Some of us may be feeling a collective national hangover after a divisive and emotionally exhausting election season. In the aftermath, it seems a fertile time for reflection and conversation, and hopefully, change. On Election Day eve, I was fortunate to have an illuminating conversation with spiritual activist and best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who this weekend will convene Sister Giant, a two-day conference taking place on November 10th and 11th in Los Angeles (and live streamed online) to explore "birthing a new American politics." In the following in-depth interview, Marianne and I talk about the need to create a new political paradigm, "one where conscience takes precedence over profit and humanitarian values trump economic ones," as well as her insightful perspective on numerous other topics.
Marianne Schnall: What inspired you to launch Sister Giant? How would you describe the event and what do you hope to accomplish?
Marianne Williamson: I write and speak about personal and spiritual growth. One week I write about illness and another week I speak about relationships and another week I write about work and money and another week I speak to people with obesity issues --- I write about whatever wounds seem to cry out for more enlightened solutions, and the love that heals them all.
American politics is a subject that gets a lot of attention, obviously. But it doesn't get very enlightened attention, at least not at this point in our history. There's very little heart in the current political conversation, or real wisdom or philosophical depth. But among many people I know, there's a yearning for that. People want the nation to transform in the same way they want their own lives to transform.
If you're interested in transforming your life, you can't just transform some things. You can't try to fix some things, but sweep other things under the rug because it's too hard to face them. And the same is true for a nation. America has a lot of dirty little secrets. Our child poverty rate, at 23.1 percent, is second highest among 35 developed nations of the world (second only to Romania). Our incarceration rate is higher than any nation in the world - we're 5% of the world's population, yet we incarcerate 25% of the world's prisoners. Citizens United, the National Defense Authorization Act, so many things that any reasonable person would consider at least an indirect threat to democracy, are staring us in the face as we speak. You can't change your life by just looking at the fun things, and you can't change your country by just looking at the fun things either.
But as Elizabeth Kucinich says, "You can't transform what you don't engage." I gave a talk at a university recently where several women students involved in social justice and human rights work were explaining what they want to do when they leave college. As they went around the table explaining what their plans were after they graduated, many of them said that they wanted to do "policy and/or advocacy work". I remember inwardly tilting my head -- thinking how odd it was that women graduating from one of the best universities in the country -- all of whom were really marvelous young women -- wanted to go do policy and advocacy work, but not one said she wanted to be a Senator or a Congressman or a President. And in today's world, policy and advocacy work, in my mind, means we take our activism to a certain point but no further. In other words, we want passionately to lobby and persuade those in power, but for whatever reason, we're not so comfortable with the idea of becoming those in power. And at a certain point, it's not enough to have the audacity of hope, or even the audacity of activism. We need the audacity to wield power.
I'm producing Sister Giant because I see a need to create new political conversation - one that isn't so toxic, dysfunctional and mean-spirited. I know there's no place for that within the current system, but the current system is boring to me. I think it's boring to a lot of people.
But that's not to say that it's unimportant. This isn't about ignoring politics; it's about creating a new political conversation, one where conscience takes precedence over profit and humanitarian values trump economic ones. I know a lot of people think that's extremely naïve, but what I think is naïve is thinking we can continue to treat our fellow human beings and the planet on which we live in such a violent way as we do now, and expect the species to survive for another hundred years.
MS: Do you have a sense of what obstacles there are, either societal or self-imposed, that are preventing women from entering the political pipeline?
MW: When it comes to politics, we have an internal glass ceiling. We stand as good a chance as a man to win a political race, but women don't want to run at the same rate as men do. People point to the work-family balance issue, but I think it's much more than that. Many women don't have children, or have children who are no longer at home. There are some deeper psychological and emotional issues in play, like the fact that many of us feel like the embarrassment, humiliation and personal demonization in politics are simply more than our hearts can take. What stops us is fear.
