The Religion of No Religion

The Hidden History of Esalen

By Steve Paulson


One day in 1950, Michael Murphy accidentally walked into a class on comparative religion at Stanford. In that class, taught by the charismatic German professor Frederick Spiegelberg, Murphy discovered, among many other things, the writings of Indian philosopher and contemplative Sri Aurobindo, who believed the “whole cosmos is a slumbering spirit, and the cosmos is essentially God waking up.”

Murphy carried that vision with him over the next decade, and in 1962, he - along with another young visionary named Richard Price - started the Esalen Institute on the cliffs of Big Sur in northern California. That plot of land, which was originally bought by Murphy’s grandfather for its thermal springs, soon became a gathering spot for those exploring alternative spirituality, free love and psychedelic experiences. Spiritual seekers from around the world came for the hot springs, workshops on yoga and meditation, and to engage with the human potential movement. Cultural luminaries such as Abraham Maslow, Aldous Huxley, Buckminster Fuller and Joseph Campbell came to teach classes.

For all of its New Age gloss, though, Esalen was founded as a place to investigate the underlying philosophy of religious experience. Today, more than 50 years after its founding, Esalen still attracts a steady stream of visitors. And yes, the hot tubs - where clothing is optional but definitely not preferred - is part of the allure. But Esalen also carries on its intellectual projects through its Center for Theory & Research, which Murphy runs with comparative religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal.

I recently visited Esalen, where I attended a seminar on rethinking the imagination. One morning, I got up early to interview Murphy and Kripal, author of the definitive history of Esalen. We sat on the deck of Murphy House, listening to the waves crash below us, as we talked about Esalen’s improbable legacy.

What about Esalen’s reputation for hot tubs, hippies, sex and drugs?

Murphy: The media caught up with us in ‘67. By that time, we’d been swept downstream in the heady days of the Summer of Love and the hippies who were marching by the thousands down the Big Sur coast with camp fires and psychedelics. Here, there was a lot of discussion of and experimentation with psychedelic drugs. Yes, there were hot baths, there was a lot of LSD, but at the core of it - the reason for it, then and now - had to do with the mind as well as the body. It was body, mind, heart and soul from the very beginning.

Where does Esalen figure into the modern history of spirituality?

Kripal: It’s at a kind of origin point for a lot of things that people see. A lot of the things that Esalen stood for in the early Sixties - like yoga, meditation, the discussion between science and spirituality, being “spiritual but not religious” - those banners were flying here in the early Sixties, but they were flying virtually nowhere else. Now, of course, they’re flying everywhere. A lot of things that people assume about alternative spirituality in America didn’t begin here, but they were catalyzed and super-charged here in the Sixties and Seventies. I think Esalen has had an immense influence. It was a very visible influence in the Sixties and early Seventies, but since then it’s been largely indirect and invisible. Tens of thousands of people are coming here, being influenced in some subtle way, meeting some idea or person, and then going out and doing things in the world.

Is Esalen grounded in any particular religious tradition or is it a spiritual grab bag?

Murphy: What drives me - and I think the spirit of this place - is ultimately [Spiegelberg’s idea of] “the religion of no religion.” It’s a turn away from [organized religion] and towards something. Most of the people who come here have roots that are either Jewish or Christian. You’re turning toward this being that Frederick Spiegelberg, my teacher, felt - that spirit, that imminence of the divine in everything. There was a revolutionary impulse here, whether we liked it or not. In the beginning you could say it was a sub-culture. Ted Roszak called it a “counter-culture.” But a lot of the people here are actually Republicans. There are a lot of atheists who turn out to be crypto-mystics. Some of the leaders here, such as Fritz Perls, were dedicated atheists. But in their private moments, they talked as if with tongues, in a learned language of mysticism. And that’s been driving this place for 52 years.

Kripal: You don’t need God to have a mystical experience. And a lot of mystical traditions are deeply critical of God as some kind of separate being out there. So for me, it’s not incompatible at all.

Is this just cafeteria spirituality, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, without depth? Is it just for people who dabble?

Kripal: That comes from a conservative place, philosophically. It comes from a place that wants to preserve traditions as silos that have nothing to do with one another. What Esalen has done wasn’t new in the culture - the Transcendentalists were doing this in the middle of the 19th century. Once you locate religious authority in the human person, once you identify an imminent god, there’s nothing to stop the individual from picking and choosing anything he or she wants - because the authority doesn’t lie in this tradition or that scripture, with that priest or authority. It lies inside. And the people resist that correctly recognize how radical it is.

The Religion of No Religion

Famous for its hot tubs and its yoga and massage workshops, Esalen Institute actually began as a place to explore the underlying philosophy of spiritual experience, and then popularized America's particular brand of "spirituality without religion." Sitting on the deck of Murphy House at Esalen, Steve Paulson talks with co-founder Michael Murphy and comparative religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal, author of the definitive history of Esalen.

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