Vacationing at a Personal Growth Center

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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.

And how do people respond to that setting? I can best report the reaction of a middle-aged couple from Santa Barbara who come here for a semi-annual "fix," to "feel alive and revitalized." Apart from their interest in Aikido movement/meditation (subject of their workshop), they feel that Esalen "has the nicest piece of real estate in the world--beach, rocks, surf, sea, air, mountains, hot tubs, good food, and loving people--who could ask for anything more?"

And farther afield

Though Esalen was the first, it is now but one of a dozen such "personal growth" retreats on both coasts of the United States and in between.

Their goal? It is again to fulfill the "human potential," to expand consciousness and improve personal relationships, to tap into the same mysterious sources of energy and spirit that enable mystics in other lands and on other levels to enjoy trances and visions, to walk on nails or fast for days.

Their method? Workshops of a week's or a weekend's duration, attended by vacationing members of the public, who offer up their own psyches to these new therapies or to classroom training.

Unlisted in any directory of which I am aware, and marketed through severely limited mailings or classified ads in magazines of small circulation, they are nonetheless open to all and worthy of far broader dissemination.

New York

Omega Institute, 150 Lake Drive, Rhinebeck, NY 12572 (phone 845/266-4444 or 800/944-1001; Web site at is--apart from Esalen--the lodestone; it attracts up to 600 people a week during its summer operating period from mid-June to mid-October. On a broad lake flanked by extensive, hilly grounds of forest and clearings, in a joyful atmosphere of kindness and smiles, it presents weekend and weeklong workshops ranging from the clearly lighthearted ("The Joy of Swing," "Secrets of Omega Cooking") to the softly therapeutic ("Healing Dreams," "Empowerment Workshop," "The Art of Relationship") to the arcane and abstruse ("The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep," "Teilhard de Chardin's Christianity"," "Sufi Meditation"); many of the most famous figures in the human potential movement--Ram Dass and Ashley Montagu, Ilana Rubenfeld and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan--make an appearance, and a great many of the seminars are identical to those presented at Esalen, suggesting a personal growth "circuit" for lecturers. Tuition averages $100 a day; housing and meals (vegetarian) add $120 to $343 in campsites, $165 to $476 in dorms, up to $1274 for private cabins.

The Abode of the Message, 5 Abode Road, New Lebanon, NY 12125 (phone 518/794-8095, Web site:, email: On three-day weekends, as well as the occasional day-long or lengthier,year-round, outsiders come to study on this mountain in the Berkshires with a permanent community of "Sufis"--the gentlest of people who have made an eclectic choice from the prophetic messages of all religions, both Western and Eastern. Faculty includes learned Sufis, a Christian mystic and a Muslim chaplain. Sample workshops: "Opening the Heart" and "Essence of Mysticism in Everyday Life"; there is much meditation. To weekend tuition costs averaging $180, add room and board charges of about $40 to $55 a day in a dorm or cabin, $25 to $30 a day in a campsite.

Wainwright House, 260 Stuyvesant Ave., Rye, NY 10580 (phone 914/967-6080 or Web site: A stately mansion on elegant grounds, just north of New York City, it offers year-round daily workshops--some for only a day in duration--the Arts and Music, Aromatherapy, spiritual disciplines, "health and wholeness," and other topics of psychology. Themes are far-ranging "The Art of Being", "Creating Health Through Imagery", "Mindful Meditation", "A Course in Miracles", "General Stress Release and Deep Relaxation"--and speakers more eclectic still: they include Ram Dass, Dr. Andrew Weill, James Twyman, Dr. Gerald Epstein, Rabbi Chaim Stern, Cynthia Worby. One-day tuition averages $120 a night. Other meals are offered in the dining room at additional cost. And a catalog of courses is free for the asking.

Elat Chayyim, 99 Mill Hook Road, Accord, NY 12404 (phone 800/398-2630 or 845/626-0157. Web site: The only Jewish retreat center on our list, Elat Chayyim accepts guests of all faiths, although most of its programs are concerned with matters of Jewish spirituality with a dash of Asian mysticism thrown in for good measure. Hence the "Torah-Yoga" institute, a melding of the yoga practice with study of the sacred books. There are also classes introducing Jewish meditation, and singles retreats for people looking to find their "beshert" (other half). Most programs start at about $85 a day, including classes and three meals a day. Room costs range from $0 a night in a tent to $485 for a single with a hall bath.


Mt. Madonna Center, 445 Summit Road, Watsonville, CA 95076 (phone 408/847-0406,   or Web site:; in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, overlooking Monterey Bay--you can't imagine a more enthralling location--it is another leading retreat facility for the discussion of every psychological issue, every spiritual conundrum, including the latest and hottest topics. Thousands head there each year for long weekends or week-long vacations that combine hiking in the redwood forests and cavorting in the open air, with attendance at the weightiest of talks and discussions: "Living From the Heart," "The Mandala-Expressing Radiant Truth and Beauty," "Ayurveda: Ancient Science of India", "Passionate Journey: A Couples Retreat"; call in advance to learn the content of the seminars and classes presented during the time of your own desired stay. Though the staff of the Center is yoga-trained and yoga-oriented, seminars deal with broader psychological issues. Room and two vegetarian meals daily, supplemented by snacks, ranges from $46 per person (in a tent supplied with mattress), $32 if you bring your own tent, $54 (in dorms housing four to seven), $61 (in a triple room), to $69 per person (in a double), $92 in a single, per day, to which you add an average of $190 per weekend for tuition relating to the courses or seminars you've chosen. All this is but an hour from San Jose Airport, an hour and a half from San Francisco Airport.

