East meets West at the edge of the ocean

Lucas Richert on the Esalen Institute, pioneer of the human potential movement.

In 1962, on an exquisite stretch of land bordering the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California, two Stanford graduates, Michael Murphy and Dick Price, established a small retreat and workshop centre called The Esalen Institute.

At the edge of the vast and unrelenting ocean, The Esalen Institute created a safe space where individuals could explore what Aldous Huxley called ‘human potentialities’ – and all that this included. Its founders, Michael Murphy and Dick Price, envisioned the integration and expansion of humanistic psychology alongside Eastern philosophies. Holistic approaches to wellness and personal transformation that involved the body, mind and spirit would thrive.

The end of the 1960s and the 1970s, of course, also saw the rise of transactional analysis (see my piece in the September 2017 issue) and primal therapy, and it seemed an especially propitious moment for the emergence of Esalen. It attracted all manner of thinkers, artists, psychologists and philosophers, including Erik Erikson, Ken Kesey, Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, John Lilly, Abraham Maslow, Linus Pauling, Fritz Perl, Arnold Toynbee and Alan Watts. Musicians showed up, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, and the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Some called the institute and its ideas radical, yet in his ‘Critique on primal therapy’ Alfred Yassky wrote that ‘all therapeutic approaches are anchored in Zeitgeist and therefore reflect many aspects of the time and culture.’

Liberated from any university, think tank, or religious organisation, Esalen offered an extensive mix of workshops by psy-sciences experts and a variety of other authors, scholars and shamans.

The highly regarded psychologist Carl Rogers added to and reinforced Esalen’s human potential movement. His theories of the self, predicated on humanism, existentialism and phenomenology, were highly influential. Fritz Perl, the German-born psychiatrist, taught Gestalt therapy to visitors, which underlined the value of enhanced awareness of sensation, perception, bodily feelings, emotion and behaviour in the present moment. He also resided at Esalen for over five years. Maslow, a world famous psychologist, proponent of self-actualisation and founder of the well-cited hierarchy of needs, provided lectures and guidance. Both Perls’s Gestalt therapy and Maslow’s humanistic psychology were two of the foremost trends in mental health in the 1960s and beyond, yet they did not dominate Esalen’s curriculum in any way.

Rather, Esalen promoted an approach that emphasised East-meeting-West, meditation, yoga, life coaching, encounter groups, and personal and spiritual development as a form of lifelong learning. Christian Evangelicalism intersected with Protestantism, Essence faiths and Gnosticism. Psychological and paranormal phenomena were accepted, while Tantric philosophies and yoga were highlighted. Traditional dichotomies of mental health and illness were rejected at Esalen, and a spotlight was placed on helping individuals create more vital and meaningful lives; indeed, dualism was rebuffed, whereas the concept of ‘holism’ was embraced. Besides encounter groups and a variety of non-traditional therapies (including the Gestalt therapy, psychodrama, transactional analysis, primal scream therapy, and Morita therapy), the human potential movement also included several disciplines and practices involving self-healing, self-improvement and self-awareness, and Zen Buddhism, astrology, art, dance and various systems of body movement and manipulation. Drugs were also pervasive.

The Esalen Institute thus expanded into the leading venue for new (age) approaches committed to self-transformation. And the human potential movement was the title of this approach. According to Stratton Caldwell, something of a hippie intellectual himself, it focused ‘not upon meeting the social, political and economic wants and needs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed, but rather the psychological/sociological/spiritual hunger of many affluent and advantaged citizens…’.

The movement brought novel individual and group psychotherapies together, with an attention on improving relationships, rather than on healing old psychic wounds. Human potential psychology, according to its adherents, attracted Americans because it fundamentally redefined psychotherapy as a context for personal growth instead of recovery from mental illness, and it provided group experiences that were not as time- or money-consuming as traditional therapies. At the same time, public service and support for liberal social reform constituted another area of interest at Esalen, and the Institute’s political attitude bridged spiritual privilege and worldly activities beyond the confines of Big Sur. True self-actualisation – authentic fulfilment of human potential – had to include the pursuit of social justice and peace. Actualised individuals were compassionate toward those who were less fortunate and were thus obligated to support others to lead improved lives.

