An Interview with
Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi
By Mary NurrieStearns
Many of our readers are in the August and September of life. October is approaching as signs of aging are visible, older relatives are dying and thoughts are turning to old age. Therefore, for this issue's theme of courage, fear, and the unknown, we wanted to interview someone who could talk about the theme from a spiritual perspective and also as it relates to aging. Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, a 75-year-old rabbi, was a wonderful choice for the task. He is World Wisdom Chairman at Naropa Institute and President of Spiritual Eldering Institute. He is the co-author of "From Age-ing to Sage-ing" and a sage in his own right. His wisdom and spirituality shine throughout the interview as does his ease with the subject matter. I spoke with Rabbi by phone at his home in Boulder, Colorado, while he gazed out his window enjoying the wildlife.
Personal Transformation: Let's start by discussing what fear is.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: In Hebrew, there are three words that deal with the attitude/emotion that fear is. They are Yir'ah (Yeer-ah), Aymah (A-mah), and Pachad (Pah-had). Let me begin with Pachad, because that's the simplest one. Pachad is the fear of danger. This fear warns us to "watch out, the sharp thing is coming." Like in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," Pachad is when something sharp descends on you and it gets worse and worse. We know to expect that we will be cut and we know exactly what will hurt us. Pachad is felt as terror and panic.
The second word, Aymah, translates into anxiety or angst. We know something is impending; what it is, we don't know. Where it comes from, we don't know. It is dark and it descends on you. You feel lost in it and know that you're totally vulnerable to something that could even cost you your life.
The third is a fear that is not really fear. Yir'ah is the sense that you are being seen, being scrutinized. Every nook and cranny of your personality is open for inspection. Yir'ah is what we experience in our relationship with God. Many people would like to have only that sweet, nurturing relationship with God, but there is also the great awe of being seen from all sides. It is both reassuring and threatening. The reassurance comes from knowing God is here. The threat comes from knowing God is here. Psalm 23 reads, "Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." The rod is that with which God hits you; in other words, the pangs of your conscience. If you're seen doing something that you shouldn't be doing, then you feel the rod of God, the rod of reproof. Thy staff is a lot more like the crutch, the support. I get comfort out of that and, at the same time, I have the feeling that I'm not the boss of this universe.
Now, let me talk about brain physiology. The earliest brain part that we have, we inherited from the reptiles. The reptilian brain says, "Watch out, your turf is being invaded, your food is being taken from you, your female is going to be taken from you." This is a survival mechanism that we all experience. It cuts into our awareness even before we can discern what is happening because the reptilian brain is the fastest neural connection. Next we have the limbic brain that we share with all mammals. This is where we feel the excitement and pleasure from rhythm and doing things in groups. On top of that we have the neocortex. The cortex is slower still, cutting in after the lymbic has cut in. About 85 percent of the brain capacity hasn't yet been formatted. This is where intuition resides. Hopefully we will format and make accessible more of that for our use. In our response pattern, fear cuts in first. The staff at the Heart Math Institute in Boulder Creek, California, teach people to do a "freeze frame." When you get into terror, when the reptilian brain overtakes you, sink your consciousness deeper into a level of awareness that has to do with heart, which is much wiser than the place where we are immediately into fight or flight.
Let's go back to what we learned from Jewish tradition. In dealing with fear, the most often used response is denial, "I don't want not to know what's threatening me." Most of the time, we want to play possum and ignore that which threatens us. Imagine, though, if you know exactly what the threat is and, nevertheless, you don't flinch. That's where courage is situated. Otherwise, it's foolhardiness. Courage comes from that simultaneous awareness that you don't want to fool yourself, you don't want to have illusions about things, and at the same time, you look it straight in the face. How does it work that one shouldn't feel overwhelmed by that?
In prayer and in meditation, a sense comes to us, beyond ego, that has to do with us being, every moment, created by God. Scientifically speaking, there are 1,800 cycles per second that we go in and out of existence. So while I feel myself as a person, underneath, once I deeply understand that I am a creature and that God created me, then my ego can become transparent to that. Most of the time ego is opaque to that. It creates an opacity between me and the Creator, so I think that I am me, and that I am totally independent. Once I see that "underneath are the everlasting arms," what is the worst thing that can happen to me? One of our Hasidic masters says, in Yiddish, "So what if you die?" I'm not saying not to get palpitations when threatened, or not to freak, but with some discipline, and this is where courage comes in, to be able to say, "This is happening to me, but not outside of divine awareness." That's the kind of courage that people had walking the last few meters into the gas chambers.
