The “rise and fall” framework informing Jessica Grogan’s book Encountering America leaves much to be desired, not least because it imposes onto history an imaginary moral economy, one that equates moderation with virtue and radicalism with vice. I found this unexamined framework to be particularly intrusive, for instance, in the chapters of the book dealing with Esalen and LSD. Throughout these chapters, Grogan pins the blame for humanistic psychology’s alleged downfall on what she repeatedly refers to as the chaotic “excesses” of the counterculture — by which she seems to mean some combination of romanticism, hedonism, popular withdrawal of support for institutional authority, and unsupervised experimentation with mind-altering substances. Figures linked with these tendencies include Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Frederick Perls, and William C. Schutz.
My seeking returns me to the Stanford Research Institute, and to Willis W. Harman in particular. I first heard of Harman about eight years ago, while I was researching writers connected with SRI whose paths intersected with the Whole Earth Catalog and its various 1970s offshoots. Harman, it turns out, was a close associate of CIA operative Al Hubbard. Some have called Hubbard “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” Because of his connection to Hubbard, Harman proved instrumental in launching and directing SRI’s “Alternative Futures Project,” the main goal of which was to “turn on” business and thought leaders by introducing them to LSD. Harman also led “The Expanding Vision,” the first seminar at Esalen Institute. Later on, he founded an equally strange, equally “New Age”-oriented organization called the Institute of Noetic Science. Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain mention him several times in Acid Dreams, their social history of LSD and the counterculture. For more on figures like Harman and their links to LSD and the Human Potential movement, check out James Dennis LoRusso’s Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business: The Neoliberal Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capital. Take a look as well at Marion Goodman’s book, The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege.