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Esalen America & The Religion Of No Religion

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      ³This is it: the definitive history of the original American human potential
      center and the people who first envisioned it and made it work. A truly
      astonishing story of spiritual inspiration, global vision, political
      adventure, and delightful humor, and just at the right time. A genuinely
      hopeful vision of what we yet could be in the mirror of what we have been.
      Stunning.² -- Deepak Chopra

      ³Kripal Š tells the story of this beautiful retreat in California¹s Big Sur
      region -- its history at once sexy, salacious, intellectual, and political
      -- with reverence and playfulness, alternating between the hushed tones of
      awe and the glee in partaking in Esalen¹s infamous sinful delights. Š
      Readers shouldn¹t be scared off by the book¹s heft. Kripal is an engaging
      storyteller, Esalen a worthy subject.² -- Publishers Weekly

      ³In this engaging book, Jeffrey Kripal assesses one of the world¹s most
      engaging places, and finds in Esalen a perfect metaphor for America¹s unique
      creed of science and religion. Here -- literally on the western edge of the
      North American continent -- the European enlightenment meets Asian
      spirituality, Einstein confronts Walt Whitman, Calvinism takes on mysticism,
      and secularism encounters the divine. It¹s a wild ride, filled with ironies
      and tensions, but it¹s also America at the start of the twenty-first
      century, and perhaps the future of the world.² -- Robert B. Reich


      By Jeffrey J. Kripal

      Purchase via Amazon:



      An excerpt from:

      By Jeffrey J. Kripal



      "There is reason to suppose that in man, and in him alone, there lies the
      possibility of further evolution: that this further stage must be through
      evolution of new faculties; that man is offered the possibility of emerging
      on to a new level of conscious being, as much above his present powers and
      apprehensions as they transcend an amphibian¹s; that the symptoms of this
      latent creative energy, pent within him, are the peculiar intensities and
      persistencies of both his pain and his lust."

      -- Gerald Heard, Pain, Sex and Time

      "I want to tell you about Big Sur Hot Springs. The operative word is hot.
      This place is hot."

      -- Abraham Maslow

      In 1960 Richard Price went to hear Aldous Huxley deliver a lecture called
      ³Human Potentialities² at the University of California, San Francisco
      Medical Center. Although ³we are pretty much the same as we were twenty
      thousand years ago,² said Huxley, we have ³in the course of these twenty
      thousand years actualized an immense number of things which at that time for
      many, many centuries thereafter were wholly potential and latent in man.² He
      went on to suggest that other potentialities remain hidden in us, and he
      called on his audience to develop methods and means to actualize them. ³The
      neurologists have shown us,² said Huxley, ³that no human being has ever made
      use of as much as ten percent of all the neurons in his brain. And perhaps,
      if we set about it in the right way, we might be able to produce
      extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is.²

      Price was listening. Michael Murphy would soon write Huxley asking for
      advice on how to go about doing something about that other ninety percent.
      Murphy and Price asked to visit Huxley in his Hollywood Hills home on their
      way down to Mexico to return a pick-up truck they had borrowed from one of
      Price¹s friends. Huxley apologized for being away at that time but strongly
      encouraged them to visit his old friend, Gerald Heard, who lived in Santa
      Monica. He also suggested that they visit Rancho La Puerta, a burgeoning
      growth center in Mexico that featured health food, yoga, and various and
      sundry alternative lifestyles that Huxley thought they would find conducive
      to their own developing worldviews.

