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The Complicated Past and Present of a California Utopia

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, was once a bastion of hippie counterculture. Today, it’s more boutique retreat for the glamorous set. I spent a long weekend finding out if the ghosts of its past—and its countercultural heart—remain. 

You pass over a narrow bridge in your tiny rental car as the road begins to curve, and after two hours of driving south from San Francisco, the hills open up, revealing to you the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Sandy dunes soar up along the shoreline highway. The sunlight refracts off the water. A briny breeze comes through your rolled-down windows. The scene is that of a thousand seaside montages blurring together—a canvas of grass greens, sand tans, and aqua blues. You grab the wheel tighter as a Ferrari jumps in front of you, disappearing around a series of hairpin turns and dusty roads.

For another hour you follow the Pacific Highway through Big Sur, California, watching your GPS carefully for a turnoff that will be marked by nothing but a small, wooden sign: “Esalen Institute. No Reservations.”

In 1962, Michael Murphy and Dick Price, both Stanford graduates, founded the Esalen Institute as a place for learning about Eastern philosophies, human consciousness, and alternative methods for living. They ate organically, living off a garden on the property. They practiced ancient Eastern meditative practices. They developed Gestalt practice, converging body, mind, relationship, earth, and spirit. They offered year-round programs with names like “The Value of Psychotic Experience” and “Tantric Sexual Practices.”

People came from all over California, often staying for free in the wooden cabins that line the back of the 120-acre campus. Teachers lived at Esalen for weeks, sometimes for months or years, like Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary, Hunter S. Thompson, and Aldous Huxley. Robert Rauschenberg conducted seminars on art. Joan Baez taught a course called “The New Folk Music.” Ida Rolf invented a “reorganizing” form of massage called rolfing. Allen Ginsberg taught a poetry workshop. Alan Watts presided over group LSD trips. Henry Miller taught writing courses and famously sunbathed naked on the beach.

Esalen became famed throughout the world for being both a product of the counterculture and the fire beneath it. Its origins came during tumultuous times. In its foundational years, there were race riots throughout the United States. Anti-Vietnam War rallies flourished. Students and workers protested in France. The Prague Spring broke out in the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Anyone who felt like a misfit—who was growing sick of Presidents Johnson and Nixon and the path of capitalism and neoliberalism that the Western world had embarked on—were welcomed to Esalen.

You miss the sign and back up, turning off the highway to descend to the seaside property. Your GPS stops working. Your phone loses service. The day is silent save for the lapping waves. You will have no contact with the outside world for the next three days. You slowly make your way down the hill into a dirt parking lot situated beneath a series of low-slung wooden buildings. The lot is dotted with a handful of cars. The Ferrari is here too. Inside, a young man is combing his short-cropped hair.

You later learn he is a 29-year-old venture capitalist from San Francisco. His presence is indicative of the Esalen demographic. Shortly after you arrive, a family shows up in a darkly tinted Cadillac Escalade. A bleach-blond woman from New Zealand struts about the property in elaborate furs. Computer programmers and lawyers and financiers stroll around with meditation books beneath their arms, designer sunglasses perched on their noses. Inside the lodge, a well-known filmmaker and his stunningly beautiful (and much younger) wife sip coffees.

Starting in the mid-1970s, perceptions of Esalen began to change from a place of radically alternative living—a veritable protest—into what it is now: a retreat tailored towards the bourgeois (a sea of Lululemon tights, “lifestyle” bloggers, and people with Pinterest accounts). In a 1976 piece for New York magazine, the journalist Tom Wolfe pinpointed a problem: Esalen was becoming a place of ego-stroking. It was a narcissism machine for an increasingly self-obsessed generation. “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold,” Wolfe wrote. “The new alchemical dream is changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self… and observing, studying, doting on it.”

In the most comprehensive book on Esalen and its historical significance, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, Jeffrey J. Kripal praised 1960s Esalen as “a utopian experiment.” He called it a place “creatively suspended between the revelations of the religions and the democratic, pluralistic, and scientific revolutions of modernity.”

