I’D BEEN MELANCHOLY FOR WEEKS, dogged by feelings I couldn’t name. Then my wife went out of town; I didn’t want her to go.
You might say I was ready for a good cry. Yet how tempting to ignore sorrow, as if it were a beggar. Those dark, accusing eyes.
I almost rushed past Stephen Schwartz, too. A booklet describing his workshops sat on my desk, unread, along with dozens of other brochures promising to unfurl my petals. Who has time for workshops? Life is so busy rearranging us already, and truth is such a flirt. Read the words of the master, spend an evening with the master: there’s no telling whether you’ll get enlightened or herpes. No, I didn’t want another teacher.
But when I finally picked up the booklet, I was intrigued. Here was a spiritual thinker who shunned spiritual dictums; who suggested that the body doesn’t need to be transcended or the personality fixed; who insisted that self-knowledge has more to do with feelings than philosophy — feelings, not psychological insights, not our thoughts and stories about our feelings. I was intrigued, too, that the booklet had been sent by one of Schwartz’s admirers. Schwartz doesn’t advertise and his books aren’t available in most stores; you need to stumble onto his work. I ordered a tape.
I listened to it on my way to the airport. But I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about my wife, eager to see her but determined not to show it, embarrassed I’d been so sullen about her leaving, as if she weren’t coming back. I was sick of myself, the scratchy soundtrack of my days, the desperate longing. What was Schwartz saying? Sadness isn’t wrong. Pain isn’t shameful. I listened more closely. We condemn and deny our loneliness. We take our longing for love and turn it into shame. His voice was so ardent, so sincere. Yet loneliness is a prayer, a deep longing to know and feel God’s presence. His words like the sea, rocking me; like a big wave, whacking me in the chest. There is great strength in wanting. There is dignity, not shame, in loneliness. My mind was a hanging judge who showed no mercy. I resented my wife for leaving, but I resented myself even more for feeling left. We can’t keep measuring ourselves against some enlightened ideal, as if self-hatred could be a path to love. There’s no disgrace in any experience we’ve ever had. There’s nothing we need to run from. No, I thought, sorrow isn’t the enemy. In the mirror I caught a glimpse of myself, tears streaming down my cheeks.
SINCE THEN, I'VE SPENT MANY HOURS reading Schwartz’s writings and listening to his tapes. The beauty of his language, the passion and lucidity of his message, continue to move me.
Schwartz is more than just a good listener, a psychologically astute guy with a flair for the right phrase. At times, he inspires a comparison with the great Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, who insisted that truth is a “pathless land” that cannot be approached through beliefs. Also, those familiar with A Course in Miracles — the radical rendering of Christian thought with which Schwartz was once identified — will recognize his debt to the Course, as well as his independence from it. Instead of parroting the Course, he embodies its teachings on love and forgiveness, threading the Course’s lofty ideals into the frayed fabric of ordinary lives.
At his workshops, Schwartz asks people to sit in a circle with their eyes closed. Then, through a process similar to meditation, with its focus on the breath, and to therapy, with its emphasis on feelings — but dramatically unlike either — he gently but persistently encourages them to turn to the pain, not the ideology about the pain; to the truth of the body, not clichés about the truth; to the actual feelings, not the words that wrap the feelings in too many layers, like a mother nervously bundling her infant against a warm, fragrant breeze.
Usually, Schwartz explains, thoughts are so clustered around a feeling that it seems as if the definition is the feeling. But the feeling is different from the thought, different from the interpretation we’ve always given it. The body feels. When we feel loneliness, when we feel anger, when we feel love, we feel it in the body. Our fears and mental turmoil, he says, are the result of trying to place limiting labels on the innocent feeling life. Therefore, turning to the body, with compassionate attention, is the first step in really caring for ourselves.
There’s a more esoteric aspect to Schwartz’s work that’s difficult to describe, and may leave skeptical readers shaking their heads. To him, the physical body is only the visible portion of “an invisible field of radiant energy.” This field, he says, is made up of exceedingly subtle filaments, which function as conduits or passageways through which energy is given and received. Feelings, Schwartz suggests, are the movement of energy at these subtle levels.
Although he doesn’t call himself a psychic, Schwartz says he can sense these energies in others. Given the right conditions, he believes he can merge with another person on a feeling level; he speaks of entering into “their silence, their presence, their depth.” As a consequence, he’s able to speak to them about their feelings in an intimate, helpful way.
His dialogues with workshop participants bear this out. He gently encourages people to move their attention from the tangle of thought to the energy of the body. By persistently asking where a feeling is being experienced, he helps distinguish between what is actually occurring in the body and the conditioning, the descriptions, the self-defeating ideas carried by the mind.
