Michael Murphy Profile

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of author Michael Murphy, who has been a key figure in the human potential movement and is co-founder of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

Michael Murphy was born in 1930 in Salinas, California. His father was Irish and his mother was Basque. In 1950 Murphy began studying at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he was enrolled in a pre-med program. One day Murphy accidentally wandered into a class on comparative religions, that was to change the course of his life. This accidentally attended lecture so inspired Murphy’s interest in Eastern and Western philosophy and spirituality that he enrolled in the class, and soon began practicing meditation.

In 1951, during a meditation experience by Lake Lagunita in Palo Alto, Murphy experienced a transformative vision that caused him to drop out of the pre-med program at Stanford with “a new purpose life.” Murphy switched his major to psychology, and he graduated from Stanford with a psychology degree in 1952.

After graduating from Stanford, Murphy spent two years in the U.S. Army, where he was stationed in Puerto Rico as a psychologist. Then Murphy returned to Stanford, where he spent two quarters studying philosophy in graduate school, before embarking on a trip to India in 1956.

Between 1956 and 1957 Murphy practiced meditation at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry, India, where there was an established spiritual community. After this, he returned to California, and in 1960, while in residence at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Fellowship in San Francisco, Murphy met Dick Price, who was also a Stanford University graduate, and they shared a common interest in psychology.

In 1962, Murphy and Price founded the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California on 127 acres of property that was owned by Murphy’s family. The grounds of the institute were originally home to a Native American tribe known as the Esselen, and carbon dating of artifacts found in this location has indicated a human presence there as early as 2600 BCE. The property was first homesteaded in 1882, and the hot springs there became a tourist attraction that was frequented by people seeking relief from physical ailments. In 1910 Murphy’s grandfather, a physician named Henry Murphy, purchased the property, and continued the hot springs business there.

The Esalen Institute became a retreat center that focuses on humanistic alternative education, and which many people consider to be the birthplace of the human potential movement. The organization has concentrated on teaching classes and workshops that explore personal growth, meditation, massage, ecology, yoga, psychology, the mind-body connection, and spirituality.

Some of the many incredible people who have taught at the Esalen Institute over the years include Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Fritz Perls, Nick Herbert, Robert Anton Wilson, Joseph Campbell, John Lilly, and Stanislav Grof. On average, more than 15,000 people a year from all over the world attend Esalen classes and seminars.

Esalen is a magnificent and magical place, with extraordinary views of the Big Sur mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The natural hot springs, or “baths” as they are called, remain an integral part of the Esalen experience. During the 1960s, Joan Baez was living in the area 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,” Murphy said.

Carolyn and I have both spent a lot of time taking workshops at Esalen. We took numerous workshops with Terence McKenna there together during the early 1990s, as well as with Colin Wilson and others. I have met many incredible people at Esalen over the years. In fact, it was at a workshop there that I attended in 1982 by Timothy Leary that I first met Carolyn’s daughter, and this is how I became friends with Carolyn.

In 1972 Murphy retired from actively running Esalen to do more writing. He has written a number of popular books, including In the Zone, The Psychic Side of Sports, The Kingdom of Shivas, and God and the Evolving Universe. Murphy’s 785-page book The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature, which was published in 1992, is a “historical and cross-cultural collection of documentation of various occurrences of extraordinary human functioning such as healing, hypnosis, martial arts, yogic techniques, telepathy, clairvoyance, and feats of superhuman strength.”

Murphy is also a passionate golfer, and he has written two fictional books about the relationship between golf and human potential. He describes golf, with its mixture of solitude and intense focus, as creating in some people a sensory deprivation that is conducive to mystical epiphanies. Murphy’s 1971 novel, Golf in the Kingdom, is one of the bestselling golf books of all time.

In 1992 Golf in the Kingdom inspired The Shivas Irons Society, an organization that “explores the transformational potential of sport,” of which Murphy is the co-chairman of the advisory board. In 2010 film producer Mindy Affrime produced a feature film adaptation of Golf in The Kingdom, which was directed by Susan Streitfeld, and stars David O’Hara, Mason Gamble, Malcolm McDowell, and Frances Fisher.

Murphy currently resides in Mill Valley, California. At 92 years old, he remains on the board at the Esalen Institute, and he continues to be a key contributor to research projects at the Esalen Center for Theory and Research.

Some of the quotes that Michael Murphy is known for include:

Life is tough, then you die. The sooner you accept that and move on with your life, the better off you’ll be.

Then he began to speak. “Golf recapitulates evolution,” he said in a melodious voice, “it is a microcosm of the world, a projection of all our hopes and fears.

Just the thought of it hurts, but I truly believe that sometimes you have to be willing to break your own heart to save your soul.

A round of golf partakes of the journey, and the journey is one of the central myths and signs of Western Man. It is also a round: it always leads back to the place you started from.

The more I study [golf], the more I come to deeply love and admire athletic excellence and beauty. It is one of the great manifestations of the divine.

by David Jay Brown