** by guest blogger Allison Stieger
I visited Esalen for the first time in November, 2001. I had recently discovered the works of Joseph Campbell and had been reading a book called “A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living”. Campbell had taught workshops on myth at Esalen throughout the last years of his life, always around the time of his birthday in March. I developed a curiosity about Esalen after reading the book and decided to check it out.
Esalen Institute is a retreat center located in Big Sur, California. It was founded in 1962 and quickly became an internationally-known center for the counterculture shift of the 1960’s and the birthplace of the human potential movement. Many famous and infamous names stayed and taught at Esalen over the years, including Campbell, and I wanted to see it for myself. It was a sort of “bucket list” item for me, and I thought I would be content to go down for a weekend, take a workshop, and be happy knowing I had experienced it once. How wrong that would turn out to be.
I drove the sinuous lines of Highway 1 from Carmel late that Friday night. Thick fog had rolled in late in the afternoon, and it felt like I was moving from the ordinary world into a place of magic, like the journey from a myth or fairy tale. When I’d finally arrived, it seemed as though I’d passed the first threshold on my mythic journey, that I had been tested and found worthy.
The next day, before my workshop began, I rose early to explore the property. The fog had cleared, and it was like I had entered the gates to paradise on that early morning walk. I’ve been to Esalen many times since that first visit, and I’m always sure to be out on a ramble before breakfast on each of my days there, as I always find something new and beautiful to discover on the property. The first thing I always notice when I arrive at Esalen is the sound and smell of the sea. Esalen is perched on 40 acres of land between Highway 1 and the ocean, and the presence of the sea is never absent from the experience there. No matter what my worries might be, the sea always wears them away while I’m at Esalen.
Esalen is also home to an enormous garden, where they grow many of the vegetables and herbs that are served at mealtimes. Seminarians are free to wander the gardens at will, and the tranquility of that walk is extraordinary. I was there in November for that first visit, and it’s still my favorite time of year to visit, as Esalen is also on the migration path of the monarch butterfly. I can still remember the first time I saw a tree on the property covered in millions of butterflies, looking at first glance like a tree covered in orange fall leaves.
My workshop that weekend was on living a mythic life, led by author and documentary filmmaker Phil Cousineau. Phil has become a good friend since that first day at Esalen, and I’m so grateful that he taught me how to leave my unfulfilling work behind to pursue my dreams.
Esalen is a magical place in so many ways, and this was really brought home to me on my first visit. After the day’s workshop had ended on Saturday, I stayed out on the grounds late into the evening and saw my first meteor shower, far from the city lights of San Francisco or even Carmel. I have never had an experience so magical and mythic, reinforcing my notion that I was in a special place, set aside from the cares and troubles of the everyday world.
Once I left Esalen after my first weekend visit there, I vowed that it would not be my last. I had been planning to take a few months off work in the next year to travel in the Mediterranean, and I added Esalen to my plans for that trip. Esalen has many options available to those who want to stay a bit longer, and I applied to be a work scholar, which allowed me to both take a month-long workshop and help out around the property. I selected a workshop on the theme of “Transitions”, which was particularly appropriate, as I was trying to transition my life from working as a technical writer at Microsoft to working as a mythologist and fiction writer. I arrived back at the property (again in November – can’t resist those butterflies!) and was assigned to work as part of the cleaning crew. I took a lot of joy in cleaning the property. I think it takes leaving a really stressful job to appreciate the beauty of cleaning a toilet, but my satisfaction came that month from cleaning something, knowing that I had done a good job, then leaving it behind in both body and mind when I had finished.
When I had finished a day of work, my favorite way to unwind was to take some time in Esalen’s famous baths. The Esalen property is home to a natural hot springs, and Esalen has a beautiful baths complex, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The baths are traditionally enjoyed nude and are co-ed, but the energy there is completely natural. I was amazed at how comfortable I quickly grew with my own nudity and the nudity of the friends and strangers around me. Esalen is also home to a wonderful cadre of massage therapists, and there is nothing more relaxing on this earth than getting a massage at Esalen, then soaking in the baths while the sun sets into the ocean.
My month at Esalen in 2002 was truly transformative, and my life changed in some dramatic ways once I had returned home. I left the tech industry behind, went to graduate school to study mythology, and met the man I would marry shortly after that experience. I believe that, had I not spent that time at Esalen, my life would look nothing like it does today, and most of the greatest joys I have now would not have materialized.
There are so many other amazing things I could tell you about Esalen, about the movement classes that are offered daily for free, the delicious food that they serve from their kitchen, the Art Barn where anyone can go if they’re feeling inspired to create a work of art. There is even a school there, and seminarians can bring their children along. I’m already planning my next trip; I want my two small boys to love Esalen as much as I do.