Interview with John Lawry
- I became very interested in meditation and shortly after that I became interested in Yoga, the more Eastern tradition. Sometime in the 80's, I started reading THE COURSE IN MIRACLES, which has a Christian origin so I didn't see it threatening in anyway to my Roman Catholic tradition. I kind of merged all of those into my eclectic Catholicism and I still go to mass every Sunday.
- The Holy Spirit will provide the opportunities when and where they are important for us to experience. You don't have to worry about it. You don't have to effort it.
- I had to look at the fact that I wasn't going to be around forever. I think most people are in denial about that. We live our lives as if tomorrow is going to come inevitably and at some level we all know that that's not true. Out of that experience came the course I teach on Death and Dying. I've taught it twice and both times it has been a profound experience for my students as well as for myself.
- Knowing that I'm not going to live forever, I think I live each day a little more meaningfully. Time has become more precious to me.
- One of the things I tell my students at the prison is that, I think of my daughter as not only my daughter, but as my best friend. Also, one of my definitions of a best friend is someone who always tells you the truth even though you may not be willing to hear it. So I always know that she is telling me the truth-at least as far as she can see it.
- In THE COURSE OF MIRACLES I think that's one of the lessons. One of the lessons is God speaks to me all through the day. That's true and you have to learn "how" to hear. You have to learn "how" to listen. Once you believe that, you start making room for it because you realize that's a much better way of living your life then following the ego, which is what most of us do most of the time. That's what gets us into trouble.
- Sometimes, I think the Holy Spirit speaks to me through my students. I feel very fortunate to be in a profession where I have the opportunity to be around young people so much.
- What most people discover-as you serve you become enriched. I think that has been Jimmy Carter's message to the world.
Ann: Were you raised a Catholic? Is that the tradition you were born into?
John: Yes. My father was Catholic and my mother was Presbyterian. She became Catholic when they married. I went to parochial schools for the most part, Elementary and High School.
Ann: Where were you raised?
John: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and then my parents went to California when my mother retired. Due to illness my father had already retired. My mother tried the Catholic Church out there but didn't feel comfortable because they were mostly Mexican Americans who attended. She tried a Presbyterian Church across the way and kind of reverted back to her Presbyterian roots. When I would go out to California, I would go to the Presbyterian Church with her.
Ann: You were a full adult by that time?
John: Yes. This is recent, within the last 10 years. In fact I was even studying for the Priesthood at one point after high school.
Ann: Studying to be a Jesuit?
John: No, a so-called diocesan Priest, a Parish Priest.
Ann: Are Jesuits more teachers?
John: Well, it's an order. They have their own mission so to speak and teaching, is certainly, a major part of it.
Ann: Why did you pick that particular one?
John: That seemed to be the one I was drawn to-number one. Number two-Priests that I knew from attending parochial school were Parish Priests. They encouraged me to become a Parish Priest rather than a Franciscan or a Jesuit or a Dominican.
Ann: How many years have you followed that tradition?
John: All my life. I'm 64 years old.
Ann: So you stayed right with it.
Ann: Have you ever-lost faith with that tradition?
John: No, I would say I've never lost faith but I have explored other traditions. For example: When Elaine, my girlfriend at the time, and I were in Japan and Korea we became interested in the Buddhist tradition then shortly after we returned in 1979, we took a course on meditation at Wainwright House. I became very interested in meditation and shortly after that I became interested in Yoga, the more Eastern tradition. Sometime in the 80's, I started reading THE COURSE IN MIRACLES, which has a Christian origin so I didn't see it threatening in anyway to my Roman Catholic tradition. I kind of merged all of those into my eclectic Catholicism and I still go to mass every Sunday.
Ann: What holds you to the Mass?
John: Part of it is probably habit, but it's an opportunity to be with a community. In my case, it's The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, who were the founding Sisters of Marymount College. They had a chapel down the hill from the college. Now it's a home for the elderly Sisters, many of whom I know and have worked with since 1965.
Ann: You've been teaching since 1965 at Marymount College?
John: Yes. Many of the Sisters have retired now. They were older when I came there. I get to see them on a regular basis and always feel very welcome there. It's like my Parish.
Ann: You're family too in some ways?
John: Yes. In fact, Elaine and I almost got married in the chapel. It was one of the places we were considering for our wedding, because there's a lot of connection there.
Ann: Absolutely. Beautiful. Is there harmony between Eastern and Western Philosophies when you're studying meditation ? How does that go with Catholicism?
John: I've never thought it disharmonious. I know there are certain dogmas that would seem in opposition. For example: As I understand Buddhism, it's not clear if they believe in a supreme being and the spiritual part of Buddhism I find very attractive. I don't worry about the theology, if you will, of Buddhism. In fact, I think in that respect, Buddhism has something to teach Christianity or at least Catholicism as I've experienced it.
Ann: What would that be? What would it teach?
John: A greater emphasis on what we call "spiritual practice". I think it's more implicit in Catholicism and Buddhism has made it more explicit. I greatly value the meditation practice I have developed as a result of taking that original course in 79'.
Ann: Can you say a little bit about the form of meditation you use?
