The Inner Revolution
An Interview with Marianne Williamson on The Healing of America
for Common Ground Fall 1997
by Virginia Lee
An articulate and insightful speaker on metaphysics matters and the power of prayer, Marianne Williamson brings the realm of spirit into her unique perspective on American politics. In The Healing of America (published Fall 1997 by Simon and Schuster), the author outlines the political, economic, environmental and moral crisis we are facing in the 21st century against the background of the constitutional ideals of our founding fathers. Williamson calls for nothing less than reclaiming our democratic destiny through an inner revolution before we are collectively swept away by the tides of apathy and self-interest.
Although The Healing of America is departure from her former emphasis on The Course of Miracles, the same guiding principles are still evident in her newest work. Many know of Marianne Williamson through her first book, A Return to Love, which has sold over 1 million copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 35 weeks in 1992. Her subsequent writings, A Woman’s Worth (1994) and Illuminata (1994), have both met with their own measure of success.
CG: Many people know you from your first book, A Return to Love, which is a collection of insights and reflections on The Course of Miracles. How did you first discover this path?
MW: I’m not sure any of us can point to the particular moment or even book that started us on our mystical path. After all, it’s an innate yearning. I took my first philosophy class when I was 14 and by the time I started reading The Course of Miracles at age 27, I was a full-blown seeker.
CG: Do those same principles continue to guide your life?
CG: What is a miracle? How would you describe The Course of Miracles to those who aren’t familiar with it?
MW: A miracle is the breakthrough that occurs when we shift our perception of a situation. The Course of Miracles is a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy that helps us to dismantle a thought system based on fear — and to embrace one based on love. Essentially, it removes the obstacles to the awareness of love’s presence.
CG: Do you consider your spiritual beliefs to be akin to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism or shamanism? Are all the world’s religions embraced by The Course of Miracles?
MW: The Course deals with universal spiritual themes that are at the heart of all the great religious teachings.
CG: In your new book, The Healing of America, you say that “the level of consciousness that is the salvation of the human race is not something new, so much as very old but forgotten.” Is this what the New Age is all about?
MW: The phrase “New Age” has become so bastardized that it’s difficult to talk about what it means anymore. But the fundamental shift in consciousness now occurring on the Earth is clearly something which simultaneously goes backwards and forwards.
As Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” And T.S. Eliot wrote that we’re always seeking to go back home. The root of the word “religion” is religio , which means to “bind back.” I think the realm of consciousness we most hunger for is a return to something basic and fundamental within us.
Because the Western mind thinks in linear terms, we are tempted to ask ourselves whether this means past or future. For people such as the ancient Egyptians, time was thought of in concentric circles. To this kind of mind, time has a more cyclical meaning. You can look at many cultures throughout history and see these same themes repeated. The Jews say that the Messiah is coming, while the Christians say that the Messiah already came. But Einstein said, “There is no time.”
Eternity exists outside time. And The Course of Miracles says that the only place where eternity intersects time is in the present moment.
CG: What was the role of the freemasons in American history and how is their philosophy relevant today?
MW: There are a lot of differing views on the role of the freemasons in the founding of our country. Because the freemasons were a secret organization, it is hard for anyone to speak definitively about membership. There are those who argue that some of our founding fathers were freemasons and there are those who argue with equal passion that they were not.
We do know, however, that the Great Seal of the United States, which was designed by Adams, Washington and Jefferson and appears today on our dollar bill, is clearly a Masonic symbol. On it there is a picture of the Great Pyramid at Giza, with the now-lost capstone returned to its top. In the center of the capstone, illumined in the Great Seal, is the eye of Horus. The return of the capstone and the eye signifies the return of the Higher Mind. Underneath the picture is written Novus Ordo Seclorum, which means “New Order of the Ages.” So, regardless of who actually studied what (and we do know that Ben Franklin was a Rosicrucian), the Great Seal is what it is.
