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Esalen Institute, commonly just called Esalen, is a residential community and retreat center in Big Sur, California, which focuses upon humanistic alternative education. Esalen is a nonprofit organization devoted to activities such as personal growth, meditation, massage, Gestalt, yoga, psychology, ecology, spirituality, and organic food. The institute offers more than 500 public workshops a year, in addition to conferences, research initiatives, residential work-study programs, and internships.
Esalen was founded by Michael Murphy and Dick Price in 1962. Their goal was to explore work in the humanities and sciences, in order to fully realize what Aldous Huxley had called the "human potentialities". Michael Murphy expands on Huxley's influence on California's cultural history in the 2010 documentary, "Huxley on Huxley". Esalen soon became known for its blend of Eastern and Western philosophies, examined in experiential and didactic workshops. Over the years Esalen hosted a notable influx of philosophers, physicists, psychologists, artists, and religious thinkers.
Esalen is situated on 120 acres of Big Sur coast, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise sharply above the Pacific Ocean. The grounds were once home to a Native American tribe known as the Esselen, from which the institute got its name. This location also is a Monarch butterfly wintering site. A key feature of the site is its cliff-side natural hot spring baths. The property is divided by Hot Springs Canyon. Hot Springs Creek serves as a freshwater source, along with underground springs.
Esalen is located about 45 miles (72 km) south of Monterey and Carmel along scenic Highway 1, and nine miles (14 km) north of Lucia. It is about a three-hour drive south of San Francisco, or a five-hour drive north of Los Angeles.
Carbon dating tests of artifacts found on Esalen's property have indicated a human presence as early as 2600 BC. Given access to the ocean, fresh water and hot springs, the Esselen people used the site regularly, with certain areas reserved for burial grounds. The Esselen population was largely decimated by diseases contracted at the Carmel Mission, where measles, smallpox, and syphilis wiped out 90 percent of the native population. Today, a few people in the area can still trace their ancestry to the Esselen.
In the 1870s, Thomas Slate visited the Big Sur site to use the hot springs, because he suffered from severe arthritis. He homesteaded the property in the early 1880s, and a settlement began, known as Slates Hot Springs. This site became the first tourist-oriented business in Big Sur, frequented by others who sought relief from similar afflictions. In 1910, the land was purchased by Henry Murphy, a Salinas, California, physician (who delivered John Steinbeck). Murphy bought the property with the intention of opening a European-style health spa, when the yet-to-be-built Highway 1 was completed. Construction of the road, once started, was an 18-year project.
While the highway was being built, the Slate's Hot Springs site was used by engineers and others involved with the construction. (The highway was largely built with convict labor housed in cabins at Anderson Creek.) The highway was opened in 1937 and then closed to the public with the outbreak of World War II. After the highway reopened, the Murphy family employed a series of property managers. There was a restaurant, and the hot springs baths were opened to paid use. Some hotel units were built in the 1950s, but the enterprise never achieved what Murphy had originally intended.
The official business name was "Big Sur Hot Springs", although it was more generally referred to as "Slate's Hot Springs". Henry Miller was a frequent visitor. Joan Baez was a resident and Hunter S. Thompson was a problematic employee.
Michael Murphy and Dick Price both attended Stanford University in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were in the same class, but they did not become friends until later. They met in San Francisco at the suggestion of Frederic Spiegelberg, a Stanford professor of comparative religion and Indic studies, with whom both had studied. After graduating from Stanford, Price attended Harvard University to continue studying psychology. Then Price joined the Air Force and lived in San Francisco, where he met Alan Watts and experienced a transformative psychotic break. Price was admitted to a mental hospital for a time, before returning to San Francisco. Murphy, meanwhile, traveled to Sri Aurobindo's ashram in India, and then he also returned to San Francisco.
After they met, Murphy and Price found much in common. In 1961, they traveled down to the Murphy family's Big Sur property. The two began drawing up plans for a forum that would be open to ways of thinking beyond the constraints of mainstream academia, while avoiding the dogmatism so often seen in groups organized around a single idea promoted by a charismatic leader. They envisioned a laboratory for experimentation with a wide range of philosophies, religious disciplines and psychological techniques. Henry Murphy’s widow, and Michael’s grandmother, Vinnie, previously had refused to lease the property, even turning down an earlier request from Michael. However, she agreed to a lease this time, and granted free use of the property. The lease was combined with capital that Price had accumulated (his father was a successful vice-president at Sears). The young men were given networking support by Spiegelberg, Watts, Huxley and his wife Laura, as well as by Gerald Heard and Gregory Bateson. The concept of Esalen was partially modeled upon Trabuco College, founded by Heard as a quasi-monastic experiment in Southern California, and later donated to the Vedanta Society. With all this help the experiment soon got off the ground.
