Fire in the Belly
for Common Ground Summer 1994
by Virginia Lee
Sam Keen is a prolific author who has written no less than thirteen books about what it means to be human in the 20th century. An advocate of what he calls “autobiographical philosophy,” Keen believes that it’s possible to read the underlying currents of our times simply by understanding your own psyche. According to Keen, we are all living holograms, and can find answers to the deep questions of life simply by telling our own stories.
Sam Keen is so well educated, it has taken tremendous effort to “unlearn” some of the attitudes ingrained by his extensive academic training. With degrees from Harvard Divinity School, and a doctorate from Princeton University, he was a full professor by the 1960s. Through the process of defining his personal mythology, Sam Keen began to write his many books, the more well-known ones being The Passionate Life, Inward Bound, Your Mythic Journey, Faces of the Enemy, and his recent bestseller, Fire in the Belly. This summer, Bantam will publish his latest work entitled Hymns to an Unknown God, which promises to be a thought-provoking sequel challenging our conventional notions about spiritual life in the 1990s.
Interviewing Sam Keen was both a privilege and a challenge. On the heels of an early morning interview on Good Morning America, we met at a restaurant at 7:30 am in San Francisco. Knowing that Sam Keen had been an interviewer for Psychology Today in years past, I was in awe of someone who possiby knew the art of interviewing better than I. He put me at ease immediately with his gracious Southern charm and we were instant friends. What follows is a delightful yet provocative conversation.
CG: What is “autobiographical philosophy” and why is it something we can all use?
SK: What gives our lives dignity and meaning is our own autobiography. But telling our own story is not something that we’re taught how to do. If we learn how to mine our own experience, we can find answers to the great questions of life.
When my own naîve faith in Chrisitianity first failed, I was thrown back on my own experience. My life was a mess. I was in psychotherapy at the time, but even that didn’t help me answer the very deep questions. So, I began to interrogate my own experience and explore my personal mythology. Out of that I began to write my books—back in the 1960s.
When we’re dealing with psychology or the life of the spirit, I have come to greatly distrust supposed experts who don’t talk about themselves. That’s one of the phenomena you find with gurus and cults—they won’t talk about themselves. They sever ties with friends and family in an effort to erase personal history. It’s as if they’re not human. I use my life as as a kind of mirror, a hologram of the age I am living in. How do I know what the spiritual tensions and crisies of our times are if I don’t read it off my own psyche? I am very much a believer in the autobiographical method.
CG: Would you say that what we all have in common as human beings is the human condition?
SK: That’s true, but what we also have is the gift of our own uniqueness—the uniqueness of our own story. That’s what gives us the sense of inhabiting our own lives. I think that the majority of people never get inside their own lives. It’s as if someone else has already written the script for them. We’re given a legacy of stories and expectations about who we are from the time we are born—from our parents and from our culture—a tradition which may or may not fit who we really are. Most people dedicate themselves to living out those stories for an entire lifetime. And defying the myth is often interpreted as cultural rebellion or familial betrayal. That is the difference between living mythically and living autobiographically.
In The Passionate Life, I distinguish between the five stages of life: the child, the rebel, the adult, the outlaw, and the lover. When you’re a child, you’re living out the myths of your parents and your society. And when you begin to rebel, you rebel against them. But as you go into adulthood, you go back to that conditioning and take a responsible role. Often midway through life, especially if there is some crisis, the question arises: “What is my life all about? What do I really want?” And that’s the outlaw stage, when it’s time to begin writing your own story.
The lover stage comes when you discover that you are a part of the human condition, and you can’t separate yourself from other people. That’s when you overcome the need to do things “right” in order to justify your existence, nor do you need to make someone else wrong in order to be right. There is no more “enemy.” That attitude can apply to political and religious identities as well as individual ones. You realize that you are a part of all humankind.
CG: To what do you attribute the current renaissance in spiritual life and simultaneous wane in religious life?
SK: That’s what they asked me on “Good Morning America,” and only gave me three minutes to answer. We’re in the middle of an enormous change in the cultural mythology by which we live. It’s as significant as the change from the nomadic life of hunters and gatherers to the domestic life of agriculture, then to the consumer life of the industrial era. We are now living in the post-industrial age. We are the first culture to ever live our way through the materialistic dream. As a rule, western culture is extremely rich. We have more than anybody has ever had in world history.
