The Work of Stephen Robbins Schwartz

by Sy Safransky

I’d been melan­cho­ly for weeks, dog­ged by fee­lings I couldn’t name. Then my wife went out of town; I didn’t want her to go.

You might say I was rea­dy for a good cry. Yet how temp­t­ing to igno­re sor­row, as if it were a beg­gar. Those dark, accu­sing eyes.

I almost rus­hed past Stephen Schwartz, too. A book­let describ­ing his work­shops sat on my desk, unread, along with dozens of other brochu­res pro­mi­sing to unf­url my petals. Who has time for work­shops? Life is so busy rear­ran­ging us alrea­dy, and truth such a flirt. Read the words of the mas­ter, spend an evening with the mas­ter: there’s no tel­ling whe­ther you’ll get enligh­te­ned or her­pes. No, I didn’t want ano­t­her teacher.

But when I final­ly picked up the book­let, I was intrigued. Here was a spi­ri­tu­al thin­ker who shun­ned spi­ri­tu­al dic­tums; who sug­gested that the body doesn’t need to be trans­cen­ded or the per­so­na­li­ty fixed; who insis­ted that self-know­ledge has more to do with fee­lings than phi­lo­so­phy — fee­lings, not psy­cho­lo­gi­cal insights, not our thoughts and sto­ries about our fee­lings. I was intrigued, too, that the book­let had been sent by one of Schwartz’s admi­rers. Schwartz doesn’t adver­ti­se and his books aren’t avail­ab­le in most stores; you need to stumb­le onto his work. I orde­red a tape.

I lis­tened to it on my way to the air­port. But I wasn’t real­ly lis­tening. I was thin­king about my wife, eager to see her but deter­mi­ned not to show it, embarr­as­sed I’d been so sul­len about her lea­ving, as if she weren’t com­ing back. I was sick of mys­elf, the scratchy sound­track of my days, the despe­ra­te lon­ging. What was Schwartz say­ing? Sadness isn’t wrong. Pain isn’t shame­ful. I lis­tened more clo­se­ly. We con­demn and deny our lone­li­ness. We take our lon­ging for love and turn it into shame. His voice so ardent, so sin­ce­re. Yet lone­li­ness is a pray­er, a deep lon­ging to know and feel God’s pre­sence. His words like the sea, rocking me; like a big wave, whacking me in the chest. There is gre­at strength in wan­ting. There is digni­ty, not shame, in lone­li­ness. My mind was a han­ging judge who show­ed no mer­cy. I resen­ted my wife for lea­ving, but I resen­ted mys­elf even more for fee­ling left. We can’t keep mea­su­ring our­sel­ves against some enligh­te­ned ide­al, as if self-hat­red could be a path to love. There’s no dis­grace in any expe­ri­ence we’ve ever had. There’s not­hing we need to run from. No, I thought, sor­row isn’t the enemy. In the mir­ror I caught a glim­pse of mys­elf, tears strea­ming down my cheeks.

Since then, I’ve spent many hours rea­ding Schwartz’s wri­tings and lis­tening to his tapes. The beau­ty of his lan­guage, the pas­si­on and luci­di­ty of his mes­sa­ge, con­ti­nue to move me.

Schwartz is more than just a good lis­tener, a psy­cho­lo­gi­cal­ly astu­te guy with a flair for the right phra­se. At times, he inspi­res a com­pa­ri­son with the gre­at Indian phi­lo­so­pher Krishnamurti, who insis­ted that truth is a “path­less land” that can­not be approa­ched through beliefs. Also, tho­se fami­li­ar with A Course In Miracles — the radi­cal ren­de­ring of Christian thought with which Schwartz was once iden­ti­fied — will reco­gni­ze his debt to the Course, as well as his inde­pen­dence from it. Instead of par­ro­ting the Course, he embo­dies its tea­chings on love and for­gi­ve­ness, threa­ding the Course’s lof­ty ide­als into the fray­ed fab­ric of ordi­na­ry lives.

At his work­shops, Schwartz asks peop­le to sit in a cir­cle with their eyes clo­sed. Then, through a pro­cess simi­lar to medi­ta­ti­on, with its focus on the breath, and to the­ra­py, with its empha­sis on fee­lings — but dra­ma­ti­cal­ly unli­ke eit­her — he gent­ly but per­sist­ent­ly encou­ra­ges them to turn to the pain, not the ideo­lo­gy about the pain; to the truth of the body, not cli­ches about the truth; to the actu­al fee­lings, not the words that wrap the fee­lings in too many lay­ers, like a mother ner­vous­ly bund­ling her infant against a warm, fra­grant breeze.

Usually, Schwartz exp­lains, thoughts are so clus­te­red around a fee­ling that it seems as if the defi­ni­ti­on is the fee­ling. But the fee­ling is dif­fe­rent from the thought, dif­fe­rent from the inter­pre­ta­ti­on we’ve always given it. The body feels. When we feel lone­li­ness, when we feel anger, when we feel love, we feel it in the body. Our fears and men­tal tur­moil, he says, are the result of try­ing to place limi­t­ing labels on the inno­cent fee­ling life. Therefore, tur­ning to the body, with com­pas­sio­na­te atten­ti­on, is the first step in real­ly caring for ourselves.

