Like countless spiritual pilgrims, Esalen Institute faces its own midlife crisis

BIG SUR, Calif. — Perched atop the rugged splendor of the California coast south of Monterey, the Esalen Institute is … Continued

BIG SUR, Calif. — Perched atop the rugged splendor of the California coast south of Monterey, the Esalen Institute is the mother church for people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Over the last five decades, hundreds of thousands of seekers have come to this incubator of East-meets-West spirituality looking for news ways to bring together body, mind, psyche and soul.

But today, as this iconic hot springs spa and retreat center celebrates its 50th birthday, a bitter dispute has broken out over its future. Like the many “seminarians” who come here after losing a spouse or a job, Esalen now faces its own midlife crisis.

The institute was founded in 1962 by two charismatic Stanford University graduates, Michael Murphy and Richard Price. Murphy (whose family owned a funky hot springs motel at Big Sur) and Price (the scion of a wealthy Chicago family) were looking to start something new. Murphy had already been to India in search of spiritual truth, and Price was looking for a more humane approach to helping people suffering from mental illness, himself included.

Big Sur was already known in the 1950s as a mecca for beatniks and other bohemians, and Esalen continued that countercultural tradition into the 1960s and 1970s. People came here to study yoga, meditation, and massage; to take psychedelic drugs; and to scream, cry and/or laugh their way through encounter groups with a series of avant-garde psychotherapists and other self-styled prophets of the New Age.

Much to the dismay of Murphy, who was the institute’s more intellectual co-founder, Esalen became infamous for hedonistic seminarians who to this day frolic buck naked at the co-ed baths, where outdoor massage tables overlook stone pools — all of it precariously hung over the left-leaning edge of the American continent.

David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend.

What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest.

Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.

“The community has become more tightly regulated,” said Price, who was born at Esalen in 1963 and now lives in Poland. “These people are not just a labor force. There’s always been a priority set for the people who work here to also be able to work on themselves.”

Virginia Lea Arnone, a former staffer, said Esalen is now run by “business men-corporate types who have never lived the Big Sur life.”

“They are not psychologists or spiritual teachers. They mean well but are destroying the very essence of Esalen life. It’s like taking a beautiful wild bird and putting it in a cage in order to sell it or even preserve it.”

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.”

“They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO.

“Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Jeffrey Kripal, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University and the author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion,” said the institute’s impact on American society “is largely indirect, but also immense and profound,” especially with the rising number of Americans who refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

“This group’s interest in science, the body, modern psychology, and personal experience — all of these things have been celebrated and pioneered by Esalen in unique and effective ways,” he said.

Esalen has always provided an eclectic course offering, and this summer’s workshops are no exception. They will include sessions titled, “Writing and Knowing,” ‘’Advanced Yoga for Everyone,” ‘’Introduction to Radical Aliveness,” and “Immediate Level Chinese Pulse Diagnosis and Integrating Western and Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.”

Kripal, who has worked closely with an Esalen think tank known as the Center for Theory and Research, said he has “a lot of faith in the community and the administration” and thinks the current troubles “will work themselves out, as they always have.”

“Esalen is going through a classic generational process that sociologists call the’institutionalization of charisma.’ Every new religious movement has to figure out how to preserve and pass on the charisma of its founders and visionaries to the next generations. It is never easy, and it is always contentious. “

(Don Lattin is a veteran religion reporter who wrote about Esalen in his 2003 book, “Following Our Bliss,” and his forthcoming work, “Distilled Spirits.”)

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  • GeoSteve

    You can still hike in along the cliff and crash this place. Don’t know why anyone would want to, however. As there are way better hotsprings, that don’t contain nearly as many stupid yuppies.

  • mettamega

    I lived at Esalen for 10 years, in the 80′s, the decade of the coming of the families, and the founding of the Gazebo School, after Esalen’s birth in the Wild West on the edge of America during the 60/70′s – and now I seem to be witnessing the coming of the Corporation. Question, will the consciousness of corporations change Esalen, or will the Consciousness of Esalen change Corporations? At the heart of the present crisis at Esalen and the world at large, is a Human Crisis of Communications – Esalen, in its wild beauty, has always been a mirror, for those living there, those wanting to run it and the large world as a whole – Esalen’s gift of being a holding environment for inner development has come to a stand still, Esalen gift of fostering new bridges between the inner and outer world is in Crisis, right now on the property – as America, the world is in Crisis – this crisis is reflected in the huge advances in the Sciences and Communication Technologies at the same time the human race, hardness and becomes polarized – unable to listen or communicate in a real way, a CRISIS OF MATURATION exists at Esalen as it does in the rest of the world right now – in times of deep change, the human consciousness tends to cling to familiar identities – this has become so extreme, that the political sphere, whether at Esalen or Washington D.C. becomes paralyzed –in extreme polarization.

    THE founders of Esalen, Michael Murphy and Dick Price expressed the creative tension of the natural polarization of inner psychological – spiritual development & outer world development. This creative tension, expressed in their relationship, has apparently come apart, these last years, since the death of Dick Price. I joke with my friends, if Esalen can not come through this crisis in grace and maturation, then I despair for the world. For the Human Race to survive its present Crisis of Maturation, New Means of Communications are needed between all the perspectives, a new level in the art of listening and speaking, a new level of respecting all humans and what better place to develop this new perspective, then Esalen – whose own present crisis is a crisis of maturation and a crisis of communications – what better use of Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research (CTR) – Communications could become the new edge that Esalen, at all levels, learns to mature into – the art of real communications and just maybe Esalen can return to it’s function as a path finder and way show-er at the Edge of the Universe at the time of the earth’s greatest crisis since the “cold war” Where Esalen played the magician’s role in its Hot Tub Diplomacy between Russians & Americans.