The institute was founded in 1962 by two charismatic Stanford University graduates, Michael Murphy and Richard Price. Murphy (whose family owned a funky hot springs motel at Big Sur) and Price (the scion of a wealthy Chicago family) were looking to start something new. Murphy had already been to India in search of spiritual truth, and Price was looking for a more humane approach to helping people suffering from mental illness, himself included.
Big Sur was already known in the 1950s as a mecca for beatniks and other bohemians, and Esalen continued that countercultural tradition into the 1960s and 1970s. People came here to study yoga, meditation, and massage; to take psychedelic drugs; and to scream, cry and/or laugh their way through encounter groups with a series of avant-garde psychotherapists and other self-styled prophets of the New Age.
Much to the dismay of Murphy, who was the institute’s more intellectual co-founder, Esalen became infamous for hedonistic seminarians who to this day frolic buck naked at the co-ed baths, where outdoor massage tables overlook stone pools — all of it precariously hung over the left-leaning edge of the American continent.
David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend.
What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest.
Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.
“The community has become more tightly regulated,” said Price, who was born at Esalen in 1963 and now lives in Poland. “These people are not just a labor force. There’s always been a priority set for the people who work here to also be able to work on themselves.”
Virginia Lea Arnone, a former staffer, said Esalen is now run by “business men-corporate types who have never lived the Big Sur life.”