esalen work as a community and his gestalt practice. He was skeptical of talk of a new age of Enlightenment.

He once said:

I was never as sold as some people on the idea of the new age. My focus was more on the question of how you operate the type of counseling and psychological work that goes on here. That’s more interesting to me than bringing in the millennium. If the millennium happens in the process, that’s fine too.

Michael Murphy, now an emeritus board member, is a philosopher and visionary. As early as 1965, Murphy began a citizen diplomacy program with the Soviet Union and China on topics such as psychic research and the psychology of athletics, attracting many foreign visitors to Esalen. Esalen has an intellectual side that Murphy cultivated, bringing in an eclectic array of scientists, psychologists, biologists, politicians, and theologians. Topics included the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory, the ethics of ecology and sustainability, empirical postmortem survival research, Bell’s theorem from quantum physics, and fundamentalist challenges to scholarship in religion.

Murphy published philosophical works including novels. He writes: “We are certain that a surprising transformation of the human form is possible through the agency of spirit and that in some sense evolution intends this. The problem of course is in forming the discipline to give it birth.” He was always searching for paradigm-shifters. He has called himself a “quantum mystic,” using quantum physics as an inspiration for metaphysical speculation, as did many mystically-inclined physicists who met at Esalen in the 1970s.

When I was there last October, a conference of economists was discussing complexity theory and economics and I attended a public lecture held in Huxley. There were jokes about naked economists invading the baths. The discussion was about why, in the wake of the recent severe economic recession, current economic models failed to predict it. One discussion question was: “Why are there 500 brands of breakfast cereal on grocery shelves and yet the best is the home-made granola from the Esalen kitchen?”

 2012 was Esalen’s 50th anniversary. Its co-founders Michael Murphy and Richard Price were both students at Stanford in the 1950s.

2012 was Esalen’s 50th anniversary. Its co-founders Michael Murphy and Richard Price were both students at Stanford in the 1950s.

3. Psychedelics and Mysticism

 

For the first two years at Esalen, seminars were more cultural presentations with audiences than countercultural events in which everyone participated. They included the Beat Zen philosopher Alan Watts speaking on drug-induced mysticism, San Francisco poet and mountaineer Kenneth Rexroth, and British philosopher of history Arnold Toynbee, who spoke on the importance of the transmission of Buddhism to the West in the twentieth century. A session with Joan Baez was called “The New Folk Music.”

 

Alan Watts was a well-known bohemian interpreter of Eastern mysticism. His Taoist teaching was to follow your own perverse way: “To ‘follow your own weird’ is...to accept your own karma, or fate, or destiny, and thus be odd in the service of God.” Watts had tried psychedelic drugs and had written of his experiences in an essay called “The New Alchemy” and in his book The Joyous Cosmology. The book has numerous photographs of abstract geometrical shapes taken from the natural universe: patterns on the surface of an agate, the geometrical feeding patterns of caterpillars, the spirals of galaxies. Watts’ chemical mysticism induced a microscopic vision allowing the mind to delve deeper into “the intricately dancing texture of our world.” He thought that the pharmacologist could free spiritual experience from the traditional obscurantist practices of “seers and mystics” that were “rickety and piled with excess baggage.” But he was skeptical about drug-induced religious insights claimed by some. 

Watts, Leary, and Smith were inspired by Aldous Huxley’s early 1950s philosophical essay “The Doors of Perception” that had become a manifesto for 50’s and early 60’s Beat, North Beach psychedelic mysticism. Both countercultural scenes manifested themselves at Esalen.

In 1961, scholar of religion Huston Smith, an Esalen participant, contacted Timothy Leary at Harvard’s Center for Personality Research to arrange an experimental mescaline session. (Leary briefly came to Esalen in the late 60’s). Thenceforth Smith wrote eloquently about psychedelics calling them “entheogens,” literally translated as substances that “generate God within.” But didn’t the entheogens only catalyze what Smith already believed, making empirical a system he had already absorbed? Psychedelics seemed to propel some people to cosmic conclusions.

