The Navel of No Thing

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If only I had all day to sit here and write about how my life has been influenced by just a handful of trips to Esalen. If only the stories were as interesting to everyone else as they are to me. Ah well, with great restraint I will spare you and focus here on the task at hand, which is to review a mighty new book, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey Kripal.

Esalen Religion of No Religion KripalNo conversation about California Cosmology would be complete without a long detour into the history of Esalen, a venerable hot springs resort on the Big Sur coastline. Kripal’s book is an excellent, incredibly thorough account of Esalen’s beginnings as a sacred spot for the Esselen and other Coastanoan tribes, its establishment in the 1880s as a hot springs resort, its purchase by the Murphy family in 1910, and subsequent influence on American culture beginning in the 1940s and continuing today.

Kripal focuses much of his story on the journeys of Esalen’s two founders, Dick Price and Michael Murphy. In describing their travels, Kripal takes several fascinating side trips into some of their major influences: Sri Aurobindo and Hindu Tantra, Henry Miller and the Cold War, the Vedanta Society, Alan Watts and the Beat poets, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls and George Leonard, to name only a few.

Esalen from its beginnings set out to explore the intersection of Eastern mysticism, psychology, and the potential of the human body. It was successful in large part because “Esalen inhabited a liminal position between the academy and the counterculture,” in Kripal’s words. They brought in the most original thinkers and intellectuals as well as hands-on experimenters with psychic phenomena, psychedelics, body therapies, and psychology, to hold seminars and mingle with each other. Not to say that every experiment was a success, but in remaining committed to new thinking Esalen ultimately avoided becoming merely a West Coast feel-good, anti-intellectual sinkhole.

There is some fascinating back story in these pages to just about every movement in modern psychology: the Freudian Left, Gestalt therapy, Encounter groups, the human potential movement, Somatics. Everything from Cold War Russian psychics to UFO and non-local mind researchers at one point wended their way through the filters of Esalen’s workshop business and residential community, and Kripal makes the journey enjoyable with an easy writing style and an obvious passion for his subject.

There are some vignettes from the Big Sur Hot Springs that are too priceless not to re-tell, such as this one from 1961, shortly before the Institute was founded. Michael Murphy’s grandmother had not yet decided to turn the management of the property over to her grandson. Instead, she had a young (22!) Hunter S. Thompson serving as property manager. Kripal paints the Esalen scene at the time:

Thompson was hardly the only colorful character on the Murphy property, though. The folksinger Joan Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she often gave small concerts. The guest hotel on the grounds, moreover, was being managed by a certain Mrs. Webb, a fervent Evangelical Christian who had hired her fellow church members from the First Church of God of Prophecy to help her manage…the place…. The bar, on the other hand, was patronized by what Price and Murphy called the Big Sur Heavies, locals known for their rough manners, their penchant for marijuana (which they grew in the mountains), and their quasi-criminal (or just criminal) tendencies. Then there were the baths, frequented on most weekends by homosexual men who would drive down from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles to gather in the hot waters and explore the limits of sensual pleasure. These men had even developed a kind of simple Morse code…to signal to the bathing lovers the approach of straight people coming down the path.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues more than once.

Kripal is not just a scholar and careful historian of the institution, he also drank the Kool-Aid. Kripal can take an overly credulous tone about the synchronous events that contributed to Esalen’s mystique. For instance, Price and Murphy met with Aldous Huxley shortly before his death, just before the two founded Esalen. When referring to Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, Kripal writes:

“Somehow, Aldous knew what Esalen would come to know. And then he died. An earthquake struck Big Sur that day.”

Holy shit! Man the lifeboats!

But this is also part of Kripal’s mystical approach to his subject. He believes that there were a series of spiritual or energetic transmissions from both Eastern and Western traditions that created a unique energy at Esalen. The value in this is the depth of understanding Kripal brings to every stream of thought feeding into Esalen’s crucible. He understands mysticism, and mystics, and in many ways illustrates through his writing what he describes at Esalen: the ability for personal gnosis and critical thinking to co-exist and even enhance one another. Kripal appears to agree with Michael Murphy’s basic premise that there is in fact an evolution of human potential going on, and he seems to have intended his book to be at one level a vehicle for further transmission to those who read it a certain way.