Even those who have experienced the process have difficultly explaining it, he acknowledges; it’s easier for them to quote him than to describe the intuitive scaffolding for the work. I’m aware that my words, too, reduce the rich complexity of his work. It’s like reading aloud the lyrics to a song, minus the tune.
Ironically, the very act of writing this — hunched before a glowing computer screen, jazzed on coffee and deadline anxiety — distances me from my body. But under just about any circumstances, it’s hard for me to experience feelings as pure energy, rather than as something already encased in meaning, mummified, catalogued. I wander anxiously through the museum of myself, rules on every wall. Even Stephen Schwartz can become just another exhibit as he reminds me not to pretend I’m less damaged than I really am, or less holy; that there are doors up and down these hallways; that they’re not locked.
SCHWARTZ, FORTY-THREE, LIVES in upstate New York, on a mountaintop overlooking the Hudson River, with his wife Donna and their two sons. While studying literature at Brandeis University during the sixties, he got involved in anti-war and civil-rights activism but eventually became disenchanted by all “the divisiveness, the anger, the blame.” He went through a “big turnaround,” giving up psychedelics and committing himself to meditation, which he’s practiced regularly since 1966.
During the next two decades, he worked as a shoe salesman, a deliveryman, a (vegetarian) meat-cutter, an insurance agent, and a teacher; ran a secondhand bookstore; sold exotic plants with his father; and wrote two theatrical productions, one based on William Blake and the other on James Joyce.
For a while, he enjoyed a modest reputation as a teacher of A Course In Miracles, though his maverick approach to the Course got him in trouble. He says people would come to his talks carrying copies of the Course under their arms, then storm away angrily, offended by his insistence that salvation has nothing to do with beliefs; that we need to free ourselves of all ideologies, even those as sublime as the Course.
His teaching continued to evolve, his language less overtly spiritual now, more accessible. I respect his willingness to recreate himself regularly, to risk offending his admirers. He seems more interested in discovering what’s real, what’s next, than in enshrining a system; in honoring mystery rather than footnoting it.
When I met him for the first time last year, I expected to feel intimidated. But he was warm and relaxed, not the kind of person who engages in spiritual grandstanding. He’s willing to kid around and to be honest about his doubts, even to parody his own vocabularies.
Schwartz’s books include Doors to Peace and The Compassionate Presence. The books, as well as information on his tapes and workshops, are available from Riverrun Press, P.O. Box 367, Piermont, NY, 10968. (914) 353-1677.
A seemingly robust, indefatigable man, Schwartz nearly died earlier this year after he collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with cancer. When I heard the news, I was stunned. We spoke about this during our interview, and Schwartz has just written a book about the experience. True to form, he intends to call it I Accept In All Gratitude: Cancer, Crisis, And Compassionate Self-Care.
Safransky: I’ve heard you talk about loneliness in a very moving way — as a prayer to God. What do you mean by that?
Schwartz: Inside our loneliness is a longing to be released from the pain of separation and the confusion it entails. We’ve all been taught that there is something wrong or even dangerous about being lonely. But such an assumption is based on a misunderstanding of what loneliness is and how it relates to our life here. Loneliness is a kind of wisdom, a recognition of something, an urge toward genuine transformation.
There is nothing to fear about loneliness. There’s no reason to run from it or to tighten down when it comes. If we allow ourselves the chance to attend to the loneliness, to be with it at a feeling level — physically — then the harsh overtones dissolve. What we called loneliness turns out to be something else entirely.
Each of us is longing for something. This longing runs deep. Sometimes it manifests as loneliness, sometimes as grief, anger, or something else. Whatever way it comes, we can be with it respectfully, openly, allowing it to exist. This so changes our relationship to it that we never need fear it or run from it again.
There are times when the body is calling for attentive care. There are times when the signal is there, but our response is self-hatred or dislike, and the body’s call gets ignored. Loneliness is such a call. We need to turn to ourselves as a mother to a child and wait, without judgment.
Safransky: I deal with loneliness by either wanting to blame someone — say, my wife for being away — or explaining the loneliness to myself in terms of the past.
Schwartz: You do miss your wife and that is real. It’s important not to create a moral attitude about this. We can say that on level A, you miss your wife, and on level B, you are longing for a deeper relationship with her and with life itself. One layer of truth does not contradict another. At both levels, the call is for gentle respect, not moral evaluations.
Disliking feelings or making them wrong never solves problems. The reason we dislike them in the first place is because we’ve been taught to. There is nothing in the feeling to dislike. It is a movement in the body, a flow of something, maybe a hurt or a woundedness, which we assume to be weak, neurotic, or wrong. All those labels are made up.
Feelings come and feelings go. The interruption of this flow comes from conditioning, from habitually imposed responses. When a person turns toward whatever is being felt in the body, it is always different from what they initially thought.
