In the early 1960’s Richard Price and Michael Murphy made their way to a remote property clinging to the Northern California coastline. They were both 30 years old when they took over managing this little property – from which – a giant movement would be born.
The human potential movement was born out of a time when there was a lot of experimenting and a lot of change emerging in the US. In addition to expanding the mind, people were interested in expanding minority rights through the civil rights movement, feminism was on the rise as was opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In my mind, images from the Cleaver’s on “Leave it to Beaver” are the clashing up against old vintage videos of Woodstock in the 60’s and other iconic images of the era. I can only imagine how unsettling it all must have been for the old guard and how exciting the future must have seemed for this new generation.
Somewhere in between the Cuban Missile Crisis, the creation of the Peace Corp, and the very first episode of Star Trek – intellectuals and seekers, artists, psychiatrist, psychologists, psychedelic and bodywork enthusiasts were meeting in this roadside motel in Big Sur, California – a place that was quickly evolving into a beacon for anyone who was curious to learn more about the human condition and our inherent potential.
By 1964 this whacky little resort became known as the Esalen Institute.
Many great minds taught seminars there or took up residence. You may have heard of Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, George Leonard, Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow (you know, the guy who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs).
Unless you’re really into that sort of thing, you may not recognize many of the names that were considered the leading thinkers whose ideas put Esalen on the map, but you’ve surely heard of some of it’s more famous guests – people like George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Jonie Mitchel, photographer Ansel Adams.
Esalen even had a place in the sports world, Tim Gallwey, author of the Inner Game of Tennis was an Esalen Workshop Leader 3 decades before the book came out – his workshop was called, you guessed it, “Inner Game of Tennis”
Over the years Esalen has played hosts to a range of the curious, from wandering hippies, to astronauts, and mystics.
Even Don Draper from the hit show Mad Men – is speculated to have ultimately landed there – in the final scenes of that series Don ends up in a place that looks a lot like the Eslaen Institute. The series leave him in a chanting meditation sitting on the coast, a big smile cracking his often cynical face.
I too was star-struck during my stay there – I got to sit in class with a celebrity, of whom I am a fan, and whose identity shall remain a mystery here. Such is life in California, I suppose.
I first heard of Esalen while reading about Gestalt Therapy. Which is basically a form of therapy that focuses on bringing your awareness to your life in the here and now. Gestalt was created by the German-born psychiatrist, Fritz Perls.
Perls is one of, if not my favorite mentor. He’s been dead since 1970, 10 years before I was even born, but he lives on in his books, papers, and even YouTube videos.
I love Dr. Perls – well – he preferred to be called “Fritz” because it was more memorable and had more pizazz. Which I totally respect.
Fritz was cantankerous, funny, horny, and brilliant. But you would be hard-pressed to find any one of his contemporaries write about or talk about Fritz in a way that was warm or expressed much fondness for him.
He had a way about him – it was either a low-tolerance for people – or an unachievable standard that he set for them – either way he couldn’t seem to turn off. In regular life and in his sessions he was extremely comfortable with confrontation. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.
Just to give you an idea of how he thought of the world, I’ll give you an example of one of things he spoke and wrote about… He had this system – a system he called shit-detecting. He would say that people go around talking in 3 categories of shit: chicken-shit – the stuff of no consequence – like – how’s the weather. Bullshit – which is mostly the games people play, the masks they wear. And then there’s elephant shit – the existential and philosophical. All forms of said shit were there to avoid real contact with others or to face the truth about oneself or their lives.
As intolerable as he was – they respected him and how effective he was when he worked with people using his method of therapy. His hot seat sessions working with trainees are legendary and even entertaining for the layperson to observe.
Several years ago I began to read everything I could get my hands on that he had written. One of those books was “In and Out the Garbage Pail”
As far as books go, it’s awful if you’re someone who needs structure, coherence, flow. This book has none of that. This book is like reading his private notes to himself, like getting to read his private diary. He had no regard for context, or sequential storytelling. He writes about stuff and you have no idea what the hell is going on or how it fits into what he said just one paragraph before – and by the way – even if you keep reading and might expect to….you’ll never know what those two things had to do with one another – but somewhere in there you glean insight about life or come to think about the human experience in a way you never considered. Regardless of its many shortcomings, I love that book, it’s one of my favorites. It has given me some really consequential ideas to ponder and also the chance to just laugh out loud at some of the things he would write about – or confess.
