Everyone I see in front of me is naked. Naked naked. Rumor had it Esalen Institute in Big Sur is “where you come to get naked” — and so far, it’s living up to its reputation.
Big Sur is the magical stretch of earth just north of San Luis Obispo, California where the mountains meet the ocean, and sweeping views of jutting rock and jagged coastline are the norm. Esalen, a retreat and education center, was established here in the 1960s with the goal of providing space for people to come learn about themselves, Gestalt, spirituality, yoga, and more.
Esalen holds retreats bringing in seekers, mystics, and people from all over the world interested in studying from the best in their respective fields. And each month a new crop of volunteer work-scholars arrives and trades their room and board for work in the kitchen or garden — or, as in my case, they clean toilets, fold towels, and change linens.
I’m here in the work scholar program while I’m enrolled in the course “The Art of Skillful Living,” another 28-day adventure in my Year To Live Project. After spending 28 days in complete darkness and 28 days in the wilderness of Utah with Boulder Outdoor Survival School , it’s fitting this course is also 28 days in length.
The Art of Skillful Living
The Art of Skillful Living is the brainchild of leadership expert, yogi, writer and all-around-badass Coby Kozlowski. When not teaching at her home base of Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health in upstate New York, she is leading workshops like ours all over the world.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Coby given her seamless blend of spiritual knowledge, her love of truth, and her DJ skills. Oddly enough, not only had we both lived in the same California town at the same time and seen the same New Year’s Eve show in Madison Square Garden a decade earlier, but Coby and I had also been on opposing sides of the pool deck, swimming against each other as college sophomores in the late 1990s when UMass took on Boston College. Go Eagles.
Per the course description, I had signed up for a month of leadership training, a month of Coby’s unique way of taking classic yogic philosophy and translating it into modern leadership practice. The question we would be asked all month long — after doing such things as giving a voice to our personal fears, screaming for two minutes straight nose to nose with each other, and naming the behavioral “octopus” that everyone can see living on our own faces but we can’t — was, “How does this apply to leadership?”
After our first night of class, I sent my friend Drew the following text:
“first night – our teacher sort of made out with her assistant, then asked us to decide which five of the sixteen of us get to would live through the next 48 hours – this is going to be an interesting month.”
Get on the Boat
Being from the East Coast and having my own blog, I consider myself a hair away from enlightenment at all times, and therefore immune to what triggers and complicates most “civilians,” especially in hypothetical situations. Thus, when Coby laid five cushions on the floor of our yurt/classroom and described the exercise we were about to do as “upsetting to some people,” I naively wasn’t worried.
Our task was simple. My fifteen other classmates and I were supposedly stuck on a desert island. There with us was a boat with only five seats. Five of us would get off the island, the other eleven would die within 48 hours. No tricks, no rescue, no sitting on laps or making it to safety and calling the Coast Guard to come back and rescue the left-behinds. We were told not to overthink it, just know eleven were going to die, five weren’t, and it was time to decide amongst ourselves who did what.
And we had exactly 120 seconds to do so.
My first question to the group was whether anyone had kids, figuring that was worth a seat. No one did so we moved on. Someone else asked if there was anyone who would volunteer to stay behind and die. If so, those people should sit down.
At the time, I told myself and the group I was the most prepared for death of anyone among us. Hell, I was even excited for it on some level given all the work I’d done over the preceding year. Death and I were homies at this point. We’d danced together and gotten to know each other in the dark and I’d glimpsed other worlds while getting pummeled by ayahuasca in Guatemala. Sitting with those fifteen classmates, I told myself I was a fraud if I wasn’t ready to accept death right then and there. I actually argued vehemently for my spot off of the boat, even insinuating that given my professional fight record, no one could physically get me in the boat anyway.
When the exercise was over and we began breaking it down, Coby explained that how we showed up in the exercise was most likely how we were showing up in our own lives. How those of us quick to sit were also most likely not standing up for ourselves elsewhere. She challenged my personal idea that my actions were only about honoring my Year To Live Project.
