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Esalen Institute at 50

Meredith May wrote (wonderfully, I might add!) an article at that caught my attention and dragged it through every word and every photo. :-) I want to provide just enough of her comments that you want to read it, too! Accompanying the article are 20 photographs that should add to your interest. No, I have never been to Esalen.

Michael Murphy and Dick Price, both Stanford graduates who left post-graduate programs (one at Stanford, one at Harvard) founded the Esalen spiritual retreat on a remote cliff in Big Sur 50 years ago. At that time, they were dismissed as misfits who did outlandish things like meditate and study Eastern philosophy. May notes that what they ultimately accomplished was to launch a worldwide “human potential” movement that changed the way we think about almost everything. In addition to introducing many Eastern and metaphysical concepts to the West (concepts that have since become commonplace, like massage, yoga, and meditation), Esalen is also, believe it or not, credited with a major role in the ending of the Cold War. Says Meredith May:

The 27-acre property, a natural wonder of waterfalls, ancient trees and rustic ocean-view cabins, has provided retreat to more than 1 million people, including Joan Baez, Beatle George Harrison, physicians Dean Ornish and Andrew Weil, noted psychotherapist Abraham Maslow, and writers Henry Miller and Aldous Huxley.

“Esalen tried to carve out a way of being religious without being religious,” said Jeffrey Kripal, head of religious studies at Rice University and author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.”

“So today we have this phrase, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ ” Kripal said. “Now that’s the largest religious demographic for people under 30. Esalen pioneered that concept in American culture.”

Esalen remains a place of both “emotional healing and naked hot spring bathing,” as well as a gathering place for intellectuals.

Why did Esalen begin? Murphy and Price could not study what they wanted in college!

“Back in 1955, my Stanford professors were in direct opposition to me, looking at me like I was crazy because I meditated,” said Murphy, 82, who splits his time between Big Sur and Marin County. “Philosophy then was a branch of science, based in logical positivism. There was no character training – that was considered purview of the family or the church. It was such a long way from the Indian philosophies I was studying.”

The two young men had perfect timing. Esalen’s founding coincided with the Free Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, and the antiwar movement and brought cultural rebels to Big Sur.

Even now, more than 12,000 people sign up for 600 Esalen workshops each year, in everything from sustainable business practices to hypnosis to “The Holy Fool: Crazy Wisdom From Van Gogh to Tina Fey and The Big Lebowski.” The workshops range from $405 (a weekend stay, in a sleeping bag, on a conference room floor), to $4,565 (for a week’s stay in a private room). Today, Esalen is a nonprofit with gross annual revenue of $14 million, half of which goes to pay 200 staffers and interns, according to Esalen Institute President Gordon Wheeler.

When Murphy and Price, both 31, drove down to Murphy’s family property in Big Sur in 1961, there was a just a dilapidated hotel (one area of which was occupied by a Pentecostal church), Joan Baez and her boyfriend and his sister, and managers hired by Murphy’s grandmother, who lived in Salinas. Henry Miller and his former lover, Anaïs Nin, were regular bathers. On weekends, gay men from San Francisco traveled to the baths, and the “caretaker,” patrolling with several guns, was Hunter S. Thompson, later to become a “gonzo journalist!” A fistfight between the men in the baths and Thompson once resulted in Thompson ALMOST being thrown from the cliffs.

Price and Murphy based their new Big Sur center on the central tenet of the 19th Century Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo (who in turn influenced Gandhi): that the founding kernel of the universe comes from consciousness, and that consciousness is always evolving.

“It was groundbreaking, this idea of a place to ground the psyche,” author Jeffrey Kripal said. “In the ‘5os and ’60s, you didn’t deal with your emotions. It just wasn’t part of the culture.”

Price’s parents, who worried that their son’s mystical pursuits were a sign of mental illness, institutionalized him and subjected him to electroshock. He said that he used meditation to survive.

Big Sur is not without its own physical dangers. In 1985, Price died after a hiking accident in the Santa Lucia Wilderness near Esalen.

Esalen opened to the public in September of 1962.

Folk festivals featuring Baez, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins followed. Timothy Leary led seminars on mind-altering drugs. Ansel Adams gave a talk on the photography of Edward Weston. <I saw the photography of Weston at an exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art.>

Gestalt therapy founder Fritz Perls took up residence, and became famous for putting volunteers in his “hot seat” and picking apart their defense mechanisms, or asking them to speak with people who had appeared in their dreams.

Within six years, George Harrison flew in by helicopter to listen to Indian musician Ravi Shankar play the sitar.

May wrote that over 200 newspaper and magazine articles appeared about Esalen between 1968 and 1975, most of which focused on the nudity, the group therapy, and the drugs.

Nevertheless, Esalen was emerging as an intellectual center, winning grants from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, and the National Institutes of Health to study mind-body science, nutrition, education and foreign policy.

Oh, yes! The Cold War….!

In 1989, Esalen hosted Russian politician Boris Yeltsin on his first trip to the United States before he became president, and arranged meetings for him with President George H.W. Bush at the White House and Ronald Reagan while the former president was recuperating from surgery in Minnesota. According to Yeltsin’s biographers Leon Ahrens and Timothy Colton, the trip catalyzed Yeltsin’s decision to end Communist rule.

Please read the article. My summary does not do it justice. There are also 50th birthday events this week:

Esalen’s 50th Celebration Concert with Joan Baez: 2 p.m. Wednesday. Organic barbecue and hot springs access included. 55000 Highway 1, Big Sur. Advance tickets are sold out, but a limited number of tickets ($85) will go on sale at the Esalen gate at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Reservation-only Esalen anniversary retreats: “The Best of Esalen: A Moveable Feast.” Sunday (Sept. 30)-Thursday. Workshops, meditation, massage, gestalt, dance, singing and more. (888) 837-2536. Esalen’s 50th Anniversary Benefit Weekend. Thursday-next Sunday. Big Sur nature hike, silent auction, yoga and music. (831) 667-3032.

-Bill at

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