Death is the absence of life, not an opposite or other process of life. California's Esalen Institute is a center for alternative and experiential education that teaches that detachment is a universal impossibility. Founded in as a forum to new ways beyond mainstream Esalen : America and the Religion of No Religion.
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By Jeffrey J. Frontispiece: Hieronymus Bosch c. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. There is not the slightest difference between the world and nirvana. There is not the slightest difference between nirvana and the world.
Now the revising of The Interpretation of Dreams for the Collected Edition was a spur to reconsider the problem of telepathy. Moreover my own experiences. I was once more faced with a case where on a reduced scale I had to repeat the great experiment of my life: namely, to proclaim a conviction without taking into account any echo from the outer world. The siddhi [supernormal power] of the vijnana [gnostic faculty] and the siddhi of the body belong. We need no more avoid the use of these things than a poet should avoid the use of his poetical genius which is also a siddhi unattainable by ordinary men or an artist renounce the use of his pencil.
I am indebted to the many individuals I have had the privilege of meeting and working with over the last eight years on this and related projects. In particular, there were all those brave enough to trust an already controversial interpreter with analyses of their own books and lives, and who graciously responded to my eroticized readings with uncensoring criticisms, helpful suggestions, and more, not less, humor and eros much of it way sexier than anything I had written—even pictures.
Thank you all for putting up with me, and for egging me on. I apologize for not using the pictures. I must first and foremost thank Michael Murphy, cofounder of Esalen, deep reader of my earlier books, and fellow X-Man. Steve was a constant source of insight, humor, historical information, and invaluable archival material. I doubt I have ever seen such an organized being.
John graciously offered me his unpublished Esalen journals, novels, and human potential essays, welcomed me into his Kansas home for a weekend visit, and bore my countless questions with patience and humor. George gave his expert eye to the manuscript, offered critical feedback, and taught me, through example, to take the hit as a gift. I must also thank the community and leaders of the Esalen Institute itself, not only for their constant hospitality and generosity over the years, but also for their willingness to accept my proposal to hold an academic conference on the history of the place at the place.
This gathering featured approximately twenty historians of American religion and major Esalen figures, each of whom delivered papers and all of whom helped me think through my own initial book outline.
Numerous other individuals also played significant roles in my research and thinking. Some receive major treatment here. Others work their magic behind the scenes. I also want to express my gratitude for a colleague, friend, and spiritual brother, Robert C. Gordon, whose vision of things American and mystical connects intriguingly, uncannily, with my own.
I simply want to confess that resonance here. I am also especially grateful to my editor at the University of Chicago Press, T. David Brent. David encouraged my early, undeveloped thoughts on Esalen and enthusiastically embraced a book proposal that was both quite sketchy in terms of content and a long ways off in terms of a real delivery date. His moral, intellectual, and professional support over the last ten years has been simply invaluable to me.
Most authors can only dream about having such an editor. My Rice colleagues often joked about me working" in Big Sur the scare quotes being theirs , as if working and traveling to Big Sur were mutually exclusive dimensions of reality. Finally, I must say this. As a young boy, I used to recite, rather obsessively, a Catholic prayer of penitence that asked for forgiveness for sins committed, knowingly or not.
That little prayer seems relevant here again, as I am absolutely certain that I have committed minor historical errors and failed to acknowledge someone somewhere in the pages that follow, even if I have no idea whom or where or about what. As with my earlier books and life itself , the plot was simply too thick, my conversations too many, my sources too diverse to keep absolute track of everything everywhere always.
I could have easily worked on this book for another ten or twenty years, and there still would have been mistakes, gaps, stories not told, people missed, interpretations to debate. In truth, there is no end to the stories because there is no end to the human potential , and the ideal of perfection is a false one: even the biological mutation, after all, begins as an apparent mistake. I will leave it at that. Guilt or penitence can never be the guiding sign of a robust book, much less a robust book about Esalen.
Creative freedom and what William Blake called Energy and Delight take over from here, as they have in everything else I have written—the corpus mysticum taking a form between and betwixt this world in here and that world out there, which, if the present story means anything at all, are really the same world. If there is anything which human history demonstrates, it is the extreme slowness with which the ordinary academic and critical mind acknowledges facts to exist which present themselves as wild facts with no stall or pigeonhole, or as facts which threaten to break up the accepted system.
Go ahead. Turn at the little white wooden sign on the cliff highway marked, Esalen Institute by Reservation Only. It already hints of secrecy, or at least privacy, promising the knowing week-long initiations into ancient mysteries and modern revelations uniting science and religion.
The sensuality of the place, it is true, is as palpable as it is primordial. The hot baths down by the sea bob day and night with naked flesh, but the geology of the waters themselves bespeaks more of the almost limitless energy of the earth.
Humpback blue and grey whales can often be seen playing just off the coast as they migrate to and from Baja. Do not be fooled, though, by their beautiful bright colors. The flapping shapes signal to potential predators that these bodies are poisonous to the palate. A whiff of personal danger adds to all of this mystical, geological, and biological excitement. One inevitably encounters a small sign on the way down to the rocks that reads something like this: Dangerous riptides.
Swim at your own risk. The sign could just as well be placed at the front gate and be read metaphorically, as both the personal risks and the promises of adventure are quite real here, and the powerful currents that flow just under the surface of things, like the explosive hot springs, should never be underestimated.
