Thursday, November 14, 2002
Photos by Randy Tunnell
Esalen defies measurement, but there are some ways it can be quantified. The Esalen Institute is 40 years old. Artifacts of the Esselen Indians who once lived in Big Sur, where the nerve center of humanistic psychology now sits, are 8,000 years old. Each year, 10,000 people show up at the front gate for 400 programs examining topics ranging from "Shadow Healing" to "Lesbian Relationships: The Agony and the Ecstasy." Some 300,000 souls from Monterey to New York to Germany to Brazil can call themselves Esalen alum.
Geothermal water that bubbles out of the ground at Esalen steams in the cool Pacific air at 119 degrees. One hundred seventy-five miles separate Esalen from San Francisco, and Los Angeles lies 300 miles to the south. The grounds measure 165 acres, the core of buildings covers 27 acres.
Then what? Trying to draw a circle around Esalen is like trying to push a split atom back together. When it opened in 1962, it was a bulging Pandora''s Box filled with ideas only a few Americans knew about, just at the moment when Beat poetry, weed and Eastern philosophy were trickling toward the mainstream.
Then, under ideal conditions, the box burst wide open. The world changed fast and Esalen, in counterculture frontier California, became the instant hipster mecca. The pioneers at Esalen introduced a new lexicon: on this remote cliff in Big Sur they spoke of encounter groups, gestalt, therapy and massage, words that eventually infiltrated the American language.
Today there's another way to measure Esalen. Five hundred 40-foot steel rods drilled into the earth hold the new $5 million bathhouse in place against earthquake and storm.
Last week, 100 of Esalen''s closest, richest friends gathered in and around these new baths with the purpose of harvesting a sorely needed pile of cash. Potential donors were feted with seminars, a dinner, live music, dancing and, of course, leisurely soaks.
After running its finances "close to the bone" for years, Esalen has gone into debt for the first time. Esalen owes some $4 million still on the bath house. And after 40 years of letting the Esalen Institute grow in an organic, random way, its managers have come up with a long-term development plan and "Campaign for the Future" that''s more Harvard Business School than the school of Hatha Yoga.
The goal is to expand the program dramatically and at the same time make the infrastructure of Esalen into a self-sustained, energy-efficient settlement that will "take less from the earth and provide more for its inhabitants," according to one design document-using solar, geothermal and maybe even hydropower, Esalen will free itself from the electrical power grid. Using a wide array of top minds in sustainable development, Esalen has formed a vision to transform its broken-in, jury-rigged campus into a 21st-century model of efficient, complementary structural design.
But that will require a lot of money, something non-profit Esalen has never had. The long-term development plan, if fully implemented, will cost $15 million. It''s a plan broken into three phases and penciled out to 2010. Management thinks it also needs $5 million for an endowment and emergency cash reserve fund, as well as another $5 million to buff out its course programs.
Here in 2002, Esalen has placed a hefty wager on itself. It's betting that it is not only as relevant as it was in 1962 or 1968 or 1976, but that it's even more relevant now than ever. Its design plan sketches out a place that represents an evolution of its counterculture roots, its troubled rebellion against cookie-cutter existence. As the rest of America paves over the earth and consumes more than its share of everything, Esalen turns the other way, once again.
This week at Esalen, the curious, the enlightened and others can choose from a course list that is varied yet limited. One will find "Taking Flight: Developing Vocal Magic" as taught by someone named Rhiannon. Also on the schedule for Nov. 10 to 15 is "Restoring Fun," which includes the practice of "Deep Fun,'' a conscious fun that helps you become aware of the fun you''re having when you''re having fun with other people." Esalen students can also learn about "balancing chakras and cleansing old thought forms" in "Spiritual Massage: Lightbody Infusion." Lovers are invited to attend "The Intimate Couple: An Integrative Body Psychotherapy Workshop"-a book called Total Orgasm is recommended reading for the course.
Any account of Esalen includes its impressive roster of famous visiting artists and philosophers. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, novelist Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson (a caretaker/security guard in the early days), photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, Buckminster Fuller, mythologist Joseph Campbell, transcendental mediation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, self-actualization advocate Abraham Maslow, and scores of others made their way to and through Esalen.
Amidst all of this introspection, Esalen has also reached out. In the 1980s, it was the home of backchannel Cold War detente between Soviet and American diplomats who availed themselves of the mineral baths as well as each others'' humanity. Mutually Assured Destruction gave way to mutual reflection, spawning the term "hot-tub diplomacy"-a sound bite detested as shallow and incomplete by Esalen brass.
