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Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Part 1 – Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness

Donna Quesada: Hello and welcome to Awaken.


Stephen Mitchell: Hello, hello. Happy Halloween.

DONNA: Happy Halloween to you, too. And I want to say what a pleasure it is to finally meet you. We had the pleasure of interviewing your beautiful wife, Byron Katie, who Im just in love with.

STEPHEN: Everybody should be.

DONNA: Yes, and Im one of the many. But your work is… You know, when I was preparing for this interview and coming across all your books and works… its truly astounding how many works you have in your name. Unique books and translations. I cant even list them all.

STEPHEN: Well, Ive been having fun with it.

DONNA: And your wife, Byron Katie, said something very cute. She said that all of the characters youve worked with have become “intimate friends.” The books and the projects… they are like friends. Best friends.

STEPHEN: Well, she sometimes refers to my dead friends… the Zen Masters, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc. People that Ive spent a lot of time with. The motivation to do a book is when I fall in love with a consciousness, which I tend to do quite often. And its like serial monogamy. Falling in love with one and then falling in love with another. So, its like that.

DONNA: I love that. And theres so much I want to ask you because we have a similar background. I too, started my journey in the Zen tradition. I have to keep myself under reigns here because there is a special way that we like to start these interviews. And that is with the question of what it means to awaken. If you wouldnt mind, I would like to get your fresh input on the question. What does it mean to awaken?

STEPHEN: What it means is to have an understanding that allows you to live a life without problems. Life without anger or sadness… depression. Any form of suffering. And what that feels like. What that looks like. Its not that you dont ever feel those emotions. Maybe momentary upset. And then your understanding meets that upset and the upset unravels. Immediately or very quickly and you go on with your life. And its a very peaceful and happy way of living. So, its the understanding that provides the vehicle for that kind of happy life. And the deeper your understanding, the broader your understanding… the more stable this way of living becomes.

DONNA: Have you met anyone who can truly live this way? By having that kind of relationship to suffering?

STEPHEN: Well, Im married to one, for starters. And that was a big eye-opening experience for me. Meeting her and getting to know her. When I was within the framework of intensive Zen practice, which took me seven years in a formal sense… seven years of total immersion in Zen meditation, and then another 20 years of less formal, but equally intense meditation practice.

When I was wholly in that tradition, the way I thought enlightenment looked among the great masters was this: That they would feel sorrow or anger or one of those negative emotions and then let it be there. Let it come when it wanted to come and then let it go when I want it to go. And there was kind of a serenity in that openness… in that willingness to experience anything and let it go. And thats how I thought they were beyond anger and sorrow.

What I learned when I met Katie was that there is still another stage of this. Given the amazing life changing fact that it is only your thoughts that can make you upset or angry or sad… Reality cant do that. Thoughts about what we experience do that. So, given that understanding, when you have questioned the thoughts that upset you to such a point that either they dont arise…Or, when they do arise, that they are immediately met by the questioning mind. The words that Katie gives to the first of her questions is: Is it true?

But eventually, when you are questioning this kind of inquiry, the question becomes pure questioning, as it does in Zen at a certain point. When you question that thought that does have the power to upset you, it immediately unravels. Thats what I have seen in her, so there is noeven if it does arise, and rarely it does, so there is no experience of feeling that sorrow or anger. The letting go doesnt even happen. The questioning happens at a stage before that. So, this way of living is something that I have seen in her and Ive been incredibly inspired by. And I live that way mostly, myself. I sometimes get sidetracked into short-lived upset. But its very short-lived. If its not over in a few moments, it is in a few hours.

DONNA: I forget which Zen Master said “Of course I have troubles, its just no problem.

STEPHEN: Thats a way of saying that.

DONNA: So, its not controlling the circumstance, it’s our reaction to the circumstances. And so, what starts to happen, if Im understanding you correctly, is that we fall but we are able to get back up more quickly, or get into a place where we dont take our thoughts so seriously for so long.

STEPHEN: Yeah. Thats the beginning of it. And it becomes much more radical at a later stage. What I see in Katie, for example. That thought… either it doesnt arise or it arises and immediately the questioning envelopes it, like white corpuscles enveloping a disease. And then its gone. Its instantaneous. Ive never seen her hold on to anything, so when you are living this way… with a question in mind, your heart is always open. Always. Ive never seen anything different in her and its a beautiful way to live. And wonderful for the people around you, too. So, I take that Zen Master’s statement and double it our triple it or quadruple it. It happens quicker than that.

