Dr. Thompson gave another talk earlier in the day, and was asked some questions afterwards. I kept the tape recorder on. Then we sat down for an interview.
Questioner: You’ve been a supporter of Jerry Brown. What’s your view of him right now?
Thompson: For a while I felt that he waffled on every issue and he wasn’t doing anything and he wasn’t going anywhere. A lot of his kick-ass friends as opposed to his kiss-ass friends have forced him to see the need to try to put it together. Of all the candidates, he’s the only one who at least isn’t looking in the rear view mirror. Even though he can’t become President, as Her Majesty’s royal opposition, as a voice, he’s a very good transformer. I think he is sincerely trying.
Californians don’t like him because he’s never there. So at the same time he’s running for President he’s losing his own constituency. But if he were to take off the two years — say from ’82 to ’84 — and not run for the Senate, which would make him seem like an opportunist just looking for a base from which to run for the Presidency two years later, but just travel around the world, because he’s never had much interaction in an international context, and really just educated himself, then, after the seasoning of having lost, by 1984 he could be a really solid, mature Presidential candidate.
He’s running out of money. He doesn’t have enough money to run for President — I mean he’s got a really ragtag group. A bunch of kids who are the local Celestial Seasonings distributors who drive him around from meeting to meeting. And that’s his Presidential campaign in Maine. The media don’t like him, so he’s never in Time or Newsweek. You know, they’ll always talk about Kennedy-Carter and you’ll never even see his photograph. It’s like he didn’t exist. That isn’t by accident. And so when I see him up against that kind of stuff, then my sympathies are activated.
SUN: Are you saying it’s a conscious conspiracy?
Thompson: It’s a conscious conspiracy to keep him out and not give him a lot of media attention because they don’t like him and they’re afraid of him and he irritates that kind of East Coast journalist who writes for the New York Times or Time or Life or CBS.
Questioner: They aren’t fair to Brown but they are fair to someone like Anderson.
Thompson: But Anderson is Illinois grassroots American twice-born Christian.
Questioner: It seems like they’re scared by Bush.
Thompson: I would hope so. But there again it would be the difference between Texas and the East. Those cultural regions are still powerful. One of the reasons David Rockefeller had to decide to gain power through the Democratic Party rather than through the Republican was that in the South the Rockefellers are so hated. And in Tulsa and Houston and L.A., too, the fury against Nelson is just. . . . People foam at the mouth. So that there was no possible way that Nelson could become President. So the only way to work the kind of rescue operation for international capitalism was to set up the Trilateral Commission and get Brzezinski and work through the Democratic party, work through the left and try to come in with a disguised popular Southern guy like Jimmy Carter to take away votes in the Bible Belt. And that was a very successful strategy. It worked. Alas, they’re very clever.
Questioner: You think Carter’s been duped.
Thompson: Yeah, I think he was duped. I think one of the reasons he’s a successful dupe is he’s sincere; and he believes and doesn’t realize he’s being used and, therefore, he is very successful at duping others. Carter — a one-term governor of the state of Georgia that nobody has ever heard about — suddenly makes it; he had an extraordinarily early start, and enough money to get elected.
Questioner: He did get good press from Time-Life.
Thompson: He sure did. He had big coverage in The New York Times. Time-Life is the Trilateral Commission. Many of the members of Time-Life are members of the Commission. That’s the way the establishment always works. They did it in the British Empire, too. The Americans didn’t invent the interlocking directorate of the old boy network. But it’s very powerful. I hope he doesn’t win again. But I certainly don’t want Bush. So, you always end up with nobody that’s really very attractive.
SUN: Back to the world as a whole. Do you think we’re going to make it?
Thompson: My feeling is that we’re headed into a discontinous transition. But anybody living inside one has to try to work for a continuous transition. You go ahead, knowing better, even though the enormous probability is that it will be highly catastrophic. .
To tell the truth, I’m fifty-fifty. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I’m apocalyptic. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I think we’re going to muddle through.
Questioner: I think I heard you say that if the ecological view takes over, it could go in one of two directions.
Thompson: It already has split. Every field has its positive and negative pole. There are lots of ecologists who are manipulative, deterministic, mechanistic people who regard ecosystems as complex machines and they’re no different from anything else. This kind of ecologist is like the biologist who says the brain is nothing but a computer made out of meat. Those kinds of scientists are all over the place.
SUN: What would be the emotional analogue, in terms of personal relationship, to the kinds of shifts that you’re talking about in the cultural and economic and ecological spheres?
Thompson: First is the emotional relationship with nature or the universe, which would come from ecstatic experiences in meditation. Religious ecstasy is generally an experience of unity, of fusion. Oftentimes, I guess it’s expressed in sexual terms, like Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa in ecstasy, where he sculpted the portrait of the saint in ecstatic unity, as an image of a woman in orgasm, so that sometimes the most immediate biological metaphors, analogies, come from the most immediate aspect of human experience. One of the reasons for emphasizing meditation, or the contemplative approach, is to give an individual an experience, rather than just reading a book about something, instead of talking about God, or talking about oneness with the universe. If everyone’s involved in a more yogic and contemplative approach, then each person individually has his own experience of this.
As that radiates outward, in terms of human relationships, it begins to be more difficult to characterize or to caricature it very quickly, because all the New Age groups are going through periods of experimentation in human relationships, and you can almost generalize that as the glue is taken out of the nuclear family and put into a community, nuclear families come apart at the seams. So that you find a lot of marital shifting around, and relationships change dramatically. But, what you could say is that there’s an attempt to find honesty, intimacy, openness. Oftentimes, there’s more physical affection, people are hugging one another, and a lot of the things that were experiments with the human potential movement, in Esalen in the Sixties, began to be just part of the normal body language, of people just relating to one another. Oftentimes, it’s not very erotic. It’s just simply affection. It’s a way of being non-erotic, as opposed to a very intense society where everything is erotically charged. I think there’s an exploration in those groups that are living with a transformation orientation to look for different modes of relationship to nature, different relationships for the sexes, different relationships with children, and child-rearing. Certainly, we at Lindisfarne try to involve ourselves much more in the education of our kids, instead of shipping them off to school. And that involves a change of our lifestyle as well, a change in parenthood.
SUN: You have children?
THOMPSON: Yes. I have three. The oldest is at college. He’s seventeen. And he was educated at Lindisfarne, and dropped out in the seventh grade. And he’s going to college. After having so much of his education at Lindisfarne, it was just time to go away from home, and see the normal world. He’d lived in such an intensely intellectual, rarefied atmosphere at Lindisfarne. And, he also wanted to major in Chinese; we can tutor him in a lot of things at Lindisfarne, but there’s no one really qualified to teach him Chinese and Chinese history. My daughter lives with my first wife, who lives in California. And she is only at Lindisfarne in semester breaks, or in the summers. And then I have a son, who must be about twenty months now, who lives with me and my second wife in Colorado. So, two families. But my son of the first family has always stayed with me.
SUN: Does the family, as it’s been traditionally understood, have a future?
Thompson: I think it really does. At Lindisfarne, we decided not to get involved in kibbutz experiments, in sayng that the nuclear family was to be annihilated. We affirmed the nuclear family. And we found that in community, by having a lot of aunts and uncles around, that it gave an extended range of relationships for kids. And that was helpful. The kids pretty much turned out to be, maybe because we affirmed the nuclear family, very much like their parents. And there was a real continuity of culture, a real transmission of lineage from set of parents down to the next generation. You know, in Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen, they like to talk a lot about lineage. We found that there is a kind of family lineage. I still find the nuclear family very, very strong. When I look at the education of my kids, it seems to me that the family context is as important as Lindisfarne, even though they’re getting a lot out of being raised in such an unusual environment. I don’t think that the family is going to go away. I think we’re having a lot of troubles with relationships breaking up, and not being stable for a long period of time. And there’s a lot of experimentation in gay relationships and everything so that the whole name of the game is being rewritten.
SUN: Do you see that as a more or less temporary phenomenon?
Thompson: Yes. I think it’s characteristic of a society in transition. I think when we’re into the new age, sexuality will quiet down a lot.
SUN: Does this have historical parallels then?
