The personal growth industry attracts some of the best minds and some of the worst. It’s a growth industry in more ways than one, with its $500-a-week workshop fees and the glamorous aura around many of its stars.
Thus, I was a little wary about meeting David Schiffman. As a veteran group leader at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, Schiffman has been involved in the human potential movement for the past twenty years, but the literature I’d seen about him was frustratingly vague, as was the title of his upcoming workshop in North Carolina: “Still Point, Turning Point: A Light And Gentle Approach To Mind, Body, And Heart.”
There was nothing vague, however, about the man. Talking with him, and getting to see him work, was both deeply moving and instructive. It brought to mind a favorite quotation, which a friend of mine has posted on his office door:
“Uwais was asked, ‘How do you feel?’
“He said, ‘Like one who has arisen in the morning, and does not know whether he will be dead in the evening.’
“The other man said, ‘But this is the situation of all men.’
“Uwais said, ‘Yes, but how many of them feel it?’ ”
That exchange, which turns on a deceptively simple yet stunning truth, hints at Schiffman’s influence and charm. Unashamedly yet resoundingly himself, he suffers his mortality; he acknowledges his weaknesses (and his strengths); he feels his feelings with subtlety and depth. “My stock in trade is to keep people true to their own hearts,” he says, and he accomplishes this, in part, by staying true to his own.
His manner is as informal as his faded jeans, and his disarming frankness puts one immediately at ease. Born in Brooklyn, New York forty-four years ago, he was a founding director of Anthos, New York’s first growth center. When he’s not giving workshops, he spends much of his time outdoors — riding horses or doing landscaping or fixing buildings on the ranch near Big Sur which he shares with his wife, their two sons, and a growing family of horses, cats and dogs.
The primeval redwood forest is important to Schiffman; spending time in the wilderness, he maintains, provides unique opportunities to explore one’s inner nature, and returns people “to the simple wisdom of the soul.” He has led workshops on wilderness survival skills, including a seven-day basic training in “self-mastery and risk-taking” called “The Warrior’s Way.”
Schiffman conducts most of his workshops with his wife, Elisa Lodge Schiffman, a former actress and a teacher of Rolf-movement integration. Also on the faculty at Esalen, she teaches her own blend of dance, theater, massage, and movement work. Their workshops include “Self-Acceptance: The Freedom To Be” and “The Gentle Art Of Becoming, Together: A Workshop For Couples.” (For information about their work, write to the Schiffmans at Flying Horse Ranch, Palo Colorado Canyon, Carmel, CA 93923.)
Schiffman wears a boar’s tusk on a chain around his neck, and I asked him why. “Because you can’t stop a boar,” he says. “Shoot him and he’ll keep coming at you.” In watching him work, I saw that same fierce quality in him, expressed as a quiet but unyielding determination to help people move past their own defenses. By turns sly, funny, blisteringly honest, tender; trusting his hunches; astonishingly intuitive; alert to nuances of voice and gesture, he’d move closer and closer to the person across from him, perhaps physically, perhaps with just a look. What he creates this way is a mood of communion, by his open-hearted willingness to be himself and by his genuine compassion. The effect of this on the other person is palpable and transformative.
Before we sat down for our interview, Schiffman and I discovered we’d grown up in the same neighborhood. He was reminiscing about life in Brooklyn when I turned on the tape recorder.
SCHIFFMAN: What I remember about growing up in that neighborhood was enormous security. We didn’t lock the door to our house for twenty years. There was a feeling of knowing your own place, and there was a cast of characters that had its own flavor. There was a consistency and dependability to life in those times which I don’t think is too common anymore.
SUN: Where did you go to school?
SCHIFFMAN: I went to Brooklyn College for a year. Then I got involved in the theater, dropped out of college, and ran off to find something glamorous, romantic, artistic. I couldn’t stand school; I felt it to be a very stifling influence. Even though I’d been brought up to think education was the key to everything that was going to make me happy, I found it too great a strain to live in an academic setting. It was enormously trying for me to walk away from it, but now at forty-four, I can look back and see that I had some sense then. The hands-on education I received after leaving school was far more sensible, and made me far more versatile as a man. I didn’t get lost in some of the traps that I’ve seen people fall into — people who did all the right things, were educated “properly,” set themselves in the right grooves, and then suddenly found themselves in the flower of middle age in a mood of despair. The guiding principle for me since I was a young man has been the path of the heart: how to stay true to your own inner life, your own dreams, your own sense of what’s real, and make a practical life out of it. My stock in trade is to keep people true to their own hearts.
