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Esalen Institute is a center for humanistic alternative education, a nonprofit organization devoted to multidisciplinary studies ordinarily neglected by traditional academia. Esalen offers more than 500 public workshops a year in addition to invitational conferences, residential work-study programs, research initiatives, and internships. Part think-tank for the emerging world culture, part college and lab for transformative practices, and part restorative retreat, Esalen is dedicated to exploring work in the humanities and sciences that furthers the full realization of what Aldous Huxley called the “human potential”.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price in 1962. Esalen soon became known for its blend of East/West philosophies, its experiential/didactic workshops, the steady influx of philosophers, psychologists, artists, and religious thinkers.

Esalen Institute exists to promote the harmonious development of the whole person. It is a learning organization dedicated to restricted exploration of the human potential, and resists religious, scientific and other dogmas except for gestalt psychotherapy, which permeates all levels of the community based staff and business model. It fosters theory, practice, research, and institution-building to facilitate personal and social transformation and, to that end, sponsors seminars for the general public; invitational conferences; research programs; residencies for artists, scholars, scientists, and religious teachers; work-study programs; and semi-autonomous projects.

— Michael Murphy, Chairman, Esalen Board of Trustees, Esalen Institute Statement of Purpose

Once home to a Native American tribe known as the Esselen, Esalen is situated on 27 acres (109,000 m²) of spectacular Big Sur coastline with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply above the Pacific Ocean. A key geological feature of the site are its cliff-side natural hot-springs. The grounds are divided by the Hot Springs Canyon which also serves as a fresh water source along with underground springs. The location is also a Monarch butterfly overwintering site. It is located in California about 45 miles (72 km) south of the Monterey and Carmel area along scenic State Route 1 (about a three-hour drive south of San Francisco) and nine miles north of Lucia.


Given access to the ocean, fresh water, and the hot springs, the Esselen people had used the grounds regularly and parts served as burial grounds. The Esselen population was largely decimated by disease and in the Spanish Mission at Carmel though a number of people today can still trace their ancestry to the Esselen.

Carbon dating of artifacts found on the grounds indicates human presence as early as 4,000 BC.

In the 1870s Thomas Slate visited the site to use the hot springs as he suffered from severe arthritis. He homesteaded the property in the early 1880s. The site became the first tourist oriented business in Big Sur as others sought relief from similar afflictions.

In 1910, Slate sold the land to Dr. Henry Murphy, a Salinas physician who notably delivered John Steinbeck. Murphy bought the property with the intention of opening a European style health spa once the yet to be built State Route 1 was completed which, once started, was to be an 18 year project.

While the highway was being built, the site was used for engineers and others involved with the construction (the highway was largely built with convict labor though they were housed elsewhere.) The highway was opened in 1937 and then closed to the public with the outbreak of World War II.

After the highway reopened, the Murphy family had various property managers, a restaurant operated there, the hot springs were open to paid use, and some hotel units were built in the 1950s though it did not become what Dr. Murphy had originally intended.

The official name was “Big Sur Hot Springs” though it was more generally referred to as “Slate’s Hot Springs”.

Beginnings of Esalen Institute

Michael Murphy and Dick Price were classmates at Stanford University in the late 1940s/early 1950s though they did not meet until later at the suggestion of the Stanford professor of comparative religion and Indic studies, Frederic Spiegelberg with whom they had both studied. In the time since leaving Stanford, Price went to Harvard University to continue studying psychology, lived in San Francisco with Alan Watts and went through a transformative psychotic break and institutionalization before returning to San Francisco. Murphy had gone to Sri Aurobindo's ashram in India and was also back in San Francisco.

After meeting, they found much in common and, in 1961, went to the Big Sur property. The two of them began drawing up plans for a forum that would be open to ways of thinking beyond the constraints of mainstream academia, while avoiding the dogmatism so often seen in groups organized around a single idea promoted by a charismatic leader. They envisioned a laboratory for experimentation with a wide range of philosophies, religious disciplines and psychological techniques. Dr. Murphy’s widow, and Michael’s grandmother, Vinnie, had refused to lease the property previously, including an earlier request from Michael, though she agreed to do so this time and granted free use of the property. This, combined with capital that Price had (his father being an executive vice-president at Sears) and the networking support and aid of Spiegelberg, Watts, Aldous and Laura Huxley, Gerald Heard and Gregory Bateson the experiment soon got off the ground.

Joan Baez was in residence at this time as was Hunter S. Thompson (who was employed, and later fired, by Vinnie Murphy as a security guard) and Henry Miller was a regular visitor.

Watts led the first seminar in 1962. In the summer of that same year Abraham Maslow happened to drive onto the grounds and was soon an important figure there. In 1964 Fritz Perls started a long-term residency at Esalen and became a major and lasting influence. Perls led numerous Gestalt Therapy seminars at Esalen, and he and Jim Simkin led Gestalt Therapy training courses there. Dick Price became one of Perls' closest students during Perls' time at Esalen. Price continued practicing and teaching Gestalt at Esalen until his own death in a hiking accident in 1985.

