A human writes:
Esalen Institute is now a venue for the peculiar ambitions of a detached minority. And it is also a way to observe the trajectory of humanity. The human species is so conflicted, so full of desire, and driven both by an urge for goodness as well as the satisfaction of misguided drives. As a result, we can look through our institutions as a way to begin to see ourselves.
By a process of “restructuring,” which may be reversible, Esalen has been transformed into a brand name for the exploitation of spiritual practice by means of commercial marketing. In order to accomplish this end, the institute has adopted inhumane organizational structures. But how is that different from normal human life? There is a natural movement from aspiration to corruption. Esalen has merely turned the mirror toward a darker patch of the human heart to show us the humanness of inhumanity.
Esalen is now managed by a codependent group of board members and executives who support each other with a set of mutual delusions about their shared ambitions. This has been a way of justifying harmful behavior. But they are not unusual people. They are just like you and me. And I believe that with timely eliminations and additions, they may be able to function in a healthy manner once again, much the way Hewlett Packard was able to right itself after a similar dislocation.
Initially, as a show of personal credit, I want to recognize the community representative, Michael Klein. I feel a certain allegiance to Michael because he is the perfect scapegoat. He is not subject to immediate injury, like Eric, Kathleen or Geno. He is not a voting member of the board, so he isn’t responsible for the injury that has been done. He is held in suspension, between power and powerlessness, where he is tortured by conflicting demands. These conflicts were most apparent at the community meeting that happened on May 24th at Esalen.
This is my personal report about that meeting. It was scheduled at 4pm. The initial rumor was that it would be held in Maslow, but at the last minute it was moved to Porter’s Yurt, because of the anticipated size. It was billed as an open meeting. Staff meetings have been reduced in number. They have taken on a military quality. They are restricted. Attendance is taken. Dissent is repressed. But this meeting was going to be different. The whole community could come and talk. So the meeting room was full. Upwards of a hundred people attended. Porter’s Yurt was overflowing. There were a half dozen or more people standing outside both doors.
I am not going to write a complete or neutral report of the meeting. This is not an instance for neutrality. Management has done something wrong – something that hurt Esalen and the community. It might be possible to rationalize the wrongdoing. But that wouldn’t make it right. At the meeting, a great deal was said, so I will try to cover the main points – the important developments. Let me add that I have had a fair amount of exposure to the issues surrounding Esalen restructuring, so I know what I’m talking about.
The meeting started promptly, and was facilitated by Mary Anne Will. Many important Esalen people attended, including Michael Murphy, John Murphy and Mac Murphy. Board members in attendance included Sam Yau, Mary Ellen Klee and Nancy Lunney. Gordon Wheeler, Tricia McEntee and Scott Stillinger attended. Noteworthy community members included Steven Harper and the veteran Esalen bodyworker Don Johnson. Many members of the staff and the extended community showed up to voice their concerns about the abrupt, misguided and ham-handed firing of essential long-term community members. As we all know, Eric, Kathleen and Daniel were abruptly fired. Although the reason given was restructuring, only the truly delusional believed it wasn’t a purge. Eric Erikson was actually present at the meeting. In addition, Geno Romano was present. For those who don’t know Geno, he is a medical doctor who has worked part-time at a normal job at Esalen, which allows him to attend to medical problems of the community. He has literally saved people at Esalen from death. A few days before the meeting he had been informed that he could either apply for an inappropriate job at Esalen or leave. Geno has been a critic of Esalen’s HR decisions, so the motivation for his treatment was obvious. At the beginning of the meeting, the atmosphere was charged.
Mary Anne began the meeting by asking everyone present to turn toward others sitting close by, in order to share a few words about their expectations. People used words like clarity, honesty, transparency and humility. Then presentations were made by Board members and executives, followed by questioning from community members.
Sam Yau, who is chairman of the Esalen board, spoke up first. I was prepared to be critical, but I ended up being impressed by Sam’s performance. He was animated. His open gestures reminded me of Al Huang, the T’ai Chi practitioner. Sam spoke directly and with conviction. Unlike other managers or directors, he said directly what was needed most. Sam said, “I’m sorry!” He said he was sorry for what had happened to the community. He asked, “How do we get the community to emerge again?” Later in the meeting Sam spoke up to add what seemed to me a crucial point. Sam said that Tricia McEntee, the CEO, had briefed the board about the upcoming restructuring actions involving Eric and Kathleen, but she had not explained the likely outcome. For Sam, the reaction of the community demonstrated a serious problem with the decision.
