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At 50 Years Old, Esalen is Still Big Medicine

The path to the famous hot tubs at Esalen

The land under Esalen Institute is full of power and magic, and nowhere on the property do you feel it more directly than in the steaming hot mineral baths.  Sitting in the rock-walled tubs, heated by the power of the earth itself, and with the endless universe spread out overhead, it’s easy to imagine that you might actually see the future from here.  Perched literally at the edge of the earth, with the Pacific Ocean lapping at the rocky beach 100 feet below, everything seems very clear.  As travelers and mystics have been doing for millennia, it’s natural to look to the stars for a hint of what’s to come.

The future was very much on my mind at the end of September as I raced up the snaking two-lane Pacific Coast Highway of Big Sur, California to observe and participate in a four-day 50th anniversary celebration of the Esalen Institute.  The future was also on the minds of leadership, the staff, teachers and old timers who gathered to pay respect to a place and a way of life they all love.

At 50, it’s easy to think of Esalen as being middle aged.  It still looks young but it is graying around the edges.  It’s no longer in the hands of the two men who created it, or their families, and it is managed and marketed more professionally now.  And those things have some people asking questions.  Will Esalen be another victim of the commoditization of America, of the corporatizing influence of MBAs and business schools?  Or will it remain a safe haven for those who need to explore new ideas and find ways to heal old wounds?

As one of the local Native Americans said during the week: “Esalen is big medicine, it will take care of itself.”  One might expect that a descendent of a 6,500 year-old culture (Egypt’s great pyramids are roughly 5,000 years old) would take the long view of things.  The rest of us tend to run around with a self-imposed sense of urgency worrying about loan payments, meeting payroll, or whether Esalen might lose its psychic mojo.

Almost from the day it opened its doors, Esalen was the epicenter for new thinking and practice in the realm of human potential.  Its founders, Michael Murphy and Richard Price, conceived it for that purpose in the early 1960s.  Influenced by the fertile social tumult of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Murphy and Price were both psychology majors at Stanford in the early 1950s and were both interested in finding the common denominators among many popular spiritual, philosophical and psychological practices from around the world.  Their backgrounds and motivations were very different, though.

Murphy had become interested in Eastern spiritual philosophy and began a meditation practice that young people today would call extreme (as in extreme sports).  Murphy liked to meditate 8 hours a day.  Before long, he was off to live in an Indian Ashram run by the followers of Sri Aurobindo, a guru known for teaching from many spiritual perspectives.  Murphy was a firm believer in integration.

Price, was also product of Stanford to a degree, but the more defining event of his life came a time when he was serving in the US Air Force, studying at Stanford and other places around the Bay Area, and was married to a woman his family did not approve of.  Price had a psychotic break and ended up in mental hospitals for several years.  He was misdiagnosed, mistreated with insulin and electro-shock therapy and kept locked up at his family’s request for much longer than he needed to be.  A big part of his motivation was to help other injured psyches find a safe place to heal.

When Murphy and Price met at the beginning of the 1960s, they had much in common and decided to find a way to create an academy for the open expression of new ideas, similar to writer Aldous Huxley’s idea.  Murphy was finally able to convince his grandmother to lease him the Big Sur property and in January of 1962, Alan Watts held the first workshop there, although it was really his workshop, not an Esalen’s.  Still, it was the start of something big.

With such an auspicious beginning, Esalen became the kernel of human potential movement. The phrase itself was coined after a line often used by Huxley in his lectures about exploring the outer limits of “human potentialities.”  Price and Murphy had both heard him speak around the San Francisco Bay area before Esalen was created and he became a regular part of the team afterward.  When Esalen later remodeled the lodge they added a large meeting room/performance space that today is named after Huxley.

Esalen was also home to Friederich “Fritz” Perls, the father of gestalt therapy, who lived for a time in a house built for him at Esalen.  Encounter groups and other innovations in psychology sprang from those roots.  Alan Watts, one of the foremost interpreters of Zen Buddhism during the 1950s and 1960s was one of the very first to hold a seminar on the property in January 1962.  Watts has an Esalen meeting room named after him.  Joseph Campbell, who is legendary for his reinterpretation of the meaning of world mythologies, was captured on film lecturing to adoring students in Esalen’s lodge and in the Big House, which is also on the property.

Murphy and Price also were interested in the integration of the mental and physical so Esalen embraced disciplines like Feldenkrais, Rolfing, yoga, tai chi, aikido and a variety of other movement techniques designed to break down inhibitions and psychic blocks; cutting edge movement and body work systems designed to let the real you shine through. Another Esalen notable was George Leonard, a 5th degree black belt in aikido and one-time journalist who wrote about the social changes taking place in the West for Look Magazine and eventually started working directly with Michael Murphy and Esalen.  Esalen even evolved its own style of massage technique; long slow strokes aimed at healing and integrating the entire body.