One would think that the desires would cease. But not only do they not cease, they are not satisfying. It’s almost a rule that you can’t get enough of what you never wanted in the first place. Our culture has reached the end of the myth of progress. We cannot continue to double the world’s population and live with more advanced technology—without polluting ourselves out of existence. Everything is telling us that the way we looked at the world in the 19th century doesn’t work. First of all, it’s unture. Ecology is probably the best proof of that. The notion that we are separate from the rest of the world, and that there are no consequences for our actions is an illusion.
I think that American culture is very privileged. We are getting a chance to change. We have the political freedom and material abundance to consciously look at other options. But it makes no sense to try and return to the ways of the American Indians or an isolated Tibetan Buddhist culture such as found in Bhutan. We need to find a post-industrial relationship to the natural world, not a pre-industrial one.
CG: The American psyche has always been based on glorifying the individual—with plenty of space and resources to do that. Do we need to start thinking more in terms of community? Is that what is implied by the “Aquarian Age”?
SK: That’s absolutely right. And incidentally that’s where the mainstream media totally misses the point of the spiritual movement. They think it’s all about “inner experience.” It’s not about inner experience; it’s much more about finding a community of people you belong with. There are different spiritual tasks that go with each age. Discovering individuality was a great task for humankind, but that is not the task of our age. Our task is to discover our connections with all life—human or otherwise.
Unfortunately, we are somewhat spoiled by the notion of entitlement, that we simply deserve the best life has to offer without having to work very hard for it. And that applies to spiritual life too. Americans want “enlightenment-to-go” out of some weekend workshop, or a three-minute byte on television. Ours is a fast-food culture that demands instant gratification.
CG: How can the experience of a “vision quest” enhance everyday life in the 20th century?
SK: First of all, you have to separate the pseudo-Indian trappings from what actually happens. The majority of people in the US have never been in a place without electric lights. They’ve never been quiet for a whole day. The importance of the vision quest is the age-old cultivation of solitude in a natural environment. You don’t have to act like an Indian to make it work.
I invented the Inward Bound part of the Outward Bound experience. We would take people out on “solos,” and they would have very profound experiences. If you take away all the external distractions, a person has to face things. I remember one day in Big Bend, Texas when I spent a whole day by a brook in a canyon without as much as a pad of paper. I will never forget that day. It revivified my sense of time.
So much of life in the spirit has to do with being quiet—of paying attention to and savoring life. People need to invent miracles in direct proportion to the decay of their sense of wonder. So I say, belief in angels is for people who have never really looked at a ruby-throated hummingbird. If you don’t see the miraculousness of every day, then you’re going to have to invent some kind of weird story. If you don’t see the beauty of terrestrial beings, then you’re going to invent extra-terrestrials. A vision quest is the return to a state of silence that gives you a chance to look at the smallest things. It put you back in touch with your sense of wonder.
CG: Is this essential to creativity?
SK: It’s not the same thing as creativity. It’s what has to happen before creativity can take place. I do not create the ruby-throated hummingbird. Rather it is a gift to me. What I create comes out of gratitude for that experience. The Christians call it the “eighth day of creation.”
CG: How does someone take the experience of a vision quest or any altered state and bring it into everday life?
SK: In the first place, throw out the concept of “altered state.” When you get on the subway and shut out your senses, that is an altered state. An “altered state” is a meaningless term. Consciousness is always altering. Most people who are looking for a “peak” experience haven’t taken any time to look what’s in the valley.
CG: What is the “common boundary” between spirituality and psychotherapy?
SK: I think that there is very little boundary between psychotherapy and spirituality, but you need psychotherapy to clean out the subconscious garbage first before you can make much progress on the spiritual path. Psychotherapy deals with the way your psyche has been put together, especially in ways that don’t work. These days it’s called being “dysfunctional.” The life of the spirit exists beyond all that, beyond individuality and the illusion of an egocentric universe. Life in the spirit means being connected to all other beings through a heart of compassion. Psychotherapy is a necessary first step. Look what happens when people go into the spiritual life without doing the psychological work first. Look at what happened with EST, or Rajneeshpuram, or the Zen community in San Francisco. We’ve seen these spiritual communities blow up one after another. All these disciples are people who needed authority, who wanted father figures and then of course hated them. Then there’s all the sexual intrigue between gurus and disciples. It’s all unresolved psychological stuff. Psychotherapy is very important if you want to clean out the basement.