And yet, like all utopian experiments, Esalen’s cracks widened as it grew in popularity and began to attract this wealthier set. Today’s guests hardly care about any sort of counterculture; they care, as Wolfe pointed out, about self-improvement. Not long ago, someone graffitied the Esalen entrance: “Jive shit for rich white folk.”

**

After you park and check in, you walk through the Buddha Garden, down the waterfall footpath, over a rickety bridge, across two sacred meditation spaces overlooking the ocean, past a yurt from which chanting can be heard, and into a newly built house, where, in the back, is a room with a massive bay window overlooking the entirety of the property—the water, the dizzying cliffsides, the rocky beach down below.

In front of the windows, perfectly centered, is a woman in her fifties. It is six o’clock in the evening. She sits on a plush red pillow. Her eyes are closed. She takes measured breaths. Her hands rest on her knees. As people funnel in, she does not move. You are unsure what to do. Twenty minutes after the meditation had been scheduled to start, you take two pillows and a blanket from the bins in the back. You find a space between two older men near the front. You mimic the woman at the room’s center: eyes closed, palms on your knees, legs crossed, breathing in, breathing out.

Finally, her eyes flutter open. She introduces herself as Pamela Weiss. She speaks softly. For two hours, she leads you through a Zen meditation. You are instructed to think about your breathing. You are told to “feel your mind melting into the heart,” “to be your breath,” to “let memories and thoughts pass through your mind”—but “not to linger on them.” The idea, she tells you, is to access “deep time.” You are changing the fabric of time with your mind, slowing it, going within it. You are not to “clear” your mind, only to be aware of the chaos within it. But your mind goes to everything: worries, hopes, career desires, sexual fantasies, sounds you’ve heard, foods you’ve eaten, things you’ve smelled, arguments you’ve had, past and present relationships both beautiful and broken—your mind is jittering, jumping across the past, present, future.

The image she provides you is that of a jar full of dirt. You must let the dirt sink to the bottom. It is only then that you might pull back and see clear water. She says meditation can solve all of your internal problems. But your jar is constantly shaking. It always has been.

When you open your eyes, the sun has set. You are dismissed.

**

On your second day it is raining Biblical torrents. You spend the morning in your room in Watts House. The room is decorated in a mid-century modern style redolent of Edward Hopper paintings: wide glass windows, an angular wooden ceiling, a single bed that you make yourself. You are tired. You know no one here. You have spoken to no one, not even your roommate who has been up at 5 a.m., disappearing into the expanse of the campus.

You spend the early hours of the day alternating between pressing your nose into a book of short stories and pressing it to the window, watching the downpour flood the gardens, shake the trees, create towering waves that approach and crash relentlessly, one after another. You didn’t bring an umbrella, but as morning turns to afternoon you venture outside.

On the edge of campus, there is a path that few take. It is out past where you meditated last night, past even the Gazebo Park School, an Esalen-affiliated primary school that’s entirely outdoors. Tents, repurposed school buses, children huddled around fires—it appears a brightly colored refugee camp. The path you find is marked with a rusted metal sign advising you to proceed with caution. The wildlife and poisonous plants can be dangerous. The trails are ad-hoc and often precariously narrow. There is no mobile phone service and no one patrols the area. If you get lost or injured on a rainy day, it might well be a whole day, perhaps more, until someone finds you.

You creak open the gate and continue onwards. It is a rainy mess of green and your jacket and boots are already soaked through. You walk upwards on a spiraling, dirt path that is fast becoming mud. At the top of the hill is a grassy knoll upon which, in the 1960s, “encounter groups” used to sit in circles—where people would swear and fight hold hands and hug and kiss and yell and let every emotion out in the open. It was where one encountered one’s true self by interacting openly with others.

But today, you are entirely alone. Indeed, nearly everyone on campus is alone. They are all trying to improve themselves, to become more aware of themselves, just as you are. As a result, no one dares speak to another.

