It’s been a few days since my husband and I returned from a brief retreat at Esalen. It was, in a word, awesome.
I don’t use that word frivolously here. Our weekend at Esalen was literally about awe — the science of it, the proximity of it in our daily lives, the way it surrounded us over the course of two days — in the sounds of ocean waves at every turn, the abundance of butterflies and hummingbirds, the healing sulfur hot springs we bathed in, the warm sun that calmed us as we took in our peaceful surroundings under a vast blue sky.
Esalen is also awe-inspiring as a quintessential expression of mid-century California life and thought. It is the seat of humanist philosophy from that time period and remains so today, a place where people explore “trends in the behavioral sciences, religion and philosophy which emphasize the potentialities and values of human existence.” From the landscape to the people, Esalen exudes awe and possibility.
While the retreat only lasted from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, somehow a shift happened in a matter of hours. We lost ourselves in the moment, in the day given to us for nothing less than pondering the profoundness of awe — that feeling of being in the presence of vast things that are mysterious and ineffable. We learned how experiences of awe trigger physiological responses in the human brain and body that can decrease stress hormones, calm inflammation, make us feel alive and connected to one another, to nature, to our whole selves. We recalled moments of awe from our lives and wrote them down in our journals. And we were encouraged to cultivate a sense of awe in reflective walks, sharing stories with each other, being quiet and opening to the beauty that surrounded us. With no wifi service within easy reach, it was profound to be completely disconnected from the internet and yet oh-so fully connected in many other ways.
While Esalen was the setting for awe during our weekend, it seemed the weekend unfolded in awe even before we got there. Our own drive to and from Esalen was filled with moments of awe along the way — a coffee stop and a delicious pastry at a friend’s café before leaving Oakland, a delicious lunch under a warm afternoon sun in Carmel, a magical sunset sky unfolding above the Pacific Ocean as we drove down the coast.
Integration. That was the word I chose to use to express what I was feeling and taking away as the weekend drew to a close. Somehow, a weekend of contemplating awe, of slowing the hell down, of remembering myself and the many facets of my life’s history gave me a sense of wholeness and integration as I haven’t felt for a very long time. I thought of my travels across the country from my home in Maryland to my home today in California, my years of theological study and cultivating awe in explorations of ritual and liturgy, my family who helped form who I am today, my marriage, my love of music. I literally put the pieces of myself back together, pieces that seemed to have been lost in time. I found myself interesting again. I dreamed. I fell even deeper in love with my husband. I made friends with strangers. I became alive again. What a gift.
It is now a few days since returning from Esalen, and I’ve watched myself slipping back into pre-retreat me. The week’s deadlines and tasks raised my stress levels again. My emotions got the better of me at various points in the week. I spent far too much time surfing the internet once I was back online. Unimportant matters took hold of my mental state, causing me to ruminate over the most material of concerns.
Old patterns are hard to break, as they say. I ponder how we as a society even seem to be slipping back into our pre-pandemic selves. Did that experience make us see life differently, make us become wholly different people? Can we remember it, hold onto the experience and what it taught us? Can we integrate our past, present, and future selves into one transformed whole?
How easily we slip backward. Like turning back the clocks last weekend, we fall back in time…we fall back, we fall, like leaves falling around us. As we move through the autumn of our lives here in the Northern hemisphere, I pray that our falling backward can also be a moving forward into something new. Perhaps cultivating a little more awe in our daily lives can give us that pivotal perspective shift to help us along the way.
November 11, 2021