Still, until I was about thirty-five, I was in a state of mind which I would regard as adolescent. At that time, I apprenticed myself to an old man who had lived at Big Sur for forty-five years, living the life there, close to the earth, as it’s always been lived. From being with him, I began to get into a sense of my own mastery. There’s a kind of self-sufficiency in Big Sur, a fierce independence in mountain people that, to me, was enormously attractive. I’ve always looked for what gives people a feeling of authentic involvement in the lives they lead, and I saw people there, especially this man, who seemed to be living with real satisfaction. Through him, I discovered a lot about myself that I was eager to realize.
The elemental world in Big Sur is as vivid as can be. Simple things began to make themselves very evident in my own life — an embracing of silence, an attunement to laws that seemed eternal rather than glossy or impressive.
SUN: As a workshop leader at Esalen, how do you deal with people who want to make you a hero or a guru?
SCHIFFMAN: I don’t think anyone should be the object of too much veneration. I don’t think anyone deserves it. It’s dangerous. Part of what I do in my work is to give people a sense of their own self-possession — to encourage them to look at the influences coming their way, use what’s useful to them, and get rid of the rest. People get too slavish for the salvation they think one person can provide. Inevitably, the one who provides your salvation also provides your downfall.
SUN: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
SCHIFFMAN: With those like Muktananda or Rajneesh or Da Free John, people overlook corruption for reasons of high-mindedness. Then, when the corruption can’t be overlooked anymore, people are sorely disappointed that their dreams have been dashed. To my mind, the dreams haven’t been dashed — just the idea that some person here on earth is going to embody those dreams. Anyway, I do my best not to be anything but an ordinary man doing some useful work.
SUN: But inevitably, because you’re a workshop leader at a place like Esalen, some people are going to idealize you.
SCHIFFMAN: Sure, and you can take advantage of that, or believe it yourself if you’re dopey, and then wind up in some serious trouble. I’m interested in living a life that’s guided by ideas not about how things ought to be but rather how they are. A lot of the work I do aims at giving people some respite from the price of idealization, from creating high-minded goals that are unnatural.
SUN: Can you give me an example?
SCHIFFMAN: The idea of constantly being loving. Many spiritual teachers suggest that the trajectory you should create for yourself is one where you evolve higher and higher into this state of blissful acceptance. But people get tired of being blissful and accepting. They get cranky, they get fatigued, they get full of whatever it is that divides them from everybody else, and they need to take a rest and get out of everybody else’s hair, and let everybody get out of theirs. So the idea of constant love then becomes a questionable matter. To me, there’s a greater challenge in embracing how paradoxical one’s inner life actually turns out to be.
SUN: Do you, nonetheless, feel any motivation to be more loving?
SCHIFFMAN: I would say my aspiration is to be as loving a man as I am, rather than as loving a man as I can become. When I’m tired and I need a rest, I have the good sense to take a break and not demand that I strive toward a goal that isn’t true to me. When you’re in that mood you may give the appearance of support or love, but underneath you begin to feel resentful. So my highest goal, in a sense, is to be true to my own nature and to the deeper laws that seem to govern the natural world. On that basis I think I do maintain a relatively loving way. But it’s not love I’m after, it’s an accordance with the deeper resonances, the levels that shape the eternal cycles of which we’re all a part.
I think living in the woods for twenty years has given me a picture of those cycles or seasons that represent contraction and expansion, separation and involvement. I’m eager to create a climate in myself and in those around me where we’re not straining to maintain abstractions. In the civilized world, that’s the greatest problem people face — what to do with the strain that comes from trying to hold to schedules or goals that are maintained in the mind, to ethical systems that sometimes have very little to do with day-to-day experience. But how hard-put people are to give up their ideals! The greatest challenge is to surrender your high-mindedness.
SUN: Does that mean you’re against spiritual values?
