Sam Keen’s personal odyssey from theology professor to countercultural journalist to reluctant icon of the burgeoning men’s movement to, most recently, aspiring trapeze artist is the kind myths are made of. So it seems fitting that the unifying theme of his many books is the idea of life as a mythic journey.
Keen believes that our lives are shaped — and occasionally misshaped — by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s only by becoming intimately acquainted with the narratives handed down from our families, our cultural backgrounds, and our religious beliefs that we can begin to live consciously and, as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “unfold our own myth.” Unless we understand our lives as a kind of autobiography in the making, we’re likely to take refuge in other people’s stories, ready-made ideologies, and unexamined systems of belief.
Keen admits that his philosophy is a personal one that grew out of his own unique experiences. “The only life about which I have inside information is my own. Therefore, I must find the meaning of life on my home ground,” he insists. “If I have a method that runs through all my writings, it’s this habit of returning again and again to the happenings that provide the raw material and the stories that make my life uniquely my own.”
The stories of Keen’s life — as he has documented them in such books as Apology for Wonder, Hymns to an Unknown God, Beginnings without End, and the bestseller Fire in the Belly — are those of a restless soul, a nonconformist, a lover of questions. Born into a deeply religious family in the American South, Keen attended Harvard Divinity School and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Princeton University. In the late 1960s, after a brief stint as a professor of theology, he dropped out of the academic world and moved to the West Coast, becoming, as he put it, “engulfed in the California madness.” He took up freelancing for Psychology Today and other magazines and quickly made a name for himself as a trenchant participant-observer of the human-potential movement and a sharp-witted interviewer of some of its more influential therapists, teachers, and religious leaders. He also began conducting seminars on personal mythology with his friend and mentor Joseph Campbell.
But in spite of his long-standing affiliation — one might even say romance — with the cultural and spiritual frontier, Keen is notoriously impatient with the clichés and false consolations that often pass for wisdom. To maintain our sanity today, he says, we need a “spiritual bullshit detector.” In a world of cults, gurus, and self-help programs, we need to be mindful of how received beliefs often get in the way of true understanding. As he sees it, real wisdom is born of “epistemological humility” — of bewilderment in the face of life’s enduring mysteries. The paradox of self-knowledge is that it’s only by confronting the depths of our own ignorance that we can begin to glimpse the essential truth of who we are. Knowing, as the mystics have always said, begins with not knowing.
At sixty-seven, Keen carries himself with the authority of age, though he still hasn’t lost his good looks and robust physique. When I met him at his sixty-acre ranch north of San Francisco, he led me down to his small writing cottage next to a gurgling creek and overlooking the oak-dotted hills of Sonoma County. Along the way, he showed me the object of his latest passion: a full flying-trapeze rig.
His new book, Learning to Fly, details how he discovered trapeze late in life — two months shy of his sixty-second birthday — after seeing a television feature about the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. “My emerging passion was not unlike falling in love,” he laughs: “a bit of ecstasy and a lot of foolishness.”
In Keen’s view, flying trapeze is more than a mere recreational sport; it’s a vehicle for profound inner discovery and transformation. Learning to fly involves cultivating equanimity, trust, and the willingness to let go — in the real sense of the term. The challenge and the thrill of trapeze lie in overcoming our resistance and becoming “connoisseurs of fear.”
Today Keen heads a local trapeze troupe and an Upward Bound program for troubled kids and abused women. He also hosts weekly classes, led by professional instructors, for men and women who want to learn the aerial arts. The lure of philosophy isn’t very different from the lure of the trapeze, he muses. “They both promise freedom, release from the mundane — a winged existence.”
London: You once described yourself as the sort of person who demands “a repertoire of ideas, a collection of myths, and a map of the path of life.” Yet you’ve devoted much of your life to challenging accepted ideas, reassessing collective myths, and forging your own way.
