Brian is telling a young Asian-American woman about the five-day workshop he’s here to attend. “It’s called ‘Bio-hacking the Language of Intimacy’,” he says. “Uh-huh,” says the Asian-American woman. She directs this less at Brian than at the kelp forest floating offshore. Brian presses on. What he particularly appreciates is the ability to talk about stuff he can’t talk about at work. Relationships and so forth. “You know,” he says, “really make that human connection.”
The Asian-American woman gives him the sort of bright, dead-eyed smile Californians deploy when they’re about to violently disagree with you. “I find I can make human connections in lots of different contexts.”
Brian goes quiet. In all but one sense it’s a typically, even touchingly American courtship ritual: the clean-cut young man, no less diffident nor deferential than his grandfather might have been; the young woman off-handedly wielding her power over him, yet to be impressed. The crucial difference is that both parties are naked – not only naked, in the woman’s case, but standing up in the water, exposing herself in full-frontal immodesty to Brian and the cool Pacific breezes.
We are in the outdoor sulphur springs that cling to the cliffside at the Esalen Institute, a spiritual retreat centre in Big Sur, California. Here naked sharing is commonplace and as sapped of erotic charge as it would be in a naturist campsite – which is just as well, as I’m naked too, the gooseberry in the hot tub, desperately aiming for an air of easygoing self-composure as I try not to look at Brian’s thighs.
It is thought that the hot springs on this rocky but beautiful stretch of the central Californian coast have been in ritual or therapeutic use, in one form or another, for at least 6,000 years, when the Esselen, the Native American tribe that inspired the institute’s name, migrated south from the Bay Area. They saw in the confluence of waters a fitting place to worship and bury their dead. In 1962 a local landowner, “Bunnie” MacDonald Murphy, agreed to lease the property – by then a down-at-heel resort frequented by gay men from San Francisco – to her grandson Michael Murphy. With his fellow Stanford psychology graduate, Dick Price, Murphy founded the Esalen Institute as a centre for the new “Human Potential Movement”. Their intention was to hold a series of gently countercultural seminars and “experiential sessions”.
The gentleness was short-lived. In 1963 Fritz Perls, a German-born psychoanalyst notorious for his wild and often traumatising group therapy, arrived at Esalen and began dismantling his subjects’ personalities, trait by trait. The institute developed a reputation for drugs, nude bathing and free sex. Hordes of hippies travelled down from San Francisco to camp and take vast quantities of psychedelics. George Harrison flew in by helicopter for a sitar session with Ravi Shankar. Sharon Tate was here the day before she was murdered. Esalen was a hippie proving ground, a focal point for the counterculture’s preoccupations with psychedelia, Eastern mysticism and self-actualisation. It was the mother church for the religion of no religion.
It seems an unlikely place, then, to find Brian. He is a financial adviser from Yuba City in northern California with tidy hair and a taste for J.Crew-type open-neck shirts. He looks like someone you might run into at a sports bar or an executive airport lounge, and spends much of his free time at his country club playing golf. But then Esalen is not quite what it was. In recent years the institute has been accused of selling out, of betraying the countercultural principles it helped to shape. The charge gathered new force when, in 2017, the institute appointed a former product manager at Google as its executive director.
Ben Tauber had worked on Hangouts, Chat and the ill-fated social network Google+. After his appointment, there was a subtle shift in Esalen’s programme from the numinous to the digital: the workshops now included “Conscious AI” and “Blockchain & Cryptocurrency”. This invited suspicions that Esalen had become the therapeutic wing of Silicon Valley, a corporate retreat that was about as countercultural as the newly installed Tesla charging stations in the parking lot. Book a private suite with a redwood deck, clawfoot tub and open fireplace, and a weekend at Esalen can set you back as much as $3,000. Come for the week and you’re looking at close to $7,000.
