Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Twenty-five Years of Integral Transformative Practice— A Tribute to Esalen and George Leonard

There is a small place along the Californian Big Sur coast that comes about as close to heaven on Earth as anything I have experienced.  It is called the Esalen Institute.  For an incredible half-century this magical place has seen the transformation of thousands of lives.  It has been twenty-five years now since I experienced a very special quality of the place, the first seminar jointly conducted by Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy and then Esalen president, the late George Leonard[1].  That weeklong seminar, also presented publically for the first time, was entitled “Integral Transformative Practices.”  That practice has been part of my life nearly every day since.

Esalen is a legendary place.  It has been called the “navel” of the Human Potential Movement.  The HPM represents a response to the profound social anxieties of the 1960s.  Around Esalen coalesced a diverse collection of interests related to the problem of how we human beings could become all that we might be.  The variety of its programs and the teachers who have been at Esalen could fill a thick catalogue.  A lot of “growth centers” were subsequently established around the country to offer programs for personal development.  Some were single practice programs and others, like Esalen, opened their doors to a mixed assortment of offerings.  Esalen emerged as one of the most dynamic and long lasting of these centers and has become, in the minds of many, the archetype, or icon or, yes, the “navel[2],” of human potential.  I call it the prime meridian, the master reference line on the map of the human potential.

Two young Stanford graduates, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, founded Esalen in 1962 on an isolated motel property owned by the Murphy's along a ledge overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The property is strategically located between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  A couple of years after its founding Murphy met George Leonard, a senior editor for Look magazine, who was interviewing leaders in psychology, neuroscience, and education and writing about the human potential.  They became lifelong friends and George became involved as a seminar leader and board member and officer of Esalen.  His writing and speaking skills played a vital role in driving the evolution of the movement.  Jeff Kripal, I believe rightly, called George the third founder of Esalen[3].

Over the years there have been literally thousands of programs offered at Esalen, and Murphy and Leonard participated in a great many of them.  Both conducted extensive research into trends in the movement, each writing a number of very readable books.  Together they formulated, in my opinion, one of the most important programs to come out of Esalen, Integral Transformative Practices, a program that has helped shape my own life and health for twenty-two years and counting.


It was the magical season of spring, traditionally a time of rebirth, when a remarkably large share of the good things I have experienced in life have occurred.  Spring on the Big Sur coast is very special.  Esalen is located on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Big Sur, south of Monterey-Carmel, and for those who have experienced Esalen, I need say little about the sublime beauty of the setting.  There, spring days often bring warm and soft sunlight, gentle breezes, morning fogs, and the sound of surf on the rocks.  From almost every spot at Esalen one sees the vast Pacific Ocean in its many moods.  The gardens are in flower, and the rich, invigorating smell of coastal heather suffuses the air.  Behind Esalen rise the imposing Santa Lucia Mountains.  Perhaps because I was born in Monterey, just a few miles up the coast, Esalen gives me a sense of being at home.

During that sunny spring week in 1991, 23 people met at the Esalen Institute with Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy and then president George Leonard.  The title of their seminar was “Integral Transformative Practices” (ITP)[4].  ITP was a new concept for me but I had received some inkling of it the year before during another week with George at Esalen participating in his seminar on “The Modern Warrior,” an offshoot of his teaching of the Japanese martial art of Aikido and a system he formulated that he called Leonard Energy Training (LET).

It was not specifically for ITP that I went to Esalen that week; rather, I saw it as an opportunity to spend some time talking with Michael and George.  I was doing research on the history of the Human Potential Movement.  They both seemed to have minds marvelously formed by both literature and life experience.  Both are known as men of character.  George I already knew for his great warmth and friendliness; Mike, I had heard, was much the same and possessed a radiant sense of humor.  Both were athletes, Mike a golfer and runner and George a high-ranking teacher of Aikido.  Between them they represented a wide spectrum of the knowledge and skills that promote transformative experiences. 

Together they developed ITP, a synthesis of their combined lifetimes of experience, and sought at that seminar to give it a public trial run[5].  I knew that they had been close friends and collaborators for many years.  I didn’t know that this was the first time they had conducted a seminar at Esalen together.

ITP, representing an integration of mind, body and spirit through the practice of a routine of exercises, a kata, intended to establish the conditions that can result in personal transformation.  In keeping with the Esalen philosophy the seminar was interactive and participatory.  Richard Price, the other Esalen co-founder, who died some years ago in an accident, said that we each teach what we most need to learn, and, as another worthy once said, the teacher is twice taught; an idea that has become part of the tradition of Esalen.  It is also in the tradition of the martial arts that places the teacher in the position of the senior student, one who though a master is still learning.  George and Michael, I found, were both masters of interactive learning.  Both ended sessions with thanks to the participants for the co-learning experience.

