The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege by Marion Goldman
NYU Press 2012
Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm
The Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price in 1962. It was a retreat centre in California for many who had loosened their ties to liberal Protestant denominations or Catholic congregations and embarked on a quest for a more personal and individual religious meaning.
Both founders grew up in liberal congregations: Michael served as an altar boy and Dick’s father had renounced Judaism to become Episcopalian. But they wanted more than old doctrine and dry ritual.
Esalen was named after the American Indian Esselan tribe, who had used the site as a sacred burial ground. It made an enormous range of spiritual experiences and personal growth available to ordinary Americans who were disenchanted with mainstream religion.
The author, Marion Goldman, who is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, claims that hers is the first book on Esalen not to be written by an insider. She has interviewed many of the key people and researched the history of the Institute.
Her book uses two rather unusual concepts to articulate the significance of Esalen. One is ‘spiritual privilege’ by which she means a combination of knowledge of religions and culture generally, connections with elite social networks, economic resources that give the freedom to explore, and an affinity with spiritual traditions.
The other is ‘soul rush’ which, parallel to adrenaline rush, refers to a sudden increase in interest in matters of the soul.
Esalen was part of a 60s soul rush; an explosion of interest in all sorts of alternative religious traditions and psychologies. There was a demand for new, more meaningful religion. The soul rush was made possible because of an increase of people with spiritual privilege and it made that spiritual privilege available to a wide range of ordinary people.
Esalen awakened Americans and others to many new options for personal and spiritual growth. It was a “religion of no religion.” Its myriad workshops, rituals and study groups provided an open, competitive marketplace of experience-oriented practice.
Esalen combined newer psychological approaches with inputs largely from Eastern religion. It wrested psychotherapy away from a focus on problems to one on personal growth. It celebrated the diversity of humanistic, Gestalt, encounter, existential and transpersonal psychologies. Dick Price’s variant of Gestalt, Gestalt Awareness Practice, integrated aspects of Taoism, Zen and other Buddhist practices.
Underlying much of the psychological theory active at Esalen was psychodrama, which Goldman took time to explore as well, even though it wasn’t explicitly offered there. She concluded that psychodrama fulfilled “the original and ancient functions of drama: the healing of the human spirit as a religious and communal experience.
Esalen was part of what came to be called the Human Potential Movement and three key thinkers (Fritz Perls, William Schutz and Abraham Maslow) played important roles there. Maslow’s concepts of self-actualisation and peak experiences capture the heart of what Esalen was about.
Something of the spirit of Esalen came even as far as Dunedin, New Zealand. First Church and the Cameron Centre ran many programs, including ‘growth groups’ that owed something to Esalen’s soul rush.
I must confess to still feeling a longing for the intense and slightly scary intimacy of such small group experiences. They were part of the magic of the 60s that we have largely lost.