How Esalen's Explorers Can Bring Peace to the Middle East

Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
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Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

It’s the most gorgeous spot along the most gorgeous road. The town of Big Sur, off Route 1 on the California coast, a preferred wedding location for high-tech high rollers and Hollywood stars, is also a tourist’s must-see. But the most stunning piece of real estate here is inaccessible to tourists and not available for weddings.

It consists of 30 acres of land carved out between the mountain cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. It’s ancient land, the home of the Esselen, a Native American people whose descendants still live in the area. The name alone – the Esalen Institute, or just Esalen, derived from these forebears – seems to generate a certain effect on the listener, like a secretive whisper that piques the imagination and evokes memories. Esalen. And then a broad smile and glittering eyes.

Seekers of the spirit and tycoons, politicians and intellectuals – people who enter the gates of Esalen, one of the most famous spiritual centers in the world, come out slightly different.

Past visitors have included Timothy Leary and Bob Dylan. Allen Ginsberg read poetry here, and Joan Baez brought her pals from Woodstock to create another version of the festival on the lawn. This is where Gestalt Practice was invented, Israeli-born Moshe Feldenkrais worked here, and the hippie movement had its genesis here.

Esalen defines itself as a center for personal and social change. The personal part is hard to miss: The hundreds of workshops offered on the site touch on every aspect of body and mind. The social dimension is trickier to discern. In 1980, during a late but volatile phase of the Cold War, Esalen succeeded in bringing prominent Russian and American citizens to the premises. The idea was that, while immersing together in the hot springs, influential individuals from the two sides could be induced to talk, long before the politicians would manage that feat.

The result was an exchange program of citizens from the two countries. Moreover, in 1989 it was Esalen that brought Boris Yeltsin to the United States for the first time, and set up the meeting with President George H. W. Bush that led to the thaw in relations. The Esalen people then moved to dealing with relations with China and also tried to bring about rapprochements between members of different religions.

Now the staff is reaching out to the Middle East. The latest edition of Esalen eZine, the institute’s electronic magazine, is devoted to Jerusalem. It reports on local encounters that took place between Palestinians and Jewish Holocaust survivors, and between Orthodox rabbis and Muslim clerics, as well as on a few programs and workshops aimed at bring people closer. But in a well-designed electronic newsletter, this sounds like another collection of human-interest stories that are better at piquing the emotions than at changing reality. The Middle East is not a cold war, and “real” Muslims don’t disrobe in hot springs.

The first step inside the gates of Esalen is a moment to dwell on. The modern human instinct is to switch the cell phone to camera mode. But then you realize that no picture will catch what is being revealed to you. Nor words either, for that matter.

There’s the ocean. So much ocean. Its steady rhythm is disturbed only by the whales that draw close to the cliff to flaunt their fins and spray tremendous jets of water. It’s a painting you can’t take your eyes off. And the hot springs are still out of the frame; the real thing is hiding on the far side of the cliff.

Then, suddenly, shouts. More than shouts – true screaming. Cries of pain. And crying. Profound weeping. And violence. Controlled violence, with no casualties, but violence, nonetheless. We follow the noise inside and find a tennis racquet that is smashed brutally in the center of the room.

It’s not a room, actually, it’s a yurt, a Mongolian tent made of wood, where the workshop takes place. It is also where I’ll be sleeping tonight – along with a Jewish guide who arrived from Israel and two Mexican women who took the trouble to make sure in advance that I don’t snore.

With tears, the guide recalls the missile attacks on his home in northern Israel. The Bedouin woman from Rahat, in the Negev, shouts that in her town they don’t even have an air-raid warning system, and that no one bothers to inform them when rockets have been launched. The Arab from Be’er Sheva admits that he was sometimes happy when missiles fell, even though his son shook with fear. The Arab woman from Shfaram can’t stop crying: The smashed face that Eden Natan-Zada (an Israeli soldier who opened fire in a bus in her town in 2005) left her friend with continues to haunt her.