One of the most profound experiences of the seminar for me personally were the ten-minute meditation practices that Michael used to start each of the three daily sessions.  I had heard that he often mediated eight hours a day and was surprised that we would have such short sessions.  I was soon, however, enlightened to the wisdom of this method in more ways than one.  After a few days sitting in the spacious Huxley room with the soft, golden sunlight streaming through the windows, as I perched on one of the giant Esalen cushions, I found that in two or three minutes of focusing on my breathing I could enter into a quiet state, and by the end of the week I was able to quickly enter into what I can only describe as a sublime state of consciousness.  As a result of that experience, to this day I rarely meditate more than twenty minutes and usually require little more than a few minutes to enter a more relaxed state of mind.

Each session involved short talks by Michael and George.  Michael talked about the history of Esalen, his extensive experience in the Human Potential Movement and the research he was just then completing, The Future of the Body (1992).  George shared stories from his incredible store of knowledge and experience and then led us through series of exercises in which Michael also participated.  Having worked with George the year before I was familiar with many of the exercises, but I could sense there was a finer focus that year.  Obviously something important was in the works.

Esalen, the place, was also at work creating the sense of exhilaration and whole-being.  Between sessions there were mouth-watering, nutritious, vegetarian meals; walks, conversations, and submersion into the natural splendor of Esalen’s setting.  A great part of the whole experience of Esalen is the close personal interaction with the other seminarians and seminar leaders.  It’s difficult to describe the experience of a week at Esalen, away from the world, submerged in a sublime atmosphere, well-fed and cared for by a conscientious staff, and deeply involved with the seminar.  One seminar leader told me that after a few days at Esalen the “personal armor,” which we manifest in tightened muscles and inhibited emotions, dissolves.  I found that true.

After each of my Esalen weeks I found reentry into the world something of a shock.  I noticed the difference at my first meal stop after leaving Esalen, after driving alone for several hours into the Sierras.  Looking at the people around me in the restaurant, a room full of total strangers, it was an entirely alien world compared to that of the dining room in the Esalen lodge.  That sharp edge between two states of consciousness speaks to me of what Esalen represents.

The most lasting outcome of that week is that I was able to learn things that have enabled me to sustain a practice for a quarter-century.  It wasn’t until some four years after the seminar that the text on ITP, The Life We Are Given, by George and Michael, was published.  By then I had put together my own program[7].  Aikido was to play a very important role in that practice. 

The first seminar I had attended at Esalen with George gave me my first experience of Aikido.  Because I had a background in Judo and Karate he invited me to be his “uke” (attacker) to demonstrate the techniques that lay behind the seminar exercises.  I was frankly astonished by the power and grace of his movements.  This trip I wanted to talk to him about the possibility of seriously pursuing a practice of Aikido.  I was in my late 40s, about the age George was when he started Aikido.  I was in good physical shape but what I saw of the practice, throwing and being thrown innumerable times in each session, was rather daunting.

George answered my question about Aikido practice, characteristically, by example and demonstration.  One afternoon I joined in the legendary touch football game, something of an institution associated with George and Michael.  The spirit of the game was high.  Throwing a rather aggressive block against George I experienced his use of the “ki” (energy) employed in Aikido.  As he stepped slightly to his right, a mere touch to my elbow launched me into an extended somersaulting flight and roll from which I came up on one knee, still very much in action and completely unhurt.  However, I was at that point fully twenty feet behind him.  After days of practicing with him I was fully centered and totally present, and at that moment I knew that I would be able to practice Aikido.

Upon returning to Phoenix I enrolled with Arizona Aikido under ‘Tony’ Sakakibara Sensei[6].    George’s Mastery, published the same year as the ITP seminar, was also an important guide to practice.  George had, I found, his own unique expression of Aikido.  There are a great many forms of the art.  They range from soft to very hard, from meditative to virtual combat (e.g. the Steve Seagal bone-crackers).  George developed a philosophy about the practice of Aikido, and about life, that I found very appealing[8].

Sakakibara Sensei(now deceased, Tom Haines, pictured below, chief instructor) had been a Judo champion in Japan before practicing Aikido.  He was a fifth degree black belt in Aikido (same high rank as George) and lead a school composed largely of highly accomplished black belt level students.  The technique of this school originated from Ki-Aikido, which places a great deal of emphasis on the practice of basic movements, Aiki Taiso.  It also employs training with weapons:  wooden swords (boken) and the short staff (jo).  George used many movements from Aiki Taiso in his exercises so it became natural for me to continue to adapt what I was learning in the dojo to the physical side of my ITP practice.
ITP is undoubtedly best practiced with a group.  I should note, however, that I have almost always been an independent practioner of ITP.  For a brief time during the summer of 1996 an ITP class was formed at Arizona Aikido by one of the black belt students, Mike Specter, who was working on a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology.  Mike spent some time with George and with George’s Aikido teacher, Robert Nadeau[9], preparatory to forming this class.  The class, conducted as an experimental test of ITP, lasted only ten weeks.  That fact that I could continue the practice alone for twenty-five years and entertain no thoughts of discontinuing it, speaks highly of the virtues of the system. 

Having personally trained with Michael and George was an important step in getting started in my ITP practice.  In fact, I don’t know if it is possible to establish a lasting personal practice without some formal instruction under a knowledgeable teacher.  There are attitudes and skills that must be incorporated into the practice that cannot be learned from books.  In the practice of any art, few last beyond the initial excitement of the start, and a support group can play a vital role in sustaining a practice over any extended period.

