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Esalen’s survival story: A tale of transformation


var _informq = _informq || []; _informq.push(["embed"]); BIG SUR — Reeling from severe storm damage and crushing expenses, a cathedral to the personal growth movement will reopen next week after its rescue by an ethos far more powerful: community.
The Esalen Institute , a spiritual retreat center that is often dismissed as a place of introspective navel-gazing, will welcome its first guests in six months next Friday thanks to emergency donations, generous vendors, volunteer help, and the tireless efforts of its reduced and depleted staff. Related Articles





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“When you come together, almost anything is achievable,” said Terry Gilbey, Esalen’s general manager.
The reopened Esalen will be a different place in many ways than the Esalen of old because its leaders took the occasion of the closure to institute a long-planned change that expands its mission from the personal to the social.
Conceived to create personal transformation, Esalen is now itself transformed.
Perched on a rocky promontory above the pounding Pacific surf, the 54-year-old nonprofit will still offer classes in breathing, yoga, chanting, tantric sex and meditation. But it will also hold workshops like “Greater Good” and “Dancing with the Planetary Crisis,” about technology and sustainability. It has created space for experimental new programs, yet unnamed. And in the future, it will offer global online access to once-exclusive events.
“What if someone in Africa or Australia could put on a virtual-reality headset and be here in a class? Why not?” said Gilbey, a surfer, motorcyclist and tech expert who was formerly chief operating officer of the Wikimedia Foundation, executive director of infrastructure at Kaiser Permanente and served in various management roles at IBM Global Services.
With a downed bridge to the north and a landslide to the south, Esalen for more than five months been almost completely cut off from the world.
The isolation has meant no income, adding financial stress to a place already carrying debt resulting from nearly $10 million in recent renovations.
There were other blows on the 27-acre property: toppled trees, eroding hillsides, damaged buildings. Rains washed away seeds of its cherished organic garden. To repair the path down to its iconic hot baths, it’ll cost up to to $3 million.
“It was apocalyptic,” Gilbey said. “We were peeling trees off structures.”
Esalen evacuated dozens of its students by helicopter in February after the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge failed and mudslides closed Highway 1. “It was not cheap, but it was the right thing to do,” Gilbey said.
Yet even as damages mounted, fewer people remained to do repairs. With no income, there were painful layoffs of 45 workers, reducing the workforce to only 10 percent of its former size. The power went out for weeks.
Food and other supplies were scarce. Contractors couldn’t commute to work, so they had to stay on site. A simple trip to The Home Depot meant making a long, tortuous drive over the Santa Lucia Mountains on perilous Nacimiento-Fergusson Road — when it was open.
But Esalen’s challenges predate this winter’s storms. For decades, Esalen was managed in a casual and organic way, with free-spirit leadership not much interested in bookkeeping.
When a 1998 storm took out its prized bathhouses, Esalen took on debt to build a $6 million replacement. There was internal turmoil, with disgruntled staffers complaining of a too-corporate mindset.
Meanwhile, the world changed. A place that introduced yoga, meditation and organic food into popular culture suddenly found them mainstreamed, seemingly available on every corner. How could this historic pioneer of California’s spiritual bohemianism — with no WiFi or cell service — appeal to millennials, even as it honored greats like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Joan Baez, Joseph Campbell, Susan Sontag, Buckminster Fuller and Henry Miller?
To stay relevant and attractive, it recently launched a long-term development plan and ambitious “campus renewal project,” which included $7.4 million to renovate the main lodge, adding a second story, large ocean-view deck, brightened dining room, and new cafe and bar. It spent $1.8 million on six-room guesthouse with vaulted ceilings and airy decks. It began planning how to build a digital platform so its workshops engage far beyond the 15,000 people a year who have the time and money to travel to remote Big Sur.
It hired top-flight tech talent like Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ben Tauber to serve as executive director. Only 33, he’s a former product manager at Google, with responsibility for expanding and improving Google Hangouts and other social products. Tauber co-founded Scoopler, which launched the first real-time search engine and was acquired by Google in 2011.
Then the storms hit.
“When you’re in a hole, the advice is to stop digging,” Gilbey said. “I wish we could have stopped digging. We didn’t have that choice.”
For the first time, the staff was gathered weekly as a single team. Those on site sat on the bamboo floor of the Huxley Room. Those scattered around Northern California dialed in via remote video conferencing. Together, they discussed repair priorities, finances, team-building and how to detect signs of isolation-induced stress in each other.
Job descriptions changed and expanded. Gilbey joined the kitchen staff, helping cook three meals a day, seven days a week. A “healing arts” staffer went out to work in the garden.
“Patience and resilience,” said Lucas Cotterman, guest services manager. “I think a lot of the practices that people have learned here have helped us through this.”
More than $1 million in donations have arrived to its Emergency Closure Relief Fund from more than 1,500 donors around the world, helping cover some of its expenses while closed.
Volunteers from Burning Man pulled weeds, cut trees and repaired eroded landscapes. Other groups came to harvest food to share with the larger Big Sur community. This weekend, borrowing the Zen phrase, it is hosting a Chop Wood, Carry Water event to prep for its big opening.
Suppliers made an extra effort to deliver food and fuel to the institute, dodging boulders and road closures.
In gratitude, Esalen invited locals to soak in its baths and take warm showers. It donated fresh drinking water, propane and excess fruits and vegetables. It held several communitywide music nights, when locals played guitars, piano and drums.
Rejoicing in the first day of spring, it hosted a festive maypole celebration, inviting locals and community members to dance on its vast green lawn around a quickly erected pole decorated with long and colorful scraps of fabric.
Staffers speak of much closer bonds, with newfound respect and trust. New friendships developed with neighbors. And there are moments of sheer surprise, such as when a local gray fox strolls into the lodge and sits on a dining table.
“You take the hit as a gift,” said Tauber, borrowing a phrase from George Leonard, a former Esalen president and black-belt aikido instructor.
Esalen’s recovery will be slow. Much of its planned renovations, such as staff housing and a new bridge, must take a back seat to more urgent repairs, such as fixing dangerously broken paths. And with too few staff members to manage its farms and gardens, its acreage is reduced.
At first, it will only be open to 50 or 60 students at a time, rather than the usual 100 to 120. But over time, as logistics improve and new programs develop, it will expand. Staff rehires will be slow and thoughtful.
“We are a long way from being out of the woods. We got hit extremely hard, financially,” Gilbey said. “But you have to be financially stable to have a healthy community. When you have that, you can fulfill your mission.
“It is time to move beyond the ‘I’ to the ‘we.’

How to get to Esalen
Drive over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, from King City. Or drive to the village of Big Sur and hike the new trail from Pfeiffer-Big Sur Lodge. Alternatively, Esalen offers free shuttle rides from Monterey.
For more information: www.esalen.org

 

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