Its very presence provides life-enhancing lessons in presence for those who seek it. Like a crown jewel, it sprawls majestically with the playful Pacific Ocean and bold Big Sur mountains welcoming visitors all at once. It is luxurious and spartan, educational and kicked-back, and just a scenic jaunt down Highway 1 from Carmel. The Esalen Institute, one of the cornerstones of The Human Potential movement, is now in its 60th year, and its co-founder, Michael Murphy, remains an active member of the board of trustees, helping to steward the institute into its seventh decade.
Michael Murphy was in his early thirties when he and his friend, co-conspirator and co-founder, Richard Price laid stake to what was a much different layout in 1962, but it remains consistent in its mission: Providing methods for self exploration in several disciplines. Price tragically died in a hiking accident in 1985, but Murphy kept his focus on Esalen after losing his dear friend. The now 92-year-old lifelong student and seeker says Esalen’s shifts have mostly occurred in the physical realm. “In a sense everything has changed while at the same time Esalen remains true to its founding mission—through the highs and lows of the last six decades. We are still a place to explore human potential. We are still experimenting with inquiries that mainstream churches and universities rarely do. Esalen is still a place people visit from all over the world for personal renewal or intellectual exchanges at one of our invitational conferences. On the other hand, most buildings on the property have been remodeled or replaced.” The original building—a simple wooden lodge—turned out to be a seed from which a wide-branched tree has blossomed into a 120-acre campus.
Browsing the online catalog of options, visitors can choose from accommodation as simple as renting a sleeping bag in a common room to settling into an upscale space that resembles a cliffside home. Bathrooms have clean tile finishes. The decor is homey. But the rooms remain simple, skipping some of the amenities that are found in most Carmel area hotels. Here, it’s not about what’s inside the structures. Esalen focuses on freeing what’s inside the confines of the human body and soul while integrating the awe-inducing scenery of the property. “Our hallmark over the years at Esalen has been releasing creativity by taking down walls—between people, between parts of the self, between mind and body, heart and community, spirituality and politics,” Murphy explains. “In our online offerings, you will find new emphasis on this kind of integrated approach to personal and professional development. Another subtle, but pervasive change that runs through our programs these days has to do with a redefinition of the self—away from the old isolated individual model and toward a new ecological self model, integrating the self with community and environment, which is much truer to our full human nature.” Former Esalen manager, Daniel Bianchetta concurs. “In the early days (‘70s) it seemed there was more emphasis on breaking through, going beyond, catharsis. Over the years it seems to me that there is more emphasis on integration, mindfulness and kindness.”
Bianchetta and his wife Cynthia met and married at Esalen more than 35 years ago, and each has influenced shaping its incarnation. Daniel has done everything from helping to run the kitchen to being the onsite historian, photographer and a workshop facilitator. Cynthia co-created the Art Barn and Dance Dome as well as the Movement Arts program. “Since the time I arrived in 1984, I saw waves of movements, from the former encounter groups; to folks coming for healing of trauma and co-dependency; then later ‘back to the land’s’ environmental awareness; and the political neutrality of citizen diplomacy’s dedication to peace, as in Michael Murphy’s CTR (Center for Theory & Research) conferences,” Cynthia observes. “As consciousness shifts in our culture and the world’s culture, Esalen has been the pioneer, leading the way long before others, contributing to a greater awareness for a better world.”
Murphy, who now lives in the Bay Area, still comes “home” to Esalen. He says the impact of the oceanside gem never wavers. “How incredible it is that we have been doing this for 60 years. How heartwarming it is to see the many lives that are touched and the life-giving explorations people have experienced here.” Cynthia Bianchetta agrees. “Imagine leaving the heavy burdens of the world at the top of the gate to enter down the hill and the long driveway, to meet a rolling green lawn to the edge of the sea, where you find the most beautiful, sacred landscape where physical and spiritual healing are offered for your well-being.”
Pondering how it all came to be leaves Murphy incredulous at moments. “There have been times where there was no explanation for what we accomplished, and I joke that often it has felt like amateur hour here. But we are doing enough right…and our dreams are gaining new clarity.” Some of that magnification will focus on over-looked groups. “We have more workshops that embrace feminism and women. We are focused on creating a safe space for marginalized voices and bodies. Esalen is privileged to be engaged in healing and reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of this area, in the process, learning many valuable lessons from our Native teachers about stewardship of this magic land and coastline.” In fact, Esalen has been in reconciliation work with the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County since 2019 and on November 13th had a land acknowledgment ceremony, sage planting and precolonial dinner together, before kicking off a return of the tribe as faculty, with a current workshop taught by Tribal Vice Chair Cari Herthl and another in the spring with Tribe Chief Little Bear.
