Interviewsand Articles Conversation with Denise Zabalaga: We Are All the Other

Photojournalist Denise Zabalaga grew up in Switzerland with her Italian mother and Bolivian father. Italian and Spanish were spoken at home. When Denise was sent to school she didn’t know the German spoken there, an experience that gave her a lifelong feeling for, and identification with, the outsider. The experience brought with it the gift of being free from the projection of fear and mistrust upon the stranger. Instead of fear, Zabalaga has a deep interest in people of other cultures and has been able to look past the media coverage of the other that relentlessly panders to our fears.
With a superb gift for languages, Zabalaga quickly taught herself Farsi and its variants and traveled in Afghanistan, Syria, Damascus, Iran and Tajikistan. Over and over Zabalaga was able to manage, traveling always as a single woman. She got into many tight situations, but with her faith that meeting a stranger is, “first of all, an opportunity rather than a danger,” and with her uncanny openness and ability to connect with others, she always found her way out of difficulties

 What is most meaningful to her in all her travels she puts this way, “most important is the incredible generosity that I experienced. Not only on a material level, but on a human level—all the times they accepted me and included me as a full human being.”
Zabalaga’s interest in the people of other cultures is the basis for her photography and photojournalism. She studied at New York’s International Center of Photography and has worked on a variety of film projects documenting important figures from many different cultures.
We talked on a warm day in San Rafael, California.

Richard Whittaker:  Tell me a little about your background in photography and film.

Denise Zabalaga:  I travel a lot, especially when I was younger, in my twenties and even before that. I started taking pictures as I was traveling. It started becoming more professional when I lived in Syria and Damascus.
I started taking lots of pictures there. Then I applied to the International Center of Photography in New York. They have a photojournalism program. They accepted me. So I moved to New York. That was from 1999 to 2001.

RW:  When you were younger, before you traveled, did you ever have a camera in your hand?

DZ:  I actually did. My dad liked photography. He would take lots of pictures, but I couldn’t really say he was a photographer. He had tons of pictures, but always on the same subject. Really boring.

RW:  But he loved doing that, it sounds like.

DZ:  He loved doing that. And he would go to these photography fairs and wander around and look and look. I was only five or six and he would take me with him.
I just recently found a photograph of myself—maybe I was six—holding a very old camera and looking through it.

RW:  In a way, it sort of predicts something about what you’re doing now.

DZ:  In a way, it did. Yes.

RW:  This is a central thing for you capturing images either in still photography or on video or film, right?

DZ:  It is. As my parents were not Swiss, when I was a child, I never quite had an access to the outside world through the word because I couldn’t express myself properly. I didn’t know any German when I went to school. I hadn’t started speaking it, so I was always a visual person, I guess. The way I chose to express myself was the image.

RW:  What was your first language, as a child?

DZ:  My mother’s. She’s Italian. My second language is Spanish. And so my third language was German, which I learned in school.

RW:  So you’re one of those lucky people who speak three languages, or maybe even more.

DZ:  Well, it’s just normal in Switzerland because, even if you speak German at home, you will surely learn French and English at school, at least. I’m very grateful for that. It opened many doors.

RW:  So when you were at the ICP, did you take a degree?

DZ:  It was a certificate program showing that you’d attended this intense photojournalism program. But for me, the most important thing was just being there and being with other people who were expressing themselves through the same medium.
I lived in Harlem then. I would just walk around every day, walk and walk and walk, and take pictures. Just take pictures and walk; cross over to the Bronx and take pictures all over the area.

RW:  What are some of the memorable experiences that come back to you now from your time walking around in Harlem or the Bronx?

DZ:  Let’s say that being a photographer gave me access to having those experiences, although they may not all be directed at photography. Harlem is a place that many people might have concerns about the people there, about being in an aggressive environment, whatever. The camera has always been like a ticket for me, which gives access and allows for meeting people—I would say, “Okay, because I’m here, I’m going to take some pictures.” Still, not everybody would see it the same way, especially if you’re white.

RW:  Did you go alone?

DZ:  Always. This is very important for me because I want to be out there. I don’t want to have anything between me and the people. I have to be vulnerable for that. And that’s okay. I think people can sense that. Other people say, yes, but it’s dangerous. I say, well, yes, but maybe it opens up doors. It opens up opportunities.

RW:  So tell me, you must have had some memorable moments.

DZ:  Well, at the very beginning, I had just moved there and I was walking around the streets. In Harlem, all the people are out on the streets. They’re gathering, they’re talking. I really like that!

RW:  That’s life, isn’t it?

DZ:  Yes. It’s life! Well, since I had a camera and I like images, I would just start taking pictures! In some cases I would ask, in others, I wouldn’t.
So one time there is this guy and he seems to be really disturbed. He was this black guy, like hip-hop style. He comes up to me. I say, “Oh, well, I’m just taking pictures.” He was really mad. “You don’t have the right to do that!” “Well, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you.”
So let’s have a talk. I just started talking with him, just a human being. And I don’t even remember if it was the same day, but eventually he changed. He would become my friend. At a certain point, he said, “You’re a lady and you’re alone here, so if you should ever have a problem just tell me and I will shoot the guy!” [laughs]
So I met this guy from a very different world. I wouldn’t be able to connect with him on other levels, maybe. But this was a very human level where there was an exchange. There was an understanding, and there was an acceptance. Maybe I wouldn’t have been in that situation if I didn’t take the picture, and if he didn’t get mad at me. So it was great.
It gives opportunities. I don’t mind being out there, or exposed. I think that’s what you need to do to allow life to enter.

RW:  When you were in Harlem, and also walking around in the Bronx, did you get into conversations with people quite often?

DZ:  Often there would be days where I would be alone. Sometimes conversations or interactions would happen, maybe depending on my own state—how I was and how I wanted to be. Or opposite situations would reflect that to me, how I would feel. Maybe I didn’t want to be talked to, so the situations that would come of it wouldn’t be so nice—or just the other way around.

RW:  That must have taken a lot of courage to do that. Did it feel to you that it took courage?

DZ:  You mean that walking around?

RW:  Walking around in Harlem, a beautiful white woman alone. I don’t mean to press on the racial question, but there it is. It’s a situation that most whites might not have done. There would be some fear.

DZ:  There are different answers to that. First of all, I don’t conceive of myself as being a white, beautiful woman. Not because I don’t think I’m beautiful. Not because I don’t think I’m white. I just don’t think in these terms of separation. First of all, because of a feeling—I don’t have a feeling of disconnection to any others. When I see a person, I really don’t see that, “Oh, he’s black. He’s different.” I don’t see the world like that. I know that many people do.
So I don’t feel myself exposed in that situation. Another thing may be because, maybe there’s a deeper level. You know, I told you that I grew up in Switzerland, not being Swiss. So I always felt myself belonging to “the other.” I was myself, the other, right?

RW:  I see.

DZ:  So there is no separation from the other because I am the other. So I wouldn’t feel threatened, or afraid. I would sometimes be surprised with people reacting to me, because, of course they would see that there was something different. But I didn’t feel myself different.

RW:  Well, having grown up in this country I have to confess that in a situation like that, I would be scared. And these fears go with all these racial problems. It’s a shame, but it’s true. The fears are hard to escape from.

DZ:  Well it started out from a position of disadvantage because that’s what I lived with in Switzerland. I mean, being the other. But as I traveled the world, it’s an advantage because there is no separation. I’m always with the other. Do you understand?

RW:  That’s quite wonderful. It gives this ability to connect with almost any other group. If you go to Afghanistan, let’s say, you don’t feel you arrive from a place of great privilege.

DZ:  No. I mean yes, and no. Of course I arrive from a place of great privilege.

RW:  But inwardly, psychologically…

DZ:  From a human level, no.

RW:  That’s what I’m trying to say.

DZ:  And what makes me most happy was like when I lived in Syria, or when I went to Afghanistan, people would always tell me—Arabs in Syria or Persians in Iran or Afghans in Afghanistan—they would always tell me, “You don’t feel like a foreigner. You’re one of us.” For me that was like the greatest privilege, the best compliment! They couldn’t have said anything better to me.

RW:  No. My goodness, that’s a gift! What countries have you gone to? Since you studied photojournalism at ICP—that was around 1999 to 2001…

DZ:  Before that I spent one and half years in Syria and Damascus, and then I went to New York.

RW:  Let’s just spend a little time on that. What were you doing in Syria and Damascus?

DZ:  I went there to learn Arabic. That was the main reason. At the same time, I was taking a lot of pictures.

RW:  Where did you stay?

DZ:  When I arrived, I stayed in a hotel. Then I found a place with a family. Then eventually, I moved into my own apartment. Then I changed from one apartment to the other.

RW:  You had some financial resources?

DZ:  Yes. I started working when I was fourteen. At supermarkets, at restaurants, after school. I saved my money since I was fourteen. I started traveling when I was sixteen.

RW:  How old are you now? If you don’t mind my asking.

DZ:  I just turned thirty-three.

RW:  You’ve done a lot of things since you were sixteen.

DZ:  When I think about it, yes. But I always tend to forget what I’ve done. And then suddenly people say that— you did a lot of things! I start to think and I have to say, you know, you’re right! [laughs]

RW:  Well, lets go back to Syria and Damascus. You went there to learn Arabic. Tell me about that.

DZ:  I was just interested in it. I started reading books of Arabic poetry, but I was reading translations. So I thought, I don’t want to read translations! I mean it wasn’t easy, from many points of view.

RW:  Did you find a teacher?

DZ:  I had, first, a private teacher. It didn’t go well with him. It was difficult because I was a young woman and he had certain wrong ideas about European women.

RW:  There was a sexual issue there.

DZ:  Totally.

RW:  Was there a cultural issue, too? A beautiful woman, alone, unchaperoned?

DZ:  No, I think it was more than that. It was a misconception of us that they had, of us in the West. As we have a misconception of them. Like all of the rubbish from our culture…

RW:  The rubbish from our culture in movies, television, advertising and so on?

DZ:  Exactly. As we have this image of terrorism. That is not a true image. That’s how we relate to each other.

RW:  Through the media.

DZ:  Through crap. Through rubbish. I often find that when I go to that part of the world, what I meet is what we have created. All the rubbish that we have created, I meet in those parts of the world. You have to overcome that in order to reach people. The language is a big clue for that. It helps me a lot.

RW:  This is a serious problem, worldwide, for the U.S.— isn’t it?

DZ:  For the West, generally. But it’s not necessarily just America or Europe. It’s the other. For some reason, it’s always the worst image about the other, all the negative aspects. You know?

RW:  Yes, and I’m glad you’re talking about this. It seems that nowadays I don’t hear much about this problem. Back in the sixties it seemed that more people knew about this concept of projection, and the shadow.

DZ:  Exactly.

RW:  It’s a universal problem. I project, but I’m also the victim of that. These negative parts are placed out there on the other. So this is something you have grappled with a lot, right?

DZ:  Yes. And it’s actually very painful when you are in that situation. Because, “Hey! Can’t you see me? Can’t you really see me?” And all the other person sees is the projections. It doesn’t work.

RW:  What do you think about this problem?

DZ:  I don’t know how it used to be before, whether people had more of a sense of this projection, because it’s a psychological term, right?

RW:  Yes. It was probably never really a popular idea, but it seems to me that when I was in college, that a lot of people were at least familiar with the idea. Jung’s ideas were better known, I guess.

DZ:  So maybe it was relevant in your time, but now it’s even much more important. Like the media image—you see images, and often an image can actually prevent you from seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to manipulate.

RW:  This would be a central thing in your vocation. What are you trying to do with your photojournalism? What interests you?

DZ:  First of all, humanity interests me. I find that the pictures I take do not necessarily show a certain… I mean, I’m a photojournalist. That’s often about showing what is going on out there, situations, government, a fight. The way I shoot, I really try to catch a certain essence. So often, nothing goes on in my pictures. You wouldn’t know what happens in the country if you look at the picture. But maybe, if you look long enough, there’s something about the person who is looking at you that can connect to you. I don’t know if you get what I’m saying.

RW:  I follow you.

DZ:  The more I’m working with images—it keeps me thinking more and more and more: If you look at the world in its current state and you think about how media is giving its contribution—how things can be misinterpreted—then I think that images have a lot of power. They can be very dangerous. There’s a lot of responsibility in working with images.

RW:  This is a very important question.

DZ:  Because often images pretend to show you reality. And often what they do is prevent it. Really. Even in a good way. You can make something look nice. Is it really nice? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

RW:  This is a central question.

DZ:  You’re a photographer yourself, right?

RW:  Yes. But my interests in photography have not been about people, exactly. This is another story, but doing the magazine puts me in relationship with people, and I love that. But here you are a photojournalist and so this is an extremely appropriate subject to be pondering. You are calling yourself a photojournalist, right?

DZ:   Yes. But now I’m not taking still pictures. I’m just working with video and editing. I never possessed one of those little cards where you have your name and what you do, because I just didn’t know. I would do so many different things and maybe I would do photography at the same time. I don’t necessarily identify with being a photographer.

RW:  I understand that perfectly. Well, let’s get back to the Arabic. Tell me more about what happened with your study of Arabic.

DZ:  I picked up a dictionary and I started learning the dictionary word by word. Every day I’d practice, let’s say, two hundred words and maybe I would retain fifty words. I did this for a few months. I would study for a couple of days and really devour the dictionary. Then I would go out to the bazaar and I’d talk with the people. So these months passed. Then there was this teaching institute. They were just starting new classes. So I went and had to pass an admission test and they actually put me in the last level.

RW:  Last, meaning high or low?

DZ:  Highest level. I was with people who were mastering Arabic, and I’d just been studying Arabic for three months! So of course, I wasn’t as good in grammar. But I would catch up—especially because I would go around on the streets and talk with people. I would go and buy bread and then I’d stand and talk for ten minutes with the guy who bakes the bread. It was great!

RW:  I’ve talked with a photographer named Saïd Nuseibeh. He had a Palestinian father and an English mother. Do you know him?

DZ:  No. I’d love to meet him.

RW:  As a kid, he lost his Arabic, or never learned it. But as a young man, he went and lived with a Bedouin family in order to learn Arabic. I interviewed him. It’s on the web site. He told me that learning Arabic is very difficult. And there’s a lovely woman from Jordan, Lana Nasser. Lana told me some things about Arabic, too. There are words that contain a lot, and so are very difficult to translate. Saïd told me the same things.

DZ:  It’s so rich! I’m taking some classes in Persian, you know. I like Persian poetry and old Arabic texts. So sometimes these words come up. Lately we’ve been looking at the word rabb which means “lord” and which is used in the Koran. I know some Arabic, but I never made the connection. My teacher said, well you know, from the same root there is tarbita, which means “education and nourishment.” When you see these connections, suddenly you begin to see these things in another light.

RW:  In Arabic is that richness and depth conveyed?

DZ:  I totally feel so. Yes.

RW:  If you have a language that has a word for a particular kind of experience, I think you have more access to that. Does that make sense to you?

DZ:  It does. I find it interesting that you say it because that’s what I think. But I don’t know if people, especially let’s say, in America or Europe, if people know about this other dimension of language. I know that I perceive it for myself.

RW:  I suspect that people never think about that. But some people are aware of this, at least as an idea. I heard that there’s a word in French that means an attitude of welcoming interest in whatever might unfold in the present moment. It’s just one word.

DZ:  It creates a space, this word. Right?

RW:  Yes. That’s an example of what different words in different languages must do. It’s like making a space for a certain kind of experience. But without that word, maybe I don’t find that space or have that experience.

DZ:  Interesting. You know, let’s say I have to translate for two persons. I have this word and then I have that word, but I can’t create a substance for the word. I have an inner dictionary where I have a taste, a substance, a feeling, a color, a smell—but so often I don’t get the word in the other language. I’m totally lost and I don’t know how to translate that.

RW:  So there’s written and spoken language. But you’re interested in visual language, too. Right?

DZ:  Yes. I find that it opens up a door, or possibilities, to people, to nations, to cultures, which goes beyond just the expression of who you are and what you want. It includes that, but it goes far beyond.

RW:  Well tell me about Global Oneness Project.

DZ:  Well, I was involved in another film project. But I had problems with my producer so the project was stopped. And at that time, Emmanuel was starting Global Oneness Project. That’s how it all started. But there is a whole part we didn’t talk about, if you are interested.

RW:  Oh, I am. Let’s hear about it

DZ: I left New York in 2001. I went to Iran and Afghanistan. This was after 9/11. I always wanted to go to Afghanistan. I was attracted to their whole history, My life up to then, first I had gone to Syria, then New York, so it was pretty full.

RW:  You went to Afghanistan after 9/11. The U.S. was bombing Afghanistan. Were you over there?

DZ:  No. I was in New York, but I was planning to go there. So I went to Switzerland and made a few preparations, got my camera stuff together and, in 2002, I went. I went first to Iran because you couldn’t fly directly into Afghanistan at that time. Either you went to Pakistan or you went to Iran, and I was more interested in going to Iran. So I got my visa stuff and booked a flight to Tehran. I was planning to take a bus, go to the border and just cross over into Afghanistan.

RW:  Did you already speak a little Farsi?

DZ:  No. I arrived in Tehran and was going to stay just a couple of days. Well, as is my nature, I was very curious. I thought, “Oh, Tehran. I will be able to speak some English!” But they did not speak English. Almost nobody was at a level where you could have a conversation and express yourself. And I didn’t know any Persian. So that was a problem.
And despite whatever people are thinking about Iran, Iran is a 21st century country. It’s a modern world. Well, here I am in Iran and I’m not able to talk with the people. So it put me in an awkward situation.
In a couple of days I’d go to Afghanistan, cross the border and would be in a world that had been twenty-five or thirty years at war—with lots of refugees, lots of poverty, lots of destruction. How am I going to go around and talk with people?

RW:  So what’s the language in Afghanistan?

DZ:  It’s Persian. It’s Farsi. You speak Farsi in Iran. You speak Farsi in Afghanistan and you speak Farsi in big parts of Tajikistan. But every country has a different version. In Afghanistan it’s called Dari.
So the language is not exactly the same, but I thought, well, I’m in Tehran and it will be more difficult to learn the language in Afghanistan. So I went into the next bookstore and I bought a Persian dictionary. I started learning it word for word. I thought, well, my visa is valid for three months, so I can stay here for three months and study Persian, which will help me in Afghanistan.
So I started doing that. I would study every day, eight hours, ten hours, with my books. Learn the dictionary by heart. Learn the grammar by heart. I would study that way for two or three days and then for another two or three days, go out into the street and practice. I learned.
So that is what I did for two months. I even signed up at university for another six weeks, which was a total waste of time, because there was such a slow tempo. You would learn other things, but from a language point of view, it was just a waste of time.

RW:  And then what?

DZ:  Well, first of all, my visa was running out. Second, I was there because I wanted to go to Afghanistan. So I took the next bus. I was living in Isfahan and took a bus to Mashhad, which is closer to the Afghan border.

RW:  You’re alone all this time?

DZ:  Yes. Always. So I went there and took another bus. It was problematic to get to the border. I was the only woman from Mashhad to the border in the bus. At the last station where the bus went, the village was not on the very border. You needed to take a taxi to get there. But no woman was going there. No taxi driver wanted to take me with him because I was an only woman. He shouldn’t do that and it was dangerous. So it was quite a problem to get there. But I managed. I talked to the bus driver and he somehow sympathized with me. Then he gave me a ride and somehow I stood with my suitcases and my bags at the border.

RW:  At the border of Afghanistan. Now you’re this single woman traveling in these Muslim countries. Were you wearing the hijab?

DZ:  I had bought myself an Iranian chadoor in the bazaar in Mashhad. It’s just this black wrap, but your face is free. I basically did it because I thought, first of all, I should do it out of respect. Second, if I don’t do it, everything will be trouble. So it makes a lot of sense to do it. So that’s what I did.

RW:  So then you went into Afghanistan. Was it still being bombed?

DZ:  It wasn’t being bombed, in that sense. But it was a post-war, post-conflict situation. They had just bombed. And before the U.S., the Taliban were there and before that, the Russian invaders were there. And then there were all the different tribes and the warlords and all the different fights

RW:  But you’re going in there, anyway. So what happened?

DZ:  Yes. I stayed for eight months in the country. Many people—[sighs twice] I mean, the biggest concern for people seems to be that I was a woman traveling alone. I say, yes, but there are different aspects of that. One the one hand, I was a photographer, a foreigner, and on the other, this covered woman. I would speak the language up to the point where people would get confused. Well, where is she from? She speaks so well.
I wanted to have access to people, to make things easier for me, but eventually it didn’t turn out like that. People would be suspicious. They would wonder, who is she? Is she a spy? This was the most frequent question. And not only from the Afghan side but also from foreign NGO’s.

RW:  They asked, Are you a spy?

DZ:  Sometimes jokingly, but even then, there was some seriousness. They would be really suspicious. Why does she speak so well, and why is the camera hidden? Eventually I had to ease those situations. Maybe a soldier would stop me on the street and ask, “What are you doing? Women aren’t supposed to walk alone. Why do you speak like that?” You know, I could just find my way out of that.
I had other situations where they would just kind of arrest me. They would take me to the headquarters and say, “Your papers are not correct! You are a spy. What are you doing here?

RW:  So you went through that?

DZ:  A lot.

RW:  A lot? But somehow you managed. How did you manage?

DZ: I have to say, and I’m very careful about saying it, because it seems to be a little bit arrogant. I wasn’t really afraid that anything would happen. Maybe you could say this was foolishness, because there are lots of reasons to be afraid. I don’t know. I have a basic trust that nothing really bad would happen. Then there was another element. I was very curious about what would happen. Like any situation, I would see it as an opportunity to learn more or to see more about things and how things work out. I would just say, okay, here I am.
I wouldn’t go out at night and wouldn’t walk alone on the street. You know, there were certain guidelines that I would observe. Now, still, this implies many dangers. I accept that this is part of it. I try to be as reasonable as I can inside this whole situation, which is not reasonable!—if you look at it from the outside.
But there’s another thing. When I share these experiences, you know, like, “you’re a spy” and the not very nice things that happened, it’s not the most important part. For me, what is really first and most important is the incredible generosity that I experienced. Not only on a material level, but on a human level and all the times they accepted me and included me as a full human being. And as who I am with my own traditions, not wanting to corrupt it, not wanting to change it!
To tell you a simple example from Afghanistan. I’m traveling and it’s Ramadan. People don’t eat from dawn to sunset. But I would be traveling there and I would meet people who are pretty poor. They wouldn’t have much to eat, anyway, even after sunset! But they would meet me and they would say, “But you have to eat! You are not a Muslim. You’re a Christian.” They would say, “So, please, let us prepare you some food.”
And it’s daytime and maybe they wouldn’t even have any food. So they would go to their neighbors and take up a potato or watermelon. They would cook it, slice it, serve it on a dish, put it in front of me and sit there with me. Since it’s Ramadan, they couldn’t eat, but they would say, “You have to honor us and eat.”
We don’t do this here. We wouldn’t do this! I have never, ever, ever experienced such generosity! This is the way I connect to that part of the world, which makes me feel free even if people say, ”well, you’re a woman.” Yes. Okay. So what?
I put on a chadoor. Do I agree with it? Or think it’s good for women to go around like this? No. I don’t think so. But you know, there is, in another way, a generosity and acceptance of the human being that I haven’t found anywhere else. I just want to be sure that people really, really get this! Because there is such a tendency to focus on the negative things, the dangerous things, which are there. It is one current. But what allows me to move is this other thing that’s true, also.

RW:  Thank you for sharing that. Tell me a little about Global Oneness Project. What is GOP doing?

DZ:  The idea is to show a way of living, of being together, of co-existence, which reflects this interconnectedness, which goes beyond languages and cultural borders. We try to show people a way that has more of a “we” thinking than an “I” thinking, an “I” perspective. So it’s just this concept called “oneness” which is inherent in human beings beyond our separation. It doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. It includes all this diversity. It actually holds it together.
My special role in that, again, it’s the visual. I think I just give my eye and my sense of imagery to this whole vision. Of course, I share the values. I share the ideas, everything. I strongly support it with all my being, but my special contribution is the visual part.

RW:  I’m beginning to feel that my life is spanning a period where nationalism is beginning to give way. It’s hard to know what is appearing. But I have a feeling that in your generation, you’re 33, that something has already shifted.

DZ:  It’s interesting. I actually think I’m in the generation that’s in between.

RW:  You relate to what I’m saying.

DZ:  I totally relate to it. I just feel really in the middle position.

RW:  Say a little more about how you see this.

DZ:  [pauses]. In the past, up until now the richness was expressed through different cultures, traditions, religions, spiritual systems. When I think about what is going on now, I think about what has gone on in the past. What we have now wasn’t present in the past—this ability where we can connect with each other through media and through the Internet. Basically, in the past you would have communities. You would have cultures and traditions in their own spaces so they could develop and flourish.
So you would have these great civilizations and eventually they would meet other civilizations and they would crash against each other and fall apart. But it was about building blocks or systems. Very individual.
Now suddenly, we see all these other worlds. And it’s a very natural thing; you start to go into the other world. You can go with a nice intention. You can go with a bad intention. It doesn’t really matter. Things are starting to mix, to come together. And then, we’re human beings; so there is all the good, there is all the bad.
All these individual systems, traditions, cultures—now suddenly, they mix together. They lose something from their own essence, but at the same time it seems like it’s about something else. It’s about something common that brings all these cultures, all these traditions, together in another way. In an outward form, many things will get lost, which is very sad. But it seems that, through the Internet, through media and modern ways of communication there is a chance for people to actually unify in another way. To create a new cultural, spiritual and human heritage.
In the past it seems like it was about conquest. All about separations, about defining your culture, defining your system. Now I think the bigger conquest would be to bring it all together again. So it’s a different way of approaching things. And I hope that everybody will be able to take his own essence and put it into the big pot and a new delicious meal can be cooked.

RW:  That word “essence” is not a word we hear used a lot anymore. It’s not a postmodern word, essence. But I resonate to what you’re saying. Each one of us has, perhaps, some essence. Maybe I’m not in touch with it so much. And I wonder.
This is a question I have with the Internet, this huge reality. What happens if I spend so much of my time looking at a monitor and typing? And living in just this part of myself? [gestures from the neck up] What happens with the rest of myself? You know what I’m saying?

DZ:  Yes. It’s a really good question that you raise. I find it really challenging. I find it very dangerous. I mean, I’m living every day, every second with [gestures to computers and monitors on her desk] and I get depressed, honestly. It can easily eat us up. We can easily be swallowed by this. On the other hand, it’s a powerful tool, an opportunity for unification on another level.
So I don’t know. It seems that all those people who have these great ideas and work with this unifying vision, spend life—on a daily basis—in a small screen. So it’s a paradox. Since it’s a paradox, I say there has to be something true in there.
And it seems that lots of initiatives to create something new, to bring people together, to go to another level of consciousness or awareness, they come from here, from America. America doesn’t have such an old history like other places. And in that sense, it doesn’t have a cultural essence that binds people together like in other cultures. Maybe, since it doesn’t have an essence itself, it will be a breeding ground for all other cultural essences, to collect them. Maybe it can provide a space, which will allow the essences to come together and create something new.

RW:  What you have to say is extremely interesting.

DZ:  I’m so glad you made the space and the openness for this. I wouldn’t be able to share it without this space to put it. The thing that touches me about this conversation— and maybe it’s interesting to talk about this—often somebody has something and another person has something. But too often nobody has an open space to receive what the other person has. What gives me the freedom to give and to express is to feel, I mean I’m very well aware that you have a lot, but right now, you’re just giving a space, right? [nods] So this gives me the opportunity to express. I couldn’t do it with another person. Where should I put it? You know?
There’s so much out there that the danger is that we all want to impose our ideas. We all have our visions, and we just want to give them. We’re not receptive for the other ideas anymore. We want to give our oneness. So we may have new ideas, unifying ideas, but what if we go with the old attitude? There’s a danger, but there’s also an enormous opportunity at this shifting point.

RW:  Yes. Thanks to Nipun [Nipun Mehta] I’ve been in touch with something going on among people in their twenties and thirties. I have a sense there’s a deep reaction against our materialistic, commodity culture. There’s this phenomenon called “the gift economy,” for instance.
And it’s interesting what you were saying about the U.S., that maybe it can provide a space. Certainly there is some refuge here for Tibetan Buddhism, for instance. Buddhism, in general, is finding a home here. But in India, Nipun says that materialism is just sweeping through the entire country. It seems that everything is changing.

DZ:  It’s kind of inverting, right? All our rubbish is going there and their treasures and gold are coming here. The challenge is that we don’t treat this in a materialistic way. We shouldn’t treat it as another opportunity for consumption. That’s the danger, because that’s such an old mindset, old pattern, just to get things and to consume them. So if we want to create something new, we should also approach it with a new way of thinking and being.

Interview with Karl Linn: Community Gardens: Reclaiming a Commons

I first met Karl Linn at a symposium in Oakland in September of 2000. Ivan Illich and several of his friends, at the request of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, had come to town to discuss questions of place, the commons and what approaches to the civic environment might help engender well-being. It wasn’t long before I realized I was among a group of people who had spent decades trying to learn and understand basic principles which could lead to enlightened public planning and urban development.

In the audience on several occasions, I had noticed Linn, a quiet man short of stature, but radiating a noticeable physical presence. He seemed to be old friends with Illich and his circle. As the evening programs continued it became clear that many of those presenting papers or leading discussions had strong connections with Penn State University and the University of Pennsylvania. They had taught there, as Illich had, or were still faculty members as were Joseph Rykwert and Terrance Galvin, both architects. Linn, it turned out, had also taught at the University of Pennsylvania where one of his close friends had been the architect Louis Kahn. 
     Sometime after the symposium, Karl Linn came up in a conversation I was having with Terrance Galvin, with whom I’d become acquainted during the symposium. I learned that Linn was born in Germany, had fled the Nazis and had established careers both in child psychiatry and landscape architecture. In fact, Linn combined his understandings of psychological health, civic health and communal gardens (the last remaining element of public commons) into an integrated approach to the social good. Over the years Linn was responsible for the establishment of many such gardens, especially in neighborhoods thought to be beyond help. He knew from firsthand experience the potential that creating and maintaining a communal garden has for building relationships among neighbors and promoting conviviality. 
     For many years, Linn had been active in Berkeley civic life. One of his accomplishments was to convince the Berkeley planners to turn over a piece of land next to a BART tunnel for the establishment of a communal garden, where it still exists—The Carl Linn Peralta Community Garden. 
That’s where Linn and I sat and talked, surrounded by flowers and tomatoes and corn and other vegetables on a beautiful, mild spring day. The sounds of birds mixed in with the regular rumble and whine of the passing BART trains…

Richard Whittaker:  How do you see yourself today in terms of your vocation?

