Esalen, California, and Speed

No, not that kind of speed. This isn’t a post about Burroughs. I’m thinking about a different sort of speed, the sort that plays a role in the thinking of Dumezil, of Deleuze and Guattari. The speed of thought, of the spirits that undergird them, of the match and mismatch of the two. Tempo, dancing, find your partner.

More than a little bit of this is about me, about how I found my tempo, but seeing that with a little more of the historical horizon in which that became possible. So, this is a bit of a messy hybrid of reading notebook and autobiography.

My reading of Kripal’s Esalen continues and sits at the base of that. More broadly, reading about Esalen puts me in mind of my own early spiritual exploration, largely because it overlaps with some of the major players at Esalen. Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts (Esalen people) bring to mind others, most especially the West Coast New Falcon scene including Antero Alli, Christopher Hyatt, and Robert Anton Wilson. There are real sympathies between the two strands of thought that exceed simple accidents of my autobiography. I wasn’t well-positioned to see them, but things like the U.S. psychedelic culture of the 1960s served as important trading zones for the turn to consciousness both encouraged. Which means there is more than a little of Timothy Leary in both. Not exactly a good thing, though not exactly a bad thing.

My departure away from Catholicism began in early high school with Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God. That was in the early 1990s. While I hadn’t heard of the Power of Myth series, it is no doubt because of that series that I was able to stumble upon Joseph Campbell so easily in the local bookstores around Atlanta. My last year of high school (now in Reno, Nevada), I ended up with an open class slot in my schedule, which I spend in the library poring over a porridge of philosophy, religion, and the 24 volume set of Man, Myth, and Magic. I discovered Eranos and Esalen, dug more deeply into Jung.

It is funny to think about that–the Power of Myth is part of that late ’80s moment when it seemed like the end of the Cold War would fulfill the hopes both of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ and the countercultural dreams of some of their Baby Boomer children. That confluence shapes the 1990s when I really came of age, but that optimism was blunted by the real decline in quality of life for my generation.

Like the time that gives birth to it, The Power of Myth has a dragon-by-the-tail attitude that belies the reality it claims to speak for. It promises the reader that the diversity of the world’s religious experience can be boiled down to a series of overlapping mythic patterns. While I have often seen Campbell’s studies mischaracterized as promulgating a monomyth, he nonetheless does want to reduce world mythology to a family of basic patterns. Intellectually, it is an awkward halfway house between orientalism and structuralism.

(To my mind structuralism remains vital in a way that this comparative approach to mythology does not, because structuralism tends to spend more time with concrete myths and their variation, providing abstractions that speak more specifically than those of Campbell.)

One of the things that Esalen has helped me to see more clearly is the debt that this strategy owes to India. Campbell was one of many intellectuals with strong connections to prominent Indian gurus and his thinking owes something to Brahmanic thought more generally. Having since read things like Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason and William Sax’s God of Justice, I can see more clearly how ideological and imperial that modality of thinking is and how well-suited it was to the kinds of imperial strategies at work within the United States in its global ascendancy. The universalism it promised matched well the universalism of ‘American democratic values’ that the U.S. promised.

If Esalen was one side of that coin, the New Falcon crew was the other. The New Falcon crew seemed to be more focused on following the (pseudo)science of Leary’s circuits of consciousness, developing a mess of techniques that would be as portable as a car or a gun. I came across them in college as I discovered a couple of occult/new age/pagan bookstores. My few encounters with would-be fellow travelers didn’t do much for me, so the eccentric personal practice of experimentation endoresed by several New Falcon books like The Tree of Lies (Hyatt), Angel Tech (Alli),and Condensed Chaos (Hine), appealed to me.

Thankfully, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung gave me broader horizons. I started reading Nietzsche, existentialism, stumbled onto Foucault and Deleuze, found my way into a philosophy program and dove a little deeper into history. Graduate school was deeper diving yet. I never quite abandoned the occult angle, but philosophic study came to occupy the foreground. That philosophic work anchored me, in part because it helped disentangle my personal issues from my spiritual concerns, and both from political issues.

When it comes time to turn to my spiritual life, though, the books aren’t what help me. What helps me is Ocha, Los Guerreros and Olokun.

Still, cleaning Olokun this year, I was reminded of some visualization work I did inspired by Antero Alli, and of how it gave me a glimpse, in somewhat comedic outline, of my reception of Olokun and the way it would bounce me into my current spiritual practice. That Alli-inspired work preceded and accurately predicted my involvement with Ocha (and struggles I would have with it) by more than a decade.

It wasn’t really that material that helped me get to my current spiritual center, though. I got a sense of ‘here’ through them, but I had to depart well away from them to bring it to ground. I had to find Ocha, receive Eleggua, Ogun, Ochosi, and Olokun, pass through the quite literal blood and tears they required. I’m not deeply involved in Ocha right now, but I still feel quite bound up in the reorientation the Orisha helped me to achieve. Everything this blog discusses follows from that reorientation.

I feel that distance from my old self keenly as I read about the history of Esalen. Esalen embodies much of the divide that constituted my early searching. The work done there seems to runs parallel to the sacred current it is trying to manifest without quite managing to intersect with it. There is something that it is talking about sensibly, but it remains at a remove from it. Kripal’s identification of Esalen’s character to that of Hermes and his hermeneutic approach strikes me as especially insightful; like Hermes, Esalen carries the message ahead of what arrives.

And one of the reasons for that mismatch is that it moves too quickly and skates along the surface, talking more than dwelling (to get back to the question of speed). Even as it talks of embodiment, it seems to be about trying to force the spirit into the fast rhythm of modern life rather than trying to find a way for modern life to fall into rhythm with spirit. The way in which sex is glorified and asceticism criticized seems part and parcel of this. Sex at the speed of modern desire rather than slowed to fall into sympathy with the cosmic time well beyond it. There is some frustration on my part. I would like to call that African inspired religiosity embodied, but that word has already been thoroughly occupied by the West Coast set.

Some of that surely has to do with the nature of Esalen and of the West Coast ‘revelation’ more generally. It was transmitted in lectures, books, and workshops. Those are things that dwell with what can be communicated more than with what has to be summoned and stabilized. While they can point to lineages of transmission, those transmissions more often seem to be identified with moments rather than with proper spiritual apprenticeships.

This sounds hypercritical, perhaps? I am hoping to find my way toward straight-up critical, because I feel that is what this material both needs and deserves. I don’t mean to imply that this unremittingly bad, a corruption of the one true way, but that such a shift comes with problems that have to be worked through. And the foremost of those problems for me is the problems of thinking spirit too far ahead of the experience of spirit.

Oh, and the idolatry of the book. There is something to be had there, too.

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2 thoughts on “Esalen, California, and Speed

  1. Pingback: Faith and Study | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: [NB] Old Notebooks | Disrupt & Repair

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