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A Social Oasis. Murphy's father left him a 60-acre tract on Big Sur, and in 1962, Esalen Institute opened. "We only knew that a forum was needed for all these new ideas," Murphy said. "We had no idea where it would all lead to. We didn't care." The statement is characteristic of the part of the human potentials movement that Esalen represents. It and its many imitators are analogous to the so-called "free university," which eliminates the traditional boundaries between students and faculty, one academic discipline and another, the cognitive (knowing) process and the affective (feeling) process.
The encounter group, as it evolved at Esalen, is first of all a vehicle to provide an intense emotional experience. It is usually kept small enoughhalf a dozen to 20 membersto generate intimate response. Its focus is on the "here and now," on what the group members experience as they sit, lie or touch together. It demands complete openness, honesty and cooperation. As described by the American Psychiatric Association, the encounter group is "a social oasis in which societal norms are explicitly shed. No longer must fa?ades of adequacy, competence, self-sufficiency be borne." Indeed, just the opposite kind of behavior is encouraged. "The group offers intimacy, albeit sometimes a pseudo intimacyan instant and unreal form of closeness . . . one which has no commitment to permanence."
All of this applies to Esalen at Big Sur. The scene itself inspires strong emotions: a verdant reach of craggy coastline dropping precipitously into the Pacific. A row of small rustic bungalows that house Big Sur's 60 "seminarians"its own name for clientsis dominated by the main lodge. Other emotions, some of them hostile to Esalen, have been aroused by the institute's most notorious and overpublicized attraction: its hot sulphur baths, where seminarians of both sexes soak blissfully in the nude during breaks in their sessions.
Shocking Experience. Esalen's curriculum, like that of most human growth centers, is wide. The fall 1970 catalogue offers a smorgasbord of workshops, labs and seminars, among them group sessions for millionaires ("On Being Rich"), couples, divorcees and dentists ("The manner in which the professional approaches his patients and practice is, in general, a reflection of the way he approaches life").