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 Using the Offerings of the World’s Greatest Growth Center
To Build Your Own Integral Program for Personal Growth

This is the first in a series of eight excerpts from our book-length study on the fabled human potential growth center, Esalen Institute – on Northern California’s dramatic Big Sur Coast.  The entire series (to be posted on successive weeks) is as follows:

1.      REPREIVE FROM DEATH: Hugh Martin’s Journey from Terminal Cancer to Personal Transformation.

2.      THE MAGIC OF ESALEN: The Special Features that make Esalen Institute One of the Most Extraordinary Places on Earth.

3.      ESALEN AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF INTEGRAL: The Key Role Played by Esalen Institute in the Development of Ken Wilber’s Integral Worldview.

4.      THE HEALING POWER OF PSYCHIC TRANSFORMATION: How the Processes of Growth offered by Esalen Institute Aided Hugh Martin in His Battle Against Terminal Cancer.

5.      THE ESALEN REPORT CARD: A Frank and Candid Evaluation of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Esalen Institute.

6.      ESALEN VERSUS INTEGRAL INSTITUTE: How Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute Stacks Up Against Esalen Institute.

7.      THE PHENOMENON OF GROWTH CENTERS: How Growth Centers and Holistic Growth Situations Can Support in Your Own Journey to Personal Transformation.

8.      TRANSFORMING YOUR LIFE IN SEVEN STEPS: How You Can Use the Offerings of Esalen Institute To Create a Life-Changing Program of Personal and Professional Growth.

You can view or download an MS Word or PDF version of the full study. 

For other excerpts from this study, and for detailed descriptions of other articles by Hugh & Kaye Martin, click here.

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Hugh Martin’s Journey from Terminal Cancer to Personal Transformation

Hugh & Kaye Martin

Copyright 2009

Hugh Comes to Esalen

Hugh Martin remembers his early years at Esalen: 

“I first discovered Esalen in the Spring of 1965, just three years after its founding.  I had been diagnosed with advanced-stage Hodgkin’s Disease lymphatic cancer, and given just two years to live.  To make the best of my last days on earth, I had dropped the intensive stress of grad school, and traveled via Berkeley to California’s rugged Big Sur coast in search of a new life.  With my young wife (a ‘Joan Baez with curves’) and baby daughter, I settled in a little cabin in the Redwoods, only accessible in mid-winter by an undulating suspension footbridge over a raging stream.  From there, my family and I commuted to Esalen Institute, for volunteer work developing the grounds of the new Growth Center.  While there, we meshed with the Esalen community, and plunged into the Esalen experience – brutal hotseats with the the infamous Fritz Perls, soul-stripping encounter groups with the tough-but-caring Will Schutz, graceful Tai Chi ballets with Yoda-like Gia Fu Feng, exuberant dance, throbbing drums, soothing sensory awareness by the baths, searing acid mind-trips on windy ridge-tops, free sex, savage fist fights, and group hugs.  Eventually, as my health and stability recovered, I was offered the position of Esalen general manager (by Esalen co-founder Dick Price) -- and later, of Perls’ video cameraman – both of which I declined in favor of a life back in the ‘real world.’  Through the influence of Esalen, of Gestalt Therapy (Gene Sagan), of Reichian Therapy (Gerald Frank), of my third wife Kaye, and of a generous and forgiving God, my cancer completely vanished, and I went on to lead a happy and successful life.  For the magic of Esalen, I’m forever grateful – and living proof that it works.”


The Siren Call

Hugh describes the transforming moment during his early years at Esalen:

“On a chilly, misty morning I approached the rickety little farmhouse on the bluff.  The Esalen yard crew had just left for their day’s chores, and the little building was deserted.  From the eaves, god’s-eyes twisted in the wind, and Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the breeze.  The tinkling of wind chimes welcomed me as I stepped cautiously across the creaky porch.