Something is happening to us as human beings that can’t be explained by surface events or by the psychological dogmas that parade as truth. Deeper than the content of life swells a mysterious force — a presence, if you will — which is guiding us towards an unknown end.
As far as explaining loneliness in terms of the past, it’s important to see the past not as the cause of a problem but rather as a formative, evolutionary force. It’s something that we let work on us, not something we try to release ourselves from. The only piece of the past that one would try to release from is the hypnotic conditioning that prevents us from having a rich experience in the present.
Safransky: I want to be braver. I want to be someone who isn’t hung up on his own fears, but who extends himself compassionately toward others. Yet, here I am, with my shameful dependency on my wife.
Schwartz: The idea that you have to be something else, to prove something, is disheartening. Heroism is not overcoming what we perceive to be negative about ourselves or anything else, but rather facing right into those things — finding the core. A heroic act is a naked encounter with what we’ve judged to be dangerous and then, perhaps, discovering that it is something else entirely.
Safransky: Let’s take another example. I become jealous because of something that’s said. I’m angry, but also ashamed. I’m full of self-righteousness, and at the same time I know I’m being possessive and unfair. One minute I’m justifying my feelings, and the next minute condemning them.
Schwartz: The justification and the condemnation are exactly the same. They represent a moving away from the actuality of experience. Jealousy is a good example. On a certain level human beings are fragile and vulnerable, at least in terms of our physical existence here. The forces of nature are more powerful than we are. The force of a disease, for instance, may be more powerful than our will or our desire to have it healed. We live in a vulnerability, an edge between what we think is going on and a great mystery. Rather than allowing ourselves to enter into the truth of that vulnerability, we create a stance to protect ourselves from it.
It’s very beautiful if you think about it. We are trying to protect and take care of ourselves, but in a backward way. It seems dangerous to encounter the vulnerability directly, so we create a fantasized scenario which keeps us away from the feelings we assume to be dangerous.
Safransky: What do you mean by a fantasized scenario?
Schwartz: I mean the way in which we substitute a kind of cartoon made up of personal beliefs, images, assumptions, and associations for the mystery and spaciousness of what exists.
The fantasy grips us because the body responds as if it were real. First we interpret what is occurring “out there” as dangerous, then the body tightens as if to protect itself. The tightening of the body seems justified, even helpful. But when we really get down to it, this tension is an attempt to mute a deep encounter with an unknown, an edge, a mysterious moment in which we are suddenly aware of how little we know and how delicate this life is. It is an attempt to run from discovery. But we can’t.
As odd as it may sound, just being with a feeling — not trying to change it or get over it, just staying steady — leads to a radically different sense of what that feeling is. I wish I could express the beauty and power of this, but it can only come through practice and patience.
In this work we turn an experience like jealousy upside down. Maybe the reason you have a low threshold for jealousy is that you are a person with a natural inclination toward something mysterious, delicate, and vulnerable, and that there has been in your life, for one reason or another, such abuses of that vulnerable place that you will do almost anything to avoid it, including turning your body against your body.
Maybe your low threshold for jealousy represents a kind of giftedness — an openness to life rather than a problem. I would be willing to bank on that. It seems to me that what we struggle with most, what torments us, represents something profoundly important. When we face right into what we’ve been calling our weakness, we can find our gift, our unique energetic expression.
Safransky: You are saying, in effect, that jealousy is not a psychological problem.
Schwartz: Our so-called psychological problems take place in a fantasized realm that has almost nothing to do with the actual space in which human life is unfolding. These problems seem so real because the attention is consumed by thinking, and the real space is sacrificed to a substitute reality.
So much of what we call psychology is actually a mystification of experience. The question of where an experience actually takes place is rarely addressed. When someone comes to a psychologist and says, “I’m lonely,” how often does the psychologist ask, “Where is the loneliness?” Or, “What is it like to be you having this loneliness? Is it in the upper chest, the stomach? Is it vertical, horizontal? Does it permeate the whole body?” These questions change the nature of our feeling experience. The loneliness becomes felt in the body instead of remaining dangerous and abstract.
The work of compassionate self-care does not involve trying to find out why a particular psychological problem exists, but dropping out of the problem altogether and merging into the natural spaciousness that exists in and around the body.
Safransky: This is why people meditate, isn’t it? But there’s the temptation, when we try to be more detached, of pushing away who we are psychologically.
Schwartz: In a meditative approach to life, the emphasis is entirely on the disengagement. In self-care work, the emphasis is on using the problem and the pain as a bridge between the tight place that we find ourselves caught in and spaciousness itself.
In this work, the mental struggle is not ignored. It is attended to and then dissolved through a practice in which a rhythmic interplay is developed between feeling the pain in the body and expressing the dilemma as it appears in the mind. We come back to the body, feel the body, attend to the body, and alternately speak about the problem, even in great detail. Over time, the mind’s grip on its particular point of view is increasingly defused of power, and something else becomes available instead. It may be pain. No matter what it seems to be at first, we have entered another side of our experience as human beings. We have found the gateway to mystery.
