Graduation ceremonies for Bernie Gunther's 5-day, $290 seminar, "From Sex to Superconsciousness," have adjourned to the baths.

"Ooooooooooooooooooooh," sighs a dentist from Fort Lee, N.J., as he slithers into the hot communal tub. An L.A. special education teacher strokes the nape of his neck, fondles an ear lobe. A veil of steam rises off the water, softening the expressions of delight on the eight faces sharing the bath. They look as sweet and contented as anyone Raphael ever painted.

"I had people touching each others' naked bodies before anyone else in this business," boasts Gunther. "I've always been outlandish."

Five days ago, when the bathers arrived here at the Esalen Institute to loosen up emotional logjams, they were strangers to each and themselves. And now? Well, the clothes are off; everyone is becoming his own best friend. A dull moon dances like a million diamonds over a dark blue, undulating Pacific, and the Cosmic Caterer has served up a banquet of stars.

"California is wonderful!" exclaims a bather.

"We'd be outlaws back East," says another. "But they're 25 years behind. We'll try anything out here; we're living on the edge..."

In the 60s, livling on the edge was what California and Esalen were all about, and the growth center's experimental programs in encounter and body awareness yielded daily goose bumps of excitement.

The likes of Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Peris, Ida Rolf, Bishop Jamss A. Pike, Will Schutz, B.F. Skinner, Carlos Castaneda, Ken Kesey, Paul Tillich, the Beatles, TM's Maharishi Mehesh Yogi, Joan Baez, Timothy Leary and an unrelated host of other Me-Generation pathfinders flocked to this permissive oasis off a narrow, windy coast road. The early clientele ranged from '60s radicals to intellectual hippies.

The name of the game was Guru of the Week; there was somtthing for everyone. Anyone could play, and almost anything went. Esalen acquired a Scarlet Letter for its touchy-feely reputation: nudity, group sex and drugs.

"Those were wild and crazy days," says Esalen president Julian Silverman, 45, a psychophysiologist and former chief of perceptive and cognitive studies in the National Institute of Mental Health's clinical investigation division. "Even the Big Sur mountain people looked at us as an oddball group in an oddball place. It was our period of Super Self-Indulgence."

One thing is certain, though: no one knowingly came to Esalen to play shuffleboard. Some sought lifeboats in the wake of divorce, others wanted to gain insight, or alter past behavior. Esalen became all things to all seekers: a playground for promiscuity, a Cape Canaveral for inner space, a fat farm for pudgy egos, a refuge.

"Esalen's always been a place for us emotionally retarded types," smiles Silverman. "It's the best nut home in the world."

'You'll never make it, George!' shouts the class. "You're just a salamander crawling through the slime of life. Give up, George!"

George Leonard, 55, former Look editor and a Boswell of human potential, is flat on his belly, worming his way through the "Tunnel of Fear."

For two days now, Leonard has been playing Obi-Wan-Kenobi to 30 would-be Skywalkers, teaching neophytes to experience and rely on "The Force" - the hidden energy that is said to pulse within.

Whether one becomes "centered" and feels this ki or "life force" can determine how one walks through life, he says. "The idea is to move toward your problem ... In our attempt to escape the bumps and bruises of life, we lose the richness. Blows can be taken as gifts. Beyond feelings like numbness and rage, there's a state where you can feel the tingle of being alive and handle the blows, a space where you can realize your human potential."

Adventures like the "Tunnel of Fear" are designed to put the class in touch with their inner essence. The tunnle is actually a human gauntlet of seekers who pound, pummel and frustrate the crawler as he attempts to belly through to the other end. The moral: that life just isn't fair.

Leonard is a dignified man - a lean, muscled, six-footer with a black belt in the eastern martial art, aikido. His hawkish face, white hair and stentorian voice afford him the air of an Ellsworth Bunker. It seems a shame to degrade him so.

"Hey. George, you're a CREEP!"

Obi-Wan appears as frustrated as any man beaten at his own game. Finally, yawn, the class tires of holding him down - and he scampers out of the "Tunnel of Fear."

