The Fundamental Urge of the Universe: An interview with Michael Murphy

WIE: Back when the great religious traditions were developing, nobody knew about evolution. It hadn’t been discovered yet. Therefore, all the transformative spiritual practices that emerged within those traditions naturally lacked an evolutionary worldview. But times have changed. What does our growing understanding of evolution mean for spiritual practice today? Does the evolutionary perspective change the spiritual path itself?

Michael Murphy: Absolutely—because this evolving universe is now the context of spiritual practice. I think that today, anybody who is the least bit thoughtful has to slow down enough to say: “Okay, evolution is a fact.” Any educated person has to say that. The evolutionary story is continually being disclosed to us. Literally every day, there’s some new discovery in some field.

The story of evolution is bringing all other stories together. It’s the great myth of our time, if you want to call it a myth. So if you’re thoughtful and you accept that fact, then you have to conclude that all human activity has that as its context, including all long-term transformative practice of any kind. Today, practice means getting yourself in sync with the most fundamental urge of the universe itself—namely, to develop, to evolve in a progressive way.

If all transformative practice—including all contemplative practice, Buddhist practice, shamanic practice, whatever—is indeed embedded in an evolving world, we need to find out what that means. We’re driven to find out more and more about it, to become conscious of the fact that evolutionary progress is in our being as well. Spiritual practice is evolving; vision is evolving; realization is evolving.

Enlightenment itself is evolving, no matter what you mean by enlightenment. The experience of consciousness is changing, in all sorts of unexpected ways. Take golf for instance. Why is it that thousands of people are now having these mini-satori experiences playing golf? That’s fascinating in its own right. People who’ve never heard of satori, who’ve never even heard of Zen, who have no spiritual aspiration whatsoever—all these guys out there having spiritual experiences. I think that golf is a mystery school for Republicans.

We could make a catalogue of the ways in which the evolutionary vision serves transformation, but one of them is that it’s a paradigm buster. So there’s the thrust of the new, but there’s also the death of the old. Just look at the troubles of the church. Look at the hideous forms of Islamic and Christian and Jewish fundamentalism—it’s like we’re witnessing the decay of these old religions right in front of us while this new thing is being born. And more and more people are disaffected.

The snake is growing a new skin, but the old skin is really getting old and it’s ready to slough off. It’s like Yeats’ line from “The Second Coming”: What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? It’s this worldview that’s slowly emerging, this rough beast. But it’s unfinished. And folks, we’ve all got to go out there and contribute to it. I mean, either we do it, or we don’t and we sink back into the next cataclysm. Because it ain’t predetermined. It’s all up to us. And we know that deep down—we know it’s up to us. Now, we can work at it in many different ways. We don’t all have to be philosophers. But at the heart of it is transformative practice itself, which is about what you actually do. Because in the end, we have to live it. We have to want to live it.

Michael Murphy is the cofounder of Esalen Institute and author of Golf in the Kingdom.

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