Keen: I was brought up within the Southern fundamentalist Christian tradition, which was a very monolithic culture with an unbroken mythology. So I grew up as a “believer.” But there was one fly in the ointment: I had a very questioning mind. The more questions I asked, the more I disturbed the people around me. The questions that disturbed people the most became the ones I most wanted to answer.
I gradually broke out of that narrow Christianity, and the experience inoculated me against any form of “true belief.” So even though, as a journalist, I interviewed many well-known teachers in the 1960s — Carlos Castaneda, Herbert Marcuse, Joseph Campbell — I wasn’t drawn into their systems of belief. My education and my practice of journalism allowed me to look objectively at many different systems and cults and see how they were put together.
London: During that time, you began working in an area you called “personal mythology.”
Keen: Yes, in the late sixties I started giving workshops to help people discover their own stories or “scripts.” I later came to call this “writing your own autobiography.” I think we’re always in the process of writing and rewriting the story of our lives, forming our experiences into a narrative that makes sense.
London: Twenty-five years ago, you described the mood in America as a kind of “national neurosis.” “The human-potential movement,” you wrote, “is stirring up every conceivable emotion, and everywhere advocates of a new consciousness are predicting the dawning of a new age.” What, if anything, has changed?
Keen: I think the big picture has changed. The landscape today is more confusing and more pluralistic. In the sixties, we had a groundswell of interest in new-age religion, and we had a reactionary group trying to preserve “traditional American values.” Now there are three major forces, with their associated beliefs, competing for our allegiance. One is the secular “econocentric” or “technocentric” view: a blind faith in the free-market economy, in technological fixes to the world’s problems, and in much of the hype now surrounding the Internet. Information is seen as the new messiah. Like Jesus, it’s absolutely pure and white and unambiguously good. And, like the grace of God, information is democratically available to all people and will soon penetrate the dark corners of the earth. Again we have the white man’s burden, in which it is our duty to spread the glories of the information age to all the dark and “underdeveloped” countries. Then, once the flow of information is complete, everyone will be wealthy, because information is infinite. That is the dominant secular myth today.
London: It’s the great dream of progress.
Keen: Yes, the idea that things are always getting better and better. It’s interesting that the worse things get, the more we believe that the next technological fix is going to get us out of it. But it’s like being stuck in quicksand: the more you struggle, the deeper you sink.
The second major competitor for our loyalties is religious fundamentalism — of all types — emerging as a dominant political force. All over the world we see a return to absolutism, to authority, to the desire to have the word of God represented in government. We see it in Islam, in Christianity, and in Judaism.
And the third force is what I call the spiritual revolution. Part of it is the old new-age movement — the searching, the transcendentalism, the explosion of different gurus, and so on. Look in any big-city news weekly, and you’ll find hundreds of spiritual options advertised — everything from UFOs to crystals to Zen meditation to gurus who have all the answers. But the spiritual revolution is a lot more than just the new-age bandwagon. It also includes the new quantum physics, the ecological movement, and “systems thinking,” all of which force us to realize that we’re not living in a piecemeal world, but a world where everything is linked together. If we don’t preserve forest habitat for spotted owls, for instance, then soon we won’t have trees to refresh the air we breathe. And we’re realizing that this applies to social ecology, as well.
London: Many of the great themes that surfaced in the sixties have made a comeback in recent years. I’m thinking of personal growth, Eastern religions, right livelihood, voluntary simplicity, community values, and so on. How is the environment different today?
Keen: I think that in some ways we’ve been disillusioned since the sixties. The sixties was a very optimistic and naive time. We hadn’t really confronted evil as a culture. Since then, we’ve been forced to look at the dark side of things in a new way, with the AIDS epidemic and Kosovo and Somalia, and so on. So today there is a kind of realism that I don’t think we had in the sixties.
