The Magic Of Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA
As a young adult attending UC Santa Cruz in the eighties, we were only 2 hours north of the most beautiful stretch of raw, natural, rugged coastline in the world. When the weekends would roll around, my boyfriend, friends and I would buy an eighth of an ounce of some of the best marijuana available in the country. Around 11 pm, we would leave to drive down the windy, always densely fogged Highway 101. It twisted and cut its way down the steep, dark green cliffs, meeting the deep blue and white-capped, foamy waves crashing against the shore. We would snake down the challenging, narrow, two lane
Isolated by an hour's drive on either side, Esalen Institute sat cradled in a thick nest of rugged redwoods, elegant Douglas Firs and Incense-cedars, all boasting their deep, emerald greens and rich browns. This magical land, still flourishing today, is a private community that was founded in the sixties by the creator of human encounter group therapy, Michael Murphy.
Esalen grew into an international destination for those wishing to take a break from the high stress and fast pace of modern society in exchange for stargazing along the cliff's edges.
Guests of Esalen would take various classes on human existence, awareness, relationships and self discovery.
While expensive to be an "official" guest there, at the time that I was attending UC Santa Cruz, Esalen allowed the public access to the magical sulfur tubs that sat off the steep cliffs for late night soaks between the hours of 1 am and 4 am. While this luxury access lasted only a short while, my group of friends and I discovered the back entrance and continued to go, sneaking in the back gate and winding our way down deep-black paths to reach the pools and rich, jeweled grounds.
The steaming, sulfur-infused tubs hung precariously off the cliffs, located above ancient Indian burial grounds. Once we sunk in, we would be transformed into an existence unlike anything typically human: a spiritual transformation that included a shooting star display sure to impress even the most seasoned stargazer.
Esalen's stars did not just sprinkle the deep, black canvas above us with their scattered twinkles, they saturated the sky like a white, light infused, rich cream. The sky alone, towering over this remote, rugged landscape was worthy of deep pause, as light shows of multiple shooting stars scooted across the vast, velvet-blue sky. We had no cell phones or IPads, just a connection to the electricity of nature's power and breathtaking beauty.
At Esalon, clothing was optional, and it was not uncommon to see naked individuals, couples or groups of friends roaming or stretching out over the grassy knolls above the high, glossy cliffs. There was a redwood pool glistening off to the left of the property where star
One particular night that I'll never forget, as I gazed upward at the intricate star-play from the sulfur tubs, a much more brilliant ball of light appeared, traveling horizontally across the distant horizon and the wide expanse of the huge, black sea. Mezmorized, my eyes remained affixed to this strange sight until it centered upon the horizon. With a brilliant burst of fire, it exploded, releasing a smaller ball of white light that slowly descended to the dark ocean, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.
"What WAS that?" I asked breathlessly. A quiet, deep voice answered me from within the shadows and dancing lights from the hundreds of candles surrounding the pools. "That was a rocket releasing its daughter ship into the ocean." "WOW!" I breathed, as my eyes caught sight of yet another shooting star completing the light show. I felt like the world was putting on a grand performance just for us!
The following summer I was drawn back to Esalen, this time for an extended stay. I did an internship there working in the children's camp for one month. There were certain rules we had to abide by. We were not allowed to pick the children up off the ground, not even to hug them. If we wanted to show them affection, the correct way was to get down on their level and hug them there. The reason was that we didn't want to disconnect them from the earth.
So every morning I started my day at 6 am, drinking my coffee, standing cliffside and watching the sea otters crack open their abalone shells on their bellies as they floated amidst the foaming sea and thick kelp. I would then hike down one of the many, intricate paths that wound through the camp until I reached the children's gazebo.
That summer, I discovered a small structure filled with candles and a few yoga mats within the thick, wild forest that surrounded Esalen. There was nothing else like it, for it sat atop a waterfall that tumbled energetically over glistening, colorful rocks until reaching the crashing waves far below. I spent at least an hour there each day, writing in my journal and learning how to be quiet and still. Looking back, I realize these quiet moments formed the backbone of my connection to a deeper, universal power that would navigate me through many tough times ahead.
My days at Esalen would always conclude with soaks in the hot, steamy sulfur pools hanging off the cliffside. It was there that I would meet people from around the world: an artist from Paris, a war photographer from New Jersey, a housewife from Milan.
I returned to UC Santa Cruz later that summer, back to my classes, to my boyfriend, and my college life. Although I was still me, Esalen had somehow changed me. I was deeper, better, more tolerant, and much more inquisitive. I no longer tolerated the shallow chatter that often accompanied a group of young adults. I had changed. I wanted conversations to have true meaning. I wanted to learn. I wanted to expand.
Two years later, my boyfriend whom I had grown to deeply love, was killed in a horrific car accident on his way up that very Highway 101. Shortly thereafter, I could no longer tolerate living in Santa Cruz, as everything I saw there reminded me of him. I ended up moving to San Diego and starting a new life.
Southern California was like a different planet from Northern California. It was all about the car you drove and how pretty you were. Soon, my memories of Santa Cruz seemed like a world away.
Yet this magical stretch of rugged coastline in Big Sur never left me, and never will. This part of my native state will forever be calling me home. Someday I will listen. I will find myself back at Esalen, soaking in those amazing, magical tubs, staring up at that dizzying array of sparkling stars, and giving thanks for being a part of the other-worldly magic of Esalen Institute and Big Sur once again.