We don’t enter into this process to gain an insight which will allow us to see through the problem. Our goal is simply to recognize that on some level the problem is a fabricated story, a substitution for a sublime truth about ourselves and each other.
Safransky: There’s the story I tell myself about jealousy — and there’s something the story leaves out. There are my beliefs about intimacy — and there’s something more mysterious.
Schwartz: Absolutely. For instance, the word intimacy, even in the most radical psychology, doesn’t mean the same thing in the context of the self-care process. Generally speaking, intimacy tends to refer to sharing something personal — perhaps in a felt way, but primarily through information. Intimacy in the context of self-care means opening energetically to another human being — not knowing them as anything other than a radiant mystery.
For me, the greatest fulfillment in doing what I do arises from experiencing another person as a great opening, a huge space. We sit together with the eyes closed and I can feel who they are. This body only appears to be an enclosure. It is actually a passageway — like an entry to a cave or a cathedral. It is quite the opposite of the way we’ve been taught to perceive it.
Safransky: I value intimacy, yet I’m afraid of it. I fear that loving people may lead to making love with them.
Schwartz: That’s an interesting statement, but there is something more radical and scary in this than what you’re talking about directly. The encounter with another person on the edge I’m describing is much sexier than sex. It’s highly erotic, but deeper than any physical act.
It all could lead to some sexual act, but the greater challenge and the greater risk is not having it lead to that — letting it go beyond that. Sitting with another person and discovering them as an opening, as opposed to an enclosure — finding that space and entering into it on a subtle energetic level — is as intimate and erotic as any experience could be.
The physical act of sex is a kind of metaphor for the deeper encounter we speak about here, and yet when there’s no sexual encounter, we have little intellectual justification for jealousy. This is the heart of what attracts us and frightens us about human relationships. We want to have a deep and open exchange with other human beings, and yet we spend a lot of time running away from it. We don’t know what that exchange really is.
Safransky: It’s easy to be confused about this, to mistake one thing for another.
Schwartz: Especially with sex. It seduces you toward it, then whatever it is that enticed you isn’t actually there when you get to it. Isn’t that true with sex in the long run? The way it’s been built up and the aura that surrounds it make it seem like an answer to something, but there is always a longing for some greater contact.
Safransky: That longing becomes suspect, like so much else.
Schwartz: Often we treat certain aspects of ourselves as junk, having no value. We try to throw parts of ourselves in the garbage. But a human being is an ecosystem, and everything in that system is of value to the whole.
The community in which a person lives — the sphere of friends and family — is another kind of ecosystem. It is necessary as a social service to be respectful and open to the qualities within ourselves that we can bring to the whole. Disparaging and attacking certain aspects of ourselves is not a service to those who are involved with us in the greater ecosphere.
If we look at ourselves from a slightly different angle, a little more compassionately, perhaps, we can see that there are no negative emotions and there are no positive ones either. At the heart of every emotion is an innocent wave of energy which is inherently free from psychological and moral dichotomies.
Feelings are energy and by their very nature ascending or expansive. They are trying to create, expand, grow, and move in various ways. Thoughts about feelings exert a downward pressure, creating a stranglehold on that ascending force. The purpose of the self-care process is to touch the ascending force and transcend the downward force.
It is vital that we look at the human being as an exotic life form, rather than as some familiar thing that we’ve grown so accustomed to, something we are bored with. We are a mobile life form, moving about on a planet, in a universe that we know almost nothing about, but we carry a bizarre unconscious assumption that we know almost everything about it.
Safransky: Yet how little I really know about my own feelings, about jealousy, about loneliness.
Schwartz: There is something beautifully paradoxical about what you're saying. Not knowing leads to another kind of knowledge which is filled with possibilities — a knowledge of the heart. The kind of knowledge we've been taught to trust is imposed on a mystery and is different from the knowledge which arises from our willingness to be ignorant.
It's like waking up in the middle of the night on the edge of some incredible dream and not remembering where you are or what your life is about. Suddenly there is that incredible line between terror and profound attraction. It is so much more interesting to wake up in that dream space than to wake up in a space which has been made familiar by an arbitrary system of beliefs.
Safransky: Still, it seems that understanding oneself requires understanding the past.
Schwartz: Insights about the past come from thought and not from the experience itself. For the most part we live our lives without any experience of a sudden moment when the past is no more — when there isn’t something that happened, there isn’t a good belief or a bad belief, there isn’t anything at all except something very mysterious and alive. We as human beings aren’t those memories, we aren’t those traumas. Certainly they exist and they have an impact, but ultimately there’s something underriding all of that which can be experienced. And when a person does, it’s liberating — even though it may not be comfortable at first. It’s liberating because it’s alive. It’s not about anything.
