The Paula Gordon Show
Golf and the Soul

Michael Murphy

MICHAEL MURPHY wrote Golf in the Kingdom and its sequel The Kingdom of Shivas Irons, In the Zone and others. Co-founder of the Esalen Institute with Richard Price in 1962, Michael helped initiate Esalen's Russian American Exchange Program. He continued to study philosophy at Stanford University after graduating from there, and subsequently spent a year and a half in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. He now lives in San Rafael, California.

Excerpts3:42 secs

Move over, man-the-toolmaker, we're evolving toward man-the-playful! To Play, according to Michael Murphy and ancient Eastern philosophy, is at the heart of existence. All creation and creativity are forms of this joy. "Delight" is sport's special genius, and the reason humans love sport so much, Murphy believes. And because when you are participating in a sport you're doing something you love, something you don't have to do, miracles happen.

Michael Murphy introduced "the zone" to the sporting world. His ideas about sports draw on his life-long study of philosophy. Golf in the Kingdom, which Murphy wrote 25 years ago, is a parable about experience and meaning. It's sold over a million copies in 10 languages and now has a sequel, The Kingdom of Shivas Irons. Murphy is also know for co-founding the Esalen Institute in 1962, a conference center in California's Big Sur country, committed to learning through experience. Two hundred centers worldwide exist today, based on Esalen.

Sport, Murphy is convinced, has a genius. It's a powerful way to learn about openings to a greater life, to deliberately cultivate human transformation. Whatever the sport, people participate in a bounded space with a set of rules, playing out of pure joy. That's the critical importance for ╬homo ludens,' man the playful. We are human in the best sense when we embody that attitude of playfulness.

Murphy believes golf is unique among sports (while proclaiming we can learn the same lessons anywhere, including in the mundane pursuits of daily existence.) He believes it's no accident golfers all over the world tell him stories of having experienced a sense of the sublime in the course of playing.

For starters, Murphy acknowledges golf is absurd -- like life. Skill is essential. So is quietude -- golf requires a deeper stillness than adrenaline-driven games like tennis. There's a commitment to the rules in golf. It's profoundly ethical -- you score yourself and everyone in the clubhouse knows the cheater. (Contrast that to football where, Murphy says, one gets away with as much as one can.)

And golf provides the all-important context that's essential to accessing the transcendent. Context is an overwhelming theme for Murphy -- whether revisiting the 1960's context in which he and Richard Price created the Esalen Institute, or the context which Esalen provided for people to courageously face the unknowns within themselves, or the context of everyday life in which we all live. Context is a critical condition for learning and evolving, part of whatever "core practice" one chooses to pursue.

Murphy believes golf itself is evolving and with it, he hopes, even "the Republicans among us," to whom he says golf offers access to enlightenment.

Once again, participation precedes learning.

Conversation 1

Michael Murphy tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about the origins of the Esalen Institute. Murphy and Richard Price co-founded Esalen in 1962 to have a place where conversations about life's big issues in life could be conducted in light of their special interest in Eastern philosophy and an urge to reform Western psychology.

Conversation 2

Murphy gives his own thumbnail "social history" of the '60's, including Esalen visitors who creating what is now thought of as humanist psychology -- Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Carl Rogers and others who challenged radical empirical trends in psychology of the times, returning instead to the insights of William James.

Murphy believes Esalen played an important part in creating today's "societal hathayoga," a set of practices which cultivate the potential of the human body and mind. He describes the proliferation of centers similar to Esalen, focused on direct experience.

Conversation 3

Murphy sees the world at the beginning of a great cultural transformation. Today's mind-body connections in medicine, the fitness boom, interest in nutrition are all part of that process. Murphy sees vast room for enhancing our understanding of human nature -- the marriage of sense and soul. ╩He describes the new Center he wants to create where people with jobs and families can come every day for a variety of practices.

He acknowledges the "shadow" side of the early Esalen Institute, which he believes stemmed from a lack of a long-term context into which people could fit their experiences. He applauds people's "courage" coming to Esalen and urges we learn from past excesses, strive toward balance.

Conversation 4

Murphy describes how Golf in The Kingdom was created, and it's international success. He describes the book's essential parable -- the threat of having an experience but missing the meaning. He speculates about what the human body and consciousness could evolve into.

Murphy recounts the evolution of the "very edgy game" of golf with considerable physical and mental challenges. He describes the central importance of "rules" and shares some of the stories people have told him about a wide variety of altered states they have experienced playing this "absurd" game.

Conversation 5

Murphy explains the power metaphors have to open doors to new dimensions of knowing and doing. He compares golf to other sports and describes why he thinks golf is singularly effective providing enlightenment and self-cultivation. He compares the evolution of golf to the evolution of the martial arts, making an argument for the ethical and moral lessons golf teaches.

The sports metaphor leads a celebration of "homo ludens" -- "man the playful." It's an approach to life which may be part of humanity's next great step. Murphy cites how ancient Eastern philosophies articulate this view of existence.

Conversation 6

Golf's lessons can be learned everywhere. Murphy recounts how "openings to a greater life" are expressed, often in humble ways. He reiterates how important he believes it is to combine spiritual, intellectual and physical practices, in a supportive community.


We appreciate The Commerce Club and Georgia State University making it possible for us to record this conversation in the "Bobby Jones Room," surrounded by images of greatness.

For membership in or information about The Shivas Irons Society, "a nonprofit corporation organized to further the pleasure of golf and explore its many mysteries," write:

The Shivas Irons Society
Post Office Box 222339
Carmel, CA╩93922-2339

Additional Links:
The Kingdom of Shivas Irons is published by Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Golf in the Kingdom's 25th Anniversary Edition is available in paperback from Penguin Arkana

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