There''s also celebrity. Jane Fonda lived at Esalen. Musicians like Crosby, Still & Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Joni Mitchell played there. Legend has it that Bruce Springsteen learned to operate a manual transmission on a crosscountry trip from New Jersey to Esalen. Joan Baez was there at the start and remains in contact.
Again, it''s impossible to draw a circle around Esalen because it''s always evolving. It defines itself as a "non-profit alternative education center devoted to the exploration of human potential, fostering personal and social transformation." The exploration continues ad infinitum.
Go to Esalen today and it certainly has a "workshop" feel to it. When they''re not in class, students of all shapes and sizes line up for lunch at the Lodge, cafeteria style. Yoga pants, satchels and water bottles are de rigueur. Across a path from the Lodge deck sits a pool, and its deck, perched at cliffside. To the north, a serene park-like lawn leads to a garden and beyond it, a creek that divides the property. A meditation hut sits above the creek, and on the other side, a large yurt, a sweat lodge, the Art Barn and a nursery school called the Gazebo. The setting is as lush and green and idyllic and positive and beautiful as Eden. It seems to be wholly devoid of the outside world-except for a row of shiny luxury cars parked near the sweat lodge, within sight of a highway bridge spanning the creek.
The long-term development plan calls for a rearrangement of most of the site to last 40 years and beyond, but 40 years ago no one foresaw BMWs parked near a sweat lodge.
The Esalen Institute arrived at just the right time. It was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Dick Price, who met at a San Francisco ashram. Murphy had grown up in Salinas, where his father was a family doctor. (According to an oft-repeated story, Murphy''s grandfather, also a doctor, delivered John Steinbeck, who returned the favor by basing the characters Cal and Adam, in East of Eden, on Mike and his "hellraiser" brother Dennis.)
Michael Murphy''s grandfather bought the Esalen site in 1910 with the hopes of parlaying its hot springs into a European-style health spa. In 1962 his grandson parlayed it beyond and beyond.
The magic formula is the integration of mind and body, something that, to Stanford-educated Murphy, seemed to have been ignored in the echelons of higher education. University scholars studied the mind and the historic thinkers while ignoring the potential of the body. One Esalen official called the old universities "mind factories." That constant attempt at "integration of body and mind" to find the limits of human potential defines Esalen as well as it can be defined from afar.
To meet with Michael Murphy, one does not drive south to Esalen but north, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, to waterfront Sausalito. There Murphy sits on a foggy October afternoon at the Horizons Restaurant with Esalen contract publicist and dot-com refugee Megan McFeely. They are joined by Keith Thompson, a former trustee. They are trying to explain just what Esalen is and what it''s become. Eating from plates of mixed greens and bowls of soup, they offer up the metaphor of Esalen as an oak tree grown grand and looming, sprouted from a humble acorn. Thompson tries to take the metaphor into computer-speak but gets bogged down comparing it to open Linux code.
At its founding in 1962, they had no idea, no flow chart that said the acorn would be the tree it is today. They got lucky.
"Our acorn grew in a good place," Murphy says. "We didn''t have it written in mission statements."
Murphy, who has written numerous books, including an exploration into athletic transcendence called Golf in the Kingdom, says he "deeply resents" when Esalen is mischaracterized as being anti-intellectual or otherwise. He and others think recent press reports generated from the new baths have skimmed the surface.
To talk to Michael Murphy is to enter very deep water. A conversation with him is a continual flow of connected thoughts that are grand in scale and history. His references include Aristotle and Mozart, Copernicus, Plato and Descartes, Voltaire and Rousseau. Maybe talking to Murphy-who''s written 785 pages on the ambitious subject The Future of the Human Body-is like talking to an American prophet.
When he founded Esalen, philosophy major Murphy meditated for eight hours a day. That was in the early 1960s. He had been influenced by Eastern thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, a mystic whom he studied under for a year. The founding idea of Esalen was to provide a larger forum, a laboratory for sometimes conflicting ideas, like the convergence of Eastern philosophy and modern America. As Murphy says, "a place for divergent views" that "embraced the complexity of tolerance and ambiguity."
As he talks at lunch in Sausalito, the conversation goes back to one of his core interests, the "natural history of extraordinary human function." Through the Esalen think tank, the Center for Theory and Research, Murphy today continues to explore the outer limits of human capacity-the ecstasies of natural childbirth; the feats of the long distance runner; even "the supernatural experience of cooking."
