Money, The New Age, and Esalen’s Midlife Crisis

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 4, 2012 — 37 Comments

Don Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Following Our Bliss,” reports on growing pains at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, for the Religion News Service. According to Lattin’s piece, there are growing complaints about the “corporatization” of Esalen, long a haven for spiritual seekers, with some claiming it is “turning into a spa for the 1 percent.”

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

“David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend. What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest. Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.”

Jeffrey Kripal, author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, tells Lattin that what Esalen is going through are classic generational struggles that all religious movements face, the “institutionalization of charisma.” In addition, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says “we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations” and that those stirring up discontent aren’t tuned into what Esalen is like today.

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.” ”They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO. ”Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Interestingly, Lattin’s article doesn’t directly cite the critical site Esaleaks, or mention the recently released (and earlier leaked) leadership culture survey, which showed a cautious, “reactive,” culture of leadership at Esalen. As the resort hits its 50th anniversary, their troubles ask larger questions about the overlapping “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements. Movements that have had quite a considerable influence on modern Paganism (take a look at Esalen’s past teachers list as confirmation).  Lately, with the United States dealing with one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, with the high rate of unemployment, and with the rise of populist backlashes to the status quo (especially in the Occupy Movement), we are more sensitive than ever to the money and power-related failings of movements which claim to be working for the benefit of all.

This crisis of identity at Esalen comes during a time of scandal for the New Age/Human Potential movements, from Anusara’s sex-and-power shake-ups, to the deadly power-tripping of “Secret” teacher James Arthur Ray. It truly does seem like a “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more about a lack of accountability to the values that these communities claim to espouse. There has always been scandal in the New Age movement, but in better times it didn’t seem to hit as hard, nor did the stakes seem to be as high. There was a long-running joke in the Pagan community that the difference between a Pagan event and a New Age event was where the decimal point was placed in the check you wrote to attend, but I’m starting to think it goes a little deeper than that. Yes, our relative poverty compared to the New Age has kept us humbler, less out of touch with the world around us, but I also think that because we’re a movement of religions, we are fundamentally different from the “spiritual but not religious” elite.

The New Age movement is, at the end of the day, a means towards transmitting a set of technologies for living, usually acquired for a monetary price. Your theology is ultimately immaterial, which is why it can encompass both Oprah and Robert Anton Wilson. Because a number of those technologies overlap with the beliefs of modern Pagans, we have sometimes seen our teachers “cross over” to their high-paying events (though not often), and many Pagans have happily attended New Age seminars looking to pick up new teachings. That overlap, however, should not be mistaken for one being the other. Wicca and other Pagan faiths were once mistakenly called “New Age religions,” but that’s a misnomer, one that was eventually corrected as more research was done. We are spiritual and religious.

Pagan faiths are also going through generational struggles, though they are more about evolving our stances on social issues, or creating new leadership, than about money. We are more worried about building simple infrastructure than evolving that infrastructure into resorts for the rich. Perhaps a day will come when Pagans, too, will argue over corporatization and whether we are out of touch with the non-rich, but I somehow doubt it. Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some attempt to automate the process. We will never, I predict, collectively escalate far beyond the middle-class in our ambitions. That may frustrate some of us who yearn for “New Age money,” but it will also spare us the crisis of conscience and leadership faced by institutions like Esalen.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TCCGNY7AD3K4ORTQRKUKPTFPKU Morri

    “Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to
    codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some
    attempt to automate the process.”

    I do hope that remains true.

    • Faoin Crann

       I actually wanted to comment on the same quote that Morri pulls here. One thing does concern me. While the theology remains quite open sourced, the pageantry and festival focus, along with the recognition of various sacred objects, in the Pagan and polytheist communities does create something that could very easily become over-commercialized. After all, if Christians go crazy over shopping for Christmas, how could we not also fall into the same trap? That’s only one holiday a year! For virtually ever rite, every small devotional, there are offerings, candles, incense, dolls and statuary, pictures, chalices, countless divination tools, etc.

      What’s more is that our religions aren’t necessarily anti-materialist. It’s totally acceptable for us to buy or create religious art in large quantities, but amassing wealth and abundance is also viewed as a positive endeavor, provided that ethics are minded.

