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If you go

From Santa Rosa it takes about four hours to drive to Esalen. Allow more time during commute hours.

Weekend workshops start at $405 per person, which includes the course, food and sleeping in a communal area in a sleeping bag. A private room for a couple is $730 per person. Seven-day workshops start at $900 and cost $1,700 per person for a couple in a private room.

For more information and listings of upcoming courses, see esalen.org.

I couldn’t wait to get to Esalen on the Big Sur coast. I love hot springs, and though I wasn’t staying there, I’d heard that nonresidents could enter the tubs of warm mineral water, perched atop impossibly steep cliffs with a panoramic view of the Pacific, after 1 o’clock.

So it was with unbridled anticipation that I approached the 27-acre Big Sur retreat center one afternoon years ago. That’s when I saw the sign. The general public was welcome after 1 a.m., for a couple of hours in the middle of the night.

It would take me many more years to get through Esalen’s gates, but I finally made it when I was asked to teach at a workshop hosted by the Sun, a literary magazine.

It was worth the wait. Some of Esalen’s facilities are perched on ledges carved into the Big Sur cliffs, and the baths are among those. After a brief walk through the organic vegetable garden, I shed my clothes in the bath house and plunged into the warm tubs, long thought to have healing properties.

The sun was close to setting, gulls cawed, and condors, back from the brink of extinction, soared high overhead. At last, I thought, at last, as my tensions and worries dissolved into the 104-degree water.

Storied history

The roots of Esalen date to 1869, when Thomas Slate, pained by severe arthritis, found the hot springs at Esalen to be healing and revitalizing. In the 1880s, according to Esalen’s website, he homesteaded the property and opened Slates Hot Springs, the first business to target tourists in Big Sur.

Henry Murphy, a Salinas physician who delivered John Steinbeck, bought the property in 1910, and in 1962, his grandson Michael Murphy co-founded Esalen with former Stanford classmate Dick Price as a spiritual retreat center and locus for lifelong learning.

Murphy was a student at Stanford during the 1950s and was on track to become a psychiatrist, but he gave that up to live in an ashram in India when he had a vision of what his family’s coastside property could become.

“I asked my grandmother (in the late ’50s) if I could take over the property, and she said no,” Murphy said in a phone interview from his home in Mill Valley. “She was afraid I would give it to the Hindus.”

Hunter S. Thompson, who later became known for his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was the caretaker in 1961.

“The scene was totally out of control,” Murphy said. “Hunter was just 21. He was fully armed with automatic weapons. A gang of gay guys (that he was harassing at the baths) were trying to kill him. They tried to throw him over the cliff one night. … It’s a miracle no one was killed in those days.”

That’s when Murphy gained control of the property. “My father prevailed upon his mother and said, ‘We’ve got to give it to Michael now; otherwise we’re all gonna end up in jail.’ ”

Often dismissed as misfit mystics, Murphy and Price helped launch the human potential movement, suggesting that meditation, yoga and deep psychological inquiry could lead to richer lives and more harmonious relations.

Murphy said the vision he and Price developed “turned out to be fertile in ways we didn’t anticipate.” For years they were ridiculed, but their timing was good.

During the 1960s, young people and intellectuals questioned society’s prevailing beliefs and congregated at Esalen, which was named for the native tribe that had inhabited this land. Among the leading thinkers and entertainers to expand their minds and open their hearts at Esalen were Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Joan Baez, Dr. Andrew Weil and George Harrison.

To date, more than 750,000 people have passed through its gates to soak and study, to reflect and connect, to meditate and do yoga. The campus is in the midst of a three-year renewal project, and last month the new Huxley Meeting Room opened above the lodge, with a geothermally warmed bamboo floor.

Magic takes over

I had the good fortune of spending a late October weekend there that was so clear I could navigate the footpaths at night by the silvery light of the full moon.

I co-taught with other contributors to the Sun (including Cheryl Strayed, who had just finished a memoir called “Wild”) in a big yurt that held the 100-plus people attending the workshop. And that’s when the magic took over.

I’m not sure if it was the clean salt-scented air, the drop-dead views or the openness of the participants, but something powerful transformed that room of people into a community of like-minded souls who felt almost anything was possible.

I’m not saying students learned to write well in a weekend. That would be like saying you can master the cello in a couple of days. But, embraced by this place, I saw people begin to believe in themselves.

“That’s what Esalen does,” Murphy said. “It provides a space for people to grow.”

He credited intellectual pioneers who offered workshops in the early days — Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, Arnold Toynbee, Virginia Satir and Alan Watts — with helping to make Esalen a place for exploring human potential. “Miracles of revelation and insight were occurring down there,” he said.

But Esalen’s live-and-let-live attitude caused some problems.

“People go off their meds down there. They feel so good, the place just liberates them,” Murphy said, emphatically adding, “We are not, not, not a medical facility. In the ’60s, somebody could get so loaded up on LSD that they’d see that they’re actually Jesus. We had several Jesuses at one point and a couple of Napoleons, and if you get two Napoleons walking across the grounds…” his voice trailed off. “But now it has all calmed down.”

Peaceful paradise

Today, Esalen offers hundreds of workshops each year, with such titles as “Mindful Communication: Truth Without Blame” and “The Life of Poetry.” Other themes include massage, songwriting, psychology and meditation.

Most visitors to Esalen come to take a workshop, but occasionally the center has openings (called “A Time to Reflect” on the schedule) when visitors can simply enjoy the land, a massage, yoga and, of course, the baths. These stays are priced lower than the workshops.

A visit to Esalen isn’t cheap, and lodgings aren’t luxurious, but it’s a rare privilege to inhabit this sliver of coastal paradise.

The staff is friendly (well, most of them are; a few have no interest in conversing with guests) and committed to serve, but not in an obsequious, servile way. Everyone here is treated as equal, which is refreshing.

The food is so fresh and nurturing that you feel energized rather than comatose after the abundant meals. Much of the produce comes from the on-property garden, and the chefs accommodate all sorts of dietary requests, from dairy- and gluten-free to vegetarian.

After my workshop ended, I checked out at midday but was welcome to stay on the property for a couple more hours. I walked back to the cliffside tubs, undressed (it’s clothing-optional) and immersed myself one last time into Esalen’s healing waters. The sound of the waves breaking 1,000 feet below made it even more soothing.

A few other people from our workshop remained, and the conversation ranged as far and wide as the view from this precipitous perch. Now that I’d made it to Esalen, all I wanted to do was stay.

Michael Shapiro is the award-winning author of “A Sense of Place.”

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