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?