Conversation with Alice Walker
Alice Walker is known for her literary fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (now a major Broadway play), her many volumes of poetry, and her powerful nonfiction collections. Her other bestselling books include In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, The Temple of My Familiar, Possessing the Secret of Joy, By the Light of My Father's Smile, and The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart. Her latest book is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness.
Alice Walker is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (12/12/06)
Marianne Schnall: Congratulations on this amazing book “We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for” – it contains so many important insights and observations the world needs to hear. In this “me” society we seem to have turned such a deaf ear to what is really important. It’s said that the truth hurts. Do you feel it is your calling to scream the truth out loud?
Alice Walker: Not at all – I never scream and I think that silence is the best way to get real attention. Especially from the deep self. So I think the people who are in solitude in the mountains, or who live in temples or are contemplatives, the people you never hear from, you never know are there, somewhere in some deep, dark cave, meditating – I think those people are basically responsible for a lot of the sanity that we do have. And in my own case, I know that what I can bring to the world comes from a world of deep silence, and quiet. And that is where my compass – my moral compass and my internal guide – that’s where they live, in that deep quiet. So by the time whatever I’m offering gets out into the world, it may sound quite loud, maybe, but that’s only I think to people who are not used to being in quiet and silence. Sometimes it might seem loud because it is a voice they have been silencing.
MS: That reminds me of something you wrote in your book, about the need for a “pause” – a pause to reflect. And I think I probably chose my words wrong, because I definitely did not mean to imply that you “scream” – I guess I meant more that part of your calling seems to bring light to the truth - that is probably the better way to say what I was trying to say.
AW: Well, I think that I do feel that my nature is to express what this self, this particular self at this time, experiences in the world. And that is so organic – I use this metaphor a lot but I’ll use it again – it’s like a pine tree producing pine cones, or a blackberry bush producing blackberries – it’s just what happens with this being, now. Going through the world and seeing what I see, and feeling what I feel. And wanting very much to touch other people with that.
MS: The subtitle of your book is was “Inner Light in a Time of Darkness.” Is this where the real change that is needed in the outer world begins, in our own individual inner worlds, first?
AW: It has to be there. And not only that we do carry an inner light, an inner compass and the reason we don’t know we carry it is because we’ve been distracted. And we think that the light is actually being carried by a leader or somebody that we have elected or somebody that we very much admire, and that that’s the only light. And so we forget that we have our own light – it may be small, it may be flickering, but it’s actually there. And so what we need to do, I think, is to be still enough to let that light shine, and illuminate our inner landscape and our dreams – especially our dreams. And then our dreams will lead us to the right way.
MS: We work with Omega Institute – and I just finished watching your beautiful, inspiring talk that you gave at one of the Women & Power conferences a few years ago. There was so much in there. And you had talked about your concern about the fascism and imperialism that’s in the world today. Has America as a country spiritually lost its soul? And do you see a hopeful anti-fascism, peace movement that’s growing?
AW: Oh yes, I do. I mean look at us – look at the millions of people who turn out, and who turned out against the war. The people who are refusing to fight in the war and the soldiers who are throwing down their weapons and going to jail. And the mothers and the fathers who are speaking up – there’s a couple who’s taking their son’s coffin from town to town because their son died in the war. But there’s a massive, worldwide movement I think that is completely anti-war. And I think of that as a kind of enlightenment that we could not have had in earlier ages because we couldn’t see war and its causes quite so clearly. And people were so misled by the church and other institutions that they couldn’t see that basically the powerful and the rich, and the people who wanted to stay that way, actually made these wars, most of them for their own benefit. And so they could rip off the resources of people living far away. Now we can see that. Now there are enough women in the world who are educated and smart, and can really run it on down to their parents, and to friends, and to the media. It’s a wonderful time. It seems so bleak, but I maintain that it’s one of the best times to be alive, and I’m very happy to here now.