Ojai Foundation, 9739 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai, CA 93023 (phone 805/646-8343, Web site:, is on a 40-acre ridge of semi-wilderness, two hours north of Los Angeles. Mainly, it offers weekend seminars and workshops in personal growth subjects. Accommodations aretents in the form of canvas domes, yurts or teepees on wooden platforms, and participants receive vegetarian meals. Recent topics have included "Introduction to Council," "Discovering Your Personal Mythology," "The Heroine's Journey: Women's Spiritual Quest," "Preparing for Relationship: A Flesh and Spirit Intensive," all characterized by the organization as seeking "to honor the inseparability of learning and living, to heal the split between work in the world and spiritual practice, and to honor traditional wisdom by incorporating it in our present way of being." Most programs begin with dinner at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and end Sunday at 5 p.m. More standard living arrangements are available for persons seeking to have a (secular) retreat there for longer periods of time.

California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103 (415/575-6100, Web site: was founded in 1968 by Indian philosopher and educator Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri. "Integral" in this sense refers to the school's all-encompassing credo: "Higher education for the mind, body, spirit." Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, CIIS gives students the chance to earn a B.A., M.A., Ph.D., or Psy.D. degree from a university "exclusively devoted to integrating the intellectual and spiritual insights of Eastern and Western traditions in study and practice." For lifelong learners looking to sample the CIIS experience, the Institute provides a number of open workshops and presentations. Director of Public Programs and Continuing Education Joshua Lachs characterizes CIIS' public offerings as "an academic Omega." Topics from the summer of 2005 include  "Ayurveda: The Science of Life," "The Way of Tea as Zen Practice" and "The Earth Path: Giving Spiritual Roots." High profile presenters, like Alice Walker, Marianne Williamson and Shamanism expert Michael Harner attract some 3,000 people to CIIS public programs each year. These workshops last two or three days at a cost of about $225 per day. Accommodations and food are not provided, but CIIS will help visitors find lodgings if they are staying for an extended period of time.

Oregona, British Columbia, New Mexico and Colorado

Breitenbush Retreat Center, Breitenbush Hot Springs, P.O. Box 578, Detroit, OR 97342 (phone 503/854-3321, Web site: Hot springs and saunas are available 24 hours a day at this Oregon resort. Run by the members of an "intentional community" (see "On the Road to Utopia"), Breitenbush offers its visitors a number of free daily seminars on topics like yoga, sacred arts, and healing music. These therapies, lodging, and full board cost between $55 and $90 per person per day. Esalen-style Healing Arts workshops are available for an additional fee of about $75 per day.

Each center issues catalogs or other descriptive literature, to be carefully perused before enrolling. From personal experience, I can assure you that a stay will cause you to discover, at the very least, important new aspects of your inner life and relations with others.

Ghost Ranch, HC77, Box 11, Abiquiu, NM 87510, and 401 Old Taos Highway, Santa Fe, NM 87501 (phone for Abiquiu site 877/804-4678, phone for Santa Fe site 800/821-5145; Web site:; provides personal growth, but from a largely religious, though non-denominational, viewpoint; the ranch is owned by the Presbyterian Church. Though much of the subject matter consists of religious education ("The Healing of Jesus in the 21st Century" Spirituality and Social Justice"), many of the programs focus on arts and crafts, outdoor exploration, and other eclectic topics ("Dinosaurs", " Old Time and Blue Grass Music", "Muslim-Christian Relations: A Dialogue" were several recent seminars). For a weeklong stay, you'll pay $300 to $420 weekly for room and full board, an average of $185 for tuition.

Naropa University, 2130 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, CO 80302 (phone 303/444-0202, or visit its Web site at In a partly urban setting, yet on the slopes of the Rockies, it is serious and intellectual, but with a heavy emphasis on innovative, psychological approaches to music, theater, dance, and creative writing. Nevertheless, workshops also include "Introduction to Buddhist Meditation," "Contemplative Christianity," "The Art and Ritual of Chinese Tea," and "Discovering the Natural Freedom of the Mind." Guests find their own housing from a plethora of hotels and motels nearby (rates like those of any other large city), to which average tuition fees of about $100 per day should be added.

Hollyhock, P.O. Box 127, Manson's Landing, Cortes Island, BC, VOP IKO, Canada (phone 250/935-6576 (outside North America) or 800/933-6339; Web site: One hundred miles north of Vancouver, in the Georgia Strait, this is a warm-weather-only (March through October) facility on an expanse of beach and 48 acres of gardens, orchards, and forest. Workshops are generally three to five days in duration, start at $300 CDN, and explore such subjects as "Karma Yoga", "Writing Memoirs" "The Power of the Mind and Spirit to Heal", "Tantra and the Secrets of Love and Sexuality", "The Art of Leadership," "Herbal Medicine Making," and "T'ai Chi Ch'uan as a Way of Life." Simple retreats without the workshops, but including morning yoga and meditation, in addition to lodgings and three meals a day, range from $70 CDN in a tent, to $243 a night in a single with private bath. As an added attraction, Hollyhock has on staff a full-time, resident naturalist to teach free courses on the ecology, and to lead nature hikes and star-gazing sessions.

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