If corporate America has infiltrated the counterculture, the same could be said in reverse. Google, Apple, Facebook, Nike, Procter & Gamble and General Motors all offer programmes on mindfulness, a broad term for a number of Eastern-influenced practices designed to help you focus on the here and now. Employees at the headquarters of Cisco Systems in San Jose can attend the LifeConnections Health Centre, where they focus on the “four pillars” of wellbeing – body, mind, spirit and heart. Its senior integrated health manager for global benefits, Katelyn Johnson, is responsible for cultivating the Cisco ideal of the “corporate athlete” – ripped in body and mind. At Aetna, a giant American health-insurance company, more than a quarter of the 50,000-strong workforce have now attended at least one of the in-house mindfulness classes. According to the firm, the productivity per week of the average participant has increased by 62 minutes, and the resulting value to the company is in the region of $3,000 per employee each year. Alongside open-plan offices, ping-pong tables and informal dress codes, mindfulness in the workplace is an idea that took hold in Silicon Valley and subsequently took over the world. What was once the preserve of the retreat centre is now a sound business practice: mysticism with a measurable return on investment.
I had come to Esalen to reflect on an apparent paradox: the gradual absorption of the counterculture by capital. A few hours after our dip in the sulphur spring I bump into Brian again, leaning on a banister outside the main lodge. As he looks out beyond the uplit trees to the now indivisible blackness of sea and sky, he seems contented. “At my country club I’m the only guy asking if the soup is gluten-free,” he says. “I guess I’m a bit of a different drummer in some respects. But here I feel like, this is my tribe, you know?”
If you want to understand how a movement intent on undermining corporate America ended up at its heart, a good place to begin is the story of Stewart Brand. A photographer and former army parachutist, Brand was a frequent visitor to Esalen in its early years. In “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, Tom Wolfe’s account of the Merry Pranksters’ acid-fuelled bus trip across America, he crops up shirtless and sporting “an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it”.
Brand was a key figure in the back-to-the-land movement, a precursor to modern environmentalism in its rejection of mainstream, militaristic, company-ladder America in favour of the simpler, agrarian, non-hierarchical communalism practised at places like Esalen. In 1968 he published the first edition of “The Whole Earth Catalog”, a sort of hippie mix of Which? magazine, mail-order catalogue and “The Dangerous Book for Boys”. The first edition contains articles on Japanese house-building and tensile structures, guides to growing mushrooms and keeping bees, and reviews of everything from meditation cushions to deerskin moccasins and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A Computer (“a superb inquiry machine”). Each of the Catalog’s 63 pages was a patchwork of text, diagram, table and photographic image dedicated to the proposition that, put to proper use, technology can have a liberating effect on mankind. In a commencement address at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs described it as “one of the bibles of my generation…sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.”
The Whole Earth offices were in Menlo Park, also home to the Homebrew Computer Club, a ragged band of DIY electronics enthusiasts whose founders have credited “The Whole Earth Catalog” for inspiring their ethos of self-sufficiency and the free exchange of ideas and information. It was at a Homebrew meeting in 1976 that the cripplingly shy Steve Wozniak felt bold enough to unveil his prototype for the Apple I computer. The club was an open forum, a little techno-utopia that shared with its hippie-culture counterparts an egalitarian faith in communal effort and accessibility. Freed from bureaucratic oversight, the libertarian longhairs of Menlo Park could pursue their utopian dreams to change the world.
The kinship of the counterculture and contemporary corporate culture is less paradoxical than it seems. The faith Stewart Brand and his associates placed in the communitarian ideal led directly to the informality and organisational flatness that characterises how Silicon Valley – and the global corporations in its thrall – does business today. In any case, the counterculture was always a middle-class phenomenon. Abraham Maslow taught at Esalen and was perhaps the most important intellectual influence on its founders. He suggested in his famous Hierarchy of Needs that self- actualisation is only possible when the basic requirements of “food, water, warmth and rest” have been met. Accordingly, for the most part it was the young, white, college-educated beneficiaries of the post-war economic boom that had the leisure time to indulge in psychedelics and soulcraft. “Esalen”, writes Wolfe in “Acid Test”, “was a place where educated middle-class adults came in the summer to try to get out of The Rut and wiggle their fannies a bit.”