Who in their right mind would want to go into politics today? But that question is a serious conundrum, because as the French say, "If you don't do politics, politics will do you." With our own country moving every day in the direction of a plutocracy - and let's not kid ourselves, this election staved off disaster in that area, but I'm not sure it averted it; and global issues -- from intractable violence to unsustainable poverty (17,000 children die of starvation on this earth every day) -- turning our future probability vectors in ever more dire directions, no conscious person, socially or spiritually, can just sit this out. This is not a time in American history to go numb. And being awake and conscious for just an election or two won't cut it either. We need a sustained movement in the direction of a fundamental awakening of the heart....in politics as well as in everything else.
Sister Giant is just a weekend conference, but I hope it sparks a lot of thinking and feeling inside those who are there.
MS: I saw that at the Sister Giant site it talks about birthing a "new American politics". How would you describe that vision, as compared to the one that we currently have?
MW: Gandhi said that politics should be sacred. He wasn't saying it should be religious, but that we should engage it with the fullness of our humanity. Martin Luther King said that the desegregation of the American south was the political externalization of the goal of the Civil Rights Movement, but that the ultimate goal was the establishment of the beloved community. Look at these two men, both of whom were undeniably the brightest political lights of the 20th century, and you see that they spoke in a context much more philosophical than what we now define as politics. They talk about what it means to be human, and where the human race is going. And they were not called fuzzy or lightweight thinkers, or New Age nutcases. None of us should apologize for saying, just as Gandhi did, that humanity is not in its right mind.
What is the meaning of our connection to each other, to the earth, to the universe? What is our connection to generations past, and to generations in the future? A person who thinks about these things can't easily find a place for him or herself in the political conversation that dominates our society today. Yet we don't want to change our conversation. We don't want to change who we are and what we're about in order to fit into the insane politics of today. We don't want to give up the vigor of our connection and relationship to the country and the world in which we live. And this is a real double bind. A lot of us simply disengaged from politics altogether, but then we woke up and went wow, wait a minute. Why does that insane conversation get to dominate? Who made those people the creators of the conversation? And how can we start a new one? That's the question at the heart of Sister Giant.
For almost thirty years, I've worked up close and personally with people who were suffering. I always say, "People don't usually come see me because things are going well." And what I know about people who just got diagnosed with cancer or AIDS or some other life challenging disease, or is going through a divorce or bankruptcy or recovery or some form of deep grief -- is that people are often their most noble when having been made to suffer. That is where I have often seen the most beautiful faces of humanity.
Sometimes when everything has totally apart, the meaningless preoccupations that so often dominate our lives simply fall away. And what is left is who we really are, and who we really are is compassionate and intelligent and wise.
Sometimes, when I'm sitting with people who have been stripped of everything and who are naked and authentic and finding themselves for the first time, I am reminded of how good people really are. And I'm haunted sometimes by the thought, what if we lived from that place all the time? What if we went there without tragedy striking first? The very thought of who we would be together, and the kinds of collectives decisions we would make...the kind of world we'd create ... makes me want to cry sometimes. It's often people who are on their way out of this world who see most clearly what and how it should be.
MS: I know sometimes it's hard to talk about this without making generalizations, and there are of course exceptions - but it occurs to me when we are talking about the missing representation of women in politics and then some of these qualities that you were just saying we need to inject into politics, such as caring and compassion and connection to our hearts and nurturing and empathy, which are often deemed as "feminine values" and oftentimes more naturally represented by women - how do you see that inter-connection and the devaluing of the feminine, both literally and in this metaphysical way?
MW: There are feminine qualities in all people, and some men embody such forces as caring and compassion more profoundly then some women do. It takes more than a vagina to embody feminine values.
MS: I agree.
MW: Which is not to say that women don't have an important role as carriers of those values into the world. Look at the nature kingdom: how the adult female in any advanced mammalian species so fiercely protects her young. The mama tiger, lion, bear and so forth...they show a fierce insistence on care and protection of the young. Even among the hyenas, the adult females encircle the cubs while they're feeding and will not let the adult males get anywhere near the food until the cubs have been fed. Truly the women of America could do better than the hyenas. And the fact that we don't do better than we do, means we're not displaying the ultimate intention to survive.