Esalen gained popularity quickly and was soon publishing a catalog of programs. The facility was large enough to run multiple programs simultaneously and Esalen started creating numerous resident teacher positions. All of this combined to make Esalen something of a counter-culture nexus.

Some of the early leaders included Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, B.F Skinner, Virginia Satir, Ansel Adams, Michael Harner, Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary and J.B. Rhine. Gia-Fu Feng and Chungliang Al Huang provided a strong Asian perspective (along with Watt's influence.)

Rather than lecturing and listening to lectures, a number of leaders and participants began experimenting with what Huxley called the non-verbal humanities: the education of the body, the senses, the emotions. The intention of much of the new work was to suggest a new ethic: to develop awareness to one’s present flow of experience, to express this fully and accurately, and to listen to the feedback. The experiential workshops that grew out of these experiments were particularly well attended and did much to shape Esalen’s future course.

Esalen was incorporated as a non-profit institution in 1967.

Greater popularity came when, on December 31, 1967 the New York Times Magazine published an article; Joy is the Prize: A Trip to Esalen Institute by Leo E. Litwak. The article was to be reprinted numerous times over the years in anthologies of outstanding magazine articles. More immediately, the article brought Esalen to the attention of scores of other media, not just in the U.S. but also overseas. Esalen responded by holding large-scale conferences in cities in the Mid-West, East Coast and Europe and opening a satellite center in San Francisco. This offered extensive programs but was to close in the mid 1970s.

Many of the offerings seemed meant to challenge the status quo such as The Value of Psychotic Experience and even the movement of which Esalen was a part such as Spiritual and Therapeutic Tyranny: The Willingness To Submit and Theological Reflection on The Human Potential. There was also a series of racial encounter groups.

Initiatives and Projects

Esalen has sponsored significant research and education projects and conferences in Big Sur and elsewhere. Some of these include:

Off-campus Conferences

have been held in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and at various colleges and universities including New York University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Berkeley, and the University of Massachusetts.

The Esalen Institute Soviet-American Exchange Program

was established in 1979 to create alternatives to adversarial relationships between nations by encouraging a broader understanding of human relations and human potential. Some highlight of this project:

In a 1981 conference Joseph Montville coined the term "track-two diplomacy" to refer to private-sector initiatives between Soviets and Americans that supplemented formal diplomatic channels.

In 1982 pioneered the first “spacebridges”, allowing Soviet and American citizens to speak directly with one another via satellite communications. These spacebridges inspired subsequent satellite teleconferences between Soviets and Americans, including an ongoing Congress-to-Supreme Soviet teleconference.

In 1985 helped create the Association of Space Explorers with astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the first forum in which Russian and American astronauts and cosmonauts could share their experiences in space and their hopes for the future of space exploration.

In 1986 co-produced a spacebridge on Chernobyl and Three Mile Island with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the USSR Academy of Sciences.

In 1988 brought Abel Aganbegyan, one of Mikhail Gorbachev's chief economic advisors and among the first influential Soviet economists to voice the need for a restructuring of the economic and business infrastructure of the Soviet Union, to the United States.

In 1989 brought Boris Yeltsin on his first trip to the United States. Esalen arranged meetings for Mr. Yeltsin with President George H. W. Bush, former President Ronald Reagan, and many leaders in business and government.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the project name was changed to the Russian-American Center and in 1994 became a separate 501 c-3 non-profit organization. It remains active and in close collaboration with Esalen.

The Schizophrenia Research Project

was conducted over a three year period with 127 young male schizophrenics at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose, California. This program, co-sponsored with the California Department of Mental Hygiene and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), explored the thesis that the health of certain patients will permanently improve if their disease is not interrupted with anti-psychotic chemotherapy. The results indicated that, in many instances, patients with a positive “integrating” attitude toward their disease, who were provided with a supportive hospital setting in which to freely express their psychotic behavior, were more likely to rebalance themselves than if they were given traditional treatment with drugs to lessen their symptoms during hospitalization. [1]

  1. includeonly>"Schizophrenia Research Project".

Publishing Project

Starting in the late 1960s, in association with Viking Press, published a series of seventeen books related to topics explored at Esalen. Notable works included Maslow’s Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Roberto Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis, Janet Lederman’s Anger and the Rocking Chair (Lederman started Esalen’s "Gazebo" pre-school in the mid-1970s) and titles by Joe K. Adams, Claudio Naranjo, George I. Brown, Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks.

Some of these books remain in print and Esalen later had a joint publishing arrangement with Lindisfarne Press.

