Holistic Politics:
A Conversation with Marianne Williamson

By Scott London

Marianne Williamson first entered the public eye in the early 1980s when she began speaking in front of small groups in Los Angeles about A Course in Miracles, a set of teachings she describes as "a self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy." Her talks became enormously popular and soon attracted hundreds, even thousands, of people each week.

Marianne Williamson
Marianne Williamson

When her first book A Return to Love appeared in 1992 it became a publishing sensation, topping the New York Times bestseller list for over half a year, smashing several publishing records and establishing her as one of today's most prominent spiritual figures. It was a profoundly personal book that offered her reflections on the universal spiritual principles of A Course in Miracles.

Her second book, A Woman's Worth, explored what it means to be in a woman in today's society and suggested that women first have to examine their inner lives before they can successfully conquer the outer world. She followed that up with Illuminata, a book of prayers and meditations.

Her latest is called The Healing of America. Unlike her previous books which were unapologetically inward-focused and explored deeply spiritual themes, The Healing of America looks at today's social and political landscape. Williamson believes we need to resuscitate the ideas and visions of the America's founding fathers and draw on that legacy to build a new kind of citizen-based political culture. She calls it "holistic" politics.

The healing of our political culture must begin within the heart of each individual, she says. "We must each mature into a deeper understanding of our lives and why we're living them, for such understanding is the womb out of which will come new life for our culture as a whole."

Williamson is an unusual public figure, an activist who insists that social and political change is too important to be left to our leaders. In an era of name-calling and sour dogma, her work calls for reconciliation and self-empowerment. In a culture obsessed with therapies and experts, she insists that the healer is within each of us. In a time of widespread fear and confusion, she returns again and again to the power of love and forgiveness.

The following interview took place over the course of two afternoons in the foothills of Santa Barbara, California. Our conversation ranged widely, from her perspectives on celebrity and what it means to be called a "spiritual guru," to the importance of prayer and spiritual practice in everyday life, to the trouble with today's news media, to the promises of the Internet. But it began with the subject of her latest book: the need for greater tolerance, compassion, and spiritual awareness in our political culture.

Scott London: Your first three books dealt with spirituality and personal growth. Now, in The Healing of America, you've shifted your focus to questions of social and political change. Why?

Marianne Williamson: I don't feel that this book is a departure from what I've done in the past. It's an extension of the principles in my other books. I think there is a place where self-awareness becomes self-preoccupation if you don't take what you have discovered and bring it to bear on the conditions of the world. There is a point at which we begin to receive a diminishing return on the accumulation of sacred knowledge unless we use it to at least try to improve the world. So, as I see it, this is simply a natural progression.

London: Are some spiritual seekers overly preoccupied with themselves and their personal growth?

Williamson: I think there has been a kind of spiritual quiescence during the last 20 or 30 years. Life is a constant back-and-forth. We take a breath in and then we breathe out. The same is true for the culture as a whole. But we have been in an inward-turned phase for a long time now.

London: And it's time we directed our attention to society as a whole?

Williamson: Yes. I don't feel there is any spiritual or metaphysical justification for turning our backs on human suffering.

London: In The Healing of America you say that we only have five or ten years to decide our fate as a society. What do you mean by that?

Williamson: Yes, that's what my heart feels. Environmentally, the planet will not sustain the kind of abuse it receives at our hands. The rage building up, generation after generation, among what has become a permanent underclass in many parts of the world cannot continue. We are desperately undereducating our children. In the United States, we are turning prison-building into the single largest urban industry. These are like toxic chemical factors any one of which could cause a raging fire. God help us if they begin to interact.

I'm not a doom-and-gloom person. But I think there is a difference between transcendence and denial, and much of the Western world is in major denial today.

London: Many economic and political observers feel that we are living at a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Williamson: We are living at an extraordinary time in human history. And for many of us things are great. Things are great for me. Capitalism has been really good to me. I'm very fortunate: I have written books and my books have sold. Nobody has to tell me about the glories of the capitalist system. But what concerns me is that there no longer seems to be a commitment to make the opportunities afforded by technology and capitalism universally accessible.

