by Sy Safransky
I’d been melancholy for weeks, dogged by feelings I couldn’t name. Then my wife went out of town; I didn’t want her to go.
You might say I was ready for a good cry. Yet how tempting to ignore sorrow, as if it were a beggar. Those dark, accusing eyes.
I almost rushed past Stephen Schwartz, too. A booklet describing his workshops sat on my desk, unread, along with dozens of other brochures promising to unfurl my petals. Who has time for workshops? Life is so busy rearranging us already, and truth such a flirt. Read the words of the master, spend an evening with the master: there’s no telling whether you’ll get enlightened or herpes. No, I didn’t want another teacher.
But when I finally picked up the booklet, I was intrigued. Here was a spiritual thinker who shunned spiritual dictums; who suggested that the body doesn’t need to be transcended or the personality fixed; who insisted that self-knowledge has more to do with feelings than philosophy — feelings, not psychological insights, not our thoughts and stories about our feelings. I was intrigued, too, that the booklet had been sent by one of Schwartz’s admirers. Schwartz doesn’t advertise and his books aren’t available in most stores; you need to stumble onto his work. I ordered a tape.
I listened to it on my way to the airport. But I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about my wife, eager to see her but determined not to show it, embarrassed I’d been so sullen about her leaving, as if she weren’t coming back. I was sick of myself, the scratchy soundtrack of my days, the desperate longing. What was Schwartz saying? Sadness isn’t wrong. Pain isn’t shameful. I listened more closely. We condemn and deny our loneliness. We take our longing for love and turn it into shame. His voice so ardent, so sincere. Yet loneliness is a prayer, a deep longing to know and feel God’s presence. His words like the sea, rocking me; like a big wave, whacking me in the chest. There is great strength in wanting. There is dignity, not shame, in loneliness. My mind was a hanging judge who showed no mercy. I resented my wife for leaving, but I resented myself even more for feeling left. We can’t keep measuring ourselves against some enlightened ideal, as if self-hatred could be a path to love. There’s no disgrace in any experience we’ve ever had. There’s nothing we need to run from. No, I thought, sorrow isn’t the enemy. In the mirror I caught a glimpse of myself, tears streaming down my cheeks.
Since then, I’ve spent many hours reading Schwartz’s writings and listening to his tapes. The beauty of his language, the passion and lucidity of his message, continue to move me.
Schwartz is more than just a good listener, a psychologically astute guy with a flair for the right phrase. At times, he inspires a comparison with the great Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, who insisted that truth is a “pathless land” that cannot be approached through beliefs. Also, those familiar with A Course In Miracles — the radical rendering of Christian thought with which Schwartz was once identified — will recognize his debt to the Course, as well as his independence from it. Instead of parroting the Course, he embodies its teachings on love and forgiveness, threading the Course’s lofty ideals into the frayed fabric of ordinary lives.
At his workshops, Schwartz asks people to sit in a circle with their eyes closed. Then, through a process similar to meditation, with its focus on the breath, and to therapy, with its emphasis on feelings — but dramatically unlike either — he gently but persistently encourages them to turn to the pain, not the ideology about the pain; to the truth of the body, not cliches about the truth; to the actual feelings, not the words that wrap the feelings in too many layers, like a mother nervously bundling her infant against a warm, fragrant breeze.
Usually, Schwartz explains, thoughts are so clustered around a feeling that it seems as if the definition is the feeling. But the feeling is different from the thought, different from the interpretation we’ve always given it. The body feels. When we feel loneliness, when we feel anger, when we feel love, we feel it in the body. Our fears and mental turmoil, he says, are the result of trying to place limiting labels on the innocent feeling life. Therefore, turning to the body, with compassionate attention, is the first step in really caring for ourselves.
There’s a more esoteric aspect to Schwartz’s work that’s difficult to describe, and may leave skeptical readers shaking their heads. To him, the physical body is only the visible portion of “an invisible field of radiant energy.” This field, he says, is made up of exceedingly subtle filaments, which function as conduits or passageways through which energy is given and received. Feelings, Schwartz suggests, are the movement of energy at these subtle levels.
Although he doesn’t call himself a psychic, Schwartz says he can sense these energies in others. Given the right conditions, he believes he can merge with another person on a feeling level; he speaks of entering into “their silence, their presence, their depth.” As a consequence, he’s able to speak to them about their feelings in an intimate, helpful way.
His dialogues with workshop participants bear this out. He gently encourages people to move their attention from the tangle of thought to the energy of the body. By persistently asking where a feeling is being experienced, he helps distinguish between what is actually occurring in the body and the conditioning, the descriptions, the self-defeating ideas carried by the mind.
Even those who have experienced the process have difficulty explaining it, he acknowledges; it’s easier for them to quote him than to describe the intuitive scaffolding for the work. I’m aware that my words, too, reduce the rich complexity of his work. It’s like reading aloud the lyrics to a song, minus the tune.
Ironically, the very act of writing this — hunched before a glowing computer screen, jazzed on coffee and deadline anxiety — distances me from my body. But under just about any circumstances, it’s hard for me to experience feelings as pure energy, rather than as something already encased in meaning, mummified, catalogued. I wander anxiously through the museum of myself, rules on every wall. Even Stephen Schwartz can become just another exhibit as he reminds me not to pretend I’m less damaged than I really am, or less holy; that there are doors up and down these hallways; that they’re not locked.
Schwartz, forty-three, lives in upstate New York, on a mountaintop overlooking the Hudson River, with his wife Donna and their two sons.
While studying literature at Brandeis University during the sixties, he got involved in anti-war and civil-rights activism but eventually became disenchanted by all “the divisiveness, the anger, the blame.” He went through a “big turnaround,” giving up psychedelics and committing himself to meditation, which he’s practiced regularly since 1966.
During the next two decades, he worked as a shoe salesman, a deliveryman, a (vegetarian) meat-cutter, an insurance agent, and a teacher; ran a secondhand bookstore; sold exotic plants with his father; and wrote two theatrical productions, one based on William Blake and the other on James Joyce.
For a while, he enjoyed a modest reputation as a teacher of A Course In Miracles, though his maverick approach to the Course got him in trouble. He says people would come to his talks carrying copies of the Course under their arms, then storm away angrily, offended by his insistence that salvation has nothing to do with beliefs; that we need to free ourselves of all ideologies, even those as sublime as the Course.
His teaching has continued to evolve, his language less overtly spiritual now, more accessible. I respect his willingness to re-create himself regularly, to risk offending his admirers. He seems more interested in discovering what’s real, what’s next, than in enshrining a system; in honoring mystery rather than footnoting it.
When I met him for the first time last year, I expected to feel intimidated. But he was warm and relaxed, not the kind of person who engages in spiritual grandstanding. He’s willing to kid around, to be honest about his doubts, even to parody his own vocabularies.
Schwartz’s books include Doors To Peace and The Compassionate Presence. The books, as well as information on his tapes and workshops, are available from Riverrun Press, P.O. Box 367, Piermont, NY 10968. (914) 353-1677.
A seemingly robust, indefatigable man, Schwartz nearly died earlier this year after he collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with cancer. When I heard the news, I was stunned. We spoke about this during our interview, and Schwartz has just written a book about the experience. True to form, he intends to call it I Accept In All Gratitude: Cancer, Crisis, And Compassionate Self-Care.
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