One of the things he wrote about was his time in residence at Esalen.
In addition to being the birthplace of the Human Potential Movement, Esalen is also famous for it’s natural spring baths.
Hanging onto the coastal cliffs, down this long pathway from a building called the lodge, is a structure that houses the Esalen Baths. The water is a steady 130 degrees and smells of sulfur. Today there are clawfoot tubs you can get in alone, or you can soak in one of the larger communal tubs. Clothing was, and is still to this day, optional.
Back in the day, before Esalen was Esalen, the baths were quite scandalous. The warm waters drew an eclectic crowd who would come down from San Francisco to soak in their mystic, healing powers. But for a place where everyone is naked, there oddly seemed to be as much fighting as there was sex. It got so raucous that there’s a story of the management taking a couple of doberman pincher’s down to scatter the crowd. Nothing happened, turns out that the dobermans had never actually bit anyone and were fighting with one another so much on their way to disperse the crowd that their barking scared everyone off before any actual threats could be issued.
Fritz was a fan of the baths – he wrote about his time sitting naked in the baths and what he saw there – did I mention he was a horny old bastard? He did things that even I am too shy to say on this podcast.
He wrote fondly of Esalen, he drew sketches of it that are printed in this book I was telling you about.
When I read about his time there I knew it was a place I had to visit myself.
So when Pasha and I moved to California, I knew this was going to happen.
I made the 125 mile drive down to Big Sur to see what all the fuss was about that my mentor had written about more than 50 years ago.
To share this with you, I’m going to back way up, because what may start out seeming irrelevant, actually becomes quite relevant in the end.
Which means that I have to share with you that I booked a stay at Esalen for back in December of 2021 – I was going for a Gestalt Workshop. The therapy method that Fritz had developed.
I was super, super stoked about it. For a lot of reasons, not least of which was that my transition to California hadn’t been all that great.
Uprooting your life at 40 years old and starting over in a new place isn’t easy for a guy who is a creature of habit and routine. Moving was….let’s say….disruptive for me.
We got to California – and not one month later I was in the hospital for 4 days from a spinal injury that left me unable to walk for 10 weeks.
I wasn’t having a great go of it and I thought – I know what I need – I think it’s time to go check out Esalen. So I booked it.
The day that I got the email from Esalen that, due to the winter storm, Highway 1 was closed and my workshop had been canceled, well…was just sort of par for the course at this point in my life.
So I rescheduled for late February. They didn’t have the Gestalt workshop but they did have another workshop that sounded interesting and it was being led by the author of a book I had been reading.
Once again I found myself excited. I was super excited. I mean – really excited. I thought, well this is even better and it’s going to be amazing. And I’m sure this guy is incredible and I can’t wait to be there and learn from him.
I had him worked up to be another Fritz Perls – my mentor. If Fritz taught there, and this guy is there, then he has to be so amazing!
That’s where my head is as I make my way down Highway 1 to Big Sur.
Now, if you’ve never been to Big Sur, add it to your bucket lists. It’s beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in the world.
It is literally, breathtaking.
So much so that it’s hard to focus on driving because you just want to take in the stunning view that just doesn’t stop as you twist and turn down the coast.
Well, I finally come upon the unassuming Esalen sign off the side of the road. I make my way down a big hill to be met by a dude with a clipboard who makes sure that I have a reservation.
He directs me to the parking lot and I make my way into the office to check in.
I’m given the key to my room – yes – physical key with a big key tag that has the number 6 stamped onto it.
I make my way to my room which is in this row of other rooms. It sort of has the Bates Motel feel to it. Where it’s a long row of old motel rooms.
The room itself was nothing special. But my patio overlooked the ocean and it was stunning. I was so overwhelmed by the view that I almost didn’t notice that there was no TV, no phone, and no internet.
There’s no cell phone service out there. No signal.
There is internet at the lodge – which is where everyone eats – but it isn’t on all the time.
All that to say – and let me be clear – luxury – Esalen is not. Are the grounds beautiful? Yes. Are the rooms clean? Yes. Luxury? No.
The beauty of the grounds though, my god, is overwhelming.
I had arrived right about sundown and so I watched the sunset and then what seemed like immediately was a full moon – the reflection of which was dancing off the ocean water. The sounds of the ocean hitting the rocks down below along with the salty sea air was just overwhelming. I remember thinking to myself “I am overwhelmed” – it was just so much to take in. I found myself standing along a path on my way to the lodge for dinner just standing there frozen, trying to take it all in and appreciate this sensory overload I was experiencing.
