THE IRONY OF HOTEL ESALEN
Fluffy white towels – check. Manicured lawn – check. Hot spring jacuzzi – check. The Californian waves crash onto the soothing shore and butterflies nest in marigolds. Your conversation about Microsoft comes to a close as your partner is due for his massage. Perhaps it’s time for another green tea. This is Esalen. The alternative retreat centre modelled on a 5-star resort. It’s got the scenery, it’s got the staff, and it’s got the price tag … but apparently it’s still an intentional community.
Esalen was founded in 1962 in order to explore and research ‘humanistic alternative education’. Inspired by the writings of Aldous Huxley, Indian spiritualism of the body and the limitations of status quo psychology, the centre began offering lectures by prominent thinkers. Eastern philosopher Alan Watts, psychologist Abraham Maslow and Huxley’s wife, Laura, were some of the first. In 1964 Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, began a residency at Esalen and used the centre to offer workshops and research how awareness of sensation, perception and expression via the body can improve communication and understanding between human beings. As a community, Esalen’s intention is to help individuals ‘realise their human potential’ by being a ‘community of seekers and change agents’.
I arrived at Esalen in good spirits. I’d driven up the beautiful Big Sur coast with a friend, and I was ready to embrace the community. These spirits were promptly dashed. As the gate guard informed me where to check-in, I asked where we could park while we both looked around. This question was greeted with a frown and a grimace, oh no, she said, your friend cannot stay on the property once you’ve been dropped off, she must leave at once. I smiled and said of course, but this would just be a twenty minute stroll around the grounds. No, no, no and no. Her whole body reeked with no and the essence of unwelcome. We drove on, checked in, and then had a walk around anyway. When she caught us she was not best pleased. We’re just walking back to the car, we said – which we were, because my friend felt so uncomfortable that she couldn’t relax and enjoy the scenery. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, the woman said. She actually said that. I felt like a schoolboy who was late for his French class – not a guest who’d paid over $400 for my two-night stay, and certainly not a guest in someone else’s home.
So here begins the saddening irony of Esalen. For a place that is all about challenging the HOW, it distinctly fails to master it. Esalen offers workshops which seek unconventional ways to express and understand your emotions and desires, yet my first emotional experience – my interaction with the guard/host had been full of tension and distrust. This was not because the Esalen host had refused to comply with our desire to look around, but the way in which she refused. Surely if she’d been to multiple Gestalt workshops, self-awareness meditation sessions and mindfulness meetings she would be better trained in making a new guest at ease, even if she had to deliver unpopular information?
Things became clearer at the welcome meeting. It was chaired by the same woman who had met us at the gate, and the first thing I heard her say was: there are 135 staff at Esalen. Staff? Isn’t this an intentional community – surely she means community members? I ruminated on this jolt as I waited for the tour to begin – if she’s just a staff member, no wonder she acted rudely. The meeting ended without a tour, so I strolled down to investigate Esalen’s star attraction – the natural hot spring baths.
Upon arriving I was met by a grumpy troll. Actually, it was a confused and dejected guest who’d shirked the welcome meeting after she had felt very unwelcomed. She’d been embarrassed at the check-in desk when the attendant accused her of ‘not filling in the online form properly’. There was a problem with her booking; there were no free rooms and no space on any of the workshops. Unlike the 5-star hotel Esalen mimicked, the resort made no attempt to follow the market-focussed mantra – the customer is always right. The ‘community’ made her feel awkward for messing up the booking, and told her she’d have to pay extra for a more luxurious room – the only one available. It seemed like my first impression was not a fluke.
Unlike the troll – who was actually quite pretty and called Julia – I had opted for the cheapest form of accommodation at Esalen, a ‘sleeping bag space’ in one of the seminar rooms. I could roll my sleeping bag on the floor at 11pm, and had to be packed up with all my belongings in a closet by 9am. Esalen don’t allow camping as it ‘damages the land’. No one had explained how many people would be sleeping in the room, which didn’t seem a problem until I crept in to get my sleeping bag and was barked at by a woman for waking her, and for disturbing ‘the girls’. She claimed she was ‘protecting’ two other guests from the weirdo sleeping by the window. The ‘weirdo’ was a perfectly normal middle-aged man who had shared my writing workshop. After half-an-hour of the woman intermittently flicking the light on, then off, another man’s tether broke and he began shouting at her and everyone to be quiet. Such a scenario could have happened in any form of shared accommodation, but at least with hostels you can count the beds to know how many people are meant to be there, and they don’t normally cost $150 per night.