MS: I’ve been thinking that maybe things needed to get so blatantly off-course so that we can actually see the state of humanity in order to realize the urgent change that’s needed.
AW: Unfortunately, that seems to be the way it is with humans. They need to be really scared on some level, and they need to worry about self-preservation and survival. And then it’s an instinct - they have an instinct for thriving and continuing. And so that’s part of who we are. It’s a shame though, because if we could develop in ourselves a lot of compassion for other beings, we wouldn’t have to watch their destruction and humiliation and terrorizing of them in order for us to be moved, to be fearful of what could happen to us.
MS: In the world today, there is a growing awareness and more and more people wanting to contribute to change in the world, but not even knowing where to start. As such a longtime activist, what words of encouragement would you offer to other activists in the world?
AW: There’s always something to do – always. And the reason that’s true is that you always can work with yourself. You don’t have to go out and worry about what other people are doing, or how to start this or that out there, you can start ever so much in yourself. And that will evolve outwardly. So if you just hold that thought – that it really is up to each of us, and we’re all trying to get to a place where collectively we can effect change. But we can’t really do it from being a collective before we are actually self-collected.
MS: Do you think the rising of women, and feminine principles in the world, is a natural, evolutionary shift we are experiencing now?
AW: I think it is because the feminine has to rise in order for there to be any hope of continuation of the species. And I think that most people actually feel that on some level. What is a little frightening though is how many women - you know people who in this lifetime have female bodies – are really fleeing the feminine. And you see it most clearly in language. As I mention in “We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” – that women and girls are taught and programmed actually to think of themselves as “guys”. And it’s a way to basically evade being deeply feminine on a daily basis. And you’ll notice too that there’s a kind of repetitiveness – like it’s being constantly reinforced that you are not feminine, you are something else.
And I think it bears scrutiny and it bears sitting with and really deciding one way or the other. You might decide, well, damnit you’d like to be guy, you want to use that word and other things that are similar, but you really need to make it a conscious decision. I think women have to be so conscious about what they want to be called, what they are actually are – it should be our choice, and it should not just be society’s programming, or the media’s programming, or masculine or patriarchal programming – which is actually what is.
MS: Speaking of language and linguistics, with a site called Feminist.com, I am always amazed at the misconceptions there are about feminism, and the many women who clearly are feminists but who would never call themselves that. You came up with the term “womanist.” For people who may not be familiar with that term, can you describe how that term came to be and its relevance today?
AW: Well, first of all it’s feminist, but it’s feminist from a culture of color. So there’s no attempt to evade the name “feminism,” which is honorable. It actually means womanism – I mean, it’s French in its essence – la femme, so feminism would be womanism, actually. Womanism comes though from Southern African American culture because when you did something really bold and outrageous and audacious as a little girl, our parents would say, “You’re acting ‘womanish’.” It wasn’t like in white culture where that was weak – it was just the opposite. And so, womanism affirms that whole spectrum of being which includes being outrageous and angry and standing up for yourself, and speaking your word and all of that.
MS: When I interviewed Jane Fonda, she talked about how later in her life she experienced an “aha” moment where her "feminist consciousness slipped out of her head and took up residence in her body, where it has lived ever since." Do you think women need to experience a type of aha moment, their own personal epiphany, when they finally get it in touch with their own feminine power?
AW: Definitely. I don’t know if that’s the only way they can do it, but anything that encourages women to accept themselves as who they are and what they are and to honor the feminine in them, would be very, very helpful for the world’s healing. Because the world is becoming so patriarchal, even more patriarchal in some ways, but also, just more dismissive and discarding of the feminine. And you see that in the way that very young girls are sold – often because their parents are really poor, but generally speaking it’s the father who does the selling. And then these children basically are sold into slavery. And they live and die in brothels in many parts of the world. And it’s as if the feminine there – when the feminine is so degraded anywhere, it’s a blow to the feminine everywhere. Now that’s when we should be screaming – jumping up and down everywhere – and saying that this is such an insult to the Mother and to the Feminine that we cannot stand it, and we will not. And we should liberate all these children from these horrible prisons that they’re in as these slaves to just whoever can come in and pay a few rupees or whatever the money is.