An Arab woman from Haifa is fed up with people thinking that Arabs are synonymous with hummus. And the American woman breaks into bitter tears when the Holocaust is mentioned. Yes, in the end it’s always the Holocaust vs. plundered land. But the idea in this workshop is not to reach agreement, rather to allow simple release of these eternal traumas.

The Druze physician now kicks the tennis racquet viciously. “Fuck Judaism,” “Fuck Islam,” “Fuck Christianity,” “Fuck Bush,” he calls out with what’s left of his voice. Now the Mexican woman screams, too, breaking into loud sobs. You can’t figure out where it’s hitting her from, where it’s hitting this whole group. Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, Christians, Americans and two Mexicans. At first it doesn’t seem credible, because there’s no process that’s taken place, no tension that had been built up. These people were asked to pour out things that are related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it’s all released at once.

It goes on like this for more than two hours, at the same level of intensity. With screams, tears, bashing of things and heartrending personal stories. There’s simultaneous translation, but almost everything comes across without words. Then everyone lies down on the floor, holds hands, hugs, listens to a few relaxing sounds, and coalesce anew into a harmonious fellowship who chortle and chuckle around the lunch table.

The leader of this workshop is Nitsan Gordon, originally from Kibbutz Magal. She’s the daughter of Haim Gordon, a well-known professor of education, and the sister of Prof. Neve Gordon, who teaches politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, and hit the headlines after calling for a boycott on Israel in reaction to the occupation. A family of professional left-wingers.

When she was 10, her family spent time in Tennessee, where her father completed his doctoral thesis. “I was the only Jewish girl in the class, kids threw food at me and called me a ‘dirty Jew,’” Gordon recalls. “In one class, the Holocaust came up and the children told me that it was great that the Jews died and too bad I didn’t. Until then, my parents hadn’t known about all the hazing, which had gone on for two years, but on that day I couldn’t take it anymore and I ran out of the classroom.

“The next day my father came to the school and stood in front of the class. He didn’t shout, only told two stories from the Holocaust, said ‘thank you’ – and left. From that moment the hazing stopped and something very deep within me changed and influenced the course of my life.”

Gordon studied philosophy and movement therapy and started to work with Arab school teachers and preschool teachers. In 1996, she launched her first coexistence project: “I went from one preschool to another and collected Jewish and Arab teachers. My thinking was that those teachers worked with young children who didn’t yet harbor prejudices, so maybe this was the way to bring about change,” she relates.

The project ran for eight years. At the same time, Gordon developed a program called “Together Beyond Words,” a therapeutic method based on movement, attentiveness and touch. Together with a group of Jewish and Arab women, she founded the TBW nonprofit organization, which spearheads the project. “Working with the body is more direct,” Gordon explains. “You touch one another, release tension, release pain.”

She married an American man, forcing her to spend too much time flying back and forth between Israel and the United States. “In 2006 I knew I was coming to America for two weeks,” she says, “and at the time I was worn out from work, from raising the children and from all the traveling. I’d heard stories about Esalen for many years, and I decided to write them. I asked if I could stay a few nights, maybe in return for giving a workshop, and they invited me.”

On her first evening there, a meeting was held of all the workshop leaders. Gordon told her story, not omitting her sad childhood experiences. Her account triggered a large number of responses. Anne Bradney, a veteran workshop leader at the institute, suggested that the two devise a joint program for Jews and Arabs. The Esalen management said it would help with the funding.

“Many of the people cried when I spoke,” Gordon recalls. “The Esalen people told me that for a long time they’d had a dream of bringing Jews and Arabs here, and maybe being able to contribute something.”

Since then, Gordon has come once a year to Esalen for nine intensive days, which constitute the highlight of a process undergone by different groups in Israel, where they meet at least once a month over varying periods of time. During the first six years of these workshops, all the participants were women. This was the first year in which a group of women and men took part: 14 from Israel, 13 from the rest of the world. The Americans, who join only this part of the program, pay full tuition and subsidize the cost of the Israelis’ flights.