Alan Watts gave his first lecture at Esalen in January 1962. Gia-fu Feng joined Price and Murphy, along with Bob Breckenridge, Bob Nash, Alice and Jim Sellers, as the first Esalen staff members. In the middle of that same year Abraham Maslow, the prominent humanistic psychologist, just happened to drive into the grounds and soon became an important figure at the institute. By autumn a catalog was issued advertising workshops with such titles as "Individual Cultural Definitions of Rationality", "The Expanding Vision" and "Drug-Induced Mysticism". In 1964, Fritz Perls began a long-term residency at Esalen and became a lasting influence. Perls offered many Gestalt therapy seminars at the institute, until he left in July 1969. Perls and Jim Simkin led Gestalt training courses at Esalen. Dick Price became one of Perls' closest students. Price developed his own form of practice called Gestalt Practice, which he continued teaching at Esalen until his death in a hiking accident in 1985. Michael Murphy became a successful author, writing non-fiction books about Esalen related topics, as well as several novels, one of which recently was made into a major motion picture.
Esalen gained popularity quickly and started to regularly publish catalogs full of programs. The facility was large enough to run multiple programs simultaneously, so Esalen started creating numerous resident teacher positions. Murphy recruited Will Schutz, the well-known encounter group leader, to take up permanent residence at Esalen. All this combined to firmly position Esalen in the nexus of the counterculture of the 1960s.
Esalen was incorporated as a non-profit institution in 1963. Increased attention came to the institute in 1966 when Esalen started to receive coverage in the news media. George Leonard published an article in Look magazine about the California scene, that mentioned Esalen and included a picture of Murphy. TIME published an article about Esalen in September 1967. The New York Times Magazine published an article by Leo E. Litwak in late December. Then an article about Esalen appeared in Life magazine. These articles brought Esalen into the awareness of other media outlets, not just in the U.S. but also overseas. Esalen responded by holding large-scale conferences in Midwestern and East Coast cities, as well as in Europe. Esalen opened a satellite center in San Francisco that offered extensive programming, but it was closed in the mid-1970s for financial reasons. In fact, Esalen has always been forced to change as it responded to internal and external stressors. Dick Price provided leadership at the institute, and his death in late 1985 brought about many changes in personnel and programming. Steven Donovan became president of the institute, and Brian Lyke served as general manager. Nancy Lunney became the director of programming, and David Price (Dick's son) served as general manager of Esalen beginning in the mid-1990s. Then the baths were destroyed in 1998 by severe weather, only to be rebuilt after great institutional and financial stress. Afterward, Andy Nusbaum developed a plan to put the institute on a sound economic footing. More recently, managerial changes and restructuring have caused difficulties. Christine Stewart Price (Dick’s wife) voluntarily withdrew from Esalen Institute, after leading her last Gestalt Awareness Practice workshop at Esalen in November 2012, in order to preserve Dick Price’s legacy at her new Tribal Ground Circle facility.
In the early days, many of the seminars challenged the status quo — such as "The Value of Psychotic Experience". There were even programs that questioned the movement of which Esalen was a part — for instance, "Spiritual and Therapeutic Tyranny: The Willingness To Submit". And there was a series of encounter groups focused on racial prejudice.
Early leaders included:
Rather than merely lecturing, many leaders began to experiment with what Huxley called the non-verbal humanities: the education of the body, the senses, and the emotions. The intention of this work was to suggest a new ethic — to develop awareness of one’s present flow of experience, to express this fully and accurately, and to listen to feedback. These "experiential" workshops were particularly well attended and did much to shape Esalen’s future course.
Esalen has sponsored long-term resident scholars, including:
In 1964, Joan Baez led a workshop entitled "The New Folk Music" which included a free performance. This was the first of seven “Big Sur Folk Festivals” featuring many of the era's music legends. The 1969 concert included musicians who had just come from the Woodstock Festival. This event was featured in a documentary movie, Celebration at Big Sur, which was released in 1971.
