Five Days of Serenity from the book Postive Living and Health

By Mark Golin

Flying into Monterey Airport, my mind was filled with doubts even as my eyes enjoyed the natural splendor of the California coastline from a 3,000-foot vantage point. Here I was, a somewhat uptight, East-Coast homeboy about to be dropped for a five-day course at what has come to be known as the granddaddy of the whole West Coast, hot tubbin', New Age scene: the Esalen Institute.

My flight from Pennsylvania was just long enough for me to work up a healthy dose of both respect and uneasiness concerning this assignment. On the one hand, since its birth in 1961, the Esalen Institute has played host to some of the most respected names in psychology and the human potential movement. Abraham Maslow, B. F. Skinner, Fritz Perls, Buckminster Fuller, and Aldous Huxley are just a few of the heavyweights who have come to Esalen to teach, write, or to simply enjoy the ambience. On the other hand, magazine articles that covered Esalen during the 1960s and 1970s hinted at a cosmic factor that made me wonder just how many times I'd have to use the words "life force," "karma," and "self-actualization" before I hit my native turf again.

Esalen is situated about an hour south of Monterey. By the time I got there, not only had my doubts evaporated, but I was fairly sure that if Heaven had a highway, it must look a lot like the one I had just driven down. On my right was the ocean, heaving itself against the solitary cliffs and washing up along unpeopled beaches that have never seen a T-shirt shop or Tastee-Freez stand. Sea lions played in the surf. To the left were mountains, mysterious mountains that gradually disappeared into the morning mist like a whisper: No matter what your state of mind is as you leave the airport, you'll show up at the gates of Esalen as I did: wide-eyed with wonder.

At the main office, I picked up a room key and found out where my group was meeting that evening. I was signed up for Big Sur Wilderness Experience, one of four programs being offered that particular week. All I knew about it was that it had something to do with hiking and was being run by a Steven Harper.

Having dispensed with the formalities, I checked out my room. To be honest, I had been prepared for something less than a Hilton suite and more like a Boy Scout camp cabin. But in fact the room was very comfortable, and the wooden walls and skylight made for a mellow, contemplative space. A thoughtful hand had laid some wildflowers on the bed and stocked a small dish on the dresser with incense. A bowl of ripe apples gave a final touch to the gently welcoming atmosphere.

Strolling around the grounds, the first thing I noticed was a sense of leisurely freedom. Here and there, people dotted the thick, spongy lawn eating their lunches and gazing out over the ocean. Beneath a tree, a woman sat cross-legged playing a flute while, up near the dining room, two young men were running at each other, furiously butting chests and laughing as they fell to the ground. Nowhere did I see that vacationer's desperate need to have fun or die trying. There was no rush here.

That first night, I met my group, and as we spent the evening getting acquainted, I began to realize that these people were not the flower-children-grown-up refugees of the 1960s I had so fondly imagined they would be. Our international contingent consisted of Anna from Spain, Sebastian from the Canary Islands, and Sylvan from Quebec. Among the rest of the group, there were three fun-loving and boisterous women from the Baltimore area; a psychoanalyst from Virginia Beach; a public relations exec from Woodstock, New York; and an actor from Santa Monica. Including myself and Steve, the leader, we made a comfortable group of 13. And the diversity of the group was mirrored in each person's reason for being there. Some just liked to hike, others had heard about Esalen and were curious. On the whole, a friendly, likable, and well-grounded bunch. And yet, as we went around the room, our spoken expectations seemed to secretly hint at just a little more than a hike in the woods. I think we had all come to see a bit of Esalen magic, to have an experience.

The Cosmos in Small Bites

The experience started almost immediately as Steve began guiding us through a few little exercises. "Focus on your breathing," he directed. "What is the quality of attention you are willing to give to your breath?" To be honest, I give more attention to old "Star Trek" reruns than to my breathing, and even in the short few minutes we practiced, I found my mind wandering.

