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George Leonard, 86, voice of ’60s counterculture

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / January 19, 2010

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NEW YORK - George Leonard, a former journalist who foresaw the countercultural tides of the 1960s, then dived into them when he helped define the human potential movement at its de facto headquarters, the Esalen Institute, died Jan. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, said his wife, Annie Styron Leonard.

Mr. Leonard, as an editor and writer at Look magazine, was one of the first journalists to predict the tumult and idealism of the ’60s when he wrote a January 1961 cover article called “Youth of the Sixties: The Explosive Generation.’’ A year later he predicted, accurately, that the youth movements would first manifest themselves in California.

At the same time, he found himself wanting to become a part of the changes he had foretold. Shedding the conventions of objectivity in his reporting, he became a voice for an emerging new consciousness.

In 1965, Mr. Leonard met Michael Murphy, a cofounder of Esalen, in San Francisco, where Esalen was opening a learning center. Soon Mr. Leonard was visiting Esalen’s main campus, a seaside complex in the redwood-studded area of central California known as Big Sur.

He went on to become the president of the institute’s trustees for many years and an important figure in expanding its concerns to include issues of social justice.

It is hard to overstate the romance Esalen held for Beat Generation heroes like Jack Kerouac, who embraced it, or for spiritual seekers who followed. Wedged between surf and mountains three hours south of San Francisco, Esalen began as a laboratory for new thought, from Timothy Leary’s psychedelics to Carl Rogers’s humanistic psychology to Joan Baez’s folk music.

Esalen was one of many schools for self-discovery that would lead to the New Age movement and influence the many yoga and meditation centers that dot the American landscape today, all promoting a belief that human abilities are expandable.

Jeffrey J. Kripal, chairman of Rice University’s department of religious studies and author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religions,’’ said in an interview that the human potential movement that was significantly shaped by Esalen was more intellectually grounded than the hippie culture of a few years later. Kripal called Esalen “a high-end movement that helped generate the counterculture.’’

Mr. Leonard added a moral edge to the Esalen Institute’s teachings with his commitment to social justice. He began pressing his concerns in his first meeting with Murphy on Feb. 2, 1965 - a date Mr. Leonard recalled as a watershed moment in his life. As Kripal described the scene in his book, the two men talked until dawn, writing ideas on pieces of paper as fast as they occurred.

In the course of their conversation, the two men came up with a term to crystallize their ideas: human potential movement.

The first two words most likely came from a 1960 speech by Aldous Huxley heard by Richard Price, the other founder of Esalen. Mr. Leonard suggested adding the word “movement’’ largely because of his fierce support of civil rights.