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Interview on August 14, 2009 with Michael Lerner

Conducted by John Esterle & Dan Clurman

JE: John Esterle
DC: Dan Clurmam
ML: Michael Lerner

Biographical Sketch
Introduction - Where is Wisdom Found?
Will, Intuition, & Decision-Making

The Nature of Intuition
Values, Sub-Personalities & Decision-Making 
Decision-Making in Cancer and Other Illnesses
Decisions & Facts on the Ground
Personal Mapmaking & Decisions
The New School - Creating A community of Dialogue at Commenweal

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Interview on August 14, 2009 with Michael Lerner

Biographical Sketch

Michael Lerner is president and co-founder of Commonweal, a nonprofit center in Bolinas, California, and of Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, D.C.  Commonweal, founded in 1975, has major programs in seven issue areas including initiatives for cancer patients, health professionals, environmental health, juvenile justice, ocean policy reform, permaculture gardening, and adult collaborative education.  The New School at Commonweal, supported by The Whitman Institute, offers online and live conversations around the core themes of nature, culture and the inner life.  Michael is married to Sharyle Patton, who directs the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center.  The New School is among his principle strongest interests.


DC: Given your wide background and interests, there are a lot of places we could start this conversation. Where would you like to begin?

ML:  When you suggested a conversation about decision-making, I saw the connection to wisdom.  I’ve been asking myself about wisdom for seven years.  The question was set off by reading a book by Harold Bloom (a great Yale literary critic who’s written a dozen magisterial books on the western canon and Shakespeare) called Where Shall Wisdom Be Found.
I read Bloom on wisdom the year after my heart attack seven years ago. I was trying to figure out where the heart of my life would be moving forward.  I was just turning 60, so there was temporal appropriateness. I then kept reading in the spiritual and philosophical traditions.  I just kept asking myself: where is wisdom found? 

Roberto Assagioli helped me in this quest with a map of the psyche that I find invaluable.  After all, the search for wisdom requires some map of the psyche. Assagioli (1888-1974) was a great Italian psychologist and humanist -- a student of both Freud and Jung and of the great Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. He believed that love, wisdom, creativity, and will were central elements in the human psyche.  And he did this at a time when both wisdom and will were disappearing as core concepts from modern psychology.  He called his psychology Psychosynthesis because it focused on synthesizing the disparate energies of the psyche and directing them to a higher purpose. 

Assagioli visualizes the psyche as a circle. At the center is a center point that is the Self, a bare witnessing place.  This center point of pure awareness is connected by a dotted line to a point on the top of the circle that represents our Higher Self.  The circle of the unconsciousness is trisected, with two horizontal lines, into three parts.  These three parts are the higher unconscious, the middle unconscious, and the lower unconscious. We all have access, by directing our attention, to anything in the middle unconscious.  By definition, the higher and lower unconscious are regions in which we struggle to see their contents.

What differentiates Assagioli from the Freudians is that the Freudians relegate all of the unconscious to what Assagioli calls the lower unconscious (drives, sexuality, and so on).  But Assagioli believed that there is also a higher unconscious – he agreed with Jung on this.  He also believed, with Jung, that it was just as possible to become neurotic from the suppression of factors in the higher unconscious as it was to become neurotic from suppressing lower unconscious drives.   In the world in which we live today, a highly materialist world driven by finance and the exploitation of sexuality and power, I believe we commonly suppress higher aspects of ourselves – aspects of ourselves like wisdom, compassion, and the right use of the will, as examples.

Within these three spheres that Assagioli described – the higher, lower and middle unconscious – we each have sub-personalities that orbit around the center point of pure awareness that represents our connection to our Higher Self.  The sub-personalities are our different identifications – mother, daughter, wife, yoga teacher, writer, artist or whatever.  Assagioli taught that we can move in and out of sub-personalities consciously.  He taught that we can recognize you have them, give them names, and then begin to try to get them to work together rather than at cross purposes.  As we get them to work together, instead of at cross-purposes, we are able to aim them toward a truer life purpose.  The mnemonic for that is that you can claim, name, tame, and aim our sub-personalities in the service of the Higher Self.