When I finally pulled myself together and walked into the lodge – I found a cafeteria style food setup. The kind where you grab a plate – hand it to the person standing behind the glass and tell them what to put on your plate.
I couldn’t tell if I was more reminded of elementary school or Luby’s.
But I was just going with it.
The food – not bad – some of it – actually really good.
I don’t know why I was surprised by that – maybe because I had read a bitchy yelp review about the food before leaving home – but I found all the meals to be very satisfying and health conscious.
And by the way – all the meals, the room, the workshop – were all included in one price. So you don’t worry about any expenses once you’re there – it’s all paid for in one payment. Which I like.
When I checked in at the office, they had instructed me that I should attend orientation at 7pm. And so after dinner I made my way to orientation.
Orientation was led by the groovy hippie named JJ.
JJ had the best energy. I’m not usually a woowoo energy, crystal, vibration kinda guy. But JJ has something special. His smile, the way he carries himself, his….energy….is just so good. Just being in the same room with him feels like you’re being enveloped with a warm hug. I don’t know what it was, but I can tell you, I want it!
JJ’s job was to welcome us to Esalen and lay down the rules for us. About 40 of us made our way to the meeting space and we sat on these giant pillows. In fact, I think I only saw a handful of traditional chairs the entire time I was there on the property.
JJ leads us in an introductory exercise and then begins to tell us a bit of the history of the property.
He tells us about the land that we’re on – that it was first inhabited by the Eselen people 6,000 years ago. He told us a little bit about the history of being the birthplace of the Human Potential Movement, and he expressed his gratitude to the founders of the place. He shared with us some quick stories about how some famous thinkers have found their way to Eslaen by way of something he called synchronicity. He told us that, even though we might not know it yet, we were also there by way of synchronicity.
Somewhat abruptly JJ told us that he really didn’t like orientations. Which I thought was odd since that was literally his job.
He said he didn’t like orientations because it’s usually just this list of rules and list of things you can’t do.
He did have a couple of those things you can’t do…like when to checkout and leave the property at the end of the week – I guess getting people to leave on time is historically an issue. And that while he wants us to explore attraction to one another – that that attraction should be explored in our rooms and not by hooking up at the baths. He said it all matter-of-factly.
And then he said…instead of giving you this long list of rules, just remember that you have an impact on other people – how you show up has an impact on other people – and if you’ll just remember that while you’re here then you won’t have any problems, and we don’t have a need for a long list of rules.
I was giddy like a schoolgirl. I was falling in love with this old hippie in real time.
What great advice – in life – just remember that you have an impact on other people – how you show up impacts other people – remember that and you’ll be ok.
I was excited just thinking about coming here and now – I mean – orientation was this spiritual experience – how much better is this workshop going to be?
And as it turns out – the workshop orientation is starting now. So JJ makes his way out and the workshop leader is there with a couple of assistants setting up. Again, we are all sitting on giant pillows and these things called back jacks – which I came to really like.
Again, there are about 40 of us in the room for the workshop, sitting strewn about the room in no particular form or fashion. Sitting in the front of the room is the group leader and on each side of him is an assistant. Their function seemed, mostly to be passing the microphone, passing out papers, making sure he sees when a hand goes up, keeping track of the schedule, that sort of thing.
I want to pause just for a moment here…
So – here’s the thing – I want to share the lessons I learned from my entire Esalen experience – and that’s going to require me to shit on this workshop that I signed up for.
The workshop topic, the book, the leader, are quite famous. And so to protect the workshop leader and the subject matter – I’m just going to refer to that as Workshop A.
Ok, so back to orientation – the leader of Workshop A asks us all to introduce ourselves and we begin to pass the mic around the room. Standard stuff – Where you from? What do you do? Why are you here?
I would say 90% of the room is therapists. Which makes sense for the subject matter.
They are quite serious in their introductions, some clearly trying to impress us, some being mysterious and elusive, some just starting the facts. All fine. My mind is thinking of Fritz’s shit-detector and I’m passing the time identifying each as chickenshit, bullshit, elephant shit.
I was relieved though that I wasn’t the only non-therapist – there was a contingent of enthusiasts like me – there was a seismologist, a corporate recruiter, a doctor, a retired guy who said he was just curious about the topic.
