For more than 35 years, The Four Winds Council in Big Sur has offered itself in service to protect the Ventana Wilderness and support the Big Sur community. Esalen Institute makes up one-fourth of the Council, which includes New Camaldoli Hermitage, The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Collectively the groups act with others as guardians to one of the most vibrant geographical regions in the world. Another vital component to that shared mission is to support each organization’s individual practices and flourishing the physical environment that is Big Sur.
“The Council is really all about the Big Sur community,” explains Esalen President Gordon Wheeler. “First and foremost, the mission has always been to come together with public efforts to help preserve and protect the area.”
The potential for great impact is significant. More than 50 years ago, for instance, the Esselen Tribe opposed a dam along the Carmel River. A few years ago, the Council joined the tribe to advocate for its dismantling. “The earlier opposition to damming the river may have failed but together with many others we succeeded in the second. Now, with the dam gone, the steelhead are running plentifully again in the Carmel River,” Gordon says.
Each organization works collectively for the common good but understanding the mission of each group sheds light on how they help fuel the Council as a whole.
Esalen Institute explores the expansion of human consciousness and potential through experience, education and research. New Camaldoli Hermitage, a community of Roman Catholic monks dedicated to contemplation and prayer, strives to balance devotion to solitude with community participation and service. The Esselen Indian Tribe in upper Carmel Valley dates back 10,000 years and today, under the guidance of Tribal Chairman Tom “Little Bear” Nason, a seventh generation descendant of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County, the tribe’s reverence for the land and deep belief that all things are connected, makes them a valiant steward of the region. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, established as the first Soto Zen training monastery on the West Coast in 1967, is dedicated to embodying, expressing, and making accessible the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.
The Council meets four times a year in rotation at each of the four organizations. “We come together and we engage in one of the practices of the organization hosting,” Gordon adds. “We do that so we can share our practices a bit and get that infusion to each of our institutes. We then discover issues that might affect the Big Sur community. These things become part of your ‘service,’ your seva, your prayer, whatever you want to call it. It’s like placing prayer into action.”
Lending themselves further to the local community and beyond is important to each organization in the year ahead.
At the Hermitage, in addition to monastic training periods, there is now a broader focus on personal retreats. Esselen’s Tom “Little Bear” Nason offers personal trainings and vision groups, but as superintendent of the Ventana Forestry since 2008, he continues to be instrumental in assisting state, federal and local agencies with wildfire suppression and restoration of lands burnt in wildfires. Tassajara’s expansion of public programming broadens its community outreach.
Beyond Esalen’s extensive workshop offerings, programs like Conversations on the Edge, a curated series of weekend lecturettes and question and answer forums throughout the year about important emerging topics, offers new ways for individuals near and far to gather and grow in a unique format different from the traditional workshop setting.
“Each of us in the Council serves the public who want to come to our centers and be influenced by what’s going on there. That’s what we have in common,” Gordon notes. “But I think each of us is responding to the cultural urgency of the world. We have to reach out more and focus on our mission impact.”