Michael Murphy is a new member of the International Advisory Council. He has a long association with the yoga and, among other things, was co-founder of Esalen, the centre on the Californian coast which pioneered so much of the ‘human potential' movement .
I'm sitting across a table from Michael Murphy, trying to work out how to frame an interview with someone who seems to have explored so many different fields and who is something of an icon for a particular generation, when Michael leans forward and lets me off the hook. “You know, what I'd really like to talk about is my relation to Sri Aurobindo, The Mother and the Ashram and how they have shaped my work. I'd be delighted if you'd publish my critical as well as my loving stance on these matters, because I deeply believe that this is how I can be the best friend to this place.”
Fine, particularly as the first question I'd wanted to ask him was why, having stayed in the Ashram in 1956-7, it had taken him so long to come back. But this, it seems, was not the beginning of the story. “My relation with Sri Aurobindo began when I was 19 and at Stanford University . I wandered by mistake into a class on comparative religion run by Frederic Spiegelberg. Spiegelberg was one of the leading scholars on oriental religion (he had met both Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi), and he also had enormous presence. That day he was lecturing on the Vedic hymns. At the beginning of the lecture he intoned ‘The Brahman' in his extraordinarily sonorous voice. He ended with ‘Atman'. That lecture blew me away. I said to myself, ‘I'm never going to be the same.”
Michael dropped out of his course on social psychology and continued with Spiegelberg. “At the end of the course he lectured on Sri Aurobindo and The Life Divine. I took the book home and read it that summer. I was like Alice in Wonderland: I felt I'd fallen down a rabbit-hole into a wonderful new world. Soon after that I took a vow that I was going to give my life to the Divine.”
Michael quit his pre-med course and embarked upon an ‘ecstasy' of directed reading. He also engaged in intense meditation – often for up to 8 hours a day.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram
In the mid 1950s, Michael received an unmistakable inner directive to go to India . He arrived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram not long after Mother announced the Supramental Descent. His 16 month stay there was to be a powerful, if mixed experience.
“The Ashram was where I burned all my bridges concerning leading a ‘normal' life. I loved coaching sports and I felt fantastically blissful and alive. At the same time, I had to lock part of myself away. I learned, through my involvement in a particular incident, that there was zero appreciation in the Ashram of psychodynamics and, I felt, far too great a reliance on explanations involving black magic and the occult. But when I tried to talk about this, people backed away: there was a general lack of elasticity to talk about anything that was not somehow sanctioned.
“Interestingly, in my meetings with The Mother I found her much wider and down-to earth than many of the sadhaks. But the other big problem I had was the huge cult formation that had grown up around Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. I'd already experienced something like this in a study group at Stanford when one of the participants wanted to become a guru. But in the Ashram it was on another scale altogether and I can't help feeling that Sri Aurobindo and The Mother did not do enough to prevent it. Anyway, by the time I left I had been vaccinated against cults forever.”
So much so that when Michael and Dick Price started Esalen in 1962 on property belonging to Michael's family, one of the founding principles was ‘Nobody captures the flag': no gurus. “Not that people didn't try. But we wanted an open meeting-place, something like an extension of the college system, to explore what Aldous Huxley termed ‘the human potential', our various psychophysical and spiritual untapped capacities. While we didn't have any specific blueprint, we sensed a new vision of human possibility that was trying to emerge around the world.”
The timing was perfect. The conventional 1950s were giving way to the exploratory, experimental 60s, and luminaries like the historian Arnold Toynbee and the philosopher Paul Tillich were announcing the birth of a new age.
“Esalen was charged with an atmosphere of discovery and suddenly I was becoming a vehicle, downloading all this interesting stuff. It was the time when all these transformative practices came on the scene – somatics like Rolfing, interpersonal therapies like gestalt and psychosynthesis, new approaches to creativity and imagination, and countless spiritual practices from both the East and the West. And soon it morphed from just talking about these things to experiencing them.”
So the legend of Esalen was born. “It was like the Gold Rush,” remembers Michael, “full of outlaws and saints, madmen and great professors.” All the big names – Alan Watts, Gregory Bateson, Abraham Maslow, Paul Tillich, Fritz Perls, Aldous Huxley himself – came and participated. Great courses were run, seminal books were written, the psycho-cultural map of the West was never going to be the same again.
