I recently had the opportunity to spend several months living and working at Esalen Institute, a retreat and workshop center on the cliffs in Big Sur, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Esalen specializes in bringing cutting-edge workshop leaders in fields ranging from psychology and spirituality to global peacemaking. In between there are workshops upon workshops on yoga, communications, body psychotherapy, massage, dance, art, conscious relationships, holistic medicine and nearly any other topic one could imagine. These workshops are designed with the same goal in mind: the betterment of each individual as a means of bettering our world.
Perched on the western edge of our continent, as far away from my east coast home as I could possibly get in this country without a long boat ride, or a dogsled, I learned about a wide range of subjects, from Gestalt therapy to yoga to Ecstatic Dance (a variation of Gabrielle Roth's Five Rhythms of dance, allowing an individual to access their own body's process through movement). Esalen is situated on land which was originally native territory to the Esselen Indians, and was considered a healing place and a place of powerful medicine and spirituality for their people. Indeed, that is a truth which is still readily apparent in the twenty-first century. Working in the office, greeting workshop participants, I watched people who had arrived with cell phones and laptops in hand while moving at breakneck speeds slow down and breathe the fresh ocean air, sit in the natural mineral springs to watch a sunset, listen to a flower, drum at a fire circle and let go the chaos of the city. Not only are the people and the programs quite amazing at Esalen, but the energy of the area pulses with the sacred.
As a woman not versed in energy work and not a believer in the New Age fields which discuss auras and energy vibrations, for me the concept of feeling the energy of a place is a bit foreign; but, even for a skeptic like me, it is undeniable at Esalen. The earth nearly pulsates with the vibrations of a creative power greater than ourselves. Perhaps it is the Creator, perhaps it is the ancestors of this place; whatever it is, Esalen magnifies that which one has come to experience as if seen through a microscope. You will find your joy, as well as your pain, your lightest parts of yourself, your shining moments. You will find your darkest shadows—behaviors you are not proud of, thoughts you wish you did not have... all in an environment of acceptance and love. Both are revealed by the people, the animals, the garden bursting forth with flowers and the very earth which supports you. At the same time, whatever spirit which joins with the human endeavors at Esalen cradles you, challenges you, calls to you and finds a home in your heart. Or so it has been for me, and I have watched it happen to participant after participant, coming for a weekend and leaving with a broadened life.
For me, it was the hot springs. It was everything, of course, but if I had to isolate one thing, I would say it was the hot springs. Esalen has natural mineral springs which bubble out of the ground at between 111 and 118 degrees, and which are channeled into several stone tubs. New arrivals are advised that Esalen's hot tubs are "clothing optional." In fact, nearly everyone is nude in them. For me, as a woman in this society, insecure about my body, afraid of my increasing age, uncomfortable with my scars, cellulite and imperfections, there was no way I was embarking upon any journey into a hot tub that involved public nudity with strangers. Taking it deeper than that, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and rape as a teenager, there was truly no way I could even imagine being able to choose to be anything but terrified in such a setting, even if I wanted to feel differently. Going to a naked hot tub experience was out of the question.
I discussed this with the couple who I met at dinner the first night that I stayed at Esalen. They pooh pooh'ed my vaguely expressed concerns about feeling uncomfortable with the public nudity at the baths, and blithely passed over my worries. "Oh, you will be fine. You'll like it; you'll see." They offered these words unaware of my experiences, my history and my discomfort with even my own nudity, not to mention that of another person—even a loved one—and certainly a mountain of discomfort with nude strangers. Esalen, however, had other plans. Sometimes it seems as if out there, the very earth decides to heal you. At least that is how it was for me.
I did foray down to the Baths, despite my own fears and anxieties. I looked at them from above, embarrassed to be "spying;" I walked through from the surface, fully clothed, trying not to make eye contact, attempting to negotiate my steps along the way in the semi-darkness, while still not looking at any one or any body at all. I made my way slowly and painstakingly into a dressing room, into a towel and out into an individual claw footed tub. And from there I began to make the discovery of a lifetime. Each body was beautiful. Thin people, heavy people, tall people, short people, black people, white people, old, young, male, female—there was no such thing as ugly. Suddenly, for one moment, I was privileged to see humanity as I believe God sees us: not broken or stained, not plastic surgeried or cosmetically-enhanced, but simply beautiful. Natural. As God created us in the first place.
On top of this, as my eyes and my heart and my fears and my nerves adjusted, I discovered something else. I felt like a child at the tubs. I realized that I was having the natural moments of development that any young child has who has not been shamed and traumatized about her body. I felt safe to look. Not to stare, not to exploit, but simply to learn. I realized that I had never before seen so many naked bodies in one place, nor would I be likely to ever again. As odd as that may sound, and as awkward as it felt to even admit to myself, this was a way of learning by observation. This was a tremendous moment of healing: I was able to look at people and naturally observe differences. I was at once both an adult woman, with curiosity and a natural desire to observe different men and compare myself to different women, and a small child, curious to know what others' experiences were in their bodies. What did it feel like to have a penis? What did it feel like to have a vagina? What does it mean to be male? Female? What defines us? What does the roadmap of scars on our bodies say about our lives—stories that might otherwise be missed, and surely would not be shared in the space of a weekend workshop. I saw a beautiful woman who was the survivor of a double mastectomy. Did she feel less female? Was she as terrified as I to be showing herself and her tremendous vulnerability at the baths? Did she know my heart went out to her, and that I, through her, discovered my own connection to my breasts, my horror at what it would be like to live through what she had survived, the compassion and honor I felt for her bravery at being there?