SCHIFFMAN: I have a very deep and abiding interest in my own spiritual life, which to me means reverence. You can feel it in the most mundane circumstances — the way you fix a machine or treat an animal or the way you regard your wife or your children. That, to me, is real spiritual life — not trying to strive toward some goal, but rather embracing the worldly as the source of your wisdom, and making the eternal manifest in these very immediate concerns.
At Esalen, I’ve seen a lot of people come through and tell good stories. But the real story is someone’s reverence, their sense of the sanctity of life, how they treat their family, their work. There are a lot of clever people. You listen to the stories they’re telling and they seem glamorous, and you think, “Wow, this really looks like the future.” But then you see they’ve got troubles like everybody else. To me, that’s really the measure — how people handle the troubles they have. Over the years, you see whether a person has the character that goes along with his stories.
SUN: How much pain do you deal with in your own life?
SCHIFFMAN: There are days when I’m miserable and days when I’m blissful. I would say that as I’ve gotten older I’ve had less unnecessary pain. When you’ve lived a while and you’ve seen the kind of real suffering people have, you can put your own suffering in perspective. So I have less illusory suffering — the kind you manufacture yourself because you don’t have the right car, or the right clothes, or the right this or that. I’ve had my troubles. People I love have died, or have wound up in serious trouble. I’ve had hopes dashed because I wasn’t smart enough to think ahead. My wife and I have had difficulties getting along, the way most people do. So I’ve had my suffering and it’s seasoned me. It’s made me appreciate the sweetness when it’s there.
SUN: It seems to me there’s a grief in everybody I meet. The depth of it is perhaps different, but mostly what’s different is the extent to which people acknowledge it and how they deal with it. I wonder how much of your own grief you feel close to on a day-to-day basis.
SCHIFFMAN: Well, life is hard and then you die. (Laughs.) As sweet as life is, it ends. There’s a grief in me about that. Although I’ve recently had some very close friends facing very severe circumstances, my own life has been relatively untouched by tragedy. But I can look back to my forebears, the ones who were burned in the ovens in Europe, and see myself as a legacy of that tragedy. Living in Big Sur for twenty years has been, for me, an escape from that legacy, a way to get out from under that feeling of imminent tragedy that used to dog me at every turn. There was no way that I could trust the world around me to be benign. That’s a shadow that’s possessed me for as long as I can remember. One of the reasons I wanted to become a rugged individual was to be able to tackle the things that scared me rather than constantly being weighed down by this feeling of peril. I’ve worked with a lot of Jewish people who, even though they have everything, aren’t certain it’s really theirs.
SUN: It’s very hard, I think, to separate how much that has to do with being Jewish from how much that has to do with being human.
SCHIFFMAN: I would say that being Jewish, you’re more conscious of that fear, that insecurity. It’s far more immediate; it’s not an abstraction. You can look back just one generation to when the monsters are out of the closet and after you. They’re not after somebody else, they’re going to kill you. That has been one of the most compelling motifs in my own existence, in terms of what I need to learn to transcend. I mean, this is something I can worry about forever. It’s always there. I have wanted to worry instead about what I really need to worry about — how to fix this, how to take care of that, how to address the concerns I can actually manage rather than being paralyzed by abstract fears.
SUN: How about the grief we still carry that’s a consequence of painful childhood experiences?
SCHIFFMAN: I was talking one day with that old man who had been my mentor in Big Sur. I was plagued with doubts and uncertainties and fears that seemed to be rooted in my childhood. I was telling him I wasn’t taught how to be an adult, that I was crippled in many ways. He sat there and listened to me without saying anything, while I ran down the litany of my complaints. And he said, “There’s nothing sadder than a boy of forty.”
It’s true. Those things that shaped you as a child have to be understood, but you have to get on with it, regardless of what you were or weren’t taught. If you indulge yourself indefinitely in a mood of helplessness because of childhood injustices, you squander what might be here in your life now. To me, that’s sadder than anything. Being lost in therapy can be a worse dead-end than being a prisoner of your childhood if, as a result, you excuse yourself from acting courageously. A lot of the work I do is to bring people into a willingness to grow up, to face the facts, to do what they need to do, to put aside their preoccupation with the lessons they got as children. Everybody has to retrieve his or her right to be angry, to be sad, to be alive, to be sexual. And everybody had troubles as a kid. Nobody grows up perfect. If there were people who did, they’d be disappointed that everybody else is so fucked up, so they would have pain about that. At a certain point, I think, when you get to be about forty, you begin to see that the shaping you’ve received exists amidst a spectrum of influences. There are influences that come later that can either affirm or reverse the trends of your childhood. That’s when you’re consciously grown up: when you start to look at these influences.