 

Watts, Leary, and Smith were inspired by Aldous Huxley’s early 1950s philosophical essay “The Doors of Perception” that had become a manifesto for 50’s and early 60’s Beat, North Beach psychedelic mysticism. Both countercultural scenes manifested themselves at Esalen. In the later 60’s, “Doors” would become scripture for the hippie, Haight-Ashbury countercultural drug scene. The psychedelically inclined rock group The Doors took their name from this text. Huxley was the grandson of biologist Julian Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his vigorous defense of evolution. Aldous thought that our brain and nervous system had been shaped by our biological survival. Yet each of us is potentially a “Mind-at-Large,” capable of experiencing things beyond the limiting filters of our inherited biology. Two ways of bypassing these “walls of perception” are two doors of perception: “deliberate ‘spiritual practices’” and mind altering drugs. These deliberate spiritual practices include the visual arts and meditation. Painters often take an ordinary object like a chair and make it strange by removing it from the ordinary matrix of space to reveal its “suchness,” foregrounding color and texture over place and dimension.

Huxley writes: “…We must preserve, and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through the half-opaque medium of concepts.” But though there are multiple bypasses around the filters of our survival-oriented nervous system and language, including mind-altering drugs, we must at the same time survive in this world using systematic reasoning.

Systematic reasoning is something we could not possibly, as a species or as individuals, do without. But neither, if we are to remain sane, can we possibly do without direct perception, the more unsystematic the better, of the inner and outer worlds in to which we have been born. (“The Doors of Perception”)

Huxley died of cancer in the early morning of November 22, 1963. At his request, his wife injected him with L.S.D. some hours earlier so that he would exit high on artistic visions. John F. Kennedy’s assassination later that day overshadowed Huxley’s death. In his novel, Island, a goddess gives a prayer that not only captures Huxley’s notion of a humanistic religion but also expresses Esalen’s religion of no religion: “Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.” Murphy and Price often voiced a similar sentiment saying that, at Esalen, “No one captures the flag” and “We wear our dogmas lightly.”

4. Gestalt and Encounter Groups

 

By 1964, more experiential programming began to appear in the form of gestalt workshops and encounter groups. Fritz Perls came on the scene offering workshops in gestalt therapy. Perls had fled Germany for South Africa in the1930s, having been a Jew on a Nazi blacklist that also included Frederic Spiegelberg. Trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst, he came to reject the unearthing of the unconscious and its conservative goal of “adjustment.” Perls concentrated “on what is rather than why it is, in the present rather than in the past.” Although he often sarcastically rejected philosophy as “elephant shit” and was an atheist who distrusted religions, he playfully called his methods “Jewish Zen.” He famously had participants sit in the “hot seat” while he took apart their defenses and had them enact psychodramas in order to reintegrate the self into a new whole or gestalt. At bottom Perls was an existentialist pushing people to take responsibility for the self they had constructed like an actor on a stage. This was his version of a religion of no religion. 

By 1964, more experiential programming began to appear in the form of gestalt workshops and encounter groups. Fritz Perls came on the scene offering workshops in gestalt therapy.

After Perls left in 1969, Richard Price, a much less confronting leader than Perls, took over the gestalt lineage. Price turned gestalt from a therapy into a practice. Murphy, reflecting back on Price after his death, said: “There was in him something of both John Muir [naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club] and a wild Taoist monk.” In the 1950s, before Price met Murphy, he had been forced into insulin shock treatments for innocent behavior resulting from the crisis of his own spiritual transformation; as a result, he had an ethic conscious of the damage so-called healers can do. The “hot seat” became the “open seat.” Price’s dictum was “maximum availability, minimum coercion”; he said: “I’m Dick, not Fritz.”

 

Encounter workshops also became a staple offering at Esalen in the 60’s. Former Harvard psychology professor Will Shutz was their most influential group leader. People explored their reactions to each other unfiltered by ordinary politeness, stripping away pretensions, and sometimes even their clothes in order, in the end, to discover their oneness with others. Compare this with Quaker meetings in which people gather in silence to speak as the spirit moves them, but without interrupting or arguing with each other. In encounter groups people also react to each other as the spirit moves them — to confront each other. In Quaker meetings a ritual of silence and speaking before God creates community. In the encounter group, by contrast, the absence of ritual, guided by a leader, is supposed to create a sense of joy at realizing one’s potential through this altered state, as well as a feeling of oneness with others. (Perls, who competed with Shutz for fame, called him “joy boy.”) The encounter version of the religion of no religion allows participants to experientially enter into an altered state of sincere impoliteness, or, in more religious language, sanctified conflict. Shutz thought of encounter as an instrument for realizing not only individual potential, but as a laboratory exercise for participation in a democratic society.