I’m lying under a blanket on some plush velveteen cushions as a healer called Deva pads around gonging her collection of tuning forks, crystal singing bowls and “tingshas”, the little cymbals that meditation teachers use to bring their sessions to a close. The room, upstairs in Esalen’s main lodge, is called Huxley, after Aldous, who taught at the institute, and looks like a luxurious barn. Here the doors of perception are bespoke and hand-crafted. Along with the 40 other guests prostrate on the floor around me, I’m on a “Sacred Sound Journey”, borne on an auditory carpet towards a state of pure alignment and awareness. The theory, as I understand it, is that stress and anxiety cause our cells to vibrate at sub-optimal frequencies: the sound of the bowl and other instruments restore them to vibrational harmony.
In practice it’s a bit like trying to go to sleep on a washing machine. When Deva really gets going you can feel your cheeks begin to blur. The aim is to use the sound as a meditational object, an attentional foothold secure enough to let the to-do lists, inchoate longings and general mental detritus fall away. But I’m finding the cushions and incense a little too relaxing, and I drift off until there’s a ping from the tingshas and we all sit up and share our awareness in a quarter lotus. “In the world that I live in”, says the smiling man opposite me, “everything is delicious.”
Meditation has been part of the programme at Esalen from the outset. When Dick Price, one of the co-founders, was still in the us Air Force in the 1950s, he had been introduced to vipassana – a style of Buddhist meditation that emphasises clear awareness of the present. A form of spiritual practice that subtracted God from the equation promised a release for young Americans chafing against the confines of Christianity.
On the eastern seaboard, meanwhile, other teachers brought back knowledge of Buddhist practices they had gained travelling in Burma, India and Thailand. They applied it to what became known as the “vipassana movement”, which grew out of their adaptation of traditional Buddhist practice to American tastes. The aim was to downplay the more explicitly devotional parts, like the chanting of the suttas, in favour of the meditative element.
Jon Kabat-Zinn went a step further. In 1965, when he was studying for his phd in molecular biology at MIT, Kabat-Zinn attended a talk on meditation by an American-born teacher of Zen Buddhism, whose teachings he became increasingly intrigued by over the next decade. If meditation encouraged greater awareness of body and mind, what effect might it have on apparently intractable conditions like chronic pain and depression? Kabat-Zinn’s challenge was to bridge the two cultures. In the academic circles he moved in, religious responses to medical problems would have had you laughed out of the lecture theatre. His solution was simple: remove the religious part. By 1979 he had developed a technique he called mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which combined elements of hatha yoga with Buddhist mindfulness meditation, but divested them of their spiritual trappings.
It was a decisive step in the normalisation of these esoteric ideas. Relieved of its religious baggage, mindfulness became a fit subject for scientific study. Hundreds of randomised controlled trials have since shown the effectiveness of MBSR and related techniques in reducing levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, as well as improving memory and visual-spatial processing, and alleviating the wandering thought-patterns that can characterise depression and poor focus. Nirvana could wait: mindfulness was now academically respectable, the materialist’s panacea. MBSR and related therapeutic approaches are now offered by health-care systems all over the world. In 2004 Britain’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the body that provides guidance on all new drugs and treatments offered by the National Health Service, approved mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a treatment for people at risk of a depressive relapse.