      Most people have run into the would-be Pagan who can’t stop buying sterling silver jewelry or new wands. I myself have fallen into this trap, only to be reminded that spirituality is a lifestyle, not something that comes with a receipt. Because we are so experiential, it does, and has already, help us remain grounded, but I could see this becoming a problem in the future if we’re not careful.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I have always thought of the Human Potential Movement as one of the roots of modern Paganism, and so regard Esalen as sacred ground. Of course I’m generous in that regard; I locate Pagan roots in Haight-Ashbury and ethnobotany, too.

    Of course the Institute is New Age today, by the good old decimal-point measure.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    If we want to have nice things then we need to figure out ways to pay for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

    When I read this piece I couldn’t help but wonder whether Burning Man Festival will also experience something similar in terms of the institutionalization of charisma. It’s difficult to stay counter-cultural for long.

  • Jeanne Anne Decosta

    So it always goes. Look @ how 1st tv then the internet became prostituted to commercial spam. Look @ the obnoxious adds on this page. Look @ how even Wicca has become a venue for selling candles & jewelry & stuff. It always comes down to commercialization under a Fascist Corporatist socio-economic paradigm.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Television was always supported by advertising. From day one. 

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

         We have a television license, in Britain. This gives us advert-free television.

        The cost is having it (nominally) government controlled.

        • Patrick Barry

          It may be advert free, but it is paid for through taxes, is it not? Nothing is free.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Technically, no.

            In the UK, there is the ‘television license’, which is required to purchase a television (even if you have no intention of watching the BBC.) Using a television set (to watch television) without a license is a criminal offence.

            I never said it was free, I merely said it was ‘advert-free’.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

             Any politician who proposed that in the US would be ripped to pieces by an angry mob and his body parts fed to chickens.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             The US really hasn’t worked out how to tax EVERYTHING to the same level as the UK.

            Out politicians have taxation down to an art form.

  • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

    Thank you for doing this research, Jason. 

    I think it always behooves us to look at why we are engaging in any of our activities as we grow and change. Spiritual connection will hopefully remain more important to us than a financial bottom line, and even as we realize that financial support is important, there are other things that will hopefully remain at our foundations: practice, celebration, service, ethics and joy. I haven’t been to Esalen in 25 years, and when I’ve looked at workshops there in recent years, was startled at the cost. The land there is truly gorgeous. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

    BTW, speaking of a financial bottom line, and because your reporting has been so good these recent months, I’m donating some more money to the Wild Hunt and hope others are doing so as well. Just don’t go building a resort for the 1% with it! 

    Thanks for all you do.

  • Kilmrnock

    I can’t disagree with part of the complaints , i can’t afford $730 a person for just 2 days . But as Jason and the Manager have said the New Ager’s and Us Pagans have a much different modus oparandi.As someone well rooted in the middle class these price are out of my reach , just as they are for most of us pagans .But to be honest our lack of monitary focus is part of  what drew me to paganism . I needed a pure spiritual path that meets my spiritual needs not someone elses pocketbook. That is exactly what i found ……….took a wee bit of time and personal growth to find my right fit , but i found it .     Kilm

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

    Esalen still exists?  Gods, I remember making jokes about it 4o years ago.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    People will always seek to make a profit out of an exploitable market.

    With something as disorganised as Paganism, it is very easy to exploit (especially those new to it.)

  • kenneth

    As far as I’m concerned, New Age is as alien to the spirit of paganism as any of the Big Three monotheisms. New Age and traditional church religion both operate on the premise that wisdom/salvation is something that can be reduced to a surefire formula, packaged for retail, and then passively consumed. People who go to these $1,500 workshops are wasting their money, and worse, their time. There’s nothing these “gurus” can give you that you can’t find for yourself, and you can’t take a real spiritual journey by having someone deliver it or narrate it to you in some posh retreat center. If you want to go to Esalen or places like that to hobnob with the big names and enjoy the scenery or colonics or whatever the fad is, have at it. If you’re ready to do some real spiritual work, leave the credit cards at home. 

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       Not that Paganism has only the one spirit, mind.