What has ITP done for me?  At this point, in my early 70s, about the age George was when I first worked with him, I am healthy.  I have a slow heartbeat, low blood pressure, and low cholesterol.  In meditation I can enter a quiet state of mind in a few minutes even when the events of life in the world at large and around me are troubling.  Many people have remarked about my calmness.  I don’t have to sit to meditate.  Aikido taught me to “meditate in motion.”  The experience of being fully centered during a walk feels like the earth turning under my feet, not my body moving on its surface.  The physical exercises have become integral to sustaining health and especially flexibility. 

Moving to rural Pennsylvania, hours from the nearest Aikido dojo, I have sought new practices.  Aiki Taiso and occasional weapons katas are still part of my practice.  Another art I practice is making bread, kneading it by hand, from the center; no bread machine.  For, coincidentally, twenty-plus years I have loved this little practice of making bread.  I have a garden again and making the cultivating the earth a practice.  I also have a good workshop stocked with tools.  The Japanese gave us many arts and practices other than the fighting arts.  They have much to teach us about seeking perfection in everything we do.  It’s not so much the tradition of the art but the attitude of practice, an attitude very clearly expressed by George in Mastery and The Way of Aikido.  I find that each tool has its own practice, and I am gaining an appreciation for the centuries, if not millennia, of human experience that went into the design and function of each, even a common hoe.


My tribute to Esalen and its principles is a token of gratitude for the meaning and direction it has given my life and my work in human evolutionary development.  Through my personal encounters with Michael and George I gained a fuller appreciation of Esalen.  They are arguably the godfathers of the Human Potential Movement (a term they coined [10]).  In my mind it is difficult to fully estimate the importance of the contributions of these two men or, for that matter, to separate Esalen from them.  Co-founder Richard Price also had a crucial role in the formation of the community in which Esalen is embedded, but he died before I started my research.  Many others, of course, played important roles in its formation.

My experience of Esalen is of course defined by the events of my own life.  Like many members of my generation I experienced certain aspects of something called a Human Potential Movement during the 1960s and ‘70s.  I am old enough to remember the Beat scene:  Kerouac, Ginsberg, Beat Zen, existential philosophy, modern art and poetry, and I have spent many enjoyable days wandering the North Beach area of San Francisco, browsing the City Lights bookstore and hanging out at the Café Trieste.  I spent a good part of the late ‘60s, however, in military uniform, which, as it turned out, gave me one of my most important personal experiences.  I was stationed at a Japanese self-defense base near a city where there were few Americans.  My duties were light, so I had time to explore Japanese culture first hand.  I enrolled in a Japanese Karate dojo, and that was the most rigorous training I have ever experienced, including college football.  In the process, I learned something of the legendary Japanese martial tradition.  Between the dojo and the shrines and mingling with the Japanese on a daily basis, in the city and on long hikes through farmland and villages, and spending time with university students who wanted to polish their conversational English, I learned many valuable things from them, particularly about Bushido and Zen.  I found among the Japanese my own spiritual awakening, and this was the beginning of the quest that led me to Esalen almost 30 years later.  George reawakened the sense of that experience the first time I worked with him.

The GI Bill got me back into college, into a then a newly-founded urban college of ten thousand students with no campus.  My teachers and then colleagues and I were pursuing a promising variety of experimental educational methods and programs at the peak of the Human Potential Movement.  I also participated in an equally innovative graduate program at the University of Colorado, a two-year program formed around a nucleus of two-dozen highly motivated urban professionals.  We lived, studied and worked under the guidance of radical sociologists and psychologists and the dreams of visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy (both of whom had then been recently assassinated).  We worked on building a new world with lofty ideals, and we felt, for a time, that we were making good progress. 

My own first systematic experience of human development came through general semantics, a discipline to which I am still strongly adhere[11].  The links between general semantics and Esalen are numerous.  Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, was one of the early proponents of the ‘human potential” in the 1940s.  S.I. Hayakawa[12], who cut his own swath through the history of the sixties and later became a U.S. Senator from California, often taught his own (differing on many points with Korzybski) version of general semantics at Esalen[13].  Leading general semanticist and Institute Board Member Lt. Col Douglas M. Kelley, serving in Europe during World War II, was a founder of group psychotherapy,[14] a number of varieties of which were practiced at Esalen.  Other close links existed with the work of Kurt Lewin and the National Training Laboratory at Bethel, sharing a milieu from which Will Schutz’s “encounter groups” originated.  Abraham Maslow and Buckminster Fuller, both frequent Esalen seminar leaders, were honorary trustees of the Institute of General Semantics.  Others included Charlotte Selver, who was closely associated with general semantics leaders; Fritz Perls, who praised the discipline; and Gregory Bateson, who gave an annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture (as did Maslow and Fuller).  The links between the general semantics and Esalen are numerous but for my purpose here it may best be said, in that day, “all roads led to Esalen.”