John: The form I was trained in is called VIPASSANA meditation, which is focusing on the breath. It is the primary technique I continue to use. I've also incorporated the workbook from THE COURSE IN MIRACLES into my meditation. I usually begin by reading the lesson for the day. You probably know, there are 365 lessons in the workbook from the course, one for each day of the year. I use that on a regular basis. I read the lesson and then do the meditation.
Ann: It's like contemplation doing that?
John: Yes. And before that I do the Yoga. It's a whole ritual. First, I do the Yoga, then the reading, then the meditation. It takes approximately an hour. I find it makes a difference in the way the rest of the days goes. If I don't have time I can feel it-things are a little off.
Ann: You do it seven days a week?
John: Yes. Everyday.
Ann: You're very dedicated?
John: Yes. It works and it's very valuable to me and is something I create time for even if it means getting up a little earlier. It's worth it and very valuable. I appreciate the opportunity I had to study in Japan and Korea and being exposed to that culture-then coming back and finding a teacher.
Ann: Who was your teacher?
John: Ed Bednar, and as I recall, he was the Director of the Temple of Understanding when we first met.
Ann: He was an advanced teacher?
John: He was hired to be the Director and had a lot of experience with meditation prior to that. He might have been an ex-seminarian. He also came out of the Catholic tradition. It was ironic that, when I came back from Japan and Korea and was speaking to Elaine about taking a course in meditation, a week or two later at a party this gentleman came up to us and explained that he was going to teach a course on meditation. We looked at one another and said, "Wow. There you are". When the students are ready, the teacher will appear.
Ann: That is so true. I have interviewed, about 20 people at this point and no matter what your religion is, there are these special forces that make the connections for us and offer the opportunity. We don't necessarily have to take it at that moment but it's very specific and what happens is there's the opportunity offered. It's so beautiful.
John: A COURSE IN MIRACLES supports that idea. For example: It says you can not but be in the right place at the right time. It talks about how everything is planned by someone who knows a lot more and better then we do.
Ann: Is it really destiny that our whole life is planned? What does it say about that?
John: I don't think I would use the word destiny, but it does say that the Holy Spirit is our guide, our companion so to speak, and that the Holy Spirit will provide the opportunities when and where they are important for us to experience. You don't have to worry about it. You don't have to effort it.
Ann: One of the Buddhist sayings is "Use no effort". If you're using effort then you know you are off track. That's hard when life gets tough. How do you stay in that delicate dance between how much work do you do and how much do you pray and sit back. That is for each person to discover in their journey.
You said you teach in the prisons. I have taught there as well and I was absolutely astounded at how the Holy Spirit came in and touched people. That was one of the biggest personal learnings for me. I was working with a woman-she told me she had murdered her children, and she told me how. It was incredibly gruesome. I was overwhelmed and did not know what to say-in my job we weren't even supposed to know. I was so stunned I just said lets pray and see what happens. We'll ask God for forgiveness and the Holy Spirit came right into her-and she lit up. I was ecstatic because I felt the whole thing. It happened to the both of us at exactly the same time. At the time, I was part of the Christian Charismatic Movement so I certainly understood about praying for forgiveness but it came in to such a place of darkness. She was going be there for the rest of her life. Even though she was forgiven she was going to be in darkness and she knew what she had done. It was clear to me the Holy Spirit is always there for each of us.
John: It's a very wonderful opportunity to be able to work there.
Ann: Say a little bit about working in prisons. Primarily you teach in college-a women's college?
John: Yes. I teach Psychology.
Ann: How long have you taught there?
John: Since 1965, 37 years.
Ann: And a few years ago you decided to also teach in the prisons.
John: Well, I had this vision you could call it, after my girlfriend's positive experience. It was as if I knew that someday I would teach there. The "vision" happened quite a while ago and at first nothing occurred. Then in 1998, a memo came around inviting people to submit proposals for courses. I had a very strong feeling that this was my time. It was time for me to have that experience. I submitted my proposal, as did a number of other faculty. Mine was the first one chosen. I wasn't surprised. I had this strong belief that this was my time and I had the most wonderful experience the first class. I thought -I am really supposed to be doing this-and I feel like I want to continue.
Ann: What were you actually teaching?
John: A number of different things. First, I taught a psychology course called "Perennial Quest", then I decided to try teaching a course on emotional literacy based on Robin Casarjian's book titled, HOUSES OF HEALING: A PRISONER'S GUIDE TO INNER POWER AND FREEDOM.
Quite a few students-inmates-signed up, but only 5 ended up taking the course. It was 12 weeks but there was no credit. The director of the course said, "I'll let you teach the course but it can't be part of the college program. It's really not academic material." I said fine. That meant I didn't get paid for it either but I didn't care because I felt very drawn to try it. It turned out to be such a wonderful experience, I taught it again across the street at the Taconic Correctional Facility. Another course I regularly teach-this time for credit-is a freshmen orientation course called "Common Ground". It helps with the transition from high school to college in a regular college program. In the prisons though it's more to help these women come up to speed with their academic skills and prepare them for difference between college and high school and/or the GED programs, that many of them are involved in while they are in the prison. I became interested in it because of the book of letters I wrote to my daughter when she was a college freshman and a textbook called: COLLEGE 101: A FIRST YEAR READER. It's being used all over the country. It's published by McGraw-Hill and is in its 2nd edition. I'm somewhat an expert in that area. When the opportunity developed at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, I felt confident about how to do it. They saw my credentials and will be using both of my books at the two prisons.
