Stephen Dinan: I want to welcome everyone to the Shift in Action program of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and I’m very excited to be interviewing today Michael Murphy, who is the founder of Esalen, probably most famous for that, but also the author of influential books in the emerging area of mysticism and golf, with Golf in the Kingdom and the The Kingdom of Shivas Irons. Michael has also been a longtime explorer of the frontiers of human potential through sport, through different kinds of inquiry, and even through a variety of initiatives with citizen diplomacies, played a very far ranging role at the frontiers of conscious change, so I just want to welcome you today, Mike, to the program.
Michael Murphy: Good to talk to you again, Steve.
SD: Great. So what we’re doing with these interviews, we’re starting with a bit of the personal angle in talking about intention, and I know you’ve done a huge amount with the higher capacities of human beings, chronicled in the book The Future of the Body and elsewhere. Really looking at what are some of these emergent qualities that we can achieve on a bodily level, on a mental level, spiritual level, and I’d love for you to just connect some of that work and maybe some of your personal experience into this notion of intention and how we cultivate that.
MM: Well first, we are, all of us, a bundle of intentions. The older I get, the deeper my appreciation of the fact that we, each of us, is a kingdom of intentions, many of which are contradicting one another, and therefore awareness practices of various kinds can help us align these various parts of ourselves that often are going in opposite directions. So in my own case I can give two examples: one quite, you could say, narrow, although it entailed all of my mental and physical faculties, and that’s in the work with sport; the other is my experience of building Esalen. Okay, in sport I got real good at running starting when I was 43, so that when I was when 53 I came in 3rd in the national championships in the 1500 meter and ran a 4:35 at the age of 53, and actually that year also ran a 4:32. Had 13 races, won 11 of them, came in second to a guy who set a new world record for the over 50 crowd, Bill Fitzgerald, probably the best runner at that time who had ever run over 50 in the mile. So in living to watch my body change – for example, at one point I had lost 35 pounds, from 175 down to 140 – and I had absolutely no background in running, so the experience that went with it kind of confirmed a lot of the research that I was doing and my general orientation towards bodily transformation that’s embedded in my world view. I was first inspired to by Sri Aurobindo and then subsequently by many others.
Now, in a larger way, I would say the most significant personal experience of the power of intention is my perseverance with Esalen Institute for 45 years because it has involved hundreds of different intentions that I’ve needed to call into play at different stages in the development of this institute. As you know, we’ve had a colorful past. We’ve had highly conflicting factions within the Esalen staff and in the world we inhabit, in the larger Esalen space, and then as we’ve gotten involved, for example, with the Soviet Union dealing, say, with the KGB, CIA, FBI, we were running into all sorts of divergent intentions. But the magic, for me, that comes with sustaining and persevering in a basic intention is amazing, and I guess I’ve learned more than anything that you aspire and graces are given. I mean this is at heart of every religious tradition, of course, that there are answering graces for right intentions. But I’ve come to believe firmly that it only works when you really are in line with your, call it, your daimon, as James Hillman says in The Soul’s Code, or Plato in the Myth of Ur, Sri Aurobindo and his idea of the “psychic being” – that it is better to fail in your own dharma than succeed in somebody else’s. I love Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code. In other words, you have to align yourself, I believe, with your deepest intentions which conceivably pre-exist our even being born into this life, to see intention work at all in your life.
SD: You bring important depth dimension to that, because so often when popularizers talk about intention it’s really coming from these ego drives: what do you want to manifest next - your mansion on the hill, or your Porche? But for you, there’s a really strong receptive component to intention: it’s given as much as it’s created.
MM: That’s right, that’s very well put, Steve – it’s given as well as created. So we are always co-creating, always and everywhere at every level – but who are we co-creating with? What part of ourselves are we co-creating with? And I do believe there is some sort of deep self, daimon, call it what you will, and to the degree that we align ourselves with that and then build a life around that, intentions will be effective.
