Interviewsand Articles


On Hope - A Conversation with Jacob Needleman

by , Feb 14, 2020



photo, nov. 2021 - r. whittaker
It was my good fortune to be in frequent contact with Jacob Needleman. On visits to his home in Oakland we'd talk about deep questions that interested us both. Over the last three or four years of his life, we met number of times trying to find a quality of exchange he describes here as we begin. What did we understand about hope?

Jacob Needleman:   Not everybody is able to participate in real dialogue, where each person speaks from their feeling, and the other person receives them, like you do. The way I put it, the whole purpose of it is two grown-ups trying to listen to each other, and talking about things that matter.  Just as we’re going to do—or at least, as I want to do—about the question of hope.

Richard Whittaker:   It’s good to elevate the idea of an interview to the level you describe.

JN:   I don’t think many people grasp the idea. But I think you and I have been doing it for years. I did it with Nipun [Mehta], and he understood. And Martha Heyneman understood, a wonderful woman. So what we’re trying to get serious about in this way, is the question of hope. We talked about this just a couple of days ago. When was that? Wednesday?
     We said that usually we’re hoping for external things, aren’t we? “I hope it happens.” “I hope to get something I want very much.” “I hope bad things don’t happen.” “I hope the good comes on top.” What are we saying when we say “my hope for the world”? And there’s a hope also for myself, for my loved ones – “I hope they’re happy.” It’s a condition which we hope is available, exists, for people who we care for. Or “I hope I'm not found out” - the things I don’t want people to know that embarrass me or endanger me; I hope they don’t find out those kinds of things. It covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it, the word “hope”?

RW:   It does. I wonder if the reason we’re meeting today is to talk about a part of hope we don’t really know much about? Is there an aspect of hope that we’re not really conscious of? This is sort of what I was thinking about. Does this correspond at all to what you have in mind?

JN:   It’s something like that. That’s what I hoped when I spoke at the meeting we had - the one Nipun set up for us (with Harou Miyagi, Mitsu Yamazaki, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu and Audrey Lin).
     I talked about when I first taught a course in philosophy and had the students read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wonderful essay "The Over-Soul." Emerson was a wonderful philosopher and deep thinker. I had the fear that young people today - I wasn’t sure they would read him with any great feeling. I was afraid they wouldn’t be open to the kind of ideas and writing that touches the heart and mind together. And now that I think about it, hope can’t be just something that takes place in the intellect alone. Anyway, I was hoping they would respond to Emerson.
     I was worried - the opposite of hope. But they were gobbling Emerson up as we read along in the class, especially his essay "The Over-Soul," which is amazing. It’s about the Universe as a consciousness. I saw how much they were taken by the readings and, at the end of the course, I asked them what they felt about Emerson because he’s considered an “optimistic philosopher.”
     Well, they said various things. Finally, one man in his early twenties said, “I like Emerson, because he brought me hope.”
     I thought, okay, that’s interesting. Emerson was a beautiful writer. He looked forward to the future. He gave suggestions on how to live, how to be self-reliant, appreciate nature, appreciate the study of history, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” But only this one man said, “He brought me hope.” And I thought about it when I got home.
     I know it wasn’t that this student thought Emerson brought predictive thinking about good things that could happen—how the government can do right by people, or about all the usual topics: nature, history, science, art. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t what good art brought. It wasn’t what good correct science necessarily brought. It wasn’t what political wisdom might bring. It wasn’t what being patient with people might bring. It wasn’t what knowledge would bring about how the body and the biological systems work. It wasn’t about how to please people, how to be respected by people, how to get your place in life secured—whether it’s your job, your education, your family situation, or your love life. None of that was what this student meant when he said, “It brought me hope.”
     I can understand that all those things are a part of it, what Emerson - and what any of us - think of when we think of hope. Wouldn’t you agree?  
RW:  Yes. 

JN:   Now I know what that student meant. He meant it brought me in touch with a part of myself that I never knew existed, a higher part. And that brought me hope. It made me feel hope in a way I've never felt it before. That’s a wonderful thing to say.
     When we’re in touch with another kind of consciousness, or level of understanding, that is what brings hope. It’s not because it hopes for money or pleasure, or anything like that. Yes, that’s a possible part of it. But it’s the element—maybe even the most essential part of ourselves as human beings—it’s this part that can be awakened by great ideas that speak about great questions of meaning, purpose, love.
     I think you agree with this because just recently you said something about how you hadn’t been aware of something that existed. Do you remember what you said?

RW:   Last night? Oh, yes.

JN:   I don’t want to pry into that, but…

RW:   Well, it would be hard to do it justice in a few words, but yes, it was something I’d never really experienced before in the context of speaking in front of others. And going back to the student, it’s interesting, isn’t it? - how a remark like that, the thing this student said, unlike all the other comments - how it stood out.
     It’s interesting how there’s something in us, perhaps this part we don’t know about, that seems to register things. It’s as if this part can listen, and it’s very rare when something gets down there and causes it to resonate. And when that happens, this part always remembers it. Your story of the student who said, “It brings me hope” must have to do with something like that.