  • Karina BlackHeart

    It feels important to interject some numbers concerning Pagan festivals and conferences in comparison with the pricing at Esalan quoted above.  I looked at four well known pagan events–all run from 3-5 days:  Pantheacon  estimate $592 +tax for the Con, hotel room and meals.  Rites of Spring $ 250 + meal plan (amount unavailable at this time)  and work shifts with tent camping or shared cabins.  Pagan Spirit Gathering  $250 plus meals you cook yourself or purchase from vendors, camping in your own tent.  California Witchcamp $450-$750 per person (sliding scale increases the closer to registration deadline you get)  includes a meal plan and shared cabin.  Between the Worlds  $250 with a 2 meal per day plan, offers campsites for tents.

  • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

    Transcendence sure does seem to require a whole lot of $$$.

    The spirituality of the here-and-now, located and embodied in the natural world, on the other hand seems to be relatively inexpensive. So far. When that changes I am sure there will be a new crop of heretics ready to offer low-cost alternatives.

  • http://twitter.com/Ravan_A Ravan Asteris

    Esalen has been expensive since the 1980s or before.  It is only the fact that so many people have been pushed out of the middle/upper-middle class that we are really noticing it.  Seriously, I’ve never been able to afford to squander so much money to go there, and when I’m working I make good money.

  • zendodeb

    Nothing lasts unchanging. Success breeds the trappings of success.

    My guess, is that if you really want spiritual enlightenment, you won’t get it from people selling it by the pound. “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” Which is why I have a jaundiced view of most organized religions. (Signup, give your weekly contribution, and be assured your place in paradise.) This sounds the same, with a slightly more new-age/capitalistic bent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    You do realize we are moving towards commercialization. some of our largest portals are increasingly commercial such as Patheos, which is heavily ad laden (I mean who use Pop-up ads anymore), Pagan Wiccan at About.com sends out heavily ad based emails as well as pages.  Our personal festivals are not far off the numbers of these events as well as was pointed out. So while we ignore the truth in search of Divine Poverty as a spiritual source, recognize that we are starving our community with this idea of being non-capitalist, while we use capitalistic companies, such as this website for our hosting and sources. It is that idea of a true seperation that is becomign a source of painful hypocrisy in our c0mmunity.

    • kenneth

      I don’t see our only choices as some sort of money-free hippie/ascetic ideal vs the New Age model. I don’t think pagans have a problem with money or prosperity as a general matter (aside from living in America these days). We do have a problem with the industries of hustlers who posit that spiritual growth is some secret self-help technology that can only be bought at their licensed outlets. Some of that objection does have to do with the amounts of money involved. Pagan events ain’t free, nor can they be, but they are still in most cases a relative bargain compared to the New Age seminars. We’re talking 50 bucks a day vs 50 an hour in many cases. It’s not only the money that sticks in our craws however. It’s the concept of teaching people that they can and should be passive consumers of “wisdom” that can only be had through the head guru, who will decided when and how to spoon it out. 

      • http://www.sharonknight.net/ Sharon Knight

        “I don’t see our only choices as some sort of money-free hippie/ascetic ideal vs the New Age model…We do have a problem with the industries of hustlers who posit that spiritual growth is some secret self-help technology that can only be bought at their licensed outlets”.
        Thank you for saying this, Kenneth. I think you have made an important distinction, and one that often gets overlooked.  Also, there are plenty of New Age teachers who are sincere, have created products that many have found beneficial, AND made a fair chunk of change. Julia Cameron of the Artist’s Way comes immediately to mind. Not everyone in the New Age movement is a sheister, even if they have made money. I agree with Jason’s main point, that Esalen’s exclusivity has taken them outside their original intention. But some of the comments in this dialog smack of some pretty unhealthy attitudes toward money. Why is commerce indicative of spiritual corruption? It can be, but it isn’t a given. It is entirely possible to buy yourself a new piece of silver jewelry at every festival and still take your spiritual practices seriously.  I have benefitted from both paid and non-paid magickal training. I wouldn’t say one was better than the other. Genuine, deep magickal experiences were had in both situations.We criticize the New Agers, yet all too often our movement suffers from the opposite extreme. A basic mistrust of money seems inherent in Paganism, and cripples us more often that it should. I think of the rune Gebo – a gift is always a two-way exchange. Exchange doesn’t have to involve money. But also, it can. It is entirely up to the negotiations of the individuals involved. We would do well to remember this, I think.

