Where “California” bubbled up
Dec 19th 2007 | ESALEN, BIG SUR
From The Economist print edition
Esalen, birthplace of the New Age, is a victim of its own success
THE notion that America spends its leisure time praying at evangelical megachurches is widespread; but the United States is a diverse country, and many of its people get their spiritual nourishment elsewhere. Some of them are in yoga studios, wearing prAna-branded stretch pants and chanting “Om”. Others are in spas and retreats, getting exotic massages; queuing at the Ayurvedic and Chinese-medicine counter at, say, Elephant Pharmacy in Berkeley; in psychotherapy sessions, to improve themselves or their marriages. If asked about their faith, many would answer that they are “spiritual, but not religious”.
That may sound daft to both theists and atheists; but it comes from a deeply American cultural tradition—one that has, if one can call it that, its own Mecca or Vatican. This is a place called Esalen. It is in California, unsurprisingly, and consists of 120 acres of spectacular gardens on a dramatic cliff on the Big Sur coastline just south of the Monterey peninsula. Its altar or central shrine, as it were, is a bath built into the cliff, where hot and healing water bubbles out of a geothermal spring into baths that offer the world's best in-tub views. Here the worshippers give and get massages au naturel, at any hour of the day or night.
The Esalen Institute calls itself “an alternative educational centre devoted to the exploration of the human potential”. Depending on the observer, it is also a lot of other things. For about 10,000 people a year—about a quarter of them foreign, especially German and Swiss—it is a place not only to bathe naked but also to take seminars with titles such as “Humour and Other Martial Arts”, “Science and Spirituality” and “Healing the Pelvic Floor”.pelvic
For invited experts only, Esalen is also a “centre for theory and research” that explores topics such as the “survival of bodily death”. As such, it is a “meeting place and platform for disseminating ideas”, as Michael Murphy, Esalen's 77-year-old co-founder and chairman, puts it.
For many others in America and around the world, Esalen stands more vaguely for that metaphorical point where “East meets West” and is transformed into something uniquely and mystically American or New Agey. And for a great many others yet, Esalen is simply that notorious bagno-bordello where people had sex and got high throughout the 1960s and 1970s before coming home talking psychobabble and dangling crystals. In short, Esalen is in every way, even geologically, California at its most extreme. It is its caricature, as well as its noblest expression.
Esalen is named after the Esselen, a now-extinct Indian tribe that used the place as their burial ground. In 1910 the Murphy family bought the land from homesteaders, but it was almost impossible to reach until work crews blasted a highway past it in the 1930s. It soon drew risqué rebels of every sort. John Steinbeck and Aldous Huxley spent time there. Henry Miller, whose “Tropic of Cancer” was banned for obscenity, did his laundry and much else at the Esalen springs.
In the 1950s, the Beat poets came from San Francisco and brought women and books about Tantra. Mingling easily were scholars such as Alan Watts, a bon vivant and expert on Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Then came anarchists, hippies and drugs. Mr Murphy and his co-founder, Richard Price, came down in the early 1960s and created the institute. Their different but complementary personalities would soon turn the place into a phenomenon.
Mr Murphy was an Irish-American Episcopalian altar boy who had, in 1950, stumbled into the wrong classroom at Stanford University. A German professor, Frederic Spiegelberg, was lecturing on eastern religions. “Wake up! The Brahman is the Atman,” Mr Spiegelberg was shouting at the top of his lungs, and Mr Murphy ceased being an altar boy at that instant.
Mr Price, who studied psychology at Stanford, and also found himself in courses by Mr Spiegelberg and Mr Watts, had had psychological problems. His father forced him into a mental institution, where—this being the 1950s—he received insulin injections and electric shocks that damaged his health for ever. The experience traumatised him. He eventually broke with his family and escaped to San Francisco, where he met Mr Murphy in a meditation workshop in 1960.
Together they made Esalen into their ideal human dwelling and thus, in stages, created the Californian way of life as the world understands it. First, both admired Mr Spiegelberg, and in particular his 1948 book “The Religion of No Religion”. Messrs Murphy and Price would translate that into “no one captures the flag”, a phrase heard at Esalen to this day which means that every religion, fad and idea has equal access as long as it does not try to exclude or dominate the others. In practice, this ruled out the Abrahamic religions, but welcomed Yogic and Vedic philosophy, Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which are non-theistic and easy-going about orthodoxy.