There was a wide range of ages, from, I would guess late twenties to late seventies or older.
The diversity was largely generational – most of the people there were white with only a few exceptions – and I think there were 3 gay people – at least that I knew about.
I was sort of in the middle of the introduction line-up and I got the idea that I would try to be a little different. I was going to express my enthusiasm for being there. That was different than what the other folks were expressing – I mean it’s a room full of people you don’t know – some professional colleagues so I get the restraint, but it was also different for me to express enthusiasm for something. And I like to take chances in situations like these to try on different parts of my personality.
So I went all out – charismatic and enthusiastic – the room laughed with me and then clapped when I was done. Honestly I thought (and hoped) I was setting a trend – perhaps the rest of the room, the last half would now feel free to express their enthusiasm. But that didn’t materialize – I was a leader with no followers that night.
Once we were finished with the introductions, Workshop Leader A took the mic and began to tell us a bit about himself and the workshop.
I was so confused. I had built him up in my head to be my charismatic mentor reincarnate. I was expecting a Fritz figure.
There is a story of Fritz at Esalen when Maslow was hosting a talk with small group of esteemed folks around the fireplace one night there outside the lodge. Maslow had come to talk about a new concept he was trying on about language and motivations.
Apparently, Fritz thought it to be the stuff of elephant shit. As the story goes, Fritz slides out of his chair and slithers on the ground over to Maslow, wraps himself around Maslows legs and begins begging him in his German accent “come down here with the rest of us, get down with the common people.”
Maslow was not amused and told Fritz he was being childish, so Fritz just goes with it, he starts crawling around on the ground and whining like a child. Can you imagine this man in his 60’s, long – unkept beard, wearing his signature onesie outfit, crawling around on the ground, making childlike noises amongst his esteemed colleagues?
Maslow was furious and finally responds by saying…”this begins to look like sickness.”
A line that I’m putting in my pocket and will be saving for just the right moment
Can you imagine – when you’re with someone who is acting like a fool and you just look at them and say….”this begins to look like sickness” – I love it.
Yeah, Fritz was a prick – but I’m jealous of his freedom, and courage to take big (sometimes inappropriate) risks.
That kind of uninhibited expression is not what I got, but was hoping for at Workshop A.
In his defense, the leader of Workshop A explained that he had been awake since 4am and had an early flight to get there. I get it – I would have been tired too. Our workshop orientation was to go from 8pm to 10pm but we had finished well before 10pm. He explained that he felt no obligation to use the entire time and that we were free to go. Oh well, I thought, tomorrow will be better.
Now, let’s go check out these famous baths.
It’s dark, very dark at the baths. Only lit with moonlight and some really dim randomly placed candles – those fake candles – the kind with the little lightbulb.
I make my way into the community bath and settle into a corner overlooking the ocean.
First of all, the smell. I wasn’t expecting how strong the sulfer smell would be. You get used to it, but it’s quite a stout aroma when you first experience it.
I’m sitting in my corner and realize that I’m the only person in this tub with my swim trunks on. I look around, and even though it’s dimly lit – I realize that I’m the only person at the baths with any clothes on.
I‘m not bothered by nudity – at all. Well, I’m not bothered by other people’s nudity at all. I admit though, I am a little bothered by my own nudity.
I finished my evening soak that first night with my swim trunks. But I knew that the next day I would be going nude. I wasn’t sure why – but I was actually more uncomfortable wearing my swim trunks than I would have been just going without.
I was struck by this – I was confused by that response.
I had to give some thought to my resistance to my own nudity. I had never really thought about it. And why would I? We live in a society where there aren’t a lot of opportunities to explore that part of the self.
Then I remembered that when JJ explained the “clothing is optional” thing during orientation he also talked about how nudity helps us connect to one another.
Being naked literally strips away our ability to hide from one another physically.
We can see one another as who we are – just human beings.
That intimacy allows us to establish our connection from a different place than we’re accustomed to.
That made so much sense to me, because so much of my work is about learning to strip away our emotional coverings – or masks. I was reminded of how our beliefs and inherited mindsets clothe us or gird us from really seeing one another.
I thought about how much my work is about helping people safely expose themselves emotionally.
And so hiding emotionally – I really get it.
But physical exposure was something new for me. I was uncomfortable with it.
But why? We all have bodies. All of our bodies are changing. It’s the most natural thing in the world.