With Esalen forced to face its own mortality and forced now to take a giant leap into the future, some wonder if the institute is still relevant. When the explorations of the counterculture ''60s faded some time in the late '70s, did Esalen''s importance as a center for new thought wither? To Murphy, the continuing work of Esalen and its ancillaries like the Ethnic Conflict Resolution Project is an ongoing quest to find the limits of human potential.
Its list of "Pioneering Initiatives" on topics from Governance to Shamanism goes on for 18 pages of everything from the first "Interracial Encounter Group" in 1967 to hosting conferences on "Living Mindfully with HIV." And Murphy insists that "it's just as relevant today as it was then."
While McFeely tries to rein him in, Murphy likes to tell stories about the convergence of espionage and Esalen, the accusation that Esalen''s citizen diplomacy was criticized as the work of "useful idiots," a term Stalin coined for idealistic sympathizers. He tells the story of how Esalen brought former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to America before he was president. (According to Murphy, Yeltsin went from Esalen to an ordinary supermarket, and the errand reduced him to tears. He''d been told for years by the Communist Party that such a bounty did not exist, as it did not in Russia. As Murphy tells it, Yeltsin fell apart, crying, "They lied to me. They lied to me.")
The work of Esalen has been described as "one of the century's most influential cultural movements." For Murphy and for Esalen, as with human potential, the terminus has not been found.
"We're going to go as far as we can," he says. "From the beginning it's been an adventure. The more money we raise the more we can do and the faster we can do it."
What Murphy is excited about these days is further exploration of mind and body potential through the Center for Theory and Research, as well as an upcoming confab of contemporary philosophers called "Situating Esalen: the History of American Psychology, Religion and Culture."
He also has some new international detente initiatives in the works, which he won't discuss on the record. Still, Murphy continues to ask the question: What would the full human look like?
"Esalen is now embarked on a project to further this field of inquiry," he says.
Murphy is the surviving founder, but he's not a guru, as gurus are discouraged at Esalen. Over the years some have tried but none have been able to commandeer Esalen from its anti-authoritarian moorings. Esalen''s other co-founder, Dick Price, was a former mental patient who sought an alternative form and place for treatment for others. When Murphy went to live in San Francisco in the late '60s, Price stayed at Esalen until his death in 1985. A boulder killed him while he was hiking in Big Sur.
It was in 1985 and later in the 1990s that Esalen nearly faded into the Big Sur fog. After Price''s death, the heavy task of running the Institute caused some to question whether it was worth going on. After all, such land in stunning Big Sur, with beach access and natural hot springs, was extremely valuable as a resort or one-of-a-kind hacienda. That period in the '80s was tough, according to David Price, Dick's son and Esalen operations manager.
"When he died, there was a lot of frustration. It became a burden," Price says. "The board examined the possibility of dissolving the organization. They could get a huge, huge amount of money for this property."
Not that there had been any financial skullduggery, but if Esalen had been audited during that era, "it would have been a mess," Price says.
"For a bunch of beatniks and hippies on the edge of the country, balancing the books was not necessarily a priority. That sense of ambivalence was infused in the place. It took a while to find its way back. There was definitely a sense of a lack of direction."
Ambivalence and feelings of irrelevance nearly closed Esalen, but what truly threatened its existence was the El Nino storm of 1998. Only Mother Nature can crush serendipity so well, and four years ago, on Feb. 6, 1998 Esalen was crushed near to death.
Lashing storms cut off Big Sur from all points north and south when landslides knocked sections of Highway 1 into the sea. All local industry was starved of cash flow and reduced to three months of feeble survival. Esalen, always living for the now and not the future, took an additional, stunning blow: Tons and tons of earth slid into its famous hot springs, destroying Esalen''s crown jewel and fountain of youth. As if that wasn''t enough comeuppance, three months of isolation bled the books until the institute was awash in red ink.
"We exhausted any reserves we had and we went into debt," Price says. "That opened us up to a new vulnerability."
The directors had to do the ultimate in introspection: Does Esalen live or die? Is it worth the risk to rebuild the baths where they'd been ruined and endanger the geothermal outflows? Could Esalen survive another winter storm that keeps students away by the thousands?
"It forced the question, ''do we continue?" Price says. "It forced us to look at the long view of what it will be. Will it last?"
Esalen's baths are situated as far off the continent as possible-actually bolted to the cliffside and hanging in air. But they are still in Monterey County, still in California, still in the USA. They can''t hang there for free.
