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We Will All take This Journey Print
Shambhala Sun | July 1998

We Will All take This Journey

Interview by  

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on illness, loss and spiritual growth. 

Shambhala Sun: What is the distinction between healing and curing?

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.: I believe that while curing happens at the level of the body, healing happens at the level of the whole person. Curing is the work of experts but healing is our birthright. We are all healers.

I have experienced healing not only as a physician but as a patient with a forty-four-year history of chronic illness. My own response to illness, my own healing, has been very much like a spiritual journey. Like any spiritual path, it has been necessary to let go of life-long beliefs, ideas and attitudes in order to have a greater wholeness.

Often illness is a powerful evocation of the soul. There’s something in the nature of illness that can awaken people to experience beyond themselves, the sort of experience that all practice and all religion may evoke in us as well. Suffering is a great awakening.

Shambhala Sun: This journey you describe, illness and death as a spiritual challenge, is one we will all take.

Dr Remen:Yes. Life is about loss, and all growth is based on loss. When we’re not willing to let go of what is a part of our past, what has been used up, what no longer affirms our lives, that’s when we stop growing.

You see, nonattachment is one of the basic capacities which allows spiritual growth. Those people who are capable of nonattachment often are able to live most fully; they have moved beyond fear of loss to be more present in their lives. Therefore, they are able to be more deeply touched by their lives, to grow in wisdom and to learn how to live better. Sixty per cent of the people who have had near death experience report that the fundamental purpose of life is to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.

Shambhala Sun: Though many people, when they hear the word "nonattachment," would assume that implies a certain passivity, which might not be helpful in conquering a difficult circumstance.

Dr Remen: Actually, nonattachment has little to do with passivity. It’s a very active position. When you are nonattached, it means you’re not attached to a specific outcome; you stand prepared to meet whatever the outcome will be, and therefore you are able to show up for whatever happens.

People who are attached to something fear loss, and it’s very hard for them to be fully involved with life, to give themselves to it fully, because they’re constantly guarding themselves against the possibility of loss. So they lose the very life that they wish to have by trying to hold on to it in that way. A lot of people do that with relationships. They are so anxious not to lose a relationship that they become inauthentic. They say only what they think the other person wants to hear; they do only what will please the other person. They may end up having the form of a relationship, but this is not an authentic relationship. It is an empty form. Often people are lonely in the midst of such relationships.

Shambhala Sun: So you’re saying that in dealing with illness and suffering, you have to engage your full being in the present in order to bring all of your resources to bear on the situation.

Dr Remen: Exactly. I think illness and pain and suffering have the potential to turn us into spiritual warriors.

Shambhala Sun: What would you describe as the attitude, in a broad sense, that best helps people deal with the difficult circumstance of illness?

Dr Remen: My work is with people with cancer and their families, so I work with people in a very extreme circumstance, many of whom are quite young. I think what can help people at such times is a certain kind of openness: letting go of expectation and meeting what is happening in their lives with impeccability.

I remember one of the first patients I had, a lawyer, a very controlling kind of person. She was a person who took charge of everything and everyone around her. Through the experiences of her breast cancer, she became a far larger person than she was before this illness struck her. I asked her during the last of a series of the sessions if she had gotten what she came for in our work together, and she replied, "Oh no, of course not. I didn’t get what I came for." I said, "What do you mean?" and she said, "Rachel, when I came here I didn’t know that what I have gotten even existed."

Perhaps that’s what it’s about. Real growth is always a surprise. Wholeness is a surprise. It’s about emergence, revelation, and a letting go of the ways we have defined ourselves that are too small. It is a recovery of parts of us that we have disavowed and even forgotten, because perhaps the culture disavows them. It is a recognition that our healing may be determined by those very parts that we have disavowed, the heart, the intuition, the soul.

Shambhala Sun: You’ve made a distinction between healing, a spiritual challenge, and curing, a medical process. Is there a relationship between the two, however: does this attitude of openness and acceptance that you call healing also help the process of curing?

Dr Remen: I think this attitude furthers the curing process also. Holding expectations is not often a good way to live. If your expectations are not fulfilled you become like Lot’s wife, frozen into a pillar of salt, looking backwards at some place which used to be, unable to take hold of what is real for you now and move forward.

It is hard to make necessary decisions about treatment from such a place. For example, it took me many years to decide to have the surgery that allowed me to live more fully, because I was so attached to having the perfect body I had before I became sick. Attachment can interfere with care too.

