Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
THE ART OF COMMUNICATING
with JACOB NEEDLEMAN, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "The Art of Communicating." So many times we may feel something very deeply within ourselves and want to try to impart that understanding to other people; or perhaps conversely, so many times we're exposed to really wonderful information, knowledge, and wisdom from various sources, and we wonder, how can we really absorb that within us? With me today is Professor Jacob Needleman of the philosophy department at San Francisco State University. Dr. Needleman is the author of many books, including a novel, The Sorcerers; The Heart of Philosophy, The Way of the Physician, The New Religions, and many others. Welcome, Jacob.
JACOB NEEDLEMAN, Ph.D.: It's good to be here.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You are a teacher, a philosopher, and a writer. It's really a major part of your job to communicate with other people, and I know from your work that you're very much involved with the deepest spiritual and philosophical traditions of humanity. To communicate those kinds of -- truths isn't really the right word for me, but insights, perceptions -- to people in a secular culture today must be quite a challenge.
NEEDLEMAN: Well, I think it's always been a challenge, and part of the whole meaning of what we call -- the word is tradition. It doesn't mean just something you always have done in the past. But the very word tradition almost is synonymous with transmission. Tradition means that which is handed down and transmitted from one generation to another, or from those who understand something to those who don't. So communicating in that sense -- tradition has always been one of the most essential parts of human life. And on an individual level as a teacher, it's a tremendous challenge, a tremendous difficulty. It's very easy to settle for superficial communicating, and I have tried very hard to keep the standard high enough so that there really is an attempt at a real communication between what is real in one person and what is real in another. It's very difficult. As a writer too, of course, it's always been a task to try to communicate what you feel, what you understand, in a way that helps the reader to feel what is appropriate to it. So in a way, if we define it in a certain way, communication is relationship, and we all know that is the most essential part of our lives together.
MISHLOVE: It often seems to me, especially in the realm of philosophy, that the deepest truths are the most subtle
-- that you can't communicate them just by saying them. For example, the classic philosophical statement of Socrates, "Man, know thyself" -- it's too profound to be really expressed in words alone.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, because the greatest things to be communicated have to be experienced by oneself. And to communicate it in words, to pretend that through just giving words you're communicating the thing, is like giving a person a photograph of some food instead of having him eat it. It's a substitute. And we're living amid a lot of substitutes now. Real communication, in those kinds of things, is what used to be called, and still is, indirect communication -- I don't teach you what I know directly, I give you certain help, certain indications, I create certain conditions, so that you can experience for yourself what I'm speaking about.
MISHLOVE: As a psychotherapist I know, and I'm sure many other therapists do, that sometimes the worst thing that you can do with a client is simply to tell them what to do with their life, or to analyze their problem and lay it out for them. It's almost valueless at times.
NEEDLEMAN: At times it's dangerous too. And yet, it's so much what we sometimes want, and it takes sometimes great strength on the part of the therapist, I would think, or the professor, not to give people this. We want explanations, we want quick answers, we want recipes. We want to be told how to do something, what to do, and we're not very willing to accept that every real understanding is something we've got to pay for through the nose, sort of.
MISHLOVE: Now, I know that you've studied to some extent the Sufi tradition, and I've heard a Sufi saying to the effect that for a Sufi teacher one of the greatest sins that can be committed is to impart knowledge to a student before that student is ready.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes. But it's not only the Sufis, it's in the Jewish tradition too, in the Jewish mystical tradition. There are severe laws against people who speak about the inner secrets to those who are not ready for them. It's very, very fierce about that. So it's an ancient thing. Even Freud once said to somebody after speaking a long time -- he said it in German, but he said, "The deepest things you know you can't tell to children." He meant you have to be careful who you tell these things to, and how you tell them. So we really haven't understood -- maybe in therapy it has been understood, but in the communication of ideas and spiritual truths and metaphysical teachings and all that, we haven't quite grasped how important it is how something is said, by whom, under what conditions, and how little and how much. We've been more or less conditioned to think everybody should be told everything in words and print, and that's good, that's good. The more you read, the more you know, the more you hear, that's good, it can't hurt. It's not good. It sometimes is very dangerous.
MISHLOVE: We can suffer from information overload.
NEEDLEMAN: Information overload, and a kind of ego overload -- just because we hear these things in print and in words, we think we know something, therefore we're going to do something about it. It's not always good. So that's been part of the mystique of our culture, which was making books, making knowledge available to everyone, which had a good motivation, but it can be misunderstood to go wrong.
MISHLOVE: There's a term in Zen that is sometimes called, I think, "the stink of enlightenment," which I suppose refers to when a person grasps an idea like they are God, or they are one with the infinite, intellectually, and it goes to their head, or something to that effect.
