Current Initiatives

Directed by Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy and Professor Jeff Kripal, Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research (CTR) sponsors research, theory, and action to promote positive social change and the realization of the human potential.

Bringing Culture to Conflict

Co-sponsored by Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy
Dulce Murphy and Virginia Thomson
October 16–21, 2022

Track Two invites cultural leaders to explore cultural movements that have influenced peace- building in the North Pacific Rim, (China, Korea, Japan, Far East Russia, Canada, US), Russia and the Middle East. Design and creation will be drivers of a week of inquiry.

The Imagination and Invisible Presence

Tanya Luhrmann
November 13–18, 2022

Mindfulness, a secularized version of certain strands of Buddhist meditation, has become the exemplar of contemplative practice and the focus of almost all empirical studies of spiritual practice. Contemplative science has become, in large part, the science of secularized mindfulness. This focus has taught us much—but such an approach also woefully underrepresents some of the most important and powerful strands of spiritual practice. It leaves to one side a range of contemplative and spiritual practices which develop attention to the mind’s rich imaginative content. Often these practices involve building up inner images, and asking the practitioner to spend time with those images, to develop them with detail, and even to animate  them. For those who seek to experience an invisible presence—be that Jesus, the goddess Tara, or an imaginary friend—imagination-rich practices are often central. And indeed, many spiritual meditation practices incorporate the imagination in ways not explored by contemplative science.

These practices work. At least, many who use them report a sense of presence. It is also true that we know relatively little about the way in which people experience presence, because so often, reports of presence are entangled with someone’s ideas about what and how they should be experiencing. Those who report back on these spiritual presence events are sometimes more motivated to say what they think the presence told them (that, for example, we are eternal) than how the presence felt (standing behind them or over them, substantial or immaterial, and so forth). We think, however, that these spiritual presence events are both varied and patterned. That is, people report that spiritual presence is sensed in different ways, but there are also recognizable features of these reports.

We thus have two distinct, if inter-related, questions. The first question is whether there are consistent patterns in the imagination-focused practices across different social worlds. Are there specific, common techniques? The second is how spiritual presence is experienced by individuals in different social worlds. Is there a reliable taxonomy of such events?

This gathering seeks to explore both the use of imagination in the pursuit of invisible presence and the nature of invisible presence itself. We hope to bring together an intimate group of neuroscientists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, clinicians, philosophers, and experiencers to discuss invisible presence and the ways in which practice can help to evoke it.

Black Superhumanism

Stephen Finley and Biko Gray
December 4–9, 2022

This conference is the second in a series exploring the history of black letters, and the ways in which it is, in part, a commentary on the supernatural. To read black letters is to read a commentary on blackness as the limit case of the natural, as that which breaks open the limits, laws, and conventional wisdom of the empirical hard sciences.

Black religious orientations also speak to the supernatural. African indigenous healers cured ailments by mixing plants; the Nation of Islam is revived through a mysterious UFO experience. There are other examples, too: black folk and conjure traditions manipulate the natural world to supernatural ends. And black esoteric traditions have demonstrated something beyond naturalistic conceptions of the human. The possibilities are endless; blackness is infinite. Black people are superhuman. Or so the story goes.

But this claim hasn’t entailed the kind of awe or reverence that one might think. Black people might be superhuman, but they are not always superheroes. There are other stories—stories that highlight the supernatural capacities of black people only to their detriment. Black people have often been conceived as superhuman in terms of the grotesque and monstrous.

We are looking for presentations that examine black superhumanism in the context of black cultural production such as science fiction, comics, movies, poetry, folklore, mythology as well as within the context of particular esoteric and mystical traditions. And we’re also interested in how black resistance movements might be understood as simultaneously invoking and resisting the violence of black superhuman discourses.

Underwriting is needed for project research, facilitators, translators, coordination, summary writers, occasional expert fees, travel and accommodation, and special outreach projects.

To make a donation, please email Jane Hartford at Jane.Hartford@Esalen.org.

Esalen Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. Donations to Esalen Institute are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Federal tax ID #94-6114235

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