MS: I also recently interviewed Gloria Steinem, who I know is a friend of yours. When I asked Gloria how we can help women better stay in touch with ourselves and make empowered choices for our lives, she said, “I think that the most effective means we have is to talk to each other in groups. Human beings are communal creatures.” How important is this notion of telling our truths to each other and being supported by friendship and the power of sisterhood?
AW: It’s totally crucial. In fact, I advocate that every woman be a part of a circle and a circle that meets at least once a month, or if you can’t do that, once every two months or every four months. But you have to have a circle, a group of people, women - smart, wise, can-do women - who are in the world doing their work, and you need to meet with them as often as you can, so that they can see what you’re doing, and who you are, and you can see the same. And you can talk to each other about the world and about your lives. In a circle of trust and safety. It’s crucial. It is crucial for our psychological health and our spiritual growth – it’s essential.
MS: In talking to Gloria about women’s media, she remarked that only Oprah has the power to put some non-product articles in her magazine. I know Oprah has been a longtime supporter, colleague and dear friend of yours. How do you view and understand Oprah’s importance and popularity, as one of the most powerful women in the media, and certainly as one of the most powerful African American women, possibly in the world?
AW: We’re not really close friends – we’re mutually respectful people, I met her when she worked on - you know she was Sofia in the movie of “The Color Purple” and later recently she became a producer of the musical – very late in the process - and did a lot of the publicity for it. And I have admiration like so many people. I think we love Oprah because she speaks her mind, and she is honest about her life, and about the processes. And I think the world really is hungering for women of power. We love her partly because she’s powerful. And because to see someone with so much power, and she uses it, I think, so often for such good. To see that is just a tonic for the spirit. And we need so many more people like that.
Now, there have been women with a lot of power – for instance Margaret Thatcher. But she didn’t inspire people with the love and devotion that Oprah does, because her power was so patriarchal and because we rarely thought she was always saying what she thought. It was very clear that she was still surrounded by men and becoming more male every day. And you can’t really say that about Oprah. I’m not a big TV watcher so I don’t watch her closely as, for instance, my sister does, who watches it every day. But my sense is that she is living a very large life, of her own design. You may not particularly care for the design, but it is what she wants to be doing with her life. And if more women could see that, and enjoy it, I think there would be much more loose and inclusive and free feeling sense of possibility and enchantment among women in the world.
MS: In your Omega talk you spoke about the concept of “The Dark Mother.” How do you see the significance of Africa for humanity and the world - Africa as our communal birthplace?
AW: Well, as I’m talking about in “We are the Ones,” we have an African mother. That is the common mother. And we have been taught to be so different and separate. And that’s an illusion. And it’s an illusion that has made us really murder each other and just do horrible things, especially to people of color, because white people have more often been in the power to do that on a mass scale. You know, like the rape of Africa, the absolute subjugation of the people, the stealing of resources, the enslavement of people – all of those things. And when humanity understands, really with the heart, that they have been doing all of this to their mother, I believe there will be a great shift in the world. Because you can only do those terrible things that people do when you have that illusion of separation.
And when you lose it – it’s like when you really think that you are so, so very different from say, your cat. Because I have a cat and I adore her. And you hang out with the cat and you live with the cat, and finally it really dawns on you that basically you and the cat like the same things! You know, you like to be warm, you like cuddling, you like food, you like to lie in the sun – and then you kind of get it - well, you know, I don’t want to harm this cat, I don’t want to eat this cat, I don’t to steal this cat’s anything. So I’m hopeful that now that geneticists have actually done the work of linking us by DNA to our African mother that at some point that is going to sink into human consciousness and lead to an understanding of who the Mother is. Hopefully, the human mother and then of course the Earth Mother.
