Michael Murphy: 50 Years of Esalen

Michael Murphy: 50 Years of Esalen

Dec 05

Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute


By Patt Morrison
LA Times
December 5, 2012

Original Link

Before the Esalen Institute, there was Michael Murphy’s family’s property, a choice chunk of gorgeous Big Sur, where, in 1962, Murphy (writer, seeker) and his friend and fellow human potentialist Dick Price dedicated the Murphy land to the now 50-year-old center for the pursuit of personal and social consciousness-raising. Notables like Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Joan Baez and Henry Miller contemplated themselves and the world there. Esalen’s scholarly social initiatives tend to get overlooked, while the touchy-feely stuff gets the attention. Recent staff changes, the opening of a Carmel office and putting meat — albeit organic — on Esalen’s menu has some grousing about its pristine alt cred. Murphy, now director of Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research, is a witty, well-schooled man who stays — there’s no other word for it — centered.

Question: On Esalen’s big anniversaries — the 10th, the 20th and now the 50th — there are internal complaints and hand-wringing news stories about how it’s lost its bearings, if not its soul.

It seems like we have to have a midlife crisis every 10 years — it’s obligatory!

We have gone through changes. The world is changing. In the ’60s, we didn’t have nearly the regulations we have today. With the idealism of the age, we didn’t pay salaries. We’ve had to learn to be a more efficient business and to grow a competent, convivial board of trustees. I resigned as chairman four years ago; I am not to the chairman manor born. My instincts are all entrepreneurial, and I should have resigned a lot earlier. We’ve had to develop or we’d be out of business.

Question: Business — that word raises the hackles of some Esalen folks.

We have to keep reminding everybody we’ve really held to our mission as we conceived it. We are concerned with both personal and social change and growth and transformation, but we have been privileged to have the freedom to go where mainstream academia and religion can’t or don’t want to go. [We do] things that aren’t getting done [elsewhere].

We said from the beginning, this is not for therapy, it’s for expanding consciousness — that’s the language we used — but without a strict dogmatic framework. Our motto was “no one captures the flag.”

Question: “Spiritual but not religious” is a phrase far more Americans use to describe themselves now than in 1962.

That’s been a dominant theme at Esalen: people seeking spiritual depth, and the undiscovered country of our human potential. This is huge historic sorting out of these things, a winnowing of authentic religious yearning and aspiration and a contemplative practice, even, mystical practice.

Our friend John Cleese says religion is two things: The minority [of it] is the authentic search for God, and the rest is crowd control.

Question: People have perceived Esalen as hostile to religion.

No. In the late ’60s, we had a big venture with the National Council of Churches. They would send leading religious thinkers like [Episcopal] Bishop James Pike to programs sponsored by Esalen that were experiential — Gestalt therapy, meditation, somatics — then reflect on them from a theological point of view. Now in our citizen diplomacy programs we have the Abrahamic family reunion: Christians, Jews and Muslims getting at the wounds and the historical resentments to bring them out and deal with them.

Question: Is Esalen a utopian community in the American tradition of Oneida?

This is something we’ve had to resist strongly: people who want to turn us into some sort of closed community. It’s not; it’s a meeting place, a forum, a school for explorers.

Question: Yoga was exotic in the 1960s; now yoga studios pop up like Starbucks. Does it make you wince?

I’m completely inoculated to the wincing.

[As] this tremendous turn in the culture happened, people feel Esalen became the prime place for that. When my parents heard I was interested in yoga, they thought it was a yogi lying on a bed of nails. Now there are 20,000 yoga studios in the United States.

Our whole format was widely imitated. By 1970, there must have been 100 centers modeled on Esalen.

Question: I was surprised to read about some Esalen initiatives: sessions with CIA and KGB people, Ford Foundation projects, programs to bring your techniques into the schools.

We’ve collected about 10,000 studies [on] growth and exceptional human functioning.

We have fellowships, people doing things they cannot do at their respective institutions. We’ve sponsored at least 100 exchanges with Russian — formerly Soviet — groups. To do it, we’ve had to stay in touch with intelligence agencies on both sides. Sen. Claiborne Pell [D-R.I.], the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was a great friend of ours.

I tell you, KGB guys in the same room as CIA guys — it was just astonishing to see the friendships that developed. I’m not saying that Esalen [is] taking credit for anything in particular, but we did contribute to the events that led to the end of the Cold War.

Question: Didn’t Esalen get tarred with the same brush as wacky notions like harmonic convergence?