17,000 children starve on this planet every single day. That fact alone should blow any conscious person out of their chair. You know, my mother used to say that a woman's most important job is taking care of her children and her home. I laughed at that when I was younger, but I don't laugh at it anymore. I just realize now that every child on the planet is one of our children, and the earth itself is our home.
When women think of power, we shouldn't think of it only for ourselves. We should be thinking about what we're going to do with power, once we have it. Women should be standing up powerfully and passionately for the care and protection of children, as well as the care and protection of the Earth itself.
Women's voices should be front and center in protecting both our young and our habitat. That's the way it is in any species that survives.
MS: And part of this that's key is women having access to our own authentic voices and wisdom and honoring and listening to our true inner voice - and yet there are so many messages and forces that from girlhood on try to get women to do the opposite of that. So that is part of the problem - it's almost been a negative thing for women to talk up and see themselves as leaders or own or use their power. How do we get women to follow their true voices and instincts so that if we do get into positions of leadership, we do not just perpetuate old paradigms?
MW: If you're getting your guidance about who you are and what to do with your life only from the external world, then by definition you'll be led away from your authentic truth. Your authentic truth isn't in the material world. It's counterintuitive, but you have more power in the world when you know you're not of it.
A primary goal of the spiritual life is to learn to quiet the mind -- through prayer and meditation, through spiritual practice -- so that we can hear what in both Judaism and Christianity, is called the small, still voice within. You stop whining so much about how the shallow voices of modernity do not love you, when you remember Who does. We become less emotionally attached to the approval of the world, once we access the deep level on which we don't approve of it either!!
There's a bigger game going on here than the worldly eye perceives. We're here to self-actualize individually and collectively, and the effort takes more than the intention to love - it takes the courage to act on it.
MS: I've also been heartened by seeing the trend of supportive men coming to understand that women's equality isn't just about equality or fairness, but realizing that the status of women is inter-connected with so many other issues that are facing the planet that would serve all of humanity.
MW: Men have been very supportive of Sister Giant. Quite a few are coming to the event. To say that this is a conversation about women is not to say that it's a conversation against men! Men aren't holding us back anymore, so much as we hold ourselves back. And too often we hold each other back, unfortunately. That's why we're calling this Sister Giant. We need to be big women now, but we also need to be sisters.
MS: When you were talking before about the importance of spirituality infused into politics - you don't usually hear those ideas together: spirituality and politics. But it does seem like we're often operating on autopilot half the time and we do need to become more mindful and aware, which is fostered by a connection to our inner life. At the web site I run, Feminist.com, we have a section called Our Inner Lives, where we try to explore some of these themes, and we try to be as universal as possible because we can get caught up in divisive linguistics. How can we talk about these spiritual principles so that it appeals to and includes all people of all faiths and traditions and even to people who don't associate with any spiritual or religious language?
MW: There is one Truth, with a capital T, and it's spoken in an infinite variety of ways. It's a set of universal spiritual themes that are at the heart of all the great religious and spiritual teachings. It's often spoken in secular as well as religious ways. If you have a longing in your heart to hear a deeper truth, there's a mysterious way in which that truth will find you. The book that's right for you will fall at your feet, the teacher or the teachings that would serve you will just happen to be speaking near you on a night you have free, you will just happen to see an index card at a Starbucks on a bulletin board somewhere talking about a meditation class or a lecture somewhere. That's just how those things work.
MS: I'm very aware lately of all the challenges to prioritizing an inner life with all of the inputs - even our children now are always on their devices. It's so hard with the sensory overload of information all the time to have time for quiet and reflection in our modern times. How do you feel about that conundrum?
