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.
Andrew Cohen: How would you define "self-mastery"?
Michael Murphy: Self-mastery involves the conscious control of a particular capacity or set of capacities, even though such control involves surrender at times, and openness to the radically unexpected, and to a kind of "cascading effect"—let's call it the momentum of mastery. I'm sure that when Mozart started writing a symphony, for example, he didn't know exactly how it would all sound at the end. Even though he may have seen it tout ensemble, all at once—and Mozart was famous for this—nevertheless, as it all unfolded, I'm sure that Mozart was truly surprised. Or let's look at self-mastery in basketball: Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, remember him? They used to call him "the black Jesus." He was a six-foot-one-or-two-inch point guard who played for Baltimore and then for the Knicks, and he would make these runs to the basket—I mean, my God, he was in some ways more impressive than Michael Jordan because he was so much shorter. And somebody once asked him, "Earl, do you think up what you're going to do before you do all that?" And he said, "Hell, no!" He said, "If I don't know, they don't know."
So mastery involves exquisite control, supreme excellence—and an openness to surprises that astound even the person who is masterful. It involves surrender to unexpected moves if we're talking about sensorimotor mastery, to new and unexpected responses of the heart if we're talking about interpersonal mastery, to new illuminations and complete surprises if we're talking about cognitive mastery, and to even more surprises if we're talking about spiritual mastery.
AC: The significant element of what you're saying seems to be that on the one hand there's extraordinary control, and on the other there's a kind of spontaneous freedom that makes miraculous things possible.
MM: Yes, and I would say that by whatever definitions you and I were to agree on for self-mastery and enlightenment, one of the great things they both involve is bringing something radically new into the universe moment by moment, because that seems to be part of the secret of the game: utter delight, surprise, novelty, the lila—play, in Sanskrit—and the ananda—the self-existent delight—translated into this movable feast which is the universe, horrifying as it is at times.
AC: Right you are.
MM: "A catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek said.
AC: And how would you define "enlightenment"?
MM: Well, at Esalen in the old days we used to have this exercise of a group of us sitting in a circle and all of us who were interested in such things giving our respective intuitions about the nature of enlightenment. And after having done that several times, all I can tell you is that when it comes to defining that word, I'm deeply confused. I mean, there are so many ideas about enlightenment that I personally don't use the word any more—I kind of gave up on it because people have so many different ideas about what it means. If you're interested, though, I could read you a quote from Sri Aurobindo, who has influenced me more than anyone else—
AC: With all due respect, I'm much more curious to find out what's going to spontaneously come forth from your own lips.
MM: Well anyway, Aurobindo makes the point that different types of spiritual experience that have all been called "enlightenment" have long been recognized in India, where they have these huge lists of all the types of enlightenment. For example—
AC: Isn't there some defining principle that they all share?
MM: Well, yes. Running through all of them, I think, is a recognition of the beginnings, at least, of a condition of release from all those limiting programs that impel us through the day, a sense of identity with a timeless order, a sense of union with the All, with a fundamental essence of things that we perceive, somehow, as being within us—or, conversely, a sense that some essence of us is within them, within anything that we look at or anything we perceive. It's an experience that, as I understand it, is like looking at lamé or a sari: when you hold it up to the light, different tones and reflections come off of it, and in this experience we can feel very high or very low—or we can feel boundless—but it's a fundamental connection with what could be called the "ground of being" that leads us to say, "We're home at last."
AC: That's beautiful. And what do you feel are the similarities and differences between self-mastery and enlightenment?
MM: Self-mastery as we commonly think of it is limited to some particular domain. As I said, it could be sensorimotor; it could be interpersonal; it could have to do with the introspective, with command over one's emotional life; it could be in the cognitive domain or it could be spiritual. Whereas "enlightenment," as it's usually used, refers to a fundamental kind of realization that puts us, it seems to me, on the track to our greatest life and returns us to the secret of why we're here in the first place—although I also really believe that many enlightenment experiences can serve, for some people, to keep them from realizing the deepest intention of this universe. So it's a paradox.
In thinking about this question for our talk here, I've tried to come up with some of the ways in which what we'd call "self-mastery" is similar to what we might call "enlightenment" or "revelation," and one similarity is that in order to achieve self-mastery in any domain, you've got to—it seems to me—practice. Practice is fundamental. As in all types of learning, you often have to persevere when there is no apparent improvement; or as my friend George Leonard likes to say, we have to learn to love "the long plateaus of the learning curve." But at the same time, as I said before, we have got to be flexible enough and open enough to take the sudden inspiration, and to surrender to it when it comes. Again, Mozart might see his symphony tout ensemble, and have it there in the space of seconds, but it would take him a couple of weeks to write it down—and the writing down, I'm sure, was filled with delightful surprises. Earl "The Pearl" Monroe going to the basket probably had an intuitive sense that he was going to go left or right or cut around this one or that one, but when he actually came to do it—at least if we're to believe him—he totally surprised himself.