Of course, curing can happen without our participation, except as a physiological being. It’s possible to cure people without very much of their participation, but healing requires a very active involvement. Healing is a form of growth, if you want to think of it that way; curing is a form of repair. These are very different things.

Shambhala Sun: Is there a connection between repair and growth?

Dr Remen: Repair may offer us a chance to focus our lives on something beyond our disease, but the nature of repair is different from growth. Repair is external, something I do to you. Growth is a capacity within you that I can collaborate with. I’ve been involved in both sorts of relationships. As a physician I was trained to be a highly technological curing person. I’ve been in curing relationships for many years, and I’ve also been in healing relationships. It’s a very different experience.

Shambhala Sun: The kind of approach you’re describing, which is not aggressive and goal-oriented, sounds very different from the way most people look at the medical process, and indeed from the way our culture views accomplishment entirely.

Dr Remen: Well, in both approaches one might take the same sorts of actions. From the outside it might look quite the same, but the experience of the person taking the action is very different.

A number of years ago I was listening to the radio when a football coach was talking about why his team was on a winning streak. He was saying he had got them into a state of mind where they were just as willing to lose as they were to win, where they loved the game unconditionally. He was basically talking about nonattachment. Nonattachment is what Olympic champions are trained in. They have imagery coaches and meditation coaches because they’re aware that the physical body can actually achieve better if the mind relinquishes its attachments and gets out of the way. So there are these connections; perhaps we can recover from disease best when we love life unconditionally.

Shambhala Sun: When you work with people who have cancer, how do you help them?

Dr Remen: It depends on who the person is. Each person has cancer in their own way. Each person will heal in ways as unique as their own fingerprints. So it’s important for me to listen to the uniqueness in the other person, and to help them to listen to their own uniqueness.

Shambhala Sun: But you have pointed to this theme of nonattachment, of being with what is happening.

Dr Remen: What helps varies from person to person; there is no formula. There are many people today who have never been attached to life, people who’ve never gotten involved in their lives at all. It’s like, "Whatever ..." You know, how teenaged kids say, "Whatever ..."

These people need to commit to life. They need to recognize that they do have preferences, that something matters to them. Nonattachment comes after you know your preferences and then you learn how to be free. Some people start much further back than that: they have no idea of who they are or what they want in life, and they need to experience this first in order to find a sense of meaning in their lives. So it’s a spectrum; people are in very different places in this process of being human beings.

I hope I am able to support the people I work with in taking their next step, whatever that is. Often the illness itself will point to it. That’s the interesting thing. Embedded in the nature of the illness, in what is being demanded of the person by the illness, may be the very next step in their growth, in the refinement of their humanity.

You know, you can view life as a movement toward the soul, that we may be here in these bodies for the education of the soul. Education is a beautiful word; it’s a word that’s closely related to healing. Educari means to evoke wholeness, the evoking of a unique, innate wholeness. Perhaps all the events of our lives have this capacity to educate, this potential to evoke our wholeness, to show us ourselves and life in different ways, to make our perspective larger and wiser.

And this event of illness is a particularly pointed one.

Yes, illness gets people’s attention more powerfully than most other things.

Shambhala Sun: It’s become a cliche, but it’s the famous Chinese ideogram, crisis/ opportunity that you’re pointing to.

Dr Remen: Yes, a dangerous opportunity. Crisis is "dangerous opportunity." But there’s danger only if you’re attached. Otherwise, it’s an adventure.

Healing is a process: people don’t start from a place of nonattachment. I certainly didn’t start there. For the first ten years of my illness I was enraged. I was fifteen years old and I had been cut off from the normal life of a fifteen-year-old. My illness was telling me what I could and couldn’t do; sometimes it was actually telling me that I didn’t have enough energy to walk up a flight of stairs.

I dealt with that with a great deal of rage, which is a very important reaction. Rage is often people’s first reaction to limitation, and it is an expression of the will to live. It is an expression of the will to resist a distortion, and as such it’s quite important as a first step. But it will only take you so far. Eventually you have to feel the will to live in you directly without feeling it as anger. You have to feel it as a love of life, a willingness to take whatever you’ve been given and make the most of it. Anger can become a problem if you become wedded to it as a way of life.

Shambhala Sun: I’m reminded by what you’re saying of a phrase that my own teacher used. He described our "sad and tender hearts" as human beings.

Dr Remen: Oh, I love that. Who said that?

Shambhala Sun: Chogyam Trungpa.

Dr Remen: Oh, how exquisite.

Shambhala Sun: Well, we don’t find it easy to feel our tenderness and vulnerability and sadness, and it would seem to be even harder when facing difficulty.