SUN: In what ways have your relationships with women changed?
SCHIFFMAN: The first five years my wife and I were together, we argued a lot about what we deserved from one another in terms of attention, space, support. There was an enormous amount of struggle, really dramatic struggle. Since we had only each other, the only thing we could rely upon was the mood we shared. That’s a very poor basis on which to form a relationship. You have to have interests in common that are deeper than just a mood. Today, we have our work in common, we have children in common, we have a place we’ve been building together, we have animals that we take care of and love. As our interests have changed from what was going on between us to things that we love in common, the character of our relationship changed. We don’t argue about so many insubstantial things. We have a more richly textured life now. If you had asked me ten years ago if I’d be living a life like this — with kids and animals and property — I’d have said no, I’m barely able to take care of myself. The change in perspective is that I have far more in me to give than I used to think I did. A lot of my problems came from not having any place to put my energy. As I’ve found myself expressing the vastness of my heart, much of the agitation in me is settling down.
I don’t think I’ve stumbled upon any secret wisdom. I got older and wiser because you just do that if you have any sense. As the years pass, you begin to see what’s important, and that changes your perspective about what to argue about.
SUN: When I see myself acting in a way that isn’t loving, I don’t feel sanguine enough about it to say, well, as I get older it will fall away.
SCHIFFMAN: Time changes a lot of things. And certain struggles develop and then subside if you’re only willing to sit back and not be too eager to correct them. There is a value in not being so interested in striving, but rather in developing a more intrinsic feeling of appreciation for the flow of events. I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating that because it’s clear to me I’ve done a lot of unnecessary suffering, been too interested in the shadings of my own pain. It’s a kind of Talmudic bent, this preoccupation with “meaning” which was often at the root of my discomfort. That was the lineage out of which my style of inquiry grew. And it has its price, which is that you don’t have much peace. You’re too preoccupied with shadings and shadings and shadings. That blissful silence, that void that can enter into your mind, is contaminated by your preoccupation with value. It’s the hardest thing to cure I ever came across, because it seems to have some real value to the person who has it. If you try to take it away from them, they think you’re trying to fuck with the essential character of their ability to discern, to know, to create meaning. But I can see objectively how costly it is in terms of emotional anguish.
I like to tell the story of arriving at Esalen as an ex-New Yorker, in 1970, at the tail-end of the psychedelic revolution. The mood in Big Sur was a lot like New York’s Lower East Side; there were a lot of outlaws — semi-criminals, genteel criminals. In some ways, I felt very much at home there. But people would look strangely at me — I still had a lot of that New York energy in me and I couldn’t stop talking. And they’d say, in a well-meaning way, “Why don’t you lighten up?” I’d think, “Well, this is California, people are flakey.” They’d say, “Why don’t you get a massage? Just lie down and shut up. See what happens.” So I dutifully went down to the baths to get my massage. To lie there for an hour made me as tense as I can ever remember being. It was a lesson to me about the rate at which you embrace certain elements in yourself that are not so familiar. I’m a very slow learner, basically. I have to enter slowly, and very hesitantly, avenues into which other people can jump without thinking. It’s taken me twenty years to learn what other people seem to be able to learn in weeks or days. But it’s made me a very effective teacher. Because I’m so full of resistances that come from the rational, hard-headed way of thinking, I can work with just about anybody because I’ve been a much harder case than they are. I know, too, from the inside what it’s meant for me to let go of a lot of the smart-ass thinking, and say yes to things that on the surface might have seemed without substance, or bizarre.
The idea of constant love becomes a questionable matter. To me, there’s a greater challenge in embracing how paradoxical one’s inner life actually turns out to be.
SUN: In your workshops for couples, what problems come up most often, and to what extent do you encounter these problems in your own marriage?