I've interviewed many, many athletes over the years and I can tell you lots of stories about these kinds of surprises, but my point is that it's the same in meditation practice aimed at enlightenment. My friend Richard Baker Roshi says that enlightenment experiences are always an accident but that meditation practice makes you "accident prone." The golfer Ben Hogan would make shots under pressure that were unbelievable—he could curve the ball left, he could curve it right, he could make it go low, he could make it go high, he could hit it out of all different lies. After one of the big tournaments, they asked him, "Ben, how come you make more of these extraordinary shots under pressure than anyone else?" "Well," he answered thoughtfully, "because I'm luckier." They said, "But Ben, you practice more than any other player who ever lived!"—which is true, he did. And he said, "Well, the more you practice, the luckier you get." So in relating mastery to enlightenment, this principle is at work.
Now a second principle that I feel they have in common is what I referred to earlier as the "cascading effect" of grace, or the momentum of grace. In other words, with reference to what Hogan calls "luck," in religious language we could say that "grace is given." Now this is more a Christian or Jewish term, but in Buddhism it can be recognized in the doctrine of "nonattainment": you practice and then suddenly a miracle happens that is an enlightenment experience. It's given to you.
AC: That's very clear.
MM: Yes, and it's not only that something is given, but that something else is given. And then something beyond that is given. And then something way beyond that is given. Now, many people experience this in lovemaking, and for a lot of people that is perhaps their most ecstatic moment—in making love. But this surprise of what is given, and then beyond what is given—that's the momentum principle. Now, in sport this is so interesting to talk about because, you know, God is in the particulars, and when you go into this it gets to be more and more fascinating. But my point is that this principle operates both in particular forms of self-mastery and in all those practices that are designed to lead toward enlightenment. Now why that to me is fundamental is because it leads, I think—and this is what my book The Future of the Body is about—toward what I call "integral transformation." I was oriented to this through studying Aurobindo, and you could also refer to this as "integral enlightenment" if you wanted to.
The idea, in other words, is that at the end, or let's say not at the end, but unfolding through all forms of self-mastery, are glimpses of what has commonly been referred to in the religious traditions as "enlightenment." For example, I have become the repository of people's stories about epiphanies on golf courses. I wrote this book, Golf in the Kingdom, which was published in '72, and since that time people have been telling me about their illuminations on golf courses to such an extent that I tend to think of myself as Father Murphy taking confession. Here's an example: A lady is at the end of her golf round, and she's going up to the clubhouse—mind you, you can get into this peculiar exhilaration playing golf, what with these gorgeous gardens, and the wonderful fragrance of the pine trees, and the sunset, et cetera—and she tells me the sun's light was replaced by another light, and the world became transparent so that everything she looked at seemed to be nothing but a radiant pattern! And she said that after the round was over, this experience lasted for several days! It reminded me of Jacob Boehme, the great Protestant mystic who was a shoemaker in the seventeenth century. Boehme had one of his illuminations while working with a crystal globe that he used to focus light in order to burn the leather. One day, he got to a point where the light that would come through that prism never left him, even when he was walking down the street! And that light revealed the face of God to him everywhere. So this lady's experience reminded me of him, but it came to her while playing golf—the point being that in mastering a game, she had an enlightenment experience.
Or take the bodybuilder Frank Zane. Frank thought he could win the Mr. Olympia championship but he was five-nine and Arnold Schwarzenegger was six-four, two-hundred-and-fifty, and the whole movement had been toward size and grandeur, so Frank had to show that small is beautiful. Well, about the time he was starting his quest he met a Buddhist priest who gave him some beads and got him saying namu amida butsu ["I take refuge in the Buddha of Compassion"]—you know, the Nembutsu mantra? And he took a vow that he was going to do one million namu amida butsus before the competition. So he started his training, which consisted of pumping iron, lying in the sun and saying namu amida butsu. It's a good life! Well, pretty soon he got to a point where the mantra was saying itself—in other words, he didn't have to try, all he had to do was listen to it because by now it was—
MM: Yes. But what he noticed was that his training was way ahead of schedule. Bodybuilders have to train to peak at the right moment, but he discovered that his body had become more responsive to the intention he had. Well, it's a curious thing, but I found out later on when I first met Frank that at the same time this experience was going on in him, he was reading my novel Jacob Atabet, which is about this sort of thing, and by another tremendous coincidence I had seen him win that Mr. Olympia contest on television one day. Now this was a couple of years before I met him, and I was just channel-surfing—so in other words, I had seen what I'm about to tell you without knowing any of this, and I had been so astonished by what I was looking at that I called out to my wife, "Come and look! I don't believe what I'm seeing here!"
