Politics and Peace: A Spiritual Conversation with Marianne Williamson (complete interview)

I’ve interviewed Marianne Williamson three times, and she is electric: smart, fast, passionate, insightful, eloquent.

In some ways, Marianne is the most frustrating person I’ve ever interviewed, because each time I’m blown away and end up wondering how she isn’t the best-known teacher of our time. And then I really think about the question and its answer a lot. I have only heard her speak live to an audience once, and the same thing happened.

Oh, what the heck, here’s my theory: Marianne is a little, or a lot, smarter than most of us. Her insights occur on that level of intelligence and, maybe especially, on a wordless level. So, she’s translating for us, and I think with that translation, although her words reflect those deeper truths, they still feel a little less authentic for the translation.

I suppose I think that when speaking live or doing interviews, like this one, the higher voice and vision cut through a little more in the moment than they do in products necessarily designed and edited for you and me. Nonetheless, regardless of mechanism, these interviews, like Marianne’s books and seminars — everything she does — are incredible blessings. She has taught me, as well as millions of others, so much for which to be grateful.

This interview from 2007 is the middle one we did. To some extent it was overlooked in later excerpts I posted. I run it here online for the first time in its entirety.

Here’s my original introduction to the piece, which ran in Pure Inspiration magazine. No need to update it significantly, save to say that Marianne continues to do essential work around the world. And also to note that she had the courage and vision of leadership to run for Congress, fighting to engage her deeper knowings into practice in a real-world way that was and is a testament to everything she represents: real-life spirituality. ~ Ray


marianne williamson pic for blogFor more than two decades, Marianne Williamson has been one of America’s leading spiritual lights. Although she always has been politically aware and engaged, perhaps now more than ever Williamson is shining her light on the intersection between politics and spirituality — between political movements and movements of the soul.

Williamson’s spiritual approach never was the “pie in the sky” variety. Her public work was grounded in the struggles, choices, and consequences of people’s lives, including her own.

In 1989 Williamson founded Project Angel Food (www.angelfood.org), a Los Angeles meals-on-wheels program serving people affected by AIDS and other serious illnesses. The organization has delivered more than 9 million meals and feeds more than 1,000 people daily.

Williamson also founded the Global Renaissance Alliance, now called The Peace Alliance (www.thepeacealliance.org). This organization’s mission is simply to create a more peaceful world. The group campaigns for the creation of a Department of Peace within the United States government to promote nonviolent conflict resolution, teaching peace within schools, and much more.

Most famously, of course, Williamson is known for her 11 books, including four No. 1 The New York Times bestsellers, on topics spiritual, political, and invariably deeply personal.

In our talk, Williamson spoke extensively about the critical importance of individual and societal maturation at a time when nuclear weapons are in many and untold hands. Learn more about this smart, introspective spiritual teacher and activist at www.marianne.com.

Ray Hemachandra: Why is peace such an important goal for you, Marianne?

Marianne Williamson: The number of nuclear bombs on the planet today — the sheer quantity of weapons of mass destruction in the possession of people and governments throughout the world — along with the fact that the use of brute force and militarism is an almost knee-jerk way of problem-solving on the planet today, makes the eradication of war the great moral issue of this generation.

The level of violence on the planet today is no longer sustainable.

In previous ages — and this was true even during our lifetimes — violence here or there did not add up to a threat to the survival of our species itself. That is where we are now, however.

Ray: Are there times when moral imperatives call for war? Must certain evils — evils that peace may not correct — be confronted militarily?

I would not suggest nation-states have shown themselves adept at identifying or acting upon such evils, or that such identifications don’t have a largely subjective component. Obviously they do. But if the nation-state is ever to be engaged in questions of right and wrong, sometimes war may be necessary to fight for what is right and just. Think Nazi Germany certainly. Think Darfur possibly.

Marianne: I don’t disagree with that, Ray.

Ray: So, are there fights worth fighting? What are the proper uses of war, and how can a peace movement account for them?