Safransky: So you don’t ask questions about the past?
Schwartz: I’m not saying that if somebody started to talk about the past I wouldn’t follow them, but we’d never stop there. I’d never say, “Oh, there it is. It’s the way your mother treated you.”
When I began this work, I saw that most of us were carrying around a sense of wrongness or inadequacy that was actually an ideology. In the dialogues, I would just follow someone until the very net of their own conflict caught them. There wasn’t any place to take it on a conceptual level, and something would split open. Then, and only then, could I feel that person, could they feel me, could the people in the room suddenly be aware of the real human connection. From this I realized that communication can’t take place through beliefs — no matter how great the beliefs, no matter how powerful or sublime or spiritual. If you take the lid off the belief, you can see that it was an idea protecting you from something you didn’t want to feel, something very raw and vulnerable.
What I’m focusing on in any so-called neurotic situation is the disruption of a bodily process at a very subtle level. Mundane thought is confused by its very nature. You can’t solve anything at that level. What we’re working toward in these settings is an experience that takes place in the rhythmic opening and closing of the subtle, physical membrane of the body.
Safransky: You talk frequently about the front of the body.
Schwartz: This developed very naturally. When a person spoke about emotional difficulty, we’d start moving to the body to feel that pain. Over and over again, it was experienced in the front of the body. That interested me. In the work I do, I can literally feel another person’s space. I wish I could describe that a little better. It’s not psychic. It’s not intrusive. But I have a tremendous sense of that person in a spatial way. I discovered that in sitting face to face with someone I would have a much greater sense of that person than I had ever had before.
Safransky: Do you see colors? Patterns?
Schwartz: No, I don’t see colors. Patterns, yes. But this experience of emanations is not like an aura reading. These emanations are a unique space that we carry around us and in us, and I’m speaking very physically here. I can feel when someone’s space is being enlivened and when that space is closed off.
Safransky: Can’t compassionate self-care turn into a kind of self-absorption, into an unhealthy preoccupation with feelings?
Schwartz: I understand what you’re saying and that’s why I try to put this work into an expanded context. We do not own our feelings. They become ours only when the mind entraps them in highly personalized definitions. Prior to that entrapment, they are energies which are given to us in much the same way that the air we breathe is given to us.
I always go back to the phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone.” There is another source of sustenance, another energy through which life is sustained.
When we turn toward ourselves in a certain way, we end up turning toward the universe. As we deconstruct emotions, we are taking apart an intensely introverted sense of identity, which is always caught in its own confines, and coming to something much broader, much more encompassing. We can give love to the world only when we know ourselves to be much bigger than a complex string of memories, ideas, and beliefs.
Safransky: Would you say that practicing compassionate self-care inclines one toward a greater sense of social responsibility? If people are more sensitive to themselves and others, will they act in a more responsible way?
Schwartz: I think so. I think they act with more kindness, which results from disengaging from one’s own obsessiveness. The natural outpouring of this would be a very spontaneous ability to appreciate someone and to be sensitive to them in a way that one wasn’t before.
Safransky: Would someone be more inclined to fight injustice in the world?
Schwartz: There’s certainly no contradiction between the work I do and an indignation about injustice. But I would say that implicit in the work is the understanding that the creation of enemies has never solved a problem. We can look at history: after every enemy is vanquished the central problem still remains.
Safransky: When I interviewed James Hillman last year, he described someone going into a therapist’s office angry about the fact that there’s too much pollution, and the therapist says, “How does this remind you of when you were a child?” Hillman says this results in one less person who’s going to go out and fight pollution, because the passion has been placated.
Schwartz: I think there’s validity in that. I wouldn’t want anyone to think of what I’m doing as placating. But it’s also true that anger like that doesn’t necessarily lead to heroic acts of political courage. With or without therapy, people end up conflicted, confused, and helpless. There is something more than therapy and something more than political action. A greater possibility exists for all of us.
Rather than finding the causes of anger — your mother or your father or your past, or even pollution — I would say we can find a message in it. That is, there’s an energy in the anger which is a message — a hieroglyph from the universe. This may sound poetic, but it’s very real.
Most of what we call anger is mainly fantasy to start with. There’s also physical tightening against it. And underneath that there’s a kind of force, a very powerful movement, even a direction. If we can lift the fantasy and lift the tightening, we can come to the force.
All of our conflicts — whether about pollution or money or anything else — are an interplay between downward, restricting, limiting conditioning, and upward, ascending, creative urges. That is, between expansion and contraction.
Safransky: How would this apply to someone who’s being persecuted? Not just to someone contemplating the existence of injustice, but to someone actually suffering?
