Vacationing at a Personal Growth Center Their aim is to fulfill the human potential, to expand consciousness and improve personal relationships Budget Travel Wednesday, Apr 13, 2005, 12:00 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


Vacationing at a Personal Growth Center

Their aim is to fulfill the human potential, to expand consciousness and improve personal relationships

On a broad lawn leading to a steep cliff, above the rocky surf and sea lions of the Pacific Ocean, couples hugged or stroked each other's arms. Occasionally they reached out to pat the cheek of a passing stranger.

Others raged in response to a trivial slight. Some of them arm-wrestled, grimly, to settle a dispute.

In scenes such as these, flung across the covers of Life and Look, the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California, introduced America in the 1960s to "encounter therapy" and related offshoots of the "human potential movement." Drunk with the vision that they could lead humankind into a new era of heightened insight, sensitivity, and understanding, the personalities associated with Esalen--Michael Murphy, Fritz Perls, Ida Rolf, Abraham Maslow, Will Shutz, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, Gregory Bateson--converted that isolated stretch of seafront heights into a place of unfettered experimentation in psychology, and fired the thought of millions, while offending or frightening legions of others.

Esalen now

What has happened to Esalen in the ensuing years? Though no longer in the news, it perseveres, even thrives, but at a more measured pace, thoughtful and cautious. And it has spawned over a dozen imitators: residential retreats where hundreds of Americans devote their vacations to exploring a range of psychological subjects so broad as to require college-like catalogs to list them all. Encounter therapy--that almost-instant process of shedding inhibitions and responding to every repressed emotion--is now only one of numerous treatments under study at America's personal growth centers.

For one thing, the early leader of the encounter movement--Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen--is no longer certain of the long-term benefits of the art. It is, he believes, only a start--this stripping away of defenses through encounter techniques--which must be succeeded by longer-lasting and less dramatic work. Others have concluded that encounter therapy can be positively dangerous, exposing serious underlying pathologies without providing a trained therapist to deal with what's exposed.

And so the core curriculum of the centers is currently devoted to such multiple emerging sciences as gestalt practice, bio-feedback, shamanic healing, Feldenkrais, trans-personal processes and intuitive development. From these basic inquiries emerge, at some centers, more popular discussions: ""Finding True Love", "Awakening the mind: Mastering the Power of Your Brainwaves", "Evolutionary Psychology", "Holistic Sexuality", "The Vision and Practice of Human Transformation", "Reinhabiting Your Body"." All are aimed at expanding human potential, tapping into energies and abilities as yet unknown.

At Esalen, instruction is through seminars or workshops extending over a weekend ($595, including room and board) or five days midweek ($1060); a handful of bunk beds, and space for sleeping bags, offer lower-rate possibilities. Many first-timers select the orientation workshop simply known as "Experiencing Esalen" (sensory awareness, group process, guided fantasy, meditation, massage), or the somewhat similar "Gestalt Awareness Practice"; others choose from more than 100 other widely varied subjects taught throughout the year. Studies are combined with exquisite relaxation, in a lush oasis of gardens, birds, and natural hot springs; the springs bring 118 degrees of sulfurous water into bathhouses where residents can soak for hours while watching the sun or moon set into the ocean below. Rooms are comfortable and pleasantly decorated, but must be shared with others (usually), and lack telephones, computers, faxes, TV sets, or radios; a retreat atmosphere is maintained. Meals are served in a dining hall where dress and decor are casual but the cuisine is gourmet. The Esalen gardens and nearby farms supply the majority of the many options in the daily salad and vegetables bar.

When the 110 guest beds are not fully booked (which is common during the winter season and sometimes happens during midweek in summer), it is possible simply to stay at Esalen without enrolling in a seminar. The cost of this varies, but falls into the $85 to $145 (after April 1st) range for a night and a day, including dinner, breakfast, and lunch, or for even less than that if you bring a sleeping bag or occupy one of the few bunk beds. Often people come to Esalen simply for a bout of quiet writing, or during a time of life transition. As workshops and bed spaces fill up early (especially in summer), it is important to plan a trip to Esalen well in advance. Visit its Web site ( to view the complete catalog or print out the registration form. You may register over the phone (831/667-3005), or by mail (c/o Reservations, Esalen Institute, 55000 Hwy. 1, Big Sur CA 93920), and online registration is coming soon. For general information or to request a hard copy of the catalog, call 831/667-3000 ext. 7100. The location is 300 miles north of Los Angeles, 175 miles south of San Francisco, between the spectacular coastal highway and the 100-foot cliffs overlooking crashing waves below.

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