The Esalen Connection: Fifty Years of Re-Visioning Madness and Trying to Transform the World

Michael Cornwall, PhD
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When Richard Price was a young man, he experienced extreme states for which he was labeled schizophrenic and forcibly ‘treated’ with psychiatric medications, ECT, and insulin shock. He suffered from residual effects from this for the rest of his life.  In 1962, Price and Michael Murphy founded the Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coast of Northern California. From its beginning, Esalen worked to create sanctuary for people who, like Price, experienced extreme states. “Esalen was Price’s revenge on the mental hospital!” says Murphy.

Both at the institute itself and through the creation of projects like the rigorously designed, NIMH-funded Agnews Project research, Esalen helped to create the contemporary model of madness sanctuary. Agnews, which yet stands as the largest randomly-assigned, double-blind study on first episode psychosis, showed a 70 percent lower re-hospitalization rate advantage from providing a med-free environment for people in initial extreme states; a result which provided impetus and support for John Weir Perry’s med-free sanctuary Diabasis House, and the creation of the I-Ward sanctuary that I served at and wrote about here on MIA in “Remembering a Medication-Free Madness Sanctuary”.

Dick Price
Dick Price also wanted Esalen to be the kind of outside-the-box think tank that could fundamentally re-vision the experience of madness away from the medical model vision. Price realized the applied practice of the medical model belief system was the cause of the greatest trauma in his life.  Price said about his own experience that “The so-called ‘psychosis’ was an attempt towards spontaneous healing, and it was a movement towards health, not a movement towards disease.” He believed his experience of madness was not pathological but was full of meaning and was transformative, even perhaps touched with mystical power.  He saw Esalen as a refuge for people in extreme states, “A space where it’s possible to live through experience rather than having it blotted out, a place where there aren’t the same negative self-definitions of someone going through this type of experience.”

In addition to Price’s commitment that Esalen provide refuge for those in extreme states, Esalen’s broader liberating influence on world culture would prove to be enormous, as pioneers in philosophy and psychology made it the birthplace and epicenter of the human potential movement. (Sascha Dubrul has written a great article here on MIA about the lasting relevance of the human potential movement for current activism.)  The  young and gifted Price and Murphy attracted figures like Alduous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Abraham Maslow, who helped put Esalen on the map with week-long and even month-long gatherings for re-visioning madness. Ongoing symposia with names like “The Value of Psychotic Experience” went on for the whole summer of 1968!  Gregory Bateson, Murphy and Price, Alan Watts, RD Laing, Erik Erikson, Fritz Perls, John Weir Perry, Claudio Naranjo, Virginia Satir, Julian Silverman, Alan Ginsberg, Michael Harner, Joan Halifax, Stan Groff, and many others all contributed to a growing understanding of extreme states that continues to evolve, as it certainly always must.  They saw a neglected possibility for humankind, rooted in a philosophy that has always served to bring a dimension of the sacred and numinous into view.

That ancient but always emerging mythic vision serves as a counterweight to the objectifying, pathologizing and materialistic world view that I believe makes the tragically narrow vision of psychiatry possible.  Esalen’s role in altering the views and approaches to madness, or extreme states, continues to this day.

Last month, following in the tradition of passionately focused Esalen conferences, I organized a week-long invitation-only gathering there; “Alternative Views and Approaches to Psychosis.”  This conference was preceded in 2011 and 2012 by a workshop and then a conference on alternative approaches to extreme states that began a revival of this aspect of Price’s work, one that had been dormant at Esalen since his death in 1985, when he was struck by a boulder while tending to the Esalen grounds following a flood.

This year, the Esalen conference was attended by 40 people involved in one way or another in the mental health revolution that is daily chronicled here on Madinamerica.  People with lived experience brought their invaluable perspective to a gathering that included peer counselors, psychiatrists, therapists, authors, film makers, researchers, mental health services administrators and family members. A great many of the 40 people who gathered felt a sense of urgency to come up with collaborative, strategic ways to unite against the ever-growing human rights abuses of forced treatment. Those human rights abuses are being justified more and more in the name of protecting society from the suspected danger of people who have been given a psychiatric label. That public demonizing of those of us with lived experience of extreme states is being fueled by wide-scale fear mongering and draconian laws that threaten all who experience extreme states.