Kripal has been at the center of controversy with some of his earlier works on Hinduism in particular, where he has suggested that much of Eastern mystical experience derived from sublimated homoerotic urges, and he has examined more than one Indian mystic through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis. In this history, just about every person connected with Esalen was either influenced by Asian tantric traditions or contributed to tantra’s integration into Western culture. Page by page he bangs that drum, until you either cry uncle or get zapped by a divine transmission of spiritual unity. For me it was mostly the former, but perhaps that is because I am already a child of the California mindset and need no further zapping. If so, I will take it as a blessing.

This book surprised me by vindicating one of my initial criticisms of Jone Salomonsen‘s book about Reclaiming, Enchanted Feminism. In my review from 2002, I argued that Jone tries to tie Reclaiming’s praxis exclusively to Judeo-Christian origins, when in fact it was highly influenced by yoga, meditation, and other Eastern influences. There is much more than a passing connection between Starhawk‘s 1994 novel The Fifth Sacred Thing and Michael Murphy’s 1977 novel Jacob Atabet. Jone missed these major regional influences, and any future history of the Pagan movement in the Bay Area will have to take this up more seriously.

The “religion of no religion” (a phrase originally coined by Frederic Spiegelberg, another important Esalen influence) is Kripal’s unified field theory of West Coast mysticism: a mixture of nature religion, the non-theistic strains of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Western somatic psychology, and the tantric union of opposites. To Kripal, Esalen stands as a central broadcasting tower, transmitting these ideas into the weave of world culture.

In ancient cosmology, the mountain was the center of the world. Here we have a place at the bleeding edge of a continent, clinging to the cliffs of the most unstable mountain range in North America, at the confluence of 3 sacred waters: sulphur, fresh, and salt. Any alchemist can tell you that big juju lies there. Try it yourself, I highly recommend it. And if you really want to understand California Cosmology, you need to read this book.

8 thoughts on “The Navel of No Thing

  1. Anne Post author

    Didn’t I just do that? Sure feels like it!

    Reading the book really reminded me of the first time I saw that movie about the Big Sur folk fest, years ago at the UC Theater. There was Joan Baez singing, Joni Mitchell strumming her dulcimer, David Crosby and all his pals soaking in the baths, tons of people on the lawns…and I remember feeling green with envy that I had been born too late! Now I am so grateful for having grown up in the 70s instead, and feel like we all dodged a rather large bullet by *not* being part of that scene.

  2. Helen/Hawk

    i’m starting to think that next time someone asks me “what trad?”…….the answer should be “CALIFORNIAN COSMOLOGY”

  3. deborah oak

    Anne, thank you. I will get this book. So interesting that Reclaiming/Starhawk essentially got 86ed (bartender language for kicked out and not allowed back) for getting into an altercation there. If life were a dream…and it is….what would this mean? mmmmmmmmmmmmm

  4. Livia

    Wow, the more I read about California Cosmology the more I think one has to have lived there to grasp it. It sounds so rich and varied and exotic compared to the bleak landscape of my home in the Bible Belt. But I enjoy reading your discussions, fascinating.

  5. David

    He may have written the history of Esalen, but as someone who participated in the transformational times of the 60’s and 70’s, the book strikes me as being written by some voyeur, looking through the peephole at people doing powerful things with their lives, yet capturing none of the essence of that power.

  6. Anne Post author

    That’s interesting, David. I don’t agree with you about the book not capturing any of the essence of that power; I think Kripal’s writing is very energetic and expressive. Yet any book which describes a scene without the observer having participated in it is necessarily going to seem voyeuristic to those who were there. I don’t know of any way to resolve this dilemma, other than more and different books being written about Esalen, from the perspective of those who were there back in the day.

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