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Odd Couple, Match Made in Heaven

Celebrating Sam Keen and Michael Murphy

March 2019

In 1968, philosopher Sam Keen was a straight-laced professor from Kentucky with Calvinist tendencies. When he read about a “human potential” movement happening in California, immediately he felt a call to adventure. “These were modes of thought that emphasized present-moment awareness and body therapies,” Sam says. “This was very alien to me, and I was fascinated; I felt compelled to investigate.”

Led by his curiosity, Sam arranged a sabbatical and embarked on a life-changing journey. Within hours of arriving at Esalen, he’d met its co-founder, Michael Murphy. “We started talking in the baths and we haven’t stopped yet,” Sam shares. Fifty-one years later, the conversation between Sam, whose books and teachings have influenced international citizen diplomacy, the men’s movement and beyond, and Michael, the primary instigator of the human potential movement, is going strong. “Certain friendships are so prismatic, the more you turn them over in your hands, the more facets you see,” says Michael. “Sam and I have had a wondrous set of agreements — and slight disagreements, which make the conversation more interesting.”

Sam’s upcoming What’s Next? Reviewing and Revisioning Our Lives workshop features a conversation with Michael, and if past experience is any indicator, the two friends will traverse the unfolding philosophical and mystical landscape of human nature with laughter and debate.

Sam and Michael describe themselves both as an odd couple and a match made in heaven, and for them that’s not a paradox. “I would say Michael was in the tradition of idealistic philosophy, the philosophy of mind and spirit, and of the transcendent,” Sam shares. “I was much more in the existentialist tradition. My heroes were Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard. They said, we can’t really know the reality of things that are beyond reason. So when the idealists would talk about the oversoul, the existentialists would say, how do you know that? Mine was a more skeptical philosophy. Michael has a very playful philosophical mind. We would always play back and forth with that.”

“I could never have been turned on by Kierkegaard!” Michael responds. “I found my way to Sri Aurobindo and meditating. My trajectory in life has gone more toward the mystic. Sam teases me that I’m more ascetic, that I never go to the Esalen baths. I’m upstairs meditating. He lives more downstairs.”

Be that as it may, over the decades Sam and Michael have shared many projects and adventures that took them from philosophical realms to large-scale action. Sam cites the 1973 Esalen conference, Spiritual and Therapeutic Tyranny: The Willingness to Submit, as especially notable. The conference, held in San Francisco, and for which Sam gave the keynote, was an attempt to address what Michael, Sam and Esalen co-founder Dick Price saw as the problematic aspects of religious authority, whether it be gurus or even Esalen’s own teachers. “In some ways that was some of our best work,” says Sam. “We attacked the gurus who were making these outrageous claims, and I think that was utterly necessary at the time for the culture to move forward.”

In the early 1980s Sam also was part of the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program — now Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy — and traveled with Michael and Dulce Murphy to the USSR as part of an effort to improve the Soviet-American relationship during the Cold War. Sam moderated the first Spacebridge, which enabled Soviet and American citizens to speak directly to one another via satellite communication.

“I always have so much fun with Sam. When he plays his internal music, he can play a lot of different chords and melodies,” Michael reflects. “This conversation in March could be a very interesting evening.”

Learn more about Sam's upcoming workshop What’s Next? Reviewing and Revisioning Our Lives.

Photo credit, below: Ira Israel.

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