The next day brought no tour of Esalen. It turns out they just don’t do them. For me the first rule of feeling comfortable in a space is knowing how it works: where are the bathrooms, where is off-limits, who gets to drive around in a golf cart and who does not. This feeling of displacement is common to many of the communities I’ve visited; it’s natural to take some time to settle in to someone else’s home. But this was the dilemma of Esalen: it wasn’t a home and it wasn’t a hotel. If it had been a home, you would have had a host. If a hotel, highly trained – albeit obsequious – staff. I joked about this difficulty with my workshop buddies after Saturday evening dinner. Everyone admitted that they had sat around the dining hall on the first night, pretending to be absorbed in a book but desperately wanting someone to talk to. They wanted direction, a bit like how everyone at Tamera just wanted someone to inform them about the love spaces. I suggested there should be a table with a massive sign on it saying ‘Lonely New People’, so that all the lonely new people could find each other and connect – everyone agreed, and suggested I put my suggestion in the suggestion box.
To clarify, I was not surprised that Esalen do not offer a fully guided tour of the property every week and weekend, but to not offer one at all is irresponsible. If you’re going to forbid passers-by and droppers-off from exploring the property, you’ve got to give them a chance to do so in the future: oh, I’m sorry, we’re not doing tours today, but here’s a list of upcoming tour dates, we hope you can make it back (smile). And I’m not surprised they charged $150 a night for my ‘sleeping space’, the cost also included access to the baths, three (exquisite) meals a day and Big Sur itself is known for being exorbitantly expensive. The problem is that there is no way for the non-wealthy to visit Esalen.
If Esalen is a place for the wealthy to explore their inner self, the website should say so. Instead of market-speak bullshit like, ‘the first sensation you have after arriving is that you’ve passed through some kind of veil into a parallel universe of human belonging’, they should just say: ‘this is lovely place to take interesting courses on human development if you have the money’. The fact that Esalen oversells itself is the most unnerving aspect. Businesses oversell themselves, they seek investors and hope to beat the competition. If the community of Esalen is honest about seeking human development and harmony, it needs to lose the deceitful advertising.
I have to take a minute out of the flow of this post to appreciate the writing course I took at Esalen. In contrast to the lack of interpersonal skills displayed by the staff, the poorly designed social atmosphere and elitism that was cultivated, our course leader was warm, intelligent, intuitive and highly skilled in creating safe spaces. The course was designed to make its participants comfortable enough to write and then share their most intimate and delicate feelings and experiences. Despite the short time period, everyone trusted the group and its leader enough to open themselves and write deeply.
The writing-course leader was an experienced writer with a true talent for workshop facilitation, and an honest love of people telling their story. Esalen felt like a fledgling business run by the feckless son of an inspiring father, passed down to him with shoddy finances, demoralised staff and no vision for the future.
Like many intentional communities, Esalen has a work exchange program. Usually, people who want to absorb themselves in a community can offer physical labour in exchange for room and board. This is a great way of allowing people with less money and more time to experience how a community works. At Esalen you must work 32 hours a week and pay $1100 per month for this privilege. This is understandable considering the business model under which Esalen operates, but it eliminates the possibility of visiting Esalen without a salary-job or an inheritance.
It appears to me that like other intentional communities, at some point since its birth Esalen ran into financial difficulties. Perhaps because it is so close to Silicon Valley, it believed the best way to ensure its survival was to go capitalist. Unfortunately, one of the results of capitalism is that workers have no investment in the organisation they work for; the woman at the gate was paid by Esalen, but she didn’t feel as if she owned Esalen. Or alternatively Esalen itself has succumbed to another pitfall of capitalism – the paranoia of private ownership; the community is so afraid of losing what they have that they can’t risk ‘outsiders’ ruining their harmonious atmosphere by taking a tour of the grounds.
How Esalen developed and how it will continue is a story for another time, all I can conclude for now is that the organisation may have many good intentions, but it’s failing to be a community.