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44 Lessons Learned from Nearly Four Years Lived at Esalen, and Four Years Away…

The major lessons I learned from living at Esalen in my twenties. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving however and with whomever you chose to celebrate it. I’m still smiling from a wonderful celebration spent with loved ones and smiling further still because this morning’s blog post finds me writing from Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

As you may know, I spent my mid- to late-twenties living, working and studying at Esalen after doing a 180 with my path at age 25 and leaving my Washington, DC-based consulting job to head West in search of a life that felt more meaningful, connected, and authentic than the one I was living at the time.

The major lessons I learned from living at Esalen in my twenties. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

44 Lessons Learned from Nearly Four Years Lived at Esalen, and Four Years Away…

I arrived at Esalen Institute a few days before Christmas 2007 and spent nearly four years living on the cliffs of Big Sur learning how to be in better relationship with myself, others, and the world in general.

Those precious years were – hands down – some of the most formative, challenging, and healing times of my life and this weekend while I strolled the grounds and soaked in the environment that had once been my longtime home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many lessons and insights that I had learned and earned during my time here.

It was particularly fitting this visit followed Thanksgiving because, as I reflected on what I’ve learned, it’s thanks to my many teachers at Esalen — my facilitators, my workshop leaders and teachers, my coworkers, my friends, and even the workshop participants themselves — that I learned lessons that helped me then (and now) in my quest to live a more enlivened life. The very thing I set out looking for in my mid-twenties…

So in today’s post, I want to share 44 lessons — filtered through my unique experience and interpretation — learned from my nearly four years of living at Esalen and four years living away, in the hopes that these ideas may feel helpful to you, too, no matter where you are on your journey.

So pour yourself a cup of tea and keep reading…

44 Lessons Learned.

1) Sometimes when we set off on our healing journeys, we’re like a fish who’s being asked, “How’s the water?”

If you ask a fish this question you’ll get a blank stare. Because, to a fish, the water is all he’s ever known. And sometimes when we begin our healing journeys — like recovering from abusive childhoods or other traumas — we simply don’t know what we don’t know so we’re very much like the fish who can’t distinguish water when asked because that’s all he’s ever known…

2)… But then, at a certain point, we may get taken out of the water and we suddenly know what they’re talking about when they say “WATER.” (and sometimes this part is painful!)

At a certain point in our healing journeys we will proverbially “be taken out of the water” — whether that’s through our work with a therapist, a friendship, or even through a book. We begin to recognize that what was normal and natural for us at one point, now doesn’t seem so normal and natural. In other words, we’re becoming aware of the “water,” we’re becoming aware of knowing what we don’t know, and this part of the process can feel painful! But if we keep going at this point, if we’re willing to tolerate the discomfort of knowing what we don’t know and showing up for our process, we’ll likely make progress…

3)…And yet, despite our progress, we will always, in some ways, be fishes trying to grasp the reality of “water” as life unfolds.

As we move forward on our lifelong healing journeys, our experience being the fish in and out of the water will likely happen again and again and again as our lives unfold and as new challenges and growth opportunities present themselves to us in life. And that’s okay — that means we’re still growing.

4) Relationship wounds, and it can also heal.

Most of our wounds, patterns, and behaviors are usually put down early in relationship and it’s through relationship that these wounds get mirrored back to us and, moreover, it’s also through a certain kind of caring, attuned, and responsible relationship that the wounds may finally have a chance to heal.

5) Rupture in relationship is inevitable – it’s the repair that counts.

Explore this blog post for much more on this subject.

6) There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion.

My mentors and teachers taught me so much and, in particular, they helped me learn that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion. Instead, as I came to understand what they taught me, our feelings are just clues, constantly calling for our attention and compassionate attunement and, when we can make space for (and make friends with) all of our emotions, we can help deepen our sense of aliveness and become even more present to our actual experience.  In other words, we can better show up for our life.

7) Speaking in “I-statements” also helps deepen our experience.