Schwartz: I’ve worked with people who have committed horrible crimes. I’ve worked with people who are the victims of crime — rich and poor. These understandings do not change. When self-acceptance and self-care form the basis of our response to what’s going on, there is a much greater opportunity to create and to move forward.
So many of us assume that hating our lives the way they are is a way out. Quite the opposite is true. Only more pain and more oppression come from such an internal stance. Deep and direct acceptance is not the opposite of creative action. It is the beginning of a new life.
We are most powerless when we believe what we’ve been told about ourselves, when we don’t find out what we really are and what life is about. The greatest power comes from approaching our own experience honestly and directly, not through the dictates of conditioning. It’s as possible for someone who’s poor as for someone who’s rich, for someone who is not educated as for someone who is. It’s fundamental. There’s a feeling. There’s an interpretation of that feeling. You locate the feeling in the body, breathe with it, listen to it as if it were a kind of message. The feeling becomes a guide. But its guidance is far different from the guidance which comes from the mind.
I’ve worked with people in prison, and I respect their anger. The anger — without the conditioning about what the anger is about, and without the physical close-down — is their key, their power, their strength. I would never seek passivity over anger.
I’ve always been very moved by stories of religious conversion. I’m particularly moved by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X went from a culturally-induced state of humiliation — believing that it was better to be white, that he was trash, that there was no life for him but in crime — to an unbelievably clean discipline and an orientation toward a higher goal than mere survival. In that ferocious discipline he imposed on himself, he was able to be a moving force for other people, highly inspirational.
Safransky: What if someone in one of your workshops were expressing racist sentiments? Are you still able to be respectful?
Schwartz: Absolutely. Until you respect it, there’s no room for change. Until you actually come to that person, acknowledging their stance, acknowledging why it arose and where it came from, there’s no way that person is going to trust you enough to get into that more marginal, vulnerable space.
Safransky: How would you define evil?
Schwartz: You can make a spiritually irresponsible statement about evil. For example, I’ve heard people say that Hitler was crying out for love. That may be true. But there was a massive anti-ecological, anti-evolutionary act that he brought into existence, and one could call that evil. There’s a danger in using the deepest level to excuse the other levels. So, it seems to me that there is evil. There are acts that oppose the flow of life and growth and human dignity. They must be dealt with courageously. They must be dealt with by warriors.
Safransky: Do you think there are occasions when killing is justified?
Schwartz: I think there are occasions when almost anything is justified.
Safransky: So your stance is not nonviolent?
Schwartz: My stance is totally nonviolent, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t raise the sword. This work is an exercise in nonviolence toward oneself — approaching everything we’ve called an enemy with absolute, undeviating love. It is an exercise in personal nonviolence, in treating oneself with the most unbelievable compassion. Yet one can raise the sword with compassion.
Safransky: Can one bring it down with compassion?
Schwartz: I think so. I think that’s rare, though, and one has to be very cautious about making that into a position. Gandhi said that if you keep yourself from raising the sword out of fear, then it’s better to raise the sword. Nonviolence is total fearlessness.
There are people who would try to bring nonviolence into the world, even though they can’t approach their own loneliness with complete nonviolence. How could they deal with somebody else in a nonviolent way? To know nonviolence means that you have no enemies inside yourself; that your loneliness, your grief, your anger are not your enemies.
Safransky: You were diagnosed with cancer recently and went through a harrowing ordeal. Were the principles of compassionate self-care available to you then?
Schwartz: I came into the hospital with a distinct and identifiable prejudice against the whole system. I didn’t care for the way most doctors practice medicine, or the way hospitals are currently set up. I still don’t. Part of the reason it took me so long to do something about my illness was that I knew instinctively it was going to lead me into that system. Finding myself on chemotherapy in the intensive care unit of a major New York City hospital was a direct violation of my beliefs.
When a belief system is violated by an experience, we can choose torment and conflict, or the return to something very simple. That choice, for me, involved caring for my feelings and my body at a level beyond meaning and ideas.
I had nothing to hang on to. I was being cured by what I hated, thrust into what I profoundly disagreed with. I could only carry myself through that encounter with the process of self-care. When I felt pain, fear, or loss I turned my attention to it and took care. Even when I was groggy from anesthesia, even when chemotherapy was being injected into my veins, that’s all I could do.
But to say that the self-care process “worked” is a kind of absurdity. It didn’t get me out of anything. It brought me into direct and compassionate contact with what was there — no filters, no distractions, no abstract ideas. What I found within myself wasn’t bad. My fear wasn’t bad. My loneliness wasn’t bad. My sadness wasn’t bad. My brush with death wasn’t bad. It just was.
