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Esalen's Identity Crisis

For Decades, the Scenic Institute in Big Sur Was the Pioneer in the Self-Help Movement. But as Middle Age Approaches, It's Being Forced to Turn the Mirror on Itself.

September 05, 2004|Teresa Watanabe | Teresa Watanabe is a Times staff writer. Her last story for the magazine was about her grandfather's imprisonment during WWII

In an emerald expanse of California's majestic Central Coast, a series of intense human explorations are underway. In a large white yurt, several yogis are breathing, bending and meditating to deepen awareness of their Divine Inner Self. Next door, artists are painting doves, dolphins and goddesses as they create mandalas, an ancient symbol of the psyche, in search of self-understanding. Down the road, another group is propped against pillows, shoes kicked off as they analyze one another's dreams and unlock long-buried memories.

At one time, these scenes at the fabled Esalen Institute would have been considered avant-garde. Esalen once stood as the nation's leading laboratory of the human potential movement, the freewheeling center of social outlaws who experimented with LSD, Eastern meditation and in-your-face encounter groups to explore and expand themselves.

Today, as Esalen enters its fifth decade, it has settled into a comfortable middle-aged mainstream. Google turns up 7.7 million results for "human potential," including yoga retreats, art therapy classes and other self-help offerings commonplace around the country. The hippies and seekers who once made the place a youth paradise have aged, with just 14.5% of its 10,000 annual visitors younger than 35. What's more, Latinos, Asians and blacks, who compose the majority of Californians, are comparatively scarce at the institute. Along the way, longtime observers say, Esalen's creative spark has dimmed. Among other things, critics say, it has failed to explore in-depth many of the trends on the horizon today that are rooted in science and technology.

"When Esalen started, it was definitely the flagship of the human potential movement," says Marion Goldman, a University of Oregon professor of sociology and religious studies who is writing a book on the institute. "It will continue to be one of the major pilgrimage centers in the U.S . . . but it no longer dominates the market."

Put simply: Is Esalen passe?

the seed that eventually grew into esalen was planted in 1950, when Stanford University student Michael Murphy accidentally stumbled into what would become a life-changing lecture on Hinduism by religion scholar Frederic Spiegelberg. His passion for Eastern religions stoked, Murphy went to India in 1956, after graduating from Stanford and serving in the U.S. Army, to spend 16 months at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian yogi and philosopher. He returned to the Bay Area, where he worked odd jobs and meditated as much as eight hours a day. In 1960, he met Richard Price, a fellow seeker and Stanford graduate who would become Esalen's other founder.

Two years later, in October of 1962, Murphy and Price formally opened the doors to a philosophical and literal paradise. In its youthful heyday, Esalen was renowned for its alternative education, attracting some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century: Historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich and two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling all came to speak. Brilliant gurus presented provocative workshops in psychotherapy and spirituality. Esalen leaders took aim at social and political taboos, holding marathon encounters in race relations during the civil-rights struggle.

The place was edgy and hip, the talk of the town even in the New Yorker and other East Coast media. It attracted Hollywood stars and Sacramento politicians. It provided the stage for concerts by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, Simon & Garfunkel. It became grist for books and films, including such parodies as "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice." It was emulated by a profusion of spiritual growth centers around the nation.

When it opened, Esalen offered only a dozen or so programs a season, but they tended to be intellectually dense explorations of the latest ideas in subjects such as evolutionary theory and psychotherapy. Seminars on major religious traditions featured study of the Upanishads, Tantra and Christian contemplative life decades before religious pluralism became commonplace.

A string of ground-breaking teachers soon brought international attention to Esalen. Timothy Leary preached a gospel of enlightenment through psychedelic drugs and physicist Fritz Capra explored the mysticism of science. Frederick Perls helped launch Gestalt therapy and Will Schutz made confrontational encounter groups famous. Abraham Maslow developed a hopeful view of human psychology by studying high-performers rather than the neurotics favored by Freudian analysts. Ida Rolf made "rolfing" a household word in self-help circles with her deep-tissue bodywork.

Opening the American mind to Eastern mysticism, onetime Episcopal priest Alan Watts blended East and West in a synthesis of Zen Buddhism and Western psychology. Murphy promoted the mind-body movement in sports, while institute president George Leonard published radical visions of educational reform.

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