Karl Linn:  I try, really, to contribute to the building of community among people. One description is getting strangers, who are living next to each other, to know one another as neighbors. That’s the most essential motivating thought that leads me to do what I am doing. You could call me a community organizer. I focus on a particular segment of the population, mainly the urban neighborhood, at least right now.
I think of a neighborhood block as something of a unit. A certain street pattern repeats itself in cities, the neighborhood block. Within this block I hope to encourage a new kind of extended family living not based on blood relationship, but on neighborliness, and on intergenerational support. Teen-agers, for instance, can play a more significant role in neighborhood leadership because they have all this energy. So if one can develop these basic social units on a grass roots level, people would get to know one another; people will have a voice. It can contribute to the nurturing of democracy.
In order for this to happen I use a few strategies. One is to make a place available, a public place that’s in the midst of neighborhood territory, not necessarily a park—I call it a neighborhood commons—so that people can meet each other casually. They can even meet each other in the morning hours. If you want to continue with your conversation of last night, you want to meet again the next day. In the past, the sidewalk and the street made this casual continuity possible. But today the vehicular traffic is more dangerous, and there’s the pollution of it. So people build fences and put their porches on the back of the building, not in front as they used to. Consequently to find and establish a place like this, which is a commons, makes it possible for neighbors to meet one another face to face.
It’s important to secure land that is accessible, not only to middle-aged adults, but to senior citizens, babies, pregnant women, to people with special needs—to everybody. It has to be accessible.
Then another dimension is how do you secure that land? If every piece of land is occupied, even with affordable housing—as important as affordable housing is—if only houses are being built, people have no place to meet. The only way to secure pieces of land for common use is to get it into guidelines in the city’s general plan. Berkeley is now the second city, along with Seattle, that has incorporated these guidelines into the draft of a general plan to secure land.

RW:  When did Berkeley create these guidelines?

Karl Linn:  We spent three years with the planning department. They incorporated a lot of guidelines then recently the planning commission of Berkeley eliminated these guidelines. I went in front of the commission. I wrote to every commissioner and invited each one to come here and they reintroduced the supportive guidelines. I’m very pleased right now.

RW:  They are now reinstated, then?

Karl Linn:  Yes. We’re okay. Looking at the community grounds here, which are closed off [there is a fence], there was this wonderful apprehension people had, which is interesting. People looked and saw people gardening here and it reminded them of what they do in their own back yards. What happened was that some city administrators and others said we were privatizing public property since access was limited only to a limited number of people.
To us, it was just a reverse issue. Those of us who are fortunate enough to own homes, members of the middle class, have very secure private back yards and front yards. Why shouldn’t people of lesser economic means, who live right here across the street in this apartment building, have a little security with the crops they are growing? This not only allows them to have contact with the soil and earth and growing things, but also solidifies their pocketbook, economically. It’s the same kind of security homeowners have.
There were newspaper articles and discussions, and we finally overcame those objections. People finally realized there is another dimension to community gardens, which is very critical from an economic and social justice point of view.
There is a certain sanctuary in these gardens, and we are developing a growing trust among the participants as we accommodate each other. Another function is that a lot of artists felt inspired to create special art for the garden, or leave some of their art pieces in the garden. So we are creating a kind of freedom of expression. We’re very supportive when people come to us. We’re always trying to help the artists to realize their work. It fulfills another function. So I have become a midwife to artist’s creations, too.
Often the labor is difficult helping the artists install their pieces of art, finding the proper location—sometimes it’s very difficult. Installing the gate was very difficult, for instance. The artist made the gate, but she didn’t know anything about how to install it. So we always try to be very helpful. So summarizing all this—how do I consider myself? —As a people-landscape-architect. Does that answer your question?

RW:  Yes. It leads me to another question I wanted to ask, which is about your earlier work as a classical psychoanalyst. Is that right?

Karl Linn:  I worked with children, primarily, I had a practice in child analysis for a couple of years.

RW:  Is there a relationship between the interests, which led you to become an analyst and the interests that led you to landscape architecture?

Karl Linn:  Yes. I can explain it. First of all, there’s a carry over of my interests in people and my experience working with them, which helps me a lot in working with community gardens. Inadvertently and unwittingly people step on each other’s toes and so, often, I find myself being consulted by people who have trouble with each other. Often I contribute to helping people resolve such issues, not all the time, but many times.
First I started out a school for disturbed children in New York with a woman who owned the school. This was at the same time I had my private practice, and I introduced horticultural therapy in that school. The contact with soil is very important. In fact, in the Karl Linn garden there’s one bed, which is cultivated by the Alacosta School. That’s a school for mentally disturbed and physically handicapped people right in Cedar and Rose Park. The aides come with the kids and the young people, and they till the bed. It’s a very touching thing to watch how people reconnect with nature in its many different magnificent forms of expression.
Why I gave up my practice is another story. I got much more interested in my work about the connection between body and psyche. As I became more aware of the intricate connection between these two—one’s body and one’s psyche—I felt I had to study medicine in order to go more deeply into it. At that time I was a lay analyst. I became involved with the work of Wilhelm Reich. He was the first to show this relationship in his work of bioenergetics. He showed how the trauma enters itself into the body. This shows itself even in our language, for example when we speak of a “stiff-necked” person. We know a stiff-necked person is usually a stubborn person, but we’re less aware of how the tightness in the neck muscles really contributes to and reinforces that psychological characteristic.
But there were many reasons I did not go into medicine. So I came to the United States for two and a half years to go into body-oriented therapy as a patient. This was after I’d finished my studies in psychology in Switzerland, and after I’d graduated from the psychological seminary and was licensed by the Psychoanalytic Association to practice under supervision.
Undergoing this body-oriented therapy was a very deeply moving experience. From this I felt a growing need to express myself creatively through form, and that called me to return to my early days when I’d studied landscape architecture. I wanted to reconnect with nature as a healing environment for myself and also for my future clients, my landscape clients. I was looking at landscape architecture as a potentially healing profession.
So I gave up my practice and started to work my way into landscape architecture in this new continent. This was in 1951. I must have been 28. So that started from scratch. I worked my way into it and developed a very successful landscape design and construction outfit.

RW:  Are there early influences, which gave you a feeling for plants and nature?

Karl Linn:  I grew up on a farm, which my mother established in 1910 in Germany as an act of higher consciousness, because she was city bred. She had a very fancy position with the city. But she became familiar with modern educators and socialists who wanted to work with children in nature. She put herself through horticultural school despite incredible anti-Semitism. She was the only Jewish woman who had ever graduated from that school. Then she borrowed some money and bought some land. She designed and built a house and ended up with a fifteen-acre fruit tree farm that became an accredited training center and offered horticultural therapy.

RW:  Horticultural therapy. I have an intuitive feeling about the rightness of that, but I’ve never heard of it as a formal practice.

Karl Linn:  It’s actually an international organization. It started in mental hospitals and has developed in many different directions. I was in on it from the beginning, although I didn’t play an active a role. But it’s a wonderful organization. In the people-plant relationship there’s a lot of subtle interactions. In fact, when I taught at M.I.T. I invited Clive Baxter to my classes. He made a name for himself in an interesting way. He taught police officers how to use lie detectors. One day he was sitting alone in his office and there was a little dracaena houseplant. He thought, I wonder what would happen if I threatened this plant? “I’m going to burn you,” he said. He tested it with his equipment, and even the thought made the plant jump right off the grid! He made very meticulous experiments on this and it changed his life.
When I taught at M.I.T. in the late sixties, I wanted to reinforce an intuitive sense of nature in the students, and bringing in Clive Baxter and showing this relationship with plants helped them not to be intimidated by the more mechanical scientists there at M.I.T.
Anyhow, so this was my background. But I always saw women working in the fields, my mother, my sister, primarily women. She had two thousand fruit trees: cherries, apples, pears, plums—which we had to spray and prune and ship, and what have you. So I was used to people tilling the land, and before I knew it, I was starting to get rid of some weeds or prune something, and so on. When my wife and I go to the country, she really meditates. It’s beautiful. And being with my wife, it helps me also open myself up to the meditative. So these things are very much in me.

RW:  You’re drawing some analogies around cultivating plants and cultivating relationships with people…?

Karl Linn:  What I’m saying is that I was accustomed from early on, being raised in this little village on a farm, to see people tilling the land. And I started too. I worked in a little garden, helped the grown-ups, and swept the yard, cut firewood. You see me here. I’m still raking, still picking up papers, and I enjoy doing it. Call me a caretaker. When you asked me for a definition of my vocation, I’m really a caretaker: taking care of, taking care of land, taking care of God’s creation.
I often find myself, when I’ve gone someplace, say during the summer, picking up glass and nobody would ever see it. It’s only between the earth and God —or whatever you might call it. To me, it’s a mystery, not a personification. It connects with other things.
I’m a descendent of many, many, generations of rabbis. My father trained to be a rabbi; his father was a rabbi. My father never practiced, but it’s in my blood somehow. Some people think of me as a green rabbi, because I use plants always as a symbolic and ceremonial context. Anyhow this gets to these connections. And from Germany—I had to escape the Nazis—we went to Palestine, and again we had a farm there.

RW:  Would you say more about that?

Karl Linn:  This was in 1934. We grew vegetables and flowers. I dropped out of school at fourteen because my parents took ill. I had to run this farm on my own, which was very difficult. Then, when the Italians started to bombard the area, I got a scholarship to an agricultural school and my parents moved further inland. In agricultural school I specialized in landscape design and landscape planting because, when I had my own farm —I was a very effective gardener and grew a lot of crops—I couldn’t stand, during harvest times, how the fields were plundered and the plants decapitated. So I was always yearning to grow ornamental plants where you could just enjoy their unfolding. This got me into landscape architecture.
In a kibbutz I had to design places for private family life and for communal life, and I realized that plants are also space-forming elements. This was my real introduction to landscape architecture. But because I had a back injury and couldn’t really work physically at that time, my first job after I got out of the kibbutz was that I became a teacher of school gardens, in 1944.

RW:  A teacher of school gardens? That reminds me of the Alice Waters’ garden here in Berkeley.

Karl Linn:  That’s right. So this goes back a few years, and I was with Alice Waters. I was on the steering committee when she started the project. But my whole experience with the Nazis and with the tension between Arabs and Jews made me more curious about human nature. And I also went into therapy before I even went to Switzerland because I became familiar enough through education about early childhood hang-ups, that I wanted to be as mature and effective an adult as possible. My therapist knew something about Reich’s work, and so this really got me involved. This was back in 1943 and ‘44. After that I went to Switzerland and studied psychology.

RW:  Where were you living in 1943 and ‘44?

Karl Linn:  In Tel Aviv. Up to ’43 I was in the kibbutz, then I was to Tel Aviv in ‘44, ‘45. I went to Switzerland in early ‘47.

RW:  That’s a fascinating story.

Karl Linn:  You see some of the connections.

RW:  Yes. I wonder how you feel about the terminology. We can say “landscape architecture” or “garden.” They’re not the same, but related.

Karl Linn:  That’s why I say, “people- landscape architect.” Because, during the ‘50’s, I developed a very lucrative practice ending up with very rich people, which was not my initial intent. As I told you, I look at landscape architecture as a healing profession. The fact is that as each of my clients became richer and richer and richer, I lost more and more of my sense of social purpose. Then I started to teach at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. I took my students to inner city neighborhoods and worked primarily with people of color, building neighborhood commons.

RW:  Let me ask about these commons—now the commons you have here is a garden, a community garden…

Karl Linn:  Well, it’s more than a garden. It’s a meeting place. It’s a combination of planting bed, individual and communal, and a common place where people meet.

RW:  In establishing a commons, would you say, that ideally part of what it would consist of would be a garden?

Karl Linn:  Well in the past I saw an interesting development. I worked in about ten cities and established two non-profit corporations and inspired about eight others that were the first pioneering community design centers where volunteer professionals worked with economically disenfranchised neighborhoods helping them to build these common areas—architects, landscape architects, anthropologists, sociologists, lawyers, just name it. There was always some vegetation, but primarily we used recycled building materials, voluntary labor and tax delinquent land. From urban renewal demolition we used marble steps, bricks and flagstones.
So there were a lot of spaces created, but not so much vegetation in them. This was a blind spot on my part because I’d just come out of a regular practice of landscape architecture where there was plenty of money and skilled subcontractors. I transferred this erroneously to neighbors who worked very hard to build these things, but it took too much to maintain them. So I switched over to community gardens, which are cared-for spaces. Community gardeners want to grow fresh produce close to home, and they also want to socialize. But in most community gardens you have one planting bed right next to the other with no place for people to meet. So I found at least one key to some of the puzzles I’ve been experimenting with for more than forty years—that combining common spaces with communal gardens really works very well.

RW:  That’s wonderful.

Karl Linn:  In my earlier commons creations there was too much of an emphasis on building steps and retaining walls and pavements and so on.

RW:  Could I ask you then to summarize, because—as you’ve put it, you’ve had more than forty years of studying this—what are the essential and ideal elements in the creation of a commons?

Karl Linn:  I want to extend even the concept of a commons, because I’m redefining it to say that each time people gather in a place, during the time of their occupancy, it becomes a common space. To the extent that people can imprint the changes in this place to suit their needs, it becomes that much more of their space.
Two processes that lead to the building of community is, one, to make a space available. The second one is for people to get together to envision the place they want. First you ask what people want. In fact, it was a lady who said she wanted some artwork in here. It wasn’t even my idea. So this is shared envisioning. Then you get people together in participatory planning and design.
For this garden I had a whole different concept. It started with a circle because in New York there had been the “Garden of Eden” which was a beautiful circular garden in one of the worst slum areas of Manhattan. That garden had been destroyed. My idea was that our commons here was going to be a resurrection of that garden on the West Coast, and people wanted a work of art, they didn’t want an ordinary garden. So my idea was to make circular beds without redwood retaining. I thought, redwood costs money and people could make these circular raised beds, but it turned out people wanted something more ordinary. They felt that otherwise it wouldn’t harmonize with the fabric of the city, or would be too sloppy. So we started to compromise; that’s participatory planning.
Another part would be co-operative building. I call my work “urban barn-raising.” It elicits a smile from people. People realize that barn raising, as a process, means that people come to each other’s assistance and engage in mutual aid. So a part of nurturing community among people is getting people to build together, young and old, men and women. And in the gardens here there is always ongoing building. There are constantly new things happening here.
Unlike other projects where things are finished, each time a new artist comes we have to make a place. That’s our act of hospitality of inviting other people into our own domain and welcoming them. That’s why people feel free to express themselves. So these processes lead to community building. In reflecting on this experience, what concerns me is that inevitably, under our own economic system, when we get involved in property improvement, it increases the value of the property. And it also contributes to the increase of property values around the area. We call this gentrification.
What you find here is that we are living in a multi-cultural community that is also economically diverse, so how can we contribute to community stability, because if an area gets too gentrified, those of lesser means can no longer afford to live in it. But since our community gardens also provide sustenance to people—people grow their own food here—it makes it a little easier. We can’t completely reverse gentrification, but we can hold off some of its impact.

RW:  When was this community garden begun?

Karl Linn:  It started with a surprise birthday party in July 1993 when this garden across the street was named after me. But it was in terrible shape. Then we were fortunately able to get some money for building materials, and with the help of a group of students we designed and built it. At the dedication of the commons in this other garden in the fall of 1995, I drew the attention of the mayor and the other people who came to this event, to the empty lot across the street. I asked the mayor, “Can’t the city lease that land from BART?” Then I started to write to members of the board of directors at BART, and I got Berkeley city council members involved. So we got permission to come here in the fall of 1996 and, from the fall of 1996 until May 1997, we got involved in the participatory design process I told you about. We started construction in May of 1997 working with two teams from Ameri-Corps, volunteers.

RW:  What is Ameri-Corps?

Karl Linn:  It’s Clinton’s creation—like a domestic Peace Corps. I called on them because the gardeners didn’t have the energy to build the planting beds, to make this whole network of wheel-chair accessible pathways with a two-and-a-half-inch level of gravel underneath. It took a lot of physical work. But the gardeners still worked a lot, especially the early ones. So that’s the history.
The garden does a number of things. In addition to being a place for works of art, it has also become a field station to test ecological inventions such as the building you saw at the other end of the garden using straw and earth. It’s an old building technique, which is very sustainable. So we’re re-introducing sustainable building techniques, like the bamboo trellis here [pointing] to show people how one can be more careful with the resources of the land and also learn from the past. I don’t know if you the book by Helen Norbert Hodge, Ancient Futures. If you tap the wisdom of the past, it makes the future more sustainable. The same is true with the flow-form fountain over there. First of all, we have a solar battery. Do you see that? It runs the fountain, which is shaped in a way that purifies the water as it flows. That’s another invention, which can demonstrate some of these eco-friendly technologies.

RW:  That’s quite refreshing. I have the impression there’s more open space than when I came here last year.

Karl Linn:  No. We’re revamping the other garden. We’re putting another entry in. Then we can eliminate all this vacant land here so we can build more planting beds.

RW:  Do you place formal restrictions on how far away people can live and still have a plot here?

Karl Linn:  First of all, we’re favoring people who have no access to land who live close by. The next category is for those who live further away. We even have people who have some private yard, but who can’t grow anything. We’re trying to make land available to those who most urgently need it. So we’re trying all kinds of ways to solidify community, both multi-culturally and for one that’s economically diverse. That’s not easy to accomplish.

To learn more about Karl Linn and his work please visit:  www.karllinn.org

Interview: James George: If Not Now, When? SF, CA 12/24/04

James George is a retired Canadian ambassador with a long-standing record of service concerning environmental issues. A founder of the Threshold Foundation and president of the Sadat Peace Foundation, he led the international mission to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to assess post-war environmental damage. He is also the author of Asking for the Earth and The Little Green Book On Awakening.

I talked with James George and Barbara Wright in San Francisco at Barbara’s apartment a few weeks before their marriage.

Richard Whittaker:  Let’s start with the here and now. You’re preparing to get married in a few days. So I wondered if you wanted to reflect on that and what’s right ahead of you.

James George:  It is rather extraordinary at eighty-six to be looking ahead rather than behind. And that is entirely due to the fact that I’ve fallen in love. I’ve really found my partner, which is a miraculous thing at any age, but exceptional at my age! Or even at Barbara’s [Barbara Wright] somewhat more tender years. [laughs] That colors everything, doesn’t it? When you’re in love with somebody, you’re simultaneously in love with everyone and everything, aren’t you? I think it’s surprising that it happens like that. And yet, I think it’s quite real.

RW:  That energy transforms one’s whole outlook.

JG:  Yes. We live in such an obviously, or perhaps not so obviously, interdependent, interconnected world. Quantum mechanics is again discovering this after it was discovered thousands of years ago in the spiritual traditions. And where do we go with this interconnectedness? is it just a theory? Or is it right now, the sense between us that the words are trying to catch up with; the much more subtle reality that we’re sharing, a reality of feeling and intellect and body all at the same time; an awareness of presence, I suppose one could say.

RW:  The part where you said, Maybe it’s not so obvious, this interconnectedness, I mean people don’t really feel this very often, do they?

JG:  No. I don’t think they do, because it becomes intellectual, a theory for them, even if they’re the scientists who believe this is the case. I heard Hans Peter Durr, the director of the Max Planck institute, Heisenberg’s successor really, speaking in San Francisco a few years ago, saying with a sort of missionary zeal, that there is nothing in the world, really, but relationship; energy patterns of relationship. Everything that appears to be solid is in fact almost entirely empty. It’s held together by these patterns of relationship, different densities and different levels, vibrations basically on different frequencies. Yet when we put it in those words, it doesn’t seem to correspond at all to the world our senses are perceiving, or which we are conditioned to think about when we wonder about the nature of reality and the meaning of it all.

RW:  Let’s talk about relationship in a less abstract way and go back to your own career as a diplomat. One of the basic things about that, I assume, would be relationship. You would be meeting people and wouldn’t that aspect, relationship, be an essential aspect of it?

JG:  Yes. I think that is one way, a good way of putting it. A less flattering way, as one of my former colleagues once expressed it, perhaps too graphically, was that a diplomat is one who makes a profession out of picking up the shit around the world.

RW:  What did he mean by that?

JG:  All the discord and violence and paranoia and fear that go into the relationships between cultures and peoples everywhere, and which surface in wars and disputes and litigation. All that make the world disharmonious, when it could be harmonious, disordered when it could be ordered.

RW:  So the diplomat’s work is to deal with the results, really, of the lack of relationship.

JG:  Exactly. The lack of relationship is the problem. The diplomat, ideally, is a harmonizer, someone who can avoid the pitfalls of that sort and move in a direction of creating order and peace. Peace is not just the absence of war, it’s something much more positive. It’s harmony and order, as we were saying.

RW:  What are the striking memories that come back to you in terms of your work as a diplomat?

JG:  Now we’re talking about my distant past, because I retired more than 25 years ago, but let me try and respond. To make relationships with the people in other cultures, who represent quite different interests in this geo-political world, we have to cut through all the discordant elements that divide people culturally, spiritually and linguistically. What you’re really relating to is what it is to be a human being. It doesn’t matter whether your skin is brown or white or any other color. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu, a Christian or a Jew; it only matters that we’re human beings living on the same planet and we’re trying to make sense of this spaceship at this particularly difficult time.
Underneath the clash of civilizations that is being spoken about lately, there is now a tremendous need everywhere to find the common threads of a global village. There is a need to relate to a much deeper level of being, really, than just to the differences, the economic interests and all that which has traditionally occupied most of the diplomat’s time. Certainly I found that I had much better relationships in India and Iran, for example, because I was genuinely interested in their enormously rich spiritual traditions and their artistic traditions, and not just in how they were going to vote at the United Nations on this or that resolution or what they were buying from us.

RW:  You quote Laurens van der Post in your book Asking For the Earth, “remembering what was valid in the past makes it part of the present.”  And I was thinking about how in Japan they have this program of respecting certain people whom they call National Treasures, because where do the important moments and experiences of human life dwell if not in people themselves? I know you have a tremendous amount of experience that would be valuable to others to hear about. How does that strike you?

JG:  As much too flattering, thank you. Certainly in my experience the Dalai Lama would be the outstanding example of someone who has become, not a national treasure so much, as an international treasure for all people. He has positioned himself—first of all in his own spiritual practice, and then in what he says publicly—as someone who is teaching us how to be, and how to be happy. His emphasis is on finding something which doesn’t divide us. We all share a wish to be happy. So he starts from that. He could have started by talking about the teachings of the Buddha, but then a Christian theologian or a rabbi might say, well, you don’t even believe in God!

RW:  A wonderful strategy. When did you first meet the Dalai Lama?

JG:  I met him first in 1967 soon after we’d arrived in India. I was fortunate enough to have had quite a lot to do with him, partly because he wanted to get some of his people out of the monsoon heat of India. This wasn’t very good for the Tibetans who had been used to 12,000 feet elevations and a nomadic life. I was able to work with him to get about 500 Tibetan families into Canada as refugees. This was a good excuse to have a relationship with him that, of course, deepened very quickly. I am so grateful to him for giving me insights into Tibetan Buddhism, one of the great spiritual traditions of the planet previously hidden in an almost inaccessible country and now coming out, perhaps, just at the time it is desperately needed in the rest of the world.

RW:  Did you ask the Dalai Lama specific things about Tibetan Buddhism?

JG:  Probably the most important thing he ever said to me, he didn’t say just to me, he said it when he was teaching in Toronto last May. After several days of talking about emptiness, seeing that people were rather mystified by what he could possibly mean by emptiness, he said, well, you can think of emptiness as consciousness.
This struck me as a great formulation for what so many of the great traditions, East and West, have been saying about the importance of being present in the moment; being aware of the fact of consciousness in the moment, and not just the words about consciousness; being aware of consciousness as an energy, you could say. He’s made it one of his great tasks to bring that understanding more widely to his own people and to everybody.

RW:  He speaks of happiness and then, of course, what is the path toward happiness? That would be the next question. Getting from happiness to emptiness. There must be some connection there.

JG:  How can one not be more happy if one is more conscious? It’s obvious when you look at it that way, as if emptiness and consciousness are synonymous. But we’re using words to describe something so subtle It doesn’t correspond to anything in most people’s experience.
     What do we mean by being more alive? Surely being more conscious would be part of that.

RW:  We don’t have much of a way of talking about that, do we? The world of experience and the world of language here are so greatly different.

JG:  Well, feeling can bridge those worlds. We can use that much abused, misappropriated four letter word love. Surely in our own Judeo-Christian tradition, love still resonates. How can one get beyond the mental formulations about something as subtle as that? But I know very well, and you know very well, when you feel in love. This is an alive feeling!

RW:  Yes. But that mental formulation is the usual thing. I say the word, and just roll on. For instance, let’s talk about the word being. I can say the word and there’s a tendency to think okay, on to the next thing. But that word references a whole spectrum of life, of living existing, with many levels, none of which I’m in touch with, usually.

JG:  It’s a very interesting moment in global culture these days, isn’t it? Because so many people seem to have a fundamentalist notion of what they mean by the word God. It does not correspond to anything I would define as sacred. So probably we’re at this point, you and I, in terms of language, preferring to use Being rather than using the word God. Being at least is an open concept.
Every time you hear the word God, even if you don’t attach an image of an old man with a beard, at least it’s a male image, almost inevitably. Being is a word no one sex can appropriate. But it’s so easy to start floundering around with these words and lose track entirely of what is actually happening in one’s own being.
Probably the most profound thing that can be said about that is that I am being. I am consciousness. I am love. I am life. What does that mean? If I am, then you are, too. It doesn’t just apply to me. In fact, this me is probably the obstacle in feeling my self as the same being that your self feels. Is this too far out?

RW:  No, but I wonder how your relationship to what you’ve just said, has changed? You must not have felt the same way when you were thirty years old, let’s say. I imagine there’s been some evolution, or maybe there are glimpses of a truth, and what is seen is really the same thing only maybe just a little more clearly.

JG:  I think both are true. It’s beyond words and one has, at a less mature stage of one’s evolution, not understood the profundity of some of the great statements that have been made: God is Love, for instance. One can also feel that no words correspond really to what is beyond words. When one is in love, one is speechless. But that doesn’t make a very good interview. [laughs]

RW:  That’s true.[laughs] Now I recall you wrote that you had some books in your bookcase by P.D. Ouspensky. How did they get to be there?

JG:  A New Model of the Universe was given us as a wedding present when I got married in 1942. We read it on our honeymoon. Both of us were very much interested in it. It led to a life long connection with the Gurdjieff teaching. Later, in Greece, when the British Ambassador and his wife came to lunch, they noticed the book and told us they were pupils of Ouspensky and helped us to make a connection with Lord Pentland and the Gurdjieff work in New York on our return to Canada the following year. It was too late to meet Gurdjieff himself, alas, since he had died. So that tells us something about the patterns of relationship that run through our lives like underground rivers.
The Dalai Lama said to me once that as he grew up, he had more or less forgotten what he had been in his previous incarnations. He had that capacity as a child. He knew maybe up to three or four years old. Later he only remembered that he’d had such an experience, and then had forgotten. So in the first years of life, and towards the end of one’s life, one perhaps has the same kind of facility emerging, even if you are not the Dalai Lama.

RW:  I take that as a statement of your own experience.

JG:  Yes. I would hope that in this new century we would see a breakthrough in understanding consciousness. It’s a subject that science has been avoiding because the best scientists have realized that they were inadequately equipped to measure or deal with it. But I don’t think they’re avoiding it now so much now.

RW:  It seems science has also brought this confidence that my ordinary mind along with a scientific methodology is perfectly equipped to grasp the actual reality of what this mysterious world actually is— the tremendous faith in Descartes’ formulation, “I think therefore I am.”

JG:  Wouldn’t it be much more true to put it the other way around: I am, therefore I think ? What do I consider myself to be? Thinking is just a small application of being; being is primary. In the vastness of being, maybe I’m lucky enough to have a few thoughts sometimes that correspond to what is!
Time, space; are those fundamental? Or are being and consciousness fundamental? What could it possibly mean to say that being is omnipresent? That’s a mind-stopper, right there.
Max Planck, at the beginning of the last century defined reality in terms of what could be measured. If it can’t be measured, it’s not real. And in the twelfth century, the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in Europe, the preeminent Vedantist philosopher in India, Shankar Acharya, was saying just the opposite, Anything that can be measured is illusion: maya. The root meaning of maya is measure. Anything measurable, by definition, is illusion; unreal. So take your pick!

RW:  That’s a wonderful juxtaposition; the Vedantist view and Max Planck’s view. Well, we’re talking about very big things!

JG:  …probably too big.

RW:  There’s a wonderful passage written by Lee Hoinacki, an ex-Dominican priest I had the good luck to get to know a little. He got the idea to walk the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and asked his friend Ivan Illich, should I do that? Illich said, yes, but keep a journal. Hoinacki was already in his 60s and, with very little preparation, he left on a solitary thousand kilometer walk. He writes how, at one point as he was walking along reciting the rosary, he suddenly felt himself absolutely present in a way he’d never experienced before—absolutely there as he took each step, feeling his legs, his feet, his hands, his breathing, smelling the air, feeling the air around him, seeing what was right in front of him and all around him: utterly present. I know you know what I’m talking about.

JG:  I think it’s absolutely true, and well said. When one is in love, one is present in that way. All the senses, very alive. One isn’t talking about it to oneself, but it is that.

RW:  That’s another aspect of Hoinacki’s experience; the inner talking must have stopped completely.

JG:  Exactly. Words or thoughts can distract one from the direct awareness.

RW:  I wanted to ask you about being with the Hopi elder that you mentioned in the book. You were with him when he was performing the morning prayer as the sun rose. What your experience with this man?

JG:  Grandfather David was then ninety-eight, I think and very, very alive. He was trying to convey to anybody who could hear it, that the world we inhabit and what happens to us here depends on our state of consciousness. These ceremonies were intended to keep him in touch with something he considered sacred, and to co-operate with that. He would say, If I don’t do these ceremonies, the rains won’t come. Our people won’t be able to eat.
Everything depends on the attention bringing one to a state of presence, as you were just describing, and sustaining that in ordinary life, not just thinking about it; actually living it.

RW:  Were you with him just for that morning?

JG:  No. I was helping him to prepare a letter he wrote to the United Nations. It was eventually circulated to every delegation at the UN General Assembly in New York, warning all peoples that humanity was about to face what was probably the greatest crisis in our collective human history because we were mindlessly fouling our nests and destroying our air, water and land, driven by our greed. No species destroys its own habitat, consciously. We were simply asleep, frighteningly asleep.

RW:  There are a lot of very frightening things going on in the world right now.