Most of us have been conditioned to speak in “you-statements.” For example, when we say to a friend, “You know when you really, really like someone you get all nervous and shy?” Speaking with “you-statements” removes the experience from us in a way, projecting it out there onto a collective. When we begin to use “I-statements” we bring reclaim our experience and possibly get more in touch with what our actual, felt, unique experience is. “When I really, really like someone, I get nervous and shy.” Feel the difference in reading those statements? Experiment with speaking in “I-statements” and see how that feels for you.

8) The land of Big Sur is inherently therapeutic.

Go and experience it if you can or try to spend time in any other kind of nature that fulfills and inspires you, letting the energy of the land restore you, hold you, and energize you.

9) It’s never too late to build a second-chance family.

Sometimes when we set off on our healing journeys it can mean a literal and/or psychic leaving of our family-of-origin. And sometimes that can feel scary and lonely. But along the journey, we may meet fellow travelers who can give us the kind of love and support and familial comfort we always longed for. These people may become members of our second-chance family.

10) Sometimes you just have to stay in that Caterpillar Soup.

Martha Beck, Ph.D. first introduced me to the concept of Caterpillar Soup – the limbic change phase that occurs between leaving behind what we once knew and before the next phase of our lives feels concrete and known. For most, this can be an uncomfortable, challenging time where our identity feels shaky and our desire to hurryupalready and make some plans for the next chapter is urgent. But if we try and launch into something new before we’re ready, if we try and break open the proverbial chrysalis when we’re still a goop of undifferentiated caterpillar cells (Caterpillar Soup), we may rush the process and actually hinder our progress. Sometimes, as uncomfortable as it may be, you just have to stay in that Caterpillar Soup before you’re clear and able and ready to create what comes next.

11) Growth sometimes looks like a bell curve and it’s your responsibility to notice where you are on that bell curve and to act appropriately before growth becomes stagnation.

Whether this is growth at a job, in a relationship, in a community, there may be a point where the growth you seek and need isn’t, for whatever reason, possible — like hitting the apex of a bell curve. I believe it’s our responsibility to assess where we are, what we need, what the likelihood of getting what we need from that person/place/or job is and what our role in that is, and then take appropriate action if that’s in our best interest. Maybe that looks like trying out couples counseling before leaving a relationship, maybe that looks like a tough conversation with your boss, or maybe that looks like leaving a community you’ve built in order to build the next chapter for yourself. Be mindful of where you feel you are on that bell curve of growth, and be curious about what you next might need.

12) It’s okay to take a sabbatical from the world in order to heal sometimes…

13) … But… some places in our lives are like bus stations.

They’re not necessarily designed to be lived in or experienced forever, but they can absolutely be a great place to proverbially pull into, pause, regroup and rejuvenate before deciding how and why and where you’d like to head out to next.

14) There are few things as powerful as sitting in a circle of people who can listen to your story and validate your experience.

15) There are few things as powerful as sitting in a circle of people and listening to someone else tell their story and realizing you’re not alone in your pain, confusion, despair, etc…

16) But expression alone isn’t necessarily connection.

Again, this is something my Gestalt teachers really modeled and taught me: expression alone doesn’t necessarily lead to connection with others. Being willing to be curious and responsible about your impact on others and ideally have them do the same with you is what helps foster connection. 

17) Trauma can arrest development in childhood.

Beginning to work through our pain and process the trauma from the past can often allow us to move forward and pursue goals and developmental tasks that maybe hadn’t been accessible to us up until that point. 

18) “Wherever you go, there you are.”

This quote is from well-known meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD and, as I came to understand and interpret his words, the very problems, patterns, and behaviors that you may experience in life will be carried with you from relationship to relationship, place to place (even to Esalen), calling out for your attention to work on transforming them if that’s what you so choose and need.

19) When in doubt, come back to breath.

Feel the ground under your feet, your butt on the cushion of your chair (or, if at Esalen, your backjack). This will help you get present with your experience and ground.