CG: Does one evolve from psychotherapy into a life of the spirit?
SK: Yes. That is the natural path of evolution. And you don’t have to go through psychotherapy either. The work of writing your autobiography—and discovering your personal mythology—can achieve the same thing.
CG: How do you see the relationship between music and spirit?
SK: That is a complex subject. Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead is working with the power of music and the divine. He is reviving the link between drumming and ecstatic states—inducing a trance if you will. Western religion repressed any form of trance or percussion, a phenomenon which has existed in many cultures of the world (among the Africans and native Americans to mention a few).
Sacred music in our culture almost always has words. I was brought up in the church, and the hymns still move me deeply. Hence the metaphorical title of my new book, Hymns to an Unknown God. There are many things that don’t resonate with me about Christian doctrine, but there’s a core experience with the hymns that has a profound power in my psyche—which I honor. Music enables the human spirit to fly free, beyond the conventional boundaries of daily life.
CG: What do you think of people who are mesmerized by rock concerts?
SK: It’s both good and bad. Loss of self is always part of life of the spirit, but it’s also part of the demonic life. Was Woodstock a holy experience? People have been killed at rock concerts. The greatest experience of self-loss ever was choreographed by Hitler. There are a lot of trance states that can be destructive. So, you have to ask (like Plato asked): “What’s the difference between divine madness and demonic madness?”
CG: How do you tell the difference? How do you deal with the pitfalls of spiritual path?
SK: Answer this question: “Does your experience develop a life of greater comprehension and compassion toward all living things?” William James used to say, “It’s easy to create a religious experience. But it’s very hard to create a religious life.” The real test is: “What kind of a life does it create?”
That’s the problem with drugs. They can give you a very temporary high, but then it goes away. We now know that there’s a very limited place in the life of the spirit for the use of drugs. If overused, they create a destructive form of ecstasy.
CG: Is the same true of people who are dependent on cults and gurus? And if so, whose fault is it—the disciples or the gurus?
SK: Both. Most of the gurus don’t have any real power. When I wrote for Psychology Today , I interviewed a lot of them. They talked about being free of needs and desires, but if you watched their entourage, most of them couldn’t survive without their disciples. They were like children; they didn’t have an adult life. They couldn’t even tolerate real dialogue. That’s not power. It’s co-dependence.
I deal with this in my new book, Hymns to an Unknown God , in the chapter called “Constructing a Bullshit Detector.” The first thing I look at is the personal life of the teacher: Do they handle sex, money, and power in an open and upfront manner? I don’t care how holy they are. One teacher of Tibetan Buddhism was a drunk. It wasn’t “crazy wisdom,” it was alcoholism. Call a spade a spade. Another Indian guru had sex with teenage boys and girls. It wasn’t “tantra,” it was statutory rape. Ask whether a spiritual community is producing more open individuals, or have they divorced themselves from the “real” world? A sure sign is: Does it break up marriages and families? Be suspicious of eliminating “attachments” to loved ones and “erasing personal history.”
CG: What is the best way to deal with the spiritual “dead-ends” one encounters on the path?
SK: When you’re in the shit, stay in the shit. Look at your illusions. Look at what lead you into it. I wrote a whole book about this. It was called Inward Bound . Boredom is a very important emotion. So is despair and disillusionment. When you’re in it, stay there. We want the dark night of the soul to last no more than ten minutes. Part of the spiritual path always involves the dark night of the soul.
Maybe you have to find out that what you have done with a guru is idolatry. What you have given your trust and commitment to is totally inappropriate. When you get disillusioned, you have to explore your own capacity for idolatry. You have to ask yourself, “Why was I willing to sell my soul for a sense of false security? How badly did I need it? What void am I really trying to fill?” The “dead-end” is how you find the other road. Hitting a dead-end is not an excuse for giving up. That’s just going back to an unexamined life.
If you’re on the spiritual path, you’re not going to be disillusioned once. You’re going to be disillusioned again and again and again. It’s like rowing a boat. As long as you keep pushing your illusions behind you, you make progress. Every year, every week I discover new illusions. All the gender stuff for example—I was brought up under this illusion that I had to be an American man.Until we die, and maybe even after, we are constantly uncovering our illusions. We thrive on illusions, layers and layers of them.
