thomas m wilson

Leaving Esalen and mastering massage.

April 9th, 2008


This image was created by my friend Nate Bolt (rights reserved). It is of the Esalen hot tubs, and depicts the place as a planet.  Superb work Nate.

So I have now left planet Esalen (the retreat centre where I’ve been working and studying for the last ten weeks). Today I’m breathing a sigh of relief to have my own life back – to not be working for the machine and to not be constantly in the public eye. I am in control of my own days again. I have some privacy again. I can choose who I associate with again. Ahh.. at last. The sun is shining through the leaves of the oak trees in this quiet valley in Fairfax, just north of San Francisco.

What do I mean by ‘the machine’? On one of the feeback forms I took in the office from a guest at Esalen they had written ‘the machine is too well oiled’. And this is accurate – the selection process for becoming permanent staff at Esalen stresses organizational ability, punctuality, following orders without question (what they call ‘being a team player’), and the ability to give great significance to repetitious and banal work activities. Because of this the make-up of the Esalen staff is full of personalities that possess these traits. They run the machine of a workshop centre/ new age resort very efficiently. If this is the only litmus test of success then they succeed admirably. But could the machine possibly ‘be too well oiled’? Well the above mentioned personality traits do not often coincide with the relaxed, fun-loving, easy-going, jokey, creative, and charismatic aspects of human identity. In fact they can sometimes preclude these other aspects of human identity. The machine of a large new age hotel runs smoothly and efficiently at Esalen, but the people who live and work here permanently are often overly fastidious. Many of the people who work here are great at running to complete the next task, but they forget enjoy the journey en route. These people are great at making other plans, but they forget that life is what happens while you are making other plans. I’m sure many organizations in the modern Western world suffer from the same problem.

And I have to say that it is nice to be away from New Age discourse. This discourse, exemplified by many of the books in the bookshop, is full of slap dash poetic sentiment and nebulous and evidence-immune philosophical argument (more often plain assertion rather than argument). I have an image of Aldous Huxley come back from the dead. He is slumped at a table in the Esalen lodge, despondently listening to a zealot babble incoherently about the chakra system.

But of course there have been some great things about being at Esalen. The dance sessions for example…


And the hot tubs above the ocean fed by mineral hot springs…


Esalen massage is unique. It is full of long ‘settling strokes’ which give you a feeling of whole body integration, as well as rotations of the joints, and an emphasis on the quality of touch and presence of the practitioner. Although I’ve not talked much about it here, after ten weeks of studying massage I am now confident with practicing massage. I have a good knowledge of anatomy and I have mastered a range of bodywork techniques. I am ready to practice on those who need it, so let me know.