20) Experimenting can be enlivening.

Exploring and expressing different parts of yourself — perhaps the parts that got tucked away in the shadows in childhood — can be very enlivening. Whether this is wearing costumes to a party, experimenting with how you decorate your home, painting your feelings, cooking new foods, taking a new route to work, cultivating experimentation in our lives in any small or large way can often feel really enlivening.

21) Kale is the best.

And Esalen’s Famous Kale Salad (which I cannot even count how many times I made when I worked in the Esalen kitchens) is perfection.

22) Teachers, mentors, guides, therapists, and facilitators are priceless. And they are also fallible. And that’s okay.

At the end of the day, the teachers along our healing paths are just human like you and me and they have their own stuff (biases, shadows, unconscious behaviors, etc.) that may show up when they work with you. Sometimes they can’t meet us the way we want, or they make mistakes or act in less than fully loving, helpful ways. And that’s actually okay — it gives us an opportunity to look at and heal whatever this brings up for us (especially if they’re willing to be present to hear this from us). It can also, perhaps, give us more permission to make mistakes and be fallible and able to make mistakes, too.

23) Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

Being able to identify and dynamically hold our own and also respect others’ emotional, intellectual, and physical boundaries is, I think, critical for our overall emotional and physical well-being. And good facilitators and therapists can help you learn or relearn how to do this.

24) Not all relationships last forever. Nor should some of them.

25) You can forgive someone and even love them. And you can do this from afar.

26) Forgiving someone before you’re ready to can sometimes feel like a kind of abuse and abandonment to yourself.

Take your time, feel your feelings, process your grief, and move towards forgiveness only when and if you genuinely feel called to.

27) Some of us are archetypal Late Bloomers. And sometimes we have some of the most interesting stories of them all.

So take heart, listen to this audio from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD, and cultivate relationships with fellow late bloomers along your healing journey.

28) There is no one “right” way or method or modality to healing.

All roads lead to Rome as it were. If your entry point is therapyawesome. If it’s yoga, awesome. If it’s baking cookies and chatting with a kind neighbor lady down the street – awesome.


I have to give credit to my friend and mentor Mary Anne Will for this one. While the phrase is said regularly by many teachers at Esalen, I probably heard it from Mary Anne the most. The phrase regularly reminded me that, even in the midst of not-knowing, if I could somehow let go of my urgency to escape the discomfort of what was happening and my release my desire to figure-it-all-out, I could choose to relax into the faith of the larger unfolding of what might be happening for me. And what a relief that often was!

30) Sometimes you have to go away and/or take a break to fully integrate the lessons you learned with a person or a place.

31) Paradise is an illusion. Because, humans.

Whenever you get two or more people together – whether it’s in an office, a home, a government agency, or in any kind of community – there will inevitably be conflict, hurt feelings, passion, challenge, misunderstandings and everything else that comes with being human in relationship with others. So no matter what things may look like from the outside — whether that’s a place like Esalen or a stream of shinyhappycouplesinlove Facebook photos — paradise is an illusion wherever two or more humans exist.

32) You will likely hit the same problems over and over again as you move up the spiral shell of progress.

Meaning that even though we often work through one challenge or issue during some phase of our lives, that same challenge or problem might show up later in our lives, but in a different context or at a different level, calling on us to meet the issue in a deeper, different way. In this way, growth and our healing paths look less like somewhat straight lines, and more like a spiral shell where we move up and up, hitting some of the same problems at higher levels each time.

33) Don’t wish for fewer problems. Wish – and works towards – a greater capacity to tolerate the problems.

This idea is one part old-time motivational speaker Earl Shoaf and one part Gestalt Awareness Practice as I’ve come to interpret it. The reality is that life is actually pretty hard — there’s lots of challenge and pain baked into this human experience. So what if we stopped wishing for an absence of bad things to happen to us and instead work on expanding our emotional containers to tolerate all of it — the challenge and the pain and the joy and the wonder? What if we worked towards a greater capacity to tolerate it all. What might be possible for us in our lives then?

