My earliest memories loop back to the early 60’s when my mother first described her experience of the exquisite Big Sur coast, gardens, incredible massages, and famous cliff-side natural hot springs. “I’m working on some issues,” she announced. “With a man named Fritz.” At the age of 10, I hadn’t a clue that she was referring to Fritz Perls, but for years, the philosophy of the Gestalt prayer taped to our refrigerator echoed in my mind:
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
(Fritz Perls, “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim”, 1969)
Mother had crossed out the last line, preferring to end with “if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.” At 85, these words remain a guiding philosophy, as does the ever-present struggle for both of us to “move beyond the expectations” of others we jokingly pointed out to each other recently. In my teens, I accompanied her to Big Sur to attend a Feldenkrais and massage workshop. My initial adolescent shock and self-consciousness were soothed by meeting other youth—working side-by-side in the gardens, doing artwork, making music and discovering a sense of openness and safety rarely experienced in our public high schools. Those early seeds may have influenced my life choices to go into the performing arts, psychology, and teaching.
Now, as I approach 60, with all of the emerging questions about what to do in my own 3rd Act, I’m being called to re-compose my life yet again. Perhaps it is time to return to Big Sur. “It is here, and nowhere else,” Henry Miller wrote of Big Sur, “that I have witnessed people recast their lives and live them out.”
Esalen has always been a safe place for teachers and attendees to “recast” their lives and experiment with what Aldous Huxley called the non-verbal humanities: the education of the senses, the body and emotions. For those lucky enough to be able to attend, Esalen hosted the most influential philosophers, physicists, psychologists, artists, and religious thinkers of our time.
I reflected on Bev’s earlier blog “Before It’s Too Late” when thinking back through all of the amazing teachers and artists who’ve touched our lives through the existence of Esalen. My last trip to Esalen was with my husband (a first) to work with authors and teachers George and Anne Leonard and learn more about their system of Integral Transformative Practice, a program for realizing the potential of body, mind, heart and soul inspired by the Japanese martial art of Aikido. We’d both admired George’s writing, especially his book from the 60’s “Education and Ecstasy”, a visionary call for educational reform, and wanted a chance to work directly with him. Sadly, Leonard died last summer—we were grateful that we had the chance to experience his invaluable and supportive teachings in person.
Beyond the workshops, massages, meditations and art-making experiences, what I treasure most about Esalen is the place itself. The grounds were once home to a Native American tribe known as the Esselen–120 acres of land nestled between the Pacific and Big Sur mountains inviting canyon hikes next to the roaring stream and daily soaks in the natural hot springs baths.
During our last visit, the Monarch butterflies, in their own transformative wisdom, were wintering at Esalen. Dense shimmering clusters of orange and black Monarch’s hung on the trees in front of our cabin.
I hope you will consider making a New Year’s resolution to celebrate and re-cast your life with The 3rd Act this January. See you there!
Dr. Ruth Cox teaches in the Health Education Department at San Francisco State University. As a social psychologist, she has taught a range of courses on creativity, human potential and healing including “Art as Healing”. She also directs the student ePortfolio initiative at SF State.
For more than 30 years, Ruth has also worked as an actress in theater, film, and television, in productions from Shakespeare to Happy Days, and continues to act in San Francisco. She’s looking forward to new adventures in her 3rd Act!