My Esalen experience: Big Sur’s ‘one-of-a-kind, you-gotta-be-kidding-me, is-this-a-dream?’ kinda day

There is nothing like the Big Sur coastline.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Turns out the universe has a lottery, and today I’m holding the winning ticket, both soaking in the hot springs and washing dishes, at this Nirvana on a hot edge of the Pacific. This is a peak experience for those with aging, worn-down bodies, and I’m thinking of all those who may have trod these paths and seen these sights. Did Alan Watts or Joseph Campbell stand in this spot and admire this view? Did Ram Dass or Aldous Huxley sit on this grass?

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There are three ways to attain a mystical state of rapture and to experience the essential oneness of the universe. The first is a lifetime of disciplined meditation and spiritual practice (and who’s got time for that?). The second has to do with certain psychoactive compounds that are illegal in most states (hard pass). And the third is to spend about 10 minutes in the hot-springs mineral baths at Esalen.

Where does the human mind go when it is plopped down into a hot mineral bath situated on a sheer mountainside overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean? Most exult, soar, leap in joy, do the moonwalk. The human mind of which I am in possession, however, goes first to humility, even shame.

The sights of Esalen.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As I lower my aging worn-down body into the baths at Esalen on a summer morning that feels like a distillation of every fine summer morning of my lifetime, I cannot help but wonder, of the nearly eight billion people occupying this planet at this moment, how is it that I get to be here experiencing this? How could I possibly be worthy of this kind of euphoria?

Have I done anything to earn this? For a few minutes on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, while billions labor through another forgettable day, I feel like I’m in the cockpit of Spaceship Earth awaiting my appointment with the Divine. Turns out the universe has a lottery, and today I’m holding the winning ticket.

There are plenty of hot tubs in California, and plenty of amazing ocean views. We can all envy the lucky souls who have both. But Esalen, perched on the magnificent southernmost Big Sur coastline, might well be the world’s most glorious tubbing experience.

If your backyard tub is as sweet as a pretty song, Esalen is Barber’s“Adagio for Strings.” If your view of the sea is like a lovely painting, Esalen isMaxfield Parrish, in 3D. This is you-gotta-be-kidding-me beauty, ‘is-this-a-dream?’ beauty, ‘why-am-I-weeping?’ beauty.

The Esalen Institute is famous around the world as the wellspring for much of the most forward-thinking and progressive ideas in spirituality, science, and philosophy. This year marking its 60th anniversary, Esalen is most well-known as the birthplace of what’s called the Human Potential Movement, which sprouted from the radical idea that humanity was capable of much more intelligence, generosity, and nobility than it’s given credit for (of course, that was well before the invention of Twitter).

Esalen
The relaxing grounds of Esalen.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Since its founding in 1962, this place has served as a beacon for all kinds of seekers and pilgrims, freethinkers and misfits. Sitting on the edge of the continent, Esalen has also occupied the edge of human knowledge, popularizing Eastern approaches to spirituality in the West at a time when, for most Americans, a yogi was a catcher for the Yankees. From psychedelics to meditation, Esalen was instrumental in introducing new, game-changing ideas into American culture.

Today, Esalen is a retreat and a center for studies and workshops in a wide variety of subjects from yoga to massage to dance to shamanism to Enneagrams (whatever that is) to craniosacral therapy (sounds fun). Outside the workshops, the campus serves as a kind of laboratory for self-exploration, self-improvement, even self-repair. It’s also a training facility for certain transformational disciplines and practices, from massage to gestalt therapy.

Esalen
Taking in the Esalen views.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The place has as much mystique as grandeur. Many tend to think of Esalen as a kind of Hogwarts for grown-ups, a place for elites with more money and/or self-awareness than the rest of us. For years, Esalen opened its famous baths to the public for two hours every day — a practice that has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic.

But those two hours happened to be 1 to 3 a.m., which is how I first experienced the baths several years ago. Driving deep into Big Sur in the wee hours after midnight to tip-toe silently down a path and get naked with a bunch of strangers in one of the most breathtaking vistas in the hemisphere — you walk away from that kind of thing wondering if it really happened, or if you just dreamed it.

But there is another way to experience Esalen, which is much more friendly to one’s circadian rhythms. My wife T. and I are here in Esalen’s tubs as part of itsvolunteer program. We get to spend the day here, including meals and participation in whatever workshops might be open, in exchange for three hours of work on campus, in our case, in the kitchen during lunch.

Esalen
Wallace, ready for the bath.
(T. Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

You can volunteer to work in the kitchen, or in the picturesque (boy, is that an understatement) garden. You can sign up to help do some cleaning in the cabins, or even help with the maintenance of the renowned baths themselves. There is a kind of unspoken agreement as well that you’ll enter into this place in a spirit of sacred contemplation, or at least courteous silence and respect, and not behave like a gum-chewing Ugly American walking through Notre Dame cathedral in flip-flops.

These are natural hot springs, and as we sit this morning in the steaming waters cracking open our beat-up old minds to let in a little bit of animal ecstasy, we are surrounded by a sulfurous stink, which is much like salt on an apple — it’s an unpleasant clash of sensations at first that quickly becomes tasty, even preferable.

garden
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We’ve shed our mundane preoccupations along with our clothes (the latter is much easier to leave behind than the former), and I try to absorb just how unlikely this experience is. This kind of geography is not human-friendly, mountain faces tumbling melodramatically into the ocean.

We gaze down at beaches that are inaccessible to all but birds, by land or by sea. We let time go elastic as the morning fog almost imperceptibly slips away like the last chord in a piano sonata. The ocean roar in our ears isn’t just white noise. I strain to hear what it’s trying to tell me.

big sur
Sunset over Big Sur.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At lunchtime, T. and I are put in the “duck pit,” the dishwashing station, which is its own kind of hot tub. For three hours, we’re focused on earning our stay here and, shuffling around in a rubber apron amid stainless-steel tables and racks, enveloped in steam, I wash every dish like God is watching.

It’s hard unrelenting work, but the kitchen staff couldn’t be nicer. The juxtaposition of hedonism and menial labor is invigorating and when our shift is done, and we step out from the small industrial kitchen back out into the dazzling surroundings of the finest Big Sur has to offer, I can’t stop grinning.

We explore the grounds, discovering the colorful Art Barn, full of paints and brushes. We peek into the empty meditation center perched impossibly over the canyon that bisects the property. We let time pass quietly beside the gorgeous (and heated!) swimming pool, watching swallows dive-bomb the surface of the water.

Wallace
Wallace, well relaxed on the way home.
(T. Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I’m thinking of all those who may have trod these paths and seen these sights. Did Alan Watts or Joseph Campbell stand in this spot and admire this view? Did Ram Dass or Aldous Huxley sit on this grass?

It takes a while to get to Esalen. It’s not really in Big Sur, but south of Big Sur, a good two hours’ drive from Santa Cruz, and that’s without traffic. That means also that it takes a while to get back from Esalen.

Our daylong stay comes to an end at 8 p.m. and the golden-hour light on the drive north serves as a kind of decompression period with the added reward of reaching Big Sur’s majestic Bixby Bridge in the violet haze of twilight.

Did I find that mystical state of rapture and confront the Infinite in the Maxfield Parrish light of the Esalen baths? Maybe not so much. But I may have gotten a glimpse, caught a passing aroma, sensed the faint siren call of the Infinite. Maybe that’s all we can expect in this life, tied to the more earthly demands of living in a human body. Maybe that’s enough.

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