 

There were even interracial encounter groups in the late 1960s that Esalen held in San Francisco at a short-lived San Francisco satellite. This earned Esalen the appellation “mini-San Francisco,” pointing up its connection to the vibrant counterculture movement flowering there. But some African-Americans, in encounter group fashion, noted the satellite’s de facto separation from Esalen at Big Sur and referred to it as “going South,” a reference to Esalen being predominantly white.

 

Though the encounter movement spread and flourished outside of Esalen, encounter offerings ended there by the early 1970s. Murphy and Price considered them too confrontational and dangerous; some people were injured. In 1973, Esalen itself went through a transforming self-examination of guru tyranny and the oppression of women. Some group leaders were guilty of taking advantage of their power, especially over women. At the same time, a feminist version of the encounter method was flourishing in the form of “consciousness-raising” groups. Many women used these groups to come to terms with anger over their subordination and to forge new identities in solidarity with other women; the personal became the political. According to feminist historian Linda Gordon:

Consciousness-raising groups were intensely enjoyable. We ate and listened to music; we were ecstatic when Jefferson Airplane released “Volunteers.” Members hated to miss a meeting. They constituted a respite from daily pressures, an island, a weekly free space within a far more complex and hierarchical life of jobs, bosses, coworkers, families, bureaucracies,…none of which operated according to our rules. This is why consciousness-raising meetings were so much fun. They were not required to be immediately goal-oriented, so they allowed for brainstorming that turned out to be highly productive.” (Inspiring Participatory Democracy)

 “To ‘follow your own weird’ is... to accept your own karma, or fate, or destiny, and thus be odd in the service of God.” --Alan Watts, Esalen contributor in the 1960s

“To ‘follow your own weird’ is... to accept your own karma, or fate, or destiny, and thus be odd in the service of God.” --Alan Watts, Esalen contributor in the 1960s

Although encounter ended at Esalen, gestalt workshops of a gentler sort than Perl’s continue there to this day. On my previous visit two years earlier, during an afternoon break from my memoir seminar, I decided on impulse to participate in a gestalt session held in a yurt called “Fritz,” named after Perls. The yurt was inspired by the work of architectural visionary Buckminster Fuller, another Esalen contributor. I arrived late. A young woman was discussing some of her family troubles and, just as I walked in, the two group leaders asked her to pick people to play each of her family members in a psychodrama. She immediately picked me to play her “father,” then she picked her “mother” and her “sister.” My late wife, Sara, had been a psycho-dramatist trained by its founder Jacob Moreno, for whom spontaneity was a religion. Since I had participated in many of her workshops and had often been typecast to play someone’s father, this was familiar territory. I often joked that I could start a rent-a-dad business. 

The next afternoon in the nude bathing area I encountered the young woman who played the “sister” whose “father” I had played in the previous day’s psychodrama. As we walked by each other, I said, “Hi, daughter.” She smiled back and said, “Hi, Dad.” A young man accompanied her. As if continuing the psychodrama, I said with mock seriousness: “What are you doing with this young man?” She said back with mock indignation: ”I’m not going to let you control my life anymore!” We laughed and walked on by. It was, to me, a signature Esalen moment — a unique altered state of playfulness that brought unexpected pieces together: tantric humor, grief, freedom. Like a Rorschach inkblot picture, interpretations will depend on how one feels about the connections between one’s body and community. Not everyone chooses to participate, of course.

 

My second time at Esalen I felt older than the first. An idiopathic numbness in my legs had come on nine months earlier; I felt my mortality. I went to the baths anyway: meditated, talked, contemplated the sea, and got a massage. The incandescence of the setting sun sank below the horizon and the sea darkened.

5. Synchronicities

Looking back, I now regard the coincidence of my mourning Sara’s death and my unexpectedly being picked to play a father as an instance of synchronicity, a concept introduced by the depth psychologist Carl Jung and often used at early Esalen. Jung thought of synchronicity as a non-causal relationship between events in addition to space, time, and causality whereby the world is revealed as a mystery to be interpreted. Coincidences at times seem to be more meaningful than simply two randomly occurring events. For example, my granddaughter Simone’s bat mitzvah, a Jewish ritual for young women marking the transition to adulthood, was in 2007. For weeks there was a family of mourning doves nesting on the front porch whose babies flew away the day of the ceremony. (Simone said: “But, Mom, I’m not ready to fly away yet.”) Another synchronicity: While I was writing this article, Simone e-mailed me from Stanford, where she was a freshman, to tell me that an atheist chaplain was just hired there; it was good to hear that Professor Spiegelberg’s idea of a religion of no religion is still alive on that campus. 

