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Where Silicon Valley Is Going to Get in Touch With Its Soul

Every morning is dance awake, a chakra meditation and guitar class where Esalen guests dance across the large hardwood floor.

Down in the kitchen, Mr. Kallayil’s assistant collected a large bag of raisins for eating during meditation.

“I just sold my start-up and needed a place to reflect,” said Sam McBride, 31, from Chicago. “To give me some perspective.”

Esalen’s hot springs are good all day but are famous for the night scene, when they open to the public between 1 and 3 a.m. A weekend stay for a couple at Esalen can cost $ 2,890, so budget travelers stay nearby and come wandering in with towels a little after midnight.

The dirt path to the baths leads to a concrete corridor and a changing room. Around a corner, it was pitch black with an overpowering smell of sulfur. As the eyes adjusted to starlight, big steaming concrete hot tubs, claw-foot personal tubs and a couple of dozen quiet naked bodies could be seen. The space cannot be photographed.

“I was tired of my life,” said Marina Kurikhina, 32, who lives on a ranch nearby. “I represented Latin American art at a gallery in London. Now I teach creative subconscious painting.”

She said people visited Esalen “for transformation.” Soon, she plans to open a health bar on site serving raw desserts, cold-pressed juices and high-end coffee.


Esalen also holds art classes at the art barn. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times Photo

Cortlan Robertson had intentions of his children attending Esalen’s Gazebo preschool program before it was recently canceled. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

With the focus on the emotional life of executives, Esalen plans to close Gazebo, its preschool of 40 years.

“It was the soul of the institution of Esalen — all those little babies and what they’re going to be,” said Zoe Garcia, a guest and nearby resident, who has been going to Esalen for 30 years.

The closing is partly a sign of the region’s changing demographics. As more of Big Sur’s homes are bought by tech executives as second homes, there are not as many young children, so the class of 30 had dwindled to 15 before the floods shut it down.

“It’s incredibly sad,” said Cortlan Robertson, whose daughter attended Gazebo and who said the Big Sur community had offered to pay for the preschool to continue. “Ben is always saying it’s just child care. But it was so much more.”

Closing Gazebo was also a sign of a shifting culture and new rules.

“Back then, we could go topless in the lodge,” Ms. Garcia said. “More conservative people started to come, so they started to make rules. Now next is mindfulness and technology. Who knows?”

Mr. Tauber was a surprising pick to head a retreat center. He had previously founded a realtime celebrity geo-stalking service called JustSpotted when Google hired him and his team in 2011. Soon after, he vacationed in Big Sur and decided his work was causing harm, he said.

“I realized I was addicting people to their phones,” Mr. Tauber said. “It’s a crisis that everyone’s in the culture of killing it, and inside they’re dying.”

In the hot spring one night, he ran into an Esalen leader who invited him to a conscious business event. Mr. Tauber quit Google to open a business coaching start-up founders and developed Esalen’s technology strategy, joining the board in 2015. During the springtime flooding, as Esalen cut its staff to 50 from 330, Mr. Tauber took over.

His plan is to aim programming at top executives. “How do we scale our impact as an organization?” he asked. “We do it through impacting the influencers.”

His house is a wood-and-stone half circle built into the hillside, looking out through the cypress onto the water. He wanted a better view so had the cypress pruned. He has a ukulele, a prayer bowl and various massage tools by the sofa. By the dying embers of a fire that he makes every morning, he was reading a history of Esalen and a Summer of Love coffee table book.

Upstairs, the Inner-Net class was doing a compassion exercise. Everyone spent 10 minutes looking into a stranger’s eyes and silently repeating phrases like “this person has emotions just like me,” “this person has experienced pain and suffering just like me,” “this person will die just like me.” They were barefoot. Some were wrapped in coarse blankets.

The art teacher downstairs had made a trough of warm, foaming mushroom drink.

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