Esalen: Top Hippie Enclave Is Hip Again
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ESALEN: TOP HIPPIE ENCLAVE IS HIP AGAIN
March 28, 2008
I first began to suspect I was out of my depth just off Highway 1, when our
car was body-blocked by a gigantic Swedish masseuse. My sister and I were on
our way to Esalen, the legendary retreat that helped to put California at
the sharp end of the counterculture revolution, and the Swede was there at
the tyre pump, fresh from her own stay at Esalen, where, she told us, she
had both thrived at Kundalini yoga and discovered her ³power animal² (a
Gentoo penguin). But when the conversation was over, instead of leaving like
a normal person, she remained standing in front of our car, beaming with
³She's annoying,² I said. ³Can we run her over?²
But my sister, who has lived in California for ten years and has a deeper
understanding of West Coast etiquette, inferred from her body language an
implicit demand. The Swede wanted a hug. A handshake, a kiss on the cheek, a
wince, even - these are the British farewell gestures of choice.
³I cannot hug a person,² I said, ³who thinks a giant penguin in the sky is
looking out for her.² So my sibling did the deed while I pleaded greasy
hands from a phantom take-out. Back on the road, my sister warned me about
the journey ahead. At Esalen, hugging is where the esoteric journey begins.
Oh Christ, I've never felt so hopelessly, parochially, autistically British.
When we finally arrived that evening, I felt great pangs of relief when a
man in a yellow beret told us that we were too late for didgeridoo
A spectacular crimson sun was just sinking behind the Pacific and it seemed
to me that Esalen, which sits on the edge of a cliff in a nature reserve
miles away from anywhere, was one of the most idyllic places I'd ever been.
Except for the man playing a lute on the lawn. And the three women so
ecstatically hula-hooping on the terrace that they risked hip dislocation.
And the former architect who told us that a heart attack had forced him to
give up his lucrative career and retrain as a yoga instructor. Only he
didn't call it a heart attack. He called it a ³health opportunity².
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Esalen's centrepiece, its
³optionally² nudist baths crawling with pink bodies. I asked my sister if
she thought the baths were also crawling with VD, and she asked me whether
I'd considered ³chilling the f*** out².
I suppose the baths stuck in my mind because of a story I'd read about Jack
Kerouac, who had complained bitterly in the early 1960s about the appearance
of sperm and a dead otter in Esalen's healing waters. Things had begun to
drift since the Beat poets, then the hippies, then the Tao-lovers and the
Deadheads, began to congregate in this area of Big Sur, hoping to escape
what the banned author Henry Miller, a resident of Esalen, called the
³air-conditioned nightmare² of 1950s America.
A then unknown Hunter S. Thompson was employed as the ³executive caretaker²
at Esalen at about the time of the dead-otter incident and took to firing
angry gunshots through his window pane after he was beaten up by
participants of the gay orgies that were monopolising the hot springs. In a
fit of radical pique, the folk singer Joan Baez, her entourage and two
attack dogs eventually chased out the fornicators: this historic turning
point is still referred to with some reverence at Esalen as ³the night of
The institute was founded in 1961 by two Stanford University classmates,
Michael Murphy and Dick Price. Murphy, who was born in Salinas in 1930,
inherited the land through a trust from his grandmother. His grandfather, Dr
Henry Murphy, the man who delivered John Steinbeck and the model for a
character in East of Eden, had bought the 300-acre property in 1910 because
of its hot spring. The Esselen Indians had long ago discovered its charm.
Dr Murphy had planned to establish a European-style healing spa, but his
grandson had in mind a hybrid ashram and think-tank where Eastern
philosophy, science and progressive mind-body therapies could interact.
Price was keen to find alternative treatments for mental illness: he had
suffered permanent damage from electro-convulsive therapy after bouts of
psychosis - so Esalen was conceived as, in their words, ³an alternative
educational centre devoted to the exploration of the human potential². The
New Age was born.