What I was seeing was this guy in front of the audience engaged in this stupendously narcissistic-seeming activity, with his body all greased up, and here he is all flexed up and the crowd going nuts every time he would flex to show a different configuration. And he was beaming and emanating in such a way that I said to my wife, Dulce, "Look at this! Isn't he in an astonishing state of mind!" So that stayed with me.
Now Frank tells me the following story: The day comes for this competition, he says, and this namu amida butsu thing was going so much that he was simply in a constantly exalted state, and he knew he was going to win. Before the competition they have a drawing, and everyone goes and draws a number out of a hat. So he draws a number and it was the number one.
MM: And he knew instantly that it meant three things. First, of course, it meant he was going to be the first one to come out and do his stuff; the second thing was, it confirmed his sense of the ultimate oneness of all existence; and then the third meaning was that he would win—he would be "number one." So he was going to come out first, he was going to win, and it confirmed his sense of oneness. Anyway, he went out there and he says that the first thing that happened was that his consciousness seemed to go to a point about a foot above his head, and he had never had that experience before. That's a feature, you know, of many people's ecstatic moments, or satori [awakening] experiences, that experience of kind of going up above the head; it's not necessary, but it's a curious thing that it happens a lot. And the other thing he said was that he and the audience were absolutely one.
AC: And it was this extraordinary moment that by coincidence you had watched on television?
MM: Yes, I had witnessed it! And another very fascinating thing had happened, too. I'm very much interested in a particular feature of integral transformation, which is the appearance, in a radical form, of these siddhis—or in the Catholic tradition, the charisms—you know, these are the special powers. In the Sufi tradition, they're called "the adornments of the man of light." Now, you can take different attitudes toward this, but one of the things I wanted to talk about today is the relationship of these siddhis to enlightenment because they are, to me, part of the connection between self-mastery and enlightenment. In any case, one of them that has been recognized in every tradition is that there is sometimes this emanation of light either from the body or from some part of the body of the enlightened person. Well, when I had shouted to my wife to come look, I swear to God, Andrew, his body was giving off—and they were visible to everybody—these emanations of light! Now Frank and I have discussed this—in fact, we did an interview about it in one of the muscle-building magazines—and he tells me that it was in fact debated afterwards whether this was perhaps caused by the floodlights being jiggled and the vibrating light bouncing off his greased-up body, or whether the light was actually coming from his body. It was discussed afterwards! And I saw it!
Now this is a longer story, and it goes on, but maybe I've told you enough to make the point that all of these marks of what I call "integral transformation" were there in that experience that Frank had. In other words, as you rise to the further reaches of self-mastery, those marks of enlightenment which are called siddhis, charisms, adornments, appear. And for me, this is evidence that the world wants integral transformation or, if you will, integral enlightenment. That is the flowering, in all our parts, of all our attributes, of all the various capacities we have, of this latent divinity—do you see what I mean? And that's why I take great delight in your question about the relationship between these two—because I think that what's dawning on the world is the perception of integral transformation, or integral enlightenment. In other words, that all our parts are meant to have the opportunity to grow into this, to exhibit it, to unfold; and that's where this cascading effect of grace or the momentum of grace operates because it carries us beyond what we intend. That lady only wanted to play a good round of golf and she got this illumination, you see? Frank Zane mainly wanted to win the Mr. Olympia contest, and instead he got all of this other stuff.
AC: Was this woman's relationship to life transformed forever as a result of that experience?
MM: Well, you know, I don't know, Andrew. I get these letters from folks, and I've got a whole file full of them; but I haven't followed up on their lives, so I can't tell you.
AC: You see, I'd agree that through these extraordinary feats or experiences, or just through the practice of self-mastery, many people do seem to find access to extraordinary being, to extraordinary depth and mystery—that they can be catapulted into a perception of reality that was hitherto unknown. In terms of our definitions, though, one distinction I think we could make between self-mastery and enlightenment is that in enlightenment, one has come to that point where one is at least to some degree anchored in the ground of being, and that as a result of being anchored there, there is some permanent shift—something has happened that is irrevocable—versus, as a result of having done some kind of practice, finding oneself catapulted into an extraordinary state, an extraordinary experience, an extraordinary revelation, only to return once again to an ordinary state.