But the 60s was also the era of excess. “I was very much the in-house critic,” says Michael, “so I was seen by many Esalen fundamentalists as a bad guy. For example, I'm not a true believer in the ultimate glory of catharsis. I mean, how many catharses do you need in a lifetime?! Also, Esalen was born in the 1960s when a lot of people were breaking out of their inhibitions and it concerned me that self-expression and self-actualization were becoming more important than compassion and solidarity with others.”
The lessons of Esalen
In 1967 Michael started a centre in San Francisco and began what he calls his ‘parallel journey' within the Institute (although he remained Chairman of the Esalen Board of Trustees and very much connected with Esalen's programme and research projects). So what, for him, were the main learnings from Esalen? “One of them is a very old one; that there is a limit to every modality of growth and transformation. No virtue can stand alone; it has to be complemented, balanced, by others. In this sense, Esalen has had more than enough Freud and Fritz Perls and could do with a little more Ramana Maharshi! Then, if you're going to embrace an evolutionary vision, an Aurobindonian world-view, your practice must be integral – it must involve the body, emotions and mind as well as the soul.
“I also learned that we need to hold our dogmas lightly, and that you can disagree with someone without sacrificing kindness. Esalen had its taboos, the areas we didn't want to look at, like money and organization. We got to be like a centipede where each of its thousand legs has a mind of its own. And because the great god was consensus, frequently we were paralysed, unable to make decisions. Then there was all the interpersonal stuff. We were running great courses but behind the scenes the faculty were often at each other's throats.
“The myth was that being so crazy, so untogether, made us creative. But the reality was that we were creative in spite of these things.
“Anyway, over the years we've learned a lot from organizational dynamics and since 2006 Esalen has had a Chief Executive Officer and a Chief Financial Officer, and we have set ourselves specific goals which we review every 6 months. This has brought great peace and harmony, but it took us over 40 years to get here!”
In 1971, Michael made his first visit to Russia – “basically looking for the same things we were exploring in Esalen” – and this was to be the beginning of a citizens' diplomacy adventure in which Michael's wife, Dulce, played a prominent role. Among other things, Esalen brought Boris Yeltsin over for his first visit to the U.S. in 1989.
A great adventure
In 1972, Michael's first work of fiction, Golf in the Kingdom, was published. This ‘metaphysical comedy' features the golf pro and mystic philosopher, Shivas Irons, with whom Murphy plays a round which profoundly changes his perspective not only on golf but also on life. The book became a cult classic, selling over a million copies; it is soon to be released as a film. “I often say that I gave my family inheritance to God and God gave me back Golf in the Kingdom,” says Michael. “The whole thing was conceived as a thought-experiment. I'd never written a novel before, but when you really imagine something you can become a channel – ‘you start taking dictation', as William Blake put it.”
Michael's next book, Jacob Atabet, was inspired by Sri Aurobindo and is about a man who is engaged in the transformation of his body. Among his extraordinary abilities is the capacity to perceive matter on a microscopic scale, even down to the size of the atom – something known in Hindu philosophy as the animan siddhi.
“These books opened up a great adventure for me,” says Michael, “because while they were fiction, suddenly people were telling me about the extraordinary experiences they had had, particularly while engaged in sport. They included a famous American footballer who revealed that in one game he knew every move before it happened, and a marksman who, when he was ‘in the zone', would see a hand place his bullets precisely on the target. In fact, I began to see sport as an American equivalent of yoga because it was apparent from the stories I was hearing that, on the sports fields and golf courses, yogic siddhis were emerging.”
He began collecting these stories, and today there is an archive of over 10,000 studies: “it's a kind of natural history of supernormal human functioning”. The stories he heard led him to research into the latest scientific discoveries as well as traditional religions for clues about what was going on, and it culminated in his book The Future of the Body. “All the time I was looking for patterns, for ways of making sense of all this information, and finally I understood that all these extraordinary abilities – what the Hindus call siddhis and the Catholics charisms – can be seen as extensions of attributes that we all have, and which we have inherited from our animal ancestors. I began to see that these extraordinary experiences are like God waking up in us, progressively revealing or growing into a Greater Being that is pressing to manifest in us, and I decided to build a set of practices which would accelerate what was trying to emerge.”