Dr Remen: You know, vulnerability is strength. Like many spiritual truths, this is a paradox. My sense is that it’s actually easier to feel our tenderness and vulnerability in settings of illness. There are a lot of people who would never otherwise do it. Their attention would be distracted from such things for all their lives. Ultimately illness can reveal our common tenderness and vulnerability; the realization that all suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy is the doorway to genuine compassion.

Illness forces the issue. It basically strips you of all your illusions, your masks and your roles, and eventually you discover something which cannot be stripped away, which is indeed who you are. I write poetry with people with cancer a lot, and the first time I conducted a poetry session with a group of eight people with cancer, I found a poem of my own, which goes like this:

Oh body,

for 41 years,

1,573 experts

with 14,355

combined years of training

have failed



your wounds.

Deep inside,




What seems to happen for people in the process of illness, if they’re willing not to deny, if they’re willing to be present, if they’re willing to show up for their own lives, is that they have this precious opportunity to redefine who they are. They can discover what their strengths are and identify themselves in new ways. Often they move their locus of strength away from that which is impermanent, the body, toward that which is more unchanging. As I watch myself age, I turned sixty yesterday, I find that I seem to be having less difficulty with this than many of the people around me. Unlike me, they are used to running up and down stairs, even running up and down mountains, and they have defined themselves in terms of running up and down mountains. This turns out to be a very vulnerable way to define oneself.

Shambhala Sun: This healing process that you describe, of healing as connection with the soul or the absolute, would usually be conventionally defined as a spiritual task. Is this something that doctors can really address?

Dr Remen: Doctors are intimately involved with this; we are there with people at these times. You see, there is a new population of people who are now living with illnesses that twenty years ago they would have died of. Chronically ill people are one of the most rapidly growing populations, and they are raising new questions with their doctors, and with society in general. These people have very different needs.

The concept of healing, in the sense I have used it here, has moved into the teaching and practice of medicine far more than when I graduated from medical school in 1962. People see their task as doctors very differently than what I was taught to see it as then.

I teach a course at the UCSF medical school called "The Care of the Soul." Every year fifty or sixty students in the first and second year classes sign up for it; so now, after eight years, one out of every three students in the school has been through this course. Courses like this are being taught all over the country. The American Academy of Medical Colleges has just opened a division of spirituality and medicine courses, and American medical educators have submitted more than a hundred papers, each one representing a course or new approach to teaching the doctor-patient relationship.

Complementary medicine, the integration of what might be seen as more alternative approaches with what might be seen as the usual Western approach, is the hottest thing in medicine today. There are clinical and training centers in integrative medicine opening at medical schools all over the country, Arizona, the University of Maryland, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, the University of California at San Francisco, to name just a few.

Shambhala Sun: Previously, much of what we’ve been talking about would have been considered the province of religion. You would have gone to your minister or rabbi with questions about the soul and the absolute. Why is this now part of medicine?

Dr Remen: Actually it has always been part of medicine; it is the lineage of contemporary medicine. Curing has only very recently become part of the medical enterprise. It’s only in the last hundred or so years that people have actually cured diseases. Traditionally, doctors were healers. That was the original way of thinking of the doctor’s role. Until very recently, the sacred occupied the place in medicine which science does today, as the point of referral for cause and cure. Medicine is a calling; for many it is still the opportunity to serve that calls them.

Shambhala Sun: Do you feel the need to reconcile the work you do with the scientific method; that is, to be able to prove the effectiveness of what you do by quantifying and reproducing the results?

Dr Remen: Actually I don’t. Many of the things that are most true cannot be quantified, but only known. You can’t duplicate a human life. Each one of us is unique. What we are talking about is a path, and each one of us will travel that path in our own way. There is a great deal that is mystery in it.

Shambhala Sun: So what you are saying is that a significant portion of the doctor’s task is not scientific.

Dr Remen: Oh, science is only the most recent tool of healing.

Shambhala Sun: But science is now considered a necessary element in all medical work, is it not?

Dr Remen: In all medical work, no. Science has failed us in many instances, and many people have learned that in order to be a physician one has to go well beyond science. People really don’t come into this work because of the science. People are drawn to medicine more by service than science. If we were drawn by science alone, we’d all be bench scientists, not physicians.

Let’s put it this way: medicine occurs at the interface between science and human suffering. If you want to look at it that way, science is one of the tools of medicine, but it is not medicine itself. It is a tool which can be amazingly effective, but it is not an answer for all of life’s issues, or even most of them.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Associate Clinical
Professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. Medical School and co-founder and
medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is author of the bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.

