The following comes from an August 19 story published in the New York Times.
BIG SUR, Calif. …These days, as the retreat prepares to observe its 50th anniversary next month, people are still making pilgrimages here, drawn by Esalen’s focus on healing, melding of traditions and mantra of “spiritual but not religious.” Guests and workers still perform emotional “check-ins” in group “weather reports” during their stays, which can extend from a weekend to months, depending, an Esalen spokesman said, “on how far down the rabbit hole you go.” Esalen’s leaders say they are tweaking the institute’s balance between the personal and the social with an emphasis on the latter so they can present the next “edge” to America.
But others, including people formerly and currently associated with Esalen, say it is losing its relevance in a culture where New Age has become a cliché. The retreat’s half-century anniversary has coincided with continuing protests over the layoff of longtime employees as part of a management restructuring. Staff members and others have gathered in circles of silence here; on the Internet, including on a site called Esaleaks, other protesters have assailed Esalen’s management as corporate types bent on transforming the retreat into a boutique resort.
Michael Barry, a retired television writer who is now an investor, said he has been coming here since 1971. In the 1970s, his marriage broke up, and he came here with “his tail between his legs.” An acquaintance working in the laundry room let him sleep on laundry sacks while he healed himself.
“In my life, Big Sur and Esalen have been a through line for me,” said Mr. Barry, who was sitting at the back of the yurt with his wife, Sharon. He added that a “Mayan shaman talking about 2012 and the return of Kukulkan” was a “good example” of how Esalen had remained on American culture’s cutting edge.
But Peter Meyers, an Esalen regular for the past 25 years who was leading a workshop on public speaking, said the center was not moving fast enough to keep ahead of the times.
“For a long time it was the only game in town,” he said in the main lodge, where a lunch of products from Esalen’s organic gardens was being served. “You wanted to take yoga and study Eastern mysticism. Now, next to every nail place on every street in L.A. there’s a yoga studio, and there’s an ashram right next to it.”
As a culture, he said, America had also evolved beyond some of Esalen’s focus on personal emotions and growth. “Letting it all hang out — that’s passé, so what is the next edge?” he said. “The risk is that if Esalen rests on its laurels, it’ll become a museum.”
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