CG: On an evolutionary scale, would you say our form of government is distilled from the wisdom of the ages?
MW: I would say that the founding principles of American democracy are as close a reflection of higher law as any governmental system throughout history has ever been.
Religious pluralism is the cornerstone of American liberty, the notion that people can worship or not worship, however they see fit. Thomas Jefferson said “I care not whether my neighbor believes in 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both emphasized that tolerance is not enough. To merely tolerate another’s religious beliefs is to undermine true liberty, because judgment is still implied. They believed we must seek to move beyond tolerance and embrace genuine respect for the religious beliefs of others.
CG: What do you mean by our inalienable right to the American Dream?
MW: Our Declaration of Independence says that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To me, the American Dream is that we have the right to dream. Ours is the first country in modern history that was founded on the notion that there should at least come a time (even if this ideal had not fully manifested at the time) when this model for human society might actually become a reality. The American ideal is that people’s dreams, talents and hard work (rather than the imposed limits of a class structure or the prejudices of others) would determine the unfolding circumstances of their life. Now that is radical.
And it is the responsibility of every generation of Americans to further expand the manifestation of that ideal. Our founders were aware that what they bequeathed to us was the ideal itself, not its full manifestation. Those of us who are metaphysical students understand the notion that there is gap between the conditions of the world and the transcendent archetypes which hover above it. It is the purpose of human existence to close the gap.
In American society, our founding principles are equality, unity in diversity, security of the common good while protecting human liberty and religious pluralism. None of those founding principles has ever been universally manifested among all Americans. But what politics should be is the effort made by each of us in our own way to further the process of closing the gap between the ideal and the real.
CG: In what way has the American Dream become the American Nightmare?
MW: The over-arching drama of American life has always been the tension and contest between our most noble selves and our most selfish selves. The yearning for the full manifestation of the ideals upon which we were founded and the pull towards materialism is the conflict which still lurks in all of us.
We have chosen our most noble self when we abolished slavery, when we gave women the right to vote, when we passed child labor laws and when we passed civil rights legislation. Obviously, there have been other times in our history — and continue to be — forces which would constrict rather than expand the Dream. Today, our dedication to unbridled market values, to what I think of as the shadow side of capitalism, is so rampant that the search for social justice and societal ethics have all but disappeared as a dominant political value.
Since the death of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys—particularly Bobby Kennedy—there has been no serious social force field to hold the call for true social justice, which is the core of the American ideal.
CG: Is this the reawakening that you are striving for in your new book?
MW: I don’t think that I am personally striving for a reawakening though my book. But I feel a hunger, as I know many people do, to resurrect the idea that conscience must have a place, not only in our personal dealings, but in our politics, our economics, our global presence.
CG: In your new book, you make a prediction that during the next ten years, we will have either a renaissance or a catastrophe. Would you explain what you mean?
MW: What goes around comes around. The universe is based on a law of cause and effect. And this is true not only for an individual, but for groups of individuals. If God is watching any of us, he’s watching all of us.
There is just so far any of us can go in the direction of violating spiritual principles. We either fall to our knees—or fall apart. It is absurd to think that lesson, which is reflected clearly in the dramas of history, somehow does not apply to the United States. There has never been a nation that has been able to sustain the kind of income gap we now have between the rich and the poor. There has not been such a sizable gap since 1926, which was followed by the Great Depression. No society has ever been able to sustain this kind of disparity.
We will either radically awaken as people to this fact—and exert a national will to change—or it is only reasonable to assume that we will suffer the consequences.
CG: In what way is our old thinking our greatest enemy? And how do we cultivate new thinking in ourselves and in our children?
MW: Old thinking posits a separation of needs. New paradigm thinking posits that we are all, as Martin Luther King said, “woven from a single garment of destiny.”
If you were on a boat with someone, then a hole forming underneath their seat is ultimately as dangerous to you as a hole forming under yours.