This latest group came together almost spontaneously, without advertising or PR. One person brought another. Word spread, mainly through the women who have been participating in the groups Gordon has led in recent years. One woman sent her brother, another her husband, others told their friends, and in the end this heterogeneous group coalesced.

There’s a Bedouin woman from a Negev village who’s not happy with the excessively healthy food served at Esalen, namely “all these grasses.” They eat a lot better at home, she says. Photos that are sent to her of the food her family consumes make her lose her cool, as does the fact that her son is planning to do army service. “I told him it won’t help, that even afterward he won’t be accepted and won’t be an equal citizen,” she says.

Tomer, 43, is a high-tech man who grew up in Kiryat Arba, the West Bank settlement adjacent to Hebron. These days he lives in the north of Israel, and that’s been much more than a geographic change for him. He’s not eager to be interviewed – the exposure is not convenient for him – but when he speaks, distilled truths emerge.

“I can say that I am a racist,” Tomer says. “If you think about it deeply, we are all racists, and even more than a little. And it’s not just us. Yesterday I had a conversation with the Arab guys here, and they too have people with darker skins in their communities whom they wouldn’t want to see living next door. We are all conditioned by the idea that there is someone above us and someone below us, and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

What made you join this group in the middle of your life?

“It’s something that touches me very deeply. There’s an Arab village next to my house. I pass by it every day, and I don’t know anyone there. Why should it be like that? This is something I’ve been thinking about for many years.”

Did you have to come all the way to California to change that?

“It’s more important for the Arabs, to be in a neutral place where there is no occupation or all the pressures they have to cope with.”

Politics is present here, but mainly in the workshops. The different narratives will probably never converge and cohere into something around which agreement can be worked out. But between the sessions discussion of politics is a lot less prevalent. Maybe because this place doesn’t exactly spawn thoughts about final-status borders and the right of return.

In this liberated and open atmosphere, other conflicts arise. During the first meal here, the Arab men expected the women to clear the trays from the table. That, of course, triggered sharp responses from the Jews in the group, and made the Arabs think that they and their culture were being looked down upon.

“At first I felt some arrogance on the part of Zionists,” says Ahmed, a Muslim physician from Be’er Sheva. “I have no problem with Israelis, but what are Zionists? What are ‘people of Zion’? I had conflicts with people here. I was not ashamed to say that when I was a little boy, I sang about this being our land and the Jews being dogs. But you won’t hear me saying that anymore. I am living here with people, sleeping together with them, sharing their pain. It doesn’t bother them that I do my religious rituals every morning, and I don’t feel racism. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you at all, I was in a dark place.”

Not everyone is comfortable with a journalist in their presence. “People at home don’t know exact where I am and what I am doing here,” says M., an Arab woman from Shfaram. “There are people who could take what goes on here the wrong way. I understand that it’s important for more people to hear about this, but I can’t cooperate. I won’t have my picture taken and I won’t be interviewed.”

Five years ago, everything looked a lot less optimistic. The Esalen workshop took place at the height of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Just before her flight back to Israel, Gordon heard that the home of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish had been shelled and three of his daughters killed. “Let it not be Bissan. Let it not be Bissan,” she prayed, but to no avail. Four years earlier, Bissan had been with Gordon’s daughter on a peace trip across the United States. They and three other 16-year-old girls from both sides of the conflict tried to meet with President Bush. A documentary movie, “Dear Mr. President,” came out of the project.

Munir, 50, a Druze family doctor who lives on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, now mentions the tragedy of his physician friend. Immediately, Gordon reverts back to that moment. She repeats the story. The tears repeat themselves, too. Suddenly there is quiet. The shouts fade away. The crying becomes softer, maybe deeper. There’s no point in continuing to argue over who is suffering more, who is more in the right. Time to turn on the music, lie on the floor and hold hands.

Promoting the ‘me’ culture

Over the years, Esalen has been accused of encouraging narcissism, serving as a venue for fantastical spiritual methods and promoting the “me” culture under the guise of liberalism. The high prices of the workshops and lodgings have also come under criticism. Spending a weekend here in a sleeping bag and attending a basic workshop will set you back $400; a private room costs $2,000.

