‘Slate Springs’, California
Sometimes life seems like nothing more than thinking about life. Chasing your tail and second-guessing yourself until work, duty, or sleep kindly break in to put off the inevitable return to the pestering questions. When ‘sooner or later’ becomes mostly later, we tend to go all in on finishing it off. And so it was I took to taking instruction in all the things we learned in kindergarten and ignored in college.
Recently I spun the wheel and signed up for “The Art of Empathy – An Exploration of Life’s Most Essential Skill” at a small retreat and learning center on the Big Sur coast. Some theory, some dialogue, some ritual, some humor, and a few breakthroughs.
In one of our first discussion on emotions it was acknowledged that men in general have long been ‘exiled’ from the world of empathy. Some are saying it is only culture and upbringing that have denied us boys the understanding and valuing of connection, self-soothing, and healthy intimacy. Yay! Off to a promising start!
By midweek I could recite all seventeen of the agreed-upon emotions and had practiced mirroring without rolling my eyes. So I took a day off. I slept in, had coffee and fresh baked raisin bread toast with almond butter, soaked in the famous hot springs, and walked the sacred grounds that for over a half century have catered to seekers, healers, thinkers, and yes, slackers like me.
For centuries before that, the Essalen Indians roamed here until the time of settlement when a pioneer/interloper named Mr. Slate homesteaded on this site where thermal springs flow abundantly from under the San Lucia Mountains and spill off into the Pacific.
The Religion of No Religion
Having studied the history of Esalen and being somewhat familiar with many of the innovative methodologies that have been preached and practiced, misunderstood and misused here has added value to my experience of the place. Experiential, experimental, and transformational are the hashtags that connect Esalen to the modern movement for personal growth that some called New Age a generation ago. The mission here has always been the ideal of holistic personal development of mind, body, psyche and spirit. The Institute is not without doubters, misdirections and difficulties, but its international reputation and longevity beg attention, and it got mine.
And so, having curiosity, time and resources, I had to see what all the fuss was about around ten years ago, and I have returned regularly since. I have been gifted here with stimulating points of view, meeting people like and unlike myself, and verifying my commitment to upgrade my social and personal demeanor – which could certainly stand improvement. I have also been treated to contemporary alternative behavior, fashion, hairstyles, and some interestingly designed and located tattoos. It’s fortunate that I am now more allowing of diverse ideas and appearances as I attempt to further my effort to at last make something useful of myself.
There is no particular spiritual agenda here at Esalen, and all worldly and beyond-worldly points of view are welcomed. The realm of higher thinking is best left to the legendary psychologists and philosophers, but given curiosity, bravery and wise teachers, even us amateurs can begin to stare existential angst square in the eye. Oh, and where the hell does The Divine fit in all this amazing and amusing chaos we call life? Speaking of which….
I did learn in Empathy School that angrily invoking God’s name, like cursing out loud in general, can be a healthy emotional regulation skill. In polling the two dozen willing foul-mouths in the room, the instructor found the darn f-word in all its colorful variations to be the most favored oath. No great insight there.
Tears, Fears, and the Seven Deadly Sins
But emotions are serious business. I learned that managed empathy is far more than handouts to panhandlers or crucifying yourself on everyone else’s needy cross. Mature empathy allows one to “connect deeply, understand clearly, respond perceptively, and engage authentically.” I hear it can be difficult, but I aim to try.
Because relationships are also difficult. And apparently we need emotions and empathy to make them functional and personally fulfilling. According to the author who guided this retreat, we would do well to broaden our ‘emotional genius’ to understand that creativity, art, nature, animals, and focused activity all can all be objects of our empathy, not just people. Who can sometimes be real jerks.
As we were discussing our Esalen experiences over lunch, one young woman shook her fork full of kale at me asking, “Since you are in that class, can you please tell me why some guys are so sweet and sensitive and all the rest are just plain assholes?” I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about. I had no answer.
But with an attempt to make the American Male aware of his own unappreciated capacity for this top-tier emotion, the clever suggestion was made that ‘manspeak’ be used to relate to our empathically-exiled gender so manly men can use their might and their ‘tools’, to ‘construct’ ‘hearty’ relationships. I couldn’t resist mocking up a book cover that would appeal to us guys and placing it on the Workshop Art Table Shrine. (Shrines, symbols, rituals and expressive movement are “very Esalen”.) Pictured here is a final rendering of my faux literary ‘manification’ of this ‘woman thing’ called emotion. One participant in the class actually asked where he could buy a copy. I’m serious.
Though widely famous, I had previously not taken my place on the table for an Esalen Massage. This school of body workers and style of practice is (claimed to be) unique and is branded by the Institute. Certification has been going on since the seventies, and the reputation has added not only a high-end mystique but also matching prices. Should you wish to partake someday you should know that the tip alone for an hour massage at Esalen will buy you 75 minutes plus gratuity with my friend Xotchi on the beach in Zihuatanejo. (Airfare not included) Tell her I sent you.
Since I had excused myself from class, I thought on this trip I would see if the magic fingers near the sacred hot springs would help align all the emotions I had been learning of and release the unleashed power of my male empathy from its hiding. The cashier at the main office invited me to state my massage preferences and physical ‘irregularities’ before she chose a suitable masseuse. After confessing my flaws by including the words arthritic, strained, flaccid and titanium, she told me that the next day at one o’clock some stranger would find me in the tubs, wrap my unclothed body in a big towel and lead me to her bed.
Because my profile now likely said “old and fragile”, I presumed correctly I would be assigned, not to the “deep healing” side of the menu, but rather to “fluff and buff”. It was like those old cowboy movies where the younger men – fit, fierce and macho – got all the good horses. Horses that when they snarled blasted smoke from their flared nostrils as they shot from the corral. Horses that meant business. Horses with names like Dynamite, Bucky, Firedance, and Rolfer.
Me? I got to saddle up “Old Buttercup”. The sway-backed, well-seasoned, apathetic mare leaning against the back fence. She was kind and capable, but I could tell she was not into roughing anyone up for the sake of showing her stuff. The masseuse’s name was Amanda, and she looked tired. Closer to my age than the rest of the herd, she sighed as she told me she had been there for decades and had wanted to retire but felt compelled instead to begin harboring stray cats in her apartment, and they were very expensive to feed. ‘Pet Hyperempaths’ need love too. Just like us misjudged men. The lessons around here never stop.
The Song: I threw together this fun tribute after my first visit a while back. Our neighbor recorded it in his backyard. No disrespect or offense is intended. (Sometimes I just get carried away.)