NEEDLEMENT: Absolutely, yes, and much of the Zen tradition is to puncture those balloons, like Socrates used to, if somebody would come in thinking they know. It's a dangerous, dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and Socrates and the Zen masters would do that. It was part of their way of teaching, was to -- I guess the stink of enlightenment, to take away that stink. So we have a communicating problem in that respect. And on the other hand, the question of how to listen is very difficult too, because in order to communicate to someone, the person also has to understand how to listen.
MISHLOVE: Even on a mundane level, if you were to tell somebody something very, very explicitly and directly, I know from my work in communication workshops it's very difficult for another person to repeat back to you exactly what you said without distorting that idea.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, and that's in the moment, right away. Imagine how it's been over centuries, with people repeating things that were said thousands of years ago, how distorted it's gotten. So the art of listening is a great art, and it's an art of being open, of allowing something to enter without immediately intercepting it with your thoughts and your interpretations. What's very interesting to me is the interrelation between communicating and listening. That's what's interesting -- that unless I am listening to you, I can't communicate to you. If I'm not listening to you I can't speak to you. If you're not listening to me you can't hear, but if I'm not listening to you, I can't really speak to you.
MISHLOVE: You know, as I read many of your books I find that you have a wonderful way of writing which describes the details of the thought process. Somebody will say something to you, and you'll describe your first reaction to that thought. Then you'll go back and say, "Then I had this second reaction, and then I wondered what they really meant." You really get into the stream of consciousness of how an idea gets absorbed, gets dealt with.
NEEDLEMAN: That touches on something very subtle, I think, which I'm a student of, which is the art of listening to oneself, in the moment, and allowing yourself to hear what's going on in your own mind, and that is difficult. But that's what you would call self-awareness, it's self-listening. Sometimes the word listening can communicate it better than self-seeing, self-observation, which has sometimes a more static --
MISHLOVE: And I would imagine the paradox of the art of listening is that on the one hand you want to listen to yourself and be aware of your responses, and on the other hand you don't want them to get in the way of what someone might be communicating.
NEEDLEMAN: Well, the mystery, the paradox, the incredible thing, is the more you authentically listen to yourself, the more you're open to the other. It's very strange, but if you listen to yourself in a false way, then it cuts you off. That means you're self-preoccupied. But if you're open to yourself, and you allow an awareness of your functions, your senses, to appear, they flower, and they open to the world. It goes both ways.
MISHLOVE: You'll have to explain this a little more to me.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, it's a great paradox. And yet, the more I am conscious of myself, the more I can be conscious of you. You can verify this. There are moments in everybody's life when suddenly you realize, "My God, here I am now, here, in this place. I'm present." It can be a moment of shock, of danger, of sudden awakening, or maybe somebody you know is having something extraordinary happen and you're watching. Or you're in nature; you're looking at a flower or the sky, or a mountain or a cloud. Suddenly you're looking, you're very in touch with the thing you're looking at, with the place you're at. At the same time you realize, "I'm aware, I'm here, I'm present." Those moments you remember all your life. "I was all there," you say. At the same time I was all with the person. So it's the paradox of consciousness. The more we are present in ourselves, the more we are open.
MISHLOVE: I suppose in a sense it's because communication is a form of relationship.
MISHLOVE: You can't just totally surrender to what another person says. You have to relate to it.
NEEDLEMAN: Right, right. And you have to relate to yourself. When I am here, I can be there. When I am there only, I am less than human, and when I am here only, I am less than human. It's an opening. This may sound queer, but it's really along the whole lines of spiritual traditions throughout the ages.
MISHLOVE: It sounds to me like what you're saying has to do with another maxim, and that is to be here now. When I'm in touch with what's really happening in the moment, I will be in relationship with you. If I begin to wonder about, for example, what I'm going to do tomorrow, it will be very hard to communicate.
NEEDLEMAN: Exactly. This is it. At many levels, this is a question that's being opened again in our society -- in medicine; in therapy you know it very well. But doctors -- sometimes when I speak to doctors we talk about this kind of thing. I say, "Well, just observe what you listen to when your patient tells you what's going on." The honest ones come back and say, "I was amazed. Maybe I listened to the patient one second out of a minute. The rest of the time I was thinking about this thing or another, or what's the diagnosis. But I am rarely simply there listening to the patient." When a doctor, for example, really can open like that, the patient comes away quite sure they've been heard, understood, and dealt with. And it's the secret of being human. The doctor becomes human, listening. The sincerest and the real form of relationship to another person is when you're listening.