In 1990, someone spray-painted a message on Esalen’s entrance sign: “Jive shit for rich white folk.” But Esalen was never intended to be part of any consensus.

Danny Bi has been here for 40 years. He’s now something of a house historian, documenting the institute’s history.

“Esalen isn’t what it used to be,” he explains. “It’s changed over the years. We can’t stay the same, we have to keep changing and renewing, otherwise we won’t be relevant. But the basis is the same: We don’t fly any one flag and we are open to everyone. There will always be expensive premium rooms, but also the possibility of coming with a sleeping bag, and we have scholarships. We get between 15,000 and 18,000 people a year.”

It emerges that in 1869, an American named Thomas Slate who suffered from arthritis, came to the hot springs here, having heard about their medical properties. He basically stayed immersed until he got better, and in 1880 became the owner of the site. Slates Hot Springs was the first tourist attraction in Big Sur, long before Route 1 was built. A lot of water has flowed since then, but it’s remained the same flow: 300 liters a minute, at 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). Hot water, chock-full of minerals bubbling up from the core of the planet.

They aren’t just used for a pleasant dip, but have a far more central role. They are categorized as “optional dress” springs, which means that everyone here is completely naked. Except, that is, the members of our group. In order not to offend Muslim sensibilities, a decision was made everyone would wear bathing suits.

The springs are in use around the clock. You start the day with them, jump in to get refreshed in the middle of the day and finish the night with them. This is where the deepest and most intimate conversations take place – what’s known among all Esalen groups as “sharing.” Between 1 P.M. and 3 A.M., the springs are also open to the general public. Reserve a place four to six weeks ahead, pay $25 and you’re welcome to immerse yourself.

There is no cell-phone reception at Esalen, nor will there be. There are coin-operated phones, and Wi-Fi with a weak signal in the dining room, but given all the activities, most people seem to feel it’s a waste of time to use it. There are 70 live-in staff members and even a small school for their children. There is an on-site vegetable garden, which is one of the projects Esalen is most proud of and has become a pilgrimage site. Other than the Bedouin women, almost everyone here is wild about both the salads and the cooked food. People eat well here, and eat a lot. Most of the dishes are vegan or vegetarian, though there is also some meat; it comes from a nearby ranch.

The institute is in touch with descendents of the Esselen people who live in the area, and invite them to events and ceremonies.

There are some in the Arab-Israeli group who, after the Esalen experience, see things differently, or at least understand that things can be seen differently.

“I am skeptical, because until now we have been disappointed, and I have been in many groups like this,” says Munir, the Druze physician. “But it was never done through personal issues and I was never in a place like this. I will try to continue the activity in Israel, to get more people to join these groups and do what I can – I don’t want to despair.”

What makes you feel most despairing?

“I feel that I have no place to set down roots. The Muslims judge me, the Jews judge me and even the Druze judge me, because I am married to a Christian woman. I am a foreign body. Sometimes I think about emigrating, because even if I know how to swallow this state of affairs, I’m not sure that my children do.”

Ahmed, too, promises to keep trying, but for him Esalen has also given rise to thoughts about other possibilities. “I’ve thought of emigrating – to Canada, even the United States. Life here is simpler. What I am experiencing here is making those thoughts become more intense. I didn’t think I would ever see things like this, people don’t look at you like an oddball here. When there is noise, it’s only because we are making it. I don’t want my son to grow up in an environment of hatred. When I talk about this with my parents, they always tell me to think about the land, about God, about Palestine.

“But, if I die in the United States, won’t I go up to heaven? Will I stay stuck in the ground? Israel is only land in which you will ultimately be buried. You are wasting your life there on negative energy. According to my religion, in the end you rise up to heaven, no matter where you are. There’s only one thing I don’t understand: If this place looks the way it does, what does paradise look like?”

Esalen.Credit: Omer Shubert
Esalen.Credit: Omer Shubert
Esalen.Credit: Omer Shubert
Esalen.Credit: Omer Shubert