Those were extraordinarily exciting times; a decade later I felt disappointed that the vision and energy of the day had ebbed.  After reading Marilyn Ferguson’s Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), among other readings, and attending a number of human development conferences, I became increasingly conscious that the Human Potential Movement wave had crested.  Researching the literature on human development I noticed a precipitous decline in publication in the field after 1976.  By 1985 I had actually written in my journal:  “Whatever happened to the Human Potential Movement?”  That was before the Internet allowed me to ask such questions of the world in a few keystrokes.  In the spring of 1986 I read Walter Truett Anderson’s The Upstart Spring.  Anderson’s book reawakened my interest in the HPM and I learned Easlen was still very much alive.

A couple of years latter George Leonard published his much more definitive, and personal, history of the Human Potential Movement in Walking on the Edge of the World (1988).  Reading that book through several times I decided to combine a meeting with him and Esalen. 

By that time I had collected and read a small library of literature from the era of the Human Potential Movement.  I was also writing a manuscript to systematize what I was learning and for use in my workshops on personal transformation.  I was gaining a tremendous insight into a subject that had been the background of much of my life.  For example, I have for many years used Maslow’s works on self-actualization.  Maslow was a key figure in the history of Esalen and human potential.  The expanded focus occasioned by my research served to broaden my perspective on self-actualization.  I surveyed the ideas about self-actualization from over two-dozen authors associated with the Human Potential Movement (most of whom lead seminars at Esalen).  From them I collected a large number of “characteristics” that they used to describe self-actualization.  Sorting them, I found that they represented 27 distinct characteristics, and, more importantly, I found that they formed an integral, systematic and comprehensive matrix of ideas that I was able to organize into a structured interrelationship and a hierarchical sequence to develop an expanded formulation of what I called the Well-Formed PersonalityTM.  At the beginning of that model is self-awareness and around it I developed a practice—a system of exercises I call the Gateway Method.  ITP, as a highly refined practice for developing self-awareness, has become a part of that model.

When I first met George I had a question about something I’ve heard called the “seminar effect.”  A friend in Phoenix, who had attended a number of Esalen seminars, summed the experience up humorously.  She said that while driving back to Phoenix from her Esalen encounters, she had “A high that lasted all the way to Bakersfield.”  I had organized a lot of conferences and workshops over the years and also attended a great many of them, so I was keenly aware that even the best of those experiences tended to fade rapidly.  The “high” seems to last no more than a few weeks at most.  The same experience was shared by many others I spoke with.  Since a lot of my work has been in the area of cultural transformation, and the medium is the workshop, I became intensely interested in this phenomenon. Gateway was my system.  George and Michael had been working on that problem for years and the result was ITP.  I found ITP provides a systematic foundation for countering the seminar effect.  It does so by providing people with an ongoing, day-by-day, practice, a sustained focus on personal development and fulfillment (more on this below) and a support group.

One other major topic had come out of my research that intrigued me:  An expression of the essence of the Human Potential Movement and human evolutionary development in general that has become the subject of more recent research.  One point stood out about the unique quality of Esalen.  Michael, Richard Price, and George made sure that no one ever “planted a flag” on Esalen and claim it for any single school of thought.  Single-focus schools tend to become ossified, even dogmatic, and lose sight of their own essential principles, particularly after the death of the founder.  Esalen not only avoided that fate but seeded a fabulously rich ground of diverse approaches to human development.  Some years ago, before the digital era, I purchased the ERIC microfiche of the first 30 years of Esalen catalogues and undertook a reconnaissance of its programs.  I was overwhelmed by the variety of topics I found.  There have been literally thousands of seminars[15].  Michael and George lived and experienced that history and arguably come as close as anyone to intuitively understanding what makes the human race tick.

George, and this is true of Michael as well, had a knack for fanning sparks of interest such as mine.  It became clear over the years that he was challenging me to pursue an understanding of the essence of Esalen and the Human Potential Movement and to help continue to evolve the work he and others had started.  Several attempts have been made to plumb the depths of Esalen but even Kripal’s  excellent works[16] left much, for me, unsaid[17].  I found something of that essence in the story of the first meeting between George and Michael during which they resolved to “fire a shot heard around the world:" to devote their lives to human potential and transformation[18].  They shared a vision of human evolutionary development that shaped their lives.  That meeting set the tone of their work for years to come and out of that work came the HPM.  Michael and George in their books, and others associated with Esalen, have addressed the issues of the unfolding movement thoughtfully and established a fertile ongoing dialogue[19].  But, as I said, that movement, at least the peak, seems to have passed into history[20].  Esalen is still very much there and new books and new teachers are abundant, but in my mind, and in my heart, something important, something vital, was missing.  Meeting George and Michael was an important part of gaining a new focus.

