Don Draper ended his journey on Sunday night’s Mad Men series finale at a picturesque California retreat, doing yoga. Though the name of the retreat is never mentioned, many have pegged it as the Esalen Institute.
The Esalen Institute, located in Big Sur, was founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Dick Price, who envisioned, according to a 1970 article in TIME, “a university without academic trappings, which would combine the best of Western humanistic psychology and Eastern thought.”
The institute, which is still operating, describes itself as “neither a school, nor a church, nor a spa, nor an inn, nor a monastery… and yet its utterly unique mixture contains a bit of all of the above,” and boasts number of notable names as guests: Joan Baez, Joseph Campbell, and Aldous Huxley all have been connected to Esalen. (Hunter S. Thompson was hired by Murphy’s grandmother as a “guard,” according to a profile of Murphy in the New Yorker in 1976.)
In 1987, upon the Institute’s 25th anniversary, TIME’s Pico Iyer described Esalen as such:
TIME cast a skeptical eye on its Esalen role in the “human potentials movement,” in November 1970—right around the time Don would have been visiting. The fall 1970 “catalogue” for Esalen included “a smorgasbord of workshops, labs and seminars,” and highlighted Esalen’s “hot sulphur baths” and its massages.
Mad Men‘s seminar scenes, including the one in which a man’s confession seemingly inspires an emotional, tearful breakthrough for Don, recall Esalen’s “encounter groups.” TIME’s Andrea Svedberg, explained: “People touch, hold hands, kiss, throw each other up in the air, fight, use all the dirty words, tell each other cruel truths. Every aspect of so-called proper behavior is discarded. Every emotion is out in the open—everybody’s property.”
In a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post—upon Esalen’s 50th anniversary—its current president Gordon Wheeler framed Esalen in opposition to the world of Mad Men: “I can’t watch Mad Men without an anxiety attack because that was the world I saw looming ahead of me. But instead, Esalen happened.”
Esalen also likely happened to Mad Men‘s protagonist but whether or not the experience actually transformed him, or simply led him to come up with one of the greatest advertisements of all time, is still up for debate.
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