By Life Positive
One of the pioneers in the human potential movement, Michael Murphy is also the co-founder and chairperson of the Board of the Esalen Institute in California. Esalen is a non-profit growth centre, with thousands of people participating in over 400 seminars each year at the institute’s Big Sur facility.
It also serves as a groundbreaking research site. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy; Gregory Bateson, the eminent anthropologist; Stanislav Grof, the pioneering research psychiatrist, and other scholars and therapists have spent many years at Esalen. Murphy graduated from Stanford University and lived for a year and a half at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India.
During his 40-years involvement in the human potential movement, Murphy has been profiled in many magazines and journals, including the New Yorker. He has authored four novels: Golf in the Kingdom, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, Jacob Atabetand An End to Ordinary History. His latest nonfiction work is God and the Evolving Universe, co-authored with James Redfield and Sylvia Timbers.
Murphy’s research-based book, The Future of the Body, a study of human nature’s capacity for transformation, is one of the pathfinding works of modern time. Research on this book began in 1977 through the building of an archive at Esalen, which includes more than 10,000 studies of exceptional functioning and has been donated to the Stanford University Medical School.
Talking to him for this feature is Julian Lines. Born in New York City, Lines has been interested in spirituality, music and education from an early age. His connection with India blossomed in 1972, when he met Robert Lawlor, a pioneer in the Auroville community, and Robert McDermott, a philosophy professor, and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and their vision of an evolving humanity.
Lines is the President of Lifepositive.com Inc. and Matagiri Sri Aurobindo Centre. He is also Vice-President of Auroville International and a board member of the Nakashima Foundation for Peace. He has long considered Michael Murphy to be a key catalyst in shaping contemporary culture.
Here, in an exclusive dialogue, Murphy and Lines discuss various evolutionary concepts and the future of humanity.
Julian Lines (JL): I wonder how contact with India and Indian philosophy was a paradigm shift for you and affected your life and work.
Michael Murphy (MM): The basic course of my lifework was shaped by the vision of Sri Aurobindo, which I was exposed to at Stanford University as an undergraduate while studying with the great professor of comparative religion, Frederic Spiegelberg.
At the same time, I was inspired by Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, and to a lesser extent by Swami Vivekananda. After I graduated from Stanford, I lived in the Aurobindo Ashram from 1956 to 1957 and was in contact with the Mother every day.
When I came back to the United States in 1962 and started the Esalen Institute, which focuses on broadening our vision of the human potential, those inspirations continued.I often think of myself as neo-Aurobindonian because some of his ideas need to be supplemented and refined, as he certainly would have done if he were living today.
JL: You have worked with many athletes and brought such terms as ‘peak experience’ and ‘in the zone’ into our vocabulary. You had once mentioned an incident with a football player who was reluctant to share his experiences with you because he thought he might be labelled crazy. In the West, many people who have out-of-body or other supernormal experiences have no cultural norm or context with which to frame them.
MM: That’s right. Every culture reinforces the attributes it prizes. America produces great scientists and athletes, but we have never produced a world-class mystic-ever! What we’ve tried to do at Esalen is to broaden our image of the human potential and place it in an evolutionary context.
For the great sages of the past the world was an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. So the Platonic vision arose (as did Hinduism and Buddhism) at a time when people did not know about natural selection or the Big Bang. The great turning point in humankind’s recognition of evolution was Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.
Since then, many of the world’s greatest philosophers have tried to address these two great facts: the evolving universe and the Transcendent with its immanence in human nature.
JL: There are philosophers and personalities who can articulate an intellectual worldview. But at Esalen you take that into the experiential level. In your book, The Future of the Body, you document the fact that it’s not just an idea of evolution or transformation but also an action, a living experience.
MM: At Esalen, the work is fourfold. First comes the research, which I call the natural history of extraordinary human functioning. I think of myself as a naturalist collecting items of human experience, behavior and bodily transformation the way founders of modern science did.
Second is transformative practice. You get best results from people who practise yoga, martial arts or athletics, or who passionately give themselves up to any kind of transformative discipline.
Esalen is an engine for this. We sponsor about 450 seminars a year, most of them experiential. Over 10,000 people come through Esalen every year. The third is theory. Here we have interpretations that stay close to the data. That’s what I think Ken Wilber is trying to do, what I am trying to do, what those of us interested in this marriage of evolutionary vision with the transcendent are doing.
