Esalen Institute: still mystical after all these years

Contra Costa Times/January 21, 2007
By Janet Fullwood

The Esalen Institute on California's rugged Big Sur coast first entered my consciousness as a teenager in the psychedelic '60s. There it flitted for 30-odd years, an enigmatic place cloaked in "alternative" jargon, secretive smiles and suggestions I couldn't quite process.

What I heard about Esalen was vague and esoteric, not easily articulated. Over the years, the people I met who'd actually been here -- taken a workshop, soaked in the famous mineral baths -- talked about it with a kind of dreamy reverence that piqued my curiosity even more.

Not until middle age did I finally create an opportunity to peek beneath the veil.

Now I'm the smitten one.

But let's back up.

Named for the Esselen Indian tribe indigenous to Big Sur, the Esalen Institute is a nonprofit alternative-education center situated, not incidentally, on the edge of the Western world, looking east. The weathered redwood buildings and geodesic domes sprinkled about the grounds hark back to the early 1960s, when Stanford graduate students Michael Murphy and Richard Price gave life to their vision of a sanctuary where thinkers of all stripes -- philosophers, psychologists, artists, academics, spiritual leaders, experientialists, you name it -- could come to pursue "the exploration of unrealized human capacities."

Over the years, more than 300,000 people have indulged in the Esalen experience, the vast majority of them through personal-growth workshops, says publicist Megan McFeely.

The institute can accommodate just 120 overnight guests at a time, though as many staff members usually are on hand, including a contingent of work-study program participants who come for a month at a time. The few rooms not filled with students and instructors are made available to the public for what the institute terms "personal retreats."

"It's not a hotel -- we don't encourage people to look at it that way," McFeely says. "We're not about being a spa; we're about being a place for personal transformation."


That's not to say that Esalen is lacking in sybaritic elements; there's plenty of that, as well. But the overriding impression I took away, after chatting with guests and instructors over meals and while exploring the campus, was of intellectual stimulation, not physical indulgence. The place was positively buzzing with creative energy; I could almost see the wheels turning in everybody's heads.

Not having time for a workshop, my overnight visit was on the "personal retreat" plan, from midafternoon on the first day through lunch on the second. Our room was a simple affair, very dated and '60s-ish, with weathered plywood walls, a tiny bath, sliding doors opening onto a narrow cement slab and a spectacular view of the ocean and the bathhouse directly below.

Baths are back

Ah, yes, the baths. The mineral hot springs flowing from the side of the cliff were, until 1998, partially contained in natural rock pools and redwood tubs where Esalen guests came to soak and to tune in to the natural environment. The baths were Esalen's signature attraction, an icon of the institute's unfettered philosophies. It all crashed down in an El Nino storm packing 100-mph winds and humongous sea swells. Rebuilding took three years.

The new $6 million bathhouse, anchored to bedrock, is modern in design and features indoor and outdoor soaking pools of various temperatures, as well as semiprivate pavilions and open-air areas for massage. It's all coed, and while guest literature proclaims the baths to be "clothing optional," the atmosphere is such that most people would feel more bare in a swimsuit than in a birthday suit; it really is that relaxed and natural.

At any rate, sitting in warm water up to your neck under a starry sky, with the sea pounding a lullaby on the rocks below, is a quintessential Northern California experience. Add a massage -- Esalen-style, characterized by long, sweeping strokes -- and you'll be in fine fettle to attend the free movement and meditation sessions, dance performance, arts-and-crafts classes and other activities programmed daily and open to all guests.

You never know whom you might encounter along the way; over the years many cultural newsmakers have contributed to the institute's intellectual stew.

Check out the guest list

In the revolutionary atmosphere of the '60s, Esalen garnered a reputation for being as far out as it got.

Fritz Perls, co-founder of Gestalt therapy, made his name teaching workshops here in the early years. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, cult author Carlos Castaneda and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling led seminars, too. Singer Joan Baez was in residence for a time; gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson worked a stint as a gatekeeper. The Beatles made an appearance. So did LSD gurus Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, beat icons Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and many other cultural newsmakers of the day.