DONNA: And yet, we think we have to spend 30 years in a cave to achieve that and along comes someone like Byron Katie, whos so special and unique and had an experience that gave her this kind of self-awareness.

STEPHEN: Yes. It was instantaneous for her. Its a very unusual kind of experience. I know nothing in the 20th century, except for Ramana Maharshi, that has transformed someone… either an ordinary school boy, or in Katies case, a miserable human being to a person who is experiencing nothing but peace and joy. With Katie, people hear the story of instantaneous transformation and forget. And then in a year, or several years after her experience, she was writing out worksheets. Judge your neighbor work sheets. And questioning the thoughts on those work sheets for a year or for two years. The time frame isnt quite clear. But every day, 10 hours… 20 hours… there was that intense questioning going on. These residual thoughts that remained in her body that she totally hadnt worked through.

It was work. It was The Work and it wasnt a question of something being handed to her on a golden platter. What happens with these enlightenment experiences, which can often be quite powerful… are that people will have them. They are gifts. They are free gifts. They will be in a state of bliss for days, or weeks, or sometimes even months. And then it dissipates. It has to. What Katie calls the underworld, which is the world of unexamined assumptions will take over. And then, they will get into a state where they think they have lost it and be extremely anxious, or sad, and be in a state of longing, trying to get it back. Even the great Christian mystics have been in this state most of the time.

So, its a duel state of achievement and bliss and then longing for that experience. Thats not true of her and its certainly not true of me. The longing disappears in the fulfillment. And what happened with her is, she had a structure of the work consisting of four questions. A structure that could hold the experience of bliss. That never disappeared, unlike the usual enlightenment experience. The self-inquiry, which was ongoing, held the great peace and joy that she initially experienced. So that was Katies work. The work of self-inquiry that Byron Katie provides people with… a way of holding on to any insight that they have achieved and not having it eventually disappear… and feel that they have to go chase it.

DONNA: Now, in orienting this towards others who may be watching and suffering… and that really is, as Buddha said, the big question… How can I stop suffering? Ive heard you say that a combination of meditation and self-inquiry seems to work best for the rest of us. Do you still feel that to be true? A combination of both?

STEPHEN: I do. Katies work is itself meditation. And its a wonderful kind of meditation. And its conceivable that that itself can carry people through to great understanding. I come from the experience that I come from, which is many years of Zen meditation, then The Work. So, I tend to project that thats a good way of doing it, but its not the only way. If people are really serious about the work and are treating it as a way of diving into the open mind… a mind that is beyond its own beliefs… That is by itself enough.

But meditation can bring them to an even deeper kind of stillness, which is a way of being even more effective with The Work. In other words, when you ask the first question, “Is it true?”… of a thought that has been causing you stress… When you have some experience of Buddhist meditation under your belt, perhaps you can go even deeper. I dont know if thats so, but if I were serious… If I was starting a practice and I wanted to get the most out of it and go as deeply as I a could into the practice, I would try to enhance my experience of inquiry with a way of getting even more unmoving in my meditation. So, people might try that if they are interested. Both of them, in other words.

DONNA: Let me change gears for just a moment and talk about your most recent work, which I have a copy of Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, with the gilded cover there. What made you use the word friend? What made you want to become friends with this character, Joseph? And I guess it’s a two-part question… Why did you want to explore forgiveness at this time? Was it for personal reasons? And what do we take away from your friendship with Joseph?

STEPHEN: Thats a great question. It wasnt personal, in the sense of needing to explore forgiveness. People have asked me that before and my answer, which is an accurate answer, is that Ive never had to forgive anybody. Im thinking of the two people in my life who people would say, looking from the outside, well, they really hurt you or they were really unkind… My first girlfriend, who broke up with me at the age of 22, and sent me on my path. So, she was a great bodhisattva. And then, my old Zen master, whom I had certain problems with.

