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Integrating the Big Bang

An interview with Michael Murphy
by Andrew Cohen


I first met Michael Murphy in 1995. Sharon Toms, who at that time was CEO of Esalen Institute, Murphy's brainchild, arranged for us to meet over coffee at his house in San Rafael, California. We spent a very pleasant two hours together speaking about everything under the sun. Murphy was a congenial host and has a personality that emanates warmth and a bubbling, almost childlike curiosity and enthusiasm about life. When we began looking into the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment for this issue of WIE, Michael Murphy's name instantly popped into my mind as potentially the single most important contributor to this investigation, as I could think of no one with greater breadth of knowledge about this question alive today.

When preparing for the interview, I thought back to our coffee together. I remembered that Murphy became very excited when he discovered that I "worked out," and I was struck by his intense interest in the fact that my arms and upper body were developed as a result of doing hatha yoga for many years. What had occurred to me at that time, I recalled, was that he had seemed far more interested in that than he was in speaking about enlightenment—which was, after all, what I have given my life to trying to share with others. "What did it mean?" I thought to myself.

"Michael Murphy very well might be the single most significant spiritual pioneer of our generation, if for no other reason than the extraordinary spaces that he created in which others could transform," Ken Wilber writes in his book The Eye of Spirit. Indeed, ever since Murphy discovered the pioneering work of Sri Aurobindo almost fifty years ago, his passionate interest in the cultivation of human evolutionary potential has continued unabated. Not only did he found, with his friend the late Richard Price, the by-now-historic testing ground of human potential, Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, but he has also written several best-selling books about the relationship between sports and the mystical dimension of life and has, together with his colleague George Leonard, painstakingly mapped out a systematic theory and program of what he calls "Integral Transformative Practice." Integral practice, inspired by Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga, is now Murphy's main passion, and its role in our understanding of human evolutionary potential is, in his thinking, absolutely essential.

While speaking with Murphy on the phone about conducting the interview which follows, when I first brought up the word "enlightenment" and its relationship to self-mastery, he immediately broke in and exclaimed, "Wait a minute! It all depends on what you mean by 'enlightenment.'" Indeed, Murphy feels that, generally speaking, our concept and understanding of spiritual practice and enlightenment, and their relationship to human evolution, are dangerously limited in scope. Far too often, he feels, our view of spiritual development and evolution is restricted to only one or two dimensions of our evolutionary potential as human beings. In fact, he says again and again that unless we are cognizant of the many dimensions of our potential to evolve, we may unwittingly stunt our own growth simply due to ignorance of what is actually possible. In his book The Future of the Body, Murphy defines the different dimensions of an integral approach to human evolution as follows:
The religious traditions give us ways to develop metanormal volition and cognition, and bear witness to the ethics their cultivation requires. Modern depth psychologies, and the affective education they inform, complement the emotional disciplines nurtured by religious traditions and add new dimensions to them. Somatic training and sports provide methods to develop the body, and some martial arts show us how to join spiritual, ethical, and physical development.
But Murphy emphasizes, "Only practices that enhance our psychological and somatic functioning while making special 'drafts upon the Unseen' are likely to facilitate a balanced growth of our greater capacities [italics ours]."

And so right from the beginning, Murphy makes it clear that our understanding of our evolutionary potential, when using the word "enlightenment," must include the multidimensional nature of our own capacities as evolving creatures, including, I might add, what he calls "metanormal" abilities and psychic powers. He personally is fascinated by the startling variety of accesses to the mystical dimension of life that are possible through seemingly count less human endeavors from lovemaking and shoemaking to artistic expression and sports. He feels above all that our evolutionary capacity is unlimited in its potential, and that that is why we must begin to give our attention to those unknown boundaries beyond which dramatic evolution will inevitably unfold.

It was Murphy's exhaustive research specifically into the relationship between sports and mystical experience that led me to assume that he would have a great deal to say about the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment. I wasn't wrong! Philosophically though, some questions began to arise in my mind. On one hand, I deeply appreciated Murphy's insistence on the need for an integral approach to human/spiritual evolution. I understood why he feels that evolution must be of the total being. On the other hand, I couldn't help but wonder if his extremely reasonable and thoroughly logical emphasis on integral development would inadvertently subvert the overarching significance of ego transcendence as the ultimate goal of spiritual practice. Was Michael Murphy correct in his insistence that an integral development of our evolutionary potential was of greater significance for the evolution of the species than the single-pointed pursuit of ego transcendence?

These were some of the questions that I wanted to try to find answers to when speaking with this brilliant man about his understanding of the relationship between enlightenment and self-mastery.


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