Thompson: We’re in a very unique situation. I don’t think our thing has ever existed. Fundamentalist conservatives will always point to decadent Rome and say, “Homosexuality is because we’re a decadent society and that’s what happened when Rome fell and America will fall if we don’t watch out.” But I don’t think our kind of society has existed before. Alexandrian internationalism had characteristics of the world situation we’re in, but even still, with technology and electronics, we’re in a very unique situation. I think relationships are going to stabilize. I think we will redefine the male and female relationship and not have so much the housewife. There will be much more equality. I found, for example, when our community was decentralizing and splitting up into three separate sections around the country, that I was, for the transitional period, living in a nuclear family house again, which was a big shock. I hadn’t lived that way for six years. We just quite naturally ran the nuclear family as a community of rotating chores with everyone having a certain night for cooking and individuals doing his or her own laundry, because it just seemed like a much more sensible way than expecting the woman I was living with and married to, to be a housewife. I didn’t want a housewife and she didn’t want to be a housewife and my son was certainly old enough. He had been used to cooking for 80 people so he could certainly cook for three, so it was no big deal. And so I think some of the aspects of community life have a feedback into lifestyles in the nuclear family and have a very good, positive influence on them. So I think the housewife will disappear and imagine most women would like to see it disappear. Except in California. Now there are men becoming housewives, but that’s a California thing, a gimmicky thing for awhile.
SUN: In California also, one out of every two marriages ends in divorce.
Thompson: Well, that’s also becoming true in parts of America outside of California. We’re clearly in an unstable area where marriages break up. But you know, if you look at your friends, especially maybe at my age, 41, you find the pattern happening that after marriages break up, and a person may spend a period of time in relationships, sooner or later either one or both get married again. Partly because people get bored with the kind of Annie Hall date where you go out and talk about relationships all the time, because it’s a bore to date a woman and hear her talk about nothing except her last relationships and her previous boyfriends and her this and her that. And so after that boredom when you find someone who can share a sense of value and share a life’s work, and be involved in it, you tend to get mated. Now maybe these matings won’t last for a long time. I remember once seeing a film on the day books of Edward Weston. He said that at every chapter of his life a different woman came in and that at every spiritual turning and major revolution in his heart, the woman changed. Now this could easily be said as much for a woman as for a man. But maybe what we are seeing as we go through many incarnations — almost in one lifetime now — you may start out as a lawyer, you may decide to drop out or you start as a professor and you drop out of that. You can’t stay in the same relationship for your entire life. That’s fine. The difficulty is, of course, what happens to the kids. And we haven’t worked that one out. It’s a real toughie. I’ve had to deal with it in terms of my own life, trying to really keep involved with my kids, even though one of my children doesn’t live with me. No easy answers to any of that. It’s all very painful stuff. And where it’s going, it’s hard to say. But I don’t think it’s going to entropy. I think it’s going to stabilize into new forms.
SUN: What’s the average age of people at Lindisfarne?
Thompson: We’ve always been multi-generational. The ages can range from people like Gregory Bateson, age 73, who lived with us for awhile, to young people who came in as students. Right now, I guess the average age would be in the thirties.
SUN: Let’s talk some more about politics. I’m against the fashionable New Age idea that politics is something dirty and corrupt. I came up very political. Yet, when I go near it, I back off . . .
Thompson: I keep thinking that politics is very necessary. And that I’ve got to stop being an ivory tower mediator. Yet when I get near it I think, “Ah God, what a world! I don’t want to live in that world.” I back off from it, too. It isn’t a case of politics corrupting the Platonic tradition. I think there can be a politics of incarnation and not just a politics of corruption. But every time I see a specific implementation, I’m always unhappy.
SUN: Would you like to be President?
Thompson: No. I would not know what to do. I can’t balance the budget or look at a column of figures without my mind going numb. I don’t understand economics. I don’t like it. I’m used to being an intellectual in charge of my own position and I don’t compromise. When I’m forced into positions of compromise, I quit, to maintain the integrity of what I want to do. You can’t do that and be a politician. You have to be human and make compromises and wheel and deal and give them a dam in one part of the town and something else in some other part and that’s not something I can relate to.
Questioner: If Jerry Brown were elected President and said to you, “What would you like to do in this government?” what would you answer?
Thompson: I’d say I’d like to be your friend and continue to bitch at you but I don’t want to go to Washington and do anything. I think I’m more effective just yakking to Jerry Brown on the phone. I don’t know what I’m competent to do anyway. In all fairness to the citizens, I would have to disqualify myself. Who wants to run a bureaucracy? If I were a secretary of HEW the first thing I would want to do is take the computers and dismantle them and absolutely dissolve the bureaucracy and put everybody out of work and give the citizen an educational credit card and as long as you don’t go to school, the interest in your account accumulates. When you are ready for school then you can really afford it. I would try to play around with a lot of Ivan Illich’s crazy ideas. I mean, you couldn’t do that. Could you imagine if a guy went to Washington and said his first act is to fire everybody? Try to run on that for a platform.
