The other morning I sat in a hot tub under the morning sun as it tipped over the Santa Lucia mountains from the east and cast it warmth down on the naked loungers in mineral hot water. I looked down on the rocks of the beach below, gray and catching the dragging surf in an immobile clasp. The foam collected and ruffled like white egg yokes, then retreated to the west. The water I was in was hot, and only with an intellectual effort did I remember that the blue sea I was looking at below was very, very cold.
All of a sudden a movement to my right on the steep rocky slope. Salt peter and olive coloured bushes clung to the near vertical scree, and from among them I made out the shape of a squirrel. The squirrel weaved a perilous and sure footed way down the slope. It came to a ledge further below me again, but still high up over the sea. It stopped and looked out, static on the ledge. It was looking at the waves powering themselves onto the stones below and the big blue immensity out beyond. I could see that the only reason for being were it was and doing what it was doing was to perceive the dramatic ocean scene in front of both of us. I looked at the waves. It looked at the waves also. And then in that moment I knew that other living beings can also appreciate aesthetics, or visual drama. I was witnessing it happen before my eyes. It is not just the struggle for survival that preoccupies other mammals. A different living reality was here with me soaking in the spectacular tumble of the Big Sur coast.
Green tea and sitting high above the ocean in an empty and quiet sunroom is the perfect combination for thought and reflection. That’s where I am right now. It feels good to use my brain again. With so much external engagement in the form of lots and lots of social interaction and massage and chores and meals and work in the office, my intellectual life has been dimmed somewhat. Good to reclaim it and sit here thinking and writing. I’m glad to be leaving Esalen in less than a week. Working and studying in this community/workshop centre/resort means constantly running from one thing to the next (I haven’t had time to update this blog or keep in touch with my friends). I need to slow down and focus on my own work more.
After experience in ‘process’ groups (group therapy), I have realized that many of the people here at Esalen want to find interpersonal psycho-drama when there doesn’t always need to be any. Many of them really want and expect that stuff. Rather than being attentive to the natural world, or discussing climate change, history or other such substantial and meaningful topics, many of them prefer to sit in a circle in a yurt and discuss the exact shape and colour of their respective navels. Let me make it clear that I am interested in the human drama, and I do believe in the importance of clear, constructive communication and an awareness of one’s inner emotional state, but sometimes these people can just go overboard. Get more upbeat, smile, get going on some bigger projects, and find a sense of humility through finding your place in the natural world, I often secretly think to myself. Many of these people don’t seem to understand the importance of normality, levity and humble simplicity. Instead they get swept up in the group delusion that earnest interpersonal psycho-drama is the most important thing in the world, when it is really something that will be remembered as much as yesterday’s weather.
But the land here still inspires me. Despite all the earnest, knotted-brow Californian errant knights of Esalen the land abides and stands tall. While people can bring you down, the reality of being here on the edge of this magnificent continent can still be touched. A diminutive squirrel still sits poised on a ledge, looking outwards to the sea.
Last weekend I was up the road a few miles north of here, walking on a trail through the redwoods which then wound up a valley through oaks and grassland, in Julia Pfeiffer state park. On the way up I and a friend sat on a rock high above the valley, surrounded by green, translucent leaves. The sun created highlights and dark patches on the tips of redwood trees on the opposite side of the valley and we dangled our legs over the rock and were silent. Sometimes a bird sang from below us or near beside us. There was so much peaceful, shadowy, empty space in the middle of the narrow valley before us. I had a moment of immersion in the wilderness, thinking that this place was always here, and always wild and unpeopled. This corner of California is far from the madding crowd, and due to a long distance from Big Sur to where most people in this state live, it will remain untrammeled by humanity. Days come and nights fall here, I thought as I sat on the granite boulder, with immemorial regularity and calm. This is why I come to nature – not to stride boldly through it, but to be still at places like this, to look outwards and sense the spirit of the place.
The human community can make a lot of noise, but there is another kind of community at Esalen, a community of non-human beings. Like these long-lived cypress trees standing on the edge of the cliff, the members of this other community are much quieter interlocutors.