The Esalen Institute: Illuminating the Nexus of Sustainability Consciousness

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ecop_esalen.jpgEffortlessly perched along the spectacular coastline of Big Sur, California, along the winding Highway 1, rests the Esalen Institute. While waves crash upon the rocky cliffs, up to 250 people per day participate in enriching workshops or research activities, often followed by a soak in the hot mineral baths tucked in a cliffside crevice. Since 1962, the nonprofit educational institute has provided transformational workshops for people eager to explore and realize human potential through experience, education and research.

My journeys along Highway 1, in search for leading ecopreneurial enterprises, brought me to this healing place and, as I discovered, a thriving residential community that draws energy and sustenance from their surrounding biological richness. It’s this residential community of researchers, staff, and educators, along with the enrichment programs and remarkable natural setting, that have drawn over 300,000 visitors from around the world seeking a greater connection to community and the land.

In their Solarium, a building attached to the main lodge where all the meals are taken in the community, I talked with Juliet Johnson, a former water engineer turned sustainability guide for the Esalen Institute as its Sustainability Coordinator.

“We’re really about the human potential,” sings Johnson brightly while sipping on herbal tea. “How can we evolve to the next level. How can we be better than we are? Part of the answer rests with being in harmony with the land and each other.” This same perspective guides their prosperous nonprofit organization with educational workshops that provide the bulk of the financial support for the work of the organization.

The Esalen Institute’s approach to ecopreneurship is remarkably similar to what my wife and I write about in ECOpreneuring. There’s more to a bottom line than never-ending growth of profits year after year. Says Johnson about many of their programs and their approach to sustainability: “How do you value things that don’t fit on a spreadsheet?” This sense of human query has guided Esalen over the years, harnessing the power of their community to help transform all who arrive to their peaceful coastal enclave.

After spending the morning with Johnson and walking some of the 120 acres that make up the grounds, I realized few other places I’ve visited seem to reflect this nexus of sustainability consciousness better than Esalen. Once on the grounds, you’re a part of their community.

Besides the exceptional line-up of workshops for the public (90 percent of all visitors are workshop participants), the Esalen community has tapped geothermal energy for heating, added several solar thermal systems and a small 3 kW photovoltaic system, with plans for more. Esalen harvests about fifty percent of the vegetables served by the Esalen kitchen from their own organic farm on site, and conserve resources, whether through composting food waste to using energy efficient lighting. Most recently, Esalen added a “Living Machine” to biologically treat grey and black water. Their bathhouse renovation incorporated a sod roof and many of the renovations have focused on reusing building materials on site. Even a Gazebo School was created to serve the pre-school age children of staffers, guests and the Big Sur community, complete with a learning garden, farm animals and compost pile.

“At Esalen, sustainability is about abundance and a deeply connected human experience that is grounded in community, spirituality, personal growth and connection to the natural world,” writes Johnson in their Friends of Esalen newsletter that features programs that include workshops by such acclaimed visionaries as Amory Lovins (Advanced Energy Efficiency and Alternative Supplies for Profitable Climate Protection) and Michael Ableman and Steve Harper (From the Good Earth: Reclaiming our Relationship with the Land).

Like most ecopreneurial enterprises, the Esalen Institute continues its evolution, seeking a deeper, richer and more enduring relationship to fellow humankind and to nature. As captured in one of Esalen’s six Values Statements: “Transformation of consciousness is the basis for transformation of the world, individually, collectively, and in social systems.”

I look forward to returning to this community of kindred spirits, to see how their sustainability consciousness reaches new faces and places.

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