By Michael Murphy
THE FUTURE OF THE BODY: Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature
By Michael Murphy.
Jeremy P. Tarcher: Los Angeles, 1992.
602 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).
MICHAEL MURPHY has written three novels—Jacob Atabe, Golf in the Kingdom, and An End to Ordinary History—but this book is his nonfiction magnum opus, the fruit of seventeen years of study and research as well as his experience as founder and guiding spirit of Esalen, the ongoing laboratory of transformation on America's western edge. His exhaustive scholarly research into the varieties of transformation and their history, inspired by his hands-on involvement in experiments with transformative practices, has led him to hopeful conclusions:
Taken in its entirety, the material presented in this book suggests that human nature harbors extraordinary attributes that may appear in sickness, healing, or programs for growth, either spontaneously or through formal practice.
One of Murphy's main messages is that we are not taking advantage of the knowledge we have on this crucial subject because it remains largely compartmentalized:
There isn't much dialogue, for example, between the various organizations that promote athletic, therapeutic and religious disciplines ... The gulf between such disciplines, and the distance between them and academia, impede the cooperative study of high-level change.
It is Murphy's great effort in this book to show the connections between these diverse disciplines and draw their practitioners into a common conversation on transformation. He suggests we can integrate the transformational aspects of the different practices by comparing methods that promote particular kinds of healing or growth:
Theravada Buddhism's vipassana, Samkhaya yoga, Zen Buddhist zazen, psychosynthesis, and Gestalt therapy, for example, rely on the noninterfering observation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. These five practices, three of them ancient and two of them modern, use some form of witness meditation. Similarly, many yoga systems, martial arts, and somatic disciplines rely on slow stretching movements to articulate the functioning of particular muscle groups, while many therapies and contemplative schools employ visualizations. A comparative study of transformative practices would reveal many methods that facilitate specific kinds of development.
Murphy explains that the similarities in such methods may not be apparent because they are rooted in different traditions:
Both Theravada Buddhism's vipassana and Samkhaya practice depend upon noninterfering self-observation, yet these similar disciplines are characterized in different ways.... But in spite of their different supporting philosophies, the two meditation practices require the same close attention to internal processes, and both produce a sense of freedom, mastery and delight. Furthermore, they loosely resemble the choiceless awareness encouraged by Zen Buddhism, psychosynthesis, Gestalt therapy...
Murphy goes further to try to find "functional analogies" between different kinds of practices. He compares Rolfing to witness meditation in that both practices "tease apart" physical or mental structures so that the entire organism can function more freely.
The increasing exploration of our possibilities, and the effort to transcend limits, leads Murphy to believe we are now on the brink of a new evolutionary epoch:
The human race has been zeroing in on an optimal set of paths toward its greater realization. In a long, meandering process typical of evolutionary process in general, humans have approximated—though not yet achieved—a breakthrough...
Murphy feels that a new level of existence has begun to appear on earth, one whose patterns cannot be adequately specified by physics, biology, or mainstream social science. If some of us find it hard to grasp the epochal breakthrough Murphy envisions—one analogous to "the appearance of life and the rise of humankind"—we can welcome his more immediately applicable findings: "There is good reason to believe that we all can progress in transformative practice, and that we have access to subliminal processes that help us."
The heart of Murphy's book—and its appeal—is his own curiosity and excitement and hopefulness, summed up when he says, "Like outer space, possibilities for extraordinary life beckon, and some of us will accept their challenge."
Dan Wakefield lives in Boston. His books include Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1988) and New York in the Fifties (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).