Ann: One of the first people I interviewed for this website were Bailey and Thea Jackson. Thea and her husband, Bailey, were the ones who got the college program started. These people are saints. They are angels of light.
John: I have met a lot of wonderful people like Thea and Bailey through my connection with the program. They are fantastic.
The very first thing I have students read the first week of the program is the book of letters I wrote to my daughter. For many of them it is a very powerful experience. Many of them have not had any relationship with their father or a very poor relationship-sometimes abusive-with their father. As a result of these letters, they see what my relationship is with my daughter and that affects them in a very profound way. They see how it could be better. It doesn't have to be the way they experienced it. I think it gives them hope of the future of their lives with family, with their own children.
Ann: You've become a father figure for them.
John: In some ways, yes.
Ann: Absolutely, and then, they can incorporate those skills into dealing with their children. You can't learn that unless somebody has given it to you.
John: That's a very important piece of that course. It's only 5 weeks-you don't have time to do much. I ask them to read the whole book of letters in the first week and then to pick their favorite letter. The next class, each one tells their favorite letter and why it's their favorite letter. Why they choose certain letters is really amazing.
Ann: It touches their being. Are there any spiritual heroes or heroines in your own background that you would like to honor or talk about?
John: People I know personally?
Ann: Not necessarily. It could be a book. Look at your book, it's only a 5-week course, and it may have touched them for the rest of their lives. It can be a book, music-whatever it is for you?
John: Well, it has probably been different people and different things over the years. For example: I was taken by the Rosary tradition when I was a child and also the Stations of the Cross. That is a practice in Catholicism common during Lent period. It is about the last days of Jesus and his suffering. Are you familiar with it?
Ann: Yes I am. And for people who are not Catholic-what is the Rosary? Why is it important for you?
John: I think it is a spiritual practice that can induce the another state of consciousness. I didn't know that at the time and it definitely had that effect. It is a series of prayers. You go through a sequence of an Our Father, 10 Hail Mary's, followed by Glory be to the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. You repeat that decade 5 different times. You are supposed to focus on some different aspect "Mystery" of Jesus' life each time.
Ann: You started doing this at an early age?
John: Yes. There were May altars that we would create as children. Mary with the flowers. I can remember having one of them in my bedroom. That kind of dedication to the mother of Jesus was very important.
Ann: On the altar, you would have a cloth and a statue of something?
John: A Statue of Mary and flowers we would find in the woods nearly everyday. My sister and I were very involved in it as children and my parents seemed to support it. Then, in high school when I met a Parish Priest who encouraged me to consider the priesthood as a vocation. He was very important to me. He probably had something to do with the fact that I transferred from a Public Junior high school to a Catholic senior high school. He felt my vocation would be better nourished at a Catholic school rather then a public school. He shepherded me through my high school years and would come to visit my family and have dinner with us from time to time. He was very much a mentor. I think his name was, Father Edward.
We moved and then I lost touch with him. Then I entered the seminary and another priest and I became a mentor to myself and some of my classmates. As I got to know him, I was very impressed because he was a very intellectual priest. I had never met one who was "intellectual". Eventually he left the Parish Priesthood and joined the Holy Ghost Fathers. They are the priests who teach at DuQuesne University. That happens to be where I ended up getting my Master's Degree in college. He encouraged me to do that. He went there right before me, or after me and eventually ended up teaching there as well. There have been people like that over the years who have been important in shaping my spiritual evolution. There are also people who I've always admired like Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. I met her before she died. I was coming back from a commune and one of the women at the commune introduced me to Dorothy Day. We chatted for awhile and it was wonderful to get to meet her before she died. She was quite old when we met.
Ann: What was the focus of the commune? Caring for the poor? Helping the poor?
John: Yes. There were farms where people could come and be part of a community. It was very inexpensive and they would grow their own food. Dorothy had developed this idea of communes decades before it became fashionable in the 60's and 70's.
Ann: In the 20's and 30's? Are they still going?
John: Yes. I think the Catholic Worker Farm is still in existence in Tivoli, NY, and at least one more somewhere in the Midwest. The Catholic Worker Movement is still active and still prints a one-penny, weekly newspaper. One of my colleagues gets it. My girlfriend's sister was involved in developing a movie about Dorothy's life and I was asked to play the part of her lover for one of the scenes. We were out in a boat in the sound off Staten Island, which is where Dorothy's lived. I'm not sure if it was ever produced. I never saw it, and it was fun doing it.
Ann: So, you got your degrees in Psychology, and before that you were going to become a priest?
John: Yes. 1956 till about 1962, I was studying to become a priest: four years of college and 1 full year of Theology. It was an 8-year program and I completed about 5 years. Then one summer- I fell in love. That was the end of my vocation to the priesthood-and the prospect of celibacy. I think that it was providential that I met this woman because the relationship never developed into much after that. The event certainly turned my head around about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. From that point on I started thinking about Psychology. Later on, through Pat Kandle, I was invited to conduct a workshop with her because her husband, George-a Presbyterian Minister, was not available at the last minute.
