These grassroots efforts are like a global immune system in that they are drawn to the wounded places and they begin to work. –Michael Lerner
Richard Whittaker: [introductory remarks] There are two famous Michael Learners I’m aware of; the first one I heard about is Rabbi Michael Learner. Then I started to hear about something called Commonweal. It was connected with helping people with cancer and that name entered my awareness with a kind of halo around it. Then one day Nipun [Mehta] told me I should meet Michael Lerner, the founder of Commonweal. He was doing deep interviews with inspiring people for something called The New School, and I should check it out. So I did, and was really impressed. And with Michael’s permission, we began to feature some of his interviews in our own conversations newsletter-interviews with Krista Tippet, Bill Drayton and Mary Evelyn Tucker, for example.
It was maybe a couple of years later when I met Michael in person at a wonderful symposium at the Kalliopeia Foundation where five remarkable people, like Orland Bishop and Nina Simons, made presentations. As the moderator for all this, Michael was masterful and I was struck by his sensitivity, his warmth and articulateness. It was an inspiring day.
I trust that all of you have had a chance to read the inspiring introductory material that we’ve been provided with so I don’t think I need to go over that.
I’ve looked at the Commonweal website and a prominent theme there is the search for meaning. We’ve all read that powerful quote from Michael that the heart of being human is a search for meaning. This must be a key that underlies everything at Commonweal.
It also struck me that Michael focused on political science as a student at Harvard and Yale and I’ll be interested to learn how that focus has evolved in his work.
On the Commonweal website there are three prominent headings: health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. That covers a lot of ground. Looking at the website I also noticed that Michael had two co-founders, Carolyn Brown and Burr Heneman.
The theme that’s been proposed today for our conversation, how of our own healing and healing the earth are related is a profound one and one that’s full of hope. I think that so many things Michael is involved in relate to healing, both inner and outer, and I’m looking forward to how this conversation will unfold. But first, Michael, I’m wondering where are your co-founders today?
Michael Lerner: Richard, first of all, thank you-and thank you Nipun and Kanchan for inviting me. I’m just so grateful to be talking with this extraordinary global community. I have such respect for Service Space and for the whole Awakin community. So I just want to say how honored I am to actually be talking live with this global community whose values I so profoundly share.
In response to your question, Caroline Brown, who co-founded Commonweal with me, before that, also cofounded a school for kids out of juvenile halls and mental hospitals we called Full Circle, which ran for 30 years. When I was at Yale I’d been working with the Carnegie Counsel on Children and when I left Yale to explore what was happening with the children in California, by accident, I met a girl who was diagnosed as retarded until she was taken off dairy and gluten products. After that, she kind of swam up out of these severe allergic reactions and turned out to be learning disabled, but not retarded. I had studied child psychology at Harvard and Yale and no one had ever mentioned that nutrition could effect consciousness. That was such a profound revelation that I resigned from a tenure track position teaching at Yale to start this school for delinquent kids called Full Circle in west Marin county where we looked at the role of nutrition in learning and behavior disorders of children.
I discovered over a number of years that, with a small number of kids, there were very dramatic responses to changes in nutrition, then there was a large number of kids where nutrition mattered, but not so decisively, and then there were others where nutrition didn’t matter at all. I worked with my co-founder Caroline Brown until 1972, when I came out here, until her death 10 years ago.
Burr Heneman is still a part of the Commonweal community. He is a very renowned conservationist. He did seminal work at Commonweal on ocean policy reform and ran the Commonweal ocean program, which changed the legislation in California for how California oceans are regulated and governed, got it passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, and spent years implementing it.
In both cases, as you said, there’s not a good word for what Commonweal is, but you can think of it in two ways-as in the language of Awakin and ServiceSpace-Commonweal is really about healing ourselves and healing the Earth. That’s exactly what ServiceSpace is about. In performing service to others and, in the course of service to others, we also awaken ourselves.
In a more entrepreneurial context, you can think of Commonweal as sort of a think-and-do tank. We’re not just about thinking, we’re about doing. We’ll have an impulse or an intuition that we can make a contribution and we’ll have an idea about how that contribution can develop, but we only really come to understand how it will develop by actually doing it. By doing it, the opportunities open and the work shows us what it is intended to be.
Because we work in community, we have a shared wisdom and a shared understanding that’s greater than the wisdom or understanding of any single person. In effect, a third consciousness develops that’s separate from our own individual consciousness, and that guides the work. It’s by engaging in service that we discover the wisdom as to how the work is to be done and become part of a community of awareness that then guides the work beyond anything we could have imagined.
