23 August 2019

Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience

By Andrew Marantz

There are two kinds of people: those who know nothing about Esalen and those who purport to know everything about it. To find out which kind of person you’re talking to, simply utter the three syllables (stress on the first, slant-rhyme with “mescaline”) and wait. In response, you’ll get either an uncomprehending stare or an effusion of tall tales. Have you heard the one about the poet and the astrophysicist who met in the Esalen hot springs and eloped the next week? How about the accountant who visited for the weekend, cured his depression with a single dose of ketamine, and became a Zen monk? The secret full-moon dance parties? The billionaire-C.E.O. sightings? “This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

To be clear, it is also a place: twenty-seven acres of Big Sur coastline, laid out lengthwise between California Route 1 and the Pacific, a dazzling three-hour drive south of San Francisco. Its full name is the Esalen Institute—a tax-exempt nonprofit, founded in 1962. All visitors must announce themselves at the gatehouse, where a staffer wearing performance fleece is likely to dispense a Northern Californian bundle of mixed messages: Namaste, the light within me bows to the light within you, let me confirm that we’ve received your credit-card deposit and then I’ll point you to your cabin and/or Tesla Supercharger. There’s a redwood dining hall, appointed in the ascetic-chic style; there are pine groves and an organic vegetable farm; there are yoga studios and massage tables and a wrought-iron fire pit; there’s a warren of hot tubs fed by sulfurous underground springs, so when the wind shifts in a northerly direction, the ambient aroma of lavender and patchouli sometimes takes on a middle note of rotten eggs.

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