He was supposed to conduct the workshop but got called out of town and asked Pat, his wife, to lead it. Thinking about all the people in our group who would be a good partner for her, he called me and asked if I would be willing to do it. I said fine. Pat had this tape on in the car after the workshop. It was about A COURSE IN MIRACLES. Ken Wapnick was the editor of THE COURSE. I started listening as we were driving back from upstate New York to Katonah, and thought, "Wow! This is really interesting." That was my first introduction to THE COURSE IN MIRACLES. Later, I actually got to meet Ken when he was holding workshops in Pawling. We became very friendly and we still correspond from time to time. He's left Pawling for the Catskills and has since moved to California.
Ann: You've been in THE COURSE OF MIRACLES group for how many years?
John: Including a second group, I've been studying probably at least 15 years with Randy and Ron Nelson in Old Greenwich, Ct.
Ann: So every year you're going through the whole course again? Or how do you do that?
John: Usually, we spend most of our time with the lessons in the Workbook, but also move back and forth through the text. There's really no kind of curriculum. I feel that's the way the Holy Spirit wants us to work. I feel we are guided in what we end up doing on a weekly basis. When Elaine and I were living together we would go on a pretty regular basis and then there was a hiatus for a couple of years. Randy resurrected the group and I've been with her ever since. I would say that group started somewhere in the 80's.
Ann: That's amazing. I jump from thing to thing and I'm awe inspired by people who can stay with something. Thea Jackson, who we mentioned earlier, she and her husband have been in a group for about 20 or 30 years that gets together monthly.
John: Is it a Bible study group?
Ann: It's like a Bible study but more spiritual study. They have a whole community to access. There are very specific goals and different leaders take turns, so it's like THE COURSE OF MIRACLES. The richness of that kind of continuity is amazing.
John: There are about 4 core members in our group and then people come in and out in of the group. Sometimes it totals 8 or 10, sometimes it shrinks to about 4 or 5.
Ann: One of the big questions I ask people has to do with "community". You've got all sorts of communities-at Marymount, for example.
John: Yes: my colleagues, the sisters down the hill, who I share the Mass with on a regular basis, and THE COURSE OF MIRACLES study group.
Ann: What other communities do you have? Anything else that is on going?
John: A singles tennis group that gets together every Sunday during the warmer weather and out of that evolves socializing at different people's homes over the course of the warm weather. That has been very important to me. I got to know a lot of people through that-in fact, that is how I got to know my girlfriend-that was very important.
Ann: Right place, at the right time.
Can you say any profound spiritual experiences that are associated with either birth or death or sickness where you had a sense of being beyond yourself?
John: The birth of my daughter was a profound experience but I don't think I experienced it in any kind of significant spiritual way. I wasn't particularly involved spiritually at that point-1967.
Ann: And there's a magic to it anyway.
John: The birth of my grandchildren has certainly been very profound. Of all the things you have mentioned, the thing that has been most powerful in my experience, was the health scare that I had, in the course of being prepared for surgery for skin cancer on my face and chest.
They did a routine X-ray and found a spot on my lung. At first they didn't know what it was and theoretically it could have been serious. I went through a period of waiting, where I had to have a CAT scan and a MRI before it was finally diagnosed as scare tissue and nothing to worry about. But in the interim of time, I had to confront my own mortality in a way I had not really thought too much about up to that point, because my health has been relatively good. I think I've only missed one day of class due to illness since I've began teaching in 1965. I've always taken good care of myself. I think in part, that was because my father developed MS when I was about 15 or 17, and I saw what chronic illness can do to someone. I think I made a pact with myself unconsciously more then anything else, I wasn't going to let that happen to me-if at all possible. Somehow I just knew that one way to prevent it was to really take care of yourself. I don't think I abused myself-my body-in the way I think teenagers frequently do. They don't know any better and they push the limits.
I never abused alcohol or drugs. I pretty much stayed away from all that-more unconsciously then consciously. Knowing that if I abused myself that the same thing could happen to me that happened to my dad-not that he abused himself. I had a pretty easy ride with good health until I hit that little bump of: "Whoa! What's that spot doing on my lung? What's that about?" The doctors suspected it was as a result my having had pleurisy when I was 14 or it could have been I was exposed to someone who had Tuberculosis. They said there was absolutely nothing to worry about. They don't even have to keep tabs on it. In that interim of time however, that couple of weeks, I had to look at the fact that I wasn't going to be around forever. I think most people are in denial about that. We live our lives as if tomorrow is going to come inevitably and at some level we all know that that's not true. Out of that experience came the course I teach on Death and Dying. I've taught it twice and both times it has been a profound experience for my students as well as for myself.
Ann: This is at Marymount?
Ann: To college students-18 -21. To be studying death and dying at that particular age has them really reflecting on their own lives.
John: Yes. Its amazing to me the effect the course has had on them. I wish I had had that opportunity when I was their age-rather that in my 50's. I just wrote a letter to the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION about teaching the course because they ran an article a couple of months ago, written by two medical doctors, about why it's important that college age people be exposed to these kinds of ideas and type of course. We put so much emphasis on life but very little on death in our college curriculums. When I wrote the letter, I shared a little bit of my own personal experience teaching the course. I was pleased to see that the letter got published. I think it is important.