But Messrs Murphy and Price didn't want to import the Asian traditions wholesale. Mr Murphy had hated the conservative and hierarchical society that he saw in India, which Mr Price compared to his totalitarian experience in the mental asylum. They wanted to mix Eastern spirituality with Western individualism, democracy, science, openness, and optimism. In particular, they liked Huxley's idea about “human potentialities”, and adopted the term.
From the outset, Esalen's mission was therefore high-minded. Mr Murphy says that his hope was always to unite the two separate historical enlightenments, “the European one, with Voltaire, which the Germans call Aufklärung” and “the Asian one, around Samadhi, which the Germans call Erleuchtung.” Out of the synthesis would come a uniquely American enlightenment, in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, a cheerful union of intellect and spirit, body and soul.
This—specifically the bit about the body—soon presented a predictably Californian problem. The fancy Asian way of putting the Esalen vision was the word Tantra, a strand in Eastern philosophy that considers the physical world not an illusion to be overcome but a vehicle to reach the divine. Mr Murphy, for instance, has always seen golf as a form of meditation, a notion that in 1972 he turned into a bestselling book, “Golf in the Kingdom”. “My passion was for self-cultivation that involves discipline” as opposed to “letting it all hang out,” he says. “Curiously, what happens around the world with Tantra also happened at Esalen.”
As a long-time friend of Esalen, who participated at the time, recalls, “that Tantric stuff in the books was all about people fucking their brains out in the baths.” Often with drugs to add oomph. Mr Murphy was disgusted. He decided to clean the place up. One night in 1961, thereafter known as “the Night of the Dobermans”, Messrs Murphy and Price, with a few others, including the folk singer Joan Baez, who was living in one of the cabins, walked three Doberman pinschers down the dirt path to the baths, where a mob of San Francisco gays was having an orgy. The orgiasts scurried off hastily.
That didn't end the tension, however. Yes, the grounds were now safe again for meditating yogis, shamans and such. But the cerebral and ascetic, or “Apollonian”, aspect of the activities always had competition from the sensual and indulgent, or “Dionysian”, side. For a time, Esalen even had its own venereal-disease clinic.
The drugs were also a problem. Mr Murphy was informed that California's state government had placed agents on the grounds. He went to the bureaucracy and discovered that he was an “innkeeper” and thus liable. He put up a No Drugs sign, and kicked out any known dealers. Still, “we knew that at half of the seminars everybody was stoned,” he says. A course on “drug-induced mysticism” remained one of the most popular offerings. There were casualties, including several suicides that involved drugs.
This tension between what Jeffrey Kripal, the author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, calls the “right hand” and the “left hand” of Esalen Tantra remains to this day. On the right, or intellectual and disciplined, hand, all forms of mysticism and spirituality are erotic, but abstractly so. Taoism, for instance, is based on the attraction of yin and yang, female and male, electron and positron. On the left, or sensual, hand, since the patrons are naked so much of the time anyway, it was and is often hard not to get literal. The famous Esalen massages used to be given in the nude (nowadays, only the receiver is nude). One old-timer, now respectably dressed, fondly recollects a variation that involved six or more masseuses “healing” one person simultaneously.
The parade of Greats
What kept Esalen highbrow, however, was a steady influx of intellectual heavyweights, many of them Jewish European émigrés. Almost any cutting-edge trend in psychology, body work and alternative medicine during the 1960s and 1970s passed through Esalen, where, as Mr Murphy puts it, it was “filtered, because a lot of this stuff veers off into quackery”.
In psychology, Abraham Maslow, already well-known, dropped by in the 1960s and ended up staying. He tried to extend the human-potential concept by teaching ways to “self-actualise”. Next came Fritz Perls, a psychotherapist who came close to capturing the flag with his “Gestalt therapy”. The Esalen joke was that this was “Jewish Buddhism” or “Zen Judaism”. The theory was that, whereas Freud had focused on a patient's past and his unconscious perception of it, Gestalt therapy focused on the here and now and the person's conscious perception of it. That bundle of sensory inputs and emotional interpretations makes up a narrative “construct”, or Gestalt in German.
In his sessions, Mr Perls tried to free his students from the baggage of their past, often with brutal confrontations in front of the group. Other psychologists, such as William Schutz, soon extended this to “open-encounter” groups, where students played roles and told each other blunt and relentless truths. One example was called the “Pandora's Box” and involved the women “working through” fear of their genitals by exposing their vaginas, having the group look up them and then “process” their reactions together. Sometimes, these sessions led to emotional catharsis; sometimes to bitterness and divorce.