A number of us at the Esalen gathering committed to work together to fight human rights oppression on many fronts, via media, public education, legal campaigns, and expanding on existing – and developing new – humane, alternative supports for those in extreme states.

Dick Price was a psychiatric survivor whose compassion still touches us now. I know I wouldn’t be writing here on MIA if not for him, because the I-Ward medication free extreme state sanctuary I went to work at in 1980 would never have existed without the Agnews research Price made happen. John Perry’s Diabasis House – that I did my doctoral research on – never would have existed either.

So, thank you Richard Price, for fatefully touching my life, but so much more for helping so many people in extreme states receive the love you were denied in your hour of need, and escape the soul-shrinking diminishment of self-worth, and the hopelessness that a psychiatric diagnosis can inflict. Esalen lives on as an example of what can happen – for individuals and for society at large – when we respond to the extremes that sometimes come with human life not with fear and control but with receptivity and encouragement. There’s no knowing – ahead of time, at least – how much accrues to each of us and to society at large when we learn to listen to the voices – weak, tenuous, or frightening as they may sometimes be – of people who are struggling with the process of coming-to-be in a world that often silences or eliminates them before they have a chance.  Dick Price’s voice was silenced early but lives on in the place in which he came to live and die; a memory and evidence of what can happen when the best of mind, body, spirit and community are given a chance to come together.

27 COMMENTS

  1. I was fortunate to go to the Esalen conference this year. It was not a simple foray into paradise, though paradise it was. There is an energy there that took hold. Yes, intense dialogue formed upon each of our voices, both enlightening, riveting and gentle. After the first two days I found myself slipping. I found myself in a darkened night that madness knows so well. Here it was different. The Ancient Ones on the horizon, constant, with their haunting drumbeats, led me to behold something sacred. The commingling of my darkest cavern-me in communion with the mountaintop lit-Eye. Beheld by this schism I was able to hold. Alone in this expression I was sheltered by those walking with me. In this space, which has not left me still, I learned to embrace that radical falling-down-rising with every footstep, wave and thought. This was no vacation. It was work in groups. It was listening to the spirits. It was finding agony and bliss yet again playing within the Heartsong that I have learned so well, now different because I can see myself in life entire. I found myself within kinship both validated and corrupt. I am grateful to have found my way to these cliffs knowing that the end of every horizon is a shelter to the storm. Thank you Michael for organizing this event and for everyone who was there boldly walking together. I am challenged by the thought of those who were not with us. I wish that the world could be Esalen for this moment or as many moments as we need. So that you in your home could know that you were not far from it. We are standing together for the times that are forming. May we find each other now.

  2. Hi Michael.

    Thanks for your thoughtful article, with so much information about Dick Price. Much of this was enlightening to me.

    I do believe, in the wake of this conference, many individuals are asking the question: Is the movement now invitation only. After sleeping on my possible responses to your fine article, I came to me that the direct question might as well come from someone who respects you and your work.

    Do you mind responding?

    Best Regards,

    Sharon Cretsinger, Space Cowboy, Founder and Director, Kent Empowerment Center, Kent, Ohio

  3. Dear Michael,

    Thank you for carrying and holding so tenderly and safely this vision (and reality!) of compassionate care for so many years — from your own experience with your loving grandmother during your own extreme process of “coming to be in this world” through supporting others in this process through I-Ward, through 30+ years of trying to infuse this support within the institutionalized walls of public mental health care…

    I would suggest that Dick Price’s vision (and those his vision has and continues to attract) has more than lived on, it is growing. As all those who gather here continue to demonstrate.

    Grateful to be reminded of this important work and its potential.

    And thank you, always, for including families in your work and vision… We need healing and can be healers too. You are deeply appreciated Papa Bear!