Ann: Did you make any changes in your own life? Change any patterns?
John: I don't think I made any kind of overt changes in terms of the way I take care of myself because I've always been doing that, but I think it has helped me appreciate my own life and the time I have remaining. Knowing that I'm not going to live forever, I think I live each day a little more meaningfully. Time has become more precious to me.
Ann: I'm 68. I do notice people around me are dying. It is a wake up call.
John: Yes. People around you that are your age, or even younger, dying and you start thinking: "Well how much time do I have?" Don't waste anytime now. In fact I say to my students-who are in their 30's and 40's-"Are you sure you're doing what you want to do with your life? Are you sure this is really of value to you?" I don't know if they hear me-because some of them are doing things I don't think are so wise-but I don't say that. You have to do the unwise things to learn the lessons you need in order to be able to do the wise things.
Ann: Sometimes the lessons take too long. I want to speed up the lessons.
John: That sounds like the "mother" talking.
Ann: Absolutely. They have all sorts of things they want me to change, too. That's part of life. But we are very open-minded.
John: We are all teachers for one another.
John: One of the things I tell my students at the prison is that, I think of my daughter as not only my daughter, but as my best friend. Also, one of my definitions of a best friend is someone who always tells you the truth even though you may not be willing to hear it. So I always know that she is telling me the truth-at least as far as she can see it.
Ann: But I come from the heart and passion and understanding.
John: In a way that sometimes other people won't, because they don't feel comfortable or they are not sure how you are going to take it. When you have that very strong connection with someone like a child then you know they are going to tell you the truth because they know you're still going to love them and they are going to still love you-no matter what.
Ann: How old are you grandchildren?
John: 2 and 4.
Ann: So you're coming to a time when they are going to tell you the truth and it's so sweet.
John: I've already gotten a little bit of that. Alex, the two year old, is very interested in the gold covered tooth in my mouth, and when I come to visit, she'll say things like: "Do you miss Paulette?" (my current girlfriend).
Ann: It's really cute. My granddaughter said to me, with great shock, "Oh Grandma, your neck is falling apart." Her mother said: "Don't say that!" and I said but that's the truth. She also told me that: "Grandma, you have the biggest butt of anyone in the family." At 4-it's so dear.
John: The emperor has no clothes.
Ann: Precisely. It's dear. I love it. You are the most zealous of the people I have interviewed and I really honor your dedication and focus. I know, personally, I get pulled away. I have a hard time maintaining the type of routine and practice you do.
John: Well, it's just a routine that I've gotten into when I wake up-and I live alone-so it makes it a little easier.
Ann: And, you've been working at the same location. That always makes a difference. I'm always changing jobs or moving places-recreating life.
John: I live a 10-minute walk from where I work. How many people have that luxury?
Ann: And it's beautiful-the Hudson River and surrounded by woods.
John: Completely surrounded by woods. I live in a cul dú sac. This place, where I've been for the last couple of years, has a deck. I take my chaise out there and I meditate in the warm weather. The only thing I can see are the deer in the yard and yet I live in a river town-not out in the woods somewhere.
Ann: It's very conducive for doing the things that you want to do.
John: I feel the Holy Spirit has been very circumspect and helpful in finding a place to live. It feels like: "Oh yeah." Whenever I find a place it's as if it falls in my lap.
Ann: It's where you need to be for your serenity.
John: For this period of time, it couldn't be more ideal. I've always had that feeling when it came to where I live. The Holy Spirit has been working overtime and finding just the right spot. I've been very fortunate.
Ann: Now after all of the year's teachings, what have you noticed? Changes in the students or in the way that you teach?
John: There has been a change in the way I teach, how I teach, and I think it's very hard for me to find language to describe it. I can feel the difference more then I can put language to it. I bring a different energy into the classroom. I use student feedback as a way of gauging how it's different. I've been trying to write an article this summer about what it is like being a kind of "Elder" in that community. The title of the article is something like "Professor Emeritas as Elder" because I'm a Professor Emeritas that means in Latin: retired professor. I'm in phased retirement for another two years, which means I'm only teaching half time at half salary. So I have a lot of extra time to do other things and I feel like I'm falling more and more in to a role Native Americans/First Nation call "The Elder". I don't think academics talk about it very much. We say "Professor Emeritas" but we haven't really talked about people who carry the tradition of the college and who are more spiritually evolved in terms of their contribution to the whole academic community.
I feel I'm beginning to make that contribution. I've been looking at papers my students wrote in my courses over the last couple of years. Sometimes they talk about it. I've exported a couple of things from their papers into the article I'm trying to write. One expression a student used that caught my eye was "soul work". That's one way of talking about it. I wouldn't come in and say we are going to do "soul work". I would never say that.
Ann: Because this is a Psychology course?
John: Right. However, in this case it was Death and Dying. For the student it was "soul work". This particular student had tried to take her own life and she talked about it in class. She had taken a whole bunch of pills and was about to have some Vodka. Something knocked the glass out of her hand and it spilled all over the floor. She didn't even fill it up again. It might have broken-I don't remember. Yes, that's it! It was a plastic glass that wouldn't normally break, and it did. It was a miracle. As a result, she didn't drink the alcohol, which would have done her in apparently. Then she went into a stupor and she may have called someone. She was found in time. It was an amazing story and had quite an effect on the whole class. She was doing it because she had just heard that her mother had committed suicide. She wasn't living with her mother and she just couldn't deal with it. Students are saying, sharing things like that. What I was trying to do is collect those insights, comments or remarks to show what effect I'm having on students in their own language. It's important for them to say what's going on. It's much more meaningful then if I were to say what's going on. Going back over students papers and doing some detective work-that's been fun.
