Center for Theory & Research

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.

Track Two – Title forthcoming

Co-sponsored by Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy
Facilitators: Dulce Murphy and Virginia Thomson
April 23–28, 2023

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.

Entheogenic Humanities

Facilitators: Wouter Hanegraaff, Jeff Kripal, and Charles Stang
August 6–11, 2023

The goal of this CTR series is to look deeply and systematically at the historical and anthropological evidence for unusual states of consciousness that (as suggested by the Greek term entheos) are typically experienced in terms of being “filled,” “possessed,” “inspired,” or even “overwhelmed” by some kind of divine or spiritual entity, presence, or force. Entheogenic experiences may either seem to occur spontaneously or may be facilitated or induced by a wide variety of psychological or emotional conditions (such as trauma or grief), spiritual techniques (such as specific types of meditation, ritual practices, chanting, drumming, and so on), environmental conditions (such as sensory deprivation or sensory overload), or psychoactive agents (such as narcotic or psychedelic substances). 

This project will place the emphasis on a bottom-up “empirical” (that is, historical or anthropological) approach to exploring the record of entheogenic experiences and practices in human culture, as opposed to a top-down perspective that begins at the level of theory. The middle- and long-term objective is to create a new kind of framework for discussing and analyzing dimensions of human experience that we believe to be highly important, but that have either been neglected or discredited in traditional academic frameworks or have been dominated by never-ending debates about contested theoretical terminologies and contexts of interpretation (i.e. “mysticism” or “magic”). Rather than getting stuck at the level of theory or terminology, we want to make a positive new start by prioritizing the empirical evidence for alterations of consciousness in human culture. On that basis it should eventually become possible to create new and hopefully better theoretical frameworks and interpretive models that are not imposed on the data but emerge more naturally from what is encountered in lived human experience or gets recorded in historical sources.

We believe that such a strategy of radical empiricism is important also for overcoming the current identity crisis of the humanities and for opening new doors toward innovation and progress in both academia and the wider culture. Rather than focusing all our attention on factors that divide us as human beings (such as conflicts over gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, or class), we urgently need to find ways of restoring positive common ground. Consciousness and its remarkable capacities for subtle or radical change is a prime candidate in this regard, as it is so evidently shared by all human beings regardless of identity. However, our project does not seek to promote any new kind of universalism in the domain of human consciousness (to quote a famous Esalen statement here, the idea is that “nobody captures the flag”). On the contrary, we hope to create a positive context for fruitful dialogue and intense exchange between very different perspectives and opinions, a space for learning from others about worlds of meaning and human experience that might sometimes be very far removed from our own. As we can never know in advance what we still have to learn, there can be no question of prior assumption or established certainties about potential commonalities or “universal” features that might (or might not) happen to emerge from our discussions about the entheogenic dimensions of human culture.

Traditionally, entheogenic experiences and practices have been studied predominantly in a context of religion and spirituality or the history of psychology. However, we want to broaden the scope of conversation so as to cover all fields and disciplines in the humanities, including literature, music, the visual arts, philosophy, or even history of science. This includes an active agenda of not just discussing what we know or think we know about entheogenic experiences in those contexts, but sharpening our abilities of recognizing their presence in places where we might not expect them (to give just one example, how many scholars of Tolstoi have recognized chapter I:30 in Anna Karenina as a description of erotic mania?).

We are willing to hypothesize that the actual evidence for alterations of consciousness as a crucial dimension of human culture is in fact overwhelming, and has a real potential of transforming the humanities as a whole — but these entheogenic dimensions need to be recognized, collected, explored, and understood. That is what we hope to do in this series of conferences, with the intention of launching a new kind of conversation that can then be picked up by others and developed further into the future.

Indigenous Plant Medicines Movements

Facilitator: Charles Stang
October 8–13, 2023

As the wave of the “psychedelic renaissance” crests, and psychedelics are increasingly mainstreamed and commodified, there is an acute danger that indigenous plant medicine traditions will once again be silenced and marginalized. Thankfully there are numerous movements afoot among indigenous activists and wisdom-keepers from around the world that are pushing against this trend. This gathering at Esalen is intended to serve as a strategic networking event for a number of these movements. By hosting leaders from both emerging and established indigenous movements, we hope to help enable them to chart a course for a flourishing future of plant medicine traditions based on solidarity, cooperation, concerted planning and effort, and shared wisdom.

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 Mary O-Brien at

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