We’ve always had to fight that perception. When we started, the people we gathered were not so-called New Agers. They were smart, disciplined people. For me it’s always been a problem trying to disassociate Esalen’s reputation from crystals and harmonic convergences and so forth.

By 1970, I personally felt that some of the so-called encounter groups — I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. . We have learned that certain things don’t work.

Cults can make you sick. Some [are like] the flu, some [are like] pneumonia, and some, like Jim Jones, require that everyone commit suicide together. You watch these cults like you watch a wreck in slow motion. In the ’70s and early ’80s, we dealt with a lot of people who were trying to get out of the clutches of these destructive cults and gurus. [Our] tradition was freedom from crippling beliefs. People would show up at Esalen and try to detoxify, as it were.

If you’re going to go into these territories, you’ve got to have very good crap detectors.

Question: And then there’s the nude baths, hot tubs fed by hot springs.

The baths are great, but we’re a lot more than those baths. There was one point we thought about blasting them off the cliff!

Question: Esalen’s been criticized for being a place for the elites, not regular people.

To some extent that’s true; most [visitors] are middle class, but most Americans are middle class. It does cost money. We’ve always been conscious of this, so we’ve got scholarship programs. We’re a nonprofit; we’ve got to make ends meet.

Esalen is not for everyone, but we all believe that what it puts into the society will benefit the common good. [There’s] the program on confluent education, educating our emotions and our bodies as well as our minds. We started that. It’s spread to 25 countries.

Esalen’s staff in 1968 wrote the first legislation in Congress that mentioned the words “humanistic medicine” or “holistic health.” It’s like a university, a research institute that does things that spread out into the culture.

Question: There must have been hundreds of parodies and cartoons mocking Esalen. You must have a collection of them.

I’m fully aware of the parodies and jokes. We tell an awful lot of those jokes ourselves. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor if you’re in this business, I tell you.

Question: Your bestselling novel “Golf in the Kingdom” is about the intersection of mystical experiences and golf, and you’ve explored it in other sports too.

It opened an incredible window for me. I discovered that golf is a mystery school for Republicans. If I go to country clubs, someone’s going to tell me their latest mystical [golf] experience. I’ve been interviewing athletes for 40 years. I’ve been an anthropologist of the occult and mystical in sport. Bill Bradley told me he was reading “Golf in the Kingdom” when he played for the New York Knicks.

We’ve worked with Russian and Soviet Olympic committees with training methods sports psychologists are using, visualization exercises, and athletes start having these experiences. They don’t have a language to handle it, and you can think you’re getting cuckoo when you suddenly have this loss of boundaries in a mystical experience. The original Olympic Games in Greece acknowledge this — they were for the gods.

Question: Will Esalen invite the Republican and Democratic leadership out to Big Sur for some conflict resolution?

You’re not going to believe this — we had a conference with Chinese leaders [who said], “Why don’t you tackle the one the world really needs? Trying to get the Democratic and Republican leadership together?” I said I’d much rather do nuclear confrontation than the Democrats and the Republicans. That’s above my pay grade!



• Michael Murphy: 50 Years of Esalen
• Esalen, Now 50 Years Old, Ponders Its Future
• Documentary: ‘Supernature: Esalen And The Human Potential’
• Michael Murphy: The Future Of The Human Body
• Important: Stephen Dinan Interviews Esalen Founder Michael Murphy
• Human Potential Pioneer George Leonard Dies
• Interview With Jeffrey Kripal: Esalen’s Tantric Transhumanism
• The Supernatural, Supernormal & Popular Culture Conference At Esalen
• Esalen America & The Religion Of No Religion
• Esalen: Top Hippie Enclave Is Hip Again
• Michael Murphy, George Leonard, Ken Wilber: Integral Transformative Practice
• Esalen, Ken Wilber & Integral Life Practice

All Things Integral



  1. My first exposure to Esalen was in late October 1965 when it was called “Big Sur Hot Springs”. Two or three weeks earlier I’d just ‘dropped out’ of my young career as a nuclear scientist, which unraveled everything else in my life. As guest of Episcopal priest John David Arnold, who wanted the Big Sur people to hear me sing, he introduced me to the Jungian spontaneous dancers of Mary Whitehouse. Spontaneous singing with spontaneous dancing: What a transformative experience!! It was a fundamental life redirect.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Eugene. Based on what you’ve shared here, and have posted on your website, it sounds like you’ve had quite a life!

  3. Yeah, David. It hasn’t been a boring one! But you remind me to update that site… :)

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