Ann: When your time is up there at college, you just leave?
John: Well, I have two more years and people are asking what I am going to do after that. I don't know for sure. I have a feeling that the Holy Spirit will give me some clues along the way. I have two years to prepare. My sense is, I will probably continue to teach part time at the prison. I will probably continue to do some writing and may even continue to do part time teaching at the college for awhile. Who knows what will happen after that? I don't know and I feel open to whatever the Holy Spirit wants me to do.
Ann: That's wonderful rather then to be in fear and judgment.
John: I have no fear. In fact, I feel the Holy Spirit was responsible for me reading this article about Phased Retirement at Cornell and thinking we can do the same here at Marymount. I was pretty much responsible for getting that into our last contract. I helped to negotiate that part of the contract and sat in on the negotiations to discuss that part.
Ann: With all of your Yoga and meditation and contemplation you're spiritually very open to hearing the Holy Spirit. I don't think people know how very important it is to make those spaces. Sometimes you can hear and not hear but if you're doing that kind of a discipline it's much easier to actually notice it.
John: Right. In THE COURSE OF MIRACLES I think that's one of the lessons. One of the lessons is God speaks to me all through the day. That's true and you have to learn "how" to hear. You have to learn "how" to listen. Once you believe that, you start making room for it because you realize that's a much better way of living your life then following the ego, which is what most of us do most of the time. That's what gets us into trouble.
Ann: We're reacting to life rather then being centered and present to hear. I've been reading a lot of Native American/First Nation material and they are so wonderful about just being present. I'm reading a book called NO WORD FOR TIME: THE WAY OF THE ALQUOGUIN PEOPLE by Evan T. Pritchard. As a woman from Westchester County and has so many things to do and the idea of no time is hard to understand. Your being in prayer and always ready to hear, that's also no time and to listening to nature and listening to symbols from the Holy Spirit.
John: Well, actually, now that you mention it, there is one other aspect to my spiritual practice, although I don't usually think of it as one. As I think about it now, I think it is. Every afternoon I go for a walk around the Tarrytown lakes. It takes about 45 minutes. It's about a 2-mile trek. It's a pathway that was a railroad siding and the tracks have been taken out and been paved over. It goes through the woods around the side of the Tarrytown lakes opposite where the cars are so there's virtually no traffic noise. Even though you occasionally see people walking or riding a bike or roller blading, for the most part there's never anyone there. You have this wonderful opportunity to commune with nature. One of the things I do during that period of time is to reiterate the day's course lesson and do a kind of walking meditation on the lesson. For example, I think the lesson for yesterday was "I will be still an instant and come home". I was using it as my mantra as I was taking my walk yesterday. I feel that's a very important part of my spiritual practice too.
Ann: That's an hour and 45 minutes every day.
Ann: Just being focused, present and listening.
John: I was able to do that last year between the two courses I was teaching. I taught one course in the morning, then would have lunch, then mid-afternoon I would go for a walk, around 3 p.m. The class started around 3:50 or so. It was just ideal. I'll probably have a similar schedule in the fall. Everyday, even if it is raining or snowing, I take that walk. I don't let the elements interfere.
Ann: Which again is often written about spiritual practices. You don't just stop, you do it. There's something to be learned in the snow and rain.
John: It's as if the weather doesn't matter.
Ann: And that's there's learning in the weather. There's beauty in each of those things.
John: That's right-precisely.
Ann: You must come into your class very refreshed and very open rather than just sitting and reading or talking. You're very present.
John: Right. We sometimes begin classes by chanting "OM" like they do at Kripalu Yoga Center. I greet the class by saying" Jai Bhagwan" I honor the divine in you" and they say the same thing back to me. I do that at the prison too. I even have a cosmic OM tuning fork to get the right tone.
Ann: I have to get one of those. One of the things that we are doing in the Oneness part of this site is we want to get the tone. There are spiritual tones.
John: I saw it advertised. It's called the Cosmic OM Tuning Fork. It's a certain vibration. It has the hertz number right on there. I feel it is important.
Ann: It is important. Absolutely.
John: The tone can make the difference. I tone/tune my ear, and then I start the tone-start the chant and then the class picks up on it. You can tell by the chant how the energy is going to be in that class for the day.
Ann: What's the difference?
John: Well, sometimes there's just more energy then others, but you can hear it in the "OM".
Ann: I know when I do healing work you can take a tuning fork and run it down someone's spine and you can tell which of the Chakras are very lively and the ones that are dead. It'll just pull the sound right out. It's the same principle.
John: Students will sometimes write about how important that is for them.
Ann: And so different.
John: At first some of them are uncomfortable with it. They might even snicker or laugh. Eventually everyone gets into it. Sometimes I'll forget-and they'll remind me.
Ann: And you're the only class there that is doing that I'm sure.