CG: In what way is ecology part of the spiritual path?
SK: Ecology is a central spiritual disciple to the coming age. A spiritually aware person needs to embrace thr principles of ecology as well. If you go beyond your own ego into the life of the spirit, you see how connected everything is—and that is the basis of ecology. The myth of progress puts our species at the center of the world, and that’s not the way it is.
The science of ecology has shattered that illusion. We have more science of the spirit than we’ve ever had. We now know scientifically what for other generations was a matter of faith.
CG: In your new book you say that “the old war between science and religion is over and the romance has begun.” How can that bring about peace in our time, and encourage humans to let go of their age-old cultural enmity and racial hatred?
SK: That’s really two different questions. You can bind people together in a technological world order, and that may have very little to do with overcoming enmity. The Bosnian Serbs and Croats have pretty good communication devices, yet they’re still out slaughtering each other.
Even though the war between science and religion may be over, the battle is still raging with those who believe in the myth of progress. It’s over in theory, but many people haven’t yet realized that they can stop fighting. If the age of technology is not infused with spirit, it will become demonic. Control without compassion is a frightening thing.
Knowledge doesn’t save us from ourselves. Even though we may know scientifically about the sex life of spiders, that hasn’t make us more ecologically responsible. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of conversion to a more compassionate life. And I don’t think that happens automatically. What’s required is a curriculum for compassion.
It’s something you learn before you’re six or seven. Just as you are taught to hate all the same enemies your parents hate, you have to be taught to love. I addressed this question in a book I wrote called Faces of the Enemy. We systematically teach people to hate. That’s what prejudice is; that’s what we call propaganda. So, that’s why we have to teach people to love. I strongly believe in a curriculum for learning empathy and imagination—love. We can’t assume that it’s something that’s going to be learned at home, because in many cases, that kind of love isn’t there.
There’s a mechanics to love and a mechanics to forgiveness. We’ve got to learn how to forgive. Someone’s got to teach us how to do it. We’ve got to learn how to feel how another person really feels—in the body, not just in the head. I think CQ (compassion quotient) is as important as IQ. I think that education should deal with moral issues and questions of the heart as much as math and science.
It should begin as early as the first grade and include things like conflict resolution and self-defense for girls. A lot of gender problems would be cleared up right away. I’m not talking about religion either—religion is very different from educating the emotions. I would teach about geography of the emotions, just to identify the difference between sadness, boredom, anger, and resentment. It would do a lot to reduce emotional illiteracy. Moral education in schools could provide a whole new type of career.
CG: Can you discuss the role of passion in life? Would you say that passion is an essential part of spiritual life or its worst enemy?
SK: I spent an entire book trying to define the nature of passion; it’s called The Passionate Life. I think that passion is an essential part of spiritual life; it’s the desire to know God. Augustine says, “Love God and do what you want.” Passion needs to come out of the core of you, and is something that integrates you with all life. Let’s face it, passionate people are a pleasure to be around. When the Hindus talk about dispassion I think what they really mean is non-attachment—which teaches you to approach life without grasping for it. Perhaps “joy” or “enjoyment” are better words. Life is simply better when it’s juicy than when it’s dry.
We have to distinguish between passions and addictions, although sometimes they can look the same. Addiction has a character of desperation, while passion has the element of desire. My abiding passions are things that expand me rather than contract me, and increase my sense of possibility. My current passion is the flying trapeze—something I discovered at age 62. It waters the rest of my life, and leaks into everything else. It makes me a better father, a better lover, a better philosopher, and a better writer. If spirit is the breath or wind of life, passion is the fire. Without passion, the inner life is pretty cold and dry.
CG: Please talk about your evolution as a writer and how it parallels your personal life.
SK: They are one and the same. My writing is drawn completely from my personal life. I do not have one part of me that writes and another part that lives; there is no distinction between the two. My books are just reports of a journey in progress—my latest being Hymns to an Unknown God..
I’ve written thirteen books. The first one was called Gabriel Marcel ; the next was Apology for Wonder , then To a Dancing God , followed by Voices and Visions (a collection of Psychology Today interviews). The Passionate Life came after that, then Inward Bound, which is about dealing with the geography of emotions (especially the blue ones). Your Mythic Journey is about how to uncover your own mythology and write your own autobiography. And then there was Faces of the Enemy andFire in the Belly.
