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Travel California’s Esalen Institute: Inside Don Draper's life-changing retreat

Note: This article contains spoilers about the series finale of Mad Men.

In her floppy straw hat, paisley peasant skirt and sandals fished out of Esalen’s “free” box, Rebecca Creason kneels down on the path somewhere between the meditation hut and the Buddha Garden. She takes the stem of the pink rose she has been carrying around and coaxes a caterpillar onto it, depositing the insect onto the shady grass. “I don’t want you to get squished,” she tells it.

Creason is an Esalen employee and she’s showing me around the place. As we arrive at the large oceanside lawn, a yogi is striking a warrior pose, a couple tosses a ball back and forth, and two women sit cross-legged facing each other, deep in intense conversation as the Big Sur surf crashes against the rocks below.

So this is where Don Draper dreamed up that Coke ad.

The Esalen Institute is an alternative thinker’s paradise; a refuge where New Agers come to explore deeper truths in yurt-held workshops and take in the natural hot springs au naturel with 140 of their fellow seekers. It’s a world away from Don Draper’s Madison Avenue, and yet the kind of place where frenzied professionals flock to locate some inner peace among the aloe plants and avocado trees.

The series finale of Mad Men sees a nearing rock-bottom Don dragged by his pseudo-niece Stephanie (their relationship is complicated) to a place clearly modelled on Esalen, with its communal accommodations, group sessions and hippie clientele.

(Incidentally, Esalen saw a huge spark in interest following the Mad Men finale; visits to the website increased seven-fold.)

Filming for the final episode of Mad Men took place not at Esalen, but in nearby Anderson Canyon. (Courtesy of AMC)

It’s here that Don experiences a breakthrough – after a weeping everyman in a V-neck sweater describes a dream where he sits in a dark fridge, an item that nobody ever selects. An enlightened Don later creates that “I’d like to teach the world to sing” TV commercial – or so the show suggests – working to ensure multitudes of Coke bottles would see the light outside the refrigerators of the world.

The episode was not actually shot at Esalen, where a can of Coke would feel awfully out of place (I am sipping a caffeine- and sugar-free pineapple sage infusion as I write this), but at nearby Anderson Canyon. Esalen president Gordon Wheeler says, as with all requests to film on the property, he turned it down. “We don’t do that; we protect the experience of our guests.”

Perched on the cliffs among the redwoods, the real-life Esalen is nestled between the Pacific and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Chickens cluck at the base of a lemon tree, condors circle majestically overhead, migrating gray whales spout offshore. If you’re going to try to learn to be mindful in your life, it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it.

The mothership

The Esalen Institute was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Dick Price, two postgrad students who, disappointed that the area of personal growth was not being explored in academia, quit their studies.

Murphy’s grandparents had bought the property, with its famous hot springs, in 1910, with the intention of opening a European-type healing spa. Inaccessibility hampered the family’s plans, and after Murphy spent time in India exposed to the teachings of the philosopher Aurobindo, he had a new idea: to create a venue for personal and social transformation – approaches that are now familiar but that at the time were considered radical.

“Aurobindo’s vision encompassed all the way from the spiritual to the psychological to the political, and that’s unusual,” Wheeler says. “And that’s in the DNA of Esalen.”

It quickly became a magnet for the counterculture. Aldous Huxley was an early teacher here, as was Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. The Rolfing technique (a form of body massage) was perfected here – where there are still facilities named after Huxley, Perls and Ida Rolf. “It’s kind of like the mothership of ways to do these alternative things,” said J.J. Jeffries, during his Friday evening orientation speech for first-timers such as myself.

The main lawn at the Esalen Institute features picturesque views and the soothing sounds of the Pacific Ocean. (Marsha Lederman)

These days the institute sees more than 17,000 visitors a year, and offers workshops such as “Hurtling toward Wholeness” (taught by Alanis Morissette and friends) and “Love Yourself – For Everyone Else’s Sake.”

Now, I would describe myself as a skeptic bordering on cynical (occupational hazard), but after a fairly crummy few months (maybe not Season 7 Part 2 Don Draper crummy, but challenging nonetheless) a weekend meditation workshop seemed like it might help with stress – and life – management. I signed up for “Being Present for Your Life: Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation” taught by James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness.

In five sessions totalling 10 hours from Friday night to Sunday morning, Baraz taught us meditation techniques and ways to deal with difficult emotions. He espoused the virtues of being present in our lives and offered methods to accomplish that. He talked about how the Buddha had sat under a tree, determined to achieve what he sought – or die trying. Or as Baraz put it: “enlightenment or bust.”

We did a walking meditation through a meadow. We did a tasting meditation with a raisin, where before we even placed the dried fruit in our mouths, we were to think about all the things that had to happen to get it into our hands (the soil, the water, the planting, the harvesting, the transporting, the fuel to allow the transporting, the packaging, the money earned to make the purchase at the store – you get the idea). Then we were to let the raisin linger in our mouths, feeling it with our tongues, thinking about what it was like to chew the thing and finally – finally! – swallowing it. (Confession: I skipped this. I can’t stand raisins.)

Baraz taught us that, done mindfully, simple everyday activities – shaving or washing dishes – could be elevated from duty to ritual.

Sitting cross-legged on my purple striped pillow, I tried repeatedly to banish the relentless planning and negative self-talk from my overactive brain and concentrate on my breathing. Waiting for that gong to ring, I spent a lot of time listening to chirping birds, barking sea lions and ocean waves. I wasn’t always able to clear my mind (or stay awake), but I thought a lot about the essential message.

“Slow down and be present for your life,” Baraz told us. “It’s so easy to miss these moments.”

