Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Big Sur, California: Tripping Out at Esalen

By Nicholas Gagarin

(This is the first of a series of four articles.)

"4:42 p.m. Arrive in Monterey." He made that note. Maybe that was a place to start. But then where? For Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California, is more than 3000 miles from Cambridge, more than 10,000 miles, further away than a trip to the moon in a rubber balloon. It stands a world apart. And as the boy looked back on the five days he had spent there, he only knew that they were the most unreal, or the most real, experience of his life.

"FOR the next five days I want you to feel with your hands, with your hearts, with your stomachs, with your things, with your genitals--and not with your heads." John said that. John was the boy's group leader. He went on: "There is a tremendous amount of humanity in this room. Look around. On Friday morning, look around again. You won't believe it."

The boy looked around. It was Monday morning, January 27, 1969. Two days before, he had been taking an English exam; now he sat cross-legged on a soft brown rug in a small cabin called Firo, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Two days before, 11 people had been killed by a mud-slide in Southern California, a result of the worst flooding in the state in 31 years; now it was bright and sunny, and far below the surf was pounding in against the shore.

A lot had already happened since the boy's arrival at Esalen; but as he looked around the room, John began to speak again. "The first thing I want you to do is to go into yourselves and think of three secrets that you have never told anyone in your life. Take a few minutes to think and be honest with yourselves." John paused and looked around. "For example, I could tell you that I would like to fuck Seymour Carter." Then there was silence.

The boy did not know who Seymour Carter was, so for a minute he just looked at John, who sat with his eyes closed. He had a way of speaking that the boy liked -- very slow, very deliberate, and rather quiet, a strong voice that never faltered and never wasted a breath. John was tall, with rugged features and a beautiful body.

"There is a tremendous amount of humanity in this room." The boy thought of that as he looked around at the rest of the people. There were, in fact, 13 of them, 13 units of humanity. He had one friend in the group, a tall black man named Paul, with whom he had come to Esalen. He didn't know the others, who seemed to be evenly divided between middle-aged and old. There were no other kids, no young, blond-haired girls. With a touch of sadness, the boy shut his eyes to think of secrets. What would he tell these people?

For the next few minutes, the boy went into himself. He knew a little about Esalen before coming, and he knew that one of the things people at Esalen did a lot was to go into themselves, so he felt good to be in the swing of things. But the secrets worried him.

"Now open your eyes and return to the group," John said. "Remember your three secrets and move around the room on your hands and knees until you find a partner. Tell your partner your first secret. Then find a second partner, and tell him your second secret; tell your third secret to a third partner."

Slowly the units of humanity began to crawl around the room, and one by one secrets of a lifetime poured out. Stories of lesbianism, impotence, divorces, affairs--there was no shortage of them. The boy's third partner was a big man, about 35 years old, who must have weighed 220 pounds. "I slapped my wife once," he said to the boy.

"Oh?" The boy was sure his partner could do better than that.

"I had to break down the bedroom door to tell her I was sorry."

"Was it the first time you ever slapped her?"

"Yes. We're getting a divorce."

The boy was silent. "What in the name of God am I doing here?" He thought to himself. "What am I doing here in this group of withered, sterile. Christ - forsaken, half - dead Americans? Is this it? We will tell our secrets and love--love in an encounter group nutshell." He felt cynical and cool as the circle reformed, and he went back to his place by the window.

John was speaking again, "Now go into yourselves and think of the thing you would be most afraid to do in front of this group." Five minutes of silence went by. Then John said, "If you want to tell the group what you're most afraid to do, please do so. Or just do it. You don't have to, but it is by taking the biggest risk that you stand to gain the most." The boy would hear that often before the week was out. The biggest risk. What was it? What would he dare?

A woman named Elizabeth began to speak. "I would be afraid to fart," she said.

"Can you fart, Elizabeth?" John asked.


"Will you fart?"

"I'm afraid to." There was silence, and Elizabeth farted.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," John said and farted.

As he remembered that morning, the boy chuckled to himself. Was that reality--a young man and an old kind woman farting back and forth? He didn't know, but he remembered that at the time it had seemed deadly serious.

