Marianne Williamson is a world-renowned spiritual teacher and bestselling author (Return to Love). She’s also an activist and former congressional candidate.
The thread in her career is one of spiritual transformation and political activism, but when Marianne began speaking and writing on those topics, a professional path wasn't really visible.
In this episode, we hear about how Marianne carved her own career path, and talk about what happens when we look at the history of American politics through a global, spiritual lens.
Marianne: This career niche didn't exist when I began my career, so I didn't think of it as a career. When I was growing up, you could be a clergy, you know, organized religion or you could be an academic – you could be a teacher of comparative religion, let's say. Those were the only two niches, there weren't people like you use the phrase ‘spiritual teacher’, whatever this career niche is today.
So, when I started lecturing on A Course in Miracles, I didn't think of it as a career because there was no reason to believe that it could be, it was just something I loved doing and that what’s turned out to be the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to me because I was kind of pure by default, there was nothing to be ambitious for.
Jeff: So, you grew up in Houston and you didn't really take the normal family vacations to Disneyland as a child.
Marianne: My parents were world travelers, so for instance, I went to Saigon in 1965 because my father wanted us to see what war was. We went to countries behind the Iron Curtain including Russia and countries in Eastern Europe and people used to ask my parents, “Why are you doing this, they won’t even remember, why are you taking these kids all these places?” and my father's stock answer was “It will get under their skin,” and he was absolutely right. I'm a different person than I would have been had I not experienced, at a very early age, that people are the same everywhere, there was so much propaganda I was just not vulnerable to because as a child I knew otherwise.
Jeff: So, it seems from a very early age, you were curious, you were worldly and interested in religion and philosophy and consciousness and then when you were in your 20's, you read a spiritual book that changed your life and that was A Course in Miracles.
Jeff: Since it came out in 1976, A Course in Miracles has been called everything from "The New Age Bible” to "New Age psychobabble" to "a Satanic seduction." The 1,300 page book contains curriculum for helping readers achieving spiritual transformation, with the main focus being to gain a full "awareness of love's presence" in one’s life.
Throughout the 1980s sales of the book steadily increased, but the largest growth in sales (by far) occurred in 1992 after Marianne discussed the book on The Oprah Winfrey Show, resulting in more than two million volumes sold.
Marianne: The image I had when I started the Course in Miracles was that there was this big cathedral and this huge flight of stairs in front of the cathedral and I had spent years climbing up those stairs and even on my knees and my knees my elbows were bloodied. I was trying so hard to open that door but every time I tried to open it, it was locked. And then, when I read the Course in Miracles, I was like, “Now I can unlock the door” because it wasn't until I read the Course that I understood the key is the other person, the person in front of you.
Jeff: Do you think though that, so A Course in Miracles, it seemed to crystallize in a modern sense the notion that God is the love within us and I think that there has been potentially sort of a perversion of institutionalized religion, perhaps, that has reinforced this notion that we can somehow are separate from God, that we created it, he didn't create us.
Marianne: Exactly. And that the love of God is not just something that is, it's something that must be participated with, that the love of God must be co-created with; I can believe in love but if I don't extend love, if I don't think with love, then the fact that I “believe” in love doesn't create anything that’s genuinely operational. The Course in Miracles has the belief in God is itself rather meaningless, it is the experience of God and the experience of God that matters is the experience of my love and forgiveness of the person I'm thinking about or standing in front of and it can't just be good intentions.
You know, one of the things that I love in the course is it says “Your good intentions are not enough, your willingness is everything.” To really do the constant work, which is inner work, mental work: "Where am I judging, where can I release that?; Where am I living in the past, where can I release that?; Where am I living in the future, where can I release that?; Where am I blaming, where can I release that?; Where am I playing victim, where can release that?; Where am I not being that which is the love within me?"
And there's a line in the course where it says, “You achieve so little because you have an undisciplined mind”, and ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’ come from the same word. So, discipleship is mental discipline not to indulge to the conscious choice, not that we are enlightened masters but that we can certainly become aware enough to know, “Marianne that is an unloving thought.” “Marianne, that is a judgmental thought.” “Marianne, that is a controlling thought.” “Marianne, that is a…” whatever, and you know that you can surrender it and there is a place to put it and to say “I'm willing to see this situation differently”, that's the Course in Miracles. It is the willingness to see a situation differently so that your mind can shift from a perception of fear, which is lovelessness, to love, which is the miracle.
