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EsalenReview - Esalen
America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal
University Of Chicago Press, 2007
Review by A. P. Bober
Apr 15th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 16)

This must be the comprehensive tome on the history and dynamic of the love-generation phenomenon that was "Esalen"/Esselen.  Behind this survey lie the life-work of Murphy, Miller, and Maslow, rounded out by that of Perls and Schutz, filled out by a cascade of names enough for a phone directory.  After this Golden Era charisma-bearers like the odd Price emerge trying to salvage or redefine the mission.  In passing Kripal deepens knowledge of F.W.H. Myers whom I took as a proto-psychoanalyst important to James's Varieties.  He turns out to be a classics scholar turned Theosophist who spoke of subliminal automatisms perhaps echoing Nietzche's "it."  Unfortunately, Kripal admits (note 15, Ch. 18) to imposing the gloss "psychology of mystical trauma" on Myers' system.  In the same context a term like "re-sociative" might better state the actual left-right integration of what modern life depreciates as "dissociative" (410) from a contentless clinical reality-orientation.

This usually enchanting and informative essay revives in me kinds of experience widely available to Esalen participants: falling in love with the form of T'ai Chi Ch'uan done on the cliffpoint mirador; women, followed by men, stripping to be viewed for bodily expressions of psychological issues, e. g., cheesecake thighs as "frozen pelvis"; the sulphur smell of the baths whose heat turned us to lobsters; non-lactating resident teen girls practice-nursing babies.  Kripal's key insight is that the areligiosity of 60's and early-70's Esalen was a kind of religion of the body a la Norman O. Brown's Love's Body for the Bourgeois Oppressed of Amerika. 

Every reader will have his favorite anecdotes.  I offer mine.  Someone was making a movie on shamanism with four leaders (174-5) in which the response to Carlos Castañeda's claim that all reality was consensual was a non-angry, instructive slap from Fritz Perls, after which Carlos told the "old man" to have intercourse with himself.  Kripal refers (178) to Dr. Lilly's seductive dolphin "Dolly" who apparently got it on with a man.  And there's the startling fact (435-6) that El Niño destroyed the baths, later rebuilt, on April 28th, 1998.  Fritz Perls had a wall of glasses of those who apparently realized they decided not to see, much as in the est and other encounter the lore of those who gave up their asthma through insight.

Kripal surprisingly insists on a much greater Freudian (140) than Jungian (142) core  to the Tantrism of Esalen's stars; even more among many residents and the "X-nanda" avatars of the James era, a homophilic line.  The vaguely defined mysticism anchors itself in a word-salad of current socio-political clichés simmering down to American Mammon lost in leisure.  Kripal unfortunately conjoins that word in meaningless ways:  "psychotic-mystical exeriences" (170), "mystical eroticism" (220).  Freud's interesting final jotting in The Complete Psychological Works is tantalizing, if ambiguous, as a chapter epigraph (135):  "Mysticsim is the obscure self-perception of the realm outside the ego, of the id."  Kripal reports a typically vague definition in Murphy  (471) saying "mystical refers to any state of consciousness, traditional or contemporary, that is revelatory of some deeper truth or reality."  Suggesting at the end (447) that post-mortem survival is "the most basic of all mystical intuitions" Kripal reveals his theurgic commitment that some put on the fringes of mysticism.  He implies (140) that sexual powers are numinous when that word most primitively suggests politico-religious assent in the form of a "nod."

Kripal fails to mention Esalen's attempts to receive educational certification, thus money, failure thereof likely due to bodily permissiveness, charismatic avoidance of explicit structure, and gossip.

Textual infelicities, of author or editor, may increase a reader's doubts about a work:  "principle" this and that, yet (285) "principal athletic"; turgid and questionably hyphenated adverbial participle "most well-known" (429) and "most long-standing" (434) rather than "better known" or "longer standing"; singular verb, "perpetuates," with a plural subject (212); an overcorrecting "an historical," unless, Cockney-style, he vowelizes.  More significantly  he gives an eytmologically more remote (345) "hidden" or "secret" for mustikos when two possible Greek verbs, muo and mueo, suggest as easily simply closing sensory orifices, say, to enhance inner experience.  Further, he invents (419) the needless term "panentheism" for so-called nature mysticism causing confusion with Zaehner's Greek "panenhenic" as all-in-one.

Kripal has dedicated tremendous research time detailing rich historical facts and recalling many unique events and experiences in the encounter phenomenon known as "Esalen." Despite perceived deficiencies I have no doubt that those who have been there will especially dredge up much to smile about as if recalling a lost love.

© 2008 Anthony P. Bober

A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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