SD: Aurobindo has played such a seminal role in your philosophy and in the overall philosophy of founding Esalen Institute. I wonder if you talk a bit about how he would see intention –
MM: Well, he would see it very much, as Arja said, he believed that each of us is rooted in what in Zen would call “Big Mind” he would call in Brahman what he called the Jiva-atman. That is, atman, the ultimate subjectivity, which is Brahman, but in its individualizing aspect – that’s the Jiva. And the universe is a vast co-created event of the adventure of the souls, through time, having involved themselves in the world of matter and what he called the “inconscient.” But in addition to that ultimate subjectivity, Jiva-atman is what he called the “psychic being,” the chaitya perusha (he coined that term) that evolves from life to life. I believe that is the case, but Sri Aurobindo would say that intention then emanates, first and foremost, from this fundamental impulse to actualize the divine on Earth – but that it comes into play to the degree we exercise what is normally called willpower. He was big on that, but big power, willpower, allied with the higher self, the daiman. Again, so it was this receptivity plus willpower.
Now, he eventually chose the Star of David as his symbol and that’s an ancient symbol – it’s prominent in the Jewish tradition – and you have the bottom triangle representing the aspiration from matter through the will, and the top triangle coming down is the answering grace. That’s the way the universal game, the game of games, is played. Everything is aspiring – Novalis: immer nach Hause, always homeward. It was there in Plato and the Neo-Platonists, but then after the temporalization of the Great Chain of Being, as Lovejoy calls it, when the world woke up to the fact that the world is unfolding in the course of time – which most people never realized really and fully grasped until the 18th century and really crystallized for the opinion elites around the world, I would say, starting with Hegel and Schelling and then got nailed down with Darwin, and then confirmed with the idea of the Big Bang. In other words, there’s this enormous unfoldment of the cosmos and Aurobindo would say that at the heart of it, it’s the divine disclosure in the course of time: the deus implicitus, in the sense of Schelling, becoming the deus explicitus, the explicit god in the course of time.
SD: Nice. So, switching gears over towards the more scientific side – because you’re somebody who’s really bridged this deep philosophical and practical, spiritual side, with also rigorous scientific inquiry into meta-normal abilities and these higher capacities – how would you see some of the work on intention, how does that show up in terms of –
MM: Well it shows up beautifully in a number of places. In The Future of the Body, it’s my most ambitious book, the single experiment that ended up taking the most pages was done by Marilyn Schlitz of Noetics and Bill Broad. It was given different names along the way – influence at a distance, there was a feedback component so a la biofeedback, in other words, you would be doing somebody else’s feedback for them. So, anybody at Noetics aught to be acquainted with that research. It’s clear that I, sitting in one room, if I’ve got leads coming from, or feedback from, this other person, can influence them – as if I were influencing my own body, I can influence their body. Now this has been fundamental to every single yogic tradition over the last 2500 years. There all sorts of names for this: iyapti, prakamya. Sri Aurobindo experimented with all this in his great early years of experimentation with the Siddhis, but there it is in that scientific thing – they’ve got these enormous z-scores and probability, so many strings of zeros. It’s a beautiful set of studies that Marilyn and William Broad did down in Texas at the Mind Science Institute. That’s a beautiful, tough, well-controlled scientific study of intention and its powers. It’s now gone over into the DeMille’s research that Noetics has been so central to.