The pursuit of human potential is historically deeply rooted in us.  It is found in all cultures going back at least to the time of the Axial age[21] at least.  Since about the time of the Renaissance the human race has become increasingly conscious of its evolutionary potential.  We have been challenged by a lack of systematic methods to guide it.  In fact, we seem to be losing ground as a global, technological driven social transformation unfolds along economic and political ‘fault lines’ rather than psychological and sociological themes.  This has become one of my most pressing interests.  With this ever-accelerating change, novelty and complexity, I believe it is imperative that we achieve a workable understanding of the process of purposeful human evolution.  We must have landmarks to orient us, and for me, Esalen served as a meridian, the “Greenwich Mean,” to my interests in human evolution, both with its ground-breaking work of the sixties and in its currents activities, particularly the Center for Theory and Research and its affiliates and partners[22]

The history of the human evolutionary tradition surrounding Esalen is, I believe, unparalleled.  But, as Michael wrote in his book, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, the journey is only beginning.  In a parting word to Michael, the mystical St. Andrews golf pro Shivas Irons bestowed something of a benediction[23]:

“Michael,” he said, his disappointment plain to see, “yell forget a good part o what happened here.  I think some of its gone already.  But remember this.  Ye can always recollect yerself, and start again.  Theres a fire in yer secret heart, and in all the world we see, thats stronger than the sun.  Its been burnin since the world began. Science is showin us that our universe has come a mighty journey, from hydrogen and stone to livin creatures and this human brain.  Think of it, Michael, think of its prodigious course.  From atoms at the worlds birth to heather on these fragrant hills to Beethoven, Burns, and the love o God.  But Ive got a secret for ye. The journeys only gettin started!  Ye had glimpses o that last night, glimpses of where it could take ye.  The fire, the joy, the glorys waitin, always there to lift ye up, to be yer companion on the road, to show ye who ye really are.  Remember it.  Practice it.  Live it with yer body, heart and soul!  And when ye forget...start again.  With all its meanderins, thats what the world does.  It always starts again!  The fire in yer secret heart will always find an answerin grace, and take ye further than ye dream”

Your need to read the book to understand this, of course, but George Leonard, I should note, became my Shivas Irons.

I believe ITP is a vital practice at the heart of the process of human evolutionary development; not the whole of it but a cornerstone.  It keeps us on our game; it is an anchor to continuity in personal practice.   The practice, however, is only the beginning.  George, in The Transformation, wrote about the importance of this day in the course of human history.  In that book and others he spoke of the promise and the decline in vitality of the Human Potential Movement that he and others had already experienced.  How do we maintain the vitality of our progress as human beings?  Rhythm, he frequently asserted, is everything.  The rhythm of history seems to be bringing us back to a reawakening of the spirit and a renewed vision of the best of the movements of the sixties and seventies, of hope and disciplined effort to attain a better future for ourselves and this race we call human.  There is something deeply rooted and primal about the process.  George, at the end of Walking on the Edge of the World, wrote of standing on the cliffs at Esalen: 

As dusk falls over the earth and the sea, the heavens become even more luminous. … The stars will be bright tonight, the sky dark and deep.  In this clarity I am content for a while to accept the past for what it is and to give the future the benefit of the doubt.  

I stood with him there on that edge of the world one night watching a full moon rise above the mountains.  “Watch this,” he said.  “This is the one place I know where you can get the feeling of the earth actually turning beneath the moon.”  And I saw and did felt the earth move.

He concluded Walking on the Edge of the World with these thoughts, which I have read many times:

My faith is strong that eventually the human potential will break through even the most powerful barriers that prevent the journey to destinations beyond our present imagining.  That journey, I know, will often be difficult and sometimes dangerous, and will rarely if ever proceed at a steady rate.  Again and again it will meet with the resistance of established authority, and when it overcomes that resistance, it will frequently disrupt the ordered flow of society and bring new problems along with its gifts.
The human potential of which I speak and toward which I will always direct my best efforts is diverse and unpredictable, and no less divine for being human.  It is about solving mathematical problems, but not just about that.  It is about feeling deeply for others, but not just about that.  It is about loving and caring and entering unfamiliar states of consciousness and imagining things that never were, and it is also about social justice, without which individual potential is invariably cheated and choked.  More than anything, it is about discovering new form and order in the stuff of existence, and being reformed by that discovery.  Ultimately, the potential within each of us is as deep as gravity and as wide as space and time.  Unless we succeed in destroying ourselves, it will finally overcome any force that tries to stop it.
            In essence, the human potential is an invitation, not for the few but for the many, to learn and never stop learning, to view with increasing clarity the ever-emerging, intricate, inevitable pattern of existence, and to realize again and again—on the stroke of every hour, every minute, every passing moment—that it is beautiful.

My interest in Esalen was, and continues to be, as an example of a locus of knowledge and of vision.  For me, Esalen is about something elemental, something essential, in human nature.  Esalen represents an engagement with something fundamental about human transformative potential.  The ongoing association with the ideas and groups that have coalesced around it continue to inspire and inform my own work.  At an age when most retire I am just beginning to feel that I am learning and have yet much to contribute.  My ongoing work with general semantics has taken me to new realms of understanding.  My model of the well-formed personality gains substance.  My evolutionary model of integral history reassures me, albeit at times with a catch in my breath, that we, the human condition in the universe, may prevail.  But we will do so only if we take charge of our own destiny and to do that we need a foundation that can be experienced in places like Esalen and in the lives of those who have built and continue to sustain them.  I write this tribute in hopes of inspiring others to become part of this renaissance in human development.