      In June of 1961, Murphy and Price drove down to Santa Monica to visit Gerald
      Heard, a reclusive visionary British intellectual who had arrived in the
      States with his partner, Christopher Wood, as well as with Aldous and Maria
      Huxley, and their son Matthew on April 12, 1937. Hollywood screen writer and
      novelist Christopher Isherwood would follow not long after. Huxley, Heard,
      and Isherwood would eventually have a major impact on the American
      countercultural appropriation of Hinduism. All three would be influenced by
      the Vedanta philosophy of Swami Prabhavananda, the charismatic head of the
      Vedanta Society of Southern California. All three finally would spend much
      of their mature years reflecting on what this Indian philosophy could offer
      the West in a long series of essays, books, and lectures. Quite
      appropriately, Alan Watts and Felix Greene called them ³the British Mystical
      Expatriates of Southern California.² It was Huxley and Heard, however, who
      would have the most influence on the founding of Esalen.

      Aldous Huxley, the Perennial Philosophy, and the Tantric Paradise of Pala

      Although Murphy and Price actually met Aldous Huxley only once, in January
      of 1962 when the author visited them briefly in Big Sur shortly before his
      death on November 22, 1963 (the same day, it turns out, that JFK was
      assassinated), his intellectual and personal influence on the place was
      immense. His second wife, Laura, would become a long-time friend of Esalen,
      where she would fill any number of roles, including acting as a sitter for
      one of Murphy¹s psychedelic sessions.

      Aldous Huxley¹s writings on the mystical dimensions of psychedelics and on
      what he called the perennial philosophy were foundational. Moreover, his
      call for an institution that could teach the ³nonverbal humanities² and the
      development of the ³human potentialities² functioned as the working mission
      statement of early Esalen. Indeed, the very first Esalen brochures actually
      bore the Huxley-inspired title, ³the human potentiality.² This same phrase
      would later morph in a midnight brainstorming session between Michael Murphy
      and George Leonard into the now well-known ³human potential movement.² When
      developing the early brochures for Esalen, Murphy was searching for a
      language that could mediate between his own Aurobindonian evolutionary
      mysticism and the more secular and psychological language of American
      culture. It was Huxley who helped him to create such a new hybrid language.
      This should not surprise us, as Huxley had been experimenting for decades on
      how to translate Indian ideas into Western literary and intellectual

      One of the ways he did this was through his notion of perennialism put
      forward in his 1944 work The Perennial Philosophy. Perennialism referred to
      a set of mystical experiences and doctrines that he believed lay at the core
      of all great religions, hence it is a philosophy that ³perennially² returns
      in the history of religions. The book laid the intellectual and comparative
      foundations for much that would come after it, including Esalen and, a bit
      later, the American New Age movement. By the 1980s and ¹90s, Esalen
      intellectuals were growing quite weary and deeply suspicious of what was
      looking more and more like facile ecumenism and an ideological refusal to
      acknowledge real and important differences among the world¹s cultures and
      religions. But this would take decades of hard thinking and multiple
      disillusionments. In the 1940s, ¹50s, and ¹60s, it was still a radical and
      deeply subversive thing to assert the deep unity of the world¹s religions.

      And this is precisely what Huxley was doing. After mistakenly attributing
      the Latin phrase philosophia perennis to Leibniz, Huxley defines the key
      concept this way in his very first lines: ³PHILOSOPHIA PERENNIS . . . the
      metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of
      things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something
      similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places
      man¹s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of
      all being -- the thing is immemorial and universal.²

      In essence, Huxley¹s perennial philosophy was a form of what historians of
      Indian religion call neo-Vedanta, a modern religious movement inspired by
      the ecstatic visionary experiences of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) and the
      preaching and writing of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Ramakrishna¹s
      beloved disciple who brought his master¹s message about the unity of all
      religions to the States in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was
      Huxley who wrote the foreword to this same tradition¹s central text in
      translation, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942). It was within this same
      spiritual lineage again that Huxley, Heard, and Isherwood found much of
      their own inspiration and through which a general Hindu perennialism was
      passed on to early Esalen and American culture.

