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Closet Mystics

Hidden away on the jagged coastline of California’s Big Sur, Esalen Institute’s secret society of scholars is quietly defining the cosmology of the future.

by Joel Pitney

In late spring of last year, a group of scholars from major universities around the world converged at Esalen Institute, California’s legendary spiritual retreat center and spa, to investigate one of life’s most significant questions: What happens to us after we die? The gathering was part of Esalen’s tenth annual “Survival of Bodily Death” conference and included an impressive collection of outside-the-box academic researchers in fields as wide-ranging as neuroscience, psychology, quantum physics, and religious history. Over five days, through lectures, paper presentations, and hearty intellectual debate, this diverse blend of experts explored a subject that gets little, if any, serious attention in the halls of Oxford, MIT, or Harvard. The “Sursem”—short for survival seminar—is one of a series of invitation-only conferences put on by Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research. The CTR, as they call it, is a kind of renegade think tank that, since its founding in the late nineties, has been building a body of academic knowledge and a base of institutional support for the development of a new worldview that the mainstream academy has yet to embrace—one that accounts for the best insights of science, spirituality, and evolutionary theory.


For many people the thought of Esalen evokes its sixties psychedelic experiments, the assortment of countercultural icons who frequented its “clothing optional” hot spring pools, and the smorgasbord of personal growth workshops that made it a mecca for a generation of spiritual-but-not-religious seekers. Indeed, in the decades since it was founded in 1962, the institute has won quite a reputation within the New Age for its exploration of topics falling far outside the mainstream vernacular, from Gestalt therapy and yoga to out-of-body experiences and tantra. But if you speak to the visionaries and leaders driving the institute, such as founder Michael Murphy, they have a different take on Esalen. Behind its notoriously countercultural façade, Murphy says, it has always been first and foremost a rigorous intellectual forum for “cutting-edge research related to personal and social transformation that is not adequately supported by mainstream culture and mainstream institutions.” A quick flip through the institute’s guest book reveals the names of some of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers, such as Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, Boris Yeltsin, and Joseph Campbell. But it wasn’t until the past decade, through the formation of the CTR, that this intellectual thread has become more explicitly central to Esalen’s mission. And through its more than forty academic conferences on everything from integral capitalism to religious fundamentalism to subtle energies to evolutionary metaphysics, the CTR has started to bring much-needed academic heft to the whole East-meets-West movement it helped to spawn.

“The academy is chock full of closet mystics,” said Jeffrey Kripal, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion and chair of the Religious Studies Department at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in an interview with EnlightenNext last fall. “And it’s been that way for decades.” Kripal is one of the many mystically inclined scholars who have grown frustrated with contemporary academic culture, which he says turns a blind eye to most of humanity’s significant metaphysical discoveries. So for Kripal and the hundreds of other serious academics who have attended Esalen’s conferences over the years, the CTR is a refuge, “a safe and sacred space”, where they can freely investigate topics that might get them fired from their day jobs. As Murphy points out, “One of Esalen’s strengths is that the greatest thinkers from the greatest universities and research centers come to Esalen to have conversations they have difficulty having back at their mother institutions.”

Take, for instance, the whole question about the origin of consciousness, which has been one of the CTR’s central themes since its inception. Drawing on the work of researchers such as the late University of Virginia psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, who spent most of his career documenting the evidence for reincarnation and out-of-body experiences, the CTR has built an impressive case for the fact that some aspect of human consciousness is independent of the body and survives after death. This long-term exploration led to the publication of an authoritative book on the subject, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, written by several of the CTR’s leading scholars in 2006. But in spite of the overwhelming empirical evidence, this research has gone almost entirely unnoticed in most mainstream universities, which for the most part operate under the assumption that consciousness is merely a product of the brain and dies with the body.

So what’s behind this academic blind spot for all things metaphysical? Frank Poletti, a professor of evolutionary psychology and consciousness studies at California’s John F. Kennedy University and CTR’s coordinator over the past nine years, says that it has to do with the fundamental cosmology that guides most of the academic discourse on the planet today. “The materialism of the modern and postmodern worldviews that currently dominates academic culture completely denies spirit. It denies consciousness. It denies that there’s anything more to the universe than just the physical.” And according to Poletti and many of his CTR colleagues, until we can establish a new cosmology that builds upon the insights of science, without falling victim to the purposelessness and disenchantment that often accompany the modern scientific worldview, academia and culture at large will continue to write off any and all notions of spirit, consciousness, and the metaphysical as little more than New Age fluff.

That’s why Murphy, Poletti, Kripal, and the rest of the CTR scholars are so passionate about a new series of conferences on what they call evolutionary metaphysics. Convening for the third time in March 2009, these conferences in many ways represent the fullest fruition to date of the vision upon which Esalen Institute was founded. Through the CTR’s unique blend of academic rigor and mystical exploration, this group of scholars is attempting to craft and legitimize a new cosmology for twenty-first-century humanity called evolutionary panentheism. Drawing on both the rich canon of evolutionary spirituality developed by such philosophical giants as Fichte, Schelling, Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Bergson, Hegel, and Wilber and the less-than-a-century-old scientific discovery that we live in an infinitely vast and perpetually evolving universe, this philosophical perspective puts an evolutionary spin on panentheism, a theological view that sees spirit as both transcendent to and infused within the manifest world. By Poletti’s definition, evolutionary panentheism says that “the universe is an evolutionary revelation of the divine and that the divine is transcendent to that process but also deeply involved and incarnated in it.” It is just this kind of perspective, which is broad and deep enough to see the inherent divinity in the creative process of life and culture, that “can guide our human community into the future,” says Poletti.

So how effectively has the CTR’s view infiltrated academia and culture at large? We’re not likely to see Out of Body Experiences 101 or a Science of Reincarnation seminar in the course catalog of any well known universities in the near future. As Murphy points out, while hundreds of scholars—many quite influential—have participated in CTR conferences over the years and returned to their home institutions to write articles and publish books, “people like us are still a tiny, tiny minority when stacked against the dominant religious and scientific paradigms of the age.” But in spite of its modest numbers, what may be most inspiring about the CTR’s efforts is the profound optimism these intellectuals maintain about the potential their own spiritual and philosophical inquiry has to move the culture forward. As Kripal says, “I see the CTR as a kind of seed community. To use an image that Jesus used, we’re a kind of esoteric yeast. You can’t see us; we’re very tiny. But it’s the yeast that makes the bread rise.”


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This article is from
SEX - The Good, the Strange, and the Sacred