Where do we go from here?  When I began my intensive study of the Human Potential Movement nearly fourty years ago, I was aware that the great wave of that period had already ebbed.  As I researched its literature I realized that it was a vast and fragmentary field, as readily evidenced by the never-ending list of programs in the Esalen catalogues over the decades.  George told me he thought it had basically been a literary movement.  If so, I would argue that it was, first, an important literary movement, and second, that he was one of its most fruitful and creative contributors.  But what I am sure of is that Esalen was and remains at the center of the map of that brief and brilliant epoch and must be referenced by those who seek to continue the pursuit of the human potential into this new century.

Esalen remains a mystery.  I believe its story has yet to be fully told, that its essence is yet to be revealed.  As I draw a map of my own experience of Esalen I begin to see three parts of its history that seem to portray something of the mind, soul and body of Esalen.  I must add that these divisions are useful fictions as each is a fragment of what I think of as a holographic image[24], each a part of the whole but merely serving to emphasize a single facet.  George, I would propose, is the mind by virtue of his writing skill.  His dominion was learning, and he had much to teach.  His books offer a profound insight into the movement and the times.  One need only have practiced with him for an hour or so, however, to come to understand the vast scope of his physical prowess and spiritual presence.  Michael Murphy is clearly the spirit of Esalen.  I am convinced that Esalen, the idea, will never be comprehended until a spiritual biography of Murphy is completed.  He is a deep and powerful thinker, and his athletic accomplishments place him well above the norm in the physical realm.  His eyes express an incredible depth of being and his laugh is as primal as the waves pounding the cliffs below Esalen

And then Esalen is a place, a physical presence.  It is a place of great beauty and that beauty is both natural and comes from the creative effort of all those who lived there and devoted much of their lives to its physical essence.  True, the property belonged to the Murphy family, but for over 20 years Dick Price was the “master” of that estate.  Price created a community, a spirit in its own right, a sub-community of the Big Sur, but still a kingdom unto itself nestled at the edge of the world.  Price, in his own practice, synthesized many elements of the great therapeutic modalities that he experienced over the years at Esalen and elsewhere.  While that phase of Esalen’s history ended with his death, I believe the essence of Esalen will not be understood until we have an in-depth understanding of Price’s stewardship. 

Finally, there is one more story I believe must be told, that of Selig Morgenrath.  Visitors to Esalen might notice a small granite memorial stone worked into the rock wall on the ocean side of the Lodge upon which are inscribed these words: 

Selig Morgenrath
Designer Architect Builder
Esalen Institute

Anderson spoke of him briefly in The Upstart Spring.  He was a Big Sur artist, skilled craftsman, and one of the rare human beings who awed the crusty Fritz Perls.  He did much to shape the creative beauty of Esalen, something I have come to think of, in spiritual terms, as “perfection.”  Selig and Dick Price are long gone.  Some of what I’ve learned of them comes from old-time and aging Esalen hands, like Paul Herbert, who were kind enough to share meals and stories of moments that are not even footnotes to the history and essence of Esalen, but moments that revealed both the place and those who taught and learned and lived there.  How many hidden gems are yet to be found at and around Esalen?  And how soon will their voices be stilled?

When the story of Esalen during its pivotal first decades is told, it will be history, another story of the past.  But if its essence is revealed, and I am convinced there is one of astonishing proportions, I believe it will be a lighthouse to aid navigators journeying out into a still largely uncharted sea, beyond the known and safe, as it says on the ancient maps:  “Plus Ultra.”  This is the realm beyond the edge of the world.

Those of us who participated in the vast array of work that can be associated with the Human Potential Movement labored to establish a sense of order and harmony in life in a society experiencing chaotic social change, even then in a state of accelerating disequilibrium.  At the time, many of our practices were considered radical.  Most of those once radical ideas are now commonplace attitudes.  The great majority of the programs and seminar leaders listed in the Esalen catalogue have, despite their latent power, been forgotten, their teaching fragmented and distorted. 


A year or so before his death George and I had a long chat about the history and development of the HPM.  I had shared an early draft of my ideas about Esalen and ITP with him.  During that conversation he again fanning the spark that was at the heart of my work:  Community.  “It’s all about community, Bill,” he said with emphasis.  Since retiring, the job of rebuilding local communities and economies has become my work.  It is an idea that is now catching on like the human potential movement did in its time.  There are indeed certain parallels.  The issues today are climate change, energy and an unstable global economy.  The new centers are found in the likes of Transition Towns, now nearly 160 TTs in the US and more than 1,200 worldwide.[25]  I founded one.  Esalen is another official Transition Town Initiative and TT trainings have been held there.

Are these new communities the heart of an authentic and durable counterculture?  Do they represent a starting over, a new wave of energy that signals the next stage in our human adventure?  In my study of movements I have sought common denominators, principles and practices that allow groups to become self-organizing and self-replicating; that is, take on a life of their own. 