When I was in the hospital during those ten days and became frightened by thoughts, I realized I couldn’t afford to indulge them. It was weakening to do so. The fear in the body wasn’t weakening, but the obsessive descriptions, speculations, and fantasies about what might be happening to me were indeed destructive. I had to return my attention over and over again to my body. That’s the only way I could take care of myself.
Safransky: Can you give me an example?
Schwartz: I’m told that I have a tumor larger than a basketball in my chest. I go into the hospital for a simple biopsy. I end up in the surgical intensive-care unit unable to speak, eat, or drink. I realize, from overhearing conversations, that I almost died on the operating table because my windpipe was twisted so tight. Chemotherapy is administered to me in the middle of the night, but I’m not even aware of it because I’m so out of it. Suddenly I begin to feel like my death is inevitable.
I’m confused and ill. I realize my wife and children really need me. I might very well die and leave them not taken care of properly. I think about my parents who live on the same property with us. They are going to have to bear the burden of my passing and, in a sense, of decisions I have previously made. All this becomes a roaring fantasy, a round of torment. Having that fantasy does not assist in recovery, nor does it make the situation better in any way. It actually worsens it. It’s an indulgence. It may appear to be realistic, but it’s not at all.
I know I’m speaking about an extreme circumstance, but it can serve as a metaphor for the way so much of our lives are lived. I was completely isolated, unable to communicate what was going on within me. At such a moment, obsessing about the situation is a complete turning against oneself and a denial of the real need at hand. My only resource was to breathe, come to the body, allow; to feel the fear and the pain, and not to engage in that kind of sabotage.
Safransky: Not everyone has had such a close call with death. But we all live with the knowledge — which we usually repress — that one day we’re going to die. How do we live more consciously with that fact?
Schwartz: I don’t think this can be done in an intellectual or philosophical way. People have developed some pretty mighty beliefs about dying, but you don’t go to death with your beliefs. Even your belief about whether there’s an afterlife doesn’t amount to anything when you’re touching up against the fact that the body is about to go. Any belief that is held out of fear or as a mental construct is wrenched away.
What you have really taken into yourself, absorbed in a true way, is carried with you. But if you’re holding on to a mere mental structure, it is dissolved. It’s no longer available.
It is not useful to hold on to beliefs. We can only keep coming to the mystery and doing the best we can. When you really need to take care of yourself, beliefs get in the way. They topple easily and leave you with something that can’t be explained — and that is what you must turn to in the end, anyway.
Safransky: You came close to dying just before entering the hospital.
Schwartz: I had fallen asleep at home one evening and my windpipe became almost totally constricted. It was impossible to breathe. My wife Donna heard me moan just a little bit. She leaned over and touched me and realized that my body was stiff. I was leaving.
My identity — who I assumed myself to be — had become quite diffuse and was expanding out into a field, a radiance surrounding my body. I could actually see my body behind me on the bed. It was gasping for air. But it had little to do with who I was anymore. I felt no particular attachment to it.
As I faded from my earth-bound identity and entered into something much bigger, I felt sorrow, but no fear. Then, in a way which doesn’t resemble our experience here on earth, I was given a choice. I didn’t know who was giving it to me or why. I could go back or continue on. It was as simple as that.
I knew suddenly that I had to go back. There was no need for deliberation or the complexities of thought. I had to return. It was then that Donna put her hands on my back and I saw myself being sucked into the body, being reformed and, in a way, restrained by my physical contours.
At other times during my illness, I was acutely aware of something lying on the other side of this physical realm. It was like an invitation. There was also, side by side with this invitation, a deep awareness of how precious life in this body really is. There was also fear. The recognition of the sacredness of this life and the fear of leaving it were two different things, however. My sense of life’s sacred value was not a fearful holding on to anything. It was soft.
Allowing ourselves to be without the familiar labels we use to define our lives, and especially our feelings, frees us from a reality which is largely made up. We can begin to experience ourselves as a living phenomenon, a mystery, something that can’t be understood along the usual lines. This is exactly what happens at the moment of death, and this is why even brief encounters with ourselves in an open way are so transformative. They offer the opportunity to be reborn.
As long as we keep looking at ourselves in the same old way, we lose eight of the ever-changing process of life. We are not static, framed, or caught. We can’t be boxed in for long. Insight and conceptual analysis relate to still frames. But this life is all change. Nothing ever remains the way it was even a few minutes before. Here lies the beauty and the fear, the adventure and the desire to hold back.
Safransky: There are so many myths about illness and healing. How has your recent experience changed your ideas about what it means to be sick?
Schwartz: Somewhere inside, I must have thought that I should have been exempt from a disease like cancer because of the way I had eaten and lived for so long. I could feel sometimes a kind of humiliation which arose from the contradiction between an image of myself and what was actually going on. I don’t feel that anymore at all. I am grateful that cancer came into my life. Nothing has had more power to transform, nothing else could bring such relief from the burden of unnecessary self-images. Cancer has been an ordeal of fire and a kind of grace as well.