Richard: Wow! That’s a beautiful. We need more think and do tanks of the kind you’re describing.
Michael: I think they’re all over the world, actually. Paul Hawkins wrote an extraordinary book called Blessed Unrest. It’s such a contribution. Paul said that if you look at the problems facing the world, you can’t help but despair. But if you look at the grassroots efforts all over the world to address the problems that people face in their communities, that these grassroots efforts are like a global immune system in that they are drawn to the wounded places and they begin to work. And because they are working on very concrete realities, they tend not to be ideological; they tend to bring people together in service to some specific wound that the community is facing. From my point of view, it’s so easy for us to despair over the colossal problems of climate change, toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, invasive species, income disparities, injustice, war, the list goes on forever. It is easy to despair, but despair is a very unproductive way to live. We can’t know what the future will actually be, but living in service and doing what we can engenders a form of hope, a form of resilience that is part of creating a global consciousness that can move us through these very difficult times. To me that is what Service Space and Awakin are about. They are precisely about this process and so I am learning at least from my engagement with your community as you can possibly learn from me.
Richard: Again, it is so helpful to hear you express that so clearly. There is a key point in what you’re talking about, that point where something changes from an idea or vision into a doing. There’s huge gap, a gap between a thought or a vision and actually trying doing something. One thing that has impressed me so much in what I’ve learned about you is how you exemplify the capacity and courage to move from having a vision into action. Can you say something about that point of crossing that threshold, and what it takes?
Michael: I think for some of us, it’s just innate. I see absolutely no difference between what we do at Commonweal and what anybody in the Servicespace community, or beyond, does. When we are impelled to offer some small act of kindness to somebody, in other words, when you see someone in trouble-someone who has fallen down on the street, someone who needs something-we are biologically designed to respond. It’s just an innate response. In fact, if we don’t’ respond, there’s some block that has developed in us. When we see a human need, we are biologically wired to respond.
When I think about this, when we go back to what the great traditions tell us about what it means to be human, virtually all of them-the perennial philosophy at the heart of all the great traditions-what are we given? We’re given our heads, our thoughts, our minds; we’re given our hearts, our capacity for compassion and kindness, and we’re given our hands, which is acts of service.
If you go back, for example, to the Bhagavad Gita, what are the three great yogas that compete for supremacy? They are yanna yoga, the yoga of wisdom; there is bhakti yoga, the yoga of the heart; and there is karma yoga, the yoga of the hands. I’ve been so fascinated because this is biologically designed; we all have heads, we all have hearts, and we all have hands. And in every tradition you find those three things in one form or another. In Christianity, faith is the yanna yoga; love is the bhakti yoga; hope is the karma yoga. You find the same in every tradition.
And so to me, we each are designed with different ratios, in some sense, of the degree to which we serve with our minds, serve with our hands, and serve with our hearts. But the traditions tell us that the greatest of these yogas, at least in the Bhagavad Gita and many of the great spiritual traditions teach us, that the yoga of love, of compassion, of kindness is the greatest of all three, the yoga of the heart. The mind is a wonderful servant to that-and the hands, enacted in the world.
So to me, it isn’t how I, or others, make the leap from thought to service-to action in the world-it’s that these three things are innate in us. And we each should have different preferences, perhaps at different times in our lives. Awakin, you knopw, this wonderful idea of waking up with kin, with kindred spirits, with those who are aligned with us -when we come together in community like that, we are just impelled towards some form of service.
Richard: You speak of the head, heart, and hands, and to be really healed, we need all three in an integrated way. But in the West anyway, we’re such a predominantly head culture with our iPhones and computers etc., and what’s usually missing in me is a connection with my feelings and my body. Does t this make sense to you?
Michael: It makes sense to me, very much so. I think there are different ways of being in our heads. I’ve just been fascinated as I’ve been looking at the Awakin website: “Awakin is about deepening our self-awareness in a community of kindred spirits. By changing ourselves we change the world. We offer three ways to do this: go within, go local, and go online…” And that’s in terms of engagement with people, essentially, doing dharma talks.
So in the Awakin circles you talk about on the website, folks convene for an hour of group meditation, followed by a circle of sharing, and then a meal. Well, I just want to talk about the genius of this model for a moment. Because you meditate for an hour, right? [yes] That’s a substantial meditation. And then you share what comes up from that, and then you celebrate that with a meal, right? [yes] And this is happening in over 60 countries around the world.