I also think more people are working on real alternatives today than in the sixties. Back then, we had people hoping and dreaming and going off to psychedelic communes, but about all they created was a bunch of beaded belts and Indian-bedspread dresses. Hippie culture really wasn’t fundamentally creative, because it was stuck in a rebellious phase. It was a good rebellion, but we thought we were going to change the world by entertainment and rock bands and dances and acid, and that’s not serious politics.
London: You pointed out that American culture is more confusing and pluralistic today. Some feel that this diversity has deprived us of a shared cultural narrative, a common story.
Keen: That’s both good news and bad news. Cultures that have a unifying cultural narrative are stable in some ways, but they are also resistant to change. The fact that we don’t have a unifying myth today allows us to create new stories from direct experience.
For the past several years, I’ve been leading groups into Bhutan, a country that has probably the most intact cultural myth of any place I’ve been. It’s an agricultural society where more than 90 percent of the people still own land. The government is a monarchy with a Tibetan Buddhist mythology. For the Bhutanese, reality is simply what it always has been and always will be. In that sense, they are spared the kind of self-doubt that seems part and parcel of our predicament in the West. They are brought up knowing who they are and how the world works. And there is an innocent beauty in that. But there is also a certain foreshortening of experience.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the development of Western thought has washed away more and more of the certainties of our own religious myths. Our pilgrimage has led us deep into unknown territories. We have to reinvent ourselves. That’s a very tiring and anxious process, but it also grants us a kind of freedom that no other culture has. So for all the chaos that comes from not having an organizing myth, there is also an enormous opportunity for creativity.
London: Are there any good candidates for a new organizing myth?
Keen: As far as I can see, the most likely one comes out of the ecological movement, with its sense of the sacredness of the earth and the interconnectedness of all things. But that is an emerging myth and still a long way from becoming dominant. The myth of progress remains the strongest myth in the industrialized world. We assume that, even if things are bad today, at some point in the future, they’ll turn around.
London: So our optimism is rooted in that myth?
Keen: That’s right. We keep assuming that, eventually, we are going to find the right road.
In a way, human beings have never been part of the natural order; we’re not biological in the normal sense. Normal biological animals stop eating when they’re not hungry and stop breeding when there’s no sense in breeding. Human beings, by contrast, are what I think of as “biomythic” animals: we’re controlled largely by the stories we tell. When we get the story wrong, we get out of harmony with the rest of the natural order. For a long time, our unnatural behavior did not threaten the natural world, but now it does:
London: When you travel across the country today and listen to people’s stories, what do you hear?
Keen: A little bit of everything. The extremes are the most obvious. There is the extreme of hopelessness and the inevitability of doom, a deep despair that comes from the sense that our industrial, consumer society is jeopardizing the planet. There is also a despair that rises from what has become a perpetual underclass. Then there is the splintering of national identities, which is creating more and more ethnic warfare.
On the other hand, I also find a lot of hope. There are many people who have looked at the darkness of our history and decided to live differently, to seek some kind of spiritual underpinning for their lives. This usually involves a conscious quest for alternative ways of understanding and living their lives.
Our men’s group started out because two or three of us were having trouble with the women we were relating to (or, rather, not relating to). A few of us got together, and each invited someone else, and pretty soon we had a group of eight or ten men. Over the years, we began to experience an intimacy with each other. We realized that there were a lot of things we had demanded of women, in terms of understanding us, that they couldn’t give, but that other men could give. And as we began to explore the kind of intimacy that friendship gave us, we found it relieved a lot of the pressure on our relationships with women.
London: Like your own late-blooming passion for the trapeze. How did that come about?
Keen: I’d fantasized about being a trapeze artist ever since my dad took me to the circus when I was a kid. The image of a man leaving the trapeze and flying to the waiting grasp of a “catcher” really stuck in my mind. It represented something profound, having to do with my desire for freedom.
Throughout my life, I’ve had different metaphors for freedom. At one time, it was skin diving. In the ocean, you feel weightless; you escape from gravity. I also love horses and used to own a remote ranch in the Cascades. There has always been a part of me that saw wilderness and risk taking as the path to freedom.
