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Experience_beyond_BeliefxAmiras - ExpEriEncE bEyond bEliEf...

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Social Analysis, Volume 52, Issue 1, Spring 2008, 127–143 © Berghahn Journals doi:10.3167/sa.2008.520108 E XPERIENCE BEYOND B ELIEF The ‘Strangeness Curve’ and Integral Transformative Practice Mira Z. Amiras Abstract: This article explores the experimental work of Michael Mur- phy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, and George Leonard, who is on the Board of Directors of Esalen. Leonard was the first to coin the term ‘human potential movement’, using it to describe the work that Esalen promoted beginning in the 1960s. In the 1990s, Murphy and Leonard devised an experiment in what they called Integral Transformative Prac- tice (ITP): methods of achieving the extraordinary through meticulous body/mind practices not tied to a specific spiritual path. A key question raised by participants during the experiment was whether it was neces- sary to believe in order to achieve. This article explores what did and did not correlate to ‘success’ both within the original experiment and in the past 10 years of subsequent experimentation. Keywords: Esalen, extraordinary experience, Integral Transformative Practice, metanormal, strangeness curve Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, and George Leonard, Murphy’s close friend and collaborator, and a member of the Board of Directors of Esalen, together coined the term ‘human potential movement’ to describe the work that Esalen has promoted and sponsored since the early 1960s. Esalen is a communal retreat and study center devoted to the exploration of ‘human potential’ and the cultivation of ‘extraordinary experience’. It has hosted eminent scholars, artists, and healers, including Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Carlos Castaneda, Alan Ginsburg, Babatunde Olatunji, Michael Harner, Gabrielle Roth, and many others. Renowned for its natural hot springs, waterfall, and exquisite vistas on the Califor- nia coast, the Institute offers over 500 seminars and workshops to the public each year, in addition to invited sessions on specialized topics and global issues.
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128 | Mira Z. Amiras What did Murphy and Leonard mean by ‘human potential’? Murphy (1992: 6) sums it up as follows: “I have come to believe that virtually everyone of us has experienced, and that everyone of us can cultivate, moments when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, when mind and body are graced by something beyond themselves.” “Experience,” he says here, not “belief.” Belief is too easy, perhaps. It often requires of us nothing more than devotion, conviction, and faith. Murphy does not mean to diminish the importance of faith or devotion, but rather to emphasize at Esalen practices that can be taught. Experience is a doing. It is a different kind of verb—one that requires going beyond mind, beyond what William James (1929: 73) would call “vague impressions of something indefinable” or “definitely statable [ sic ] abstract principles” as in the statement: “I believe in God.” Embodied experience, unlike belief, has a tangible, physiological, objective
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