JG:  One doesn’t have a direct sense yet that there is a purpose to what is happening beyond my minuscule understanding of it, and beyond my ability to control outcomes. But if I begin to feel, not think, but feel, that my body has been very intelligently designed, designed with a need for being, a need for meaning, a need for what we call the sacred, as we consequently become more open to that, there is a sort of two-way presence active some of the time; or at least, there can be.
Take the final scene in The Struggle of the Magicians where the white magician is saying. “Oh Lord God and all of your assistants, help me to be more conscious so that less evil will enter Thy creation.”  If we have been designed to become conscious, which is after all our only evolutionary option, our consciousness is not finished. Our human consciousness is just beginning perhaps, to flower.
So at the frontier of the force that is manifesting, creating all that is, and the evolutionary response that is coming back to that Source, if these two forces in us are conjoined in our awareness in what the alchemists call the sacred marriage, that conjunction will produce the transformation of human consciousness. We are not doing it; we are only here for the process, to watch it as a kind of observer. That’s what I AM, as St. John would say.

RW:  The idea that we are not doing it but just becoming aware is something so foreign to our whole culture of power, control etc.

JG:  Yes. It’s an entirely different direction and I feel that if we don’t get it as a species, and fairly soon, our species will not make it. Other species have gone into the dustbin before us, but we have the possibility, I think, of waking up to a very different consciousness than has been generally available so far.
In every spiritual tradition, the pioneers have done it in the past, and right now the challenge is to have that awakening spread to a critical mass within a limited time. Probably this century will see whether it’s going to go down or up. The Astronomer Royal in England, Sir Martin Rees, wrote a book two years ago predicting that in the next hundred years humanity would either go extinct or evolve, and he is not willing to bet on the outcome.

RW:  Krisnamurti wrote in his notebooks about looking at the new spring leaves, so tender that the sunlight came through them. We need to be like that, he said, to find an openness which would allow these forces to come through us freely, but where can we find a model for such a thing in popular culture?

JG:  It’s become a sort of new age cliché that we are co-creating our world, but I think there is a sense in which that’s true. We’re beginning to have that capability if we can embody the consciousness that is present always and everywhere.

RW:  What you brought up with the prayer in The Struggle of the Musicians, that evil enters the world through unconsciousness, that’s something one doesn’t hear talked about much, the problem of the unconscious.

JG:  Well, let’s call it the sub-conscious as Gurdjieff does. The real consciousness, for him, is in the sub-conscious.

RW:  That’s a very interesting idea that our real consciousness exists in our sub-conscious. I can’t think of anyone else who formulates it that way.

JG:  I can’t either. These deep insights take a while to work their way into what Jung called the collective unconscious and finally, we hope, to percolate up to the collective consciousness, if we can call it that. In experiments with rats we have seen an inheritance of more rapid learning. The next generation of rats will learn more quickly to swim through a maze and not drown. And maybe humans will learn how to be more conscious, more present, because of the inherited learning that takes place almost by itself. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

RW:  A very hopeful thought. Did you ever meet Carl Jung?

JG:  No, but I feel much more in harmony with his way of looking at it, than with Freud’s.
You see, Consciousness is permeating human beings to the degree that it can, but we’re not receptive. We’re not allowing that penetration. Our fixed ideas, our cultural conditioning are shedding consciousness like a raincoat sheds water! We’re not getting the shower of blessings that we could, at any moment.
Even in the course of this conversation, there has been a good deal of floundering, but at times something has come through. I don’t feel what I’ve said is just from Jim George. The only decent stuff is coming through Consciousness itself. The same for you, isn’t it?

RW:  Well, making a leap here, I’m reminded that I’ve had some unusual experiences. I’ve had what gets reported as an after-death experience, of being in this golden light one reads about. It’s both love and light at the same time. I know you described in your book something that must have been similar, the experience that came to you while you were sitting alone that one morning in Switzerland.

JG:  Yes, in Chandolin. I think these experiences are happening to more and more people, and they are indicative of the possibility that humanity is almost ready for that critical mass shift. Perhaps the pressure cooker is exactly what we need; this pressure of seeing how extraordinarily stupid we’re being in collectively damaging our environment; and even the political pressure cooker we have now. Are we being shown one side of our potential, the face of violence and fear and domination, in order to awaken us to a quite different potential of love and light and peace?

[Barbara Wright comes in and joins us]

JG:  Well, Richard was talking of his near death experience, which I found very interesting. In order to get there, there has to be a dying. There has to be a submission. Without that submission, you wouldn’t have had that experience.

RW:  That’s true.

JG:  And this is what is important. As long as I think I can do it, then I’m blocked. Part of love is to submit. [turning toward Barbara] I don’t mean you submitting to me, but both of us submitting.

Barbara:  Yes. There is a submitting, a moment when the usual agenda-forming stops. I have felt that way at various times, and I can say that I learned from those times. Sometimes just by watching, too. Something in the body learns.

JG:  I remember Bill Segal saying to me that he learned more about waking up from Gurdjieff by watching his back in the sauna, than by anything he ever said to him.

Barbara:  That really implies that we learn in the body. When the mind is quiet, the learning goes right into the body. Of course, we think that learning in the body is only about how to move in a different way, but there is a more complete learning on that level too. If the body is open in a certain way, the impressions go in and a real learning, which includes the mind and the feelings, takes place.
For me, right now, learning consists not so much in knowing immediately what to do, but in knowing there is a choice, an awareness of choice. In the unconscious part, there seems to be no choice. The next stage for me is knowing that I have a choice between a couple of things, and knowing what they are. Then, perhaps I can choose more intelligently, or not. But the first step is awareness.

RW:  Earlier we were talking a little about how in our culture we have models of power and control and no models of openness and awareness. We could say we’re conditioned to act from tension, and what we lack is relaxation.

Barbara:  I’ve actually had people say to me, “Well, obviously you don’t care.” They’ve said that because I wasn’t tense. That’s strange isn’t it? I’m very interested in this. We’re all kind of that way.

JG:  Until we all change. And, if not now, when?

For a beautiful video about James George, see “The Spiritual Diplomat”  And here he talks about meeting Siva Yogaswami
Just published is his book, Last Call: Awaken to Consciousness

Nipun Mehta: A Journey to Service

[An edited version of this interview first appeared in Parabola Magazine — in volume 34 number 4, Winter 2009, “The Way Ahead”]

Nipun Mehta was born in Ahmedabad, India in 1975. When he was twelve, his family moved to Santa Clara, California in the heart of Silicon Valley.
     I met Mehta in 2007.  Having heard several amazing stories about him from Paul Van Slambrouck, retired editor of the Christian Science Monitor, I asked for an introduction. The three of us met one afternoon at a taqueria in Berkeley. In no time I felt a close connection with this very personable man. I was completely unprepared, however, when after about twenty minutes of animated conversation, he leaned across the table and asked, “How can I serve you, Richard?” 
      Ten years ago, Nipun, who was then working at Sun Microsystems, and three friends decided to offer an act of pure giving as an experiment. They ended up building a web site for a homeless shelter. Since then, not only have over 6000 web sites been built for non-profit organizations at no charge, but a loose knit organization has taken shape-servicespace.org [formerly CharityFocjus.org] which has given rise to several new organizations: KindSpring.org, DailyGood.org, KarmaTube.org, iJourney, Awakin, PledgePage, CF Sites, Karma Kitchen, ProPoor.org and a few others. Several thousand Servicespace volunteers now stretch across the globe and the organization continues to evolve while operating on an annual budget of only $25,000.
     At the time of this interview, Nipun had just returned from England, where he spoke at the London Business School. We met at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, which is not far from the simple apartment where he lives with his wife, Guri, one of the original group who volunteered at the homeless shelter. At Nipun’s suggestion, before speaking we meditated for a half hour in the beautiful still space as sunlight streamed through the windows.
     Sitting there quietly, I realized how grateful I felt to have met Nipun, not only because of his own remarkable spirit, but because through him I’ve seen there are countless young people with a deep wish, in Gandhi’s words, to be the change they wish to see. 

Richard Whittaker:  Growing up in India and in the city of Gandhi’s ashram, did you absorb the Gandhi story?

Nipun Mehta:  Not the Gandhi story as such, but the culture of giving. Acts of kindness are almost a part of everyday life there. For example, when we celebrate birthdays, I would take chocolates to school and give them to my classmates. On occasions of goodness, occasions of happiness, you give to other people. You do get some gifts too, but it starts with giving.

RW:  How did you end up going to UC Berkeley? Is that the school you wanted to go to?

NM:  It was happenstance, actually. It was time to apply for college and I thought, oh, Berkeley sounds good. And actually it was the only school I applied to.

RW:  And you graduated with a dual degree: philosophy and computer science, right?

NM:  Yeah.

RW:  What drew you to philosophy?

NM:  Ever since I was a kid, I would always ask these questions of life. What’s the purpose of this whole charade? What happens after you die? What is the motive for action? Often, I didn’t find the answers I was looking for, so I would start investigating. Seventeen was a turning point of sorts in my life, when my spiritual search came into the foreground. Till then, I would pray every day. For instance, there is this one Mantra (Gayatri Mantra) that is supposed to be very holy and I would recite it 108 times every day. And I read a lot of scriptures from all kinds of traditions. But on my 17th birthday, I stopped everything and started questioning. I was just an inquisitive kind of a person so I figured I needed to know.

RW:  You were searching.

NM:  Yes. I was a seeker and I still am. So for this part of me that was always asking questions of life, philosophy sounded like a good major. And I also loved computers. It was fascinating that you could tell this thing what to do and it would do it! It was kind of a neat little toy. So I did Computer Science. I joke now that I’m a recovering philosopher-and a recovering computer scientist. [laughs]

RW:  The university classes in philosophy were ultimately disappointing in some way?

NM:  Yes. I was not interested in reading a book about swimming. I wanted to go into the ocean and feel the water and all the subtle nuances of what it meant to have the real experience. I remember I did a six page paper on “Can we really say that the sun rises in the East?” That’s intellectually entertaining for a bit, but that wasn’t where my interest was.

RW:  When you were seventeen, you said that was an important year for you. Were you already at UC?

NM:  I think I was a junior in college. It’s a bit complicated. I graduated from high school a little early because I wanted to play tennis. I’d already played the top spot in high school for three years and I wanted to play in a more competitive level to improve my game. So I went to a junior college instead of playing my last year at high school. That whole social scene, the tennis scene, and my internal drive for pushing myself really created the conditions for some deep change. In that year, I ended up taking more than 65 units, which qualifies you to be a junior, and I was playing on the demanding tennis team! One semester, I actually had 40 units when a full-time load was considered 12 units. I was in this space where I wanted to learn and just to go all out. So by the time I went to Berkeley, I was a junior, technically.

RW:  So one year in Junior College?

NM:  Technically, it was three semesters. There’s never any straight answers in my life. After the initial stint, I later dropped out of Berkeley and went back to Junior College to play one more semester. So I really did three semesters, but not all together. Tennis was the driving force for all those decisions.
That whole year, in retrospect, I felt like I was really discovering my boundaries and also my inner calling. The intensity of the spiritual quest had always been in the background and I think that was the year that it flipped into the foreground.

RW:  I remember you talking once before about how your tennis coach had an important role there.

NM:  He did. Jeff Nelson. He was just a good human being. He was also a jujitsu master, a tennis coach and an ardent Christian. And even a mystic of sorts. But if you put all those identities aside, he was just a good human being. He went to Stanford and I went to Berkeley, so we always had this joking rivalry, even if we were just playing ping pong. We would try to get the best out of each other and try to get the best out of ourselves. Somehow we had this deep bond. He’d always tell us that even if the other person is cheating, you never compromise your ethics. He was big on sportsmanship. Even if you lose, look the guy in the eye and congratulate him. And he was very big on effort-you had to put in 110%. In many subtle ways, he showed me the power of right effort. Not just working hard to win, but working hard in a way that there is an authenticity to every part of the process. I don’t know if I would have framed it that way then, because a part of me wanted to win and succeed, but I now see all the subtle lessons I learned from him. I’m so grateful that our paths intersected under the excuse of tennis!

RW:  You have a brief biographical note on the web site about yourself including some “Frequently asked questions” One of them is what do you think most about? Part of your answer was, “I think a lot about death.” Would you talk a little about that?

NM:  My mom would joke around and she’d say, “Every time we meet, Nipun, death has to come up at least once.”

RW:  Say more about that.

NM:  When my wife and I got married, we wrote up seven vows. One of them was about embracing death. Some people wondered why anyone would want to talk about death on their wedding day? But it’s a part of life. Ultimately, death is happening at every moment. So part of my inquiry, initially, was just to understand this. Everyone dies. We know that.
When you’re young, you’re connected to your parents in a very deep way and you’re afraid. Oh my God. They’re going to die. Then what will I do? There’s this insecurity. Then, over time you grow up and that insecurity goes to, Oh, this is me. Nipun is going to die. There is this deep inquiry around it. Most of the time, we just cover it up to deal with later. But I was very curious about it. I saw it everywhere. I saw things birthing and dying.
Over time, I came to see that real strength comes from understanding both sides of the circle. Birth and death. Not to shy away from one, but really to see what is going on. Death is not such a bad thing, although I’m sure a deep part of me is still afraid of it.
I think that not being afraid of an end is, at its root, what allows you to really experience the present. You are not afraid. You don’t go into this delusion that things are permanent. If you are, then when things break down, you’re afraid and it shatters everything in your life, and you carry that wound with you through everything else that you do.
Instead of that, there is the embracing of impermanence. It’s kind of like surfing the waves in the ocean. Good or bad waves, you’re enjoying it. That’s a source of deep strength. Death is not a romantic way to talk about impermanence, but this arising and passing away of all things is a source of strength, for me.

RW:  I’ve had more than one person observe that you’re not burdened so much by some of the fears that drive most people. Do you feel you’re relatively free of fears?

NM: [laughs] “Relatively” is probably the key word there. I have a lot of fear. I’m sure if a gunman were to come in here right now, ideally I’d like to wish him compassion, but I don’t know if I’d do that.

RW:  You wouldn’t say you’re free from fear, then.

NM:  Never.

RW:  Or anger?

NM:  Definitely not! [big laugh] I’m very much an everyday Joe. I have tons of weaknesses. I fall down all the time. But I take resolve to stand up. I fall down a hundred times, but I want to stand up a hundred and one times. That’s really my strength and my effort.
And I learned that, in a way, through tennis. I wasn’t a gifted athlete. So I had to work ten times as hard. Others would have better gifts and, in the face of that, how do you keep going? A lot of us say, “I’m not gifted, so I’m just going to give up.” But to have that tenacity to endure is a big thing. And it really comes in handy in life and, particularly, in your spiritual path. So I’ve got plenty of fears and weaknesses, but I do try to stare them down.

RW:  Do people say sometimes, you’re talking about service and not being attached to money. That’s easy for you. You come from a place of some kind of privilege. It would be different if you were struggling. Have you heard this sort of challenge?

NM:  All the time [laughs].

RW:  What do you say to that?

NM:  The struggle comes from not knowing what is enough. You know, the IRS would classify me as “poor” so it’s one thing to have material advantages, but real privilege is in knowing that you have enough. It’s a privilege, but not really-because anyone can have that.
You know, there’s this myth that you need to have things before you can give. I always say that service doesn’t start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take. There’s a subtle difference. It’s about renouncing your desire, your want. As soon as you let that go, then whatever you do is an act of service.
Our consumer culture perpetuates this myth that you need to have before you can give. Climb to the top of the ladder and then you can give. Some of the most generous people I know are not the millionaires and billionaires of the world, but the poorest people on the planet. And I’ve stayed with some of them. I’ve stayed in slums. I have stayed on the streets. Those guys on the streets, we think, “Oh, they have nothing. How can they be generous?” They are often the most generous.
My first time back in India, my friend from kindergarten was taking me around on his newly found motorcycle and he was, of course, speeding and my American stomach was already edgy with all the food. So as he’s hitting all the potholes, and pretty soon I start throwing up.
Here we were, these teenagers in a messy situation and none of us know what to do. Just then, an old man on a bicycle stops and takes out something from his bag. It’s a lemon. He cuts it in half and he offers it to me. No words. It’s just implied-suck on this and you’ll be fine. And then he takes off. Just like that. That’s generosity. He gives half of what he has in that moment. Maybe he needed it for the evening dinner, but instead he stopped for an unknown person on the street, shared his lemon and walked off without saying a word. That’s service.

RW:  Now I think you told me that sometime after you’d been working at Sun Microsystems and saw that making money was not going to be a problem, that you looked at your own future and asked what was really worth doing. Am I getting this right?

NM:  The realization, early on, was not pro or anti-money. It was more that I didn’t want money to be my master. Things, money — all the stuff that money can buy — I didn’t want that to be a guiding principle in my life. So if you don’t go that consuming route, that gathering and accumulation route, what other options do you have? There’s the other option to let go and to give, to renounce in some sense. Could that lead to happiness? I didn’t know. So I just decided to experiment and find out.

RW:  When did you start these experiments, would you say?

NM:  In my teen years. When I had small amounts of money, I’d give it away, and I was just so happy doing that.

RW:  Give me an example.

NM:  There were many. One time I gave $500 bucks to a bunch of my friends. This must have been shortly after getting my first job. I thought it would be so great if people redefined their relationship to money with this extra pile of goodness that had unexpectedly arrived at their doorsteps. Could you hold that extra something with the greatest intention that you have inside you? Because a lot of times people’s best intentions are covered up. They say, if I had this, then I would do it. Well, here’s a surprise. What are you going to do?

RW:  So you gifted this money with a challenge?

NM:  In a way, it was implicit. It was an invitation to manifest their best intentions.

RW:  Did you say that explicitly?

NM:  I did. I said, “You have no excuses now. You can manifest your greatest intentions, so here you go!” [laughs]. But of course, there were no strings attached or anything. And then, after this we started this thing we called The Donation Club. Everyone would put in five, ten, twenty bucks every month. We would select three non-profit organizations to give to every month. These were small amounts just to learn a new way of relating to money.
I always had this sort of irreverent attitude towards money, which a lot of people don’t understand. Even my parents found it difficult to understand. It’s just not the gold standard for me. I find it to be very one dimensional versus, say, a blessing, which is so multi-dimensional.

RW:  When did your experiments with money begin?

NM:  I don’t think it was experiments in money so much. I think it was experiments in giving. Money is the first thing you “acquire”, you know, as you mature and get a job. It’s the first thing that you think you have. You can build it up and start worrying about your 401k or you can say I want to use this as an experiment to explore the nature of who I am.

RW:  Experiments in giving. Did you try any experiments in getting?

NM:  I did. That’s the default path, right? Getting to a good college. You go to Berkeley. Oh, you’re smart. Or playing tennis. Oh, you’re cool. Being part of the in-crowd. That’s all part of this relentless getting. I was good at it too! [laughs]

RW:  When did you read Gandhi’s Experiments in Truth?

NM:  I still haven’t read it! [laughs] It’s funny because I’ve spoken on panels with some of the leading Gandhian scholars in the world and I haven’t even read Gandhi. But I sense with all these great sages and saints and teachers, they’re never telling you to follow what they’re talking about. They’re actually just being. They want you to find the source of their being. But, as a consolation prize, there are their words.
With Gandhi, I feel like I really understand the spirit of his message. I can’t explain it, but there’s a deep connection to the spirit with which Gandhi did his actions. I just remembered recently that in seventh grade I went to the library and I decided I was going to write a biography of Gandhi. It wasn’t like I had read him or any of that. I just picked a subject to fill my spare time, and I would go to the library and pick up these books on Gandhi. I started filling notebooks with tidbits that I’d read.  You know, I was going to write a biography on Gandhi because the world needed to know! [big smile] I don’t know where that came from. But that’s my Gandhi story.

RW:  I know you’re a great believer in stories, in the power of stories, right?

NM:  Big time! If someone asks me what do you stand for in life, I wouldn’t know what to say. But if they ask, can you tell me a story that made you come alive, “Oh, yeah! This is what happened today!” You could be behind a podium and give lectures as an expert, or you could go up to a fellow human being and share stories with your neighbor. Stories really help get past this speaker-listener complex. When you’re engaged in conversation, there’s this level playing field and you share anecdotes that come from your own experience. That, to me, is so much more authentic and real. I enjoy listening to stories and I enjoy telling stories. I like that way of learning.

RW:  Well let’s go from stories to looking at the world. Is there anything that gives you hope for the future?

NM:  Impermanence gives me great hope for the future. [laughs] Nothing is permanent and that’s the source of my strength and hope and optimism. There is a lot of suffering in the world. You know it’s not going to be there forever. Conditions are constantly changing. I’m not the one to be pessimistic. I feel hopeful and happy.
Still, I feel for the suffering in the world. There’s a lot that is not right in the world. But I think that each form of suffering invites us to learn its lesson. The important thing is not to run away from the suffering, but to look at it in a way such that you can embrace the lesson.

RW:  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that, that impermanence gives you hope. Can you say more about that?

NM:  We lose hope when we encounter suffering that’s never going to end. This is a hopeless situation! When you come to the realization that no situation is eternal, is going to stay the same, then no matter how bad a situation you’re in, it will change. That’s a sign of hope.
Then you look at the flip side: having a fear of losing the good. There’s always that subtle fear whenever we’re deeply enjoying something, “Oh, this is going to go away.” You know from your experience that everything does go away. That fear doesn’t allow you to experience the good things really joyfully. If you are not clinging and embrace the moment, you can start to give it a hundred and ten percent. That’s a sign of hope.

RW:  The capacity to not cling. That’s not just automatically ours. I mean, sure, I agree. Clinging to fear is a problem. So what’s the antidote?

NM:  There are two ways I personally address that. One is by understanding the nature of clinging. And I do that through meditation. The second is to actually flip your habit pattern. I do that by giving, by service, by small acts. So any time you’re still, you can see reality as it is. That gives you insight. Any time you practice the smallest act of service, even if it’s only holding a door for somebody, but with full heart — may I be of use to this person — that giving changes the deep habit of my mind of everything being me-centered. In that brief moment, there is this other-centeredness. That other-centeredness kind of relaxes the patterns of the ego. Over time, all of those small acts, those small moments, lead to a different state of being where, ultimately, presumably, it just becomes effortless. It becomes who you are. So for me, the two pillars of my life are meditation and service.

RW: This might be a good time to turn to CharityFocus.org. In 1999 you and three friends formed CharityFocus?

NM:  We didn’t really form CharityFocus. CharityFocus formed itself [laughs]. In the realm of experiments with giving, I started after getting my first formal job. Before that you don’t feel free to do something radical that you might want to try. You’re still a student and have to fit into all the expectations society places on you. So in my late teens is when I started doing some of these experiments.

RW:  This is when you got a job at Sun Microsystems?

NM:  Right. The first thing I started with was money. After giving money, the second stage was, I want to give more, and what more could I give? That’s when I started giving time. I would volunteer.

RW:  What moved you to want to give more? Do you know what that was?

NM:  It felt right. It felt completely wholesome. You felt completely connected, even though the person you were giving to, might not know that you were even giving to them. Many times, I’d just give anonymously. There was such a joy to that. Some metamorphosis was happening inside me and a part of me recognized that. It said, “This is a pattern that you want to amplify.” So what does that mean? I only had a finite amount of money. So I thought, I have to find other ways. That’s when I realized, well, I’ve got time and that’s when I started helping out. I have this tendency of going all out, so if I’m going to do something, it had to be hardcore.

RW:  What does that mean to you — it had to be hardcore?

NM:  I wanted to do something that nobody else was willing to do. It’s kind of a childish thing, but I love challenges. So at eighteen, I signed up to volunteer at a hospice. I actually signed up before, but they said, you have to be at least eighteen. So I waited. They said, “Are you sure? We don’t have too many eighteen year olds who sign up to be volunteers with people who are dying.”
I said I wanted to do it. Death fascinated me anyway. And volunteering with dying folks, I got a real insight into people’s state of mind as they were dying. After you’ve put in two years at the hospice, you go to Sun Mircrosystems and the HR rep says, “Please tell us what percentage of your income you’d like to allocate for your 401k- that you will cash in after you’re sixty-five.” And I’m thinking sixty-five?! I was just with these people who died. What guarantee do I have that I’m even going to be around for another forty-five years? So CharityFocus emerged in this continuum of giving money, then time and then giving myself.

RW:  So when you started giving your time, how was that for you?

NM:  It went much deeper than giving money. It was deeply fulfilling. I was delivering value in a dimension that was different from material things. I realized that the process was transforming me, too. I was getting a lot more value than I was even delivering. There was this generative value creation happening. And I’m thinking, wait a second! Nobody taught me this at school!
Everyone says, it’s money that you give. Well, first of all, people say if you have money, go and spend it! It’s only second that they say if you have extra, go and give it. It’s a one-dimensional thing.
Giving my time, I was tapping into something else and I recognized that — “Wow! There’s something here!” It was just right. All the bones in your body are saying, “Right on!” I’m resonating. Everything is dancing inside.

RW:  Then at some point you began canvassing your colleagues at Sun Micro to see if they wanted to join you.

NM:  I had an attraction to frictionless service, in a way. So I never, quite said, everybody should go out and do it. I think that’s how it was perceived in the media: here’s this young kid who started this organization trying to change Silicon Valley. But I was really just trying to change myself.
Then sometimes you benefit so much from some small act that you have to go and share it with the people around you. Your cup of gratitude just overflows! It’s like, “Richard, you’ve really got to try this!”

RW:  So the energy just overflowed and you had to share that.

NM:  Yeah, that was the whole thing. Like I said, there was this value that was being generated. I felt like I was tapping into a gold mine! I didn’t even know what it was. I still don’t know what it is! It’s amazing!

RW:  Your first action with friends from Sun Micro was — what happened?

NM:  I said, this giving thing is really worth trying. Let’s just give, no strings attached! So four of us went to a homeless shelter. In fact before that, I’d heard of this monastery and I figured that most monks are good people, seeking truth, serving others without wanting anything in return. I said, let’s go to a monastery. So we went to a monastery, knocked on the door and asked, “What can we do?” Service salesmen… [laughs].

RW:  Which monastery did you go to?

NM:  Berkeley Buddhist Monastery! Right here. When I went to school here, I’d meditated here because sometimes they’d have the Buddha Hall open for sitting. Now here’s an interesting thing. When I was working at Sun, one of my friends and I would go monastery hopping every Thursday. I thought this should be part of our lives. So we would leave work early on Thursdays and go to the Berkeley Monastery for the five o’clock sit, then the Vedanta Center at six o’clock. Another friend of ours was always having meditation sits and so we would go to her house after that, too. It was a beautiful thing. And couple years later, we knocked on their door to be of service. We didn’t actually end up doing a project there. Our first project was at the homeless shelter, where we ended up building them a web site.

RW:  Since then, it’s been about ten years and a lot has happened. How often are you invited to go and speak to groups? Once a week?

NM:  These days, it might be that often. See, the thing is, I operate in this gift economy way. So there’s no real filter other than relationships. If a friend of a friend says, come and share some stories, I say, okay, sure.

RW:  You’re very much at ease in front of people and people love to hear you talk. I love to hear you talk! [laughter] So what are some of the interesting places you’ve spoken at?

NM:  I spoke at the World Youth Conference in Switzerland when I was young [laughs]. I’ve spoken at small gatherings in a village in India. I’ve spoken at major conferences in the U.S. from Bioneers to Green Festival to Association for Global New Thought Conference. And at the same time, I shared stories in family rooms of people. Just next week, I’ll be speaking to several thousand people at a couple of Indian conventions. And I’ll speak to high school assemblies. You name it. Everyone wants to hear stories of kindness. [laughs] Last week, I was even at London Business School.

RW:  You’ve spoken at a lot of business schools, right?

NM:  Yes. It’s very interesting. I’ve never pitched myself anywhere. Not once. And when folks invite me, I just talk about something that is so basic. It’s just like, yeah, we should be kind. And I just share stories. So there is nothing deep or profound that I’m saying, but it’s amazing how people light up at this mere invitation to be kind in a small way. What’s really fascinating is the broad range of audiences from churches and temples to business schools and venture capitalists to youth conferences and senior centers. Everybody, in all walks of life, wants to be this kind of a change.
And it’s so simple! Everyone can do it! It’s amazing to me that we live in a time where it’s not obvious. Somehow we have forgotten that.

RW:  I have the impression that you’re pretty up to date in the business world and the technological, communications, networking world. You don’t speak much about your own computer knowledge. I gather you know quite a bit. You program, write code, write software programs. You can do all that, right?

NM:  Yes. That was my training.

RW:  In fact, Neil Patel [a CharityFocus tech volunteer] said something to the effect that you had created a software program that, later on, was similar to what Facebook came up with.

NM:  I’m capable of doing that.

RW:  Did you write any code this morning?

NM:  [laughs] I did! It’s like this hidden thing! I just tell people I do small acts of kindness, but then there’s the plumbing you have to do behind the scenes.

RW:  How much time, on average, do you spend during a day writing code?

NM:  It’s not on a day-to-day basis, but I’d say about a third of my time goes into doing technology. I’m a technologist. And about a third goes into relationships. Probably a third goes into cultivating my own inner journey-meditation and small acts of service and things like that. Technology is a big part of what I do.

RW:  Things are changing and developing so fast today. How do you feel about that?

NM:  I think it’s a double-edged sword. Twitter, for instance. Everything has to be shrunk into a hundred and forty characters. Even with Google, everything becomes very computational. You look at a piece of art and what is your response to that art? How do you Google that response? You can’t easily do that. As we start to reduce everything into binary — one and zero, right and wrong, true and false — I think there’s a danger of losing a lot of value that we have the capacity to experience.
On the other hand, technology is amazing. It has connected us with so many people in so many ways. The way I look at technology is that it really accelerates serendipity. It’s a tool that allows us to tap into synergistic connections that previously were not possible. We can take a knife and kill somebody with it or you can chop vegetables and serve someone food. So how are you going to use the tool? We have to cultivate wisdom to find that answer.
We can use these tools to manufacture designs that amplify patterns of good behavior. If we’re just creating technologies and designs to make the end user a better and better consumer, that’s problematic. That’s only going to make things worse, down the road. What we really have to have is a fundamental base of values from which we approach these tools and technologies.

RW:  A fundamental base of values.

NM:  We have to have a fundamental base of values, and we have to be connected to it at an experiential, be-the-change level.

RW:  That’s so important, isn’t it?

NM:  That’s really crucial. That’s why I love people like Mr. Rogers. When he got an Emmy and had the attention of the whole world, he says, “I’d like to take this prime time to take a moment of silence. Please be grateful for your neighbors and loved ones.” And he did an entire minute of silence. Imagine that! That nourishing silence, nourishing acts of kindness.  A lot of nourishing things can’t be easily quantified but they’re still very important.

RW:  How can the fast-acting, quick-hitting Internet support this other thing that has to run deep? Do you see some way that there can be any relationship?

NM:  How can the Internet help us cultivate values?