SCHIFFMAN: There isn’t a problem we’ve come across that Elisa and I haven’t had. But what’s central to our relationship is the idea that marriage is a kind of sacred practice ground, an opportunity to come to grips with the deepest concerns in your own life. We’ve been as devoted as I imagine anyone can be to enriching the texture of our experience together, in terms of sexual energy, creative energy, any kind of expressiveness. Most people we work with as couples like to be together but feel somewhat flattened out because of their routines, the distractions that come when you work hard and you’ve got other things on your mind. We try to help them relate with fresh eyes, with new energies, with a perspective that’s not rooted so much in the mundane. We have the same troubles: we work hard, we get distracted, we have children, we have preoccupations and differences that flatten us out. Our own practice of bringing the light back in is a real test of whether we’re doing anything sensible. If we can’t do it with each other, there’s no use preaching it to anybody else. We’ve been through some horrendous struggles — the kind of struggles during which people would say, “Why do you even bother to do this? What possesses two people to want to go through such difficulties?” Now that, to me, is when you enter into the zone of madness — the part of the involvement that you can’t define rationally but that keeps people together. We have a big piece of our life that’s tied up in that mixture of love and desperation. I’m interested in that ferociousness in people — and how to mine it rather than let it become thwarted, which makes people turn monstrous on each other. That’s another level: you have to be able to get down and get dirty and get into that zone to feel the fire. A lot of couples are squeamish about that. They’re too civilized to enter into that zone because it seems too dangerous.
SUN: It’s right on the edge of murder.
SCHIFFMAN: It is. But if you’re on the edge of murder and you can hold it, there’s a sweetness in that, a fire, a light that’s so incandescent, that’s so enormously warming that you can’t think of anything more blissful.
SUN: It takes tremendous energy to stay there.
SCHIFFMAN: It takes tremendous energy not to stay there too.
SUN: What have you learned about sex?
SCHIFFMAN: Sexual energy adds luster to everything people are involved in. Most people are very narrow in their focus on sexuality. They see it as essentially genital. But you can eroticize everything you do — how you eat, how you touch, how you look, how you smell. All the senses are enormously inspiring. Even after being together years and years and years, you can still feel an enormous excitement, if you are willing to open yourself entirely to the pervasiveness of sexual energy in life. Sexual luster runs through everything; it exists in all relationships. So I’ve learned to embrace it and yet not to make it personal, except with my wife. It can be in a good conversation with somebody, in a musical interchange, in a ceremonial practice. The zap you get is sexual, but it’s not personal. It’s not something you have to fuck somebody about, it’s just a pleasure you take in the company you keep.
SUN: Esalen has been associated with a free-wheeling sexuality.
SCHIFFMAN: Esalen is a place where people can be thoroughly and wholly in their own bodies, and that goes along with being at home with your own self sexually. The willingness to inhabit yourself fully is a central factor in Esalen’s teaching. But life there now is pretty sedate; it’s not by any means the wild and woolly place it once was. There’s a bit of sexual experimentation that goes on because there’s a certain number of people in transition, but it’s not an orgiastic revel.
SUN: So, is being attracted to other people, or feeling threatened by your wife’s attractions, not an issue for you?
SCHIFFMAN: Not a major issue. It occasionally comes up, but it’s not something either one of us is terribly preoccupied with. I think that any man who is involved with an extremely attractive woman has to face the fact that she’s going to be the object of a lot of attention. If you’re not solid in terms of your own self-value and your sense of loyalty, you get into trouble. If there’s a climate of uncertainty in terms of loyalty, that can be an irksome matter, but Elisa has been a loyal wife. She’s made that very evident to me a variety of times. She doesn’t strain me. That’s not a part of the structure of our relationship. So I can be peaceful about that.
SUN: How about you — do you ever find yourself attracted to a woman in a way that feels uncomfortable?
SCHIFFMAN: There’s been a lot of temptation. But after you’ve stepped over a few lines and come back, you begin to see the price you pay for certain things. I’m titillated at times. I feel the sparks between me and other people. It’s a matter of perspective. How much trouble do I want to make for myself? Not much! I mean, what’s a couple of squirts worth, if you want to look at it that way. My relationship with my wife is a deep and rich thing. I’ve had moments when I’ve felt discontented and found myself drawn to other people. When the kids were very young, Elisa was totally absorbed with them, and I felt neglected. So the temptations were much more intense at that time. But if you find yourself in a constant state of being tempted or if the person you’re with is always in that state, you ought to wonder whether you’re in the right place with the right person, because I don’t think that’s very natural.
