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Eslaen Institute
Courtesy of Esalen

How the Esalen Institute’s CEO runs a retreat—and a workplace—to maximize human potential

Member exclusive by Jenni Avins for The transformation economy

The Esalen Institute was founded in 1962 in Big Sur, California, as a center for countercultural thought and exploration.

Esalen didn’t establish a single spiritual or philosophical leader, but instead hosted a variety of radical thinkers that included Abraham Maslow, Ida Rolf, and gestalt therapy founder Fritz Perls to study there, and to lead lectures, seminars, and workshops. Their commonality was what was then called the Human Potential Movement, which Calvin Tomkins described in 1976 as a “somewhat amorphous but rapidly growing effort to tap unsuspected resources of energy or perception or sensory awareness in all of us.” In other words, self-actualization.

The institute, which is still run as a non-profit today, is a spectacular 27-acre property with cabins, gardens, and tubs fed by natural hot springs overlooking the Pacific. Every year it hosts some 20,000 visitors—or “seminarians”—for workshops including “The Transformational Enneagram,” “Come As You Are: Transform Your Sex Life,” “The Neuroscience of Resilience,” and “Relational Gestalt Practice.” (It also inspired the hippie-laden lawn where Don Draper has his Coke-ad epiphany in the finale of MadMen.) Esalen may be one of the most recognizable brands in the growing transformation economy, a multi-billion dollar collection of personal coaches, gurus, retreats, and self-improvement courses in which the main product is a better you.