The narrative about the psychedelic revolution of the 60s is that it burst out like wildfire for a brief period and then disappeared. But in reality, rather than completely disappear, the investigation of psychedelics for medicine, psychology, and self-improvement simply went underground and not only survived but thrived at places like the Esalen Institute. Founded in 1962 and situated as an intentional community, retreat, and educational center in Big Sur, California, Esalen has been a hugely influential hotbed of alternative ideas that has hosted some of the most prominent leaders in the fields of transpersonal psychology, psychedelic studies, mythology, art, music, spirituality, holistic healing, and massage therapy. While Esalen was at times ridiculed by detractors as “new agey,” its influence as a point of cultural transformation cannot be denied, and its impressive list of past teachers across many disciplines speaks for itself.
To celebrate the Esalen Institute’s contribution to the ever-evolving psychedelic movement, from the revolutionary 60s to the new psychedelic renaissance of today, let’s take a look at eight pioneering scholars, scientists, and change makers who have spent time sharing their ideas at Esalen.
One of the first prominent advocates of Eastern philosophy (particularly Zen) in the US, Alan Watts was a philosopher and popular speaker who spoke openly about his experimentation with psychedelics and how they benefitted him. He gave Esalen’s first lecture in 1962 and would later go on to famously say about psychedelics, “Once you get the message, hang up the phone,” emphasizing the importance of integrating psychedelic experiences rather than seeking them out frivolously.
The author of seminal books like Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, Huxley captured the imagination of an entire generation and broke open the egg, so to speak, in speaking about his firsthand psychedelic experiences in a time when it was unheard of. The Doors of Perception was published in 1954, setting the stage for the psychedelic revolution of the 60s and inspiring countless others to investigate psychedelics.
One of the most recognized figures in the psychedelic movement and perhaps its most gifted and prolific speaker, Terence’s lectures about the nature and significance of psychedelic experiences have reached millions of people worldwide. He was also co-author with his brother Dennis in writing the important book Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, which empowered people for the first time to gain access to psychedelic mushrooms wherever they were.
Perhaps the most notorious and influential symbol of the psychedelic movement, Timothy Leary studied LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as a researcher at Harvard University in the 1960s and was famously fired after his rhetoric and behavior became too controversial. Dr. Leary performed some of the most important early scientific studies of psychedelics such as the Concord Prison Experiment and became a lifelong outspoken advocate for the benefits of psychedelics.
Known to many as Ram Dass, Alpert was a colleague of Timothy Leary at Harvard in the early 60s. Both were deeply involved in investigating the therapeutic and consciousness-expanding benefits of LSD and other psychedelics. He later took a famous trip to India to seek the true meaning of his psychedelic experiences and became a spiritual devotee, taking the name Ram Dass and writing the hugely influential book Be Here Now.
Founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Rick Doblin and his organization have supported psychedelic research and advocated for their mainstream acceptance for nearly three decades. Doblin was inspired to start MAPS during an Esalen visit when the future legal status of MDMA, a highly therapeutic substance particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, was facing uncertainty.
Stanislav Grof was an eminent transpersonal psychiatrist and pioneering researcher into non-ordinary states of consciousness. He was an early researcher of LSD and one of the first to develop the ideas behind psychedelic therapy. Grof, who lived at the Esalen Institute for over ten years, developed the practice of holotropic breathwork after the crackdown on psychedelic research to develop ways of therapeutic consciousness alteration without the use of substances.
The author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Rick Strassman is the world’s leading expert on dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and has helped bring DMT into popular awareness through his book and the related film of the same name. Strassman’s work represents the only FDA-approved study of DMT to date, and he has put forth the compelling but still unproven hypothesis that DMT may be produced in the human pineal gland.
Robert Anton Wilson
Most famous for founding the Discordianism movement and books like the Cosmic Trigger series and Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson was a very influential underground thinker and author who expanded on Timothy Leary’s ideas and often spoke about psychedelics, including at early psychedelic conferences.