Only Elizabeth had dared to tell her greatest fear. The others remained in silence--a silence, for the boy, that was funny, schizophrenic, and absurd. There he sat, feeling the warm sun pouring through the windows and bathing his body, feeling the strength of the land and the mountains that surrounded them all, feeling his own strength--and yet unable to escape the strange, gnawing tension that was building in this group where people farted back and forth.

For their next exercise, John told them to close their eyes, crawl around the room, and touch. That was nice. While they all crawled around, hugging strangers, feeling arms and legs and hands and stomachs and feet, John lit some incense. There was only silence--the silence, and the drowsy, lovely smell of the incense, the bright morning sun, and a group of bodies which lost their ugliness when the boy shut his eyes. No words, no voices, no faces, only the bodies; and the boy liked that. He happily hugged everyone, everyone hugged him, and played with his hair.

About ten minutes later, John told them to find quiet comfortable places, and then to open their eyes. The boy found himself lying on his back, stretched out in a little area of sunshine. Other people were sprawled out in other positions, but the boy noticed Elizabeth sitting with her back to the wall, and a wise, tender, loving expression on her face. Slowly the group regathered into a circle.

"It is very important," John began to say in his quiet, soothing voice, "that you do what you want." He was kneeling, sitting back on his heels, and as he spoke he looked slowly around the group, looking into each person's eyes, looking into the boy's eyes, then moving on. "If you can tell me what you want, I will ask you, 'What are you going to do about it?'" Again there was silence, and the boy felt the question boring into him.

SLOWLY the boy was coming to recognize subgroups within his group. There were, first, the old women, 50 to 60 years old, of which Elizabeth was one. In all, there were four old women. Second, there were the young women, 30 to 35 years old. There were three young women. In a way the boy found the young women uglier than the old women. Age, he knew, had a beauty of its own; but these three--the young women--had none: they were dumpy and flabby and sexless, and at this point the ugliest of them spoke.

"I want to know why Elizabeth looked so sad," she said. Her name was Susie. "When I opened my eyes, I saw Elizabeth sitting against the wall, looking sad, and I want to know why."

"What are you going to do about it?" John asked.

Susie looked uncomfortable and then said, "Are you sad, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth's voice trembled. "I want two things. First, I want to help Mary, because I think she needs help." Mary was another of the old women and did, the boy agreed, look like she needed help. "And second," Elizabeth went on, "I want something for myself. I spend my life caring for people, and once in a while I would like someone to care about me." She started to cry softly.

John moved forward toward the center of the circle. "Elizabeth, come here." She came forward. "Now lie down on your back and shut your eyes." She did. John put his hand on her stomach.

"What do you feel?" he said gently.

"Your hand."

"And what do you feel now?"


"And what do you feel now?" His hand remained in the same place. Elizabeth was crying. "Now let that feeling rise." She relaxed.

"And what do you feel now?" His hand was still on her stomach.

"More warmth."

"And what do you feel now?"

"A slight awakening in my vagina."

Things were indeed warming up, the boy thought to himself. He did not know what to make of the scene in front of him, but looked at John with some awe. If he can bring Elizabeth's vagina to life, the boy thought, there should be a lot going on by lunch.

After Elizabeth had let a few more feelings rise, John asked the group to gather closely around her and softly massage the different parts of her body. The boy took one of her feet and noticed that her eyes were still closed. "Now slowly lift Elizabeth into the air," John said. They did, and began to rock her back and forth. Then, at John's command, they chanted, "OM" seven times, taking deep breaths each time, and chanting this magical word that contains all the sounds of the universe. Seven times they chanted, swaying Elizabeth back and forth like a child, 13 units of humanity holding her up in the bright morning sun.

"Now, slowly, lay her down." Elizabeth lay back on the floor. "Open your eyes, Elizabeth," John said. She opened her eyes, and a smile broke out on her face, and an expression of joy that the boy found a little embarrassing shone forth from her entire body.

"How do you feel?" Susie, the ugly one, asked. Elizabeth just smiled. The boy did not understand what had happened, but felt happy for the woman who, without saying a word, picked herself up and joyfully hugged everyone in the room.

