Early Esalen: UFOs and the Exploration of New Life
Christine Chen
July 16, 2021
Esalen History
A view of the stars and night sky through the trees

On the heels of a disruptive, unclassified report to Congress of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP, aka UFOs), Jeff Kripal went back in time. As Esalen’s Associate Director of the Center for Theory and Research and former Chairman of the Board, he recalls the early years of Esalen as “intimately intertwined” with UFOs, though much of the history is “presently unknown - or just forgotten,” Kripal says.

The government report has raised doubts by many believers, who claim the government isn’t saying what it really knows. It does not deny extraterrestrial activity; yet, it also offers little to no explanation for 144 sightings. At Esalen, the continued exploration of concepts that we can’t necessarily see, confirm, or explain fully is often boiled down to observations, personal stories, and life-transforming experiences. 

Kripal, a researcher and author on the subject of paranormal activity (among others), penned a short essay to describe Esalen’s early-era exploration of the unseen, the unconfirmed, or the presently unexplained. In other words, we have always gathered to ask deep questions, and back then, that included questions about UFOs. 

Esalen and the UFO 

By Jeff Kripal 

There were two major conferences on the UFO in the early era of the Institute. The first, in 1975, was so secret that it had to be held off grounds, at a private ranch in Sonoma County. The second, in 1986, was entitled The Further Reaches of UFO Research and was led by Keith Thompson. Keith would go on to write Angels and Aliens: UFOS and the Mythic Imagination (1991), an especially sophisticated book whose basic thesis—that the UFO as an imaginal reality is at once mental and material—is still light years beyond the present either-or muddle-headedness of our present worldview and public conversation around the subject (or object). 

Just a year after this second UFO conference, in September of 1987, to be more precise, the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack would arrive on the grounds for a symposium on Frontiers of Health. He would speak on the historical reality and specter of nuclear war and its psychological impact on children. It was there that he encountered Holotropic Breathwork in the persons of Stanislav and Christina Grof. 

His regression and visions with the technique eerily portended his later work with alien abduction narratives, and soon enough, Mack would become the major voice in the public culture on the abduction phenomenon, appearing on television with Oprah and with figures like the Dalai Lama. In books like Abduction (1994) and Passport to the Cosmos (1999), Mack would argue that the UFO phenomenon displays clear ancient religious or shamanic structures, and that what it is most after is everything, that is, our most basic sense of reality. 

Ralph Blumenthal’s excellent recent biography of the man, entitled The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack (2021), should be required reading for anyone interested in the intertwined histories of Esalen and the UFO. Early on in the book, for example, Blumenthal quotes Mack on the impact that the Grofs had on him and his future research: “They put a hole in my psyche and the UFOs flew in.” 

More recently, my friend and colleague Diana Walsh Pasulka of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and I led three more Esalen-sponsored events (the first two at EarthRise at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in September of 2015 and 2016, the third at Esalen in January of 2019) under the rubrics of “Beyond the Spinning” and “Future Technologies and Emergent Mythologies.” These confidential meetings, with multiple security clearances in the room, helped inspire numerous projects, perhaps most publicly Diana’s astonishing American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019), a book that is still reverberating in the culture and to which I often point as easily one of the most potent and influential expressions of Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research ever published. The book, of course, is about many (im)possible things, many of them not Esalen related (like the alleged recovered metamaterial Diana describes, or the possible UFO connections of the seventeenth-century bilocating Spanish nun and the Jumano Indians of what is now West Texas and New Mexico). 

If you want to know what a CTR event can “feel” like, “buzz” like, how such an event can “blow your mind,” just go read Diana’s book on the UFO, technology, and religion. Or Ralph’s on John Mack, the psychiatrist’s spiritual opening at Esalen, and his later trials (literally) at Harvard. Or Keith’s Angels and Aliens


If you want something shorter, you can start with this little interview I did with my home institution, Rice University, just before the July 4th holiday. I begin with a quiet but heart-felt hommage to the Institute itself. I had good reason. I did not have space, but I wanted to say what I just said above. And why not? Esalen put a hole in my psyche, and the UFOs flew in.


Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Senior Content Producer. Christine is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, a best-selling author, California native, and yoga teacher's teacher (ERYT500, ERYT300, YACEP) on Esalen Faculty.