RW:  Yes. The Internet is quick. I feel good for two minutes and then I’m on to the next thing. But as you said, wisdom is something that’s deep. So is there simply a disconnect between these things? Or is there some way that this Internet instant gratification can lead to something deeper?

NM:  This quick fix disease is not going to be solved by the Internet. The Internet only exacerbates that problem. I got an email the other day from a bunch of business school students asking, “Is there an iPhone application for meditation? I mean, “Just stop using the iPhone!” It’s funny.
Ultimately, the Internet is just information. We can use that information to gain insight. How can we give access to the long tail of information that doesn’t have a business model around it, isn’t interested in commoditizing that information, not trying to monetize the attention of those people who are consuming that information? At the moment, the Internet is a platform that allows us to share information very freely. How can we give voice to information that leads to insight? I don’t think the speed of it has anything to do with the platform itself. The speed thing ties into something much deeper, this want of more and more and more and more. That’s a much more fundamental problem than the Internet.

RW:  I listened to a TED talk by Clay Shirky. He asked, is the Internet, information age bringing about a real revolution? The printing press brought about 200 years of chaos, he said. A real revolution always brings about chaos, he said, and then he paused… “for fifty years,” he says. What do you think of that?

NM:  I think all revolution does bring chaos. And chaos is really an invitation to deepen our awareness. When we deepen our awareness, all of a sudden, we can see order in that chaos. So chaos is a stepping stone to the next level of order.

RW:  Do you think we’re now in that?

NM:  I think we are in that. We have no choice. Look at the amount of disjoint suffering that we have in the world. It’s a terrible tragedy. The Internet in some ways is creating some of chaos that will crumple the old paradigms and for a while we’ll be confused. But over time, we’ll look back in retrospect and see that we arrived at a place of much deeper coherence.

RW:  Are there any new developments that have appeared in the last few years that particularly interest you? Like CharityFocus seems to be a new form of an organization.

NM:  I think one of the biggest meta-level things that has happened is that we’ve started to organize without organizations. It used to be that there was this overhead needed to organize. That overhead, because of the nature of the Internet, is no longer there. If you and I want to go to a movie, we negotiate it and figure it out. If there are twenty of us it becomes more complex. Make that a thousand, and it becomes a real problem. That’s why we have these top-down hierarchies, to get a handle on all the input. When you have these hierarchies, though, you lose out on a lot of the fringe value in the interest of getting to a movie and getting stuff done in the short term. You don’t have the capacity to contain everyone’s inputs. The reason is that it takes a lot of resources to deal with all that, and so there is this transaction cost.
Well, the Internet dramatically cuts down that transaction cost. As a result, you’re seeing value in places where there is no business model. You’re seeing forms of organizing with no centralized office, without a centralized boss or leader. That is amazing! That means, that if you and I care to do something of value, we can do it.  For example, Daily Good. A few of us said, there’s not enough good news in the world. So let’s send out a little good news every day. We’ll do the research, find these things in the corners of the world and send out one piece of good news every day.
That now is going out to over 100,000 people every day. There’s no overhead. We’ve never solicited anything. We’re not even interested in having this be branded. So how is it possible to create this without any overhead? That used to baffle people. Just like Wikipedia. In the last year there have been over 100 million hours volunteered online-just on Wikipedia. One hundred million hours! That’s just completely untapped surplus.
So we have all these small areas of surplus that have never been tapped into. Now we’re learning to tap into that because of the Internet. And we’re learning how to organize all of this and aggregate these small pieces without any significant overhead because of the Internet.
Still, that’s not enough. What you need to do is to envelope all of these in a constructive set of values that benefits all. That is something that is always going to be an issue no matter what tool manifests itself.

RW:  Over thirty years ago E.F. Schumacher [Small Is Beautiful] wrote about “Technology With a Human Face.” He said a human is a being with a brain and hands and a person is happiest when both the brain and the hands are engaged in creative, meaningful work. He doesn’t even get into questions of the heart. He figured that for people with jobs, only a tiny percentage of their time, on average, approached anything like that. Meaningful work with the hands has mostly evaporated in the west, this ancient function that is very gratifying. Have you ever thought about this at all?

NM:  I have. We’re so linked to our sensations. When we do stuff with our hands there is sort of a primal connection to those sensations that sometimes can be abstracted if we’re just in our heads. I think there is a need to connect at a very physical level. Farming, for example. That’s something that all sages were really fond of. They would go out and dig, just to connect with the land. It’s not always about using your hands, even. It’s using your hands to connect with nature — nature within yourself and nature outside of yourself. I think Schumacher is right. But we’ve really lost the opportunities. I mean, if I want to farm, it’s so difficult now. I can’t even afford a backyard.

RW:  You could say, yes, by definition, we’re connected with sensation, but I’m inclined to think that mostly we’re not because we are in our heads so much. So I agree. It’s an interesting example that the sages all loved farming and digging in the earth. Almost everybody intuitively understands that working in a garden is therapeutic.

NM:  It’s like, you could watch a sunset, feel the sand between your toes on the beach or go to sunset.com and watch a photo. One of our biggest problems is that we tend to become very reductionist. Experience is so multi-faceted. On the beach watching a sunset, you feel the wind. You hear the ocean. You feel the sand. You see this amazing landscape. You can’t just show a photo of that sunset. That abstraction just reduces things. Over time, we’ve become so reductionist, that we’ve lost a lot of the value that can’t be measured by the tools we have. So not working with the hands and not being connected with sensations, is a source of dissatisfaction for us.

RW:  That leads to another thought. It’s been said that we are shaped by our technology. There was a time that the question could not have even been conceived, “Can a machine be intelligent?” A certain amount of technology had to exist before the thought could arise. But that question was posed maybe eighty years ago. The Turing test exists. I don’t know if a machine has ever passed it. Do you know that test?

NM:  Yes.

RW:  But now, I know there’s a great deal of fantasy around the prospects for machine/flesh hybridization. It is imagined that we can build and put machine functions into ourselves that will even make us close to immortal, fantasies of human/cyborg life. There are even companies devoted to this. In general, do you have any thoughts about this kind of thinking?

NM:  I think this is all part of reductionist thinking about our human capacity. Here is what we do and a machine can do it faster. But there are so many subtle realms of even the most basic human act. If we just look at it on the surface, we can say that it can be done by machines. But this is a very simple, superficial form of intelligence that we’re trying to map onto a machine. Why is there so much energy devoted to such thinking and such experiments? A large part of it is because we have lost our own connection to these subtle realms of value. Because we are not connected to them, we think they don’t even exist. So we start zooming into more and more superficial forms of value. Let’s just have robots. And if you treat people just as machines, you reduce them to that.
But there is subtler experience of life. You visit your best friend and his mom serves a meal prepared out of love. She’s doing the same mechanical stuff, but there’s something intangibly powerful that you’re really tasting and experiencing and getting satisfaction from. If we had those experiences, we might then go to our labs and say, “Wait a second, there’s more to this.”
That connection with the intangible, in some sense, is crucial. Perhaps the reason we’re having so much dialogue around these kinds of ideas for the future of humanity has to do with having severed these connections.

RW:  Yes. Let’s talk about the gift economy. Maybe you could tell the story of Smile Cards.

NM:  That’s a great story in so many ways. None of the CharityFocus projects are ever planned. They emerge. A few of us were sitting around a coffee table in Chicago talking about pranks-my cousin and I and a few other people. We started asking why do people do pranks? We came up with a bunch of incentives: it’s challenging, it’s creative, it’s collaborative. We went through a whole list of motivations for what, at the end of the day, is essentially destructive.
So we said, how about we reframe this? We leave all these motivations in, but we make pranks constructive. What if you just blew somebody away with kindness? You know someone who is going through a rough period … everybody can send flowers, send cookies, send thank you cards, send chocolates. Just flood them with goodness! And they wouldn’t even know who did it.
My cousin started to get really excited. Someone said, you know what would be great? Whenever we do one of these small acts, instead of them wondering who this was and being spooked out by it, what if we left a little card that said, “This is an experiment in anonymous kindness. You’ve been tagged. You don’t know who did this so you can’t pay back. But you can pay forward.” So we decided to do this.

RW:  I know that some people said, Nipun, you’re crazy. This will never work. No way.

NM:  Exactly! And as soon as people say “No way!” that’s when I know it’s a good project! [laughs]

RW:  And when you went to Kinko’s to print up the first batch of smile cards…

NM:  The guy asks, “What is this?” When I explained it, he was so blown away he said, “I’ve got employee discounts and I’m not going to charge you for this.” So this guy did the first smile-card act before we could even start!
The reason everybody said it was crazy was because we said, we’re going to give away the cards for free. Anybody can download the cards and print them locally or they can request them online and we’ll ship them at no cost. How would we cover the costs? We don’t solicit anything, as one of the three CharityFocus principles mandates. But we didn’t care. We’re just going to ship them as a pure gift, from an anonymous address, from a site that itself was anonymous. People really thought the whole thing was crazy — naive and unsustainable. They said that it’s never going to scale.
You know, we used to send them out from “Smile Cards, One Compassion Way, Mother Earth” — until the post office caught on [laughs]. So then we got a PO Box address. It was all kind of ridiculous – and fun. People thought this can’t work. Everybody will ask for cards and if we don’t ask for donations, who is going to pay? So we thought, okay, if we only print a thousand smile cards and go home after that, it’s fine-that’s a thousand extra acts of kindness.
What actually happened was that people would receive these and a certain percentage of them would wonder, “Who took the trouble to get an envelope, print these cards, stuff them in, send them to me from an anonymous address, from an anonymous web site, just for the love of it, just to spread goodness in the world?” And they felt, “Wow, my cup of gratitude is overflowing! I’m moved and I need to offer something.” And we started getting these donations. We didn’t really expect them to come in. We never really had a plan. We simply said, “Look, it’s a good thing to do, so let’s do it and we’ll deal with future when we get there.” [laughs]
Ultimately, we found that if you trust people and you truly deliver value and you don’t ask for anything in return, there will be those who will gift your sustenance, in that sense. So today, there are a million smile cards in the world.

RW:  Literally.

NM:  Literally. There are actually more than a million smile cards floating around in the world because tons more have been downloaded and printed and we don’t even know about those.
Then there are Smile Groups where people come together to write stories about how they were touched by a Smile Card or touched by doing an act of kindness themselves and leaving a Smile Card. We literally have thousands and thousands of these stories. And we gift those, too! If Chicken Soup for the Soul wants those stories, we say, here you go. And indeed, they’ve taken a whole bunch of them. All kinds of magazines ask to reprint these and we say you can take them, no charge whatsoever. Just don’t copyright it. Leave these in the public domain.

RW:  Each Smile Card that’s used is a marker for an act of kindness. If it’s in someone’s pocket, it may not have been used yet, but it’s already probably changed a person’s state a little. They’re kind of looking for a way to use it.

NM:  Exactly! Even if they never actually use it, that shift in the lens of a person is powerful. People often tell me that we’ll get more donations if we tell people how much this costs us. We’re resistant to doing that because what you offer shouldn’t be related to the cost of it. The value is really dependent on you. What’s the value of a Smile Card that you never really use, but still shifts your attention? There’s a lot of value there, but it’s not easily quantifiable. And we don’t want to quantify it.

RW:  So when you do a random act of kindness, that’s a gift. That’s a little example of the gift economy. How do you describe this idea of a gift economy?

NM: Because the gift-economy has so many realms of value that it counts on, it’s very hard to define. We were asked by a dictionary recently to define “gift economy.” I think it was the Dictionary of Ethics and Values.

RW:  Did they come to CharityFocus or to you?

NM:  In this case, they came to me, because it was through a friend. They asked, “Would you and your colleagues define gift economy?” Their whole thing is that if we want to shift to a new paradigm, we need a new vocabulary.

RW:  This is very challenging.

NM:  Very challenging. Words really limit us to a certain domain and that’s why we use metaphors and stories.

RW:  There’s this big difficulty with the word “free” for instance. Gift economy and you say, “It’s free.”

NM:  It’s not free. Gift economy, in this sense, is this idea that you give freely, without any strings attached. The person who receives it carries this gift forward. And over time, as enough people carry this forward, this sort of sacred reciprocity takes care of everyone’s needs. So what goes around, eventually comes back around to me. It’s not that I give to this person and he’s going to do something back for me. There is just this trust. You give and make somebody’s day and they go out and do the same for somebody else and in your time of need, somebody will come and do this for you.

RW:  The idea of the gift economy being for everybody’s benefit is that goods are circulating freely. They’re not being hoarded and taken out of circulation.

NM:  The gift economy says that it is in the circulation of gifts that value is generated. Not in accumulating it in your bank locker. If you have something of value, put it in motion. That will create more ripples. Karma Kitchen is really an easy example for people to understand. You go to this restaurant and your check at the end of the meal says zero. It says, your meal was paid for by somebody who came before you and it’s a gift. If you’d like to pay it forward, leave something in the envelope to pay it forward for somebody after you. And it works. We’ve been running it for quite some time in various cities.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but in Indonesia where there is a lot of corruption, they started these “honesty cafes”-essentially gift economy cafes. They have 7400 honesty cafes across Indonesia! They want young people to come in and figure out how much they pay. They say, “We want to trust them. We want them to figure out the whole value proposition.” And as they do this, it will in turn create a culture that is rooted in values. It isn’t using the gift economy or pay it forward, but it’s the same thing with these honesty cafes. So it’s turning out to be an antidote to corruption in Indonesia.

RW:  That’s amazing and very encouraging to hear about. As you said earlier, you’ve found yourself speaking in front of all kinds of people. And you found a resonance in all kinds of populations towards this idea of kindness, generosity, service. Do you have any sense of the size of the population that’s moved by these values? Or any sense of the readiness in the world to embrace this kind of service?

NM:  I think it’s one hundred percent. I think everybody understands gift economy. They may not call it that, but I think everybody gets it. We all start with a gift, nine months of complete nurturing. Every single person is gifted their life by their mother. So we get it. We see it in nature. A mango tree doesn’t need to have its fruit copyrighted. [laughs] We have examples around us all the time, but we’re just blind to them.
In times where we’re so blind to all the gifts coming our way, we need to make this explicit, just as a tool. I think we’re living in those times. That’s how I think these conditions are coming together and why we have “gift-economy” and these kinds of phrases coming into prominence. And we have tools like the Internet and platforms that allow you to manifest those very long tail, niche ideas.

RW:  Not everybody who reads that term “long-tail” will know what that means.

NM:  Niche ideas. Long tail idea is one that doesn’t have a lot of dominant paradigm acceptance.

RW:  In your article Tao of CharityFocus, I ran across this — that what needs to be done is the dis-intermediation of social acts themselves. What did you mean there?

NM:  The example we gave there is how in a corporation, you’ll have a secretary, but in CharityFocus you’ll have somebody who will pick up the call, somebody else will log the call, somebody else will respond to the call, somebody else will follow up. You really begin to distribute the tasks. So instead of five people working 40 hours a week, we have 40 volunteers contributing 5 hours a week.
Before the Internet, it was very hard to coherently aggregate all those small pieces, but now the Internet allows this. Think of it in terms of fundraising. If you go to professional fundraisers and give them a choice between getting one dollar from a million people and a million dollars from one person, they’re going to pick the million from one person. You don’t have to deal with all the paperwork, the thank you’s and the whole spiel. But imagine the social capital of a million people giving a dollar! There is something very powerful there.

RW:  Social capital. That’s a term I learned from you, really. Can you describe what that is?

NM:  It’s really the relationships that embed your existence. In the book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks about how in the U.S. everybody used to bowl in leagues. Now they all bowl alone. That’s a loss of social capital. When you run out of milk and go to your neighbor’s house to ask for some, that’s social capital. When your friend dog sits for you or picks you up from the airport, that’s social capital.

RW:  Social capital is a reservoir of the good will of others, then. Something like that?

NM:  That’s a nice way to put it. When you selflessly give to somebody it creates a deep relationship, and that reservoir of connections is what I think of as social capital. Of course, social scientists wouldn’t put this value judgment of giving or goodwill on it, but I consider that to be very important. If a relationship is give-and-take kind of a barter mindset, to me, it’s not really relationship.
So, what can we do with social capital? We’ve never had a platform that allowed us to do anything that could be measured with social capital. But what is Facebook? It’s all social capital. And it’s worth over ten billion dollars. Now everyone is talking about this networked economy and what social capital can lead to.

RW:  There’s a constant struggle that must be required because isn’t there always the relentless movement to convert such things to the end of monetary gain?

NM:  I totally agree. Every tool that you have can be used in all kinds of ways. The dominant paradigm is “I want to create something of value so I can sell more advertising.”

RW:  So how does one counter this?

NM:  By good people coming together and standing up and saying, “I want to be the change.” I’m going to support you just because you’re a fellow human being and someone else comes and supports me in the same way. That gift-economy starts with you and I. This is what revolutions are made of.

RW:  Well, I know you. You know me. I learn that you’re for real, directly. But when this person-to-person connection is abstracted, all I see is print or all I see is the computer screen, how is trust developed? You don’t want to trust something that isn’t trustworthy.

NM:  Right. There’s no context to frame whether or not it’s trustworthy, particularly in the kind of community we now live in. What we can do, on a personal level, is these small acts of trust that ultimately will create the field for deeper change. At a systemic level, we have to bring all these small pieces together, which the Internet is really capable of doing. And at an even more meta-level, on a societal level, what we need to do is birth what I call “generosity entrepreneurs.” Those are people who have an entrepreneurial mindset of creating something new, but they are doing it in the spirit of the gift economy.
So having no context for trust is a problem, but that’s where manifestations like Karma Kitchen can help. It’s a place where you can discover, “Oh, wait. That’s a part of myself I never exercised!” We need to have more of these structures, and amplify these patterns of positive deviance.
The way I look at it, there are three kinds of capital — Intellectual quotient, IQ, which we know plenty of; then there’s EQ, emotional quotient, which science has been getting to know in recent years; but there’s a third, often underlooked quotient, which is compassion quotient, CQ. That’s nowhere in sight.
We have think tanks in the world. They say, “Richard, you’re a really smart person. We’ll give you food, shelter, clothing, office space. You just do whatever you want to.” There are many think tanks that do just that.
What about love tanks? What about experiments in generosity? What about people who will say, I just want to give for the love of it? Why are those people working in the lowest rungs of our institutions? “Oh, nice guy.” But that’s about it. We just don’t know how to capitalize on that compassion quotient and we ought to learn that sooner rather than later. This is what I see “generosity entrepreneurs” doing.

RW:  Have you talked with anyone about this?

NM:  I have talked with some friends about this, yes indeed. I do think we need a laboratory of compassion. When the time is right, it will germinate. The way I go about things is not to say, here is a proposal. Here’s how you do it. I have an implicit faith in the self-organizing ways of the universe, that whenever it is time for this kind of a love-tank to be birthed, for a cadre of generosity entrepreneurs to bring out this gift economy in its full majesty, then something will happen. Someone’s cup somewhere will overflow and it will have just the right ingredients to create this kind of a movement.
I certainly hold that vision of a gift economy. In some sense, I am myself an example of a generosity entrepreneur. But it’s not something that the mainstream economy understands so easily. I’ve had to makeshift a survival plan and struggle to find patches that cover up the gaps. It ultimately happened, and it’s still happening. And it will continue to change its forms, but I now want to use my merits to make it easier for that next twenty-three-year-old Nipun who wants to quit his job in the spirit of service, to just be able to do that and to be able to manifest goodness in the world. In a way, my main motivation is just to share my merits. I don’t know how it will manifest or if it will at all, but it’s deeply satisfying even just to attempt that.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping: An Interview with Terrance Meyer

One morning I looked up from my cup of tea in a local coffee shop and was surprised to see a man at work on a little painting sitting at a table nearby. Such a sight was a first for me in this particular neighborhood. I walked over, took a peek, and was surprised again. It was really good. I complimented him on his work and we struck up a conversation.  
     He was just passing through, he told me. He’d been in Seattle and had come down to the Bay Area where he was staying for a few days with a friend. It didn’t sound like his accomodations were any too secure. It was clear he was traveling on a shoestring. Long ago I’d traveled in similar circumstances and was reminded of those times. 
     He seemed to welcome the interruption, and I asked him a few more questions. Before long, having had nothing of the sort in mind, I found myself in a conversation that had crossed into territory usually reserved for more intimate friends. All along I half-way expected to be hit up for a little cash, but nothing of the sort happened. The more we talked, the more I was touched by this total stranger and his story. Spontaneously, I decided to ask him for an interview. We met the following day in the same coffee shop and I asked him how he started out…

Terrance Meyer:  I grew up a farm boy—dropped out of high school in 1973 during my second year and went into the work force for ten years.

Richard Whittaker:  What kind of work were you doing?

TM:  A number of things: factory work, crop dusting. I leased a bar and ran that for a year. I had a t-shirt shop and worked at an arcade for kids. I was into stock car racing, which was a first love. I bounced around a lot.

RW:  Tell me more about that.

TM:  When I started in hobby stock it showed I had potential, so I went to a school in Florida for the mechanics of it— setting up cars and racing them. There was a late model driver down there and I was running better times than he was. The potential was there and it really looked good. That first year I made a full investment in a late model car, but everything went bad. The engine blew up. Work went down to two days a week. And whatever it was that had made me so good at driving, I became conscious of it and somehow lost the fluidity of it, the feeling of it.
Where I grew up in Wisconsin it was very rural. It just felt like there were no opportunities. Even in school there was nothing in the arts. It wasn’t until the accident and I got into vocational rehab, that the doors opened.

RW:  You were telling me earlier that you were driving a Harley at the time of the accident. A car made a left turn into you.

TM:  Yes. I broke some bones in my foot. Cracked three ribs. Sheared a bone off on my ankle and lost a lot of skin off my head. I was thrown clear from the bike, which was a good thing because the car went right over the bike. A friend was there and saw the accident. On the way to the hospital he said I looked sort of okay, that it could’ve been worse. I had the biggest smile on my face because I knew things were okay. I felt like the rest of my life was gravy. It felt like I could do anything I wanted to because I was still here.

RW:  That experience put you in a special state. Say more about that.

TM:  That’s right. When I saw the lady turning I reached for the brake, but I didn’t even get that far. I remember the only thought I had was “I wonder if I’m going to remember this?” That was all.
From what I was told, I was unconscious for a while, but I didn’t realize it. I was on the ground and then I started flopping around because I thought I was still in the middle of the highway. After my friend told me I looked pretty much okay, there was just this euphoria. I’d felt that my life was over and it was as if all the chains had been let loose— total freedom! I could do anything I wanted now! Euphoria is the only word I can think of.
I had dropped out of high school, just like my seven siblings. Many dropped out. They went on to be farmers and factory workers. That was what my future looked like. I’d been a biker for ten years. It was a good life, and I still envy it. I did my job, rode my motorcycle in the summer, and shot pool in the winter, and was quite content.

RW:  But as a result of this accident you ran across some new things. This had to do with the period while you were recovering.

TM:  Yes. I had two friends who each had a handmade piece of jewelry which they showed me. That blew me away, in a sense, because at 26, I didn’t realize that jewelry could be hand-made, or that there was such a thing as pottery. It led to my working as an apprentice for a jeweler. I worked for him for three years. It was a good life, good money and all that. He had me take some classes at the local University and that’s where I just fell in love with the arts—with painting especially. I left him after three years and next I worked for a potter for about three years.

RW:  I wanted to go back to where you said you didn’t realize there was such a thing as jewelry or pottery. I take it you mean you didn’t realize it could be hand-made.

TM:  I was in awe! That beautiful pendant! I had assumed that it was all factory-made, that everything came out of a factory!
Art class in high school was nothing more than a study hall, an easy out. I had a cousin who said he remembered some of the work I did, but I don’t. Those were foggy years. Teen-age alcoholic. I was the first born in the family and was driving a tractor before I was in first grade. I was helping to take care of my brothers and sisters behind me and working the farm. You know, everyone has their traumas and that was one of mine.
I think I skipped a lot of being a child. You know, I’ve worked in group homes also, and I talked a lot with my bosses. We talked about my earlier life, and there’s a term for it, a “parentified child.” It helps explain my teen-age years and the alcohol. Those years were very foggy, just a cloud.
I started reading somewhere along in there—everything I could get a hold of—but I’d just read particular parts and get little insights and go on. It was a search of sorts and it kind of steered me in the right direction. That went on for maybe ten years, on into college, and a few years afterw:ards. It gave me a foundation, my own identity, or at least the realization of my own possibilities.

RW:  Do you still have a problem with alcohol or is that behind you?

TM:  I had so many blackouts as a teenager I’m lucky to be alive. But now I can take alcohol or leave it. One halloween a friend asked me if I wanted to take a hit of acid. It was just a wonderful experience and I firmly believe it was that experience that knocked me out of being an alcoholic. It was after that that I started tenaciously reading anything I could find.

RW:  So, after your accident, how was it again you were led toward the arts?

TM:  I was given funding to get some sort of job training. My foot was banged up so bad it was thought I’d never walk straight again. But I was a runner before I got into my accident, and I was so persistent about getting back to being able to run I finally got it back into place, although I still have chronic back problems. Anyway, when my friend showed me this piece of jewelry, that was when I got hooked up with the jeweler in Wenomony.

RW:  And I think you said you ended up going back to school.

TM:  I found I didn’t like jewelry making. It’s too small and very unforgiving. The money was great but I didn’t like sitting in a chair and there didn’t seem to be enough room for expression.
I remember walking through the doors of the art department. I felt, “now I can do anything I want! I can express anything I want!” It turned out this wasn’t totally true. I had my share of arguments with the professors, but in general they were good to me. There was always a compromise, but I kind of held on to my own way, so to speak. I could listen. It was one of my attributes. In fact one of the professors said I wasn’t like most of the others. Half the people would totally reject everything they were told and the other half would totally swallow everything. I would think about it and find compromises.

RW:  You got your GED then, and went back to the University of Wisconsin where you ended up with a BFA. You mentioned something earlier—that at the age of 14 a thought went through your mind, “I wonder if I could be a painter?” 

TM:  The thought was, “if only I could paint.”

RW:  This was at the age of 14?

TM:  Yes. It came so much out of the blue, it puzzled me. I wrote it off as soon as it crossed my mind, because it was so whimsical, coming out of the blue like that.

RW:  But you remember that moment.

TM:  Yes. Actually I did try a little painting then. I just tried to copy something out of a magazine.

RW:  Any speculations on where that might have come from?

TM:  Not a one. My parents say that the only story I have from childhood that’s interesting is that they had a party once, and I came downstairs with my coloring book. All of the sudden everyone made a fuss over it because everyone thought I was colorblind. The only color I would use was black. Every page was just black crayon.
Maybe there was something from the subconscious, I don’t know, but to think about painting was ridiculous.

RW:  So how long have you been painting since you’ve been out of the University of Wisconsin?

TM:  I gave away all my paints and brushes twice. I actually quit three times, but the third time I was smart enough to hang on to my materials. I knew painting was a precarious, ridiculous way to make a living.
I had really decided to be a potter and was okay with that, but what happened was that my friend came back and told me he’d give me a raise except I couldn’t make my own pots anymore. I had just consciously decided to be a potter, but when he said that I said, well, I can’t work with you any longer.
I moved to Minneapolis on a dime, and thought I’d give painting a shot for two years. If there was any kind of progression, I’d continue. If there was none, I was just going to get out and find something else. So it’s been seven years now of exclusively painting. I’ve been very persistent at it.
In painting, success is hard to measure but one of the things I’ve pushed for is to work 40 to 50 hour weeks, and I’ve been very persistent about putting in the time. My theory was that if I put in that kind of time, something was going to happen. It’s inevitable, and basically, it did. Something built up just like in athleticism. Fluidity came about.
I sketch, take down ideas, and do preparatory work. The sketching is always included in the painting, and hence the layers. Many layers come with that, layer upon layer.
I also felt that rather than hook up with any kind of movement or theory, the best approach would be to paint from direct experience— from the things that affect me, and in a way that I could do quickly so I wouldn’t lose the moment. So the paintings have an animated quality.
This one, for instance, came from a conversation where two friends were talking about painting wild-life art. One said to the other, “if you were painting duck-art, I picture you standing at the edge of the water with a loon by the neck in one hand and an easel in the other.” It was funny. But a day or two went by and I thought, what a perfect analogy for man and nature! They look at nature in awe, on the one hand, but on the other, we stifle and strangle it.

RW:  That’s quite an image. So you can tell me what’s behind each of these?[pointing to the ones he was working on]

TM:  Oh yes, but it’s a combination of things. Nothing absolute. My own experience, my own observations on society and where I think we’re at in this day and age. I believe that what I experience is a little bit like what everyone else experiences. And dream imagery. It’s amazing the number of times, all of the sudden, the memory of some dream comes up. I can feel I had it several weeks ago, but all of the sudden, it comes up. That feels good, like being on the right track.

RW: It sounds like you have some concerns and thoughts about what is going on in our culture today.

TM:  Yes. Absolutely, I do. And I don’t think I’m a radical. I think life is going so fast, the acceleration…I think about my grandparents not knowing about motorized vehicles, and before they died, they saw a rocket go to the moon! This awesome thing. The acceleration, the technology, the black box. We can not predict what the future will bring. Maybe the human race will wipe itself out, but the world will go on.
I think it’s worth being aware of that acceleration and having some compassion for it, I guess. I think that awareness is the first step. Nothing will happen overnight.

RW:  That reminds me of your saying you’d changed from motorcycles to bicycles, and that bicycles were better.

TM:  My friends thought I was crazy, but my feeling about it is that on the bicycle I can hear everything around me, smell everything, have more time to look left and right and it takes ten times longer to get there. It’s just an excellent high.

RW:  Yes, I’d come to this also. I even think there’s a formula for it: the speed at which one travels is inversely proportional to the consciousness involved in the traveling.

TM:  I like that, and maybe that could be applied to what is going on in a larger sense. Everyone is involved in so much stress and commitment. Life is going so quickly. All you can do is react, and that’s it.

RW:  Now you grew up on a farm and you had to work very hard. I just wonder if— from your experience of the farm with its seasonal rhythms— if you have a particular rootedness in a relationship to a world that is slower?

TM:  I think you’re right. My feet were in the soil. As a small child, first, second, third grade—we moved after that—but I remember being miles out in the woods by myself. I still have vivid memories of that—just knowing I had to turn this way and go that way to get back home. A slow pace. We lived at the end of a dead end road. Very few people around.

RW:  You have a realistic way of looking at things, a practical way—that may come from your farming background, but you find yourself painting. You mentioned a phrase in talking about painting, that it’s—what’s the phrase?

TM:  Precarious and unnerving.

RW:  Would you mind saying something about that?