Jung thought of synchronicity as a non-causal relationship between events in addition to space, time, and causality whereby the world is revealed as a mystery to be interpreted.

Another example of synchronicity: As I was working on this article at my dining room table by the patio window two days ago, I looked up and saw a pair of deer lying in the snow in my backyard looking at me. After several hours, they stood up and I noticed that one had an injured right hind leg that she kept lifted as she staggered a few steps with difficulty. They stood together licking each other’s faces and intertwining their necks like lovers. I watched this happen from the bedroom window in which, two years earlier, I had cared for Sara while she was in hospice at home for six weeks before she died of cancer.

Or consider the Christian philosopher St. Augustine in 386 C.E. weeping over the state of his soul under a fig tree when he heard a child’s voice singing “take and read.” This prodded him to take up a text of St. Paul’s that in turn led him to convert to Christianity. And Michael Murphy kept a “Journal of Synchronicities” that he believed gave meaning to the birth of Esalen.

Synchronicities tend to pile up as one notices them and they beckon for an interpretation. To read them is to regard one’s experience and one’s history, not as a sequence of random events, but as a series of texts to be read and interpreted for meanings. Birds, deer, and psychodramas become signs or omens. One could be inspired to carry out an in depth, active interpretation, by creating another text, a memoir, of their interconnections. Synchronicities multiply as one imbeds them in a story. Life becomes a gestalt of which one is a part.

There’s a saying: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” But skeptical philosophers would point out that synchronicities are instances of the Projection Fallacy: We project the workings of our own mind onto the universe thereby creating the illusion that coincidences we experience are part of a cosmic plan. Or they are the result of Confirmation Bias: We ignore the times we missed a plane and it didn’t crash. Yet our projections and biases reveal our deep need to be part of a cosmic gestalt. Freud describes this mystical feeling as oceanic, a vestige we carry forward from our time spent in the womb before birth.

6. The Alchemy of Memoir

The year before Sara died we co-authored a self-published memoir titled Turning Darkness into Light. Shortly after Sara died, Katy Butler’s article, “My Father’s Broken Heart” appeared on Fathers’ Day in The New York Times Magazine. The article is a memoir of Katy’s experience, along with her mother, of her father’s doctor pressuring him into getting a pacemaker that kept her father lingering for six years; he died “too demented to say goodbye or make sense of his suffering. His pacemaker was still ticking.” Reading the article prompted me to take Katy’s memoir workshop at Esalen the first time in October 2010. Her article led to a book contract from Scribner; she finished Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A Path to a Better Way of Death last November, to be published in September 2013. It is partly a medical memoir, partly a critique of perverse medical incentives, and partly about the forgotten spirituality of dying.

Sometimes I think I’m in the realm of the gods when in reality I’m acting like a hungry ghost. I forget that there is something in the brain that never hears ‘enough.’
— Katy Butler

Katy is tall and slender with an aristocratic profile that is a California version of her favorite writer Virginia Woolf; she looks like she hikes in the mountains and sits zazen in her Buddhist practice. Her essay “Everything if Holy” expresses a version of “a religion of no religion.”  She writes: “The Christian theology I’d been raised with had posited a hierarchical ‘great chain of being’ with God on top, humans in the middle, and all other creatures and plants arrayed systematically below.”

Yet Dogen (who brought a form of Zen from China to Japan) has a more democratic ‘flow of being’ in which things in the natural world instruct human beings: “Walls and fences cannot instruct the grasses and trees to actualize spring, yet they reveal the spiritual without intention, just by being what they are. So too with mountains, rivers, sun, moon, and stars.”

For Katy, nature worship is more primal than Christianity and Buddhism: “In Europe, Christian holy days were pegged to pagan festivals that brought a ragged joy into a religion flavored with self-denial; churches were built at the sites of wells and hills sacred to indigenous religions. Likewise, nature worship permeated Asian cultures before the Buddha was born.”

