Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a suburb of NYC. My father taught in public schools with 7th and 8th graders and my mother was a nurse. My parents fostered a sense of hard work, but also empathy and compassion for others. I did not realize until much later what a blessed childhood I had. We were non-religious Jews, but Christmas was our best family holiday. My parents taught me that all religions have the truth, and because most of our neighbors were Christian, they wanted my brother and me to have the joy of Christmas. My parents were lovers for over 50 years, according to my mother, until the last months of my father’s life. While I did not know that, I believe it left a sweet subconscious imprint in me.
A second pivotal experience was my encounter with Edmund Pelligrino in 1968. He interviewed me when I was applying to medical schools. At that time, he was directing the building of the new medical school at my university. I embarrassingly botched several of his inorganic and organic chemistry questions, nevertheless, he invited me to join him and his wife for a concert that evening. The next day he called me to his office and said that he would recommend me to several schools. Then he said something that changed my understanding of myself: “You will never be a scientist, but we need people like you in medicine.” Thirteen years later when I wrote my first book, The I That Is We, I sent it to him for an endorsement though I had not spoken to him since that interview. To my surprise, he remembered me, but even more wondrous was that he made a be a valuable endorsement. At that time, he was Director of the Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute of Ethics and John Carroll Professor of Medicine and Medical Humanities, Georgetown University. I rarely have felt so deeply seen as by anyone.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Nothing really because I don’t indulge in that kind of wishing. What I do trust is that I, like everyone, live the best we know-how at each stage of life. What I have realized is how deeply I was being guided by and towards Love all my life and that my deeper feeling intelligence was always pointing towards Love. But like all of us, I had to be individualistic and use my will and intellect, and suffer accordingly until I learned to listen in my body. Sure, I can wish that I had stopped struggling for control, recognition, or security sooner. That I had understood gratitude for the blessing of being born into a human life earlier and that I could have realized sooner to consciously choose Love as my Pole Star by which to navigate life’s intricacies It would have saved much suffering.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
One is emphasizing the positive. It is good to be positive, but usually, that means not consciously engaging darker feelings. Until we do, we are always running away from something instead of consciously holding all feelings regardless of positive or negative.
Another is the idea that we must get someplace. There is no getting to happiness or success: Consciousness is a relationship to what is and it is the quality of the way we attend with what is that determines what our experience actually is. Rather than endlessly striving to get somewhere, we need to learn to go deeper wherever we are. Success is the depth of our lives, not any other kind of wealth.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I was a very sick infant and that left a residual body memory of unsafety. All my earlier life I struggled with anxiety no matter how successful I was. One day I had a vision of Fear as great conical darkness descending on the world. Spontaneously, I bowed my head to the ground and said, “Fear, you are a great god, but you are not my god.” Eventually, I understood that Love was my god and Fear was my teacher. When fear and distrust are provoked such as choosing divorce in 2011 after 22-years of marriage, I had to journey through a very dark time of self-doubt. It was a time of great growth. I put all my work and insight into practice. I turned toward the despair, again and again, and learned to disconnect thinking and just feel until with practice the dark feelings would release back into vital, life-giving energy. There will always be uncertainty, but gradually I am understanding that uncertainty and the unknown are just disguised forms of love.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Since age 30, I have acknowledged to myself the frightened, insecure, flawed parts of myself and tried not to hide them in my teaching and writing despite the powerful projections I receive in my work. Something inside of me, a tightening in my solar plexus, tells me when I am becoming controlling and not vulnerably expressing myself. Whenever I feel that tingle, I risk being transparent and apologize if necessary.
What is your morning routine?
At this stage of my life, I have no fixed patterns. I can wake at 5 or sleep in. If I wake in the night, I use a self-created mantra to either go back to sleep or rest in spacious openness. There are regular periods when I sit in formal meditation usually around 7 am. When I do sit formally, I always begin with extemporaneous singing. I have used melodies like the Pachelbel Canon or other composer’s songs or made up many of my own. Then, at the same time, I let words flow directly out of my immediate feeling and state of being. It is improv poetry, improv prayer. I dive into beingness in this way. I have been doing this practice for over 40 years and it remains profound for me. I find it balances my left and right brain and my whole nervous system better than any form of exercise or spiritual practice. I know it is an enormous benefit to my overall health. I call this practice heart food. It is the mainstay of how I come Home. Then meditation is just agendaless self-witnessing. The total practice can vary from 1-2 hours.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
The extemporaneous improvement with song and words that I just described.
Also, essential to the last decade at least, the heart of my life path has become grounded in loving Love. In 2015 I met my now wife, Katherine. It was not about falling in love but getting to know each other and then mutually agreeing to love Love with each other. It has become endless falling in love, endless intimacy. We experience our relationship as a 3rd consciousness, a tangible presence, that is our teacher and guide. To invoke our 3rd we use a consecrated conversation practice we call “council.” The council is not about what do I want or what does she want, rather it is sensing what does our relationship wants? This shared practice of relational consciousness has become the heart of all that I live and teach, and that we teach together.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I used to have that kind of purpose, but I understand that a strategy or belief that I need to be productive and efficient immediately causes subtle, but often quite strong, suffering. So, I immediately relax that mental agenda and just enjoy what I am doing. Life is, of course, endless planning and choosing, but we can learn that being driven by fear or distrust, no matter how subtly, only perpetuates more fear and distrust. I believe that there is no moment that has less God or less Love than this moment. I have realized that I am already safe and always have been and relax back into that sensation. My life path, perhaps it is a kind of strategy, is to be aware of bodily contraction, determine the level of self-identification (with all its beliefs, self-justifications, and self-protections) that lies behind that contraction, and relax into appreciating whatever I am doing. Self-identity is utilitarian but inevitably causes separation. That is not my path.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
There have been many, but three come to mind. First, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition. It was the first book to fall into my hands in the days after a fundamental shift in consciousness when I was 30. It spoke immediately to the emerging new me and helped me grasp what was happening in me. His complete work (though not every poem) continues to be a cornerstone for profound inspiration.
Second, The Gospel According to Thomas, Harper, and Row, 1959. This ancient text of Jesus’s teaching points more directly to my own experience than any other “spiritual” text I have found.
More contemporary is The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist, 2009. This is the best summary of what we have learned in neuroscience that relates to consciousness. Enormously helpful in understanding today’s severe imbalance into left-brain madness.
I can dip into Mary Oliver and several other poets anytime and find myself journeying in their inspirational perception of our living world.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Whitman: “The truest expression is that which finding no sphere worthy of itself makes one.
Goethe: “If you treat a man as he appears to be you make him less than what he is. If you treat him as you know he can be you help him to become that.”
St. Bernard: “Who loves loves Love, and loving Love forms a circle so complete there is no end to love.”