As a woman of high-risk health in her late sixties, I’ve had a serious case of the post-pandemic blues. The lack of travel and persistent mask mandates have been wearing me down; I desperately need a getaway. Even though I’m masked and vaxxed, due to an abundance of caution I have not been ready to venture into flying. Outside of Maui, I have always loved Big Sur, California, more than any other place. In spite of therapy, prescription, and non-prescription support for depression, during the past year I’ve been in a place of darkness. It has been difficult for me to shake the feeling. I crave to a return to the light. A spiritual retreat at Esalen in Big Sur was calling me.
Intuitively I knew that just being in Big Sur was guaranteed to bring me into the light, plus, a workshop would teach me a new skill. In my Last Will and Testament, Big Sur is the place mentioned where I want my ashes dispersed. I feel a deep connection to that area of the California coast. In fact, one of my recent poems, “Being a Monk in Big Sur for a Month,” is a testament to this.
Writing the poem inspired me to do some reading about Esalen. Plus, I wanted to understand more fully why Esalen, in particular, was such a draw for me. I learned that Esalen Institute is a non-profit retreat center and intentional community, even before it became mainstream, its focus was on the mind-body connection and personal awareness. The grounds were originally home to a Native American tribe called Esselen.
Big Sur is a powerful place. Healing waters have been there for thousands of years and it has been an energetic area for a long time. Many people come to Esalen with the goal to heal from an ancestral wound, myself included. My wound was holding onto my father’s trauma of being in Dachau’s concentration camp for five year, from the ages of fifteen to twenty, and never being able to vocalize what he experienced.
For the past ten years, I’ve had a black water bottle on my bedside table with “Esalen 50 years” written in cursive white letters. While I was drawn to the property on my first visit in 2006, I became even more connected after receiving my PhD in Transpersonal Psychology in 2014 at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now known as Sofia University). Many of the luminaries I studied in school such as Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, Rollo May, Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, B.F. Skinner, Paul Tillich, TM’s Maharishi, and Timothy Leary were associated and involved with Esalen back in the 1960s.
Studying these individuals was an integral part of my program. For example, I’ve read all of Rollo May’s books, and his book The Courage to Create has been an enormous inspiration for my life as a writer.
How was it possible that it was so long since my last visit? I loved my past trips so much, I cannot believe I waited to return. I was certainly overdue. On my most recent visit in 2012, I loaded up my new silver convertible and headed straight up the coast from Santa Barbara to Big Sur. On the beautiful drive, I made a lunch stop in the cute town of Cambria and then took a stroll at the nearby rest area to view the mating elephant seals.
My days during that visit were spent in a poetry workshop lead by esteemed poet Sharon Olds. We sat in a circle on fluffy cushions on the floor of the Fritz House, a round building named after original resident Fritz Perls. Perls was a psychologist who taught gestalt therapy at the Esalen Institute throughout the 1960s.
I’d always been a fan of Olds’ powerful and emotional poetry, throughout which her words tie the personal to the universal. I felt so honored to be in a room with her, and it was undoubtedly a workshop to remember. It was inspiring to hear Olds read her poetry and to listen to her critiques and comments after each participant read their own.
When not in workshop, I took long walk around the Esalen property and sat on a rock on the edge of the Pacific Ocean creating more poetry than I can ever remember writing in such a short amount of time. After dinner, my evenings were spent seated near the campfire, while musical guests strummed their guitars as the rest of us sang folk songs.
The experience put me back into the bliss of my hippie days of the ‘60s, so naturally I could not wait to return to Esalen. I had no idea that it would ten years to get back—life, children, grandchildren, aging mothers, and a pandemic have captured my time. The adage that time goes faster as we get older rings truer every day.
Until my visit earlier this year, I’d been to Esalen three other times. Once with my husband and twice alone. Like my other visits, I knew that visiting Esalen was not about the stellar accommodations or gourmet food. The dining hall still had the camp vibe of picnic benches and buffet bars, one with salads and the other serving hot food. The food was okay, but not terrific. It was like I remember summer camp food to be—wholesome and satisfying.
