Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Somewhat on topic, but a slight departure from the series to do a book review.

One of the survivors of the 60’s counter cultural movement is a place near Big Sur called The Esalen Institute. From their own website, here is why people go there:
“They come for the intellectual freedom to consider systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia. They come to discover ancient wisdom in the motion of the body, poetry in the pulsing of the blood. They come to rediscover the miracle of self-aware consciousness.”
Esalen currently charges thousands of dollars for you to stay there and hundreds of dollars to take their courses. A few of them, such as yoga have continuing education credits, but most don’t. You might learn to paint from your soul though.

I heard of Esalen back in the 70’s but had forgotten about it. I’ve talked a lot about ancient wisdom and I’m going to just pass on the “miracle”. It’s the “lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia” that I want to address. What constraints? The constraint that if you are going to learn where stars come from you should know some Calculus? If you want to write some poetry, maybe you should read some classics?

I was reminded of Esalen while reading “Surely you are Joking Mr. Feynman.” This a collection of stories by Richard Feynman, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos when they were developing the atom bomb. He was a scientist and a bongo player and the book is divided equally between his cultural exploits and his scientific ones. I think there are better books on Feynman, but here is the speech I’m referring to.

He starts out talking about investigating some of these new ideas that Esalen was supposedly exploring and ends up talking about where our education system has gone wrong. He was born at the end of the time when science was respected, when it helped to unite a country, feed the world and defeat evil enemies. In doing that, it unleashed its own evil in the form of a mushroom cloud and there was a shift towards matters of the heart. The idea that science and capitalism could save us seemed like a lie.

The examination of the nature of that big lie is still going on. There is no simple way to account for all the harm and all the good that has occurred in the last century. Although I don’t come down on the side of war mongering and infinite expansion I also don’t come down on the side of the “miracle of self-aware consciousness.” It only took a few decades to examine astrology, out of body experiences, ESP, bending spoons, homeopathy and prayer to find that they are little lies. Claims of equal magnitude about these being our saviors have been made about these phenomenon. A few very serious people, like Richard Feynman, have looked into them and found them wanting.

Unfortunately, what Feynman suggested in 1974 has been ignored. What should be science’s greatest strength, that it admits what it can’t do, that it points to where it could be wrong, is seen as a weakness. Feynman exemplifies a man with intellectual freedom who considered systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond current constraints. Because he looked at the world that way and questioned other’s assumptions as well as his own assumptions, he won a Nobel prize for contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. People consider things beyond the current constraints all the time, some of them get Nobel prizes for it. They don’t need to go to Esalen and learn reflexology to do it.

Feynman questioned people that he had a great deal of respect for, Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. He didn’t reject their work because he thought it was limiting his space or cramping his style or killing his buzz, he acknowledged their contributions and used them to further our understanding of the universe. He wasn’t constrained by academia, he used it to explore the mysteries of the world he found himself in. He didn’t look at musicians and painters as weird people who didn’t get it, he hung out with them and tried to learn from them to be a better drummer and a better sketcher. It seems to me the people at Esalen are the ones creating boundaries.

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