When I was a child, my society lifted me up — though education primarily, as well as through other kinds of cultural stimulation. It wasn't just my parents or my religious community. The entire society lifted me up to the bottom rung of the ladder. Then they said, "Girl, it's up to you whether or not you climb." I don't have a problem with that. I think that is the best way to go about living.

However, what is happening today is that there are millions of children who are not lifted up to the first rung of the ladder. Then they are condemned when they don't know how to climb from there. For a society as abundant and as blessed as ours, to have as many disadvantaged children as we have does not bode well for our long-term economic future.

London: The political dialogue has become more and more polarized and hot-tempered in recent years. Does that concern you?

Williamson: Yes, I think something very dangerous is going on in political conversation today. I don't like the tendency on the part of so many people today to think that those who don't agree with them are bad. In fact, I find that very dangerous. I don't think that anything that anyone is doing today that is being pointed at as the "enemy" or "the problem" is as dangerous to our future as the fact that there are so many pointed fingers. The pointed finger is the enemy.

There are people today who look to fear to take us out of fear. But I believe that there are many, many more people who would look to love. The revolution of ideas that will save us is a revolution of goodwill, of compassion, and of higher thinking. I believe that they outnumber the people who would choose fear. But they are not a particularly politicized force. If you look at the numbers of people buying books about revolutions from within and personal transformation as the key to global change, the numbers add up to a much greater audience than most people realize.

London: While much of the book deals with the shortcomings of our political institutions, what you're really calling for here is a new kind of grassroots activism — a new attitude on the part of citizens.

Williamson: Obviously, our political system is profoundly corrupted by, among other things, the influence of money. But, at a deeper level, the current structure is flawed because it looks to citizens for only two things — votes and money. I don't think we will see any healing until citizens are viewed in a whole new way. Citizens should be looked to for what they can give of their own nobility, virtue, creative thinking, passion, and natural talent for community building and relating to others.

Neither the left nor the right recognize this fact in any significant way. The right tends to posit that the market fuels social good. The left tends to posit that the government fuels social good. At bottom, democracy claims that citizens drive social good, but there is currently no container for a political force-field that stakes claim to the unbelievable resources now virtually untapped in every man, woman, and child in our society.

London: There is an adage that says that every nation has the government it deserves.

Williamson: It might be an adage but that doesn't mean it's true. The truth of the statement lies in the fact that people tend to have a government that reflects the level of consciousness of the majority of people who voted. Furthermore, if we had the government we deserved we would have the most righteous government, because we deserve the best — everybody does.

London: The Healing of America is a very indignant book, filled with a certain moral outrage.

Williamson: I think moral outrage is born not of anger but of love. It comes from the highest in us, not from a low-level sense of anger or cynicism. In nature, for example, the female tiger grows fierce when her cubs are threatened. It's a natural response. When we see a tigress defend her cubs, we don't call her "bitchy" or "strident," we recognize that her behavior reflects an intention in the species to survive. So, in that sense, the book was fueled by a sense of outrage — but I think it's an appropriate outrage.

London: Were you a political activist before you started writing and lecturing?

Williamson: I was very much a child of the 1960s. I protested the Vietnam War and grew up in a fairly politicized home. My father was like a cross between William Kunstler and Zorba the Greek. I grew up among left-wing lawyers.

London: Your father took you to Vietnam during the war.

Williamson: Yes, he did. I was 13. He was afraid that the military- industrial complex would eat my brain and convince me war was okay, he said. He couldn't stand for that, so he said he would show me the results of the behavior of our government. I think he had a pretty permanent effect on my personality, wouldn't you say? [Laughs]

London: The 1960s serves as an important backdrop for much of what you say in the book. For example, you describe the experience of hearing that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

Williamson: Yes, it's an important theme in my work. The historian Arthur Schlesinger has pointed out that people tend to get interested in politics again every 30 years. The universe moves in cycles of three. The number figures in everything from Pythagoras's theory that the universe is based on three to the Father-the-Son-and-the-Holy- Ghost to the three-sided pyramidal shapes that intersect in the Jewish Star of David. The notion of the mystical three, metaphysically, spiritually, and even politically, is quite interesting to me. That's why I have three eggs on the cover of my book.

