Twenty-two hours at Esalen Institute
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Trying to tell the story of Esalen Institute’s 50 years with a word limit – of transcendent movement and massage, world-changing work in human potential and Gestalt psychology, of LSD and El Niño, of Hunter S. and Joan B. – is as mindful as leaving the hallowed grounds without a massage. But there’s another way to explore its identity: Live a day there. Or at least catch 22 hours.
While those enrolled in workshops like “Social Venture Network’s Enlightened Leadership” and “The Nature of Movement: Embodiment and the Wilds” get priority in the guest rooms, “personal retreats” are available on standby to friends of Esalen members (at $140-$700 per night) and include meals, baths access and a range of programs:
4pm • Check in at the roadside hut and take the loft bed in a three-bed shared cabin room ($165/night weekdays, $220/night weekends).
4:15pm • Wander through the garden that fuels the kitchen 400 steps away, and past an art installation of 50 pastel-colored dresses hanging from a tree, with tags bearing hand-written offerings like “Acid Baby Jesus,” “Be happy, be healthy, be sexy, get naked!” and “Dear Mom – I love you and hate you. I’ll get over it! Forgive me and I will u.”
4:30pm •Move past the metal gate on the eastern property edge and into the wilderness. It’s in this confluence of redwoods, ravine and river where co-founder Dick Price was found crushed by a boulder.
5pm • Traverse the Gazebo School’s playground for wee ones, where the elements include a grazing goat and a beached boat, swings and things, an open-air composting toilet and hula hoops made of hose.
5:15pm •Loop through “the farm,” the northern piece of the property where apprentices live in coastal huts, admire the rows of greens and the big hoop house where warmer-weather produce grows.
6pm •Sit at picnic tables in the lodge hall with guests, staff and seminarians, and graze through a robust spread that includes house teas, thick three-bean chili, vibrant pork posole, endless greens and gluten-free bread.
7:30pm • Linger on the cliffside lawns with a glass of Mesa Del Sol Prima Rossa from the small atrium bar, wondering what past Esalen teachers like Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Deepak Chopra, Ken Kesey and Susan Sontag discovered here.
8pm • Sit in on a Wednesday night program, this one “how to use nonviolent communication to confront eating habits.” Exercises include tastes – like cucumber, grape and fig – with eyes closed, and meeting in pairs for a looping exploration in which one partner asks, “What’s your food story?,” listens attentively, and then asks again. And again.
9pm •Visit the baths, an elemental combination of glass, concrete and steel perched above the surf, designed by local celeb architect Mickey Muennig after El Niño took the old redwood baths in 1998.
10:30pm •Sit by a fire on the deck with Esalen staffers. One acknowledges residing and working here can be a “like living on a boat.” Another grins at the notion of an identity crisis: “We’ve been having an identity crisis for 25 years!”
12am •Return to baths, sharing salty air and 119-degree water with stars peeking through the steam.
7:15am • Join garden staff to “ground and connect with the beauty and power of Esalen land,” as the schedule predicts. Here, as in the kitchen, they create an impressively harmonious training environment by stating clear expectations, pairing skilled with unskilled, and “practicing non-attachment to outcomes.”
8am • Arrive tardy to Hatha yoga, one of the daily, rotating movement classes. It concludes with the group in a circle giving a communal shoulder rub. “It’s working,” the yogini says. “Esalen is still relevant.”
9am • Tropical millet, nine-grain bread, flavorful quinoa, hot polenta, thick oatmeal and a savory kale salad with Braggs tang provide a formidable foundation for the day.
10am • Head to the baths and lay on my belly, looking out to horizon, softening up for a deep rub.
11am • Recline for a signature Esalen massage ($125). It arrives like the ocean: Deep. Connected. Long. Seeming to carry the power of the planet. My masseuse syncs her angelic blend of twists, stretches and deep-tissue work with the waves.
12:30pm • Join the daily meditation seminar by the creek. Attendees sit in lotus positions for 30 minutes – feeling the noise of the water, the footsteps on the bridge and letting thoughts leave through what late Zen master Suzuki Roshi called “the mind’s back door.”
1pm • Love the lush tomato-turkey sandwich with house-baked cheese-bacon bread flanked by a massive salad. Follow with a cheese tasting in the kitchen, where former Esalen Chef Charlie Casio shares cave-aged Sweet Water Farm cheeses. Everyone, current Chef Phillip Burrus says, eventually finds themselves in the student-run, open-door kitchen: “People here are engaging in heavy, challenging work. They don’t come here to cook, but they find themselves cooking.”
2pm • Hit Highway 1, feeling light, less attached, more grounded. Must be the massage. Or the baths? Definitely the food. Partly the energy of the place itself, and a renewed openness to “outcomes.” A revisited relationship with myself, a chance to reflect. Most likely, it’s a little of each, which fits. Esalen seeks to work on the whole person. And something here certainly works on me.