We Will All take This Journey, Melvin McLeod, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

Down to Earth Print

Down to Earth

"To start to tackle some of the big problems of this earth, maybe we need to walk on it more and run around less. Environment is the watchword of the day, but environmentalism is a political movement. Before it becomes a way of life, we’ll first have to return to earth and get to know the neighborhood. Before we can work with it, we have to be living on the earth, not just skimming along the surface of the globe."

Two girls were spinning a globe. They held their index fingers poised just above its surface. As it slowly came to a stop, wherever their fingers landed, that’s where they said they would live, giggling all along as they tried to pronounce place names like Djibouti or Kazakhstan, before giving the globe another healthy spin.

The scale of the average globe is something like 1:4 million. A Michelin road atlas is about 1:200,000. The patch of earth you’re now inhabiting is 1:1. That’s where we are always living, on that 1:1 patch of earth, but rapid communication and transportation have given us the illusion that we dwell on the globe, rather than the earth.

It can be awfully hard to get a sense of place these days. In my neighborhood of pleasant, tree-lined streets, I know people well enough to say hello, but little more than that. The patch of ground we share with our neighbors often seems less a home than a way station, a place to park the car and hook up to the internet and the cable. As we get more connected globally, we’re becoming less connected locally. The global village is certainly global, but it’s no village.

Throughout the world, the marks of neighborhood or village are disappearing. The bistro, the pub, the trattoria, the tavern are closing down or becoming tourist traps (where a way of life that barely exists anymore can be enjoyed by the traveler hungry to purchase a sense of old world community). Churches and community centers in town and country alike are mostly empty or devoid of life. Satellite dishes are doing a brisk business.

From a business perspective, these are market trends. No more and no less. We can learn from them and pander to them and we can probably turn a good buck as a result. It’s a good time to sell alarm systems, high-tech entertainment modules, digital phones and airline tickets. But from a human perspective, a world devoid of place is a painful place to live. Frequent flying turns places into destinations and lay-overs.

Human beings can forge a strong link with a place. Our distant ancestors recognized this conjunction of person and place as deities and spirits, mountain gods, goddesses of the springs and lakes, and so forth. Were these the fanciful delusions of naive minds unblessed with rationalism, or the expressions of people who communed intimately with a place and with each other?

One of the main ways we connect with a place, with the earth, is to walk on it. We used to walk a great deal more, but the scale of the automobile city where most of us live doesn’t encourage that. In his book, City Life, architect Witold Rybczynski notes that cities were once of a scale that could more easily be traversed. Now they sprawl, encouraging us to get into the car to get around. Many ancient cities were designed on cosmic and aesthetic principles: they contained sacred open spaces and a perceptible center and fringe, and for the most part they maintained a relationship with the surrounding countryside.

Now cities evolve on economic and transportation principles and the surrounding countryside just awaits suburbanization. That’s in the " prospering" cities; the dying cities are mausoleums, while rural towns are losing their vitality. In the First World anyway, the village that Hillary Clinton wrote about is a myth.

The great Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who came to North America in the late fifties, said that Americans had named their great mountains but had yet to name their small hills and perhaps it was time to do so. Chšgyam Trungpa, who came to America not long before Suzuki Roshi died, was known to kiss the earth. He encouraged people to discover home ground. Were these teachers on to something?

Perhaps we need a reconnaissance mission, in the original meaning of that term, " to get to know again," to reconnect. To start to tackle some of the big problems of this earth, maybe we need to walk on it more and run around less. Environment is the watchword of the day, but environmentalism is a political movement. Before it becomes a way of life, we’ll first have to return to earth and get to know the neighborhood. Before we can work with it, we have to be living on the earth, not just skimming along the surface of the globe.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Down to Earth, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

Holding Your Seat When The Going Gets Rough Print

Holding Your Seat When The Going Gets Rough


The most straightforward advice on how to discover your true nature is this: practice not causing harm to anyone—neither yourself nor others—and every day, do what you can to help.

If you take this instruction to heart and begin to use it, you will probably find very quickly that it is not so easy. Often, before you know it, someone has provoked you and either directly or indirectly, you've let them have it.

Therefore, when the intention is sincere but the going gets rough, most of us could use some help. We could use further instruction on how to lighten up and turn around our well-established habits of striking out and blaming.

The four methods for holding your seat provide just such support for developing the patience to stay open to what's happening, instead of acting on automatic pilot. These four methods are:

1) not setting up the target for the arrow;

2) connecting with the heart;

3) seeing obstacles as teachers;

4) regarding all that occurs as a dream.

