Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
Confessions of a Human Potential Seeker

Human Potential. From the first day I showed up at Esalen as a hopeful work scholar in the spring of 2010, I heard that singular phrase bandied about the campus at the tip of a hundred tongues.

It was the do-all, be-all, raison d’être of the Institute, a phrase bestowed unto us by sci-fi psychonaut Aldous Huxley, embellished upon by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Yet the simplicity of the concept’s premise (basically, we’re all walking around in a state of untapped capabilities, maybe functioning at about ten percent, but given the right teaching, we can shift into a mode of nearly limitless transcendence) belied a more enigmatic operating manual.

The steady success of Esalen’s 60-year tenure can be attributed to its devastatingly gorgeous Big Sur backdrop and its consistently edgy coursework, designed to push its participants out of the zone of comfort and into a place of growth. Early seminarians popped into Gestalt Godfather Fritz Perls’ “hot seat” for a theatrical brand of public analysis that sometimes left them shaken. Encounter group therapies, deeply en vogue around Esalen from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, were even more fraught with complication, featuring wrestling, frequent nudity, screaming, and hostile confrontation — all of which, ideally, was held within the realm of a safe container. The Human Potential Movement could be deeply effective, but it was not always pursued with caution in mind.

Things cooled as the sixties revolution settled. Some things had worked; others hadn’t, and the beat went on. Soon, a kinder, gentler Human Potential emerged. Esalen massage was codified, its practitioners clothed. Yoga, once fringe and rarely practiced, was ushered into the fold. Vegetarian/California cuisine was mainstreamed, perhaps perfected. The Esalen Farm & Garden was born. Founder Dick Price had a child; shortly thereafter, a Gestalt-influenced preschool was established on the north side of the property. Workshop participants were still encouraged to reach for the edge, but seatbelts had been issued for most of the rides.

By the mid-’80’s, the New Age movement had blazed an idiosyncratic trail through Human Potential, ushering in a deep, unslakable curiosity for psychic phenomena, abstruse astrological trends, crude yin-yang tattoos, inscrutable Buddha statuettes, and crumpled tie-dyed pants emblazoned with Grateful Dead dancing bears. A robust community spirit was apparent at Esalen, evinced by bongo drums and boogie on the back deck. Gabrielle Roth was perfecting her 5Rhythms method, a mode of transformative dance process tinged with shamanism and trance. KGB agents and elite politicians debated glasnost in the Esalen baths. For a brief time, a psychic named Jenny O’Connor held sway, offering counsel as her extraterrestrial guides (“the Nine”) saw fit.

By the 90’s, the piquant flavor of New Age had matured and ripened. The vibe at Esalen had always been intellectually expansive, but in 1998, the Center for Theory & Research was born, and the most arcane of topics came into play. Blissed-out academics wandered the grounds, pondering treatises about the Future of the Body. Radical, life-changing workshops like Paula’s Shaw’s the MAX and Anne Bradney’s Radical Aliveness found their niche. Both were gutsy, physically raw experiences deeply indebted to the encounter movement but held in a more careful, loving manner. Electronic music slowly supplanted the drums on the back deck. Psychedelic bass from Lance Lindborg’s Dance Church and Bryan Scott’s Body Moves pumped out of the original Huxley room, emboldening Esalen kin to sweat their prayers. Transformation was there for the taking, and most everyone was going for a double handful.

By the time I arrived, Esalen was still rocking. I lucked my way into a vigorous work scholar program (now LEEP) that required steadfast dedication and effort. My gig was in the Farm & Garden. Each morning, I’d thrust my hands into the rich dirt while looking out on the Pacific Ocean as I brushed shoulders with California poppies and heirloom tomatoes. At night we drenched ourselves in hot baths, detoxifying under starlit skies.

Slowly I climbed the Esalen ladder, searching for my own zone of genius — my own potential. I finagled a job in the maintenance department, faking it till I made it. I enrolled in Plumbing 101. That didn’t stop me from mangling sinks or torturing shower heads. My compatriots introduced me to foreign tools: vice grips, pliers, duct tape, jigsaws.