Inside, a weathered oak dining table littered with the remains of breakfast – half eaten sausages, scraps of cinnamon roll, a syrupy plate.  On the chair, a gauzy tie-die shirt and one scuffed huarache.  A tattered poster of Gentle Wilderness high country by the fridge, snapshots of a gaudy party with faces pressed toward the camera -- a faint, lingering smell in the air of damp leaves, and soil, and sinsemilla.  Despite the clutter, the scene bathed me in warmth.  I felt a glow of excitement, of anticipation, of mystery.  Driven by who knows what urge, I sought to experience at least vicariously a lifestyle I’d been too timid or too fearful to adopt.

By the wall, on an album cover next to the phonograph turntable, the chiseled monochrome face of a cool, hard-edged young man stared out at me:  Not challenging, just waiting for me to make my move.  When I flipped the switch, the turntable began to spin, the needle scratched, and the speakers began to croon a hollow, poignant, nasal sound – echoing as if from a far distance:

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,

In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

I listened and lingered, becoming more and more transfixed.  I was ravished, entranced, exhilarated, enchanted, enthralled.  My eyes watered, and my lungs released in a burst of pleasure.  Chills ran up my spine and flowed out my fingertips.  I continued to listen, as the sound gushed through my system, soaking the parched landscape of my soul, awakening buried longings, kindling my spirit.  I felt a surge of aliveness, a chorus of hope, a great welling-up of the Everlasting Yes! 

I didn’t know it at the time, but that of all Esalen experiences was the pivotal moment that changed my life.  For the first time, like Odysseus tied to the mast, I was hearing. . .



Unknown to myself, I had decided to toss caution to the soft sea breeze, to follow the Tambourine Man deep inside me, to take the chances necessary in the quest for true happiness, to yield myself to change and growth when every fiber of my being yearned for it.  In that short moment, my cancer began a grudging retreat, and I had decided to live.”


Blessings In The Shadow Of Death

Hugh recalls his life-changing encounter with death:

The Great Fever

“When the Great Fever came, it came with a violent, torrential rush.  A raging, searing fever that brought agonizing groans for relief.  When it hit, I’d been recuperating from a grueling graduate semester at the home of a dear aunt in tree-lined suburban Chicago.  It wasn’t a good place to get sick.  My aunt was already distraught.  My dear 97-year-old Gramp – for all his life the mighty oak that uplifted and supported the family – was crumbling and fading fast in the upstairs guest bedroom. 

With Gramp dying upstairs, I began to die below.  When I became sick, the only place for me was my aunt’s dank basement – filled with dusty boxes, chattering pipes, and an old ringer washing machine that throbbed in my ear.  There I lay – tossing, and sweating, and moaning – with Susan (my first wife) trying to comfort me, while tending our one-year-old baby.  With the fever raging at 105 for almost two weeks, and the dawning recognition this was no ordinary flu, they finally checked me into St. Luke’s Hospital for extensive tests. 

When the results were in, Susan sat gravely by my bedside.  It didn’t look good.  The lymph node biopsy had revealed cancerous tissues – virulent Hodgkin’s Disease.  Worse yet, the lymph nodes were engorged and corrupted throughout my whole body – indicating that the cancer had spread too far, and was incurable.  I was given two years to live.

The Reaction

“Once I got over the shock of my situation, and went into temporary remission, I began changing my plans.  If I had only two years to live, I certainly wasn’t going to spend them in the stacks of some musty library – and I certainly wasn’t going to suffer through any more icy Midwest winters.  Anxious, confused, and desperate, I groped my way toward a new path:  With whatever moments I had left, with whatever strength and hope I could summon up, I would learn to drink deeply of the best life had to offer.