My experience is that, when one meditates for an hour-or even more modestly (I rarely get to an hour)-in that silence, I connect with intuition about what I’m called to do, or how I’m called to understand what is happening to me. It seems to me that this is the higher form of mind. In the traditions, in some sense, this is the way that instruction comes to us.
When we think about what happens in communities of people all over the world who are dedicated to meditation or prayer, it naturally pulls us toward a vision of what humanity can be-and what is evoked by meditation or prayer is kindness. And out of that kindness, equally, is evoked service. To my mind, these practices as Awakin does them, as people all over the world do them, pull us into a collective pattern of what we can be both individually, in our small groups and in our communities-and as a species on this Earth.
So I see this model, going back to what you were saying,-yes we are in our minds in the West, but in a typically very concrete way. We are accessing the lower mind, if you wish, but we are less likely to access the higher mind-and we know that the higher mind exists. Neurophysiology, neuropsychology-there’s just more and more evidence that we can go to a place that’s beyond the lower ego and awaken to a much more global sense of who we are and what our purpose is.
Richard: Thank you for that. I’m going to make a little leap here, not a big one, because I think all this is inter-related, but I want to enter the education and arts area. You have something you call The New School; that’s a hopeful title in itself. What is behind that phrase?
Michael: Well, actually my father was a political philosopher named Max Learner and I grew up in New York City. He used to teach at a wonderful place that came out of the Holocaust and the movement of Jewish intellectuals to New York and the U.S. and there was a place called the New School for Social Research. It still exists, and It’s a wonderful place for all kinds of classes for all kinds of people.
So when I came out to California and started Commonweal, we were doing all this strongly focused service work over time-with kids in trouble, with cancer, with the environment, and so on. And the part of me that had loved teaching at Yale-I wanted to continue having those conversations. It’s like what you’ve done with works & conversations, actually. It took me about 32 years to get around to doing it, but about 7 years ago I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I started doing conversations with people. Now we’ve done about 200 of them with all kinds of wonderful people: Brother David Steindl-Rast, Angeles Arrien, Rachel Naomi Remen, Ram Das, Bill Drayton from AshokaI, and people nobody knows, too. I don’t do all of them, but I’ve done the majority. So the New School is my way of having a tremendous amount of fun. It’s such a joy! I pick people who I passionately want to talk with and review their work for a week or two and then have a conversation with them.
You spoke of the interrelatedness, and what I would like to turn to for a minute, is what wounded healers are about. Is that okay? Because again, this goes to the deep parallels between Service Space and Awakin, and our work at Commonweal. The wounded healer is an archetype of human experience that Carl Jung talked about. The basis of the archetype, and the way people come to an interest in healing, is through their own wounds. When we get sick and when we experience some deep loss in our lives, we can get stuck in depression and grief forever. But there is another way. Our wound opens us, essentially, to a greater awareness of our souls, and of a greater reality behind the everyday reality. When someone we love dies, when we develop an illness, when we have a great loss, the shock of that loss opens us to a higher reality-or it can.
Right now, as I speak to you, we are coming to the end of our Commonweal cancer-help program retreat. Over the last thirty years, I’ve co-led 181 of these retreats for people with cancer at Commonweal. It’s is a week of yoga, meditation, deep relaxation, support groups, healing-arts work and so on. In the course of a week, what happens is that this impulse to awaken to a greater reality accelerates in the people who are here and, by working together in a community, just as Awakin does, with meditation and with sharing, there is a great strengthening of the relationship to the higher self or the deeper self, for each person in their own individual way.
There is absolutely nothing new about this. The archetype of the wounded healer is one of the most ancient in human history. It’s exemplified in the Shamanic traditions of all indigenous peoples all over the world. There is no indigenous tradition without a shamanic presence. The shamans were those women and men who had what was called an initiatory illness; through that initiatory illness, through their own wound, as they came very close to death or a complete sense to being blown open, they came to know and to want to dedicate their lives to helping other people with this process.
That Shamanic tradition, along with the incest taboo, are the two cultural invariants all over the world and with all indigenous people. The Shamanic impulse, which is the impulse of the wounded healer, is founded on the bedrock of what it means to be human.