And you see how that has changed – I don’t know if you remember this, but not so long ago only Native Americans, and indigenous people elsewhere and aboriginal people elsewhere – only those people talked about the Earth Mother. The Earth as mother. And then this man - Lovelock - I think it was, found the Greek word Gaia for the Earth Mother/Goddess mother, and was just astonished that you know, hey – it’s alive. Now everybody knew it was alive. All of the people who have lived on this planet for thousands of years, praying to the Earth and thanking the Earth – they completely knew – of course it’s alive! So that’s a good example of how consciousness changes, and if people can get it that they come from the Earth Mother, then they one day will understand that they also come from a human mother, the same mother, and she is due immense respect and love and appreciation.
MS: I know that the environment is a cause you care deeply about. The other site I run is an environmental site EcoMall.com, and I do think there has been increasing environmental awareness. Do you think that with all the recent attention to the dangers facing our planet due to global warming, we are finally starting to wake up to the current environmental crisis?
AW: I do, I think so. I think Katrina did it. You know the Tsunami in southeast Asia was amazing, but it was far away, and I think that when Katrina hit… You know interestingly, before Katrina, there had been an enormous amount of devastation and a lot of terror and fear in the islands, like Cuba and Jamaica and all of those islands because they are all in that area. And it had been so sad to see how little attention was paid by this country to that devastation. And then when Katrina ripped across the Gulf, I think that woke up a lot of people. And then politically, I think a lot of people were awakened because then, for instance, Cuba immediately offered to send aid to help the people who were stranded and to send medicine and doctors, and in our country we refused the offer. And it wasn’t the first time they had refused an offer from Cuba. And so many African Americans especially, and Americans generally, now see not only that we are in a lot of danger from “natural disasters’’ and that’s what they are, disasters, but we are also in danger because we are led by people who watch us struggle, and suffer and die while other people outside the country are offering help to save us – and they won’t let that happen. So there’s a general enlightenment happening about global warming and the inefficiency and meanness of our government.
MS: I don’t if you know of this Native American medicine woman named Dhyani, but she said something to the effect of, “You can tell how evolved a society is by how much of its garbage is recycled." How is how we treat the Earth - our environmental awareness, or lack thereof - indicative of the state of humanity’s consciousness?
AW: Well, I’ll tell you some of it has to be – I have a Rolling Stone article that I’m trying to get up my nerve to read and it’s about how many hogs are slaughtered each year. By one company – Smithfield Foods, I think, or something like that. It was 27 million last year. And that’s basically the population of like – I don’t know – thirty-two of the largest cities in the land – that’s the number of hogs they kill each year. I mean, it’s just almost unbelievable. And I’m going to go and check it as soon as I get off the phone, because I read it [laughs to keep from raging] and then I just had to sit down. Because they were talking about the amount of waste that this one company generates, and where it goes, and you multiply that by all of the other pollution staying in the animal kingdom or what would have been the animal kingdom, but now it’s like the animal dungeon. But you know you have your chicken farms and your hog farms and your geese farms, and your cattle places. And that alone, just the cycle of the kind of brutality that goes into killing all of those creatures, and then sort of mindlessly eating them, and almost nobody even thinks about where all of their waste is going. And it gets recycled through us one way or the other.
So I think consciousness is very poor, actually. And that person that we were talking about earlier, like “What do I do? Where do I start?” Well, you can just start right there with your consciousness about what you’re recycling through yourself.
What is so striking about the photographs that accompany the article in Rolling Stone about the factory farming of pigs - and this is a must read for humanity - in which we see the human look of fear and suffering on the faces of the pigs about to be slaughtered, juxtaposed with the face of the man who is responsible (along with the blissfully ignorant public) for their mistreatment, and, physically, they resemble each other so much! Only the man is sitting behind a desk and wearing glasses andclothing, and the pigs are covered in filth from the degrading circumstances of their captivity; and his look is less honest, by far. We must begin seeing other creatures as equal. Existence makes us all equal.
