California Literary Review

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Author of Esalen


August 1st, 2007 at 12:09 pm

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Jeffrey J. Kripal

Jeffrey J. Kripal is a Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. His most recent book is Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.

I know you’ve just written an entire book on the subject, but is there a short answer to the question “What is Esalen?”
No, there’s not. And I say that in the book. One can, of course, come up with a sound-bite, which would go something like this: “Esalen is an institute founded in 1962 in Big Sur, California, to explore and promote the human potential.” But that leaves begging the question of “the human potential.”
I’d like to bring out some of the history and people of Esalen through the ideas that seemed to sprout from there. Let’s begin with the phrase you just alluded to, and is usually associated with Esalen: “the human potential movement.”
The human potential movement, as a phrase at least, was coined by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, in 1965. It was based on both the civil rights movement, on which George had reported as an award-winning journalist, and what the novelist Aldous Huxley had called the “human potentialities,” a phrase which appeared on the covers of the first Esalen brochures. By human potentialities, Huxley and Esalen meant to refer to all those aspects of the human being that have not been generally developed in western educational practices and culture but are nevertheless quite real. It was Abraham Maslow who gave the Esalen actors a vocabulary and psychology to express how such potentialities might be “actualized.” Hence Maslow’s notions of the self-actualized person and the peak experience.
“Gestalt psychology”
Gestalt psychology, literally “the psychology of the Whole,” was brought to Esalen by Fritz Perls. As an academic and therapeutic discipline, gestalt psychology, of course, had a long history in both Europe and America before this, but it was Perls at Esalen who “made it famous” and brought it into public consciousness. Much too briefly, the method involved getting an individual to see that his or her moment to moment experiences are created by a fusion of the psyche and environment, and that the “wholes” constructed out of these bits and pieces are by no means given or absolute. With such an understanding, people could take more responsibility for their worlds of meaning and, if necessary, construct or create new ones. Such a psychology was incredibly empowering, if also somewhat dizzying in its implications about what is “real.” Significantly, Gordon Wheeler, the present CEO and President of Esalen, is a gestalt psychologist and theorist with a very considerable publishing record on his resume. Which is all to say that gestalt psychology remains at the core of the Esalen community.
The subtitle of your book: “The Religion of No Religion.”
I wish this were mine. I wish I had come up with this. But I didn’t. I got it from Frederic Spiegelberg, the charismatic professor of comparative religion at Stanford University who first inspired Michael Murphy with his creative readings of great religious figures, including and especially Sri Aurobindo. The Religion of No Religion was the title of Spiegelberg’s first book. It went back to a natural mystical experience he had in a Dutch wheat field in 1917 as a young theology student. Basically, he experienced a form of what the Canadian doctor and lover of Whitman’s poetry, Richard Bucke, called cosmic consciousness. A few minutes after his own experience of such a consciousness, Spiegelberg came upon a little gray church on his walk. The church horrified him, mostly because he couldn’t understand how such a cosmic Godhead could ever be contained within the physical and doctrinal walls of such a building, or indeed, by any single tradition. Because of such experiences and thoughts, Spiegelberg was both a great admirer of the religious traditions and a great critic of them. He recognized that the religions reveal something of divinity, but he also insisted that they distorted this divinity to the extent that they separated the Godhead from the natural world and claimed some monopoly on its unfathomable richness and mystery. Hence his call for a “religion of no religion,” that is, a way of being religious that is not bound to any single tradition and that, perhaps most of all, appreciates the fundamentally paradoxical relationship that exists between the natural and divine orders. I hear strong echoes of Spiegelberg’s gnosis today in a phrase like “I am spiritual but not religious.”
“No one captures the flag.”
This was one of dozens of Esalen mottos or sayings (others included “Mother Esalen permits,” “We hold our dogmas lightly,” “Spooks run the place,” and so on). It meant that there would be no single religious authority at Esalen, that there would be no single guru, as it were. Basically, it was a colloquial and administrative expression of “the religion of no religion.” On the positive side, the result was a wide-open space of religious experimentation. On the negative side, the result was a certain difficulty in forming consensus and community. Real pluralism is tough to manage. It’s like herding cats.
Atman, Brahman and “Atman = Brahman”
These were the Sanskrit terms of Michael Murphy’s meditation. They come from the Upanishads, a set of canonical scriptural texts from the first millennium BCE. Brahman can be translated, very loosely, as “cosmic essence”; atman, quite literally as “the Self” (the usually unconscious spiritual center, core soul, or divine spark, as distinguished from the social ego). This desire to arrive finally at a deeper strata of reality beyond the subjective and objective levels was later translated at Esalen into a thousand different forms, including but by no means restricted to: an interest in psychical phenomena, a desire to unite religion and science, an abiding interest in the physics of consciousness (or mysticism and quantum physics), a decade-long symposia (still running) on the survival of bodily death, and so on.