TM:  Well, I’m completely in the hands of the Muse, or intuition. I don’t know what is going to happen next. I can let it happen. How to explain that? In jewelry or pottery, I know what’s going to happen. But a good piece of painting is completely out of my hands. The energy has to be there. Maybe just that. I cannot explain how it happens. I let go, and it leads me.

RW:  Yet there’s something that makes decisions, right? This color okay, that one not so good, et cetera.

TM:  Yes. The inner aesthetics. I love color and composition. I can feel it. But even if I think a painting is completed— one day I look at it and see that if I did this or did that, it would be stronger. That would nag me and I’d always go back into the painting rather than live with the nag. I’ve had this happen with work I’ve hung in shows. I had to go back and change it.

RW:  There must be paintings that are finished that stay finished, right? A year later you look at them and they’re still finished.

TM:  Yes. Still finished. But I don’t know that ahead of time. That’s one of the unnerving things. Weeks or months could go by and all of the sudden I look and see that I could do this or that. But there are paintings that resolve themselves very quickly and years go by and they stay resolved. It’s just that inner thing that makes suggestions and changes. It can be unnerving.
A friend told me that a good painting is the product of intellect, emotion and experience. The emotional part is where some of the unnerving part comes in. It’s still confusing, a question I think about. So much depends on faith and trust, on letting go, not knowing where it comes from.
I was in a show where the director told me someone had had a hard time believing I was Caucasian because of how the work came about. Well, there is a little native American blood in our family. I don’t know if that pertains to anything at all.

RW:  Maybe I should ask if there is any sense in which you are aiming at a result, a kind of look?

TM:  That would get back to that foundation, that unnerving, precarious thing of developing a foundation I could be very sure of, and could live with. Part of that would be of spiritual progression or life development. Could I direct what is going on within, and use painting as a tool? If my growth could continue, it would be a success even if no one ever bought a single painting.
Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning knowing exactly what I have to do. To me, that’s golden. It seems to have something more to do with the inner state of sleep. There is more depth. When I get my day going I walk around and think, “I should do this, I should do that.” Sometimes all that just gets in the way of whatever it is that’s deep down.

RW:  Wouldn’t part of the precariousness of painting also relate to the fact that in our culture, the possibility of success, of making a living, is very, very limited? There are, of course, these little street fairs where people are selling their art. Have you thought about that at all?

TM:  I don’t think I could go there. People say “this is art and that isn’t art, that isn’t real.” But I think whatever people do, it speaks some truth about them. It could be totally different than my own. I don’t even know— really, absolutely— what my own is. I really feel uncomfortable speaking what another person is doing or why they are doing it.
I don’t go see much of it. I told friends, before coming out here, that I’m probably supposed to go to museums and look around at work, and all I want to do is go outside and run around in parks and see hills and land, and things like that. That might even lead back to where I grew up. I loved walking around, being outside. I love living and experience of living.
Sometimes it seems there’s too much chasing after “the right” way of doing things—but to each his own. For me, it’s more about looking within and finding out what one is about, and going from there.
I remember being in school and having trouble coming up with ideas. It was the time of the Iraq war. It was my first experience of realizing how apathetic I was, and how I didn’t know what was happening. I was kind of flipped about it. I was working in the group homes at the time. I’d watch the war on television, just got caught in it for 24 hours at a time. I cried over what was going on and got really emotional, and there was nothing I could do about it. But it inspired me to do a painting. And it led to other things.
I was looking through a photo album of when I had the bar. It was like watching a movie. Things happened there at the bar, some of them not so good. I painted about that. It was an emotional release about some of the things that had bothered me. It helped, and I thought, if I could get through the emotional baggage and the traumas— if I could get through all that—then I would find a place where I could start making some real decent observations and commentary, just on life in general without finger-pointing or being vindictive, in more of a philosophical and thought provoking sense.
Even being on Amtrack—if I’m painting, it provokes a little awareness. That’s an inspiration for me, because even if I don’t sell anything, if I provoke a little interest in painting maybe somewhere down the road a person will buy something from someone else. To me that would be a success. Then it was worth my being there. Or maybe a child growing up will watch what I’m doing and get a different view about art.

RW:  You also have a sort of expanded view of the role of creativity, I think.

TM:  When I worked in a group home I used to problem-solve there, and there were wonderful moments of creativity in working with people with the different ideas and different approaches and ways of thinking about things that would come up.
It’s ironic that painting is working so well because I really do understand how life is its own creative canvas. The things one does with one’s life and with the people around one, the way one exercises compassion and problem-solving— compromise and all that— it’s just the most beautiful thing. I just saw an article on environmentalists and awards that were given to them, and I thought about what those people had done and were doing. Those are really pieces of creativity! It’s a hell of a lot more courageous than what I’m doing, because it’s just direct. It’s direct life—not about a product you hope to sell. They didn’t do that thinking they were going to get any kind of reward.

 

Interview: Charles Bigger–On Philosophy: Baton Rouge, LA

I met with retired professor of philosophy Charles Bigger at his home in Baton Rouge on a typically hot and humid day in July. Before long an afternoon squall materialized and rain was falling heavily straight down ouside. Sitting comfortably inside, the sound of the rainfall provided the perfect background for a philosophical conversation.

Richard Whittaker:  You mentioned earlier that you wouldn’t call yourself “a philosopher.” I was interested in that remark.

Charles Bigger:  Yes. I was educated in a tradition which has now died out. It was largely centered around The Great Books program. that Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, with Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago really founded—and Scott Buchanan, who went on to found St. John’s College. Most of the professors I really respected were students of Buchanan.
We weren’t encouraged to look at secondary sources. Whenever we did, it was usually a disaster because these teachers usually knew a great deal more than most of the secondary sources.
We tried to measure ourselves by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Kant, the British Empiricists, and so on. Not much attention was paid to contemporary philosophy. The assumption was that we could get that ourselves—that being part of the world we would be going out into.
On the whole we were remarkably ill-equipped to fit into the Positivism that was dominating the schools when I began to teach.

RW:  And that was when?

CB:  I first taught in 1949-1950 at Hollings College, then I began to teach at Ohio State in 1951 after I got my Ph. D. On the whole, I had a philosophy grounded in the western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Kant, Descartes etc.—that was what it meant to be “a philosopher.” It was thought that the best thing we could possibly do would be to open people up to the richness of this tradition.
I had a course in each of these great philosophers, and then I had a course in cosmology in which we read everything from Dante to Einstein. One of my teachers was a very gifted mathematician/ physicist. My teachers encouraged originality. I don’t know if you ever knew T. S. Elliot’s essay, “The Tradition and Individual Talent.” He spoke of the idea that if you master tradition, then that becomes the basis of creativity. You have this rich material. You can always go beyond it, and you don’t make all the mistakes of the past. .

RW:  I take it then, that one would be reluctant to call oneself “a philosopher…”

CB:  …in the light of this tradition! These are the philosophers. We’re people who work in the field and try to keep alive this thing which is genuinely ennobling, I think.

RW:  How would you describe what it is about this study which is genuinely ennobling?

CB:  Aristotle said that “the life of reason is the life of God.” When Scotus Euregina said “when you know a point of mathematical knowledge and an angel knows that point of mathematical knowledge, your intellect is identical to the angel’s!” That is to say, you participate in a whole tradition, and it’s contemporary with you. It’s certainly not limited to time and space. It’s an eternal conversation that goes on.
But this doesn’t make you as conscious of historical transformations as it should. You tend to look at everything in a kind of specious present. For example, in The Summa Theologica, Aquinas treats everybody as a contemporary, and treats them all equally whether it’s an Arabic commentator or Moses Maimonides, the Jewish commentator, or Plato or Aristotle or Augustine or Averroes or Avicenna. They are all there in the room with him.
It’s truth that he’s after, and truth could equally well come from Averroes as it could from St. Paul, let’s say. There’s a kind of Catholicism of the intellect, and that’s what always appealed to me. But again there are historical changes and transformations and that’s one of the things that I missed in my initial training. I had to go to Hegel to begin to learn something of that.

RW:  You quote Aristotle—”The life if of reason is the life of God.” But when Aristotle says, “reason” that means something quite different from what we might think “reason” is today, right?

CB:  Quite different. There is something God-like in it. Aristotle had no belief in the immortality of the soul, but thought that—as philosophers—we could live in eternity, and why would you want to do anything more than that? I certainly feel the power of that. But reason here is not just a rationality, it’s a constitutive faculty.
In the Christian tradition in St. John’s gospel, when it says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, by which everything that was made was made.” That “Word” is the Logos. It reappears in such words as biology, psychology, physiology etc. The Eternal Truth. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, people like Descartes and Kepler, in developing the laws of nature, believed they were exposing to us the mind of God. Even Newton thought that way. You see what I mean? And that was the case up until Kant who really broke that tie. All that became the unknowable. In modern philosophy only traces of that reason remained.

RW:  You’re making a connection here between Aristotle’s “reason” and the Logos

CB:  It’s constitutive. You understand?

RW:  I’m not quite clear on that.

CB:  By constitutive, I mean that I’m not just thinking about something, I’m thinking those principles and causes whereby things are as they are!—determinate reality. What makes the world be the kind of thing it is.

RW:  How’s this principle in relation to myself?

CB:  Also constitutive. I am a rational being. I am an imageo dei.

RW:  Would you say that to pursue a life of reason in Aristotelian terms…

CB:  …Classical terms…

RW:  …would you say this includes trying to understand what constitutes my own reality?

CB:  Oh, indeed!

RW:  …as a being…?

CB:  Indeed. That’s really central, because the kind of a being I am, as Plato would argue, is something I am never going to understand if I approach it in quantitative terms. I am not that kind of being at all. I have to understand myself through The Good—through Justice, for example.

RW:  And this would all be subsumed under the ancient use of the term “reason”?

CB:  Yes. Wisdom is ethical wisdom, as much as anything else.

RW:  So this ancient notion of reason is much, much more inclusive than our modern understanding of “reason.”

CB:  It’s a grand thing. As I was saying, there is a certain tendency since Kant where we have abandoned that, the transcendent, the noumenal. We have traces of it in symbols, and poetry can reveal truths that are no longer available to discursive reason, scientific reason. Art becomes the medium through which the transcendent is realized.
You’ll find how many painters, even abstract painters—like Rothko, will think they’re making it possible for us to have an experience of this, even if we can’t articulate it in ordinary language.

RW:  In contemporary art, I’m not sure that view is still much held.

CB:  I sort of gave up with Cezanne. He thought the world was geometrically constituted, a sense that comes from Plato. I guess it was an English philosopher who said Cezanne seemed to be reaching into the canvas. I guess you could say that of Van Gogh, too.

RW:  The last time I saw some of Van Gogh’s paintings—at the Met in New York—it had quite an impact on me. It would be difficult to offer a satisfactory explanation of why they had this impact on my feelings.

CB:  If I no longer speak of the classical philosophers—I speak in awe of what I’ve learned from them. And I try to keep something of that alive. But I have shifted and tend to begin with affectivity, rather than ontology and the question, What is something? which Socrates would begin with.
The thing that fascinates me is the way the child responds to his mother. The smile on the child’s face. The way the child has a natural empathic relation with his mother, long before the philosophers come along with their problems—the mind/body problem, for instance. There’s no such problem for the child.
It seems to me that, fundamentally, our affects are really modes of being in the world. We are incarnate. And among those modalities of being in the world, are color and sound and taste and smell.
All of these are the genuine food for the soul. Not just mathematical formula which I’ve spent a lot of time on in my day [laughs]—and which I still admire. I’m not an irrationalist, in any sense of the word, but I’m always fascinated by the Christian vision of an incarnate God—that somehow we’re going to find divinity in the physical reality.

RW:  An incarnate God—and you just mentioned your interest in affectivity. Incarnate—in the body—and, for heavens sake!—we’re more than just the head-brain. We have feeling. We have sensation…

CB:  …and we have sexuality!

RW:  …sexuality. All that stuff…

CB:  Yes! Where I am! Where I begin! And to leap to the mind, thinking thoughts, is to move too rapidly from where we are to the transcendent. I think there is a transcendence, but I think I am more likely to discover it in you, than I am in a mathematical formula.

RW:  Giving up any effort to stay with some kind of order here, and getting right into associations…

CB:  …you have to with me! [laughs]

RW:  [laughs] Oh, I’m happy with that… but, here we are. Okay, your phrase, “and I think there is a transcendence.” Well what is the avenue to the transcendent today? I mean via the best authority of contemporary philosophy.

CB:  You know, this is long and labored. My route is taking me through hundreds of pages and I’m not sure I get there at the end! [laughs]
But let me put it in another way. In general, our relation to the world is in terms of satisfactions. We eat and we drink and sleep and do various things, and all for the sake of some fulfillment. Essentially this is really the business of the ego. The ego tends to devour everything. It draws everything into itself. It attempts somehow, always, to take the measure of things from itself. Do you know what I mean?

RW:  I believe I do.

CB:  And I think this is nihilistic. I think it brings everything down to the measure of man, but just who is it who is doing the measuring? It’s like the child who’s got to have this, has to have that and finds no satisfaction in any of it. So consequently, the route to the transcendent is ultimately, I think, to come up against something that deconstructs the self.

RW:  You’re talking about the ego here, right?

CB:  Yes. Okay, the ego. What the ego could come up against could be any number of things. The vehicles of such epiphanies could be various—not just Paul on the road to Damascus.
I remember the strongest experience I ever had was after we’d gone into the Phillipines in 1944. They were in pretty bad shape— starving, and so forth, eating our garbage. You’d scrape your mess kits into a little can and they would eat it.
It was the first time I’d ever encountered anything like that, and it was a transforming experience. Do you follow? Suddenly somehow—and I don’t think I followed up on this—I was called to something beyond myself. I saw there was a higher good than the good I had been serving, however patriotically.
It was discovering—in the Japanese prisoners and their starvation as they came in to our camps after they surrendered—the desire always, to find something for them, food. The pathos of the situation, to me, was overwhelming. That’s what I mean when you come up against something that’s higher than you are. You begin to take your measure from it, rather than from yourself. All the religions, I suppose, have been talking about this one way or another.

RW:  Something beyond what I experience as “myself.” This is not really so easy to grasp.

CB:  Our contemporary tradition is one that has made the ego so central. And moreover, it solidifies itself, creates a foundation for itself, if you will, with the whole idea that knowledge is power.
That’s just the opposite of an earlier vision of knowledge—knowledge being that which allows one to participate in the life of God. We now think of knowledge as power. What can you do with it? What this means, essentially, is that our relation to the world is now a technological relation.

RW:  Knowledge is power. This is from Bacon?

CB:  Sir Francis. And this means, as far as we’re concerned, technology, doesn’t it? Knowledge is the capacity, for example, across the street there, see those houses? A big developer bought the land. He got the bulldozers and took down all the trees. Then sold off the lots. That’s our idea, isn’t it?
We think that through power we can transform—you could put a mountain over there, I guess. I notice they’re building a lake not far from here. There’s no respect for the land at all. No feeling that this is where we belong. This is where we dwell. That somehow it’s our responsibility to preserve this, to protect it.
When the Greeks touched something, they made something beautiful out of it. Aristotle and Plato would have seen it as bodying forth eternity, as something of infinite value.

RW:  How does one come to the beginning of an understanding that any capacity to move toward transcendence would be solely through something that lies beyond the self I experience as myself?

CB:  I think what is required, and I’ll be quite metaphorical about it, if I may, one has to be prepared for an annunciation.

RW:  An annunciation?

CB:  “Let it be done to me according to thy word,” as Mary said to the Holy Spirit. And this is where I go to the middle voice.
It’s not something we can will. It’s not something we can try to achieve. Rilke speaks of the world as an animal knows it, as “an open.” Somehow it’s to see and preserve that world.
It’s ultimately the medial phenomenon that puts one into that receptive passivity, as it were, awaiting. That requires some hope. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. Will it? I don’t know…
That’s one of the strange things. You ask, and we’re searching for some transcendental solution to education. I think it’s going to happen—if it’s going to happen—no matter what we do. We try this program and that program. But somehow or other no matter what you do, some people just simply don’t get it, others do. Maybe they’ll get it later.
I think we waste a lot of money sending people to universities, when really, they’re not interested. They’ll even resist. That’s why I think aesthetic education would be so important early. To develop people’s vulnerabilities.

RW:  Some people would accept being described as seekers, and others might not even relate to such a description. You must have been a seeker.

CB:  I certainly was.

RW:  Can you say anything about that sense of searching for something?

CB:  I guess one of the most vivid experiences I had as a kid was on the road from Richmond to Petersburg. It went by a big Dupont plant. There was a big sign in front of the plant, “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry.”
That caught my fancy. Somehow I was going to be a chemist—and produce things “for better living.” So I spent most of my youth learning chemistry. When I went to college, I knew just about as much chemistry as my instructor did, if I can put it that way [laughs]. I knew far more than anybody else in the class! I’d read Pauling on the chemical bond, and so on. I was really self-educated. I had my own laboratory and worked in it all the time. So I already felt called.
It was only when I got into college and discovered that my professor—a very nice man, who had worked for some corporation and had gotten screwed out of a discovery he’d made because he hadn’t taken notes properly—I found he was really only concerned with note taking. So I decided I didn’t want to go into Chemistry, after all, and I gravitated over to Physics where I found—and I’m not bragging—but it was just like I’d stepped into this brightly-lit room. Everything just made perfect sense! I solved all the problems, all the equations, everything! I was damn near perfect. Now I had failed math in prep school! But suddenly it all made sense to me! I thought I was going to be a physicist.
But then I went into the Army, over in the Philippines, and discovered that Physics didn’t warm my spirit, particularly. There was nobody to talk with about it, but I found a friend who was a Harvard graduate. And he was a marvelous human being! I guess he was my salvation, in a way. He was a corporal, a graduate of Harvard and he had a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago—French and Fine Arts, I think.
By that time, I’d begun to read poetry. I carried around my knapsack full of poetry. He knew a lot of these people at Harvard who I was reading—Robert Lowell, and so forth. He took a fancy to me for some reason, and he had some friends in the medical corps—two psychiatrists, both Harvard people, one of whom had been the child psychiatrist at the juvenile court in Chicago. We formed a little group of four while the war was on in the Philippines. These people treated me like I was an equal, and I just couldn’t believe it!
When I went back to the university, I had a different image of myself, and about what “being educated” meant. I got to Philosophy because the philosophy professors and courses seemed closer to this than English was. The English professors didn’t really like poetry. [laughs]
In the Philosophy department, you could take a course in Joyce or Elliot’s Four Quartets. And in “Poetics” we read all sorts of strange things—Apollonious on Conic Sections. Euclid. There were tutorials. You just went in and talked with the professor. They took you over the coals. It was something like the Oxford system. You had to go in prepared to say something. And suddenly I knew I was going to have to spend my life doing that kind of thing!
I went into philosophy because it was the one place where I thought I could keep both my scientific interest and my literary interest alive!

RW:  That’s a very interesting point. Keeping something alive. There’s the danger, in the process of “getting educated” that the real spark, the passion to learn, could be in danger of being extinguished. But you saw that in philosophy, you could keep this alive.

CB:  I have not found that to be true among my professional colleagues, however I think I was gifted, graced by this background.
I had a friend, dead now, who was at Tulane. One of his teachers told him he’d never make a philosopher, so he went off to Harvard and did English. In the course of it, he drifted into Whitehead’s courses and decided he would be a philosopher, so he came back to Virginia after the war and finished his Ph. D. He was there with me and we were very close. He was one of the most famous teachers in America in his era. Ed Ballard. Virtually all of the outstanding people in continental philosophy were his students. Remarkable! Ballard was always somebody I could lean on and talk to. Now my nearest colleague is in Scotland! [laughs]

RW:  Tell me more about this business of keeping something alive. You see that among many of your colleagues, something has not been kept alive..

CB:  Yes. One of the strange things is—I remember when I taught at Hollings College—they asked me to write something for the paper about why you should major in philosophy. And I irritated people by saying you shouldn’t major in philosophy! [laughs] If you’re going to do philosophy, you ought to have something else first! You have to come from somewhere else. The idea of doing an undergraduate degree in philosophy struck me as being kind of absurd.
The people I admired, like Aristotle—he creates all the sciences—literally! Plato had vast accomplishments in mathematics, educational theory, religious theory. Take Leibnitz, or Descartes. Descartes was the founder of modern mathematics! Cartesian co-ordinates, you know. With Galileo, he was one of the two or three great figures in physics, the creator of modern mathematics and of modern philosophy! Leibnitz. Same thing. Incredible range of abilities! And they approached this through a focus which we don’t have anymore, a kind of theological focus.

RW:  Could you say more about that?

CB:  Let’s take Spinoza, Leibnitz and Descartes. We think of them as the “Rationalists.” Central to their thinking was the idea that man could rationally demonstrate the existence of God.
They approached it from theologically different perspectives—Descartes was a Catholic, Spinoza was—well, people think he was he was a-theistic, but he wasn’t. Novalis made the point that he was God intoxicated. He had a religious orientation, but he was not denominational. Leibnitz was a Lutheran. They could have been Arabs, as far as that goes. Do you follow? Because these were views that Averroes and Avicenna shared—everybody shared it in the Middle Ages!
That was the great heritage of our Greek tradition, that there is a unity in the world, and that—ultimately—reason is a clue. If I assume there is some connection between the fall of an apple and the movement of the heavens, damn it, I’ll find the law that relates them! Always, things fit together. There’s some kind of a beautiful cosmos. The word cosmos —cosmetics…beauty. Now I think they were overly optimistic, but they did have this standpoint.

RW:  So for Descartes, Leibnitz and Spinoza, there was the conviction that reason was an avenue to understanding God. It was basically a theological view.

CB:  Heidegger calls it onto-theology. It’s kind of a metaphysical theology. Those three in particular. There are others. Kant showed that the ontological proof didn’t work. So since Kant’s day, we’ve been wandering around—we don’t have that focus any longer.

RW:  So today—if I might leap forward—our outlook is quite different. There are a group of French thinkers who have been influential, Derrida and others. I know you are familiar with him, and I wonder if you’d tell me what you find valuable in Derrida’s thought.

CB:  Early in Derrida’s career—before he became so self-indulgent, and so indulged by editors who let him produce all the junk he produces—he wrote several rather profound and very disturbing essays. One of them on Husserl, Speech and Phenomena, then another longish essay on one of the late works of Husserl called The Origin of Geometry.
In the course of this essay, Husserl makes what appears to be the obvious point, that a tradition lives in writing, in a written text. The problem is how to re-animate these texts—to go back and rediscover what it was that gave them their drive, animation and beauty, and made them important.
In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida is concerned mostly with Husserl’s book Logical Investigations which is concerned with the difference between what he calls an “indicative sign” and an “animated” sign. With an indicative sign, I’m pointing at something and you’re aware of it, but once that sign goes into your soul, you don’t see it anymore. You’re not aware of it anymore. When you read the book—the letters on the page—you understand the language. You don’t notice the letters, do you follow?
What interested Derrida were the signs themselves, and how it is that these tend to determine and shape our thinking. It’s as if thoughts were creatures of language rather than the converse, that somehow language is a tool of thought. You might even say that instead of speaking language, language “speaks us.”
He was very much interested in how it is that the language gets generated. What goes on in the now when you and I speak? This led him  to a remarkable essay, Différance. He uses an “a” instead of the “e” in the spelling. The “ance” is a medial marker—if you want to know where my interest in the middle voice came in.
This essay Différance was an effort to show how it is that language comes about. I don’t want to go any further into this, but I always found this extremely interesting because it seems to me that with this, he’s coming closer to a kind of original creativity even though there’s the famous statement of his, “there’s nothing beyond the text”—no way of getting outside of language. You’re always trapped in a kind of a Klein Bottle, which is the fabric of language. That’s what deconstruction essentially is concerned with, that is, showing how it is that language ensnares us.

RW:  What’s your response to that—that we can’t get out?

CB:  My response is to attempt to show that we can. That’s the challenge. The answer to that, ultimately is really taking him on, on his own ground in order to show that, in Différance, there are certain things about language that he misses.

RW:  I wonder what you think about this? I  can sit here and look out the window there, and I can do this with no inner talking going on, if I try. I take in visually, with an inner silence—take in the lawn, the varied play of light, the tree with all the intricate shapes. But if I try to describe this in language, I’m only generalizing. I can’t really get to the actual visual experience through words.

CB:  That’s right! And ultimately there’s a problem. As I put, there’s a surplus over and beyond what we can say. And I’m interested in that surplus. We can never get there with language. The poet comes about as close as any. The poet uses metaphor. That’s why I’m writing about metaphor.
To get closer to the thing, he doesn’t say, “that’s a plum.” He’s going to try to make us see it freshly, do you follow? Somehow through this poetry or metaphor, we will experience this thing in its concreteness, its wonder—that is, if the poet succeeds.
I’m thinking that metaphor primarily is that which reveals things to us in their thinging. That’s a Heideggerian word.

RW:  About the middle voice—which is a subject I find very interesting—was your attention directed there before you read Derrida’s essay, Différance?

CB:  No it wasn’t. I’d read it, and I have a friend in Edinburgh, John Llewelyn, a very fine philosopher, and we were there talking and trying to understand that essay. Part of what led me into the middle voice is a longish conversation I had with him. We were trying to understand how in the world you could will not to will.

RW:  Where would that idea even come up, ordinarily?

CB:  Heidegger. He uses a term “releasement” —geleisenheit.

RW:  But it’s not original with Heidegger, certainly.

CB:  No. But Heidegger is so wrapped up with Neitzsche where everything is Will—The Will to Power and so on. The reworking of the Schopenhauerian thing, see? Somehow Heidegger sees this whole notion of the will as the last gasp of metaphysics. So part of it is a desire to go beyond metaphysics, to break with this notion of Will. I’m making this too simple, in all honesty. This should not be taken as a very illuminating guide to understanding Heidegger. But just in this context we can say this, that he wanted to break this tendency—particularly in German thought, das wohl, the will, I mean. Even though he was a Nazi, I have to say. The whole idea of the will. And, of course, the middle voice is a much more feminine kind of thing, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it. It’s receptivity, vulnerability, affectivity. These are best expressed in middle voice, not the voice of domination and power.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done any Zen. It seems to me that Zen meditation, if you can make yourself stop thinking long enough…[laughs]

RW:  How much have you been involved in that?

CB:  At one time I was fairly involved, but I can’t really say I ever achieved any great illumination. Yet I did for moments.

RW:  Unless a person had really tried meditation, as you have in Zen, the whole notion of the middle voice might be purely an academic idea, I think. If one has tried seriously, then I think one begins to have a very direct taste of something there. That is, of the prevasiveness of our ego-doings, if I may put it that way.

CB:  Yes. Heidegger, in one of his essays—a conversation with a Japanese scholar in which they talk about The Tao, which is essentially a middle-voiced orientation—he was attempting to get to that. I think he thought if we could suddenly begin to approach the world through this, then something of the wonder of things—the astonishment—might be felt. We would begin to understand a different relationship with this world, and to ourselves—not the domineering one. Essentially, he is a religious thinker.

RW:  Heidegger?

CB:  Yes. So is Derrida, for that matter.

RW:  Now that’s a stretch for me. His point of view seems rather killing, on that level.

CB:  Well, it looks like it, but the late Derrida is very much moved by Levinas, and later he became more and more aware of it, although he doesn’t move as far as Levinas. It’s a little hard for me to get off on this track. We have to pull back and start somewhere else.
Now, in the Timaeus, the creation dialogue of Plato, there’s a kind of triumvirate, the Father, the Mother and the Child—from the Holy family. Plato calls the Mother, the receptacle, the nurse and mother of all becoming. And of course, you can think of the father in terms of The Good and the Ideas, and so forth. But basically, there is the gap, Chaos, between Gaia and Uranus—if you want to think that way. Uranus, the Father and Gaia, the mother. It was in this gap that all the creatures come to be—the Gods and creatures, and so forth.
Now there’s something which Plato calls chora a mysterious notion one can behold only as if in a dream. It is difficult to see. It’s one of the names that Plato gives to the mother. In Greek it’s simply translated as “place.” Aristotle, I take it, took it to mean “matter”—hyle. Translators frequently used to translate it as “space”, but these don’t quite get it. It’s more something like a supersaturated quantum field, before the big bang. [laughs]  Derrida is interested in chora.  Derrida comes to believe that underlying the text, underlying culture, and underlying everything, there’s chora.
What this whole notion suggests to Derrida is an experience which is stripped down from all of the paraphernalia that ordinarily enters into our experience—the experience, the metaphor, of a desert people—or of a searching for God. I know I’m not doing justice to him here—but Derrida thinks that the Abrahamic faiths all share this in common. Abraham is called to go into the desert, you remember—somehow in search of God. Now let’s forget all the liturgy and all the other things. It’s an eschatological experience, that is to say, you’re waiting for an impossible possibility.

RW:  Derrida then, you’re saying, essentially turned, or became, or always was perhaps, in some sense, religious?

CB:  Yes. Very religious. You know, I used to get very angry. Everybody thought he was a damned nihilist, but it never occurred to me he was. I wouldn’t approach the problem his way, but I do think there’s something to be said for it.

RW:  With the dominance in our culture of science, rational empiricism, etc. we have a system upon which it’s difficult or impossible to base an ethics. That seems a destructive thing, somehow.

CB:  I think so too. Levinas is the most profoundly religious of these thinkers, but in a very strange way. I have a friend who has written a book, “Seeing Through God.” There is a double meaning here. Seeing Through God means there ain’t nothing to see. But Seeing Through God,  is a transformative experience. And that’s what he’s talking about.
I think Levinas is a little bit suspicious of all the ideas of God as comforting, saving and so on. It’s essentially an ethical call for us to get busy and do the damn business of salvation, ok? I have an ultimate responsibility, and it’s a responsibility that I can never overcome, never pay off. Its name is justice.
Levinas was a student of Heidegger. Strangely enough, the direction I’m mentioning is not foreign to Heidegger, he just does not take the step. And it’s true that Levinas developed a considerable hostility to Heidegger. The Germans killed his father and his brothers.

RW:  It’s distressing to learn that Heidegger was a Nazi. That’s terrible. You read these wonderful essays, and…

CB:  I know. It’s really hard to believe isn’t it? That’s how we all feel. Carl Lowith met him in Rome in ‘44 and said he had a little Nazi pin on his lapel. Lowith had been a student of his. He became a very well-known Jewish philosopher. It’s interesting that so many of his students were Jewish. Hannah Arendt was his mistress, you know. And Husserl, his mentor, was Jewish. He dedicated his book to Husserl. It was Husserl who got the job for him.
You read those lectures he was giving in Germany before the war and you know everybody wanted to study with him. He was brilliant. Levinas was just swept of his feet by this man. He went to study with Husserl, but Husserl was dry and precise, and Heidegger made everything he said seem as if the whole history of the world depended on it! Here’s a man who takes the Greek word, eon, which is the archaic spelling of the word on—being, on-tology—and argues that the whole future of civilization depends on how we read this word! He almost persuades you of it! The text called The Anaximander Fragment—you read that and it’s really ridiculous.
He took himself very seriously and it’s hard not to get caught up in that. Look, Carl Rahner, the most prominent Catholic theologian of his generation, was a student of Heidegger. The most important Protestant theologian of the past century. Bultmann, was a student of Heidegger. He attracted so many different people to him. He was a tremendous, powerful teacher, no question about it! I’m in debt to Heidegger. I don’t buy into his vision of things, but I can’t talk about what I want to talk about unless I talk about him! He’s laid down the rules of the game.