Though it’s labelled as ‘clothing optional,’ wearing a bathing suit in Esalen’s hot springs can be dreadfully conspicuous.

The big reveal

Ironically, the only stress I felt had to do with the hot springs, where “clothing optional” in fact means wearing a bathing suit is dreadfully conspicuous. And yet, who wants to miss out on this experience: tubs that look out over the cliffs, even a shower room with a giant windowed wall opening out onto the Pacific? But both were communal and co-ed, and thus way out of my comfort zone.

“We did this purposefully, as a way to honour the body,” said Jeffries, his long grey hair tied back in a ponytail.

What would Don Draper do? (Okay, no need to answer that. Although it’s even more fun to imagine Roger in such a scenario.)

I wasn’t the only Esalen newbie dealing with angst over the baths. Jonathan Sommer, a burned-out Bostonian who came to Esalen for a week and stayed for two, had been psyching himself up for the experience by telling himself “it’s just going to be a bunch of old hippies.” But on the Friday he arrived, “for whatever reasons, it was filled with beautiful people,” says Sommer, 33.

“But I figured, I’m here to grow, so I can either kick myself every minute of every day for not going down to the tubs or I could just do it. So I did it, and within 10 minutes I was fine. You get to talk to people with no defenses, no judgment, because they’re literally stripped bare of all of it.”

Sommer came to Esalen to deal with the stress in his life. He took four courses, including one on finding an authentic path in one’s 30s, and a channeling workshop.

“I opened up a lot of barriers, I got over a lot of fears, I discovered a lot of things about myself while I was here.”

Esalen is a beacon for stressed-out professionals facing life crises or searching for a fresh perspective. I met doctors, lawyers, people in the TV business, men in between jobs and women who have had cancer. As one woman put it to me as we strolled to yoga: At Esalen, you find spiritual people who are questioning – without being weirdos.

Michele Hardman, a former lawyer and self-described health-care policy wonk from Ohio who now lives in Britain, first came to Esalen in 1978. She’s been back twice. This year, her visit followed a car accident that damaged her eyesight, as well as a divorce.

“Esalen was created, I believe, to teach us a better way to live. A healthier and more integrated way to live, more in tune with nature and our physical bodies,” Hardman, 57, explained after our meditation workshop ended.

“But,” she continued, “I felt like too many Type As had descended on Esalen … high achiever types [who] seemed to constantly be seeking the absolute ‘correct way’ to meditate, the ‘right way’ to do their yoga poses, or the ‘minimum amount of minutes needed’ to sustain what they were experiencing at Esalen. It was as though they wanted to distill it to an essence or a pill to pop once a day and gain their inner bliss, joy, enlightenment.”

By the way, any of those high achievers expecting five-star accommodations may be in for a bit of a surprise (unless you’ve booked one of the oceanfront Point Houses – which are beautiful, if pricey). I made my own bed (even putting the sheets on it when I arrived). And like most attendees, I shared a room with strangers – two women, one of whom I never, in three days, actually met. I wasn’t around much, thanks to my hot springs coping strategy: visiting the baths before 6 a.m.

Marsha Lederman tries her hand at meditation. She wasn't always able to clear her mind, but came to appreciate the 'slow down and be present' ethos of the exercise. (Tami Greenshields)

Brave new world

Before my weekend among the blue jays and the Buddhists, I ask Wheeler if he really thinks it’s possible to experience any kind of transformation after a couple of days. He laughs.

“We can’t make any promises, but people tell me all the time: ‘I found my life’s work at Esalen,’” he says. “So it can happen.”

He even offers his opinion about Mad Men’s finale. Wheeler believes Don, touched by the deep human emotion he witnesses and then personally experiences, regroups – but without being transformed.

And that by (fictitiously) creating that beautiful ad for a sugary soft drink, Don does not necessarily sell out – but creates something that reflects a dawning of a new consciousness that’s personified in Esalen. Although the age of the hippie is long gone, Wheeler says Esalen, which is currently undergoing a campus renewal, is as relevant as ever – as the world deals with issues such as income inequality and the environmental crisis. “We still believe that human creativity can solve these problems. … That’s our belief and that’s our program and that’s why we’re still important.”

Forty-five years after Don Draper found perfect harmony at Big Sur, I can see how one might channel this place to create something important. And I also understand why Wheeler laughed at my transformation-in-two-days question.

By Saturday morning – I had arrived Friday afternoon – I was walking more slowly. I was really listening. I was not obsessing about my inbox. When I checked out on Sunday, I made a hugely uncharacteristic gift shop purchase: a necklace that reads, “choose joy.” I’m still wearing it.

I know what you’re thinking: I may never write a Coke commercial, but it sounds like I drank the Kool-Aid. I will say this. If you’re open to this kind of experience – as Stephanie tells Don he should be – I believe after, yes, just one weekend at Esalen: It’s the real thing.

If you go

Esalen Institute is located on Highway 1 in Big Sur, Calif., just south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Fly to San Francisco, San Jose or Monterey and rent a car or take an Esalen shuttle ($120 from SFO, return – all prices in U.S. dollars). You can also drive north from Los Angeles. Note: south of Carmel, it is a winding drive (I required Dramamine on the shuttle). Accommodations range from bring-your-own-sleeping bag ($405 for a weekend) to a shared bunk bed room ($555) to a premium room ($1300) to a Point House ($1750 for a weekend; $4975 for a seven-day workshop). Prices include workshops and all meals (the food is fantastic – much of it sourced from Esalen’s gardens), use of facilities, yoga and movement classes.

The writer paid a reduced rate at Esalen. It did not review or approve this article.

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