Now the will is also a central concept for Assagioli. He wrote a book called The Will in addition to his book called Psychosynthesis. The will for Asagioli is often misappropriated by one of the stronger sub-personalities.  For example, in a businessman the sub-personality that’s driving for profit may completely appropriate the will and starve the rest of the psyche but, particularly, starve that core center of the self of the capacity to act.  Ideally, the will is centered around the core self of pure awareness.  When it is centered there, it can serve the purposes of the Higher Self, or whatever we choose to call our life purpose or calling.


DC:  So how you define will in that system is the capacity to act...

ML:  Will in that sense is central to decision-making.  While the topic of decision-making took me to wisdom, the question is then -- what is real wisdom?  In the western and eastern traditions it’s described in many ways.  But at pragmatic level, there’s a triad of wisdom and compassion and action (or will) that is at the core of the perennial philosophy, as Aldous Huxley understood it.

DC:  So using lower and upper sub-personalities in a balanced way can lead us to making more informed decisions and actions?

ML:  Yes, that is exactly right.  And how do you find that balance?  I believe intuition may play a key role.  I’ve done a series of seminars with Chet Tchozewski, the founder of Global Green Grants, at a half-dozen funder meetings on Intuition and Philanthropy.  Chet is an extraordinarily gifted man who won the Council on Foundation’s award for creative grant-making a few years ago. His model of philanthropy, Global Green Grants, is a beautiful and creative model that makes many hundreds of small grants to sustainable justice organizations around the world. 

Chet is a tremendously analytical human being and when he looked at theories about grant-making in contemporary philanthropy he saw that they’re currently top heavy with quantitative metric analyses of how you should make decisions about grants.  He didn’t disagree with having a quantitative metric analysis about how to make decisions. But if you don’t want to spend a disproportionate part of your budget on analysis and you’re making hundreds of grants to small organizations, how do you do that? 

He looked carefully at the literature on intuition. I learned from Chet that there is a very substantial literature on intuition in business, in the military, in science, in a whole set of spheres where it turns out that intuition has been absolutely critical to effective decision-making. In our seminars together, Chet would lay out an argument about how philanthropy has become top heavy with quantitative metrics and that it is often essential in uncertainty conditions to use other things.  And that it’s critical for good philanthropy to be guided by intuition combined with as much of a fact base as you can develop.
So that was his part of these seminars.  And then I would say to people, “How many of you use intuition in your everyday lives?”  Typically 80% of the people would raise their hands.  Then I’d say, “How many of you use it in your work in philanthropy?”  Again, 60-80% of the people would raise their hands.  Then I would say, “How many of you have thought at all deeply about intuition?” And you’d get a smaller number of hands raised.  Finally, I would ask, “How many of you have considered the possibility that intuition is not just some epiphenomenon of consciousness, but that it may be a core aspect of the structure of the universe?”  At that point, you get almost no hands up at all.  And so, it’s one thing to say that intuition is important to decision-making, but it’s another thing to ask yourself, what is it?


DC: How do you view intuition?

ML:  In a secular humanist frame, intuition is the sum total of what we do not know that we know. Polanyi called it “tacit knowledge.”  In the perennial philosophy, in the Bhagavad Gita, and many other sources, intuition comes from a transpersonal Source -- “as you seek, so you shall find.” 

Intuition is available for dark purposes as well as in the service of the light.  For example, a rapist or a thief can have powerful intuitions about who is vulnerable. But if one seeks to gather one’s life forces in service to life, then the intuition that one is seeking is at least in the realm of the higher unconscious. (By the way, I never privilege spiritual over secular language; we should be able to speak either language, and both are equally valid.)  For the sake of simplicity we could call the source that interests us our Higher Self or, in secular terms, the source of our sense of purpose, mission, or central intention in our lives.  If we are aware of our sub-personalities, we can discern who it is within us that is seeking intuitive guidance. Which sub-personality is seeking intuitive guidance?  Is it the core self of pure perception?  Or is it one of the sub-personalities?


