by Kathy Gottberg
Last week Thom and I spent six days at The Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coastline of California. Esalen, as it is more commonly known, has existed for the last 50 years as a world-renowned sanctuary/retreat center perched on an eye-popping coastline in the central part of the state. Started in 1962, some of the world’s leading philosophers, educators, activists, artists and thought leaders gathered at this site to explore the boundaries of human potential and consciousness. Besides that, the facility structures itself as a model for sustainability, permaculture and organizational transformation. Its vibrant and lush 5-acre garden and farm burst with flowers, plants and vegetables that feed and sustain both the visitors and staff. Besides offering stunning landscapes for rest and rejuvenation, Esalen also features a fresh water creek, roaring ocean-side cliffs, and natural hot mineral spring baths. Clearly, something for every seeker exists at Esalen. Thom and I came to see for ourselves—and to take a workshop called, “Experiencing the Esalen Farm and Garden.”
How did it start? Esalen was created out of the vision of two Stanford graduates, Michael Murphy and Dick Price—and everyone else attracted to the land and energy of the place. The first holistic counter-culture center of its kind in the US, Esalen provided a platform for revolutionary thinkers and speakers like Alan Watts, Buckminster Fuller, Aldus Huxley, Fritz Perl, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow and many others. Musicians like George Harrison, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Crosby Stills Nash & Young were also attracted. Even the Beatles are said to have put in an appearance. But although a mecca for those dedicated to pushing the status quo, it isn’t without criticism. Esalen’s experiential and experimental approach to consciousness, healing, the body and spirituality continues to push buttons and raise questions.
But underneath it all has always been the land. In fact, the Institute itself took its name from the indigenous Native American tribe known as the Esselens. Artifacts on the property have verified that humans have lived, farmed and performed sacred ceremonies in the area for nearly 5,000 years. A unique and amazing spot offering a juncture of the sea, fresh creek water and bubbling hot springs, the site was inhabited by the Esselens until they were wiped out by disease from settlers to the area. That rich heritage helped to spawn the Esalen farm and garden that exists today. With dedicated stewards made up of staff and volunteers working diligently to make it happen, the land at Esalen continues to be a touchstone to sustaining life for all who live and visit this special location.
Esalen was one of those places Thom and I had always wanted to go. The result of that intention manifested itself early this spring after our pursuit of a home garden made us aware of both our lack of skill in the field, and our new passion. A workshop that promised gardening education and connection to the land seemed the perfect excuse.
First off, it’s not cheap. Because of its remote location and limited accommodations, the cost for an ocean view room comes with a fairly high price tag. Other, less expensive, ways to sleep are available—everything from bunking with strangers to putting a sleeping bag down in meeting rooms. There is also a work-study program and lots of opportunities for volunteers. Fortunately, included in the price are: a) a wide-variety of workshops, b) stunning landscapes and views; c) unlimited soaks in the natural hot springs, d) as much food as you can consume (a large part of it comes from the farm and gardens), e) a handful of optional movement activities (like yoga, dance and mediation), f) conversation with other seekers from around the world, and finally, g) a priceless unrepeatable experience unlike any other.
The four main highlights Thom and I came away with include:
#1 Connecting with a special piece of the planet and the food growing there. Our workshop, “Experiencing The Farm & Garden,” offered the perfect way to connect with what makes Esalen such an extraordinary property. Not only did our workshop teach us many of the basic steps in gardening, it also allowed us to participate in the planting, cultivating and then harvesting of food that was sent directly to the kitchen. At every meal we could point out the chain of connection to what we, and others, were eating, and the labor and passion it required getting there. Besides gardening information, we also developed new appreciation of wild herbs and flowers that grow freely on the land. Now more than ever, we have a deeper appreciation for all the food that we eat and see it as part of a greater web of life.
#2 Gestalt Practice. When we signed up for our workshop, Gestalt Practice wasn’t even on the radar. Although I’d heard of Gestalt as a consciousness raising modality, I had no experience of it. Luckily, the gatherings for the Farm & Garden workshop gave us a crash-course in the process that helped to connect and deepen the entire experience on many levels. Simply put, it was the opportunity to focus our awareness in silence at the beginning of each of our gatherings, and then allow time for each of us to briefly share what was going on with us. Not only did it provide the chance get to know each other quickly, it took our connection to an authentic level, and allowed us to know one another beyond the superficial.
#3 Unplugging from technology. While a person doesn’t have to go to Esalen to stop using your cell phone, it certainly helps to be in a region where it is impossible. It took Thom several days to get adjusted to not being able to call or check voice mail. For me, it was harder not checking email. Although the Internet was available in certain locations on the property, it required a special effort during certain time slots. Finally, during a ten mile drive up the Big Sur highway to check voice mail, Thom admitted that every single one of those calls weren’t that important and could have been put off. Just having the time and space to remember that we get to use technology (when we choose) rather than be used by it, is a valuable lesson to remember.
#4 Opportunity to deepen our relationship. As often happens, we were one of the very few couples taking a workshop together at Esalen. Yet throughout the years, every single time we sign up and then take a class or go through an experience together, our relationship benefits. By sharing such a transformative experience, we not only deepen our awareness of each other and ourselves, we grow our consciousness to include the other in our thinking, processing and understanding. Something about the place certainly helps bring people together in a more conscious and loving way, perhaps that is why we met a number of people who both met, and married, a significant other while at Esalen.
These weren’t the only lessons and memories we brought home with us from Esalen, but they certainly justified the time and expense. Still, I will certainly never forget sitting nightly in the cliff-side hot springs with the waves crashing against the rocks and a canopy of stars overhead (clothing optional I might add!) Or watching the sun set deep in the Pacific Ocean, while the shadows from the cypress trees stretched across the lawn, buildings and observers standing in awe. Or preparing the dark earthy soil and then placing tiny green plants in garden row beds, knowing that future visitors to Esalen will be consuming that gift sometime in the future. Or the abundant “farm to table” dinner planned by staff and teachers in the middle of the garden that celebrated our time together as the perfect final evening with newfound friends.
Whether or not Esalen becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a regular event, it is certainly out-of-the ordinary special. Hopefully it will continue far into the future as an open container for the exploration of consciousness and an example of sustainability. For Thom and I, connecting with nature, making new friends and working an abundant garden offered us an opportunity to feed body and spirit—and hopefully Mother Earth—in a way that will never be forgotten.
“The question isn’t whether to engage a practice or not, because you’re already practicing something. The question is what are you practicing?” ~ Michael Murphy
“If there is one thing I learned at Esalen, it is that with any luck, and a great deal of courage, the process of learning to learn never stops.” –Nora Bateson