Performers at Esalen have included:
John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg performed together at Esalen. Robert Bly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth (who led one of the first workshops), Gary Snyder and others held poetry readings and workshops.
In 1994, President and CEO Sharon Thom created an Artist-in-Residence program to provide artists with a two-week retreat in which to focus upon works in progress. These artists interacted with the staff, offered informal gatherings, and staged performances on the newly created dance platform. Located next to the Art Barn, the dance platform was used by Esalen teachers for dance and martial arts. Later, the platform was covered by a dome, and renamed the Leonard Pavilion after deceased Esalen past president and board member, George Leonard.
In 1995 and 1996, Esalen hosted two Arts Festivals, which gathered together artists, poets, musicians, photographers and performers, including artist Margot McLean, psychologist James Hillman, guitarist Michael Hedges and Joan Baez. All staff members were allowed to attend every class and performance that did not interfere with their schedules. Arts festivals have since become a popular yearly event at Esalen.
Esalen Institute exists to promote the harmonious development of the whole person. It is a learning organization dedicated to continual exploration of the human potential, and resists religious, scientific and other dogmas. It fosters theory, practice, research, and institution-building to facilitate personal and social transformation and, to that end, sponsors seminars for the general public; invitational conferences; research programs; residencies for artists, scholars, scientists, and religious teachers; work-study programs; and semi-autonomous projects.
— Michael Murphy, Chairman Emeritus, Esalen Board of Trustees, Esalen Institute Statement of Purpose
Esalen Institute has sponsored many research initiatives, educational projects, and invitational conferences. The Big Sur facility has been used for these events, as well as other locations, including international sites.
Encouraged by Dick Price, the Schizophrenia Research Project was conducted over a three-year period at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose, California, involving 80 young males diagnosed with schizophrenia. Funded in part by Esalen Institute, this program was co-sponsored by the California Department of Mental Hygiene (reorganized: CMHSA) and the National Institute of Mental Health. It explored the thesis that the health of certain patients would permanently improve if their psychotic process was not interrupted by administration of antipsychotic pharmaceutical drugs. Julian Silverman was chief of research for the project. He also served as Esalen's general manager in the 1970s. The Agnews double blind study was the largest first-episode psychosis research project ever conducted in the United States. It demonstrated that the young men given a placebo had a 75 percent lower re-hospitalization rate and much better outcomes than the men who received anti-psychotic medication. These results were used as justification for medication-free programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Michael Cornwall, who worked in one of the Agnews-inspired projects, has revived the Alternative Views and Approaches to Psychosis Initiative at Esalen by convening an invitational conference of leaders in the field of psychosis treatment, under the auspices of the Esalen Center for Theory and Research.
Starting in 1969, in association with Viking Press, the institute published a series of seventeen books about Esalen related topics, including the first edition of Michael Murphy's novel, Golf in the Kingdom. Some of these books remain in print. Then in the mid-1980s, Esalen entered into a joint publishing arrangement with Lindisfarne Press to publish a small library of Russian philosophical and theological books.
In 1980, Esalen began the Soviet-American Exchange Program (later renamed: Track Two, an institute for citizen diplomacy). This initiative came at a time when Cold War tensions were at their peak. The program was credited with substantial success in fostering peaceful private exchanges between citizens of the "super powers". In the 1980s, Michael Murphy and his wife Dulce were instrumental in organizing the program with Soviet citizen Joseph Goldin, in order to provide a vehicle for citizen-to-citizen relations between Russians and Americans. In 1982, Esalen and Goldin pioneered the first U.S.–Soviet Space Bridge, allowing Soviet and American citizens to speak directly with one another via satellite communication. In 1988, Esalen brought Abel Aganbegyan, one of Mikhail Gorbachev's chief economic advisors to the United States. In 1989, Esalen brought Boris Yeltsin on his first trip to the United States, although Yeltsin did not visit the Esalen facility in Big Sur. Esalen arranged meetings for Mr. Yeltsin with then President George H. W. Bush, and many other leaders in business and government. Two former presidents of the exchange program included Jim Garrison and Jim Hickman. After Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down, and effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, Garrison helped establish The State of the World Forum, with Gorbachev as its convening chairman. These successes led to other Esalen citizen diplomacy programs, including exchanges with China, an initiative to further understanding among Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as further work on Russian-American relations.