First, if you have not set up the target it cannot be hit by an arrow. This is to say that each time you retaliate with words and actions that hurt, you are strengthening the habit of anger. Then, without doubt, plenty of arrows will always be coming your way.

The pattern of striking out may already be very strong; however, each time you are provoked you are given a chance to do something different. The choice is yours: you can further strengthen your painful and crippling habit or you can shake it up a bit by holding your seat.

Each time you sit still with the restlessness and heat of anger—neither acting it out nor repressing it—you are tamed and strengthened. Each time you act on the anger or suppress it, you are weakened; you become more and more like a walking target. Then, as the years go by, almost everything makes you mad.

So this is the first method: remember that you set the target up yourself, and only you can take it down. Understand that if you hold your seat when you want to retaliate—even for 1.5 seconds longer than ever before—you are starting to dissolve a pattern of aggression that, if you let it, will continue to hurt you and others forever.

Second is the instruction for connecting with the heart: in times of anger, you can contact the kindness and compassion that you already have. 

When someone who is insane starts to harm you, there is the possibility of understanding that they don't know what they are doing. There is the possibility of contacting your heart and feeling sadness that this poor being is out of control and is harming themselves by hurting others. There is the possibility that even though you feel fear, you do not feel hatred or anger— you might even wish to help this person if you can.

Actually, a lunatic is far less crazy than a sane person who harms you, for so-called sane people have the potential to realize that they are sowing seeds of their own misery, their own confusion, their own dissatisfaction. Their present aggression is producing further and more intense patterns of aggression. The life of one who is always angry is painful and generally very lonely. The one who harms you is under the influence of patterns that could continue to produce suffering forever.

So this is the second method: remember that the one who harms you does not need to be provoked further and neither do you. You can connect with your heart and recognize that, in this very moment, millions are burning with the fire of aggression—just as you two are. Sit still with the restlessness and pain of the anger, neither acting it out nor repressing it, and let the searing quality of the energy tame you and strengthen you and make you kinder.

Third is the instruction on seeing difficulties as teachers. If there is no teacher around to give you direct personal guidance on how to stop causing harm, never fear! Life itself will provide the opportunities for learning how to hold your seat. The troublemaker, for instance, who so disturbs you—without this person how could you ever get the chance to practice patience? How could you ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its power?

There is a saying that the teacher is always with us. The teacher is always showing us precisely where we are at and encouraging us to relax and open our hearts and minds, encouraging us to not speak and act in the same old stuck ways, encouraging us also not to repress or dissociate. So with this one who is scaring you or insulting you, do you retaliate as you have one hundred thousand times before, or do you start to get smart and do something different?

Right at the point when you are about to blow your top, remember this: you are a disciple being taught how to sit still with the edginess and discomfort of the energy. You are a disciple being challenged to hold your seat and open to the situation with as much courage and as much kindness as you possibly can.

Of course, like countless students before you, you may often feel, "I'm not ready for this." So sometimes you will run away, and sometimes you will kick and scream, and sometimes you will hold your seat. Somehow, gradually, all of this becomes part of your ability not to cause harm and part of your ability to understand the pain and confusion of others and to help them.

The problem with these or any instructions is that we have a tendency to get serious and rigid about them. We get tense and uptight about trying to relax and be patient. This is where the fourth instruction comes in: it is helpful to contemplate that the one who is angry, the anger itself, and the recipient of that anger are all happening as if in a dream.

You can regard your life as a movie in which you are temporarily the leading player. You can reflect on the essencelessness of your current situation rather than putting such big importance on everything. This big-deal struggle, this big-deal problematic (or self-righteous) me, and this big-deal person who opposes you, could all be lightened up considerably.

When you awaken from sleep you know that the enemies in your dreams are an illusion. That realization does a lot to cut through the drama. In the same way, instead of acting out of impulse, you could slow down and ask yourself, "Who is this monolithic me that has been so offended? And who is this other person that they can trigger me like this? What is this praise and blame that it can hook me like a fish, that it can burn me like a flame burns a moth? What is going on here that outer things have the power to propel me from hope to fear, from happy to miserable, like a ping-pong ball?"

Contemplate that these outer things, as well as these emotions, as well as this huge sense of me, are passing and essenceless, like a memory, like a movie, like a dream.

When you find yourself captured by aggression, remember this: there is no basis for striking out or for repressing. There is no basis for hatred or for shame. Whether awake or asleep, we are simply moving from one dreamlike state to another.