34) Move toward what excites you, what energizes you.

If you’re feeling lost, stuck, and confused at what direction to take or what choice to make, getting quiet and noticing when you last felt energized, excited and inspired can provide valuable clues.

35) You don’t have to take classes or read books about relationships to learn about relationships.

Some of the best lessons I learned about being a human in relationship came from the Permaculture classes I took at Esalen.

36) “The Issues are in the Tissues.”

Said, basically, every bodyworker I ever worked with at Esalen. And they had an amazing point: The physical body and emotional body are deeply interconnected and we can support our overall healing journey by paying loving attention to our body for the messages it may want to share with us.

37) Showing up and sharing more of who you actually are (even when you’re embarrassed to) will likely lead to greater, more authentic connection with others.

It can be so scary to show ourselves – including those parts and bits we think are awful and terrible – to another person, especially if we received the message early on that these parts “should” be tucked away. But often these are the very parts that help others connect to us more when we feel safe and able to show them.

38) Noticing and creatively attending to our needs is an ongoing, ever-unfolding lifelong journey of self-care.

39) The way in through one thing is sometimes the way into many things.

Whether you begin exploring your eating patterns, your relationship with your boss, or the way you manage your money, I find that often, the way we do one thing is the way we do many things. So start exploring and getting curious somewhere and trust that you might be doing valuable work on lots of different life areas.

40) There’s no “getting over” the past, there’s only integrating.

41) Just because you’re on a well-beaten path doesn’t mean it’s the right path…

42) Personal healing work is, I believe, an act of social justice.

When we shift the way we relate to ourselves, we will shift the way we relate to others and to the world in general.

43) All of this is a PRACTICE.

I want to be perfectly frank that even though this blog post is entitled “lesson learned,” each and every idea and insight on this list is something I work with and have to relearn over and over again (see point #32). This is all very much a practice for me. As I imagine it might be for you.

44) It’s NEVER too late to begin your healing journey.

I remember being at Esalen years ago and being upset and frustrated that, at age 26, I was “so far behind” my peers and why couldn’t I have learned all of this so much earlier? Someone, a staff member I think, then said to me, “YOU’RE ONLY 26. Some people don’t get to this work until their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. Some never get to it. It’s great that you’re doing the work now.” And now, years later, I completely agree; I wasn’t so far behind. I was right where I needed to be. As is anyone at any age who begins the work of personal transformation. However old you are, no matter what’s happened to you in life so far, I truly believe it’s never too late to begin your healing journey.

Moving Forward…

As you might guess, this post represents only a fraction of the lessons and insights that I learned and earned over my years at Esalen — and perhaps there will be even more posts about this down the road.

But a very important thing I want to emphasize is that while I truly do feel privileged and grateful for my years spent living, working, and studying at Esalen, I know this isn’t an option available to everybody. So let me be clear: you do not have to visit Esalen or any other place like it in order to begin your healing journey.

As famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. says:

“There is no need to go to India or anywhere else to find peace. You will find that deep place of silence right in your room, your garden or even your bathtub.”

Our healing journeys are like metaphorical quests, walkabouts, treks, adventures… and this can take place psychically, internally without ever changing the landscape of your external life.

So by all means, if you ever get the chance to visit Esalen (or someplace like it), I highly recommend it. But if for whatever reason you can’t, please don’t let this delay any transformational, psychological walkabout you want or need to take.

Seek out a guide, begin therapy, gather your supports and begin turning inwards no matter where in life you find yourself. Your journey can begin anywhere…

Now I’d love to hear from you: What are the top three lessons learned and earned have you encountered on your own healing journey (at a place like Esalen, in therapy, or otherwise)? Leave your comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.

If you would like additional support right now and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Medical Disclaimer

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  1. James says

    Thank you for this. I spent many days at Esslen in my younger life and it triggered major transformations in the core of my being. Reading this is a lovely re-connection to the practices and experiences that moved me forward.