I think the trapeze is just the culmination of that. It’s a discipline that keeps you on the edge all the time. For instance, just yesterday I tried a trick I hadn’t done in a year, and I fell and bruised my ribs. So I’m kind of tender today. It reminds me that, if you want to be free, there is always a little bit of risk, and that you have to remain alert.
London: In Learning to Fly, you describe trapeze as a model for a new kind of sport — or “public liturgy” — that emphasizes beauty and cooperation rather than violence and competition.
Keen: Yes, I think trapeze could provide an excellent liturgy for a new society. Our present public liturgies, like football and basketball, are a kind of ritualized violence. One side has to beat the other. In trapeze, men and women cooperate to create something of transcendent beauty. A great trapeze act is a kind of performance art. Like a Navajo sand painting, it shows you something of exquisite beauty that lasts only for an instant and then is gone.
London: You say in your book that trapeze has taught you more about yourself than psychotherapy.
Keen: Well, that’s probably an overstatement, because psychotherapy has been a wonderful help in my life. But you come to a certain point where you can no longer learn from that interior mode. Trapeze is a physical mode where every day I have to face fear, limits, trust, and the exhilarating feeling of taking risks and trying new things.
London: If it’s so exhilarating, why don’t more of us do it?
Keen: Most of us avoid fear. We worship the god of security. Instead of facing our fears, we walk around with a kind of free-floating anxiety. It’s much more therapeutic to recognize that we have fears and to try to separate out the ones that are reasonable from the ones that are not. I think we have to become connoisseurs of fear.
London: You’ve started a program that teaches trapeze to troubled kids and abused women. What can they gain from “learning to fly”?
Keen: The same thing as anyone else, essentially. Many of the abused women in the program were afraid of loneliness and of not being able to take care of themselves, so they stayed in abusive relationships. Trapeze helped them discover that being alone and independent is less frightening than an abusive relationship. They also learned something about trust. One woman said to me, “I don’t trust men. I think they’re after me all the time. But having men on the safety lines, helping me on the board, and catching me has made me reevaluate my attitude.”
Troubled kids typically talk about getting high: “I never knew there was another way to get high except by drugs.” They talk about how much better trapeze is because they don’t get hung over and feel ashamed. They also increase their self-esteem by doing something they didn’t think they could do.
London: In Hymns to an Unknown God, you ask: “Is it possible in this chaotic day and age to have a sense of the sacred in everyday life, or do we have to check our spirits and our gods at the workplace door?” Much of what we call spirituality today takes place only one day a week, or after work, when the kids are in bed, or when we’re off meditating on our own. Is it possible to make it an integral part of everyday life?
Keen: I think there is a deep yearning today to figure out how to make a real connection with the sacred. I hear many men say, “I have a good job and make a living, but it doesn’t mean anything to me; I want something with meaning, something I have a reason for doing.” But our society has been eaten up by the economic view of things, which routinely forces us to work at jobs that don’t mean anything. I think we’re inevitably going to be depressed when we focus the major part of our energy and attention on something that doesn’t give us meaning, but only material things.
We have to return, I think, to the difficult idea of right livelihood, which Buddhists talk about, or the Christian idea of vocation. The first questions we must ask ourselves are “What’s my life about?” and “What gives me meaning?” Only after that should we ask, “How do I make a living?” and “How do I provide for myself?”
London: We have to ask the questions in the correct order.
Keen: Right. It’s perfectly possible to spend forty hours a week on a job that’s meaningless, as long as you know what your real vocation is and find some way to express it. Then you won’t confuse your job with the meaning of your life. Furthermore, when you get these things clear, maybe you can begin to better express your true vocation in your workplace — by insisting on the importance of making moral decisions, for instance, or by doing business in a way that recognizes the reality of the human spirit and not just of the bottom line.
London: In Fire in the Belly, you wrote of the “absence of an abiding sense of meaning” as the central source of men’s alienation today. Isn’t this equally true for women?
