Fulfilling Your Highest Potential

by Scott London

Today it’s widely recognized that we use only a fraction of our human capacities even though we carry within us an almost unlimited power to learn, develop, expand and evolve. Michael Murphy has devoted the better part of five decades charting our human potentialities. He co-founded the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in the early 1960s and has authored many books, including the evergreen Golf in the Kingdom. His 1993 book The Future of the Body — an encyclopedic study of what he calls “metanormal capacities” — traces the history of extra-sensory perception, superabundant vitality, extraordinary movement abilities, universal love, and other abilities which he believes are accessible to all of us. He took that a step further in The Life We Are Given, co-authored with George Leonard, which outlines a groundbreaking program for systematically effecting personal change and transformation. I asked him about some of the practical ways we can remove the blocks that stand in the way of achieving more, remembering more, and drawing on more of our inner resources.


Scott London: You say that “we live only part of the life we are given.” What do you mean by that?

Michael Murphy: There is more and more evidence today that all of us have enormous unused potentials. For example, a big article in the American Psychologist entitled “Expert Performance” reviewed dozens of studies about abilities that were once thought to be genetically determined, such as perfect pitch, or the ability to remember strings of numbers on a single hearing, or various athletic skills. These studies have shown that with training everybody can learn perfect pitch, can learn to extend their short-term memory, and can expand their athletic abilities. And those are just physical abilities. There are also emotional capacities, cognitive skills, and spiritual abilities. Every single human attribute gives rise to the extraordinary — among men and women, young and old, in all cultures.

London: How do they “give rise to” these extraordinary abilities?

Murphy: For example, we can extend all of our senses. Some wine tasters can make 10,000 discriminations, and there are perfume testers who can make 30,000 discriminations. People can train their eyesight to far greater acuity than was once thought possible. There is enormous evidence that there is extra-sensory perception, as well. You can train remote viewing, as they did at the Stanford Research Institute.

That is just perception. You can extend that to other attributes as well, such as our ability to love. We can learn to love by the practice of love. Or our relation to pain and pleasure. Anybody who has been to these pain clinics can learn to control pain. We can also learn to induce states of pleasure.

There are so many ways to categorize our human faculties. But no matter how you map it, whatever attribute you look at, there is a body of research that shows it can be cultivated and that it can become extraordinary.

London: You’ve analyzed records from the Roman Catholic Church that show that worship and contemplation often produced extraordinary experiences.

Murphy: Yes, Roman Catholicism, more than any other religious tradition, has tried to sift out the evidence for these extraordinary abilities. They put their saints on trial in the canonization proceedings and put witnesses on oath. It’s a mortal sin to lie to the Congregation of Rights that do these investigations.

What they have dug up is the fact that there have been about 300 Roman Catholic women and a few men who have had the marks of Jesus Christ on their hands and feet, marks that simulate those of Christ’s crucifixion. Typically these things either ache or bleed every Friday or perhaps every Good Friday.

There are other kinds of stigmata, as well. In the Muslim world, there are the two saints who have had the battle wounds of Mohammed appear on their back.

In these cases, the mind identifies with or conceives of a particular bodily image and translates it with enormous specificity into the flesh. This is, again, another example of mind over matter, of the influence of imagery on the body.

The Roman Catholic tradition has sifted this body of data most carefully. But the biggest catalog of these powers exists in Hindu and Buddhist lore, where they are called “siddhis.” Charisms and siddhis are great pointers to what I see as our untapped greater potential. I’m convinced there are thousands of these abilities.

London: You also talk about sports as an area of human transcendence. In fact, in an article you called sports an “American equivalent of Yoga.”

Murphy: Yes, I’ve written a couple of books about that. The more you look into high skills in sport, the more you realize that mind enters. A lot of top athletes develop their physical skills, but they can’t compete with certain other athletes who have a great mental game. In golf, for example, Ben Hogan had great physical skills, but he also had a great mental game. The same with Jack Nicklaus. But there were other golfers whose swings were just as good — even more beautiful — but they didn’t have the mental discipline, the mental strength, that Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan had.

This is true in every sport. So these sports become a mind/body discipline. And that is what Yoga is — a lifelong mind/body practice to attain religious illumination. In sport, it’s aimed at attaining particular skills. What is interesting, however, is that these sports spontaneously give rise to what are nothing less than quasi-mystical illuminations.

London: A wonderful example of this is Lee Evans who in 1968 took the world record in the 400-meter dash.

Murphy: That’s right. I was privileged to know Lee and I actually ran with him in some senior track meets. He was hypnotized by his coach Bud Winter, who is perhaps the greatest sprint coach in American history. On the night before he ran 43.86 in Mexico city, he rehearsed every single stride of that race, over and over, under hypnosis. He went through every single stride, over and over. So when he went out to run, his mind was there. And with the mind comes this energetic framework, this aura, if you will.

London: You’ve also used sports as a point of departure for exploring the mysticism of everyday life.

Murphy: Yes, I think these experiences are actually more common than we think, but we are brainwashed by our language. Everyone I know has peculiar gifts that hardly anyone else has. For example, think of your friends. There are certain people, for example, who seem to have this extraordinary ability to just take a glance at someone and know an amazing amount about them. I know a salesman who, just by selling, has learned to scope people out, like a hunter. My son seems to know the content of every movie out there and I don’t think he reads the newspapers all that much. How is it that he knows? And I’ve quizzed him on this many times and he doesn’t know. I could go on.

London: Tell me about your recent work developing a program for systematically developing our human potentialities.

