It’s stunningly beautiful here at Esalen in Big Sur, California. As I gaze out over the gardens and the expansive blue sea, admiring the waves sparking in the sunlight, I breathe in the gift of being immersed here for the month. Weaving connections, bathing under the stars, being here is nourishing for the body, mind and soul. Conversing with staff and seminarians, there’s a shared sense of gratitude and wonder. The power of place is something holistic centers share, each one emerging from their unique land and culture.
Two interconnected impulses emerged on other sides of the planet in 1962. Esalen in California ‘pioneering deep change in self and society’. Findhorn in Scotland dedicated to ‘personal and planetary transformation’. Gazing up at the milky way last eve the myriad of stars felt symbolic of the vast network here on earth; nodes in service to the evolution of consciousness. As above, so below. Bringing heaven down to earth.
Since heavy rains triggered a landslide and subsequent closure for several months in 2017, Esalen has been reinventing itself while staying true to its mission and values. I’ve been inspired by the leadership and intrigued by the changes to both staffing and systems. As a co-worker in the Findhorn Foundation for several years I’m intimately aware how challenging it can be for a long established organisation to evolve. The immersion here has been a time to compare and contrast, connect and engage, filled with curiosity and contemplation.
The spirit of collaboration is at the heart of HCN and enabled this learning exchange. I felt welcomed and enjoyed a freedom of being; volunteering in departments, sitting in staff meetings, enjoying guest sharing circles, experiential classes (sound baths, meditation, yoga, writing, singing), meals and movies and many conversations, harvesting produce, bathing in the hot tubs any time of day or night, and weaving in my work with HCN from various locations around the property. It took time to settle in though. I didn’t identify as staff, student or seminarian and at first felt out of place. This opened the doorway to deep healing and integration. As a young child growing up I was longing for a deeper sense of connection with the people around me and adopted the stance, “It’s ok, I can do it on my own.” Living in community at Findhorn has been a precious journey into connecting with self, others, nature and the spirit of life around me.
Being at Esalen I was grateful for this experience as I navigated my way around, aware I felt quite lonely at first. It was striking how different the inner voice is now as a mature adult. “This isn’t ok. I want to connect!” An email was sent around to staff introducing me and my connection with Findhorn and HCN. This opened doorways, people smiled more and reached out. In the second week I was invited to give a presentation in the “All hands” staff meeting, people were intrigued, asking questions and appreciating the awareness of another center similar in so many ways. The sharing helped me land here, names and faces became familiar, I felt more relaxed and at home. It’s such a deep human need to connect and holistic centers provide a safe and nurturing environment that’s so needed in the world today. I’m also aware of the privilege of being here and it’s an ongoing conversation how can we strengthen diversity and inclusion, what is our role in social change, how can we have a greater impact?
General Manager and CEO, Terence Gilbey, describes the current programming model as a triangle. “The majority of guests come here for personal healing, the middle group are here for personal development and the tip have a greater social impact.” Is it possible to reverse this? Over 12,000 guests participate in residential programs each year, more come to volunteer in the farm and garden, visit family or friends, or enjoy night bathing between 1 and 3am. 70% of guests come from California; there’s a huge catchment area of wealth and a high return rate. Holistic centers share a belief that inner work has a positive ripple effect in the world around us. A Findhorn song contains the lilting words, “We’re healing the world one heart at a time.” This is noble and true and yet there’s a great need to accelerate action. In the words of 16 year old social activist Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire…We all have a choice: we can either create transformational action or continue with business as usual and fail.”
Esalen is actively choosing to create transformational action within the organisation itself. The residential study program has become a more rounded experience with defined boundaries. Afterwards it’s time to leave and integrate the experience to then possibly apply for a staff position in the future. Staff housing has been improved with single housing now for everyone. Enhanced food ordering has reduced waste. The registration system has taken a radical leap in technology and more data is now available that can help inform direction. Guest feedback surveys reflect the high customer satisfaction that exceeds standards within the hospitality industry. Meeting culture has become more efficient, weekly meetings are structured in a way that builds inclusivity in decision making and there’s shared financial awareness between departments. There’s a lighter footprint with the conscious choice to welcome fewer guests on property each week and still the organisation has a thriving cashflow, demonstrating the ideal blend of conscious business practices with holistic values. Even with all these impressive achievements, Terry shares quite openly, “We still have a long way to go.”
Being in a fairly remote location offers the great gift of nature and the challenge of limited cell phone and internet connection. I could enjoy a time to detox however I was here as part of my roaming office lifestyle. I needed a place to connect digitally as well. The first time I knocked on the door of IT support, Kyle wasn’t sure who I was, however, set me up on the partner wifi network. This made it much easier than relying on public wifi in the lodge available in between mealtimes. In one of the many touching expressions of growing support as the community embraced my presence, I was later hooked up to broadband which helped enormously with zoom meetings. Then one day with a big smile on his face Kyle showed me a paper his grandfather, Selig Morgenrath, had written about sustainability titled, Toward a total ecology at Esalen. Knowing my connection with Findhorn he knew I’d appreciate it. The paper is undated however he died in 1979 so we know it’s more than 40 years old. “In the light of world events and the crucial state of the world ecology and the environmental degradation, it is time for us here at Esalen to move toward a more total ecology – and by word and deed spread the need for such a move in the world.”