Esalen's other big export was body work, which at Esalen blurred the boundaries between medicine and spirituality. Today, it is possible to get “rolfed” at spas all over the world. This method was refined at Esalen, when Ida Rolf came there and taught her ideas about digging elbows and knuckles deep into a person's connective tissues, not only to correct skeletal alignment but also to liberate pent-up emotions. Once, as she worked on Mr Perls, he passed out completely for minutes, and Ms Rolf feared that she might have rolfed herself a corpse. But her method caught on, and she started her own institute in 1971.
Esalen was a launching pad for Moshe Feldenkrais, now famous for his “Feldenkrais Method”. He was a nuclear physicist who had suffered a football injury that threatened to paralyse him. He healed himself through bodily movements that sprang from his knowledge of judo and other martial arts. The motion of the limbs seemed to forge new connections in the brain, as though the body taught the brain.
Next came Charlotte Selver, who taught a form of “sensory awareness” that today forms the basis of the “Esalen massage”, a contemplative style with long strokes that is known in France as “massage Californien”. Another teacher, Don Hanlon Johnson, would extend this to a general approach called “somatics”, which includes any number of ways to access the mind through the body.
Esalen also played a crucial role in bringing Eastern, or “holistic”, medicine to the American mainstream: staff members helped to draft the first industry regulations. In the field of mythology, Joseph Campbell lectured at Esalen for years before he became famous. Fritjof Capra, a particle physicist who saw parallels between quantum physics and Eastern philosophy, and wrote about these in “The Tao of Physics”, spent time at Esalen. And, in the 1980s, Esalen gave East-meets-West a political dimension when it pioneered “citizen diplomacy” with the Soviet Union, culminating in its sponsoring of Boris Yeltsin's private trip to America in 1989.
That empty feeling
But in the 1970s and 1980s, Esalen also had unpleasant encounters with the real. Mr Murphy had moved to San Francisco, and Mr Price was running the place, and not exactly along corporate lines. He used Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (think “managing emptiness”) as his governance guide, and was advised by a council called “Jenny and the Nine”, whose most noteworthy feature was that they did not exist. Esalen was perennially on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1985 Mr Price died, in true Esalen style. He hiked up the mountain to the source of the hot springs, and was apparently meditating when a boulder fell on him.
By then the trends that Esalen had spawned—called New Age, probably the most hated term at Esalen—were becoming mainstream and banal. Culturally, the entire West Coast now resembled Esalen, and colonies were springing up from Koh Samui to Kitzbühel. Esalen appointed a series of more business-minded managers who restored its finances. But by the 1990s, the place felt intellectually and erotically stale, just another spa where ageing hippies got pampered. Was it, as some unkind graffiti on the welcome sign read, just “jive shit for rich white folk”?
In 1998 El Niño almost blew the baths off the cliff. There was talk of shutting the place down. Instead, the baths were rebuilt, and Mr Murphy started the “centre for theory and research”, his “R&D arm”, as he calls it, to spawn new ideas. The spawning, so far, seems ho-hum. There is talk about eco-psychology. And Esalen hopes to extend a new round of East-West citizen diplomacy to Islam. Most tellingly, though, Esalen now produces papers with titles such as “Integral Business Planning Document”. PowerPoint presentations cannot be far off.
Esalen's old-timers debate the way forward. Jerome Gary first came in 1969, when he was 22 and a hippie, and had met a bellydancer who took him to the baths. Now 60, he plans to make a documentary about Esalen—he has already made films about other Californian phenomena, such as “Pumping Iron” in 1977, which featured a young body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Esalen's problem is that “yesterday's iconoclast is today's cliché,” says Mr Gary. On the other hand, “we're in a culture once again where we are experiencing clashing fundamentalisms” and Esalen could help as the counterpoint.
In a sense, Esalen is a victim of its own success. The culture it created is now mainstream. In another sense, it is just a manifestation of California as its vibrant, healthy self. Young people looking for a place to express themselves, to flaunt and paint their bodies and try anything that promises to be zany and cool still have a place to go—only now it is called Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert. Those looking for intellectual radicalism, indeed human potential, go to the annual TED conference up the road in Monterey.
Whether at Esalen or not, Californians are still willing to try anything new—to do it until it hurts and to become caricatures in the process—in order to explore how far we can go as human beings. The consequences may sometimes be laughable, but somebody has to do it.