      Such cultural combinations, of course, did not always work. As with all
      intellectual systems, there were gaps, stress-points, contradictions.
      Nowhere was this more apparent than in the realm of ethics. Thus, for
      example, Huxley seems personally puzzled over the strange moral conditions
      of his hybrid vision, that is, the suppression or destruction of the
      personality, which the perennial philosophy understands as the ³original
      sin.² But he accepts the textual facts for what they in fact seem to be and
      then illustrates them with a telling chemical metaphor that we might now
      recognize as an early traumatic model for the mystical, perhaps best
      expressed in this story in the mystical life and psychological sufferings of
      Dick Price. Here is how Huxley put it in 1944:

      "Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that
      water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to
      certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements
      becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us
      much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as
      one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the
      Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is
      subjected to drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is in part
      at least composed, becomes manifest."

      But it was not quite these mystical-ethical dilemmas or this psychology of
      trauma that Huxley would pass on to Esalen. It was, first, his
      Hindu-inspired notion of the perennial philosophy; second, his firm belief
      that psychedelic substances can grant genuine metaphysical insight; and,
      third, his central notion of the latent and manifest ³potentialities.² We
      will get to the psychedelic soon enough. Here is how Huxley introduced the
      concept of potentialities, with a little help from an unacknowledged Freud,
      in The Perennial Philosophy: ³It is only by making physical experiments that
      we can discover the intimate nature of matter and its potentialities. And it
      is only by making psychological and moral experiments that we can discover
      the intimate nature of mind and its potentialities. In the ordinary
      circumstances of average sensual life these potentialities of the mind
      remain latent and unmanifested.² A few pages later, Huxley¹s writes of ³the
      almost endless potentialities of the human mind² that have ³remained for so
      long unactualized,² foreshadowing the later language and psychology of
      Abraham Maslow¹s notion of self-actualization, another major conceptual
      influence on the founding of Esalen.

      Even more relevant to the history of Esalen -- indeed, prophetic of that
      future story -- was Huxley¹s very last novel, Island, which appeared in
      March of 1962, just one month after he had introduced a still unknown
      Timothy Leary to ³the ultimate yoga² of Tantra, and just two months after he
      met Michael Murphy and Richard Price in Big Sur. The novel¹s pragmatic
      celebration of Tantric eroticism and its harsh criticism of ascetic forms of
      spirituality (which the novel links to sexual repression, a guilt-ridden
      homosexuality, and aggressive militarism) marks a significant shift in
      Huxley¹s spiritual worldview, at least as he was expressing it in print.
      After all, if in 1942 he could write a carefully diplomatic foreword to a
      book about a Hindu saint who considered all women to be aspects of the
      Mother Goddess and so would have sex with none of them (The Gospel of Sri
      Ramakrishna), now he was suggesting openly in 1962 that ³to think of Woman
      as essentially Holy² was an expression of a conflicted male homosexuality
      anxious to avoid any and all heterosexual contact. It is much better, the
      novel now suggests, to think of the erotic union of man and woman as holy,
      that is, to see the sacred in the sexual and the sexual in the sacred. Hence
      ³the cosmic love-making of Shiva and the Goddess.² Late in life Huxley
      appears to have been moving away from his earlier ascetic Vedanta, so
      prominently featured in The Perennial Philosophy, toward a new
      psychologically inflected Tantra.

      Laura Huxley considers Island to be her husband¹s final legacy, the place
      where he put everything he had learned. When I asked her about the novel¹s
      obvious focus on Tantra, she was quick to point out that Aldous was not
      particularly friendly to traditional religion, and that he considered Tantra
      to be a technique, not a religion. Everything written in Island, she
      insisted, had been tried somewhere. The novel thus laid down a real and
      practical path to follow, not just a dream or another impossible religious
      claim. The novel was Aldous¹s blueprint for a good society, even, Laura
      pointed out, if that ³island² is one¹s own home or private inner world. It
      can be done. That is the point.

