Esalen Institute was conceived as a place for people to plumb the depths of their souls and minds, tapping capabilities most of us never know we possess. It’s a nonprofit, which means the institute’s revenues have to be used for its own operations and projects.

But Esalen is also an exclusive sort of enclave, as the “by reservation only” note on the highway sign suggests.

The lowest-priced option for a weekend “seminarian,” or Esalen guest, is $405 for a space on the floor of a meeting room—shared with others at night, and used by workshops in the day. A standard shared room is $730 per person for the weekend; a premium room is $1,210; and a single space in the luxe Point House is $1,595. Costs for longer workshops are higher.

In an email to the Weekly, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler explains that the institute has brought in more money than it spent every year since 2004, breaking records in attendance and revenue even through the catastrophic Big Sure fires of 2008 and a nationwide recession that won’t quit. Over that same period, Wheeler says, average staff salaries have risen by more than 30 percent, though the CEO position has only seen a 2-percent raise. Medical benefits are up 75 percent since 2005. Reserves now exceed debt, and more than $6 million, all of it from donor contributions and reserves, has gone toward capital improvements.

The institute’s 2010 IRS Form 990—the most recent year available online—reports almost $13.2 million in revenue and $12.3 million in expenses.

“Of course we're a nonprofit institute, located in a challenging physical environment, and providing an enormous amount of subsidized and pro bono education,” Wheeler writes by email. “We couldn't do all this without donor support. Those donors—together with our board and the admin and staff and our thousands and thousands of alumni out there—see to it that we keep focused on our mission, our community and our students, and our human values.”

About 2 percent of Esalen’s revenue, according to CEO Tricia McEntee, goes to rent for the Murphy Family Trust, which owns the south portion of the main Big Sur campus. McEntee describes that rate as highly discounted, but the terms of the lease—which extends nearly to the end of this century—allow for a re-assessment in 2017 which may bring the rent up to market value.

Esalen is a high-overhead operation, with much of its money flowing to maintenance, capital improvements and food. Staff pay amounts to less than half its expenses, and much of Esalen’s work is done by unpaid people. Work scholars volunteer 32 hours a week doing labor like cooking, gardening and cleaning rooms—and still pay $1150 for a one-month stay, with intensive workshops at night.

Interns are paid minimum wage, $8 per hour. And on the other end, CEO Tricia McEntee earns $135,000 per year. That’s about one-to-eight salary ratio from top to bottom. That gap that has raised some hackles among Esalen’s rank-and-file, but it’s a different universe than the chasm between the an average American CEO and working schlep, which is more like one-to-300.

“I came from the corporate world, and emphatically, we are not becoming more corporate,” McEntee says. “If by ‘corporate’ you mean creating bottom-line profits, it could not be more opposite.”

Longtime Esalen staffer Brita Ostrom, who directs the institute’s massage school, says there was a marked change when Esalen shifted from a general-manager organization to a director-management structure a few years ago. “When that happened, the people at the top started getting a lot more money,” she says. “It’s exactly like the banker story: ‘We have to give them big bonuses or they’ll go somewhere else.’”

Ostrom says Esalen’s current top-heaviness is what’s pissed off the people at the bottom. “That’s the corporatization. Everything’s becoming more standardized.” She also echoes a common complaint that administrators like McEntee were hired from the outside, rather than coming up through the ranks of Esalen: “They made horizontal job shifts. They didn’t do any toilet scrubbing. The philosophy of the place is being altered. It’s not, ‘I’m here for what Esalen stands for.’ It’s another job.”

Lower-level staff have made enough noise about their treatment that Esalen is now tracking hours, paying overtime, following labor laws on health benefits.

Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy defends the bold administrative decisions that have characterized the past six years. “We need a strong board, we need professional management, we need to upgrade our facilities,” he says. “Part of it is a race against the termites. You’ve got to raise enough money to keep the thing from falling into the ocean. There is no way we could move forward if we ran the place the way we did in the 1960s.

“The way I see all this hew and cry about our corporatization, it’s just silly. We’re the most anti-corporate crowd,” he adds. “I don’t even know what they mean by ‘corporate.’ To be able to pay the bills is corporate? To raise the money to pay your medical benefits is corporate?”

As for the prices paid by someone who wants to just go see the place—it’s not cheap. A couple in a standard room at Esalen for a weekend workshop pays $1,460, more than three times what they’d pay for a romantic room at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. Of course, Esalen includes food, hot baths and quite possibly a mental revolution.

Enlightenment at Esalen comes at a premium, which means its population on any given day is disproportionately comprised of well-off white people. For all its esoteric ideals, Esalen was designed this way: Not all are welcome. It’s a place to influence powerful people with the resources to make major social impacts in the wider world.

That isn’t to say there aren’t determined exceptions. Ostrom recalls one seminarian, a black man from Berkeley who appeared to be homeless but said he saved up to take a workshop at Esalen once a year. “There are some people like that. But by and large, it’s a pretty middle-class place,” she says. “It’s for people who already have basic skills and want to get better at their lives. It’s not for people struggling for survival…There’s nothing I know of that has anything to do with poverty outreach.”

There is is a beautiful falling-away of socio-economic costumes, though, in the Esalen baths perched over the Pacific, where everyone is naked. In the lodge, guests sit together family-style and break gluten-free bread together. In other words: You’ll need money to get in to Esalen. But once you’re there, mindful practice dissolves the social construct of class right along with the ego.

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