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Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Pt 3 – Forgiveness Means That Realizing What Happened… Didn’t

Donna Quesada: it also answers my previous question about how self-inquiry and meditation go hand in hand. We hear so much about mindfulness,


which has become quite a buzz word among modern day seekers and its not a one or the other thing. Because the mindful state of being aware of the thoughts goes hand in hand with the process of inquiry.

STEPHEN: Yes. Inquiry is a form of mindfulness. And people can come to a great degree of mindfulness through doing inquiry alone. But as I said, I think meditation may, for some people, enhance the process. For people who are doing mindfulness practice… some of the people might ask, “Why should I do inquiry as a complete practice?” And it may be for some people. But in my experience… As I said, there are thoughts that personally werent available to me through meditation practice and only became available later when I sat in the questioning The Work provides.

I have a story about this kind of difference. I dont want to say that mindfulness is incomplete or that its a less effective practice than The Work because for some people it might be just as effective or more effective. I dont know. But my story concerns a friend of a friend who grew up with a very difficult mother. And his main life story was “My mother ruined my life.” This caused him enormous pain. Whenever he would fail at a job or a relationship, this is the story he would believe… who he would blame for his miseries.

And then he discovered Buddhist meditation. And that changed things greatly. His clarity increased. And finally, he began to do loving kindness practice—a form of Buddhist meditation. And in that practice, you send love. First of all, to people you love, to your friends and people who have done you good things. And then, to neutral people. And then, to people who have hurt you, or, people that you hate or dislike. So, you are widening the circle of loving kindness and you eventually include the whole universe in it. And it can be a very powerful practice, and it was for this man. And he began painfully and with great difficulty, sending love to his mother in this way. The loving kindness worked, and that really changed his relationship. And he was able to be nicer to her and engage with her over the phone… in person, with fewer fights. And then he discovered The Work. And when he really started to judge her… put her down on paper… My mother this, my mother that… and question those thoughts… he realized that the loving-kindness meditation… He was sincere. He was really sending love to her. But he was sending love to the woman who ruined his life.

In other words, he was sending love to a mother with a super-imposed story onto her. And that was effective, but it wasnt that effective beyond a certain point because he was still believing his story. So, when he started to do inquiry, it really began to unravel… Is it true? How do I react when I believe my mother ruined my life? Well, I get very angry when I blame her. Im rude to her. So on, so on, so on.

So, he really traced the emotions that were called up, believing this thought, and then he asked the fourth question, “Who would I be without the thought?” And, he could see beyond that story imposed onto her that he would be a good son. He would be able to see who she was and why she was so hard. Act, act. And then, he turned the thought around from She ruined my life to She didnt ruin my life.

And the thing about turn arounds, when you are doing The Work is… its important to find specific, genuine examples of how each turn around is true. So, when he was doing this with himself for the life of him, he couldnt find a single example where she was kind to him or she was something other than ruinous. And it was frustrating. He knew he would have to find some examples for him to actually live the turn around.

It took him more than an hour, and finally he thought of a birthday party she gave him when he was six years old. And that was the thing that just blew his mind. He forgot that he had been cherry picking his memories. Once he remembered that one incident. He was able to remember a second and then a third and then a fourth. She was a woman who had not only been unkind to him but been kind to him. There emerged a very different mother.

And at that point, he was sending love to his real mother. And he was interacting not with the woman who ruined his life but with a woman who was a human being. Her ups and downs and her unclarities, unkindnesses and kindnesses. And it transformed that relationship from bottom to top. So, in his case, at least, it wasnt enough to be doing standard meditation. He needed to have a method of actually questioning his thought to the depths before he could emerge from them.

DONNA: So, its being present with the reality of who she is, here and now, and not the idea in his head, alongside the logical process that The Work allows?

STEPHEN: That thought in his head that he believed with his whole heart… That was reality for him. He couldnt see around it. If you said, “Oh, shes not so bad.” He would have seen that as a ridiculous lie. It allowed him to see her without the interposition of his own story. To see her directly.

DONNA: To coax it, as Katie calls it.

STEPHEN: Yes! So, I think that story is a clear illustration of how, for some people, The Work can be a great enhancement of their meditation practice.

DONNA: Id like to switch gears in these last moments that we have together. One of the questions we like to explore with our guests is that of the masculine and the feminine polarities on this planet. And how the imbalance has led to many of our global problems. And something I read about… you kind of piggy-backed on this. I share also a love of language and words with you. I marvel at your ability to speak Hebrew and all of these languages. Ive been studying French for twenty years and still struggle to be fluent in a conversation. But thats another story. You are very well known for your translation of the Tao Te Ching. And at the time when you took that on, there were already more than a hundred versions on the market. And they all used the masculine pro-noun in describing the master or the sage. And you thought to yourself, and you will correct me if Im getting this wrong… You thought to yourself That cant be right. Thats not consistent with who Lao Tzu is, as this light-hearted philosopher, who is not a philosopher, in the traditional sense… at least, in the Western sense. But as this man of knowing, he couldnt have meant that. And a Chinese friend said “You are right!” In fact, the pro-noun in Chinese isnt gender specific at all!


DONNA: And so, how has this… And yet, all of the translations went with the masculine, but yours. How has this informed our world view and made it askew? And affected a lot of the global destruction, if we can take it that far?