CG: What is your greatest advice to men? To women? To children?
SK: Read Fire in the Belly . Men and women really have to study each other in a way that we haven’t before, to become interested in what the other’s experience is. And then we have to drop it, simply get off the special privileges of gender. Give it up. To hell with gender. Write your own autobiography. No one should have to ask the question: “Am I manly—or womanly—enough?” Each of us should ask: “Who am I?”
And I don’t buy the notion that there are men with “feminine” traits, or women with “masculine” traits. It’s just a lot of Jungian confusion. Just because I want to hug my daughter, does that mean I’m feminine? Hell no. It means that I love my daughter. It’s just something that I do. As soon as we can stop labeling our conduct as masculine or feminine, we are free to be ourselves. Once again, when we can get rid of dumb language, then new experience can come.
CG: How can we disarm the traditional roles that gender-script the behavior of men and women?
SK: Read Fire in the Belly . As much as we need education about emotions and morals, we need education about gender. We need to clarify all the misconceptions and misinformation—everything that contributes to the crippling effect of gender. It starts before first grade; it starts in the nursery. We’re all in the middle of it. We’re all shaped by it, and misshaped by it. Perhaps the one thing I didn’t say clearly enough in the book is that we need to stop making money off gender, to stop fanning the flames of the gender fires. There are too many people making money by keeping other people angry—both men and women. I call it the professional gender mafia.
We hear that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, and that bullshit is from cows. I think that psychological philosophies like that are enormous over-simplifications and completely miss the point. I deal with this issue in both Faces of the Enemy and Fire in the Belly . It goes back to warfare: Men are trained to be violent, and women are trained not to be powerful. Sure, that training is going to do something to your mind.
Yes, there are different communication strategies, but it’s rooted in something far deeper. It’s not genetic, it’s not biological, and it can be changed. But it takes honesty on both parts: Men have not been honest about their violence toward women, and women have not been honest about riding for free—especially in regard to the war system. The payoff for the wars we fought is that we got to go to the mall and buy nice things. The war system has given us material benefits, and until we get honest about that, it won’t change. Both sexes need to mutually share in the management of violence. That’s why I support women’s self-defense and model mugging. That way women can be competent in dealing with evil in the world—right from the start—and doesn’t need to rely on a man to protect her.
CG: How do you deal with your own daughter in this way?
SK: My 14-year-old daughter is now doing flying trapeze with me. At a very young age, I wrestled with her in a game called Papa Lion and Baby Lion. I wanted to make sure that she could hold her own physically with men, and that she knew it was a very womanly thing to do. My 35-year-old daughter is a martial artist who runs her own Aikido school in Brazil. With my eldest daughter, I had to overcome my fear of touching her, especially during her adolescent years. It’s confusing when incestuous feelings arise.
CG: Would you say that Fire in the Belly is your greatest work?
SK: No. I only have one book. It’s just been written thirteen times. My work is like a Persian rug. I’ve been working on the same vision my whole life. It’s one work that captures different aspects of the pattern.
CG: How does the revival of goddess worship fit into the spiritual picture?
SK: It’s a bad idea. Feminists taught me that to talk about God the Father was a political statement. When we use gender language in regard to God, it’s a statement intending to get power over the other gender. If the feminists want to turn it around, I don’t like it. We simply shouldn’t use gender language.
I suggest that we eliminate the use of all personal pronouns in speaking of the divine. As soon as we stop using the cheap language, we have to find some real language. We’ve got to really think about what we want to say. I also point out the fact that when God was feminine, she was kind of a bitch. She liked human sacrifice and thrived on blood. Blood was necessary for creativity in goddess worship. We had Her for a long time before we had God the Father. The Goddess had her time in early human history, and God the Father has had his time, so now I think it’s time to retire them both. We should also retire the idea of Mother Nature. There’s nothing feminine about nature either. Let’s simply retire all gender pronouns from inappropriate places. We should no longer say “mankind” when we mean humankind. Let’s not talk about the ultimate ground of our being in terms of “he” and “she.
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, including Harper’s Bazaar. She was a regular feature writer for Common Ground from 1992-2004, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and more recently Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993.