MISHLOVE: Well, that's certainly a lot of what psychotherapy is about. I mean, we often wonder, how can I as a therapist ever affect anybody else's life?
NEEDLEMAN: But don't you discover what Freud discovered, which is -- I don't think it's been noted, and I wrote about that in my book -- that one of the most important aspects of the healing force is the listening.
NEEDLEMAN: It doesn't matter what you say.
MISHLOVE: And it's been neglected in the literature; you're right about that. People have a strong need to feel that they are really understood, and that comes from listening.
NEEDLEMAN: It's amazing, yes. You can't teach that -- this is how you listen. But I think the therapists are the people who could understand that more.
MISHLOVE: There's a sense to me as well, as I speak about it, that it seems to really listen, you can't help but understand. To listen and not understand would almost seem to be a contradiction.
NEEDLEMAN: Well, I don't know about that. That's an interesting point. I think to listen --
MISHLOVE: Well, certainly in therapy it involves, for me at least as I think of it now, it involves really putting myself in the other person's position when they speak -- that is, to understand where they're coming from, to have a sense of their motivation. So they might tell me about some things they did that I would never do, and normally, in my sort of businesslike mind I might frown on that kind of behavior, or it would be against my values. But when I really listen in therapy, I understand why people made the choices that they made. And I find that if I don't understand that, then I wasn't listening quite.
NEEDLEMAN: I think I understand what you're saying. I think what happens is when I really try to listen, and struggle with the fact that I don't listen very well, which I think we have to admit is what happens -- if I can keep that up and not get discouraged, then I begin to feel something. It's the feeling I believe you're speaking about. I begin to feel what the person is like -- yes, in that sense. But real understanding may not happen so simply. But when you really feel what another person's going through, listening, then yes, then there is a rapport. It's a beginning anyhow.
MISHLOVE: Well, I certainly wouldn't claim that that's a complete analysis of that person, by any means. But it's a feeling of being in their shoes.
NEEDLEMAN: It's a difficult subject, because at its farthest reaches, at its highest reaches, it's what all the great masters have called compassion, which is that I really deeply feel what you are feeling. In other things it can be just a little bit of sympathy, a little bit of mutual understanding. It's a very hard thing to talk about.
MISHLOVE: Well, you as a writer have come to a style in many of your books of really dealing with things almost allegorically. Of course now you're writing fiction and even writing a screenplay from your novel The Sorcerers. I gather that you've found that sometimes anecdotes, stories, drama, are a better way to communicate than just out-and-out da-da-da-da, these are the facts.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, I find at the right moment a story is an irreplaceable way of communicating something. There are great stories that can communicate. That's what I tried in my novel, but of course it's just my attempt -- to through a kind of yarn, an enjoyable yarn about a kid doing magic, to try to communicate something about the spiritual search and the struggle between good and evil. But stories are now being rediscovered more and more as an ancient way of communicating to the feeling, without having it all go through and being stopped by this conceptual screen that's always labeling things. In other words, a story, like most art, can trick this conceptual brain and allow something to get beyond the guards and go down. You know, one of my favorite things about communicating is a saying of one of the Hassidic masters. One of the pupils asked him, "Why does it say in the Torah, 'Lay these words upon your heart'? Why doesn't it say, 'Put these words in your heart'?" This is from Deuteronomy, one of the translations. And the master says, "It tells us to put these words on our heart because we are not capable of directly putting them in our hearts. So all we can do is put them on our hearts and they stay there, so that when the heart breaks they can fall in." This is a tremendous story of why story and art of certain kinds of communication are given that the head can't figure out, but which have an action on the feeling.
MISHLOVE: There's a sense of a subtlety of timing, that sometimes at the very right moment an idea can really slip past those defenses that we have. I know literary critics talk about this concept -- that when a person reads a piece of fiction they enter into a state of what they call willing suspension of disbelief, whereas I guess many times when we read nonfiction we're just the opposite, we have our disbelief antennas out a little bit.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, it's joyous, the suspension of disbelief, I would say. Because what are you disbelieving in? You're disbelieving in some literal world that this boring head is constantly creating, and you're opening to a world of dream, which can be very real at another level. Sometimes our dreams -- for many of us dreams are the most creative things we ever do. So yes, it's opening a whole subject, this question of story and what art form, because it would lead to a question, which is very serious, of what scripture is -- how the ancient teachers wanted to communicate these things in a way that they wouldn't be distorted right away. That's what scripture tries to do, what sacred writing tries to do. And people who are just not sacred writers, like us and me, are trying to do a little of that. It's against the old pattern of everything should be spelled out abstractly with scientific proof, conceptually, so that the head can be convinced. Sometimes you have to touch the heart, and sometimes in order to touch the heart you have to befuddle the head.
