Jeffrey J. Kripal, chairman of the Board of Trustees, is a historian of religions by training, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1993. He currently holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought in the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, where he also chairs the department.
His areas of interest include the comparative erotics of mystical literature, the history of American metaphysical religion, the history of Western esotericism, particularly as this complex has encountered and incorporated Asian practices and ideas in the modern period, and, most recently, the interface between the paranormal and American popular culture. For more information, please visit his website.
He is the author of:
- Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal . (Univ. of Chicago, 2011)
- Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. (Univ. of Chicago, 2010)
- Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion . (Univ. of Chicago, 2007)
- The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. (Univ. of Chicago, 2006)
- Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism. (Univ. of Chicago, 2001)
- Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. (Univ. of Chicago, 1995).
Jeff is currently working with Houston filmmaker Scott Hulan Jones on documentary adaptations of two of his books. Supernature: Esalen and the Human Potential, based on his history of Esalen, will feature the Esalen CTR Sursem group while major portions of the documentary based on his 2010 work, Authors of the Impossible, were shot at Esalen in 2009 during the CTR series “The Paranormal and Popular Culture”. For more on both film projects, visit Jones Cinema Arts. For Jeff’s official Rice University webpage, visit kripal.rice.edu/.
Below is a portion of an introduction given by Jeff during Esalen's 50th Anniversary celebration:
I am often asked about the historical influence of Esalen on American culture. I reply that this influence has been vast and deep, that it has not simply involved American culture (think Europe, Russia, Latin America, China, and the Middle East), and that much of this influence almost certainly still lies in the future. I would only add one further observation here, namely, that Esalen’s signature idea of the human potential is so widespread and so popular now that it is virtually invisible. It is “in the water,” as we say. Or better, it is the water. I am reminded here of the story about the fish who one day met a turtle. The turtle said to the fish: “Isn’t the water fine today?” To which the fish replied, “What’s water?” This is sort of where we are with the human potential. It is so common and so well known that we do not even recognize it any longer as something special, much less as something “Esalenesque.”
My favorite example here is American popular culture and its embrace of various “psychical” abilities or “paranormal” powers, capacities which are commonly seen, exactly as we have it in the human potential movement, as the evolutionary buds of our own latent human supernature. Think the X-Men and Prof. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Think television programs like Heroes. Think countless Hollywood films, from John Travolta in Phenomenon to Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau. The latter film is based on a short story of the sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, who was himself utterly convinced of the evolutionary purpose of mystical illuminations, his own included.
My point? That the human potential movement, on its fiftieth birthday, has already instilled itself, alongside a host of other influences, in and as the very soul of American popular culture. This particular example (there are many others) may involve fiction, film, and fantasy, but that is precisely how a worldview often first shifts — through the cultural imagination. Nothing can be accomplished that is not at first imagined.
And Esalen has inspired us to re-imagine ourselves in ways that are ecstatic, visionary, future-oriented, and, above all, big. Really, really big.