SD: One thing that’s interesting in the further reaches of that is given that you’re interested in the cultivation of the higher echelon of any ability that we have, what kind of evidence have you seen in the Future of the Body and elsewhere that our ability to affect the world in these kind of small ways actually expands as we expand our consciousness –
MM: Well again, for me the biggest lesson has been that by persevering with Esalen 45 years, all the magical graces that have come. I used to keep a journal of synchronicities. Jeff Kripal has featured that in his new book about Esalen. He really takes seriously this notion of synchronicity and is starting to build up a very comprehensive and deep theory of how it might work, extending it out from Jung to see it in great social transactions, at large. And the same magic in our work for the Soviet Union: here’s this tiny little institute out in California, notorious in various circles, ending up bringing Boris Yeltsin here where he converts to capitalism, goes back, quits the party and ends up standing on the tanks. We brought their Writers Union into the Intenational Pen Club – that was an absolutely pivotal event in Glasnost. The first space bridges, the astronaut, cosmonaut – all of those things, we’d aspire to do these things and then it was offered to us, and I think the more you do, the more you can do. We can explain all of this in very commonsense terms, but there is, Steve, I am absolutely convinced now, a kind of secret magic that accompanies the ordinary efforts of will we all make. There’s a kind of, I would call, a covert prayer process that goes on when you start to intend something. Now, you can use it for destructive ends as well, but when, again, it’s aligned with your daimon, with your deep self, with your dharma, then this magic blossoms. So you can see it in people who have been magical workers in the larger arenas – you think of Ghandi or you think of Nelson Mandela, I would say that was true for a couple of years of Gorbachev, and etcetera. Does that speak to what you’re –
SD: Yeah, that’s fantastic – I think it’s really interesting and insightful. I’d like to kind of take us to the next octave of this which is to really look at: how can we practice and train ourselves over time to be better and better intenders who are more prone to these answering graces? And it speaks to the program that you and George Leonard launched called Integral Transformative Practice.
MM: Well, George uses the term “focused surrender”: you intend something and you can practice on things very small. I’ve been intrigued by the recent discovery that Sri Aurobindo kept this record of his own yogic practice. Here I’ve known about him for 50 years before I heard – no one knew that this thing was what it was. They’ve dug it out; he never intended it to be published. But he would experience, like summoning his cat to be fed, and then he would have “experiment failed,” “experiment succeeded.” Or moving a train of ants to the left or to the right – things extremely small, practicing this influence at a distance, in other words how can the world outside you respond to your intention? And then he would experiment in telepathically contacting his companions – this was back when he was living in Pondicherry.
In any case, with ITP, George and I have done this in dozens of ways through a variety of exercises to make an affirmation that you want to change in your life – let’s say you want to lose some weight, one lady wanted to add height, she added two inches of height, and etcetera. Then by practicing it, you find out about this covert prayer, this secret magic, this multiplying force. It’s kind of like in finances, like compound interest. Somebody asked Einstein once, “What’s the most marvelous thing you’ve encountered?” Here’s the man who discovered that light bends and that there are black holes and everything and he said, “Oh, the most marvelous: compound interest.”
SD: An affirmation there of the compound interest of the soul…
MM: That’s it - you’re compounding. We say of some people, they’re very strong willed – well you know, practice makes perfect and that’s what’s going on. Again though, with the proviso that it can be for destructive ends, so again, checking in always: how is this benefiting the common good, how is this for your life long term, how is this in alignment you’re your deepest vows? So I think it’s through practice and learning how it works – the mystery of: you intend something and then there’s an answering grace. To learn how to recognize that is key.
SD: When you were talking about the practice and the honing over time I also sprang to mind our own governor right now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even when he was, I guess, a bricklayer with this fierce intention – as somebody who didn’t even speak English particularly well – that he was going to one day be governor of the state.