In 1998, Esalen launched the Center for Theory and Research (CTR) to initiate new areas of practice and action, which foster social change and realization of the human potential. The CTR is the research and development arm of Esalen Institute.
Bodywork has always been a significant part of the Esalen experience. In the late 1990s, the “EMBA” was organized as a semi-autonomous Esalen association for the regulation of Esalen massage practitioners.
Over the years, Esalen Institute has been the subject of criticism. Generally, the Human Potential Movement has been criticized for espousing an ethic that the inner-self should be freely expressed in order to reach one's true potential. Some people have seen this ethic as an aspect of Esalen's culture. The historian Christopher Lasch claimed that humanistic techniques encourage narcissistic, spiritual materialistic or self-obsessive thoughts and behaviors. These criticisms were examined in a 2002 BBC television series, called The Century of the Self, which included video segments recorded at Esalen. In 1990 a graffiti artist spray painted, "Jive shit for rich white folk" on the entrance to Esalen, highlighting class and race issues. This implied that Esalen courses are too expensive and poor people cannot afford to experience their "full human potential". Some think that this is a regression of progress away from true spiritual growth.
People who visit Esalen Institute may encounter two specific problems that affect their experience of the institute.
The most common problem is driving conditions. Highway 1, the principal gateway for visitors traveling to Esalen Institute, is an audacious and problematic engineering accomplishment. The road traverses the edge of cliffs overhanging the ocean. Often it is closed by landslides. Especially during periods of stormy weather, visitors are cautioned to check the status of the Highway 1 before departure.
A much less common problem is the risk of fire. Esalen is surrounded by large tracts of state forests and federal wilderness areas. For this reason, human habitations in Big Sur are periodically threatened by fire. The "Rat Creek" fire, in 1985, damaged some of Esalen's facilities. The "Basin Complex" fire, in 2008, threatened Esalen, but never came close enough to damage the grounds. However, there was a fire in October 2011 that destroyed housing at Esalen’s South Coast Center.
The Esalen community has learned to live with the physical challenges of life in Big Sur, although visitors who are used to different lifestyles may find these problems disconcerting.
Because of Esalen’s isolated location, its operational staff members have been residential from the beginning, and collectively they have shaped the character of the institute. The community has been steeped in a form of Gestalt that pervades all aspects of daily life, including meeting structures, workplace practices, and individual language styles. In 1966, Esalen began year-long residential educational programs, which were subsequently replaced by month-long work-study programs and year-long work-oriented extended student programs. There is a preschool on site called the Gazebo, serving the children of staff, some program participants, and affiliated local residents. Given the intensity of community involvement in all these process related activities, many staff members have developed their own forms of practice, and some of them have become well known teachers.
Esalen Institute is organized as a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Currently, Esalen is managed by CEO Tricia McEntee, with Gordon Wheeler now serving as President, supervised by a Board of Trustees. In 2011, a "Leadership Culture Survey" was commissioned by Esalen to assess the quality of its leadership culture. The results were negative. The survey measured how well the leadership "builds quality relationships, fosters teamwork, collaborates, develops people, involves people in decision making and planning, and demonstrates a high level of interpersonal skill." In the "relating dimension" the survey returned a score of 18%, compared to a desired 88%. It also produced strongly dissonant scores in measures of community welfare, relating with interpersonal intelligence, clearly communicating vision, and building a sense of personal worth within the community. It ranked management as overly compliant and lacking authenticity. However, the survey found that Esalen closely matched its overall goal for customer focus.
Esalen Institute continues to offer workshops to its visitors throughout the year, most of them dedicated to the integration of humanistic psychology, physical wellness, and spiritual awareness. Esalen recently has focused upon issues of permaculture and ecological sustainability. Other workshops cover a wide range of subjects including: arts, health, Gestalt, integral thought, martial arts, massage, dance, mythology, philosophical inquiry, somatics, spiritual and religious studies, ecopsychology, wilderness experience, yoga, tai chi, mindfulness practice, and meditation, all with the prospect that the mission of the institute will last well into the future.
Esalen's popularity has occasionally made it the subject for loose interpretations in the movies. In a 1969 comedy-drama, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, sophisticated Los Angeles residents Bob and Carol Sanders (played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) spend a weekend of emotional honesty at an Esalen-style retreat, after which they return to their life determined to embrace free love and complete openness.