Transformation: Say more about courage. Give us a working definition.
Schachter-Shalomi: Courage is when you feel that the right action or the thing that you are about to do is more important than the lack of safety you feel in the presence of the threat. Example: King David, who had the power of life and death over his subjects, did something he shouldn't have, he took Bath Sheba, the wife of another man. God said to Nathan, the prophet, "You've got to confront him about that." Can you imagine, standing in front of somebody who has the power of life and death, knowing that crossing him could bring about the loss of your life? Nevertheless, you have to tell what you have to tell. You have to witness what you have to witness. Therein lies courage.
If someone is in danger of life and you can't guarantee that you will be able to save that person, if you don't do what you can about it, you will not be able to face that moment of transparency when you are being seen through and through. People speak of this as the judgment of God, as if God was coming to put them down. I don't think that's what the experience is like. The experience comes out of the greater sense of deep truth that emerges when being in the presence of God; all excuses look like sham. It's not that there is a vindictive God, but in the face of that truth, how could I not admit it?
Transformation: Is it more about admitting, and experiencing what happens while admitting, than being damned?
Schachter-Shalomi: Yes. Sometimes it comes accompanied with a great compassion that says, "I know what you've done and it's such a pity that you had to descend to that level."
Transformation: One of the outcomes of courage is right action
Schachter-Shalomi: In right action, I don't have the sense that I'm doing it, I have the sense that I am making myself available, that it is being done through me. In other words, the right action is there already, all I can do is serve it.
Transformation: Is there some force that energizes us when we give ourselves to the righteousness of a cause?
Schachter-Shalomi: Many people are disturbed by having to deal with the word God. No other word has been used to clobber people as hard as the word God. When some people hear the word God, they cringe. People are afraid of prayer in public schools because bibles and God are used to coerce people, instead of letting the word of God and of truth and justice present themselves to others in such a way that they, with the autonomy of their spirit, encounter it. Just now, you were looking for the right kind of word because you didn't want to use the word God. When I speak about God, I don't mean omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, those things that great philosophers talk about, because I don't know what they mean, except as ideas. I do know when I am in the flow of the will of the spirit of gaia; when I behave like a natural, healthy cell of the planet, there is a release of endorphins that gives a sense of deep happiness, a sense of rightness I'm right where I have to be. When I'm in the zippity-doo-dah place, all through my body, my cells are totally transparent to that happiness. When I have a sense that I'm right with God, I mean, basically, that I'm right with the spirit of the planet.
Transformation: What about will-power? Where does will-power come into play in dealing with fear?
Schachter-Shalomi: Most of the time we make will-power something that is connected with being tight-assed. We say, "Use your will-power. Have intestinal fortitude."
We talk about it as if we're constipated. I think of that as won't-power rather than will-power. I like to think of will-power in the sense of the runner in "Chariots of Fire." When he runs, he doesn't run with grimness, he soars. I think will-power is when we are in the flow. When we choose between options and have to invoke will-power to follow through, we are made smaller. When we align with the larger good, not because someone else wants us to do it, but in the fabric of this moment the right way is to go in this direction, we get filled with energy and we don't feel like martyrs invoking will-power. Most of the time, people think of will-power as if it comes from the past, from the back, like when you pinch a frog to jump. I have a feeling that the best stuff comes from the future, it attracts us. I have a sense of the great vision of the peaceable kingdom, the way the planet ought to be, in exuberant ecstasy. When we hook onto that vision, we access its energy. It pulls us in and the vision is what becomes.
Transformation: Will-power seems connected to integrity.
Schachter-Shalomi: People who push conservative family values say, "Where's your integrity?" often implying that your integrity doesn't meet their integrity. Let's talk about integrity in the sense of parts of our being giving agreement. There are many parts of us that rarely get a chance to speak. Most of the time, we censor them. Integrity is when all parts of me give permission. To use a metaphor: You can't have an orgasm unless every part of the body agrees. You get the sense of integrity there somatic integrity. I have a sense of integrity, for instance, when I don't betray promises I make to people after all the people involved have had a say in my decision.