And as I saw, every body is so different and yet – in so many ways the same.
All of these bodies – both men and women – the baths are coed – at different stages of life were remarkable to me.
These were not the perfect bodies of instagram. Other than the moonlight at night and glaring sun during the day – there were no filters.
From the fit, perky bodies in their early 30’s to the saggy old man balls.
And btw, as a side note – I had never seen saggy old man balls – and I was taken aback. If this is my future then I am going to need some sort of suspension system to keep things from becoming obstacles to mobility. I had no idea that’s what happens – but I feel like I should prepare.
I pushed myself to go nude the rest of my time in the baths at Esalen – I went once or twice a day. I was extremely uncomfortable each time – that didn’t change.
I had a hard time putting words to my feelings when it came to what I was experiencing being nude at the baths.
I was definitely scared. I mean, what if you’re out there and you get a hard on? Can you imagine?
What if my junk isn’t being all he can be, know what I mean? I even remember thinking -”ok buddy, now is not the time to be shy.”
But I also found myself wanting to hide the more pedestrian parts of me. I lost a lot of muscle tone when I hadn’t been able to walk for all that time after my injury. And because of the pain and fear of re-injuring I haven’t been able to work out much since then – so I’m feeling flabby and out of shape. And just self-conscious.
I also don’t have the body of a 20-year-old anymore, I’m over 40 and things are just different than they used to be. I think I should have the body of a 20-year-old, I look in the mirror every day and want to see my 20-year-old body, but the reality is that I’m not 20 years old.
In that whirlwind of feelings at the baths, it did hit me though that my body is working.
I hadn’t always appreciated that before my stint in the hospital. No matter how it may look, it works, it’s healthy. And that’s something to be grateful for.
On my last day at Esalen, I was in the baths when a woman – who was on her first day at Esalen – came into the baths.
What I’m going to share with you now is going to sound really judgemental. I know that. But listen – what I’m about to tell you isn’t about the woman at the baths – it’s about me. She was reflecting back to me what I had done just a few days before – and my reaction to it allowed me to see myself.
Which, btw, is how we go through life – our strongest reactions to others happen when they reflect back to us something about ourselves.
So here’s this woman –
She wasn’t wearing a top, but she was wearing her underwear on the bottom.
I saw myself in her modesty, but I also caught myself asking why she was wearing her panties?
I could have assumed lots of answers to that question – what is she trying to protect, what is she afraid of, who is she hiding from – none of which would be correct without actually asking her, but remember, the answers that I come up with to explain her modesty are really about me and my modesty. And I know it sounds judgemental – but that’s also because I’m 1000x times harder on myself than anyone else…
So my mind goes to…
Why does she think she’s so special? What makes her think her cootchy is so special that she has to hide it?
Does she think her cootchy is different than all the other cootchies here?
I didn’t want to see it – clearly – I’m afraid of those things – but why did she think she needed to hide it?
I don’t know her reasons for hiding herself and that’s not important to me – what’s important to me is my reaction to it and how it informs my experience.
Then it hit me – no I wasn’t hit by saggy old man balls – I was hit by the metaphorical mirror I was looking into – and the questions that I should be asking myself…
What makes you think you’re so special? So different?
Special, different, these are ideas that keep us separated from one another. They keep us apart.
I have been thinking a lot lately about all the other ways that my ego tells me I’m special – how I’m different – and how isolating that is.
I’m not really interested in spending more time in more places in the nude – I’ll definitely continue to explore that part of me at Esalen. It’s unlikely that you’ll find me searching for nude beaches. But I am interested in learning more about the parts of me that want to hide myself.
And i’m grateful that Esalen has given me a chance to explore that part of me in such an unexpected way.
After breakfast on my second day at Esalen I was back in workshop A.
The instructor told us that he got his much needed rest – the rejuvenating effects of which were invisible to me.
To say that I was underwhelmed by Workshop A would be an understatement. The workshop leader is quite accomplished, brilliant, and a major bore.
I’m a good student – I read his book before I showed up – I had thought of questions to ask – I was ready to go. I thought he would be laying down row after row of pearls of wisdom that added to and expanded on what he talked about in his book.
Instead, he gave an overview of his topic that I’m pretty sure was a rehashing of the introduction to his book before moving on to what were called demos.
Demos were where the workshop leader and a participant would sit in the middle of the room and he take whatever issue or problem or experience that they were having and he would work them through it using his model.
