The draw to this place where the mountains drop perilously into the Pacific’s surf has always been nature, at its most raw and powerful. Its very geography makes the Esalen Institute a center of transformation, a place where one’s old way of thinking is as easily cast off as the idea of wearing a bathing suit when you wander into the famous hot-spring baths. Even your first visit to these baths, large communal tubs which seem to hang off the cliffs, will show you that the Esalen way is conservation-and not just because water is precious in this part of California, where wildfires bring destruction almost every year.
The belief at Esalen is that the small stuff matters. So, if you’re here even as long as a week, you can plan on using the same large towel to dry off after each dip and shower at the hot-spring baths. After you’ve finished drying off, you place the towel into the eco-dryer that’s on your way back up the hill to the lodge. The eco-dryer is a simple contraption: a clear-front cabinet, which allows the sun to shine into it just so, and it properly dries your towel. You mark the rack it’s on, and it will be there for your return the next day. Needless to say, you keep the same towels and bedding all week in your room too, unless you desperately need a change. These details convey an understanding. Everything about Esalen inspires a sense of the organic, a sense of protecting precious nature.
People come here for workshops, of course, and about 500 are offered here each year. You can study everything from yoga to massotherapy, to painting and poetry, to the “Art of Healthy Aging” and Rolfing, in the very place where Ida Rolf first taught her brand of bodywork. Esalen is an isolated sanctuary, a place for contemplation. Yet, at mealtimes or after a dinner, it’s also a setting for convivial gatherings of like-minded seekers at the lodge. Cell phones don’t work on the grounds, and there are only a couple of pay phones. Only the lodge has Wi-Fi access. No TV, no radio-the outside world becomes, for a time, irrelevant. You quickly embrace that feeling.
The history of Esalen, which opened in 1962, is a rich one. Brave New World writer Aldous Huxley was one of the first innovators to teach here, soon followed by psychologist Abraham Maslow and later philosopher Joseph Campbell of The Power of Myth fame. Artists like Joan Baez, George Harrison, and others of that level of talent arrived, as did people whose names became cultural touchstones: Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson. Driving to Esalen south from Carmel, you mostly twist along the coastline. If you’re not looking for it, you’d easily miss the sign. It notes that visitors require reservations – which keeps the merely curious out. You negotiate the twisting drive to the gatehouse, where you check in, then continue on, till you come to a wide lawn. A handful of inviting Adirondack chairs overlooks the dark rocks and the breaking waves. One feels a sense of awe, followed by gratitude, then peace, in very short order.
Esalen still has the hippie vibe you might expect. Incense perfumes the air around the front office, which doubles as the bookstore. I find an empty chair overlooking the Pacific and rest. Eventually, I get up and walk the path through the massive gardens that grow much of the food served here. I pick up the keys and go to my room, one in a long strip of cabin-like accommodations. I am prepared for rustic, and I get it, in the form of a basic bed, a dresser, a nightstand, a desk. The prize lies just beyond: a sliding glass door and a wide balcony over the ocean. I fall asleep to the rush of waves. I paid extra for a single room, and there aren’t that many of those here. Most people at Esalen have dorm-like accommodations, sharing rooms with friends, partners or strangers. Even for a single, Esalen offers surprisingly affordable accommodations, about $1,600 for a room, food, and seminar for five nights.
Most people here will visit the baths by day, and often again by night. The nudity at the baths isn’t the least bit sexual (though I can’t speak for how it might have been 40 years ago). Rather, it symbolizes a quintessential Esalen philosophy: feeling safe and accepting in your own skin and shedding your usual judgmental self. The baths make for a nice afternoon respite, and more of an adventure in the evening, when you carefully climb into one of the 20-person sulfur-spring-fed tubs. The natural heat of the water, the crashing of the ocean, and the eruption of stars above puts you on sensory overload, but in the best possible way. Esalen also is famous for its special massages, done with long, flowing yet firm-pressured strokes, and lasting for 90 minutes ($125).The staff massotherapists are some of the best in the country, and they give the massage in a spectacular place: on the top floor of the bathhouse, with the sun shining through slats above, and the ocean just feet away. Some people come to Esalen for quiet retreats, but most come for some kind of study. I’m here for a workshop on memoir-style writing. My class meets in the Fritz Lodge, named for Fritz Perls, co-founder of Gestalt therapy. After brief lectures, we spend hours writing in notebooks or on laptops, usually in chairs or on pillows that we move to the sunny balcony, which wraps around the lodge and looks down on the water.
At mealtimes in the lodge, groups share long tables and everyone raves about the food. I don’t often eat kale and chard, but the way they’re prepared here? Wouldn’t miss them. Everyone eats with gusto, enjoying not just the vegetables (there’s meat or fish for carnivores, too) but the soups and homemade, whole-grain breads that are available 24 hours a day. The lodge kitchen is impeccable in how it disposes of the leftover inedible portions of food, such as potato peels and such-it all goes right into the compost container and the contents will eventually be used in the onsite gardens. The kitchen-staffed by professionals as well as work-study students-is famous for its delicious take on organic, locally grown food. The head cooks have even written a coffee-table size Esalen cookbook. You can’t walk far at Esalen without seeing the massive gardens and the Esalen farm on the hill just north of it. They provide most of the food here. As if there weren’t enough natural beauty here, butterflies gild the grounds. Masses of monarchs stop here on their migrations north and south, and they fill the air and trees. You encounter them, still or fluttering, as you walk down to what is euphemistically called the beach. To get there, you climb down an iron ladder. There’s little sand here, just boulders to clamber on. The waves explode on the rocks a few feet away, shooting up 15 or 20 feet. Walking back to the lodge from the beach, you cross a narrow bridge, which spans a gorge with a waterfall that leads to the ocean. Meditation is offered here some mornings, in the tiny cottage next to where the water rains down in what seems like Shangri-La.
If being at Esalen means finding your inner hippie, I will.
Interested in a visit?
The Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California, offers 500 workshops a year. The length of the workshops varies from weekend, 5- and 7-day programs. Prices: The cost for a workshop, including meals, seminars, and lodging, ranges from $670 to $1,765 for standard accommodations (two or three to a room). Because you are attending a workshop, the expense is tax-deductible as an educational expense. www. esalen.org, 831-667-3000