    • Annie says

      Hi James,

      You are so very welcome! I’m glad it resonated and am also happy to know that Esalen was likewise powerfully transformative for you. I love what you articulated: “it triggered major transformations in the core of my being.” That’s absolutely how I feel as well.

      So good to connect with you on here around this.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Tiger Windwalker says

    The fish, the dolphin and the whale…all must get out of the water to know that water exists. We must leave home to find home. In this way we honor our chosen journey thru duality one step and one breath at a time.

    • Annie says

      Hi Tiger,

      What a lovely image you painted. And where my mind goes is loving the idea of the fish, dolphin, and whale learning how to live together despite and because of differences.

      Thank you for stopping by to share!

      Warmly, Annie

  3. Maggie Smith says

    In the beginning of our journey, being grounded and centered makes it easier to deal with our childhood “stuff”

    When dealing with another persons response to my choices, remembering that “it’s not my movie”
    helps keep useless guilt from running my life.

    Being in the present moment is difficult, even at age 75.

    • Annie says

      Hi Maggie,

      What a beautiful and helpful perspective you shared. I particularly loved your phrase “It’s not my movie” – I’m going to use that when faced with another’s responses to my actions.

      And congratulations to you for still being willing to show up for your process and to practice presence at age 75 – I hope to be able to say the same in a few decades.



      • Nick Kirkland says

        I appreciate your 44 Lessons. Knowing yourself should be everyone’s top priority. I too found part of myself at Esalen and continue that learning through return trips there. Thank you for sharing.

        • Annie says

          Hi Nick,

          I’m so glad this post resonated with you and that we share Esalen in common. I truly believe that knowing ourselves is one of the biggest gifts and tasks we have in our lifetimes, too.

          Thank you for stopping by and sharing your feedback.

          Warmly, Annie

  4. Samantha says

    Beautiful article! I’ve visited twice and we may have even crossed paths one day;)

    3 esalen lessons I’m grateful for
    1) surrendering into the flow of the day feels so good, trusting time, feeling present, following my intuition, …. This is as close as I can come to bottling the visceral experience of this into words
    2) the more vulnerable I felt, the more transformed I felt afterward
    3) I really have SO much to be thankful. My problems are very small. My life is so truly deeply blessed.

    • Annie says

      Hi Samantha,

      What a beautiful share. Thank you so much for commenting and perhaps our paths did cross on one of your visits — how cool!

      I loved what you wrote, in particular this: “the more vulnerable I felt, the more transformed I felt afterward.” I couldn’t agree more.

      Thank you for stopping by to share.

      Warmly, Annie

  5. Dasha says

    “Personal healing work is, I believe, an act of social justice.” I love this one!!!

    After starting to work through my trauma, I really really see how that is the case.

    I wonder if you felt there is enough support at Esalen for people who are very deeply wounded. I mean professional mental health support.

    Looking forward to your response.

    • Annie says

      Hi Dasha,

      I’m so glad that line of the blog post resonated with you! I really do believe personal healing work is a powerful act of social justice.

      And I appreciate your curiosity about Esalen having enough support for people who are deeply wounded. recognizing that I’m no longer Esalen staff nor a representative for the organization, I can only speak from my personal experience after living there for many years and my answer has to be: it depends.

      It really depends on the context of the individual, the supports they have in place in their outside life, the extent of their own healing work to tolerate any possible triggering that may occur in the Esalen workshops, etc., as to whether or not there is enough support available for someone at Esalen. While the Esalen community is tremendous at being able to hold and support many people at many stages of their healing journey, I believe workshop leaders, the Esalen programs staff, and the residential program leaders would be the best equipped to answer that question for you or any other person should you be interested in attending a workshop or residential program. Please reach out to them directly with your questions at 1-831-667-3000.

      I hope this feels helpful, and thank you again for sharing your feedback on the blog post.

      Warmly, Annie

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