RW:  So what is it you want to talk about?

CB:  Metaphor is what interests me, right now. I want to understand metaphor. Again, let’s remember we can’t really have a theory of metaphor, because any theory we get is itself going to be a metaphor. It’s one of those curious kinds of things. Metaphor means “to transport. To carry over.”

RW:  What is it exactly that intrigues you here?

CB:  First of all, in the earlier tradition, it was the primary instrument that bound the totality of things into an intelligible unity. Being is a metaphorical term. Because when I say that the number five is, or that God is, or that you are. I can’t be saying this in the same sense. Do you follow? St. Paul says, in the Epistle to the Romans, “We know the things above from the things below.” —something like that. So metaphor was primarily the instrument that philosophers used to achieve the unity of being. It enabled one to talk about everything as if it were all in a unitary frame of reference. It put things together.
Primarily my interest in metaphor came from being quite taken by St. Thomas’ use of metaphor. The way in which he justified the kinds of things he said about God. I have since come to think that this way of talking is essentially idolatrous.

RW:  Metaphor, you mean?

CB:  Used of God, it’s idolatrous. Because in order to use it, I have to say that God is like something. I’m constructing him into some image which essentially is anthropomorphic. Levinas goes so far as to put it this way: “To say that God exists is blasphemous” ! Because God is not the kind of thing that exists. Plato will say that “The Good is beyond being”…

RW:  This is something like Pseudo-Dionysious, then.

CB:  It is Pseudo-Dionysius! This is where I am! And that’s where Derrida is too, interestingly enough, because he has to use this kind of language to talk about chora. That’s taking over the Platonic tradition and bringing it into the orthodox Christian tradition. That’s where it comes in the strongest.
Again, that’s where Levinas comes in. It’s The Good he’s talking about, not Being. To say that God is a being is already to construe him through some kind of analogy with things. I don’t think any longer we can get to The Good through analogy. I don’t think we can get to chora. But we can use analogy and metaphor in the middle, ok? We can use it to discover some traces of these things. I would be the last person on earth to tell you that its not irrational to talk about God. But it makes a kind of sense within a context.

RW:  Does it interest you that, yes, metaphor works on a rational level in some way, but it also can touch us, perhaps more so, on the level of feeling?

CB:  Definitely! We can’t really understand metaphor unless we understand it in terms of affectivity. Now the other point I try to make about metaphor is that metaphor is creative. When we use a metaphor we’re likely to see things afresh, as if for the first time. I’m one to say that ultimately all science is metaphoric. I say that on the basis of Pathagorus’ discovery of the nature of harmony.

RW:  Say more about that. That’s an interesting statement.

CB:  Very simply this—Pathagoras discovered that he could map the four notes of his tetra-chord. C, F, G and C sharp: the octave. He imagined these notes corresponded to the four numbers, six, eight, nine, twelve. So the four harmonies. Six is to eight as nine is to twelve. That’s a mathematical, a harmonic, proportion. Euclid discusses these at great length in the fifth, seventh and one of the later books of The Elements.
It’s really the most incredibly powerful—if you know what analogy means: ana-logos—equality of logoi. You know what logos means. It’s Greek. Two is to three, is a logos. In Latin that’s called a ratio. That’s why you’re rational. Because you can apprehend the logoi of things, ok? [laughs] It’s by mapping things onto number. In other words. You follow? It’s really like an allegory.

RW:  There’s very little appreciation of that today, but I find this very interesting, that there is something in our make-up that causes us to respond affectively to notes, vibrations, in fact. If you had a mono-chord, for instance, with a bar you could slide to get different notes, and you plucked it, you would slide the bar until the note sounded right. You wouldn’t like it otherwise.

CB:  And Plato had an answer to this, as usual. He says the human soul is constructed in these ratios. It has the form of the diatonic scale. Once you begin to think about this, you start to realize that something really profound is being said here!
I mean, you know, it’s the music you make with your soul that determines whether it is beautiful or ugly. Plato, earlier in The Phaedo, had rejected the idea that the soul is a harmony because he said, you know, this is like an aeolian harp. The wind blows and makes a noise. But we’re responsible for the music we make of our lives, you follow? So the soul is not just a matter of some kind of harmony or other. It’s more like an instrument that we play.
Interesting thing about this is that listening to music is a medial experience. If you really are taken up into the music then there is no distinction between inner and outer. It possesses you. You are not doing it.

RW:  Today, how does one come to such a point, as you have, where one feels that the ancient Pathogorean insight remains deeply relevant?

CB:  I got that in college. I didn’t know why I was reading Apollonious on Conic Sections. The teacher just said, “Read it.” I read it, but he didn’t push the point, and if you didn’t get anything out of it, then we’d try something else, you know? But over the years, I have come to see the point. When I talk about a conic section, I’m talking about the intersection of a plane and a cone. I’ll say, “This is a circle. This is an ellipse. This is an hyperbole. Here are two intersecting lines.” But they’re all the same thing! Metaphors are different ways of seeing a thing, do you follow?—seeing it as this, as that, as the other.
What we frequently don’t recognize, is that we’ve got to get power over these metaphors, or they’ll carry us away. For example, in Germany, Goebbels said, “We have a cancer in society.” and before you know it, they’re administering Beltsin, and all those places.
Leibnitz said something very interesting. He was the one who really created perspectival geometry. His metaphor was this, when we think of Paris what are we really thinking of? It’s something seen from an infinity of points of view. Paris is just this, all the different ways it can be seen and experienced. It’s a unity of those experiences. Quite different, do you follow?
That’s what reason is all about. It’s grasping unity in dissimilar things, some invariance that runs through it all. But the fact that we are able to make a metaphor and that it “makes sense” does not really mean that it is true. That’s what I’m getting at. You have to criticize it. The way you do that, ultimately, is from different metaphors. You see if it “stands up.”
Now science does not really recognize that it is a fabric of metaphors. Let me give you an example. This is a good one. When Faraday came to the conclusion that electricity “flows” he was able to identify the properties of electricity with properties of hydraulics. Does that mean that is what electricity really is? No.
We might want to say that “life is DNA” or something like that. Well, you know there’s a hell of a lot more to life than DNA.

RW:  I’m wondering how you view the  use of metaphor in advertising.

CB:  I’m really using metaphor as a kind of anthropology. I think metaphor tells us a lot about what we are. It tells us something about the structure of our experience. What really happens in metaphor is that there’s a crossing. Take Heidegger’s metaphor, “making is finding”— now that seems to be an oxymoron almost, and yet when I think about making through the linguistic parameters of “finding” I say, “yes!” When I make something, I “find it.” It’s not just a semantic sort of thing, it’s phenomenological.
I don’t deny that many metaphors fall into this semantic category as when Flaubert, speaking of a train as an “ostrich plume” of smoke. That’s a metaphor, but it doesn’t really compel me to think about it. It doesn’t tell me anything new. But if I tell you “making is finding” that is a discovery! That’s the kind of metaphor that I’m interested in. It’s creative. It brings something new.
I confess I’m less interested in what people might do with a metaphor than in really getting what it is and how it works.

RW:  Getting back to something you said earlier about text, that the problem is how to get back to the animating principle, let’s say, and not just lay another brick. Have you considered the oral tradition?

CB:  Yes. But the problem with the oral tradition is this. You don’t distance yourself from it. Distantiation is necessary. For example, if as the early Greeks did, you memorize your scripture, Homer. If I memorize Homer, I’m going to see everything through Homeric eyes.
What literacy does, and it doesn’t always happen, but if I’m distanced from the text, I can begin to look at it critically. Is it really true, or is it false? I can’t separate myself from myself if all I know is the sacred text.
You find this with fundamentalists for whom the Bible is a collection of proof texts. They never understand where this comes from, what is being said. They have no critical apparatus at all. They don’t stand back from it. That’s the problem with an oral tradition.

RW:  What do you think about Socrates?

CB:  I follow in his footsteps as if he were a God. I’m really taken with the guy. There’s something about that man. His cantankerousness, his integrity…He’s just of a different order, and again, the thing I hope I’ve been trying to convey, and I can’t always, is the effort to keep everything to a level of corrigibility, to that Socratic principle. Not dogmatism, you understand. Open.

RW:  Corrigibility you equate with openness?

CB:  If I say something is “corrigible,” I mean it’s doubtful in some sense. If I say it’s “incorrigible” I mean what? You can’t doubt it.
The point is that Socratic doubt is at the center of the Socratic “thing.” It’s not Socrates, it’s truth we’re honoring, right? It’s what Socrates was all about. That’s the important thing, and that’s what I mean. Keep things open, be careful of certainties.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to be precise and rigorous. That’s how we find out where our errors are. Logical analysis is essential.

RW:  I would guess that a central principle for wisdom, if you will, is that if I can’t verify it in my own experience then maybe I’m on shaky grounds.

CB:  Maybe on shaky grounds. I want to go live with it. I caution my students. I say, “look, I’m going to say things that are going to shake your faith.” I don’t really want to do that. It’s not my business. Do you follow? What I hope to do is to encourage you to think about it, examine it. Not as a hostile thing, the way Thomas Paine would do it in The Age of Reason or something.
How do you know that “in the name of God” you really are expressing something about God? That’s Tillich’s point, that faith requires doubt. How do I know, really? So you have to advance these things with fear and trembling, not with certainty. You know, I’m quite willing to die for something, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fool.

A Conversation with Tom Leddy: Is This A Garden? San Jose State University 11/21/99

At the time of our conversationTom Leddy was Acting Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State University where he specializes in the philosophy of art and aesthetics. A former member of the Board of Trustees of the American Society for Aesthetics, Leddy has published numerous articles in such publications as the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of AestheticsPhilosophy TodayJournal of Value and Inquiry, and the Journal of Aesthetic Education. His work on gardens is discussed in the article on gardens in The Enclyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (Oxford U. Press, 1999).

I spoke with Leddy at his office on campus…

Tom Leddy:  Arthur Danto argues that one necessary condition in order for something to be art is that it “be about something”_ that it allow for interpretation. Gardens which are art will have a certain emphasis on reflection, on the existence of wider implications and references to the human condition in a variety of ways.
The two books we were talking about (Ross, Miller) both deal with central philosophical questions in aesthetics as they go along. So the question of defining art, for example, is an important one in dealing with the question of gardens. As a matter of fact Ross and Miller have a debate with each other in defining what a garden is, but there are a number of other philosophical issues such as, “what is the ontological status of a work of art?” When Stephanie Ross talks about that, she says gardens, as works of art, have to be understood as having a certain metaphysical character—that they are not simply physical objects but are what she calls “virtual entities.” So immediately, when you get into that question, what is a virtual entity, you are getting into one of the most central questions in contemporary metaphysics. The question is really, what kinds of things are there in the world, and can we understand human artifacts, such as gardens, in the same way we understand plants.
Think about the following situation (which is actually imagined in Kant’s Critique of Pure Judgment). You are wandering through the woods and you run across a clearing, a little meadow, and you ask yourself, “Is this a garden, or is this a natural phenomenon?” It could be a garden. Let’s say the trees surrounding the meadow seem placed in a regular pattern. Perhaps it was a garden designed by American Indians two hundred years ago. We now know that they actually did a lot of shaping of the forest. On the other hand, it could be just a purely natural phenomenon.
Now clearly, as you look at it you may not be able to tell which it is. And yet, if you knew it was a human phenomenon you would look at it differently. You’d wonder what the meaning was. You’re not going to wonder what the meaning is if its a purely natural phenomenon unless you think perhaps God is communicating to you via symbols in nature.

Richard Whittaker:  I see this distinction you’re making and it touches on something I’ve been pondering. Let’s say, conceptually, you have a kind of spectrum with one end marking the existential- phenomenological and the other end marking the didactic. There could be a view of art which sees its role as something which delivers one into a special kind of experience having to do with being here in the world. On the other end, the didactic end, would be an art which was intended to instruct, persuade or advocate for some position. There are other spectrums, but if you accept this as a model for thinking about it, then, when one enters a garden, one will have some very basic human experiences in the presence of the plants, flowers, fragrance, birds and so on. One could say this is an ontological aspect of being in a garden. And one could even argue it connects with the roots our evolutionary development. Is there a way of looking at contemporary art which is interested in this end of the spectrum? Robert Irwin comes to mind, actually. I think a lot of the contemporary approaches to art tend to be located toward the didactic end of this spectrum.

TL:  I think that when you look at the earthworks and the environmental works that Ross and I have actually compared to the gardens of the 18th century—and both of us have argued that the garden tradition has in a certain sense continued in these forms—that when you look at these, one of the things characteristic of this tradition is what you referred to as the existential- phenomenological aspect of our experience of gardens as objects of aesthetic appreciation. What is not particularly characteristic of this tradition is any really profound emphasis on the political, social, or functional aspect of art with respect to art’s role in society. This debate you are referring to could even be taken all the way back to Plato versus Aristotle, because Plato believed that art must serve a practical social function and therefore he wanted the imitative artists, in particular the tragedians, the comedy writers and painters to be kept out of the ideal society because he felt that they would do more harm than good. Only people who would praise the Gods and tell the truth about philosophical matters in an artistic way would be allowed to pursue art in the ideal society. So Plato had a social-engineering ideal about the role of artists in an ideal society. Aristotle, on the other hand, defended tragedy and imitative art in general based on the idea that tragedy doesn’t have to directly serve social needs. It can simply be pleasurable because imitation is pleasurable to man and we learn from that.
But to go back to gardens, gardens actually can serve both of these functions–both the aesthetic and the political-social function. It can serve the social function insofar as it provides a context for certain kinds of political organization. But we’re not very much aware of that today and we don’t focus on it very much. This current environmental art movement doesn’t really focus on that in the sense of trying to shape society by shaping the kinds of garden environments within which we live. But you could say, for example, that the Zen gardens in Japan often are so closely connected with the meditative practice of the zen students that they, in fact, express a social function. And so too, the medieval garden expressed a social function insofar as it provided an imitation of paradise within the confines of the castle, the aristocratic quarters, or in the monestary in order to allow for contemplation that would help lead one to an appreciation of God.
So there are ways in which gardens have served social and political functions in the past. Well, going back to the ancient Greeks, Epicurus practiced philosophy in a garden. It’s believed that Aristotle probably did as well, insofar as he was called a peripatetic. He would walk back and forth in a garden with his students discussing philosophical matters. So gardens played a role in the construction and understanding of philosophy even in the time of Aristotle and Epicurus.

RW:  Michael Pollan in his book Second Nature points out that the garden is a mediating point between culture and nature. And he also suggests that one of the things needed for our time and culture today are new metaphors. The garden has been a metaphor for a long time and there’s nothing new about that, but today is the garden especially promising in its metaphorical potential?

TL:  Well, when you think about the famous saying that appears in Voltaire’s Candide at the end, after the main character, Candide, has gone through a large number of really horrifying episodes in his life—the moral of the story is “that one should tend one’s own garden.”
One thing that has always struck me about gardens as a possible metaphor for our own society—and this could apply with a relatively small garden which doesn’t try to refer to the sublime in any way—what is probably really needed today is a place of protection from the constant interventions of the outside world. I think that more and more today people need a place for some kind of communion with nature because nature is disappearing so rapidly around us. In a way the garden could provide a place for the re-creation of an idllyic notion of what’s possible for us to experience as people, who are in some small degree, in nature. So getting back to what you were saying earlier about the culture-nature relationship. In our rapidly growing technological society in a world in which overpopulation is combined with the fact that the United States and other industrialized countries are using environmental resources at an incredible rate, it is also becoming more and more difficult to actually have any contact with nature, and we gain a certain measure of satisfaction with works of art that connect us again with nature.
Now there is something unique about gardens as works of art insofar as some of the aesthetic qualities are not under the control of the artist. That’s just in the nature of gardens. One has to accept that from the beginning. I was sitting in my garden the other day and everything was just beautiful because of the golden light that was cast across the garden. That’s something the gardenist can’t really control. And that is something of the charm of a garden. Yet, at the same time, there’s more. The garden is a transformation of nature that has meaning-content, intentionality, and there’s a possibility of interpretation. To go a little further, it seems to me one of the things that characterizes gardens as works of art, is that there are expressive qualities. Gardens can express the emotions in some way, and are not simply things to interpret. They can also give us profoundly emotionally-charged aesthetic experiences, experiences similar to those we might have, for instance, when listening to a great symphony.

RW:  Ordinary gardeners without any knowledge of the artworld would naturally partake in gardens in this expressive sense— this very human tendency. That raises the question: How do you view art which doesn’t have any reference to the artworld?

TL:  That is a hard question to answer. First of all, as we are heading into the 21st century a very important aspect of the artworld consciousness is the incorporation of many of the outlying areas of the art experience. There are various means for this: through the Pop Art movement, through appropriation, and originally through collage—and also, in the last few years, through an emphasis on “outsider” art. Now, for example, if I were to write an article about gardens as art today, I would not simply talk about the important contributions of the 70’s and 80’s through the earthworks movement etc, but I would also talk about outsider art. One of the things I really enjoy here in San Jose is going to places where people have produced gardens in their front yards not intended as part of the official artworld, but just as expressions of their own personal views. These can be delightful and, of course, they can be works of art.
However, I would also still like to distinguish between two senses of art. One goes back to the ancient Greek word techne. In fact, the Greeks didn’t have any word for “art.” They just had this word, techne. It referred to any practice that required some skill. So oratory, shoemaking, and painting were all technes. They didn’t have a sense of fine art that was distinguished by a word, but they did have a concept of poesis. Basically this meant, “creative making.”
Eventually, I believe, they made a distinction between two kinds of techne, those that involved skillful making but were not creative, and those which were. That idea eventually was picked up in the 17th. century in Europe through the notion of the distinction between the fine arts and other art forms, for example, medicine and so forth. So when people say, “of course, gardening is an art” they might just be referring to it in the sense of a techne as a skilled craft.

RW:  Okay, here’s the gardener working in the form of a simple techne, a form which doesn’t bring in the question of man’s larger relationship to nature. Here’s a person working in the garden, quintessentially embodied in a relationship with the earth, soil, plants at, I suppose, a preconceptual level. Would that be different from something which called one to consider this relationship consciously, let’s say?

TL:  First, it’s important to think about experiences of gardening as covering a wide range and being interconnected. So gardening as art couldn’t really exist if there wasn’t a vast activity of everyday gardening.
If we did not have everyday experience we would not have the arts. The arts are increased in their meaning and significance by everyday experience, and to a large extent the arts concentrate and focus everyday aesthetic experience. The everyday aesthetic experience of the ordinary gardener is important. The existence of the more art-oriented gardens are there, to a large extent, simply to remind us of these things.
There is a constant dialectical relationship between the aesthetic experiences of everyday life and the aesthetic experiences of high art. Many people believe that if you give value to, or—as some post-modern critics like to say— “valorize” the high arts, that somehow that takes value away from everyday aesthetic experience. But it’s quite the opposite.

RW:  In your article responding to Mara Miller you gave a number of reasons why you thought the prospects for gardens becoming a medium for fine art were good. One of them has to do with the importance of environmental concerns. Would you say more about that?

TL:  Well, first I have an addendum to the previous question. There’s a very helpful work (and also a very controversial work) that relates to this by Martin Heidegger called The Origins of a Work of Art. And I’d like to note that although one has to be concerned about Heidegger’s relationship to Nazism, nevertheless, there is extremely valuable material in this essay, as in the rest of Heidegger’s work.
Heidegger talks not about a garden, but about a temple. He argues that as the Greeks created the temple, the temple changed the character of the surrounding landscape. It gave what surrounded it a new meaning. He talks about this in a symbolic way, about the gathering of the Gods and in terms about “the earth erupting into the world.” What this means, I think, is that as rain falls on the temple it is experienced differently because it’s contextualized within the possibility of this ontological emergence I was talking about earlier. That is, there are non-physical characteristics present which, I believe, reference what Kant referred to as “the transcendental.”

RW:  I’m not sure I followed what part was emerging. The temple is there, and now rain falls…

TL:  I’ll tell you what is emerging for Heidegger. He talks about “the earth emerging into the world.” By “the world” he means our culture, human culture. Specifically he was talking about Greek culture and German culture, and the relationship between the two. But let’s just think about the world as we experience it, imbued with meaning in terms of cultural context. With “the earth,” what he’s referring to, although it’s more complicated, are the materials of the temple out of which the temple is made, and also what surrounds the temple including the animals and humans. But what I am really interested in here is the idea that by building the temple, the rain is experienced differently. The stone of the temple has been transformed. Light is experienced differently as it comes through the temple. All these things are experienced differently in a specific way. They are now aesthetically charged. Certain important aesthetic qualities now emerge such as beauty and the experience of the sublime. For me, these qualities are closely related—you could say the sublime is beauty, supercharged.
Art, in Heidegger’s view, is when Being comes into unconcealment. It reveals itself. And I believe Heidegger equates “Being” with the creative potentiality of what it is to be a human. I agree with Heidegger that art, in its highest manifestation—and all fine art—tries to accomplish this, including the fine art of gardens.
And referring back to your talking about the everyday existential experience, one has to think about the relationship between that and so-called primitive society, what today we call “small scale traditional cultures.” There is a strong relationship in such cultures, a dialectical one actually, between everyday life and ritual life. These two are related to each other but also kept distinct. So special events— today we might call it “performance art”—occur when people are moving from one stage in life to the next, for instance.

RW:  Except that performance art is not part of a tradition in the way a rite of passage would be.

TL:  That’s true. But we’ve tried to recreate aspects of ritual in our own culture in ways that are significant and meaningful to us. Although many people would argue that the ritual dimension of experience has disappeared in our own culture, I would like to argue that it’s very much present, but fragmented. What we usually do when we try to deal with issues that require ritual, is we try to pull together fragments from the different aspects of our experience and try to create a possibility of a ritual-like space. What happens with gardens is that gardens, as fine art, can engage in that dialectic between the ritual-like space and the everydayness of ordinary experience, so that on the one hand the garden can be a place for contemplation and on the other hand it can be a place for getting your vegetables.

RW:  In all these traditional societies in which ritual is a crucial part of life, there are deities and powers greater than the self. There is a religious view of life. In our culture, although things may be changing, still we have scientific materialism as the leading authority in the Reality-describing realm—scientism. I find myself thinking, as your speak, there is something problematic here for the grounding of ritual. This may take us a little off-course.

TL:  It is fragmented in our culture, as I was just saying. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves about this issue, because when we fail to recognize the places where ritual still exists in ways that are often very individual, and still meaningful, we are missing something. For example a friend of mine, Kevin Melchione, recently wrote a paper on hobbies as being art-related in some ways. He talks about hobbyists who just follow the rules and ones who do more, who express themselves and try to find some meaning in that. In some instances, it becomes a meditative practice—take for example, weaving or quiltmaking. The processes involved in quiltmaking and weaving can be very meditative. So there is a kind of place for ritual even within this activity. There are other dimensions which people are well aware of and go toward because it plays a significant role in their lives. Many regret that we cannot go back to the period of our tribal ancestors. Well, we can’t. But if we allow that kind of nostalgia to keep us from finding our own path toward the possibilities for a Heideggarian opening up of Being, then we are going to lose out on a lot. I think that what we need to do is take what is possible for us and enhance it, rather than feel regret for what we’ve lost. There’s just no value in that.

RW:  Let me pose a general question. There’s a general tone and content of what you’re saying which evokes big issues, beauty, the sublime. It brings up, for me, the postmodern dismissal of universals, grand narratives, and so on. Many postmodern criticisms of modernism are pretty compelling. But has this been carried too far? I know it’s a big question.

TL:  It is, and so to try to answer relatively briefly: I’m sympathetic with certain aspects of postmoderism but mainly as a very large cautionary tale. Sure, there aren’t any stable grand narratives we can depend on in this postmodern era. Does that mean we have to abandon such concepts as nobility, genius, beauty, the sublime? Many postmodernists think that it does, and they’ve associated the words with modernism. There is a deep problem with that, and it is a problem of self- contradiction. When postmodernists say that you can’t give value to genius or you can’t give value to essences, for instance, because those are modernist concepts, they are engaging in the essentialism they reject. They are saying that modernism is essentially this, postmodernism essentially that. It is central to postmodernism that they must reject essentialism, and yet they are the worst essentialists around.
It’s characteristic of philosophers to question the dominant ideology of their times and I would question the essentialism of postmodernism. I would also challenge their questioning of these very concepts, genius, beauty, nobility and the sublime, which I believe are concepts ripe for renewal. Only recently, for instance, the concept of beauty has been much discussed in the art media for a variety of strange and not very clear reasons. But I think the main thing that is happening is that people are just very interested in talking about beauty again. I think that today, at the end of the 20th. century we need to start talking about how we can bring these old concepts back to life again. Take, for example, genius. To get back to your previous question in some small way, many feminists believe that genius is something that is besmirched because of its connection with males and their valorization, and the lack of concern for important female figures. But it seems to me that there’s no need to throw out the concept of genius as long as we’re willing to transform it, give it new significance. It seems to me we should allow ourselves the possibility of saying that a work by a great gardenist is a work of genius.

RW:  One of the things I find difficult in regard to postmodern thought is the insistence on a kind of horizontality. This is a reaction to many abuses based upon hierarchies of power. But almost anything that smacks of hierarchy has to be rejected. And that seems ridiculous. You wouldn’t eat food on that basis.

TL:  It’s the new dogma of our times. I think it’s interesting that so many of my students find Nietzsche inspiring in a different way than he was inspiring to people 30 or 40 years ago. Today he is saying to students, it is possible to transcend yourself, it’s possible to achieve something higher without necessarily buying into a religious worldview. So we don’t accept the grand narratives anymore, but Nietzsche rejects the notion that everybody should be the same and that mediocrity should rule in our society.

RW:  One could approach the idea without even needing to invoke the word, genius. One could perhaps use the word, “authentic.” Authenticity. I think postmodern irony is, in large part, referenced to the missing authentic— the lack of a real connection to oneself replaced entirely by style or whatever. Heidegger speaks to that with his “they people” and the “they world,” and speaks of the value for seeking to develop one’s own nascent possibilities over and against this “they world.”

TL:  Yes, but actually I would go further than the authentic self, because, as is sometimes stated, it may make people too closely tied to the idea of the isolated individual.
I think the concept of genius is associated with the notion of a spirit that inspires one and connects one to the larger world of spiritual concerns_and I’m not referring specifically to religious concerns, but to philosophy and art and any domain in which people try to transcend ordinary everyday experience to achieve something which is higher. This idea takes us beyond the mere individualism characteristic of aspects of existentialism which, I think, made it too limiting in some ways. Community is important, as is the spirit of the times and culture. And there’s Hegel’s idea that somehow the great artist can manifest the Absolute coming to its own self-understanding in history. This is something I think we need to reconnect with in some ways.
I think that we need to go through postmodernism to something else which draws on the recognition that postmodernism essentialized modernism, and in doing so, failed to recognize many of the most valuable aspects of modernism. Just as a sidelight, it’s amusing and fascinating that many of the heros of postmodernism were actually heros of modernism who were stolen by postmodernism—people like Joyce and Mallarm. Now it’s claimed, “Oh, those people weren’t really modernists. They were proto-postmodernists.” Well, we’ve gotten way beyond gardens. [Laughs] There are a number of really interesting postmodern gardens. Ross refers to Ian Hamilton Finley’s garden which incorporates aspects of postmodern thought into his garden. Alan Sonfist’s work, Time Landscape, which he did in New York in the 1970s, is an interesting example of an early postmodern garden in which he makes a conceptual statement by takinga plot of land and trying to reconstruct exactly what the land looked like at that spot in New York back in the 15th century. So there are going to be a lot of experiments with gardens before the garden can become a fine art form again in any full and rich sense. But there are still very interesting things going on with gardens.

RW:  It’s one thing to say that gardens will be constructed as self-consciously intended works of fine art and considered in that light. At the same time, while environmental concerns are increasingly crucial along with many other concerns of the moment, I wonder if there isn’t some way in which the garden can’t also serve as an important point of consideration for the ecology, if you will, of our inner world.

TL:  It’s a good symbol. There is a form of environmentalism that says basically, man is separate from nature and the main problem is that man is messing up nature and the solution is to separate man from nature. That’s an ideology which I cannot accept— that human beings are not natural. We are still animals who are doing our things. It may be unpleasant for other animals, it may cause extinctions, but we are still animals. Gardens do not speak to that, and will never make that kind of environmentalist happy. That kind of environmentalist would like to push all humans out of the wilderness area so that it regained its pristine state. We need those areas very much, but we can’t separate ourselves from nature. What gardens do is that they recognize our interactions with nature. There is a place where we can still be present in nature while expressing ourselves in nature.
What we have to recognize is that much of what is happening in this world today is harmful to us because it hurts our souls. It hurts human souls. I’m referring to the innermost significant aspects of ourselves. Our souls are harmed by the rampant and unthinking destruction of our environment, and the garden is there now as a way for us as individuals and as groups to heal ourselves.
We’re just going to have to live with what we’ve done to this world. And in many instances we can only respond to it on a small scale level. So, the postmodernists say there are no grand narratives, there are only small narratives. Well, gardens are small stories that we can tell ourselves that can make life more meaningful, and make possible a relationship with that aspect of ourselves which is nature.

Bridges To Cross: A Conversation with Michael Grbich, Oakland, CA Sept. 10 09

 I first met Mike over thirty years ago and found him personable, upbeat and engaging in a way that was not intrusive. And since he was a neighbor, this was especially nice. One day I was walking out of the house with a tennis racket and ran into Michael. “You play tennis?” he asked me with obvious relish. Then and there I learned about his love for the game. He had been a serious player, but a severe injury put an end to any hopes of a professional career. He showed me his disfigured right hand explaining what had happened. “Even though I had to give up my ambitions in tennis, I discovered I could still play and I’m out on the court as often as I can manage it.” He had lost none of the joy of the game. 
     I had the pleasure of getting to know his two sons and his daughter, all lovely kids, and his wife, Diane, whom I remember fondly. Back then Michael was still teaching art at Miramonte High School in Orinda. A few years later his wife died suddenly, a tragedy. And a year after that, in the Oakland Hills fire, Mike’s home burned to the ground, almost too much to contemplate. 

