Esalen celebrates 50 years in 2012

Not in my wildest imaginings would I have conjured up a setting for a workshop and retreat centre more breathtakingly inspirational than what I found on California’s Big Sur coast.

GeoffPilgrimage115The Esalen Institute is sited at a spectacular convergence of sea, sky and cliffs where towering headlands plunge precipitously into the often wild and windswept Pacific Ocean.

It is a vantage point to watch whales, dolphins, seals, sea otters and soaring raptors, also finding favour as a wintering site for the Monarch butterfly.

And while it feels somewhat remote, it has in fact been a meeting point for humans for thousands of years and is named after a Native American tribe called the Esselen that adopted it as their home in centuries past and some even in present day.

GeoffPilgrimage116How enthralling it must have been to discover such astonishing natural beauty that is blessed with natural hot mineral springs, a stream delivering cool clear drinking water and fertile lands from which an abundance of delicious organic fruit and vegetables are harvested today.

Arriving at pilgrim pace I allowed my sense of excitement to gradually build with each step northwards, experiencing all the moods of nature as I spent days walking the scenic Highway 1 that is a lifeline to the few lucky souls living along the headlands of the Big Sur. The often perilously narrow road writhes and twists for 90 miles between the historic landmark of Hearst Castle in the south and Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north, which most famously boasted screen legend and Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood as its celebrity mayor.

Like Findhorn, Esalen was born in 1962 and is celebrating 50 years of personal and social transformation, its founders Michael Murphy and Dick Price making it their mission to maximise what writer Aldous Huxley called the “human potentialities.”

As a young student at Whittier College in the Los Angeles area I remember the power of his book Brave New World and also the fascination of the era with psychedelics. It was the time of hippies, flower power and the Love generation whose sentiments are as relevant as ever.

GeoffPilgrimage117Many of my heroes and heroines of the 1960s and 70s were also to pass through Esalen, although I’d never heard of this place of transformation then. It soon became associated with a blend of Eastern and Western philosopies and attracted many notable philosophers, physicists, psychologists, religious thinkers and artists.

In 1964, while I was a high school teenager, songbird Joan Baez led a workshop entitled “The New Folk Music” and five years later the centre hosted many of the musical legends fresh from the Woodstock Festival.

Among the performers who experienced Esalen’s charms in those early years were Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I attended concerts by most of these luminaries elsewhere in the world.

Many of these artists and performers are still available for view in the Big Sur Folk Festival on Youtube.

One of my most memorable talks during my studies was delivered by anti-establishment author Raymond Bradbury, who penned Fahrenheit 451 and has naturally been to Esalen as well.

Geoff DalglishStrolling down the steep driveway off Highway 1 with my trekking poles and heavy backpack, I had no idea how I’d be received. It felt like I was walking into a resort out of reach of a poor pilgrim but after initial surprise I was warmly invited to join other ‘sleepbaggers’ in a room that hosts workshops and meetings during the day and then morphs into a dormitory at night for folks happy to stretch out on a carpet. In common with Findhorn, accommodation is at a premium, especially during our 2012 celebrations.

In decades past there was a formal exchange between the two communities and education centres and not suprisingly Findhorn’s famous gardens inspired similar abundance at Esalen with Findhorn co-founder Peter Caddy also visiting.

My first great treat was a buffet-style meal that showcases the organically grown wonders of the Esalen Farm and Garden. Retreatants eat very, very well and most also find time to soak in the amazing collection of hot tubs that overlook the ocean and are fed by a constant flow of healing warmth from the natural mineral springs. I wonder if there is anywhere in the world with a more exquisite hot tub setting.


With Doug Ellis in the Esalen garden

Not surprisingly, bodywork and alternative healing modalities form a significant part of the Esalen experience and includes yoga, massage, Gestalt, psychology, ecology and spirituality. Not being part of any programme I was free to wander and shape my own itinerary, my favourite space (sadly only visited once) being a circular meditation room alongside waterfalls and a stream that also looks out on the ocean. How could one not be uplifted and inspired?

Doug Ellis, Esalen’s manager of marketing and communications, is a lovely guy who was generous with his time and shared my great curiosity about links between our two centres, also having a passion for photography which finds expression in the images you see here. Like all good photographers, he loves that early magic light when the new day is coming alive full of fresh promise.


With Shirley Ward

The power of the place is possibly best illustrated by the fact that at the height of the Cold War of 1980 the Soviet-American Exchange Programme was facilitated with Esalen fostering peaceful private exchanges between citizens of the so-called ‘super powers’. Among them, I’m told, was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was to usher in an era of change as the Soviet premier in 1985, his legacy including the words glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).

Carrying heavy books is not an option for a walking pilgrim but I’ve put it on my To Do list to read the first 20 years of Esalen in Upstart Spring and to volunteer for a month or more on the Institute’s farm managed today by Shirley Ward, whose mentors have strong Findhorn links. “Come and join us anytime,” she invited.

I know the mystique and magic of Findhorn and wish to feel it is here too in this exciting American laboratory for personal and social change.

Story: Geoff Dalglish
Images: Doug Ellis (

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