Don Lattin writes about his Big Sur misadventures in his latest book, Distilled Spirits—Getting High, the Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk. Learn more at donlattin.com.
I imagine most of us have a place like Big Sur; somewhere we go to reconnect with something that feels lost, a place of power that enlivens our spirit.
This stretch of the central California coast recently called me back for a few days and got me wondering why I’m still so drawn to these rugged cliffs perched above the cold Pacific.
It’s partly the place itself. Big Sur is wild and full of wonder. It’s danger and delight. Rain and wind lash the coast in winter, sending mud and rock sliding into the sea. These same storms nourish the dry landscape, inspiring the green grasses, poppies and lupine to shoot up in the spring.
Summers are often cold and foggy, then the sea air heats up in the late summer and early fall, drying out those grasses and fueling wildfires that torch the land and everything it their path.
But it’s not just the seasons and the scenery that call me back. This place was the setting for some of the seminal events in the story of my life—a coming-of-age pilgrimage up the coast, a love affair, a powerful mystical experience that set me on the path that got me to this very moment, sitting here at 6 a.m. writing a blog called “The Spiritual Search.”
Big Sur also happens to be the setting for the Esalen Institute, the granddaddy of the spiritual retreat centers that began popping up across the country and around the world in the 1960s and 1970s.
Over the last year or so, Esalen has been celebrating its 50th anniversary. This birthplace of the human potential movement was founded by two spiritual seekers, Michael Murphy and the late Richard Price, both born in 1930.
They met in San Francisco in 1960 at a old house full of followers of the Indian guru Sri Aurobindo. Murphy (whose family owned a funky hot springs motel at Big Sur) had already been to India on his quest for enlightenment. Price (the scion of a wealthy Chicago family) was looking for a more humane approach to helping people—himself included—suffering with mental illness.
The institute they founded blended Eastern mysticism, encounter groups, massage and other forms of bodywork. Meanwhile, the 1960s counterculture was blossoming up the coast in San Francisco, so lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll were added to this heady mix.
Today, the beat goes on. Workshops offered at Esalen this month (January) include a Buddhist meditation retreat; Brazilian dance and drumming; yoga classes; an introduction to permaculture; and “self-hypnosis for natural mind-brain transformation.”
Kind of sounds like a typical issue of Spirituality and Health Magazine, doesn’t it? To learn more, go to esalen.org.
Meanwhile, I’d love it if any of you would take the time to share a story about your own place of power, somewhere you go to reconnect with something that feels lost.