MS: I know you have written a lot about female genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women in Africa – are conditions worsening or improving, and how can we address the problem?
AW: Well, someone just sent me an e-mail about the fact that some scholars very high in the hierarchy of the Muslim world met recently in Cairo, and they made a resolution that female genital mutilation is not to happen henceforth among Muslims. And my friend Pratibha Parmar is visiting and she and I made a film called “Warrior Marks” that talks about female genital mutilation and we just almost cried, because it’s such a major acknowledgement from people who have traditionally ignored the problem. Basically people like these scholars have ignored the problem for six thousand years. So there is change, and a lot of it has to be about making sure that men, and maybe starting really young, really understand that they are endangering themselves. Because they really are very self-interested people, most men – and I say that because when I started talking about female genital mutilation and writing about it – many men in Africa and elsewhere just completely denied it, and just didn’t want to hear about it. Until I said, ‘Well, you know, you notice how AIDS is spreading, and one of the ways that it spreads is through these fissures and tears that happen when you have intercourse with someone who has been mutilated,” - and that really sat them up very straight.
And so you know, we have to do a lot more educating of men, and I know that many feminists feel like they’re tired of that and they can’t do that, and da,da,da,da,da….And nobody’s more tired than some of us, but it seems to be really important. Especially if we’re thinking of our sisters’ and daughters’ health. And not only that, so many of us by now have these wonderful feminist sons and grandsons, who really are allies, and we should give them the respect as allies, in changing a lot of the things that are wrong and done against women in the world.
MS: You write about how much you enjoy living in the country on a farm. Do you find it easier to be more creative in nature? And do you think part of humanity’s problem is a growing disconnect with nature – that we need to be more in tune with nature for a healthy body, soul and mind?
AW: I just think cities are unnatural, basically. I know there are people who live happily in them, and I have cities that I love too. But it’s a disaster that we have moved so far from nature. That people no longer notice the seasons, really. Or they talk about all the beautiful colors in the fall – that’s about all they know. They don’t know how to plant – you know, they would starve if they had to try to grow their own food. They have no idea – some people think that apples grow underground and potatoes grow on trees – I mean really! And they go to the market and they buy their food there and they often have no connection to who picked the food, the workers, and that’s also really heartbreaking. As a daughter of a farm worker, to feel just how much they take for granted, the people who are buying their food without thinking about the people who produce it. And that leads to not caring that those people are being treated very much like slaves. Not permitted to go to the bathroom, for instance, for long periods. And then of course that endangers the people who eat the food, because like, you know, with that E. coli bacteria that was in the spinach? Part of that could very easily be if you don’t let people go to the bathroom, you know, they have to go somewhere. So it’s just one of those cases of insisting on human decency everywhere, with everyone. And therefore making it possible for your own health and well being to prosper.
MS: There are so many unbelievably alarming statistics about world poverty these days. What do you see as the cause of world poverty and what can be done to help to alleviate the problem? Sometimes it just seems so overwhelming that it feels insurmountable - is it?
AW: No, of course it isn’t. It’s that some people have all the goods and money they can imagine having, and they’ve taken it from the poor people. In my book, I’m talking about a speech that Fidel Castro gave in which he talks about how the three richest people on the planet own more than 48 poor countries combined. Now this is ridiculous – they don’t need all that, and why don’t people just insist that there is a limit to what people can have! This is where the world will have to go anyway – it’s just inevitable. Because everything is just shrinking. Unless we want to go back to a time when, you know, feudalism or something, where the King had everything and the peasants had nothing. And I don’t think we want to go back there. So it would make a lot more sense to say that, actually, you know what - you cannot have $50 billion dollars. You just can’t have it. Forget about having that, and just have enough for you and your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren, but you’re not going to have that much while other people have nothing. Period.
