Esalen is a state of consciousness as much as it is a physical place. It is a pagan monastery, a school of the mysteries, where seekers of every description come to find light. Breaking out of the crumbling structures of their past, they come to find themselves…For many, Esalen is where the tide turns in their private revolution against the inner tyrants of the past.”

Rick Tarnas

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Esalen is truly a magnificent space. This week, I slept beneath the brightest blanket of stars I’ve ever seen in my life. The sound of the ocean crashing against the cliffs was ever present, a haunting reminder of my own insignificance on this earth. The majestic mountains that surround us are quite literally breathtaking. I felt small. I felt held. I felt home.

I came to this seekers’ sanctuary for the 2011 Yoga & Addictions Recovery Conference. I am not an alcoholic. I have never smoked cocaine, never gambled excessively, don’t abuse shopping or non-prescription drugs. But like many of you I would imagine, I am a person who has been deeply affected by the dis-ease of addiction. And I’m not alone.

The channel addiction finds to manifest itself is manifold — addictions show up in sex, eating habits, and sometimes even our yoga practice. One participant here described her recovery as a game of Whack-a-Mole. Kick one -ism, and up pops another.

Many of us, too, have witnessed the deleterious effects of addiction on people we love. When one person is killing themselves — either with food, drugs, or some other self-sabotaging behavior — every other human being they’re inrelationship with is affected as well.

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Some research suggests that 70% of Americans have been affected by addiction, and many of the people I’ve spoken with here would argue that we’re all addicts in one way or another. One teacher here suggested that we intoxicate ourselves with maladaptive behaviors, cling to our suffering because we’ve forgotten (avidya) that joy, happiness, and freedom are possible in every moment.

If yoga brings us into deeper connection with our highest selves, why are so many of us still plagued with this need to anesthetize, to alter, to fix?

Coming in, I had an admittedly pessimistic view of the idea of addictions recovery, probably because I’ve been witness to so many tragic stories of addiction myself. My mother, an addict nearly my entire life, now suffers from alcohol-induced dementiaand has the cognitive capacity of a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient. A near and dear family friend died from a cocaine-overdose when I was twelve. I myself have struggled with an addictive relationship to food for as long as I can remember. Until this week, I had a hard time believing true “recovery” was even possible.

But the people I met at this conference are living role models of exactly what I had such a hard time believing in. One person at the conference celebrated his 24th year of sobriety, and many others are not only in recovery themselves but mentoring others on the path. It strikes me as so powerful that the 12-step program is not only a service FOR addicts, but also a pathway to serve. Without question, service is an integral part of healing from addiction. In the words of many of the participants here, “to get it, you have to give it away.”

Visual Psychology
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The teachers who organized this conference — Rolf Gates, Nikki Myers, Tommy Rosen, Vinnie Marino, Noah Levine, andCarrie Coppola — are modern day alchemists. Through years of their own work, they’ve been able to transform the darkness of their past into pathways for others to find light. One participant at the conference actually described her experience that way… as having been wandering down a path with only a little flashlight, and suddenly stumbling upon dozens of others holding lights of their own. Together, she said, we can light up the night.

A small sampling of the incredible work that was shared at this conference:

It was so refreshing to stand in the presence of individuals who spoke so fearlessly about their own vulnerability — about pain that spills out onto the mat during deep hip openers, about that grasping we all seem so afraid to name. The clothing-optional hot springs at Esalen created a space for a natural unveiling, a physical embodying of the vulnerability many of us are afraid of. When we remove our external clothes, our labels, insecurities, and stories must be dropped to the floor as well.

Woman in Spring
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Sitting at the baths, I found myself surrounded my men and women who mirrored my hopes and fears alike, people who regardless of the story they carried with them were (at least in a cosmic sense) fragments of my beloved and rejected self. The stereotypes and preconceptions fell away like the clothes at the baths…. we were simply human beings, being together.

As I made my way down from our sanctuary in the mountains, I realized that as much as I’d like to, my words will never do justice to the profound healing and transformation that took place at this conference. While the participants certainly came away with new tools and practices for their recovery, it was apparent by what was shared in the closing circle that this conference was about so much more than that for the individuals that came. It was about seeing one another — blemishes and beauty marks alike — and coming home to ourselves. There it is, the coming home again. May we all find our way home.