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Esalen Institute, Birthplace of Human Potential Movement, Still Going Strong


Today, Americans have a wealth of books and New Age workshops to choose from that offer guidance on personal growth, holistic health and body care, relationships, and the marriage of Eastern and Western spirituality. It was not always so.

The popularization of such pursuits actually began nearly a half century ago at the Esalen Institute, a sprawling center nestled atop the rugged Pacific cliffs of Big Sur, California. Part think-tank, part university, part social experiment, Esalen is credited with sparking what is now called the Human Potential movement. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

At nearly one o'clock in the afternoon, just after a delicious organic lunch, Gordon Wheeler, Esalen's President and CEO, and his wife Nancy Lunney-Wheeler, the Institute's Director of Programs, are walking back to their office along Esalen's cliff-side paths.

On the way, they pass workshops on sustainable farming, money and spirituality, communication for couples, a citizen-diplomacy conference for Arabs, Jews and Christians, and a lively martial arts class using bamboo staves. These are only a few of the more than 500 workshops and 200 invitational conferences the Institute has planned for this year alone.

The husband-and-wife team explains that they are all part of Esalen's integral approach to the exploration of human potential.

"The underlying idea is the development of the whole person," says Wheeler, "something that got lost along the way in Western education when we focused only on the head, deracinated [separated] from spiritual roots, from relational connection, from political action, from our body and our feeling [emotional] selves."

"Everyone who comes to Esalen is looking for something," says Lunney-Wheeler. "They don't always know what it is," she acknowledges. "But at whatever stage they are in life – some of them are young, some them are senior citizens – they are curious, they are skeptical, they are open, they are interested, they are annoyed, they are excited, and they are hopeful."

What people actually find at Esalen is often quite different than what they expected. Back at the cafeteria, a 30-something woman named Letty Rising, who has been taking classes here for years, is just back from a long relaxing soak in Esalen's famous natural hot spring baths. Rising says that when she signed up for a five-day expressive movement workshop, she expected simple sweaty fun, not a deep introspective journey, as many other Esalen workshops offer.

"But there are a lot of emotional processes that go on in the dancing class. The teacher has us dance to certain music in certain ways, and I found myself crying yesterday in class for about an hour," she recalls. "I just burst into tears. A lot of grief was coming up."

Rising says that one of the facilitators came over and sat with her and placed her hand on her shoulder reassuringly during the ordeal. "She said that 'unfelt grief blocks love'," Rising recalls.

At Esalen, much of the work is on the emotions, and other dimensions of the human being – spiritual, physical and intellectual – that can be inhibited by unwholesome attitudes or repressive social conventions.

Indeed, many people come to Esalen to learn how to openly express their feelings in a group setting. Allowing oneself to be socially vulnerable is an experience Nancy Lunney-Wheeler notes many men in particular have not had since early childhood. "Men [in American culture] aren't supposed to cry," she asserts. "And Esalen has always provided a very safe place for people to come and let themselves ease into that part of themselves that perhaps they've been afraid to, or told they mustn't feel and express."

Whatever their particular focus, Esalen attendees flock to this remote institute from around the world to experience a sense of fellowship and belonging. Michael Lambert, a man in his late 40s, has come to Esalen for a workshop on life passages as described by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, one of dozens of luminaries who have taught at Esalen.

"We live in a community-challenged world," says Lambert, "and Esalen seems be a place… where people of the same tribe can gather around the same fire and share their experiences and bond with each other. And I can't put into words how powerful it's been."

Some critics have charged that by focusing on individual self-fulfillment and emotion, Esalen and places like it have promoted a culture of self-indulgence. Esalen president Gordon Wheeler acknowledges that there is an inward-looking quality to much of Esalen's curriculum, but insists that there is also a strong emphasis at the institute on engagement with the world. As examples, he points to Esalen workshops on social change and citizen diplomacy, interfaith dialog, agriculture and gardening, care for the dying and other activist pursuits.

"The two go hand in hand," he says. "If you want to be a change agent, you need to pay attention to your integral personal development. You'll be a much more empowered effective agent for change with other people.

"Conversely," he adds, "if you're dedicated to your personal growth, the natural completion of that is into the arc of service [to others]. That [work] takes you automatically into a social dimension."

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