Esalen Institute in Big Sur

The Esalen lodge buildingEvery Hippie eventually makes the scene at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Jack Kerouac was here in 1960 (you can read about it in his novel, Big Sur), Ken Kesey led a workshop here in 1964, John Lilly was in residence here, as was the LSD researcher, Stanislav Grof, who led the month-long workshop that I attended here in May, 1984, which was called Technologies of the Sacred. Esalen was also the site of the pop festival that was the subject of the movie, Celebration in Big Sur.

The building in the picture is the Esalen lodge building. This is where the meals are served and also where the registration office is, which is also a book store. It also has a large meeting room called Watts (after Alan Watts). Near the lodge is a swimming pool that people like to swim nude in and to the side of the lodge is a volley ball court where they do not like you to play nude in.

Another feature of Esalen are the hot spring baths. I didn't think I'd like them because they were outside and it is usually cold outside, but as I said, the baths are hot. Anyway, I stayed away from them until the last night I was at Esalen, when I found out they weren't so bad after all. It was the nudity at the baths that Jack Kerouac objected to, but I didn't mind that at all. They also do massage workshops at the baths.

Esalen is on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. There is the constant sound of the surf. Running through the grounds is a creek that the Esalen Indians used to drink from. Nobody knows what happened to the Esalen Indians, but Esalen Institute is located in one of their graveyards, and that's how it got it's name. There is a wooden bridge across the creek, which leads to the Big House, where we had most of our lectures and where all but two of us lived. There were 30 in our group who came from all over the world. About four of us were Hippies, there was also a stock broker and one or two other yuppie types, but most of the group were psychologists.

Esalen is where the so-called human potential movement started. A big part of this is all the Eastern spiritual stuff and how Westerners can use it to advantage. Many of the rooms at Esalen are named after the people considered part of this movement, such as Alan Watts, Aldus Huxley, Maslow, and a few others I've forgotten. Well, the Beat Generation had been through all of this, but there was a younger generation hanging out in California who started letting their hair grow long because the chilly climate kind of dictated it, plus they dug the natural look as opposed to the assembly line look. Many of them came by this unlikely way station known as Esalen Institute and found just the philosophy they were looking for, and that's where the Hippies came from...kind of.

Esalen provided the philosophy for the Hippies, but before the Hippie thing could catch on, they needed to find a catalyst and a sacrament. Well, Ken Kesey turned out to be the catalyst and Timothy Leary and Stanley Owsley provided the sacrament, namely the LSD. Our country has never been the same since. It's kind of hard to believe that all of this came out of an obscure little camp out in the woods that only us starving artists and philosophers know about. The Esalen Experience, they call it, experience being the key word, for it's the experience that counts. For example, it's not good enough just to read The Doors of Perception. What you have to do is experience what's behind the doors of perception. In other words, you have to take the acid and have the experience.

Another big word at Esalen is Now, as in Be Here Now. I think it was Richard Alpert (AKA Ram Dass) who started this one because he's published a book by the same name. Anyway, at Esalen they have this game they call open seat gestalt. Actually, it's more than just a game. It's supposed to be one of their self improvement tools, but to any outsider looking on, it appears to be a game. Anyway, they have this hot seat and the person sitting in it is supposed to tell the group everything that they are experiencing now, this very second...

Now I hear the sound of the surf and the rain.

Now I feel the chair against my back.

Now I see so and so putting away his eyeglasses

...and so on. It's all supposed to make you more aware of what you're experiencing in the current moment.

A parade marches down Haight Street and Hippies and Hells Angels are carrying large signs that say NOW, and the only people who know what they mean are the ones who have had the Esalen Experience...

So here 30 of us are, having the Esalen experience. Each day, we get up, go to breakfast, have a morning lecture, go to lunch, have an afternoon lecture, go to dinner, have a night lecture then go over all our notes and go to bed. That might not sound too intense but when you consider the subjects of some of the lectures, it can get a bit spooky. Actually, Big Sur itself can be pretty intense, as Kerouac found out when he was here. Even though it's one of the most beautiful parts of the country where artists like to hang out, there is some pretty intense energy here. One is the power of the ocean...

Esalen tends to be a place where people go to let go of their egos for a while and to take inventory of one's self and that kind of thing, you know, more or less do the spiritual growth kind of thing. Sometimes people do this and they don't like what they see and they freak out. Our group went fairly smoothly, until one day when we had a lecture by a psychic, and she seemed to be too much for some people in our group. That's when all the weird shit started to happen.