I feel that the social revolution of the sixties is like a revolving door that came our way, and then left. It's back again. Kennedy's assassination was the opening salvo in the social revolution of the sixties. In some ways, perhaps, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa dying when they did, and how they did, represent the opening salvos of a social revolution in the nineties. I think we're ripe for social revolution now. There is the necessary yearning, and the necessary, or at least incipient, outrage. And there is an inchoate knowing that all is not right.

London: What do you mean by "incipient outrage"?

Williamson: "Incipient," as in "not quite fully expressed yet." Actually, it's not so much that the outrage isn't expressed as the fact that it's expressed dysfunctionally. It's displaced. As I say in the book, we itch in one place and we scratch in another.

London: Many feel that the social revolution of the 1960s ended in failure, that it came to a close when the hippies grew up and realized there is more to life than drugs, rock music and free love.

Williamson: There is a lot of sixties-bashing going on these days that I don't agree with at all. I feel that extremely important ideals were brought to the forefront of the collective consciousness at that time. Granted, drug use was so pervasive that our generation did not as a group have the capacity to manifest our ideals to any great extent. But many of the people who were young in the sixties and who were most touched by that collective ethos are still touched. I feel that if your soul was branded by the sixties, you never lost the brand. It's like going into a nightclub and having your hand stamped so that you don't have to come back but you can come back. I think that many people who were touched deeply by the spirit of the sixties feel the same quickening of conversation beginning again. And this time we're sober.

The word "politics" comes from the Greek politeia which had to do with the citizenry, not the government. To me, everything happening inside of us is political. Anything having to do with what is happening inside people has political significance to me. That is why I like the term "holistic politics."

London: What you're really dealing with is not so much the political situation today as the meta-political picture.

Williamson: Exactly. The word "politics" comes from the Greek politeia which had to do with the citizenry, not the government. To me, everything happening inside of us is political. Anything having to do with what is happening inside people has political significance to me. That is why I like the term "holistic politics." In medicine, we have invented an entirely new healing paradigm. Now we no longer simply look to the doctor and to medicine to heal us. We now recognize what has been substantiated scientifically everywhere from Harvard to Duke to Stanford — that the power of the mental and spiritual consciousness of the patient is as significant in healing as physical factors are. If we apply that same paradigm to politics, we see that the mind and the spiritual consciousness of the citizen are every bit as important as anything that goes on in the government. We need to recognize that part our political problem is that we do not participate effectively, that we suffer from a kind of mental slumber.

If we get away from the lazy and fuzzy thinking that is like a poison in our society — if we get away from all the bad television that we tend to watch — and begin to take up serious meditation and other sacred exercises, we will have a real revolution of consciousness. If that happens, the world will change by itself.

London: Do you see any signs that this is beginning to occur?

Williamson: Absolutely. There is an increasingly pervasive sense that one age is over and a new one is beginning — in business, in politics, in science, in psychology. The sense of endings as well as beginnings in the air is now so obvious in so many dimensions of our experience that a critical mass has been reached. You don't have to be a spiritual seeker, you can be a businessman dealing with the revolution in computers. You could be a congressman, or a scientist. No matter what area of life and endeavor we are in we are seeing the signs of new-paradigm thinking.

London: What exactly do you mean by "new-paradigm thinking"?

Williamson: It basically means that the power to rethink a situation is our greatest tool for transforming the world. This notion is taking hold in medicine, in business, in education. But not in politics and the media. They are the last holdouts of old-paradigm thinking.

London: One would think the mainstream media would be more receptive to new ideas.

Williamson: The media establishment senses that the boats are coming and it has taken it upon itself to stand on those beaches and do everything it can to shoot the soldiers on the boats. They know the beaches will be taken. Calling something "new age" is one of the media's biggest canons. If you're called "new age," you couldn't possibly be serious, you couldn't possibly have anything deep to say, and you probably hang out in California too much — and we know that no one in California reads books or has any serious thoughts!

London: But this idea is not unique to politicians and journalists. There are a lot of ordinary people who look with scorn and disdain upon anything having to do with the new age.

Williamson: That is because when many people think of "new age" they think of crystals and purple decals and ceramic angels in people's windows and a kind of fuzzy thinking — which is abhorrent to a serious person. Fuzzy thinking is, after all, just one step above not thinking at all. But to take the ideas of serious transformational thinkers and philosophers and throw the "new age" label at them is also abhorrent. I feel that the term "new age" is used by basically hostile media to diminish and marginalize a conversation that is very significant. It's held in place by journalists who are constantly looking for hooks and sound bites to keep them from having to make the effort of a deeper understanding and a more profound level of communication with the public.

London: Some new-paradigm thinkers use the word "new age" as a pejorative to describe what you might call the "metaphysics bandwagon" — all the products, gurus, seminars, and books out there that promise personal transformation. Is that legitimate?

Williamson: The seminars and the books that you are talking about have informed me and increased my understanding and awareness tremendously.

I don't feel the need to bash those things at all. I have a problem with that either/or mentality. I have some books on my shelf that are red and some that are blue. I have a book by Plato and a book by Deepak Chopra, a book by Ram Dass and a book by Flaubert. I also have Ella Fitzgerald and John Cage and Beethoven. And Buddha and Jesus and the Kabbala. You see, one doesn't have to be wrong for the other to be right. We must seek to be intellectually inclusive, just as we seek to be culturally inclusive. Ideas come and go — that's what makes a free society so vital.

The only issue that I have a problem with when it comes to the new age is the way that people such as myself are diminished by that label. I simply don't consider myself "new age." It's other people's small-mindedness that tries to connect me with someone who, let's say, thinks crystals are the answers to all of life's problems. I never did. There are those who suggest that anyone speaking from a base in California has less to say. That kind of bashing doesn't interest me.

London: Another label the media likes to use is "guru." In an article in Newsweek magazine, for example, Wendy Kaminer writes about you and Deepak Chopra and several other so-called "pop gurus" who "prey on existential anxieties and thrive when our fear of being alone and mortal in an indifferent universe is stronger than our judgment." Harsh words.

Williamson: I don't think we have a need for gurus, as Newsweek put it. It's funny, I see Wendy Kaminer herself as a kind of guru — a guru of the fashionably cynical set. Yet she uses the term "guru" to minimize my career, to marginalize my thoughts and to trivialize my work, as well as those of others. I think it's unfortunate how many people today try to build up their own careers by denigrating the work of others. But I also think that many people are seeing through the mean-spiritedness of such obvious misrepresentation masquerading as serious commentary.

London: You've taken many hits in recent years from people who claim that you are no longer the Marianne Williamson you once were. Now you drive a fine car, live in a big house, and socialize with celebrities. How have you handled those criticisms?

Williamson: I've changed a lot in the last few years. I would have changed no matter where I was living. The fact that the commercial success of my books has allowed me to buy a house for myself and my daughter I think is a lovely thing. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I don't think of myself as a very famous person, but the modicum of celebrity that I've had has not been a positive experience for me at all. I feel that people who haven't read my books and haven't heard me lecture — who don't in fact know what my work is about — have been very hard on me. There is an expression in Alcoholics Anonymous called "contempt prior to investigation." I feel many people practice contempt prior to investigation.

London: You said in the New York Times once that some people think being a Jewish woman from Texas invalidates your position. They think, "How much spiritual input can I get from a woman who wears lipstick." You were half-joking, of course. But I would guess that this is one of the keys to your credibility — the fact that there is something universal about your life and your background.

Williamson: Once again, I think that's very true for people who actually come to my lectures, because there everything is seen in context. But people sometimes see an image and without knowing the surrounding patterns draw false conclusions.

London: Do you think people are apt to criticize you based on the image you presented in your first book, A Return to Love. You described yourself in your twenties as high-strung, flighty, prone to highs and lows, and caught up in the sex-drug-and-rock-and-roll scene of the 1960s.

My story has been the story of my generation. If there is anything interesting about my story it's the fact that it's not unique at all. I feel that I have been through what almost everyone I know has — a slow and gradual maturation process.

Williamson: I don't think that my twenties were any more dramatic than those of most people I know. I was never that bad and I never became that good. It's not as if I was terribly messed up and then one day I was on the road to Damascus and I saw the light. It wasn't like that for me or for anyone else that I know. My story has been the story of my generation. If there is anything interesting about my story it's the fact that it's not unique at all. I feel that I have been through what almost everyone I know has — a slow and gradual maturation process.

London: Do you see yourself as a voice of your generation?

Williamson: Well, I'm certainly not saying anything new, and I'm not even saying anything all that different from what everyone else I know is saying right now — I'm saying what millions of people are saying. I'm just saying it publicly. But I feel that is a breakthrough that needs to be made. The voices of fear are so loud today. The voices of love should never shout, but neither should they whisper — not at a time like this.

London: Why do you think the media is so resistant to dealing with new ideas?

Williamson: Look who owns the media — they are beholden to the system.

London: The statistics on the concentration of media ownership paint a rather grim picture, you're right. But as a journalist I must say that I don't know anybody in my profession who feels that he answers to anything but his own conscience.

Williamson: But there are many ways to be co-opted. The fact that a journalist may not be thinking consciously that he is avoiding a subject doesn't mean anything. As I say in my book, pleasure can be used to enslave a people just as effectively as pain.

London: Yes, that was the moral of Huxley's great book Brave New World.

Williamson: Exactly. Alexis de Tocqueville also mentioned the danger of that.

London: So it's a kind of self-censorship?

Williamson: Yes. We're feeling too good! On the whole, though, I think the media has become incredibly corrupt. We used to have a profound tradition of investigative journalism in the United States. Some journalists were real heroes, such as Bob Woodward who helped uncover the Watergate scandal. But today he is leading the opposite charge, trying to bring down the careers of people and score easy victories. In other words, those who used to bust the status quo have now become the status quo.

London: Do you see any signs that the media is waking up to new ideas and social innovations?

Williamson: Well, there are some magazines and radio programs, but there are not yet any serious journalists devoted to these issues. But I think it's coming any minute now. The ground is very fertile. There is a conversation in the world today. I'm finding myself up until two in the morning talking about these things in a way that I don't remember since the sixties or early seventies. The letters I get on the Internet and the responses to my books make it very clear that something is trying to happen. And I'm just one person. There are millions of people really ready to go. We're just not sure where to go yet. But that's okay, because the highest level of creativity consists in being, not doing. When the being is intense enough, when the words are spoken enough, when the thoughts are thought enough, the doing will automatically follow.

London: I noticed that you have established quite a presence on the Web. Do you think the Internet can help to shape and direct this change?

Williamson: Absolutely. It's democracy. It's fabulous. The gatekeepers can't get their thumbs in there. That's why they're so upset about it. Obviously, there is a dark side there. But freedom has its risks. No unfoldment in the physical world along these lines is inherently good or bad. All things show up in the world according to the purposes we ascribe to them. So if you are dealing with life from a low-level sensibility, the Internet can be a tool for manifesting that. But if you're dealing with life from the highest sensibility, it can also be your tool for manifesting that. The simple reason is that it doesn't cost money. Anybody can be heard. Anyone can express their truths. And communication is possible without the confines of the body. Who can fail to see the potential for human liberation there?

London: Speaking of liberation, let's talk about the women's movement. Do you see an expanded role for women as we look to the future?

Williamson: There should be an expanded role in this society for every human being. I see an expanded role for the human spirit, for excellence, for virtue, and for creativity — within women, and within everyone.

That said, I think women have largely misinterpreted the meaning of liberation in the last 20 or 30 years. We tended to define it as the right to go out and act like men.

Obviously, I don't want to minimize the patriarchal nature of our media, our government and our culture as a whole. But I think it's our refusal as women to own our power that is our biggest problem, both individually and collectively. The linchpin that holds the current system in place is the slumber of women. Gandhi once said, "If I could wake up the women of Asia, I could save India in a day."

London: What do you mean by "own our power"?

Williamson: I feel that as women we've allowed ourselves to be deluded by certain ideas that hold us back, such as the over-glorification of masculine consciousness. To me, liberation doesn't mean that I can think just like a man. Real liberation means that I can think, act, and be like a woman and receive equal respect, honor, and compensation. Liberation also means that even though I'm a woman I have masculine parts of my temperament which I can safely explore and integrate into my experience. In the same way, real liberation for men means that they can explore and integrate their feminine aspects of consciousness.

I also think the women's movement has unintentionally contributed to the dishonoring of motherhood. It happened because we made such a big deal about our right to go out into the world. Of course, a woman's choice to go out into the world is a very significant thing. But part of real liberation is recognizing that mothering is every bit as important as other kinds of work. I actually believe it's more important than anything we do out in the world.

London: Do you think Americans will ever elect a woman president?

Williamson: I hope so. I think it would be great for my daughter to grow up seeing that modeled for her. But, you know, gender or skin color does not of itself determine the nature of a person's thinking. Some of the most patriarchal thinkers I know are women. Some of the most feminist thinkers are men. So if I had to choose between a narrow-minded woman or a man who was an enlightened thinker, I would vote for the man.

London: You mentioned your daughter, Emma. What are your thoughts on parenting today? How do we help our children develop their highest potentialities?

Williamson: I think the greatest gift we can give our children is to show them that devotion to God's purposes — love for all beings — is the center of all right living. If they stand for that in their lives, they will be alright no matter what happens. As I see it, the greatest responsibility of motherhood is to make sure that our children know that there are principles of kindness, compassion, integrity, excellence, and discipline.

London: Discipline?

Williamson: Discipline, yes. Yesterday, Emma didn't want to go to her drama class, for no particular reason. She just didn't want to go. It's very tempting for me to say, "Okay, Emma, you stay home with Mommy today." Certainly, I've done that many times. But I have seen so much obstructed potential among people who lack personal discipline, who just slough it off, whatever it is, and who think that nothing matters very much. I want my daughter to have what I think of as a capacity for self-discipline. Not the sort of self-discipline that diminishes her own wild passions, but that makes it safer for her to own those wild passions.

There is a trend in child-rearing that I find abhorrent: "Whatever the kids want to do is fine." For me, the classic example of this is when someone has a visitor and says, "Go kiss Aunt Gertrude," and Aunt Gertrude says, "She doesn't have to kiss me if she doesn't want to." Well, I think that's wrong. If I say to my daughter, "Go say `hi' to Aunt Gertrude," there is a reason there. I'm teaching her manners. I think the idea that she'll say `hi' to Aunt Gertrude only if she wants to is the biggest crock of silliness I've ever heard. Yet I meet people everyday who were clearly brought up to think that if they didn't want to say "hi" to Aunt Gertrude, that was fine.

London: So manners are an extension of the compassion and kindness that you were talking about?

Williamson: Yes, they are the living expression of them. The way I see it, we teach our children through modeling. Ultimately, my daughter is not going to learn from what I do, not from what I say. For better or for worse. I see that everyday.

London: The same can be said about teaching adults.

Williamson: Yes, we teach by example.

London: As the father of a four-year-old, I've found that being a parent increases your sense of urgency about the what's happening in the world.

Williamson: I totally agree. Until you have a child, it's very tempting to look at the state of the world and say, "To hell with it, in 50 years I won't be around anyway." But if you have a child you don't say that, because even if you're not around in 50 years, your children presumably will be, and maybe even their children. You think of yourself as responsible to future generations in a whole different way.

London: One of the points I've heard you make in your talks is that we need to move beyond spirituality as mere belief and begin to incorporate it into our daily lives. How do we do that?

Williamson: Through serious spiritual practice. I believe that ultimately it all comes down to whether we seek conscious contact with God on a daily basis through prayer and meditation. You can know everything that the books have to say, but ultimately it boils down to whether we do the inner work of devotion and surrender, whether we can put aside our own agendas and allow the spirit to move through us.

London: What is the value of prayer?

Williamson: First there was the word. A Course in Miracles says that prayer is the "medium of miracles." It's the realm of thought where we are aligned with the thought of God and therefore in a co- creative mode. It's where we surrender our minds to His mind and become empowered.

London: You are not speaking of God in a strictly Judeo-Christian sense, I gather?

Williamson: Well, there is one God. The Jews and the Christians have no monopoly on God. I'm speaking about the same God the Hindus talk about, the same God the Muslims talk about, the same God that the Taoists and the Confucians talk about. I believe that the truth with a capital T is at the center of all the great religious teachings.

I tell my mother I went to God in spite of my religious education. I feel that my religious education was inadequate, but that doesn't mean that Judaism was inadequate. Judaism, Christianity, and I'm sure other religions also, are having to deal with the fact that they may or may not have lived up at all times to the injunctions of their own mystical center. For instance, when I went to Sunday school, I remember learning more about Jewish history than about God. So, once again, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the Jewish religion, it just means that sometimes people are not fed the mystical food — the spiritual food — of their own religious background.

But that's fine. The theologian Matthew Fox has said that we are living in a "post-denominational age." I glory in the study of comparative religion. I'm not bowled over by how different all the world's religions are — I'm bowled over by how similar they are.

London: What do you have in mind when you say "serious spiritual practice"?

Williamson: Whatever comes into your life, whether it is A Course in Miracles, Transcendental Meditation, prayer, meditation, or service.

In the Kabbala, it says that we receive the light in order to impart the light, and thus we repair the world. You receive the light through what you read, through what you hear in meditation, or through some spiritual practice. I believe we are shown the path that is right as soon as we ask for it. Then we must live in the world and in some way express what we have learned. We are likely to feel better when we go to bed tonight if we have an internal sense that we spent our lives meaningfully today.

London: Is that really the ultimate goal, feeling better?

Williamson: Yes, living meaningfully is what brings joy. Increasing meaning and joy on the planet is the ultimate goal because within that space all evil is cast out. People who are joyful from a center of meaning and righteousness do not molest, do not rape, do not violate, do not abuse, do not war, do not fear.

London: You used the word "righteousness." It seems to me that many of us already know what is "right" but fail to put it into practice in everyday life. There is a big gap between knowing what is right and living what is right.

Williamson: The gap is not between knowing it and living it, it's between knowing it and living it consistently. You know, we've all had moments when we got it right. Most of us have moments when we get it right every day. The trouble is getting it right when a curve-ball comes at us. It's not hard to be forgiving and respectful when everyone around you is being nice. What's difficult in life is to stay centered when somebody does or says something that tempts us to close our hearts because their heart was closed. That is hard. But that is also how we grow. We go through those circumstances in order to evolve into people who can hold to our loving center no matter what the world throws us. A loving universe makes sure that we go through those things too.

London: It reminds me of an old parable about a group of monks who live on a mountain top. Each week they have to journey down to the village to buy rice. But when they get to the market, they are so shaken by the experience of mingling with commoners that they have to retreat to mountain top again to regain their peace of mind.

Williamson: Yes, finding that center is never easy. If you went to live in the Himalayas and everyone was lovely there, I'm sure it would be fairly easy to be a spiritual master. I think that's why we live where we live and do what we do. As someone once said, daily life is the enemy of greatness. I think daily life is where the lessons come in — that's where the tests and the growth come in.

London: But it begs the question: is hardship and adversity necessary for us to grow?

Williamson: Experience is necessary for us to grow. We have a lot of choice about whether to interpret something as adversity or as opportunity. I see in myself the tendency at times to make situations worse than they have to be because of my catastrophic interpretation. Life is hard enough, you don't have to embellish the drama! So, yes, hardships come. But I see in my life and in the lives of others how often something that does not have to be held as a hardship is dealt with by the mind as though it is.

London: Do you see this in your work with people who have life- threatening illnesses?

Williamson: They are some of the most positive people I know.

London: One would expect it to be the other way around.

Williamson: Well, people who have life-challenging experiences who choose to remain invested in a consistent catastrophic interpretation are not the ones I meet. I have met many more people who have recognized how vital it is to their healing and to the quality of their life to interpret their experiences differently. That is why some of the people I've met who have life-challenging illnesses are much happier than some people I've known who are physically quite healthy and yet who live lives of greater desperation and depression.

I sometimes say to people who have life-challenging illnesses: "Right now you are tempted to think that if you were physically well you would be happy. But if that were true, everybody who is physically well would be happy." Sometimes, when I talk to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer or some other illness, I'll remind them: "If you were honest with yourself, you were depressed before this happened. And if this were over you would be happy for a couple of weeks, a couple of months, and then something else would come along."

London: Are you optimistic about the future?

Williamson: I think optimism is a moral imperative. I think that every moment you succumb to cynicism, you're taking energy away from change.

London: What do you hope to leave your readers with?

Williamson: I think every writer lives for the thought that there will be a moment when somebody reads something on the page and says, "Yes!" When somebody comes up to you and shows you yellow underlining of something you wrote, that's such a high. It's a connection to others. I think that's what we all want on this earth — to feel that at some level we have connected with other human beings.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared, in somewhat different form, in the Spring 1999 issue of the British magazine "Kindred Spirit."