Keen: Yes, men have experienced this dilemma for a longer time, but as women have begun to define themselves increasingly according to the values of the marketplace, it has become a dilemma for them, as well.
Fire in the Belly was an effort to look at gender and the problems that confront men in this society. It was an attempt to chronicle the spiritual — or, at least, the psychological — path that men have to travel to get rid of some of the disastrous ideas and feelings that go with being a man today. My society and my parents gave me a certain myth of maleness that I imbibed unconsciously from the time I was born. Now I have to demythologize that; I have to dig up that unconscious conditioning and decide how much of it is congruent with who I think I am, and how much of it has to be thrown away. I think a good therapist can help with that. As a matter of fact, a good therapist did help me.
But there are some things that are part of the human condition, whether we are male or female. When we deal with spirituality, for instance, we’re dealing with something that doesn’t involve gender.
London: But aren’t gender questions also part of our spiritual search? After all, we can’t truly understand ourselves unless we understand our roles within the community, within the family, and within intimate relationships.
Keen: Absolutely. I think people too often embark on spiritual journeys before they have taken what I call the “psychological journey.” To use Freud’s metaphor of the house with three stories, such people want to skip the first two floors — the id and the ego — and go directly to the third story: metaphysics and the spiritual. You can always tell who these people are because they act very angelic and overly spiritual. They’re more interested in things like “archetypes” than in the body, or politics.
So we have to develop good, strong egos by exploring the unconscious, gender roles, and so forth before we can begin to let all that go. But a spiritual question like “What is death?” has nothing to do with gender. We all have great mythic questions that don’t have anything to do with gender: Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is of value? How am I wounded? How am I healed? Who are my people? What is my place?
London: Fire in the Belly grew out of your long-term experience in a men’s group.
Keen: Yes, we’ve been getting together every Wednesday night for more than twenty years. It’s more than just a men’s group; it’s a community, in the sense that we’re relating to each other on a continuing basis. What’s most important is that we just show up for each other. Sometimes it’s an evening of complete hilarity, or it can be very serious. It’s not even that we all like each other. There are people in the group I wouldn’t particularly choose to be with for an evening. But there is something valuable that happens when people just show up for each other.
Buddhists say, “Desires are endless; I vow to put an end to them.” But when I’m in a gorgeous shop, I can’t — I want to satisfy them all! We live in a pornographic culture that is constantly trying to stimulate us to desire things. Society tells me, “You can satisfy all your desires; you can have it all.” Being pretty successful, I can, of course, afford some luxuries. But I realize again and again how we have to disillusion ourselves of the idea that these things are going to give us real satisfaction.
London: My sense is that personal relationships have become loaded today — particularly for men — because we look to them as our sole source of intimacy. When we can’t turn to friends and to our larger communities for caring, trust, and support, we tend to burden our intimate relationships with more than they can handle, which makes them prone to failure.
Keen: Exactly. Our men’s group started out because two or three of us were having trouble with the women we were relating to (or, rather, not relating to). A few of us got together, and each invited someone else, and pretty soon we had a group of eight or ten men. Over the years, we began to experience an intimacy with each other. We realized that there were a lot of things we had demanded of women, in terms of understanding us, that they couldn’t give, but that other men could give. And as we began to explore the kind of intimacy that friendship gave us, we found it relieved a lot of the pressure on our relationships with women. There are all kinds of intimacies that we need; sexual intimacy is only one. When we load too much onto it, we can destroy it.
London: So we need to deepen our understanding of intimacy.
Keen: In our society, we’ve become myopic and obsessed with one particular kind of love: dyadic love, which takes the form of romance, sex, and marriage. As a result, we end up asking all the wrong questions. Books about relationships talk about how to “get” the love you need, how to “keep” love, and so on. But the right question to ask is “How do I become a more loving human being?” When you ask that question, it changes the way you think about and pursue love, making it much more complex.
