As the founding member of the Esalen Institute, an educational center dedicated to fostering personal and social tranformation, best-selling author Michael Murphy has played an integral part in the personal transformation, spiritual revival, and political movements in the United States.
PC: Why is it important that we incorporate transformative practices into our already overloaded daily lives?
MM: All of us have had instant moments of awakening. Virtually everyone. But to stabilize it and deepen it, you need life-long practice. There is no substitute. Period. You need, as Sri Aurobindo said, 'daring and discipline.' You need transformative practice. To the extent that you practice, you will deepen and stabilize and enter into that extraordinary joy. That self-existent delight that's the bottom line of the universe. But if you just rely on it happening when it happens, you will be visited once every decade or so with a moment. But if you want a little more you've got to practice.
PC: Do you believe that by transforming one's personal self you can inspire evolution in a larger social context, contributing to transforming society as a whole?
MM: Yes. This is the general premise of Sri Aurobindo, one of the great Indian philosophers of our time, although he's not the only philosopher who's felt that. The entire universe he believed is an evolution of a prior involution of the divine. So all aspects of the universe are part of this evolutionary adventure. And the human race is carrying that forward in its own muddling way. Our opportunity, through transformative practice, is to work for both personal and social transformation to help the universe unfold this latent divinity. That was the attraction to me: this embrace of both the personal and social. And within the personal, the integral.PC: What inspired you to begin your own personal spiritual journey?
MM: Well, my interest in the things that comprise my life work started when I was an undergraduate at Stanford. I was inspired originally by a professor of Comparative Religious Studies there, Frederick Spiegelberg, and through him learned about Sri Aurobindo, and that has remained a principal inspiration for me ever since. Pursuing that interest, I did some graduate work in philosophy at Stanford and then saw that what I really wanted to do was practice the contemplative approach. So I went to the Sri Aurobindo ashram in India, spent a year, a year and three months there, came back to California and continued the practice of meditation and study. In 1961, I started the Esalen Institute.
PC: Was there a conscious decision on your part to move away from the academic approach to truth in order to pursue a more contemplative path?
MM: Yes, that's the basic reason I went to India and left graduate school. Frankly, I dropped out twice. First, out of my undergraduate studies, though I finished and got my B.A. I shifted to studying metaphysics and mysticism and various aspects of life that relate to all of that. Then I had the thought that perhaps I could incorporate these interests into the life of a professor of philosophy. But after only a couple of quarters, I couldn't do it, and went to India.
PC: How did your social "rebellion" during the 1960's parallel the spiritual work that you were involved with?
MM: Well, my philosophy always has been that personal and social transformation are inextricably linked. You can't do one without the other. I really do believe that. So I joined the resistance. Those of us who saw that the Vietnam War was becoming an absolute horror and going nowhere. It was just the wrong war. It was wrong. But we were involved in many other causes, you know. Esalen has had dozens of conferences with major players in the various ecology movements. In Soviet-American relations; I've spent 18 years doing that. We brought Boris Yeltsin on his first trip to the U.S. We brokered the Soviet Writers' Union joining the P.E.N. Club and coming out into the world of human rights, civil liberties, and so forth. We helped broker the astronauts and cosmonauts getting together. We worked politically as well as in terms of contemplation and psychotherapy and physical transformation. So the whole enterprise at Esalen for the last 37 years has been a mix of personal and social work for growth and transformation.
PC: What was the intent behind creating the Esalen Institute?
MM: My entire impulse in starting Esalen was to further the essential vision that is represented by Sri Aurobindo and all the other influences in my life. People like William James and Frederick Meyers; there are so many influences. But basically what I call 'evolutionary panentheism' -' panentheism,' the doctrine that the divine is both transcendent to and immanent in the universe and evolutionary. That this universe is unfolding its hidden, its latent, its implicit, its involved divinity. That's the nature of the universe. That's the adventure. So Esalen was conceived as a place to further that catalytically. Not through any dogma, however, but by maintaining an open forum for exploration into both the theories and the practices and the research ventures and the building of social institutions to support all of this.
PC: What's your take on the state of American spiritual transformation as we enter the new millennium?
MM: Well, you know, all of our enterprises of the 1960's have entered into the culture in many ways. Some fields feel the influence of transformative practice more than others. I believe medicine has felt it as much as any field, with all the emphasis on complementary, alternative medicine, the emphasis on fitness, on good nutrition, stopping smoking, etc. The recognition of the mind-body influence is evidenced by the placebo effect, which is really another word for what I call 'covert practice.' When you get a placebo you're practicing being well. You practice transforming yourself. There has been some change in the field of psychology; not as much, I think, as in medicine, although we've had the emergence of transpersonal psychology. We've had sports psychology picking up on the whole mystical dimension of sport, the mental training, which is beginning to approach the more sophisticated martial arts. You've had the burgeoning of the martial arts, which carry mind/body transformative practice forward. So, a lot has been incorporated into the culture at large. But we've also had a falling away from a lot of this. We don't have as many people so intent on transformation as when we had hundreds of thousands of people all over the country in the 1960's, either through psychedelics or Buddhist or Hindu practice. No, it's gone more into the mainstream and it's diminished somewhat. But there are some permanent inroads, too. gracecathedral.org