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.

First blog post

You don’t have to be sick to get better

 

My psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) was the only program in the Southeast, in the grad school catalogs I studied, to promote itself as a “humanistic psychology” program. For a while humanistic psychology was anathema to many fundamentalist Christians, some of whom saw it as having Satanic origins and goals. All I’ll say about that is that there was nothing in the humanistic psychology movement that was dissonant with the Christian values I was raised with, and some of my classmates were Christians.

Humanistic psychology was practically synonymous with the “human potential movement” in psychology, and was referred to as the Third Force in psychology – the first being Freudian psychodynamic theory and the second being Behaviorism. It was an umbrella term for new theories and therapies that didn’t fit neatly into either psychodynamic or behavioral theory or practice, and wasn’t grounded in remediation of psychopathology. Many or most humanistic psychologists were interested in psychologically healthy persons, as well as therapies that didn’t rely on psychodynamic interpretations or behavior modification techniques.

Among the theories and therapies in the movement were Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy, gestalt theory and therapy, Transactional Analysis, William Glasser’s Reality Therapy, as well as various movement therapies (Feldenkreis, Alexander Technique, structural integration), encounter groups, systems theory, Eriksonian hypnosis, and neuro-linguistic programming. I’ll have more to say about some of these theories and therapies in later posts. It was an exciting time to study psychotherapy, and I couldn’t have chosen a better Masters program to prepare me for my career.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” was an important part of the foundation of the human potential movement. Like all models it has its flaws, but it’s a model that explains how potentials for growth are limited by identifiable life circumstances. It isn’t grounded in psychopathology; everyone can be located somewhere in the model. Maslow described a universal hierarchy of needs, generally depicted as a pyramid. The most basic human needs are physiological, such as the need for air, food, water and shelter. According to Maslow, if these basic survival needs aren’t being met, you stay stuck in survival mode and can’t grow, or meet higher-level goals. Once these needs are met, you have the potential to grow.

Next up on the pyramid are safety needs. If you aren’t safe or secure in your life, you have to devote your efforts to security issues before you can move on and try to live up to your potentials. The third level of needs according to Maslow is social needs – healthy relating with family and friends. Our relationships are an integral part of who we are, and without them we’re incomplete. Maslow suggested that once we’ve met our essential needs up to this level, we can work on esteem needs: self-esteem, confidence, competence and achievement. Those who’ve reached this level in meeting their hierarchal needs have the potential to rise to the highest level: self-actualization.

Self-actualization is a process, not a goal. People who have their physiological, safety, social and esteem needs adequately met can devote their energies to personal growth – which may involve helping others and/or developing new competencies. Self-actualizing people can be authentic and spontaneous in relationships, and can follow their creative impulses, doing what they most want to do to the best of their ability. Of course life circumstances and obligations can limit what self-actualizing people are able to accomplish in terms of self-expression and achievement, but they can continue to grow and learn until they either lose their capacities or die.

Just because you’re grown up doesn’t mean you have to stop growing. Growth can be a life-long process if you cultivate the garden of your unique life. My next few posts will be about factors – including thoughts and beliefs – that can either facilitate or impede personal growth.