My more formal biography can be viewed here. This is a brief impressionistic personal biography.

This is a brief impressionistic personal biography.

Let me start with five ancient questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • Where do I come from?
  • Where am I going?
  • To whom, or what, am I accountable?

Those who work with these questions ask them three times — each time going a level deeper. At 80, I would answer them far differently than I would have at 40.

Michael Lerner

“Who am I?” At one level I’m a social entrepreneur. I’ve spent 50 years starting projects, discovering what they want to be, and finding people more able than I to take them over. At another level, I am a soul on the long journey home.

“Why am I here?” To do the Great Work. To play my small part among all friends of evolution.

“Where do I come from?” At one level, the answer is right below – where I was born, raised, and grew up. At another level, I’d say that I come from the Light and am on my way back to the Light. That’s also the answer to “where am I going?”

“To whom, or what, am I accountable?” I would say I am accountable to the great soul purpose for which I was put here. I see it now only through a glass darkly. Perhaps when my time comes I will know it face to face.

In short, I have become a mystic – for all my sins. My sins are many. I call myself a radically imperfect human being with a few useful skills. I am a religious man. My religion, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, is kindness.

Sometimes, when asked, I say I am a Jewish Christian Buddhis Yogic Sufi with Taoist influences. Those 5 and ½ traditions have each opened deeply to me over five decades of study. “Truth is one, paths are many.” I choose to believe that.

Finally, I am a man of books. I am one of the People of the Book. I read constantly. I am deeply introverted. I read, I write, I meditate, I talk with friends, and I act.

My friend Angeles Arrien, the great Basque spiritual teacher, had four rules for spiritual life:

  • Show up
  • Pay attention
  • Tell the truth
  • Don’t be attached to the outcome.

That nails it, in my opinion.
Those are a few reflections on the great questions. Now let’s turn to a few of the facts.


I was born on October 22, 1943 at the end of WorldWar II. I was raised in New York City, on the island of Manhattan. I am the oldest of three sons. Stephan, a journalist in San Francisco, is two and a half years younger. Adam, an oncologist in Boston, came a decade later.

Our parents loved us all. We love each other. They gave us the courage to live lives of meaning and service.

My father, Max Lerner, was a political philosopher and newspaper columnist. He was among the founders of modern American studies. His book America as a Civilization was considered a classic. My mother, Genevieve Edna Albers Lerner, was a psychologist on the faculty at Payne Whitney Neuropsychiatric Institute.

We all attended Dalton School in New York through 8th grade. I graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1961, where I was president of the school newspaper, The Exonian. Journalism has been part of my life ever since.

After Exeter, I worked for a year in Paris as a copy boy for The New York Times/Herald Tribune International. I entered Harvard as a sophomore. I studied psychology and politics. I was the political editor of the Harvard Crimson.. I reported on the Vietnam War and JFK’s assassination. I worked summers as a city desk reporter for The Washington Post, covering Mississippi Summer and the 1964 Democratic Convention.

I spent 1965-66 as a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil. I reported from there for The Washington Post. I returned to the US to fly to Israel to cover the Six-Day War for the Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post. I entered Yale Graduate School and in three years received a Ph.D. in political science, again focused on psychology and politics.

I taught at Yale as a senior tutor and then assistant professor with a joint appointment in political science and at Yale Medical School.

In 1972, on a sabbatical year, I joined my mentor Kenneth Keniston on the Carnegie Council on Children. I moved to California to study what was happening at the height of the counterculture. I landed in Bolinas, a town just north of San Francisco, where the counterculture was in full bloom.

In 1973 I resigned from a likely tenure track assistant professorship at Yale to found Full Circle School, a residential school for at-risk children with learning and behavior disorders. I was studying the role of nutrition in the learning and behavior disorders of young people.

I was 32 years old in 1975 when I was given the vision of starting a center for healing ourselves and healing the earth on the old RCA antenna farm outside Bolinas. The site is within the Point Reyes National Seashore. Commonweal was incorporated in 1976.

Commonweal has been at the center of my life work. Commonweal was a dream that seemed unlikely to survive. It is now a strong community of over 30 projects around the world with over one hundred staff..

How we describe Commonweal keeps changing. Our three foci are health & healing, education & the arts, and environment & justice. Resilience is a core theme running through all our work. We have a visionary cadre of intergenerational leadership headed by Oren Slozberg.

My role now as Board Chair is primarily advisory. My focus is on the projects that still need me – the Cancer Help Program, Sanctuary, Healing Circles, Cancer Choices, The New School, the Commonweal History Project and the Jenifer Altman Foundation.

My formal biography describes my MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1984 and other awards, my writing, the two foundations I co-founded, my work in philanthropy, and the other events of my outer and inner life.

Depth psychology and geopolitics, spirituality and realism, psi phenomena and the mysteries of the cosmos, character and human evolution, history and literature, social theory and mysticism, justice and human dignity, the fate of the earth and human destiny are among my interests. I have conducted over 200 conversations on these and other subjects at The New School at Commonweal.

I have felt guided for most of my life by intuitions that have never failed me. They have led me to take risks to work on frontiers of knowledge. The frontiers I have worked on have rarely been popular at the inception of my work. They have sometimes moved closer to public and scientific acceptance over time. Even today, the impulse to work on frontiers has not forsaken me. More is yet to come.

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