MM: Well, my observation of life is that for most people it's the latter. They have a moment of illumination and then they return to their ordinary state. To get anchored in a primal recognition of who we really are as deep Self, Brahman, or however we want to talk about it—to be anchored in that to some degree and to have a practice that supports it—that's not automatic; and it's not necessarily true that people do follow up on these experiences. Many of these things come spontaneously, but I firmly believe that to anchor them in our life we need to live life in accordance with the Tao, as it were. At the same time, though, it says in the Bhagavad Gita that it is better to fail in your own dharma than to succeed in someone else's, and while I do think there's a principle of anchoring your practice in who you truly are, the discovery of who you truly are is easier said than done. In these experiences, people typically find access to only a part of their potential, so I think our best chance lies in what I call "Integral Transformative Practice"—in other words, a practice that is anchored in developing our understanding of who we really are.
AC: It's interesting, though, that the experiences you've been describing occurred as a result of the pursuit of self-mastery. Self-mastery, as I understand it, is cultivated through the consistent development of greater and greater control over the body, mind and senses. And some Self Masters tell us that a profound experience of freedom and a deep sense of fulfillment can be attained, as your examples show, directly as a result of developing such control. At the same time, many of the great enlightened masters, ancient and modern, have told us that true fulfillment and real freedom can only be realized through unconditional surrender to the great mystery of being itself. "Thy will be done," they say, in the end, is the only door through which final liberation can be found. So what do you think? Can the path of self-mastery—the path of greater and greater control over the body, mind and senses—ultimately bring us to the state of perfect fulfillment and an experience of profound inner freedom? Or, in the end, do we have to be willing to relinquish any notion of control in order to become fulfilled and win our own perfect liberation here on this earth?
MM: Well, as I implied in my previous answers, it's "both/and." Because you've got to set the table for the heavenly feast, and setting the table involves work, you know? But then, also, you have to be able to make this tremendous surrender. I should repeat, though, that I've been thinking of self-mastery as being typically limited to a particular set of skills in some domain—not, in other words, as an ultimate program of development in the sense of religious practice.
AC: That's an important distinction.
MM: Yes, but to me, you see, part of the wonder of this, and more evidence of what the world is about—what the secret of this world is—is that we also have this possibility for integral transformation, and that even someone who has got only a very limited notion of mastery can stumble onto this secret. So the important point is that if they don't have a philosophical context for it, if they don't know what to do with it, then they'll lose it.
AC: Because they don't know what it means?
MM: Right. Or because they don't have a practice that is sufficient to cultivate or to open them to what has been given to them. Human beings are creatures who mainly look a gift horse in the mouth. That's what most of us are doing all the time. It's been given to us, and we're just turning away. And I'm the worst offender, by the way. I'm not putting myself above anyone else. I know whereof I speak.
AC: You've been speaking about the possibility of the pursuit of self-mastery leading to enlightenment experiences or even to enlightenment itself. Jack LaLanne is an incredible example of someone who has actually achieved an extraordinary degree of self-mastery. By all accounts, he is a nonstop fountain of boundless energy and positivity, and from what I've read, much of his day revolves around his fitness and diet regime. What I'd like to ask you is this: If Jack LaLanne were to become fully enlightened—whatever that is—do you think he would stop working out?
MM: Well, I doubt it—I mean, that's what he knows how to do. If you have a satori [awakening] experience chopping wood, keep on chopping wood! But on the other hand, the problem with so many athletes is that they don't know what to do when the competition is over, you know? Now I find that very interesting: It seems that with any kind of self-mastery, if it's within too limited a context, there can be a law of diminishing returns that starts to operate. And I think that's also true in the so-called spiritual life, or contemplative life, because a person will go to a monastery and have what Aurobindo called a "psychic honeymoon"—he'll start to have all these marvelous experiences—but soon the law of diminishing returns sets in, and then the group will say, "Ah, that's the failure of the disciple." But it could just as easily have been a function of the practice system not being integral enough, of its failure to include all the other dimensions that secretly that person also wants to cultivate and become.
AC: According to this way of thinking, in other words, he's been prevented from responding to his realization in modes that are not included in or recognized by the system?
