Like countless spiritual pilgrims, Esalen Institute faces its own midlife crisis

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RNS photo by Daniel Bianchetta

RNS photo by Daniel Bianchetta

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(RNS) For 50 years, hundreds of thousands of seekers have come to the Esalen Institute, the incubator of East-meets-West spirituality, looking for news ways to bring together body and soul. Now, the spiritual mecca is facing a bitter dispute over its future, and like the countless pilgrims who have come here, Esalen now faces its own midlife crisis. By Don Lattin.

  • michael.skrodzki

    The stretch of land between the mountains and the Pacific is still stunning 50 years later,and the famous hot springs are still gurgling from the rock, but not all
    is well in the Shangri-La of the Human Potential Movement. While the
    workshop program is still offering the familiar smorgasbord of
    mind/body therapies with extra helpings of Yoga and some “Conscious
    Business Leadership” courses, the life of the residential community has
    changed. About a month ago three well-respected long-term community
    members were fired without warning, and the community have been meeting
    daily in a silent circle to honor them, and to protest the practices of
    the current management. During the 60ies Esalen mirrored the bold,
    adventurous and freewheeling spirit of the times, and now aspects of the
    place seem to mirror the political and cultural polarization,
    stagnation and regressive tendencies of 2012. There is, of course, a
    larger context to the current “crisis”. Esalen used to successfully
    combine the different, complementary and overlapping visions of its
    co-founders Dick Price and Michael Murphy: it was an experimental
    healing and learning community populated by longer-term residential
    “students” who constituted the bulk of the workforce, various
    residential practitioners, and some permanent staff. It was also an
    educational center offering workshops to short-term paying guests (from a
    weekend to a month), and it sponsored invitational conferences and
    other projects. Most people on staff had come up “through the ranks” as
    work scholars and extended students, which resulted in a uniquely
    egalitarian feel and climate. Since the death of Dick Price in 1985, and
    more accelerated in the last decade or so, the balance and emphasis
    have been shifting away from the residential community to the more
    lucrative workshop operation and the quasi-academic Center for Theory
    and Research- Michael Murphy’s favorite child. Work scholar and Extended
    Student programs and positions have been drastically reduced and
    replaced by a more conventional work force.The “traditional” 32-hour
    work week which gave resident students time to pursue their individual
    interests (personal healing work, training in healing modalities etc.)
    has been largely abolished in favor of 40-hour “real world” conditions.
    At the same time, management positions have proliferated and often
    filled by outsiders with more corporate and less Esalen experience. The
    former emphasis on direct and open communication on all levels -legacy
    of the Gestalt and group process traditions- has given way to
    “corporate-speak” and carefully orchestrated meetings which discourage
    dissent. Community members fear they will jeopardize their jobs if they
    freely speak their minds In short, Esalen has become more about and for
    the paying customers than about and for the working community. To be
    sure, this is not the first crisis or the first purge in the history of
    the Institute, but it seems to be the first significant enduring shift
    in emphasis, mission and management style, away from what had proved to
    be a fruitful balance and certainly part of the magic of the place. In
    the wake of the recent “re-structuring”, one Board of Trustees member
    resigned in protest. At least as significant, Christine Price, the widow
    of co-founder Dick Price and most prominent keeper of the “Gestalt
    Practice” tradition announced her withdrawal from leading future
    workshops at Esalen. A local newspaper article quotes her: “I have told
    the Board that there is a divergence between the current climate and my
    ongoing interests…. The new culture does not seem to incorporate the
    work that I’ve been part of these many years, so it’s time for me to
    move on.” (http://www.montereycountyweekl….
    Gordon Wheeler, Esalen’s current President, as recently quoted in the Huffington Post :”We are obviously hanging at a cusp…” He is talking about human evolution, but
    he might as well be speaking only about the Esalen Institute.

  • Charles Roberts

    What has happened at Esalen is a microcosm of what has happened to much of alternative spirituality in America. Perhaps it goes back to TM and the Maharishi charging $75 (in the early 70’s, that was a lot of money) to get your “personalized” mantra. Just check the client base and target demographic of the more popular self-empowerment leaders, it’s fairly obvious that they seem to think that folks with less than six-figure incomes don’t have problems. Of course, if your main concern is where your next meal will come from, you are probably not too interested in deciphering the complexities of non-dualist spiritualities.

  • CR Pierpoint

    I would have appreciated if this article had mentioned more about Esalen co-founder: Dick Price’s invaluable legacy of “Gestalt Awareness Practice”, a unique Gestalt variant, derived from Fritz Pearls “Gestalt Therapy”, and only seen developed at Esalen; this, rather than showcasing the Hot springs baths nudity practice, as a place for “hedonistic seminarians frolicking”, which is just plain journalistic sensationalism, an inaccurate and exaggerated portrayal.

    President Wheeler’s quote, stating that: “Most of the people stirring up discontent have not been here for quite a long time” is also quite misleading, as the extended Community speaking up, is well versed in the current Esalen issues, and actually voicing their dissent in solidarity of an oppressed current staff, that is unable to express themselves, fearful of losing their livelihood, their housing, and their extended family all together.

    Wheeler goes on to describe us, the old timers, as, quote: “They are remembering a time when the world was different”. “People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” [… ],misleadingly characterizing the irresponsible hippie-drifter-image. Actually, we “did show up” in more ways than he might know. How so? Because, at the time, the working Community was comprised of far less staff attending to the daily business of the place, all while serving the SAME number of seminarians. Gordon W. wasn’t actually around, as his presence at Esalen is fairly recent, 2004.

    It would have also been useful to mention that Christine Price, widow of Dick Price, and now primary teacher of Gestalt Practice Awareness, has refused to schedule any further workshops at Esalen, due to, quote: “a divergence between the current climate and my ongoing interests “, she writes. Also, that one of the most generous Board member, David Lustig, resigned in protest to the recent firings. A recent Statement Letter from the members of the Esalen Community, in response to the April 18th actions, (the firings) was signed by over 100 current staff members, just about its entirety. These important facts were left out of this article, and thereby down-playing the importance of the current crisis at Esalen.

    P.S. For more details, pease read Michael Skrodzki’s very accurate comment of May 31st, 2012