SUN: I still judge myself harshly if I feel strongly attracted to someone other than my wife.
SCHIFFMAN: The lusty part of ourselves is nothing to disparage. I sometimes feel there’s a gang of men that live in me, and they all love to fuck. An interesting distinction came up at a men’s group I did last week between the wild man — the part of a man that’s never going to be tamed, that’s lusty and unashamed — and the savage man, who is interested in diminishing someone, having power over rather than power with. As we talked about this, I realized how much I value and need this wildness, which is not going to be domesticated for anybody, and how little interest I have in being savage or in being savaged in turn. I think if you can make that distinction, then you don’t fault yourself for those impulses that you know are real, but don’t have to be acted on.
I spend a lot of time doing things that give that wild part of me plenty of room, whether it’s raising animals or fixing trucks or shooting arrows. I have avenues of expression where that part of me comes out, and it’s nice not only for me but for other people, too. It gives them pleasure; it’s not frightening. It’s mostly just a full-blooded sense of being yourself.
I would say my aspiration is to be as loving a man as I am, rather than as loving a man as I can become.
SUN: One of your workshops is on “The Warrior’s Way.” To what extent is it possible for someone who lives in a big city, who works in an office, to follow the warrior’s way?
SCHIFFMAN: There’s some level of access possible anywhere. Cities have their own fierceness. There’s a street sense you develop, a feeling of being able to carry yourself through the perils of city life that in their own way test a person’s capacity to be a warrior. So I don’t think it’s something to experience only in the woods.
It’s a matter of taste, in part. For some, an urban life is the most natural thing in the world. In the city, I learned a great deal about my sense of poise under pressure, and my ability to be resourceful, to keep my heart open, and to do decent things that needed to be done. But I find that in a world where there is less urbanity, other values are accessible that can be quite illuminating and comforting. But not everybody wants to live that way.
SUN: One of the criticisms of places such as Esalen is that while they create an enclave where growth can occur, they’re artificial. Being in a workshop isn’t how people really live.
SCHIFFMAN: That’s a valid criticism. One way I address it is this: in contrast to most group leaders, I suggest that the connections people make in groups become the foundations for real friendships. If you have the opportunity to open your heart to somebody, the connection that you’ve established is one to be built on, not something to be discarded or valued for its anonymity. The real value of what goes on in a group is its reverberation over time. Is it sustained? And one thing that sustains this type of mood is friendship. So I always encourage people to make friends.
Workshops are useful when people need to recuperate from the strain of their day-to-day life, and they need a retreat. That’s the function of a retreat; to get you away from that which interrupts and distracts you, to give you an opportunity to settle down into your own deep, inner life. And the only way that people can do that sometimes is to go to a place like Esalen. I did a group in San Jose for a rabbi who brought together some men from his congregation. These were very well-to-do people — everybody’s got the swimming pool and the three cars — and this poor rabbi has to give them some kind of connection to something other than their material success. I walk into the room and I start out with maybe a minute and a half of introductory remarks about my work and boom, they’re off and running with every bit of opinionating you can imagine. And I sit there for an hour, listening to them fighting. Finally it settled down for a bit, when I pointed out that the mood they were creating was not exactly soulful. I said to the rabbi afterward that we had to get these guys out of San Jose, take them away from a back yard full of expensive accoutrements. It was essential for them to get into a place where they wouldn’t be continually reminded of their need to strive.
SUN: How do your groups differ from conventional therapy?
SCHIFFMAN: I break down the structures more. I don’t use therapeutic language. I don’t act like a therapist. I’m basically just being myself. I try to eliminate as much as possible those things that seem to create a sense of precious isolation or that rarify the atmosphere. Therapy is an opportunity to relive moments that are diminishing and then to recapture your own essence·. But the real test to me is when you go back out and have to face the people you actually live with and do what you couldn’t before.
SUN: What ambivalence, if any, do you have about workshop fees that seem so high?