Recalling this instruction, you just might find it helps you to loosen your grip and open your mind.

These four methods for turning around anger and for learning a little patience come to us from the Kadampa masters of eleventh-century Tibet. These instructions have provided encouragement for practitioners in the past and they are just as useful in the present. These same Kadampa masters advised that we not procrastinate. They urged us to use these instructions immediately—on this very day—and not say to ourselves, "I will do it in the future when the days are longer."

Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

Holding Your Seat When The Going Gets Rough, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

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Egoless Means More Print
Shambhala Sun | July 1998

Egoless Means More

By: Precisely because the ego, the soul and the Self can all be present simultaneously, we can better understand the real meaning of egolessness, a notion that has caused an inordinate amount of confusion. But egolessness does not mean the absence of a functional self (that's a psychotic, not a sage); it means that one is no longer exclusively identified with that self.

One of the many reasons we have trouble with the notion of egoless is that people want their egoless sages to fulfill all their fantasies of saintly or spiritual, which usually means dead from the neck down, without fleshy wants or desires, gently smiling all the time. All of the things that people typically have trouble with money, food, sex, relationships, desire they want their saints to be without. Egoless sages who are above all that is what people want. Talking heads is what they want. Religion, they believe, will simply get rid of all baser instincts, drives and relationships, and hence they look to religion, not for advice on how to live life with enthusiasm, but on how to avoid it, repress it, deny it, escape it.
In other words, the typical person wants the spiritual sage to be less than a person, somehow devoid of all the messy, juicy, complex, pulsating, desiring, urging forces that drive most human beings. We expect our sages to be an absence of all that drives us! All the things that frighten us, confuse us, torment us, confound us: we want our sages to be untouched by them altogether. And that absence, that vacancy, that less than personal, is what we often mean by egoless.
But egoless does not mean less than personal, it means more than personal. Not personal minus, but personal plus all the normal personal qualities, plus some transpersonal ones. Think of the great yogis, saints and sages from Moses to Christ to Padmasambhava. They were not feeble-mannered milquetoasts, but fierce movers and shakers from bullwhips in the Temple to subduing entire countries. They rattled the world on its own terms, not in some pie-in-the-sky piety; many of them instigated massive social revolutions that have continued for thousands of years.
And they did so not because they avoided the physical, emotional and mental dimensions of humanness and the ego that is their vehicle, but because they engaged them with a drive and intensity that shook the world to its very foundations. No doubt, they were also plugged into the soul (deeper psychic) and spirit (formless Self) the ultimate source of their power but they expressed that power, and gave it concrete results, precisely because they dramatically engaged the lower dimensions through which that power could speak in terms that could be heard by all.
These great movers and shakers were not small egos; they were, in the very best sense of the term, big egos, precisely because the ego (the functional vehicle of the gross realm) can and does exist alongside the soul (the vehicle of the subtle) and the Self (vehicle of the causal). To the extent these great teachers moved the gross realm, they did so with their egos, because the ego is the functional vehicle of that realm. They were not, however, identified merely with their egos (that's a narcissist), they simply found their egos plugged into a radiant Kosmic source. The great yogis, saints and sages accomplished so much precisely because they were not timid little toadies but great big egos, plugged into the dynamic Ground and Goal of the Kosmos itself, plugged into their own higher Self, alive to the pure atman (the pure I-I) that is one with Brahman; they opened their mouths and the world trembled, fell to its knees, and confronted its radiant God.
Saint Teresa was a great contemplative? Yes, and Saint Teresa is the only woman ever to have reformed an entire Catholic monastic tradition (think about it). Gautama Buddha shook India to its foundations. Rumi, Plotinus, Bodhidharma, Lady Tsogyal, Lao Tzu, Plato, the Bal Shem Tov these men and women started revolutions in the gross realm that lasted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, something neither Marx nor Lenin nor Locke nor Jefferson can yet claim. And they did not do so because they were dead from the neck down. No, they were monumentally, gloriously, divinely big egos, plugged into a deeper psychic, which was plugged straight into God.
There is certainly a type of truth to the notion of transcending ego : it doesnÕt mean destroy the ego, it means plug it into something bigger. (As Nagarjuna put it, in the relative world, atman is real; in the absolute, neither atman nor anatman is real. Thus, in neither case is anatta a correct description of reality.) The small ego does not evaporate; it remains as the functional center of activity in the conventional realm. As I said, to lose that ego is to become a psychotic, not a sage.
Transcending the ego thus actually means to transcend but include the ego in a deeper and higher embrace, first in the soul or deeper psychic, then with the Witness or primordial Self, then with each previous stage taken up, enfolded, included and embraced in the radiance of One Taste. And that means we do not get rid of the small ego, but rather, we inhabit it fully, live it with verve, use it as the necessary vehicle through which higher truths are communicated. Soul and Spirit include body, emotions and mind; they do not erase them.
Put bluntly, the ego is not an obstruction to Spirit, but a radiant manifestation of Spirit. All Forms are not other than Emptiness, including the form of the ego. It is not necessary to get rid of the ego, but simply to live it with a certain exuberance. When identification spills out of the ego and into the Kosmos at large, the ego discovers that the individual atman is in fact all of a piece with Brahman. The big Self is indeed no small ego, and thus, to the extent you are stuck in your small ego, a death and transcendence is required. Narcissists are simply people whose egos are not yet big enough to embrace the entire Kosmos, and so they try to be central to the Kosmos instead.
But we do not want our sages to have big egos; we do not even want them to display a manifest dimension at all. Anytime a sage displays humanness in regard to money, food, sex, relationships we are shocked, shocked, because we are planning to escape life altogether, not live it, and the sage who lives life offends us. We want out, we want to ascend, we want to escape, and the sage who engages life with gusto, lives it to the hilt, grabs each wave of life and surfs it to the end this deeply, profoundly disturbs us, frightens us, because it means that we, too, might have to engage life, with gusto, on all levels, and not merely escape it in a cloud of luminous ether. We do not want our sages to have bodies, egos, drives, vitality, sex, money, relationships, or life, because those are what habitually torture us, and we want out. We do not want to surf the waves of life, we want the waves to go away. We want vaporware spirituality.
The integral sage, the nondual sage, is here to show us otherwise. Known generally as tantric, these sages insist on transcending life by living it. They insist on finding release by engagement, finding nirvana in the midst of samsara, finding total liberation by complete immersion. They enter with awareness the nine rings of hell, for nowhere else are the nine heavens found. Nothing is alien to them, for there is nothing that is not One Taste.
Indeed, the whole point is to be fully at home in the body and its desires, the mind and its ideas, the spirit and its light. To embrace them fully, evenly, simultaneously, since all are equally gestures of the One and Only Taste. To inhabit lust and watch it play; to enter ideas and follow their brilliance; to be swallowed by Spirit and awaken to a glory that time forgot to name. Body and mind and spirit, all contained, equally contained, in the ever-present awareness that grounds the entire display.
In the stillness of the night, the Goddess whispers. In the brightness of the day, dear God roars. Life pulses, mind imagines, emotions wave, thoughts wander. What are all these but the endless movements of One Taste, forever at play with its own gestures, whispering quietly to all who would listen: is this not you yourself? When the thunder roars, do you not hear your Self? When the lightning cracks, do you not see your Self? When clouds float quietly across the sky, is this not your very own limitless Being, waving back at you?

Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. Copyright Ken Wilber, 1998.

    Egoless Means More, Ken Wilber, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

Design: A Happening Life Print

Design: A Happening Life


"When life is happening, design has meaning, and every design we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alivee, of being able to experience joy and peace."

All my life I have been obsessed by the pleasure of design. There is no human being in the world who is not born into a happening life—who is not born with the will to endlessly design. My girlhood fantasy was to become an architect, and to this day I wish I had kept the plans for a dream house envisioned back then.

Distinguished architect Harwell Hamilton Harris described Frank Lloyd Wright's work as "the revelation of architecture as art... not the art of books or of classrooms, but the art that proceeds from the very fiber of things. An art from within; filling the imagination with a swirling stream of living images; arousing an intense desire to body them forth in living buildings; energizing their possessor with a feeling of the reality of the self; making him part of the living stream; sensitive to the aliveness of things; projecting himself unconsciously into all things; feeling the oneness and continuity of all things; delighting in the rediscovery of his own self in these expressions; delighting in the richness and mutliplicity of being of which he finds himself capable."

This vision of architecture evokes a world of interbeing. It is the longing to make such a world that has been mostly forsaken as everything in our culture is subordinated to the maintenance of systems of exploitation and/or oppression, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Today design has little meaning for masses of people for whom interbeing seems only a romantic dream as they scramble to fulfill materialistic fantasies, believing—as everything teaches them to— that consuming is the only way to ecstasy. Sorrow stirs in me every time I face the myriad ways in which advanced capitalism removes the cultural conditions that would enable everyone, including the poor, to have access to learning an aesthetic appreciation of design.