Marianne: Every person has to decide the answer to the first question for himself. I personally am not a total pacifist. I do believe there is such a thing as a just war. I believe, for instance, the effort to destroy the Nazi regime militarily was justified military action.

I think the vast majority of Americans would have supported military action to stop the second plane from hitting the World Trade Center, if that had been possible. I would have been among them.

So, are there proper uses of war? The answer comes from every person’s conscience.

But I know this: Albert Einstein said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

I think the question at this point is beyond whether or not war is ever justified. I think we must face a larger moral question now: Is the continuance of war on Earth, given the current state of technology used to perpetrate it, survivable? Is war itself survivable in the long-term for the human race?

These are spiritual questions as much as political ones, because something happens inside human consciousness when we consider the possibility there might be another way. Given how deeply the ways of war have penetrated our collective consciousness, it will take spiritual power to turn the issue around.

The human race is almost addicted to war. It’s like we just can’t stop. Yet we rarely confront the larger issue. We know on some level things can’t continue the way they are forever. Generation after generation can’t just be loaded with more and more nuclear weapons and not ultimately dance to that music.

But unless you believe in a transcendent force from which all hope stems, how do you summon up the real faith that we can turn this around?

The reason we don’t often confront the larger question of whether or not war is survivable is because of a failure of imagination. We honestly cannot imagine having reached a state in our own evolution in which we do not fight.

Instead, we stay within the conversation in which war is a given, asking only about a particular war’s moral justification.

Decades ago, perhaps we had the luxury of that limited conversation. But today we do not. We must carry the conversation further.

The issue isn’t whether military action might be morally defensible or philosophically justifiable. So what if it is?

If military action begets a nuclear confrontation, then in what sense can it possibly be morally justifiable, given that the action could lead to the destruction of a majority of the human race?

Ray: Marianne, are the problems and turmoil on the national and world stages being mirrored in people’s inner beings — in their souls?

People seem to be confused and uncertain. At a time when the world is in chaos, is it possible to remain peaceful? And is it even desirable — or does being peaceful disconnect you from what’s happening out there in the world?

Marianne: Some people say it’s a holographic universe: Each piece contains the whole. You can see evidence of this phenomenon now. People are wrestling with their own microcosms of the larger spiritual battlefield.

Individuals seem to have reached their walls and so has the entire human race. Whatever isn’t working, isn’t life-producing, isn’t producing love for ourselves or others, is going to have to go now. Or, literally, there will be hell to pay.

The forces of darkness are intensifying. But so is the light.

The only antidote to chaos is peace itself.

The goal of the spiritual activist is to find inner peace even in externally chaotic circumstances. And that’s how we ultimately transform chaos: by reaching a level of consciousness in which whatever ideas we need, whatever guidance we seek, will emerge to illumine the way.

I think the violence in the world right now is being reflected inside people. And I also believe the violence inside people is being reflected in the world.

From a pure metaphysical perspective, there is no world outside ourselves. So, at the deepest level, the state of the planet is more a reflection of the consciousness of mankind than the consciousness of mankind is a reflection of world events.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say every problem comes bearing its own solution. The evolution of personal consciousness necessary to find peace internally even in the midst of war is the same state of consciousness that actually will bring about the end to war.

Humanity’s mission is to find a peace that lies beyond the veil — a peace that is not of this world. The peace that is not of this world is not dependent on human circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we ignore human circumstances. There is a difference between transcendence and denial.

Genuine transcendence doesn’t just look away from human suffering and say, “I am at peace, so I’m at the mountaintop.” Genuine transcendence looks human suffering in the eye and attains peace because of a faith in things unseen.

Imbued with that faith, you do not look away from the darkness — you look through it to a light beyond. The Bible says, “Blessed are those who have faith who cannot see.” You don’t see the light, but you know it’s there — just as an airplane pilot, when the visibility is poor, can’t see the horizon but still knows the Earth is down there.

That power to be at peace — not because of anything your physical senses perceive, and sometimes in spite of what your physical senses perceive — is the power to help heal this world miraculously.

