Every so often the Esalen Institute spiritual retreat in Big Sur seems to go through an inner dialogue on its place in the world of New Agey practices and followers. The current conversation, as Esalen approaches its 50th anniversary, amounts to a debate on its future, the New York Times says. A key voice in the story, former TV writer and current Esalen investor Michael Barry, is interviewed in a yurt, and there's a Mayan shaman and a massage practitioner, so the story pretty much has everything the NYT loves in a story from California. Plus of course nudity.
Hidden along an extraordinarily scenic stretch of California’s coast, with only a small sign alerting drivers to its existence along Highway 1, Esalen helped bring once-alien concepts and practices, including personal growth, yoga and organic food, to the American mainstream while celebrating the oneness of mind and body in its workshops and clothing-optional hot springs.
These days, as the retreat prepares to observe its 50th anniversary next month, people are still making pilgrimages here, drawn by Esalen’s focus on healing, melding of traditions and mantra of “spiritual but not religious.” Guests and workers still perform emotional “check-ins” in group “weather reports” during their stays, which can extend from a weekend to months, depending, an Esalen spokesman said, “on how far down the rabbit hole you go.” Esalen’s leaders say they are tweaking the institute’s balance between the personal and the social with an emphasis on the latter so they can present the next “edge” to America.
But others, including people formerly and currently associated with Esalen, say it is losing its relevance in a culture where New Age has become a cliché. The retreat’s half-century anniversary has coincided with continuing protests over the layoff of longtime employees as part of a management restructuring. Staff members and others have gathered in circles of silence here; on the Internet, including on a site called Esaleaks, other protesters have assailed Esalen’s management as corporate types bent on transforming the retreat into a boutique resort.
I'm glad to see Esalen's long tradition of allowing outsiders in to soak in the baths from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. continues. Though it now costs $20 a person.
Esalen photo of the ocean-front hot springs baths