MISHLOVE: Well, it seems to me that in the process of communicating something to another person, you want to, as you say, reach the whole being and lead them to an experience. And yet sometimes it seems we're so limited. They live in their world; we live in ours. Sometimes I and maybe you feel a kind of frustration, like you really want to break down those barriers. And yet you must have to satisfy yourself with a sense of, I guess, patience, and knowing that you just can't tear it all down.
NEEDLEMAN: You can't just tear it all down. That's very true. It's part of the loneliness that afflicts our culture too -- that there's something not passing on a real level between people, and that many times we settle for superficial things, and they leave us empty, and we wind up being very lonely, because we thought we've communicated but we really know we haven't. But real communication takes a great deal of patience and care and, well, listening.
MISHLOVE: You know, I've been a student and a teacher at times of parapsychology, psychic, ESP, telepathy. It opens up a whole other realm and understanding of the possibilities of communication. I remember in one seminar a person stood up and he made a striking statement I'd like you to think about. He said, "You know, I think we're really being psychic all the time, even when we talk, and what we do when we converse with another person is we help focus their attention on a certain aspect of the telepathic communication that's already taking place between us."
NEEDLEMAN: I think there's something true in that, but I think real human communication requires conscious effort. It doesn't happen automatically, even telepathically. Something of my consciousness, of my struggle, of my will, needs to be involved, or it's not ultimately human. Automatic communication can be very good, but it's only when I intentionally am communicating in a free, relaxed, open way that I think really it's human.
MISHLOVE: Is there a sense in which, Jacob, if I'm, say, at this moment, really trying to listen to you as another human being, to what you really have to communicate, that if I were to fully understand the depth of -- we're talking for a half hour, but behind us is a lifetime of experience, and I'm sure passions, tragedies, joys, sorrow
-- all at once, that maybe there's only a certain amount that I can tolerate. I'd be overwhelmed otherwise.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, you would.
MISHLOVE: And so a natural part of my own biology is to filter out, to let in only maybe a certain amount.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, that's true. But to know that, to be aware of that, so that you're not fooled and you don't suffer unnecessarily -- to know that you have only a limited amount you can be open to, that we do, then we're beginning to get more in relation when we're not trying to kid each other and ourselves. So I know I can't take in much of you; you know you can't take in much of me; but we don't try to fool each other and ourselves. And strangely, magically, that allows something more to start passing. This dialectic interplay between being aware, not fooling myself, and accepting that we can't communicate very well -- and that allows us to communicate better, and it's mysterious, almost like a fairy tale.
MISHLOVE: I often wonder that there's a sense in which what I would filter out still gets absorbed, and maybe if I listen to my dreams it'll come through that way.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, maybe that's the only way it'll come through. But it would be better if we didn't have to listen to our dreams, if it was all conscious. Then our dreams could be doing something even better.
MISHLOVE: Now that's an interesting thought.
NEEDLEMAN: It's a vast subject.
MISHLOVE: How do you feel about the work that you're doing as a philosopher in our culture today, trying to communicate spiritual ideals? Earlier in the interview you mentioned that it would be difficult anytime, even in a spiritually oriented society. But in today's society, which seems to be -- I guess I would characterize it as one that is moving from a secular society towards a more spiritual culture, but still heavily weighted on the secular side -- I would think that you must encounter enormous resistance when you write or speak of these things.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes. It's in myself, a lot of the resistance, because I'm secular too. If we live in a secular time, then we're all secular.
MISHLOVE: There's no getting away from it.
NEEDLEMAN: No getting away from it. So the thing to see for me is to study, to understand the resistance to that in myself, and not imagine that I'm a spiritual being in a world of people who are not spiritual. We're all the same, and if I can understand what the forces in myself are that don't want to hear anything spiritual, and then communicate with them, and convince them that there's something for them in that, then maybe I could speak to others. So it goes two ways.
MISHLOVE: I'm really struck by that, because it seems as if what you're saying now is that really the art of communicating is the art of listening to and speaking to, communicating with oneself.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes. There are these parts of ourself that have never been given attention, that have never been spoken to. They grew up wild animals. They've never been cared for with this communicating. And that's the main communication we need to try. Then we can communicate with others.
MISHLOVE: I think, Jacob Needleman, that we have gotten now to the essence of communicating, and that's very exciting to have that. I hope I can walk away with that and not forget. Thank you very much for being with me. It's been a real pleasure. You've been able to go full circle from the art of speaking to the art of listening to ultimately, I suppose, it boils down to the art of being.
NEEDLEMAN: Exactly. Thank you very much.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure having you with me.
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