For me, the highlight of the Esalen experience entailed being in Big Sur on sacred property. I craved the magic sound of crashing waves and having the best open-air massages of my lifetime, with massage tables perched over the Pacific cliff. The entire experience was incredibly nurturing and healing.
Near the massage area are the famous salt baths, which for many people is a major draw to Esalen. I’ve heard they’re very healing, but the retired nurse in me never felt comfortable or safe climbing nude into water with strangers. Even though I am a hippie at heart, another reason for caution was that during this recent visit there were still cases of the virus being reported around the country, and we high-risk individuals were still using caution.
On long car trips I normally listen to upbeat music, but this time up the spectacular California coast, of the rugged and awesomely beautiful coastline, I set intentions about my upcoming week at Esalen. After thinking for some time, I came up with a few:
- I want to write poems again.
- I want to transform.
- I want to leave the darkness and move into the light.
- Giving thanks to the spirit who brought me here.
In preparation for this trip, I phoned Esalen’s reservation line to see about available workshops. As I’d been through a year of deep darkness and depression, I yearned for something that would bring me back into the light. In the past, when I’ve met with spiritual counselors or psychics, I’ve been told that I am the light. I am the sun and that when I’m not feeling happy or full of life, then there’s a block in my path which leads to distress. Thus, to get back into the light, I had to open myself to the unknown. This was my primary intention for the week.
The workshop that first caught my eyes was about Sacred Medicine. My oncologist believes that soon I will need western medicine treatment (e.g., chemotherapy, immunotherapy) for smoldering multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that I’ve had for more than fifteen years. So, I thought it might be beneficial to learn about Native American healing modalities. The workshop was facilitated by a physician who merged eastern and western medicine, which is in line with how I manage my health care. As it turned out, that workshop was full so I opted for my second choice, “Art as a Spiritual Practice.”
After a brief inquiry into their COVID procedures, everything was falling into place regarding my upcoming visit. Because I was booking late, there were not many appointments available in the healing arts. I took the last spot for a massage and decided to also book a tarot reading, where I also took the last available opening. The massage would begin forty-five minutes after check-in. It was tight for me, but also a great way to begin my stay.
Spiritual seekers speak a lot about synchronicities, especially at places like Esalen. I’ve always paid attention to those kind of messages, trusting what was given to me and what the universe wants me to have. I use my intuition to guide me; it’s never let me down.
On Monday, May 23rd, 2022, at 1:15 p.m., I arrived at the guard gate of the Esalen Institute along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur. The guard came out of his booth scanned my car from front to back.
“First time here?” he inquired.
“No. I’ve been here before, but it’s been a while. Like ten years!”
“Well, welcome back!”
“Thank you. So excited to be here.”
“First, I need to see your vaccination card, plus your negative Covid-19 test from today.” I pulled out the photos on my phone and he took it from my hand, quickly glanced at my documentation and handed my phone back to me.
“Ok, you’re good to go.”
I arrived early and parked my car in a premium spot near the luggage ramp of the Maslow Pavilion, which is where I’d sleep for the next four nights. The ramp led to the strip mall-looking building. Glancing up at the pavilion, I remembered that ten years earlier the guests all slept in sleeping bags on the floor.
“Oh my,” I thought. “I hope they did not make a mistake and put me here.” In my twenties, as newlyweds, my husband and I did a lot of camping. I am in great shape for my age, but the idea of getting up off the floor from a sleeping bag somehow wasn’t as appealing as it was back then.
It turned out that the private rooms were on the back side of the building. After parking I made three trips to my room. First, I carried my bag of snacks from my local health food store, plus some dried lavender to give the room a nice aroma. The next trip was with my suitcase which I slowly rolled up the ramp.
