A human writes:
Several years ago I participated in extensive committee work to plan Esalen’s future. As the process unfolded it was at times difficult and explosive, pitting long term Esalen community members against Management and their newly hired professionals who were unfamiliar with Esalen’s unique style of participation. As matters got more time consuming and polarized, a string of consultants and group leaders were brought in to save Esalen from itself. The hope was to restore good will, insure community participation, and create a shared vision by everyone high and low.
What emerged from these unresolved struggles was the new Esalen, redefined, reorganized, rebranded and deeply troubled.
Esalen had gone from “the me to the we” on to “the us against them.” A series of growing administrative blunders, clumsy layoffs, claims and counter claims, denials and harsh reactions have created an unprecedented contentiously litigious negative mood. The scandalous antics employed by all eventually provoked critical attention from local and national media as well as internet activity that won’t go away. It is a truly an embarrassing turn for Esalen as it approached its fiftieth anniversary.
The new streamlined version of Esalen has long time staff and faculty fleeing in despair or being laid off impersonally. As a result, a circle of honor meets daily to pray for fair treatment and reinstatements. Dramatic measures from those community members who feel sympathy for people dismissed, unheard and marginalized.
I have spent decades leading workshops and Work Scholar Programs, Esalen counted on me and I counted on Esalen. In the current management effort to fix things, I lost a great deal of my work. No warning or discussion. “It’s nothing personal, get used to it,” was suggested to me by an Esalen Board member.
I have witnessed other decisions that left loyal, capable people reeling and helpless and feeling bitter. Many long term staff and faculty that gave the place its quirky, lovable character have been let go or severely marginalized. For the last few years I’ve watched a growing silence and inertia emerge in the community fueled by fear and resignation. People were losing their faith and enthusiasm in community participation with mandatory meetings as the antidote. It isn’t the Esalen I once knew.
The leaked stunningly low grade management evaluations followed by the resignation of distinguished board and faculty people as a protest to the blind-sided firings by redefinition was enough to break my heart. If I’d gotten evaluations like those of the management, it could easily have been my finish as a teacher. I’d been punished for far less an offense, with no amends to be made.
The dog and pony show mentality of keeping up appearances to raise funds and the condescending spin doctoring I heard about untimely deaths, catastrophic fires, compliance and other hair raising financial and litigiously agonizing matters troubled me deeply. It was a time ripe for honesty and real courage to reach out and level to face the challenging troubles together. But management was in over its head and didn’t show up.
Unfortunately, the decision makers with power to inspire and lead were once again inept. They were, by turns, abject, dismissive and unyielding, all with the acquiescence of an Esalen Board that didn’t want to replace an already shaky organizational structure with other professionals. The learning curve was too steep,” we’re leaving it as it is and hoping for the best”. Since money was being earned and legal compliance was being dealt with, Staff morale problems were dismissed as just the same old perennial Esalen grumblings not worthy of consideration.
A defensive leadership strategy claiming the moral high ground was used to disparage any opposition to current policies. Management thought of themselves as Esalen’s responsible adults, dealing with the Community’s childish acting out. This attitude came off as fearful, narrow and mean spirited. It was early Esalen karma revisited when the founders struggled bitterly over purpose, emphasis and direction. Over the years I’d been told in confidence that there never was an intention to create a formal residential community with so much power. The Big Sur Esalen Community was, “collateral damage to a good idea,” the true community was a worldwide phenomenon.
The localized uniquely tribal, spiritual social experiment Esalen has also been, with its oral traditions and its reverence for the land has always had its own culture and practitioners and healers. It has coexisted with the nonprofit organization since the beginning. Informal, instinctive, and intuitional, it subtly and magically informed all of Esalen’s life with zest, originality and Spirit. It drew power from the ancient vision of the hot springs as an indigenous sacred land for healing and transformation.
Grounding myself with patience when I felt wronged, I took time to understand the issues as best I could. Esalen’s powers of survival are being tested. No shame in that struggle, unless you’re forced to shut up about it and pretend everything is all good no matter how troubling.
What will it take to restore the faith lost in Esalen’s ways? Everything necessary to clear the air and reveal the real impact of Esalen’s management. People everywhere who love Esalen have risen to the occasion. Not just locally but as a global community, to insist the Board and Management engage honestly, fairly and humanely, with policies and leadership that is competent and can be trusted.
Surely to survive nowadays Esalen needs to be efficiently streamlined, with a clear chain of command, fiscal soundness, regulatory compliance and a decent well maintained ambiance for its guests. However, sacrificing Spirit and emotional integrity to achieve this end will kill the very thing those measures are meant to support.
For fifty years people have come to Esalen to remember and honor their dreams and feel the courage to stand up for what they believe in. May Esalen continue walking its talk to survive fittingly for the next fifty.