    Jen

  4. Brother Michael,

    Re: ”Esalen was Price’s revenge on the mental hospital!” says Murphy

    The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has given me the opportunity to reflect on an important subject – revenge versus forgiveness.

    I’m amazed at the ability of some souls… to find peace, while seeking “revenge” in a way that makes the world a better place for others. It’s quite a gift, to say the least.

    Thank you, for another beautifully written and thought provoking piece. Your posts are a joy to read.

    Duane

  5. Dear Michael,

    I am so glad that you have managed to revive Esalen’s interest in extreme states. After Dick died, it seemed as if they were sliding away from anything really radical. But his spirit lives on in you and the others at your conference. I can just see all of you at the Big House—what a wonderful revival of the original thrust of Esalen.

    I wonder if there is some way to get the news of these conferences out into the psychotherapy community. I keep hoping that other people who worked in those Esalen-inspired programs will catch the spirit again, and offer to help (can you really be the last one still breathing?). But it also feels really important to make interns aware that alternatives did—and still can–exist. That’s where the future of alternative treatment lies.

    Given the current draconian laws regarding forced treatment—and the possible horrors to come—I think the “60s model” is even more needed now than it was then. If only for purely humanitarian reasons, we need to act powerfully to keep young people out of the system altogether. Once somebody has been hospitalized, once she or he has received a diagnosis and “treatment,” an entire life changes. How much of the rest of that life is spent succumbing to, or fighting against, the trauma?

    Those old programs—I Ward, Diabasis, Soteria—meant that many young people experiencing extreme states never entered the system at all. We need those kinds of programs more than ever now. It breaks my heart to know that sanctuaries like that are no longer available.

    Thank you so much for all you have done, and are doing, to keep this work alive.

    Bright blessings,
    Lisa

  6. Does anyone know where I can download the “Manual of Gestalt Practice in the tradition of Dick Price”? It was available as a free download (“This material may be reproduced for personal, non-commercial purposes”), but I cannot find it anymore.

  7. Michael thoughtfully tipped me off so I could respond to these comments.

    The original “Manual of Gestalt Practice in the tradition of Dick Price” was posted on a Google site to enable community members to comment. Naturally, many people in the Esalen community were interested. The site was disabled when the revised edition was published. However, Apple Publishing and Barnes and Noble both picked up the original edition, so it may still available on iTunes and Nook Books as eBooks. Google the title to check.

    The revised edition is only available as a printed book for use by teachers of the practice. But it is also available to the public through my Lulu website page. See: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Callaban

    I’d also recommend Seymour Carter’s interview for anybody interested in Dick’s Esalen, back when he was doing work on extreme states. Seymour worked with Dick back in the day. Seymour died in the Ukraine last year, while leading Gestalt workshops in Russia.

    I posted an excerpt from the Gestalt Manual that was relevant to Michael’s Esalen group. I will leave it posted for the time being. It is available here: http://goo.gl/iuImg

    I also wrote an article for Michael, as an introduction for his group. It is still available online, so I’ll leave it posted for the immediate future here: http://goo.gl/i5pt1m

    There is some good background information about Dick and his life that is available on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/Gestalt.Praxis
    and here:
    https://www.facebook.com/dick.price.celebration

    I want to take this chance to say how much I appreciate Michael Cornwall’s efforts to preserve the groundbreaking work of Richard “Dick” Price, Julian Silverman, and the Esalen sponsored Agnews State Hospital research project. Michael has earned the gratitude of many people….

  8. Hi Michael,

    Thanks so much for this article. The mental health liberation movement is stronger now that this conference has happened, and I hope it can happen again next year and in the years to come. The bonds that were created here are lasting, and give me strength as I face the daily grind of the oppressive society. As we coordinate our efforts toward liberation it is essential to name and recognize those that have come before us and paved the way, and the shoulders of the giants we stand on, just as our work will one day be looked upon by those who come after us. Thank you for being such a man, Michael. Thank you for preserving the legacy of those who have come before you. And thank you for fighting with all your heart.