To complete this linkage, if this is true of us as individuals, then what do we know about the wounds that we experience as communities, as nations, and as a global species? If we look at what we’re going through right now at the global level, we have created a global wound, and that global wound can just plunge us into despair, but it also has the possibility of a fundamental transformation of human consciousness that will lead us to an awareness that we are all a community.
In the cancer help program, when one does this in community, what opens is an awareness of actual love, of compassion, that really opens to people who are very different from ourselves. We realize in the cancer help program that it doesn’t matter what we did for a living, or what our belief systems are. What matters in the circle of the cancer help program, is that we share a wound and that we are brothers and sisters; we are beloved of each other in that circle.
I think there is historic evidence of the growth of human consciousness through the great wounding shocks that have taken place. What gives me hope is what we can learn from wounded healers about bridging the gap between individual experience, group experience, and the global consciousness. This is fundamentally important because it’s beyond all ideologies and religions, and is based on the bedrock of human experience.
Richard: Listening to you I’m almost rendered speechless, which is not a good thing for me since I’m the moderator! I don’t know if you want to share anything about your own story in relationship to being a wounded healer. Is that something you’d be willing to talk about?
Michael: I could do that. But let me say something about that. We live in a time-and it’s not a bad thing-where the way we interact with each other is with personal stories. I’m happy to do that, but I think there’s something to be said of the wisdom of going to the archetypal level, which goes beyond our individual stories to that which we all share.
When we talk about the wounded healer, that’s one archetype. Another example of an archetypal experience that we all share is the experience of what happens when we fall in love. Right? Most people on this call have, at some point or another in their lives, fallen in love. In archetypal terms-this is the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung and James Hillman and others-what happens in the western mythology, but it’s absolutely present in the Hindu mythology and all the others, is that the God of love who is given enormous power, shoots an arrow and wounds Psyche. And Psyche begins to suffer. Now the god of love is suffering, because he’s in love with Psyche. What happens is that through their shared suffering, having fallen in love, they both, essentially-awakening through suffering-are forced to mature to, what in alchemy, is called the chemical marriage, which takes place through this suffering.
So consciousness moves forward; it is impelled forward by the suffering that takes place when we fall in love. We all have common archetypal experiences that go beyond our individual experiences-the experience of being wounded, of falling in love, of facing death, the experience of whatever is newborn for us, the experience of service, etc. So I’m happy to talk about myself, but I think that what really pulls us together is when we move from the individual story to the great archetypal stories that we share.
Richard: Yes. And there are certainly many more questions we could ask. For instance, I remember a bumper sticker I saw years ago; it said something like, “The environment-just keep God out of it.” And it occurs to me that the environmental movement actually needs some kind of spiritual element. And I’m wondering if you have any thoughts around that?
Michael: Well, that’s a wonderful question. And let me address it different ways. The first one is that I’m very interested in the place where the spiritual and the secular meet. My colleague, Rachel Naomi Remen-a remarkable physician who wrote Kitchen Table Wisdom-has a program at Commonweal, the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, which includes a project called “The Healer’s Art.” It’s now in 70 medical schools around the world. Rachel has a way of talking that secular people and spiritual people find equally accessible. I love that because if we are to do what we are supposed to do as human beings, we need to recognize that some people are naturally drawn to secular metaphors and others to religious or spiritual metaphors. Yet what we share in common goes beyond those differences.
We need to create spaces where a secular approach to the environment, a spiritual approach, and religious approach to the environment all get us there.
So how do we get there? What does Awakin do? It starts with an hour of meditation. Now meditation is equally accessible to secular, spiritual and religious people. It opens them all to a greater reality that they can understand in their own terms. The beauty of silence, the beauty of art, of music-these are powerful forces that can open us regardless of which metaphor we privilege. Zen Buddhism, or Buddhism more broadly, is either a philosophy or a religion, depending on how you look at it, but it doesn’t require a God of any kind. It requires opening oneself; it requires being curious to where silence takes you. So that’s just my first point.
The environment is too important to allow it to only be defined in one metaphor- religious, spiritual, or secular. We need to recognize that the environment is the root of life, that the Earth is what we require to be alive. And that the 100 different diseases and disorders of our time, which we explore through the collaborative on health and the environment at Commonweal, a network of five thousand scientists and health professionals, concerned people all around the world-the whole network of all these diseases, they’re all linked-and they’re all linked to the environment.
There is fundamentally a holistic relationship between what happens to the Earth and what happens to human health. I personally deeply believe in what you and I, in our metaphor, would call the spiritual dimension of this, but I also believe that we shouldn’t privilege the spiritual language. We need to recognize that the same depth of commitment to the environment, and to human health, can be held by secular, religious, and spiritual people alike.