By then, I had moved a few miles away and had lost touch with my former neighbor. But I ran into him about a year after the fire and remember being moved by the way spoke about it. He’d learned from his suffering. He had learned a great deal. 
     What is it that allows a person to pass through tragedy and come out on the other side with more, not less? It wasn’t until after our interview that I learned that Michael’s mother had died from complications from his birth. Then, a year later, his father committed suicide and he was orphaned. Over the years he was raised was by four different people, all elderly, each of whom cared for him lovingly. “And so I have a special feeling for the elderly,” he explained. He last custodian was his mother’s sister. “She was like mother Teresa,” he told me. 
     “Do you know what a trust fall is?” he asked. It’s when you fall backward with someone standing behind. To really do it, you actually fall backward and trust that you will be caught. He told me that one day teachers were given an exercise  of forming an inner circle and an outer circle. All in the inner circle were invited to fall backwards trusting that they would be caught by a person standing behind them. Only three people could do it. Michael was one of them. 
      I still have the pleasure of crossing paths with Michael in a little business district nearby. He’s usually wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He will have been on the tennis court or heading there. Or perhaps he will have been practicing tap dancing, something he took up maybe ten years ago-or practicing walking on a tight wire. Michael is always good for a surprise, or a friendly challenge to anyone who might be feeling stuck. There are always one or two or three people sitting with him in animated conversation on the benches outside a coffee shop. He’s good medicine. And Grbich is an artist, too, a painter. A couple of years ago his work was included in a group show of the work of older artists at the opening of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco. 
     Michael Grbich has some important things to say and he’s dedicated to spreading his message to a wider audience. We met at his rebuilt home in the Oakland Hills on a bright warm day near the end of summer. 

Richard Whittaker:  First thing I see when I walk into your house is your tight wire set up here in the living room. You’ve really made this part of your life, and I wonder if you’d say something about that?

Michael Grbich:  I’ll try to be brief. I saw a program called “Art in the 21st Century” and one of the artists featured was Janine Antoni. She was walking on the same structure you see here and she said, “This is not so much about maintaining your balance, it’s about feeling comfortable falling and being out of balance.” All kinds of bells and whistles went off when I heard that. I said, “Oh, my god! I’ve got to learn walking on a tight wire.” It’s the last thing I thought I’d ever do. So I did a lot of research and looked for instruction in the Bay Area. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I found someone at the trapeze center in Oakland.

RW:  When was this?

MG:  This was about six years ago. The person I talked with told me they didn’t have group lessons, but they could give me private lessons. So I had about a half dozen. Then I made myself a crude wooden structure to walk on before I got this one. Little by little I started to get better. Then I contacted Janine. I just called her. A person walking a tight wire is referred to as a “funambulist.” I love that term.
So I learned where she got her wire and there was the whole drama of getting it over here and so on. Then I tried to find other people who were doing this. There aren’t many people walking tight wires, especially in their own homes. But one thing led to another and I finally caught up with Phillippe Petit, the man who walked across between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

RW:  Wait a minute. One thing led to another and you caught up with Phillippe Petit? That’s a big jump. Now how did that happen?

MG:  I’d heard about him and when I’d go to New York, I’d call. His number was available. One of the times, he answered. I said, “Phillippe, you sound the same as you did thirty years ago!” I said, “I’d give anything to have a lesson with you.” And I told him a little about myself. He told me he didn’t give many lessons, but he gave me his private number. It took about a year filling out waivers and forms and promising not to sue him, and then I got this four-hour training session from Phillippe. It was one of the turning points in my life.

RW:  That is amazing.

MG:  I went into this thinking it’d be a neat physical thing to do and have since learned that’s not so important. What’s important is living in the moment and not being impetuous, and just slowing down a little bit. So it influences everything I do-my dancing, my tennis, my running, everything-because we’re all kind of walking a tight wire. We’ll all trying to maintain our balance, our diet, our lives and so on. It’s something  I hope to continue to do until I pass on.

RW:  Could you say something more about how it’s made you slow down?

MG:  When you get on the wire, there’s a tendency to want to get to the other side. That’s symptomatic of a lot of what’s going on right now in the world. People are rushing around, chasing their own tails, and I realized you can enjoy life much more if you go through it slowly and look around, smell the roses and so on. It’s a matter of lowering my heart rate and being more patient with myself. Walking on the tight wire is a very difficult thing to do and you make a lot of mistakes early on. So the discipline of doing it carries on to everything else.

RW:  So a big part of what slows you down must be that when you’re on that wire, you have to have your attention totally focused on what you’re doing.

MG:  That’s correct. What you do is look at something out there. That becomes your visual mantra. You look at that and forget everything else you’re doing. You’re just looking at it, looking at it, looking at it, until you get across. You do the same thing in the opposite direction.  You try to block out everything else.

RW:  So if you clear your mind, the intelligence of the body takes over? Something like that?

MG:  It does. There’s something called physical memory. After a while it gets a little bit like walking. When you get very good, which is a long way away, you probably reach a stage where you’re not conscious of what you’re doing.

RW:  But you must be very conscious when you’re on that wire.

MG:  Oh yes!  Even though it’s not very high, you can hurt yourself, a twisting fall. I don’t want to say there’s a danger, but it is hazardous to walk on the wire, even at two feet high. I talked with Phillippe and said, I know when you get on the platform you can’t be in too much of a hurry, but you can’t be hesitant. He said, as long as you have one foot on the platform and one foot on the wire, you’re not doing anything. You have to put the other foot out there. Then you’re really on the wire.
That’s the metaphor of life. That’s why I tap dance across bridges. You’ve got to take the risks. You’ve got to face your fears unhesitatingly. Then you’re truly alive and evolving. I believe that. So that’s what it’s about, facing your fears and not holding back. If you’re going to err, it’s better to walk a little faster rather than a little slower. You remember when you were first learning how to ride a bicycle? You went real slow. You remember how hard that was? But when you picked up a little speed, you got your balance.

RW:  That’s true. Now you mentioned tap dancing across the bridge. That’s something I wanted to hear more about. Would you describe that? It was the Golden Gate Bridge, right?

MG:  The Golden Gate Bridge. I did that to celebrate my 75th birthday.

RW:  And that’s what-a couple of miles across?

MG:  Two miles, yes. Actually 1.9 miles. It had been done before by a woman who was twenty-five. So I’m not the first, but perhaps the oldest. Not too many people are doing that.

RW:  Well, yes. It’s kind of a wild thing. What gave you the idea in the first place?

MG:  First, it was a celebration of life. I have a reverence for life. One of the things I do when I cross bridges is talk to people about, again, facing fears, taking risks and saying yes to life. The bridge was just a stage just to get people’s attention.

RW:  Do you remember when the idea first occurred to you?

MG:  As I was nearing my 75th birthday I was wondering what can I do to celebrate this? I heard about this woman who did it, and I thought, this is what I’ll do! So I pursued getting a permit. That was a very complicated process. You wouldn’t think you’d have to have a permit to dance across the Golden Gate Bridge. But stop to think about it. You can’t have people doing demonstrations and all the people on bicycles and walking and so I accepted that. But there was a lot of bureaucracy involved, an insurance policy, a permit, all to tap dance for twenty-two minutes. [laughs] But that didn’t prevent me from doing it.
But with the Brooklyn Bridge, though, I said, forget about the permits. I’m just doing it. If I get arrested, I’ll just get a lot more publicity.

RW:  The Brooklyn Bridge?

MG:  I did that, too. I did that last year.  I consider myself a harbinger of messages about fitness and health and spiritual well-being. An important thing about saying yes to life is that yes can be an empowering word. It can open doors and opportunities. Sure, sometimes you have to have the sense to say no. But more often than not, if you engage in life, a lot of good things can happen to you.

RW:  Tell me some of the most memorable things from the experience of doing that tap dance across the Golden Gate Bridge.

MG:  Wow! The finish was really great. A lot of my friends followed me. It was a foggy day, a perfect situation! Perfect setting. My friends were cheering me on. One was carrying a boom box. People on the bridge were high-fiving me. I felt like I was on a stage. I was doing pirouettes and everything. It went by so fast. When I finished, a Chronicle reporter interviewed me and, at the end, she said, “Michael, would you consider marrying me?” [laughs] I said, “Of course!”
So many things in life are short-lived. There was all this preparation and it was all over, poof, just like that. But the memory lingers on, Richard. [big smile]

RW:  So tell me about the Brooklyn Bridge.

MG:  Another famous bridge. I tried to get a permit there and they just outright turned me down. This is funny. One of the reasons they gave was because they thought I might jeopardize the bridge [laughs]. Jeopardize the bridge? I really tried to get a permit. I pleaded with them. I said, I have a bridge behind me already. I’m in good shape. Look at my video. But they were reluctant to take a risk with me [laughs]. So that day-oh, I’m so proud, but I’m more proud of what led up to it than the tap dancing across the bridge, because the forecast for that week was rain every day-every day, more and more. I thought, “Ohhhh, man. Maybe I can do it in the rain with an umbrella like Gene Kelly did [laughs], but it’d be nice if I didn’t have to use an umbrella. Finally I said, am I going to go, or not? Do I cancel my hotel and my flight? And then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re the guy who’s talking about taking risks! You’ve got to do it. Just go!
So I’m in the hotel room. I’m nervous. It’s the night before. I look out the window.  It’s dark. I can’t tell if it’s raining or not. Then I see a full moon! Ahhh, it’s not raining! It was a beautiful day, totally out of the blue! It rained the day before and the day after! That day, God shined down on me! It was perfect! We started early in the morning because we wanted to avoid the crowd, but all the people in New York had been cooped up because of the rain and it looked like they were all on the bridge. So it took quite a while to get across. There’s a bicycle lane, a running lane, a skateboard lane and I was dodging people back and forth and going backwards. New Yorkers were high-fiving me and taking movies. You know, New York is lively. They couldn’t let that pass them by. So that took a long time, but it was a lot of fun.

RW:  So you got all the way across.

MG:  Yes. That’s only a little over a mile. Not to make a big thing about the physicality of it. If I did the shuffle off to Buffalo, I could go across the entire Bay Bridge. It’s not that big a deal. Well, it might be for some seventy-five year olds. It’s about the message. That’s what it’s about.
So those memories will linger in my mind for a long time, both of those bridges. I’m looking for other bridges now. But at this point, I’m looking for some sponsorship. I’d really like to hook up with Kaiser Permanente because of their thrive and wellness program.
But basically, Richard, this right here is a bridge to cross, this tight wire. That never occurred to me before. There are bridges to cross, bridges to burn, bridges to build, bridges over troubled waters, bridges to nowhere-our whole life is based on kinds of bridges isn’t it? [laughs]

RW:  That’s right.

MG:  I’m enjoying this part of my life, believe me! This is my third childhood and each one gets better! [laughs]

RW:  Well, I can see that. I see you down in Montclair. You’re a person who loves people and loves to relate. And you’re always encouraging people and being an example, too. But I wanted to ask you about some of your earlier life. I know you taught art in Orinda, right?

MG:  That’s where I did most of my teaching at Miramonte High School. I taught there twenty-five years.

RW:   Could you tell us something about that? What do you remember the most?

MG:  About the children?

RW:   Sure.

MG:  It was all about them. They could have learned art from a text-book.

RW:  This was a rewarding experience, I take it.

MG:  You’re not kidding it was rewarding! I gave up twelve years of working at PG & E, a high paying job with perks. I was working with IBM machines. But I asked myself, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? I had the G.I. bill from the Korean War and so I decided to take some classes. Some of my friends thought I was crazy. But I had no ambition of continuing at PG & E and a friend said, well take some art classes. So I started doing that. Eventually I had to declare a major. I told the counselor, put down “art teacher.”  [laughs] I never wanted to be anything!
Then comes decision day. Here I was full-time for six years working at PG & E. All of the sudden I’m wondering, am I making the right decision here? Leaving this job? Taking a big cut in pay? I hear teachers don’t get much pay, much respect.
Looking back, to answer your question, I never, ever wished I was back in the office. I made the right decision. I probably taught over eight thousand students over the years. The syllabus that I would describe to the parents who would come in-I’d say, this class is all about your child. This is a partnership. If you put the same amount of effort I put into it, just think what we can do together. Incidentally, I wasn’t a tap dancer then. If I had been, I’d have been standing on top of my desk tap dancing when the students came into the room. [laughs] I’d have no problem doing that! [laughing more]

RW:  What were some of the creative things you did with your students?

MG:  Well, first of all, I was known as a pretty easy grader, so I had a lot of kids signing  up for my class. [laughs] It wasn’t because of my good looks or anything. I also had a lot of girls in my class. So the guys heard about that. Hey, we’ve got to sign up for art! And the word got around that I was pretty liberal. I tried not to speak down to my students. I respected them. I asked them to call me by first name. I tried to eliminate most of the power issues that come with being the teacher. It was an honor and a privilege to be with young people-an honor and privilege-because they are the spirit of life.
So it’s all about kids. And Leo Buscaglia, the guy who taught Love 1A at USC, he said in one of his speeches that the main responsibility of each teacher was to draw the “you” of you out of each person. Now that’s a daunting task.

RW:   Any particular stories that stand out?

MG:  Oh, my God! Let’s start with ones where I got in trouble as a teacher! As a student, I was too chicken to cut class or do anything zany. I never got a bad behavior report, but as a teacher, I was called into the principal’s office all the time. For instance, the music in my classroom was too loud. Some of the lyrics were objectionable. The sinks sometimes were dirty at the end of the year. I got called in because I had sideburns! The principal said, “I notice you have sideburns.” I said, “Yes.” [laughs] But he never told me I couldn’t wear sideburns. Oh, I got called in for numerous things! And I never really was upset by any of those things. If they had said they didn’t think I was doing a good job of teaching, then that would have been different. We’d have to talk about that. I thought I was a good teacher.
Oh, we did little pranks on people. The teacher next door had little pads that said, “call this number.” So we staged this between my class and his. I said, “Bob, you’ve got a message. You better go to the office and check this call, right away. It’s important! I’ll take your class. No problem.” So he goes to the office. It was the only place with a phone. He gets a busy signal. Finally he gets through to the number where a voice says [very seductively] “Hi there. I’m just sitting here naked waiting for you.” He comes back, “GRBICH!!” [laughs] And all the kids are laughing.
So why do that? Because school is a hundred and eighty days. It’s kind of like a prison thing, a little bit like doing time. So doing little zany things, like clearing all the tables out of the room and all having a dance party, having a barbeque outside and having fun were things that made it a little more real. Sometimes you have to do something to lift your spirits a little bit. Now Miramonte is a wonderful school. It wasn’t like I had to worry about my safety or anything. But still, it’s a long time, six periods a day, a hundred and eighty days. Lighten up a little bit.
No, the stories go on and on. Field trips! Going to Monterey Bay and meeting all kinds of people down there, having the free reign of the town, doing drawings and paintings. The field trips were some of the highlights of my teaching career. Big Sur. Up in Mendocino. I look back and there are so many wonderful memories. And, talking about my students-many are almost sixty years old now!

RW:  Do you remember the story of any one student that stands out? Maybe someone who was real shy?

MG:  That’s interesting, Richard. I always worked hard to try to get through to the people who were shy or a little diffident or kind of distrustful of me. What do I have to do to connect with these kids? Maybe I didn’t always succeed, but I tried. I’d look for things. Maybe a kid had an “A’s” cap on. I’d strike up a conversation about the “A’s”-just to make an inroad, to get to know them a little. And I liked that challenge. With the other kids, you didn’t have to do that. So whenever I could take a kid-especially when they said, “I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Why did you sign up for this class?”
They say, “Well, but I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Okay. Would you sign up for typing if you could type? That’s why you’re here!” I’d say, you can draw a bath can’t you? You can draw the blinds, can’t you? You can draw conclusions, can’t you? Pretty soon, I’d get them laughing and it took some of the seriousness out of this thing.
I said, “If you’ll suspend your disbelief and do the things I ask you to do, by the end of the year, I guarantee you’ll see some progress. Just trust me.” And I’d add, “You know, something worth doing is worth doing badly.” [laughs] “You don’t have to be great at everything.” But I also told them it was good to work hard at doing something and to try to excel.

RW:  Now Michael, I know you’ve had some hard times in your life, some suffering and some real set-backs. I happen to know, since we used to be neighbors. For one thing, I know that for years you were gathering building materials for a dream home. How many years did you do that?

MG:  It must have been ten or fifteen years. Garage sales, estate sales.

RW:  Ten or fifteen years. You’d find wonderful little architectural things and find a special deal on some great old lumber. And you had this lot in the hills you’d bought many years before. Then the time came and you built that dream house. You built this pretty much by yourself, with some helpers, right?

MG:  I had someone for six months. I did hire someone to do the foundation. And after Bruce left, I was pretty much on my own. That’s another thing, I had a childhood ambition to build my own house, and I just kind of fell into it. When I was a little kid I was always building forts and making tree houses. That’s something I remember. So that much must be in my genes, to have shelter-maybe because we were so poor.

RW:  You built the house with love and care and a lot of hard work, and it then it was one of the houses that burned in the Oakland Hills fire.

MG:  That’s right. But first of all, as you said, it was one of them. I’m always quick to say that there were 3000 that burned. I was not the only one. Some people lost their lives and their loved ones. We didn’t lose any loved ones or any pets. My wife had passed away a year before that, Diane. So this didn’t compare with losing a loved one. We all know that life is more important than stuff. I hope we do! But still, when you’re put to the test-your house is just a pile of ashes, a bunch of rubble-that gets your attention.

RW:  Let me back up, because I didn’t quite remember the timing. But your wife died a year earlier. She died tragically at the age of 50. Then, a year later, your house burns down.

MG:  Yes. [quietly] Well why not my house? I’m not above anything. See, the thing is, Richard, we all have issues to deal with after what age, twenty or thirty? What distinguishes us, whether you’re Donald Trump or a hobo, is how we deal with it. That’s what distinguishes you. I’ve always felt that you have to have the right altitude. Not attitude. Altitude. If you’re above the clouds, how come it’s always sunny up there? If you want to wallow in self-pity and blame the fire department, the insurance company, it’s going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to move on and say, how grateful I am: my children are okay; I had insurance for the house.
Life is a crucible, one test after another. It tests your true grit, your beliefs and your philosophy. And God help the person who doesn’t have any beliefs! How do you get through life without any beliefs? You have to have something to hold onto. And it’s a constant struggle! Every day is a struggle. I don’t care who you are! There are things to deal with, impediments. Some are big and some are large. You have to deal with the IRS. Okay, I lost my house. Oh, I’m getting audited by the IRS? Well, that’s not so bad. It’s all relative. And it hones your steel. It has to be honed. Otherwise it can’t cut anything. So as we go through these experiences that are difficult it makes you stronger. I hate to quote Neitzsche, but that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There’s a certain amount of truth in that.
So a lot of times I get people saying “you seem really upbeat, you’re not very angry” and I say, of course not, because I’ve been through all kinds of things! It doesn’t take much to make me happy-just by being grateful.

RW:   You went to India. Was that an important trip?

MG:  Yes. I went for a year and a half after Diane died. I tagged along with a woman I was dating who was studying dance. That’s where I was when I learned about losing my house in the fire. That was a tough phone call. But, again, when I talked with my son, Eric, and he told me they were all okay, I said, it’s okay. We’ll come together. We’ll get through this. It was another big test. There’s no end to these tests. Death is stalking all of us. We’re so vulnerable. All the more reason to put yourself on the wire and take the next step, right? [laughs]

RW:  Yes. Now you said you have some beliefs. Would you share some of those?

MG:  First of all, I believe it’s an incredible miracle that you and I are here. Just think of the odds. Billions of sperm bouncing around looking for one egg. One cell. That is so miraculous! So whether you bring in a God or a Source, to me, it’s more and more profound. I believe in the miracle of life. I’m not a religious person. I like to consider myself a spiritual person. But that absolutely blows me away. You can’t explain everything away from the Big Bang. Come on! At least I can’t. So it’s about having reverance for life.
In spite of everything, life is beautiful. In Anne Frank’s diary she wrote, in spite of everything in the world people are still basically good at heart. Thast’s what I believe. And I do believe in God. In fact, I thank him every night. Thanks, God. [laughs] You’re one heck of an artist! Oh man! This is really something! And sweet. [laughs]
There is so much to be grateful for. And gratitude creates happiness. Most of the people I see every day have a lot to be happy about. It’s about wanting what you have. Look at all this. [gestures around room] Nice furniture, nice views. It’s lovely, yes, and I enjoy it. But I like to think I’m more than my furniture and my rugs and stuff, right? In the bigger scheme of things, it’s all going to end up dust, anyway.

RW:  Yes. Now I wanted to ask something about being a painter. I know you get a lot of joy from your artwork.

MG:  Yes.

RW:  Do you want to say anything about that?

MG:  It’s about the process. It’s absolutely about the process. You saw my sign outside? It says, “Enjoy the process.” The road to Rome is Rome. Any sales you make, any successes you have are very short-lived. You can only go on bragging about going across the Golden Gate bridge so many times. People get tired of hearing about that after awhile. It’s all very short-lived. It’s nice to sell, because I do have expenses. That’s my main motivation.  Obviously. Look at how many paintings I have around here. [laughs]
The process is what you remember, the doing of the art. It’s the doing of the dance. It’s the doing of the singing. All the other things are ethereal and they’re gone. But the memories are going to go on.
Now you’re an artist, too, Richard, and a painter and writer. You’ve done things. When you’re in that moment, the zone a lot of people call it, and you loose your self-consciousness, what a beautiful moment that is! And there are a lot of things where you’re at one with what you’re doing. It happens a lot of the time when you paint-except when you’re struggling! But when things are going well, oh, how lucky I am to be an artist! Ahhhhh…[leans back smiling]

As I turned the tape recorder off, Michael added that he often didn’t like saying he was an artist because “multitudes live in us.” He didn’t like falling into the reductive way we label ourselves. We got up and took a tour through the house looking at his paintings and later sat down to watch a couple of videos of his tap dancing tours across the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn bridges. Before leaving, he asked if I knew of the photographer Ruth Bernhard. Of course! He handed me a piece of paper on which he’d written the following quote from Bernhard: “If you can’t see what is not visible, you can’t see anything.”

Interview: Jacob Needleman: Art & Philosophy, Oakland, CA 11/21/00

I visited Jacob Needleman at his home. We sat out on his deck in the sun and talked…

Richard Whittaker:  Not too long ago I heard Lobsang Rapgay, a psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist from Los Angeles speak. One thing he talked about was “a tremendous fatigue of thinking that prevents us from thinking aesthetically.” He said this way of thinking makes it possible “to transform a numinous experience and share it”… To be shared, he said, “it has to be transformed in a way that someone else can understand and learn from.” He said further, “What I find most painful, even within spiritual communities, is an inability to translate a numinous experience…” This caught my attention, and it struck me that Rapgay chooses the word aesthetic as the necessary form of transformation. I wonder if you might have some thoughts about that?

Jacob Needleman:  [long pause] I think there may be many things to clarify before we can approach this. The question has many roots. One root is that we really don’t know what we’re communicating most of the time. If I try to communicate to you just in words, even aesthetically—however you want to put it—I don’t really know what I am communicating. I don’t know on the very simplest levels. You can say something to somebody and then you hear that person speak about what you said and you realize that, just on the level of simple declarative sentences, they haven’t heard you, and far less in regard to very subtle or inner experiences. So one of the biggest roots of this big issue is the awareness that we don’t know what it is that we are communicating. Of course-as the “communicatee,” if you like-I don’t know when I am taking in what the other person has said or instead, how much I am imposing my own associations.
So, in a way it is a very profound thing he is saying, but it covers over a lot of other things that have to be unpacked before we can really dig into it. From one point of view it sounds like a great re-expression of the meaning of art, and probably, it is.
What does he mean by a “numinous experience”? In Plato’s Republic there is the famous Allegory of The Cave. Socrates says that the person who finally comes out of the cave and sees the Truth—the reality of the sun—is obliged to go back down into the cave and try to help the cave dwellers. He is obliged. That doesn’t mean it’s nice to do that, it means it’s part of the law. You don’t keep it for yourself, you must share it. Then that touches on the question of skillful means, which is another root of this question—a big root out there, having to do with the transmission from one person more attained to one less attained. This is matter of communicating in a way that actually helps you feel something, touch something, glimpse something in your heart and your intuition. It troubles you in a right way, intentionally. So skillful means. I’m just trying to expose the roots of this question.

RW:  Yes. This is helpful.

JN:  The Buddha goes to help people who are suffering in hell, and in order to communicate to those who are living in hell, he has to speak in the form of a lie. He speaks the truth in the form of a lie because they would never understand the truth as it is. A famous example of that is called “the lie of kama” which is love—”The Kamatic lie” which is how you communicate the truth. People are asleep. People are deluded. If you tell them really straight out what the situation is… He likens it to a house being on fire where there are children in the house on the second or third floor. You’ve got to get them out but they don’t know the house is burning. You might try to scare them, you could try to plead with them, but they might not listen to you. You have to say something that will really make them listen. You tell them there are toys in the street. Jump! They would be afraid to jump, that you might not catch them. There are many toys down here! And so they jump and you catch them. They see then that there are no toys, but their lives have been saved. So you have to communicate knowing the levers that you have to press. Skillful means could be called, aesthetic communication. That could be part of the roots of this whole big question. Do you know Kierkegaard’s thought at all?

RW:  A little.

JN:  He was a great thinker, nineteenth century. He says all communication directly between man and man is an unnatural form of communication. That is, important things have to be communicated indirectly. By that he means if you tell somebody something, “you’re asleep” or something like that, they just take it in as if you’re imposing a view on them, they believe it or not, it’s of no use to them. But if you speak of it in such a way that can lead them toward it for themselves, then you have really been compassionate and human in your communication. Socrates was a great hero for Kierkegaard. He never spoke directly. He always led people to the point where they could discover the truth for themselves. Is that aesthetic? it’s an aspect of this question. There are many other roots to this question. So I’ve taken just two of them.

RW:  Yes. That expands the question a great deal.

JN:  Maybe you’re talking about what we ordinarily call art.

RW:  I was attracted to his formulation. I hadn’t gone very far with the thought which you’ve now opened up. I’m struck by what you said at the beginning, that I don’t really know my own experience. Ordinarily I don’t ask myself this question. Ordinarily I have an experience and the next step is finding a way to express it, I suppose. I don’t think such a question gets asked much, “do I really understand what I am feeling or seeing?”

JN:  Let’s go into that a little bit, but that isn’t what I said. I said, we don’t know what we’re communicating, but it is another root of the question.

RW:  A demonstration right there! [laughs]

JN:  That’s a very interesting point, too—that we don’t know our experience. In art—with people like us, ordinary people—I think each artist has a different story to tell. We know there is this idea of great art where there is an intentional communication, where the artist knows what he wants to transmit and he knows how to do it, but that’s not most of us. We’re nowhere near anything like that. I think most artists would say they’re not much like Mozart was said to be or how Michaelangelo was said to be. I’m not like that.
For me, and probably for a lot of other people, there is an interaction that starts right from the beginning between the material and the form the creation is taking. That starts from the very beginning informing me of what I want to say. There is an interaction. I discover my experience as much as I communicate. I learn what it is. Sometimes it may be enhanced or it may be deflected. I may be slightly off. It may turn out to be something else than what I intended. All that is going on. Sometimes there is an out-and-out deflection.
So you know, in order to be sure to hit the target, just shoot first and whatever you hit, call it the target. [laughs] A lot of what we call art is like that. That’s not bad. Sometimes in that process things are evoked inside myself—ahhh! that’s what the character wants to say! And often, afterwards, the artist will lie to himself and say, here’s what I wanted to say. But, in fact I don’t remember what I wanted to say, exactly. It was kind of a vague feeling and this is what came out. In life it’s like that.

RW:  Yes. Just yesterday my wife and I were walking our dog. He has a strange habit sometimes of sticking his head in a bush and just standing there. I bent down to look because I wanted to see if I could get some clue about what was going on. Afterwards my wife asked me what I thought. I said I didn’t have a clue. But as we continued walking, suddenly I remembered that I actually had gotten an impression and, in only moments, had forgotten it. This subtle level became revealed, sort of by accident.

JN:  It is one of many, many things that can be given to you while you’re working on art. I talked about discovering, or inventing, or changing as you work. But there is also an aspect of a gift. A fine impression, for example, can return just at a moment when you’re writing or painting. Suddenly it appears and serves just at that point. It’s there for you to act on in some way. I think there’s a lot of gift, of the given, that can take place. You can’t say you knew that was going to happen.

RW:  Not at all. It’s obvious that you speak as one with first-hand experience, I wanted to ask you about the creative process.
When I was 14 or 15 someone I knew committed suicide. It was a tremendous shock to me, That night I sat at my little desk and, for some reason, was moved to try and write about these feelings which were chaotically surging around very painfully inside. As I was struggling to write, something happened about which I suddenly could say with great clarity, I want to be a writer. It had to do with some sort of transformative experience. Something happened that was very compelling. What do you make of that?

JN:  The creative experience. Sometimes what happens when you read or experience a work of art when you’re younger-you’re so touched you say, I want to do that. I want to participate in that. You read a great novel. It touches me so much I want to be a writer. Or you hear music. I want to play. Then there is this experience you are describing. Yes, I think a connection is made between parts of ourselves that is not usually there. I don’t know which parts exactly. Sometimes when you’re putting something into words you feel that your head has become connected to your feeling or to something in your instinctive part that knows something. Usually these parts are separate. Usually your head is going along it’s way and when it wants to say something, it just goes back to other words, other associations. But sometimes when you write-I’m not sure about this-but sometimes there is a connection made between the head and the feeling. That’s a very precious thing. The gift of language, the capacity of language, is that it is supposed to be able to connect to any part of the human organism. It all can feed into the power of speech or expression.

RW:  That’s its potential?

JN:  Yes. It has access to all the parts. So what is this joy that appears when we make the kind of connection? Or when you wrote about the suicide. How do you understand that? It’s a question for both of us just sitting here. What was the experience like?

RW:  Somehow it was very transformative of this horrible state I was in. There was some sort of ordering, I’d say. It was so new—of a different order from the way my life usually was. And since then I’ve had many, many experiences of something happening via the creative process. The ways that I’ve talked about it—and I’m not sure how accurate what I have to say is—the kinds of things I find myself saying is that something happens that brings about a greater sense of connectedness, less fragmentation. There’s an energy…

JN:  It’s interesting to me because when I try to speak about this sort of thing, I feel I really don’t know what I’m talking about.

RW:  Yes. [laughs} I truly feel that. It’s true.

JN:  I’m floundering. At sea. And yet the phenomenology of it is, the honest part of it is, that I feel so alive, so full of life. Explanations may be very brilliant, we could call it “catharsis.” We can call it anything we want. (Catharsis is an interesting term, by the way. It doesn’t mean what people think it means) But I feel life. I feel connected to another kind of life, and I don’t know what it is.