John: Probably. I haven't heard of any others.
Ann: It's very nice for them to have a different experience.
John: Well, we used to begin class, when I first started teaching, with a prayer to the Holy Spirit-"Come Holy Spirit, fill our hearts of thy faithful and enkindle them with the fire of thy love." I remember that prayer. Then the government voted for-I think it was called the Bundy Amendment-where public money was given to institutions like Marymount, to provide for student aid. But in order to qualify, we had to take the crucifixes off the wall and people felt that it wasn't inappropriate to begin class with the prayer anymore. It created a vacuum. We had to secularize the environment somewhat. At least at our institution that meant all the crucifixes at the "front" of the classrooms were taken down. It created a vacuum until I went up to Kripalu Yoga Center and saw what they were doing with the om and the Sanskrit greeting, "Jai Bhagwan," and thought; "Hmm, perhaps that is remote enough to where people won't see it as partisan." So I came back with that practice and it seemed to work very well. I've been doing it for quite a number of years ever since.
Ann: We've talked about how through meditation, contemplation, nature, time and beauty, you can really hear the Divine. How do you hear? Is it actually words or is it a "sense"? It seems to be different for each person.
John: It varies. There are times when I feel I almost hear words. I can't remember the last time, what the issue was, but the words that I heard were like an assurance: "It's going to be alright." There was something I was worried or anxious about, and I can’t even remember now what it was. I just had this inner feeling, of it's going to be alright, don't worry about it, and then in fact, it did turn out alright. It didn't turn out quite the way I wanted or expected but it definitely turned out the way it was supposed to. It was perfectly fine. I've had that experience a couple of times when I'm really anxious about something and I'll get this reassurance. It can be in the middle of the night. I may wake up to go to the bathroom and I'll have this sense-don't worry anymore. It's going to be alright. There are other times where I'll find myself saying something I didn't even know I was going to say or doing something I didn't know I was going to do-spur of the moment. I was guided and just did it without even thinking I was being guided.
Ann: And afterwards you had a sense?
John: Yes, or the vision I had that someday I would be teaching a course on miracles. That was very palpable. The best word I have for it is it is like a vision. Not that I saw anyone appear before me-just a very powerful sense that you'll be doing that someday. Sometimes, I think the Holy Spirit speaks to me through my students. I feel very fortunate to be in a profession where I have the opportunity to be around young people so much. I know that's happened-the learning from being with my daughter-and it looks like it is going to happen with my grandchildren as you were suggesting.
Ann: Absolutely. They are great teachers. I was in a car with my grand daughters one day and I was saying: "I used to have a hard time saying, No.' They all chimed in together and said: "You still have a hard time saying, No!" It was totally spontaneous and it was total feedback. When I have presents, I could never wait till a birthday or Christmas. I say "Well, you should have these gifts now"! It is a grandmother's privilege! It's so cute to get clear feed back.
John: When it comes to something like finances, I feel like the Holy Spirit is taking care of me.
Ann: Isn't that wonderful because that can be such a hard thing.
John: For many people, but I've never had an issue with it. There's always been enough. Not that I would ever be wealthy. In fact, Paulette's son was saying something to me recently to the effect that you are one of the few people I know that seems perfectly satisfied with whatever-and, or-how much money you are making. Most people always want to make a little more. It's never quite enough.
Ann: There's something missing or there's something you have to do.
John: Something you need and not be able to afford it.
Ann: That makes life very peaceful for you?
John: It does-and you know whenever I do obsess about money, which is not very often-I remember a line in the Course that says something about don't make money real. For example, if I'm in a situation in a restaurant, and a waitress makes a mistake in my favor there may be a temptation to shrug it off and say: "We'll, I'm entitled to that money." Then I'll this little voice in me says: "Don't make money real."
Ann: Now what do you say to students, being Catholic, when bad things happen to good people? Where is God in that?
John: Well, I don't think there is a really good answer. I don't try to understand it because I don't think it can be understood. For me it's a mystery-that we all have lessons to learn. That's why we are all here and some people have harder lessons then others. Superficially, it seems that way to us. Then who's to say as a result of those "harder lessons" they are not becoming more evolved. There's nothing wrong with them. It's just the way it's supposed to work.
Ann: Just be with whatever it is. Like the young woman whose mother committed suicide. When she tried to commit suicide, what's going to come out of that?
John: I think she's probably a very sensitive woman as a result of everything she's been through and she's also very astute in ways that other students her age aren't because she's been through so much. It’s all grist for the mill.
Ann: And what is your grist? What am I dealing with in my life and how can I grow from that? What does it all mean-not to obsess on it, and certainly to be alert to it.
John: I find, as you become more responsive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, life does get easier. My girlfriend is always complaining that I live a "charmed life" compared to her because she has all these things she has to deal with and I seem to be getting off easy-relatively speaking.
Ann: But you can see the difference between your choices in life and her choices in life. She may not be able to see that. That's very important. What are you choosing? Where are you putting your energy? Where are you putting your time? Where are you putting your focus? My kids make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and I don't make anywhere near that. Sometimes I feel jealous. Then I look more deeply and say, "I have everything I need and more" and then I become grateful.
John: What would you do with that amount of money anyway?
Ann: I would probably spend it but it's really not going to change the quality of my life.