Michael Murphy spoke next. An experienced public speaker and story teller, Mike was relaxed and entertaining. He said that current events demonstrated that there was a need for better communication and feedback. Mike said that the last month had been tough, and that he cared about what happened at the institute. He asked, “Are we still going somewhere?” To answer that question he launched into a historical review of the Esalen board. His main point was that the board was disorganized in the 1980s and 90s before Gordon Wheeler became president. But now there was “coherence.” I wondered if that coherence had come at the price of good decision making.
Michael mentioned that he thought Esalen had a historical tendency to stay just one step ahead of the law on issues of regulation, taxation and environmental compliance. But the subtext was that he considered the community to be implicated in that kind of behavior. I got the feeling that the community in Michael’s mind is confused with excessive behavior that needs to be disciplined. Of course, Michael has no direct interaction with the community, so his views are detached and inaccurate. In any event, he said that he believed that other leaders are listening to the community, and that the board cannot micro-manage the executives. Essentially, this implied that the president, CEO, and HR manager were responsible for what happened.
Michael also spoke about his dreams for the future of Esalen. He said he had big dreams. But I wondered whether his dreams were appropriate for the traditions of Esalen. Specifically, he spoke about his dreams about “life after death.” At the time of the meeting, Michael was directly involved in an invitational CTR program in the Big House about the potential for an afterlife. I wondered to myself where the future of Gestalt practice was in that dream. Where was Dick’s legacy? In a more concrete vein, Michael spoke about the rebuilding of the units at Southcoast Center that had been destroyed by fire. There was a recent Memorandum of Understanding with the county designed to reinforce regulatory trust. Southcoast would be rebuilt in an ecologically sustainable fashion that could later be applied to the rest of Esalen. But I wondered how this grand gesture applied to the community that Michael has historically distanced himself from. Will those who rebuild Esalen merely be employees? Michael closed his remarks by saying, “There will only be progress if people feel good about it.”
At this point a community member, Jason Moore, spoke up. He works at the gate. He said about Eric’s firing, “My family at the gate has been torn apart.” Jason challenged management about the way they have treated community elders like Eric.
Tricia finally began to participate. She said that she had respect for Eric, and that her decision was difficult. However, at no point during the meeting did Tricia apologize to the community, the way Sam had. She appeared to be unrepentant. Several days later, after she got negative feedback about her performance at the meeting, she sent out an email saying, “I do sincerely regret that this action has caused much pain and upset in the community.” However, at no point did she admit how wrong the decision was. I was particularly impressed by this failure to take responsibility, because the damage that had been done was so apparent to me at the most superficial level. My interactions with both the gate and the office demonstrated a genuine lack of competence because of the recent firings. Tricia had done something genuinely damaging to Esalen, and she was unwilling to take responsibility for it.
This was the crucial aspect of the meeting. A leader is supported to take responsibility for mistakes. They need to say something like, “I made a mistake. I apologize. It won’t happen again.” In contrast, Tricia was simply oblivious to the damage she had done. And this was obvious to the community.
Tricia was asked why she did not participate in community process groups. In response she said that she did process groups with other managers, but her time was limited. She said that she would consider proposals, but she didn’t know how that would happen, although she supported the evolution of process. Then Tricia begged the community to support her, and tears came to her eyes. However, the room was not moved to sympathy for her. It was an embarrassing moment.
Understand what happened. The CEO had made a bad decision that harmed Esalen. Taking Sam at his word, although she briefed the board, she did not explain the likely outcome. Instead of taking responsibility and apologizing, Tricia was initially adamant, but then begged the community to support her. Then she became tearful. After the meeting, the general opinion was that the community had been insulted by their leader.
Scott Stillinger said that he was working on a compassionate termination policy, and that he needed support from the community. I wondered why compassion had not been a part of the terminations, even without an express policy. Is compassion such a novel component of Esalen’s culture that it has to be documented in advance? And therein can be found a major part of the problem. Scott is not part of the Esalen community. He was hired three years ago as an outsider, in preference to qualified community applicants. He does not understand the Esalen community, and he is generally disliked.