MM: Not only prevented from responding, but from practicing and exploring other dimensions of life that are calling to be explored, or practiced, or attended to. This is why there are so many problems in some of these religious groups—and why whole groups get sick. It's important to talk not only about the individual here, but also about groups and societies. Let's take a sports team, for example. The players can build on one another's success and training so as to become a real synergistic, functioning beautiful team, you see? Or, they can go the way of fragmentation. Now I got to know about this because I'm friends with Bill Walsh, who built the Forty-Niner dynasty here in the Bay Area—Bill and I went to Moscow together, which, if you're an American, is a good way to get to know someone. And he's told me a lot about the basic principles of creating a team that can go on and on and on in this synergistic way that works to everyone's benefit in a way that is also applicable, I would say, to societies and ultimately to the whole world. Because that's what I feel we're struggling dimly to move toward—an integral transformation that involves not only personal but also social transformation; and what's interesting is that these principles hold on both levels. If, for example, you let a particular attribute in yourself flower, it'll tend to become contagious, but the other parts of yourself have to open up to those parts that are flowering. Well, it's the same in a group. If the quarterback, Steve Young, is really turned on, boy, he'd better have wide receivers who can really play with him, you see?—I mean, there's no quarterback without the wide receivers. Now the same goes in the global economy. America is really going now, but boy, Japan, because it's stuck, is not only dragging us down, it's dragging Asia down, and it's dragging the world down. The same with Russia. You can take this principle anywhere, it seems to me, this principle of integral transformation that once one part starts to move toward this deeper possibility, then the call is for the other parts to respond, to come into alignment with it, you see? And I think that in religious groups this is an often unrecognized problem—that they don't pay enough attention to the different parts that are calling one another toward a mutual transformation, an integral transformation.
AC: It sounds like Ken Wilber's theory of "all-quadrant evolution."
MM: Well, Ken and I have spoken about this, and I think we're of one mind about it. Both of us have been influenced by Aurobindo, and so we share this fundamental vision.
AC: Well, it certainly makes a lot of sense. Speaking in equally broad terms, though, it could be said that while the attainment of self-mastery liberates the "I Can" in the human spirit, it is enlightenment that reveals the "I Am."
MM: That's a good one, that's very nice!
AC: Well, when I was thinking about this issue, and when we were speaking together about it, this was one of the fundamental distinctions that came out of our discussions. And looking at self-mastery and enlightenment from the perspective of this distinction, I realized that they could be seen as the fruition of two completely different impulses in the human being. For example, the well-known peak performance coach Anthony Robbins seems to be teaching something very different from what the renowned sage Ramana Maharshi taught. At the same time, it seems that there are revolutionary thinkers today—such as yourself—who advocate a form of human cultivation and development that claims, as you've been saying, to integrate these two apparently antithetical modes of transformation. What I'd like to know is this: How is it possible that Anthony Robbins and Ramana Maharshi could exist in the same body?
MM: Andrew, I have to tell you that one day, to open a seminar, I had two photographs which I'd juxtaposed. It was the head of Ramana Maharshi on the body of Frank Zane! I held it up in front of the group—it got a good laugh—and then I said, "Well, this is what I want to talk about, folks." So this is great!
Well, first of all I'm reminded of the Taoist statement, "Meditation in action is a hundred, no, a thousand, no, a million times greater than meditation in repose," which I often quote in The Future of the Body. You see, to get to the "I Am," meditation is certainly one of the royal roads, if not the royal road. And Ramana Maharshi clearly exemplified that for people who spent time near him. He spent the first eleven years after his enlightenment at sixteen living in complete silence up in a cave, and I believe that for most people, it would be better for them to sit still several times a day, and to practice self—inquiry like Ramana Maharshi did, or some form of dzogchen, or zazen, or vipassana. In other words, it would be good for most of us to practice directly the "I Am," the pure being, and then to practice the various forms of mastery in the spirit and the presence of what is revealed through "I Am" practice. This is what we advocated, George Leonard and I, when we created our Integral Transformative Practice, and in all our sessions we make it a point to interweave meditation throughout so that the various forms of self-cultivation are always anchored in some form of meditation practice.
AC: So you're saying that the "I Am," the revelation of "I Am," would be the foundation, or should be the foundation, for any kind of mastery practice?
MM: That's correct, and you know, that is coming into sport. Just as an example of this, I've been involved in golf instruction as part of the many, many workshops that have grown out of my golf books, and so I've watched people develop countless ways to come to this pure emptiness while playing a round of golf. And not only have I seen it at work on golf courses, but it's been used by football players, too. Now if these people can do it, then certainly we can bring it into every walk of life. In fact, I taught meditation and visualization exercises for a year and a half at a big utility company down in Phoenix as part of a program there to increase the viability of the workplace. Then the people there devised—and I mean this, Andrew—not dozens, but hundreds of ways to translate these things into their work. These guys who climb up on power poles, you know, they would have these meditation periods because there were a lot of injuries and deaths up there on the power poles; and they had this visualization practice called "fighting the dragon"—the dragon is this big ball of lightning-type of electricity that builds up on those very high-powered wires that you see. And these guys with their hard hats would also do what was called "bringing your mind to the job"—spending ten minutes in this meditation that I was teaching there. And this whole central district of Arizona not only had no deaths—and you'd be surprised at how many deaths there are among people who work in the power industry—but no injuries! So there's the "I Am" helping out the "I Can." Now, if we get metaphysical here, if we move from psychology to metaphysics, I think we're constrained to believe, once we start having these kinds of experiences, that all action arises out of this primordial emptiness, this original state of pure being. So the "I Am" really is the source and birthplace of the "I Can."