MW: I think the greatest gift we can give our children is the experience of deep quiet. If we don't help our children cultivate contemplation, reflection, prayer, meditation, or whatever other practice of mindfulness, then they're likely to be completely spun out of their center by the time they're in grade school. You can't just leave the human spirit out of the equation and expect everything to be okay. We've literally allowed modernity to suck our souls out of us, and it's time to get them back.
I was once visiting an Orthodox Jewish family in Florida for the weekend, and when the sun went down on Friday night, Sabbath began in earnest. All the electronics in the house went off; the phone was only used for purposes of making arrangements for someone who was coming for Friday night dinner, the car was only used to pick someone up, all computers and electronic games and so forth were turned off. It was extraordinary, because it was a very wired family -- teenage kids, a lot of running around, a very modern situation with a lot of technological apparatus. I remember thinking, how is this going to work?
And what I experienced was magical. The teenagers didn't complain, because they had lived with this all their lives. And what I saw was that from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, a profound matrix of human relationships came to the fore. Children, parents, grandparents - people were talking to each other, being with each other for that full day. There was nothing else competing with that. And it was beautiful, truly profound. Then, 24 hours later, everyone went back to modern life, but you could see what a blessing it was in the life of every member of that family that there was the experience of a real Sabbath, one day a week, when people went back to being that which is most deeply real, that which is most deeply true. The rest of their week could only be blessed by that.
I remember something that happened when my daughter was a very little girl, I think she was about nine years old. We were living in Michigan and there was a bad storm one day. All the lights went off all of a sudden, and she had never had that experience before. She was scared, and she asked me what would happen if the lights weren't back on by nighttime? I told her it would be fine, that we had candles. And sure enough the sun went down, I lit candles and we just sat there and talked. Our ancestors sat around campfires for group discussion, not just because the light of the campfire; the quality of a campfire, the quality of firelight takes your brain to a deeper place, and nature understands this. My daughter and I had the most beautiful conversation that night. It was such a wonderful experience. And then, as often happens in those situations, at 9 or 10 or whenever it was, all of a sudden all the power came back on. We don't even realize how much electricity we use until a moment like that, when everything comes back on in this violent surge of electronics. I remember it was so jarring when all the lights came back on. I was just about to say, "Oh honey, let's turn everything back off again, " when my sweet little darling looked at me with the saddest eyes and said, "Mommy, we can't get it back."
We need to take responsibility for the effect of our environment on our nervous systems, and particularly the nervous systems of our children. No wonder so many of them are diagnosed with all the stuff they're diagnosed with today. Modern technology is a blessing to be sure, but it's also a curse if we allow it to pull us out of our spiritual center. A 24 hour electronic onslaught comes at the expense of our deep humanity and our deepest relationships.
MS: I interviewed Goldie Hawn about her MindUp Program...
MW: I think she's great. I don't know her personally, but I have great admiration for what she's doing. I've heard her speak about it on TV.
MS: MindUp is in thousands of schools now, which is great. It would be wonderful to have the participation of the educational system to help us teach children these skills early on. I was watching your interview with Oprah, in which you said you see a burgeoning spirituality and that you thought enlightenment was becoming a mainstream impulse. Do you think it's all these triggers or that it is a natural evolution of humanity's consciousness that we're all waking up? Do you feel hopeful about that?
MW: Hope is a moral imperative. Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. If you're looking for signs of intensifying fear on the planet, you can certainly find them. But if you're looking for signs of intensifying light and enlightenment and compassion and love, you can find those too. At this point, it's sort of a race for time. We've evolved over millions of years, and on a subconscious basis we know when we are threatened - both individually and collectively. When we register danger, the brain starts providing creative solutions to promote our survival. And that's what's happening now. People are waking up. And all of the creative problem-solving that is necessary for us to save the planet is not only being articulated by geniuses all over the world, but also being demonstrated. Whether you're talking about peacemaking, the amelioration of global poverty or environmental protection and repair - we know how to how to move things in a more life-sustaining direction. We just need to do it.