Among the legions of notables (check out the Wikipedia page on Esalen to see a list of the dozens of teachers and leaders who spent time there) who came through or lived at Esalen in the early days are Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Baez.

Joan Baez playing at Esalen’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

In 1961, years before Thompson became a “Gonzo” journalist, he was a security guard at Esalen.  It was in the days immediately before it became the Esalen Institute and Thompson was still an unknown writer trying to find his voice.  In the Walter Truett Anderson’s book about the early days at Esalen, Upstart Spring, he relays a story about Thompson being beat up by a group of young gay men who were hanging out at the baths at night.  He had tried to run them off, but when he tried to get tough, the young men beat him to a pulp.  Thompson reportedly managed to make it back to the big house where he started shooting out of one of the windows, not bothering to open it first.

Baez lived just up the road from Big Sur in 1961 in the Carmel Highlands area and she lived and taught at Esalen a number of times over the years.  She convened a Folk Music workshop in 1964 and was one of the conveners or a series of concerts at Esalen called “A Celebration of Big Sur.”  She certainly appeared to feel at home during the anniversary week festivities, coming in early in the week and hanging out with old friends and guests, enjoying the baths.  During a concert on the lawn she demonstrated the ageless strength and clarity of her voice as she sang old folk standards.

My history at Esalen is a little shorter.   I clearly remember watching the “Esalen Institute” sign flash by on my first trip to Big Sur around 1971.  The coast was stunning, but to a not very worldly 17 year old from Los Angeles, the “Reservations Only” sign sounded distinctly unfriendly.  I inquired no further for more than 45 years.

Two years ago I attended my first workshop with David Schiffman, a teacher and group leader at Esalen for 43 years titled “Sweet Mischief: A Lighthearted Path for Self-realization and Restoration.”  It was part encounter group and part movement class and during the five days I spent with David, I cried like a baby a learned to move more boldly and confidently than I ever have before.  Not bad for one week.

A few years before I first rolled by Esalen, Steve Ravitz, now a West Los Angeles resident, was living the hippy’s life, wandering through Big Sur when he heard the lovely sounds of Joan Baez come drifting up to the road from the Esalen property.  Naturally, he investigated and he’s been coming back to Esalen ever since.

“This place changed my life,” he said during breakfast on the wooden deck of the Esalen lodge.  He now has a practice that pulls form a number of different styles of massage and body work.  He was a pantomime artist and had studied humanistic psychology before he stumbled onto the Esalen grounds and studied under Ida Rolf (Rolfing) and William “Dub” Leigh, who taught an integrated style of bodywork.

And that’s what Esalen does for people.  It expands their repertoires, takes them to new places, it heals and energizes them.  And it is that healing energy that seems to keep people coming back for more.

The Old Masters – From left to right, Hecace, Tihik Pas and Little Bear

 “This is healing ground, and it is our job to help preserve it, to make sure that they don’t dig into it any more or injure its spirit,” said Tom “Little Bear” Nason, 52, one of the leaders of the Big Sur-area native people.  The Esalen tribe was largely destroyed by the Spanish missionaries, but according to recent information I received from one of the friends of the tribe, there are about 87 people remaining who are one half to one quarter Esalen blood.  Little Bear is one quarter.

Little Bear grew up on a ranch in the Ventana Wilderness area of Big Sur.  He knows the ways of the land.  Esalen, he said, was home to the local shamans.  There were three important healing grounds for the local natives; Esalen was the most powerful.

The discussion always comes back to the land at Esalen.  Pulling into the driveway is like stepping through a looking glass; it’s a different world, with different energy, where different rules apply.  You can feel the tension slip off your shoulders and a smile creeps onto your face.  Once on the property many people race to the hot tubs to soak in the mineral waters and bathe in the natural energy of the place.

I spoke with Esalen yoga teacher and writer Anne Van de Water about what it was like working at Esalen.  “It’s like nowhere else I know of. It is just naturally powerful and beautiful,” she said.  When I asked her how one might go about teaching a workshop at Esalen she said, “I would start by connecting with the land.  Esalen is a living, breathing entity.  Call on your future by calling on the land.”

Murphy’s family must have seen the special qualities of the land too.  His grandparents bought the property in 1910, long before there was a decent road connecting it to the rest of the world with the notion of developing it into a European-style spa.

An offering of flowers left at the altar

Roughly one million people have walked across the grounds of the Esalen Institute since it opened its doors in 1962, according to Esalen’s President Gordon Wheeler, each of them looking for something a little different: for some a safe place to heal psychic wounds, for others a space to explore their spiritual connection to the universe.  Some want Esalen to keep up with the changes taking place in the world; others want it to change slowly, if at all, so that the place will maintain its essential character.