STEPHEN: Well, lets back up. Thats a good question. Let me say it wasnt just my thinking that he was an enlightened sage and he couldnt possibly have said this. But that the Tao Te Ching itself… of all the great spiritual texts, is by far the most female. Explicitly so. It says, the Tao is the great mother. It says, know the masculine but cling to the feminine. You cant get more explicit than that. Thats why I said, “this is ridiculous. The master cant be a he. Hes talking about all of us.

So, to go back to the other part of your question. Not only have we been calling the enlightened master a he, but weve been calling God he for how many thousands of years? And, of course, that skews our world view. I dont think that calling God she is a very good solution. Or calling God he or she. One of the great lines from the Tao Te Ching is, Theres no way to express it. For lack of a better word I call it the Tao. And that is so humble and humorous and self-aware about how language has its limits. And yet, how we can still speak with confidence even within the limits of language, if we take its limitations into consideration. I dont know of any more gently humorous statement in any spiritual text than that statement. And I like to transpose it into our Western, theistic religion. Monotheistic religious, too. I like to say, for lack of a better word, “I call it God.” That seems to me appropriately humble, as well. So, ask something else along these lines, if you still have a question.

DONNA: Well, its about this kind of masculine and feminine and the imbalance of these energies. There is this predominance of the he. And its a matter how much language affects the aggression that we live with, and environmental destruction. And if you even, in fact, agree with this. Do you have any thoughts about it?

STEPHEN: Well, my mind doesnt really work on macro terms like that. So, I dont expect any insights at all, or even any of the slightest intelligence to come to me about questions like that. However, one thing that occurred to me, was the trap of blaming males for something that is basically human. That kind of destruction of the planet comes from the ego. Which is not male or female. It controls us all, unless we start on a path of understanding.

So, I can imagine a world where women were in charge. And there were some primitive societies where that was true… where they were being just as destructive of the planet as the men were. Maybe less so. Maybe a little less so. Greed, for example, or lust for power is just as much of a seductive power for a woman as it is for a man. And I dont think our category of female is better… and men are worse serves us very well. I think some people may need to stay in that place for a while because of intense resentment… because of how men have been in the world, but its only a stopping point. There is a need to go beyond that, and see this as a human condition. Seeing women as perhaps better equipped in our social context to be effective and attached to more clarity and kindness… And I personally love it that more women are being elected to congress and more positions of power. I think it could help us in our effort to be wiser and kinder to the planet. And in the next few decades, we really need it.

DONNA: Is there anything else you would like to leave us with, in regard to your most recent work or any work at all? Or any wisdom teachings? Or any thoughts?

STEPHEN:  Thats a good question. Well, two things. If your viewers are interested in the things I have said about self-inquiry, I would recommend that they go to Byron Katies web site, where The Work is described in great detail. There are videos of her doing The Work with people on a number of very powerful topics. Thats something that can change lives and has changed lives and does all the time. And the other thing is… just to say about the book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness… What I have done here, is step into the consciousness of all the characters, mostly of Joseph—the most spiritually mature person in the bible. I hope, at least, if I’ve done my job… I think people will be able to enter those characters, as I have, and to actually experience on a deep, body level, on an Imaginative level, what it is to go through this experience of almost being murdered… and then, have profound insight in the pit. And then to come out of it into an amazing experience of being always in the flow of reality. What that feels like. What it feels like to, with all your heart, forgive the people that have tried to murder you.

And if the story is as powerful as Tolstoy said it was, originally… and if what Ive done to enhance it is as powerful as some of my early readers have said… speaking of men and women… Ive had a number of emails from men whove said that they never cry when they read books, but when they came to the end of this, they were crying. I take that as a great success. So, I hope people are interested enough through this talk with you that they go out and buy the book and see what Im talking about.

DONNA: And I just have to sneak in one more question because my mind is turning as you are speaking, and Im thinking of Joseph and how he did have that spiritual maturity… Even through the face of his own suffering and his own jealous brothers, and so forth. I can almost hear all the people out there saying “All this talk about forgiveness but you dont understand what Ive been through… Are you saying its okay?” We are not condoning or saying to pursue a relationship with those types of people. Forgiveness is more what you liberate within yourself. Would you agree with that, or do you have thoughts on it?

STEPHEN: You dont want to spill more suffering onto yourself by hanging out with people who are unkind. Thats crazy. Forgiveness is a freedom. Its not for the sake of the person you are forgiving. This is a cliché by now, in our spiritual culture. But never the less, it’s true. It’s a freedom for you. It allows you to penetrate beyond resentment and anger into the wisdom that is beneath and available for all of us. So, its an important step towards that wisdom.

And again, Im going to quote Katie. Forgiveness means that realizing what happened… didnt. If you chew on that for a while, you may begin to see that the story that you have been telling about that horrible experience… what you are reacting to… may not be the experience itself.

Even an experience of great suffering or horror, like rape, or torture… Katie has done The Work with people who were at Auschwitz… people who were raped by their father… And its possible that, even with these experiences, to come out of it in a great serenity and forgiveness. So, its important not to pre-judge these experiences or others. This is airy fairy, new-age talk. It cant happen. It just doesnt happen. It can and it does. And it’s available, if you are courageous enough to question the thoughts that you are so sure of. And millions of people have done this to their great benefit.

DONNA: Powerful. Well Stephen, I want to thank you so much for your time today.

STEPHEN: You are very welcome. It was a pleasure. I think you are a very good interviewer and I was very glad to be part of the discussion.

DONNA: Thank you very much and I throughly enjoyed our discussion. And I love going deeply into these issues and topics with you. Thank you!

Read and Watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Part 1 – Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness

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


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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