In assessing the mental health landscape of the 1970s, Alfred Yassky, the Executive Director of the American Psychotherapy Seminar Center, based in Manhattan, held that the tectonic plates of mental health shifted. Americans were different. The therapeutic geography had perceptibly altered. As he put it, Americans ‘are becoming alienated and are hungering for a sense of meaning, identity, happiness, and even salvation, we are wanting more from therapies and therapists. One way of putting it is that in many ways psychotherapy has taken over the function of religion. Therefore, the therapist is supposed to take over the function and roles of shaman, guru, wiseman, minister, rabbi, or priest. We are expected to help with spiritual matters on the one hand and scientific on the other…’

By 1971 Esalen was the model for more than 90 similar centres, known informally as ‘Little Esalens’. They were large and small, rural and urban, with the majority located in California or in or near major cities like Chicago, Boston and New York. (Much like radical psychiatry grew after 1968.) Most survived for less than a decade. By the early 1970s there were an estimated 150 to 200 growth centres modelled after Esalen throughout the United States. Most of these centres highlighted, as Caldwell put it in the argot of the time: ‘humanness, wholeness, the integrated totality of the person, providing experiences for individuals valuing sensing/feeling varied ways of knowing as means of personal/interpersonal/transpersonal/organizational facilitation of growth/change in awareness, consciousness, behaviour’.

Publicity for Esalen and these growth centres, in Life, Newsweek, Ramparts, Look, and Time, contributed to the Institute’s reputation as a catalyst for individual psychological transformation, improved intimate relationships, and new social arrangements. Seventeen books by authors directly associated with the Institute were published between 1969 and 1975, all as part of the short-lived Esalen/Viking series.

While Esalen was the institutional pioneer of the human potential movement, if it had a single avatar, a solo travelling salesman, it was Werner Erhard. Equal parts Zen Buddhism and Dale Carnegie, Erhard created and sold a programme called EST (short for Erhard Seminars Training) in hotel ballrooms across the country, a sort-of cultish offshoot of Esalen. These combative training sessions – aimed at business persons and government employees – had clients take responsibility for their lives and ‘get it’ by discovering there was, actually, nothing at all to get.

Celebrities who participated in EST included Diana Ross, Joe Namath, Yoko Ono and Jerry Rubin. With over 100,000 clients, Newsweek anointed Mr Erhard ‘a celebrity guru who retails enlightenment’. (Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who of course experimented with many substances, also underwent Arthur Janov’s controversial primal therapy in 1970 after The Beatles disbanded – and, along with 1970’s ‘primal concept album’ John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, they helped popularise the therapy.

Numerous individuals believed human potential and self-actualisation could be reached neither quickly nor easily. For The New York Times magazine, the dapper, trenchcoat-wearing peddler of self-help was ‘the king of the brain snatchers’. The criticism intensified as EST continued to grow. It was labelled a cult that practised mind control (verbal abuse, sleep deprivation), as well as a smoke-and-mirrors grift that exploited its followers (heavy recruiting, endless ‘graduate seminars’).

The ideas and practices behind Esalen have since found the cultural mainstream. While the glitzier and unconventional features of the human potential movement have largely been relegated to fads of the 1960s and 1970s, such as EST (Erhard Seminars Training), it has endured in other forms. The American Society of Humanistic Psychologists remains active. Journals in the field include the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Journal of Creative Behavior, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, among others.

Popular culture abounds with reference to Esalen and its hybrid philosophy, from Mad Men to Madonna, to references to New Age spirituality in politics and films. In Jeffrey Kripal and Glenn Shuck’s 2005 edited volume, Esalen was described as best ‘located and understood as a utopian experiment suspended between the revelations and promises of religious tradition and the democratic, scientific, and pluralist revolutions of modernity and now postmodernity’. As Robert Fuller noted, Esalen ‘helped put into circulation’ a metalanguage that ‘has contributed to a new cultural and religious outlook’.

- Lucas Richert is a Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Conservatism, Consumer Choice, and the FDA During the Reagan Era: A Prescription for Scandal (2014) and the upcoming Strange Medicines: Drugs, Science, and Big Pharma in Culture (2018).
[email protected]

Picture: Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell wait before performing at the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institute on 14–15 September 1969 in Big Sur, California (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Key sources

Caldwell, S.F. (1975, March). The Human Potential Movement: Forms of body/movement/nonverbal experiencing. Paper presented at the 42nd Annual Conference of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Los Angeles, CA. Retrieved 1 November 2017 from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED110423.pdf

Goldman, M.S. (2012). American soul rush: Esalen and the rise of spiritual privilege. New York: New York University Press.

Haldeman, P. (2015, 28 November). The return of Werner Erhard, father of self-help. The New York Times. Retrieved 1 November 2017 from www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/fashion/the-return-of-werner-erhard-father-of-self-help.html

Kripal J.J. (2007). Esalen: America and the religion of no religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kripal, J.J. & Shuck, G.W. (Eds.) (2005). On the edge of the future: Esalen and the evolution of American culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Leonard, G.B. (1988). Walking on the edge of the world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Yassky, A.D. (1979). Critique on primal therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 33(1), 119–127.

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