The Esalen Baths, Big Sur, California

“The enlightenment of the body”
This is my phrase, whose literal terms I borrowed (and altered slightly) from the teachings of a contemporary Tantric guru named Adi Da, who wrote a quite amazing book back in the late 70s entitled The Enlightenment of the Whole Body. As I employ the phrase in my own book, it does not refer to the teachings of Adi Da, but to that whole stream of practices and teachings that have run through Esalen that turn to the body, and often the sexual body, to encounter the divine. It is an intentionally jarring or paradoxical phrase designed to break down and finally collapse another dualism of the religions: that posited between body and soul, spirit and sex, God and cosmos. A full enlightenment, a mature spirituality here at least is an enlightenment of the body, that is, a fundamentally paradoxical religious experience of the universe as God’s body. We are back to Frederic in the wheat field. I am anyway.
Tantra and “Tantric transmission”
This is the one “altered category” I employ that does not reflect the self-understandings of Esalen. I use it to analyze how the counterculture, and Esalen in particular, embraced certain aspects of traditional Asian religions (which are often socially and sexually conservative, to put it mildly) but refused or rejected others. Basically, I argue that whereas the first half of the twentieth century saw American intellectuals embracing highly ascetic or world-denying Asian traditions (like Advaita Vedanta or Theravada Buddhism), the second half, catalyzed by psychedelics and the sexual revolution, saw a dramatic shift or “flip” over to the embrace of erotic, transgressive, and world-affirming traditions (like Shakta Hinduism, Chinese Taoism, Zen Buddhism, etc.). This, of course, is a generalization, and there are many exceptions, but there is nevertheless much truth here, I think.
“Evolutionary mysticism”
Michael Murphy lost his Christian faith to Darwin at Stanford. He then found it again, still at Stanford, through Sri Aurobindo’s employment of evolution as the centerpiece of his own “life divine.” For Murphy, evolution is the life of the divine cosmos expressed first on astrophysical, then biological, then cultural, and now occult or spiritual levels. Evolution, as metaphor, as biological science, as general worldview, became one of the key terms of the human potential movement. It is again a kind of religion of no religion (to the extent that it is bound by no traditional religions, and indeed offends many of them). Theologically speaking, it is a panentheistic vision of divinity that sees the universe as an evolving embodiment of an involved Godhead. The same vision is particularly interested in siddhis, a Sanskrit term for “powers” that include what we in the modern West would classify under parapsychological or psychical categories. Murphy, following Aurobindo, sees such psychical phenomena as “evolutionary buds,” that is, as early signs of the species’ future evolution. You would not be wrong to see a certain X-Men scenario here. I have anyway.
Finally, how strong an effect has Esalen had on American culture and even world culture? And do you see it having any kind of permanent influence on the way society will evolve?
My own sense is that Esalen has had a profound effect on American culture, but usually indirectly. One of the things I noticed researching the book is how many of the figures who got their start there or went through there ended up writing not one, not two, but three or four books, each of which then had their own cultural life, as it were. So the textual history of the place is immense. There are also all those behind-the-scenes activist roles that Esalen has played over the decades, from being one of the nodal points of the counterculture in the 60s, through its citizen diplomacy efforts with the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s (which were really quite major and very successful), to its catalytic and supportive role in the ecological movement. I am also terribly impressed with Esalen’s ability and commitment to anomalous research agendas, foremost among them rigorous psychical research, a subject which is still more or less “repressed” in both our public and intellectual cultures.
As for the future, I do not have any crystal ball, and I am not a political scientist, but my own personal hope is that American culture will “swing back” from our present right-wing fundamentalist moment to something more liberal and sane, not, mind you, to a 60s-style counterculture (there were too many casualties there), but to a vibrant public culture that is much more open to radical intellectual and spiritual inquiry, that is metaphysically deeper, and that is genuinely pluralistic and free—basically, a space not bound by the religious certainties and absolutisms that now rule so much of our world. In essence, I share Professor Spiegelberg’s dream of a mystical “religion of no religion.”

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