Jeff: A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles was Marianne’s first book. It quickly became a New York Times Best seller, and has been credited as being hugely influential in helping bring New Age perspectives to the American mainstream.
So, your first book is called, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, and it was published in 1992 and after that book came out, your big break came; Oprah called. She had read A Return to Love and bought 1,000 copies and you went on Oprah Winfrey Show and your book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. But you never saw A Course in Miracles and A Return to Love as only a search, a quest confined to the individual, you saw a nation in search of its original nature, its infinite soul; that we needed to find that also as a country.
Marianne: When I first started my work on A Course in Miracles, my father was a little bit like “What happened to you? I raised you the ways of the revolution, what happened to you?” And I remember explaining to him that I thought love was the most radical revolution. He said, “I have raised you to fight the system”, I said, “The best way to fight the system, dad, is to dismantle the system. I realized it's just fear and that this will pave the way to a better world”.
And my father agreed, I never lost that fervor but I was raised at a time, you know, I remember the day Bobby Kennedy died, I remember working for Eugene McCarthy, I remember going to anti-war rallies. So, that was always a part of who I was and I never, you know, during the 60's and early in the 70's, there wasn't this disconnect between politics and spirituality that has developed over the last few decades, which you know I feel very strongly about, it was you did Rahm Dawson and the itching in the morning and you went to an anti-war rally in the afternoon.
You know, some young man said to me at one of my lectures a few years ago, “Well, you know, Ms. Williamson, really, I mean, you’re just kind of an ex-hippie and you guys are just sex, drugs and rock and roll really” and I remember saying, “Excuse me, that was just part of the day?” I said, “The rest of the day, we stopped a war, what have you done, young man? Thank you."
Jeff: And where we scarred as a nation, I mean, did we get scared, because the politics of love got shot?
Marianne: So, when I was young and you had Bobby Kennedy and you had Martin Luther King and you had Eugene McCarthy and you had even J.F.K. who then I was 11 when he died. So, we had people who are in our midst, they weren't fictional characters and they were political leaders and they held aloft our great philosophical ideals. What happened, however, is that they were literally literally shot and killed in front of our eyes. And we all psychically took those bullets because there was a very loud unspoken message there and that message was ‘there will be no further protest.
You will go home, you will do whatever you want in the private sector but you will leave the public sector alone, you will leave it to whoever wants to control it so bad that they are willing to kill’. And then they killed the kids at Kent State, that was it, ‘message received’. And so, I always jokingly say that those who stayed with traditional politics took the East Coast, those who stayed with the idea of spirituality took the West Coast and now it's all coming back around to the weaving. But once again, I grew up in a generation where they were never disconnected.
Jeff: Well, I didn't know that you're going to bring up Bobby Kennedy but there's a quote that I pulled from him that I just love and I just want to read it really quickly, “for too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
Marianne: And his brother, of course, President Kennedy, said, “we cannot afford to be materially rich but spiritually poor”. And Bobby Kennedy, when talking about the Vietnam War, he said, “this is a war for the soul of America.” I think of myself as a Bobby Kennedy Democrat and I also feel, when it comes to Bobby Kennedy and when it comes to the assassination of Martin Luther King, normally, when someone you love dies, every year it's a little more peaceful, a little less tortured. I find with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, every year it hurts more because everything we feared would happen when they died has happened.
Jeff: So, when you talk about the politics of love and in a way by doing that, you are trying to address kind of the highest level of our human condition. There are neither symptoms – you know, there's racism and homophobia – and these things that in some ways were asymptomatic a little bit until a couple years ago, right? They’re like cancer that got oxygen and glucose and now, we can address those symptoms. But I think you were trying to raise the discussion up to a place that can unite us the same way that the New Deal did or the Great Society or the New Frontier; these things that somehow got us to recognize our common humanity and our common destiny, right?
Marianne: Most of our political conversation in America, today, is like trying to water the leaves and we need to water the roots of our democracy and we water the roots of our democracy by revisiting what I found is called ‘first principles’. And when you talk about ‘human possibility’, that's really what American democracy stands for. The founding of our country was the repudiation of a system of entitlement for king-queen and aristocracy.
The founding of this country turned that entire paradigm on its ear; the idea that all men are created equal, all men are given by God inalienable rights of life and of liberty, of the pursuit of happiness, that it's the role of government to secure those rights, to broker individual liberty and the balance between that and a care for the common good, these are very very enlightened principles. But from our very beginning, the entire narrative of America's political journey has been that from the beginning there in our DNA has been the struggle between those principles and our often times failure to live them.