I felt very relaxed being on the Esalen property; it was as if I’d come home. I observed that all my moves were deliberate and mindful. Being on the Esalen property had a way of reminding you to pay attention to the present moment, which I knew was one way to stretch out a good experience.
My third trip included my two jackets and various odds and ends, including a 100-watt bulb. This was a tradition inherited from my grandmother Regina, who always reminded me of the importance of reading with a good light.
“Hotels usually have low watt bulbs and that’s not good for your eyes, so make sure you always travel with a high-watt bulb,” she would tell me.
I opened my suitcase on the wall bench, hung a few things in the open closet, and placed my toiletries in the bathroom. I left the light on in the bathroom so it wouldn’t be dark upon my return after the evening’s first class.
As advised by the guard, I dashed over to the dining hall for lunch. I wanted to re-reorientate myself to this magnificent place. On my way, I made my usual stop at the bookstore which was in the same building. The dining hall had been renovated since I last visited. It looked clean and much brighter. I’d just checked in and already I was feeling so nurtured.
After lunch, I went to sit on the edge of the Pacific and meditated about what my week would be like. I found myself smiling from ear to ear—to myself and anybody who walked by. I glanced at my watch and noticed it was time for my massage. I walked over to the steep incline leading to the bath and massage area. The walk was a feast for the eyes: the hypnotizing, magnificent Pacific, glistening with the sun’s rays beaming on the water.
I’d forgotten that the locker rooms were co-ed—something that usually puts me ill-at-ease—but as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I’ve become more body conscious since having mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries in 2001, but there was something about Esalen that wiped away those feelings. I felt the impact of the collective consciousness and how each one of us comes to view ourselves as part of the human group of shared beliefs. My body is further laden with scars from three cesareans and knee surgery. The mastectomy and reconstruction involved removing a muscle from my back to form a new breast. As a doctor once told me, “You’re beautiful on the outside, but a mess on the inside.” In short, my body looks like a battlefield.
The massage was everything I remembered it would be. I was right—it really was the perfect way to begin my stay. The table was situated inside a massage room, on a ledge overlooking the Pacific with open air windows so clients could hear and see the waves crashing against the huge boulders. I got completely lost in the phenomenal moment. At some point I must have fallen asleep. All I remember was the therapist whispering something indecipherable in my left ear, which I assumed was telling me the treatment was over and that I should take my time getting up. I’ve had enough massages to know those closing words.
The crashing waves were deafening. I was in a trance and wondered how I would get off the table, then shower and climb the steep hill back to my room. I sat up slowly, and then on to the change room, where I made my way to the bench beneath the hook where my clothes hung. I had to sit for a moment—I was very dizzy.
Still mindful with every move, I got dressed and began walking out of the room back to the ramp leading to the dining area, which I’d have to pass to get back to my room. I felt as if my blood pressure had plunged to zero. Thankfully, there was a bench half-way up. I stopped for a breather.
I made it back to my room and collapsed on my bed. A bit later, I glanced at my watch and realized that I’d have to be at my workshop in half an hour. It was on the other side of the property—would I make it? For some energy, I finished the green tea left in my car from the trip earlier that day.
My workshop was being held in the artist cottage. It was about a six-minute walk from my room. Getting there required a walk through the vegetable and flower gardens, across a newly built bridge over a waterfall, and finally past a sweet pre-school area the employees’ children attended. During the walk I had much reflection time. I thought about how 2022 marks my husband and I being together for fifty years and how we began on similar paths with similar goals, craving and imagining similar dreams. We were really two sets of eyes looking in the same direction. We both loved nature and life’s simple pleasures. At that moment in Big Sur, amidst of all the natural beauty, I felt blessed and so grateful.