JN:   Absolutely.

RW:   That’s so interesting. There are these things that have just stayed with me. It’s mysterious. In a way, it confirms what you’re saying. They must touch some part of myself - you could say I don’t know it exists, but when it’s touched, there’s no question about it being a deep part of myself. It’s out of reach of the world of ideas; it’s in the world of being, maybe.

JN:   I think that’s a very important thing to say—the word being. Who can describe what that word means? Yet, it’s come to mean something of ultimate value. We can say “being” and usually people mean that “it exists.” It either exists or doesn’t. The being of a plant, the being of animal, of a stone, the being of a human being—those are different levels of being. It’s repeating the word, but it’s not exactly explaining what it is. And yet, we have a decent intuition of what that word is. But who could put it into words?  
RW:   I know. We don’t have the language for it. I've struggled with this a little. In place of “being” I’ve tried “our living-existing.” It doesn’t really make it. What words can convey this inhabiting of myself in time? We can say “presence,” you know. Presence would be the state of inhabiting oneself in the condition of time. Putting this in language is so difficult. I'm just agreeing with what you’re saying.

JN:   We have those moments. They seem mostly to be given when they come. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t make it happen, and yet, it happened.

RW:   Earlier, you asked me how my day had gone - and there was a moment that’s related to what we’re talking about. I had my dogs up on a hillside in the Oakland Hills, a remote little trail that hardly anyone uses. I was up there with these two beautiful dogs in the fresh grass and sunlight, and nobody was around. There was this animal joy of life. I was looking out across the bay through the trees, and was close to something in myself. I was trying to turn toward it, and there was the usual noise in my head. I was making an effort to become more present, quieter, and experience this awareness that I am here.
      I was very close to it, and a memory came back to me how in 1966 - when I arrived San Francisco - I'd had this feeling. I experienced it several times all those years ago. It was magical. But this morning, I couldn’t find my way to simply dwell in it. That taste of it was enough to remember it, though - the experience of being. Yes. It was very close to that. I think it fits with what we’re talking about.

JN:   It certainly resonates with me in my life. I've had moments like that. I think many people have and they don’t know what to make of it. But they know when they have that kind of moment. It’s unmistakable. It’s just something very special.
     What is it when you experience I am? “I felt myself alive” doesn’t quite say it, but comes closer. Here I am in this place now, here, in this moment.
     I know when I was 14 years old, I was just walking somewhere near where I lived. It was October, I remember that. It was autumn. I was just walking along. I don’t know what I was doing or where I was going. I don’t remember any of that. But suddenly, I stopped. I just stopped walking. And I heard myself thinking and saying, “I am here. I am here now.” It was incredible, and when I continued going along, it faded away.

RW:   And you remember that right now?

JN:   I can almost feel it the same way. Maybe I need to get another example. When I first went to Europe (on a Fulbright to Paris), when I got off the boat—I'm not sure whether it was Holland or Germany - I looked around and I am here. It wasn’t, “I'm in this great country with all these wonderful and interesting things.” It was just isness. It’s a crazy word, "isness" - I am.
     I remember that 14-year-old boy: I am Jerry. I looked around. I didn’t know what to do. But I loved that state, that moment. It would be a very good exercise to make a list of all those moments that have been given to us in our life. What were the conditions that supported that?
     What you described on the hillside, anybody can be touched by that, and have a taste of it themselves, in a way, from that description. Because I've had that moment like you’ve had.

RW:   One of the things that stood out for me this morning in taking me back to experiences over 50 years ago, is how it wasn’t like there was “progress.” The sense of it felt like it was the same thing.   
JN:   What question arises? It’s beyond pleasure, beyond fun, beyond a feeling of success. Suddenly, sometimes you would get a great gift from someone, but it’s not quite that. Society doesn’t know what that is, doesn’t tell us anything about that. Or if it does, it’s someone like Abraham Maslow who had a special word for this kind of thing. I've forgotten what it is.

RW:   “Peak experience”?

JN:   “Peak experience.” So it gets a label. Calling it a “peak experience”—it’s not bad. But maybe it’s just that no label could capture it. So, what would life be like if one could access that experience more often? Because when it’s there, there could be nothing more to wish for but this.
     What would life be like if I had more access to it? If I could actually work to invite it into my life more? Would that not be beyond anything an ordinary, everyday pleasure, success, fun - could give us? To me, when it’s given, it’s like something in me is saying to me, “I am you. Let me enter your life.”
      What would that be to have some sense of having this? Gurdjieff called this "self-remembering." That moment you describe up in the hills was self-remembering, wasn’t it?