Her “religion” is eclectic: “My altar holds not only a Buddha, but a seashell, a metal cricket, a snake, and an image of Mary. Likewise, my religious practice now is a hodgepodge of nature worship and Buddhist meditation and twelve-step programs, and I cannot make it all sound logical and consistent.”

She is an admirer of the British economist E.F. Schumacher’s ethos of right livelihood, which she and I discussed several times. She wrote: “Happiness, his work suggested, was not typified by the ice cream sundae wolfed down alone in front of the television, but by a cookie and a cup of green tea, brewed in awareness and sipped at leisure with friends, while watching the rising moon.”

But she is not an ascetic: “When I’m tired and or lonely and want to be numb, you can often find me driving alone up Highway 101, feeding the hunger that isn’t hunger, stopping at Whole Foods and Costco and Trader Joe’s, loading up on Brazilian papayas and toilet paper from the forests of the Northwest and my favorite yogurt from Greece. Sometimes I think I’m in the realm of the gods when in reality I’m acting like a hungry ghost. I forget that there is something in the brain that never hears ‘enough.’”

The last night of the workshop last October an artist from Esalen, who took the class, awarded Katy a small replica of The Red Lady saying that she embodies the spirit of Esalen. I’ve since thought about how that spirit is found in memoir writing as I’ve come to understand it with Katy’s help.

“The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, doting on it. (Me!)”
— Novelist Tom Wolfe, in a New York magazine piece critical of Esalen in the 70’s

In 1976, in an article critical of Esalen in New York magazine, novelist Tom Wolfe wrote: “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, doting on it. (Me!)” Many outsiders like Wolfe had a misleading image of Esalen as a boutique spa selling narcissistic, apolitical self-love to the white middle class. The memoir workshop title also mentions alchemy: “Straw into Gold: The alchemy of memoir.” Wolfe saw the new alchemical dream of self-transformation as an exercise in narcissism, polishing up the self in order to dote on it. One meaning of the memoir version of straw being transformed into gold is to take what one writes in a notebook longhand early each morning and transforming this “straw” into the “gold” of polished writing through learning the craft and practicing every day. In this way, memoir is no different from yoga or drawing. Memoir also involves a change in the self, though not the one Wolfe caricatures.

 

The second night of class I brought along a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ (political journalist, memoirist, atheist) last memoir, Mortality, written while he was in hospital dying of esophageal cancer. Hitchens had just lost his voice to his cancer and I read to the class what he had written about voice and writing. Hitchens told his students: “Find your own voice.” Read every composition aloud “preferably to a trusted friend.” One’s voice is one’s idiolect, the unique and idiosyncratic way in which one speaks what one writes. “Without our corresponding feeling for the idiolect, the stamp on the way an individual actually talks, and therefore writes, we would be deprived of a whole continent of human sympathy, and of its minor-key pleasures such as mimicry and parody.”

 

Writing a memoir, I felt I was writing a script, a play with a single character — me. In reading the script aloud to others, I was playing myself as a character. I wanted others to feel personally addressed. Hitchens marvels at how the vocal cords as pieces of gristle produce the chord, “the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity”; my voice in its uniqueness evokes universal emotions. To paraphrase Alan Watts, becoming your own weird is to become odd in the service of God, although not necessarily the God of theism but God as the universe to which I now voice my connections.

 

“That which lies at the root of each of us lies at the root of the Cosmos too” wrote Esalen contributor W.H. Meyers. Not only does the universal arise from the particulars of one’s life, the political is seen in the details of the personal. The personal becomes the political. With one’s idiosyncratic voice, one can become an authentic player in participatory democracy. That is one reason memoir is currently a popular form of expression in a polarized age in which words and arguments have lost the power to persuade on their own. Voice persuades the lower, emotional parts of the brain to listen and then moves to the higher more cerebral parts; like The Red Lady, memoir touches the ground while artfully reaching upward. Voice is the gold created through the alchemy of practice. It is the currency of cosmic and democratic citizenship.

7. Spirituality and the New Left

Returning to Ann Arbor after experiencing Esalen’s golden anniversary, I attended a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). (To read more coverage of this event, see my essay in Crazy Wisdom Community Journal issue 52, Fall 2012.) I approached the conference seeking connections between the concurrent histories of the West Coast epicenter of the human potential movement and the political hopes that animated the New Left at Port Huron both then and now. Someone remarked that the conference was like a college reunion with seminars. 