David Schiffman calls himself the “loyal opposition” at Esalen.  “All I’ve ever been interested in is an honest accounting and some transparency,” said the 70-year-old Schiffman.   After teaching at Esalen for 43 years, he is not shy about expressing his concerns about possible threats to the soul of Esalen.

Schiffman is a Brooklyn native who worked with what we call today “at-risk” youth.  He was an advocate for kids who were labeled the worst of the worst.  In that work, he met up with a group of people who had been to Esalen and wanted to create their own exploratory group in New York.

“There was an array of involvement with the full spectrum of what was possible if you were interested in stepping beyond the ordinary,” Schiffman says about those days.  Eventually, Schiffman and some friends made the trek out to California and Esalen on motorcycles.   He “reluctantly came west” but when he got to Big Sur, he fell in love with the place.

“In the days of old (at Esalen), things were more raw and direct,” Schiffman recalls.  He liked that. He was good at being raw and direct; Brooklyn will do that to you.  In the years since he landed at Esalen, things have become kinder and gentler.

Is Esalen losing its soul?

“It’s an interesting notion … what does Esalen stand for?” Schiffman says.  “The soul of Esalen as I’ve experienced it over the years, being a midwife to people, is an opportunity A) to re-engage with things simple and natural – the beauty of the natural world, the power of the elements.  It’s first a place you visit to get reestablished in terms of grounding.”

Internally, he says, Esalen has helped to teach people how to honor their own dreams, their own missions and to find the life that grows out of that.  “It’s about how to learn the skills necessary to live an original life.  The world is not geared for people who need to be original. “

Esalen’s soul is harnessed to that capacity, Schiffman says.

But Esalen is also harnessed to its mortgage.  After severe rains and rockslides took out the old bathhouse in 1998, Esalen had to borrow and raise $5.5 million to rebuild.  After raising $2 million in donations, Esalen paid for reconstruction and restructured its debts through a $5 million loan from a non-profit lender that specializes in helping other non-profits.  Today, Esalen’s annual budget is about $14 million, and they have to fill a lot of workshops to pay for it.

“Esalen should be fiscally managed in a sound way,” Schiffman concedes, “but if people have to comply, behave, shut up – if they have to act rather than be – then I worry about Esalen’s soul.”  And he adds, “I see a group (in leadership) who seem more interested in conservation than innovation, you know, they want Esalen to last forever.”

Wheeler is the person in charge of paying Esalen’s bills and making sure Esalen is true to its mission. He sees little danger of Esalen becoming corporatized in any significant way.  “This is not how one would run a corporation.”  He described the operating model of Esalen as Seeker serving Seeker, meaning that Esalen relies on a large number of interns, most of whom are seeking similar experiences to the founders and the guests, so ultimately everyone at Esalen is serving each other.  This brings more people into contact with Esalen and its mission, but it is not very efficient.  For instance, Esalen hires therapists to do “process” with the staff, essentially group therapy aimed at helping everyone get along while getting their jobs done.

Gordon Wheeler, President of Esalen and gestalt therapist, addressing the crowd during the opening ceremony at Esalen’s 50th anniversary party

“We would be fired if we were running a corporation this way,” Wheeler said.

“It’s a hell of a job they had to do here,” said Hecace, a long-time friend of Esalen who lived on the property for a while in the early 1950s. “Especially when your hot springs are washed out from under you.”  He was talking about the management response to the destruction of the bathhouse in 1998.  “The baths are gone, the roads are closed; what do you sell then?”

Hecace is a former US Marine who spent a good deal of his youth in Big Sur and became close friends with Little Bear.  They spent time in the wilderness together on mission quests and learned the way of the Big Sur country.

“I was raised in wilderness areas and I was always attracted to the land,” Hecace said.  “I remember finding a nest with Red Tail Hawk eggs and watching them go from eggs to taking their first flights.  I loved that stuff.  I was raised as a Catholic for a while, then a Protestant and then a Christian Scientist.  But what called to me, my church, was the wilderness.”

Hecace found his calling when he began sageing.   Smoking bundles of sage are used by shamans to clear the energy from a place or a person and, as Hecace says, “where you bless someone’s heart mind and body.  I found out there was more to sageing than I had ever seen anyone do, so I made it my practice.  Almost like a Japanese tea ceremony.

Like his Native American colleagues, Hecace tends to take the long view of things.

“Sometimes there is strife down here, but there is always strife when you’re trying to create,” he says.  “It’s in art, it’s in business, it’s in modeling, but it’s the end product that’s important.”

