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Big Sur’s Esalen Institute

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Photo: Brown Cannon III

The evening I arrived at Esalen in a torrential, one might even say biblical, rain, rockslides closed the Pacific Coast Highway in both directions. I was among the last of the guests to make it in. At the gatehouse, a young man in a slicker checked my name off on a clipboard and handed me a soggy envelope containing a map of the property, along with my key. I sloshed my way over to Murphy House, fiddled with the lock, and finally opened the door to my spartan room, only to discover a leaking ceiling. Here is when I wondered if I might have been luckier getting stuck somewhere on the other side of the rockslide.

Ask anyone who has ever been to the Esalen Institute—even those who haven’t—and there is always a story. The Big Sur retreat center 45 miles south of Monterey epitomizes a kind of 1960’s California spiritual bohemianism, and has been a lightning rod for controversy and drama since its founding early in that decade. A few days before my visit, when I mentioned to my dentist—a mild-mannered, rural Connecticut fellow—that I was heading there, he became more animated than I’d ever seen him. “Esalen!” A dreamy look crossed his face. “Esalen! I didn’t know the place still existed.” He shook his head. “Do they still have the naked baths?” It turned out that my dentist is the younger brother of the 1960’s radical Jerry Rubin. As a young man, he had hung out at those baths with his brother and Timothy Leary. “Do me a favor,” he said. “While you’re there, just give them one ‘Power to the People’ ”—with this, he pumped his fist into the air—“from me.”

It was still raining the following morning when I made my way across a narrow, rickety bridge over the deep ravine that divides the 120-acre property. The air was full of sound: the creek rushing below, a steady drone of crickets. A red-shouldered hawk sailed above me, screeching in the distance. I passed a round meditation house, accessible by a steep path. Workshops were in session: Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Compassion; Shamanism and the Modern Mystical Movement; Radical Aliveness and Core Energetics. A group of guests (or “seminarians,” in Esalen-speak) wearing ponchos and carrying backpacks headed to a clearing strewn with massive boulders, where they settled themselves on the rocks and pulled out sketch pads.

As I wandered in the direction of the main lodge in search of coffee, I contemplated the mystical nature of place. I thought of all the people who had walked this same path in the 50 years since Esalen’s inception. Joan Baez composing a song on her guitar. Joseph Campbell preparing to give a lecture. Henry Miller sunbathing in the buff. A craggy path led me past a vegetable garden where a small stone Buddha was surrounded by offerings: wilted flowers; beaded necklaces; stones at his feet. Past Esalen’s main lodge and down a long, dusty hillside path, the bathhouse tubs with mineral hot springs were cantilevered along the cliffs of Big Sur, the Pacific violently churning below. As I trudged through the rain, I could sense the ghosts of Esalen past: Aldous Huxley. Buckminster Fuller. Abraham Maslow. Susan Sontag. Steam rose from the hot tubs below. A seventysomething man, buck naked, stood gazing casually at the horizon. Did Sontag soak in these baths? I imagined the great intellectual submerging herself, the signature white streak in her hair visible from a hundred feet away.

It is said, somewhat mystically, that because three bodies of water—an ocean, a river, and a geothermal spring—converge on Esalen’s land, it is a spot of great energetic intensity. Perhaps that energetic force is responsible for the heightened sense of…well, just about everything that goes on there. Joy morphs into ecstasy. Low-level malaise quickly turns into misery. Breakthroughs are not only possible, but expected. Spiritual enlightenment is on the menu. Esalen is religion for the irreligious, a place to which people travel with the wish to transform themselves, or maybe the wish to transform the world.

The hippies who founded Esalen are now grandparents, and many of the ideas that have cycled through this laboratory of human potential have been short-lived—a product of their place and time, the spiritual equivalent of the eight-track tape—or have been refined and further developed elsewhere. What is the purpose of a place like this as the world speeds up and grows noisier, as connections between people become more abstract and diffuse? Is it still relevant, or is it destined to become a graveyard of the last bastion of hippiedom, a relic, like the burial ground of the long-forgotten Esalen Indians above which the retreat was built?

In 1962, Stanford University classmates Michael Murphy and Dick Price set about creating a new kind of community on land owned by Murphy’s grandmother. The circumstances were eerily, alchemically propitious, as a generation of young people was starting to look for new ways to understand the world. The Summer of Love was just around the corner; Woodstock wasn’t far behind. Murphy, who had been a philosophy student, had his head spun around and his priorities realigned by the world-famous professor of philosophy and comparative religion Frederic Spiegelberg. After graduating, he found his way to the ashram of the mystic Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India. By the time he returned home to Salinas, California, he was fully committed to the worldview that the whole cosmos is a slumbering spirit, and to the idea that he could have some part in waking it up.

It has turned out that waking up the cosmos is no easy task. Through its Center for Theory & Research, Esalen has provided a forum for real achievements in the realms of diplomacy, psychology, medicine, and physics (raising funds for Boris Yeltsin’s first visit to the U.S., for example, in 1990). Yet there remains a pervasive misconception that it’s solely a playground for the naked and psychedelically inclined.

But Murphy’s vision, of a playground in the truest and most serious sense of the word, a place where people of all walks of life could explore their own potential, is one that may be more relevant today than it was when he and Price first started out. It’s easy to poke fun at some of the course offerings, but Esalen, at its core, is really about fostering connection. Connection between human beings, between the self and society, between nations and religions. It is in search of such connections, more and more, that we travel—not merely to lie on a beach somewhere, but to discover something new about ourselves, and about the world. And that is what draws visitors to Esalen.

Here, you don’t see people walking the paths with their heads bent over their smartphones. You don’t see people moving quickly, or tapping their feet, or waiting impatiently for the buffet line to move faster. You don’t have conversations with men or women whose eyes drift over your shoulder, looking for someone more useful or important. Instead, you are surrounded by those who are after something more lasting. They have chosen to travel here not as an escape, but rather to contemplate their place in the world. They eschew distraction. They are earnest in a culture that may just have had enough of irony.

On my last night—after a hand-lettered sign was posted on the office window announcing to a cheering throng that Highway 1 was once again open—I headed down to the baths. It was a clear, beautiful night in Big Sur, and the air smelled of eucalyptus and jasmine. It had been an intense couple of days—there seem to be no other kind at Esalen—filled with chance encounters, emotional moments. I’d taught a writing workshop, dined on delicious organic vegetables from the Esalen garden, and had an extraordinary massage that left me feeling open and a little raw. I’d almost gotten used to the comfortable way seminarians wore their nudity, though I myself wasn’t quite there yet. (Later, a man who had seen me in the baths complimented me on my bravery for wearing a bathing suit.) As I soaked in the mineral-rich waters, gazing at the purple horizon, I thought of Abraham H. Maslow, the eminent psychologist whose teachings influenced Murphy and Price. Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Human Needs is most often displayed in the shape of a triangle. At the bottom are the most basic requirements: breathing, food, water, sleep, and the like. At the top—the pinnacle—of Maslow’s hierarchy are morality, creativity, spontaneity, purpose, acceptance, and meaning.

Alone in my swimsuit among the aging hippies, not to mention the ghosts of Esalen past, I couldn’t think of a more apt credo for the next 50 years, and found myself hoping that Esalen survives and thrives. And then I pumped a fist in the air: Power to the people!

The Esalen Institute; weekend, five- and seven-day workshops in a range of disciplines; esalen.org.

Dani Shapiro is a T+L contributing editor. Her new book, out next month, is Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Grove Press).

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