Gordon spoke up briefly. He seemed agitated and detached. He voiced what amounted to patronizing support for Tricia. I got a sense that his further participation was discouraged. He no longer provides leadership to the Esalen community. Of course, his connection is based upon his relationship with Nancy and Michael. He participates in process with managers and provides unequivocal support for Tricia and Scott, but he has no impact on the community beyond executive decision making.
The next person to speak was John Murphy, who is Michael’s nephew. John is an environmentalist who has taken leave from the riverkeeper organization that he created. John’s son has been living at Esalen, following a process of self exploration in keeping with the tradition of Dick Price. John himself has been spending a great deal of time at Esalen in order to understand and become part of the Esalen community. John regularly appears and speaks in the “circle of honor” at 1pm on the oval lawn, which was organized to acknowledge the termination of community elders. To my mind, John Murphy represents the hope of a better future for Esalen, and what he said at the meeting reinforced that hope.
John Murphy recognized the trouble that has been caused at Esalen. He said that the institute needs to be grounded. That begins by honoring the land. He noted with concern the amount of unsightly litter that has begun to accumulate, as a barometer of trouble. John called for increased environmental stewardship at Esalen. John recognized the reality of the decay of Esalen infrastructure. Money was needed and perennial pricing techniques weren’t adequate. There needed to be healing of the organization. There needed to be greater commitment to Gestalt practice. There needed to be better business practices. There needed to be better compliance with government regulation, beginning at the county level. And there needed to be a better relationship between the management and the community, which would have to begin with integrity and transparency. In contrast to the remoteness of Michael, John demonstrated intimacy. In contrast to the vagueness of Tricia and Scott, John’s words demonstrated competence. Esalen desperately needs new leadership. It does not need to look any further than John Murphy to find it.
There were other speakers. Mary Ellen said that what had happened in the preceding month had been a jolt to the board, and that they were committed to a process of learning. Brita said that she would have felt disrespected if she had been terminated in the way that it happened, and she asked if there was a way everyone could honor the terminated elders. Benjamin Fahrer commented that there was no direct access to the board, and that there needed to be a shift. He asked, “How do we open dialog? How do we approach you?” To that end, a letter to the board from the community requested that the community representative be made a voting member of the board.
Sam Yau spoke again, and assured the audience that the issue of promoting the community representative to a voting member would be discussed at the July board meeting. Sam expanded this remark to say that the board wants to build empowerment all the way down into the organization. He said, “We want dual purposes, namely to deliver services and to improve community relations.”
Daniel Bianchetta made an interesting point that is worthy of emphasis. Danny said that there needed to be the addition of different viewpoints on the board. This challenged the notion that total coherence is a good thing. New people with fresh perspectives would have helped to prevent the current disaster. Danny specifically suggested that Mac Murphy, Michael’s son, be added to the board. I have become well acquainted with Mac, now that he is an adult. Too many people think of Mac as the boy they met around Esalen. Mac has become a competent young man. In addition, the current problems have caused Mac to become even more engaged with and committed to the Esalen community. I had a couple of good conversations with Mac about current events, and I found him to be sympathetic and yet level headed. Mac regularly attends the “circle of honor.” I agree with Danny that the time has come for Mac to add his voice to the board, as an antidote to coherence.
Mary Anne reminded everybody that time was growing short. The meeting had to come to the end before well before dinner time. So only a few more people could speak.
In fact, Rachel from the kitchen asked that the recent increase in work time to 40 hour weeks should be reconsidered. But Mary Ellen responded that everyone should remember the time saved by being present on the grounds rather than commuting. Someone asked for more public disclosure by management before difficult decisions were made. Perry commented that he believe too much money was going to pay expanded administrative expenses at the top of the organization. Tricia responded that it’s not true, and anyway executive functions have a higher level of expertise that must be compensated.