      The story itself involves a jaded journalist, Will Farnaby, who lands by
      accident on a forbidden island called Pala. Pala culture had been formed a
      few generations earlier by two men -- a pious Indian adept in Tantric forms
      of Buddhism and Hinduism and by a scientifically enlightened Scottish
      doctor. The culture thus embodied both a literal friendship between and a
      consequent synthesis of Tantric Asia, with its lingams, deities, and yogas,
      and Western rationalism, with its humanism, psychology and science.

      Farnaby quickly learns that Pala¹s two principle educational practices
      involve a contemplative form of sexuality called maithuna (the Tantric term
      for sexual intercourse) and the ingestion of a psychedelic mushroom the
      inhabitants called moksha (the traditional Sanskrit word for ³spiritual
      liberation²). The sexual practice, which was also consciously modeled on the
      Oneida community of nineteenth-century America and its ideal of male
      continence (a form of extended sexual intercourse without ejaculation),
      functioned as both a contemplative technique and as an effective means of
      birth control. The psychedelic practice initiated the young islanders into
      metaphysical wisdom, that is, into the empirical realization that their true
      selves could not be identified with their little social egos, which were
      understood to be necessary but temporary ³filters² of a greater cosmic

      The novel meanders lovingly through and around both this maithuna and this
      moksha -- which are manifestly the real point and deepest story of the novel
      -- as the Rani or Queen Mother of Pala and her sexually repressed homosexual
      son, Murugan, take the utopian island further and further toward
      Westernization, industrialization, capitalism, and a finally violent
      fundamentalism organized around notions of ³the Ideal of Purity,² ³the
      Crusade of the Spirit,² and ³God¹s Avatars² (the Queen liked to capitalize
      things). The ending is as predictable as it is depressing: the forces of
      righteousness and religion win out over those of natural sensuality,
      pantheism, and erotic wisdom.

      Strikingly, virtually all the markers of the later Esalen gnosis are present
      on Huxley¹s ³imagined² utopian island. Laura Huxley¹s observation about her
      late husband¹s rejection of organized religion, for example, are played out
      in full. ³We have no established church,² one of the islanders explains,
      ³and our religion stresses immediate experience and deplores belief in
      unverifiable dogmas and the emotions which that belief inspires.² Hence the
      humorous prayer of Pala: ³Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us,
      dear God, from Belief.² The islanders even integrated this religion of no
      religion into their agricultural affairs: the scarecrows in the fields were
      thus made to look like a Future Buddha and a God the Father, so that the
      children who manipulated the scarecrow-puppets with strings to scare off the
      birds could learn that ³all gods are homemade, and that it¹s we who pull
      their strings and so give them the power to pull ours.² Altered states, of
      course, were also central to Pala¹s culture through the moksha-medicine, and
      the techniques of Tantra were omnipresent in their sexual lives. Perhaps
      most strikingly, Huxley saw very clearly that Zen, Taoism, and Tantra were
      all related expressions of a deeper transcultural gnosis or supertradition
      -- what he called ³the new conscious Wisdom.² More astonishingly still, he
      even linked this supertradition to the scientific insights of Darwinian
      evolution and proposed that the latter should now be realized through
      conscious contemplative practice in a way that uncannily foreshadows
      Murphy¹s own ³evolutionary Tantra.²

      Somehow, Aldous knew what Esalen would come to know. And then he died. An
      earthquake struck Big Sur that day.

      Gerald Heard and the Evolutionary Energies of Lust

      Gerald Heard also played a significant role in the founding of Esalen. It
      was his charismatic presence and advice that finally tipped the scales for
      Murphy and Price and pushed them to jump in. Heard would also go on to give
      no less than four separate seminars in the early years. Appropriately,
      Anderson actually begins his Upstart Spring with Heard and has this to say
      about the writer¹s influence on the two young men: ³Huxley had so
      diffidently advocated a research project, had so hesitantly suggested its
      revolutionary possibilities. He thought something of that sort might happen.
      Heard thought it had to happen.²

