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Debra Ollivier


The Esalen Institute And The Human Potential Movement Turn 50

Posted: 05/25/2012 10:24 am

In 1962, on a stunning stretch of land bordering the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California, two Stanford graduates named Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded a small retreat and workshop center called The Esalen Institute, otherwise known simply as Esalen. Their goal was to create a space where people could explore and practice what Aldous Huxley called "human potentialities" -- or various holistic approaches to wellness and personal transformation that involved the body, mind, and spirit.

Back then, when the Beat Generation of the 50s was ceding to the halcyon hippie heydays of the 60s, the word "holistic" -- never mind the concept of a mind/body connection -- had barely entered the mainstream American vernacular. Neither had a myriad of practices and concepts: East-meets-West, meditation, yoga, life coaching, encounter groups, personal and spiritual development as a form of life-long learning, gestalt therapy, and other forms of humanistic psychology.

"There was something called therapy back then," says Esalen president Gordon Wheeler, "and it was for sick people. Basically, back then you got out of college and you'd be done. You'd worry about your pension plan. I was a kid in the 50s and my brother-in-law was already five years out of school with two little babies and a mortgage. He wanted to go back to grad school to get a PhD in chemistry, but my father thought that was the end of the world. He said, 'Ted, your choices in life have been made. You have to think about retirement and security. You're 27 years old!' I was a kid listening to this. I can't watch "Mad Men" without an anxiety attack because that was the world I saw looming ahead of me. But instead, Esalen happened."

Esalen happened -- and with it, the birth of the human potential movement. In a few short years, Esalen became its cornerstone and a mecca where ordinary individuals and soul-seekers could participate in workshops taught by extraordinary thinkers who were, in one way or the other, gatekeepers of social and personal transformation. The idea was radical for its time.

Said Wheeler: "It was wild back then to think that you could open this crazy place at the end of a Godforsaken road by the edge of the Pacific and bring really remarkable people to speak; that you could invite people to come and learn from them for the weekend; that there'd be no degrees given, no credits gained, no points accrued or anything. Who would ever come? What kind of business model is that? The market niche didn't exist. Now, of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of these types of the centers in this country alone. But Esalen was the first."

If their business and education model pushed the envelope on the status quo back then, so, too, did the people who taught there. The list of lecturers who participated at Esalen in its early days reads like a Who's Who of avant-garde thinkers, artists, psychologists, and philosophers. It includes Erik Erikson, Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, John Lilly, Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, Linus Pauling, Fritz Perl, Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly and Carl Rogers. They were joined by musicians George Harrison, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and other kindred souls.

A quintessential product of boomer youth culture, Esalen was a Happening that was always happening, promulgating a California-brewed culture of personal growth and spirituality while the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius" brought the New Age to new heights. It was not, however, without criticism and controversy: Its nude hot springs were not for the faint-at-heart and some of its lecturers, notably LSD researcher Stanislov Grof and Harvard professor Timothy Leary, earned Esalen a reputation as a hippie hotbed of counter-culture experimentation and iconoclasm.

Timothy Leary, in particular, would become emblematic of the era when he uttered the famous line: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Leary qualified his statement in his autobiography "Flashbacks" years later, writing: "'Turn on' meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment....'Tune in' meant interact harmoniously with the world around you -- externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ..'Drop Out' meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean 'Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.'"

Esalen's focus on self-actualization was occasionally taken to task for fostering an emphasis on the Self that eventually morphed into the me-generation of the 80s. "The 60s and 70s were particularly marked by the psychological and the somatic movements at Esalen," explained Wheeler. "That had a huge impact on our culture. In the 80s, the boomer generation turned many people away from political action and social engagement and inward toward psychological or spiritual things in a way that was often just all about 'me' and a retreat from the world. People often say, 'Change starts with me,' but it seems to end with them, too. At Esalen, because of its holistic vision, the 80s and the 90s were particularly marked by the founding of citizen diplomacy."

While Esalen has turned its focus on wider global issues and social activism, it still retains its experiential and experimental nature, with hundreds of workshops given every year that fall into a number of categories spanning the arts, somatic practices, psychology (including neuroscience and parapsychology), relationships, sexuality, and personal and professional growth. Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil have been involved with Esalen, as well as other influential contemporary advocates of wellness and social/political change, including Robert Reich, Ken Dychtwald, Marianne Williamson and Dean Ornish, all of whom will participate in a benefit this fall celebrating Esalen's 50th anniversary.