Society never progresses because the majority one day wakes up and says, "Let's do things differently." The majority didn't wake up and say, "Oh, let's just free the slaves." The majority didn't wake up one day and say, "Let's give women the right to vote, shall we?" Society always progressed because a relatively small group of people -- usually considered outrageous radicals by the status quo of their time -- had a better idea and articulated another way. That's simply how evolution works; it's the mutation -- the member of the species who does things differently - that points the way to the future because they're better adapted for survival.
We needn't worry so much about what the majority thinks. The real axis of social change is not horizontal, but vertical. We don't need a whole bunch of people gathering to think shallow thoughts together. What we need is for as many people as are ready to go there, to gather and think deep thoughts together. That's how I see Sister Giant: an opportunity for people to gather and go deep together. To bear witness to all the unnecessary suffering on the planet and make ourselves available to service - whatever that means for each of us. We go deep in our personal relationships in America, but we need to go deep in our public relationships as well.
MS: Do you see the rising of women and feminine energy as part of the healing force coming to save the planet? Is that part of why the focus is on women?
MW: Yes, but the rising feminine doesn't mean much unless she's rising up through actual people. The goddess is asking for more than crystals and cut velvet scarves. She's asking for some fierceness and courage, too.
American women are not holding up our part of the sky. But it's not because we don't care, so much as we're distracted. It's not because we're apathetic, so much as we're emotionally paralyzed. I've written about such things for many years, but now it's time to forge ahead and no longer be distracted, no longer be paralyzed. It's time to show up in a way we've never shown up before.
MS: You have that very famous quote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." How does that fit into this conversation?
MW: Martin Luther King, Jr. said our lives begin to end on the day we stop talking about things that matter most. There is a perverse comfort zone to living a small life. For women, that zone has to do with the fact that we're less likely to be challenged, we're less likely to be criticized, we're less likely to be called angry or strident, if we simply go along and acquiesce to the prevailing patterns of thought and behavior. But as Krishnamurti said, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." It's insane to let your children starve, to let your fellow man suffer needlessly when you could do something to help, to allow the earth to be raped. Gandhi said the problem with the world is that humanity is not in its right mind. That's still true, and the antidote to that is for enough of us to be in our right minds.
When we're in our right minds, we are hopeful. Because the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, nature does bend toward healing, and the heart does bend toward love. Our problem isn't that the universe isn't on our side; the problem is that too many of us numb these days, not awake to the game, or to the power of the universe that flows through our psychic veins. Some of us need to stop whining. It's not like we're the first generation who faced serious challenges. But others rose to the occasion, and we need to too.
MS: We all just came out of hurricane Sandy and people are still obviously experiencing so much suffering and devastation - I have heard you talk about the human species as the only species that - I can't remember how you put it - but is self-destructive to it's own...
MW: ...habitat. We're systematically destroying our own habitat. How insane is that?
MS: There are so many signs that Mother Earth is ailing and maybe Sandy will be a wake-up call about climate change. What does how we treat the Earth say about the state of human consciousness and do you think we are waking up to having to confront having to do something about it?
MW: Since the hurricane struck, there has been a re-invigoration of the climate change conversation. One can only hope that it will make a difference, but you never know. It remains to be seen whether we'll create the political will to really change things. We need to move the conversation beyond whether or not climate change is real, to, "It's not only real, but it's a clear and present danger." On a societal level, we have a compromised immune system. The biggest problem isn't the problem itself; the biggest problem is our lack of "response-ability." That's what happens when money rather than love is the bottom line. People act like idiots.
Interestingly enough, the origins of the modern environmental crisis lay in the destruction of pagan culture by the early Christian Church. Pagan priestesses held aloft, mainly through ritual ceremony, a sense of divine connection between people and the natural world...a sense of divine partnership and connection with the earth, the sky, the waters, the flowers, the trees, and all the patterns of nature. One of the reasons why that culture was destroyed -- one of the reasons for the systematic destruction of the so-called witches -- was that the early church (not today's church, I want to be clear about that) was seeking to replace a dispensation of divine partnership with nature, to a dispensation where humanity was seen to have been given by God complete dominion over nature. We were to be proper stewards, but Earth was deemed created for our own use. That was the beginning of the environmental crisis, right there. Once the Western mind was disconnected from its sense of divine responsibility and genuine reverence towards nature, all hell broke loose. And that's where we are now.