      Murphy has reminisced about his and Price¹s first four-hour visit with Heard
      and its profound effects on him in both a brief essay titled ³Totally on
      Fire² and in various personal communications with me. He described Heard as
      ³archetypally Irish, like a big leprechaun, with red hair and flashing
      eyes,² and as ³tremendously charismatic.² He also spoke of that original
      meeting with Heard as a real ³tipping point² in his life, comparable to
      those first few class lectures with Spiegelberg. In the essay, moreover, he
      mentions Heard¹s institutional presence in California, particularly his
      founding of Trabuco College, a small quasi-monastic educational experiment
      that lasted five years (1942-1947) before Heard turned it over to the
      Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1949, as well as his strong
      presence in the Sequoia Seminars on the San Francisco peninsula. Both
      Trabuco and the Sequoia Seminars were clear precedents for Esalen.

      So were a number of Heard¹s ideas. Murphy was reading Heard¹s Pain, Sex and
      Time and The Human Venture just before he and Price met him in 1961. Murphy
      is clear that Heard was not a significant intellectual influence on his own
      thought, but he also points out that the connections were real ones. Hence
      the Fire. Heard, for example, was very conversant in psychical research.
      Indeed, he had spent ten years working closely with the Society for
      Psychical Research in London (1932-1942). Like Murphy, he had also lost his
      Christian faith over the convincing truths of science. Indeed, in his late
      twenties, he appears to have experienced a nervous breakdown over this
      intellectual revolution. But like Murphy again, Heard returned to a
      transformed faith refashioned around a new evolutionary mysticism. Physical
      evolution of the human species, Heard believes, has ceased, but human
      consciousness is still evolving; indeed, with the advent of the human
      species and the awakening of the human psyche through civilization, the
      evolutionary process has actually quickened and, perhaps most importantly,
      become conscious of itself. And here Murphy finds connection with Heard¹s
      thought: ³Part of his vision that appealed to me was seeing the mystical
      life in an evolutionary context, which put him squarely on par with

      Heard had also written about the spiritual potentials of mind-altering drugs
      (like Huxley), about the complementarity of science and religion, even about
      UFO phenomena -- all topics that would reappear at Esalen. And indeed, his
      books, rather like the UFOs, seem to swarm with strange and charming
      speculations, like the utterly preposterous and yet oddly attractive idea
      that the European witchcraft trials had eliminated a large gene pool of real
      psychical faculties, but that the centuries had since replaced the pool and
      we are now on the verge of a new ³rare stock² of gifted souls endowed with
      evolutionary powers. All we need now is a small community, an esoteric
      subculture, to nurture and protect the gifted. In a talk at Esalen in 1963,
      he wondered out loud whether Esalen might become such an occult school.
      Another X-Men scenario.

      Whatever one makes of such a claim, one thing seems clear enough: Heard knew
      what he was saying was heretical. He was aligning himself and his friends,
      after all, with the genes of witches. He was certainly as hard on religious
      orthodoxy as Spiegelberg had been. Heard could thus admit that humanity may
      have once needed its gods to keep in touch with the subconscious (and it was
      this same subconscious that supplied ³the basis and force of the religious
      conviction² for him). Still, such anthropomorphic religions have now taken
      on largely ³degenerative forms² that are hopelessly out of date with our
      science and psychology. It is time to move on, to evolve.

      Finally, Heard, like his fellow British expatriate and brother Vedantist,
      Christopher Isherwood, was quite clear about his homosexuality. In other
      words, two of the three British expatriates (Huxley, Heard, and Isherwood)
      were self-described homosexuals, even if they chose to express this
      sexual-spiritual orientation in very different ways. Isherwood wrote openly
      about his own active homosexuality, his (failed) attempts at celibacy, and
      his sexuality¹s defining effect on his devotional relationship to the
      tradition¹s founding saint, Sri Ramakrishna, who he suspected (correctly)
      was also homoerotic in both his spiritual and sexual orientations.