To transport you from the no-nonsense UK to a more Californian, radically
compassionate head-space, I will quote a tall man with a countercultural
hairstyle who wanted to know what a Times journalist was doing at the
world's most infamous retreat. ³You here to blow the lid off Esalen?² he
asked me over a bowl of Ashram cereal. Then he remembered: ³Oh yeah, there
is no lid.²
Because it was 1960s California and because Murphy and Price were in awe of
Aldous Huxley, who was busy opening the ³doors of perception² with heavy
doses of mescaline, Esalen quickly became all sorts of things besides a
holistic retreat: a psychotropic laboratory, a testing-ground for radical
psycho-therapeutic techniques and body work - it was anti-theistic but any
sort of mysticism was explored with uncynical seriousness. Gestalt therapy,
Rolfing, the Feldenkrais method and most of the stuff now tacked on the
pinboard of every healthfood shop and yoga centre in the world has its roots
Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, R.D.Laing, Susan Sontag, the Beatles and Ravi
Shankar lectured, workshopped, sang here. The Harvard professor-turned-guru
Timothy Leary reigned briefly at Esalen and raised false hopes among readers
of Playboy when he told the magazine that a woman could orgasm hundreds of
times during intercourse, provided she was tripping. Sharon Tate was at
Esalen the night before she was murdered, and the Nixon Administration tried
to claim that Charles Manson had been indoctrinated at the institute.
At the heady height of its notoriety there were workshops on ³The Value of
Psychotic Experience² or ³Supernaturalism and Hallucinogenic Drugs².
Participants would hug, cry, heal and find themselves. When things went
wrong they would occasionally lob themselves off the edge of the cliff.
The centre gained a certain level of legitimacy when a sceptical New York
Times journalist wrote about how he had been transformed by an Esalen
workshop. It garnered intellectual integrity in the 1970s, when its leaders
began visiting the Soviet Union to investigate psychical research, auras and
healing, which the Soviets studied. Somehow, Esalen sponsored Boris
Yeltsin's first visit to the States in 1989.
Meanwhile, the charismatic therapists, intellectuals and masseuses jostled
with one another to reach the final frontier of the mind-body experience.
They called themselves ³psycho-nauts². If you were the kind of woman who
hoped to work through her ³fear² of her genitals by exposing her vagina to
other members of a group workshop and together ³processing² your feelings,
Esalen was the place for you.
No vagina workshops when we were there. Drugs, too, are strictly off-campus
these days, and the only narcotics we came across had been ingested by a DJ
down the road who had swallowed acid that morning and asked us not to tell
his girlfriend. Indeed, for a long while now there have been question marks
about what Esalen is for, now that so many of its principles have been
hijacked by the mainstream.
In 1998 El Niño almost blew the whole structure into the sea but, after a $5
million (£2.5m) renovation and the publication of a fat book on the place
(The Religion of No Religion), ³everybody is going back to Esalen². This
last sentence is from an e-mail sent to me by a highly intelligent and
charming British friend of mine who is stratospherically successful in
Hollywood. My friend, a normal person, met her husband in one of Esalen's
Who, in 2008, is ³everybody²? A yoga teacher called Johanna pointed me sadly
in the direction of the Esalen brochure, where I discovered a workshop
entitled Coaching Skills for Leaders and Managers. A jaded masseuse
complained about the installation of WiFi on the premises. Among far-out
traditionalists there is a fear that the birthplace of New Age has grasped
the corporate nettle. Recently, the staff of Wired magazine spent an
optionally naked awayday here. I know, I know. We are so behind at The
Over a delicious communal supper, I witnessed the amount of body contact
that I would be expected to give and receive over the next few days - mostly
variations on the standard hug: the prolonged pendulum hug (hugging someone
while rocking from side to side); the group hug; the friendly back-slap; the
By the end of the first evening I had familiarised myself with Sylvia
Guerzenzwaig's thoughts on Biodanza, and talked to a woman in a convertible
Porsche about why exactly her car constituted ³a healing present to myself².
My sister, meanwhile, had hugged one wry auditor, one traumatised
Silicon-valley entrepreneur, one startlingly attractive and
once-cocaine-addicted drummer and a whole bunch of naturopaths. She had
gleaned that Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem were here but that Penélope had
tragically kept her swimsuit on in the baths; that Daniel Craig had visited
some time ago and that, it's true, clingy baby-blue trunks never lie; that
during Orlando Bloom's brief sojourn he had behaved either very furtively or
very Britishly, it was hard to tell; and that the skinny guy by the cinnamon
coffee dispenser was the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
Everyone was ³hot², my sister had registered the moment we walked in, and
she would exuberantly strike up conversations, introducing me as ³the one
who has issues with body contact². And, like tanned and better-looking
versions of the zombies in Michael Jackson's Thriller video, they would come
at me, their arms outstretched while I flinched.