On the other side of the world, at Findhorn, the founders shared this understanding and were demonstrating a sustainable way of life, living in harmony and respect with the intelligence of nature. An expression of these spiritual values led to the birth of the Global Ecovillage Network in 1995. Findhorn and Esalen both focus on farm to table eating, local, organic produce, have a Living Machine on site – an ecological waste water treatment system. One of the ways Esalen continue to lower their ecological footprint is by encouraging guests to re-use towels for the hot tubs rather than making them so freely available. Jack, one of the supervisors in Cabins, mentioned how this has reduced their laundry load by 80%.
Volunteering in CABinS (Conscious Aware Beings in Service) on ‘row clean day'(Friday’s and Sunday’s when three and five day programs commence and conclude and the rows of housing are prepared for the new arrivals) was a great opportunity to see the range of rooms. Guests can choose from the simplicity of bunk beds (or even just a sleeping bag space) to the luxury apartment ‘Fritz’ named after Fritz Perls who developed Gestalt therapy during his residency here. The CABinS team gracefully move through mountains of bedding and towels week by week and it was a glimpse into the smooth running behind the scenes. I enjoyed a standing meditation folding fresh coloured towels for bathing in the hot springs.
The Psychedelic Integration week commencing this weekend is fully booked and has over 400 people on the waiting list. Esalen is a thriving 18 million dollar non profit, its annual food budget alone is similar to the entire operation of Findhorn. Averaging 280 meals three times a day the five chefs and their team serve wholesome, delicious, creative meals that are one of the many highlights of being here. It’s been four weeks now and each meal has felt new. One of the staff benefits introduced when Esalen re-opened is free meals for all staff. Terry described this as ‘low cost for high value’ that boosts morale and simplifies the organisational aspect.
For more than 6000 years the hot springs at Esalen have been a place of healing. For the last half century the land has been offering the perfect landscape for workshops and retreats with transformation at the core. Terry and his wife Kim, myself and two HCN Board members, and the Esalen programming team all attended Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco earlier this month. The conference encourages us to “Connect through technology, but do so in a way that supports a person’s well-being, work effectiveness, and is ultimately useful to the world.”
Cheryl Fraenzl, Director of Programs, referred to the strong link with Esalen when reporting back to staff that 17 Esalen faculty presented at the conference. It’s a great sign of progress that the holistic world view centers have been pioneering for over 50 years is now so present in mainstream culture and there’s a growing dialogue. Themes identified include; wisdom practices, the healing role of psychedelics, individual and collective trauma, and loneliness (the flip side of social media’s impact). It’s important to recognise the progress made as we continue to pay attention to the environment, the need for social justice, and the progression of human needs.
As the birthplace of the human potential movement, many great scholars in residence have shaped the culture here today. The founders Michael Murphy and Dick Price were inspired early on by Abraham Maslow’s psychology of higher health and peak experiences. Maslow’s five tier model of human needs continues to be relevant for us all and as a frequent traveller I need to keep paying attention to each level. This month has been a beautiful journey from the lowest levels of the pyramid – made up of the most basic needs – to the most complex needs at the top of the pyramid. In the first few days basic physical requirements including the need for food, water, sleep, and warmth were established. I could then open up to safety and security and my needs became increasingly psychological and social. The need for love, friendship, and intimacy became significant. Further up the pyramid, I was able to integrate the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment around my purpose for being here. In many ways the levels were also unfolding simultaneously.
I’ve been staying in a staff yurt and realised it had been empty since October last year when the previous occupant had left due to ill health and passed away soon after. I remember meeting her on one of our HCN webinars last year and was struck by the interconnection. We’d held a similar role in Guest Services in our respective centers, as the role hasn’t yet been filled the yurt was available for my visit. The accommodation slowly came back to life again and I felt the care of the maintenance and grounds team around me day by day. First the hot water was fixed, then the heating, then the roof where a tree had fallen and split the side. One day I came home and the path had been cleared, then a small shrine appeared. All very practical and yet touching gestures, that gave me a deepening sense of the people who serve here; the warm hearts and open spirit. I shared time with the office team and appreciated the welcoming smiles of JJ, Rebecca, Dan and the team; how they respond to so many requests day by day.