Ray: The societal conversation is very angry. Can individuals full of rancor and anger be successful advocates for peace?

Marianne: I don’t see as much anger as I did even two years ago, or at least it’s a different kind of anger. A lot of the anger has turned into sadness now.

I think there is a mature, sad, reflective, and scared quiet at the center of the American mind today. A new emotional sobriety is in the air. Don’t expect to see it on TV, necessarily, but it’s there.

The question you asked was whether people filled with rancor and anger can create peace. That’s an essential question. Gandhi said the end is inherent in the means, which means you cannot create any more peace than you yourself have attained. An angry generation will not bring peace.

Many of us realize this now — it’s a realization that comes more easily as you get older. You get to the point where you realize that unless you, yourself, become more of the change, you can’t create too much change.

The next step is to go inside and expand your own internal capacity for peace, so you can be a greater bringer of peace to the external world.

If you say you live in peace, but you can’t even be nice when your mother calls, you have work to do. Meditation, prayer, and forgiveness are as important as political activism.

Ray: Would you describe the modern day as a time of hope or fear?

Marianne: If a person is fearful, it is a fearful time. If a person is hopeful, it’s a hopeful time. If you look at world events one way, fear is reasonable. If you look at the world another way, hope is justified. I’ll tell you this, though: If you think humanity can get itself out of all this mess without divine help, then you’re not being hopeful — you’re hallucinating.

I have hope, because I believe in miracles. I believe in radical changes of heart. I believe the universe presents more options to a more loving mind. To me, hope is a moral imperative. I have hope and faith in forces unseen.

I believe there is an evolutionary impulse toward good that is etched on every human heart. It is placed there by the hand of God. I believe, as Carl Jung said, our drive toward balance is inexorable. Spiritually, we are yearning to go home. I believe the human race is ready to make a quantum leap forward spiritually and morally.

I see the universe as naturally and infinitely self-correcting. The problem, as I see it, is that the governmental and economic structures of the world in many ways block that impulse.

But we don’t need to fight the forces of chaos so much as we need to restore and revitalize the forces of peace. We need to claim our power to turn the world around.

And what we need more than anything else is greater conviction.

People who hate often do so with great conviction. What we need are more people who love with conviction.

Montbatten said to Gandhi, “Little old man, do you think we’re going to just give you India?” And Gandhi said, “Yes.”

Gandhi responded in this way not because he felt he could amass enough military power to beat back the English. He had no military power at all. But he knew he didn’t need it. He was relying not on brute force but on soul force.

It’s soul force that removed the English from India. It’s soul force that brought down the Berlin Wall. It’s soul force that gave life to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for civil rights.

The soul force we need in America today, more than any other, is the spirit of atonement. We need to humble ourselves before God and ask forgiveness for the things we have done wrong. We need to ask God to forgive us for our arrogance. We need to ask God’s forgiveness for our selfishness, our greed, and, at times — such as in Iraq — our imperialistic ways.

America is a great country, and we’ve done a lot of good in the world. But we are a collection of people, not saints. We have our own sins to atone for. And we need to face the shame and even horror of this realization — that would be soul force. The entire world would feel the vibration if America returned to its heart.

Higher thought forms trump lower ones. In the presence of a high frequency of human consciousness, all lower thought forms ultimately drop of their own dead weight. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “No lie will last forever.” We have to work at removing lies from our own hearts. And on the national level, we do this not because we blame our country, but because we love it.

Ray: Do you think we’re there? Do you think the American people are maturing, politically and spiritually?

Marianne: No one has a simple answer to the problems that confront us as a country and as a species. Clearly, there are no silver bullets. But as the poet Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet, when things are very difficult and you don’t have an answer, you must live the question. I think we are beginning to do that. From deeper questioning comes deeper answers, and I think that’s where we are now.

It’s difficult to be alive in America today and truly be in denial anymore. It’s not hip to be unconscious or uninvolved. One of our great strengths is that we’re an optimistic people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have sad days. This period of time is in many ways sad. Our heart has been pierced — first by 9/11 and then by a disastrous war.