THE BOY had arrived at Esalen the night before. He had come because two of its staff members, Stewart and Sara, were friends of his friend Paul. Stewart and Sara had picked them up at the Monterey airport late Sunday afternoon and driven them the 45 miles south, along spectacular Route One, to Esalen. Route One stretches for hundreds of miles along the California coast, and it must be one of the most beautiful roads in the world--it's the road Dustin Hoffman drove on in his little red Alfa on his way to Berkeley. It winds along the coast, on cliffs that sometimes rise more than 1000 feet above the ocean. Endless time, endless space, a breathtaking, infinite expanse of water--the boy had felt the excitement of all these as they drove along that road. And he had felt the excitement as Stewart had talked about Esalen. The details would come back to him later; he only remembered Stewart saying, "We're on to something very big here, and something very big is going to happen. We don't yet know what it is, but it may turn out to be bigger than all of us."

All the boy knew of Esalen were fragments of remembered conversations, rumors, stories, tall tales. There would be a lot of nudity, a lot of touching, a lot of sex. He did not know what else, but the adventure of the drive along Route One set the energy flowing in his body.

They arrived in Esalen around 6:30. The sign, "Esalen Institute, By reservation only," seemed to be advertising a motel; in a couple of senses, perhaps, that is what the place was. At the sign, Stewart turned off Route One, down a very steep hill, around a corner, and suddenly the whole place opened up before them. It was totally hidden, self-contained, isolated. Two hundred feet above, Route One might as well have disappeared.

They went first to the lodge -- a wooden lodge much like a ski lodge, containing the office and dining room and kitchen--to register, and then went up to their room, where Stewart and Sara left Paul and the boy to settle in. Besides the sheer physical majesty of the place, what the boy noticed most was the silence. In the office where they registered, on the way up to their room, even at dinner--in the large dining room with 40 or 50 people eating simultaneously--there was an eery, unsettling quiet, which the boy was not quite able to cope with.

There was a Sunday evening meeting at 9 p.m. for all the people who had come for the "More Joy" workshop. There were about 40 of them, and after an hour or an hour and a half of exercises--breathing exercises, stretching, jumping in the air and yelling, touching -- the large group had split into three smaller groups; both Paul and the boy had chosen John for their leader.

Three other important things had happened Sunday night. First, the boy discovered that of the many incredibly beautiful girls in the dining room during dinner, all but one turned out to be staff, help, or waitresses. That one, however, was in the "More Joy" program; but the boy, after doing a couple of physical communication exercises with her, had a chance to talk to her and found out in order a) that she was six years older than he was, b) that she made him feel hopelessly insecure, and c) that she couldn't have been less interested. When the large group split into the three smaller groups, the girl at first came to John's group, but then left to go to another one--as the boy looked wistfully after her, doing and saving nothing.

Second, after splitting into the three groups, each group went down to the baths. The boy had heard about the baths before coming to Esalen. He would later find out that in one of the other two groups two people had stayed in the baths after the group left and made love. He would also find out that in October, 1968, when the vibes at Esalen had been highest, there had been as many as three different couples making love next to each other, on the rest tables next to the baths, in the middle of the afternoon. And all this, the boy thought to himself, while the mighty Pacific surf pounded on the shore below.

For the time being, however, the baths were only the baths. To get to them, the group walked down a path toward the small grey building which held them. From about 100 feet away, the boy could smell the rotten smell of the sulphur, but he soon grew accustomed to it, and with the rest of the group, took off his clothes in the semi darkness, and climbed into the hot, womblike, three foot deep, absorbing, relaxing, exhausting heat of the water. Several members of John's group had not come. Those who had come did and said little; there was no need to. For the boy the greatest moment had been to climb out of the baths into the cool darkness of the night and stand by the railing, looking out over the ocean, naked before God and the world, realizing that a soft gentle rain had begun to fall and was gently cleansing his body.

The third important event of Sunday night, however, was the boy's first breakdown. It was back in the room, with Paul. Neither of them had been tired, and they had sat up talking for a long time. The boy found himself a little nervous, restless, but uncertain why. Paul, 12 years older than him, was half a brother, half a father, and had comforted him. Suddenly, not knowing why, the boy had started to cry, out of loneliness, out of sadness, out of stored up emotions that he could not name: he had simply cried, in Paul's arms, saying that he was frightened, and when Paul asked him of what, the boy could only reply, "Of the whole fucking world.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.