The Hindrance of the Digital: A Farewell Post


After 5 months of this website and blog, I am taking an open-ended break.  I have found that to write the new Shem-novel I must be totally “with” and “in” the story, characters, and, most importantly, in the “spirit.”  The latter is the most crucial, meaning that the writer must get out of the “self,” transcend  the bonds (“hindrances”) of craving, anger, and delusion–and be into the essence and technical detail of the work.  I have found, from this bold 5-month Shem-blog experiment, that a participation in the digital world is at crippling odds with the possibility of writing a novel.  Note: I still have a “flip-phone,” vintage 1994, which can do nothing except answer and take calls; it is difficult to do texts–my fingers have to rummage through each button with the series of 3 letters of the alphabet for the right one to press–and I tell anyone who texts me to do so with a question, to which my answer can be either “OK” or “NO.”  The digital, all in all, is a hindrance for me–and, it seems, for a new generation of fictioneers.

Not only a hindrance to writing a novel, but to living our lives in real, mutual relationship. Face to face, eye to eye, being-with in mutuality: Seeing each other clearly, and each sensing the other feeling seen.  Note that all the “stuff” on this site has been digitized by a fine social media strategist/writer, Lillian Ann Slugocki.  I have only provided content for most of the blogs, and none of the tweets.  I have no idea what happens to these essays of mine or photos after I take my break–are they eternal?  Or merely until the next great solar flare?  But I understand, deeply, that without this distraction/addiction, I will now be able to take clear-headed joy in the writing process, and faith in the work.  And I trust that the novel will be published by 2018, the 40th Anniversary of The House of God.  My e-mail will be checked, at most, once a day or even week/month.

Please do see: this is not a comment on your own electronic life-focus; it is a survival tool for Shem the Penman.  When I began this site I had been under the impression that a website would result in increased sales of my new novel.  Not.  The only thing that sells novels in the long run is “word of mouth.” This is true of all of my novels–and nonfiction, such as, with my partner Janet, The Buddha’s Wife: The Path of Awakening Together, and We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men.  I hope that much of my time will be spent in Costa Rica, with no cell or internet.  

I hope that this parting message of mine might be helpful for those of you with those restless “Google Fingers” and addicted “pleasure centers” of the thalamus and brainstem.

But I am not all that confident: not only is there “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (Hamlet), but in an addiction denied.



Tierra Tranquila, Costa Rica

January 31, 2017

At the Heart of the Universe: A compelling journey


Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD: What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine

“Entwining ancient Chinese customs and modern American family life, Shem takes us on a compelling journey into the thicket of desperate love and aching doubts that define the parent-child relationship.”


Praise from my colleague for my latest book, At The Heart of the Universe, Seven Stories Press.



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Intro to The Buddha’s Wife: A hidden path, often unnoticed


The Buddha’s Wife, co-authored with my wife, Janet Surrey, is a book which re-imagines Yasodhara’s life as it distills the wisdom of her path. It traces how her teachings are being made visible today and can be applied to all manner of contemporary life.  Here is an excerpt from the Introduction written by Janet:

“While little actual detail is recorded of the Buddha’s life, it is written that at twenty-nine years of age, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the northern India king Suddhodana of the Sakyan clan in the foothills of the Himalayas (now Nepal), renounced household and family on the night of the birth of his son to seek spiritual liberation. Over and over it is told that he left his wife and child in the dead of night without saying good-bye.

This great renunciation is celebrated as the Path of He Who Goes Forth.

The story of the Buddha’s wife, Princess Yasodhara, who remained behind to care for their newborn son with Siddhartha’s large extended family, has rarely been told, however, and never from her own perspective.

Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment has been chronicled in great detail over the ages, while Yasodhara’s has been invisible. Our challenge has been to imagine her journey through loss, grief, and suffering to find her own way toward enlightenment as she lived immersed in community and participated in “ordinary” relationships. The Buddha’s Wife reconstructs Yasodhara’s story of transformation through her realization of deep community and through her active participation in relationships with her mother-in-law, Pajapati; her father-in-law, Suddhodana; her son, Rahula; her own mother; a network of servants and friends within and beyond the palace community; and most importantly, the nuns who formed the women’s sangha (community) within the Buddha’s larger following. In comparison with the Buddha’s path of leaving home and renunciation, Yasodhara’s story illuminates the spiritual Path of She Who Stays.

We believe this path offers a timely and much-needed guide for contemporary living.

While traditional Buddhism emphasizes solitary meditation and spiritual seeking with community support, Yasodhara’s experience speaks of the Path of Right Relation—of growing awareness not alone but together, fully engaged with others. The seeds of this relational path practiced two and a half millennia ago have been growing in the ordinary lives of people throughout human history, passed on from one generation to another. But it is a hidden path, often unnoticed.

In this path, the movement into relation—into community— opens the person to being part of something greater than oneself. The vehicle for awakening is in the relationship itself, and everyone who is part of it is changed.”

Read the rest of it here.


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Heart of the Universe: A story that will stay with you forever


Gratitude, as always, for a community of great writers:

Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet & Ecomind:

“A powerful, gripping, tour-de-force. A story that will stay with you forever, unforgettable characters and vivid writing that brings China alive from Changsha City to the sacred Mount Emei. One of the very best books I’ve ever read, and fallen in love with.”


My latest book, At the Heart of the Universe, published by Seven Stories Press.


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Harvard Reunion: The Path of the Spirit


Last June, at the my 50th Harvard Reunion, I, among others, was asked o give a summary of my life’s 50 years–in 10 minutes. The most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  Here it is:

If any of you are worried that this might be a religious talk, you should know that I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side.

I feel such gratitude to be here with you, now.  The fact that we are all here is so chancy, determined by the slightest flicker of a butterfly’s wing.

Unless this is some kind of strange heaven, all of us here are still alive.  And all of us have suffered.  Big suffering, little suffering—it’s the First Noble Truth.  It’s not a matter of just suffering, it’s a matter of how we walk through it—whether to gut it out alone, or walk through it with caring others, in relationship. A character in one of my novels hears in his head, when he has to make a decision: “Whatever you do–don’t spread more suffering around.”  I’d guess that all of us have learned that happiness is not an individual matter.

The essence of the Spirit is to shift from self, to whatever is beyond that; shift from the centrality of self to the centrality of relationship.  And if you ask a man how he learned about relationship, if he’s honest, he’ll say he learned from a woman.  This certainly this was true for my path. And one thing I’ve learned, this half century: the danger of isolation, and the healing power of good connection.

During our time here, two big things shook us to our cores;

In late October 1963 at the Dartmouth game, on a first date with a girl, Janet Surrey, just before halftime there was a hush that suddenly came over the crowd. Three men in suits walked down to the fifty-yard line seats; one of them had sandy hair, blowing in the wind.  It was JFK.  We stood up and applauded.  My roommate got his autograph.  Three weeks later he was dead.  We fell in love.  We planned to marry after college.

The second thing we learned that if we saw an injustice and took action together, we could change the world for the better.  We helped put the civil rights laws on the books, and we ended the Vietnam war.  This spirit of resistance to injustice is in our bones, pushing us along even when we don’t feel it.  When in 1973 we doctors started our medical internships at the Beth Israel Hospital—an unjust system—we resisted.  Without knowing it, my first novel The House of God can be read as a primer of nonviolent resistance to a large power-over system.  Resistance is a spiritual act, a relational spiritual act, bigger than any of us.  The novel was roundly hated by the older generation of doctors, I got a lot of crap.  A few years ago at a pot-luck for our daughter’s class, I wandered up to two women doctors talking.  They turned out to be from the Beth Israel.  I joined in: “I may not be the most favorite doctor at the Beth Israel.”  “Well,” one of them said, “you can’t be as bad as that guy that wrote that book!”  And that was the last play date our daughter would ever have with hers.  32 years later I was invited back to give a talk at Beth Israel, and I looked around and said, “Just goes to show: live long enough, the ones who hate you either die or retire.”

On the Rhodes at Oxford I lost the girl, got depressed, started to drink more heavily. I was living alone out in the Cotswolds and I’d been loaned a big BMW 650 motorcycle for the summer.  One fine summer morning I decided to “hit a ton,” go a hundred miles an hour.  I had been drinking the night before, a little in the morning.  I got on the bike wearing only one piece of clothing—my bathing suit.  I headed up a big slope on the A34 to Stratford, and at the crest gunned it—going down the center between cars going both ways—and at the bottom hit a hundred, and coasted up the next hill, and went home, thinking nothing about it. Insanity.

I felt desperately alone, and kept thinking that I’d really made a dumb choice to leave her.  What I didn’t realize was that my suffering demanded I change, and grow.  Looking back, I understand that if I hadn’t gotten the Rhodes, and if we’d married, I’d now be a divorced, alcoholic neurosurgeon with tenure and a full practice at Harvard Med.  It wasn’t until years later as a shrink, when by chance—that butterfly again—I was referred alcoholics and addicts as patients and learned about AA, that I started to think that maybe I had a problem.  That was 26 years, 9 months, 17 days ago. And working with Janet—yes, we got back together—we wrote our play called Bill W.and Dr.Bob, about the founding of AA, which ran Off Broadway and goes around the world.

AA is a not a religious program, but a spiritual one.  As one character says to Bill Wilson, who did not believe in the traditional God: “Damnit you big lug, don’t have to believe in God, you just have to admit that you’re not God, so that something else, outside that stubborn, prickly Vermont self ‘a yours can take hold.”  Bill realizes that the only thing that can keep him sober is “telling my story to another drink.”  These two men discovered that AA was a disease (not a moral failing of the self), with physical, psychological and spiritual elements—and had to be treated in all three arenas for success.  This was the birth of the holistic movement, in America, in 1935.  And as Dr. Bob Smith put it: “Our service keeps us sober.” My service now, is the play. The healing magic is in the “and” of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the relationship.  A radical idea, in our self-obsessed country.

At the same time, Janet invited me in to work with her doing male-female dialogues, using the new “relational” model at Wellesley.  This opened my eyes!  At Harvard Med I had been taught that the measure of a person’s psychological health and growth is centered in the self.  The new “women’s relational theory” said that the measure of a person’s psychological health and growth  is the quality of their relationships.  It’s a shift to the We, which informs both the I and you.  I learned that “connection comes first,” and that if you’re in a good connection you can talk about anything; but if not, you can’t talk about anything.  For the first time in my life I actually could “see” not just self and other, but the connection; not just I and you, but the We.  This can be hard for men to notice: in our work we discovered that we men, in close relationships, when a woman asks, say: “What are you feeling, hon?”—we men feel “Male Relational Dread”.  And what we men are thinking inside Is: “Nothing good can come of my going into this, it’s just a matter of how bad it will be before it’s over—and it will never be over.” Out of this came our book: We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men.  And in relationship, nobody gets it right all the time; we are always screwing up.  It’s not just what you say or do, it’s what you say or do next. ”  Whether in marriages, or in Iraq—after we got rid of Saddam, it was clear that nobody had thought of what we do next.  And there goes the Middle East.

In the 80s, in the midst of our struggle with infertility, things got really bad between us.  Janet had started to go to lectures in California by an Indian woman meditation  teacher called Vimala Thakhar—a social activist who had walked with Venova Bhave in the post-Ghandi Land Gift Movement.  Janet was about to go off to a retreat alone, in Holland.  We stood outside my door in the freezing cold, in silence.  I had the sense that if she went off alone, we were finally over.  I asked: “Would you mind if I came with you?”  She said okay, and I did.  At one lecture, I had a remarkable experience of awareness—Janet, sitting behind, said “Your ears got bigger. You were really listening, as if for the first time.” Vimala offered a new way of looking at psychological suffering, about the trap of “becoming” and “being obsessed with comparing,” and the freedom of “being.” Thus started 35 years of Buddhist practice, a spiritual path, together.  One thing Vimala said: “The purpose of life is to live; there is no other purpose than to live; and to live is to be related.” Last year Janet and I published another radical book, The Buddha’s Wife, the Path of Awakening Together.  The Buddha left his wife on the morning of his only child’s birth without saying goodbye.  He stepped out of relationship to go off on his heroic journey of enlightenment, sitting alone under the Bodhi tree.  Our question: what about the abandoned wife and son. In a novel based on the early Pali sutras, we write that her suffering attracts the compassion of other women of the palace, and she steps into relationship with them, walking the path of the spirit, awakening together.  A women’s “hidden” path, co-arising with the Buddha’s.  When, seven years later, they finally meet one time again, in our imagination she asks him: “Dear One, What might have been of benefit, what teaching and practices offered, had two—or more—sat together under the Bodhi tree?”

Each book I write comes from the spirit of resistance we learned at Harvard.  Luckily our 24-year-old daughter and all her friends are in that same spirit—they “Feel the Bern!  There’s hope!



In 1992 we adopted Katie as a 4-month old from Changsha China.  All of you who have children know the joy.  She’s now 24.  In 2001, when she was 10, we went back to China, back at the police station where she was abandoned, and the orphanage where we met her.  There, something else happened that put a novel into my head: At the Heart of the Universe.  Last week we launched it at the Cambridge Public Library.   Janet, Katie, and I were onstage together—I reading passages, and our “little girl”, now a woman, answering questions about her journey. It was the best!

The novel—a radical reflection of the “one child per family policy”–a fiction about meeting the Chinese birth mom–has been described as “The Heart of Darkness with a happy ending.” Let me end by reading that ending:

“And if you could ask each of them what they are feeling at just that moment, each might say in their own way that they are feeling part of something else, part of something at the  heart of the universe, a universal law of love.”


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How to harm health care: Classic Orwellian progaganda


shemorwellwasright1Partners Healthcare Boston: Classic Orwellian Propaganda

Shem, here, about another sleazy deception in medical care.  In response to an op-ed in the Boston Globe by the CEO of Partners Health Care entitled “First Do No Harm,” I had no choice but to write this letter to the Boston Globe, which I titled: “How to Harm Health Care“:

RE “FIRST, do no harm” by David Torchiana, president and CEO of Partners HealthCare (Opinion, Dec. 19): In understanding Partners, a touch of history may be relevant. There never was a need for a “Partners.” It was created to make an alliance between Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital — but also to make money.

American health care at first was a two-party system: doctor and patient. The next step was a third party: private insurance. Partners was born as a new third party, wedged between doctor-patient and private insurance (which became “a new 4th party”). Partners became a middleman and fee broker between doctor-patient-hospital and private insurance.

No wonder this added corporate giant added to health care costs, and has recently suffered record losses from ventures such as the installation of a new electronic medical records system and from running its own insurance company, Neighborhood Health Plan.

There’s no need for a “Partners.” The need, and solution, is for a national single-payer Medicare for all. Many, if not most, doctors want it. And ask any of us Medicare insurance patients: It’s cheap, and it works.

Dr. Samuel Shem


The Partners op ed was too important an issue of the unnecessary financial takeover of medical care, and someone has to speak up about it–I guess it’s up to me.  For Torchiana to entitle  this op-ed  “First do no harm” is a joke–an example of “New Thought” from Orwell’s 1984: IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

The solution is a national health care system.  Why don’t we have it?  Because 50% of each of our tax dollars goes to the military.  We’re #1 at war, and #39 or so in healthcare. Good at war, bad at healthcare.  Of course we don’t have the money for non-profit health care for all. We have to change our priorities!  Oh, and by the way, two facts you need to know about CEO Torchiana:  1) he made well over $2.5 million in salary last year; 2) he was one of four Healthcare CEOs to meet with Trump two days ago.


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Launch of At the Heart of the Universe: Onstage w my family in NYC


Let me tell you about one of the best things I’ve participated in–last November 14 onstage as a family at the Soho Playhouse.  We wanted to launch my new novel, At the Heart of the Universe, in the Big Apple.  My spouse Janet and our daughter joined me onstage.  The moderator was an adoption expert, Adam Pertman.  And it was  ***The Best***.  This novel, based on our family’s journey back to Changsha, China where we adopted Katie as a 4-month old (she was 10 when we went back) is a labor of love–although someone called it “Heart of Darkness with a Happy Ending,”and you could feel it onstage.  Luckily we videotaped it in front of the live audience, and edited it down  into three sections:  l) Introduction and Shem Reading from the Novel; 2) Discussion of the novel and of adoption by the Family Shem  3) Question and Answer with the Audience.  Here are the three segments–about 20 minutes each.  Enjoy!



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