      Heard chose a different path. In Pain, Sex and Time he wrote about the oddly
      abundant energies of pain and lust in the human species as reservoirs of
      evolutionary energy and explored the possibilities of consciously
      controlling, channeling, and using this energy to cooperate with evolution
      and so enlarge the aperture of consciousness, to implode through space-time.
      Interestingly, when Heard turned to a historical sketch of these energetic
      techniques in the West, he began with Asia and various Tantric techniques of
      arresting the orgasm to alter consciousness and transcend time. Tantric
      Asia, in other words, functioned as something of an archetypal model for
      Heard in his search for a type of asceticism that was not life-denying but
      consciously erotic, a lifestyle that could embrace the evolutionary energies
      sparkling in sex, build them up through discipline, and then ride their
      spontaneous combustions into higher and higher states of consciousness and

      These Tantric moments reappear repeatedly throughout his writings. In one of
      his last books, for example, The Five Ages of Man (his forty-seventh book),
      he included an appendix: ³On the Evidence for an Esoteric Mystery Tradition
      in the West and Its Postponement of Social Despair.² Once again, he begins a
      Western historical sketch not with the West, but with Tantra. Tantra, he
      tells us here, is the esoteric tradition of India that was subsequently
      persecuted and censored by both a puritan Islam and a prudish Brahmanism.
      Such a persecution of the mystical as the erotic was even more extreme in
      the West, where the esoteric often functioned as a kind of spiritual-sexual
      underground. Hence Heard¹s reflections on an already familiar painting,
      Bosch¹s The Garden of Earthly Delights as explored by Wilhelm Fränger. Much
      like Henry Miller before him, Heard celebrates Fränger. Not that he does not
      have his own contribution to make: ³Here, too,² he writes with reference to
      the same painting, ³are unmistakable Tantra pictures of the rousing of

      He was even more explicit in his private letters. In one letter to W. J. H.
      Sprott (a gay friend loosely involved with the Bloomsbury group), Heard
      playfully describes the yogic practices of drawing water up through the anus
      and penis. He recounts in rather flip terms how the kundalini comes out
      ³through the top of your sutures² (that is, the top of the skull), and then
      jokes of Tantra¹s use of sexual-spiritual double meanings: ³Or on the other
      hand you may take the left hand path and continue talking through your hat
      instead of getting out of your head.² And that was not all. ³You realize,²
      Heard goes on, ³that nearly every Tibetan Saint is a homosexual.² As for
      Heard himself, his own ³pretty theory,² ³rather wilder than any before²
      involved fetishism as the ³true way to sublimation.² It was a version of
      this that he promised Sprott to read someday at the Hares Strip and Fuck
      Society. Bawdy laughter and real insight are impossible to distinguish in
      such moments, and it is the private letter, the secret talk, not the
      published text, that most reveals.

      In midlife, probably around 1935, Heard seems to have followed his own
      speculations about the evolutionary sublimation of erotic energies (just
      after he began ³turning East,² around 1932-1933). He quite intentionally
      chose a celibate lifestyle and lived with his Platonic life-partner and
      personal secretary Michael Barrie. But he certainly never gave up his belief
      in the evolutionary potentials of sexual desire and the mystical privileges
      of homosexuality. Thus in the mid to late 1950s, he wrote, under the
      pseudonymn of D. B. Vest, about homosexuality as a potent spiritual force
      that might have some important role in the evolution of human consciousness.
      Two such essays appeared in One: The Homosexual Magazine as ³A Future for
      the Isophyl² and ³Evolution¹s Next Step,² and a third would appear in
      Homophile Studies: One Institute Quarterly as ³Is the Isophyl a Biological
      Variant?² Both the former magazine¹s title (³One²) and its Carlyle motto (³a
      mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one²) strongly suggest Heard¹s own
      Vedantic monistic metaphysics and mystical reading of homosexuality.