Actually weird stuff happened the very first night we were there. When we went to breakfast, the first thing we saw was all this broken glass and a boarded up window. It turned out that some cat caught his chick in the baths messing around with some other cat. Well, a fight broke out and someone went through the window. Although everyone thought it was a big deal at the time, it turned out to be fairly minor compared to some of the stuff that happened later.

Anyway, when we had the psychic, something went wrong with the gas supply to the Big House and the water heaters stopped working. Well, that's just great. Now everyone has to go to the far side of the Esalen grounds every time they need to take a shower. The Hippies that work at Esalen tried installing another water heater, but that didn't work. Pretty soon everyone could smell gas leaking and the burners on the stove barely worked. Finally, they discovered that the propane tank was empty and that the gauge on it was stuck at 90 percent full. That's when people started freaking out. We had been at Esalen about a week.

About two weeks at Esalen, we walk into the lodge one day, only to find all sorts of dirty dishes stacked up something fierce and everyone's eating off of paper plates. All of us are looking at this scene wondering what the freaking deal was, when they tell us that a microprocessor chip had blown in the dishwasher. I had no earthly idea why a dishwasher needed a microprocessor chip. We're beginning to wonder what else could go wrong around here.

One of the things we did during the third weekend is about 10 of us went to this four million dollar mansion in the most beautiful forest I had ever seen and we all took MDMA together. The rest of the group went to visit a monastery that I would have really liked to see, but I had never had MDMA before and I wanted to see what it was like. Besides, several of the people who took it had never experienced psychedelics before and I would make a good guide.

One girl had a bad experience. She was usually in a grumpy mood so I wasn't too surprised. For me, the experience was nice but not that big of a deal, but this one girl who I think was from Canada had a really beautiful experience. I really dug the forest, especially the two waterfalls. We also had this tape Stan made called Strictly Forbidden, which I think was one of the first MIDI recordings ever made.

Because of the psychedelic experience, I spent the next day in solitude, digging nature and the ocean. We didn't have any workshops that day but I did see two films, including Brainstorm, which Stan was technical consultant on. I don't know if it was the MDMA or the movie that did it, but the next morning, I had one of the most unusual experiences of my life.

I woke up the next morning feeling a strange vibrating sensation. I thought that the big emergency generator must have started. I tried to sit up but found I couldn't move. Then I heard Stan's wife calling me and something yanked my consciousness right out of my body. I started to move north toward the Big House but went right past it. The next thing I knew, I was standing on Haight St. between Ashbury and Masonic and Stan's wife was there. We tried to communicate but something was interfering. Then somehow I returned to my physical body and this time I could move normally.

I got right out of bed and went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and try to figure out what the hell happened to me. Everything seemed normal except my pulse, which was very rapid. I noticed that I had missed Breakfast and it was time for the first workshop. I got to it and Stan's wife walked and said that she's kind of shaken up about a "dream" she just had about me.

Stan had met to talk to me about all this, but wasn't able to because of some other emergency. A girl in the workshop said she couldn't take it any more and was leaving Esalen. She clamed to have seen someone in our group floating past the garden. Everyone tried to calm her down but she wasn't about to risk having another experience like that, so she called a taxi and split. So many people had experienced consciousness disruptions during that workshop that Stan didn't hold many more Esalen workshops after that.

I did not find out what had happened to me until two months later when I attended another workshop, which included a tour of Monroe Institute. When they started talking about out of body experiences, I knew I must have had one, so I read up on the subject. Unfortunately, science has not spent much time studying this subject although a few EEG studies were done. All I can say is it's just one of those freak things that can happen to you when the conditions are right. What conditions, I have no idea, but they seem to exist at Big Sur. I've only had a few more out of body experiences after that and each time I was in an unusual situation, like under hypnosis or nitrous oxide at the dentist.

The last morning, we had our good-by ritual, which I really liked. We each teamed up with another person and took some of the tissue paper we had used during the month and threw it in the fire. There was a lot of picture taking of each other going on (including this one of Stan and me) and everyone was hassling with their luggage. We had been living together for a month and leaving was sad. We had to hang around in the afternoon to have our astrological charts explained and then one of the work-scholars who was in our group drove us back to Monterey and we stopped at Napenthe for Dinner, which was one of Kerouac's hangouts.

I came back from Esalen with several books for my archives, among them, Stan's Book, LSD Psychotherapy, Leary's Flashbacks and Ralph Metzner's The Ecstatic Adventure. Although Ralph Metzner gave several lectures to our group, that's not where I got it. A friend gave it to me when he heard that Metzner had lectured to our group. I had a lot of reading to do and a lot to think about.


Their postal address is
Esalen Institute
Highway 1
Big Sur, CA 93920

Copyright © 1996-1999, Colin Pringle (
Filename: esalen.htm