    • Ryan

      I would point out the difference between “corporatization” and “capitalism”. In general, Pagan faiths are not, as a rule, anti-capitalist. (perhaps non-capitalist simply by being a religion and not an economy…) They are, however, generally unfriendly to the “corporate”, as that bears with it a tendency toward abandonment of ethics in pursuit of capital. Pagan religions are not generally anti-materialist.(though some are)

  • Obsidia

    I guess I feel a little differently than most of the people here…I actually see “New Age” stuff as a sign of hope for humanity’s eventual evolution.  There doesn’t have to be any materialistic stuff to go along with Aquarian types of inner-technologies, but it can be fun to use different tools.  My teacher, Marion Weinstein, used to go to a lot of “New Age Fairs,” and she would share her Magicks at an elementary level because she figured most of the people there were not quite ready for the advanced stuff yet.  Still, she did not reject them and many learned from her teachings.

    For those who are interested in Aquarian Spirituality, I highly recommend Christopher Penczak’s wonderful book “Ascension Magick.”  There ARE very postive ways we can participate in this worldwide Spiritual alignment; we can be part of this Global movement if we choose.

    As for Esalen, the Spirit of Big Sur is there, and it would be great to experience it without any payment necessary, except maybe an offering to its beauty and strength.  Prosperity, for many Pagans, is a bit problematic.  What IS money, anyway?  For some ideas, go:

    http://paganprosperity.tribe.net/

  • John Thomas

    All these programs and intensives are based on the notion that there’s something you need to know and that you can learn it if you pay somebody enough money.  This assumption needs to be carefully scrutinized.  Spiritual life is not about learning something from outside but about connecting with something we already possess within.  A few modest and even free classes may be needed to give us tools that will help make that connection but the major work is up to us.  Places like Esalen are simply evidence of how deeply the assumptions of market capitalism have lodged themselves in our minds.

  • Nicre

    Sociologist Helen Berger wrote about the routinization  of spontaneity (“institutionalization of charisma.”) in 1995 when doing her research with the  EarthSpirit community. It is a very common phenomenon that Max Weber argues all new religions face. As we are so decentralized and diverse, we can expect to face it as individual groups, not as Pagan traditions. But we will and are facing it and have been for some time. 

  • Sarsen

    I think that making that big of a distinction between New Age and Pagan is wishful thinking to some extent.  Which is not to say that the issue isn’t important.  Part of what drove the split in Feri was the issue of charging money to teach the tradition.  (Not the only thing, but one of several interrelated things; most especially, the notion of advertising workshops and operating under a business model in general).   More importantly, there is a New Age “feel” to some of the ways that Pagan religion is presented by some groups or individuals…the “enlightenment by numbers” approach.   Basically, I don’t think that Pagandom as a whole is at all free of the same issues and underlying philosophical pitfalls as New Age organizations like Esalen, and it’s a bit premature to congratulate ourselves for it.

    • Guest

       I think it’s not quite accurate either. I’ve been convinced of the division between Pagans and the New Age since that time I caught strep from Pagans trying to use “The Secret” to will it away instead of seeing a doctor to prevent themselves from being contagious.  The Will is an amazing thing, but like Love, it’s balance, both require using one’s whole self, including the higher intellect, which even though they were trying to suppress it in them, these people had enough of to know to see the doctor.

      As for expenses, what do people spend on pilgrimages, tourism, vacations? Those things are related, often combined, to spiritual retreats. Its well-known a good vacation can help motivate and energize for the whole year. Same with hobbies.
      Even more shocking, and sometimes similarly “useless” in terms of making the financial rewards back, what do people pay for classes at college?
      Disclaimer: the first time I ever crossed the pond overseas was for a spiritual retreat in the west of Great Britain.  It was entirely awesome. Travel is good.

