Esalen Bares Its Soul

From SF Gate

The Big Sur oasis of enlightenment turns 40 with a major face lift and a rejuvenated mission

By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

In the beginning, there was the water. It was hot, with a faintly foul smell, but a silky, sensuous feel. It came bubbling out of the ground on a green shelf perched over the rugged splendor of the Central California coast.

This was a sacred spot for the Esselen Indians, and also for a latter-day tribe that would borrow their name, soak in their waters and praise other gods. In the ’60s, the hot springs at Esalen Institute became an icon of an era – a place where the young and the hip took off their clothes, dropped their defenses and reveled, wailed, whined and danced around whatever came forth from the psyche, spirit or soul.

It could be silly, serious, spiritual, sensuous, self-indulgent – all at the same time.

It was religion, California style.

Esalen, the birthplace of the human potential movement, will soon celebrate its 40th birthday [note: 2002]. And as it does, a new generation has come to Big Sur with the news that it’s high time to leave the “Me Decade” behind.

“Esalen has put so much emphasis on the ‘I,’ on the individual’s experience.

It placed it above all else. We need to be more integrated, part of something larger than ourselves,” said David Price, the operations manager at Esalen and the son of one of its co-founders, the late Richard Price.

“Why are we here? What do we represent? How do we evolve?”

Reinventing Esalen is no easy task. Running this place is like herding cats.

Part of the institutional ethos at Esalen is an anti-institutional ethos.

Is the place resistant to change, to taking orders from above?

“Absolutely,” Price replies. “It’s an irony that a place predicated on personal transformation can be so ambivalent about change.”


From the early ’60s on, thousands of seekers came to Esalen for workshops in avant-garde psychology, massage, mysticism and other techniques that promised to raise consciousness, to fulfill untapped human potential.

By the 1990s, it was all getting a bit stale.

“Esalen was resting on its laurels, and backsliding,” said Price. “There were always a lot of people down here just trying to hang out and get laid and get stoned. And there were people who were really wanting to learn, or had something to offer. The people with a lot to offer were leaving, and those who stayed were just pulling the place down.”

In February 1998, Mother Nature did a bit of backsliding herself. El Nino spawned a fierce season of storms, and a mountain of mud and rock slid onto the famous Esalen bathhouse, crashing through the roof, pushing back the walls and tossing sturdy massage tables around like used toothpicks.

Most of the institute facilities – meeting rooms, lodge, kitchen – were undamaged. But the cliff-side baths, the original source of all the magic, were totaled.

“There are lots of places with natural hot springs, but not in a setting like this,” said Andy Nusbaum, the executive director of Esalen. “You’re 60 feet above the ocean, you feel like you’re part of the crashing waves and the mountains rising up behind you, and you’re watching the setting sun. Three natural elements converge – hot springs, rock, ocean. It just opens you up.”

El Nino did not just bury the bathhouse. Coastal landslides that year cut off Highway 1 to the north and south for three months. Esalen survives on the tuition retreatants pay for workshops – $485 for a weekend and $1,370 for a week – and that money dried up with all the wet weather.

The water giveth, and the water taketh away.

“It put Esalen in a financial straitjacket,” Nusbaum said. “It was a real turning point. It brought into mind the fragility of our physical structures and financial resources.”

This summer, more than four years after El Ni–o rearranged the Big Sur landscape, Esalen is scheduled to christen its new hot springs spa, a graceful structure that will delight bathers with Chinese tiles, a small waterfall, sandstone floors, sensual arches and curved railings of weathered brass.

The concrete building, designed by California architect Mickey Muennig, floats above the sea – an amazing engineering feat that required 34 piers and horizontal anchors to be sunk into 25 feet of rock. And it had to be done while steaming sulfur water poured down onto construction workers strapped to the side of the cliff.

“It’s got a foundation that would support the Parthenon,” said Torrey Waag, a veteran Esalen staffer who managed the long-delayed project but has since moved on.

This glorious restoration of the Esalen baths is just the first stage of an ambitious plan to rebuild and rearrange the entire coastal campus, to update its programs and to build stronger ties to the world beyond Big Sur’s little isle of enlightenment.