When asked if he is hopeful for the future, Wheeler evoked the moment when Joseph Campbell, a signature Esalen teacher, first saw images of the Earth beamed back from space in the 1960s. "We all just saw this small blue planet alone in space. We saw it whole for the first time. And Joseph Campbell said that it would be the most powerful image of the 20th century. That image will change world consciousness. Because there's our world. We were looking at our home for the first time. Campbell noted that you could see continents; you could see weather patterns, and oceans, but you couldn't not see any political boundaries."

Emphasizing the importance of complex thinking in solving global problems, Wheeler segued to Deepak Chopra's message that all social change and activism means nothing without a change in consciousness. "We're obviously hanging at a cusp," he concluded, "and that cusp is human evolution itself. It's still all about the evolution of consciousness and human potential. But yes, I'm hopeful."

Check out the slideshow below for images of Esalen and lecturers who have taught at the institute.

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  • Dick Price And Michael Murphy

    In 1962, Stanford graduates Dick Price and Michael Murphy founded The Esalen Institute, a small retreat and workshop center where people could explore and practice various holistic approaches to wellness and personal transformation that involved the body, mind, and spirit.

  • Esalen Coastline

    Esalen was founded on a stunning stretch of land bordering the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California,

  • Front Office

    A view of the Esalen front office, lamp and pool.

  • Yoga On The Pool Deck

    Fifty years ago Esalen began offering a range of practices that had yet to enter the mainstream American vernacular: yoga, East-meets-West, meditation, encounter groups, gestalt therapy, and other forms of humanistic psychology.

  • Esalen Garden

    Painting in the Esalen Garden in 2011.

  • Esalen Art Workshop 1985

  • Esalen Hot Springs

    Tubs at the Esalen Hot Springs.

  • Spring

    Spring solstice luminaria circle.

  • Room With A View

    A premium room with a view.

  • Ceremony

    A fire ceremony in 2012.

  • Ram Dass And Huston Smith In 1985

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Dr. Richard Alpert</a>, a Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer with Dr. Timothy Leary traveled to India in 1967 and met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who gave Alpert the name "Ram Dass," which means "servant of God." He was a frequent lecturer at Esalen. Huston Smith is <a href="" target="_hplink">a professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Syracuse University</a>. His books include the best-selling classic "The World's Religions." His discovery of Tibetan multiphonic chanting was lauded as "an important landmark in the study of music", and his film documentaries of Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have won international awards.

  • Joseph Campbell And Sam Keen

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Joseph Campbell</a> was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience; he gained wide recognition through a series of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers, and popularized the phrase "Follow your bliss." <a href="" target="_hplink">Sam Keen</a> is a noted author, professor and philosopher whose work explores issues of love, life and religion. He was co-producer of an award-winning PBS documentary, "Faces of the Enemy," and his work was the subject of a PBS special Bill Moyers, "Your Mythic Journey with Sam Keen."

  • Eckhart Tolle

    <a href="" target="_hplink">Eckhart Tolle</a> was born in Germany and educated at the Universities of London and Cambridge. At 29, he says he experienced a profound inner transformation. His book "The Power of Now" made its American debut in 1999 and has since been translated into 33 languages. At the core of his teachings lies the transformation of consciousness --- a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution.

  • Marianne Williamson

    Marianne Williamson, speaker, teacher and presenter for the 2012 Esalen Annual Benefit weekend.

  • Robert Reich

    Robert Reich, professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, and speaker at Esalen 2012 Annual Benefit weekend.

  • Amory Lovins

    Long-time Esalen leader and sustainability/environmental policy expert Amory Lovins in the Lodge with a workshop participant.

  • Laura Day

    Author, coach and Esalen workshop leader Laura Day.

  • Byron Katie

    Author, teacher and Esalen workshop leader Byron Katie.

  • Gabrielle Roth

    Gabrielle Roth Founder of Five Rhythms, started at Esalen in 1964 and will be teaching at Esalen again this summer.

  • Jai Uttal

    Jai Uttal, musician, and Esalen workshop leader.

  • Julia Butterfly-Hill

    Julia Butterfly-Hill, activist, speaker, and Esalen workshop leader.

  • Miten And Deva Premal

    Miten and Deva Premal, musicians and Esalen workshop teachers.

  • Saul David Raye

    Saul David Raye, teacher, healer and spiritual activist and co-leader of the 2012 Esalen Yoga Festival.

  • Shiva Rea

    Shiva Rea, yogini firekeeper, sacred activist, global adventurer and leading innovator in the evolution of prana flow yoga.

  • Van Jones

    Van Jones, a globally recognized, award-winning pioneer in human rights and the clean-energy economy. Speaker at the 2011 Esalen Annual Benefit weekend.


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