There’s a more eso­te­ric aspect to Schwartz’s work that’s dif­fi­cult to descri­be, and may lea­ve skep­ti­cal rea­ders shaking their heads. To him, the phy­si­cal body is only the visi­ble por­ti­on of “an invi­si­ble field of radi­ant ener­gy.” This field, he says, is made up of excee­din­gly sub­t­le fila­ments, which func­tion as con­duits or pas­sa­ge­ways through which ener­gy is given and recei­ved. Feelings, Schwartz sug­gests, are the move­ment of ener­gy at the­se sub­t­le levels.

Although he doesn’t call hims­elf a psychic, Schwartz says he can sen­se the­se ener­gies in others. Given the right con­di­ti­ons, he belie­ves he can mer­ge with ano­t­her per­son on a fee­ling level; he speaks of ent­e­ring into “their silence, their pre­sence, their depth.” As a con­se­quence, he’s able to speak to them about their fee­lings in an inti­ma­te, hel­pful way.

His dia­lo­gues with work­shop par­ti­ci­pants bear this out. He gent­ly encou­ra­ges peop­le to move their atten­ti­on from the tang­le of thought to the ener­gy of the body. By per­sist­ent­ly asking whe­re a fee­ling is being expe­ri­en­ced, he hel­ps dis­tin­guish bet­ween what is actual­ly occur­ring in the body and the con­di­tio­ning, the descrip­ti­ons, the self-defea­ting ide­as car­ri­ed by the mind.

Even tho­se who have expe­ri­en­ced the pro­cess have dif­fi­cul­ty exp­lai­ning it, he ack­now­led­ges; it’s easier for them to quo­te him than to descri­be the intui­ti­ve scaf­fol­ding for the work. I’m awa­re that my words, too, redu­ce the rich com­ple­xi­ty of his work. It’s like rea­ding aloud the lyrics to a song, minus the tune.

Ironically, the very act of wri­ting this — hun­ched befo­re a glowing com­pu­ter screen, jazzed on cof­fee and dead­line anxie­ty — distan­ces me from my body. But under just about any cir­cum­s­tan­ces, it’s hard for me to expe­ri­ence fee­lings as pure ener­gy, rather than as some­thing alrea­dy enca­sed in mea­ning, mum­mi­fied, cata­logued. I wan­der anxious­ly through the muse­um of mys­elf, rules on every wall. Even Stephen Schwartz can beco­me just ano­t­her exhi­bit as he reminds me not to pre­tend I’m less dama­ged than I real­ly am, or less holy; that the­re are doors up and down the­se hall­ways; that they’re not locked.

Schwartz, for­ty-three, lives in upsta­te New York, on a moun­tain­top over­loo­king the Hudson River, with his wife Donna and their two sons.

While stu­dy­ing lite­ra­tu­re at Brandeis University during the six­ties, he got invol­ved in anti-war and civil-rights acti­vism but even­tual­ly beca­me disen­chan­ted by all “the divi­si­ve­ness, the anger, the bla­me.” He went through a “big tur­naround,” giving up psy­che­de­lics and com­mit­ting hims­elf to medi­ta­ti­on, which he’s prac­ti­ced regu­lar­ly sin­ce 1966.

During the next two deca­des, he worked as a shoe sales­man, a deli­ver­y­man, a (vege­ta­ri­an) meat-cut­ter, an insuran­ce agent, and a tea­cher; ran a second­hand books­to­re; sold exo­tic plants with his father; and wro­te two thea­tri­cal pro­duc­tions, one based on William Blake and the other on James Joyce.

For a while, he enjoy­ed a modest repu­ta­ti­on as a tea­cher of A Course In Miracles, though his mave­rick approach to the Course got him in trou­ble. He says peop­le would come to his talks car­ry­ing copies of the Course under their arms, then storm away angri­ly, offen­ded by his insis­tence that sal­va­ti­on has not­hing to do with beliefs; that we need to free our­sel­ves of all ideo­lo­gies, even tho­se as sub­li­me as the Course.

His tea­ching has con­ti­nued to evol­ve, his lan­guage less overtly spi­ri­tu­al now, more acces­si­ble. I respect his wil­ling­ness to re-crea­te hims­elf regu­lar­ly, to risk offen­ding his admi­rers. He seems more inte­res­ted in dis­co­vering what’s real, what’s next, than in ensh­ri­ning a sys­tem; in hono­ring mys­te­ry rather than foot­no­ting it.

When I met him for the first time last year, I expec­ted to feel intimi­da­ted. But he was warm and rela­xed, not the kind of per­son who enga­ges in spi­ri­tu­al grand­stan­ding. He’s wil­ling to kid around, to be honest about his doubts, even to par­o­dy his own vocabularies.

Schwartz’s books inclu­de Doors To Peace and The Compassionate Presence. The books, as well as infor­ma­ti­on on his tapes and work­shops, are avail­ab­le from Riverrun Press, P.O. Box 367, Piermont, NY 10968. (914) 353‑1677.

A see­min­gly robust, indefa­tig­ab­le man, Schwartz near­ly died ear­lier this year after he col­lap­sed at home and was rus­hed to the hos­pi­tal, whe­re he was dia­gno­sed with can­cer. When I heard the news, I was stun­ned. We spo­ke about this during our inter­view, and Schwartz has just writ­ten a book about the expe­ri­ence. True to form, he intends to call it I Accept In All Gratitude: Cancer, Crisis, And Compassionate Self-Care.

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