DC:  The sub-personality could be fear based…

ML:  Exactly. Let’s look at an example of the values issue. Many of us are committed to sustainability and justice.  And we also are trying to save money for retirement – there is the legitimate fear of being left without resources in old age.    But how do you invest your retirement money?  Almost always your retirement money is invested in stuff that is doing exactly the opposite of what you care about from a values perspective. It’s a challenging thing. To me, that’s an example of a values conflict.

DC:  These values conflcits position themselves as trade offs that one is confronted with throughout one’s life…

JE:  Around the values question, some decision analysts say the hardest part of their work with clients involves clarifying what’s really most important or most valued, especially where’s there’s a lot of uncertainty at play.

ML:  Again, which sub-personality are you talking about in terms of values? Are these values all the sub-personalities agree on?  Probably not.  Who within you is making those choices?  Usually when we talk about values, it’s the presentational self, what we want to put out to the world.

JE:  Context plays a big role in the sub-personality line of thought. Often times you’ll see somebody making a decision in one arena and you’ll think “Oh, what a clear thinker” and then that person will act stupidly in another context and you’ll wonder, “What were they thinking?”  We see that replayed in the public/political sphere often in terms of sexual conduct. So, the notion of will you raised earlier depends a on the situation.
DC: Sub-personalities usurp will?  This reminds me of a metaphor that the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff used. He said we believe that we are a unified person running the show. But our situation is more like a stranger coming to a house and knocking on the door. The servant closest to the door answers. The stranger says, “I’d like to speak to the Master of the House” and the servant says, “That’s me.”

ML:  That’s beautiful. I hadn’t heard that.


DC: I’m curious how you’ve seen these factors at play as people make decisions about their health.

ML:  Over the past 26 years, we have offered over 160 week-long retreats for people with cancer in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. In helping people make decisions in living with cancer,  I talk about five major arenas of choice – choices in healing itself, in conventional therapies, in integral or complementary therapies, in facing pain and suffering, and in facing death and dying. 

Of course, this framework applies just as well to healing with any other disease.

In this framework,  the choices we explore in healing are critical to the choices in the other four areas – conventional therapies, complementary or integral therapies, pain and suffering, and death and dying. In other words, what we discover about the nature of true healing for us guides our choices in the other more specific four spheres. If we understand what is truly healing for us, that understanding is like a compass: you’re flooded with very strong feelings, the stakes couldn’t be higher, you’re operating under conditions of uncertainty and you have to make choices -- sometimes rapidly -- about what you’re going to do or what somebody you care about is going to do.

If, for example, true healing for you is to get as healthy as you can physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually with the goal of living as long and as well as possible, that goal will inform your choices in medical treatments and complementary therapies.  But if, by contrast, you have lived a long and rich life, and you intuitively don’t feel like struggling for more months or years, you may just want to enjoy the time you have left as best you can – and that will also inform your other choices.

In the Cancer Help Program we explore the question “What is healing?” The answer is that it is a movement toward wholeness within us.  It is our birthright.  It happens naturally, although it can be either impeded or encouraged by external circumstances.  It can take place at the physical, emotional, mental and spirit/meaning levels. 

We explore three aspects of healing: imagery, creativity, and meaning. Imagery is important because it’s the language of the unconscious. In these crisis situations huge unconscious forces surface that want to advise us and guide us. But if you don’t create space or a language in which to communicate with them, it’s very hard to hear that guidance. Imagery is a very powerful means of accessing a wise old man, a wise old woman, within yourself to guide your choices.

Creativity is the second realm of healing. When people come to our cancer help program we ask them what happened prior to your cancer that you associate with cancer – not what caused it, but in your symbolic system, what do you think contributed to it? Very often, it’s a great loss or shock, loss of a love relationship, loss of a job, some court battle.  And there’s a sense that one of the fundamental creative impacts of that life has been deflected and so the recognition that reconnecting with creativity is a central aspect of healing. 

The third aspect is meaning. And there, of course, we have Victor’s Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning and his insight that in Nazi concentration camps the people who survived were not the biggest or the strongest but the people who had a reason to live. There was a core of meaning that made life worthwhile. Nietzsche said “Those who have a why to live can bear most any how.”  So those three things – imagery, creativity, and meaning – are different facets of the search for healing wisdom that guides choice. 