You have on one hand, the amazing principles imbued in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution and on the other hand, 41 signers of the Declaration were themselves slave owners. So, from the beginning, even to this day, it's this constant tension and struggle between those whose hearts are ablaze with these principles, what they mean not just politically but spiritually in terms of the possibility of creating a social and political structure where self-actualization of the individual is not limited by material circumstances, that's the dream here.
Many Americans, today, they want to relate to their tribe and relate to their identity but don't want to relate to the American part because there's a lot of ambivalence and the ambivalence is because of a lot of a deeper historical understanding that, it's not a matter of being a hypocritical country, it's a matter of a country that’s still in process.
Yes, we had slavery but we also had abolition. Yes, women were denied any right of ownership, financial or otherwise or property, plus denied suffrage. Yeah, that's true but then we also had the women's suffrage movement, then we had institutionalized white supremacy and segregation in the American south but then we also had the civil rights movement. We had gay people denied rights, denied marriage but then we had gay rights and marriage equality.
So, I think it's so important, these days, obviously, to identify the problems in our history and in our present but to identify with the problem solvers and that's what too many people in America don't realize today. This is not the first generation to have to deal with this pushback against democracy, let's just not be the first generation to wimp out of doing what it takes to get this country back on track.
The irony, the tragic and profound irony of the United States, on one hand, these people many of them were slave owners – not all of them by the way, I think that's important to remember – but they did actually imbue our founding documents with the very tools with which people can better their lives. And the fact that even, today, where people are not finding it, it’s not something to bitch and moan and whine about or be cynical about, which is just an excuse for not helping, it's something for us to realize it’s our responsibility as it is the responsibility of every generation to keep the process moving in the right direction. Winston Churchill said or is said to have said, “that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they have exhausted every other option”. Our historical tendency is to self-correct.
Jeff: So, how then do we find that love inspired rebellion?
Marianne: People talk about the divine feminine, there's the divine masculine too. And the divine feminine receives and nurtures and nourishes and there is something profoundly divinely masculine about ‘I'm not going to take this shit and moving on to the next thing’, that's what this country was born of, other like I said, not to have your Native American not true of your descended from slaves, everybody else came here from some impulse within themselves, ‘I can do better’.
You know, in the Jewish religion, in the Talmud, it says that, “over every blade of grass, there is an angel whispering ‘grow, grow, grow”. So, America is born, that's what the whole notion is, that it shouldn't be just the aristocrats, it shouldn't be just the king and queen, other people should be able to own land, other people should be able to get educated, other people should be able to own property, other people should be able to own wealth, other people should have the possibility of creating wealth, other people should be able to pass these things on to their children, it's an impulse of breaking free and breaking out and that is the struggle at the heart of every generation of Americans.
You know, sometimes the fact that you are upset about something is a sign of mental health not the absence of mental health. So, the fact that we're all upset, the fact that we're all agitated, the fact that we're all experiencing what Paul Hawken calls "blessed unrest," the fact that young people are out on the streets, the fact that we're marching, this means we're Americans, this means we're America, this is in our DNA.
Jeff: What did you say, moral outrage does not necessarily come from anger, right?
Marianne: Listen, in the New Testament, Jesus kicked over the tables of the money changers. Some people go, “well, how could he?” Well, no Jew or Italian has a problem with that sin, you know. What some people in the higher consciousness community call ‘being…’ what, I don't understand. You know, the spiritual life is not without personality, patriotism is not without personality.
Jeff: OK. So, how now do we take this generation of people that you've helped to self-actualize and get them on the streets making change?
Marianne: Well, in case you haven't noticed, it's already happening. Look at Parkland, look at the women's march. You know, I think of America today as, in a moment, it's one of those ‘wait, what?’ moments. You know, I think that the election of Trump, what an awakening it has been and at first, it was like a giant who’s like kicked in the gut, knocked over, stumbling stars in front of your eyes and now, I don’t think… first of all, I never thought I had to get anybody to do anything, I've never tried to get a message out, I'm always just trying to get a message in, but I think it's happening. And I think anybody who's listening right now and this podcast resonates with them, by definition, it's already happening. Even if it's not happening yet in their behavior, it's happening within them, in their mind and their heart and once it gets to a critical mass in your thinking and in feeling, behavior occurs automatically.