The real Esalen Institute: What “Mad Men”‘s finale didn’t show you

By on May 18, 2015

In last night’s “Mad Men” series finale, the journey of creative ad exec Don Draper, a native New Yorker, was brought to its conclusion by his creators by taking him as far west as possible, to the very edge of the Left Coast, where he’s last seen sitting in the Lotus position atop a cliff at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute — or something meant to represent Esalen — wearing pristine white and looking freshly shaved, centered and calm (he’s even half-smiling) as he begins chanting with a group of fellow guests to the new age-y spiritual retreat. Om….

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We’d thought the end of Don’s journey might lead to something like this, and the show’s executive producer Matthew Weiner had even once hinted to the fact that he could picture Draper at Esalan at some point in his future. We suppose we could have just as easily seen him participating in some kind of 12-step AA program, or maybe even going through the kind of aversion therapy practiced at the Schick Centers for the control of smoking, which was popular in the 70s. Whatever was going to happen, we all knew his character was going to be brought to a kind of cathartic breaking point, and it was either going to be very dramatic, or just the opposite, very peaceful. It seems that Weiner decided to take the one less traveled by Draper during the show (we never, by the way, felt like we’d see him jumping out of an opened skyscraper window, though, that was just too extreme for someone like Don Draper. Roger, maybe.)

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As you can see from this clip we’ve found — excerpted from the documentary The Century of the Self by British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in a segment called “There Is A Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed” — the Esalen Institute, in the early 70s, wasn’t exactly always as it was portrayed on last night’s show: as a navel-gazing hippie hotbed of meditation, yoga, and nerve-soothing serenity and calm, not to mention that it was a perfectly serene place for practitioners to indulge in self-reflective Gestalt therapy , which Wikipedia tells us is “an existential/experiential form of psychotherapy that emphasizes personal responsibility, and that focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, the therapist–client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situation.”

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Instead, as we can see from this archival documentary footage, people sitting in conversation circles and group gatherings were encouraged to use self-expression techniques “to unleash a new powerful self strong enough to overthrow the old order.” And it wasn’t always pretty. The experiment described in this clip, by the way, shows a small group of psychotherapists who tried to enable individuals to free themselves in order to change society for the better, including a group of nuns.

As the narrator tells us, by the early 70s, Esalen had gone from being a “obscure fringe institute” to the very “center of a national movement for personal transformation, the Human Potential Movement.”

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During the time in which “Mad Men“‘s story is coming to a close, a lot of people were burning out on the plastic rapacity of corporate life,  and a kind of urban ugliness and fear was running rampant in America’s big cities, and so people were retreating, they were heading for the hills, so to speak, to the canyons (in L.A., both Topanga and Laurel Canyon became havens for self-introspection and isolation, particularly among artists, musicians and members of the counterculture), but for some, escaping simply meant heading up Highway 1 to Big Sur, if only for a weekend retreat, to do some of that self-exploration and contemplation in a 48-hour period, and if there was ever a TV character who needed something more than just a long 3-day weekend of self-exploration, it’s Don Draper.

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And so, after being invited by the 20-something hippie girl Stephanie Horton (Caity Lotz), whom Draper has been treating during the show as his niece — but who is actually the niece of Anna Draper (and that’s complicated enough to describe how he knows her — he soon finds himself on the rugged coastline of California, 300 miles north of L.A., and 150 south of San Francisco, escaping to a place that in his past life, as one of advertising’s top ad men, might have been the perfect setting for his agency to shoot an ad campaign, if they were looking for the ultimate destination to show where to go to escape from life’s madness.

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Gestalt therapy, by the way, was introduced at Esalen in 1964 by noted German-born psychiatrist and psychotherapist Fritz Perls, during the same year that the institute was founded, by Mike Murphy and Dick Price, out of Murphy’s family resort, which is perched on 27 acres of beautiful Big Sur coastline, where the Santa Lucia Mountains border the Pacific Ocean.

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Murphy and Price had been running seminars at the beautiful seaside resort beginning back in 1962, and they soon were hosting luminaries like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass, Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell, to name just a few, all of them treating Esalen as a kind of spiritual New Age-y playground, where Eastern religion’s ideas were being co-mingled with Western intellectualism and psychology. In fact, Murphy and Price were inspired early on by Abraham Maslow’s psychology of higher health and peak experiences. With the help of hundreds of workshop leaders drawn from many disciplines and with many practices, Esalen allowed its visitors not just sanctuary from the urban hubbub, but an opportunity to push the envelopes of their own and society’s existing limits.

Here’s an excellent written bio about Esalen.

In the end, a trip to Esalen — named after the Esselen Indians who inhabited the area for centuries before Spanish missions made their way North — seemed to be that what Draper had really needed all along, a place where his journey would come to a point where he realized that to find happiness his life he didn’t need money, booze, or even girls or…well, he didn’t end up needing pretty much everything that we’d seen him associated with on the show, up to this point, and so Esalen represents a kind of a logical and final step in “Mad Men”‘s in-depth examination of the 1960s. It was a decade that ended with, yes, the Manson family killings and that shitty concert at the Altamont Speedway, and lots of other darkness, but it had also ended with a whole culture seeking to pull back on the wheel in order to take them out of their life’s crazy tailspin, and that’s why we all end up, with Don, at Esalen — although we also would have loved to have seen the Esalen Institute portrayed as it was here, in this video clip we’ve found for you. That would have been fun too!

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If you’d like to see what Esalen looked like in 1969, rent Paul Mazursky’s debut film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which opens with Bob and Carol Sanders (Robert Culp and Natalie Wood) driving up Highway 1 to a placed called “The Institute” for a weekend of emotional honesty. Esalen didn’t grant Mazursky permission to film there, which is why it had to be called simply the Institute, and we suspect that “Mad Men”‘s location supervisor and Weiner himself were not able to secure the same permissions to shoot there either, which is why Esalen isn’t identified in the episode, but pretty much everyone knows that it’s supposed to be Esalen. According to this, Esalen president Gordon Wheeler turned the producers down — “out of respect for guests, only a very few documentaries have actually been shot there. Instead, the episode appears to have been filmed at Anderson Canyon, a popular wedding spot.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.