"If your mind wanders, it's okay," said Steve reassuringly. "Each time it happens, gently encourage it back to the business of breathing. There's no need for force." He also suggested thinking the word "in" on the intake and "out" as we exhaled. Believe it or not, this simple technique worked better for me than the most exotic mantra or visual imagery. The multitude of distracting little worries, details, and thoughts usually floating around in my head seemed to evaporate as I matched my breathing to the words "in" and "out.”

Simplicity seemed to be the byword in all the techniques Steve offered. We were neither expected nor encouraged to swallow the cosmos in one bite. I found that the more I immersed myself in the simple, the richer and more multi-hued it became. Little rituals we performed became magical. My favorite was the way we began our hikes in the morning. All of us would gather at the entrance to a wilderness area and enjoy a moment of silence that ended with a deep bow to the woods. As we acknowledged the woods and made a respectful gesture toward them, I found myself, for the first time, recognizing the woods as alive, as having a personality. Through the entire hike, that feeling never left me, and the forest became slightly enchanted. At the end of each hike, we bowed once more in thanks for the experience. Maybe this ritual sounds just a little precious, but try it for yourself the next time you go hiking and see if it doesn't make a difference.

As for the hikes themselves, each was a perfect little 4- to 5-mile package, well within the capabilities of our group, which ranged in age from the midtwenties to the midfifties. But the mountainous terrain did ensure a sensible aerobic workout. Each morning, we'd assemble after breakfast, divvy up the food to stash in our daypacks, and drive to one of the many state parks that comprise almost all of the Big Sur area. On the trail, Steve was a treasure trove of nature information as he pointed out various miniecosystems, unusual plant life, and even sites that marked previous habitation by the Esselen Indians, a tribe now extinct. Steve's love for the wilderness was reflected in his careful instructions on how to leave the woods as we found them.

The trails we took led us through the most diverse landscape I’d ever seen. One day we climbed a mountain and emerged into sunlight above a low-lying fog. The next, we strolled along a deserted beach. In between were redwood forests, grassy glens, amazing views of rolling hillsides and a waterfall or two. There were moments when I was amazed at how silently a group of 13 could pass through the woods.

Back by late afternoon, our time was our own to enjoy the pool or the famous natural hot springs and then have dinner and a glass of wine in the dining hall. After dinner, our group would meet for: couple of hours to try new exercises, talk or make up ridiculous (incredibly ridiculous!) stories concerning the ghost of Esalen. We also learned about something Steve called the hara. It's the center of a person's energy, as well as the body's center of gravity, and it lies deep within the belly. By letting awareness sink into your belly and then performing physical action from this center, Steve showed us how our movements become more stable, fluid, and, in general, more effective. To focus awareness, we might need to give ourselves a few pats on the stomach and emit the same low grunts one hears from sumo wrestler as they take their stance. Many times there was as much laughter as grunting, which was fine by me. I tend to change the channel when things get too dogmatic.

Afloat in a Circle of Trust

The last night at Esalen was some thing special. Steve had gotten an herbalist to prepare a large hot tub with many and varying plants. When we arrived, the tub was surrounded by candles with flowers floating on the water. Believe it or not we then proceeded to rub each other down with baking soda, rock salt, and cornmeal, taking quick showers between applications. If you've never tried this, be advised it turns your skin into silk.

Then it was into the hot tub where we formed a circle. In the center of our circle, we all took turns being floated on our backs, supported by 12 sets of hand while everyone else chanted and hummed to beat the band. It was one of the best experiences of my life. As I came up out of the circle, I couldn't help laughing out loud and thinking about how much I actually trusted this group of strangers I hadn't known a week ago. I felt that with these people I could do or say anything I wanted without feeling foolish. What really surprised me was that try as I would, I couldn't remember the last time I had felt this way.

Driving back up Route 1 toward the, airport and reality the next day, I tried to figure out exactly what Esalen was. A retreat? A classroom? A New Age playground for adults? Then something Steve said came back to me. He'd called it a laboratory, and I think I was just beginning to understand what he had meant. Esalen is a place where you can research and make discoveries about yourself in an environment that acts as a catalyst to the process. Inherent abilities we all possess to enjoy ourselves, the people around us, and our world are just a few experiments away from being released in a place like this.