Fritz used to do this at Esalen, there are YouTube videos of him doing it and it is mind-blowing what he got out of people.
When workshop leader A said he was going to do these demos, I thought – hell yeah – here we go – time for the good stuff!
It became clear really early that some models are made for working through with observers, and some are not. This particular model was not.
Before I dropped out of Workshop A in the middle of the third day, I got to see about 4 demos. All of the demos I watched were with people who had a deep familiarity with the model that we were there learn about. That was strictly by chance, the people who were selected for a demo literally drew the high card from a deck of playing cards. But I did wonder how the experience would have been different for someone who had never experienced that particular model – and in fairness, perhaps I would have experienced that had I stayed in the workshop.
I can only imagine that what one takes away as an observer is very different from what the person in the chair takes away. As an observer it’s painful.
Each demo lasted somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes. There were stretches of 15-20 minutes of silence. Where the person in the chair was just silent. With about 40 people sitting in a big circle around them looking on. I get that’s it’s a form of therapy, but I mean, come on, you’re on stage and you have a captive audience. Literally captive, I wanted to leave in the middle of one but it would have been really awkward.
There was also a demo that felt really performative. Everything came off really forced and struck me as mostly for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of the person being worked with.
So I saw both sides of that spectrum and wasn’t enjoying either end of it. I was sitting in silence for long stretches and that annoyed me, and then I was waiting what seemed like a performance and that was annoying me. I just wasn’t into it.
In situations like these, my default mode is to get really pissed off and go inward.
I’ll say things to myself like, this fucking sucks. This is a joke. Therapists are just nutjobs. Esalen sucks.
So I dropped out after the morning session, skipped an afternoon of sessions, and just sat around and tried to figure out all the reasons why these people were morons, strange, and why I was superior and should probably be in charge.
I went to the baths later that night – yes – in the nude. And then went to sleep.. I was convinced that the magic of Esalen must have been some marketing bullshit that some guy like me wrote and sold to unsuspecting seekers of enlightenment and self-actualization.
And oh, it was everything that was pissing me off. They really should tell you how loud the ocean is. I can’t sleep it’s so loud. I woke up everyday at 4am because the waves were beating the rocks mercilessly. Crash, crash, crash. Shut the fuck up!
The next day I wake – sometime around 4am – I go to the baths. I’m at least going to get my money’s worth from the baths – maybe these healing waters will help my back injury. Oh my God, Who am I kidding – that healing talk is probably all bullshit too.
The sun comes up. It’s so bright. Hummingbirds fluttering around me like magic dancing fairies. A slight breeze, the kind that hits you just right. You know what I’m talking about it, when the sun is hitting you a little hot, but the breeze has just a little bit of a chill in it that makes you feel absolutely perfect. Oh, the perfection, I fucking hate it here I want to go home to my ticky tacky suburban hellscape!
I go to breakfast – that chia pudding is so good – it’s probably sour today though. Nope, fresh and delicious. God damnit.
I ate my chia pudding and oatmeal (yes both) and had decided with the freshness of a new day that I wasn’t going back to Workshop A – couldn’t take another minute of it. I was awash in disappointment.
Why couldn’t I have been alive when Frtiz was here? Why did Fritz have to die? Who am I kidding? He chain smoked like crazy. There’s this story of Fritz teaching at some school, in an auditorium and he’s got one lit up – he always had one lit up – even in sessions – video recorded sessions. Someone said, Dr. Perls this is a non-smoking building. He turned to them and said “that may be so, but I am Fritz” and that was the end of that. Fucking legend.
I had decided that I would make the most of this trip and just do some work and writing in the lounge. No internet so not sure how this is going to work out, but I’ll give it a go i figured. I was so mad at myself for finding myself in this frustrated state in such a beautiful place.
About the time I’m finishing breakfast this woman walks over and sits down with me. She’s not in Workshop A – she’s in Workshop B – it’s a writers workshop.
She tells me how wonderful the workshop is and just goes on and on about how great it is. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about Workshop B – the same woman – we’ll call her Nancy – she had told me how wonderful it was the day before. I was no less jealous or bitter today than I was yesterday.
She ask me how Workshop A was going and I may have given a hint or 2 about how much I wasn’t enjoying it – oh, and by the way, I’m not going back to Workshop A today.
Nancy was delighted – she said – great – come to the Workshop B – the writers workshop.