I was about to arrive at the artist cottage for my workshop. Beside the cottage was a large white tent, where we’d have our first “Art as a Spiritual Practice” workshop. I entered and noticed yoga seats set in a circle. I found an empty spot and sat on a purple chair—my favorite color— and pulled out my journal and purple pen to prepare for the experience. There were people of all ages, genders, and walks of life. We sat with trepidation not really knowing what to expect. Everyone had a sense of unknowing awe and fear on their faces. It was as if we were all entering into a beautiful new forest completely blind-folded, but trusting our leaders and the process.
There was a sense that something pulled us to Esalen at this point of time. There was a huge sense of uncertainty and pain in the eyes of those in the circle. I wondered what mine showed. The instructor Paul (mandalas.com), began by saying that it was the mandala that guided us there and that’s why we ended up there at that time. The idea was for us to rekindle the relationship with our souls and find the artist within us.
“When you look at things from your heart, everything looks different,” he said. I think about courage and opening myself to the unknown, and how scary and exciting it can be.
The word mandala means sacred circle. Mandalas are symbols that are a part of different cultures. Some use mandalas to help individuals find themselves. Some say they’re connected to life energy, and I’ve felt that each time I colored in my mandala coloring book. For years, it has been a relaxing part of my meditation practice, especially when feeling unusually stressed.
Paul told us a mandala is a symbol of the universe in its ideal form and that creating one signifies the transformation from a universe of suffering into one of joy. He continued on to tell us a little about what to expect. We were to introduce ourselves, but not by our real names. We were to say what brought us to Esalen and give a made-up name for ourselves that we were to use for the week. Paul began on the other side of the circle, so I had time to ponder my name. First, I thought “Quan Yin,” the goddess of healing. Then I thought, “Anaïs,” because I love the writer Anaïs Nin. Then I stopped and thought about what brought me to Esalen on this visit, and that’s what resonated the most with me.
There were health and personal challenges that led me to a place of darkness for the previous year. I’ve had a regular spiritual practice including Transcendental Meditation for twenty minutes twice a day, physical exercise, and daily writing. In spite of all these practices, the tentacles of depression and suicidal thoughts dug themselves into me. I thought of my grandmother who was my caretaker until she took her life when I was ten. I realized that her childhood trauma resulted in her suicide. I’ve read that suicide can be genetic, but I didn’t want to be remembered in that way.
I’ve not been this depressed in a long time and it has lasted longer than usual. I was distraught when my father died in 1991, and then again when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. I do know that my smoldering multiple myeloma (diagnosed in 2006) was frequently on my mind. I had no symptoms (hence ‘smoldering’), however bi-monthly blood work showed increasingly elevated blood proteins indicating that I might need to begin treatment soon. I think the possibility of treatment subconsciously grated on my psyche. I’ve never been a textbook case, and this cancer is different for everyone.
When it came my time to speak I expressed I was a writer, and that because of personal and health reasons I’d been in a place of darkness for a while. I needed to shift. I shared that I finally felt safe traveling and was so happy to be at Esalen. I decided to choose the name “Light.” For one week, nobody in the workshop knew my actual given name. They had to call me “Light.” It took some getting used to, but I thought it was absolutely therapeutic for me to hear my name in this way.
Paul had a number of his canvases of mandalas displayed in the middle of the circle. He said that we would be doing similar work. I was stoked and marveled—could I really make something so beautiful?
After our first workshop session, we made our way to the dining hall for dinner. Then, all the first-timers were asked to attend an orientation. Since I hadn’t been there in ten years, I thought I’d go as a refresher. I climbed stairs above the dining hall to a gymnasium type of room with a wood slatted ceiling. I didn’t recall this room from previous visits. On the floor lay large pillows for sitting. For those more comfortable with back support, there were yoga seats available. In the front was JJ, a slim man in his 60s sporting a ponytail. His vibrant energy filled the room. He put his brown leather briefcase down beside him as he let out a few powerful coughs. At this time during the pandemic, we were all mindful of anyone displaying even a vague sick symptom. He began talking and started coughing again.
“I’m two weeks after Covid and I still have this horrible cough.” He scrambled into his briefcase for some cough drops.