Richard: That is beautifully said. Now I’m sure this is not going to be a new idea for you, but it’s something I don’t hear much about. And that is in terms of thinking about the problems of the environment, isn’t there something completely analogous between the outer environment and our inner environment. Our inner environment is subject to toxic waste, to habitat loss and so forth. Would you say that the inner and outer environments have almost exactly analogous issues?
Michael: I would indeed say that. I would absolutely say that. When we think about he fundamental questions of the outer environment, we know what humanity needs to do; it’s not a secret. We need to solve the problem of war; we need to solve the problem of poverty; we need to solve the problem of justice-including gender issues and so forth; we need to solve the problem of the misuse of resources on earth. We could make a bigger list, but that will do.
If we were all functioning, through deeper contact with not only the individual soul, but the group soul and the planetary soul, depending on whatever language you want to use, we would move toward resolution of these questions and we would become what humanity is actually intended to be on this Earth.
That is a fundamental reflection of what you just asked about, that our inner environment and how we understand ourselves and our purpose in this world is profoundly related to whether we are going to solve the great problems. It’s easy to despair about it, but it’s more interesting to live with hope about it because regardless of whether or not if we win in the end, we will have aligned ourselves with the higher purpose of being human. And we can’t control whether the higher purpose of being human will overcome the tremendous forces of corporate greed and so forth, or whether they won’t.
There is a great tendency in our communities in this time to withdraw from political engagement because it looks so hopeless. I have to say that I respect that. I honor the reasons for it, but I don’t think we get to withdraw from political engagement. All of the great advances in human history in the last 500 years, the movement from dictatorship to democracy, from women as property to women as equals, from laborers as serfs to laborers as organized unions, the human rights movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the animal rights movement-all of these expansions of mutually respectful consciousness without exception have required political engagement. So to me, our community needs to be particularly careful that in our interest in contemplative practice and in the softer dimensions of this, that we don’t forget that the world calls us to engage and that is the way that progress is made.
Richard: I didn’t doubt that your background in political science had somehow gone a way.
Michael: No. It hasn’t gone away.
Richard: Or that these things weren’t deeply intertwined.
Michael: They are. And if I can take just a moment here to talk about something that many of your listeners might not have heard about. There is this huge thing going on now, so-called trade agreements between the United States and Asia, and between the United States and Europe-the Trans-Atlantic and the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreements… These are unbelievable corporate power grabs, to put it bluntly, in the name of free trade, which everybody thinks is a good idea. It’s actually not about free trade at all. It’s about creating an irreversible corporate structure that once it’s in place, overrides all national and local laws designed to protect everything you can imagine, from local content laws, the ability to mine and frack wherever corporations want to, you name it.
I really encourage people to wake up, as people in Europe and Asia and the U.S. are slowly awaking; right this minute there is this huge effort going on to fundamentally compromise the future of democracy, of health, environment, and justice. And the only way we stop it is by engagement. In Europe people have awoken to this and it’s become a big issue. In the U.S. it’s virtually unknown. These incredible agreements that would create corporate governance of people and the resources of the Earth are just one of the great battlegrounds of our time. I encourage people to discover what’s going on and to get involved.
Richard: Thank you for sharing that very alarming information, which I’ve heard a little about. It is very disturbing to contemplate this corporate greed and power. Right there is an obvious link between environment and justice. But getting back to education and the arts, the arts play a role in what you’re doing at Commonweal and I wonder if you can share any of your insights about how the arts are useful and valuable?
Michael: For us in the healing work, the arts are fundamental. There are two different ways of looking at art. One is as a professional finished product that is for sale. It’s something artists, as professionals, do. The other is a movement of consciousness within us all that expresses through art.
We speak of the healing arts or the expressive arts-which we use all the time in the Cantor program and Rachel Remen’s program-through mediums like sand tray, which is a Jungian technique in which there’s a sand box and all these little figures that can be placed in the sand, and the objects tell a story. It’s a way of accessing the unconscious, as dreams are. That’s just one healing art, but one can do it through movement, through music, through drawing, through journaling etc. In the expressive arts, the focus is not on a finished product that is beautiful, it’s about using the arts to explore the individuation process or the healing process to enable us to see what is going on inside us that isn’t accessed by words or cognitive thought.