MS: You are such a hard worker – as a tireless activist, as a prolific writer, speaker - how do you keep yourself motivated? What is the source of your energy?
AW: Love. I have a lot of love. And I think that I’m by nature a revolutionary. Some say all Aquarians are. Even Ronald Reagan thought he was one! And I feel very keenly that things could be so much better for so many more people and for so many more creatures, and for the Earth – I just know that. I just know it can be better. And that people have it in them to rise to that. I know they do. And sometimes it’s just a matter of touching that place that can be opened to the reality that, you know, we can do so much more than we think we can. My deepest desire is for people and the world to be happy. I will always believe this is possible and seek to learn how I can contribute. I have felt deeply blessed to have the vehicle of words, of voice.
MS: Women often struggle with getting older. How can we help women embrace the aging process and value their role as elders and a source of wisdom and power in our society?
AW: Well, I was just thinking about that this morning because I was thinking about how - I didn’t follow this, but apparently Bill Cosby made some comment about something like, ‘Black people should take more responsibility for their predicament and the choices and ways of their children and everything,’ and he was roundly attacked. He was really attacked, and I think several people actually wrote books about how he dare not say such things. And I was thinking about how, actually elders – and this has been traditionally true in most cultures and still is in many cultures today – elders really need to be listened to respectfully. Even if you don’t agree. They really don’t to need to be attacked. You know, you can giggle at them and kind of ridicule them – maybe not to their face, I mean I wouldn’t do that. You can let it be known that you don’t agree with them. But I think that the disrespect of actually attacking an elder who is obviously trying to bring some kind of light – I think that’s not a good thing. And then elders have to be willing to assume the role of the person who gets to speak about society and where it seems to be going and what it needs. And because everybody in our society up to now has been trying to stay 30, there’s a problem with people knowing how to be, and how to speak, and how to take on the role of the person who can actually speak to the young, with some kind of integrity. So this is shifting I think. And I think the war has called out many of the people into that role, who otherwise might not have gotten there.
MS: On the opposite spectrum, Amy Richards, who is one of the founders of Feminist.com and does the Ask Amy column at our site, also co-founded Third Wave, an organization for young feminists, with your daughter Rebecca Walker. What do you think about the younger generations of women today?
AW: Well, they seem to be doing fine. I have to say that I’m not just noticing in that way, but the ones that come across my path I think they seem really alert. In fact, let me just be specific – at a local college here, Mills College, there is a group of women who founded a journal called “The Womanist” and they came to tea last month. And we had a great time and they all seem so feminist, so alive, so alert, so into whatever they are doing. So I felt very happy that those of who are older and who have blazed some of the trails, that we did that, because I could see that these younger women are determined to have their own lives, and they just take it for granted that ‘yes, of course, I am going to do this, I am going to that.’ So in that way, I think that they are doing really well.
MS: One of the big issues for women these days seems to be creating balance. How do you do that?
AW: I spend a lot of time, or as much as I can, in silence. And at home. And more and more as time goes by. I think all this zipping around the world is over-rated. In fact, I did a year of studying medicinal plants. And one of them was Ayahauascha, a medicine from the Amazon that people have used for thousands and thousands of years. And one of the things that I’ve learned was that I needed myself to more rooted. And so I’ve been working on that. I feel that has been so helpful to me – to cut out movement wherever possible, instead of going here and there all the time. Talking a lot less – really talking a lot less. Being much slower, and much more grounded with my animals, the animals I live with, with my friends. Staying extremely simple. Dancing more too. Just learning to really, really love the ordinary – you know, that nice well-made bowl of oatmeal in the morning and walking with my dog – just what is ordinary. What is simple and true.
MS: I have also read a few interviews in which you talk about the spiritual practices that have most helped you, like Tonglen and meditation. Can you tell us more about the practices that have served you in your life?
