Men do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. . . . Theirs [is] the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods.
-- Henri Bergson
The story of American religion is often told as a rather dreary march of churches, denominations, and revivals, as if the story can really be told by counting how many people are sitting in which pews or by tracking this or that outmoded belief. The real demographic facts, however, tell a radically different story, with upwards of 70% of people under the age of thirty now self-identifying as being “spiritual, but not religious,” and with around 75% of the total population professing the reality of this or that paranormal manifestation (psychical powers, UFOs, ghosts, etc.). Clearly, we are moving, if we have not already moved, into a brave new world, a world in which a great many people no longer believe in belief but understand themselves as open-minded, open-ended seekers forging a more imaginative, more future-oriented worldview with every resource at hand, including and especially the new evolutionary and cosmic perspectives of science and the natural world.
Why not make a film for all of these brave new people? Why not tell the story of how we got here and where we may be going?
Supernature: The Story of Esalen will do exactly this through a most unique narrative: the story of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California as it has been researched and documented in Jeffrey Kripal’s Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Founded in the fall of 1962 by two Stanford graduates, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, the institute has explored numerous spiritual and scientific currents, but on Murphy’s side all of the deepest ones have boiled down to a stunning evolutionary vision that understands mystical, psychical, and paranormal experiences to be "evolutionary buds" witnessing to the future form of the human species, what Murphy calls "the future of the body." Think the X-Men. Only real.
The X-Men were in fact latecomers to the scene of this evolutionary mysticism. The idea of spiritual and psychical powers witnessing to a kind of occult evolutionary process in fact goes back to the 1860s and the very origins of evolutionary biology, that is, to Alan Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the evolutionary thesis with Darwin. As for Murphy and Price, they adapted the key idea of "human potential" from the British-American writer Aldous Huxley, who was exploring in the 1950s something he called "human potentialities." Much indebted to his revelatory experiments with psychedelics (another key-word that he helped coin), Huxley used the expression "human potentialities" to argue that human consciousness and the evolved body possess vast untapped resources of Mind and energy. Consciousness in this vision is not some neurological froth produced without remainder by the brain, as it is thought of in contemporary neuroscience. It is something grand and ultimately cosmic that is then filtered through and reduced by the brain, much as a television set or radio receives a distant signal that is not really in the box (or the brain). It is essentially transcendent in nature and scope. He called it Mind at Large.
Over the course of the last fifty years (next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Institute and its human potential movement and so the target delivery date of our film), a mind-bending spectrum of writers, eccentrics, visionaries, teachers, and mystics added layer after layer to the extraordinary mix that would become “Esalen.” Here are a few of the more colorful, and more defining, chapters in the story we will tell:
- the eroticist and novelist Henry Miller, who settled in Big Sur and helped lay the literary and erotic foundations for the counterculture through his banned books and nature mysticism, particularly evident in his Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch
- the plant and chemical mysticisms of the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman (who first synthesized LSD), the American banker and mushroom enthusiast Gordon Wasson, and the visionary novelist Aldous Huxley
- the countercultural embrace of Asian religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism, particularly in their “Tantric” or erotic and world-affirming forms
- the physics of consciousness movement that sought to draw parallels and insights from the uncanny similarities between quantum physics, Asian religions, and parapsychology, as evident in books from Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1975) to David Kaiser’s very recent How the Hippies Saved Physics (2011)
- psychic spying or “remote viewing” and Russian parapsychology, as these interacted in the cold war through various secret paranormal programs on both the American and Russian sides
- cold war “citizen diplomacy” that developed out of Esalen’s initial engagement with Russian parapsychology, which eventually lead to the institute sponsoring Boris Yeltsin’s trip to America in 1989, where he was converted to capitalism in a Houston grocery store
- Esalen’s present push into the furthest reaches of psychical research and human thought through its Center for Theory and Research and its “Sursem” series, dedicated to exploring the soul or subtle body’s survival of bodily death through contemporary neuroscience, cosmology, quantum physics, and the history of religions
The final vision is a grand open-ended vision of nature as supernature. A vision of the human species as vast in scope and potential and only now awakening into its true evolutionary promise through a synthesis of the world’s ancient mystical traditions and modern science. A vision of the cosmos so vast, so fantastic, and so awe-inspiring, that the whole concept of the supernatural must now be refigured as the super natural.