To us, the arts are an integral part of the healing process and the individuation process. I would say, for those of you who study depth psychology, that the healing and individuation process are essentially inseparable. The way we become who we were intended to be through a greater awareness of our own soul force is through the healing process, which is the same as the individuation process. The expressive arts, or the healing arts, are one of the fundamental tools for that, just as silence and meditation are, and just as following inner intuitions that come to us in meditation or in dreams are. And these point the way from the lower self to the soul force within each of us, which is the place from which we’re intended to live.
Kanchan: This has been fascinating, Michael and Richard, listening to this conversation.
Michael: Thank you, Kanchan.
Kanchan: There are so many nuggets in there that it’s kind of hard to absorb it all.
Richard: [laughs] Yes. It is, isn’t it? In the best way.
Kanchan: It’s amazing. So before I open up the queue, I have a question. You touched upon all that is happening in the world, all the issues that you’re aware of, and still approaching it with hope and not despair. This is something that I personally struggle with. How do you navigate this? What do you do to not get caught up in despair but take action with hope?
Michael: That is one of the fundamental questions that we all face in our time. Now I found this from Vaclav Havel, the great Czech playwright and statesman, who spent a lot of time in prison under the Communist regime and then became President and Prime Minister of the Czech Republic-Havel said that there is a fundamental distinction between optimism and hope. He said that optimism is the belief that everything is going to go right. Hope, by contrast, is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held in the darkest of times. To me there is a fundamental truth to that.
If you ask me if I am optimistic, I would say, “Not particularly.” But if you ask me, “Am I hopeful?” I would say, “Yes.” I am profoundly hopeful and, in fact, the greater the wound, the greater my hope. In thirty years in the cancer help program, I have seen-and this past week has been a good example-I have found that people who have cancer where a cure is extremely remote, but where hope is alive and well, hope is moving them into this soul consciousness and they are having some of the most profound experiences of their lives about what this life is really about.
I don’t know how the world is going to turn out. Human beings are a weedy species, they can survive under all kinds of circumstances. I have a feeling that human beings will survive, but the question is, “How much of the world will we destroy in our survival?” How can we become, not destroyers, but create all over the world the equivalent of Noah’s arks, arks where we carry as much of life as we can through these dark times? And I believe we are doing this?”
I believe the Awakin community and the Service Space community is a force for this. I believe that there are many other strands around the world, and that we are awakening to each other, and awakening to the fact that ineluctably, this is our task, this is what we’re given; we’re given the greatest task that we can ask for. Hope is intrinsic to following that task through. We have no choice. Hope is the only way to do it.
Kanchan: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much.
Pallavi: Good morning. Michael and Richard, this is so rich. I have goosebumps. I could listen to this all day. [laughs] My question is centered around the wounded healer archetype. What I’ve discovered in my personal experience is that the wound has you awakened and, once you awaken, if you stay present, you can actually avoid getting wounded again. Once I’ve gotten to that place, my deepest heartbreak is watching children because I recognize that in their innocence they already tap into their higher selves; they are not wounded. But our society and our conditioning passes on those wounds. What are your thoughts about not getting wounded versus how that relates to that archetype that has survived through time?
Michael: That’s a beautiful question and its cause for deep, deep reflection. I think I would say that it’s absolutely true what you say that, if we allow ourselves to move into the consciousness that the wound may enable us to move into, we are less likely to be wounded in the same way again, and I agree with that. I think the place where I would go beyond that personally, I haven’t reached a point where the wounding process ends. What happens for me is that life keeps presenting me with things that hurt.
Let me quote Patanjali, “The acceptance of our suffering as an aid to spiritual growth, the study of great wisdom teachings, and complete surrender to the divine force within each of us, these three things are yoga in practice.” So I agree with you that wounding can lead us to a place where we are less likely to be wounded in many respects, but for me, suffering is pretty intrinsic to being alive. So the wounding continues. Yes it’s very hard to watch children and know that they too will need to be wounded. I think that skill is helping ourselves and others recognize the purpose of our suffering, and to be skillful to avoid it as much as possible but recognize that it will continue, and it will continue as part of our growth. There will be people who have reached a point beyond suffering, but for me, I haven’t gotten there.
