Esalen – The First 48 Hours

So many impressions, so little down time (so far) to sit and reflect upon them. But I have this afternoon “off” and after lunch, I fell into a delicious, much-needed nap on the wide expanse of thick, luscious lawn overlooking the crashing sea. Now I’m raring to go! Well, maybe not quite raring to go as I’m already pretty exhausted from the process of arriving here (more on this later), but raring to go enough to sit here and do some writing before I head to the baths for a good long soak!

For those readers who don’t know about Esalen, first of all check out This place has a history of almost 40 years at this sublime location. Here’s a little blurb from their website:

About Esalen Institute

Esalen. The word itself summons up tantalizing visions of adventure, of unexplored frontiers, of human possibilities yet to be realized. There is the wonder of the place itself, 120 acres of fertile land carved out between mountain and ocean, blessed by a cascading canyon stream and hot mineral springs gushing out of a seaside cliff. There is the delicate and subtle Big Sur air of a late afternoon in May, the midnight mist of July, the drenching February rain. There are October nights so clear the Milky Way can light your walk along the darkened garden path. And always there is the sound of the sea.

And then there are the people—the people who live there and love the land, and the 300,000 more who have come from all over the world to participate in Esalen’s forty-year-long Olympics of the body, mind, and spirit, committing themselves not so much to “stronger, faster, higher” as to deeper, richer, more enduring.

They come for the intellectual freedom to consider systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia. They come to discover ancient wisdom in the motion of the body, poetry in the pulsing of the blood. They come to rediscover the miracle of self-aware consciousness. At best, they come away inspired by the precision of a desire to learn and keep on learning through all of life, and beyond.

Esalen is a place with a global reach. It is a place, as Thomas Wolfe said about America, where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.

Welcome to Esalen
Big Sur, California

On the way to Esalen along the Big Sur Coast

The picture above was actually taken last year – there wasn’t much of a view this year what with the entire coastline completely fogged in all the way down as we drove. I got a ride from a sweet guy from Sacramento (a gay guy, of course – 10% of the population? Not in my world!) along with a woman from San Francisco who rode with us. Driving into Esalen, cruising down the steep incline entrance, something happened … I was giddy with excitement and even though I haven’t spent a lot of time here, there was a sense of arriving in a familiar and welcoming place. A stunning landscape with the terrain of mountain cliffs meeting the sea awash in wildflowers and fellow seekers on paths of inner landscape exploration. And of course, The Baths – the extraordinary hot springs that make Esalen stand out from any other retreat center on the planet. Ohyes, and the food – mostly organic, mostly grown here on the land and the yummy-yummy-yummiest of any retreat center food I’ve ever had. Fresh kale and sunflower seed salads, roasted yams and acorn squash, spinach and tempeh lasagne, potato bar, salad bar extraordinaire, stuffed tofu – it goes on and on and just doesn’t stop!

We arrived in time for me to find my way to my room and get unpacked and settled in a bit before the Work Scholar Orientation Meeting. I continue to be so very grateful for the location of my room – most Work Scholars are housed about a mile and a half from the main Esalen grounds – but (I think) because I arrived without a car, I was given one of the few rooms just steps away from the Lodge, Meeting Rooms and the all-important Baths! Yippeeeeee! There are four of us to a room of two bunk beds and fortunately I arrived early enough to get one of the lower bunks. The quarters are tight, certainly the tightest I will have lived in for a month with three other women; and there are already issues surfacing to cope with and process. But hey, this is Esalen, the cauldron for personal growth, empowerment, awareness and the grand experiment of transformation through relationship. I’m in it and it’s doing its work and magic on me already!

The Esalen Garden

Mary Ann and the entire Esalen team welcomed us warmly and enthusiastically. Their sweetness was clearly genuine and heart felt, not an easy task with people coming and going here all the time. We’re a group of about 30 people broken into two Scholar Groups and two Work Groups. Continuing on in the spirit I’ve been in for the last 6 months, I wasn’t put into the Kitchen Group, which means that I’m still not cooking for another month! While I loved working in the kitchen last year, this time around I’m part of the “Cabins” Group which basically means Housekeeping. We do everything from the laundry (and there’s a lot of laundry to be done around here!) to cleaning cabins, bathrooms and the baths. There’s group attunement every day, what they call a Weather Report where everyone does a simple check in to let everyone on the team know how they’re feeling. There’s a weekly, two-hour Process Group for the Cabin Team facilitated by a Gestalt therapist – we had our first one today; and already, the depths to which we dove were deep, somewhat dark and very emotionally tender. And then there’s the weekly Open Seat with our Writing Group also facilitated by a Gestalt therapist – there’s plenty of processing going on, but our Writing Group is for writing, not processing!