Murphy and his mission are also proof that if you’re around long enough, history will repeat itself. As the use of microdosing so-called psychedelic drugs picks up steam in the mainstream (primarily in mental health practice), Murphy says certain programs at Esalen are again flourishing. “One thing you would have found at Esalen in the ‘60s, and will find again today (but not in the intervening 40 years), is a robust reassessment of the value (as well as risks) of psychedelics for healing and personal growth. This work, which was explored at Esalen and elsewhere in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, has been criminalized or shunned by virtually all university and medical research centers for many years.” Until now. The tide is changing and Esalen is choosing to, once again, be at its forefront. Retreats on emerging practices for microdosing are offered, but so are sessions on photography (some taught by the Bianchettas) and painting, strengthening intimate relationships, yoga, spiritual awareness, dance, and massage therapy certification.
A dose of solace was being sought by Ashley Morgan of Los Angeles, when she attended a workshop in May of 2022. “My experience was almost like going to summer camp at the mythological Mount Olympus. At Esalen, you watch otters play while you’re taking a hot bath on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There’s nothing like it.” The 30-year-old television producer was nursing a broken heart, and didn’t expect such profundity from her retreat. “Quickly, all of the other participants in my workshop, and even random strangers on the property, embraced me and made me feel heard, allowed me to cry in their arms, and just connected with me on such a deep level I didn’t know was possible from people I don’t know. I even let an 80-year-old man cry in my arms, too. The community and the space for creating is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, set upon the most beautiful location imaginable. I felt like this is what humanity is all about, this is how we are meant to exist and connect.” Morgan also benefited from the melding of people she may have never met on the “outside.” “My favorite part of the experience was the variety of attendees. I was in the cheapest room (the sleeping bag room) with three very different people, as well as taking work-shops with people I would not usually be interacting with. Tech executives, war veterans, doctors, writers, musicians—we were so different but we all coexisted and took care of each other so beautifully.”
Cynthia Bianchetta has savored this aspect for almost 40 years. “Here you find a gathering of people seeking respite from weary worlds. It welcomes you to experience your tears and laughter as a release and healing balm that allows you to return back up the hill to ‘the world’ with a greater renewal of your soul.”
Esalen is also a magical place for locals. It was a treasured secret that you could enter the hot springs around midnight for a discounted rate if you had a Monterey County ID. As a young news reporter at KSBW-TV in the early 1990s, there were nights following the 11 o’clock newscast where the crew and I would pile into a van and make the forty mile trek south to enjoy the pools. In fact, this writer’s first date with my ex-husband took place in 1994 in those very (clothing optional) waters. I showed up in two bathing suits, layered one over the other. I won’t say what he wasn’t wearing! The late-night option isn’t available at this time, but for those staying on property the choice to wear your birthday suit still prevails. “The land itself is healing, going back to the Native People—the Esselen,” Daniel Bianchetta explains. “Their word for the mineral springs meant ‘The God in the Waters.'” The thermal waters, spouting from what feels like a magic portal in the hillside, make Esalen absolutely unique.
In a quest to keep Esalen one-of-a-kind, Michael Murphy is thrilled to share space with fresh minds. “Esalen, at 60 years, has outlasted other places like ours, and we have some promising plans for our next 60 years. We have a rich, storied history, and now we have a brilliant group of new colleagues with whom to dream and create.”
One of those recent additions is Shira Levine, the director of communications and storytelling. Working alongside an iconic figure like Murphy isn’t the only thing she marvels about. “I love the unpredictable magical connections that unfold, the strangers who become friends, the stories people share about their life journey to get here. I love the comfort of moving from a cool, shaded spot to the warm, sunny ones, where the wind gently tickles your skin. I love the baths and gazing up into a star-filled sky, hearing the crashing waves below as I digest and meditate on everything from the days and hours past.” Esalen—here to illuminate the past, the present, and the future. So, next time you feel like you’re in a rut, need an energetic jolt, or crave some inner peace, your salvation awaits you, just an hour south of Carmel.