SCHIFFMAN: If you really need to go to Esalen you can go whether you have money or not. There’s plenty of scholarship money available. There’s always been a stream of people coming through there who are not monied. Still, by its nature, Esalen is a white, middle-class type of operation. You see an occasional black or Chicano or an Oriental, but mostly white, middle-class professionals. I personally do other work that addresses different needs. I’ve worked at Soledad Prison, I’ve done political organizing, I’ve tried to provide support for people in the community who would never go to Esalen. My family and I have had people come up and stay with us for varying lengths of time, for example. One man has been living with us for three years. He’s a Vietnam vet who spent eighteen years on the road after he got back from the war. He’s made himself a very useful part of the family. But I’ve watched him go from being mistrustful, hard-hearted, and semi-crazy to being open-hearted and involved.
He was in this men’s group I just finished. It was the first group he’d done with me in all these years. Just a week before the group, he’d gone to the film, “Platoon,” which is about the Vietnam War, and after ten minutes he ran out, called me, and said, “Listen, I’m terrified. If we don’t talk I’m afraid I’m going to go into the bar across the street and I’m going to wind up in jail.” So we talked and he settled down. And in the group this incident came up, and all of us ended up going into town together to watch the movie with him. It was a stunning experience. After all these years, he finally felt as if he was with people who could understand what he’d been through. Later on, we did a ceremony — he carved the word “Vietnam” on an arrow and shot it out into the ocean, as a way to mark the passing of this legacy. And he cried and everybody embraced him. It was an enormously dramatic moment.
What you get back from a situation like this isn’t contrived, it isn’t social work. It’s life — the most unstructured, richly textured kind of life.
SUN: I understand what you’re saying about the range of your concerns and your involvement with people. I still wonder why your workshops are so expensive.
SCHIFFMAN: I think of myself as someone who is paid for his influence. I have perspectives that are worth a certain amount of money. That’s my trade. I’m not averse to taking people in who haven’t got money. I cut my deals individually. If somebody has no money but they have something else to offer, or if they have no money and nothing else to offer, but have a real need, I wouldn’t say no. I’m not a rich man by any means. I live a decent life and I have to pay for it. I try to earn enough money so I’m not constantly worrying about money. I have many mouths to feed: forty animals, two men who look after things, and me and my wife and the children. Every time I make a leap into further responsibility I’ve got to earn more money to keep it covered.
I also feel that there are so many things that people spend money on — things that provide no comfort or only an ephemeral satisfaction — that it’s easy to charge money for what I do because I know it has real value.
SUN: Because someone has paid for a workshop, what obligation do you feel to be caring, even if you’re not feeling that way? What if you’re tired, or your heart feels closed?
SCHIFFMAN: I understand what you’re saying — can you feel your own lack of enthusiasm and still deliver the goods? I think there’s a certain professionalism in what people like me do, when you carry through with your responsibilities even though you may not be in the mood for it. I try to pace myself so I don’t get in that mood very often. I don’t like to put myself in a position where I have to say to myself, “Oh, God, I’ve got to do this because I’m being paid.” I’m hardly ever in that mood.
SUN: We live in a time when there’s such a craving in people to be around someone who is open-hearted that they will pay for it. To me, there’s a sadness in it.
SCHIFFMAN: Yes, I think that’s true. If we lived more appropriately, in the sense of village life, with more immediate connections to people, nobody would have to pay for that.
SUN: Earlier, you talked briefly about your spiritual values. I’d like to hear more.
SCHIFFMAN: I’m much less critical of spiritual teachings than I used to be. When I first got to California, I thought, “Oh boy, what a bunch of stuff to distract yourself from what’s real. These people are just fooling themselves into thinking there’s peace on earth, when there’s so much agony. How can they ignore it?” Now I think spiritual teachings do have a place. They’re designed to comfort us in our journey; they give us the wisdom to look at things so that they’re not as agonizing as they seem. There’s a comfort in being able to step back to a position of less attachment. Elisa has a way of rising above adversity to see the cosmic. It used to drive me crazy. I’d say, “Shut up. I’m miserable. Why don’t you acknowledge how troublesome this is instead of telling me to take this lofty position?” She has always been a much more instinctive, intuitive type of person and I’d just beat her down mercilessly. So she had to face the wrath of the dragons of my reason and learn how to slay them so she could stand for her own way of seeing things. As a result, I can now take comfort in some of the things she’s taught me. But it takes time. I go through the agony and eventually come to the conclusion she’s given me long before. But first I need to go through my own process.