In the distance, now below you, is the highway. It is empty and clusters of fallen rocks will soon force it to close. You try to block from your mind the pounding rain, and you live, for a moment, in the emptiness that you see before you. You are alone in nature. There is no one here to encounter but yourself, and yet, your jar of dirt continues to shake, and even atop this hilltop peak—far away from the nouveau riche, glamorous guests down below—you don’t yet feel calmed.

**

Many people come now to Esalen to improve their careers. Weiss, the Zen meditation teacher, uses her meditation experience both at Esalen but also, much more lucratively, as an executive coach for Genentech, Pixar, and Salesforce.com. She says she wants to make business leaders “the best leaders they can be.” Marc Coleman, another instructor on campus, who teaches a Theravada meditation workshop, a more monastic form of Buddhist meditation, is a mindfulness consultant for executives at Proctor and Gamble, Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and the Gap. “I try to find ways to teach people the dharma—whether they’re in teaching or in business,” he says.

If a place like Esalen is now beholden to market competition and a neoliberal identity, where does one go for the alternative lifestyle it pioneered? Even nearby Tassajara, a mountaintop Buddhist monastery home to a group of monks, has begun offering $300-per-night retreats.

In 2012, Esalen underwent its most comprehensive restructuring. It became a non-profit entity, affording it a host of tax breaks, and implemented a seven-million-dollar renovation. In late-2016, it finished expanding the campus to include a second floor of the lodge, two new meeting rooms, an ocean-view deck near the dining room, a new café and bar, and a larger guest reception area and bookstore.

The new bookstore is called the Chip Conley Bookstore, named after the head of global hospitality at AirBnb, who is also a board member at Esalen. Conley’s books are prominently displayed across the store. Photos of his smiling face are overlaid with clichéd quotes: “‘When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.’—Chip Conley.” There are six types of Esalen-branded water bottles in the bookshop. Prices for workshop tuition have steeply increased. Where in the 1960s you could stay for free, today, tuition for a five-day workshop starts at $985 for a bunk bed accommodation that you share with three other guests. (There is a ritzier $3835 option for four nights in the Point House suites that come with a kitchen and a redwood deck that includes a claw-foot tub and overlooks the Pacific.) In 2014, over a dozen longtime employees were laid off. That year, Esalen spun a nice profit. It reported a net revenue of $1,462,385. Its CEO Tricia McEntee was paid $157,839.

Today, managers and investors stroll around the campus, not taking part in workshops but rather making sure all is running smoothly, that their employees are smiling at all guests, as internal memos show they are now required to do. “Esalen now emulates the worst of corporate America,” one employee posted on esaleaks.org, a WikiLeaks-type website for Esalen employees. “I think Dick Price would be thrashing in his ashes if he knew what was happening here at Esalen,” writes another. “His precious healing Community being devalued, and its profundity being sold as a boutique spa experience.”

Still, no one has spoken to you. Still, no one is talking to one another. Everyone is in their personal bubble—meditating, reading, bathing, doing nothing—doing it all alone.

**

The next day is your last. In the nude baths at the edge of the campus, you meet the person who you realize is your roommate. You’ve been silent for two straight days. You haven’t spoken to a soul, but you decide to break the rules and you begin to speak with him. His name is Matt, and he is from Kansas. He is keen to talk as well.

You are sitting together, whispering to one another your life stories, while naked in a natural hot spring that sits precipitously over the Pacific Ocean. Others come and go, into your bath or into one of the baths nearby. Some bodies are young and tight and others are old and sagging, but everyone moves with self-assurance. You feel you are the only one who is ashamed at your nakedness.

You learn that Matt left the army a few months ago after seven years of service. He is married, but he says he has recently had a crippling realization that he no longer loves his wife. He has no job, no formal education, little savings, and hasn’t any idea what to do with his life. He wears his hair in a samurai tuck and although he’s only 25, he has a cluster of gray hairs in his mustache. He says he saw terrible things while fighting in Iraq. He is here to put that all behind him—to find a way to move on.