Kozo: Dr. Lerner, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your experience. I’m glad you brought up the archetypes. For me one of the major archetypes is the hero’s journey, of Joseph Campbell. I think about what King Arthur told his knights in search of the Holy Grail. He said, “Go into where the forest is darkest.” I’m wondering if, in your journey, if you had to go into where the forest is darkest and confront that shadow? I know you left a tenure track at Yale, you had a heart attack, and if you did go into where the forest is darkest, what gave you the courage and persistence to stay the course?
Michael: Well, thank you, Kozo, for that. And first, please think of me as “Michael.” That doctor part got lost somewhere along the way [laughs]. You’re absolutely right. The hero’s journey is, along with the wounded healer and falling in love, one of the great archetypes, I think for all of us.
Here again, I want to return to the archetypal experience, rather than my own personal experience. I think for all of us, it is in that dark forest that we find the opening. I’ve had many experiences of-I don’t actually think of them as darkness; I think of them as loss. I’ve had experiences of loss in my life and I think loss, before you get to the opening, requires grieving; it requires allowing yourself-what I say to myself is, “How can I get through the coming day?” I know it will be different tomorrow. “How do I get through the coming four days? How do I get through the coming week?” I know that the whole thing will be different in a year, and so for a while I just have to try to breathe through the pain. The hope here is that I know that this wound can open to the light. I know that the darkest place in the forest can open to the light, so I just have to breathe through it and allow myself to grieve until I begin to see in the opening. So that’s how I do it.
Sandy: Thank you. Very interesting, the focus. I think life is art. My way of seeing my healing is applying that art in life. It could be when I’m cooking, when I’m gardening. And life has taught me that if I connect in that way with other people, it will help them heal, too. As you grow into that healing, that’s where you will find that the healing will go further and maybe the pain will lessen. You can’t solve all the problems of the world, but you can always do something. I fill my days that way. I’ve dedicated myself to healing. And I’ve noticed that people tend to think only a few people can do that, and that’s a limiting thought.
Michael: That’s very helpful, Sandy. Thank you. Let me try to respond. First of all, I completely agree with you that life is an art. That’s a fundamental insight that I share with you. Because of the work I do, not everybody I work with is healthy; people with cancer are not healthy. And not everybody I work with is happy, but to me, just as there’s a distinction between optimism and hope, there’s a distinction between happiness and joy. I’m happy when things go well, but I can feel joy even in the midst of suffering and I can feel joy even when health is not going in the direction that I would wish.
For me personally, I seek a relationship to my life and to my work that is beyond health and happiness. It resides in the possibility of including suffering, of including loss, of including loss of health in the perception that all of it is part of being human. What I celebrate is our humanity. Our humanity is not all good; it’s not all positive. There are all these different parts of ourselves. Our beauty as human beings is that all these different parts contribute to the magnificent power of our ability to be of service in the face of all of our different dimensions. For me, Sandy, I celebrate, I share with you the vision of life as an art. For me, that art is all inclusive, not only of happiness, but also of sadness, not only of joy but of suffering, not only of health but of the fact that we are mortal-and that is part of what we all share.
Aryae: Michael, I want to count myself among those who have been profoundly moved listening to the conversation. I relate to your metaphor of Noah’s ark as communities who are coming together to do what we can to heal the woundedness of our planet. What has been your experience of the shadows that come along in these Noah’s arks as we come together? What kinds of obstacles have you seen coming up in communities, and how does a community deal with these shadows?
Michael: That’s such a great question. I like the metaphor of Noah’s arks being built around the world. Some people speak of lifeboat communities. I think we have to engage politically to do what we can, but the fact of the matter is that corporations and governments are not going to save us. The real life blood of our lives is in our communities, whether we’re talking about geographic communities or communities of shared interest like Servicespace around the world.
Yes, shadow absolutely emerges in all communities: shadow is a part of it. In my experience, shadow gets more concentrated when people try to ignore its reality.
Very often, in some kinds of religious or spiritual communities, where people try so hard to live in the light, shadow tends to pool, whereas I prefer to live in a community that acknowledges our imperfection as a fundamental dimension of who we are. Therefore shadow tends to be more integrated; it doesn’t pool as much because nobody is putting themselves on a pedestal as a spiritual teacher and no group of the elect is saying they’ve figured out a better way of being human.
For me, I prefer-and this is the archetypal psychology tradition, the Jungean tradition-I prefer the integration of shadow to the pooling of shadow. It’s more destructive when we follow leaders who turn out to be human and we’re all vastly disappointed.
