Esalen And The Human Potential Movement

Hugging the cliffs of the Pacific Palisades in Big Sur, Calif., is perhaps one of the oldest healing sites in continuous use. Archeological findings on the site date back some 6,000 years, left by the Esselen Indians - after whom the Esalen Institute is named. It's one of nature's most remarkable habitats for humanity. But the scenery is only part of what gives this place its magic.

Esalen is one of those places that seemed always stuck in my memory. I have no idea where I first heard of it. A few years ago while making my way to Hearst Castle in San Simeon by way of San Francisco, I passed a wooden sign along the road that said "Esalen Institute." "Oh, there's that place," I thought. "I have to go there one day."

It wasn't even in the back of my mind when a close friend told me about a workshop there, hoping I might like to go. This was my chance.

My journey began at the San Francisco Airport. Turns out my friend couldn't make the trip, so I went alone. I drove a rented car along Highway 1, the scenic Pacific Coast Highway that winds down along the ocean. This is a wonderful drive, but beware of the views: take time to pull the car off the road at one of the many observation areas to get a good look and some pictures. The winding road is not to be underestimated. Visitors to Esalen may also arrive at nearby Monterrey Airport, and take a shuttle bus offered for a small fee.

Once registered, I headed to my room. Or, I should report, to where I slept. I chose the economical option ($670.00 for five nights, food and lodging included) of bringing a sleeping bag to camp out in one of the meeting rooms. My roommate and I were the only guests here and we shared a complete private bath and even had an ocean view. A premium option for $4,310.00 per couple would be to rent one of the small "point houses," located right on the edge of the cliff with a private deck.

(Ruth Cunningham)
Intrepid explorers of the mind, body and soul may come to Esalen for any number of reasons, both apparent and mysterious. What people are looking for, says Gordon Wheeler, Esalen's president and CEO, is "the magic place, including the healing oceanside and natural hot spring baths; the transformational courses; and another thing that is more intangible: the fact that Esalen is a living residential community of seekers serving seekers, all living, practicing, eating, taking courses together, creating a unique field for everyone's growth and depth of experience."

In other words, the combination of all this community, history, water, air, and land catalyzes something extraordinary in one's inner landscape of ancestry, soul, body, breath and mind to deliver a shift that remains long after one returns home. I was hoping for just such an experience.

But what if "Soulful Tourism" is nothing more than some idea that people will pay to travel to a site that has the folklore of miracle healing, special energy, or some other close connection to a mystery that alludes to the divine? I've been on trips to experience vortexes, psychic energy, even ghost-like paranormal activity. Often there was little substance and lots of high-priced gift shops, tours and wide-grinning locals to welcome visitors. What makes Esalen different from those places is its focus.

Travelers here must discover their own mystery. The setting is just there to help them find it, something I learned on my first trip of this kind. This is why Esalen has remained genuine long after it began. Whether it means taking a painting class, entering a drumming circle, or learning massage techniques makes no difference. What attracted me was a workshop called "Recovering Eros." Eros in this case is the Greek god, and the story of his love for Psyche, a mortal, would be a metaphor for the inner journey I would take during the week.

Walking along the campus of Esalen, I noticed the names Rolf, Huxley, Fritz, Watts and Maslow (the latter two in honor of philosopher Alan Watts and psychologist Abraham Maslow) gracing parts of the campus. It's a huge piece of property, 27 acres, with winding paths and little signage to interrupt one's connection to the natural environment.

Esalen began as a place to study and develop human potential on both the individual and social level. Innovative writers like Michael Murphy and Aldous Huxley were at the forefront of expounding on themes of human potential at Esalen and in doing so, fostered an environment for visionary thinking and practice for leaders among many vocations: Ida Rolf in physical therapy, Fritz Perls who developed Gestalt therapy, Buckminster Fuller, who perfected the geodesic dome in architecture and even political figures such as Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich.

In 1989 Esalen hosted Boris Yeltsin during his first visit to the U.S., claiming he had a transformational experience there which culminated in his renunciation of Communism. He was later elected president of the Russian republic.

Esalen is also famous for its natural mineral baths. The hot springs at Esalen are an abundant source of geothermal spring water channeled into a state-of-the-art concrete bathing area discretely nestled into the topography of the bluff, overlooking the rocky Pacific shoreline. There are rock-lined group tubs that retain the heat from the soothing 100F water.

For those who want more privacy there are quiet areas and individual claw foot tubs to enjoy the benefits of a soak. On the roof, people may enjoy a massage given by a body worker trained in the Esalen technique. During my stay, I was lucky enough to experience a late-night concert of didgeridoos, echoing through the structure as the ocean waves made a soothing background.

I immersed myself in the clothing optional pool where others had also just arrived for a week at Esalen. No one was clothed outside the changing area I should point out. Not all week. Part of the Esalen philosophy is to create personal sanctuary and respect for the human body. As a first-timer, I wasn't sure how I would react to seeing men and women of all ages in their altogether whom I would be meeting repeatedly through the week, perhaps in my own workshop. Yet, here I was making new friends while enjoying the sunset.

(Esalen Institute)
(Left: The state-of-the-art bath house at Esalen)
At dinner time, most of us headed for the Lodge. It is set up so one may eat as much or as little as they choose. All the food and beverages are offered buffet style, and guests bus their own dishes. The homemade cucumber mint tea was unusual, but tasty. There were mountains of fresh salads made with bok choy, collards, and other vegetables grown at Esalen's own farm. I found this abundance to be extremely supportive to my body later in the week so I could focus the work I was doing at my workshop. It was interesting to see how others dealt with this: some piled up one plate with food while others leisurely returned to the buffet to sample more culinary goodness. Meat options and dessert were always available. While I was there it seemed like it was someone's birthday every night and the baker always had a cake ready.

After dinner, I attended the first session of my workshop lead by veteran facilitator Lorie Dechar. She has been presenting workshops at Esalen for the past 10 years. "It's something I'd like to do for the rest of my life," Dechar told me in an interview later. She teaches alchemy - not literally, as in turning Mercury into Gold - but alchemy derived from both traditional Chinese medicine and Jungian psychology.

"Esalen provides a perfect container for the kind of deep, transformational inner work that I seek to catalyze through the workshops I create…the environment - the gardens, the baths, the whales, the waves and the winds in the eucalyptus trees - are restorative and inspiring." Dechar's book, Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing underscores her research and passion for this dynamic field.

Ms. Dechar began with an evening of storytelling while the group sat in a circle by the fire. That was just the first step on our transformative journey. Through lectures, group exercises, journaling and carefree moments of dancing we stood face to face with something intangible within us that became tangible. I was able to see how the intuitive side of myself could be thoroughly explained by Jung, enabling me to ground my life experience in learned knowledge. This was how the marriage of Psyche and Eros played out inside me.

"The place works on [guests] like water works on stone," according to Dechar. "Closed places open, new energies rise up from hidden reserves, hearts blossom, edges soften. It is not always an easy ride. Sometimes what comes up is shocking, painful, disorientating and disintegrating. But the environment and the community function as a kind of container for even quite difficult experiences and by the end of the week, everyone in every one of my workshops has found their way to a new, more enlivened understanding of their own being."

Not everyone in the workshop had the same experience I did, but everyone appeared to get something they needed. I came away from Esalen with a feeling of being more whole. In fact, the original meaning of the word healing is "the process of becoming whole."

And I was truly ready to get on the plane home and get back to work. Just as it should be with any vacation.

Written by Rick Borutta