RW:  I like very much the way you put that. Your reference to catharsis makes me want to ask you about your own background. I know you’ve studied quite a number of different things. You’re a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State and have been for some time.

JN:  Many centuries.[laughs]

RW:  But before that you also had done a good bit of study in the field of psychology, I believe. I wonder if you’d talk a little about that earlier time.

JN:  It was medicine. A lot of it was in science and medicine. You read my book A Sense of the Cosmos?

RW:  Yes.

JN:  But you didn’t read the book on medicine? I wrote about some experiences I had there. I was in graduate school. I was supposed to get a job as a professor, a beginning instructor, at Yale and for one reason or another, that fell through and I was without a job. I had written a doctoral dissertation on Existentialism, on a philosopher who was very popular right after the second world war.
Everybody has heard of existentialism. Nobody really knows what it is. Anyhow I’d written my dissertation on an existential philosopher and psychiatrist named Ludwig Binswanger who was trying to apply the principles of the world famous philosopher Martin Heidegger to psychiatry. I got very interested in what was called phenomenological psychiatry which was trying to break out of the overly scientific, analytic, reductionist mode of the Freudians and behaviorists. You take experience seriously and respectfully. So I wrote that dissertation and had given a talk at a VA hospital, to the staff about the application of philosophy to psychiatry. When I finished my lecture, the head of the psychiatry service joked that why didn’t I just come and treat some patients for them? Well, I was out of a job and I went over to him and said, “I know you’re just joking, but do you think there’s anything..? He said, “Sure.” [laughs]
There was lots of government money floating around so they hired me as a clinical psychologist trainee. There was a very good salary and they gave me a big, ugly green office.
I expected I’d be sitting there seeing patients. They were all VA patients, all in really bad shape. No reason to get well. No family. Schizophrenics, most of them. I thought I’d just see them, take down their perceptions and construct what we called their “phenomenological world view” and present and report to the staff. It was more or less what I’d done my doctoral work on. So at one point the head of the service who had hired me came in and said, “why don’t you treat some patients?”
I said, “I haven’t been trained to do that.”
He said, “That’s all right. We’ll supervise you. You’ve read more than anybody else here. Why don’t you try it?”
“But I’ve never done that before. I’m afraid I’d hurt them.”
He said, “If you could hurt them, you could help them. Nobody here either hurts them or helps them. They’re beyond that.”
It was a profound thing he was saying. The limits of psychiatry with certain kinds of patients were very clear in this man.
So I started treating patients. Some of them seemed to not actually get worse. I had a year’s training as a therapist with lots of supervision. Got my hands right into the center of it.
But I soon realized it was not my calling. I was interested in that, but I had started out more in biology. I wanted to be a doctor of medicine and do research. But while I was getting the education I needed to become a research scientist, I saw that my teachers were not much interested in the sense of wonder that I felt toward science. They were more interested in the theory, the techniques, but I was interested in something the modern scientific education didn’t have much place for which was the cultivation of a sense of wonder. That’s why I went into philosophy, making a long story short.

RW:  You have been teaching philosophy for many years. I never had a class from you, but I did end up getting a B.A. in philosophy myself. I studied existentialism, wrote my senior thesis on Heidegger. I did make some effort to continue at a post-graduate level but generally found it so far removed from my real concerns. So I’d like to ask, how did you continue in philosophy?—because so much of modern philosophy has left far behind, let’s say, “the sense of wonder” you mention. In many regards modern philosophy seems to have turned its back on the deep human questions.

JN:  There was an article a few weeks ago in the New York Times about New York City becoming the philosophy capital of the world—many leading academic philosophers are teaching there—and I was trained in that world at Harvard University. There were all these guys—competitive, analytic—and very often they were arguing about things which, to me, were completely sterile. And many people like you—I write about this in my book [The Heart of Philosophy]—who fell in love with philosophy find it was like falling in love with a beautiful woman who turned out to be frigid.
I remember I was a freshman at Harvard, in one of my first philosophy classes there. The professor started by asking—like I do sometimes, like professors do—what do you expect to get out of philosophy? I put up my hand and said, “I want to know why I’m living, why we die. Does God exist? What are we here for?” I went on an on like that, and I could see around me that there was this silence. My throat got dry, and I just felt awful. At first I’d thought that I was going to speak for the whole human race. And the professor, of course, was saying, “Yes. Go on.” He knew he had one. Finally I just couldn’t go on any more. Then he said, “Yes. But you see, that’s not philosophy. If you want to know those things, you have to see a psychiatrist or a priest. This is not philosophy.” It was such a shock.
I recovered quite well, but I had to find a few other people who shared my hunger. It is the hunger you’re speaking of. That is what Plato called eros—a word that’s come down to us which has taken on a sexual association. But for Plato it had to do, in part, with a striving that is innate in us, a striving to participate with one’s mind, one’s consciousness, in something greater than oneself. A love of wisdom, if you like, a love of being.
     Eros is depicted in Plato’s text, The Symposium, as half man, half god, a kind of intermediate force between the gods and mortals. It is a very interesting idea. Eros  is what gives birth to philosophy. Modern philosophy often translates the word “wonder” merely as “curiosity,” the desire to figure things out, or to intellectually solve problems rather than confronting the depth of these questions, pondering, reflecting, being humbled by them. In this way, philosophy becomes an exercise in meaningless ingenuity.
I did learn to play that game, and then to avoid it.
My students at SF State were very hungry for what most of us, down deeply, really want from philosophy. When we honor those unanswerable questions and open them and deepen them, students are very happy about it, very interested in a deep quiet way.

RW:  It is really very hard to find that, I believe.

JN:  Some years ago I had a chance to teach a course in philosophy in high school. I got ten or twelve very gifted kids at this wonderful school, San Francisco University High School. In that first class I said, “Now just imagine, as if this was a fairy tale, imagine you are in front of the wisest person in the world, not me, but the wisest person there is and you can only ask one question. What would you ask?” At first they giggled and then they saw that I was very serious. So then they started writing. What came back was astonishing to me. I couldn’t understand it at first. About half of the things that came back had little handwriting at the bottom or the sides of the paper in the margin. Questions like, Why do we live? Why do we die? What is the brain for? Questions of the heart. But they were written in the margins as though they were saying, do we really have permission to express these questions? We’re not going to be laughed at? It was as though this was something that had been repressed.

RW:  Fascinating.

JN:  It’s what I call metaphysical repression. It’s in our culture and It’s much worse than sexual repression. It represses eros and I think that maybe that’s where art can be of help sometimes. Some art.

RW:  Let me tell you about an interesting experience I had. Back in about 1985 I spent some time asking strangers at the Oakland Museum and a few other places, What is art? Is art valuable? and Why is it valuable? I was really curious to see what people would say. I had a tape recorder and a microphone and I found most people would talk to me. It wasn’t too long before I noticed something really unexpected: the way people were talking about art had a distinctly religious quality about it. And further, there was no quality of cynicism one often finds if the subject of religion is raised.

JN:  What kind of phrases did they use? Was it what they said, or in the way they talked?

RW:  They would say, “art is about beauty,” “about trying to express our highest feelings, the best parts of ourselves” “the best of art comes from the soul.” One man said, “true art is an act of love on the material plane.” No one used the word God, but the tone of language was very much in the realm people use when they’re talking about the spiritual. It was a clear impression of that.
On the other hand, I think there is something analogous in the professional artworld to what has taken place in professional philosophy. That is, something no longer represented there, or hardly possible to represent.

JN:  It’s interesting. Let me bring out something. [goes into house and retrieves two figures of men about a foot high, each seated informally as if sitting on the ground their faces lit up with expressions of great delight] We just passed a store in the street the other day and saw these and fell in love with them. Particularly when they’re together. It’s a relational thing.

RW:  I had noticed these in your house. They’re delightful.

JN:  If you go and see those four women in there. [We go into the house. Four women figures of a similar configuration are arranged so that they appear engaged in joyous, animated conversation.] You can put them together in different ways. We’ve been changing them around. At this point, we’ve got these two guys together, but you can put them any way and they’re joyous.
This is not Michaelangelo, or some art statement. These people represented are ordinary, working people, or however you want to say that. Their postures are absolutely ordinary.

RW:  They’re wonderfully captured though.

JN:  They’re wonderfully captured. You feel something beautiful. There’s something beautiful about ordinary people when they’re captured like that.

RW:  I wonder if, in fact, this potential in art to touch the feelings doesn’t just continue to exist in an ordinary way. You don’t see it so much in the museum of modern art. Some people make quilts, some go down into their basements and make things out of wood. They get a certain joy out of it.

JN:  I agree. I mean, after we looked at these figures we began to see other people altogether differently. Like your posture, my posture, everybody’s posture. Somehow these portrayals of ordinariness evoke love for people. It’s not just the sense of beauty, but a sense of love for man. A love for people. There’s an ethical, or spiritual element, in these things too.
For a little while everybody I saw on the street, I saw their postures—the guy buying a newspaper, the woman at the bank machine telling her kid, “come on.” If that had been captured just like that, that would be beautiful. It touches a sort of positive feeling toward life. That doesn’t mean all art should do that. There are lots of other things that art does. It shocks. It awakens. It makes you quiet and brings you in. It harmonizes you. There are many things. As long as you can discriminate what is going on. There’s an art that can evoke a longing for the unnamable. That’s a very high thing.
I don’t know if you’re aware of Plato’s views about art.

RW:  I understand Plato was of two minds about art. He considered art dangerous. It was something to be very careful with.

JN:  It is. Look what it does to people. When I teach about Plato’s views about art, particularly about music. I play some different kinds of music.. It’s very hard to observe yourself honestly when you listen to music, but I ask my students to try. I play Country and Western, Beethoven’s Ninth, Hard-Rock, 1940’s romantic ballads, some sufi flute music, different kinds of Bach, schmaltzy romantic waltz music, just a few minutes of each one. And I ask, now, what did you see? We talk.
It turns out some of the students are really astounded at the emotions that these things are evoking in them. And that these are emotions they are living with, being brought up in. They are living, eating, drinking, breathing these emotions. For example, Country Western music is filled with self-pity joined to sexual desire. And we love it! The romantic music of the 40’s is a kind of sentimental…   And the fact is music is shaping the psyche of young people. It’s an organic feeling that is being habituated. The violence, not just in words, but it’s the music. It’s poison.
So that’s art. It’s more than just a secondary thing. It’s a central part of human culture.
I ask my students. Next time you’re rolling down the freeway and you’re turning on the radio, what are you getting out of it? I do it too. I think visual art has it also, a tremendous effect on people. Literature also.

RW:  It’s very difficult to talk about these things in a way that keeps people from getting into a big reaction. Anything that smacks of criticism or censorship gets people automatically into a reaction. There are a number of things that are extremely difficult to broach. Going back to something you said earlier. There are things you can not talk about directly. Simply cannot. Period.

JN:  Certain kinds of art are like that. People fly right off the handle. So you’re right, art has a religious component. It also has an idolatrous component too.

RW:  I hesitate to even bring it up, but there is also the mass media influence of advertising. Anyone who regards advertising as something one can take or leave is extremely naive. There are people who, in a different culture or era, would have used their creative capacities and their intelligence in a different way, but in our culture they are in advertising. That’s where the money is.
Is there anything that art or literature could do in this culture that could help in some small way to balance the larger movements that are simply flowing. Something that could support these smaller moments people sometimes have. I haven’t any answers.

JN:  There’s such an idolatry about art and artists. Everybody’s an artist. A lot of us who are artists can start blaming ourselves. It’s not really going to help anybody. There’s a lot to be said for an artist being able to make his own living, to sell his things. I mean, there are many roots to this question too. Some artists feel that they are privileged people and that they should be supported and should be allowed to do whatever they want. There is something very unhealthy about a whole aspect of art which is self-indulgent. Maybe there are some techniques which are skillful, but what is sometimes being offered to the world is not good.
I think what we are talking about is, what is a salvational influence in society? What can help? It always starts with a small group. There are films sometimes which really touch something, books which sometimes touch something, that help people, give them hope. I think what art can do is give hope. Real hope.
You read a great tragedy and it gives hope. It’s funny that a great tragedy would bring hope—the vision and the understanding of human forces, that someone understood that. There’s something that touches your sense of awareness and feeling for the human condition.
Art can evoke certain feelings that you said in something you sent to me earlier—how did you put it?

RW:  I wonder if we shouldn’t consider–when we’re thinking about the importance of the environment, about the value of wilderness and about ecology—if we shouldn’t consider that there is something analogous in our inner environment that needs to be protected and preserved.

JN:  We’re losing certain kinds of feelings. That’s exactly right. Just like certain species of animals. With all the things we’re getting from technology, it’s costing us certain values and feelings, which are disappearing. Art can help keep that, store them, bring them back—and can it do it by transforming the culture and not through escaping from it? Say through the media of television? In other words, can it sacralize these secular things?

Working with Hot Material: A Conversation with Marcia Donahue

I sat with Marcia Donahue in the kitchen of her ample old wood frame house festooned with an exuberant overflow of tribal artifacts, objets d’artweavings, carpets, carvings, statuaries – and if that were not enough, the walls and ceilings had all been transformed by the unrestrained stylings of Mark Bulwinkle. With Marcia, in terms of letting the creative force run wild, the garden outside matched the garden inside. The combination of gardening and art led to my first question…

Richard Whittaker:  Do gardening and sculpture have to be spoken of together in your case?

Marcia Donahue:  For me they are one and the same thing. It’s just that with gardening I have materials that some sculptors don’t know about. It is sculpture. What else could it be? And it’s kinetic sculpture, because it doesn’t hold still. So I think you can’t talk about gardens without really thinking about it in those terms. It’s almost always an art form, an artistic expression…
If somebody is just trying to produce a crop, doing a good vegetable garden…then maybe it’s more science, even though the person doing it is going to have some real honest to God wonderful inner experiences doing it. There’s no avoiding it. Gardening is working with hot material. It’s for humans. This interaction with nature–it speaks to you in a way that no other activity allows. But it is mostly art, I think. Some of it’s bad art, mind you.
You have to make all these aesthetic choices based on how things will look. If they will work. What it means, referring to history and tradition, and your own upbringing. Not everybody is aware of it in that way. A lot of people are not particularly adventurous or exploring in that way, but there it is. It’s debatable, but that’s how I look at it.

RW:  I’m interested in exploring that. I wonder if you could say more about why you would call it art.

MD:  Well, there’s garden history, which is linked with art history right on through. Gardens have been the place for sculpture forever, unless it’s the church–outdoor sculpture. And I think gardens themselves are also the outdoor sculpture. There are the chunks you might put in–a statue or something–but the enclosure is a sculptural, three-dimensional space constructed for many different reasons, some functional, some aesthetic, some to move the spirit, and some social.

RW:  I’m grappling with this concept of the garden as art. I don’t have a background of garden history and I don’t have such a clear idea of how to define art either.

MD:  I know, and I don’t have either. These are really big terms. “Art” is a word that mostly I don’t even like to think about. In my own efforts “fine art” isn’t an issue. I’m just trying to live, and do things that satisfy me. But I am aware there’s human history and art history, and people have been doing this for a long time before it was made academic and put off somewhere into a special compartment. I’m not that interested in the special compartments, or the museum approach to it. I want to live it.

RW:  As you say, it’s a big topic. We probably need an expanded vocabulary, one that’s not available.

MD:  Yes. And so much of the vocabulary we do have is elitist and so exclusive… It’s bewildering to a lot of people.

RW:  Then, as far as you would say, the art part of it relates to the experience of living…

MD:  And also the experience of thinking and feeling and asking— in the sense of the garden being an immediate metaphor for life and death. There it is. It’s right there. And you, as the gardener in your little space, work with that however you wish. And I do. I have a little area back there with a statue of “Santa Muerte,” and there’s my “Santa Vida” and my gravestone path to the compost heap, and images like that.

RW:  You take it a step beyond that literal fact of the plants growing and dying.

MD:  I’m spelling it out, literally. On one of the gravestones I inscribed my own name letter by letter. MARCIA REST IN PEACE.

RW:  I was just reading Second Nature by….

MD:  Michael Pollan. That’s a wonderful book. His thing on the American lawn is so great.

RW:  He says that maybe we need some new metaphors. He’s really grappling with, as he puts it, this duality between “wilderness” and “culture” and that the polarity between the two is a lot less clear than it seems at first. He sees the garden as a natural point of reconciliation between those two extremes. The garden is a place where man acts in nature, but in a way both useful to man and not harmful to nature. What do you think of this?

MD:  My feeling is that the garden is much closer to “culture” than it is to “nature,” in terms of that duality. The “hot material” I am talking about— which is soil, water and plants, not to mention light and all that—these materials of gardening are uncontrollable in many ways and humbling in that sense. But if you are in a real collaboration with any material, it’s like that. Each has its own strong personality and you better work with it —clay, stone or whatever. However, with gardening, metaphorically you have the whole world of nature, but it’s still essentially a cultural activity and artefact. Gardens are just not the wilderness. There is so much about humanness in that activity. You know, we’re doing it from us. And sometimes we’re working in opposition to Nature’s balance.

RW:  Maybe I could ask a little about the history of your own gardening.

MD:  My mother showed me gardens, and was a gardener herself in a pretty straightforward way. She didn’t goof around with it much, but she loved it. She taught me the names of some plants and some awareness of plants, and it’s something that attracted me as a child, but I never got to do it until I moved into this house twenty-two years ago. There was a yard! I’d never had a yard before.
When I moved here and saw the back yard, I said to myself I’m not even going to go back there. I could feel the pull of it! I was trying to be a studio artist, and I thought, ‘I’ll just get distracted’ because it was really attractive. And then, of course, I did.
I also worked as a gardener, professionally. That’s how I learned. And now, I’m back in the studio again. But everything I do in the studio is formed and colored by my experiences in the garden. I’m making things for the garden and things about the garden.

RW:  Full circle, an integration.

MD:  Yes, it’s good. I like how things have gone.
RW:  You have a lot of bamboo. How many different species?

MD:  Around 30. There’s something about gardening, I mean gardening is a huge topic, but collection has something to do with it.

RW:  And your sister is involved in a related field.

MD:  She’s a botanist. A gardener too. She’s a real collector. And her work as a scientist, a taxonomist, is about collecting—what populations are where, and things like that. I’m currently wildly collecting these African textiles in the other room. Which is another thing about the garden. I have a background in textiles, and a real love of it; and I not only see the garden as sculpture, but as a textile-type sculpture—something that’s woven and intermingled like cloth.

RW:  I know you have a project for a garden in Pennsylvania (Chanticleer, outside of Philadelphia).

MD:  I’m making some stone books. These are the first stone books I’ve ever made, and they’re specifically for that place—for a room in a ruin they are building on the footprint of a demolished house. The room was the library. So, the books will be strewn around in a ruined fashion. I’ve completed the first book. It’s an opened sandstone book about three feet wide and about five inches thick, and it’s as if a woodpecker or squirrels have dug holes in the pages and buried acorns in it. So there are embedded acorns in the pages of this book. The next book is just going to have the cover open and have fancy figured Italian marble as the end paper of this stone book. The book will have “ex libris” carved on it with the name of that place.

RW:  Those should be fun. When you were doing work as a studio artist were you working in sculpture?

MD:  Yes. I was doing indoor things. Soft materials: wood, leather, paper, cloth. But after I started gardening I started carving redwood, and later on stone came into the picture… and concrete a little bit. Later yet, ceramics— I made all the ceramic bamboos you see in the garden. I’ve had Mark’s [Mark Bulwinkle] sculpture in this garden almost since the garden started. I’ve known Mark for many a year. And before this garden was all grown-up and you could see the apartment houses over there, I asked Mark to make me some distractions. He brought me five pieces on tall poles, metal cut-outs, and they’ve been here ever since. He’s been part of it almost since the get-go.

RW:  You have your garden and house open to the public on Sunday and I suppose mainly to make some money, but I wonder if there isn’t some other…

MD:  No. It’s not “mainly”—only partially—although I just sold $5 dollars worth of Mark’s postcards [laughs].

RW:  Yes, I was wondering if there were other reasons.

MD:  Definitely other reasons. It’s an opportunity for people to see what we do, and they can buy something or commission us. But it’s also a chance for people to talk to me about gardening, or our work, or whatever… It’s an anti-ivory tower device. When I’m working, I’m alone. I’m making dust and noise, and wearing all this stuff. When I’m here, it’s still about Mark’s and my work, but it’s social.
I think it’s a rare event when artists can show their work in the way they mean it to be seen, and to be available to yak about it and interact with people about it. For me it’s very rewarding to see how people react to it. I mean, people come here and really feel inspired—and they tell me so. And I think, “Well, that’s a good reason for doing this!” I really love it when people leave here and feel they can go home and do whatever it is they want to do, because they see I’m doing what I want to do. People are actually very moved by what Mark and I have created here.

RW:  I was inspired when I first came here. Still am. I think “inspired” is a good word—liberating—that’s another good word.

MD:  Yes. Permission-giving. If she can, then I can.

RW:  People see it’s okay to step across these invisible boundaries. I mean, this is such a long way from a well-trimmed front lawn!

MD:  Well, gardening is difficult. If you don’t do things right, things will die! And so sometimes people think there is just one way to do things. But we have a great climate. You can grow almost anything here! But even if you couldn’t, you don’t have to be that tight in your mind—about gardening, or anything. You can improvise! I mean there really is more than one way to skin a cat. So it’s nice to share the realization I’ve had, with other people. And “good taste” is another thing people are really worried about. And you know, I’ve pushed various taste and dogma envelopes, but it still works fine! A lot of people are so worried about what the neighbors will think. So people can come here and see something different, and most of the neighbors are fine with it.

RW:  I was going to ask you about that. What do you think your influence has been on your neighbors?

MD:  Well, I’ve given a lot of advice— plant advice and encouragement. There’s a guy across the street, a renter, and he’s digging up the parking strip and starting cuttings from another neighbor to have some flowers there. And so I’ve had that kind of influence.

RW:  Have the neighbors, by and large, been accepting of your wild garden? — I mean “wild” in the exuberant sense.

MD:  I haven’t had any complaints about it. I have been working with a neighbor across the street to get some trees planted by the city on this very barren stretch of Wheeler St., and I met a neighbor from the end of the street I hadn’t met before. She thought “more trees would be okay” but “it didn’t mean there had to be a lot of weird iron sculptures with them, did it?”[laughs] But when she got over that, she was really very friendly.

RW:  Is the garden, as it stands now, a work in progress, or has it is pretty well arrived?

MD:  I like to change it. See that whole bed there off the end of the porch—I went and murdered a lot of friends there. Just hauled them out so I could try something else. I wanted to see some different views and shapes, but it’s getting hard to do that, because I have some very fine plants here I’d like to see grow and get big. But in clearing that bed I’ve saved a place for Mark to do a nice new tall sculpture there. I have thoughts about that area over there [points], thoughts about just pulling everything out and reshuffling the deck and maybe bringing in a lot of big stone if I can get some help.

RW:  There was a great big head out on the sidewalk which is gone. Where did that go?

MD:  I sold it. It went to Seattle—a good place for it because it’s overcast and rainy up there, and it’s a crying head. It went to somebody else’s garden. I put it on a truck and sent it up there—all three thousand pounds of it.

RW:  It was pretty safe to leave it out there, I imagine.

MD:  [laughs] Yes. I’ve always felt that way, and with Mark’s big heavy pieces too. If they can get it, they can have it. But they can’t. They’d need a crane.

RW:  I have the impression you’re making a lot of headway in the world, in terms of your gardening and your sculpture…

MD:  Is there some headway to make?

RW:  Well, what I mean is, more commissions, more recognition, more sales, things like that…

MD:  I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet many talented people in the gardening world. I do have the good job in Pennsylvania and as much work as I can do. But I definitely have an outsider position. I don’t have a gallery. I don’t want a gallery. I’m going it one-on-one with people. So I don’t have representation at all.

RW:  Not interested in that either, I take it.

MD:  I’m not. I’m doing fine this way, and I feel that although it’s not a good way to get rich, it is a good way to get more meaning. The transactions are more personal, and I like that. It seems more normal, less weird. Less like business, more like life.

RW:  I was going to ask if you had any visions of going beyond this garden and piece of land here—some other project of your own, beyond Wheeler St.

MD:  No. I had to make a decision about that. This is about all I can tend without having it become oppressive. I’m getting older and sorer. [Three young women come into the kitchen. It’s after closing time but Donahue lets the girls come in.]

Girls: [the leader] Do you remember me?

MD:  Yes I do. [To me] There is one of my early stones in her aunt’s garden. [to the girls] Just dash down the stairs and around the corner and you won’t even get wet. [An overhead sprinkler is watering the garden. It’s like a rain forest just outside the big double doors.]

RW:  Once you were saying a lot of wonderful conversations happen in here, and that’s one of the things you like about having your house open on Sundays. In a way, that’s like a garden of a different sort.

MD:  Yes. People come into the house and exchange stories.

RW:  And this house is like a garden too.

MD:  It is. It’s really the same idea of abundance and surprising juxtaposition, but with less green matter.

RW:  Yes. The garden is expanded here beyond just green plants. And that’s an aspect I wanted to go into, not just the literal aspects of plants and cultivation but various other kinds of “gardens.” Here, inside the house, there is all this color and line, unexpected image and form, and the meeting of people—another kind of thriving in some small way, or maybe not in such a small way!

MD:  Not such a small way. It’s important to me. I really value that. I really look forward to these open Sunday times. It’s really neat. Today, for example, this fellow came who’s a textile collector. He has as much enthusiasm for these African textiles as I do. So we were just geeking away on textiles—with a sort of connisseurship and collector mentality, but there were garden visitors here, and several of them joined us in that. It was a surprise for them. On the other hand, I had this opportunity to talk to my fellow geek. I had the chance to realize, okay, I don’t have to be “Miss Perfect Hostess” and spread out the red carpet. If somebody wants me badly enough they can get my attention. They can join us or not.
I try not to make the garden, or my open-garden time oppressive to me. I mean, this is my life too! And so I don’t want to feel like I have to keep an immaculate maintenance schedule going on in the garden, for example. I can enjoy its ebbs and flows and its excesses, and by the same token, I want my hostess-ship here to be relaxed enough so that I can let whatever is going on happen, without feeling obligated to maintain some other sort of high standards. I try to give myself and my guests that permission.

RW:  In a way, trying to be mindful of cultivating one’s own inner world.

MD:  Yes. And to call one’s own inner shots as much as possible, rather than to become a slave to it.

RW:  From where I sit, there’s something generous about it. Generous to let people in your house, to let them see what you do and to be open and willing to talk about it.

MD:  I’m willing to share. I’m happy to share. I feel— somebody lent me a book by this pop-religious psychologist guy, M. Scott Peck— he talked about having “the gift of a grateful heart.” And I have that gift. I recognize myself in that. I feel like I’ve gotten so much. I can’t believe I live in such a place! The Bay Area. My home. Mark’s art. My art. The garden. The plants. I can’t believe it! I say, “Oh, My God! This is wonderful!” I really feel gratitude for it. It’s just plain old gratitude. [Laughs] And so, I’m just very happy and it feels very natural to me to share. I’ve got more than I can use! Why not share it?

RW:  I’m interested in what you say about having an “outsider” position. I’ve found myself thinking about the “outsider” artist who works purely with his or her inspirations, the unschooled artist —no references to other works, art history, etc.

MD:  I can’t claim that. I am schooled, but in a business sense, I’m working from the outside. I am doing what I feel like doing and I don’t really care about my place in history. I’m not busily trying to “avant-garde” myself into some position. I’m just outside of the art market in that official, gallery-museum sense.

RW:  Do you see your work in any kind of art-historical context?

MD:  A lot of it, I mean, I’m carving rocks, for God’s sake! People have done that since pre-history. So yes, I do. And I’m very, very touched by those ancient pieces. I’m not reproducing them, but I feel I am still doing it; and still feeling the power and attraction of stone. Of course, people in many, many cultures, for example, have made colossal heads and things like that. For me it’s mostly a matter of getting the rocks and then figuring out what I can do with them with the tools I’ve got. I consciously make all kinds of references in my work, but not necessarily to art. To gardening, or to dying, or… I’m not just working with form, texture and color! I work with content and context. And when you’re making content, you make references because you don’t exist in solitary splendor.

RW:  What are the main references would you say?

MD:  Well, all kinds. For example, I made this statue in the back yard, a carved, basalt column to “Santa Meurte,” the grim reaper depicted as a woman, which I saw in Mexico. Mine has skulls in her cloak and is a simple carving of a goddess of death. Then I had a bunch of architectural granite. Some of it was curbing stones and came from a cemetery. Some had a family name—and there were these letters in it, n-a u-g-h. I added a “t” and a question mark. So then it said, “naught?” So there’s the word. It’s the hardest thought for an incarnated, human, live person to contemplate. Nothingness. Naught? That would be the question you’d ask the goddess of death should you meet her. And there’s a gravestone in there inscribed, “DAD.” I’ve got a ceramic revolver a friend made, which I put on it. And the plants in that area are shady and creepy. This whole little niche is loaded. That’s what I’m talking about.

RW:  That brings us back to what we started with, a question about gardens as art. There is something afoot about this as a topic. Recently I read two books, “What do Gardens Mean?” by Stephanie Ross and “The Garden As Art” by Mara Miller. There seems to be some new thinking being proposed about categorizing gardens so that I guess you could call them an official fine-art medium. There’s an historical precedent from 18th century England where a garden could be considered on a par with poetry and painting.

MD:  Having not read those books, I can’t comment. But what is coming to mind is the movement of land-art, earthworks; and in galleries and museums, there’s a lot of installation art. And there’s site-specific works and the importance of contextual considerations. Well, all of that is just what goes on if you make a garden!
There has been a lot of popular interest recently in gardens as people are becoming more ecologically aware. A lot of people are planting gardens and enjoying the fact that they are making oxygen. And they’re trying to use fewer chemicals doing that. In gardening that way, their own awareness and love of their surroundings increases. They wake up a little bit more. Whether it’s enough to help us, or save us, is another question, but people, nationally, are doing this a lot more, and in a less toxic way.

RW:  And I understand that gardening is the most popular hobby activity in the country. There must be a better word for it than that. And that bio-diversity among plants is being preserved mostly by home gardeners, certainly not by big agriculture. There’s a growing interest in heirloom plants, and a natural curiosity about different kinds of plants. And, as you say, a concern for how to tread lightly on the earth, so to speak. What are your thoughts about that?

MD:  I just salute the heck out of all of it! I think it’s really a worthy thing to do in the midst of the swirling absurdity of life. I think it’s full of value in many, many ways. Extremely touching and moving—and worth doing.