Then there are all those legends and rumors. Was the banned eroticist Henry Miller really a regular at the baths? Did the novelist and psychedelic seer Aldous Huxley give the founders their initial language? Did a young Hunter Thompson wield a billy club and tote a gun here in the early days only to get fired by a woman named Bunny? Is it true that Beatle George Harrison landed on these grounds in his own private helicopter to jam with Ravi Shankar?
One may have heard that Esalen was in the crosshairs of the Nixon administration. How can this be? Did Esalen really help end the cold war? Our story will answer all of these questions in due time, but for now, all of this seems a bit remote as we make our way to Big Sur. The forty-mile drive down from Monterey and Carmel, past Pebble Beach on a famous road whose twists and turns along an ocean mountainside could easily end your life at any moment has already slightly altered your state of consciousness and made you a bit nauseous.
You feel funny, a bit disoriented. You are grateful to step out of the car and stand on land that is not moving or, worse yet, falling. You have heard about this beautiful place, at once sacred, sexy, and slightly disreputable. You think you know what Esalen is about, what it is. You probably do not. But there are those who do, and you will soon meet them, at least as I have come to know them through my own winding, falling, rising road to Esalen.
That sort of thing. Price thought that Esalen, rather like the ink blots, somehow encourages people to see themselves in it, and that there are as many Esalens as there are people deeply engaging the place as spiritual presence, as therapeutic refuge, as sensual spa, and so on. Dick was right. Before we begin our story, then, I need to be very clear about what I think I am seeing in all this ink and about how exactly I am seeing it. I also need to be clear about when and how I am projecting—that is, I need to own up to my own bat and vagina sightings—and why this is not such a bad thing.
As a historian of religions with particular interests and questions, I have naturally made choices. Or, more reflective of my experience of the mysterious processes of thinking and writing and of the psychological language of Esalen , I have put a series of life events, odd coincidences, and thousands of random flashes of insight into conversation with a practice of disciplined reading and writing to create or discover it is impossible to tell which a new gestalt or meaningful whole.
As I hope will become clear, this is neither fantasy nor science, but a mystical art through which one interprets a phenomenon and is in turn interpreted by it. Words like subjective and objective cease to have much meaning here. Something far more interesting, and far weirder, is at play.
It is as if the world itself has become fantastically plastic, infinitely plural and, above all, radically open. I mean this in not just a metaphorical sense, but also in a metaphysical one.
Michael Murphy, cofounder of Esalen, might compare this sense to his occult realism, that is, a particular genre of novel writing whose imaginative fusing of the mystical occult and empirical realism dimensions of anomalous experiences ends up conjuring for the reader a fantastic world in which many strange and marvelous things can and oddly do happen.
These wild facts were apparent to James both in his spiritual experiments with nitrous oxide, which revealed to him that consciousness was not single but multiple, and in his psychical researches with the gifted Boston medium Mrs.
Leonara E. Piper, which convinced him that consciousness cannot be reduced to material processes. James approached all of these wild facts with great philosophical seriousness and what he himself called a radical empiricism, that is, a faithfulness to the full data of human experience that refuses to ignore anomalies simply because they can not be fit into the reigning scientism of the day.
That anyway is what I intend to demonstrate here. But also its reasons. Indeed, the story of Esalen is very much a living out in the realm of elite and popular culture some of the deepest implications of what many scholars of religion have long taught and thought in their classrooms.
The Esalen story or mythos , in other words, encodes and expresses the intellectual theory or logos , if not always in exactly the way that this or that academic might prefer.
Such a thesis will be counterintuitive for many, but it is quite easy to establish historically. Jung in the early countercultural heart of Europe that is, Ascona, Switzerland in the first half of the twentieth century.
The latter Eranos meetings, by all accounts, had a major impact on the comparative study of religion. Key bridge figures between Eranos and Esalen, moreover, such as Frederic Spiegelberg and Joseph Campbell render this historical narrative of the transformation of comparative religion from European academic method to practiced American mysticism particularly apt.
The currents flow both ways. Much of the modern study of religion is a rationalized expression of the kinds of social activism and countercultural mysticism that have flowed through American life in the last fifty years. In effect, the altered states of the counterculture became the altered categories of the university.
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Wade Clark Roof, Jeffrey J. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Esalen conjures up so many images: the Pacific Coast, hot tubs, psychedelic drugs, past-life regressions. Yet as Jeffrey J. Kripal makes clear in this engaging book, if we can get beyond the stereotypes encapsulated in the word there is a rich, complex history of the spiritual encounters of the past half-century that shape, often in hidden ways, the current American experience.
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Indeed, it was out of this professional and. It hosts around eight private symposia each year on topics ranging from Russian-American relations, political polarization within the U. These meetings consisted of a collective of scientists, philosophers, scholars of religion, and human potential figures dedicated to the rigorous study and analysis of psychical and paranormal phenomena, particularly as they pertain to the question of post-mortem survival. For the two major volumes that came out of the Sursem series, both led by the neuroscientist Ed Kelly and his colleagues, see Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism. This is a private symposia series sponsored by the Esalen Institute and generously supported by the Hummingbird Foundation dedicated to the exploration of the formative role that the sciences are playing in reshaping the religious imagination and our various re-imaginings of the cosmos and consciousness.