Patiently, they instructed me in the ways of Esalen: I was to expand my
horizons and my vocabulary accordingly. I was to get my head around the
concept of ³atunement², in which co-workers begin their working day by
airing their moods and grievances, and share with their colleagues such
thoughts as ³you ignored me by the photocopier on Tuesday; it hurt². I was
to know what was meant by ³somatic experience² and steer away from the film
student who told me, a touch cruelly, that ³I think it's kind of beautiful
when people do absurd things to try to cope². I was to understand that the
whole point of Esalen is that ³all bullshit counts² but that,
notwithstanding the fine line between fraud and breaking new esoteric
ground, I had to open my chakra four.
We didn't have time for a five-day workshop. But I was coping. Already I had
employed the verb ³to heal² in reference to somebody else's broken
relationship. I empathised with the computer technician who had returned to
the real world afer six months at Esalen and thus ³learnt the meaning of
culture shock². I met a charming engineer who had lost 4st (25kg), weaned
herself off antidepressants and designed the centre's environmentally
friendly sewerage works since she checked out of her unfulfilling former
Over breakfast the next day, I shared. Things are so wide open at Esalen
that while your neighbour tells you ³my mom's a bitch² or ³I am a child of a
Holocaust survivor² or ³I was raped in 1978² it gradually dawns on you that
soon it will be your turn, and either you'll end up a bawling mess or the
mundane truth will kill people with its conventionality. And how bad is good
enough for Esalen? I settled on ³I have a problem being hugged by
I'd been invited by a photographer to participate in the tail end of a
workshop: Dangerous Writing. I felt safe. They'll be writers, I thought, and
writers are by instinct introverted, cynical and uptight, like me.
Correction. British writers are uptight. American, Canadian and Austrian
writers can strum moving cover versions of John Mellencamp songs on the
guitar. They can sing Je Ne Regrette Rien in French with a German accent and
reduce their fellow writers to tears. They can talk about where they're from
without a class war ensuing. Tom Spanbauer, the American novelist in charge,
recalled his experience at a writer's workshop at the Ted Hughes Avon
Foundation (Shropshire): ³You get a bunch of people sitting in a room
talking about their feelings, it's not the British cup of tea. They didn't
know what the f*** to do with that.²
I didn't know what to do with it when Spanbauer suggested that we dance. Oh
no, a woman in her sixties was asking me to waltz. Was I leading? ³My
daughter lives in Fulham,² she said, while I trod on a poem dedicated to the
first gay president of the United States. Somebody started filming. ³Hey,
guys,² she said. ³I'll put this on YouTube,² but nobody threatened to
destroy the camera. A screenwriter talked movingly about his brain surgery.
And, not for the first time, I felt the tears well up. Every time this
happened, an American would watch my face contort itself into a parody of
self-control and say: ³You know who you remind me of? Hugh Grant.² John
Cleese, they told me meaningfully, comes to Esalen. And soon I began
thinking, we all need to go to Esalen. To have our chakras realigned and
have a bloke in a Native American headdress rebirth us under a blanket. In
the back of my mind I still doubted that touchy-feeliness is the key to
writing great fiction. But I was starting to dread leaving.
It's true that around midnight that night, under the stars in Esalen's hot
tubs, I witnessed the inadvertent ³is that your foot?² underwater caress;
true, too, that the preamble to this manoeuvre consisted of a conversation
with an osteopath who told me that animal magnetism was so much more than
the name of a middling Scorpions album; that everything is electricity and
that I could decontaminate a bottle of water simply by passing it from left
hand to right.
Esalen has changed since the days when you'd find hippies ³hyperventilating
for 20 minutes and that kind of stuff,² a prominent psychologist and trauma
expert, Peter Levine, told me on our last day. Today it's more tranquil,
safer for the mainstream: a place to recover from whatever bad things have
happened to you, even in the boardroom. But at an all-inclusive $150 (£75) a
night, it holds to the principle of being accessible.
Is there anything less British than talking about your feelings with
strangers? Back in a London pub but still under the influence of Esalen, I
told a friend that by sitting with his arms folded he was crippling his
selfexpression, but stopped when I saw the look on his face. We resumed our
conversation about house prices.
Hunter S. Thompson Henry Miller
Staff of Wired magazine
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Published by David Sunfellow
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