The fourth front is to promote and develop institutions that support such work. That’s why you have an ashram, or an Auroville, or an Esalen: to promote this work in ways that Harvard and Stanford and Oxford and most traditional religions are inhibited from doing.
JL: And the most interesting thing is that you are in a position where other scientists and instituitions are collaborating with you.
MM: Well, yes. In the beginning, when we collaborated at Esalen, most of the lecturers and teachers had other positions. But they could explore things at Esalen that they were not free to explore at their universities.
For example Abraham Maslow, father of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, loved Esalen, supported us, and tried ideas with our groups that he couldn’t at other places. We also provided support for pioneers of somatic education.
To people such as Ida Rolf, who invented Rolfing, Moshe Feldenkrais of the Feldenkrais method and Charlotte Selver of sensory awareness. This development of somatic education, which I see as modern hatha yoga, approaches human fulfilment primarily through the body.
It sees that the body and consciousness are inextricably linked, co-evolving. We provided a base for somatics, as we have done for other pioneering fields. Esalen is in some respects in ‘outlaw country’, but supports people in the mainstream to work at the edges of their discipline.
JL: Let’s address the sceptic who says: ‘Can you give me documented proof that is from a source other than Esalen, of a supernormal capacity or event?’
MM: In my book, The Future of the Body, there are nearly 3,000 citations from scholarly and scienti-fic journals through which you can explore the vast literature of supernormal functioning. For the past 200 years, there has been a great body of disciplined inquiry into the farther reaches of human nature.
The cumulative record of evidence such study has produced is overwhelming for any reasonable person. Let’s look, for example, at telepathy. Mainstream science says that ESP does not exist. All right, read through the several thousand case studies accumulated by the British and American Societies for Psychical Research.
Or if you want to talk about extraordinary bodily transformations, go to the records at the Medical Bureau at Lourdes, the great Roman Catholic retreat founded in the 19th century by Bernardette Soubirous. While I was working on The Future of the Body, my assistant Margaret Livingston went there, and brought back several X-ray photographs of people who experienced scientifically inexplicable cures.
One man, for example, had advanced cancer in his hipbones. When he came out of the springs at Lourdes, he suddenly had a rush of appetite. The next day, he threw away his crutches and a year later X-ray photographs showed that the bone, which had been eaten by a sarcoma, was reconstituted!
I showed these photographs to oncologist friends of mine, and they said they were authentic. At the Medical Bureau at Lourdes, which has been in existence since 1883, the Catholic Church tries to find out if the healing can be deemed a miracle and they have willy-nilly developed a vast source of evidence.
In our study of evidence for extraordinary human capacities, we collected about 10,000 scholarly and scientific papers. That archive is now housed at the Stanford University Medical School in California. Laurence Rockefeller, the great philanthropist, and other Esalen donors supported us in this. Thirty years ago, I wrote Golf in the Kingdom, a tall Irish tale about one Michael Murphy who went to Scotland on his way to the Aurobindo Ashram and met a shamanic pro named Shivas Irons who embodied the transformative powers of golf.
Since then, I have been taking confession from golfers on their mystical experiences-to such an extent that I think of myself as ‘Father Murphy’! These reports have led me to look elsewhere. I’ve interviewed surgeons about long surgeries when mystical and occult dimensions seem to come into play.
In lovemaking such experiences happen with considerable frequency. The common life of humankind is shot through with transformative experiences that are generally not recognised because the cultures in which they occur do not have an adequate philosophy or context with which to interpret them.
We need a vocabulary, a philosophy, and a psychology to support our dawning supernature. And with that context we can develop practices and institutions that support the greater life pressing to be born in us.
JL: Do you think it’s fair to take these isolated experiences and place them in the context of an evolving humanity?
MM: Absolutely. Our understanding of the human potential, including its deepest spiritual aspects, will grow immeasurably if we see this. But evolution meanders more than it progresses. Most people do not distinguish between evolution and progress.
The term ‘evolution’ refers to irreversible change in some direction, while ‘progress’ refers to advance. Thus, biologists talk about ‘progressive evolution’ in which a species advances to a more complex and better-adapted life, like amphi-bians coming ashore and opening up fields for evolution that did not exist among fish.
There is also static evolution where you have development but no significant advance, as well as regressive evolution. And you see the same thing in human history.
The more we look into individual lives, we realise that some people are growing, some people are the same as they were 50 years ago, and some have deteriorated. That’s a sad fact of life.
JL: With India looking to imitate the trends in the West, it’s an irony for me to go to India and head for the Ashram. I always think it’s important to present the cutting edge of the western culture and be clear on where it is heading.