I learned an aesthetic appreciation from Baby, my mother's mother, who could not read or write. Design was visible in the quilts she made—both the crazy-pieced ones and those carefully constructed from patterns. Sadly the ability to recognize beauty does not seem to be innate. Even as it is clear that some individuals are born gifted with an acute aesthetic sensibility, most of us must learn how to "see" beauty. And even those folks who are gifted must practice the art of looking to maintain their gifts.

When I wander around the West Village and enter shops selling to those who are well-off the artifacts (furniture, dishes, candleholders, lamps, etc.) that were once in lower middle class and middle class homes, I think about the way in which class often over-determines our relationship to design. It is hard to imagine that as late as the fifties it was still possible for families without much money to own an exquisitely designed chair or table.

Today, there is no design for everybody. Design is primarily for those who can afford it and/or the people who are taught to think about aesthetics. Simply because people have money does not mean that they will have an eye for design, but there is an everyday pedagogy of design in our culture. Its lessons are brought to those of us with class privilege who know the right magazines to look at, the right stores to go to, the best designers to hire. Many popular magazines draw a map for those who want to know where to go to buy well-made beautifully designed objects.

Once again I ponder how the artifacts that are more likely to be in poor and lower class homes these days are bereft of design and artistry, such as the cheap chairs that are not "real" wood and that easily fall apart from too much use. Sometimes in those high-priced stores I see skillfully designed artifacts that were in our working class home; we did not value them because our desiring minds were already reaching for the next materialistic status symbol.

This points not to a failure on the part of poor and working class people to invest in cultural capital but rather to those problematic historical moments when the desire for material status alters the capacity to appreciate the value of an object. For example, growing up we all had beautiful hand-made quilts on our bed. While our grandmother saw them as objects of beauty, her children looked forward to the day when they could remove those "old-fashioned" quilts and replace them with store bought blankets and comforters. However, as materially privileged consumers began to register through mass media their sense of quilts as meaningful valuable objects, members of my family begin to change their way of seeing these artifacts. The heart of the matter was not really aesthetic value but material status.

Ultimately, cheaply made reproductions of old style quilts do not enhance the aesthetic sensibility of those who buy them. Whether we are talking about sub-standard housing or tea kettles, coffee pots and quilts, it is clear that corporate-run economics ensures that most individuals will accept the notion that status derived from conspicuous consumption is more important for individual happiness than aesthetics.

In such a corrupt world the vision of design Harwell Hamilton Harris described must struggle to have meaning. Speaking to a graduating class in the fifties he shared these insights: "Don't let design become routine. Begin each new design with an air of excitement, with the confidence that out of it will come a wholly new thing, not a made-over one. It is a life of discovery—discovery of your own nature and discovery of the nature of the universe. It is the means by which you grow personally. I am not talking about architecture as a means of making a living; I am talking about architecture as living."

To realize this vision we would have to see design as shaping how we live, as having spiritual value. We would have to really live. When life is happening, design has meaning. In such a world every design that we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive, of being able to experience joy and peace. In my life the primary principle that has guided and sustained me as I have approached the issue of design (whether drawing up primitive blueprints for the renovation of living space, book covers, or just the way I choose to create designs for folders) has been the practice of finding delight and pleasure in that which is simple.

I am a fan of the bumper sticker which urges us to "live simply so that others may simply live." Often the call to be mindful of that which is simple is misunderstood, heard only as a demand that we live without beauty or luxury, without appreciation of the "finer things."

For me it has always been a call to search for the beauty that is beyond that which can be made most easily apparent, to find beauty in the everyday. My decision to move towards elegance in simplicity was stirred by an effort to throw off the bondage of excess. This included traditional ways of thinking about design, which seemed to cloud my aesthetic vision.

Japanese sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi's devotion to finding a simple essence led him to articulate a vision of a world beyond art. With quiet daring he was able to declare, "The work that contains only what is really necessary would scarcely exist. It would almost disappear. In a sense it would be an invisible work. I have not yet reached that point, but I would like to go so far. Such a work would not claim itself to be art. It has nothing conspicuous and might look as if it simply fell from heaven ...."

In such a vision lies our hope. It is the dream of a world where design enables us to live and die fully, to come close to paradise, to know that heavenly splendor is always here for us. We have only to design and endlessly design a life where that vision is there for everyone to see and realize.

bell hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College in Kentucky. She is the author of Wounds of Passion.

Design: A Happening Life
, bell hooks, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

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