SUN: When I asked you about relationships, you mentioned meditation. How has your practice of meditation affected you personally? You’re very much an intellectual.
Thompson: It has had a quieting, stabilizing and solidifying effect. It tends to increase the rapidity and intensity of one’s intellectuality. Actually, I’m more of an emotional person, and therefore intellectuality is a means of escaping living in an emotional steambath, being locked into one’s own closet of passion. If you wanted to use it in astrological terms, no one looking at my chart would ever call me an intellectual because there are no planets in air and there are nine feminine signs and five planets in water and then a double Cancer. So that an intellectual doesn’t make. I think astrology is a very limited frame of reference. I don’t put that out as a brief for astrology. More as an indication that people are not what they appear. A person who is emotional at his center will, in dialogue with his opposite, try to become intellectual as a way of achieving balance. A person who comes on very emotional and pretends to be very moist and intimate may often be at his being very dry, rational, intellectual, or manipulative. Each person is a dialogue of his opposite, the “is” and the “ought.” And so meditation, I find, intensifies intellectuality, rather than eliminates it, because it energizes certain higher functions. Primarily, I think it is a way of observing one’s emotions and not identifying with them and saying, “I want this and I want that and me this and me that.” It’s a way of gaining some detachment and a sense of irony and distance from your ego and all its pressing agendas. That’s all to the good — makes it a lot easier to live in your own skin when you don’t have to take yourself all that seriously.
. . . Perhaps because I am a historian and not a futurologist, I look back at the tragedies of the past and balance them against any optomistic visions of a “New Age” in which evil will be eliminated. Of course, it is not enough to be a knowledgeable historian: you have to look out of the left eye at tragedy and the right eye at farce, and then you see out of the third eye the relationships between the opposites in an ecstasy that literally takes the breath away. Now I don’t mean that one should look out at the world in a state of vacuous bliss in which all distinctions are blurred. There may be a single divine sun lighting the tree and the stream, but a distinct tree and a stream are brought together in the distinct life of the sun. In certain kinds of trendy pop mysticism, the devotee blurs the precision of divine creations in an “All is One” incantation; but while the devotees are singing “Hare Krishna” on the streets or passing out lollipop leaflets on the “New Age,” the world is busy generating the mirror-opposite in greater and greater acts of terror. The great mystical traditions lead to the illumination, not the elimination, of the mind. . . .
The old relationship between culture and nature is coming apart, and we are coming apart with nature. It is almost as if consciousness has lurched to the side, out of synchronization with physical evolution itself. Now consciousness is raw, naked, and exposed, and totally unprepared and unknowing of what the relationship between itself and nature should be. Like a nine-month-old fetus on its way out of the womb, it knows there can be no turning back. Cast out from the old nature, consciousness has to allow itself to be mothered at the breast of an even greater nature; it has to release the closing tightness of its grip to experience grace.
But the instant before grace is the moment of terror. It is the moment in initiation in which you experience the breakdown of your whole image of yourself and the reality that goes along with it; it is the moment in which you come to the edge of your sanity and its old normal adjustment to the world. The old image of the ego, whether that of an individual or of a civilization, no longer holds together. You begin yoga thinking that you are going to become better and better, and in a self-congratulatory mood you feel high as you begin to make all the difficult techniques part of your daily life. But as the years go by, you notice that it is the techniques that are taking hold of you, and then you discover to your despair that you are not becoming better but worse. The smug self-image of the yogi “on the path” is shattered, and you are forced out of your elation to come to terms with the most basic and fundamental aspects of your own humanity. . . .
The only hope is to let go and accept your utter helplessness and complete vulnerability. If the initiate feels that he is an accomplished yogi being tested, then the very confidence of his self-image will contribute to an even greater humiliation. If the civilization feels that it is the land of the free and the home of the brave, then it will have its national image dragged through My Lai, Kent State, Watergate, Four Corners, and Black Mesa.
— From William Irwin Thompson, Darkness and Scattered Light.