AC: Yes, something came from nothing—isn't that how it all started?
MM: Yes, it's the Big Bang. And what was before the Big Bang? Or before the Big Bang, what was your original face? So to meditate before, during or after your cultivated activity is to reenact the Big Bang, it's to reenact that emptiness before anything happened. And when you do that, I have found that your activity is enhanced—just pragmatically. And now, you know, there's all this good research coming along on what good things meditation actually does for people. I did a monograph collecting the more than two thousand studies of meditation done since the 1930s, and it's a very pretty picture. Science has not yet mapped the furthest reaches of meditation, but certainly the physiological and immediate psychological effects, and the capacity of meditation to improve performance, have been documented. And again, it's because of this synergy of what you're calling the "I Am" and the "I Can." I must say, that's a nice phrase you've got there.
AC: Thank you. In The Future of the Body you write: "Most mystics have been ruled by some archetype or dimension of the Transcendent and have been reinforced in its particular truth by their temperament, their training, and the beliefs they inherited with their practice and culture. When practices . . . support one-sided beliefs or limited sets of virtues, and when they are strengthened in such activity by the genuine realizations they induce, they become powerful obstacles to many-sided development, exerting a tyranny that prevents our deepest fulfillment." In light of this—and in light of the distinctions we've been trying to make between self-mastery and enlightenment—my question to you would be: What is our deepest fulfillment?
MM: Integral transformation. Integral enlightenment.
AC: Could you define that?
MM: Well, it's what I've been talking about—the cascades of grace in all our parts. It goes beyond anything I can define, but we can see it as it's been exemplified in human history, which is why we love to be around and read about people who are good at something. It calls us out to be good at that, and all of us have potentials not only that we haven't realized, but that in many cases we don't even know we've got. So integral transformation is calling out to us to be more, and to know that we're meant to be more. And, yes, we do have to specialize at times to achieve particular masteries—that's crucial—but on the other hand, as I keep saying, we have to be open to the surprises of integral transformation. We can be too rigid about our definitions, and many of our definitions are held not only in the mind, they're held in the body: how we stand, how we look, how we walk, how we gesture, how we speak—everything, you see? So it's a constant act of either redefining, or else reinforcing, the old definitions. We can have as an ideal this integral transformation, but now we need to flesh it out more and more, and so my main work, I feel, is to bring forth this vision, as well as practices adequate to nurture this vision. Things will go better for us if we don't get into a narrow definition, a narrowing of our practice, and stay there.
AC: What you're saying, I suppose, is that fulfillment—"our deepest fulfillment," as you put it—would be an unrestricted experience of total evolution.
MM: All I'm saying is that I think things will go better for us the better or more adequate a vision we have of life's highest goods. So "integral transformation" would include a wide range of siddhis, charisms and adornments that have been described in the various sacred traditions. That doesn't mean that each of us is going to realize all of those—but if we're open to them, then when they come to us, I think we have a better chance of accepting them and letting them find their own natural integration into this evolving, integral transformation. But the problem, you see, is that people who start to practice along a certain line will see a gift as a temptation or a distraction. And if your doctrine is "moksha before siddhi"—you know, the old Hindu phrase, liberation before siddhi—and you're given the siddhi that could be the next doorway to your integral transformation, you'll slam it shut just because your ideal tells you that it's bad! This has happened again and again to people I know, to people I've read about and to people I've heard about. And it can happen whether your ideal is enlightenment or whether your ideal is some form of mastery.