New thinking as applied to politics means a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive sense of family. Loving our children is not an expanded enough concept of love to save the world. The love that most matters now is love for the children on the other side of town. That kind of fundamental shift from “me” to “we” is necessary across the board in order to turn the country toward the direction of fundamental healing.
CG: In other words, the idea that it’s the welfare mother’s fault that she’s poor is what needs to change?
MW: Absolutely. It’s what you call a big lie. It’s a tool of demagoguery to scapegoat a group of people and then repeat it so many times that it has a veneer of truth.
It’s really a flaunting of privilege, yet we pride ourselves on being a classless society. If we take a closer look, corporate America has become the new aristocracy while the rest of us are practically reduced to serfdom. When you look at the money being taken away from welfare mothers, it’s minuscule in comparison to the money being given to corporate welfare.
CG: How can people turn their lives around if they’re in a situation where there’s no hope of ever making more than $10 an hour? How can people have hope and vision under those kinds of circumstances?
MW: Supposedly in America there’s no such thing as a job that you’re never going to improve upon. Once again, American democracy was founded on the notion that an individual can and will do whatever the individual chooses to do. If we exercise our rights and powers spiritually as well as politically, that is still true. A few selfish people didn’t decide to steal America, so much as we gave her away. It’s only a democracy if we exercise it, if we participate in it.
What has happened is that the American mind, especially during the last 30 years, has gone to sleep. Between a public education system which often taught what to think rather than how to think (which ultimately taught us not to think) and television programming which has practically destroyed the linear thought processes of a generation, and an unbelievable emphasis on consumerism as the basis of self-esteem, and a near-epidemic use of anti-depressants to dull the pain—we are in serious danger of allowing our freedom to become completely unraveled. I think that we are much closer to that point than most people seem to realize. I think that there are about six minutes left in this game. I also know that many games have been won in less than six minutes. But somebody had to wake up to the fact that it was that close to the bell—and rally to win the game.
CG: Perhaps ten years ago, New Age magazine ran a story comparing the denial and dysfunction of the American government to an alcoholic family. Can you comment on this?
MW: I already have. It’s in my new book in a section called “Corporate Soul”: “The forces that drive the U.S. economy are drunk on power. They swagger, they deny, they justify, they intimidate. That’s what drunks do. The American people must stop wimping out; we must awaken from our co-dependent stupor. We must not allow the American political system to become little more than the servant of dominant economic interests. We must perform the equivalent of an intervention.”
CG: Several years ago, the media reported a meeting between you, First Lady Hillary Clinton and Jean Houston in a rather condescending manner. They referred to you and Jean as “occultists.” Please discuss the role of media in our culture.
MW: I have come to regard the mainstream media, as most of us have, as guardians of the status quo. Being angry about that doesn’t help the situation. We must realize that the mainstream press, far from being the watchdog that they were intended to be, has become more than anything else the guard dog for the Old Order. They are the first to mock and revile any effort to bring depth, psychology or higher consciousness into the mainstream. At this point, it’s to be expected. And it isn’t the first time that it’s happened. It also behooves us to cry foul when it happens, because trivializing the consciousness revolution that’s now occurring goes a long way toward obstructing it.
CG: How can the power of the media be harnessed to facilitate the transformation of America?
MW: There’s no monolithic structure called “the power of the media.” Institutions are made up of individuals. And as individuals think more deeply and dedicate themselves to conscience as a primary principle in their lives, as individuals seek to shift their primary value from economic to humanitarian, the kinds of changes that we most need begin to emerge. That kind of change works from the bottom up more than from the top down.
We need to radically shift our thinking from “What can I do for me today?” to “How can I serve?” If the majority of Americans can dedicate themselves to what is good, true and beautiful, then America will heal.
CG: In the 21st century, how do you think history will look back on us?
MW: The jury is still out on that. Either they will look back on us with sadness, perhaps even contempt, because we were so narcissistic and selfish that we weren’t looking at what was going down. One thing for sure is that we will be noticed; we will not be forgotten.