And Esalen has been important for thousands of people over the years, in Hecace’s view. “What we have here is a place where people can unwind.  We give them a place to vent and walk away renewed.”

“The magic oozes out of this place,” he says.

I found no dissent to the notion that Esalen is magic.  But just to test my opening thesis that the stars might actually be telling us something about Esalen’s future, I asked my astrologer friend Charlaine “Charlie” Brown, from Dana Point, California, do a quick read of Esalen’s chart.  I used October 3 as the birthday, since that was the day Joan Baez performed at the anniversary fest.  Without telling her much about my story, here’s some of what she sent me:

“This is a time for reflection on your life  . . . a time to take stock and to plan for the next 50 years but more importantly, it is a time to look at some of the painful issues that may be part of your make up that may have been holding you back up until now.  It is time to get in touch with these areas, i.e., repressed feelings that were too painful to deal with.  But there is a new knowing that there will be a rich reward for getting in touch with these formerly walled-off areas in order to become more whole.”

How do astrologers do that?  Sure, it’s generalized, but she kind of captured the in-house drama that is currently at work at Esalen.  When I asked her about her reading, she said something about a Chiron return (happens every 50 years, apparently) in Esalen’s chart that will be making a big difference.

If the stars are right, there is a renaissance in Esalen’s future.  And how is it going to get there?  By doing what Esalen has always done, therapy.  Whether it’s gestalt, movement, yoga, the Alexander Method, encounter groups or just holding hands at the hot tubs, Esalen finds a way to heal its visitors, and itself.  But will Esalen’s workshops and other offerings be relevant to the “new age” we are about to enter (We are literally moving into the Age of Aquarius on December 21, 2012.)

Wheeler believes Esalen will be a leader in the new age.  “We are in an age of integration” where problems and possibilities aren’t separated into neat packages to be dealt with separately.  “We will need different types of leaders for these times, and Esalen is teaching people the skills to become leaders.”

According to Wheeler, whose background is gestalt psychology, neuropsychological studies tell us that the integrated circuitry of our brain can handle complexity best when it is trained through a variety of left brained and right brained exercises:  math and art; biology and music; metal shop and poetry; philosophy and football.  More integration.

Schiffman is less clear about whether the Esalen of the future will still be teaching relevant skills.  Esalen’s specialty has been personal transformation, but in a world where the economy is perpetually on the verge of collapse, and where the face of the planet is literally being redrawn by climate change and rising sea levels, what are the right skills to be teaching people.

“If Esalen can cultivate the necessary affiliations with the young ones who are on fire, who are really stepping forward, then I think that what Esalen has provided over the last 50 years will be extended over the next 50 years,” Schiffman said.

Mac Murphy, Michael’s 27-year-old son, might be just the kind of fiery young person Schiffman is talking about.  Mac is something of a star on the property by virtue of his parents, but he is a down to earth young man who spent several years living with and learning the Esalen customs and practices.  He built a beautiful alter on the lawn to honor the 50th anniversary and sang ceremonial songs at the opening event.

And thanks to Mac, a tree now grows at Esalen that wasn’t there before, and I and about 50 other people in our group are part of it, too. And that makes us part of Esalen’s future.

As part of a ritual led by Mac and Little Bear, we wrote down our wishes for the future of Esalen, meditated on them briefly, and threw them into a shallow pit where they were burned to ashes and planted with that tree.  With all of us in a circle, Mac Murphy lit the fire and spoke of the need to preserve the magic of Esalen, to be true to its mission of healing and exploration. Little Bear played his flute, and the smoke enveloped them both.

David Schiffman has been teaching at Esalen for 43 years

David Schiffman was part of that group, and he dropped his hopes for Esalen’s future into the pit with everyone else.  After the ceremony, I could see David wearing a big smile and I asked him what he thought.

“I feel real good right now,” he answered, looking around at the crowd and the landscape.  This feels really good.”

There certainly will be a future for Esalen. It will make some people happy, and it will leave others disappointed. But as a wise man once said to me, “Esalen is big medicine. It will take care of itself.”

Written by Rick Ruiz

Rick Ruiz is a writer, former journalist and owner of Zenvironment, a Conscious Communications consulting firm.  A native Southern Californian and graduate of Cal State Fullerton, he now lives in Santa Monica.  He has studied and written about martial arts, spirituality, personal growth and the southern California lifestyle.  He can be reached at rick.ruiz@zenviro.net.


One thought on “At 50 Years Old, Esalen is Still Big Medicine

  1. Cool I remember at the 25th anniversary Joan played with Babatunde_Olatunji, we had Jackson B, Graham Nash, Kenny Loggins, Bonnie Raitt, and a bunch of others. 2,000 people came.

    Posted by Richard Wegman | October 18, 2012, 11:03 am

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