The philosophy that could have stopped Silicon Valley’s crisis of conscience before it started

Don’t get rich first and think deeply later.
Don’t get rich first and think deeply later.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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Once upon a time, the Esalen Institute, just south of Big Sur, California, was a prime destination for radical thinkers. In the 1960s, beat poet Jack Kerouac wrote verse and prose odes to the local scene at the hot springs retreat overlooking the sea. Philosopher Alan Watts talked Zen and Eastern thought to visitors. Psychologist Abraham Maslow illuminated his hierarchy of needs. Psychiatrist Fritz Perl developed Gestalt therapy there, while mythologist Jospeh Campbell elucidated human narrative. Hunter S. Thompson—who’d been a caretaker at the predecessor spa, the Lodge—strode about high and naked, having made it as the first gonzo journalist.

Today, the intellectual escape known for wild ideas, drugs, and sex (paywall), is going in a decidedly more corporate direction. The New Age-inclined nouveau riche of nearby Silicon Valley are flocking to the “storied hippie hotel,” as a scathing Dec. 4 article in the New York Times (paywall) explains. A photo caption on the Times story offers a telling insight into the Esalen Institute’s transformation into a hot spot for soul-searching technologists: “Ben Tauber, a former Google product manager, became Esalen’s executive director this year.”

The fact that Silicon Valley is seeking refuge at Esalen is a symptom of the industry’s crisis of conscience, articulated by both retreat attendees and other tech executives. For example, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitya in a November talk to Stanford Business School graduates admitted to feeling “tremendous guilt” over his part in creating tools that “program” society and erode “the core foundations of how people behave.”

As the downsides of a hyper-connected society become more apparent with time—like the proliferation of fake news and plain rudeness—architects of this new world are wondering what to do next. “There’s a dawning consciousness emerging in Silicon Valley as people recognize that their conventional success isn’t necessarily making the world a better place,” Tauber told the Times. “They wonder if they’re doing the right thing for humanity. These are questions we can only answer behind closed doors.” To serve the needs of techies at the retreat, the institute’s new leadership is inviting ethicists and futurists to discuss the unique quandaries faced by those making tomorrow’s tools.

But if Silicon Valley types had only read the works of Esalen’s previous visitors earlier in their careers, they might not need the retreat now. Prominent early attendees didn’t get rich first and think deeply later. They were explorers who devoted their lives to ideas and art, to contemplation, and to wide-ranging travels of the literal, intellectual, and mystical variety. They sought understanding first, and defined success by a different measure. No one becomes a poet or philosopher to get rich, after all.

The human potential movement

Officially founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, Esalen was a bold intellectual venture. The two young men met in San Francisco and had similar interests in developing the Human Potential Movement. They wanted to elevate humanity and unite people through the exchange of ideas, whether ancient religions, new science, art, literature, or politics, forging an approach to thinking and being that was without boundaries between disciplines, nations, or other affiliations. It sounds naïve, perhaps—but no less so than Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg in 2016 hoping to eradicate all disease “in our children’s lifetime.”

Murphy’s grandmother had land with a view by Big Sur, and he thought it was the perfect place for bold thinkers to exchange ideas. Price, meanwhile, had studied psychology, but in the late 1950s, he was looking for a new approach to understanding the mind. He believed this could be discovered at an institution of his own creation.

It was an audacious goal. But the pair took things slow—an approach befitting a place known to host experts on existential cool. In a radio interview months before his death in 1985, Price explained that Esalen’s beginnings were humble. It wasn’t clear they’d become cultural fixtures back then; they called themselves Big Sur Hot Springs to attract tourists. He recalled:

[O]ne of the first programs–it was probably early ’62–was Alan Watts. Alan did his own program from his own mailing list…Then gradually, I think the following year, we began to get out our own catalog and formed Esalen…then we started running weekends…by 1967, we took the Big Sur Hot Springs sign down and put the Esalen sign up.

Radical open secrets

That early invitee, Watts, was a British Episcopal priest who scrapped the clergy and Britain to become the foremost interpreter of Eastern thought for Westerners. He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and taught at the American Academy of Asian Studies (now the California Institute of Integral Studies). He was also a popular local radio personality, and a prolific writer and speaker on being in the age of machines. Watts remains popular today because his many books and lectures are still highly relevant, and not just to technologists—to all.

In The Book (pdf), written for adults and children, Watts exposed what he called society’s greatest secret. It’s the taboo against knowing who you really are—which is, in essence, no one and everyone.

According to Watts, you aren’t an individual you, existing in a lonely body, but a flowing segment in the continuous line of life. Understanding existence as a long process which they are a part of makes people naturally empathetic to all life, Watts argued. But society discourages this view and encourages an individualistic, competitive mindset, in which humans are separate, resources are scarce, we defy nature, and individuals try to beat each other instead of cooperating.

In a competitive world with scarce resources, people feel anxious and at odds with each other and the universe. But life need not be that way. Watts wrote:

The problem of man and technics is almost always stated in the wrong way. It is said that humanity has evolved one-sidedly, growing in technical power without any comparable growth in moral integrity… Yet the problem is more basic. The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity.

Watts and others—mystics, monks, poets (pdf), philosophers from numerous traditions—argue that people are sad and hostile because of a false sense that we exist separately and temporarily from one another, bound by our bodies. ”This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences,” Watts wrote. “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.”

Since we’re only ever aware of ourselves as isolated egos, we ignore our intricate interconnectedness. This leads people, in turn, to create dangerous tools that increase alienation and threaten the environment that sustains us, argued Watts.

It’s late for tech types to be coming to the realization that their tools can be used dangerously. Last year, Zuckerberg poo-pooed the notion that Facebook could sway a US election. Now company executives admit that Russian operatives bought ads on the platform to do just that.

A reader of Alan Watts would have known, unlike Zuckerberg, that a tool with massive power to connect people can be used to create equally potent divisions. As one of Watts’ favorite texts, the ancient Tao Te Ching, explains, opposites are actually one and the same thing.

People who learn to think know this. They understand complexity. They train themselves to consider tricky, slippery notions, and ideas they might not want to accept.

Indeed, that’s why Silicon Valley companies bring in philosophers posing as futurists, like Richard Watson, to instruct them on what it means to be human. Better late than never, at Esalen, techies are now studying compassion and connection with the help of specialists.

But the guidance sought at the remote retreat is available to all for free in both prose and poetry, including works by its first visitors. If you read them now, you may get rich quickin the metaphysical sense, at least. If the wisdom of the sages is correct, that’s the only sense that counts.