At the core, I find two essential and interrelated systems:  Learning and Community.  These were precisely the elements that attracted me to the history of Esalen.  Increasingly, I find these two systems synergistically united as the “learning-community.”  Community itself is one of the casualties of our time that has witnessed a cruel disruption of human association.  Without it, I am convinced, truly effective learning for the purpose of advancing the human potential is not possible.  Without it families and children, each new generation, will always be on shaky ground.  Many of the therapies of the human potential era were designed to put us back together, to ease the trauma of social change and rebuild human intimacy; the effects of lost community. 

I believe there is a vast uncharted frontier yet to be explored:  Human social potential.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps America’s foremost representative of the Enlightenment, another great human potential movement, spoke repeatedly of the progress of the individual not only as a self but also as a social entity.  He advocated a non-industrial, pastoral society.  His ideal of the good society quickly faded in the wake of the industrial tsunami that still surges around the world with ever-accelerating effect.  In my search for the essence of human evolutionary development I often ponder the course that American and world history might have taken had the Industrial Revolution not achieved its present dominance. 

The literature we find on human community tends to describe what has been lost.  The very idea of “community” is poorly understood today.  This is a time of dissolution, of disintegration and illusion.  That which defines the essence of being human is being eroded just as the cliffs upon which Esalen rest are being eaten away by the powerful, eternally beating sea.  In geological terms Esalen will exist for only a moment and perhaps humankind for not so long as well.  Without community there is no humanity and without an understanding of our humanity the race is lost long before the end.  Most of what we call “community” today provides little, if any, authentic human relationship.  George and a number of his contemporaries lamented this trend.  Esalen, as I last saw it, seems to stand outside of the mainstream of material progress and I suspect something of an authentic human potential community formed there around Dick Price.  My hope is that it has and will continue to hold out against the world.

Two additional points:  First, the wave we experienced in the Sixties, I believe, most of us thought of as a rising wave.  Today I am not so sure.  If our global economy unravels, if we fail to develop renewable energy alternatives, if we continue to place demands on declining resources such as land, water and raw materials, continue to pollute the environment and intensify climate change, we will inevitably slide into an abyss of history.  Our wave has crested.  Our age could be the greatest crisis in our history.  In those terms "evolution" is of secondary importance to "adaptation."  That is what we, as human beings, have been designed to do and do very well.  Perhaps we need to learn a new way of adapting, a more purposeful, intentional and moral framework for choosing the path we take; which brings me to:

Second is our disconnection from our selves and the Earth.  We take for granted that we should be non-dual.  I often wonder why we have to strive to be the opposite from “dual.”  There is something deeply programmed into our culture that conditions us to dualism.  I’m not going to go into that as it would take a book or two.  Bottom line, however, is that we need be become Engaged[26] with the physical and living world of which we are a part.  Perhaps we need to pay as much attention to what is in our DNA as we do to what is in the stars.  We need to spend at least as much time learning to exist as part of the living ecosystem we are part of as we do attuning to the cosmos.  There needs to be at least as much “we” as “me.”  We need to Reengage with our world, with life and with human society.  I consider living by the sweat of our brow a blessing rather than a curse.  That blessing suggests an Agrarian Reengagement, something Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Wendell Berry and others saw as promising.  The agrarian life and culture seems to be something we inherently thrive doing.  Chop wood and carry water; plant and harvest; live in the cycle of the seasons and our lives.  Maybe we need to seriously rethink that expression that we may have gotten wrong.  Maybe it should read:  In the world and of it.

This brings me back to ITP, which represents, in my opinion, an exemplary program for encouraging the formation of groups that can move in the direction of a deeper human associa­tion, that is, toward attaining a sense of true community.  ITP is, by definition, a sustained practice.  How long do you practice ITP?  As George liked to say, as long as you still breath.  Conducted in groups, several days a week, it brings not only familiarity and friendship but provides the opportunity to come to the deeper understanding and appreciation of each other that defines traditional community.  It seems clear to me that any personal development practice carried on intentionally and perpetually, which draws from deep wells of wisdom, may promote this next level of “spiritual” intimacy. 

ITP is by definition a practice.  It is something one does whether alone or in groups.  It is repetitive, rhythmic, flowing, slowly gains in depth and understanding over long periods of time.   But it is not an end unto itself.  ITP, like other practices, I find a means to a life lived more vividly.  As a practice it goes beyond most; it is a philosophy of life, a cluster of exercises that increase our Engagement with life.  We have to become Reengaged in our world, in life, in society. 

There is, as Jefferson and Emerson so clearly wrote, yet another level of experience beyond the world in which we live our daily life.  It is one written into the Buddhist teachings on the Eightfold Path and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but it is down-to-Earth.  Its principles include compassion for and service to our fellow human beings.  This attitude is the foundation of community.  The time we have is this moment, and the degree to which we celebrate each other as human beings in the here and now, will determine the degree of realization of the essence of our being.  As one sage said, great ages are those in which men and women come to the end of their lives and die without despair.