I'll give you an example. I was taken to the Forty-Niners' training camp by John Brodie, the quarterback, after he'd read Golf in the Kingdom. He said, "Let's write a book on all this because this stuff happens in professional football, too." Now, I was amazed because I'm an old football fan and, my God, this was an offer no fan could refuse—have the quarterback take me to the training camp and talk to the players. So one of the first guys who talked to me told me that—well, actually we were all drinking beer together, me and these players, and it's kind of intimidating, they're so much bigger than me and everything; I tend to salute around these guys—anyway, he was a defensive player and he said he'd had this experience of knowing what play was coming before it happened, and that it was a voice! Anyway, the guys went to dinner and when I saw him the next day I said, "You know that experience you told me about?" And he said, "What experience?" At that moment I said to myself, "Boy, I am like Sigmund Freud. I am watching repression in action." He said, "Oh, you and Brodie got me drunk and blah, blah, blah, blah." But I pursued it because I knew he was very ambivalent about this, and then finally he came up to me and said, "You know, maybe there's something to this." Well, this'd be an example of a siddhi he had, you see, like Frank Zane when he had that experience of going up above his head, the light flashing from his body and all that. Now Zane had a more inclusive philosophy—which he'd developed, you see?
Conversely, I was at the Aurobindo ashram for a year and a half practicing the yoga of Sri Aurobindo after he'd passed away, and I had many, many talks with people there who for various reasons had quite a narrow vision of practice and its outcomes—even though that ashram was flying under the flag of Aurobindo, who was known to have had a very inclusive view. In fact, I remember being struck by the large number of people there who rejected aspects of their own experience that I felt were the dawning of this integral enlightenment.
AC: You thought they weren't living Aurobindo's dharma in his own ashram?
MM: Yes, right—the rigidity had set in already; this was 1956—'57, and he'd only died in 1950! Now, you know, I keep saying that the siddhis and charisms are not distractions; they are the budding limbs and organs of our future nature. In The Future of the Body I chose twelve sets of capacities to describe the totality of human nature, and what I discovered is that in every culture, these twelve sets of capacities are recognized as having both normal and supernormal versions. In every culture! That, to me, is proof, just on the face of it, that this integral transformation is trying to happen in human nature and that we have to recognize it.
AC: You're saying that this transformation is trying to happen, but that unless we recognize it, we'll suppress it without even being aware of it?
MM: Exactly. So we have to stop looking the gift horse in the mouth. We humans have got to surrender to the notion that we're much more than we think we are and not let ourselves be hypnotized by silly people, not let ourselves be brainwashed by whatever family or social group or society we find ourselves in.
AC: In The Future of the Body, you also state that "certain flaws in our discipline can lead us away from integral transformation. Practices can be used to ends for which they were not designed." This is, I think, what you've been speaking about—"they can reinforce limiting traits or beliefs; they can give certain kinds of spiritual realization destructive sway over all the others. To avoid such dangers, we need to be wise mediators between our normal functioning and the metanormal activities emergent in us." My question is: How do we determine what "wise mediation" is in the context of evolution—or enlightenment? By what criteria can an individual who is aspiring to transcend their present level of functioning determine what the most appropriate course of practice or action would be? How can someone have a clear sense of how to appropriately navigate themselves into territory that they have never encountered before?
MM: Those are great questions! Well, first of all, we can't find out except by doing it, by experimenting, by exploring. You know, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We start, we learn. Seek the best wisdom and guidance you're capable of getting wherever you are—and then you just have to learn from experience. When you seek to institute a creative change, you're definitely going to confront the old homeostasis, so sooner or later this negotiation process between the different levels of your being is going to happen. You have to keep pushing the envelope, and at the same time you've got to look out for burnout or breakdown in every domain, and as you go into it you'll become a connoisseur of your own practice, a connoisseur of who you are. For example, I got pretty good at running, and in Houston I almost won the national fifty-and-over championships. To do that you have to train like hell, and many, many times I overtrained, so I learned the marks of overtraining.
Now, I've talked to Dick Baker Roshi about this a lot because he is deeply immersed in Zen training, and we've had many, many discussions about the marks of overtraining in meditation practice. He tells me that in many practice periods and retreats, the great gains are not on the meditation cushion but when you're out doing the work, you know? It has to do with the way you can relate to that, and surrender to that. And another part of it is letting your deep self—let's say your "deep organism" or your "deep body-mind"—find its divine balance. That rebalancing can be very subtle because it wants to rebalance at a higher level, but in the acquisition of that higher level sometimes you've got to stay right where you were in the first place while all this rebalancing is taking place outside of consciousness. Anybody who's got experience in meditation practice or in any kind of skill training—I watch it in my son gaining more and more command of the English language—knows that most of it is going on outside of awareness, and you've got to be wise enough to just let it happen. You could say it's God's hand, which is greater than your hand, or you could say it's the nature of Buddha-mind—I don't care what language you use, but you have got to be a connoisseur of practice, and that's where this "mediation" comes in. And this is applicable, I think, to all the dimensions of either a mastery quest or an enlightenment quest: it's by doing that we learn.