Murphy: People are looking for lifelong, comprehensive practices outside the domain of strict gurus and cults and dogma. I think we have to create new kinds of institutions. In that spirit, George Leonard and I have created a new center outside San Francisco for lifelong integral practice. It will look a little bit like a health club, but on the other hand it will look like a learning center, a seminar center. But you join as a member. Then you can design your own program within this school. I think there has to be more of this kind of “social invention.”

London: I was struck by the fact that your program uses affirmations. How do they work?

Murphy: In our pilot program, we had two eleven-month segments. There were 30 people in each segment practicing a variety of disciplines which we refer to as Integral Transformative Practice — practices for the body, mind, heart and soul. We asked everyone in the programs to make a variety of affirmations and to commit to themselves to practicing to realize them.

One set of affirmations involved change in the realm of the “ordinary” — change that no ordinary doctor would have a problem explaining. You might want to be a half an inch or an inch taller, for example. By good posture and a rolfing massage you can get an inch over time. Most people agree that we slump down as we get older.

We also asked them to make “extraordinary” affirmations. So one lady who was 5′ 1″ made an affirmation that she would grow three inches. We suggested to her that three inches was going too fast. But she said no, she would try that. After three months, indeed she was already consistently three-quarters of an inch taller — but full of aches and pains in her body. At that point, she took our advice to slow down. But she did end the program consistently an inch taller.

Another person who was threatened with a cataract operation made the affirmation that she would have crystal-clear vision. She went into remission and her cataracts disappeared. That is quite a remarkable change.

We also had everybody affirm that they would be vital, balanced, and healthy. In the second year, we wanted to have something measurable because we ran various experiments with the group in the spirit of science. So we wanted everyone to change their lean body mass — to turn a lot of fat into muscle. So many good things happen when you do that, you just get healthier and feel better. So the group made that affirmation. As it turned out, the group averaged a 12.6 reduction of body-fat in relation to total weight. So that was quite a remarkable result because this was a pretty good-shaped group to begin with.

London: In this case, you were having them exercise, I take it — not just doing affirmations?

Murphy: Right. The affirmations were one of the linchpins of the program. So much modern psychology since Freud has been based more on self-awareness and self-acceptance, self-disclosure, opening up — all important for growth — but I feel there has been a neglect (at least in my part of the world, and through Esalen Institute) of what I would call will, or volition, and affirmations are triggering that. I think the reason it has been neglected is that so many of us in the 1960s, when we entered into these practices, were escaping from the strictures of our upbringing, of our schools, churches, families. So anything that smacked of should or will was anathema. (Fritz Pearls, the great gestalt psychologist at Esalen, said he was against all “shouldism.”) So sometimes we tossed the baby out with the bathwater.

It came into modern psychology, certainly in its popular forms, through the 12-step programs, where you make affirmations to improve the quality of your life, to take responsibility, to lick your drinking or gambling problem, your drug addiction, or whatever. So the use of affirmations has been there and has been developed.

I continue to be amazed at the power of affirmations not only to cure our afflictions, but to increase our capacities. In sports, again, people affirm that they are going to break a record, they are going to surpass a time, or whatever. The power of it is amazing.

London: You had a community of people who were all engaged in this program together. It’s often been said that people can do great things together that they can’t do on their own. Did you find that to be true?

Murphy: There is the power of entrainment. You go out for a run, for example, and you may not feel like running, but if you get with a group of peers who are in shape and starting to run, they can carry you along. When you sing in a choir and you’re just off but the choir is going for it and suddenly your voice just gets carried along. Or when you’re with a very high-spirited person and you’re a little down, that energy can really pick you up.

Humans are contagious to one another. In a group, a team, a community like ours, that influence is going back and forth — again, for bad or good. It’s also working through social cues. We mimic one another. We imitate one another. Then there is reinforcement. We reinforce or punish one another.

London: In my own spiritual practice, I’ve certainly found it helpful to have others to who are engaged in it with me.

Murphy: Yes. Boy, does it help to have people to practice with. They asked the Buddha, “What is the secret of enlightenment?” He said, seek out the sangha, the fellowship. Practice with someone.

It’s hard. You are doing this long-term practice for these changes and there are all those days you don’t feel like doing it. There are days when you do and days when you don’t. But if you have a community, it helps to lift you up.

London: There are also some downsides to practicing as part of a group. Sometimes a community of practitioners can become insular, closed-minded, or too dependent on a leader. Have you found that to be a problem?

Murphy: We made an agreement with everyone in these groups that they were ultimately responsible for their program. I believe personal autonomy has got to be respected from the beginning, at the middle, and in the end. Those of us who are presenting the program actually don’t believe very much in the guru model. I think it was appropriate in another age when life was simpler. But today we have all become so complex, and life itself has become so complex, that one guru can’t be our guide in all things. I mean, we can’t expect someone who teaches us meditation to guide us in our financial affairs, or help us complete our income taxes. That is just asking too much. And that is the problem with a lot of cults and gurus.

So we were committed to this principle of autonomy, as well as community. I think the two can be completely compatible. When we create support groups for practice, I do think we need to honor the principle of personal freedom and autonomy. I think that is one of the new things in our age that we are sensitive to more than ever before in world history. It’s been part of the long social evolution of the human race. Democracy is essential, and we need it not just in government but in our long-term practice groups. We need democracy. We need mentorship. We don’t need guruvada.

London: You’re very optimistic about our capacities to grow and evolve. How do you respond to those who point out that the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history and that we’re looking at the flowering of human pathology — exemplified by atom bombs, terrorism, and environmental devastation — not the flowering of human consciousness?

Murphy: I don’t pretend to be a futurist. All I say is, we can improve our lives, the lives of those around us, and the whole wide world by exploring our hidden potentials. We’re learning more and more about them. And they can be applied to social action. I believe we can turn things around.