      Heard¹s mature homosexuality, however, was also ³made sublime,² a kind of
      homoeroticism alchemically transmuted into a metaphysical force. Those who
      knew Heard often commented on these related ascetic and charismatic
      qualities of his personal presence (though seldom on the erotic dimensions
      that he himself consistently identified). His austerity was as palpable as
      his charisma. Indeed, Heard¹s major differences with Swami Prabhavananda of
      the Hollywood Vedanta Society involved his strong criticisms of the Swami¹s
      ³moral lapses,² such as enjoying an occasional smoke and a nightly drink.
      Scandalous indeed.

      Enter Hunter Thompson (1961)

      Murphy and Price had already arrived at Big Sur Hot Springs before they met
      Heard and decided to found a new institution. When they arrived in their red
      Jeep pick-up in April of 1961, they found what can only be called a surreal
      mixture of people and worldviews. Murphy and Price pulled in late, well
      after dark. It was not a terribly auspicious first night. Murphy reports
      waking up in the middle of the night in the Big House to an angry young man
      pointing a gun at him: ³Who the hell are you, and what are ya¹ doing here?²

      Enter Hunter Thompson. Bunny Murphy, Michael Murphy¹s grandmother, had hired
      a young, billy-club-toting Thompson to guard the property and keep order.
      Unfortunately, she had neglected to tell her zealous guard that her grandson
      and friend were coming down to stay that night. Thompson, a young aspiring
      writer still finding his voice, had arrived to seek out the presence and
      inspiration of Dennis Murphy, Mike¹s younger brother, whose literary work he
      deeply admired. Dennis had published a very successful novel in 1958, The
      Sergeant (about a homosexual affair in the U.S. Army), which had won the
      acclaim of John Steinbeck and would eventually be made into a Hollywood
      movie starring Rod Steiger, for which he would write the screenplay.

      In 1967 Hunter Thompson published his first book, Hell¹s Angels, and went on
      to create Gonzo journalism, a new style of American literature. Gary Trudeau
      immortalized his place in American literary culture as Duke in his
      Doonesbury series, but this would all happen later. At this point in 1961,
      Thompson was a young man of twenty-two living in the Big House and making
      copious notes in the margins of Dennis Murphy¹s The Sergeant, learning the
      art of the pen, the sentence, and the turn of the phrase.

      Thompson was hardly the only colorful character on the Murphy property,
      though. The folksinger Joan Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she often
      gave small concerts. The guest hotel on the grounds, moreover, was being
      managed by a certain Mrs. Webb, a fervent Evangelical Christian who had
      hired her fellow church members from the First Church of God of Prophecy to
      help her manage the day-to-day running of the place, which they leased from
      Bunny on a month-to-month basis. The bar, on the other hand, was patronized
      by what Price and Murphy called the Big Sur Heavies, locals known for their
      rough manners, their penchant for marijuana (which they grew in the
      mountains), and their quasi-criminal (or just criminal) tendencies. Then
      there were the baths, frequented on most weekends by homosexual men who
      would drive down from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles to gather in the
      hot waters and explore the limits of sensual pleasure. These men had even
      developed a kind of simple Morse code to help them manage their sexual
      activities: on the path leading down to the baths they would post a guard,
      who would switch on a blinking light at the baths to signal to the bathing
      lovers the approach of straight people coming down the path. Anderson paints
      the following humorous picture with his usual verve: ³And so it went through
      the spring and summer of 1961: sodomy in the baths, glossolalia in the
      lodge, fistfights in the parking lot, folk music in the cabins, meditation
      in the Big House.²

      Bunny had long turned down her grandson¹s repeated requests to hand the
      grounds over to him. She was particularly concerned that Michael would ³give
      it away to the Hindoos.² But things were getting out of hand at Big Sur Hot
      Springs, and she would soon change her mind after events that have since
      become legendary. Much of it, unsurprisingly with hindsight, revolved around
      Hunter Thompson.