The Main Lodge is the central meeting place, the dining, bar and social area. Since the Lodge was rebuilt in the Campus Renewal a few years ago the kitchen, dining and washing area have been remodelled. The kitchen team are now visible as they prepare and present the meals, in the style of contemporary restaurants, creating a relationship between the giving and receiving that contributes to the warm vibe of conversation and connection. On my last visit to Esalen a few years ago I was struck by the practicality of the rubber aprons the crew wore in ‘the pond’ – the dishwashing area – and smiled at the rubber ducks that were on display. A few months ago I was at Kashi Ashram in Florida and enjoyed many a conversation with my neighbour in the room next door, Uma Simon, who had lived at Esalen in the 70s. In one of the many threads that link our network I discovered the tale behind the ducks. Uma created Dishwashing United Cleaning Karma Syndicate (DUCKS) and her influence lives on today in the culture of Esalen!
Daily rituals will stay in my heart as I travel onwards to other centers in California. Every evening the dinner crew ring the bell announcing the end of service. The shutter descends temporarily and those still in the lodge invariably applaud in appreciation for another beautiful meal (which includes dessert seven nights a week!) People gather on the deck and lawns at sunset standing in awe and admiration at the natural daily rhythm of the sun seemingly descending over the edge of the ocean, the sky often painted in gorgeous pink and orange hues. Again the folks applaud this gift of nature. It reminds me of The Far Side cartoon; a creature sitting with eyes glued to the television screen watching an image of the sunset while through the window to the left the actual sunset unfolds. Here we have time to slow down, step out of our busy lives and enjoy the world around us fully. The Esalen experience has literally felt like an entire month in nature, walking between my yurt and the hot tubs on opposite sides of the property, across the creek that flows down from the canyon, into the ocean where the sea otters emanate mastery in relaxation as they float over the incessant waves crashing into shore.
In recent years HCN has held events in China and folk there are becoming increasingly interested in what they describe as our ‘soft culture.’ By this they’re referring to the many elements that are woven into daily life in holistic centers – whether it’s deep listening or empathy skills, compassionate communication, dance or body work, yoga and mindfulness – aspects that are so familiar to us it can sometimes be hard to name them. I’ve enjoyed many ‘Findhorn’ moments here – leading an attunement at Findhorn we turn thumbs to the right when we hold hands in a circle, here at Esalen it’s thumbs to the left. Where do these rituals emerge from? Essentially they seem to be humanistic approaches that are natural to us all. Welcoming the whole person and providing endless opportunities to grow into our human potential. I sat in a gardening attunement and a fairly new staff member led the check in saying, “I’m not sure if they do this in other places.” I joined the HR attunement and they began with a meditation and sharing that was held on the edge of the cliff here at Big Sur and could have been overlooking Findhorn Bay. I love the many ways we’re interconnected.
With my interest in transformational education Dawn and Kim invited me to join the Monday morning orientation of the month long residential scholar program. They complement each other well, holding both the emotional self care and more cognitive theory. Held two weeks into my stay, I became a reference point for the new arrivals and these new connections mutually deepened our experience here. Many people have heard of Findhorn, others are fascinated to discover there are other places like Esalen in the world. Others still are intrigued that an entire network exists and it’s been a valuable opportunity to articulate our message in so many ways and sense how much it inspires people. I’ve enjoyed conversations with people who live in an entirely different financial world to my own – one of significant wealth – and it feels like a healthy intersection that can help HCN model a thriving non-profit. Holistic centers are mission driven and often struggle with the financial piece, even though both elements are vital.
The orientation offered a valuable framework for people stepping into the month long journey of inner work that’s made up of different elements; the workshop experience, (this month with a focus on mindfulness), living in community at Esalen, immersion into nature and the power of the land, service in a department, and group process. We were encouraged to reflect on our observations and insights. It was helpful to relate the mention of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to my own journey here; building safety, belonging, esteem and self actualisation. The four-week journey mapped out for the students also perfectly matched my experience. Week 1: I’m here. What’s going on? Week 2: I’m finding the rhythm. Week 3: I’ve landed. Self care. Week 4: I’m loving it. Integration. Happy to stay longer!
The learning model of the program is based on the relationship between learning and stress. The healthy zone between eustress and distress is where we aim to find the balance – gently nudged out of our comfort zone into greater transformational capacity and yet maintaining a sense of self care. We all need to be aware of the tipping point and allow time for rest and integration. Esalen provides such a place to nurture wellbeing, growth, connection and transformation. I believe it’s on an exciting trajectory to have an even greater impact in the world as it looks at itself clearly and honestly, explores the myths within the culture; what serves, what doesn’t? Finding ways to continually refine what it’s been offering the world for so long. In this week’s ‘All hands’ meeting, one of the long term staff members, Josef originally from Brazil, who’s been here for 27 years spoke of the generosity and abundance of the place and expressed his appreciation for the “TG factor” in its evolution. Speaking directly to Terry he expressed, “It’s an honour to serve under your leadership.” As HCN, we’re blessed that Terry feels Esalen has a responsibility to share its learning with the network as we all go forth dedicated to deep change in self and society, in the beautiful spirit of collaboration.