RW:   Yes. Close enough. It had the taste.

JN:   Exactly. That taste is a precious thing. In that moment, we become a different kind of person. It’s transformative.

RW:   Very much so. And as we’re talking, something else is coming up. I interviewed this man, Michael Penn, a couple of years ago. He teaches at Franklin & Marshall. He’s a psychologist.

JN:   I knew him.

RW:   Did you?

JN:   Yes. I was a visiting scholar at Franklin & Marshall a couple of years ago. I think I met him several times when he was part of a group I met with.

RW:   That’s lovely.

JN:   Michael Penn.

RW:   A beautiful man. Later, I met him in person at a ServiceSpace retreat. He’s done a lot of thinking about hope and hopelessness, and there’s an aspect there that relates to our conversation. Being a black man in America, he’s familiar with hopelessness—the hopelessness that many African Americans feel - and white, as well. I mean, anyone’s life condition can be such that they don’t feel hope. Maybe they can be swayed by things that are promised in our consumer culture, but that doesn’t go far. Ultimately, that really only adds to despair.

JN:   Yes.

RW:  Michael Penn knows about this in a deep way, and when he works with individuals, I suppose his question is, “How can I become a vehicle that opens a person to something so that hope can arise in them?” And it’s the kind of hope we’re talking about, I think – or very close to it. It’s this thing that's deep in us that suddenly sees a path - the possibility of getting to some place in which I live - in which I have a real life. I think it’s like that.
     I mean, what is it when a person awakes to hope in this way? I don’t have words for it. We could talk about what does that mean?

JN:  Life is real only then, when I am. Does that sound familiar?

RW:   Yes. Citing that book is very much to the point. Michael Penn understands something about this because in his life, he found his way to something, or was led to it. He’s had some experiences that were far outside of ordinary life – truly magical things. And in his search, he looked into many different religious traditions. He was a searcher.
JN:   He may not have known what to call what he was searching for. But when it appears…

RW:   I don’t think people know what to call it, really.

JN:   That’s why “being” is such a good word, because it has no synonyms.

RW:   Right. It’s not compromised that way [laughs].

JN:   You can know it, feel it, but you can’t explain it. You can say a few things around the edges. You can say “being is everything you are.” That’s clever. And it’s true. But it leaves one with no more real understanding.

RW:   A phrase coming up for me is “journey to inaccessible places.” It’s such a beautiful phrase, isn’t it? And it’s exactly right, because it is a journey. And the place one journeys toward is inaccessible. That’s also true. It’s a paradoxical phrase and yet, don’t you think it’s the right phrase?  
JN:   It’s a great phrase. Such a paradox.

RW:   Most of us have had - as I know you have had - moments where one is vibrantly, suddenly alive. That would be an inaccessible place and yet, one has arrived there somehow.

JN:   Yes. When in childhood, I think we get many of those experiences. I had many when I was a child, of course. I was sitting on the curb in my neighborhood, just suddenly looking at my foot. I was barefoot. I couldn’t believe—how can I explain it, what is this foot? It was incredible; it just brought me down into it. I'll never forget just picking up my foot. I must have been about six years old, and just bringing up my foot and looking at it with tears.

RW:   That’s so beautiful.

JN:   That’s being. Just to be. We have many substitutes for being. But it’s never the same. As you say, I've got the car, the house, I've got maybe the mistress – whatever. But when you participate in a process that helps another person come to that discovery, that’s meaningful. Like what you said about Michael Penn. You can’t take that away from them.
       [Jacob reaches for a piece of paper and reads.]
“The greatest thing I have learned in my life, and not just once, many times, is the importance of work on one’s self. In fact, it is the only important thing in anybody’s life. Everything else vanishes almost without a trace sooner or later. Only work on one’s self saves results that can be returned to, which do not change. Only work on myself is truly work for myself and can become work for all.
     “Again and again we are told, and again and again we forget.  The task is change, change of being, not of doing. Change of not the outer, but the inner life. Change of attitudes and not of behavior alone, a letting go of, rather than getting or grasping. Before real work can begin, one must come back to one’s own nothingness, let go of all illusions about one’s self. To acquire a real self, the self that has seemed to be me, or mine, up to now must be seen clearly as it is. I must choose to work with my lacks, my weaknesses.
     "In this task, there can be no compromise. Again and again, I come back to the same place, start again at the beginning, and again I'm tripped up by vanity, self-love, ambition, fear—all the demons. There is no substitute for work on one’s self. Great teachers and leaders have the same task as the least and newest among us. All the rest belongs to life. Kings and emperors, peasants and beggars, we have the same work, though the lives are different.
     “Remember this, should you ever find yourself responsible for some office or position in a group. That is not your work. You are your work. The only difference between us is that a few know this. Most do not.”
     Anyhow, the issue of being is in there, but in reference to the word “work.” We’re talking about something we try to be open to, something that’s given, something that one could live in relationship to. What would it be like if your experience on the hill with the dogs, could extend longer?  