Michael Murphy, the surviving co-founder of Esalen and a longtime Marin County resident, hopes to up the intellectual ante in Esalen’s programs.

And, with a little help from his old friend Richard Baker-roshi, the ousted abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, Murphy has begun a fund-raising drive to inspire the region’s Buddhist elite to reach into their bank accounts and make generous offerings.

Murphy and Baker’s temple of contemplation is just a small part of a planned 10-year, $25 million makeover of this consciousness-raising mecca.

Esalen’s plans – to be presented this month to Monterey County officials – call for the replacement or remodeling of some of the site’s aging structures with innovative, energy-efficient buildings; the construction of a new “gateway center” to welcome arriving guests; and the relocation of parking lots that now clutter this otherwise spectacular site.

Raising money has not been easy, and insiders say they’ve collected less than $1 million so far. They blame the dot-com bust, economic downturn and the charitable shift since Sept. 11 and the Afghan war to causes more pressing than hot tubs and new massage studios.

But as Esalen tries to revive the stalled campaign, some of its longtime workers – the masseuses, groundskeepers and other staffers who toil in coastal paradise – are worried about how they’ll fit into the new, improved institute.

“This is an organization run from the top,” said Brita Ostrom, a therapist who has led the massage staff and worked on other Esalen projects over the last two decades. “There is a definite feeling that we are the ones down here on the plantation. . . .

“Who really should make a master plan? Should it be done by people at the top, the board of directors,” she asks, “or the community that lives here?”


Other longtime staffers worry that the Esalen Board of Trustees up in Marin County – led by Murphy and his longtime associate George Leonard – want to turn this funky Sixties shrine into an upscale “Club Meditation,” to transcend the earthy ethos and communal spirit that has long defined the place.

Not true, says Nusbaum, a former golf pro brought in by Murphy a few years ago to watch over the aging flower children down here.

“We don’t intend to turn this into a high-end luxury resort,” he said. “We’re trying to protect this place. We’re not selling off any management contracts to Four Seasons or the Marriott Corporation.”

Meanwhile, David Price finds himself as the hand-holding mediator between the Esalen elite and the folks who till the fields, clean the toilets, massage the muscles and soothe the souls of the paying customers.

Price appreciates the fact that, from the beginning, there’s always been a wild side to Esalen, a dance between the outlaw, the hedonist, the intellectual and the spiritual being. Nevertheless, the petty rebellions can be maddening.

As an example, Price points to the food before him in the Esalen dining room.

“We’re eating chicken here. Now I’m sure I’ll see on some feedback sheets people complaining, “I can’t believe you’re serving meat! You should be setting an example. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.’ We are just giving people options.

There is always a vegetarian and vegan alternative.”

This visit to the cafeteria-style dining room provided another glimpse into the strange world of Esalen management. Price had just instituted a policy that guests had to show meal tickets – and staff members had to show their ID cards – before being served. There used to be an honor system in the dining room. Anyone who wanted a meal just had to stand in line and hold out a plate –

whether or not they paid for it.

But the policy change had inspired a small revolt among staffers who didn’t want to carry around their ID cards, or visitors who couldn’t remember to bring their meal tickets.

“This place can be great in a fire or landslide, when there’s a common peril and everyone comes together,” Price says. “When it’s normal, I get so frustrated with how picayune people can be. . . . I don’t want to say, “All you
have to do is show your ID card to get a wonderful meal that you don’t have to make, and you don’t have to wash the dishes. Is that the worst thing you can find?’

“I can deal with children at the Gazebo (child-care center), but dealing with 45-year-old children gets exasperating. I get real tired putting up with that stuff.”

Then there was the idea to have people who work or have paid to be at Esalen wear little colored wristbands.

“Some people complained that it was like being tattooed at Auschwitz,” Price sighed, standing amid the construction of the new baths. “Come on, does this really look like Auschwitz?”

It had been a long day in paradise for David Price.