When the heart is pierced, there is pain, yes, but also an invitation to a greater becoming. You don’t want to try to protect yourself from the pain of a crisis. You want to learn everything you can from it.

My hope is our political leadership ultimately will have enough faith in the American people to speak to our depth, our capacity for reflection. A greater spiritual depth is just beneath the surface in this country, but someone needs to speak to it for its potential to be realized.

Ray: Do you hear anyone trying to start that conversation and reach that depth?

Marianne: People are trying. I think you and I are doing it right now, Ray.

By the time something reaches the cover of Time magazine, it’s old news anyway. Our most meaningful conversations go on late at night when we’re on the phone with our friends or talking to our lovers. Sometimes we think, “We’re the only people who see it this way,” but that’s really not the case.

Ray: Are there particular thinkers and leaders you recognize as moving humanity toward a brighter future? Is someone like Dr. King out there who can awaken our better angels, or do you instead find the true leadership in this groundswell we seem to be experiencing?

Marianne: I think we all need to be looking to the better angels of our own selves right now. We don’t need to be looking for great people so much as becoming great people.

What we need is a revolution of values.

There is a dichotomy between people who feel economic principles should order human civilization and people who believe humanitarian principles should order human civilization. That essential disagreement is underlying practically all our world drama today.

We need love — an awesome love grounded in the evolutionary potential for life on Earth — to become the organizing principle for human society.

Anyone who is speaking of a greater compassion, a greater humanitarian concern, is a leader paving the path we all need to follow.

Ray: What does your spiritual practice look like these days, Marianne?

Marianne: I am a student of A Course in Miracles, which I believe is a profound, mystical path, and I have a Transcendental Meditation mantra. While I try to do a workbook exercise in A Course in Miracles every day, I often combine that with Transcendental Meditation.

More and more, I can see the real spiritual path is the effort to practice the principles I already know. I am a student of universal spiritual principles, and I read theology and spiritual writings, so my grasp of basic spiritual principles is fairly good.

But I realize that the curriculum is my life on any given day. At this point, more than anything, my spiritual path means looking at every circumstance and trying to see my part in where it’s good and where it’s not so good.

There is a lot to look at when you are serious about transformation. You look at everything you’ve ever done, every circumstance you’ve ever been in, cleaning up everything in your past. Reconciling, forgiving others, forgiving yourself. It’s a lot of work, actually.

Showing up in the present. Watching your motivation. Watching your intention. Watching your thoughts. Loving well. (Laughs.) I mean, it’s a full-time job, right?

Ray: Yes, it really is. Would you say you mostly are learning through joy or pain now, Marianne, and how do you think most people learn?

Marianne: A Course in Miracles says the Holy Spirit has a highly individualized curriculum for every human being. So, I can’t say what most people are doing. I can only say what I am doing.

If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s probably true I have learned more in my life through pain than through joy. But hopefully that’s changing.

I think ultimately the point is not how we learn but that we learn. You can learn a lesson the first time, when it’s presented in a package that is joyous — or at least palatable. (Laughs.) But if you don’t learn the lesson the first time, then there will be a second time and a third time. And each time it will just get harder and harder.

That’s true for individuals, and it’s true for nations.

Ray: Have you found middle age liberating? Is middle age — the turning of the corner of our lives — the time we best can understand the idea of infinite possibility and transcending the worldly limits we’ve been taught and that we’ve taught ourselves?

Marianne: I think you have to grieve the loss of youth before you can claim the joy on the other side of it.

I’ve written a book about midlife, The Age of Miracles. One day while I was writing, I had what felt like a transcendent experience. I felt delivered to a luminescent space, which I knew was age at its best. And it was good, let me tell you!

Sometimes you are lifted up to the mountaintop as a gift from the universe, so you can see what is possible. Then you are put down back at the bottom: Now you have to earn it for yourself.

