This summer I drank the Kool-Aid

by Shannon Houde

I arrive four hours south of San Francisco, California on the shuttle bus full of all shapes, ages, nationalities, colors and spirits of people. It pulls into the steep dirt driveway with the wooden rustic sign announcing the not that rustic retreat center. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the large well mowed grassy field, dance floor bordering the ocean heaving with staff expressing themselves and welcoming us with a groove beat, an extensive organic garden stroking the hillside, a cutting edge water treatment system and a bright blue salt water pool…all inviting us into a week of transformation of our human potential.

I know I know it does sound that I have ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’. But not to worry it’s not a cult and all I drank all week was iced fennel apricot tea. However, there are some retreaters that do come for a week and don’t leave for months. They make this their new home of education and discovery, their new bubble away from the rat race. But I am by no means suggesting this for myself or for my clients.

Have I landed in heaven or is this really an education center? It blows away the concept of self expression as sunbathers smile in their nakedness, a girl wiggles her hips with a hula hoop on a tree trunk as she gazes to the horizon, a dreadlocked mom leads her three dreadlocked kids through the ‘Buddha garden’. Are these people finding themselves or already comfortable in their own skin that there are no inhibitions we commonly find in the “real world”?


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Ok so you may be thinking what kind of California hippie dippie baloney place is this? My new friend from India termed this place as “woo woo land”. But once you see this sustainability focused, Native American land situated right on the Pacific Ocean coastline with the Santa Lucia Mountains cradling you in to privacy from behind, you can’t resist it as an ideal place to invest in professional and personal development courses from some of the world’s most renowned teachers in social change, creativity and leadership.


It’s been three years that I have been committed to a daily meditation practice that has, quite frankly, changed my life. I have always been a striving, driven, “type A”, corporate focused, entrepreneur ready for the next life challenge. But with that came anxiety, stress, depression and overwhelm. Meditation has taken me from a place of reactive rumination to a quiet and calm relationship with my day-to-day triggers.

So after eight weekend meditation retreats in England over the past few years I couldn’t help but jump on the opportunity to spend a full week at the Esalen Institute in my home state of California this summer. Founded in the early 60s by two Stanford University graduates, this education center enables and empowers others to be better citizens, more compassionate leaders and healthier souls. Their mission is to unleash what Aldous Huxley called the “human potential”, the world of unrealized human capacities that lies at the growing edge of consciousness.

So I came here to Esalen to “go inward”, to escape the Internet and the phone for five nights (no phone service here and intermittent Wi-Fi), and I didn’t even miss my addiction for one minute, although I did miss my boys. I feel blessed to have yet another life adventure near mountains and sea that added to my spiritual, social and professional journey.


The foggy crisp coastal morning air welcomed me out of my bunk room at 6am for my climb up to the ocean view yurt for self guided meditation, daily yin yoga and 2.5 hours of my workshop of Qigong (a form similar to Thai Chi), called Stillness in Motion.

The sea air breezes me into a midday slumber on the pod-like cushioned hammock. I awaken as I hear the lively wooden lodge come to life for the full spread of sustainably grown yumminess for lunch. Each meal with a vegan or gluten free option as well. The farmers and gardeners at Esalen cultivate four acres of marine terrace, on temperate land that is rough, dramatic, and majestic, producing a large portion of what the Kitchen uses to feed its 250-350 guests each day. They treat the wastewater from the hot springs baths to water the farm and grounds using a Tidal Wetland Living Machine. They walk the talk. If you are interested in sustainable food, agriculture or cooking, the Esalen Farm and Garden continues to recruit dynamic people for their sustainable, holistic Farm and Garden Apprenticeship program.

Late on my first night I was convinced (not hard) to change back out of my pjs (I had intended to go to bed early ha!) and join my spirited roommates from Chicago and Atlanta on the first expedition down the hilly coastline to the modern natural sulfur bath hot springs. With surf crashing against the darkness we giggled as we found our way slowly into the rock-lined tubs of naked strangers without being able to see a thing. Probably a good thing no one could see. The next day from this same hot tub I spotted three whales playing in the ocean’s reflecting sun. They teased us as they repeatedly flipped their tails making big slapping booming noises that resonated off the mountainside. Magical.

The other retreaters and staffers here are open, friendly, chatty and curious. Each meal you can choose to sit and chat with someone new or to find a solo edge of the cliff to set your plate (on a table of course). It is safe here – to be yourself. No one cares if you take that time on your own or want to stay up after dinner for the community 5 Rhythms dance event on the last night.

When you aren’t studying hard in your workshop you can balance mind with treading body and soul with a trademarked Esalen ® Massage! And this is only one of more than 10 bodywork options you can opt into.


My calling as a sustainability and social change career coach has exposed me to more than 500 impact practitioners, change makers and leaders who are striving for more purpose, more passion and more wellbeing in their work life. I help them to map their passion to purpose and pay. But often they are seeking also more formal inspiration, some impetus, and some momentum. A professional development course to open your heart, mind and body is my secret sauce for finding yourself, clarifying your goals and making a practical path towards realizing your career dreams.

As I opened the catalog of more than 600 courses they offer a year, I was thrilled to learn of their formal partnerships for social change. Esalen thrives as a catalyst for individuals and organizations seeking to create a dynamic new paradigm of leadership. In November they are hosting the first cohort of WellbeingProject participants, a 15-month program for change makers that was co-created with Fetzer Institute, with the support of Rockefeller Foundation and the global Impact Hub (my office in London!).

I encourage anyone wanting to explore developing themselves to advance their careers as social and environmental change agents to check out the areas of Esalen’s workshop categories:

  • Leadership and Society
  • Nature and Sustainability
  • Art and Creativity
  • Body and Movement
  • Meditation and Spirituality
  • Mind and Psychology
  • Relationship and Self

If you end up finding your way to Esalen let me know how it went. And if you want to explore your own potential one2one, contact us for a coaching session.


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