As Esalen undergoes its midlife face-lift, the bucolic campus remains a popular spot for people grappling with their own little midlife dramas.

You hear about them everywhere, but especially in the temporary wooden hot tubs installed on stable ground up the hill from the almost-complete cliff- side baths.

In one of the tubs, two women talk about a workshop they’re taking on keeping the spark alive in intimate relationships. One woman had talked her old boyfriend out of coming with her to Esalen.

“It didn’t seem right to have him here,” she says. “I came here to reinvent myself.”

Her friend sighs, and lowers herself a little deeper into the steaming water.

“You know, I didn’t have one serious relationship in my 30s. Actually, I’m not sure if I ever had one. It’s hard to believe the kind of guys I used to go out with in my 20s. I wouldn’t walk across a room to meet one of those guys now.”

In another large tub, four older women are talking about dying, and about going to a hospice.

“Often it’s the children who refuse to let go,” one of them says.

“Look at those stars,” another woman says, pointing into the night at the Big Dipper.

Extraordinary things happen in the baths at Esalen, some of them historic.

According to Esalen lore, this hot water helped end the Cold War. During the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan was condemning the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” Esalen was doing its bit to improve relations with the Russians.

“We had Russian politburo members and their State Department counterparts here – guys who are used to wearing suits and ties and talking to each other across big tables,” Price said. “First we had them sitting on the floor of the Big House with pillows, meeting as people rather than adversaries. Then we threw them, naked, into the hot tubs together.”

And then the Berlin Wall crumbled . . .


Michael Murphy, the man who made Esalen famous, hates hot tubs.

His vision for Esalen is a place for serious study and analysis of the body and the mind, an experiential think tank where scientists and mystics come together to unlock the mysteries of higher consciousness and paranormal phenomena.

In fact, Esalen has been doing that for decades. Its little-publicized Center for Theory and Research continues that quest, holding conferences this year on such heady topics as “Integral Capitalism and Governance,” “Evolutionary Theory” and “Survival of Bodily Death.”

Yet neither Murphy nor the rest of the Esalen intelligentsia can deny that the hot springs are the source of Esalen’s power.

They’re what inspired Michael’s grandfather, Henry Murphy, to buy 375 acres of the magnificent land in 1910 from the original homesteader, Tom Slate, and dream of building a European-style health spa.

It was known then as “Slate’s Hot Springs,” but little could be done until Highway 1 connected Big Sur to the rest of California in 1931.

“Then the war came,” Murphy recalls. “They blacked out the highway. You couldn’t drive down Highway 1. All my grandfather’s dreams ended right there with Pearl Harbor.”

Henry Murphy, a successful doctor in Salinas, died after the war, but Michael’s grandmother promised to keep his dream alive.

Murphy was never that crazy about the family vacations to their coastal getaway in the late 1940s.

“It was not my kind of place,” he recalled. “I didn’t like to hunt or fish. My brother loved it, and my family would entertain in the Big House. It was our weekend place.”

By 1950, Murphy was a student at Stanford. In the comparative religion class of Professor Frederic Spiegelberg, Murphy learned about a Bengalese-born,

Western-educated guru and yogi named Aurobindo Ghose.

After graduating in 1952, Murphy was drafted into the Army. The Korean War was on, but he got two years of light duty in Puerto Rico.

In 1956, after getting out of the Army, Murphy journeyed to India to study at Aurobindo’s ashram. The guru had died in 1950, but Aurobindo’s ideas planted one of the seeds that just a few years later would blossom into Esalen and something called the “human potential movement.”

“Man lives mostly in his surface mind, life and body,” Aurobindo wrote, “but there is an inner being within him with greater possibilities to which he has to awake to greater beauty, harmony, power, and knowledge.”

Inspired by Indian philosophy and mysticism, Murphy dropped his plans to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and decided not to enter medical school.


Richard Price, who would co-found Esalen with Murphy, had been groomed by his family to be a business executive. His father was a corporate leader with Sears Roebuck and Whirlpool back in Chicago, where Price grew up.