A servant leader in the community, not a guru, is as radically imperfect as each of us is and that goes with the territory of being human. So that’s my approach, preferring integrated shadow, recognizing that we’re all walking disaster areas of one kind or another, and yet even in the midst of our imperfection, we’re able to be of service, we’re able to be kind, we’re able to make a contribution.
Richard: Can I just ask for clarification? You’re saying shadow pools, not pulls…?
Michael: Yes. Shadow pools, that is, rather than being woven through the fabric of a community. We say, “Oh, so and so is really a piece of work. But she’s really good, or he’s really good at what he does.” We’re able to recognize that at least in my experience, without exception, we all have shadow. I deeply prefer recognizing that because then we don’t disappoint each other, or at least not as much. I just know that shadow is a fundamental part of my own life and a part of everyone I work with and I prefer to look at it that way instead of trying to see people as having somehow transcended the human condition.
Mark: Michael, Mark Dubois here.
Michael: Hi, Mark!
Mark: It’s so moving to hear you and the gifts you’re sharing with us. Paul Gilding used the word hope in a different way when he wrote The Great Disruption. He said hope is the most powerful political force in the world, that the biggest political changes have been brought about by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela-and these men were imbued with hope. To me it wasn’t that they just had hope for humanity, but they had this profound, deep, deep knowing of who we are meant to be and it was more their knowing of that rather than hope. So I wonder what are your reflections on that?
Michael: That’s really interesting. Let me take that less of a question and more as a beautiful observation. I share with him a sense of the power of hope, but I also agree with you that what each of them offered was more than hope.
Let me just quote Gandhi again. Someone once asked Gandhi how he seemed to always know what the British were going to do before they did it. He said, “I know because I’m that kind of rascal.”
Gandhi was saying that he had within himself the same realpolitik, the cold capacity to see how power was moving and therefore to be able to predict the next moves of the imperial power. So recognizing it within himself, it was no longer shadow. Right? And surely we can say the same of Nelson Mandela and the others. These people didn’t get to be who they were without seeing power like a geometry spread out on the space and understanding how power worked. They had hope, but also were in contact with the gritty human capacities. The question is not whether we have those within us, but can we put our understanding of those into service to life?
Jan: Hi, I’m out in Connecticut and I just want to thank everyone who is in on the call. It’s just so satisfying. I’m curious if there are resources or organizations that take a much more global or at least a non-American perspective of what’s going on? I think our own sorrow and disappointment may be attributable to simply getting everything from an American bias. But I know there are countries that do healthcare better, education better, environmental issues better-what resources might we tap to learn about what they’re doing?
Michael: There are so many. Ashoka, Bill Drayton’s Entrepreneurs for the Public, which created the concept of social entrepreneurs, which the Skoll Foundation and so many others are doing-that’s just one. Medicins Sans Frontieres-Physicians without Borders-who are going into areas all over the world, the Quaker Friends Service Committee. In fact, the Quakers are such a great example of a community of people who started with silence. It reminds me-the thing that is so beautiful about Service Space and Awakin is that it’s in the tradition of the Quakers. You start with silence; you hold silence in the community and ,out of that, comes an intrinsic need to serve. So there are three examples: Ashoka, Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Quakers. These don’t’ have a U.S. based consciousness. And I agree with you, The US based consciousness is a tremendous limitation. I tend to read newspapers from around the world online, but I am radically uncomfortable with a U.S. based view of the world.
Kanchan: Thank you Jan and thank you Michael. I’m going to hand it over to Richard for any closing observations and one last question.
Richard: Thank you Kanchan and thank you Michael so much. This has just been extraordinary. I’ve wondered, as a closing question, how does the land itself in Bolinas and Point Reyes-that beautiful land-what role does that play for you?
Michael: What a great question. But first, thank you all for such a wonderful experience. And before I close with the land, let me just say for those who would like to follow our work and join our community and knit us all closer together, if you go either to commonweal.org and click on the New School, or anything else you want, it’s free to join. There are 200 podcasts online and we welcome you. You can also go to www.tns.commonweal.org to access the New School.
As for the land, the land is sacred and it grounds us in our community of West Marin and Boinas. It’s a stunningly beautiful site. We have one hundred acres overlooking the Pacific with a retreat center and our 12 programs. The land is our mother and it is sacred. There are so many other sacred places around the world. I see us as one tiny, minor acupuncture point in all the acupuncture points around the world where together we are moving our needles in the piece of Earth where we’re placed and working towards a wholeness that calls us all. I’m so grateful to be a part of this community and I look forward to working together in the future.