SOME TWENTY YEARS AGO, I was on the forty-mile drive down from Monterey and Carmel, past Pebble Beach on California Highway 1, with its twists and turns along an ocean mountainside that are at once dazzling and exhausting.
A wooden sign appeared on my right, “Esalen.” I had heard about this place, a coastal spiritual oasis in Big Sur dating back to 1962 with a mission to seek answers for a “just, creative, and sustainable world,” and exploring questions unlikely to be addressed by traditional universities and religions. The insititute seemed at once sacred, and sexy. At the time, I thought I knew what Esalen was about. (This was partially true.)
As serendipity would have it, I was looking for a night’s lodging. Exhausted, I said to myself, “Go ahead, try to see if you can get in,” and turned at that cliffside highway sign marked, “Esalen Institute by Reservation Only.” I drove in, and was fortunate to secure several nights lodging. I began with a little exploring.
This land had hints of secrecy. I noted the week-long seminars into ancient mysteries and modern revelations uniting science and religion. There were natural hot baths down by the sea that receded and swelled with a varied community of guests and residents, but the geology of the waters themselves delineated the limitless energy of the earth. The baths are among approximately sixty different springs that, together, pump out six hundred gallons of mineral-rich water every minute. The sensuality of the place is as palpable as it is innocent.
Humpback blue and grey whales are often seen playing just off the coast as they migrate to and from Baja. At the right time of year, tens of thousands of monarch butterflies flutter through the air, clustering just out of reach in the eucalyptus trees.
On the way down to the rocky beach, there is a sign: “Dangerous riptides. Swim at your own risk.” It could just as well be placed at the front gate, a synonym for both the personal risks and the promises of adventure.
The Esalen Institute is surrounded by legends and rumors. Was the banned eroticist Henry Miller really a regular at the baths before Esalen was established? Is it true that Beatle George Harrison landed on these grounds in his own private helicopter to jam with Ravi Shankar? Did Joan Baez, Billy Joel and many other artists really sing on these grounds? Did Ram Dass explore his consciousness here? Did Bill and Hillary stay here? Was this place instrumental in creating peaceful negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union? I soon learned it was true, all of it. And there is more. But alas, I have limited space.
Esalen encourages people to see themselves in the experience it offers, like a mirror. And it’s true. There are as many Esalens as there are people who visit there, deeply engaging in the place as spiritual exploration, as therapeutic refuge, as sensual spa, and a special place where your soul can rest and be challenged and nourished. From its beginning, Esalen was anchored by the inspiring beauty of Big Sur and its incomparable intellectual history. All the while, it embraces the imperfect practice of moving toward our highest self. Sweeping ocean views, lush gardens, and meandering pathways offer a beautiful physical grounding for spiritual exploration.
Over the years, I have been compelled to return to this place more than ten times. I returned with my wife and best friend, Jacqueline. As a young man, my son partipated in a month long work-study program, twice. He later returned with his wife. My daughter has participated in Esalen. Just weeks ago, my son and I joined a week long seminar and my daughter joined us. My daughter-in-law and her mother are there now as I write this article. An immeasurable part of our family history, the effect has been to expose my family to an experience that we have been able to share.
A typical day for me in Big Sur at Esalen: I wake up at 4:30 a.m. in a rustic cabin. Outside, the morning air is crisp and chilly. When there is no moon diluting the pitch blackness outside, a little flashlight illuminates the path down the side of a pacific palisade to the “baths.” These have been here for thousands of years, and are one of the features that drew the Esalen Indian tribe here.
Before the Institute was founded, these baths hosted the likes of Henry Miller and others. Today, the hot springs flow into a carefully designed structure that fits into the surrounding palisade.
Outside, the structure there is a patio that contains several rock walled pools that are large enough to comfortably seat eight people. These are often the communal location where guests gather to exchange histories, philosophies or just ordinary banter. Liberated by a freedom from home, or ethnicity or sexual association, the conversation is often spirited and interesting. (For those not wishing to be in a clothing optional environment, there are enameled tubs to soak in solitude.)
Most of the time, I come in the early morning to avoid distractions, and wonder, alone, at the night sky. In the chilly air and total blackness, I can light a candle and nestle into one of the large baths and open the valve that permits a thermal stream of steaming water into the pool. When the temperature is just about bearably hot, I float in the body of water embracing a sense of weightlessness. I look up at the stars that partially illuminate my surroundings.
Slowly, the sky in the east begins to change into different shades of pastel colors and the wonder of star gazing turns into an appreciation of my surroundings. If I rest my arms on the top of the bath and float that way, I am looking over the Pacific Ocean. A distant fog reflects back the light of the newly emerging sun in a rich amber. Below, the pacific waves lap against a rocky shoreline and I can see otters floating between the kelp on the surface, often on their backs, opening shelled sea life for breakfast.
This is my ultimate soulful place. As the daylight emerges, I will meander back up the path and take breakfast in the main lodge. A crew of kitchen volunteers will make breakfast and usually a group from my workshop/seminar will meet and share our own stories or discuss the subject matter we have shared the previous night. Most of the food prepared here is grown in gardens on property.
Each day, the workshop groups meet for several hours during the morning, afternoon and on occasion, in the evening. Workshops cover a wide range of subjects including: Gestalt, integral philosophy, massage, dance, somatics, spiritual practice, meditation, t’ai chi, yoga, ecopsychology, permaculture and sustainability. Before arriving, we sign up for these workshops. My wife Jacqueline and I have taken workshops in writing and painting, both with authored teachers. When I think about my experience with these workshops over the years, they’ve been as varied as they have been extensive and profound. Teachers who came to Esalen have included philosophers, scientists, artists, psychologists and religious thinkers from all over the world.
For instance, I have taken a seminar on Haiku poetry with a Benedictine Monk who authored a lovely book entited “Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.” An amazing man, he offered me an opportunity to be his assistant and travel the world. (Jacqueline would not have appreciated this). There was the workshop on meditation in the Santa Lucia Mountains; there was the hike into the Ventana wilderness and a vision quest (three nights in the wilderness with nothing but a sleeping bag.) Another time, a week with a small group and the Chief of the Esalen Indians. Here, on the Arroyo-Seco River, I would float for hours, and attend Esalen Indian rituals, which also included several visits to a sweat lodge.
I have experienced different kinds of transformation over an extended period of time. I would like to think that it was here that I considered a path to be a better father, a more enlightened husband and a way to receive gratefully the gift that those indigenous peoples brought to this land. On this land, The Esalen Indian Tribe established a sacred pattern of life and wisdom. A sense of human decency and a code of living life that is similar to many modern religious beliefs. At the edge of the campus there is a path that bends between giant redwood trees. Below this, a stream ripples over rocks on the way to the sea. At one point, a bridge crosses the stream. If you stand in the middle of this bridge with one ear facing up the hillside and the other facing the ocean, the sound of the stream feels as if it is traveling through your head. Perhaps, this is the reason a meditation hut was built a little way downstream bridging the water. A place to still your mind, and accept the grace of this majestic and timeless place.
Larry Lamb is a veterinarian and resident of Manchester. Are you planning to trip—near or far—that you want to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.