Elemental Esalen

by Steven Harper

Wildness, rich diversity, and the dramatic meeting of edges — both inner and outer — converge to create the place we call Big Sur. Here the elements meet, greet, and co-create. Fire, Air, Earth, and Water come together in a manner so clearly on display that we have no choice but to come to our senses and awaken in our human body.

Esalen Institute’s underlying support and grounding comes from a constellation of dynamic factors. Well before spoken word and long before people, the elemental dance of creation has been and is now forming and shaping this mountain seascape. If we look at Esalen as just the human-inhabited, human-scaped grounds, we miss the deeper integral webs that literally ground and connect us to the extended community of things — to the timeless source of everything. The physical place informs the base of what goes on at Esalen. From this heartfelt and bodily-felt basis we are supported in allowing ourselves to try on the new and different, to deepen, to ask the frightening questions, to touch that which has not been touched. Nature here is not separate, but inclusive of all, and it is the primary teacher of those human beings that choose to inhabit this wild coast.

Big Sur is a dramatic meeting of land and sea. The continental plate and the oceanic plate are meeting, sliding, and pushing the Santa Lucia Mountains up at a geologically abrupt rate, creating the fastest gradient rise from ocean to summit along the Pacific coast of the contiguous United States. This rapid rise from the ocean participates in creating Big Sur’s climatic and habitat diversity. Wildly different plants meet in these mountains. This region is the furthest south a number of northern species come, including giant redwoods, and it is the northern edge of some southern species, including the yucca. They meet at their edges, interweave, and give the Big Sur its breathtaking patchwork mosaic of colors and plant life. At every layer — the rocks, weather, plants, and multitude of animals, we are swimming in diversity both on land and sea. Here, we are among the wonderful, we have the grand, the rare, and the unusual. Esalen at its roots is a meeting place on the edges of known territory that explores the diversity of possibilities in this wondrous moment-to-moment unfolding of life.

In Big Sur and at Esalen, the elements are felt everyday. Water especially in all it forms comes to play, as hot springs laden with earth minerals and warmed by fire from deep within; as a fresh water creek making it way home to the sea; as gifts from the air in the form of rain, fog, and even snow. Nature sings its songs powerfully here, opening wide our portals of perception. It is hard not to be touched, to listen deeply, to embody in physical body and in the community of this earth-body. Here we feel ourselves in participation in an animate world and know our belonging. This foundation is a fertile bed for the many seeds, the tending, weeding, blossoming, and fruition of all that Esalen has brought forth and will bring forth into our collective ever-changing culture.

copyright Steven Harper, all rights reserved