Finally, Mary Anne brought the meeting to a close. She said that she believed that an encouraging shift had taken place because of the meeting. She also added that she fully expected a report of the meeting would appear on Facebook. I believe our eyes met…
Immediately after the meeting was over, while people were milling about the room, Nancy approached me to talk about Chris Price’s withdrawal. She was visibly moved when she spoke about how shocked she was to see someone she considered a long-term friend take such extreme action. I agreed that I was similarly shaken. But I told her that Chris was committed to her values, and it was my understanding that the violation of accepted community standards by newcomers like Scott, ultimately pushed her over the edge. In addition, I told Nancy that while I speculated that Chris’s decision was not totally immune to reconsideration, the changes that would have to take place would have to be very substantial.
On the way out of Porter’s Yurt I had a conversation with Sam Yau. I told him that I was impressed by what he said in the meeting. In addition, I wanted to explain to him that I had become interested by the similarities between what was happening at Esalen Institute, and what had happened at Hewlett Packard, before the restructuring of the HP board and executive team. I knew Sam was a very knowledgeable businessman, so I was not surprised when he told me that he was familiar with what happened at HP.
HP had traditionally been focused on hardware. From my youth I remembered the high quality of HP test equipment, then the famous HP calculators, then the printers, computers and laptops. The HP board was made up of top flight Silicon Valley technologists. But they hired a European software expert, Leo Apotheker, to be the new CEO. Apotheker announced that he would make HP primarily into a software business, and that he would discontinue the sales of laptops. Everybody freaked out. HP would be abandoning its traditions. And it was likely that an industrial giant would be destroyed. But just in time, everybody woke up. There were changes on the board. Leo Apotheker was fired. And HP is being gradually returned to its traditional business strengths.
The lesson from the HP experience for Esalen Institute is that the restructuring that needs to take place does not have to happen in the Esalen community, which is where the traditions of the institute live on. Rather, the changes need to happen at the level of the Esalen board and executive. Trish and Scott must leave. That’s obvious to anyone at Esalen except the codependent members of the board. So the board must be restructured in order to more accurately reflect Esalen traditions. The community representative must be a voting member. Mac Murphy should be a board member. Then a new board must select a new executive who has genuine commitment to traditions of Esalen. No more interlopers like Scott can be considered. A proven community leader like John Murphy must be recruited to save the institute from the damage that has been done. Somehow the Esalen board and executives must be made to wake up. Personally, I’m not sure this can be done. If Chris Price can’t make them wake up, then I’m not sure who can.
In closing this report, let me make a few additional comments. First, I have never experienced such a high level of dissent in the Esalen community. People who I consider moderate peacemakers are now vocal opponents of what management has done. When I met my closest friends they immediately launched into criticism of Trish and Scott. People who I only knew marginally came up to me to tell their stories and solicit my support. I’m not kidding. It was really surprising for me that someplace as peaceful as Esalen had become so demonstrative. Second, I noticed that staff members generally are put off by advice from outsiders about what they should be doing. They are particularly troubled by suggestions that they should go on strike or stage protests. There is a very high level of paranoia. And these days, people need their jobs. Tricia and Scott have demonstrated that they are capable of firing anybody at anytime for any reason. So nobody feels secure. The “circle of honor” that happens every day is a very brave protest. Staff members are vocal about their dissatisfaction. So telling them to take even greater risks does not sit well with them. This was something I was told directly more than once by staff members.
What will help is to support those who are working for change. Unfortunately, based upon his performance at the meeting, Michael is out of touch and immune. His concerns are with the prospect of “life after death” and his CTR. Similarly, Gordon is out of touch and immune. However, John Murphy has become the hope for Esalen. He is well informed, engaged and competent. John is the one person who can pick up the pieces of Esalen and put them back together, in my opinion. Similarly Mac Murphy is engaged, he has the right values, and in my opinion he is ready to take a leadership role in the community. Based upon my interaction with Nancy, she has woken up to the Esalen problem, and is accessible. And I was surprised and impressed by Sam Yau, who voiced genuine concern and regret for the damage that has been done.
The main problems with Esalen were clear at the community meeting. There needs to be some dramatic changes with top management personnel. But there is genuine hope. John Murphy knows that the way forward is difficult but do-able. And there are solid people in the community, like Steven Harper, who can be approached, in my opinion, if the intention to change course is clear. In my own opinion, I honestly believe that Chris Price can be persuaded to reestablish some kind of a relationship with the institute. But there must be dramatic change. Tricia’s weakness must be eliminated. Scott’s alien and inhumane practices must be abandoned. The time is short. It’s time to wake up.