George Leonard: “We have heard enough of despair”

My brother sent me this obit of George Leonard from the New York Times ( The name wasn’t familiar to me, and as I read it I was amazed to see how much we owe him.

George Leonard, Voice of ’60s Counterculture, Dies at 86


Published: January 18, 2010

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 on 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 co-founder 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.

“Explosion, catharsis, adventure” were the words Mr. Leonard used to describe his first impressions in an interview with U.S. News & World Report in 1992.

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 toJoan Baez’s folk music.

“A Cape Canaveral of inner space” was a common description.

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. Dr. 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 Mr. Murphy on Feb. 2, 1965 — a date Mr. Leonard recalled as a watershed moment in his life. As Dr. 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.

Because of this contribution and many others, Dr. Kripal calls Mr. Leonard Esalen’s third founder.

Mr. Leonard led many Esalen workshops, including one on how to approach life like a samurai warrior. Another forced participants to confront their own racism. He wrote “Education and Ecstasy” (1968), which became one of the first popular manifestos of the human potential movement.

He also helped start an exchange program with the Soviet Union that included a visit by a future Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, in 1989. In an interview, Mr. Murphy said that Mr. Leonard, who wrote 13 books, became “the philosopher of the movement.”

George Burr Leonard was born on Aug. 9, 1923, in Macon, Ga. His father was an insurance executive. George built an electric motor when he was 8, collected more than 100 live snakes a few years later and read voluminously. At 16, he had his own swing band. After a year at Georgia Tech, he flew a fighter in World War II.

He graduated in 1948 from the University of North Carolina with a degree in English, joined the Air Force and became an intelligence officer. He joined Look as an editor in 1953 and was assigned to San Francisco in 1962. There, people kept saying to him, “You have to meet Michael Murphy,” Mr. Leonard’s wife said in an interview.

When the men finally met, Dr. Kripal said, Mr. Leonard talked about seeing racial cruelty while growing up in the South; in one instance he came upon a black man chained in a town square. He told how as a reporter he had covered the civil rights protests in Selma, Ala.

At 47, Mr. Leonard started practicing the martial art of aikido, achieving a fifth-degree black belt. He had part ownership of an aikido school and developed several self-help programs that apply the discipline’s techniques to real-life situations. Some of his 13 books described these methods.

Mr. Leonard’s marriages to Emma Jane Clifton and Lillie Pitts ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Annie Styron, an artist, he is survived by three daughters, Emily Fraim, Burr Leonard and Mimi Fleischman; two brothers, Edward and Wesley; and six grandchildren.

Esalen’s history is a mélange of seemingly unrelated events, people and principles: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the cultural critic Susan Sontag, sensory awareness experiments, the nuclear war theorist Herman Kahn. Mr. Leonard said the unifying principle was, essentially, joy.

“How can we speak of joy on this dark and suffering planet?” he wrote in an early statement of Esalen’s purpose. “How can we speak of anything else? We have heard enough of despair.”

3 thoughts on “George Leonard: “We have heard enough of despair”

  1. I think what we focus on is what we see. In the midst of the natural beauty that he surrounded himself with it is amazing to me he saw “despair” when nature itself speaks of “hope”. I see hope in the midst of despair, but I guess one can see despair in the midst of hope.

    1. It sounds to me like you are misreading him. His point was that there were too many people talking about despair, and we needed more people living in hope and bringing it to other people. After all, that’s what his later life’s work turned out to center upon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.