DC: Do people need some space in their lives to access that wisdom?

ML:  There needs to be space, attention and the recognition that it’s worth doing. Above all, there needs to be a strong, strong intention.  And, of course, intention is an expression of will.


DC:  So in a wise healing decision you reconnect with images to access your personal wisdom?

ML:  You may connect with healing through images, yes, or through accessing creative resources, or through a deep exploration of what has meaning for you at this time in your life.  For example, the healing arts are exquisite resources for finding inner resources for healing and meaning in our lives.   Then, there’s the question of the relationship of this process to the facts on the ground. People in healing situations have tremendous differences about how much they want to know about the facts of the situation.  And there are different, legitimate strategies. 

One strategy is “I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to spend any time thinking about it.  Doctor, you just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”  Some people can come to much better decisions that way than if they spend a thousand hours researching on the Internet.  A second style is to want the doctor to decide but to have some input.  The third is to use the doctor as a consultant, but you really take on the responsibility for making the major decisions.  And the fourth is that you don’t want the doctor to have anything to do with it, which is usually not very wise. But the other three each have something to be said for them. 

So, it’s one thing to talk about accessing wisdom sources within yourself. It’s another thing to ask how balanced a perspective you have on the actual bio-medical facts. How skilled are you at making good selections of therapies, physicians and hospitals?  And once you’ve chosen them, how effective are you as an advocate for yourself in these vast bureaucracies -- which make mistakes -- actually deliver good therapies? And that is to say nothing of the comparable choices in complementary therapies.

DC:  There’s so much to deal with on a purely informational basis.

ML:  There is.  People get blown out, are in shock and have chemo brain. If they have no health insurance they’re truly desperate and usually don’t have much in the way of real choices at all.

DC:  On a purely logistical level, do you still try to open up people’s access to their wisdom in those types of decisions as well?

ML:  Absolutely.


JE:  In the preface of Choices in Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer,  you write about the concept of mapmaking in terms of the choices we make. I’m struck by your thoughtfulness as you explore different issues. How do you see mapmaking in relation to your own personal decisions? 

ML:  My nature is that I tend to see all possible perspectives on almost anything. That doesn’t make decision-making easier because I typically understand the arguments on all sides. And if one side gets voiced, I will often just voice the other so they’re both on the table.  I make maps for myself reading in fields that interest me. So, I try to get to the top of the highest mountain I can and get an overview of things – to make a better map.  And then with that overview I can focus in on different sectors.  But I definitely am more for the overview as the place where the map making starts.  Another quality of my mapmaking is I’m literally the only one in my family with an intensive interest in health and healing and a substantially introverted personality that is continuously monitoring internal processes. 

So there’s a lot of information coming from inside and then there’s a lot of seeking of external information.  Of course, health is the biggest query on the Internet so I use it for healing questions constantly. For me, if somebody’s dealing with a specific health problem or specific cancer I’ll just Google the specific condition and take a look at what’s out there.  Then I will almost always go to Google Scholar and access the academic literature.  At first I’m just scanning for that overview place. As the map develops, the intuitive force is a constant source of guidance as I scan the facts on the ground both in mainstream and integral therapies.

DC:  How does your intuitive guidance signal you when looking at that amount of information?

ML:  I’m not a great meditator but I meditate every day.  In meditation, fresh perspectives often pop in. Likewise, it happens when I am taking walks. I find that fresh perspectives drop in.  More than that, I think it has to do with my own sense of who I am in the world. This goes back to John’s question about maps.

What is your map of the nature of the universe?  Is there a vast intelligence at work in the universe? Or is it essentially random and human life is just an accidental epiphenomenona of how things worked out and consciousness is just an epiphenomenona of this random event called human life? Plato and Aristotle both  thought there was a great organizing intelligence. Epicurus thought it was all random.  Maimonides, over a thousand years later, was still debating the question in Guide for the Perplexed.  It is a great question that has no fixed answer.  If you believe that life is all random accident, do you choose to live in wonder at what randomness can create? Or with a depth question about the nature of randomness and chaos theory, do you make shape out of non-shape?  Do you take an essentially existentialist position, which is that it is all random, it’s all chaos, but it does have whatever meaning we affirmatively choose to give it?