Yesterday was work training day. We started at 7:30 and finished at 4; and by the end of the shift, I was completely spent and exhausted, not only physically, but way over-filled with information about all the procedures and processes there are to know about the myriad of systems in place to keep the beauty and order that is also Esalen. It all appeals to my Virgo nature, naturally, but I couldn’t believe how tired I was! It will turn out, I think, to be a most excellent job assignment for me once I’m used to it. I was concerned I wouldn’t get enough exercise while being here because of all my time that’s scheduled. But my tasks and responsibilities are varied every day and include a lot of (steep) walking from one end of the property to the other, heavy cleaning which includes plenty of bending and moving my body and carrying stuff from here to there to here. At this point, I’ve got no worries in the physical movement department!

This morning I had responsibility for cleaning the hot tubs. Since we have to get in the tubs to drain and clean them, the very best way to do this job is naked – how perfect to start the day in total nakedness cleaning the tubs, looking out over the vast and magnificent ocean and making things all clean and tidy! I was thrilled! And then there’s the Zen of Towel Folding – yes, there’s a very specific way and direction to fold the towels so they can be bundled into piles. Everything done so systemically works for me – there’s a lot to learn, but I’m a fast and eager learner!

The Esalen Coastline with the Bath House

The Famous Esalen Baths

The Sublime Setting of the Esalen Baths!

I’ve spent two nights here and awoke both mornings to clear blue skies, no fog in sight and warm, warm weather – absolutely amazing fortune in the middle of the summer on the Big Sur Coast – not very typical at all!

The stars, the Milky Way Galaxy and the shooting stars have already been astonishingly present and dazzling! With no artificial light anywhere around, the heavens are black and the stars and planets are utterly amazing!

Last night for the first time, we met with Ann Randolph, the Workshop Facilitator. My first impression of her is that she’s full of energy and funfunfun! She already made a point to emphasize the sub-title of the workshop: Writing Your Life Story – from the page to the stage; and already, it makes me very anxious. And yet, in the midst of the anxiety, I already have some sense of her and the group that all will be fine. Check back with me to see whether anything close to this has actually come to be true!

Tonight was our first Writing Group – I walked in anxious and came out just a few minutes ago feeling relaxed, energized and with my pen moving swiftly across the page. We did some improv and shared some of our writings – the process has begun and in so doing, I’ve already dropped some of the anxiety I just wrote about in the last paragraph. The anticipation now behind me, I can sink in and in and in and find the voice that wants to be spoken.

It’s a big adjustment to be here. My time, which I have created however I have wanted, suited solely to my own pace and desires for the past 6 months, is now being scheduled by someone else! And pretty tightly scheduled, too. I’m even told what time I will eat these delectable, incredible meals. I know it will take some time to get used to this, so mostly I am open to and trusting the unfolding process.  As soon as I arrived, the first person I crossed paths with looked at me, saw me and was glowing from the experience of his own prior full month here. (I later learned he, Michael Clemens, is facilitating a big Gestalt seminar this week.). “A word of advice,” he said. “Pace yourself.” Very good advice indeed. Besides around 30 hours of scheduled work per week (!), there’s our Writing Meetings, two weekly process meetings, meal times and all the assorted group process and movement classes that are on optional tap. Then there’s the Reception tomorrow evening with the President of Esalen (not optional), along with other social events for the Work Scholars. Yikes! I already need a solitary retreat and I only just arrived!

As is true in any workshop/retreat and is certainly true for me already here, my ‘stuff’ is surfacing and I’m face-to-face with myself everywhere I go! Some readers may be surprised to read this, but I’m often slow to warm up to the social side of attending workshops. I don’t quite know how to do the meal-time chit-chat thing and I often separate or even isolate myself just to avoid it. I prefer to quietly take in the group, the group dynamics and step in slowly over a period of time rather than jump right in from the start. While I know this is the ‘right’ pace for me, I also notice how others jump right in and then I don’t quite know what to do with myself except to honor my pace and keep my heart open.

