Accessibility links

Michael Murphy Helped Launch Human Potential Movement More Than 40 Years Ago


Michael Murphy is an author, intellectual and citizen-diplomat. He's also co-founder of California's Esalen Institute, which is widely regarded as the birthplace of the Human Potential Movement. VOA's Adam Phillips has a profile.

Michael Murphy had a passing acquaintance with Big Sur, California, the rugged area of Pacific coastline where, during his childhood, his family had owned some land with hot-spring mineral baths. But it was not until 1962, in his early 30s, that Murphy returned to Big Sur. He had completed nearly two years in India at the ashram of the Hindu philosopher, Sri Aurobindo. On fire with the idea of marrying Eastern and Western thought, Murphy drew up plans to open a holistic, mind-body center that he called Esalen.

"One of our basic ideas was the education of the whole person," Murphy says. "I had a particular interest in the body's role in personal development alongside spiritual development, emotional development, and intellectual development. The sky is the limit."

Murphy says Esalen attracted all sorts of people. Early luminaries included the British author and psychedelics pioneer Aldous Huxley; Fritz Perls, a leading founder of Gestalt therapy; psychologist Abraham Maslow; the theologian Paul Tillich; the visionary designer and engineer Buckminster Fuller; mythologist Joseph Campbell, and Ida Rolf, who had developed a new form of deep-tissue massage that aimed to integrate mind and body, and Murphy says, helps the body "to become more flexible to open up to life."

Flexible and open to life might also describe the so-called human potential movement, which essentially began at Esalen. Esalen President and CEO Gordon Wheeler, Murphy's friend and colleague for over 30 years, explains that the Human Potential movement has many definitions.

"The criterion here is – is it a discipline, an exploration, a topic that fosters the integral development of human potential? If so, bring it on, try it out, see if it passes muster," Wheeler says. He notes that Esalen is "not going to be attached ahead of time to one particular [belief system]."

Murphy's view that everyone at Esalen gets a vote, not a veto, has encouraged the growth of new, hybrid fields of knowledge. For example, Esalen conferences for traditional Western academic doctors and alternative healers practicing acupuncture, Arurvedic medicine and herbal remedies and other holistic methods helped spawn the field of complementary medicine. Two well-known pioneers in preventative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Dean Ornish, both got their start at Esalen.

Murphy also revels in the transcendent potentials of even mundane human activities. Golf and the Kingdom, his 1972 novel about the popular sport and spirituality, has sold over a million copies.

"When I wrote it I had no idea that so many people were having mystical experiences on golf courses," he says. "I've been 'taking confessions' from golfers now since it's been published about their latest peak experience on a golf course. And I have learned along the way that there are hundreds of kinds of these experiences."

Beyond its work in exploring mind-body relationships, Esalen has played a role on the world stage, as well. In the late 1970s, Michael Murphy became interested in paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception, or ESP, and undertook a series of exchanges with Soviet researchers and practitioners of telepathy. Gordon Wheeler also credits Murphy with some courageous first efforts at citizen diplomacy between Americans and those living behind the Iron Curtain.

"This little place, under Michael's inspiration, brought the astronauts and the cosmonauts together," Wheeler says, "and created the first space bridge between American and Soviet citizens, with live satellite connections where they could talk to each other and ask hard questions."

Today, with terrorism a global concern, the teachers at the Esalen Institute promote workshops in the psychology of enmity and reconciliation between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Esalen founder Michael Murphy says that world peace and understanding are front-and-center goals for him now – logical extensions, it seems, of his lifelong fascination with the greatness of human potential.

Previous American Profiles

XS
SM
MD
LG