The Mill Valley octogenarian cofounded the Esalen Institute, wrote Golf in the Kingdom and ran with the literati of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
SALINAS IS MICHAEL Murphy’s hometown. His grandfather, Dr. Henry Murphy, delivered author John Steinbeck. Murphy, in turn, has interacted with such notables as Aldous Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, Abraham Maslow, Bishop James Pike, Ansel Adams, Susan Sontag, Paul Tillich and Timothy Leary. These associations, Murphy says, resulted from his cofounding — at age 32 — the worldfamous Esalen Institute in Big Sur in 1962, which, over its 50-plus years of existence, has been described as a “personal growth think tank.” A nonprofit organization focused on personal growth, meditation, massage, ecology, yoga, psychology, spirituality and more — there was nothing quite like it at the time. Many refer to it as the modern birthplace of the human potential movement. On average, more than 15,000 people a year from all over the world attend Esalen classes and seminars.
In 1950, while a premed student at Stanford, Murphy wandered into a class discussing Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. The miscue changed his life. Soon he was meditating and, after earning a bachelor of arts in psychology and serving in the U.S. Army, he lived on an ashram in India for 18 months. Upon returning to America, he and the late Richard Price started Esalen on property the Murphy family owned in Big Sur. Murphy, now 83, and Dulce, his wife of 44 years, live in Mill Valley’s bucolic Cascade Canyon. Their son Mac also lives in Mill Valley.
In addition to cofounding the Esalen Institute, you are an author in your own right. Norman Mailer once said, “Every aspiring writer gets one free one.” Well, Golf in the Kingdom was my free one. As a young man, I was a pretty fair golfer and this book surprised everyone. It was the first book I tried to write, let alone wrote. It was all in my head; it took only seven months to complete; it was never edited; and now, 43 years later, it has sold over a million copies and been published in 13 languages. Author John Updike called it “the best book written on the sport in the 20th century.” I’ve also written nonfiction books relating to the work being done at Esalen. I guess you’d call The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature my opus. It was a 15-year project. Laurance Rockefeller, a great human being, supported much of the work that went into it. Published in 1992, it’s a nearly 800-page description of supernormal human functioning triggered by activities ranging from spiritual healing to sport to yogic and contemplative practice.
The evolution of humans is a very current topic — and much has changed since you wrote The Future of the Body. I imagine you’re referring to Silicon Valley’s Ray Kurzweil and his singularity theory, which maintains that by 2045, artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and humans and machines will merge. Let me say this: Life has been evolving for, what, 3.5 billion years, humankind for maybe 50,000, maybe 100,00 years. But evolution can be regressive, static or progressive. The future that I write about — and Esalen people are now exploring — is seen to be wide-open, undiscovered country. And indeed, there are various scenarios of this future, among them Kurzweil’s singularity concept. However, many, including me, consider that view to be extreme. Personally, I think it’s a dead end. Artificial intelligence can give us certain things, amazing things. But I’m all in on the other side, the evolution of humankind within its core essence — which is body, mind, heart and soul. That is a different way forward than this whole machine fantasy.
How does it differ? Obviously, some of these machines are helpful. But there’s an argument to be made that we now have too much communication. For example, the email I use is very helpful, but at times you can’t get through dinner without someone texting their friends several times. This immense extroversion and obsessiveness, caused by this constant communicating, is something we have to watch and many people are getting concerned about it. Nevertheless, while some new machines are helpful, this idea that we’re someday going to become machines — the current movie Transcendence explores this concept — I think is a dead end.
But who decides which machines are helpful, and which are detrimental? We’re learning as we go; I’m not going to give rules. But here in Marin, I think it will be family by family. Yes, things have changed, and these machines are incredible distractions, but there are still strong young families — I see them all around me. And they will, eventually, decide how much time their children can spend looking at a machine, a screen, be it television, a video game or a smartphone. In Marin, I see signs of a counter movement: Buddhism is all around us. There’s Spirit Rock, and yoga, and the Tibetan groups advancing the mind-body connection. They just operate under the radar; they don’t get the media’s attention. Marin has both high tech and high touch. I know right now technology has a full head of steam worldwide, but humans have always explored extremes. And humans are adaptable; many young people are learning how to deal with humankind’s ever-increasing technology. After all, we’ve been reading, seeing and hearing dystopian themes for decades — Blade Runner is an example. And yes, it is something to fear; but I think that at some point this obsession with technology will seem ridiculous. I really think that. I believe Kurzweil’s theory about man and machines merging is hilarious. I can’t take it seriously.
Let’s switch from the future to the past. In the 1980s, during the Cold War, Esalen organized a Soviet-American exchange program that didn’t get the coverage it possibly deserved. Can you talk about that now? Here’s what happened: Esalen and the human potential idea led me to the USSR in 1971 to explore work being done there in what Russians were calling “hidden human reserves.” But our project really took off in 1980 when we decided to mount a major project to promote Soviet-American friendship. That we had friends in high places helped. President Jimmy Carter’s secretary became our friend; we were feeding the president items he’d put in his speeches; and we got to be friends with Claiborne Pell, who was chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, and who helped us quite a bit. Since 1980, we’ve sponsored dozens of Soviet-American (and now Russian-American) exchanges, encompassing a wide range of fields including medicine, sport, psychology, literature and the arts. My wife, Dulce, has been central to this from the start; we’ve had two brilliant and adventurous directors, Jim Hickman and Jim Garrison (who now lives in Mill Valley); and we’ve worked closely along the way with many wonderful folks, including the astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who helped establish the Association of Space Explorers; the writers Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer, who helped bring the Soviet Writers’ Union into the International PEN club, which works against government censorship of writers; and Joe Montville, the career Foreign Service officer who coined the term “Track Two Diplomacy” to describe and help support the kind of work we’ve done with our Russian colleagues.
No doubt this relationship with the Soviet Union transpired over several years. How did it culminate? It’s still going, if you can believe it. But there was a pivotal event that some might call a culmination. In 1989, some young people around Boris Yeltsin asked us to sponsor his first trip to America, and when he got here he flipped. America wasn’t the place his Soviet training had prepared him for. He was inspired again and again by the things he saw. And, while visiting a supermarket in Houston, this recognition came to a head. The Soviet Union didn’t have places like this. Seventy years of communism had not brought it close to
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at Esalen
what he’d experienced in the states. Back in Moscow, he appeared before the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and Gorbachev introduced him by saying, “We understand you have fallen in love with America,” to which Yeltsin replied, “Comrades, it’s not about America, it is about communism. So I have this to say to you today: I renounce the Communist Party. I quit!” Two years later, when the putsch happened and Yeltsin stood on the tank, the Soviet army stood down. Many believe that without his coming to America, this wouldn’t have happened. It goes to show that little guys like us can make a difference.
In addition to the considerable serious work done at Esalen, during the institute’s early years didn’t some rather raucous music festivals take place? Yes, indeed. During the 1960s, Joan Baez was living out there and Esalen hosted five of her famous Folk Festivals. In addition to drawing thousands of local people to Esalen, these festivals, over the years, attracted people like George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Lily Tomlin, Mama Cass, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, David Crosby, the Chambers Brothers and others. Now, not all of them, like George Harrison and Ringo, performed, but they certainly joined in the fun. And, believe me, it was fun. Once these festivals were over, it took us nearly two months to clean up the place.