Below, far below, is the ceaseless crash and sighing of the sea. Behind, tall redwoods climbing up the mountainside. Off to one side, hot mineral baths laid down on ground once sacred to the local Indians. And out in the distance, along the blue horizons, the spouting of a distant whale. There, on a sunlit lawn high above the sea, a score of visitors assemble at first light. Retired schoolteachers, lay therapists, dentists from Ohio -- all move their limbs slowly, to the sound of a flute, through the Tai Chi motions of fire, water and gold.
Later, after night has fallen, a naked lady lies back in one of the clifftop hot tubs. The darkness is lighted by candles, the stillness scented with incense. Beside her, a photographer and a chef from San Francisco are discussing the novels of Tanizaki. "The cuticles are very important," the woman proclaims, wiggling her toes furiously. "Very important. I learnt that in class last Wednesday." "Hunh, what?" exclaims her equally naked, equally graying male companion. "That's wisdom flowing through you, knowledge," she explains above the roar and recession of the waves. "That's energy being liberated, energy being balanced." "Whatever it is," mutters her friend, "it sure feels good!"
If feeling good is a religion, its cathedral is Esalen. The nerve center of the counterculture, the cradle of Gestalt therapy, the inspiration for a thousand adult-education courses (with the emphasis often on adult), the Esalen Institute, perched on the windswept cliffs of Big Sur, Calif., along one of the loveliest stretches of unreal estate in the world, has long been the Platonic model of an Aquarian think tank. From Buenos Aires to Berlin, it has also become a symbol for the beauty, and something of the folly, of the peculiarly American belief that perfection is just a day away.
This month, however, the growth center that held its first seminar on "The Human Potentiality" marks its 25th anniversary. A full generation has passed since Aldous Huxley, Arnold Toynbee and Buckminster Fuller first haunted these groves. Now that many of its ideas are available at your neighborhood seminar, while others are gathering dust, how does a place dedicated to state-of-the- heart fashions stay fresh? And has it come any closer to proving that feeling good can lead to being good?
Such are the questions that linger in the air as 50 people sprawl on pillows inside one of Esalen's mirrored conference rooms, gathering one radiant week for a five-day seminar called "Our Myth-Body to Live By." The topic is vintage Esalen: an attempt to marry impulses physical and metaphysical. So too are the seminar leaders: Joseph Campbell, mythologer supreme and godfather to many a '60s quester, and Chungliang Al Huang, a Chinese-born master of Tai Chi. For six hours each day, the octogenarian Campbell sits cross-legged on the floor and improvises passionate lectures about Navajo paintings, the dangers of spiritual feudalism and why Hindu elephants are "clouds condemned to earth." Whenever the talk gets too cerebral, Huang, a beady-eyed Boswell to Campbell's Johnson, leaps up and leads the group in dance.