Susan and I moved back to Berkeley – certainly the most happening place on the planet in swirling years of the mid-1960’s – then on to the even more electrifying and turbulent world of the fabled Esalen Institute on California’s rugged Big Sur coast.  We jumped headfirst into the river of life, and tried out everything the emerging paradigm of California had to offer.  As opportunities presented themselves, we (Sue and I, along with my later partners) tried out psychology grad school, Beatnik painting with gobs of color on vast oil canvases, Ginsberg howls of poetry, weaving natural-dyed lanolin-soaked wools, drama improvs and African dance, sacred circles of pot, peyote, and LSD, non-possessive marriage, Dr. Spock, contentious T-groups, excruciating Ida Rolf massages, gestalt dreamwork, bioenergetics, primal scream, backwoods ecology, organic farming, survivalism, the latest fads of natural and holistic medicine, whole-grain organic foods, Zen, Tantra, free schools, Hindu communes, radical politics, sexual liberation, Christian fundamentalism, Gary Snyder’s San Juan Ridge, and so much more I can hardly remember.  Much of it was a blowout or dead end, but some of it stuck.  Gradually, impulsively, obsessively, tumultuously, we totally transformed our interiors and our lifestyles.

The Reprieve

In the process of that transformation, something miraculous occurred: The cancer went away.  When I would go back to the Stanford Medical Center for my quarterly checkup, the doctors were mystified.  Since I was obviously pretty healthy, maybe I’d had a ‘spontaneous remission.’  Or maybe the diagnosis had been wrong in the first place.  Or maybe, just maybe, a healed psyche and an authentic lifestyle can cure even the most malevolent physical disease.

Two years stretched into three, then five, then ten, then twenty.  I had received a reprieve from my sentence of death.  Whether through blind luck, or timely redirection, or through the benevolent intervention of a Greater Power, I had been given a second chance at life.

The Transformation

“However, even though I was by then perfectly healthy, a strange thing had happened: I was different from other people.  For years after my harrowing escape, the angel of death sat on my shoulder -- warning me not to get too cocky, or too complacent, or too trivial, or even too hopeful.  No matter how long the reprieve, I continued to live life as if I had only two years left.  I chose activities, interests, companions, and occupations that gave me deep and immediate satisfaction.  Every moment seemed fleeting, and therefore immeasurably precious – sweet, fragile, evanescent, and poignant beyond words.

Susan and I continued our explorations for the five years we were granted together – parting only when the weight of failed life experiments finally collapsed the love we felt for one another.  I continued the explorations for another five years with another lovely lady, Bonnie – until that relationship collapsed from more blind folly.  Then, with Kaye, I finally got it right – in a sometimes turbulent and tempestuous relationship that’s lasted 30 years, and keeps getting better.

Throughout that time, Kaye and I have continued to live life on the edge – as if each new experience might be our last.  We have suffered and rejoiced through 13 pregnancies – including numerous miscarriages and two baby boys that died at birth – and finally birthed and raised five lovely and talented children.  Our last was a one-pound preemie that doctors gave up for lost –  a tiny girl who has now grown to a vibrant and gifted teenager.  As Bonnie Raitt sings:

We’ve had a lotta kids, trouble, and pain,
But, oh Lord, we’d do it again!
Oooo-ooo.  Kisses sweeter than wine.”


Life’s Big Wake-Up Call

Hugh concludes with the lessons he learned from his near-death experience:

Dawn Over Half Dome

“The story, of course, has a happy ending.  I’m basically healthy now.  I visit a chiropractor more often than most, and have some odd food sensitivities – but otherwise, I’m far more vigorous and energetic than most men my age. 

Recently, beginning before daybreak, I hiked 20 miles with a hefty pack through Yosemite’s High Country – from 9000-foot Tuolumne Meadows, up the peak of Cloud’s Rest – just in time to catch the first rays of sunrise kissing forehead of Half Dome.  From there, I scrambled cross-country to the summit of Half Dome itself, then down the steep stone stairs by Vernal Falls to the 4000-foot Valley below – a total elevation change of 10,000 feet.  As dusk began to settle, I hitchhiked 65 miles back to Tuolumne to join my family in time for campfire.  God is good.”

We Are All Terminally Ill

“My story is a dramatic tale of life-threatening illness, transformation, and redemption.  But the story is not just about me.  It is about you, my dear reader and listener.

You are terminally ill.  You too are sentenced to die.  Not just someday – but within a specific, limited period of time.  The chances of me dying within two years at age 24 were set at 80%.  What are your chances?  If you are 25, there’s an 80% chance you will die within 50 years.  If you are 45, you most likely will die within 35 years.  If you are 65, you’ll probably be departing within 20.  None of us will be alive 100 years from now. 

