Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

Who is normal?

Nobody is normal.

I think normality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our culture, in that so many people still nervously ask the question, “Am I normal?” It seems that “normal” has come to be equated with “desirable,” is in ten-fingers-and-ten-toes-on-the-baby normal. But it ain’t necessarily so. I, for one, am unapologetically not normal, and have no wish to be seen as normal, conventional or average. I don’t dress funny or anything outwardly apparent, and my  abnormalities are benign: I don’t follow sports. I don’t own a cell phone.  I create strange art. (Check out

“Normal” is a relatively modern social concept, and is based on a statistical idea. It isn’t found in nature, and like “Justice,” only resides in the human brain. On the street, normal correlates to  average, and abnormal has come to have negative connotations. In statistics there are three “measures of central tendency” (mean, mode and median) that produce what we call averages. But there is no values correlation between average (normal) and good, or desirable. Cigarette smoking used to be a normal adult habit when I was growing up. Obesity is normal in our society, as is divorce. Five hours or more of screen time daily seems to be the new normal. Standards of normality change over time.

There’s no such thing as a normal dog or a normal day or a normal rock, let alone a normal human being. While the average American family may have (let’s say) 1.8 children, you won’t find a single family that actually has 1.8 children. Normality is an abstraction, not a reality.

We increasingly live in a world of manufactured situations and pastimes, with a high standard of standardness.  Fashion choices may seem to set us apart, but following fashion just makes us part of the fashion parade. The mass media promote conformity and superficiality as virtues. It’s easy to see why a person who sees herself as a misfit might  long to “just be normal.” But I agree with Frank Zappa, who said that while many people think normality is grand, “normality is not grand, it is merely okay.”

If you’re conflicted or alienated, you may have an unrealistic vision of normality as a desirable destination. But balance, harmony and serenity are better destinations than normality. You are unique, and you need not be normal to live well and happily. People  who strive to be normal may not recognize or cultivate creative potentials within themselves. Original art doesn’t come from normal thinking, and “thinking outside the box” means not thinking conventionally. Extraordinary people are, by definition, not normal.

In my last post I mentioned the “Unconventional Modes of Experience” course in my humanistic psychology graduate program. It didn’t take the same approach as traditional “Abnormal Psychology” courses, as it didn’t have the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM) as a textbook. Instead, the focus was on the phenomenology of madness. I won’t attempt to explain phenomenology in this post, other than to say that its focus is on subjective experience, not objective diagnosis. Crazy behaviors are often the result of unconventional experiences, such as auditory hallucinations. Scientists dismiss such phenomena as mere symptoms. Phenomenologists, like shamans, explore them for meaning.

I later took DSM-based courses and professional development classes to develop my diagnostic skills, but I’ve always appreciated my exposure to phenomenology as an alternate lens to the medical model. A belief underlying my therapeutic practice was that the better I understood each client’s unique experience of being-in-the-world, the better equipped I’d be to help him therapeutically.

I know that gay people didn’t choose to be gay any more than I chose to be straight. Being gay isn’t statistically normal, but it’s a normal variation from the heterosexual norm in every known culture on earth. I worked in therapy with a number of gay people who expressed their longing to be normal, to meet the standards of normality they were raised with in their families and communities. Some knew they’d be shunned if they were labeled abnormal. But what is considered normal is always culture-bound. Arranged marriage is normal in some cultures. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, just that it’s what most people do.

As long as you live your life productively and responsibly, and don’t exploit or abuse others, being normal is optional. Being abnormal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it’s an authentic expression of who you are. There’s no objective and timeless standard for what’s normal, anyway; so you should feel free to be your unique self. Other people’s judgments may be their problem, and may not have to be yours.