Matt—like a few others—is here on a work-study scholarship. He works in the kitchen and the office and, in exchange, gets free room, board, and classes. He says he wants to stay for as long as it takes to get his life back on track.

You pull a plug on the side of the bath, and hot, sulfur-smelling water flows in. The temperature rises. A woman is getting a massage nearby. A man is perched on the railing, reading a book by Deepak Chopra. The scene is a bizarre confluence: coastal financiers mingling with heartland military veterans—in the nude, overlooking the Pacific.

Later that day, you continue to break the rules, whispering to the handful of people who appear decidedly unglamorous, out of place at this top-flight retreat. You meet Gabe, a former U.S. Marine and recently divorced father. You meet Chase, a financially struggling volleyball player. You meet Sandra, a white-haired octogenarian looking to learn to discover ways to reconnect with her estranged daughter.

When you go to bed on that final night, you break the rules again and talk to your roommate. You whisper to Matt that you were grateful to hear his story earlier that day and that you wish him all your best in his journey. He tells you he was grateful to hear yours and will be thinking of you, supporting you.

You realize you haven’t been honest with someone about what’s bothering you in months, maybe years. You wonder if he feels the same. After three days of almost constant meditation, soaking in baths, and long hikes, the way you’ve opened up was through a simple conversation.

The problem facing Esalen is the same as it has been for nearly fifty years: the worship of the self is the quickest way to get lost in the mire of your mind. Today’s Esalen is trying to suppress the past of encounter groups, deep community, and radical vulnerability to make way for something more innocuous: a place of easy pleasure, where one can escape other people to explore oneself. But this is perhaps its greatest fault. Esalen has doubled down on the modern obsession with the self through its hedonistic living, luxury accommodations, and classes like “The Mastery of the Self” and “Re-visioning Your Hero’s Journey: A Mythological Toolbox.” It is a formula that eschews community, deep relationships, and breakthroughs coming through an understanding of different perspectives.

And yet, there is a group of people, how large you are not sure, that have bucked this trend. They have come to countenance their most pressing problems: of war, of romance, of strained parenthood. They are willing to turn from the exclusive meditation of the self towards the problems of those around them.

For you, it took connecting with someone other than yourself to understand what was bothering you. Yes, you paid a lot of money to do it. But all it took was an intense vulnerability, openness to another soul—a conversation. The rest is rust and stardust.

This story first appeared in Holiday Magazine (print only)

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25 Comments

  1. I had never heard of Esalen before, to be honest both it’s original and modern iterations sound very interesting.
    I drove through Big Sur once a few years ago and it is amazing how well you captured that experience!

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  3. This was an excellent piece. I truly enjoyed reading it, and you gave excellent insight into the sort of communes I’ve been wondering about for years. For a while I was doing some scholarship on utopian visions, and its amazing how many of these 60s era communes have not simply changed, but become the very thing they were originally striving against.

  4. Fascinating! I wrote a novel set in a fictional utopian town, so I’m always interested to read about real life utopias.

  5. The no talking part reminded me of my stay at the Vipassana campus at 29 Palms. Then the 10th day we were allowed to talk. Had my own room, daily meditations and instructions, great vegetarian food for free! Not sure how they manage that. The price tags on similar retreats, such as the one you describe at Esalen, are fairly high.

  6. Amazing article! Such an interesting view. But we have to acknowledge that times change. Sometimes for something a bit to different. But the philosophy of those places is still there I believe. Should there be a Re-Revolution?
    Beautiful post though, makes you close your eyes and feel the warmth of the hot water.
    I always found that part of American History and Culture fascinating, and it’s great to read something more modern, and real about how things change/adapt to new world values.
    Thank you!

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  8. Nancy Janzen says

    Hey Cody,

    This was really well-written and insightful. I appreciate your determination to examine whatever context you find yourself in and if it truly has value.

    Take care!

    Nancy

    ________________________________

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