AW: Well, I learned transcendental meditation when I was I lived in New York and after a divorce. And it was so much like the way I had lived as a little child, which was just completely merged with nature. So much so that I didn’t know I wasn’t the tree I was looking at, you know? It was just a complete oneness – that sense of oneness and the ego goes somewhere else temporarily. And so that became the foundation of how I could move through the world, do my work, balance raising a child, and being on the road a lot - out of necessity, really making a living – teaching. And I have maintained some form of meditation, yoga, a lot of walking. Tonglen, which I learned some years ago, because it’s a practice that thanks to Pema Chodron we get from these amazing, ancient Tibetans who figured it all out. That you don’t have to just drown in your sorrow and pain, that you can actually learn to live with it and to accept it and to take it in, make your heart really super, super big to hold it, and then to send out to yourself and to the world whatever it is that you would prefer. And lo and behold, I found that the practice worked.
And in general I find that the practices like Native American drumming, for instance, which I also do, chanting, sweats – all of these things really help us. I also am very fond of the Motherpeace tarot deck and have used it for, I don’t know, as long as it’s been in existence I guess. And also the I Ching. The I Ching I consider one of the great, mysterious, magical gifts to humanity. It is such a divine oracle it comes close to being a living being, like a tree or something.
MS: You write and talk a lot about the role of personal transformation. Obviously in your life you’ve been able to overcome a lot of the hardships that you’ve faced. Is part of this learning to find the blessings and lessons during times of adversity and crisis, to use them as a fuel for personal and spiritual growth?
AW: Well, what else would you do with it? I mean sometimes these blows are so severe that you just think, well, it’s not about whether I deserved it, it’s just that that’s what’s happening. And since that’s what’s happening, what do you do with it? And so I have - you know, as the years have gone on, really gotten to that place, where I do say to myself, ‘Well, wow – I bet I’m going to learn something pretty amazing right here, because this is so painful. Or this is so strange.” And that has been true!
MS: I’ve read that you wouldn’t necessarily call yourself a Buddhist per se, since it seems that you enjoy the wisdom from a lot of different traditions, but something about Buddhism has been very helpful and appealing for you. How do you see Buddhism’s relevance in today’s world? There seems to be a growing interest in the Buddhist teachings.
AW: I think it’s because Buddhism makes so much sense. It is the most sensible thing. And because it works in its sort of prescriptions. I mean like, for instance if you have the Dharma – you know you have the teachings, which are extraordinary. You have Buddha as a symbol and as a model for how to strike out to find your truth. And then you have the Sangha, which is your circle of friends, who get together regularly to support each other. Well, you know, that right there is major. Because the teachings are just invaluable. You know, the things that we are learning through Buddhist teachings, just about how to work with the human heart, with human emotions. I mean, just the idea to finally get it that, yeah – everything is changing, everything is impermanent, it comes and it goes. You sit there in meditation and you just witness that. You see. And you lose a lot of your stress because you know that, OK, if I just am with this, it’s going away. And so I think it’s a wonderful thing. I love it. I just love it. It’s a wonderful gift to us.
Think of what humanity would have lost if Tibetan Buddhism had been destroyed? And how many cultural and spiritual gifts we lose because they are destroyed. In both the human and then animal realms. Realizing the value of what other branches of humanity offer the human collective could motivate us to change how we relate to whatever is perceived as strange.
MS: As an artist, how is your spiritual energy connected to the experience of writing – when you’re writing, do you feel like your ability is from a higher source, is that where your inspiration feels like it comes from?
AW: Well, if you take the position that all is the higher source, you know, all is God, all is light, all is love, all is what is – then you just feel like this little part of it, that’s doing your part. You’re doing your little jig.