“Esalen gave me the opportunity to explore territories of the mind and heart I didn’t know existed.”
— Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer

I met with Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer who attended the June 1962 Port Huron meeting of SDS at a U.A.W. camp on Lake Huron. Lehrer remained a political organizer until 1973. Then on a camping trip to Mt. Ranier she had a “spiritual experience.” She heard a voice speaking to her: “But how do you feel in your heart?” She had no idea. The voice told her to resign from her job as a political organizer. Then, “Through a series of synchronous events I ended up at the Esalen Institute, a human growth center on an old Indian burial ground on the edge of the Big Sur Coast.” She wrote: “Esalen gave me the opportunity to explore territories of the mind and heart I didn’t know existed.” She had ventured outside of her “familiar political paradigm.” Lehrer then worked for nonprofits and small businesses as a C.E.O. and consultant for 35 years.

I spoke with Leni Wildflower who moderated the panel Women of Port Huron: Reflections on SDS and Change. “When we were young there seemed to be a chasm between activities that could be described as ‘changing the world’ and those aimed at changing oneself. But not so for the new generation.” In a chapter on Esalen in her new book, The Hidden History of Coaching, she writes:

The Port Huron Statement…expressed a yearning for the same kind of inner expansion that motivated the founders of Esalen. Its authors asserted that ‘We regard men [human beings] as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.’ …As both the political and human potential movement grew and matured, the apparent rivalries and conflicts seemed less important. The ‘politicos’ became more interested in issues of life-style, harmony in life, and spiritual principles. And the ‘new-agers’ were seen to be engaged in pursuits that encompassed cross-cultural exchanges, environmental responsibilities, sexism, and racism.

Wildflower’s remarks made me think of parallels between SDS and Esalen’s human potential movement. Both were rebellions against the stifling conformity of post war America. Both were influenced by the counterculture of the 1950s. Both were subverted by the acid dreams of the counterculture of the 1960s, and then, ironically, were blamed for its excesses. SDS imploded with the rise of the cultish, destructive Weathermen faction. Esalen miraculously survived the wild 1960s without being shut down for drug violations, as Murphy and Price, who were not enthusiasts of the psychedelic scene, feared. Hippies had invaded the place and but were finally run off.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Esalen was in the red financially. Their new business manager cracked down and declared: “This is a business.” Today Esalen is a thriving non-profit still carrying on the ideas of its founders, yet worried, as it always has, that it could devolve into just another corporate enterprise.

Tom Hayden briefly mentions the idea of “a religion of no religion” in his recent book The Long Sixties. Of the spirituality of the 1960s counterculture, he writes:

At the heart of this new culture was a spirituality, a ‘religion of no religion,’ an explosion of alternative spiritualities: Liberation theology, …black liberation theology, …women’s spirituality, ecospirituality, and the revival of Eastern mysticisms rapidly followed. In the face of homophobia, gay, lesbian, and transgender people fought for their spiritual identity. Spanning all these separate outbreaks was a resurgence of the Old Religion, diffusing all of creation with magic and holiness, even if often described and disparaged as paganism.… The 1960s were an era in rebellion against the top-down authority of institutional religion, but they were not an atheistic decade. Instead, the old gods came alive.

Hayden uses the term “religion of no religion” descriptively to categorize the new spiritualities arising in the 1960s as alternatives to hierarchical religion. By saying that, in the face of homophobia, gay, lesbian, and transgender people fought for their “spiritual identity,” he implies that all just pursuits of social justice are fights for spiritual identities: for women, for people of color, for those who are unjustly treated as “the Other.” The original Statement’s idea of an authentic life requiring the pursuit of social justice is now, after the spiritual reformation of the 1960s, seen as a fight for spiritual identities as well; the authentic life of striving for social justice is now seen as spiritual as well. But is inward spirituality in itself political? Many politicos say no; many “new-agers” disagree.

But why was there no discussion of religion or spirituality in the Statement of 1962? James Monsonis, then a student at Yale Divinity School, writes in Inspiring Participatory Democracy:

The answer is a simple, prosaic, almost laughable one. There was a working group on religious institutions at the meeting, a critique was developed that was to be incorporated into the final draft, and I was delegated to present it to the final, all-night plenary that approved the content of the final draft. And I simply fell asleep before making the report. History is sometimes a series of accidents.