I said, no no no. I’m not a writer.
When she had told me writers workshop I imaged a bunch of english teachers sitting around and arguing about where the comma goes. I’m an author – but I would never call myself a writer.
No, Nancy, I’m going to just sit here and work all day – and sulk.
Thankfully, Nancy was having none of it. It just so happens – or as a result of synchronicity (thanks JJ), Workshop Leader B walks in right then. Nancy says – hey leader, this is Chad, can he join our group. The lead says, sure..
Workshop B – the writer’s workshop welcomed me – the Workshop A refugee – quite warmly. There were only about 12 people in that workshop and we sat either outside overlooking the ocean, or in a big tent with the side flaps open so we could feel the breeze.
There was a lot of meditating and writing. No arguments about semicolons, just reflective writing and sharing if you felt like it. One woman wrote about losing her mother and how that experience had shaped her life. One guy wrote about growing up in a cult. One guy wrote about how he poops and related that to how he shows up in life – different but actually profound. One guy, an engineer, wrote the most beautiful words about how his Esalen experience was impacting him. He shared that he had only ever written engineering specs and never wrote like this – but man – he was good at it.
There was a range of experience – from award-winning screenwriters to people who had never written much of anything.
I loved it. I loved it so much.
By default, I’m a rules follower. I don’t particularly like that about myself – which is probably why I rarely put myself in situations where there are rules – I’ve worked for myself almost exclusively in my life. But by default when I’m in a situation where there are rules, I follow. For example, I signed up for Workshop A – therefore I cannot go to Workshop B – I didn’t sign up for Workshop B and so I don’t want to intrude or break a rule and go there instead.
But in a rare moment of me listening to my heart, instead of my head, I allowed myself to – not just leave Workshop A – which was a big deal for me – but I allowed people around me to impact me, to influence me, to move me, to invite me, to welcome me, and to allow myself to accept it all.
If ever there was a time and a place to listen to your heart and not your head, it’s at Esalen.
I am so grateful that Nancy approached me. That she influenced me. And that I let her. I was not so grateful that she told everyone at lunch one day when I wasn’t listening that I was a mortician. People were asking me about what it’s like to work with the dead and I was like “well how the hell should I know?” Then I see Nancy smirking across the table. God damnit Nancy.
I came to Esalen for intellectual stimulation. But I got warm connection instead. Connection with a community, with a place on this earth, and with myself.
As I said before, I was overwhelmed with Esalen. Not just the beauty of the property, the coast, the drive through Big Sur. I was overwhelmed in so many ways. Ways that I cannot put into words. I got something that I have a hard time, even as I wrote this script, to put into words.
In my book, Break & Untangle, I write about the 3 categories of mindsets as I see them. I call them mindsets of self, mindsets of strategy, and mindsets of social.
Esalen taught me that there is a 4th S – the spiritual mindset.
The spiritual mindset is one that can’t be put into words, because to experience the spiritual transcends our language.
I had that realization before leaving Esalen, only ironically to learn after leaving that the expression “I’m spiritual, but not religious” was a concept pioneer at Esalen.
Workshop B was good – it was fun – but what I took from that workshop was the realization that we’re all working toward the same thing.
Some people are writing their way there, some are dancing or singing their way there, some are working their way there through therapy. Some will paint their way there, ride horses there, act or cook their way there.
Some will travel this path with others and some alone. Some will go with money and some without. Some will try to make sense of it all through the lens of a god and religion – and some won’t.
And while all the roads look a little different, everyone is trying to get to the same place.
When you strip away all the clothes – all the masks – all the beliefs and ideas and ego – and we see the nakedness of who we really are – we reveal our common humanity.
We’re all just trying to discover who we are. We’re trying to make sense of our lives. We’re trying to be in connection with others – to experience love and if we’re lucky – to be loved.
Esalen changed our culture – I think for the better – you would be hardpressed to find any major influence in human potential, or self-help, or personal development – who wasn’t in some way connected to or touched by Esalen.
And I will confess that it changed me.
Not only did it turn around how I was feeling about California, but it revealed how much dissonance exists between what I expect and what is my reality. I expect to have the body of the 20-year-old – and I’m over 40. An unrealistic expectation of myself. I expect the workshop leader to be the reincarnation of my charismatic and awrnry mentor, and he’s not. An unrealistic and unfair expectation of others.