MS: You often talk about turning love into a social and political force. That's something you don't normally hear candidates talking about, but what does that look like to you?
MW: We need more than new policies. We need a new worldview, and a new bottom line. We need to replace economic values as our ordering principle, with humanitarian values as our ordering principle. What we're doing now is unsustainable, and certainly undemocratic. If you have, as we have in the United States today, a situation where financial leverage determines political leverage, then only those with money get to wield political power. That automatically pushes aside the needs of children, because children have no financial leverage. That's why the women of the world must be their voice.
There is simply too much unnecessary suffering in our world. And we should see that as a national security risk, by the way. Given enough time, desperate people will tend to do desperate things. At a certain point you won't be able to build enough prisons or enough bombs to eradicate the effects of all that violence inside so many hearts. This isn't fuzzy thinking, by the way. As it says in A Course in Miracles, "Love restores reason, and not the other way around."
The suffering of sentient beings matters, and should be central to our political conversations. Right now, we have political and economic systems that practically guarantee the unnecessary suffering of millions of people -- and then we just leave it to clergy and psychotherapists and doctors and charities (if not prisons) to clean up the mess. Give me a break. I'm all up for a conversation about personal responsibility, but we need societal responsibility as well.
There are those who would argue that the kinds of things I'm talking about here are naive. But I think the naiveté is on the part of anyone who thinks that we can continue to live the way we do -- with increasing and increasingly irresponsible ways of behaving towards each other and our planet -- and survive as we do now for another 100 years. No, change is coming. It's going to come through wisdom or it's going to come through pain, but it's coming.
MS: One of the things I feel always gets lost but that I experience - through my own work and through talking to wonderful, activist people like you - are the benefits of getting involved in creating positive change. It sounds very draining, and that it's something you do for others - but what are the soul rewards? I think there's a piece that gets missing about what it does for you and your own experience of life to get involved and give back and be a part of this hopeful movement that we're talking about.
MW: What's "draining" is the life we're living now. We're living separated from our own deep humanity. We're living separated from our own vigor. We're living separated from the excitement that comes from being involved in the world. It's not as though life now is easy, and showing up for the world is hard. No, the way many of us are living now is diseased and dysfunctional, and showing up for the world is one of the ways we heal. The ego mind is so tricky. It always tempts us to believe that up is down and down is up.
MS: I see you are very active on social media. There was a special on "Super Soul Sunday" with Deepak Chopra and Oprah yesterday - in fact, I find some of the most progressive programming right now is on OWN - he was talking about cyberspace and social media as sort of rewiring the global brain and the promise and hope he sees from having these forms of technology to communicate and spread higher consciousness. How do you see the potential of cyberspace and social networks as a took?
MW: I think future generations will see the invention of the Internet as having been as important as the invention of the printing press. It's the democratizing tool of all tools. As long as no one can control the flow of information, then freedom always has a chance. Thomas Jefferson would be dancing (he probably is, somewhere).
The opportunities it provides us are staggering. Look at Sister Giant: people are live-streaming from all 50 states. Our grandmothers couldn't have even dreamed of this!
MS: What is your wish for the children of the future, for humanity's future?
MW: We already have the material means to eradicate deep poverty and thereby eradicate hunger. We have the material means to begin the tremendous clean up of the environmental messes we've created. We have, I believe, the psychological, emotional and spiritual means to create a world without war. We have the material means to create a world in which unnecessary human suffering has been drastically diminished. My vision for the future is that we do those things. And I think we will.
MS: My vision, too.
For more information on attending the conference or to view the live stream of the event, visit www. sistergiant.com.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a regular contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51% The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.