But, as I experienced these two heartaches… The breakup with my girlfriend… The breakup with my Zen Master… I look back and I see that I never blamed them. Especially with my Zen Master. I had a great deal of confusion. And I spent years trying to sink into that confusion and get beyond it. Through long meditation retreats. 100-day retreats by myself. 20 hours a day. But there was never any blame involved, so there was never any forgiveness necessary, Katie says. This is the best definition of forgiveness I know. Katie says that forgiveness means realizing that what you thought happened, didnt.

Now that may seem a little cryptic to some of your listeners, but if you sit with it, you will find that its a radical kind of understanding. And if you actually start to do self-inquiry, you will understand even better what that means. Once you have gone through a worksheet judging someone harshly, childishly… someone who has hurt you and then start asking questions about each statement you have written. Is it true? Can you absolutely know its true? How do you react when you believe that though? You see that the interpretation that you super-imposed onto the experience with this person was wildly unnecessary and untrue. And you see something clear beyond how you experience it.

So you see, eventually, when your clarity is fully realized, that forgiveness isnt necessary. And that was my experience with these two people. When I met my first girlfriend 18 years later, I spent four days with her in New York. It was an experience of the greatest joy because I could see that everything that I had been thinking when I was an immature young man of 21, was completely off the wall. And the person that I had been in love with was a total figment of my imagination. The love that I felt at 40 something or other was a completely different animal than what I had been feeling as a young man. It was so much richer and deeper and more beautiful. I couldnt have dreamed the closure that I would come to would be so amazingly complete.

So again, in this situation, there was never any forgiveness necessary. And I told her the story of 18 years of searching, though Judaism and Zen practices, to heal that deep pain in my heart as a result of the break up. And I told her all of that. She was appalled. She didnt have the slightest clue that would be happening. I explained to her that she was really my great Bodhisattva, getting me on the path because I had no way of dealing with the pain in my heart… where I went to with my “dead friends.” 

The place I went to first, was the Book of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. I thought the poet who wrote that had seen something essential… that if I could come to the place where he was writing from, I would be able to heal the pain in my heart. That led to six years with the Book of Job. And that led eventually to my understanding that I would have to meet a spiritual master who would embody that, to really get it. And then suddenly, life handed me a Zen master, and I had my understanding after a year of intensive practice. So, when I told her all this, she unwound a little bit and understood that the pain that I felt from the breakup was a necessary experience that I had to have in order to arrive where I had arrived. And she was thrilled with it after she understood.

Anyway, so thats my answer for the personal part of it. Why I was attracted to this story… First of all, its a fabulous story in the original Genesis version. Tolstoy called it the most beautiful story in the world. And Ive always thought of it as the place in the bible where we are given a spiritually mature character. And in addition, it had forgiveness at its core. Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness, and in a wonderful way, but he doesnt tell any stories about it. Stories are how many of us experience things most powerfully. So, the Joseph story is the only story in the bible that that gives us the full experience of forgiveness. What its like to be in a state of open mindedness and no judgmentalness. And open heartedness that someone can forgive the people that tried to murder him. Its very beautiful. And in the original, it also gave me some hints about what the inner life of a person like this is like. And of course, I have my own experience to fill in with a character as well.

So, the fascination and the challenge of writing the book was to take a story that was already great in its original, and to add an inner life to it. In other words, inhabit each of the characters fully enough that I could speak with their mouths. Speak from my own experience and allow the reader to really inhabit the characters in the same way that I have. And give them the full experience of what the story leads to.

Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Pt 2 – Control Is A Recipe For Suffering

Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Pt 3 – Forgiveness Means That Realizing What Happened… Didn’t

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Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness




Stephen Mitchell’s gift is to breathe new life into ancient classics. In Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, he offers us his riveting novelistic version of the Biblical tale in which Jacob’s favorite son is sold into slavery and eventually becomes viceroy of Egypt. Tolstoy called it the most beautiful story in the world. What’s new here is the lyrical, witty, vivid prose, informed by a wisdom that brings fresh insight to this foundational legend of betrayal and all-embracing forgiveness. Mitchell’s retelling, which reads like a postmodern novel, interweaves the narrative with brief meditations that, with their Zen surprises, expand the narrative and illuminate its main themes.

By stepping inside the minds of Joseph and the other characters, Mitchell reanimates one of the central stories of Western culture. The engrossing tale that he has created will capture the hearts and minds of modern readers and show them that this ancient story can still challenge, delight, and astonish.


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