“Esalen is a seeker’s place,” he continued. “A new age retreat founded in 1962 by two Stanford graduates. We really believe in a sense of community at Esalen. Some people make lifetime friends here. There’s something about the connections made here which are special.
“It’s okay to be vulnerable,” he added.
I could not help but relate to his thoughts that Esalen is like eating Lays potato chips—you can’t help but come back for more.
The first morning, we were to choose a pattern for our mandala, trace it on a canvas, and begin painting. On a large table along one side of the room were hundreds of different colors of paint. Mainly because I don’t have any experience as a visual artist, for me, the toughest and most creative part of coloring the mandalas was choosing the best color combination.
The entire thing was a process that I fell into quite easily. The following three mornings, I returned to the artist cottage to work on my mandala. The workshop was supposed to be for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, but most of the participants became so obsessed and possessed by the projects that we ended up working for up to ten hours a day. The painting and creating part was so calming, meditative, and mind-clearing. Some of the participants spoke and shared life stories during the class, but I found myself mostly quiet and instead focused on my art. I was not there to make friends, I was there to heal and move into the light.
On the third day, I had a meeting with the tarot reader who would look into my past, present, and future. Admittedly, I signed up because it was the only opening left in the healing arts. I went into it somewhat skeptically, as I have my own reader who I’ve trusted for years. This new woman was a third generation tarot reader and as someone who believes in the ancestral connection, this was a good sign for me. I was blown away by what came up—all the details that she touched upon were consistent with my feelings on the trip.
According to my spread there was light and sun, which were related to my health. The reader reminded me that I was sun. She said at the moment there was a block in my path which led to my darkness and that it was connected to my emotions, but it shall pass. I was told that I needed to work on the death of something, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about what that might be. I wasn’t sure, but I fantasized that it would be the end to me worrying about my health. She said that my future was very hopeful and that I need to accept help with grace and put my resources to good use. I was told that at Esalen, I feel as if I’ve come home, and I already knew this to be true. She mentioned that I needed to stop allowing others to walk all over me and to refrain from being the victim, also needed to detach from all the drama in my life and to move forward.
On my third morning at Esalen I woke at 4am—a random awakening time for me, but not for the Buddhists who usually wake up at that time for morning meditation. I felt my heart beating to the rhythm of the ocean. I felt as if I was coming alive again. It was total magic. The pull to Big Sur was so strong for me, like a writer who has a story they must tell.
At this early hour, I felt my heart beginning to beat the right rhythm again after being diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia a few months earlier, and being placed on heart medicine. I felt creativity re-emerge. I felt my groove returning. Being in Big Sur brought me so much joy and excitement as I moved into this transitional stage of my life where kids are all in their thirties and raising their families. I’m stepping back from being needed and thinking about how this is time for me to nurture myself. I need the focus to be on me. In other words, I’d like to go from Quan Yin to the self. I believe that’s where my peace of mind lies.
But, contemplating exactly where my peace lies seems to occupy a great part of my mind lately. I wonder how I want this last chapter of my life to look like. Where will I find peace?
Is it in the waves of the ocean or the valleys of the mountains? Will I be alone when I find it or in the arms of my love? Maybe I have come home to myself in this sacred place on the California coast.
In the end, I was correct. Esalen helped me find the light. Now two months after my return home, I continue to feel more centered and more alive. I am invigorated and ready to write, create, and to do whatever that creativity entailed. I finally made it out of the darkness. I have Big Sur, art, and Esalen to thank.
Diana Raab, MFA, PhD, is a memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and award-winning author of twelve books. Raab blogs for Psychology Today, The Wisdom Daily, The Good Men Project, Thrive Global, and is a guest blogger for many others. She’s editor of two anthologies: Writers and Their Notebooks and Writers on the Edge; two memoirs: Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, and five poetry collections, including her most recent chapbook, An Imaginary Affair, Visit her at: dianaraab.com.