Now, I honor that existential perspective but my intuition is that the universe is infinitely more complex than we know or can know -- and I sense a design, a pattern.  It’s not that I know it, but there are enough hints that it’s reasonable and I prefer to live that way.  And so my mapmaking has to do with a sense that I don’t have any particular personal purpose in life, except to try and understand what the universe wants to happen next and to assist it. So, my own map is seeking to be a servant of that universal purpose.  So my prayer is simply to know what the universe wants to happen next. I’m constantly seeking guidance from the universe. How do I take dictation from the universe?

I learned recently that Assagioli described himself as a friend of evolution – which makes sense because his concept of self-realization was that it was an evolution of consciousness.  I like to think of myself as a friend of evolution.   That means that I trust life, I trust that there’s meaning, I trust that there’s pattern.  Perhaps I’m just making it up.  But who or what within me and within millions of other people dreams this same dream?

Vaclav Havel said something very beautiful about the difference between optimism and hope.   “Optimism,” he said,  “is the belief that everything is going to go right.  Hope, by contrast, is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held in the darkest of times.”  My point of view is that it’s very hard to be optimistic about what’s happening in the world right now. But it’s fairly essential to be hopeful if you don’t want to live in cynicism and despair. And why not be hopeful? It’s not that we know we’re going to win, the odds are against us, but it’s a more interesting way to live. 

DC:  You make a really strong point in Choices in Healing that hope is an essential aspect for healing. 

ML:  Absolutely.

DC:  I really like that distinction between hope and optimism because I think there’s often a confusion of the two.  It’s a different orientation.  Hope isn’t necessarily attached to an outcome. It’s an outlook.

ML:  I’m a profound believer with Buber that truth emerges from dialogue. I know that’s central to the Whitman Institute, but it is my practical experience that that’s the case.  So, when I’m making decisions either for myself -- or for the organizations I’m involved with -- it’s a continuous dialogic process. What I tend to do is throw out my first best estimate of a solution to a problem we are facing.  In other words I rarely pose a problem without suggesting a solution.  If there’s a problem facing us, which there almost always is, I’ll throw out a possible solution which will get batted around and criticized and discussed.  But since I have absolutely no attachment to the solution I throw out as a possibility, other suggestions for solutions can emerge from me or from other people. 

The time we’re in is a perfect example.  This financial cataclysm that we’re still going through and its impact on the nonprofit community means that we have to make very major decisions. At Commonweal we are in a continuous process of dialogue about how we’re going do this and it requires a tremendous willingness to live with ambiguity and to sort through decisions over months of time. 

DC:  It sounds like its one of those moments you talk about with illness, where something catastrophic happens and it creates the possibility for a new recognition.

ML:  Exactly.

DC:  And this could be a very creative moment for Commonweal as well.

ML:  This is an extremely creative time for Commonweal.  And the New School is right at the heart of its creativity. The New School is operating on a homeopathic budget with very little money.  But it’s having a substantial impact in Commonweal and the community around it. It’s a beautiful example of how a low-cost system can have a disproportionately large impact.


JE:  Tell us about your decision to start the New School.

ML:  We founded Commonweal in 1976. We saw it from the start as a place that would focus both on helping people heal and on contributing to a healthy world.  At any given time we have about a dozen major projects focused on different aspects of healing and of advocacy for social and environmental service.  What has characterized all of our programs – in cancer, in work with physicians, in environmental health, in juvenile justice, in ocean policy and in permaculture gardening-- has been that they have all been very strategically focused in their intentionality. 

At the same time, there is a part of me that is interested in the whole shebang, the whole ball of wax. My father, a political philosopher, Max Lerner, used to teach at the New School in New York.  He was also somebody who was interested in the universal.  I inherited that from him.  So, there was a hunger in me for a program at Commonweal that would give us permission to explore the global problematique, the great civilizational questions, the fundamental issues of culture and consciousness.   I thought we should create a forum for systematic inquiry focused on the emergent as opposed to focused strategic initiatives.  The premise of The New School is that if we are going to survive as a species in any meaningful way, that nature, culture, service and the inner life are four of the key terms that we need to pay attention to. 