Transformation: What's the relationship between integrity and courage?
Schachter-Shalomi: Even though there are moments in which some parts seem to overwhelm the totality, you stand with integrity to all your promises, not selling out loyalty to people further away from the scene in order to get the momentary benefit of alleviating the stress of the threat of the moment. When you come back later and examine your conscience, you ask, "Did I betray any of my loyalties, any of my commitments?" And if the answer is, "thank God, no," that's integrity. The endorphins release at that point and there is a feeling of satisfaction. Martyrs are described as experiencing ecstasy in their last moments because they didn't betray.
Pictures of Joan of Arc, the French maid of Orleans, show a sense of her looking beyond the moment with ecstasy. Knowing that God is with her, she doesn't feel abandoned in her ordeal.
Transformation: How important is community in sustaining courage and integrity?
Schachter-Shalomi: The notion that we are bounded by our skin and that everything inside our skin is independent of others is an illusion the ego projects. We have to realize that we are not bounded by skin.
For instance, there are moments in our conversation that I feel a deep kinship with you, and in this sharing, we create a community. Communitas together, we are one. When the "we" feeling grows, there is an expansion, an enlargement, what we call magnanimous, great soulness, "magna anima."
Transformation: When we are communing and when we are in union with the whole of the parts, we access the same life flow that courage rides in, in a sense.
Schachter-Shalomi: That's right. When we have separate words, we are reductionist, pulling apart. When the wholeness principle is at work, community, courage, integrity are dimensions of that totality.
Transformation: We've discussed courage, integrity and community. Within this context, let's talk about the role of elders.
Schachter-Shalomi: Ah, yes. Where do the elders fit in? If we have done our genetic job by producing another generation and helping them grow, by the time our offspring are on their own and we are 50 or 55, we should be able to die, like the salmon who dies right after it spawns. What keeps us alive? Elders are wisdom-keepers. What we downloaded in our youth as education, we have to upload into the civilizational pool when we are older, except that we don't upload it as information, we upload it as wisdom. A human lifetime distills through experience the information received in youth and gives it back to the world as wisdom. Information tells me what I might be able to do, but why I should do anything, wisdom has to teach me. At present, we don't have the natural transfer of wisdom there used to be when three or four generations lived in one household.
Grandparents and grandchildren are natural allies. Children can take family values from grandparents much easier than from parents, against whom they have to rebel. The natural role for elders is passing on wisdom to the next generation.
On the other hand, as we get older, an increasing degree of diminishment happens. Eyes don't see so well, ears don't hear so well, and the zest for living is gone. Moreover, the signs of approaching death can be repressed no more. I'm 75 years old. People who are my colleagues are dying. I know that my number is going to be up sooner or later. My courage is going to be in the way I look at that basic fact of my mortality. I had an operation two years ago and while on the gurney being rolled into the operating room, I wasn't coming to terms with my mortality, I was coming to terms with dying, which has a much more visceral feeling. If elders don't access a place of courage and if they can't give consent to the way in which they die, depression sets in. Elders say, "I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to," and before long, they become shriveled "I don't want to" balls. Many people being warehoused until they die are in that position. That's the reason this work of spiritual eldering is important to me, and why we are building sage-ing centers all over.
Transformation: Give a definition of spiritual eldering.
Schachter-Shalomi: Old is what happens to you. Eldering is what you participate in consciously and willingly. Spiritual means beyond sensory, beyond affect, beyond reason. Spiritual goes into the deep place of intuition, the place of right action. It's not only that it has to be and I can't help it, it is right that it should be so. There's a phrase used in the old Roman mass, "Dignum et ustum est." This is where the dignity is and this is where the rightness of it is. The physical organism is only one part of our total organism. We have an energy organism bigger than our physical organism. Our heart, or affect organism, and our mental organism spans the planet. Our spiritual organism is so vast that it goes beyond the solar system. Our physical organism dropping off doesn't mean that the other organisms die. When people become aware of their non-physical organisms, then more and more, they take up residence, not so much in the world of sensation, but in the world of love, mind, and spirit that are much larger than the physical.