AC: One of the things I was trying to get at in the question I asked, though, is the notion—which seems to me to be inherent in the passage I quoted—that somewhere we always know what's most appropriate for ourselves. The reason I have a question about this is because in the movement from the known to the unknown—and I'm speaking honestly about this from my own experience as a teacher—it happens quite often that without, shall we say, a little encouragement, if not at times strong encouragement, the individual is going to be more than happy to settle for far less than they're capable of. That being the case, if it was left utterly up to the individual to be "the mediator," nine times out of ten, they would choose to realize infinitely less than their true potential.
MM: No, Andrew, I think that's right; I agree with you. So I think that if we're serious about things, we have to offer ourselves up for challenges from a teacher, from strong peers, or from our own self-mposed disciplines and the standards we've set for ourselves. And whether it's set by teachers or by peers or by ourselves, the bar has to be high enough so that we're really going for it. But we also have to be wise enough not to set the bar so high that we're going to break our neck in the process. Then also—and this can be compromised by a teacher who doesn't have a broad enough vision, or a group of peers who are too narrow, or by our own limited ideals—we've got to be as open to the bigness and the richness, let's call it the breadth of enlightenment, as we are to the height and the depth. The breadth of this integral transformation must include or be open to all the siddhis, all the charisms, all our possibilities for growth. I'm not saying that I, Michael Murphy, for example, am going to realize all this—obviously I'm not going to be Mozart or Willie Mays. Am I going to go out and hit sixty home runs? I don't think so. But I have to be open to the fact that my next book might be a blockbuster, or that what we're going to do at Esalen might astonish the world. In those domains where I'm actively working and have worked for a long time, I'm open to anything. Of course, I could also collapse!
AC: In The Future of the Body, you go on to say that transformative practices, "though they encourage individual autonomy . . . require surrender at times to transformative agencies beyond ordinary functioning. In the ego-transcending love and knowing at the heart of integral development . . . a power or presence beyond our familiar faculties sometimes inspires us. This superordinary activity alters our sense of autonomy, annihilating and fulfilling it at once as it improves our various capacities." When you speak about having our sense of autonomy "annihilated and fulfilled at once," are you saying that it's possible to surrender and retain one's autonomy at the same time?
MM: Well, you know, all of us consciously or unconsciously have pegs that our identity is attached to. But there is an "I" beyond that particular set of identifications that has gotten clumped together as the present "Michael Murphy," and that "I" goes on revealing itself as I get older and as I continue practicing and so forth. So I would say that in one sense I become less of who I am now but that in another sense I become more and more who I really am. I mean, it's a great paradox. And I know how much debate there's been metaphysically between Buddhists and Hindus—you know, "Are we a 'one' or are we a 'zero'?" I mean, that's all metaphysics. In real experience, at some point you say, "Oh, call it a 'one,' call it a 'zero,' I don't care what you call it." But the sense, definitely, is that this is who I more truly am, that this is who I really am. And it doesn't depend a bit on this, that or the other peg that I'd hung it on, or what this, that or the other person has said or thought about me. It's there, it's always been there, it always will be there, and I'm becoming that more and more all the time, although, paradoxically, I was there in the first place. So that's the sort of thing I meant. But also in there is the idea that emanating from this primordial "I" are all these various capacities of the "I Can," and that they, too, are part of the ego-busting power of practice and of living fully. In other words, we're always becoming more.
AC: Yes, but obviously only if we're practicing in the right spirit.
MM: All we have to give up is our smallness, for God's sake! We're so attached to our smallness, it's unbelievable! You've gotten me all excited here, Andrew, you see? I'm blaming this on you now—you've gotten me overexcited! I'm going to have to go lie down now and take a rest!
AC: Michael, I have one last question for you, a hypothetical question. It's the year 2002. The ultimate school for Integral Transformative Practice has just opened its doors in Mill Valley, California. Its staff is made up of the highest caliber talent in the fields of physical, psychological, emotional, interpersonal and contemplative development. And you've just been informed that, contrary to all reasonable expectations, Gautama the Buddha himself and ten thousand of his monks have just arrived on a boat from the Far East and set up camp in Golden Gate Park. A very bright aspirant, strong in intention, asks you with the utmost sincerity: "Where is the best place for me to go in order to evolve to my highest potential?" What would you say?
MM: Well, I would be so relieved that the Buddha got to Golden Gate Park, I would get myself over there very swiftly. Man, what a relief! I feel better already just thinking that could happen. That first thing you described, that sounded like a terrible burden. So what I'd say is, "Go get a taxi for us both. I can't wait!"