I expect, I expect, I expect.
Suffering is the result of our expectations in contradiction with our reality.
Things are the way they are, and that’s it. My wishing that someone else would be more – or that I was different – doesn’t make either a reality – but it does make me miserable.
Joy can only be experienced when we’re able to accept things for the way they are – not how we expect them to be – and to accept all of it – not just the parts we like or prefer. But to be honest in our reflection and assessment – to see the whole – to see the dark so we can recognize and maybe even appreciate the light.
The yin and yang of it all are what give life its context and allow for deeper appreciation, affection, and ultimately gives it meaning.
Joy and suffering. Light and dark. Life and death.
Esalen is the kind of place that allows for those lessons to be learned.
The place itself offers us a kind of mirror or reflection of the human experience – its history is full of many contradictions and juxtapositions.
Sitting on the coast – where land meets sea – its physicality is itself a contradiction.
The rich history of the place offers its patrons a place to root out the contradictions that live within us. It’s a place that seems to be primed to create space for a person to go deeper into their inner search for who they are.
I was reminded of a therapist who would often remind me that we all have some of everything within us. We all have some saint and we all have some sinner.
Esalen, too, has it all. Its beauty does a good job of masking it, but the darkness is also there.
Charles Manson spent a night Esalen. Perhaps by accident, perhaps a result of synchronicity. The night he stayed there he put on an impromptu concert in the main lodge – apparently a bit of a flop. Just 3 days later he orchestrated one of this country’s most famous and publicized mass murders.
Esalen may be the birthplace of the human potential movement, but it’s also a place where more than a few people have taken their own lives.
They found Jeannie Butler’s clothes on the edge of a cliff at Esalen, but never found her body.
A wealthy kid from Southern California, troubled and searching for his place in the world, he went by the name Sunshine, shot himself in one of the barns at Esalen. One of his closest friends found him, alive, with a bullet in his head. His friend said his body was fighting to stay alive. Back then it would have taken an hour or more for an ambulance to arrive, when it finally did Sunshine had stopped breathing.
Fritz certainly embodied the light and dark. Even as I can get wide-eyed over Frtiz, I know he wasn’t perfect. And had I actually had the chance to meet him, he would have probably had as much disdain, contempt, and lack of patience for me as he seemed to have for everyone else. But I have the luxury of his mentorship more 50 years after his death and 6 feet above him. But even his fame and professional accomplishments couldn’t protect him from his own light and dark…
A woman named Judith Gold drowned herself in the baths at Esalen the day after a tough session with Fritz.
Marcia Price had groups sessions with Fritz where she mentioned suicidal thoughts. Fritz told her to go right ahead and do it. Well, she did. She shot herself in the head with her lover’s rifle in a Volkswagon camper he kept parked on the Esalen grounds.
Esalen reminded me that even in our darkness and in tough times – light is available to us.
We all find ways to hide our darkness. Put on the mask, the clothes, play games, we exchange chicken, bull, and elephant shit. We try to find project some form of beauty that allows us to conceal the darkness we might be experiencing.
I know myself well enough to know that I can be the best version of me, and I can also be a spoiled brat who allows my expectations to sabotage me.
I know that while many days are bright, I’m not immune to the dark.
While at Esalen, I discovered that the light in other people – even strangers in a strange place – can illuminate my darkness.
Taking a risk and trying on different parts of my personality. Taking a risk and listening to my heart instead of my head. Taking a risk and letting someone I didn’t know help me.
Risks that produced lessons and life experiences for which I am grateful.
It’s the beauty and moments of joy that I will choose to reflect upon when I remember my first time at Esalen.
My surprise at the saggy old man balls.
The laughter of others when I opened up and shared.
The thrill of meeting a celebrity.
The fascinating conversations with thoughtful people in the lodge.
The overwhelm of the natural beauty.
Even making a new friend or two.
Those are the reflections I choose – and that I’ll take with me.
That’s the beauty – the light – that I’ll borrow from Esalen.
A light that won’t be left behind left on that crown jewel of California real estate.
But instead will pay tribute to the truest spirit of what Dick Price and Michael Murphy intended when they transformed that road-side motel. A transformation from a place where you come to experience it and then leave it behind –
To a place where you come to offer Esalen – and people that synchonictity has drawn you into connection with – something of yourself. A place where you can look inside – in the company of fellow seekers – to explore the potential within you – and then take what you discover with you.