Totally on Fire

by Michael Murphy

I was living at Haridas Chaudhuri’s Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco in 1960, and Dick Price came to see me. We had been classmates at Stanford but had never met. It was a period that was filled with religious meaning, and at times it was truly ecstatic. I took my vows to live a spiritual life in January 1951 when I was at Stanford, so I had been completely surrendered to this life and on fire with it, meditating and studying, for ten years. I later lived in India at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram from 1956 to 1957. But I hadn’t done anything in the world to bring forth this fire and this passion. I had the idea to do it, and Dick and I were really talking about it and thinking about it.

I suggested we move down to Big Sur. And when we were in Big Sur, we got this idea about starting a center there. In June 1961, we went to Santa Monica to see Gerald Heard. We spent four hours with Gerald and his assistant Michael Barrie at the cottage where Gerald lived.

We had known some things about Gerald, and we had known about Trabuco College. Gerald was quite an influence on the Sequoia Seminars up on the San Francisco peninsula, so I had heard about him. Part of his vision that appealed to me was seeing the mystical life in an evolutionary context, which put him squarely on par with Aurobindo. So in the summer of 1961, Dick and I visited with Gerald for four hours. And when I walked out of there, I knew I was going to start Esalen Institute. I was on fire. That meeting triggered it, and I made my resolution to start Esalen.

With Gerald, we had a general conversation. You know how Gerald was—it covered everything. It covered the Old Testament, the New Testament, Buddhism, Christianity, evolutionary theory, the whole works. Oh my God, off he went! We discussed everything from the evolutionary metaphysics that I had completely imbibed from Aurobindo, to spiritual practice. He really knew his psychical research, and I had done a lot of reading there, too, so it was something.

I remember Gerald talking about the power of Big Sur and how it could catalyze powerful experience. He had an intuitive grasp of it. Frankly, I don’t know whether he had been there or not. But he spoke about being right at the edge of the continent, facing west, with the land backed up behind us, and his sense that the physical location would catalyze whatever we were going to do there.

That was the thing that pushed me over, all the way over—that conversation with Gerald. I walked out of there totally on fire, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. That was the trigger. Everything about our conversation with Gerald, everything ignited me during that conversation.

The next encounter with Gerald was in the first catalog that we published. We took over the place at Big Sur in October 1961. Then the programs that are now identified as Esalen started in September of 1962. The first catalog was titled “Human Potentialities,” a title that came from Aldous Huxley’s essays. I was looking for language that would mediate between Sri Aurobindo’s metaphysics and his evolutionary mysticism, and folks who weren’t that much into metaphysics and advanced mysticism. And Huxley’s language was compatible. We used some of his formulations. In any case, in that first catalog there was a lecture, a single lecture by Gerald in 1962.

So Gerald came to Esalen. I don’t remember how long he stayed, but he gave one of his electrifying lectures. [Ed. note: Heard’s topic was Art and Religion, given on October 26, 1962.] And we invited Gerald to come back and spend a month in the fall of 1963. So he was there again in November 1963 when Kennedy was shot and killed, and Aldous died on the same day [Heard’s stay lasted about two weeks, and he delivered several talks, including The New Concept of Evolution]. And they did a kind of a vigil for Aldous. We all joined in, in the spirit of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, of guiding and meditating and thinking, and he was in close touch with Laura Huxley. That was the last time that I saw Gerald in November of 1963.

Gerald Heard was not an intellectual influence on me. His main influence was that catalytic moment when we met, and that pushed me all the way to starting Esalen. Gerald played a hugely catalytic role for me at this big turning point in my life, as he did with lots of people. Although he was not a primary intellectual influence, he represented the basic worldview that I believe is trying to emerge in the world today. To me, this is the big one that’s coming up over the horizon.

Michael Murphy is co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Esalen Institute and author of four novels, including the best-selling Golf in the Kingdom, and The Kingdom of Shivas Irons. His non-fiction works include In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports, an anthology of extraordinary sports experiences, co-authored with Rhea White; The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, co-authored with Steve Donovan; and The Future of the Body: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature.

Mr. Murphy graduated from Stanford University with a degree in psychology. Esalen Institute has become the world’s premier growth center and has hosted numerous notable individuals associated with the Human Potential movement.

"His main influence was that catalytic moment when we met, and that pushed me all the way to starting Esalen."