I notice the first impressions that come up inside of me and the ones that I think others seem to be forming. I notice my too-quick judgments and projections, my sense of who I may connect with and who I may not; and I notice how my judgments and projections sometimes make me feel even more separate. Then I notice my heart softening, my fears melting and the judgments loosening, too. And I notice this process moving through me – my heart closing, then opening, then closing, then opening – several times throughout the course of the day. I notice my social awkwardness that surprises me and yet is present; and I trust that it will melt away as time moves along and I find my place. Then I feel it in my body, my muscles tight and constricted and I come back to my breathing and remember, remember to keep breathing and relaxing and trusting. I notice that I feel invisible and then I get sad about feeling invisible and then I move away from rather than toward people. Or I decide to take the initiative even when I wish someone else would – I make the forward move and I’m glad for it. I notice who I’ve decided are the other, younger, prettier, more handsome people easily engaging with others and I feel envious of their visibility. Then I find the place in me that can soften around all this, let it go and laugh at all these silly projections even in the midst of the sadness that they bring up. It’s not easy to feel these feelings, to admit these feelings, to write these feelings – but here I am at Esalen; and authenticity and transparency are the order of the day – so I’m doing what I’m here to do! Ohyeah, and then I look around and somehow I am loosened from the grasp of the personal worries when I recognize the perfection and beauty that surrounds me and is pretty damn likely, I figure, to live inside of me, too!

Here’s an amazing story from this morning. I was on the breakfast line and was in a bit of a hurry because the line was long, I got here late from the laundry and I had only 20 minutes to eat before going to the baths for my naked morning of work. As I was standing there, feeling somewhat impatient and cranky about my limited time, I thought I recognized someone in line. I got a little closer, heard her voice and ohmygoodness, it was really her. I hadn’t seen her in at least 15 years, maybe more. She was one of my very first psychotherapy clients when I started as a clinician at Family Service Agency in Santa Rosa in the 1980’s. After I left the Agency, we worked together in my private practice for many, many years. She was my longest-ever client and someone with whom I remember feeling really good about the outstanding work we did together. And here she was, on the Esalen breakfast line with me! She was engaged in conversation and didn’t see me. I thought for a moment about privacy and that training in my head that told me it was up to her to approach me. But I quickly let that go as she walked by where I was sitting eating my breakfast, the force of the serendipity outweighing the clinical rule that so many years gone by had pushed to the back burner.

She was stunned when I called her name and she stared at me – “Chris, is that you?” We hugged instantly as she rattled off the story of having just spoken about me only last night. She’s here doing a workshop with her father (!) and was talking with him about how important of a therapist I had been for her. She thanked me as one of the most important and influential people in her adult life. Wow – this was a lot to take in and fully receive – now was the time for me to be stunned. She kept reaching out to hug me as we were both tickled with the amazing synchcroncity of our meeting. She introduced me to her father (the story of which I still remember quite vividly from all those years ago) who joined us in stunning energy. “What a coincidence!” he exclaimed. “No such thing,” I replied with a warm smile; and went on my way to my naked work assignment, my heart more tender and expanded from her effusive appreciation that I let wash over me and remind me that we never really know the kind of impact we have on another person; but that when we do in this kind of way, it’s an extraordinary gift. I had just received a huge present, there was no doubt about that!

There’s so much more to say, but for now, it’s bed time as I’ve got a 7:30 am date with a hot tub and I can’t be late!

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2 Responses to Esalen – The First 48 Hours

  1. Bear says:

    The mandatory early morning naked dates with hot tubs and a room by the lodge! The amazingly serendipitous moments! Oh my……… And that piece where you shared so vulnerably about your noticings………that’s some of the best writing I’ve seen from you in all these months of journeying, and you haven’t even really been to class yet!!!

    I remember being there once, doing the ‘work trade/sleeping bag it’ routine where you don’t actually have a room, you just get to roll out your sleeping bag in one of the meeting rooms anytime between 10 pm and 8 am. It was sooooo fine, but then a woman in my group had to leave unexpectedly and gave me the keys to her private cabin for the duration, what a boon I thought, but really it just gave me a place to hide out. Before I had been pretty much out there 16 hours a day. Somehow life seemed a little more interesting when I hadn’t had a room of my own…… a powerful lesson as I remember it from the confines of my oh so private little jungalow at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere, where I seem to spend an awful lot of time ‘hiding out’……………..

    It must be midnight there now, as I write this, and I’m imaging you there in your bunk, sleeping quite soundly after such a full day……..

    You ae so truly blessed my dear………

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