MS: There’s an old hippie saying about having the “juice” or being “juicy” – when you’re in the flow, or flowing with the magic of the universe…
AW: I always liked hippies. Sometimes they seemed a little shallow but I could really understand it [laughs]. Sometimes they seemed a little shallow but I could almost always relate. They were certainly, partly because of their use of the plant medicine Marijuana, very different, startlingly so, from their usually very white, un- medicated parents [laughs]. Racism needs a medicine, you know. Greed. Envy. Superiority of any kind. They all need a medicine, and plant medicines are sometimes very helpful. Hippies were very good for the white race in general and did a lot to make the world more trustful of it. But then they were crushed, as a movement, as so many of the rest of us were.
MS: There seems to be a growing awareness of how our inner reality is connected to our outer reality, even in the fact people are coming to Buddhism maybe because the suffering is so much...
AW: Yeah, that will get them in. [laughs]
MS: Do you see humanity as evolving? What do you believe is the next step in our evolution in terms of humanity’s consciousness?
AW: Well, I would like to believe it is that all creatures have the right to live without fear. And without fear of being eaten, for instance. And that’s a real hard one because we have been addicted to meat, to animals as meat, you know. And I struggle with that myself, and I think most people do. But I do really believe that is where we’re headed – that if we do survive as a species, we will get it. That we are no more precious than the rest of the species on Earth.
MS: I struggle sometimes with the notion of organized religion and how it relates to spirituality - and that so much of the wars and intolerance in the world is over religion. What is your view of the role of religion in the world today?
AW: Well, I think that some of it is self-destructing, because it’s basically set up to be that way. I mean when you have religions that don’t like other religions and ‘my God is better than your God’ and ‘your God is actually wrong.’ And then the foundation of so much of the patriarchal religion is the destruction of the goddess worship that was before it, and the destruction of the feminine. Which would have to mean, not a good future for them, for the patriarchal religions in the long run, I mean the very long run as it’s turned out. Because you know, the feminine actually has to rise again because, you know, we are here – the feminine exists. It is what is keeping them (and all of us) going. A world without the Feminine is a dead world.
So I think that for many of us, what has happened is that we have perhaps taken some parts of the religions we were raised in, and we have incorporated them into our belief systems – with gratitude. You know, like the teachings of Jesus I really love, and I love the Gnostic Gospels and the Nag Hammadi scrolls, sermons, or whatever you call them, parables I guess. But we’re making a new religion. Religion is going to be more self-styled. It’s going to be less and less a group thing, because we’re all taking from various traditions, and we’re all also open to divinity just as who we are! It’s a very one-on-one kind of thing. And once you realize that you are just part of the whole thing, then you just kind of worship that, and yourself, and everything – all is one.
MS: So many of us feel like we’ve been “wronged” in some way. What’s the importance of forgiveness and the healing process for that?
AW: Well, it’s one of the hardest things to do but it’s really necessary. Without forgiving, you don’t really move – you can’t. It’s like this little prison that you’re in. And it’s so painful, because you feel like you don’t deserve to be in prison, it wasn’t your fault. And how dare you have to forgive these horrible people. But actually, you do. And that’s a good place for Tonglen practice.
MS: You have written a lot about humanity as one family. Are you optimistic that humanity will ever live as one family here on planet Earth?
AW: It could. I mean, that’s about what I would say – that it very well could, and why not? Yes. I think people can do it. I think people have to believe more in themselves. For some reason, and you know we can find many reasons, people have lost faith in their ability to live the higher truth of interconnectedness and family.
MS: What’s your prayer for the children of the future? What would you like to see?
AW: A certain fearlessness of being who they are and expressing themselves as freely as – I don’t know, as freely as a pear tree or an apple tree expresses itself. Just be what it is that you are – and that is just fine. You don’t have to be what you’re not in any way. And live that and live that fully. And that is where you discover ecstasy. You can’t really have ecstasy as something other than yourself. And life should be ecstatic. You know, not every minute, but you should definitely have enough ecstasy in your life from time to time to know that you are just completely wired into creation.
We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For:
Inner Light in a Time of Darkness
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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Marianne's new book based on her
interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women
Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.