I also learned the sacredness of my own body: to trust when I felt constricted in a group of people at the baths, to notice when I could stretch out and feel comfortable. I learned that my body knew volumes more than my head about my experiences with others, and long before my head knew it as well. If I found myself holding my arms close to my chest, drawing my knees up to my chin, turning away to face the wall of the tub, it was a sure bet that, if I listened to my body and paid attention, sooner rather than later my head would confirm what my body had already noticed: that there was aggression present in that group of people, or unspoken anger; that there was sexual tension or an attitude of exploitiveness and voyeurism rather than the nearly constant attitude of honor and respect and privacy and care which was the rule at the baths. When I learned to listen to my body, I realized that I had fear within my cells at a level deeper than I ever had imagined, despite the years of psychotherapy I had gone through to deal with my own abuse history. Despite all of the words, the scars borne in my body were so real, and so present, they felt as if I wore them on my skin. Which, of course, I did. As I found those wounds, I also found the compassionate space to explore them, to heal them. No one was watching me; no one particularly minded if I curled up in a ball, or stretched out to take up an entire tub to myself. No one stared at my body, and I was afforded just the same respect for my privacy as I afforded to others. We were not an orgy of nude people in a throng of sexual energy; we were fellow travelers, all with our own history, our own stories, our own vulnerability and feelings about exposing ourselves, body (and a little bit of soul) to others in a very unusual way.
I had room for tears in the tubs. Room for silence. Room for compassion, room to look at myself and others. Room to remember, re-experience and release, and room for conversations, laughter, sharing, jokes, serious conversations and honesty about the awkwardness of experiencing friends and coworkers on such an intimate level. There were fewer secrets at Esalen. Somehow once you have shared someone's nudity, their vulnerability, there is less call to hide yourself or your truth. I found myself more respectful of those around me, less judgmental, more aware of their stories, their histories, their scars. And I found for myself a measure of compassion which I had never dreamed possible. My resilient, incredible body, this body which I had demeaned and demanded from, unappreciated and ignored, was still here, still whole, still beautiful. It was the same as everyone else around me, yet uniquely different. My own. No matter what feelings of betrayal or separateness I had from my body as a result of my traumatic experiences, I discovered, probably for the first time, that we were one. And what happened to me was intricately connected to what happened to my body.
This may sound like an obvious revelation for those of you reading who have never experienced the violation of your body, but as a sexual abuse survivor, I learned early and thoroughly to not live in my body, but to think of it as a separate vehicle—something which carried the true me around, and which I really didn't like very much, but couldn't do without. This body was simply an uncomfortable necessity—as were all of the functions attached to it. When I would bump my head against a ceiling, or slam my hand in a door, I would think to myself, "Oh, it's okay." And the unspoken, unconscious end to that sentence, I realized was, "I am not in there anyway... that body is not mine, it is not a part of me. It is just a shell, something I carry around with me. It doesn't hurt me any more for you to knock it, bump it, cut it or slap it than it hurts me if you do the same to a book I am carrying in my hands. It is not a part of me; it is an object, completely separate from me."
I realize living this way as a child, and as a trauma survivor, had the life-saving benefit of keeping me from experiencing the excruciating pain of abandonment and hurt, anger and panic which must surely have flooded me as a child who was being sexually exploited by family members. As an adult, however, this approach translated into self-neglect in the form of ignoring my body's sensations, going without food when hungry, without rest when tired, without stopping when in pain. For me, it translated into actually losing a kidney due to my inability to feel the level of physical pain which was being created by an acute kidney infection. My ability to dissociate from the pain of my body was so complete that I kept denying the symptoms of my illness until the infection was too advanced to treat without surgery. This experience, and at the same time having been diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease, caused me to become acutely aware of my kidneys, but not necessarily aware of the rest of my body: of how vital the role of relaxation, massage, healthy eating, exercise, stretching, movement, and stillness were on my own mental and physical health. It is a tall order to say that a few months in the baths did this for me, but it is the truth. Several months of consistently going to the baths, consistently accepting and loving, and even nurturing my naked body, of rocking myself, and allowing myself to be rocked in the gentle warm waters from the womb of Mother Earth, allowed me to realize just how loved I was by God. I realized how much the same, and at the same time how very different, I was from every other creature that people this planet with me. I was no less beautiful than the sea otters in the waters near my tub; I was no more naked than the whales migrating down the coast to calve in the warm waters in Mexico. And I needed no more fixing or beautifying than the next person, the next body, the next bird, mammal, or fish which came my way as I soaked the toxins of self-hatred out of my body—the result of a lifetime of feeling inferior, unloved, hurt, wounded, and ugly. I discovered myself as God discovered me, while naked in the eyes of God. Beautiful. Imperfectly, woundedly, wholly, and spectacularly sacred. And whole.
Carey Gauzens, LCSW, is a therapist in Rockville, Maryland.