Laid-Back Summitry : ‘Hot Tub Diplomacy’ Takes the Chill off East-West Relations
For eight years, Esalen Institute’s “hot tub diplomacy” has been quietly taking some of the chill off U.S.-Soviet relations.
There’s more involved than officials from Moscow and Washington plunging into warm baths overlooking the Pacific, although few are inclined to enmity in such soothing surroundings.
The eclectic home of the “human-potential movement” for 25 years, Esalen is in the forefront of a blossoming grass-roots effort by thousands of “citizen diplomats” in the United States to improve relations with the Soviet Union.
“Behind the whole dream here,” says Esalen founder Michael Murphy, “is (the belief that) if we can stimulate other groups to do this and broaden the whole front of cultural and scientific exchange and trade, there’s less and less reason to fight each other, in spite of the differences in our two cultures.”
Far from the formality attending summitry and arms talks, the gatherings at Esalen, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, are as laid back, California style, as possible.
Officials, writers, health experts and others taking part in Esalen’s Soviet-American Exchange Program can talk freely while strolling the 100 acres of exquisite gardens, lawns, farmland and forests.
They share a large house above the sea and meet for hours stretched out on pillows in a room with a tiled fireplace or outside with the ocean crashing against rocks below.
And, of course, they enjoy the traditional Esalen massages and communal baths fed by a hot sulfur spring.
“The Soviets love it,” said Jim Garrison, director of the exchange program. “About 30 have come here so far, including a number of high-level diplomats and scientists.
“We try to catalyze a working relationship between key people,” he added, describing the process as “sort of social acupuncture: Hit the right spot and do it well.”
The Soviets seem to concur. “We believe people-to-people contacts can contribute to the normalization of Soviet-American relations and to soften the overall climate in the world,” said Sergei Aivazian, vice consul at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.
“Our country is in a period of democratization of social, economic and political life,” he said. “That is why we want to promote people-to-people contacts and will not just give lip service to them.”
Esalen once attracted such thinkers as psychologists Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, body therapist Ida Rolf, writers Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey and Carlos Castaneda, Zen Buddhist Alan Watts and theologians Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox.
It gained fame in the 1960s as much for the lively workshops of Gestalt therapy founder Frederick S. (Fritz) Perls and encounter group guru William Schutz as it did for the musicians it attracted: Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Simon and Garfunkel, and Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
“The ‘60s were a period of tremendous excitement for a lot of people, and Esalen was very much in that spirit of explosive enthusiasm,” Murphy said. “There’s been a tempering of lots of claims. Some of the methods we’ve simply dropped while others have been developed. Esalen has been an experiment.”
Esalen remains a vibrant campus in the vanguard of psychological, physical and spiritual exploration.
More than 5,000 guests a year attend 500 weekend and five-day seminars with such titles as “Doorways of Perception,” “Reflections of Self: A Reichian-Gestalt Primer,” “Inside/Living Tao: Fluting and T’ai Chi Dancing With Whales, Butterflies.”
The focus of the Soviet-American programs is somewhat less exotic. The $300,000-a-year effort, two-thirds of which is financed by donations, one-third out of non-profit Esalen’s $3.2-million operating budget, has so far produced:
- The first pact between the U.S.S.R. Union of Writers and a private group, Esalen’s Writers Exchange, for writers to collaborate on books, hold conferences in each country and publish in the West.
- An agreement with the Soviet Ministry of Health to work with U.S. researchers to combat alcoholism and drug addiction.
- The first public discussion, via satellite, between Soviet and American scientists about the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
- Conferences at Esalen on Soviet-American relations with officials from the Soviet government and the U.S. State Department.
- Annual symposiums with psychologist Erik Erikson and Joseph Montville, research director for the State Department’s Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, on using psychology to resolve political conflicts.
- Conferences for leaders of other groups engaged in citizen diplomacy.
- Talks between astronauts and cosmonauts that led to the founding of an independent Assn. of Space Explorers with members from 13 countries.
Although acknowledging that Esalen’s exchange program might be criticized for having few immediate effects, Murphy maintains it has a valuable role in peace efforts.
‘Break Down Mistrust’
“I just have a faith that cultural and scientific exchanges eventually will have a beneficial effect politically,” he said. “By making common cause, we feel we can break down mistrust to some extent, to correct some of the faulty images people in each culture have of the other.”
One of the exchange projects is a book called “20 Under 40,” a collection of stories by 10 Soviet and 10 American writers younger than 40.
“So you get a relationship between 20 contemporary writers,” Garrison said. “And it’s important for people in both countries to see the richness of each culture.”
The exchange program was born of Murphy’s interest in what the Soviets call “hidden human reserves.”
Fascinated by Soviet efforts to improve people’s memories and computational skills, or to reach altered states of consciousness and explore mystical experiences, Murphy began corresponding with several Soviet researchers in the late 1960s.
“It’s surprising to a lot of Westerners how deep the interest runs there in those spiritual kinds of things,” he said. “But there is and always has been in the Russian culture a tremendous amount of interest. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was smuggled around a lot more under different terms, or in little groups meeting in back rooms. Nowadays it’s more out in the open.”
Hidden Human Reserves
In 1979, Murphy, his wife, Dulce, and psychologist Jim Hickman attended the Soviet Union’s first conference on the unconscious mind. They met a researcher who had initiated a research project on hidden human reserves with the august Soviet Academy of Sciences.
“That fired our imagination,” Murphy said. He was invited to speak at a forum that the commission set up at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; all the other Esalen citizen exchanges grew out of that initial interest.
Hickman became the first director of Esalen’s Soviet-American Exchange Program and began recruiting such thinkers as the State Department’s Montville.
Montville, while attending a Soviet-American relations seminar at Esalen in 1982, coined the term “track two diplomacy.”
“The idea is becoming recognized in certain circles in government . . . that there are limitations on what official diplomacy can do in some really constricted cases,” Montville said in a telephone interview from his Washington office.
Liaisons between private individuals and groups in unfriendly countries can be an important supplement to governmental, or “track one,” diplomacy, he said, arguing that “track two” diplomats are more open-minded and optimistic.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have endorsed increased contacts between their peoples, yet each has put stumbling blocks in the way.
No Financial Support
Reagan established a special office at the U.S. Information Agency to oversee and promote private initiatives with the Soviet Union but gives it no financial support and limits it to carrying private proposals to Soviet officials.
The Soviets, for their part, passed laws in 1984 forbidding citizens from giving shelter, transportation or anything else to foreigners without official permission.
Some Western observers, especially those of a conservative bent, suggest the Soviets tolerate citizen diplomats only for public relations purposes and rarely, if ever, permit them to see anyone of influence.
Garrison disputed such suggestions, noting that several Soviets with whom Esalen has been working sit on the Communist Party’s Central Committee and have direct influence on Gorbachev.
“I think (Gorbachev is) genuinely wanting to change things, and the U.S. posture toward him is absolutely critical to his success,” said Garrison.
“If we continue with an arms race, if we continue to hammer him over the head economically as well as militarily, we can force him from office just as we did with Khrushchev.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.