Another way to think about love is in terms of what I call “co-autobiography.” To really love a person completely is to come to a point where your stories are intertwined. For instance, I can’t tell my story without telling the story of my wife; we’ve created a common narrative.
London: You once described love as appreciating the mystery of another person. In that sense, to love somebody means to accept that we may never understand him or her.
Keen: That’s true. When we really look at the people we know best, we discover that, despite the time we’ve spent with them, they remain utterly mysterious to us. The deepest mystery comes not when we don’t know somebody well, but when we do. For instance, my wife and I have been together for a long time, and in some ways I know her very well. But there is also a way in which she is utterly mysterious to me: I don’t understand why she is the way she is, or why she does the things she does.
I think that is one of the discoveries you make in sexual relationships: something happens between you at a deep level, far beyond what you’re physically doing together. You don’t come out of the deepest kind of sexual loving knowing any more about the other person; you come out wondering, Where did this come from?
I’ve betrayed plenty of people by assuming I knew them. And I did know them well. But by “knowing” them, I confined them to a kind of box.
London: The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a different view on this. He believes that you can’t truly love unless you understand the other person.
Keen: Well, both perspectives are true. In To Love and Be Loved, I talk about the importance of knowledge, understanding, and empathy, so that you essentially become the biographer of the person whom you love deeply. In that sense, the collecting of knowledge is very necessary. It’s entirely different from the romantic myth, in which you don’t know somebody and therefore idealize him or her.
London: I would think that this applies to self-knowledge, as well: encountering the mysteries within ourselves is an essential part of knowing who we are.
Keen: Absolutely. When I was young I thought I knew who I was and what I believed: I was a Christian. I believed in God the Father, the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, and so on. I thought I knew exactly who I was. But it turns out I was wrong!
Since then, I’ve spent my life cultivating knowledge of myself. But the more I know myself, the more utterly mysterious I become: Where did I come from? Where do these capacities come from? Where do these tastes come from? Where did the liveliness of my life come from? Where did the Sam Keen-ness of me come from? I can tell you all about my past, but that is no answer to these questions.
Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and say, “How can it be that I fetched up such an incredibly privileged position in human history? I live with a kind of comfort and privilege that not 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of human beings have ever had. I get to do what I want to do. I have friends who love me, a wife who loves me, children, a farm. How come?”
The new-age answer is something like “You deserve it; you’ve worked hard.” Well, that’s bullshit. I know people who’ve worked ten times harder than I have and suffered a thousand times more, and who don’t have anything.
The more we chase away the false certainties — those things we think we know about ourselves and others — the more mysterious our existence becomes.
London: You once said that you understood yourself better at thirty than you do today.
Keen: That’s right. But it is exactly the things that I was certain of at thirty that turned out to be wrong. For instance, at thirty I knew that I would never be divorced — that experience simply wasn’t morally permissible in my world. But I did get divorced. At thirty I also didn’t have any concept of real depression. But that didn’t stop me from becoming depressed in my midthirties, following the death of my father. At thirty I lived in a world where death wasn’t immediately real; it was always something “out there.” My deeply held illusions of immortality — a product of my very conservative religious upbringing — were still pretty much intact.
The philosopher William James talked about the difference between the “once-born” and the “twice-born” — the difference between the sunny-minded and those who dip into the darkness. I’m one of the latter, a creature who believes in the darkness. Darkness is the place you find renewal.
London: But isn’t that true for everybody?
Keen: I’m not sure. I think there are families that are very kind and supportive of people’s ability to change. People who come from such families may go through life without dipping into the dark night. But I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be “once-born” and also explore the path of the spirit, because our secular society has such a hold on us.
London: In what way?
Keen: I notice it every time I go into a mall, for instance, and beautiful items reach out and grab me. Buddhists say, “Desires are endless; I vow to put an end to them.” But when I’m in a gorgeous shop, I can’t — I want to satisfy them all! We live in a pornographic culture that is constantly trying to stimulate us to desire things. Society tells me, “You can satisfy all your desires; you can have it all.” Being pretty successful, I can, of course, afford some luxuries. But I realize again and again how we have to disillusion ourselves of the idea that these things are going to give us real satisfaction.