RW:   It’s a wished-for direction. One feels the possibility.

JN:   What is this now? The world is going to hell. It’s always going to hell, I guess. We have nothing but lies in the environment, illusions. Good people sometimes imagining they’re helping people, getting them what they want, what they need. What is the effect on myself? And what does that self do to the environment in which I live?
     I'm trying to get to the point of where a person could conceivably imagine living in more constant relationship to being. If that were the core of his life, of our life, it would be the key to any real happiness, any real service to mankind. We’re given this possibility that makes us human. That, beyond anything else, is what differentiates us from, say, the animals. You cannot say that they have the being of a human being. We don’t even have that until we are given it.

RW:   For me, animals are little miracles—as is all of life. This morning, I was looking at my two dogs. They have four legs instead of two. And all four work together perfectly. How curious. Their bodies are oriented horizontally towards the front. Why do I think they’re so beautiful, and so magical? If I stop to think about it, it’s really mysterious. I suppose that for many people it’s way out of fashion to see God in his creation. But it’s like that.

JN:   Absolutely. Where does it come from? How does it get there? Our cat, Coco, that came in the room. You saw the cat?

RW:   Yes. She’s beautiful.

JN:   She came and looked at you, considered jumping up on your lap. She comes in when we have the Sunday night reading groups. She comes in and sniffs everybody. Then she goes to one person and stays with that person. Anyway, she’s as sensitive as anything. She sees if we’re working and she doesn’t bother us. But when we lose it a little, she comes and maybe jumps up on our lap. Anyhow, it’s a big mistake to underestimate the presence of animals. They’ve got something.

RW:   I have to share this little anecdote. I interviewed Doctor Remen [Rachel Naomi Remen] a few months ago, and she has these two huge cats. As we were chatting before starting the interview, one of them, a big orange cat jumped up on the table we were sitting at. It came over to us and laid down. Rachel said, “He always knows where the most energy is in the room, and he goes there.” The cat stayed there for the whole interview. So it’s a similar thing. But I was thinking about what you were saying. If it were possible to be in a more stable relationship with this deeper state of being present, what would it be for? Would it be for the world? I think that’s what you were saying.  

JN:   Yes.

RW:   It brought back my conversation with Lobsang Rapgay. I’m sure you remember that symposium many years ago at the foundation. He was part of that and spoke about “aesthetic thought.” I didn’t know what it meant and he didn’t explain it. He said that "In the West, we’re too fatigued to engage in aesthetic thought." It was a curious thing to say. He said that when aesthetic thought arrives at a certain quality, it can bring the numinous down into circulation in a culture, and without that, a culture cannot survive.
     Well, I remembered that over the years. And finally, last year I went down to Los Angeles and interviewed him. I asked him, “When someone reaches this level of aesthetic thought that can bring the numinous down so it can circulate in the culture, how does that work?” And he said, “Through people; through individuals.”
     It was very simple – at least, in principle. If a person can become a vessel for this fine energy, then it just comes out through his or her being, into the culture.

JN:   This is obvious now to us; this is obvious. If you come to the point, which varies a lot, where people are needing you to work—even if they don’t know exactly what it is they need, but if they need you to work—that coming-down is much more likely.
     It’s an interesting thing, because in one way, if we’re there for people, then that calls down the numinous. If it’s needed for me to work, I will be given what I need. It happens too often to just brush it aside. The question is, do we have the—I don’t know what it’s called—the courage.
     It’s a kind of courage to realize that my work is needed - to really feel that it’s needed, not just as an egoistic attribution of who I am, but to these 3 people, 4 people, these 10,000 people, 10 million people. I don’t know how some of the great saints felt this, but if even one person needs my work, if I stay in touch with that feeling that my work is needed, it’s much more likely to appear. There’s something of real truth in that, I think.
     The first person in the group who spoke last night, you must have felt you needed to work. That question wasn’t so obvious, don’t you agree with this?

RW:   Well, I do. I mean, this thing just sort of opened up in me.

JN:   So, it’s important. This is all about hope. The world without this, the world will die. Life will go down.

RW:   Gurdjieff makes this distinction about hope and ordinary hope, as you spoke of earlier. He says that hope, faith, and love are sacred impulses, but have been replaced by degraded versions in contemporary life. As you put it earlier, hope is always getting directed towards acquiring these external things believing they will take us somewhere real and lasting.

JN:   That is it.

RW:   Didn’t Gurdjieff write that the impulses of hope, love, and faith were given to us as a means of leading us toward the transformation of being that could serve a higher purpose somehow?

JN:   Yes, to serve His Endlessness.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. Jacob Needleman was a well known philosopher, author and religious scholar. He passed away in November of 2022.      


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