the hot springs bath house hanging onto the cliff

Esalen 9/29 – 10/27 2013

As you can see, we spent four weeks on the edge. In the epic region of Big Sur, which Henry Miller referred to as “a religion where extremes meet”, discreetly lies Esalen, a place visited by many with religious-like intent. Refuge. Healing. Community. Transformation. Extremes meet here, and much as the dance between the land and sea creates spectacular beauty, the creative interplay between science and spirituality has generated the Human Potential Movement, a holistic view that sees humans as intrinsically good inside and able to achieve an exceptional quality of life. Soaking in these baths every day, it almost feels like we’ve gotten there.



We came to Esalen to participate in the 4-week work-study program. For 30-hours a week, Jacob worked in the kitchen while Jessica worked in cabins (housekeeping), which included cleaning the world-famous baths. Work shifts were chill and fun, and always included plenty of dance music in the kitchen and laundry room as well as a break for a check-in. For 5 hours each week we were in the farm+garden group learning about soil ecology, botany, herbalism, and composting. The rest of the time we we were soaking, eating, having conversation in the lodge or on the lawn, getting down in dance church, or admiring the monarch butterflies.





Jessica writing:

Esalen is not pretending to be about  the integral human; it really has put  in place at the basic level the  structure to practice the ideas  developed there on the cliff.  Once a  week our work groups had two  hours for extended check-in and  deeper process. There was also  “open seat” both for each study  group and for the whole community  every week, a descendant of Fritz  Perls’ infamous “hot seat”: one  person will sit with a counselor in front of a group and discuss any issue they like. Members of the group listen in silence, and after the counselor indicates the session has ended, the listeners may give feedback, mentioning their own experience but avoiding giving advice. Some days could involve quite a few hours of group process, and although I may have been suspicious of the value of this in the beginning, quite soon I realized that, in addition to many other things, it is an ingenious way to create depth and closeness among a community whose members are in constant flux. Rather than feel resentful that part of my working hours were spent in deep listening to my fellow workers, I experienced how essential the process was to making the work a meaningful part of life. I stopped really differentiating between being at work and being off (of course living on-site helped with this too), since when I was on shift, it actually felt like time well-spent looking at myself, my patterns, and my relationships.

None of us were there because we wanted to wash dirty dishes or clean toilets all day. Just as how the natural beauty of the place is really a side note (even though it is also essential; the beginning, and the glue), our physical labors were irrelevant. What we did with our hands most anyone could do; it was simple, mindless. “This ain’t rocket science,” I said in the beginning whenever anyone asked me how I was. Except the idea was to be mindful. “Examine your relationship to authority, working in groups, doing repetitive tasks. How do you react in these situations? It is unlikely that you left your issues behind,” wrote Josef, the head of cabins, and 20+ year community member. The invitation was to not just put our head down and plow through, but rather to let ourselves feels and think and react and then relate it all to our group, in process, in check-in, if we so desired. In my experience, the people around me followed through when I would talk about something in process. Having relative strangers listen and then care enough to follow up felt wonderful.

It felt so freeing, to be in an environment where it was all about the process and the here-and-now. The emphasis is on who you are right now, and so I didn’t focus on anyone’s past, anyone’s stories about themselves, but only relating in the moment. It was a totally unfamiliar way for me to strike up new relationships, and it wasn’t easy at first. But I grew to love it. It also helped that we were all there to help each other. There was no diploma, test, or award at the end for anything. We were all in it together, having our moment-to-moment experience, working on ourselves. With no reward or resources to vie for and no pressure to perform any particular way, the only requirement being to show up on time, it was easy to be compassionate.

I was ecstatic to be there from the start, but by the end, I cleaned my toilets with gratitude to the community and to the land, but also to myself, for daring to show up, physically and emotionally, in that enchanted place.

Barely tolerable working conditions!

Barely tolerable working conditions!

Jacob took the following photos in Esalen’s farm and garden, which grows 100% of the lettuce, leafy greens, culinary and tea herbs used by the kitchen for 250-350 people every day, in addition to countless flowers and medicinal herbs, succulents, beets and carrots. There is a robust composting system that takes advantage of all the kitchen scraps so that there is no need to purchase any additional compost. The soil here is incredibly healthy – crumbly and dark like classic chocolate cake, yet filled with earthworms, nematodes, and healthy fungus and bacteria. Far from the other extreme of chemical-dependent agribusiness, where the dead soil is sadly just a substrate to hold up the plant.

the soil really is filled with love

the soil really is filled with love

farm         IMG_3515

The study part of our work-study program was a farm and garden  workshop. It was the first time it had been offered, and it was led by  Krikor, the head gardener, and Chad, the head farmer (both of them  excellent teachers). Although the garden, which is close to the lodge,  and the farm, which sits up a hill on the northern border of the  property, are separated physically, in practice they both grow food and  flowers to supply the kitchen. What bliss to spend hours outside among  the plants, munching on kale, echinacea, arugula, borage flowers, california poppy seed pods, and carrots! Not to mention whipping ourselves with stinging nettle. The entrancing view of the ocean from both spots made it all dreamy.



