Lawyer letter deepens the tension at Big Sur sanctuary.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
It should be party time at the Esalen Institute: The retreat center, a place of inspiring beauty on the Big Sur coast, is in its 50th year. But in the midst of anniversary-themed celebrations – including a July 4 bash and an upcoming slate of early-October fetes – the institute, long viewed as a pioneer of the New Age movement, is weathering a period of particularly intense internal criticism.
On Aug. 9, Redwood City-based attorney Alexander Keeley wrote a letter to the Esalen board on behalf of anonymous Esalen community members, describing “a general disconnect on the part of Esalen’s current administration from the organization’s stated vision.”
The letter lists eight grievances, most of them related to the administrative structure and treatment of staff. “My clients believe the actions of the current Esalen administrators have… put Esalen at increased risk of lawsuits, fines and/or sanctions… or other retribution from disgruntled employees,” it states.
Esalen attorney Michael Futterman responded Aug. 10, stating he’d answer when he returns from vacation Aug. 21.
Keeley stresses the letter, which was provided to the Weekly by an Esalen community member, does not constitute a legal action. He won’t name his clients but says he was hired to try to open a dialogue with the Esalen administration.
“My clients raised these concerns through the channels they were supposed to, and they were not addressed,” he says. “Their feeling was that having it come from an outside party would perhaps move the conversation forward.”
Joanna Carolan, who’s attended Esalen workshops over the past 20 years, says she’s part of the group that hired Keeley. She hopes the administration will address the grievances internally.
“It certainly was not our intention to go public with this,” she says. “At the same time, I feel very strongly that Esalen should be aligned with its mission statement. We love Esalen and want to make sure they’re practicing what they preach.”
As the Weekly first reported in May, the critical pitch rose last spring when Esalen administrators eliminated three management positions, part of a long-term reorganization plan. Some Esalen community members protested with letters to the board and a daily “healing circle” on the institute’s lawn. Comments on the anonymous website Esaleaks.org couch the management direction as “corporatization” – a view echoed by some in the “Esalen Folks” Facebook group. The management has also literally distanced itself with a new office in Carmel, which offers more reliable Internet and phone service than the remote Big Sur institute.
An Aug. 19 New York Times article took note of the discontent, reporting concerns that Esalen was becoming more like a “boutique hotel” than a spiritual community. Weekend workshop rates range from $405 (to sleep in a sleeping bag) to $1,595 (for a private room), including meals and access to the hot springs. Institute president Gordon Wheeler says this year saw the institute’s best June ever in terms of revenue.
He emphasizes the nonprofit’s investments in employee education, paid year-long internships, discounted workshop rates for staff and a salary ratio that has the CEO earning only five times what the lowest-paid intern makes. “Is this the way we’d run a corporation?” Wheeler asks. “I don’t think so.”
Wheeler says the administration is intentionally shifting its focus “from ‘me’ to ‘we,’” concentrating less on personal growth and more on social-change issues like sustainability and visioning for underprivileged youth. “The world’s calling for that,” he says. “Corporatization at Esalen would be so much easier than the mission we’re committed to.”
Attorney Letter to Esalen Board (pdf):