In 1961, Michael Murphy drove down to Big Sur with psychologist Dick Price to check out 375 acres owned by Murphy's late grandfather, a Salinas doctor who once dreamed of turning the rugged, coastal paradise into a European-stlye spa.

Murphy talked his grandmother into giving Esalen a cheap, long-term lease (until 2017) - essentially so he could pursue his college dalliance with Eastern mysticism, psychology and philosophy. When his grandmother died, the property went to Murphy and assorted relatives - in trust. She refused to hand over the land without strings.

"You'd just give it to some Hindu," she once sniffed.

"She wasn't far off," laughs Murphy, 47, a lean long distance runner who takes little active part in Esalen these days.

To this nonprofit salon came western therapists fascinated with mining the eastern disciplines, and various yoga practices were incorporated into traditional repertoires of digging out the emotions. It was at Esalen that gestalt psychology first shook hands with Kundilini Yoga.

Purveyors of various therapies were forever dueling over how best to peel the emotional onionskin. Non-Frendian rivals experimented daily with some new technique; they frequently shot from the hip - and often at each other.

Fritz Perls, the beloved and feared godfather of gestalt, often accused Will Schutz, the Adam of encounter groups, of spreading superficiality in the form of "instant joy."

No single path to exploring the self was deemed The Way, although Esalen had its experiental bias. Behaviorists' view of man as a Mr. Stimulus-Response was discounted (too mechanical), as was Freud's obsession with human pathology. Psyches weren't sick, sick, sick, but just fine, thank you.

Esalen's Big Daddies felt that so-called normal people were capable of the ecstatic or "peak experiences" mystics have long described. Only the proper combination of ingredients was needed to make things happen, and this usually consisted of eastern-style meditation combined with physical exercise. The focus was on developing the "Body-mind" - the mind, the body and the emotions, together.

To harmonize the Bodymind, it was necassary to strip away repressions, and a number of fledgling therapies evolved, not the least among them bioenergetics, a body technique that focuses on opening up the body's energy centers roughly corresponding to the chakras of eastern tradition.

"When you're dealing with blocked energy, almost anything can happen," says New Yorker Alan Schwartz, who combines gestalt with bioenergetics. "Some people would breathe three times and go right up the wall - stark, raving mad - or have an orgasm on the spot."

Of course, Esalen's If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It atmosphere nudged things along. "If you give people a license to do things they have never done before, you're going to get a very powerful vibration," says Silverman. "It was an emotion-changed environment."

Nowadays, a visitor is as likely to encounter a government bureaucrat as the girl next door, a movie star as a group of French tourists in sex therapy.

Sob stories abound, as do tales of renewal.

Strangers are introduced to Esalen's favorite piece of evidence - anthropologist Gregory Bateson, 74, a skeptic who came here to die. So far, he hasn't succeeded.

It is hardly what the learned old man expected when he arrived six months ago. Doctors had diagnosed lung cancer.

Esalen was seeking a resident grandfather, and Bateson fit the vill. A former University of California regent famous for his "double-bind" theory of schizophrenia, author, philosopher and ex-husband of Margaret Mead, Bateson was invited to live in Fritz Perls' old residence with his wife, Lois, and their 10-year-old daughter to sample the nurturing environment, the health food and the baths.

He is a gentle hulk of a man with a long beak nose, two missing front teeth, a twinkle of permanent bemusement and a penchant for wearing loafers without socks. The daily doses of affection he receives are staggering. Beautiful women are forever showering him with kisses, and young men vie to sit at his feet. He does't quite know what to make of his sudden longevity.

"I just don't feel particularly kike dying these days," he grins. "They've been pumping me full of wheat grass juice."

More typical of the people here is a fortyish woman named Barbara who says she came to Esalen after flirting with suicide. She has found solace working in the garden here."

After scuttling a 30-year marriage for another man, then dumping the other man, she considered "driving west on California 1" - that is, off a cliff. She yearned to be hugged, took est, then came to Esalen to learn how to "stop playing any old games."

