Esalen Institute

views updated May 21 2018

Esalen Institute

A center at Big Sur, California, formed to explore trends in the behavioral sciences, religion, and philosophy that emphasize the potentialities and values of human existence. It was founded in 1962 by Michael H. Murphy to devise ways of extending human potential. The name derives from a tribe of Indians who once lived along the California coast.

Murphy spent three years in study and meditation before creating Esalen and lived for 18 months at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, India. His associates have included Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert ), William C. Schutz, Ida P. Rolf, and Frederick S. Perls. Many famous individuals have given lecture courses or acted as advisers, including veteran mythologist Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Ralph Metzer, and Bishop John Robinson (of Britain). Esalen made encounter group a universally recognized term and has conducted courses in mythology, mysticism, meditation, psychotherapy, group awareness, emotional reeducation, and expansion of consciousness. Michael Murphy has also been associated with the formation of Quaesitor, a European center with programs similar to Esalen's.

Inevitably, the wide range of activities and lecturers at Esalen has invited criticism that the center has sometimes sensationalized sensitive areas of human experience and potential. In addition to reputable and accredited individuals, workshops have also been conducted by self-styled mystics, shamans, and experimenters. For example, one staff member of Esalen whimsically claimed in a brochure current or previous bouts as "a drug user, village idiot, thief, madman, carny, masseur, and shaman." However, Esalen has undoubtedly pioneered and popularized new directions in human awareness and relationships and introduced methods of "turning on" without drugs. It has been considered a power center of the human potential movement.

Esalen grew out of an exciting discussion between Aldous Huxley, Michael Murphy, and Richard Price in Santa Monica in the summer of 1961. The story of the founding and history of Esalen, and the many famous names associated with it as the consciousness revolution swept the United States and influenced the world, is chronicled by Walter Truett Anderson in his book The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening (1983). The title derives from the play A Sleep of Prisoners, by British playwright Christopher Fry, which describes a dark and frozen winter of centuries that begins to thaw in the "upstart spring." The quotation occurred in an introduction to the 1965 Esalen brochure. The book describes Esalen's beginnings; its exploration of new lifestyles; its development as a gathering place for such individuals as Alan Watts, Gregory Bateson, Timothy Leary, and Abraham Maslow; and the triumphs, mistakes, tragedies, and controversies of Esalen's heady history.

Anderson is a political scientist, journalist, author of books on American politics and social movements, and a former contributing editor to Human Behavior magazine. He has also served on the editorial board of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. He visited Esalen in the mid-1960s and later became an instructor there.

Esalen maintains a wide range of programs and continues to pioneer new approaches to the development of human consciousness. Address: Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA 93920.


Anderson, Walter Truett. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1983.

Miller, Stuart. Hot Springs. New York: Viking Press, 1971.