      Thompson, it turns out, sometimes picked verbal fights with the homosexual
      bathers. One night, he returned to the property with his girlfriend and two
      hitchhiking soldiers from Fort Ord (a base just north of Monterey). Thinking
      it was safe to go down to the baths in such a crowd, Thompson ventured down
      the dark path. But some of the bathers jumped him, the soldiers and his
      girlfriend ran away, and Thompson was left alone to slug it out. As the
      story goes, most of the slugging was done by the bathers. The men beat
      Thompson up and came very close to throwing him off the cliff that night.
      Bloodied and bruised, he got back to his room in the Big House, where he
      spent the next day sulking and shooting his gun out a window, which he never
      bothered to open.

      Not long after this incident, Bunny would read one of Thompson¹s early
      published essays in Rogue magazine, ³Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller,²
      in which he described the folks of Big Sur as ³expatriates, ranchers,
      out-and-out bastards, and genuine deviates.² Such language did not go down
      well with Bunny. She may have been in her eighties, but she was also tough.
      According to Anderson, she then ³made one of her rare trips down to Big Sur,
      in her black Cadillac with her Filipino chauffeur, for the specific purpose
      of firing Thompson.² Exit Hunter Thompson.

      The Night of the Dobermans

      Then in October came what is known in Esalen legend as the Night of the
      Dobermans. Thompson may have been gone, but the baths remained in the
      control of the gay men. Things had gotten so out of control that even Dennis
      Murphy¹s friend Jack Kerouac looked askance. If this veritable archetype of
      the American Beat scene, so immune to the pettiness and damning comforts of
      middle-America, could visit and leave the Hot Spring baths disgusted with
      their moral and fluid state (he saw a dead otter bobbing in the waves and
      sperm floating in his bath), clearly, something had to be done.

      It was not always like this. When Henry Miller wrote about Esalen¹s
      homosexual bathers in the late 1950s, it was with real affection and a
      certain playful humor. For Miller at least, these were elegant artists and
      dancers who belonged to that ³ancient order of hermaphrodites.² They
      reminded him of ³the valiant Spartans -- just before the battle of
      Thermopylae.² He doubted, though, that ³the Slade¹s Springs type would be
      ready to die to the last man. ('It¹s sort of silly, don¹t you think?¹)² That
      was in 1957. Things were different now. These men were acting much more like
      Miller¹s imagined Spartans. They were ready to fight.

      Murphy and Price began by erecting a gated steel fence around the baths and
      announcing that they would be closed from now on at 8:00 p.m. -- not exactly
      a popular move. One night they walked down the path to close the gate and
      encountered a group of men who simply refused to leave. Everyone knew what
      had happened to Hunter. Murphy and Price returned to the lodge to gather the
      troops, which in the end amounted to five people, including Joan Baez and
      three Doberman pinschers. The dogs, it turns out, were the key. As the small
      band walked down the path, the three dogs began to bark viciously at each
      other as the owner yelled, ³Choke him! Choke him!² It was all the group
      could do to keep the dogs apart. When the growling and snarling group
      finally arrived at the baths, the place was completely empty. Cars were
      starting and lights could be seen in the parking lot as the men made their
      anxious retreat. Later that evening, as Murphy walked around the property,
      he noticed a young couple kissing in the moonlight up on the highway. For
      Murphy, Anderson reports, the young couple synchronistically signaled a
      shift in the atmosphere and a new day (and night) at Esalen.

      The proverbial guard had now literally changed. Mrs. Webb and the
      charismatic Christians would soon leave. The baths were no longer synonymous
      with the rowdy gay men of the cities. There was a meditating American yogi
      and an aspiring Buddhist shaman-healer on the grounds. And Joan was still
      singing in her cabin. Big Sur Hot Springs was on its way to becoming, as the
      white wooden sign still says, ³Esalen Institute by Reservation Only.²


      Excerpt from pages 85-97 of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
      by Jeffrey J. Kripal, published by the University of Chicago Press.


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      Published by David Sunfellow
      NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE)
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