The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege

By Marion Goldman | Go to book overview

1
Esalen’s Wellspring:
Foundational Doctrines

In the early 1960s, when the philosopher-poet Allen Ginsberg lolled in the hot springs with a group of visiting Episcopal clergy and their wives, he personified Esalen’s bedrock doctrine of spiritual inclusivity. Ginsberg was one of many well-known American intellectuals who became an informal ambassador for the Institute during its first decade. He was a luminary in the Beat literary movement and a champion of Americanized Zen Buddhism. In response to his companions’ questions about his religious practice, he described a personal credo that captured Esalen’s broad spiritual orientation. Ginsberg asserted that he was a Buddhist Jew with attachments to Krishna, Shiva, Allah, Coyote, and the Sacred Heart, and he summed up his own and the Institute’s approach: “I figure one sacrament’s as good as the next one, if it works!” (Kramer [1969] 1997:23).

Ginsberg never explicitly described Esalen’s acceptance of almost every religion that located sparks of divinity within humans and embraced a distant, benevolent supernatural force. Nor did he discuss the Institute’s trademark mixture of spirituality, psychology, and physical experience. He didn’t need to. The context of his remark—a steaming tub filled with mainstream liberal clergy, their spouses, and a hirsute gay beatnik—embodied Esalen’s implicit commitment to bring together disparate kinds of people with enough spiritual privilege to visit Big Sur.

The men and most women sitting in the water were opinion leaders who could augment their prior cultural and religious knowledge by visiting Esalen and spreading the word about the Institute to their networks of friends and acquaintances. In addition, their temporary intimate contact with other seekers so different from themselves expanded their social networks farther and enabled them to carry out new projects (Granovetter 1973). The clergymen’s interactions with Ginsberg illustrate how visitors to

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