And like I said, I’m from the East Coast and have my own blog, so I don’t like to be challenged.
By the time I got back to my room that night, I was a bit of a wreck, realizing I had used my project and my physical attributes as a way of hiding from potential conflict with my classmates. Instead of moving into a conflict by arguing on my own behalf, I had avoided conflict by arguing against my best interest. I realized how backward that was — and how that is how I show up for myself.
Sitting out versus fighting for my place.
Being quiet instead of speaking up.
Helping others without the willingness to help myself.
Coby was right. There was a lot more to my decision and I had been swept right into the exercise and its desired outcome just like a “civilian.”
So whereas 2016 was my “Year To Live,” implying I was accepting death and surrender at the end of it, I’m naming 2017, “The Year of Getting on the Damn Boat.”
Freedom Is an Inside Job
“There are people in solitary confinement who are freer than some of you here at Esalen,” Coby told us midway through the month. “Freedom is an inside job, and in every moment, in every second, in every breath, you have a choice about how you’re going to show up. If you mess up, take another breath and begin again.”
Shit. She could have dropped the mic and walked out after that biblical statement.
Fortunately, she stayed and hammered more and more knowledge into our souls night after night. Each class pushed me past my comfort zone. Who knew singing lullabies while staring into someone’s eyes would be scarier than fighting in a cage? Or that dancing in the middle of a circle of my peers would prove more daunting than spending a month in the woods with almost no gear? Yet, my experience was really all about choice.
I could choose freedom at any given moment. Or choose fear. Choose kindness or aggression. Choose to honestly sit in the fire and learn the lessons of pain or sit next to it while pretending to be growing but learning nothing. With real freedom, I could choose to look at life from a completely new angle, any angle that served me and made me more open to people and experiences. I could choose this in any given moment
What if this was fun? What if it were easy? What if this really mattered? What if how you show up right now makes all the difference in the world?
These questions were related to divorce, heartbreak, love, public speaking, and how we get out of bed in the morning. But all were focused on the same concept — choice. And then these thoughts were followed up with the question of the month, “How does this relate to leadership?”
These were hard questions to answer, but only up to the point where I decided to get out of my own way, to drop the story I was carrying around each answer, and un-peal the octopus stuck to my face. The one I swear isn’t there because I can’t see it, the obvious blind spot that I’m refusing to look at. The barrier between me and freedom in any given moment.
The new plan?
Begin again. Go forth. Screw up. Take breath and begin again.
What if the beauty of life is in the pleasure I’m not allowing myself to feel because I have a story around beginning again? What if I changed that story? How would that then change the experience of beginning again?
Fuck, she’s right.
Freedom is an inside job. One I get to choose moment to moment.
One we all do.
Naked Wireless Vegans
You do go to Esalen to get naked. Literally and otherwise. Every day before and after taking our armor off and baring our souls in classes, in sharing circles, and in weekly emotional processing sessions, the lot of us stripped down and soaked in Esalen’s many ocean-front natural spring tubs. The sun and moon created visual magic for us morning and night as we sat at the edge of the world.
With extremely limited connection to the outside world, virtually no internet, and no cell service, Esalen is a place to dive inward. To stare at the ocean instead of your phone, and to bask in the vegan fare grown right there on site. There’s more than magic about standing where mountains meet the sea, and something deeply inspiring about trading in Monday Night Football and the Kardashians for Monday night sunsets and deep silence and tranquility.
Not only were Coby’s teachings a turning point in my own self-development, the perfect cherry on top of an entire year of deep lessons, but the simple act of being around people so fiercely dedicated to their own conscious living was incredible. While it may not be possible to live a life entirely focused on the inner world due the very real concepts of rent, food acquisition, and earning an income, it was more than apparent to me upon reentering society how little attention is paid to behavior patterns and their respective octopi.
Esalen was the last big piece of my Year To Live Project and proved to be equally if not more valuable than all of the others. Coby Kozlowski is a master at her craft and someone I feel privileged to know.
Cheers from the front seat of the boat,