The message of my work from the beginning has been that there is no relationship between the circumstances of one’s life and the level of spiritual development one has achieved. We can’t measure spirituality in terms of what happens to us. In fact, there is no way at all to judge where we are in spiritual terms. All we can do is treat our lives, both inner and outer, with deep compassion and acceptance. Nothing else really matters.
Life can throw very difficult challenges our way. Illnesses may come, great losses, changes of all sorts, but those situations are no indication that we’re holding negative beliefs or thinking negative thoughts. Such an approach to life is moralistic and abstract. It doesn’t really support the unity and mysterious purpose of all things.
Safransky: Eating a certain diet or living a certain way doesn’t make us invulnerable. There’s no protective shield.
Schwartz: After my stay at the hospital, I would return there for tests and see people on the street living in cardboard boxes, scavenging food from garbage cans, sitting around a fire drinking from dirty bottles. If this illness comes as a result of bad diet or negative thinking, I would wonder, why don’t those people have it? There is no human logic to any of these things. All we can do is participate, cooperate, and in so doing find the transcendent silence that swells in the heart of all things.
I am grateful, and I don’t mean this lightly, for having had to face this experience, but I would not want to go through it again, nor would I wish it on anybody, enemy or friend. It was a walk through fire. Nothing has ever brought me this kind of purification and change.
Safransky: Can you be more specific about how it has been a purification?
Schwartz: I want to be cautious in my response so as not to be misunderstood. There is something about suffering, taken in a certain spirit, that can be tremendously purifying. A more accurate statement might be that there was something purifying for me as I went through it. And it was not the illness alone that caused the suffering. It was the illness in combination with the chemotherapy.
I didn’t want to be in bed for six months. I wanted to feel the fullness of my life during this period of time. To stand up and to continue my work — even with the toxicity in my body — has been strengthening, not weakening. I had to find a force within, the will which made it possible to go on.
There were also certain things in my life that I had to clean up, but I couldn’t quite identify what they were. I just felt that there was something that wasn’t entirely clear, a subtle heaviness perhaps, and this has lifted it for me. Because I came so close to death in a conscious way, my priorities have gotten straightened out. It can happen very quickly. Lying on a bed with a respirator, unable to talk, with my family surrounding me, I was offered a sense of what is really important on this earth. You can feel the danger people put themselves in by making unimportant things seem important.
Safransky: With all the attention you give to the body, I can’t help but wonder why you didn’t know such a tumor existed.
Schwartz: I knew something was wrong. A part of me thought that I could deal with it myself. Interestingly, when I sat in meditation or with other people in the circles, the feeling of imbalance would go away. In my deepest internal connection, I would transcend it.
I would facilitate a weekend meeting, for instance, with no sign of the physical problem, and then, when the meeting ended, I’d get a fever. The fever would continue for about four days then go away. This pattern went on for a year.
During that time the fevers never felt like an illness. It was like being at the edge of something, an extreme delicacy. I’ve felt much sicker from having the flu.
Also, as I explained earlier, I had a profound philosophical disagreement with the medical system. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital.
In some peculiar way, going all the way with this was important to me. I don’t know why, but it was. I wonder sometimes if I had discovered the tumor earlier, when it was relatively small, whether I would feel the kind of expansiveness and lightness that I do today. There’s something powerful about going all the way down and coming up the other side.
At any rate, it’s impossible to make sense of this in any conceptual way. In trying, it becomes twisted and unrelated to the actuality of the experience.
Donna and I used to walk at night together along River Road, just at the edge of the Hudson River. We would stop to look at the Tappan Zee Bridge and watch the golden lights spanning the water. We would pretend for a while that we didn’t know anything about where we were or what we were doing there, and suddenly the bridge would become a jeweled necklace, a thing of exquisite and natural beauty. It was no longer the concrete structure we had seen so many times before. A new meaning permeated everything, as if we were in a dream.
I contemplate the last few months in this way sometimes. What if it had been a dream? What would it all mean? How could I tell it to others so that it could be felt and understood deeply? I can’t answer these questions in a concrete way, but during those periods of contemplation, all the memories have a different tone than they do when I dwell on the “whys” and question all the decisions I’ve made.
You know, Sy, when you asked me about the sensitivity to my body and why this came about in the way it did, I have to say that I truly don’t know how I do the work I do. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s just there. But I don’t feel removed or different from anyone else. My role is different, perhaps, but the needs, the dreams, the hopes are exactly the same. I am not necessarily going to handle what happens to me in the world any better than somebody else. I don’t even know that there is a better way to handle anything. I am out there doing what I can against the backdrop of an incredible mystery. And that’s the way it should be.