But I did have that moment, and I do know middle age can bring greater depth, greater wisdom, greater capacity for love, greater capacity for relationship, greater consciousness and desire to serve and awareness of the fate of mankind — all these wonderful things, yes. And I know I’m getting there.

It just takes time. A Course in Miracles says enlightenment begins as an abstract concept, and then it makes its journey without distance from the head to the heart.

At midlife, you’re pregnant with the best self you can be — someone who has learned enough from both successes and failures to add up to a fine human being.

You can’t rush the process. The gestation takes time.

Ray: How do you think the challenges of midlife today differ from the challenges people, and especially women, faced decades ago?

Marianne: We are living in such a blessed time in terms of the opportunities available to us. In her book The Longevity Factor, Lydia Bronte said we have added 15 years to our lives, but not at the end. We have put them in the middle.

I do believe 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50. Hell, maybe 60 can be the new 40, I don’t know. I believe that when we give ourselves permission, we can live with an excitement and heat and passion that most women in previous generations were unable to attain.

We’re back to being pioneers. We’re traversing new ground. So, while we are forging new paths, we are pretty much figuring them out as we go.

Ray: Is the United States having its own midlife crisis — a crisis of uncertainty and self-doubt, of lack of purpose and confusion? What are your prescriptions for regaining our footing? Can the country find an impassioned rebirth?

Marianne: I don’t believe the United States is going through a midlife crisis. The United States is going through an adolescent crisis.

We are not becoming an elder. Perhaps, in developmental terms, we finally are becoming a mature adult.

For far too long we were the pugnacious, precocious, brilliant child, which turned, in some ways, into an obnoxious teen. At a certain point, if the teen is obnoxious enough, other people finally turn away: “We’ve had it with you!”

The teenager begins to realize he or she really does want to be part of a community, really does want to have good relationships with others, really does want to create something truly good with his or her life. The teenager comes to understand just being smart and just being privileged are not enough. And that’s where we are as a country.

Ray: You have been an actor on the public stage for decades with your books, your speaking engagements, and your work with Project Angel Food and the Peace Alliance. Why are you doing an XM radio show for Oprah and Friends? What do you hope to accomplish or create with this work, and what is the conversation you are trying to have?

Marianne: I’ve always wanted to have a radio show. It has been a dream of mine for a long time. With a radio show I can sit in a studio, or ultimately even sit in my own living room, and talk to hundreds of thousands of people. How cool is that? So, when this extraordinary opportunity to reach out to a larger audience was given to me, I was very grateful.

I’ve interviewed Oprah on my show about her work in Africa. I’ve interviewed Al Gore. What I am trying to do is create a program that mines the story behind the story — the deeper, emotional, archetypal stories behind actors and events on the world stage.

The other day I interviewed three Vietnam veterans who served as Marines. One of them is now a Native American shaman; one is a student at a religious seminary; and one is a poet and an advocate for people who have post-traumatic stress syndrome. I had those veterans on my program so they could discuss their views of the Iraq war.

Talking to veterans, I don’t just want to talk about statistics. Who are these people? What are they doing now? How do they feel? What was it like to be in combat? What was it like to kill somebody? Do you forget that? Do you remember that?

What does it do to your soul?

Ray: Marianne, what overarching goals do you have for your work now? And what’s next?

Marianne: I have lived enough to know great things will unfold for me externally only if I allow them to unfold for me internally.

So, I take very seriously this notion that my highest job is to live a better life, all the time and to the best of my ability. I need to monitor my own progress — take my own inventory — and clean my own closet. I am trying to do all that.

I am trying to be in that alchemical soup of human transformation right now. I am trying to process, reconcile, forgive, let go, and grieve, when necessary, the past 54 years.

Hopefully, I will emerge more shining. If I have that good fortune, if I am blessed in that way — and I do feel I am in the middle of the blessing — then I have faith my service will be greater.

What that will look like, I have no idea. But I think part of our innocence is leaving that part up to God.

[All rights reserved. — Ray Hemachandra]


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