As he remembers it, the critique was that religious institutions have generally blessed the status quo, focused only on private morality, were the most segregated institutions in America, and stood for complacency. And what would a positive religious institution look like in a progressive society? It would step back from the pressure of immediate political action. The new Statement would not mention the idea of God; God would be understood as an empowering force propelling individuals to change the world. It would stimulate thought about questions we do not ordinarily consider. It would be a place for camaraderie and enjoyment; in other words, it would be fun. Monsonis cites theologian and Esalen contributor Paul Tillich’s idea of religion as being ultimately concerned — meaning being concerned with the Ultimate — but emphasizing that being “concerned” is not the same as having a final position. The ideal of a positive religion for a progressive society would be, as described here, a pale imitation of Esalen.

Esalen at Sunset

8. Conclusion

 

I will not call myself an atheist anymore. It is not because of its intellectual denial of theism. I too reject theism. But I also reject the label atheist as too fraught with associations. One idea behind Frederic Spiegelberg’s religion of no religion is that words for religions, and for non-religions, both reveal and conceal. Most people associate atheism with having no morality, or being cold-hearted, or as having no spiritual life. Polls show that only a small percentage of people regard themselves as atheists. But I suspect that there are many who are intellectually atheists but who shun the label because they regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” as the saying goes. The evolution of religion away from traditional hierarchy is more advanced than polling the number of atheists reveals. And many declared atheists have a rich spiritual life but don’t call it that.

 

Christopher Hitchens, like a “tough guy,” from the Yiddish word shtarker, “decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even when taking the measure of my inevitable decline.” He was 61. He wanted an “unsentimental” death. He joked that it would be irritating if, after the many prayers for him by religious comrades, he actually pulled through. When asked if he regretted his heavy drinking that may have contributed to his cancer, he said that his late night conversations with so many friends, in which “dull remark would have felt like a physical wound,” and extra bottles were drunk, were worth it. This drinking and camaraderie were Hitchens’ spiritual sacraments, a spirituality of no spirituality. He was a virtuous heretic who, like all virtuous heretics, religious or scientific, should have a place of honor in a religion of no religion.

 

I think back on Esalen’s natural beauty. No monastery belongs there. Esalen’s gnosis, its spiritual teaching, is a nature mysticism with no transcendent, personal God. If Christianity was the religion of no religion of ancient Judaism, and the Reformation was the religion of no religion to Catholicism, then nature mysticism is the religion of no religion of all traditional, hierarchical religions. It is not just that God is identical with nature: We, God, and nature are one. Everything is holy. This is one way to read Melville’s mystical elevation of Ahab’s tear to the greatest treasure in the Pacific. This nature mysticism is expressed in Walt Whitman’s radically democratic, pantheistic vision:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.

And:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.

***

Richard Gull is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Sources for this article:

  1. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
  2. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: The First Twenty Years by Walter Truett Anderson (iUniverse, 1983)
  3.  A More Perfect Union: Holistic Worldviews and the Transformation of American Culture after World War II by Linda Sargent Wood (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  4. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1952) (Thinking Ink, 2011 ed.)
  5. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain (Grove Press, 1985)
  6. The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama by Tom Hayden (Paradigm Publishers, 2009)
  7.  Inspiring Participatory Democracy: Student Movements from Port Huron to Today by Tom Hayden (Paradigm Publishers, 2012)
  8.  Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, 2012)
  9. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction by Rebecca  Newberger Goldstein (Pantheon Books, 2010)
  10.  “Everything is Holy,” Katy Butler, Tricycle, Spring 2005
  11. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness by Alan Wilson Watts (Pantheon Books, 1962)
  12. The Hidden History of Coaching by Leni Wildflower (Open University Press, 2013)
  13. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle by C.G. Jung (1952) (Princeton University Press, 1969 ed.)

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By Richard Gull 

I said at the end of the article "Esalen at 50: A Memoir About America’s Spiritual Reformation" that Esalen’s gnosis is nature mysticism. But this must be understood in the context of “a religion of no religion.”

By Richard Gull 

“The belief that spiritual purity can somehow be translated into the physical body is widely held in many religious traditions. Carry this a bit further and you find people who hold that the body of a spiritually pure person can even transcend death.”

Posted on January 1, 2014 and filed under Spirituality, Esalen at 50, Winter 2014 Issue.