Transformation: Which kinds of fear are met during the work of sage-ing?
Schachter-Shalomi: There is anxiety over unlived life, there is anxiety over bad karma we leave behind. There is real fear of a slow and painful demise.
Transformation: What role does courage play in the making of a sage?
Schachter-Shalomi: Without the courage to look the Angel of Death in the eye, one lacks a level of perception that makes for sage-ing.
Transformation: Talk about the process of becoming a sage.
Schachter-Shalomi: We have models in our culture of what to do when we are children, youth, and middle aged. We don't have models of eldering in the youth culture in America, with the exception of Native Americans, who still have a sense of eldering. Unfortunately, they're not featured in the media. One wonderful model for aging was Jessica Tandy in "Fried Green Tomatoes." She portrayed Towanda. "My Tuesdays with Morey," a wonderful book on the best-seller list, shows how a good caring teacher continues to teach in his dying. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was a great pioneer and deserves much honor for what she taught us. This is the kind of wisdom that elders produce for our civilization, but its value isn't recognized yet. If you open the pages of "Modern Maturity," you see teenagers with gray hair enjoying what they couldn't, and didn't have the money for, when they were younger. Culturally, we have to make room for elders.
I call the work to become an elder the work of October. Eldering calls for a lot of contemplative inner work; straightening out the kinks of past situations, examining conscience, straightening up past relationships, and so on. I took a retreat and on each day of the retreat, I meditated on one of my children, and wrote him or her a letter. When I finished with the retreat I sent the letters out. The letters said what I felt was the meaning that these children had for me and how much I love them. Shortly afterward, I received calls from them asking if I was okay. They figured I was on my way out. I wasn't. I just wanted to be in touch with them, and for them to enjoy what I had written while I was alive.
Then comes the work of November, which is where Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter are. They are giving back to the planet. We are sending young people to Kosovo as peacekeepers. I would rather have a corps of elders to talk with the Serb and Albanian grandparents who have lost grandchildren; sit together and try to figure out better ways of living together peacefully. An elder corps of people who have done the sage-ing work could be of such help locally and internationally. Many Middle East problems would be solved if an elder corps sat with the Palestinians and the Israeli people who have lost children and grandchildren. In this way, we would be able to overcome the dinosaur response of the younger people who have not been seasoned with wisdom.
Elders would be the intercultural, international glue for humanitarian solutions. Madeline Albright, God bless her for the work she does I don't know how she, at her age, is able to travel and be of sane mind meeting all of those people but at the same time, her thinking is still in that reptilian mode, which is a pity. Look at how much NATO has invested in saving face. Elders don't feel that way.
Transformation: What's the work of December?
Schachter-Shalomi: December is an entirely different phase. Most people are so afraid of death that we have created an industry about saving life at any cost, which is a good policy for the emergency room. When someone is brought in from an accident, we want to do anything that we can to save life. But an elderly person who has gotten the friend of pneumonia to come, one of the easiest ways of dying, is pumped full of antibiotics, and his life is saved, as it were. The next time, dying is more painful. So don't "prolong life." In reality, it prolongs dying. What I call the December place is preparing our solitude with God.
Transformation: You just celebrated your 75th birthday. You wrote the book "From Age-ing to Sage-ing" in 1993, six years ago. In the years since, how has your understanding of sage-ing deepened?
Schachter-Shalomi: Before I wrote the book, I got the glimpse of the possibility of sage-ing, and after that glimpse, there was mining of that idea. Then came applying that idea, teaching seminars and so on. Now, a large number of people have trained to bring this work to people in the world, and there are sage-ing centers springing up. I have a feeling that I've done that job and I'm planning to conclude the service part, the November phase, in another few years, and then it's going to be time to work on my own inner way of releasing myself from this life. I experience great joy to see that an idea in which I served as a conduit is beginning to take root. I have given the mantle of leadership to some wonderful people because I don't believe that people should die in the saddle. I look at the Pope, dragging himself around when his body barely carries him. It isn't fitting for him to retire, but I wish it were so that he could enjoy the last years of his life, looking over his work and spending time as a contemplative.