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Esalen at 25 : The Legendary Human-Potential Mecca Has Changed--but the Magic Remains

December 06, 1987|ALICE KAHN | Alice Kahn is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and the author of "My Life as a Gal" (Delacorte Press).

I MUST BE THE LAST psycho-virgin in California. I've never been est-ed, encountered, or even rolfed. Call me hard-core unevolved. Now, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, I make my maiden voyage to the Esalen Institute, trying to understand why people keep saying the place is magic. Once-shocking ideas that germinated there have spread to every YMCA and university extension in America. Is there anything left for Esalen at mid-life?

You don't come upon this collection of ideas, buildings and incomparable acreage at Big Sur because you're in the neighborhood. You travel to the Esalen Institute, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on a pilgrimage--stalking the wild experience.

"Do I have to eat the food?" my husband asked as he prepared to perform his Ricky Ricardo function. The man is even more of a purist than I. Never therapized, never meditated, never vegetarianized, he agreed to join me at the weekend seminar entitled, "Leonard Energy Training and the Samurai Game." We dared Esalen to show us a good time.

As described in the Esalen catalogue, in addition to the energy-training exercises of instructor George Leonard, the seminar would give us the opportunity to "enter the state of consciousness of a medieval samurai, to live intensely in the moment, and to experience symbolic death and rebirth." Finally, before returning to the office on Monday, we would join in "a symbolic battle to the death through which participants will have a chance to experience the ultimate futility of war and the value of every moment of existence."

Are they serious?

So it was with a feeling of the ultimate ridiculousness of every moment of existence and some small hope of catching samurai night fever that we set out on Highway 1. But not in total innocence. We had heard the story of Esalen from friends who had been there, from writers who'd mythologized and satirized it, and from several decades of living in this strange state of California.

Ideas dismissed as crackpot in crackpot New England or as occult in the born-again heartland have been explored at Esalen by some of the best-publicized minds of our century. Not only Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel and some of the Beatles, but every celebrity intellectual of the past 25 years has been there. The Carl Saganicity is astounding. Participants have ranged from Henry Miller to Aldous Huxley to Paul Tillich to Arnold Toynbee to Susan Sontag to Herman Kahn to Buckminster Fuller to B. F. Skinner to Linus Pauling to Jerry Brown to Fritjof Capra. We're talking weight. It's as if someone with land, money, free time and relentless curiosity (an apt description of Esalen's leadership) decided to hold a party and everyone came.

"The place is magic," my next-door neighbor, a handsome young psychotherapist, had told me. I realized as he spoke that in describing their Esalen experiences, people tend to tell you more about themselves than they do about Esalen. My neighbor had to share that he has an "open marriage" and "a need to be naughty" to explain why he went to Esalen with his "lover." (I listened intently the whole time for some hint of whether the lover was a boy or girl.) He said they both threw off their clothes and began to make love in front of Fritz Perls' house, where behavioral scientist Gregory Bateson was about to lead a seminar. They managed to be naughty enough to force the tolerant Esalen staff to insist that they stop and get dressed or leave.

Another friend described the plain concrete tubs where bathers enjoy the hot natural mineral springs as looking "like something in Nazi Germany." Later, I realized that my friend's description was less an accurate picture of the scene than a revelation of her psyche.

Stories like these increased my curiosity and anticipation but nothing seemed more mythological than the history of the institute. In reading about Esalen, in talking to people who have been there and in interviewing key players, a series of tales--almost folkloric tales--keep cropping up. Yet everyone swears they're true.

Let's start with the legendary baths. More than anything else, the baths at Esalen have contributed to its reputation as a kind of primal hot-tub scene. Certainly there is nothing rarer than a natural hot spring on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. Now that's what I call magic.

Shortly after my arrival, I hit the baths. It was half to get it over with, half "heal me, oh wondrous waters." I found the communal baths with the communal changing room more nurturing than sensuous, certainly less threatening than the pool at the Beverly Hilton. At an L.A. pool one is always comparing oneself to the bulimic, aerobaholic perfection of the other women in bikinis. Here you are part of a work of art: not airbrushed Playboy images, but the natural curves and acceptable flesh of real people.

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