But Richard Price had no interest in the business world and fled to the West Coast to enroll at Stanford, where he too wound up in Spiegelberg’s comparative religion class.

But Murphy and Price had yet to meet each other. Later, when Murphy was off in India, Price had a nervous breakdown.

“My dad went crazy in San Francisco,” his son said. “His father had him institutionalized.”

Richard Price was sent to a private psychiatric hospital in New England called the Institute for Living. They pioneered shock treatment at the pricey and exclusive institute, and tried it out on Price.

Later, Price would refer to it as his “incarceration.” He did 18 months at that institute, and had his brain zapped some 60 times.

Price returned to California with a vision that there must be another way to provide “mental health” for those in emotional and spiritual turmoil.

And another seed was planted for that place called Esalen.


Murphy and Price returned to San Francisco in the late 1950s – one inspired by India, the other recovering from shock treatment.

Through Spiegelberg, they finally met.

It was 1960. They were both 30 years old and looking for something to do with their lives, something that would bring together East and West, mind and body, and challenge the conventional wisdom about mental health and reality itself.

“They came down here and got the idea to run the place. It was a simple concept,” David Price explained. “I doubt anyone thought it was going to last more than a year or two. My father wanted it to be a place where people could go through what he considered transitional psychotic breaks in a drug- and shock-treatment-free environment. Michael envisioned more of an ashram. It never really became either of those places. The strength of Esalen is it’s never been co-opted by any one practice or dogma.”

When Murphy and David’s father first came down to reclaim the property in the early 1960s, there was a strange assortment of bikers, gay bathers, fundamentalist Christians and other Big Sur types taking advantage of the natural hot springs.

Henry Miller, the famous novelist and bohemian, lived just up Highway 1 and liked to come down with his entourage for daily soaks. Joan Baez was living in one of the cabins.

Murphy’s grandmother, who would live to the age of 92, had hired a young guy from Kentucky to guard the place. His name was Hunter Thompson, and he showed up in Big Sur as one of the Henry Miller groupies.

Neither the folksinger nor the future gonzo journalist were famous yet, but it was still quite a mix.

was really wild,” Murphy recalled. “Hunter Thompson was the caretaker, and he was fully armed. My grandmother had also retained an evangelical lady, Mrs. Webb, who would hold prayer meetings. Henry Miller and his crowd would be down during the day, and at night the Hells Angels would appear. It was a wild place. It took Dick and I awhile to establish law and order.”

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Price remained in residence at Esalen, while Murphy spent much of his time in the Bay Area.

In 1985, Mother Nature tragically reminded the children of Esalen that the land, the water and the weather always call the shots at Big Sur.

According to one version of the story, Price was meditating by the creek in a steep canyon just east of the campus, across Highway 1, when a giant crystal flew down and hit him in his “third eye,” killing him instantly.

“It’s been turned into a story right up there with Mohammed ascending from the rock, but what happened was very different,” his son explained.

“There’d been a fire in July and it had rained for a few days. The silt clogs up the filters at the water source. The Source – that adds greatly to the myth. Anyway, he was working on the water system when this rock the size of a Volkswagen bus came tumbling down. It was white crystalline. It broke into three pieces, one of which hit him in the head.”

David Price had hiked up that canyon enough with his dad to have an idea about how he died.

“He was very aware of the danger up there,” David said. “He might have been running for his life, and turned back to look when the rock hit him.”


Today, 17 years after Richard Price’s death, Murphy finds himself thinking the legacy of the institute they founded on a whim and a dream.

Now in his early 70s, Murphy still appears to be in great shape. Over lunch at Horizons, a waterfront restaurant overlooking sailboats gliding off the shores of Sausalito, he looked back on the early years.

“When Dick and I took it over, the idea was to do these seminars. For me, the mission is the same today,” Murphy said. “This was an experiment. Nobody got paid much. The spirit of the ’60s and the idealism was the thing.

“It’s been 40 years now, and the place has matured. We’ve tried to not let anyone capture the flag. We were not like est, which had a viewpoint, and was for profit. We conceived ourselves as a mini-university. Now we’re getting a more mature staff. That’s an evolution that’s under way. From accounting to everything else. It’s still a work in progress, but the best it’s ever been.”

