The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege

Marion Goldman, Author
Marion Goldman. New York Univ., $30 (198p) ISBN 978-0-8147-3287-8
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Esalen Institute, a retreat center in Big Sur, Calif., instigated a “soul rush” that popularized spiritual practices like yoga and meditation for mainstream Americans, argues Goldman (Passionate Journeys), a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oregon. What she defines as “spiritual privilege” meant that ordinary people in the 1960s began to encounter spirituality in myriad forms because of an increasingly diverse religious marketplace and economic prosperity. Students, seekers, psychologists and bishops wandered through Esalen, disseminating its ideas of self-fulfillment. Despite Esalen’s beliefs that individual spiritual growth was a corollary of social change, it remained a bastion of male privilege with men in leadership positions indulging their sexual fantasies as part of encounter groups and with women working as massage therapists. Goldman conducted in-depth interviews with former Esalen participants and founders, and more of their stories outside of the four men she profiles would have enlivened these gender dynamics and the somewhat dry exposition. Other Esalen perspectives could also have complicated her contention that Esalen succeeded because people wanted “mystical moments, not just old doctrine and dry ritual.” (Jan.)
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