The Kalliopeia Foundation became interested in the project, and we began.  Then we found support from the Bet Lev Foundation and The Whitman Institute.  And we get wonderful contributions from participants in The New School. Since then it’s been a constant learning process.  I thought at first that we were going to do telephone interviews that we would put on the web.  And we’ve done a lot of those.  What I didn’t realize was that when we started doing events at Commonweal, we would create a whole community of people who had always been interested in Commonweal but never had an access point because they didn’t have cancer, weren’t environmental health scientists or activists, weren’t into juvenile justice or permaculture gardening or whatever. There just wasn’t an opening for them. So while the telephone conversations were great, I found that when we created this space to have conversations in front of a live audience that they were even better -- partly because I wasn’t the only one doing the dialogue. 

JE:  What’s popping into my head is our earlier discussion about mapmaking.

ML:  Yes, it’s a constant enriching of the maps. 

JE:  I think that there is also an important emerging story in the sense of The New School showing the importance of people starting to associate an actual, physical space over time with a certain way of being, with exploration and dialogue that brings different perspectives in.  Right now a big question many people are asking is how do you embed processes of dialogue and collaborative decision making in communities? I think what you’re doing with The New School is something that might shed light on that larger question.

ML:  That’s exactly right. 

JE:  Because creating communities rooted in dialogic process does take space and it does take time.

DC:  And intention.

JE:  And that runs up against the fact that most institutions that resource things, philanthropic and otherwise, have short attention spans and tend to favor more defined, specialized work over more emergent, organic processes. So there are a lot of different tensions involved. Commonweal has an important story to tell at the moment because it has both targeted, strategic programs and a space for this more general, interdisciplinary exploration. You’re creating an organization, a space, and a community where you’re holding both of those polarities. And it’s actually potentially quite powerful because I think we tend to view those approaches as either/or rather than both/and.

ML:  They both inform each other so profoundly.

JE:  You talked earlier about living with ambiguity and I think to live with ambiguity, to make meaning and make effective choices within it, really requires us to hold both of those places.

ML:  I agree with that John, I think that’s beautiful.  Thank you.

DC:  Before we end this conversation, is there anything further that’s been evoked for you?

ML: One of the things I like about wisdom questions is that when you ask somebody where they find wisdom in their life, you get a really rich answer.  We have a heart support group at Commonweal --about 15 of us that had heart attacks, heart surgery or whatever -- that’s been meeting for about five years, and the other day one of the people said that she would like to ask each of us when we cry in our lives.  It was one of the most interesting conversations we’ve had, and we’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, but what a great question.  When do we cry?  How do we relate to tears?  I love those questions. I just love them.  The evening that we spend on death and dying in the cancer help program is characteristically the most transformative evening we do.  End of life questions are wisdom questions by their nature.

JE: As you said that, I thought of the interview Bill Moyers did with you where you talked about how our culture infers toxicity when we look at dying. So, as you say, on the one hand end of life questions open up such potentially profound conversations and yet the larger social ethos is to not go there.

ML:  So true.  Many ancient cultures were wisdom cultures. Our consumer-materialist culture not only avoids wisdom – it actually denies that wisdom is a valid category of inquiry! The psychological literature, for example, makes only fleeting reference to wisdom – just as it makes only fleeting reference to the concept of will.  So the ancient wisdom-love-will triad almost disappears in our contemporary materialistic world. 

I believe ultimately that wisdom is inseparable from justice.  The Golden Rule is found in all the great spiritual and philosophical traditions.   The Bhagavad Gita says, “When goodness grows weak, when evil increases, I make myself a body. In every age I come back…to establish righteousness.”  The Old Testament has that beautiful line: “What does the Lord require of you but that you do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" And what is the core intention of secular humanism but to make man – and justice for man – the measure of all things?

I believe our instinct for justice, like our instinct for altruism, is innate.   So while a selfish materialism may triumph for a time, and while the perils of this materialism for all life on earth seem overwhelming, I believe our deepest impulse is toward justice. For justice is the place where wisdom and compassion meet in action.  Justice is the wise and compassionate will in action.  And that is where we began.

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