MM: Well, one night we met him, way before - he had won Mr. Olympia and he had not yet made any of his movies – and he knew I was interested in all this stuff, he had won the world championship seven times, Mr. Olympia contest. And “A pump with your mind in it,” he said to me “is worth ten with your mind out of it.” And I said “that’s because you can really perfect your form,” and he said “no, you can be on a machine where your form is perfect for you, but if your mind is drifting, it’s not as effective as when your mind is in it.” I said, “Well, what is it?” He said “there is definitely an x-factor.” I said “Well, what is the x-factor?” He says, “I don’t know.” I wish I could do in his accent – “I don’t know” but, in any case – absolutely. Then Frank Zane, who succeeded him as Mr. Olympia, and I got to be friends. He redesigned his body three successive years to win the championship with a different Frank Zane each time. You know, like Ford brings out new models every year, he brought out a new body every year. He showed me how he drew the body wanted with crayons over a photograph of his body, and then he trained himself to fit what he’d drawn, you see. There you get into the realm of stigmata. In The Future of the Body, I itemized all the hundreds of stigmata, most of them religious stigmata. But they’re very individualized - every stigmata comes custom made. There are Muslim stigmatics who have not just the wounds of Jesus – there are different versions of the wounds of Jesus, there’s kind of the da Vinci Code of Jesus and some of these stigmatics, marks appearing in the damnedest places. Well this is mind-over-matter. This isn’t being done by Jesus, this is being done by the stigmatic subconsciously, consciously, and the same with so-called “hysterical stigmatics.” Now you can see these particular vivid marks, welts, wounds, all sorts of things that appear on the body, as very much the same process as a Schwarzenegger or Frank Zane remolding their musculature. Now this is big and fundamental in sports psychology and in sport training: visualizing the body you want and then building it to fit your specification.
SD: Fantastic. I particularly love the study of some of these extraordinary things that happen, like stigmata, because they really are reminders of how much more powerful our subconscious can be if we learn to harness it.
MM: Well you know, Steve, we make 2 ½ million red cells a second – being produced in our body. We’re producing several billion neuropeptides a second. Now when you redirect your body to do something as complex as changing your whole look or, let’s say, producing a stigmata. The number of cellular and molecular transactions is trillions times trillions, trillions times trillions. Now there’s no way consciousness can ever catch up with that – this is all being done in the subliminal regions of our body. But again, the magic of intention: how does it do it? There’s a mystery for ya…
SD: There is a mystery, and it’s extraordinary as we delve deeper into that mystery how expanded the perspective of what is actually possible can get.
MM: Yeah, if we can get all these intertwining interactions – trillions upon trillions of them within our body to produce these effects. Now, we can do this as well when we produce an ulcer or give rise to some other psychogenic or psychosomatic illness. There it is working destructively.
SD: Fascinating. We only have about a half an hour here for the call so what I’d like to do is just end with the final question we’ve been asking folks. One of the things that’s become quite popular is different forms of collective intention – vigils for world peace or meditations for world peace – and there’s some interesting research now, [such as] the Global Consciousness project at Princeton, that there’s maybe something to these processes. If you could comment on the process of harnessing collective focus in a certain direction, and what might you want to do with that?
MM: Well, I think, to continue in all the ways we admire when we join a social movement or join in a common cause – we know the ways and names. I think it’s well known, but we have to get out and work to mount the social and political will to do these things. If we can have these mysterious effects on our body and if a little place like Esalen can end up doing all these catalytic things in the political realm, certainly a large movement of people can move the world – and humans have done this again and again.
SD: What’s on the next horizon for the little institute of Esalen that has big ripple effects?
MM: Well on the political front, we’re very involved in the Middle East with what Joe Montville has called the “Abrahamic Family Reunion” – bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together, and we hope to be building up kind of networks in five cities: Boston, New York, Washington, LA, and the Bay Area, to work on this. Then we have been building relationships up with colleagues in Iran and hoping to do essentially what we did with the Soviet Union. We have other projects going on that you know about in philosophy and survival research, postmortem survival research. That big book, Irreducible Mind, just came out – did you see that?
SD: I did. It’s quite an impressive work. I think may outweigh Future of the Body, even.
MM: Yes, it’s actually bigger. And amazingly the same thing happened - a guy fell asleep reading the Future of the Body once and he claims it fell down and gave him a bloody nose and was thinking of suing me. The same thing happened to a guy reading Irreducible Mind - he says it fell down, but it gave him a black eye.
SD: Yeah well it’s an interesting claim to be able to make as a scholar – to both open minds and bloody noses [laughs].
MM: Right [laughs] - all sorts of breakthroughs. Steve, great talking to you.
SD: Great talking to you, Mike. Thank you so much.