Esalen, Now 50 Years Old, Ponders Its Future

Esalen, Now 50 Years Old, Ponders Its Future

Aug 20


By Norimitsu Onishi
New York Times
August 19, 2012

Original Link

At twilight, not far from a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a Mayan shaman spoke of the return of Kukulkan to dozens of listeners sitting on the floor inside a yurt: As Venus, a planet of special significance to the ancient Mayans, passed directly between the Sun and Earth in June, the forces out there were heralding the return of Kukulkan, the snake deity, and the start of a new age of spiritual enlightenment in 2012.

“The cosmos is talking to us — we need to listen,” said the shaman, Miguel Angel Vergara. “Kukulkan shines in the infinite. Kukulkan is the sacred energy beating in every atom. Kukulkan is the feathered serpent living in your heart forever.”

Mr. Vergara would soon lead his listeners in breathing exercises and chants to Kukulkan, as part of a weeklong workshop mixing yoga and Mayan rituals at the Esalen Institute, the fabled spiritual retreat here. 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.

Michael Barry, a retired television writer who is now an investor, said he has been coming here since 1971. In the 1970s, his marriage broke up, and he came here with “his tail between his legs.” An acquaintance working in the laundry room let him sleep on laundry sacks while he healed himself.

“In my life, Big Sur and Esalen have been a through line for me,” said Mr. Barry, who was sitting at the back of the yurt with his wife, Sharon. He added that a “Mayan shaman talking about 2012 and the return of Kukulkan” was a “good example” of how Esalen had remained on American culture’s cutting edge.

But Peter Meyers, an Esalen regular for the past 25 years who was leading a workshop on public speaking, said the center was not moving fast enough to keep ahead of the times.

“For a long time it was the only game in town,” he said in the main lodge, where a lunch of products from Esalen’s organic gardens was being served. “You wanted to take yoga and study Eastern mysticism. Now, next to every nail place on every street in L.A. there’s a yoga studio, and there’s an ashram right next to it.”

As a culture, he said, America had also evolved beyond some of Esalen’s focus on personal emotions and growth. “Letting it all hang out — that’s passé, so what is the next edge?” he said. “The risk is that if Esalen rests on its laurels, it’ll become a museum.”

In recent years, Esalen has engaged in “stocktaking” about its mission and vision, said Gordon Wheeler, a Gestalt psychologist and the center’s president.

“We’ve always said we’re about personal and social transformation,” he said. “If anything, we’ve stepped up the social. The world is more demanding now. The call of the world is more urgent. And we looked at each other and said we have to step it up.”

Mr. Wheeler pointed to a workshop on how to turn spiritual practice into social service as an example of this new effort.

Part of the stocktaking, he said, also included improving the management of Esalen, a nonprofit organization. A new office in Carmel, about 40 miles up Highway 1 from here, provides services not found here, including fast Internet and good cellphone coverage. The recent layoffs of longtime employees, he said, were particularly difficult because many staff members also live within the Esalen compound.

But critics said the new direction points to a growing corporatism. The Carmel office, they say, has weakened the sense of community as managers spend part of the week there. The recent appointment of a boutique hotel founder to Esalen’s board of trustees, they say, reflects the increasing emphasis on moneymaking packages, which range from $405 for sleeping bag accommodations for a weekend workshop to $1,595 for a luxury room.

“I feel that the corporate model doesn’t always serve the seeker and the spiritual path,” said Jasmine Bangoura, who teaches at the preschool here and grew up in Esalen, where her mother worked as a massage therapist.

David Price, the son of Dick Price, a co-founder of Esalen who was killed by a falling boulder while meditating here in 1985, said the worry that this place would become just another luxury resort was a perennial one.

“It was always a fear, but pretty abstract in the past,” said Mr. Price, who served as Esalen’s general manager from 1995 to 2003. “But now people are building more compelling arguments. There is definitely a greater level of fear.”

Michael Murphy, the other co-founder of Esalen and a member of its board of trustees, said that the recent changes were necessary for the center’s financial survival and that it was “built into the DNA of the Esalen leadership to not become a commercial operation.”

Whatever Esalen may become, people seeking something are still gravitating here. Bhavani Werning, 30, and Rebecca Popp, 21, had come from Germany to work for several months at Esalen in exchange for participating in its workshops.

“I’m very interested in the Mayan prophecies,” Ms. Werning said.

It had become dark by the time the Mayan shaman began wrapping up his talk on the return of Kukulkan. Innumerable stars lit up the sky above Esalen, and the Milky Way shone so clearly that it seemed within everyone’s grasp.

“Please close your eyes,” the shaman said, instructing his listeners to invoke Kukulkan. “Breathe in, breathe out.”

“Ku-kul-kan,” he said, pronouncing each syllable separately and banging slowly on a drum as his listeners repeated after him. “Ku-kul-kan.”

Soon, the chanting and drumming grew faster and louder, building into a frenzy with cries of “Kukulkan!”

“Breathe in,” the shaman said, “breathe out.”



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The Supernatural, Supernormal & Popular Culture Conference At Esalen
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Supernature Kickstarter Page
Supernature Page on Facebook
Esalen Website
Esalen Center for Theory & Research
Wikipedia on Esalen

• ITP, George Leonard, Michael Murphy & Ken Wilber On Integral Transformative Practice
Esalen, Ken Wilber & Integral Life Practice
Followup: Integral: Esalen, Ken Wilber & Integral Life Practice
The Great Integral Awakening (Interviews & Links)

Esalen Institute Statement of Purpose
About The Esalen Center For Theory & Research
The Esalen Archives Of Extraordinary Human Functioning
Esalen Institute Explores The Survival Of Bodily Death


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