      • Sarsen

         Money can be an aspect of sustainability…basically, if a gathering or event can’t pay for the space, etc. it won’t happen again.  But I find the tendency towards some people becoming career Pagans creepifying.  People start seeing their rituals, magic, and insights as commodities, and everyone wants to be the next Big Name Pagan Celebrity.  It creates a screwed up dynamic…it causes people to ignore elders and teachers who are right in their own neighborhood, and chase after fame and the famous.  It’s disempowering for some and overinflating for others.  And the justifications I keep hearing…”well, I paid for classes/attended a retreat/etc and I got something out of it”…miss the point.  Those of us who aspire to being spiritual should be able to see the whole system, feel the shape of the energy as it affects the world around us not just our own personal interests.  We should be able to see beyond our own noses.  And if we can’t…well, maybe that’s because we reduce everything to an “exchange,” like a business transaction, where any complex ongoing relationship (to the earth, the community, each other) is suppressed or ignored. 

        As I say, I’m not *against* money.  Too Capricorn for that; I have a fine appreciation for the pragmatic.   I have to say as far as I am concerned the jury is still out on capitalism…as a system, it has some advantages and some serious flaws.  I do know that it is an absolutely terrible model for a spiritual practice or community.

        • kenneth

          For me, the key issue boils down to this: Does capitalism exist for the benefit of humans or is the reverse true? There will always be some of both and a back-and forth dynamic between those forces, but I think the net balance has shifted more and more to the latter since the late 80s. A similar tension exists in the relationship of spirituality to money. 

  • Kilmrnock

    I personaly  don’t see or understand the sacred poverty argument . But i do sorta understand why most of us are broke , financialy . To succede in todays world requires a bit of , theres no more gentle way to put this ” arse kissing “. As most Pagans would just as soon tell you go shyte in your hat than do that , we don’t go as far as those who will. But we have our honor and pride in tact , and to most if not all of us  that is more important . To me at least being true to myself , and my personal honor are more important than money and social status in the outside world . Most pagans i know and CR’s in particular feel that way.Those of us within the CR religious community and religions actually see ourselves as being in a dispora , an ethnic religious  group living within a host society . Hoping to be on our own one day .I also stand by my previous statement that the New Agers and the Pagan community have a different modis operandi . In the CR and most of the pagan community , other than sometimes a nominal membership fee, most training or knowledge is free , besides as previously stated most of us are broke .Even most festivals and cons  are reasonably priced , just to cover costs or to make a modest profit. Otherwise most of us wouldn’t be able to attend .       Kilm

  • Kilmrnock

    Anther thing i’d like to add. For me at least as i’ve aged i have  taken stock in my life and found what really matters. I live in a modest , smallish home donot have new cars , or alot of fancy , expensive things .I don’t really want or need those things .  Having the love of my life , having good reliable freinds, a close family ………….i am happier now than i have been in years . I would hope many pagans feel the same way . I live responcibly , my townhouse dosent waste land or excessive energy , i garden and compost . Am also in the process of changing to a wind powered electic supplier. What i have now , including my Celtic pagan life style is more important than having alot of money. If having more money would mean giving up what i have now , no dice .   Kilm

  • Greenflame

    I have to disagree with many commenters. I have seen a culture in Paganism in general that dislikes money, distrusts the energy of money, and imposes taboos on money.  Of course it’s not everyone, but it’s enough to be a stereotype. I have seen many people automatically assume an “I can’t afford it” reflex when any kind of fees whatsoever are brought up for events or festivals or workshops, even nominal, single-digit fees. I have seen exactly the same kind of reaction coming from Pagans about money that I have seen coming from fundamentalist Christians about sex. In fact, I think this anti-money reflex accounts for some of the bad feelings many Pagans have toward the New Age movement.

    I at least applaud the New Age for being willing to talk about money and for saying that it’s not a bad thing. By and large, we have not got to that point yet. I’ve use many New Age techniques to increase my prosperity, and they have worked – when I was willing to undergo the Shadow work necessary to get over my own “stuff” about money.

    Money is a potent Power, just like sex or any other Power. And just like any other kind of power, it’s easy to get addicted to it and misuse it. That may be happening at Esalen.