And it’s sometimes dangerous. We had a split at Esalen, we called it the Dionysians and the Apollonians. I moved up to the city in 1967 to start a centre in San Francisco. My closest friends, crystallizing around me, were more Apollonian. We were doing events at Grace Cathedral. At Big Sur it got wilder and wilder. It led to conflicts. We used to groan when we heard about some of the stuff happening at Big Sur. Free love was in the air. There were experiments with drugs. With any drug there are limits. So the place had become a living laboratory. The media caught up with this – but they didn’t see a laboratory, they saw a sometimes wild place.
It’s amazing you survived. Think about what happened at Osho’s ashrams at Pune and Oregon.
Dick Price for a while got very enchanted with Osho, then he went over to Pune and he was horrified. They were having encounter groups, and then one discovered he had syphilis and yet slept with seven or eight people. Then Dick watched a wrestling match, and saw a guy get his leg broken. So he flipped and came back lambasting Osho, while Osho started lambasted Dick. Dick gave an interview to Time magazine, so we got caught up – as we did with Scientology – in saying no to these crazier movements. We were exploring, finding our way.
How did you maintain quality control in the Esalen programmes?
For the most part, we’ve conducted public programms (which included professional training seminars) rather than research. The head of programming chooses the leaders. The program is edited all the time, and it starts before anyone comes. That’s how we’ve done it from the start, in 1962. A lot of what we did in the early days came out of psycho-drama – it came out of theatre games and improvisation, like Second City. In those days there was a meeting room next to the dining room. Suddenly there were blood-curdling screams. Eventually a guy came out on all fours, and some people came out and dragged him back in, then more screams. So, to cut a long story short, I told them they couldn’t come back and got a letter from every participant saying ‘Murphy you have no balls at all. You tell us to explore boundaries, then you kick us out’. So we had to use our intuitive judgement and not judge leaders only by what our seminar participants say . Now it’s easier because we hear about programmes before they come to Esalen – it’s like theatre, you get good in smaller theatres before you step up to Broadway. We only accept about a quarter of the leaders who want to do programmes at Esalen.
So, as a group, clearly the mystical expats had a big influence on you. How much on Californian spirituality?
Huge! First, they helped transmit this global lineage, the religion of no religion, experiential comparativism. Not just reading and writing about it, but experiencing it first hand. I would say it’s a global lineage. It comes in large part from the Bengal Renaissance – out of Ramakrishna, Sri Aruobindo, and Vivekananda coming to the US in 1893 and establishing the Vedanta centres, such as the one in Los Angeles where Huxley, Heard and Isherwood practiced.
It’s a lineage in the making that people have given voice to in different ways, particularly Heard and Huxley. They were both very strong on the marriage of science and mysticism, and the importance of depth psychology. They were very influenced by William James and Frederic Myers, as we were at Esalen. We’ve had a 15-year research project on James and Myers.
I love that. I dedicated my last book to Myers because I feel he deserved more credit. He’s barely known in contemporary British psychology or culture.
To add a footnote to perennialism, Jeff Kripal, in his book on Esalen, argues that, mid-century, there was a massive turn from the asceticism of Vedanta to the more full-bodied spirituality of Tantra. Esalen was in the middle of it. You can see it in the difference between Gerald and Aldous. Gerald had a strange relationship to his homosexuality, quite unlike Christopher Isherwood. Jeff Kripal used that story as an example of the move from Vedanta to Tantra in the West at mid-century. Tantra is a vast meta-theory that says the divine is both transcendent and immanent. It’s there in Feng Shui and architecture, in martial arts, in sex. It’s much earthier than much Vedanta and asceticism generally East or West.
In terms of evolutionary spirituality, both Heard and Huxley – like Sri Aurobindo – thought homo sapiens could potentially evolve into a higher spiritual species, and places like Esalen could help catalyse it.
Yes, we could be midwives. This is why I go back to Francis Bacon. He said that science in its basic sense is the acknowledgement that you have to conform your understanding to nature, and not try to get nature fit your understanding. This is the problem with materialist reductionism – it ignores facts like telepathy. I call them supernormalities of everyday life. We started a project years ago on supernormal experience. I’ve believed that we must collect the data of the inner life, like good natural scientists, then get taxonomies, then theories about human nature, in a manner analogous to that process in the physical and biological sciences.
