Six Months at Esalen

Model-Artist Nina Milner On Her 3G-Free Spiritual Quest at the Famed Sanctuary

In today's 24-hour, tweet-ridden drive-thru of a society, perhaps the greatest way to pamper oneself is to go off the grid—at least for a little bit. Nina Milner, 22, a South African actor, model, artist and general rising starlet (if we go by her credits in Elle and Glamour), put her career on hold to live at Esalen, the legendary spiritual mecca in Big Sur, Califonia. Swapping photo shoots for permaculture and art galleries for mossy rock sculptures in the Pacific surf, she booked in for one month—and has stayed six. By her own admission, there’s “a very different way of communicating” at Esalen. We rang up Milner (on the landline, which she answered in the cell-phone-free retreat's kitchen) and got her freshly honed take on love, loss, and feeding the 400.  

How did you find out about Esalen?

Through my best friend and kindred soul, Tamryn. We were born on the same day, at the same time, in the same city, in the same year—our astrological co-ordinates are a joke! She told me about it, and there was no sense of urgency in her communication, but I could see the growth that she had undergone here and there wasn’t really much question that I was going to go. 

How long are you in residence? 

I came initially for a month. I had an airline ticket to leave here on May 17 and I didn’t get on that airplane. I had another ticket for the August 1 and I didn’t get on that airplane either. I’m getting on one at the beginning of October when my visa expires. 

Beyond expanding your mind and skinny-dipping, what do you actually do all day?

I work in the kitchen. I grew up in a kitchen—my father has a deli—so it’s a comfortable place for me. It’s a fast pace; we feed up to 400 people three times a day. It’s hard. Gestalt is common practice here—we have mandatory gestalt sessions. 

Have you taken any notable workshops?

I recently took Jeffrey Kripal’s workshop “Sex of the Spirit”—pretty much a university professor analyzing the homoerotic scenes in biblical texts. Totally fascinating. 

So, no cell phones are allowed! What’s been the hardest part of being at Esalen?

The adjustments I’ve made that seemed difficult to make initially have now become common practice. There’s a very different way of communicating here. Everyone’s very aware of their boundaries and their sensations on many different levels. They’re very fastidious about taking care of their physical bodies. And very fastidious about taking care of their emotional bodies. That can lead to some quite direct contact, verbally. I weed out hypocrisy with vigor anyway, that’s just my character. I’m a total crusader for the truth. And this is a great place for me to be that way with abandon! 

It can’t be too hard being in Big Sur… 

Big Sur is one of the natural wonders of the planet. Quite otherworldly. We’ve got river water that flows down waterfalls on our property that flows into the ocean, and we’ve got mineral hot springs. Also, historically it’s quite amazing. They’ve found proof of sweat lodges being held here by the Esselen Native American tribe that go back six thousand years ago.


Okay, a mom question: did you make any nice friends? 

You have a roommate here. It’s a transient community, people come and go, but because it’s such an open style of communication, it’s an accelerated bonding process. And also you really feel love and loss quite often. That can get quite tough on your heart if you’re a lover like I am, you know?

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