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Esalen's potentialist

December 05, 2012|PATT MORRISON
  • Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, sits his home in Mill Valley, Calif.
Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, sits his home in Mill Valley,… (Los Angeles Times )

Before the Esalen Institute, there was Michael Murphy's family's property, a choice chunk of gorgeous Big Sur, where, in 1962, Murphy (writer, seeker) and his fellow human potentialist Dick Price dedicated the Murphy land to the now 50-year-old center for personal and social consciousness-raising. Notables like Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Joan Baez and Henry Miller contemplated themselves and the world there. Esalen's scholarly social initiatives tend to get overlooked, while the touchy-feely stuff gets the attention. Recent staff changes, the opening of a Carmel office and putting meat -- albeit organic -- on Esalen's menu has some grousing about its pristine alt cred. Murphy, now director of Esalen's Center for Theory and Research, is a witty, well-schooled man who stays -- there's no other way to put it -- centered.


On Esalen's big anniversaries

-- the 10th, the 20th and now

the 50th -- there are internal complaints and hand-wringing news stories about how it's lost its bearings, if not its soul.

It seems like we have to have a midlife crisis every 10 years -- it's obligatory!

We have gone through changes. The world is changing. In the '60s, we didn't have nearly the regulations we have today. With the idealism of the age, we didn't pay salaries. We've had to be a more efficient business and to grow a competent, convivial board of trustees. I resigned as chairman four years ago; I am not to the chairman manor born. My instincts are entrepreneurial. We've had to develop or we'd be out of business.


Business -- that word raises the hackles of some Esalen folks.

We have to keep reminding everybody we've really held to our mission as we conceived it. We are concerned with both personal and social change and growth and transformation, but we have been privileged to have the freedom to go where mainstream academia and religion can't or don't want to go. [We do] things that aren't getting done [elsewhere].

We said from the beginning, this is not for therapy, it's for expanding consciousness -- that's the language we used -- but without a strict dogmatic framework. Our motto was "no one captures the flag."


"Spiritual but not religious" is

a phrase far more Americans use to describe themselves now than in 1962.

That's been a dominant theme at Esalen: people seeking spiritual depth and the undiscovered country of our human potential. This is huge historic sorting out of these things, a winnowing of authentic religious yearning and aspiration and a contemplative practice, even mystical practice.

Our friend John Cleese says religion is two things: The minority [of it] is the authentic search for God, and the rest is crowd control.


People have perceived Esalen as hostile to religion.

No. In the late '60s, we had a big venture with the National Council of Churches. They would send leading religious thinkers like [Episcopal] Bishop James Pike to programs sponsored by Esalen that were experiential -- Gestalt therapy, meditation, somatics -- then reflect on them from a theological point of view. Now in our citizen diplomacy programs we have the Abrahamic family reunion: Christians, Jews and Muslims getting at the wounds and the historical resentments to bring them out and deal with them.


Is Esalen a utopian community in the American tradition of Oneida?

This is something we've had to resist strongly: people who want to turn us into some sort of closed community. It's not; it's a meeting place, a forum, a school for explorers.


Yoga was exotic in the 1960s; now yoga studios pop up like Starbucks. Does it make you wince?

I'm completely inoculated to the wincing!

[As] this tremendous turn in the culture happened, people feel Esalen became the prime place for that. When my parents heard I was interested in yoga, they thought it was a yogi lying on a bed of nails. Now there are 20,000 yoga studios in the United States.

Our format was widely imitated. By 1970, there must've been 100 centers modeled on Esalen.


I was surprised to read about some Esalen initiatives: sessions with CIA and KGB people,

Ford Foundation projects,

programs to bring your

techniques into the schools.

We've collected about 10,000 studies [on] growth and exceptional human functioning.

We have fellowships, people doing things they cannot do at their respective institutions. We've sponsored at least 100 exchanges with Russian -- formerly Soviet -- groups. To do it, we've had to stay in touch with intelligence agencies on both sides. Sen. Claiborne Pell [D-R.I.], the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was a great friend of ours.

I tell you, KGB guys in the same room as CIA guys -- it was just astonishing to see the friendships that developed. I'm not saying that Esalen [is] taking credit for anything in particular, but we did contribute to the events that led to the end of the Cold War.


Didn't Esalen get tarred

with the same brush as wacky

notions like harmonic


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