In the late 1980s, Esalen was back in the spotlight again, this time for a Soviet-American exchange program whose "hot-tub diplomacy" during the Yeltsin era helped improve relations between the two Cold War superpowers.

Meanwhile, more frontier thought was percolating behind the scenes, where seminars delved into the cutting edge of everything from physics and consciousness to sports psychology, international relations, medicine, meditation, massage, environmental studies, evolutionary theory, race relations and paranormal intelligence.

The human potential movement was off and running, and Esalen has remained core to the cause ever since.

Year-round workshops

Now in its fifth decade, the institute continues to offer an extensive, round-the-calendar schedule of more than 500 open-to-the-public workshops a year, some as straightforward as "Afro-Cuban Drum and Dance" and "Women and Aging," others as offbeat as "Spirit Medicine" and "The Mind Beyond the Brain." A separate set of invitation-only conferences focusing on topics such as metaphysics, economics and globalization is operated through the institute's Center for Theory and Research.

Although programming for the public has evolved with the times (think yoga, wellness, hiking), Esalen's mission remains unapologetically high-minded.

The goal, to quote from institute literature, is "to create and further approaches that will help unlock the immense reservoir of currently unused human potential and turn it to the benefit of present and future generations throughout the world."

Whew. See what I mean about being hard to articulate?

Harry Feinberg, who recently took the reins as Esalen's executive director of operations, puts it in more down-to-earth terms: "The basic mission is to provide a safe environment for anyone to be able to come in and explore where they are in their own life and where they're headed," he says. "There aren't many places like that."

Nature's heartbeat

There aren't many places that enjoy such an eye-popping setting, either. Esalen's lush campus sprawls across 120 acres of a ridge-top plateau hugging the spectacular Big Sur coastline. Inland trails lead through lush forests where streams bubble and beams of sunlight filter between towering redwoods. Expansive organic gardens provide much of the produce served in the camplike dining hall, where healthful, buffet-style meals are taken at shared tables.

Evenings, the collegiate atmosphere is reinforced with late-night snacks (brownies, cinnamon rolls), a crowd around the bar and impromptu guitar-and-song sessions around a patio fireplace.

The sound of the sea, Mother Nature's heartbeat, is a constant background rhythm by which this rarefied world seems to turn.

"What a spectacular place; it sinks right into your body experience," Feinberg said as we admired the view from a broad green sward of lawn overlooking the classic panorama.

Candles, didgeridoos

From the moment I arrived at Esalen until the moment I left, I was struck with an almost palpable sense of having been catapulted into a bubble separate from the rest of the world.

I loved it -- but not everyone would. The touchy-feely, getting-in-touch-with-yourself aspects of the overall scene probably explain why Esalen's clientele is more heavily weighted to women than to men.

Being open to new experiences is a definite prerequisite.

After dinner, my female friends and I returned to the bathhouse for "didgeridoo meditation," certainly a new experience for me. Candles had been lit everywhere, and the pools, massage tables, floors and ledges were occupied by lounging guests wrapped in towels, sheets or nothing at all. A young man, accompanied by a woman on guitar, played haunting melodies on the flutelike aboriginal instrument, creating a fragile, magical ambience.

Walking back to my room, I suddenly realized I had a mile-wide grin on my face, and that I had fallen, like so many before me, under Esalen's invigorating spell.

Part of it, to be sure, was a nostalgia element: I felt as if I'd stumbled into my hippie-dippie past. And part of it was confirmation that idealism can be respected, that the past can have a future and that people who care really can make a difference in our world.

Yikes, guess I'm sounding like the baby boomer I am.

I'm OK, you're OK?

Be here now?

Well, never mind. Esalen is one of those places that can only be explained by experiencing it for yourself, no matter what your mental or physical age.

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