Meanwhile, I was in love with a woman named Candice, whom I’d met in the Esalen garden. I scraped together enough cash to buy a ring online. One raw diamond in a simple gold band. We went out to a Spanish restaurant in Carmel on the night of winter solstice, 2015. Over dinner, I couldn’t put two sentences together, but at the end of the night, trembling, I got down on one knee. Her face lit up in surprise, amusement, delight.  

One week later, plunging a stubborn toilet, the idea of an Esalen podcast came into my head, and it didn’t go away. Voices of Esalen would be a dive-deep interview show featuring the teachers and leaders who came to Big Sur. I saw myself as the steadfast student, sitting at their feet, absorbing their wisdom. Early forays into the game of extemporaneous back-and-forth humbled me, but after some time, I began to get the hang of it.

Seven years later, I’m still doing the podcast. Guests open up and share with me about topics ranging from trans rights to racial justice to disability awareness to gender equality. For me, each episode is an adventure. The Human Potential movement has evolved; today, it’s more consciously inclusive and diverse. There are many intersectionalities to be aware of, and as a white cis-gender dude, it’s on me to listen more and assume less. Probably, I try a bit too hard sometimes to appear “woke,” but in truth, I’m still in the process of waking up. Maybe we all are.

Candice and I are still married. Three years ago, we brought a unique and precocious individual into this world. She goes by the name of Roxy Rojo. If you’re on campus, you might glimpse Rojo riding a beat-up purple Big Wheel at the Big Sur Park School or chilling with her crew: Elda, Opal, and Ember. Towheaded angels with mischievous laughs and filthy faces. To my mind, they’re the embodiment of what Human Potential is and always has been. But that’s just me. 

More than likely, you have your own take on it.

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 
–Aaron

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
–Karen
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
–Charles
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”
–Steve

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“
–Rainer

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”
–Suzanne

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“
–Peter

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”
–Lori

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
–Steven
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.


Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?



About

Sam Stern

Sam Stern is the host of the Voices of Esalen podcast. He lives in Big Sur with his wife, Candice, and a magnificent three-year-old, Roxy.

Confessions of a Human Potential Seeker

About

Sam Stern

Sam Stern is the host of the Voices of Esalen podcast. He lives in Big Sur with his wife, Candice, and a magnificent three-year-old, Roxy.

Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop

Human Potential. From the first day I showed up at Esalen as a hopeful work scholar in the spring of 2010, I heard that singular phrase bandied about the campus at the tip of a hundred tongues.

It was the do-all, be-all, raison d’être of the Institute, a phrase bestowed unto us by sci-fi psychonaut Aldous Huxley, embellished upon by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Yet the simplicity of the concept’s premise (basically, we’re all walking around in a state of untapped capabilities, maybe functioning at about ten percent, but given the right teaching, we can shift into a mode of nearly limitless transcendence) belied a more enigmatic operating manual.

The steady success of Esalen’s 60-year tenure can be attributed to its devastatingly gorgeous Big Sur backdrop and its consistently edgy coursework, designed to push its participants out of the zone of comfort and into a place of growth. Early seminarians popped into Gestalt Godfather Fritz Perls’ “hot seat” for a theatrical brand of public analysis that sometimes left them shaken. Encounter group therapies, deeply en vogue around Esalen from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, were even more fraught with complication, featuring wrestling, frequent nudity, screaming, and hostile confrontation — all of which, ideally, was held within the realm of a safe container. The Human Potential Movement could be deeply effective, but it was not always pursued with caution in mind.

Things cooled as the sixties revolution settled. Some things had worked; others hadn’t, and the beat went on. Soon, a kinder, gentler Human Potential emerged. Esalen massage was codified, its practitioners clothed. Yoga, once fringe and rarely practiced, was ushered into the fold. Vegetarian/California cuisine was mainstreamed, perhaps perfected. The Esalen Farm & Garden was born. Founder Dick Price had a child; shortly thereafter, a Gestalt-influenced preschool was established on the north side of the property. Workshop participants were still encouraged to reach for the edge, but seatbelts had been issued for most of the rides.

