My Esalen Experience

One day the woman doctor pulled me aside and said I needed to get help.  I should attend a T-group.  I had no idea what a T-Group was.  I literally pictured a group of people sitting around drinking tea.  She said she had looked around to see what programs were available and the only thing she had come up with was a program down at Esalen.  Glide was willing to pay for it and she encouraged me to go.  

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was willing to try anything if it would help resolve the current situation with the church. 

On the first Sunday of January, 1967, I got in my car and headed off down the California coastline towards Big Sur.

In 1962 Michael Murphy and Dick Price established a kind of research institute on property owned by Murphy’s family.  This property was an old hot springs health spa on the coast of California just south of Big Sur that was run by Michael’s parents.

Michael was in India studying with a spiritual guru when he received word that his parents had been killed in an auto accident. Michael was asked to return home and take care of his parents’ affairs.  He had no interest in running a health spa, but Michael and his friend Dick Price had other ideas for the property. 

There was a hotel on the property along with many out buildings and of course the hotbaths themselves.  It was a perfect venue for residential training programs.  Murphy and Price saw this as a refuge where scholars and practitioners from many fields could come together to explore ideas where Eastern and Western traditions coverlapped. 

Price became the first director.  He and Michael invited leading scholars in psychology, psychiatry, religion and philosophy to join with Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist scholars from the far east to explore common threads from all these traditions.  

But this was not to be a think tank.  This was experiental.  This was to be applied theory and the emphasis was on discovering techniques which actually helped people make transformative changes in their life.  Esalen became the poster child for what was called the New Age Movement. It was written up in Life, Look and Time magazines.  

But this was before I was there. In early 1967 Esalen was not yet well known.  I had no idea what was in store for me. 

The first week in January 1967, I drove south along the Big Sur Coastline.  I had no idea where I was going or what I was in for.  I only knew that Esalen was on Route 1 somewhere south of Big Sur State Park.  

We were to check-in by 5 pm.  The drive was taking longer than I expected. I started to worry that maybe I had missed the place.  I stopped at a house along the road to ask directions. The man who came to the door assured me it was still ahead on the right.  I continued on. The sun was going down.  I was losing my daylight.  As it got darker, I could feel fear rise within me.  I had no idea what I was in for and this impending darkness was not helping my state of mind.  I stopped at another house.  Again, I was told it was still ahead.  When I finally got there, it was dark.  

The “T-group” was lead by Will Schutz, the creator of the FIRO-B personality test and one of the pioneers of the T-group movement.  There were about 40 of us and Schutz explained that we would be working primarily in small groups for the rest of the week.   We would meet once a day in the large group for a talk from Shutz.  Other than that, it was all small group work. 

The next morning, I showed up for my small group meeting.  A small Chinese man named Gai-Fu Feng introduced himself and said he would be our group coordinator.  He would be our liaison back to Shutz for the times when Schutz was not with our group.  

He then told us a little about himself.  He had been born in China to a wealthy family and had received a classical private education. He had been a financier both in China and on Wall Street and had made—and lost—a lot of money.  But he had deep misgivings about the direction of his life.  He quit his job, came to Esalen and would remain there, he said, until he knew what he wanted from life.  Gai-Fu was later hired onto the staff and served as Esalen’s accountant, among other things.  Gai-Fu would go on to publish with his wife the best-selling translation of the Tao Te Ching and became a well known Taoist teacher in his own right. 

After Gai-Fu spoke, we went around the room, introduced ourselves and explained why we were there.  When it was my turn, I told them about myself, my career concerns and my current situation with my internship.  I said I hoped I would get clarity once and for all about whether to become a minister.

“Well, I can tell you one thing, I sure as hell would not want you as my minister!”   This came from a man sitting directly across the room from me.  I reeled back in shock, stung by his rebuke. I could feel myself withdrawing deep within myself. Why did he say that?  He really did not know me.  He clearly did not like me.  But why?  What had I done to evoke such strong feelings?   Whatever it was about me, I did not come across as the kind of person who would make a good minister.  I did not say another word that morning.

 I ate lunch by myself in silence. Afterwards, I went back to my room.  And then I started to cry.  It all came flowing out: the fear, the anguish, the embarrassment, the humiliation, the sense of failure.  I sobbed and sobbed. Afterwards, I felt clearer.  

And then I saw it as omen.  There was nothing in me that wanted to be a minister.  I had no calling.  I had no desire for it.  I was in seminary for entirely different reasons than to become a minister. 

That is it, I thought.  I have my answer.  I am not going to be a minister.  

With this declaration to myself, I felt an enormous weight lift off my shoulder.  Suddenly I felt lighter and brighter.  For the first time in a long time, I experienced happiness.  When my group re-convened after dinner, I told them of my decision.  I also shared with them the great relief I felt for finally making this decision.  I felt that I had received what I had come here for.

From this point on, I felt a remarkable detachment about everything that was going on around me.  I had a remarkable clarity clarity of perception.  Nothing was about me.  I sat and observed others as they wrestled with their own dilemmas.  One by one I could see people make big shifts in how they saw their life situation.  I was thankful to have been the first person to make such a shift.  Having it behind me, I was free and able to see clearly the changes occurring in others. 

As this went on over the week, I became more amazed at the process we were going through.  People were making profound changes in their inner worlds. I was not the only person feeling lighter and more at ease with myself.  

Something powerful was going on.  I had never seen this kind of change in people before.  I was truly amazed.

I had often said to others that I went to seminary because of my interest in values and social change.  But I was never really sure what “social change” meant.  I had never before seen change that was as powerful as this.  It really was possible to bring about radical change—at least in one’s self.  

And then it became clear to me: this was what I wanted to do with my life!  But what was this?

This was real!  But I had no idea what this was.

I started to explore the physical grounds of Esalen.  There were vegetable gardens for the kitchen and flower gardens for the beauty of it.  There were open fields along the cliffs and mountains you could climb on the East side of Route 1.  I learned that Esalen had a work-study program.  I could live on site and, in exchange for work around the property, I could attend some of the sessions being held on site.  The idea of immersing myself in this place was very intriguing.   But what would Elizabeth think about this?  

Also, I had no idea what I would do after the work-study was completed.  I felt as if I needed more structure in my life now right now.  Esalen was very much about living in the present moment.  But right now, I was more concerned with the future.  How would this all pan out if I were to remain here?

Two things were now clear to me.  First, whatever this thing was that I experienced at Esalen, I wanted to be involved in it.  Maybe not at Esalen, but someplace, somehow, I wanted to be involved in this kind of work.   Second, I wanted to live in the Bay Area.  I loved it out here.  This felt like my true home.

Later that summer, I packed up the car for our drive back to New York City to complete my seminary education.  As I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought about my future and what I was now doing.  What the hell Am I doing?  I thought to myself.

Even today, I sometimes wonder what my life might have been liked if I had chosen to stay at Esalen. What if I had soaked in that atmosphere and learned more about the issues they were addressing?   What might I have learned—both about myself and about my options for the future?   

Only one thing is certain: my life would have gone in a very different direction than the life I actually lived.  

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