Pubdate: Sun, 06 May 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: Sunday Book Review
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Diane Johnson
Note: Diane Johnson's most recent novel is "L'Affaire."
Related: First Chapter: 'Esalen' is currently on line at


ESALEN America and the Religion of No Religion. By Jeffrey J. Kripal. 
Illustrated. 575 pp. University of Chicago Press. $30.

People of a certain age will remember Esalen, the famous (or 
infamous) spa in Big Sur on the California coast, founded in the 
1960s as a center of the human potential movement.

In his book "Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion," 
Jeffrey J. Kripal describes it as "a utopian experiment creatively 
suspended between the revelations of the religions and the 
democratic, pluralistic and scientific revolutions of modernity." In 
1990, someone painted graffiti (unprintable in its entirety here) at 
the entrance: "Jive . for rich white folk."

Both descriptions are justified, it turns out. It won't escape any 
reader of this interesting book that almost all the players are 
good-looking and rich, but we learn that along with the sex and drugs 
with which it was synonymous, the Esalen Institute, as it was 
formally known, had considerable intellectual seriousness and was 
unexpectedly influential in global affairs, with leaders like Ronald 
Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev having some connection. It was Esalen, 
for example, that beat out the Rockefeller Foundation and the Council 
on Foreign Relations, among others, to be the sponsors of Boris 
Yeltsin's 1989 visit to America, during which he experienced his 
famous conversion to capitalism in a Texas grocery store.

More conventionally illustrious guests and other boldface names who 
make appearances in this book, if sometimes fleeting and rather 
tenuous ones, include mystically inclined scholars like Gregory 
Bateson, Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell and Fritjof Capra (author of 
"The Tao of Physics"); as well as astronauts and Apple executives, 
Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel, B. F. Skinner and Erik Erikson, not 
to mention a panoply of countercultural figures including Joan Baez, 
Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary and even poor Bishop James Pike, 
the Episcopal prelate who was put on trial for heresy after 
repudiating the dogmas of the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity. 
Esalen's intellectual framework contained, among much else, the 
philosophical and psychological ideas of Mesmer, Swedenborg, Freud, 
Abraham Maslow, Christianity and Eastern mysticism of various kinds, 
not to mention parapsychology, the occult, hallucinogenics, even 
space aliens. (The extraterrestrial, to the amateur ethnobotanist and 
Esalen stalwart Terence McKenna, represented "the human soul 
exteriorized into three-dimensional space as a religious experience," 
in Kripal's paraphrase.) What's striking is how the already thin line 
between culture and counterculture was nearly effaced at this period 
of New Age optimism and scientific breakthrough.

This reviewer also spent a weekend at Esalen in the early 1970s, with 
the novelist Alison Lurie, who was researching it. These short visits 
were meant to provide a sampling of the therapies then on offer -- 
encounter groups and body work (mostly involving a sort of nude 
round-robin massage) stick in my memory, along with rather good food, 
emphasizing groats and the like. It was terrific fun, and it was 
there, clambering down the rickety wooden steps to the glorious beach 
below, that we surprised an elderly, naked Henry Miller, who modestly 
put his hat over his lap at the approach of two equally embarrassed 
ladies with beach bags and towels.

Kripal gives in considerable, maybe even too much, detail both the 
gossip and the intellectual developments at Esalen since its founding 
as "a center to explore those trends in the behavioral sciences, 
religion and philosophy which emphasize the potentialities and values 
of human existence," as the first brochure put it. He gives 
particular emphasis to the work of one co-founder, Michael Murphy, 
whose family happened to own the priceless seaside real estate, 150 
acres of fabled beauty and abundant natural hot springs.

By now, Richard Price, the other founder, is dead, and Murphy is 
described as being impatient with New Age bunk. But Kripal presents 
Murphy as the author of a considerable body of philosophical writing, 
sometimes in the form of occult novels (including "An End to Ordinary 
History" and "Jacob Atabet") or pop-mystical tracts like "Golf in the 
Kingdom," which has sold more than a million copies and made a 
culture hero of its protagonist, a deep-thinking Scottish golf pro 
named Shivas Irons. (Golf, Murphy has said, is "a mystery school for 

It is in relation to Murphy's work and his own general thesis that 
Kripal may lose some readers.

A history of Esalen is one thing, but this long book also advances 
its own theory that Esalen and New Age culture more generally are 
furthering the evolution of religion in America, and perhaps 
worldwide, toward "no religion," by which he seems to mean not 
secularism so much as a sort of transcendent fusion of Eastern and 
other religions to the negation of all existing ones and a resolution 
of the Cartesian mind-body split.

Despite some turgid sentences ("It is simply to locate their 
important critiques in a more nuanced social context and problematize 
their sometimes simplistic readings"), Kripal makes many sympathetic 
points about the present spiritual state of America, even if his 
argument gets somewhat lost in the more lurid details of suicides, 
strange deaths and amazing paths to enlightenment.

The book is most startling when describing Esalen's connection to world events.

According to Kripal's sometimes rather infatuated account, it was 
Esalen that "enlisted the support of" Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer 
in helping to bring the Soviet Writers' Union into International PEN. 
It was also of use to the C.I.A., which spent a lot of money looking 
into ESP, with experiments involving "the laser physicist turned 
C.I.A. psychic spy turned American mystic" Russell Targ, who gave 
parapsychology lectures at Esalen. (He would later give a 
demonstration to the Soviet Academy of Sciences as well.) Murphy's 
wife, Dulce, Kripal claims, "was with" Jimmy Carter when he announced 
the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; and through their extensive 
involvement with American-Soviet citizen exchanges (an outgrowth of 
their interest in Russian mysticism), the Murphys became friends of 
Arthur Hartman, Reagan's ambassador to Russia, whom they persuaded to 
try to "melt" cold war relations through some "hot-tub diplomacy."

Though the first experiments with LSD were conducted at respectable 
universities like the University of California, Los Angeles, Esalen 
was famously a laboratory for the psychopharmacological inquiries of 
the period.

It also trafficked in Rolfing, the orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich, 
you name it, some of it now mainstream, some discredited. Where did 
it all go wrong, or did it? Were the seekers at Esalen on to 
something, or should they have forborne to shock native American 
puritanism with too much free love and LSD, which began to seem like 
hypocritical self-indulgence and just more of what Kripal calls "a 
stunning array of misogynistic metaphysical systems" that indulge 
male sexuality and control women?

Kripal poses another challenging question: With the world gripped 
anew by terror, "if not ... the apocalyptic variety expressed so 
dramatically by a Soviet-American Armageddon," where are all the 
"countercultural actors, erotic mystics, psychedelic visionaries, 
ecstatic educators, esoteric athletes, psychic spies, 
gnosticdiplomats and cultural visionaries" who emerged the last time around?

For his part, Kripal continues to believe that spirituality and 
science should not contradict each other, and that the Cartesian 
split between mind and body can be transcended. We still don't know 
whether the soul resides in the pineal gland.

Most important, he asks, "can we revision 'America' not as a globally 
hated imperial superpower, not as a 'Christian nation' obsessed with 
mad and arrogant apocalyptic fantasies abroad and discriminatory 
'family values' at home" but "as a potentiality yet to be realized"? 
Can we learn to say, "I am spiritual, but not religious?"

Whatever the answer, Esalen itself soldiers on, its cliffs stabilized 
with wire mesh and plantings, its baths redesigned to be tastefully 
luxurious, its scholarly arm renamed the Center for Theory and 
Research and preoccupied with organizing seminars on such topics as 
"survival of bodily death."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake