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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