SUN: Aside from the fears connected with being Jewish that you talked about earlier, what else does your Jewish heritage mean to you?
SCHIFFMAN: There are elements of my Jewishness about which I feel enormously appreciative — the sensitivity to value, the concern with justice. On the other hand, the feeling of specialness, of being chosen, is the most irksome thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I want to have as little to do with that as I possibly can. So I see myself as a man who’s taken the Jewishness in himself very much in earnest and used the best parts of it to further the higher values that I maintain. But there have been many other influences that have made me the person I am.
I am still interested in people I’ve met who are outlaw Jews, radical Jews, who observe the faith differently than the ways I was exposed to, and who call to something in me that’s not completely at rest. I often wonder if I’ll wind up like my Dad. When he got old, and was ready to die, he got serious about being a Jew again. Whether I’ll wind up doing exactly the same thing, and feeling sorry for my kids because I didn’t do the right thing for them, I don’t know. I still have some questions about whether I’m being too arrogant, dismissing something that’s far greater than my puny little ego. But the answers have not made themselves evident to me. Only the questions have.
SUN: What role have drugs played in your own journey?
SCHIFFMAN: I’m interested in doing whatever I can to know myself, and I think that has to be done with an enormous respect for the dangers. Terrence McKenna suggests a way to measure the value of psychedelic exploration: the more fearful you are about the drug, the more truly useful it may be. If you’re not scared, you’re just using it for recreation.
But this kind of exploration isn’t for everybody. Most people aren’t interested in taking such risks. The teachings that are revealed this way have always been considered somewhat esoteric. It’s threatening to most people to wave this kind of thing in their faces. What Timothy Leary did, for example, is stupid. He said he spent time in forty different jails. The reason is because he’s such a show-off. The wise person will cool it, keep a low profile, because that insures his survival.
Nevertheless, to my mind the right to investigate your own consciousness, to inhabit your own imagination, to explore your inner self, is fundamental in a society based on freedom.
I’ve smoked marijuana for twenty-five years, and I’m grateful for the existence of that drug. It’s one of the most effective mood enhancers I know, for a certain kind of sensitization.
SUN: So you don’t think there’s anything contradictory about teaching people to open their hearts and still using marijuana yourself?
SCHIFFMAN: No. I think the danger is if you use the drug instead of the opening. This is especially true for young people, who with drugs can achieve a state of bliss that’s without any substance; it becomes a distraction, and that keeps them from getting to the heart of the matter.
SUN: Do you ever use marijuana as a short-cut, though? Surely it’s tempting when the heart is closed to light up a joint instead of figuring out what’s really bothering you.
SCHIFFMAN: Anything can be abused.
SUN: Except the heart.
SCHIFFMAN: Oh no, the heart can be abused, too. One’s receptivity and openness and the willingness to be kind can be abused. But of course drugs represent some short-cuts and have the potential to be very much abused.
SUN: Do you feel vulnerable acknowledging that you smoke marijuana?
SCHIFFMAN: Not in your magazine. If I was doing this for another publication, where sensationalism was the point, I might feel that way.
SUN: So you’d be more circumspect?
SUN: Do you always tell the truth, then?
SCHIFFMAN: No, not the whole truth. That can be very unkind, to yourself and to others. I don’t believe in living a life based on the brutal revelation of the truth, no matter how miserable it makes someone feel, the way it used to be done in the encounter groups at Esalen. You have to be aware of the intention of your revelation.
SUN: How do you keep that from becoming self-serving?
SCHIFFMAN: It’s an interesting dilemma: what you need to tell, when, and whether you ought to. I used to think, when I was younger, that I needed always to be truthful. But the truth is often contradictory, and certain levels of truth don’t make themselves evident immediately. So I’m very reluctant to speak only “the Truth.” I’d rather speak what’s real and hope that the truth will be in what’s real. The idea of objective truth, to me, is a very dangerous idea. You can go to court and see that — everybody’s telling the truth, and everybody’s saying something different.
For me, what’s more important is to go to bed every night with a peaceful conscience, feeling that I’ve done justice to the concerns that matter to me, and that I haven’t been mean, or failed to speak up about something important.