Coincidentally, at the same time the Ashram Archives began publishing for the first time extracts from Sri Aurobindo's Record of Yoga, which are a record of his rigorous yogic experimentation between 1909-1927. “When I first read it I was amazed. Here is a great contemplative who is also a radical empiricist, continually revising his ideas in the light of emerging experience. Moreover, what he was talking about then was exactly what some of us were beginning to explore.”
Integral Transformative Practice
The ‘some of us' included George Leonard who, along with Michael, drew up a programme for what they called Integral Transformative Practice (ITP). “The ‘integral'”, explains Michael, “came from our experience at Esalen rather than from Sri Aurobindo, although Sri Aurobindo's integral evolutionary vision has been a lifelong inspiration for me.” The ITP programme, which ran for two years, was a practice which sought to develop the potentials of body, mind, heart and soul. It involves, among other things, meditation, physical exercises, affirmations and transformational imaging. At the end of their two-year experiment, Leonard and Murphy wrote a book, The Life We are Given, as an explanation of the process and summary of what had been achieved.
Today, Michael leads an advanced group which continues to push their personal boundaries. “It's for those who are interested in pursuing a lifelong practice rather than a short course. My sense is that as we evolve, what is disclosed to us is not just other planes – like the vital and mental – but rather what I call the ‘larger earth'. It's a larger, freer, more energetic space which allows, among other things, a greater elasticity of movement and understanding.”
Recalling his Ashram days, Michael feels that some of the sadhaks had a narrow vision of the integral yoga and its practice. “Some people were rejecting aspects of their experience, like siddhis, as distractions, whereas I was seeing them as the budding limbs of our future nature which needed to be cultivated. I also think there's a danger that an over-reliance on the psychic being and surrender to the Divine, as it is practised in the Ashram, can devolve into passivity. I'm a great believer in the adage that God helps those who help themselves.”
But his critique goes deeper still. “My sense is that the yoga crystallised when Sri Aurobindo the great adventurer became Sri Aurobindo the community-builder, because to build community you need to simplify, to codify. This can be seen in the contrast between the Record and the Letters on Yoga. The result, I believe, is that in countless ways the practice got stuck and there is a need to open it up again through drawing upon some of the most important discoveries which have been made in recent years. For example, there is this great psychology of individuation in the West which has rarely been incorporated into the Aurobindonian canon.”
Perspectives on Auroville
And Auroville? What are his perceptions of the place from his first brief visit here? “From the bottom up, this place looks great. You have first-rate schools and people who are doing world-class work, like the man who is developing the mud brick technology. However, from the top down this place is in certain ways awesomely dysfunctional. It's Hamlet all over again – nobody can make a decision. I think you need something like a Centre for Organizational Yoga where you can draw upon what has been learned elsewhere. This could include skills like not demonizing one another along with the art of decision-making and the art of feedback in relation to executive leadership. Because somebody has to lead, give direction. General Systems Theory teaches us that if any living system does not contain what is termed a ‘decider', it dies!
“Unlike Esalen, you also have profound cultural differences here. These can be a source of strength, but they can also lead to conflict, which is why you may consider bringing in people skilled in ethnotherapy.” [Ethnotherapy is an approach which addresses race, ethnicity, cultural values etc. as essential aspects of an individual's or group's psychology.]
“As for the yoga, my sense is that as it is practised here it can devolve too quickly into a sweet karma yoga. This is wonderful, but it is not the integral yoga, it's not the adventure I love in the Record of Yoga. I have not yet met anybody here who resembles some of the people in my advanced practice group in the U.S., so perhaps you could also set up some kind of centre here of advanced transformative work for those who want to amp up their practice.
“Having said that, you have the right vision, you have great people, you've got the material. So I'd say, just do it, just go for it!”
(The Life We Are Given has just been published in India by Stonehill Press.)