By the mid-’80’s, the New Age movement had blazed an idiosyncratic trail through Human Potential, ushering in a deep, unslakable curiosity for psychic phenomena, abstruse astrological trends, crude yin-yang tattoos, inscrutable Buddha statuettes, and crumpled tie-dyed pants emblazoned with Grateful Dead dancing bears. A robust community spirit was apparent at Esalen, evinced by bongo drums and boogie on the back deck. Gabrielle Roth was perfecting her 5Rhythms method, a mode of transformative dance process tinged with shamanism and trance. KGB agents and elite politicians debated glasnost in the Esalen baths. For a brief time, a psychic named Jenny O’Connor held sway, offering counsel as her extraterrestrial guides (“the Nine”) saw fit.

By the 90’s, the piquant flavor of New Age had matured and ripened. The vibe at Esalen had always been intellectually expansive, but in 1998, the Center for Theory & Research was born, and the most arcane of topics came into play. Blissed-out academics wandered the grounds, pondering treatises about the Future of the Body. Radical, life-changing workshops like Paula’s Shaw’s the MAX and Anne Bradney’s Radical Aliveness found their niche. Both were gutsy, physically raw experiences deeply indebted to the encounter movement but held in a more careful, loving manner. Electronic music slowly supplanted the drums on the back deck. Psychedelic bass from Lance Lindborg’s Dance Church and Bryan Scott’s Body Moves pumped out of the original Huxley room, emboldening Esalen kin to sweat their prayers. Transformation was there for the taking, and most everyone was going for a double handful.

By the time I arrived, Esalen was still rocking. I lucked my way into a vigorous work scholar program (now LEEP) that required steadfast dedication and effort. My gig was in the Farm & Garden. Each morning, I’d thrust my hands into the rich dirt while looking out on the Pacific Ocean as I brushed shoulders with California poppies and heirloom tomatoes. At night we drenched ourselves in hot baths, detoxifying under starlit skies.

Slowly I climbed the Esalen ladder, searching for my own zone of genius — my own potential. I finagled a job in the maintenance department, faking it till I made it. I enrolled in Plumbing 101. That didn’t stop me from mangling sinks or torturing shower heads. My compatriots introduced me to foreign tools: vice grips, pliers, duct tape, jigsaws.

Meanwhile, I was in love with a woman named Candice, whom I’d met in the Esalen garden. I scraped together enough cash to buy a ring online. One raw diamond in a simple gold band. We went out to a Spanish restaurant in Carmel on the night of winter solstice, 2015. Over dinner, I couldn’t put two sentences together, but at the end of the night, trembling, I got down on one knee. Her face lit up in surprise, amusement, delight.  

One week later, plunging a stubborn toilet, the idea of an Esalen podcast came into my head, and it didn’t go away. Voices of Esalen would be a dive-deep interview show featuring the teachers and leaders who came to Big Sur. I saw myself as the steadfast student, sitting at their feet, absorbing their wisdom. Early forays into the game of extemporaneous back-and-forth humbled me, but after some time, I began to get the hang of it.

Seven years later, I’m still doing the podcast. Guests open up and share with me about topics ranging from trans rights to racial justice to disability awareness to gender equality. For me, each episode is an adventure. The Human Potential movement has evolved; today, it’s more consciously inclusive and diverse. There are many intersectionalities to be aware of, and as a white cis-gender dude, it’s on me to listen more and assume less. Probably, I try a bit too hard sometimes to appear “woke,” but in truth, I’m still in the process of waking up. Maybe we all are.

Candice and I are still married. Three years ago, we brought a unique and precocious individual into this world. She goes by the name of Roxy Rojo. If you’re on campus, you might glimpse Rojo riding a beat-up purple Big Wheel at the Big Sur Park School or chilling with her crew: Elda, Opal, and Ember. Towheaded angels with mischievous laughs and filthy faces. To my mind, they’re the embodiment of what Human Potential is and always has been. But that’s just me. 

More than likely, you have your own take on it.

“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.” 
–Aaron

“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
–Karen
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
–Charles
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”
–Steve

“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“
–Rainer

“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”
–Suzanne

“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“
–Peter

“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
–David B.

“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”
–Lori

“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
–Steven
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
–David Z.


Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.

What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?



About

Sam Stern

Sam Stern is the host of the Voices of Esalen podcast. He lives in Big Sur with his wife, Candice, and a magnificent three-year-old, Roxy.

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