John: I think, the wealthier you are the harder it gets for you-at times. I remember reading a study that took random samples of people from 5 different quintiles (one fifth of a circle) on average income. 0 - 20% would be the poorest, way up into the 80% and above-those people being the wealthiest. Then they had a questionnaire about relative happiness. I don't remember how they phrased the questions or the specific kind of questions they asked. I'm remembering it was a reasonable instrument to measure happiness. What they found was that the second quintile, all things being equal, were the happiest-people between the 20th and 40th percentile. Not the people at the top. We all know wealthy people who aren't happy. It's not about that.
Ann: You can be wealthy and be happy but it's not the money that makes you happy. It seems there's tremendous competition and demand and expectation.
John: And worry. When you have that kind of money you have to worry someone's going to take it away-the market's not going to do what it's supposed to do.
Ann: You would have probably-a lot of people do-have a number of people working for you. I remember one man that my husband worked for who was a multimillionaire. He was getting ill, he was elderly, and my husband said: "Why don't you stop?" He said it's very hard to get off the back of a tiger without being eaten. He knew that what he had created was very complex. He couldn't just step away. Simplicity is sometimes a great value, but that was his journey. That's a choice.
John: I think wealth gives you power to do good things too. It's not necessarily a bad thing.
Ann: No-it's not a bad thing and it does not make happiness.
John: That's why I think there's so much unhappiness. If you think the money is going to make you happy and it doesn't-what do you do then? I'm a millionaire and I'm not happy? Now what do I do?
Ann: And it can take a lot of years to get there. You're right; money can do wonderful things. It can be very exciting to have money and access to money. What do you think is our place in the world as human beings? Do we have a special place? Are we different then animals? What is our place?
John: Well that's saying animals don't have a place as well. Look at all this emphasis on "pet therapy" now. It's wonderful to see the effect animals can have on children with various problems-the elderly too. I think we all have a mission. We all have a reason for being here and to the extent we can find out what that is and do it, I think we wind up being much happier then if we don't find out what it is, or are not able or choose not to do it. I remember reading the book channeled through a spirit guide, EMMANUEL by a woman who used to live in Greenwich, Pat Rodagast. Emmanuel was asked what was the most important thing in the world today? People would say things like love and what have you and Emanuel said-Love.
Ann: Sure. This is your life. I like the concept that you really are the eyes and hands of God and it's important what we do.
John: Right. I think that's where the combination of spiritual practice and service come into play.
Ann: Each of the disciplines that I've interviewed said that "service" is very important. You almost just want to do that exclusively. Once you've been blessed and are centered you want to give back. You are giving back in the prisons and you're being enriched by that service.
John: Well that's it. I think that's what most people discover-as you serve you become enriched. I think that has been Jimmy Carter's message to the world.
Ann: He's a wonderful teacher. What a wonderful spiritual teacher.
John: You get much more then you ever give.
Ann: How do you look at what happens to us when we die? Are you concerned about going to heaven or disappearing or is there something else?
John: Well, the Course says: "There is no death." Another lesson is: "I am not a body. I am free." Once you come to the realization that you are not your body, that you are using your body-it's a loan to learn certain lessons in physical form-then the prospect of "death" becomes much less threatening. It's not the end life or Existence. It's a transitional period where you move onto something else, whatever that something else may be. It doesn't mean that you won't be who you are just that you won't have a body.
Ann: Is there reincarnation? Will you come back?
John: Yes. That gets into an area of belief. It seems a reasonable explanation for what can happen at the end of any particular lifetime. If the whole point of our being here is to learn certain lessons and to reach a certain level of purification and spiritual evolution then, it's quite obvious that we don't always get it right the first time around and that some people seem to be more advanced then others.
Ann: The Dali Lama used to say that of someone like Mother Theresa or any of the Masters in any field. They came in with special gifts.
John: The idea of reincarnation makes a lot of sense even though the Catholic Church has never really made a definitive statement one way or the other. I mean you can believe in reincarnation and still be a "good Catholic" as far as I know.
Ann: I have a friend, Father John Rich, a Catholic Priest-A Maryknoll Father-shared with me a paper he had that said the early Christian Church did believe in reincarnation.
John: But it was never condemned.
Ann: It just didn't go there. It was about making this life count
John: And that's pretty much the position of THE COURSE IN MIRACLES. I think there's a whole section about it. The third part of THE COURSE IN MIRACLES is the Manual for teachers. It's in three different volumes. First is the text, second is the workbook which contains the lessons and the third is the manual for teachers and that's basically just clarifying terms and answering specific questions. One of them has to do with reincarnation. The answer is pretty much don't worry about it. Your focus should be on the here and now. I think there are some other portions of the Course that do seem to at least imply that reincarnation does likely occur. There's enough to deal with in this lifetime without worrying about the next one or the past lives.
Ann: I've played with that a little bit but that was so huge. Let's be here now. In closing, is there anything you would like to say to people who are on a quest? Any closing statement you would like to make?
John: The only thought that comes to me when you ask that question is just be who you are. Don't be afraid because that's where the preciousness is. Once you have the realization-the sky's the limit.
John Lawry is a Professor of Psychology at Marymount College in Tarrytown. NY and author of several books.