Murphy has eyes widened by too much meditation and a mind that moves too fast. He’s sometimes cautious in his comments, recalling all the cheap parodies written about Esalen over the past four decades, and not wanting to say anything to frighten off the donors or irritate county inspectors or upset the other forces of coastal protection.

But then he veers off onto some wild story from the ’60s, or wanders down some obscure philosophical alley, and he has to be pulled back down to Earth, back onto Main Street, and reminded about the question he was answering.

Oh, yeah. Something about a 40th anniversary, which will be celebrated in October. But no one really knew which date to pick.

In January 1962, Alan Watts, the great scholar, Anglican priest and popularizer of Eastern religion, held the first seminar at what was then called Big Sur Hot Springs. But that event was organized by Watts’ organization.

There were various seminars in the summer and fall of 1962 on such topics as “Drug-Induced Mysticism” and “Individual and Cultural Definitions of Reality.”

In that first year, Murphy and Price brought in speakers for two series of lectures on “Human Potentiality,” including discussions on “The Vision of Sri Aurobindo” and “The Evolution of Human Experience.”

While no one group or guru completely took over Esalen, there were some close calls. Fritz Perls, the co-founder of Gestalt therapy, arrived in 1964 and spent the end of his life stalking the place like an angry, Old Testament prophet.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the orange-clad followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were around in large numbers, but they moved on and started their own short-lived version of a “growth center” up in rural Oregon.

Since the mid-1960s, Esalen has always drawn devotees of massage, body work and movement therapy. You can usually find someone practicing yoga, tai chi and assorted forms of meditation by the pool or on the lawn.

Sometimes they’re naked, but almost everyone tries to act like they don’t notice.

For years, there’s been a gentle tug-of-war between workers on the body, seekers of the spirit and explorers of the mind – a perennial irony for a place designed to bring all of that together.

At the same time, the place just keeps on keepin’ on.

During a midweek visit late last month, Esalen was booked solid.

It was the week after Memorial Day and there was the usual five-ring circus – five different workshops. They included one on dreams, one about dance and one called “Lasting Love: Real or Just a Fairy Tale?”

There was one workshop promising “Transformation: From Facade to Self,” while another was entitled “Authenticity, Intuition and Creativity: A Workshop for Gay and Bi-Sexual Men.”

Brian Scanlon, a recent law school graduate and an American Airlines flight attendant from Chicago, first came to Esalen last September, just a few weeks after he lost some friends and colleagues in the 9/11 hijacking.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” Scanlon said. “I’d heard the stories about how they cut the flight attendants’ throats. I was enflamed. I was saying, “Kill them all.’ It shocked everybody here. Everyone was coming here to experience Esalen and to grow, but I came very damaged and very traumatized.

This place gave me the strength to go home and move on.”

Scanlon, 36, has already been here two more times since September.

Last month, attending the “Facade to Self” workshop, Scanlon was here to decide his future career path – how to balance his wish to work with the homeless, his love of travel, and a lucrative offer to work for his father’s law firm.

“It’s teaching me how to feel,” he said. “Just walking around here, in all this beauty, seems to have reduced my wants. I know I have enough now. It’s given me a great sense of completeness.”

Forty years into it, Esalen’s legacy can be seen in the continued popularity in Eastern philosophy, alternative forms of psychotherapy, and a new appreciation by mainstream medicine for the mind/body connection. They were waxing poetic about psycho-neuro-immunology at Esalen decades before it made the cover of Time magazine.

At the same time, many of those ’60s visions about the coming transformation of human and spiritual consciousness – that old dawning of the New Age – can seem like pipe dreams from a past life, hazy and idealistic.

“For me, the ’60s is not a determinate event,” Murphy said, finishing his cappuccino and looking out at the Sausalito shore. “This won’t happen overnight. These changes take centuries. It’s up to us, as always, as to what kind of life we create for the culture and ourselves. It’s up to us.”