I’ve spent the last five days at Esalen, the famous spiritual workshop centre on the coast of Big Sur in northern California. I was invited to take part in a seminar on the ‘superhumanities’ at Esalen’s centre for research.
I’ve been wanting to visit Esalen for years, and it hasn’t disappointed. Just in terms of physical beauty, it is astonishing. It’s perched on cliffs looking out over the Pacific Ocean, with a main building where meals and our seminar took place, and then little huts and cabins where people stay. There’s a swimming pool, a glorious lawn, a flower and herb garden, and a path down to some hot baths overlooking the ocean. The wildlife is amazing — I’ve seen sea otters playing in the sea below, hump-back whales swimming past, hummingbirds and blue-jays.
The hot baths are part of what make Esalen famous. People come here for workshops or seminars, and then get to go and soak in the baths overlooking the ocean. The fact everyone is naked in these hot tubs thaws the ice between participants. Indeed, Esalen played a role in thawing the cold war in the 1980s via what historians have called ‘hot tub diplomacy’.
Esalen has a remarkable history. It was bought by a family called the Murphys in the early 20th century — Dr Murphy wanted to turn it into a spa. But that didn’t take off because of World War Two. Instead it became a hotel popular with Pentecostalists, while the hot tubs were popular with local homosexuals. By 1960, the groundsman was Hunter S. Thompson. One time he tried to clear the homosexuals out of the hot tubs and they beat him up, so he retreated to his cabin and fired his shotgun out of the window.
The Murphys had a family meeting to decide what to do with the place. One of Dr Murphy’s sons, Michael, wanted to turn it into a centre for spiritual development. Michael had been a student at Stanford, who had got turned on to spirituality by his lecturer, Frederic Spiegelberg. Mike went to India to practice in Sri Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondhicherry. He became enthused by Aurobindo’s vision of an evolutionary spirituality in which humans evolve into superhumans.