CG: In your life, how have the ideals of the ’60s matured into a driving force for the ’90s? As a generation, have the idealists of the ’60s failed?
MW: When our heroes were killed, practically in front of our eyes, I think we froze. The bullets that shot the Kennedys and Dr. King psychically shot all of us. As a generation, we were not aware enough of the cycles of history, the myth of the eternal return, to recognize that this loss did not have to be a loss for all time. We thought that our dreams had died with those who had articulated them, when in truth the dreams themselves can’t be killed, can’t be destroyed by bullets.
I think that it’s time for us to resurrect the ideals, the principles, the dreams of Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy and others. Although we loved those dreams, at the time we were not as personally mature as we needed to be in order to materialize them. Our own rampant drug use and the fact of our youth (in addition to the loss of our leaders) was enough to stop us in our tracks — but hopefully not forever.
According to the mystical principle of threes, it has been three decades since the ’60s. Historian Arthur Schlesinger says that Americans get interested in politics every 30 years. I think that there is a force struggling to emerge from the bottom of things — a social revolution akin to the ’60s, and led by those of us who were young in the ’60s.
CG: Would you say that perhaps the Flower Children of the ’60s might become the Elders of the ’90s?
MW: Absolutely. It’s trying to happen.
CG: Is it really possible to practice spiritual politics? Is it naive to believe that we could recreate a moral government in our lifetime?
MW: Any great historical unfoldment, from the beginning of the Christian church to the scientific revolution, was begun by people whose ideas were considered radical to the guardians of the status quo. The founders of this country were considered naive and ridiculous by King George III. Any search for higher truth is by definition outrageous and radical.
CG: Please describe your vision of a 21st century revolution and what role each of us would play. Would it involve a kind of “spiritual Internet?”
MW: Dr. Martin Luther King said that with our brilliance in technology we have made the world a neighborhood. And now with our spiritual genius, we must make it a brotherhood. We have hooked up our machinery, and now we must hook up our hearts.
President Kennedy said that those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. We don’t have long, however, to make the choice which it will be.
CG: Are you really talking about an inner revolution?
MW: I asked the Dalai Lama: “If enough of us mediate, will that heal the world?” He said, “I would answer you in reverse. We must have a plan. But if we don’t meditate, then no plan will work.”
When we think of politics today, we usually think of governmental action. We have become a government-dominated political system, when I think we need to become a citizen-based political culture. The Greek root of the word “politics” does not mean “of the government” but rather than “of the citizen.” That means we have more to bring to the political table than just ideas for legislative action.
In medicine, we have moved into a holistic model. We don’t just treat the symptoms of the body, but look equally to the resources of mind and spirit as well. We understand that body, mind and spirit must be treated as a whole in order to truly heal someone. We now need a holistic politics. Legislation can be like Western medicine. We need a medi-political orientation, where we recognize the depth of our thinking, our feeling, spiritual atonement and prayer itself as serious political tools. We have now proven scientifically that prayer helps heal the human body. Ideas like that can be applied to the larger political realm.
The intersection of spiritual and political principles is nothing new. It is a traditional and philosophical continuum, which has been present in American culture from the beginning. Start with the Quakers in Pennsylvania, who had a profound effect on the Transcendentalists and especially Thoreau, who suggested that we should seek conscience as a higher law than that of government. Thoreau, in turn, was a great influence on Gandhi, who then inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Between Gandhi and King, and their evolving 20th century philosophy of non-violence, we have a great example of mankind’s capacity to choose soul force over brute force.
CG: Do you think it’s important to keep Church and State separate? Or return to the ancient tradition where the King was the High Priest as well?
MW: Making your religious leader the same as your political leader is potentially a very bad thing. I think that the separation of Church and State is an enlightened concept. However, the separation of Church and State was never intended by our founding fathers to mean that we were to separate the political conversation from conversations of higher spiritual principles.