So even if we come from good families where we have been supported well, there is a disillusionment we have to undergo in terms of the culture’s values. We have to get beyond our cultural mythology to find out who we are. “Writing my own autobiography,” as I call it, necessarily involves demythologizing my family’s history, my culture’s history, and even my own history to get to this deeper layer. So I think it’s increasingly hard to have deep self-knowledge without entering the darkness in some way.
London: In Hymns to an Unknown God, there is a wonderful cartoon titled “Going beyond a Shadow of Doubt.” It depicts doubt as a peak in the desert casting a long shadow. Beyond the shadow are two landmarks: “certainties” and “convictions.” Beyond these is the abyss “where all certainties must be abandoned.” One must cross the abyss to reach the green grass of wisdom on the other side.
Keen: That’s right. When you genuinely lose your illusions, you begin to marvel at things, because you don’t have the answers anymore. So, yes, the abyss beyond our beliefs is something we have to pass through in order to see the world anew, to see it in terms not dictated so much by our culture, our parents, or our religious convictions.
Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. I believe it also ends in wonder. The ultimate way in which we relate to the world as something sacred is by renewing our sense of wonder. That’s why I’m so opposed to the kind of miracle-mongering we find in both new-age and old-age religion. We’re attracted to pseudomiracles only because we’ve ceased to wonder at the world, at how amazing it is.
London: Do you think a lot about growing older?
Keen: Yes, sure. When I started learning trapeze, for instance, everybody kept telling me, “You’re too old to be doing that.” So I had to break through the mythology of age.
London: Do you mean ageism?
Keen: Yes. In America, age is a time of obsolescence. To a large extent, the aged in our society are ghettoized. Old people are seen as useless, bypassed by history, old-fashioned, in the way. So, not surprisingly, when we reach the official mark of old age, we’re supposed to “go gentle into that good night,” to get off center stage and hand over the spotlight. 0ld age is also surrounded by shame — the myth of impotence and inability.
But contrast the American view of aging with the Chinese view. For the Chinese, age is a time of great honor. Tai chi, for instance, is a metaphor for age. You’re supposed to be more flexible as you grow older. You’re supposed to slow down so you can be conscious of every movement and live in greater awareness. That is a very different view of aging than we have in America.
London: So how does an old dog keep learning new tricks?
Keen: I think you have to keep asking, “What is unfulfilled in me? What haven’t I done?” It’s the idea of a calling: what is it that appeals to you, that calls to you? Look for the vacuum in your life and move into those areas. It takes some courage, but there comes a point at which you have to make that leap.
I have a wealthy friend who was vice-president of a large bank. Eight years ago, he had $2 million, but he told me he couldn’t possibly retire until he had $3 million — anything to postpone the leap.
London: You’ve said that the path to personal freedom involves two steps: The first is to question authority. The second is to overthrow authority.
Keen: For some people, the third step is to become an authority! [Laughter.]
London: But what about the authority of great teachers, the authority of tradition, the authority of those with more experience than ourselves? How can we overthrow someone with the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama, for instance?
Keen: The word authority comes from the word author: an authority is someone who authors our collective story, telling us what is true. But I don’t care if it’s the Dalai Lama or the pope or Einstein: when I come to an authority, I’m going to listen, but I’m also going to ask questions.
I think the Dalai Lama is a marvelous person with an enormous amount of wisdom and spiritual depth. The same is true of Thich Nhat Hanh. But I also think there are things they say that are nonsense.
Keen: Yes, I think that the suspicion of sexuality that runs through their tradition is an old and unseemly prejudice: it’s a hidden fear of women, and a rejection of this world.