Community at Esalen

Given Esalen’s isolated location, staff has been residential from the beginning and has done much to shape the character of the Institute. Many of those on staff developed new practices and become known teachers, but that is mostly in the past as the gestalt process, which is the prevailing dogma, has dulled creative and inovative thought. Esalen started year-long residential educational programs in 1966 and subsequently started month long work-study programs and year-long extended student programs. There is a pre-school on site serving the children of staff, local residents, and program participants.

Scholars in Residence

At its Big Sur facility, Esalen has sponsored long term residencies. Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Virginia Satir, Alan Watts, Ida Rolf, Gia-Fu Feng, George Leonard, Fritz Perls, John C. Lilly, Will Schutz, Sam Keen, Brother David Steindl-Rast, Babatunde Olatunji, and others have lived and worked at Esalen as part of this program.

Arts Events

- In 1965 Joan Baez led a workshop titled “The New Folk Music” which featured a free open performance. This grew into the first of seven “Big Sur Folk Festivals” featuring many of the music luminaries of the era. The 1969 concert included performers who had just come from the Woodstock Festival, and is featured in the 20th Century Fox film “Celebration at Big Sur”. Some of those that have performed at Esalen include Baez, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Simon and Garfunkel, James Cotton, John Sebastian, Bruce Springsteen, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Chambers Brothers, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Michael Hedges, Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Donovan Leich, John Trudell, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Hunter, Michel Petrucciani, Three Fish, Bruce Langhorne, Roy Hargrove, Fred Frith, John Densmore, Paul Winter, Paul Horn, David Darling, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Jim Messina, Kenny Loggins, Henry Kaiser, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hani Naser,Olatunji, and others.

John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg performed together.

Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and others have held poetry readings.


Esalen is still active and offers approximately 500 workshops per year as well as longer term work-study and extended student programs. Additionally, Esalen continues to facilitate invitational conferences and other programs largely through its Center for Theory and Research. While previously involved in cutting edge exploration into human potentials, today Esalen is largely conservative, offering workshops by a revolving group of seasoned teachers who are already well known and "safe" for public consumption. All of the scholars in residence who helped shape Esalen's reputation are well in the past. Now most new approaches seem carefully screened so as not to upset the status quo. Although claiming to resist specific religious, scientific, or other dogmas, Esalen ahears to a fairly strict following of the Gestalt therapy pioneered by the late Fritz Perls. Gestalt psychology pervades all aspects of the resident community, showing up in work place meetings, community meetings, individual and group therapy sessions, communication models, and language patterns. The Esalen land is the true gift to the people who live and visit there, offering striking scenery set between mountains and ocean.

Workshops cover many subjects including: The Arts, Ecopsychology, Health, Integral thought, Martial arts, Massage, Dance, Myth, Philosophical Inquiry, Somatics, Spiritual & Religious Studies, Transpersonal Process, Wilderness, Yoga, and Mindfulness.

Past Teachers at Esalen Institute

Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Will Schutz, Joe K. Adams, Richard Feynman, Paul Tillich, Arnold J. Toynbee, B.F. Skinner, R. D. Laing, Stanislav Grof, Richard Tarnas, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Carl Rogers, Linus Pauling, Buckminster Fuller, Warren Farrell, Rollo May, Joseph Campbell, Susan Sontag, Ray Bradbury, George Leonard, J. B. Rhine, Humphry Osmond, Harvey Cox, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, Gregory Bateson, John C. Lilly, Carlos Castaneda, Claudio Naranjo, Fritjof Capra, Ansel Adams, Swami Chinmayananda, S. I. Hayakawa, James A. Pike, G. Spencer-Brown, Babatunde Olatunji, Terence McKenna, Mark Pesce, Douglas Rushkoff, Erik Davis, Joan Baez, Robert Anton Wilson, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Robert Bly, Marion Woodman, Dean Ornish, Matthew Fox, Andrew Harvey, James Hillman, Gabrielle Roth, Peter Matthiessen, Sam Keen, Fred Frith, Spalding Gray, Amory Lovins, Albert Hofmann, Alexander Lowen, John Vasconcellos, Hani Naser, Daniel Sheehan and Sara Nelson of the Christic Institute and many others have taught and/or presented at the Esalen Institute.

“... a sacred place where we come to discover an inner life, to respond to a vocation, to find a calling.”

— Joseph Campbell


[1] Anderson, Walter Truett. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: The First Twenty Years ISBN 0-595-30735-3 pp 217-219

  • Anderson, Walter Truett. The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: The First Twenty Years January 1983, Addison Wesley Publishing Company ISBN 0-201-11034-2 and February 2004, ISBN 0-595-30735-3
  • Kripal, Jeffrey and Glenn W. Shuck (editors). On The Edge Of The Future: Esalen And The Evolution Of American Culture, July 2005, Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21759-8
  • Norman, Jeff. Big Sur Images of America Series October 6, 2004 Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-2913-3

External links

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