- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

In 1962, two young Americans from affluent families, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, set up at Big Sur on the California coast, a place they wanted to become a center for fostering new ways of looking at religion and encouraging alternative lifestyles.

They named their creation Esalen, after the Esselens, an American Indian tribe that once inhabited the region but no longer existed.

Both Murphy and Price, like many of their generation, were deeply attracted to Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, Taoism and the tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, which, they said, offered spiritual solace they no longer found in Western religions.

Their chief complaint was that Christianity and Judaism were too spiritual, failing to give an adequate place to the body and its needs. At Esalen, they hoped, body and spirit, East and West, would be united into a new faith that valued both and disparaged neither.

Nearly a half century later, Esalen is still around. Like Bob Dylan, it is one of the few 1960s institutions that still endures.

In “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion,” Jeffrey J. Kripal offers an intellectual history of the place, charting the numerous men and women whose lives and thought influenced Esalen, and the many who lived and worked there over the years.

It’s quite a story, and Mr. Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston, tells that part of it well and often entertainingly. But Mr. Kripal also takes up another big theme — the history of what he chooses to call an American mystical tradition — which he handles much less adeptly.

And in a big and sprawling book that takes up at length the ideas that influenced Esalen and that were developed there, he leaves largely untouched (though he mentions them in passing) aspects of the place that might give readers a better idea of what it was and is really like.

These aspects include the high suicide rate in the early years — noted by many who were there — and the fact that from the beginning the place attracted, almost without exception, upper-middle-class whites and very few others. About both much more should have been said.

Mr. Kripal shows how Big Sur residents, such as the writer Henry Miller (and later the Beats) gave the area, one of the most beautiful in America, an unconventional and bohemian aura that Esalen would share.

He traces the influence on Esalen of writers like Gerald Heard, the eccentric but now little remembered author of “The Human Venture” and Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World,” “Island”), advocates of alternative religious faiths who came from Great Britain to California long before Esalen was established

The catchy phrase “religion of no religion,” which is part of the book’s subtitle, derives, Mr. Kripal writes, from the thought of Frederic Spiegelberg, the dynamic Stanford University professor of religion in whose classes introduced Esalen cofounder Michael Murphy to Eastern spirituality.

By “religion of no religion” Spiegelberg meant a spirituality that identifies with no single religion, Mr. Kripal explains, and which worships a “God beyond all sectarian categories.”

Previous advocates of “religion of no religion” include the 19th century holy man of India, Sri Ramakrishna, “who embraced all faiths as effective paths to the divine,” and, according to Mr. Kripal, the American poet Walt Whitman, who sang, in “Leaves of Grass,” “my faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths.”

What the “religion of no religion” came to mean at Esalen was an eclectic blend of Eastern religious practices coupled with a very California devotion to message therapy, sex and drugs, particularly LSD, Mr. Kripal notes, mostly uncritically.

The author does a good job in sorting out the often conflicting spiritual ideas and practices that sprang up at Esalen; everyone, it seems, had her or his own notion of what spirituality genuinely is, and no single view was allowed to carry the day, at least for very long.

But it is his inability to be critical that is one of the book’s chief flaws. Indeed, Mr. Kripal celebrates (for the most part) Esalen as an important contribution to an American mystical tradition.

Yet he fails to sufficiently define what that mystical tradition is, except for a few references to Whitman and others such as Emerson and William James. Absent almost entirely from the book is an effort to locate Esalen within the great tradition of American utopian communities.

These are significant failures, because many readers may be find it difficult to buy the notion that the men and women at Esalen were building on and enriching American spiritual traditions.

They are more likely to wonder if the well-to-do young and old attracted to the place weren’t there primarily to indulge personal fantasies, bask in the glorious scenery and avoid commitment in the real world.

It is interesting to see how closely Esalen resembles similar American “experiments.” More than 100 years before Esalen was founded, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne spent time at Brook Farm, one of several utopian communities of the 19th century.

In his 1852 novel, “The Blithedale Romance,” Hawthorne described the experience, about which he clearly had mixed feelings. He could have been describing Esalen.

“We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpedience of lumbering along with the old system any further,” Hawthorne has his narrator say about those who joined the community. “As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”

Later in the novel, the narrator notes the chaotic atmosphere of Brook Farm, where everyone had his or her own idea of what was best for everyone else. “It was a kind of Bedlam … although out of the very thoughts that were wildest and most destructive might grow a wisdom, holy, calm, and pure, and that should incarnate itself with the substance of a noble and happy life.”

But this holy and calm wisdom doesn’t come. In one of the novel’s most striking sections, the narrator sees the leader of Blithedale stripped of the benevolent front he presented to be community and was struck by “the terrible egotism” that was at the very core of the leader’s personality.

The leader, contrary to what he thought of himself and how others saw him, was no “angel of God.”

No doubt many readers will agree with the narrator’s very American response to his experience at Blithedale. “It was now time … to go and hold a little talk with the conservatives … the merchants … and all those respectable old block heads, who still, in this intangibility and mustiness of affairs, kept a death-grip on one or two ideas which had not come into vogue since yesterday morning.”

Mr. Kripal’s book could have benefited from this sound advice.

Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.

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