We are all under a certain, final, unappealable, ineluctable sentence of death.  Not just someday – but soon, in the ultimate scheme of things.  No way out.  We’re toast.  We’re history.  We’re destined to be a minor cipher in someone’s future genealogy tree.  The wisdom of all the ages tells us this:

As for man, his days are as grass:
As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;
And the place thereof shall know it no more.[1]

The Blessings of Mortality

“The awareness of our own immanent death.  It’s a major bummer.  But it’s also the beginning of Wisdom.  Once we recognize and accept our own death, we stop avoiding life, or wasting life, or taking life for granted.  We begin asking the important questions: If I’m going anyway, am I making the most of my few precious moments here on earth?  Am I taking care of myself – so that I don’t cut into the few years allotted to me?  Is the quality of my life as rich and satisfying as it might be? – free from pain and trouble, filled with close friends, a loving family, genuine success, and happy memories? 

We begin to consider the really big questions:  What am I here for?  What is life all about?  How can I live a life that is more meaningful and fulfilling?  How can I map out a path – and take my first steps?  What can I do now that will make the whole long journey worthwhile?

When we’re on our deathbed, what treasures will we have to look back on?  Who will be holding our hand?  Whose eyes will we see glistening with tears as we slip away?”


Do you have an ‘Esalen-of-the-Mind’ you need to visit?  A Tambourine Man you need to follow?

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by circus sands. . .

With the thundering black waves of your mortality rumbling on the horizon, with your life so long yet so near its end, with all options for escape now cut off, with all shallow diversions now rendered hollow – with all these voices urging you forth, with so much to gain and nothing to lose, will you now listen to the call of that deep, wistful, poignant voice within you? 

Far off, on some rocky, windswept beach, the Siren Song of the Tambourine Man calls out to you.  Won’t you harken -- and heed his song?

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.
In that jingle, jangle mornin’ I’ll come followin’ you.


HUGH MARTIN.  Hugh Martin is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.  He has appeared on numerous talk shows, led seminars at many colleges and corporations, and spoken at numerous professional conferences and colloquia.  Mr. Martin is president of the FINRA-registered securities brokerage firm, Hugh Martin Securities, and of the California-registered investment advisory firm, Hugh Martin & Co.  Hugh is also an experienced Life Counselor.

AMALIA KAYE MARTIN.  Amalia Kaye Martin (‘Kaye’) is a ‘clairvoyant’ Life Counselor, gifted natural medicine practitioner, and early education specialist.  Kaye is also a dedicated homemaker, full-time mother, instructor in natural medicine and nutrition at Bauman College, certified natural foods chef, and dynamic community organizer.

HUGH AND KAYE MARTIN.  Hugh and Kaye are primarily qualified as Integral theorists and practitioners because they have led Integral lives.  Both Hugh and Kaye have extensive experience in personal transformation, natural medicine and health, early and advanced education, societal change, natural and cultural environments, and high-level academics.

Hugh and Kaye have been married for over 30 years.  They have five highly-independent, multi-gifted children with strong family ties. 


WHOLE LIFE COUNSELING.  Hugh and Kaye Martin are the founders and co-directors of the life planning and counseling firm Whole Life Counseling.  Whole Life Counseling is a comprehensive program for personal and professional growth, which empowers clients to achieve success and fulfillment in 12 key arenas of life -- education, career, marriage, family, community, emotions, sexuality, finances, health, recreation, nature, and spirituality. 

For more information, please contact the authors at [email protected].


Everyone in the Martin Family has attended an Esalen Workshop or Festival, participated in the Work/Scholar Program, and/or enjoyed the sunset from Esalen’s steamy hot baths.
Counter-clockwise from lower right: Kaye, Hugh, Pat Dobbins, Mollie Martin Dobbins, Livvie, Josh, Becky, and Sam.


[1] Psalm 103:15-16, KJV.