Esalen evolution: A retreat for the next age
| November 19, 2020
In troubling times, an oasis of calm may be the missing piece that bridges the chaos of the present to the fortunes of the future. Enter Esalen. The renowned wellness and retreat center has completely transformed its operations and purpose to create a safe environment for people to unplug, explore, contemplate and forge deeper connections with the self, one another and nature — and to bring that wisdom back to their community.
Its new program to help battle the isolation, loneliness and social justice issues, dubbed “Creating Connection through the Rituals of Esalen,” is a unique five-day opportunity to create rituals around important life transitions.
Esalen is set amidst the stunning Big Sur coastline, a rustic retreat of cherished rituals that integrate heart, mind, body, spirit and community in a nurturing relationship with the environment. Guests explore human potential through Esalen’s tailored experiential program featuring opportunities to explore: meditation and mindfulness, embodiment and movement practices, connection with nature, and creative expression.
Joseph Campbell, the revered American mythologist who is part and parcel of the fabric of Esalen due to his teachings there during the 1960s and ’70s, once said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” In many ways, 2020 has been asking us to do just that — let go of something in order to give birth to something brand new. The opportunity to create rituals around such significant life transitions — and understand and integrate them — has never been more vital.
We spoke to Terry Gilbey, General Manager and CEO of Esalen, about how the iconic retreat that was featured in the finale of “Mad Men,” has managed to stay relevant in a world gone wild.
1. Past leaders may have come from a philosophical and psychological background. But your background hails from finance. How did you come to run what is considered the founding institution of new age consciousness and psychological evolution?
Several years ago, I came to Esalen as a student to study gestalt and look for ways to apply that approach to team building. I never left. At that time, Esalen had to shut down for six months due to a mudslide on the highway. It was a huge financial crisis for Esalen, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, and I offered my experience and knowledge. I developed a new strategic plan and roadmap to sustain the organization during this challenging time. This plan was so successful that I was invited to join the organization as the General Manager overseeing the day-to-day operations as we reopened in 2017. Shortly after that, it was clear we needed an operations focus to regain financial stability and I took the role of CEO. We have since built on the original model and continue to deliver mission impact and a better transformational experience to students and guests.
2. Many of us recognized Esalen in the final episodes of “Mad Men,” as ad man protagonist Don Draper goes on a retreat and finds enlightenment. Is that Esalen of the 1960s the same Esalen of the 2020s?
The core of Esalen, the vision, mission and values that our founders built into the organization in 1962 are the same. The need for connection: connection to self, to others and to nature is more relevant today than ever. What has changed is how we do that, and how we explore new ways to do that.
3. How would you define Esalen's role in today's fractured social climate?
Joseph Campbell, the revered American mythologist who graced Esalen with his teachings during the 1960s and '70s, once said, "We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us." In many ways, 2020 has been asking all of humanity to do just that — let go of something in order to give birth to something brand new. Esalen gives people the opportunity to create rituals around such significant life transitions — and understand and integrate them, which has never been more vital. The time is now.
4. What will visitors or retreat-goers familiar with Esalen recognize today from the institution's past?
Esalen's new look is actually our original look. We are embracing the look and feel of the origins of Esalen. For example: The "new" logo is the logo you have always seen on the sign when you come to Esalen's property. The iconic baths, Esalen Healing Arts, the farm and garden that looks out over the Big Sur Coast, the sense of awe when you walk the land — it’s all still here. So too are the people.
5. How do you think Esalen can change the world?
As we are all pausing and taking stock of what is truly important in our lives, Esalen offers people the opportunity to do that in a multitude of ways. This is an exceptional time to regain a sense of clarity and empowerment and a rare opportunity to rediscover and reawaken the change agent within each one of us. It is a time to reconnect to the person that we want to be. The potential ripple effects have the ability to positively affect the self, cherished loved ones and your community worldwide.
6. What should CEOs, entrepreneurs, marketing leaders and small business innovators know about today's Esalen Institute? How can they best benefit from time spent there?
Coming from a background in business and technology, I understand the importance of fully unplugging, exploring, contemplating and forging deeper connections with the self, one another and nature. The most important benefit is that they can bring that wisdom back to each person's community. We have a very powerful and dynamic program that will help business leaders get out of their comfort zone to stretch them to explore human potential through a variety of new offerings each week, including:
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Embodiment and movement practices
- Connection with nature
7. How is Esalen creating a safe environment for visitors in this COVID era?
We are committed to operating safely and are following the recommendations of Monterey county, the State of California and rely on the best practices shared by scientists and medical providers. We are fortunate to operate in an environment that allows us to take advantage of mostly being outdoors and easily social distanced.
8. The workshop model has changed: what should guests expect with the new "Rituals of Esalen" program?
The focus remains exactly the same. Our commitment to helping people explore their human potential in all of its forms remains our north star and guiding light. One of the ways we are doing that right now is through the new "Creating Connection through the Rituals of Esalen," which is a unique opportunity to create rituals around important life transitions. This is an invitation to fully unplug, explore, contemplate and forge deeper connections with the self, one another and nature -- and to bring that wisdom back to your community.
9. Why does Esalen encourage couples to come as opposed to just individuals?
We are taking advantage of the economies of scale. Because we are limiting the number of people that can attend Esalen because we have to abide by social distancing requirements, we are creating a more economical offering for guest to enjoy Esalen with a partner.
10. How was Esalen impacted by the recent fires?
2020 has been full of challenges for us all. For Esalen, we were impacted by two major events: COVID-19 starting in March and the Dolan Fire, which happened in September. Due to those two events, Esalen has had to remain closed for the majority of 2020. The silver lining of all of this is that we have been given the opportunity to take a real introspective look at how Esalen operates and answer the questions of what is important to carry forward and what is no longer serving us.
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