It wasn’t long before big business began to see the value of mindfulness to its bottom line. In 2007 Chade-Meng Tan, a software engineer and Google employee #107, co-founded Search Inside Yourself, a mindfulness training programme designed to help his fellow Googlers improve their focus and deal with work-related stress. Over two-and-a-half days, or a less intensive seven weeks, employees were trained in attentional focus, self-awareness and empathy, using techniques drawn from mindfulness and organisational psychology. The result was a crash-course in emotional intelligence for an engineer-dominated workforce prone to social awkwardness and burnout. The programme has since been spun off into an independent non-profit organisation, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which promotes mindfulness in companies and other non-profits all over the world. Carolina Lasso is director of marketing at SIYLI’S offices in San Francisco. For her, mindfulness is less a means of stepping back from a pressurised working environment than a tool for inhabiting that environment more effectively. “Mindfulness serves as a foundation to developing other skills,” she tells me. “Emotional intelligence, compassionate leadership.”
The appeal to other businesses was clear. Mindfulness training offered a relatively inexpensive way to reduce workplace stress and anxiety, thereby improving staff retention and productivity. Critics would say that the advantage of mindfulness lies in the interiority it encourages: it keeps your employees quiet and more inclined to accept unreasonable demands on their time and energy. Either way the practice spread, first through the tech sector and then beyond. A study in 2017 by the National Business Group on Health, a non-profit in Washington, DC, found that a third of all American companies offer mindfulness classes or training, and that a further quarter are considering introducing them.
“Silicon Valley is a rich but intense environment,” says Cisco’s Katelyn Johnson. “It’s extremely fast-paced. So we need this mindfulness meditation to help us survive, frankly, because if you don’t bring your full self and your best to work, it’s pretty tough to innovate and create and keep moving at the expected pace.” The big challenge at Cisco, she says, is “to be present”. Such are the distractions, the updates and emails and iMessages – the instruments of attentional overload for which Silicon Valley can blame only itself – that “it’s pretty hard in this day and age to be fully engaged.” Mindfulness clears the clutter and forces an engagement with the here and now.
At Esalen, outside the lodge in the Buddha Garden, I meet Krista Martin, who works in health-care informatics. “Experiencing this beautiful place, it’s sensory,” she says. “It’s the cool winds off the ocean, it’s the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks, it’s the heat of the baths. It’s a sensory place that opens you up. And I realise I don’t make very much time for that.” It’s a perfect afternoon, sunny with a caressing breeze, and Krista and I take to a bench hemmed in by tidy rows of salad greens and herbs. Ahead, beyond the produce garden, and the expanse of well-tended – but not too well-tended – grass that envelops the estate, the land ends abruptly at a split-rail fence a hundred feet above a shoreline you can’t see. The effect is mesmerising but slightly nauseating: an infinity lawn. At the office, she admits, Krista has a tendency to “extreme workaholism”, staying at her desk until midnight, neglecting her personal life, fulfilling her duties on autopilot. “I’m that person who gets to work, and then all of a sudden it’s one o’clock, and you haven’t eaten, and you forgot to go to the bathroom. You just work.” Now she’s in her early 50s, Krista has promised herself a new “intentionality”: not to let life slip by unnoticed.
For guests like Krista, the idea that Esalen has strayed from its founding principles is far from her mind. Terry Gilbey, Ben Tauber’s successor as CEO, agrees. “You can come to Esalen for $400 for the weekend,” he tells me. “Granted, that’s a sleeping-bag space, but you get your food, you get your workshop, you get the opportunity to retreat.” The higher-end accommodation subsidises the scrimp-and-save seminarians bunking down on the meeting-room floors. The mission, as Gilbey puts it, is just as it has always been: to give guests the chance “to slow down, disconnect…and connect with others on a different level,” to “sit in the quietness and reflect”.
“I feel that the next 25 years, act three, could be a wondrous time,” says Krista. “But only if I’m paying attention.” For her, the “experiential, sensory” qualities of Esalen permit precisely that: an alertness to the present. “It’s not about learning something new. It’s not about expanding your mind. It’s just being.”
By the late 1960s drug use at Esalen was so rife that its founders began to fear they were losing control. Psychedelics and spiritual practice have a long shared history; the very first Esalen catalogue, published in September 1962, lists a workshop on drug-induced mysticism. Dick Price was a dedicated acid-head and advocate for its use as a route to mystical experience. The problem came with the mass hippie migration that marked the so-called summer of love in 1967. Marijuana, mescaline and LSD were being taken in vast quantities and without any therapeutic oversight. “Our canyons were full – I mean, it exploded,” recalls Michael Murphy. “It’s a miracle Esalen survived that period.”