For instance, the other day, I was writing about the first noble truth of Buddhism — that life is suffering. The Buddha was absolutely right: life is suffering. And in America we don’t acknowledge that. Unfortunately, Buddhism doesn’t teach us the equally important truth that life is pleasurable. We have to develop not only compassion, an awareness of suffering and the will to do something about it; we must also develop our sensuality, our utter enjoyment and celebration of the beauty of this world. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are both good on suffering, but they don’t teach me much about the sacred vocation of sensuality.
London: There is a certain sensuality to Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice of mindfulness, though. He says that mindfulness is a way of heightening the sensation of grass under one’s bare feet, for example, or the taste of food as it is being eaten.
Keen: That’s true; there is a sensuality in Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy — but no sexuality that I find. I just read his recent book, in which he talks about his attraction to a nun, and there is (as in Roman Catholicism) a kind of a priori assumption that a religious life is incompatible with a sexual life.
London: You have said that the real challenge today isn’t to attain spiritual mastery in some far-off monastery, but to do it right here in the midst of everyday life. Yet this idea runs counter to what many of us have learned from Eastern religions and Christian mysticism, which is that we have to withdraw from the world in order to experience the sacred.
Keen: I put the paradox this way: the spiritual journey is one that we must take “alone together,” in the same way that a good marriage involves a dance between solitude and communion. The life of the spirit entails a continuous alternation between retreating into oneself and going out into the world: it’s an inward-outward journey. There is a solitary part to it, but that solitude helps us to develop richer and more in-depth relationships with our friends, our children, our community, and the political world. It’s always a back-and-forth.
London: It also seems to be a dance between knowing and not knowing, between believing and wondering.
Keen: Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. I believe it also ends in wonder. The ultimate way in which we relate to the world as something sacred is by renewing our sense of wonder. That’s why I’m so opposed to the kind of miracle-mongering we find in both new-age and old-age religion. We’re attracted to pseudomiracles only because we’ve ceased to wonder at the world, at how amazing it is.
London: How can we recapture that sense of wonder?
Keen: I try to steer away from high metaphysical beliefs because I think we humans do best when we realize that we don’t know all that much. So much violence and hatred is caused by people having to know the ways of God and then force them on their neighbors. Wonder, to me, is that spiritual stance or disposition which renders us humble in the face of things, and also thankful. In my mind, to try to live that way is what it means to follow a sacred path.
London: The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart observed that “the idea of God can become the final obstacle to God.”
Keen: Yes, our ideas about God are always pathetically inadequate. There is no way that the human imagination can fathom the Ultimate. I remember when I took LSD back in the sixties. One of the things it made me realize was that even the psychedelic imagination doesn’t touch the edge of the true reality; it’s just a slightly different form of the human imagination. So when we imagine God, what are we imagining? The great mystics all recognized that you’ve eventually got to throw all images away.
One passage I love in Thomas Aquinas is where he talks for some thirteen pages or more about how you name God. At the end of it, he quotes Dionysius the Areopagite: “But in the end we remain joined to Him as to one unknown.”
How can we think about that which is ultimate and that which is sacred in ways that don’t hinder our being open to that reality? I think we constantly have to erase the images we have. Thinking about the sacred is a process that has to be poetic rather than dogmatic. The great mistake of dogmatism is that it latches on to an idea of God and says, “That’s it!” Now, if you believe in that idea, you have to conform to it, no matter what else you might learn or experience.
The spiritual mind is always metaphorical. Spiritual thinking is poetic thinking. It’s always trying to put a very diaphanous experience into words, realizing all the while that words are inadequate. So if you have an idea of God you think is adequate, it’s not. I think we have to trust ourselves to reside in the darkness of not knowing. The God out of which we came and into which we go is an unknown God. It’s the luminosity of that darkness and that unknowing that is, I think, the most human — and the most sacred — place of all.
This interview will appear in Saga: Best New Writings on Mythology, edited by Jonathan Young, forthcoming from White Cloud Press.