MM: Yes, I would like to frame it this way. In the West, there are many spiritual and scientific initiatives leading humankind toward the depths of the soul. This is true for India and the rest of the world.
In most cultures you find impulses for personal and social transformation alongside regressive activities. This has been central for me and for Esalen, this joining of inner and outer work, which I was oriented to by Aurobindo. The next great turn in humankind will involve a simultaneous broadening of spiritual consciousness and mental powers.
JL: I know you have an interesting collaboration with George Leonard. Could you talk a little about it?
MM: George and I have developed Integral Transformative Practice (ITP), which is based on the principles we just discussed. We have created a practice in the same line of descent as Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, that involves the simultaneous transformation of body, mind, heart and soul.
It’s an attempt to bring the most sophisticated modern research and transformative practices in alignment with the spiritual witness that goes back to the Upanishads and Vedas to the identity of atman and brahman.
It’s now being studied at the Stanford University Medical School, where the researchers have a half million dollar grant to study the cognitive, personality and physiological changes in 100 people who are using ITP over a two-year period.
There is a similar study at a prominent hospital in San Jose. There are about 50 ITP groups around the world. I meet regularly with one of them here in Marin County, where we started.
JL: The mother of all ITP groups…
MM: We call it the Community ITP group. George and I have also been dreaming for a while about a permanent centre, which would look superficially like a health club, but with a meditation pavilion and seminars on philosophy, evolutionary theory, the Upanishads, to the newest information about body-building! It would look like a mini-Aurobindo Ashram, but people would not live there.
JL: How does one begin this practice, and what are the other workshops being given?
MM: ITP participants make affirmations of desired psychological, cognitive, and physical changes. It involves a mix of physical fitness training, meditation, group interaction and support, community building, self-inquiry, and so forth along with reading and intellectual explorations.
JL: Of late I have been wishing for a paradigm shift. Every time you pick up the newspaper it is so disheartening. I’m constantly thinking what experience we can offer to people to change the way they relate to one another and the planet…
MM: Well, it’s the great central question, Julian. I would argue that there are hopeful developments all around. But the process is not guaranteed.
JL: That’s the problem with our culture. Growing up in the television generation, you expect everything is going to happen now.
MM: We are addicted to the quick fix. Modern culture reflects an addiction to instant gratification. What is missing is the joy of long-term transformative practice. I’m working now on a movie based on Golf in the Kingdom to help stimulate that interest.
JL: I, too, had wondered whether after The Legend of Bagger Vance (a film about golf which draws on the story of the Bhagavad Gita), you think that Golf in the Kingdom could be made into a film.
MM: Warner Bros owned it, but we’re getting the rights back. I’ve had dozens of ideas for special effects. We are working on it. After all, you do see glimmers of our farther reaches in certain movies. In Star Wars, for example, you see Obi-wan Kenobi teaching Luke Skywalker about ‘The Force’.
JL: Whom do you consider your allies or models when you look around in contemporary culture?
MM: In ITP my ally is George Leonard. When it comes to systematic philosophy, it is Ken Wilber. As far as traditional contemplative practice is involved, I look to Richard Baker-roshi, the Zen teacher. In Christian practice, there is Father William McNamara of the Spiritual Life Institute.
JL: Tell us about the good news in the human potential movement.
MM: Esalen is constantly putting forth new as well as long-standing approaches to human development. But the term ‘New Age’ is a journalistic term for a mishmash of thinking, some of it great, some of it not so great, and some of it awful.
There is a lot of new packaging for gross superstition, for numerology, crystals and quacks. But at the same time there is this perennial attempt to break new ground, to extend the human frontier into the transformation of body, mind, heart and soul.
JL: It’s the old adage that ‘power corrupts’. Controlling the lower vital and not being governed by something truer and disciplined sets the stage for these abuses. It’s what I liked about your description of the ITP work, calling it a practice, which requires commitment and discipline.
MM: We also believe in research. What we are doing should be studied to see what works and what doesn’t. But the New Age suffers when certain gurus and psychologists are not scrutinised. It’s not like science where you find out if your work stands up empirically and theoretically.
JL: I agree. This is one of the strengths of taking the best of both cultures-bringing the transcendental mysticism of India together with the disciplined scientific approach of the West and saying it’s not either/or, but rather both/and. It’s natural that with the pressure of what we would call the supramental force, this new consciousness is going to flush out the dirt.
MM: Well said, well said, Julian. That’s right on.
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