The ideal must, however, be expressed in the practical.  Evolve, or perhaps more appropriate adapt, we must change the way we live.  That is the primary reason I support the Transition Towns model as a best practice for building grassroots community involvement.  The rapid expansion of the model is something like that of the growth centers during the Sixties.  The model represents a community of practice and has its own evolving culture found in Rob Hopkins’ (pictured), The Transition Companion[27] and an active web presence[28].  This model, however, is just the start, a vision for a community that has to be created and one that is totally focused on achieving a higher human potential and ultimately an evolutionary leap to a far more suitable state of being closer to the essence of that we call “human.”  I believe that to represent a next phase for ITP, a collective kata and a collective affirmation.  “The Magic of Community” is the next to last chapter of The Life We are Given.  George Leonard suggest that to me.  

There is an adventure before us and potentials we perhaps cannot even imagine.  But there are also challenges, barriers, illusions and disillusions.  This state of affairs, I would argue, is exactly what we human beings are formed to tackle.  George told me the two greatest adventures in American life were the opening of the Frontier and World War II.  He was even more excited about the prospects of the Transformation (the Transition) to come.  Let’s go!

William Henry Sharp
State College, Pennsylvania

[1] George Leonard died January 6th, 2010, age 86.
[2] The “navel” is a point of focus in meditation, the location or center, according to many, of the human spirit.
[3] Jeff Kripal in his Esalen:  America and the Religion of No Religion (2007).
[4] Tony Schwartz, who attended, devoted a chapter to his experience of this seminar in his book What Rally Matters.
[5] The official starting date for the ITP program, George clarified to me, was the following year in 1992.
[6] Sakakibara Sensei was interviewed by Aikido Today magazine, Nov/Dec 2002.
[7] I do not advise the use of any exercises not recommend in the official ITP materials.  Those exercises were very carefully selected and evaluated for their low impact.  The variations I employ came from long training under very skilled and competent teachers.
[8] See also Leonard’s The Way of Aikido.
[9] 7th degree black belt.
[10] George tells that story in his Walking on the Edge of the World, p. 179, in my opinion the best source on the history of the Human Potential Movement.
[11] The development of that interest I described in an article, “A.E. van Vogt and the World of Null-A” in the January, 2006 edition of ETC., A Review of General Semantics. http://learn-gs.org/library/etc/Vol63/63-1-sharp.pdf, and I have just completed a book about the work of the founder of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski:  Time Binder, now undergoing peer review.
[12] See “Korzybski abnd S. I. Hayakawa,” by William Sharp, in Korzybski And …, Corey Anton and Lance Strate (2012)
[13] My detailed critic of Hayakawa can be found in Corey Anton and Lance Strate, Korzybski and … (2012).
[14] He was also the psychiatrist assigned to the prisoners at Nuremburg. 
[15] Some day I hope to carefully analyze the “natural history” of those catalogues to learn more about the methods and leaders and the evolution of thought and practice over these four decades.  Somehow there seems a need for an “Alexandrian Library” of human potential works.
[16] On the Edge of the Future:  Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture (2005), and Esalen:  America and the Religion of No Religion (2007).
[17] And more recently, Marion Goldman’s American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege.
[18] Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has called that meeting which sealed their partnership, on the night of February 2, 1965, one of the most important dates in the history of human potential. 
[19] Walter Truett Anderson’s The Future of the Self (1997) I thought a good link in this dialog.
[20] Yes, many of those practices have been adopted by popular culture, but in fragments.
[21] The period defined by Karl Jaspers as having occurred around 800-400 BCE, that included the appearance of Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, developments in the scriptural writings of the Jews and East Indians, and the foundation of Greek philosophy.
[22] Esalen Center for Theory and Research (http://www.esalenctr.org ) and the closely allied Ken Wilber oriented Integral Movement (http://www.kenwilber.com/home/landing/index.html, http://wilber.shambhala.com and http://www.integralinstitute.org/public/static/default.html ), are dedicated to the pursuit of this essence. 
[23] Michael told me that Sean Connery had once read the script for Golf in the Kingdom, when the book had been optioned for a movie, and to this day I hear his voice reciting these words.
[24] A holograph is a laser-generated “photograph” every small part of which can reproduce the entire picture.  The holograph became a popular metaphor for many human potential writers.
[25] www.transitionus.org 
[26] Capitalization intended.
[27] Rob Hopkins, 2011.
[28] Start with www.transitionus.org


  1. Bill - thank you for a ramblingly awesome read. I stumbled upon your blog while being intrigued by ITP and following my nose. I love the hope, faith and melancholy of it all. Fear not. Where there is a wave, others are generated. And HPM is and has been a big wave for many of us. And the disruptive winds of our current times are fetching a whole new swell. We'll soon be surfing sets of HPM waves. I for one have learned and delighted in your words here. May many more travellers on the Path happen upon your generous work here. Thank you for the Work you've done to now pour it into this blog. I'm edified and uplifted by it. I'll investigate Transition Towns and ITP as a practice. Warm regards and heartfelt thanks, Michael Roberts, Hobart, Tasmania 18-2-15

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sam
      As George Leonard implied, quoted as I ended the article, the road lies ahead.
      I can still feel standing next to him gazing into a future that while filled with peril, promises Transformation.