Asked what she has learned, she looks up from pulling weeds, mops her brow with a muddy hand and says, "Some weeds are like people, they hurt your back. I've learned to love my weeds."

Once a year, the New Jersey dentist comes to Esalen to work up courage to drop burdensome friends. Afterwards, he stops attending dental society meetings, takes to burning incense in the office and feels closer to his wife and kids. " After a couple of weeks here, I'm not afraid of things I thought I was afraid of," he says.

The 70-odd beds in motel-modern dormitories are booked months in advance by primarily white, middle-class seekers who can afford $220-$335 for five-day intensives and all the sprouts they can eat. Health care proffessionals curious about alternative medicine seminars mingle with lawyers, businessmen and Army brass seeking ventilation. After years in the red, Esalen has tightened the reins; last year's $150,000 operating profit was plowed back into the grounds and work-scholarships.

There are workshops on Transcendental Running; Taoism; Loving; Hypnosis; Black Dance; Pleasure; Sensuality; Fear, Panic & Vulnerability; Tuning In; Letting Go & Getting Everything; Massage, and so forth. Techniques developed here long ago entered the marketplace.

In fact, the current glut of self-help, from holistic health to pop therapies to nouveau addictions like running, has Esalen to thank for its early role as The laboratory for New Age social scientists. It was perhaps inevitable that a few mad scientists would emerge to vie for the dollars and minds of loyal recruits.

These days, it's nearly impossible to tell the pop Dale Carnegies from fascist-on-the-make. And, indeed, a number of snake oil salesmen have sold their wares at Esalen. Various trips do float in and out of favor, though the center doesn't endorse one over another.

"No one here will tell you what to do," says Dick Price. "Maybe no one knows." He pauses, laughs at himself. "We just haul by the ankles."

A number of seminarians, as Esalen refers to its guests, choose to take off their clothes, lie back and surrender to the magic hands of a masseuse like Lila Daniels, 35. Every day, it seems, men are asking her to marry them.

"I've been proposed to many times," she says.

When they lie down on the bathhouse deck, on a cliff high over the Pacific, she notices caved-in chests (lack of love), tense solar plexus (held-back emotions), tight jaws (anger) and shoulders hunched up around the ears (fear). Then she goes to work, digging fingers between the muscles, stroking with oil, working the arms and legs like oars on a rowboat.

Esalen is famous for its massage crew, and visitors plop down $30-$45 an hour for body manipulations ranging from Swedish massage to Rolfing.

"I never felt this way," one man was heard to tell Daniels. It is a frequent comment, she says, as is, "I feel tingles all over." Then they ask her to run away to Acupulco.

"It's not me," she protests. "I just activate their prana (energy). I just push the button."

Most men understand. But her present beau, a San Francisco doctor who met her a table , refused to credit his tingles to her technique. "I gave him the whole lecture, but that still didn't stop him," she laughs.

Critics in human potential's high society sniff that Esalen is no longer the frontier, but a boring settlement. It may well be the mainstream, but it's not yet so middle-of-the-road that everyone wants their friends and neighbors to know they spent their vacation here.

"It would ruin us," said wife of an electronics executive who feared her husband would lose his job if their name saw print. "It's sad, but that's the way it is. You say, 'Esalen,' and they think, 'Orgy, loose, erotic.'"

Esalen, however, regards itself more along the lines of a VW factory that has successfully shaken the bugs out of the first batch of Rabbits.

"Sure, we've been selling the same old stuff for a long time. So what?" says Silverman. "Esalen is like a child that's gone through adolescence and reached its late 20s. Life isn't the same as at 16. After a while, you look ridiculous crawling around in a crib."

As a grown-up Esalen looks out at America, it sees a swelling multitude who claims to be "relating honestly," respecting one another's "space," reaffirming their "right" to be happy. Indeed, society's transformation seems practically at hand.

"The payoff," says Silverman, "is that we're having a good time doing something constructive - without being a pain in the ass to society."