Esalen practices what it calls ‘relational agriculture’, which means that the focus is on health in every sense: health of the land and health of the workers (a nice article in the popular press is here). Farming is not known for being a kind environment to its workers, but Esalen has managed to change that. Like everything else there, our study time was slow and sweet, but no less profound because of it. We started (or ended, due to waning daylight) each session with a check-in, and then some of us were off to the farm with Chad and others on the garden with Krikor. We prepped beds (requiring special care due to the slope), transplanted, direct seeded, made compost piles, and learned about cover cropping, crop rotation, pest management, and soil. Three days a week we could also help with harvesting and washing. Esalen isn’t organic certified but does not use pesticides. The garden is all hand-cultivated, while some machines are used on the farm; the row of compost piles, a study in time-lapse decay, is turned with a Bobcat. They are blessed with excellent soil: sandy loam or loamy sand, which is kept healthy through generous use of compost and cover cropping. Crops are rotated by family in each bed between cover crops to balance those that the demand a lot of nutrients from the soil with nitrogen fixers. This constant rotation also helps with pests. Strategic flowers are placed at the ends of beds to function as insectaries. The main pests are beetles and birds – luckily, no deer, so no deer fences needed. The birds have a real feast on the leafy greens sometimes, though, and so the crops are covered with a light cloth.

Nothing, though, can really substitute for attention – the slow walk through the garden, turning over leaves, watching the animals, noticing the plants. Krikor really stressed giving time and attention to the balance of everything happening in the garden. Chad taught us about Goethe and the idea of working with the land so it expresses what it naturally wants. We took long meditative walks on the farm, noticing how we felt in different areas of the property, from the berry bushes to the fruit trees to the hoop house and the rows of greens, looking at it as though we had never seen it before. I ranged from ecstatic joy to sadness, from inspiration to fear.  I was drawn to the cob bench on the far northwest corner of the property, a magical place visited by few. I also really loved compost row, stinky as it was. We then did an exercise on external observations: choosing one aspect to observe closely over a period of time. I watched the ocean from far up on the hill on the northeast side of property. I was surprised at the complicated pattern of waves due to the kelp beds just offshore and how the wind and the waves flowed in different directions. We put all of our observations on a map and looked for patterns.

At the end of the program, we all had dinner together on the farm, with tables, lights, flower and herb-infused water, and toasts. As night fell, we scattered like seeds, each with a kernel of hope in us for this new relation to agriculture.

Food at Esalen

I (Jessica) am out on this journey with an eye on food. What do we eat, and why? After 10 years in SF, I’ve definitely been influenced by Bay Area food culture, which, I’m the first to admit, can seem anywhere from snobbish to downright puzzling to others. I know my soaked grains, leafy greens and meat, fish, and (mostly) sugar-free diet may not travel well. What in the world am I going to eat? Since my system seems to be handle anything, how will I adapt? I’m also curious to learn how other cultures handle nutrition – food combining, inflammatory foods, paleo vs. vegan, local, sustainable…what role do these play in diet in the places I’ll visit?

When I first visited Esalen years ago, I thought “this is how I want to eat ALL the time!” The healthy choices are overwhelming: home-made soups every meal, brown rice and quinoa plus fresh veggies, salads from the garden, and a main dish. There are also garden-herb infused teas, like fennel or holy basil and healing concoctions like cayenne-honey-lemon-ginger tea. So I could have, say, carrot-ginger soup and pumpkin seed kale salad. But then I’d have to ignore the mac and cheese (a major weakness), the artichokes with aioli, and the infamous bread bar (chocolate-banana-walnut bread, please!), for example. After dinners there is dessert, usually with sugar and dairy. The best was the gluten-free brownies (extra dark and rich).

Main dishes at meals could be very simple, like cobb salad (tempeh and bacon options) or the baked potato bar (I skipped that for soup and salad), or comfort food, like lasagna (tempeh or turkey) and house-made veggie burgers, or themed like Indian, Greek, or Chinese. It was always good, but  I missed some things, like sprouted anything (mung beans), soaked seeds, muesli, pickled things, chia, hemp, and desserts made without sugar (using, say maple syrup or coconut palm sugar).

My no-sugar policy was the first to fall, swiftly jettisoned in the face of graham cracker crust key lime tart. And cinnamon rolls. I ate all the desserts, no matter what. I also immediately abandoned my morning routine of straight-up jasmine green tea for earl gray with rice milk and honey. I learned that I am a fool for tempeh lasagna and have no willpower in the face of cheese. While my fellow work-scholars had plates full of salad, I invariably had mac and cheese, sweet potato fries, and a side of kale salad. The month there was a major setback in the avoiding dairy and sugar department.

I can’t really complain – the miracle is that three delicious meals a day for all kinds of eaters are produced without fail day-in and day-out. Since visitors are often doing intense emotional work, the food tends toward the comfort side. It’s great for seminarians, who stay a week or a weekend, but for longer-term residents, it can feel heavy.


In the end, it was the community of friends we established while all living and working together for a short time – the work-scholars, staff, teachers and therapists who showed up with open hearts – that made our time at Esalen nurturing and memorable. We are eager to return for another month and would encourage all our friends to take a month to experience this inspirational and unique way of life.