Andy Nusbaum, a former professional golfer and Esalen-student-turned-trustee, now serves as Esalen''s executive director. As he leads a tour of the new bath house in mid-September for a gaggle of journalists, he talks about what devastation El Niño wrought.
The baths were wiped out, other buildings damaged and a financial quarter''s worth of income erased. It scraped Esalen down to the nub.
"It was a major hit," he says.
Rebuilding the baths was extremely complicated, as the structure had to be fastened into the earth first and foremost against any natural calamity. It had to be done in such a way that the all-important geothermal water steaming out of the rock was not clogged forever by a poorly aimed drill bit. The hillside had to be stabilized and a fortified foundation installed. It took 500 steel rods, each between 27 and 40 feet long, plunged into the rock and interconnected with metal mesh that hugs the earth''s surface. Everything had to be done with the awareness that the spot also happens to be habitat for the rare Smith's Blue Butterfly.
Just putting in the foundation took a year. "We lost a major part of the facility and had damage in other areas as well, bringing into focus the fragility of the structures," Nusbaum said later. "As a 501(c)3 (nonprofit) we operate pretty close to the bone and [El Nino] put us out of business for three months. It really pointed out that we hadn''t any endowment or cash reserve to handle such a large disruption."
The new bathhouse is on the same footprint but about ten percent bigger than the previous. A sun deck features a row of massage tables shaded by wide umbrellas. The building itself is made of poured concrete. The doors are teak and the Alaskan white cedar trellis ceiling lets in light through a Plexiglas roof.
An understory splits between a "quiet" side and a "silent" side. Between sit the ultimate outdoor showers, which open to the Pacific from 50 feet up. The geothermal water pours into the tubs from a trough along the back wall that''s fed from the springs at 40 gallons a minute.
Designed by well-known Big Sur architect Mickey Muennig, it was partly funded by donations solicited right at the outset, but donations not nearly enough to cover the bill. With the bathhouse, Esalen went into debt in a hurry.
"It cost more than we expected, but I''m not sure any of us knew what to expect," Nusbaum says.
A fundraising staff and office has been set up in Novato to pay off the baths, find the money to bankroll Esalen''s massive $15 million design makeover and the extra $10 million for cash reserves and more programming. To be asking for money now, in what are less than boom times, is bad timing.
"It's new territory for us in thinking that far ahead and asking for help, and it''s new to the 300,000 alumni to be asked," says Nusbaum. "There's some trepidation from all of us. How will this affect the nature of Esalen? That''s a consciousness we're very aware of. We're doing it in a way that protects the things that make Esalen what it is."
As it is today, there are generally 250 people at Esalen at any one time: 110 seminarians or short term guests; 38 work scholars there for a month at a time; 34 work scholars there for extended stays; and 50 gardeners, cooks, administrators, instructors and "bodyworkers." Where Esalen used to slow down in the winter, much like resort towns, now it hums year-round.
Under the new designs, human capacity won''t grow but its capacity for sewage must. Although there have reportedly been no leaks or spills, the septic tanks and leach fields are full.
"Our infrastructure is tapped out," Nusbaum says. "They [the septic tanks] are at capacity."
Rather than make Esalen an inaccessible experiment, the plan is to make the redesign and improved buildings an educational tool. Visitors will be able to learn something about sustainability from the institute as a well as what they learn in the programs.
It''s an ambitious plan and one that will shift as money comes in. The first phase calls for a new reception building to replace the gatehouse, but if some fan donates a million bucks solely for a library, a library comes first.
Esalen has to be flexible when it comes to gifts. As David Price says, "The priority list changes."
Over the next few years, Esalen will be able to measure itself in its success or failure at raising the money it needs to do the things it wants.
George Leonard, president of the board of trustees and Esalen instructor, is confident that Esalen will succeed. Like others, he thinks El Nino helped Esalen find itself as it''s helped others "find" themselves over the last 40 years.
An Aikido master, he sees the big storm as a "hit."
"Let's take the hit as a gift," he says.
You don''t have to be an Esalen regular to find out what all the fuss is about. The newly revamped baths are open to the public from 1am to 3am starting on Nov. 15. In order to use the baths, you must make a reservation. Call 667-3047. You will need a credit card to secure a spot. The cost is $20 a head. A maximum of 30 people per session are allowed. Bathers will be met at the entrance by a gate guard and escorted to the water.