Today the canyons are more tranquil. Mind alteration has a new respectability; early in 2019 Esalen played host to a workshop on psychedelics as consciousness-expanding agents of personal and social change. Several of the seminarians I meet in the hot baths are long-term microdosers of LSD, psilocybin and cannabis. Still, the institute’s official drug policy is unambiguous. Illicit drugs are strictly prohibited. You’re as likely to find someone tripping their nuts off at Brian’s country club as you are here.
This is part of a wider trend. California legalised the recreational use of cannabis in November 2016; licensed sales began in January 2018. The entry of weed into the mainstream market has caused a shift in drug culture, at least as it pertains to (usually) non-addictive hallucinogens like lsd and cannabis: from rebellion to responsibility, from dropping out to dropping round to your local full-service cannabis dispensary.
In the Castro, once the centre of gay radicalism in San Francisco, I stop by the flagship store of the Apothecarium, a four-strong chain of upscale cannabis boutiques. The aesthetic might be described as antiquarian Apple Store: open space in understated greys and blues, accent display units in black-and-white damask, designer glass bongs and a “cannabis bibliothèque”. These newly above-board recreational outlets are battling to out-brand one another.
I’m presented with a restaurant-style menu offering a stupefying choice of delivery mechanism (“Flower”, “Pre-roll”, “Vape”, “Edible”, “Topical”), quantity and strain (“When it’s time to paint, jam, code, blog or game, find your muse in Canndescent Create.™”). With the guidance of Peter, my “cannabis consultant”, a compact young man scarcely visible under Cousin Itt quantities of head and facial hair, I choose a controlled-dose vape pen. It contains a concentrate whose ratio of THC (the compound that gets you high) to CBD (the compound that doesn’t, but may relieve pain and anxiety) should strike a balance, Peter says, between an enjoyable psychotropic experience and a low risk of paranoia. I pay my $49 and pocket my discreetly packaged stash for later.
Fifteen blocks east of the Apothecarium, in the Mission District, I visit the hipsterish raw-concrete offices of Pax Labs, where “the cannabis space”, as CEO Bharat Vasan refers to it, converges with mobile technology. (Vasan has since left the company.) Pax’s standout product is the Era, a sleek, super-lightweight vape pen designed for use with detachable pods of cannabis concentrate: the stoner’s equivalent of a Nespresso machine. The accompanying app means that dosage and vaping temperature can be controlled from your smartphone.
“Temperature matters a great deal in our space,” explains Vasan, who sold his previous startup, a fitness-wearables company called Basis, to Intel for $100m. “Concentrates volatise at different temperatures. It’s just like with wine: the glass really matters. Different temperatures are the equivalent of wine glasses.” His objective is a “super-polished experience” in the vein of Apple or Tesla, to claim a slice of a market that Vasan estimates will be worth around $90bn “in the next five years”. Ultimately, he says, the Pax Lab mission is to “establish cannabis as a force for good”. Forty-five minutes of this and I’m beginning to yearn for a badly rolled spliff on a park bench.
Down by the railroad tracks in San Mateo, I open the box I’d bought at the Apothecarium. Inside is a shiny white tube: a spliff reconceived by Jony Ive, an imperial stormtrooper’s tampon. “For a single dose”, read the instructions, “inhale until pen vibrates.”
I take a drag. The tip glows blue. The crossing starts to clang and a colossal, bi-level Caltrain thunders past on its way from San Francisco into the Valley, its mournful horn an echo of an older America. I am extremely stoned. The pen has not yet vibrated. I put the pen back in its box, and walk back to my Airbnb, convinced that there are thousands of tiny spiders streaming out of the palm trees.•