Tag Archives: Esalen

Hotel California Cosmology

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The unique blend of Eastern and Western mysticism, science, and parapsychology that characterizes California Cosmology makes so much intuitive sense to me that it is difficult to even describe why that is so. In my review of Jeffrey Kripal’s book on Esalen I gave it a pretty fair shot, so I won’t spend time tonight trying to say more. Instead I want to introduce its evil twin, what I call Hotel California Cosmology.

California cosmology is what I grew up on, catching glimpses on the radio, tv, and on the streets as a Bay Area youngster in the 1960s and 70s. It was wild and free, challenging, esoteric, erotic, and hinted of a grand future for humanity. It was also what I was looking for as a teenager, the lucky number on which I placed all my chips as I extricated myself from the staid environment I was raised in and headed out on my own.

My chief concern, once I moved to Berkeley at 17, was being able to tell the difference between the real thing and the cheap or dangerous imitation. My first success was landing a job at the Lhasa Karnak herb store on Telegraph Ave., where I learned a lot about healing plants. In a near miss, I went down to Shambhala Books one evening when Robert Anton Wilson was scheduled to speak.

I got halfway through the door when I caught sight of him in his bulky Alpaca sweater surrounded by acolytes, and a strange thing happened. He creeped me out instantly. I was physically repelled by his energy and by the whole scene around him, so I turned around and left. That was the first time I’d ever had such a strong negative intuition, and I consider it a minor miracle that I had enough sense in my innocence to pay attention to it.

But when you are searching for transformation, you can’t stay safe all the time. Sooner or later you will be sucked in by something and lose your bearings, because that’s the only way to undergo a powerful change. Finding yourself again is the tricky part, of course, but that’s kind of like waking up from a dream. First you have to fall asleep.

In my case, I was again fortunate to land in the Bay Area direct action community in the early 1980s, where anarchist coffeehouses, collective living and Pagan spirituality brought together a wonderful cast of characters. There was a whole lot of transformation going on, and the good outweighed the bad most of the time. I think if you can say that about the pivotal times in your life, you’ve done pretty well.

At a certain point, though, you grow up. The charismatic charmer is revealed to be a narcissistic jerk. The clever facilitator is actually a control freak. And moments where it seemed something was being accomplished turn out to have been anomalies rather than progress.

If your goal is to find yourself again after going through a life-changing transformation, this is the time when you need to bow out and forge your own path. But some people take the opposite tack. While others are working to individuate from the group, these folks decide that what the group needs is to become more enmeshed with each other. More Kool-Aid please, and double the dose.

These are the conditions in which Hotel California Cosmology (HCC) thrives. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” as the song helpfully informs us. HCC is all about manipulation, not of experience but of how you perceive and are allowed to talk about your experience. And whereas the best examples of California Cosmology merge personal gnosis and critical thinking, with HCC there is only room for uncritical thinking and emotion—lots of emotion. Analysis and logic are thrown out the window like so much old-paradigm hooey, and in its place we can all agree with each other some more about how we are experiencing something truly radical and life-affirming.

The best example of this is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which has produced the most mind-numbing blather, and the most sanctimonious adherents, of any fad I have ever encountered. NVC completely strips dialogue of any accountability. It considers not just judgment but educating, praising, apologizing, and correcting to be coercive, blame-based communication patterns.

Intention is king in NVC, and if I tell you I will do something and then don’t do it, number one you can’t blame me because blame is a throwback to violent communication. Number two, I can hold the space for you to express your feelings if you can do so in a non-judgmental way that at no point asks me to apologize for my failure. Number three it was not a failure, and I appreciate the connection I feel with you around hearing your authentic experience. Number four, I hear that you still need me to do what I intended to do, and I am expressing that it is still my intention. Now, don’t we both feel better?

NVC is such a deep study in grandiose irrelevance, I’m sure I will have more to say about it at a later date. For now, though, I will close with a handy list of things to check for if you suspect you are caught up in a HCC vortex. I wrote these reality-check points in a comment to an earlier post of mine, but have rewritten them here in a way that is relevant to a broader range of Hotel California groups and ideas. If you suspect you are in a group that is under the influence of its own Kool-Aid, here are some things to check for in meetings, ceremonies and conversation.

  • Is deference always paid to the person with the biggest personality?
  • Are moments of real connection repeatedly broken by a call to arms over a signature issue?
  • Is the “ideal vision” invoked at times when questions or divergent opinions are expressed? Does that effectively end the debate?
  • Do the leaders play on the emotions of others to mask a lack of integrity in themselves?
  • Are policies and goals framed in an either/or, good/bad manner, rather than acknowledging a range of beliefs or possibilities?
  • Are ethical concerns re-framed as issues of personal choice or group diversity, in order to deflect personal accountability? Is this maneuver successful?

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.