It sounds in the tradition of Frederic Myers and Edward Gurney’s work at the Society of Psychical Research, at the end of the 19th century.
Exactly. I feel in this field we a long way to go. We haven’t done enough natural history. Supernormal capactities are hiding in plain sight, in all sorts of human activity, in the arts, in sport, in every day life. Again and again people have out of the box experiences, but they have no framework or vocabulary for it. My argument is that every human attribute gives rise to supernormal expressions. Myers was onto it – he called it evolutionary buds.
Huxley and Heard had a lot of interest and faith in paranormal research, but it seems like it’s really faded from academic psychology.
It’s almost like Sisyphus – you roll the stone up and it rolls down again. Look at the Society of Psychical Research – it went far ahead of us but now very few people have even heard about it. You need institutions to establish a new scientific paradigm. There are places and programs exploring the edges of our latent supernature but there’s a general resistance to such efforts in mainstream science and academia .
But in other ways, these are good times for transpersonal psychology, no? The boom in contemplation and contemplative science, the renaissance in psychedelic research…
Yes we’ve breached the fort of reductionism. But we’ve got a long way to go.
You could say that such exploration has been helped by Huxley, Heard, and Watts. They were popularizers – bridges between elite spirituality and the masses.
That’s true. They helped drive the democratization of all this, and to some degree an acceptance of it among intellectuals and some scientists.
We have to be careful about thinking scientific spirituality is somehow free from dogma. It’s who controls the power, the funding, the journals, the conferences.
Right – did you read Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? It’s crucial. Physics is supposed to be free of dogma, but what’s with string theory – there’s no experimental results because they haven’t proposed an experiment. Yet it’s considered a mainstream theory. Lee Smolin argues that seven universities and 32 chairs in academia control theoretical physics. And 29 of those chairs are occupied by string theorists. And there’s a book out, by the historian of science Peter Galison at Harvard – how big science is requiring some things that did not exist before, like ‘trading zones’. At CERN – English is the dominant language, but not everyone speaks English. And not everyone speaks the same theoretical language. In the trading zone you use pidgin languages. That’s pure Esalen. In a sense, Esalen is a trading zone to find a common language for different traditions and experiences.
Esalen has probably paved the way for where we are now – a sort of open-source, de-centered, democratic spirituality. Let’s learn from each other, rather than signing up to one dogma or guru.
Specialization with a single teacher works sometimes, let’s say in music, or in physics. You need specialization, but you also need conversation across boundaries. That’s a regional advantage of Silicon Valley. And Esalen.
What do you think of the rise of national tribalism and the tribalism of identity politics with regard to the Esalen project?
George Leonard started black-white encounter groups at Esalen in 1967. We did that for a few years. We did one recently between Democrats and Republicans. But our main thrust in this regard has been through work on US-Russia relations and Arab-Jewish relations. We organizied a conference in Russia, working with Russian and American students. The theme was ‘who do you trust?’ Why can’t we talk together like these kids did? We want to cultivate the impulse to talk across divides and not be afraid to be messy, and to have faith that there’s a common ground of goodness. Our first black-white encounter groups – black-white encounter as transcendental experience, it was called. There were black folks who’d never had a white friend and white folks who’d never had a black friend. We have Democrat friends who won’t let their daughters go out with Republican men. Can you believe it?
It sounds quite Quaker, what you’re doing.
Quakers are kissing cousins.The contemplation, the good works. I love them.
Is there a left bias among the people at Esalen?
Yes, but we have many conservatives—and even Republicans!—among our leaders and seminarians. And we get criticized from both the left and right!
Esalen is still very much in the news. Here’s an Economist article from November 2019 on how Esalen helped take the counter-culture mainstream. Here’s a New Yorker article from April 2019 on how Esalen is now part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and is trying to help tech CEOs find their conscience. And here’s an extraordinary excerpt from a new book on how Murphy researched superhuman powers, or ‘sidhis’ in sport and advised the US government on mind control. For more on the mystical expatriates, here’s an article I wrote. A shout out to QMUL colleague Jake Poller for his excellent new book on Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality.
And if you want a taste of an Esalen seminar from the heady days of 1968, here’s one featuring Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Claudio Naranjo (a pioneer of psychedelic therapy) and John Weir Perry (a pioneer of work on treating spiritual emergencies), talking about poetry and madness.