CG: What are the dangers of fanaticism—both spiritual and political? How can we make sure that neither of them threatens our democratic way of life?
MW: The American system of government was set up with a very delicate system of checks and balances, which exist to make sure that no one viewpoint, no one set of attitudes gets to run the whole show — ever. It is assumed that no one segment of the population has all the answers.
CG: What do you mean by “true democracy”?
Freedom doesn’t mean that we all agree. By definition, it means that we don’t. It means that we are free to disagree. That’s what freedom is. American democracy is meant to be a process by which through consensus building, deliberation and constitutional reference, we find a way to govern our affairs.
True democracy is where each of us digs into the depths of our minds and hearts, and speaks from our soul what our truth is. In turn, we are to listen to the best of our ability, without judgment, to others who do not see things as we do. Ideally, out of that comes a synergistic dialogue, in which everyone’s attitudes are raised to a higher level.
Our political culture today is so psychologically and spiritually immature, so adversarial, so dominated by personal attack and insult, that it’s hard to imagine something like the Constitution ever emerging from it. I think we need to open our minds to the possibility that there can be so much more to politics than the tawdry game it has become.
True democracy is really the freedom to do what you think is right. But if you don’t exercise that freedom, it means very little.
CG: In what way are prisons a symbol of what’s wrong with America?
MW: Prisons are the #1 urban industry in America today. America has more of our people locked up than any other nation in the world. We deny opportunity to young children, claiming we don’t have the money to do better, and then pay far more on the other end to incarcerate them—to the tune of $30,000 a year each. Our prisons have become the University of Crime. When we send a young offender to jail, he will most likely emerge a professionally hardened criminal.
But considering the childhood in which these people grew up, it’s not surprising that their lives become criminally dysfunctional. That’s not to say that some people don’t escape these conditions. But in the richest country in the history of the world, why should childhood be an obstacle course?
CG: How can the principles of non-violence be effective in today’s environment of political terrorism?
MW: Fear is not an entity of its own. It’s an absence of love, just as darkness is an absence of light. Real solutions come from beyond merely suppressing the symptom, such as punishing the terrorist.
We must apply ourselves to the cultivation of genuine peace in the presence of which violence cannot exist. It’s like cutting off oxygen to a fire. As we pray, as we meditate, as we commit ourselves to policies which care for children, provide them with lives of meaning and purpose, allow them unfold their talents and creativity, we will see these psychic horrors begin to diminish.
CG: Why are people so threatened by peace?
MW: Peace is extremely threatening to most people because it is opposite to the state of the world. Dr. Martin Luther King said that Although we are not a nation at war, it doesn’t mean that we are a nation at peace. We have a negative peace, meaning there is no declared war. Positive peace means the presence of justice and brotherhood. Peace is a threat to the status quo.
That’s why the prophetic vision emerging in the world today is something that comes from deep within us collectively, not just based on the ideas of a few individuals. We can’t be soloists; we must be a choir. And each of us must sing our song within it.
President Roosevelt wrote something in a speech he never had chance to give before he died: “In order to eradicate war, we must eradicate the beginnings of all wars.” And we know that source exists in the realm of consciousness.
CG: If you believe that a divine intelligence is guiding our destiny, then why is there such concern for the future?
MW: The Course of Miracles says that God’s will has never not been done. The question is not whether or not the human race will ultimately turn to love as its guiding principle. The question is: How long will it take? How much more human suffering will there be before it happens?
I don’t believe that any spiritual principle is meant by God to be used as an excuse for turning our backs on human suffering. And there is still plenty of it, not just in the world but in this country. We’ve just moved it to the other side of town.
CG: Is it your destiny to bring this shadow into the light?
MW: It’s not just my destiny. It’s the destiny of our entire generation. Roosevelt said his generation had a rendezvous with destiny, and I thinks that’s equally relevant for us. But what’s not clear yet is whether or not we will sleep through the date.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since. She is a regular interviewer for Common Ground, and has written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently works as a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, CA.