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Interview with Joan Borysenko

by Edie Weinstein-Moser

According to Confucius: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." What is often needed to assist us on the path, is a reliable compass. In her latest book, entitled "Your Soul’s Compass - What Is Spiritual Guidance?", Joan Borysenko and her husband, Gordon Dveirin, explore the mysteries of Spirit through interviews with remarkable women and men that they refer to as ‘the Sages’. The stellar cast includes Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Taj Inayat, Daniel Ladinsky, Swami Adiswarananda, Hamid Ali, Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Nina Zimbleman, Oriah Mountain Dreamer and Sally Kempton. As they kept company with these teachers, healers, writers and clergy representing numerous spiritual streams, their own world view expanded. With humility and a profound sense of grace, they offer the book as a hand to a companion along the way.

Wisdom: When you create your books, do you find that the words ‘write you’ or do you write the work?

Joan: The process of writing the book for us, was very much a guided process that is similar to living your life. When you really are present, when all the conditions and fears are out of your mind, then the clouds part and the words are right there and they write themselves. But, the truth is, the clouds have to part. We were writing our words first, and then little by little, settling down and centering. We feel very much like we’ve been worked on by this book. It was an experience of guidance for us.

Wisdom: I have always admired couples who work together in that way, because the work is the lab for the relationship and the relationship is the lab for the work.

Joan: It is absolutely like that. We’re two very different voices. I tend to write from personal experience. Gordy tends to be the one with the very broad reach intellectually, through the eyes of a scholar. It’s not that I’m not scholarly, but it was interesting to say "We’ve got a scholarly voice and we’ve got a heart voice. Where is the voice that transcends that duality?" It was interesting, waiting for that voice to come.

Wisdom: And it clearly spoke. You introduce the book with the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, that reflects the inner Divine Guidance. How do we pay attention to the messages?

Joan: We have to get fear out of the way. We talk about obscuration to guidance. Fear is the major one and it shows up in a number of guises. The guidance is always there and often times when it is not what we want to hear, we push it away, we rationalize, we deny it. We look in the other direction. It’s a matter of being open and curious and willing to be shown, willing to see. If I just open up and allow myself to be curious without attachment to the outcome or my opinion, what would that look like? That, of course is a way of living life and truly being present. For most of us, it’s not so easy. It happens in fits and starts. There is grace involved. Even when we are not listening, the guidance will make itself heard. In the Hymn of the Pearl, the young prince had fallen asleep and through a form of grace, the guidance came to him anyhow, as the eagle woke him out of his sleep. Once again, we have the ‘both/and’ learning to keep our own eyes and ears and heart open, also trusting that grace does intervene when the guidance is necessary for awakening.

Wisdom: Sometimes, despite having a compass, we wander off-course. What tools can re-direct us back to, as you refer to it, "God being our True North"?

Joan: The best tool is to have good friends who are willing to say "You don’t sound like yourself. What are you thinking? What’s going on here? You seem confused. You seem to be hasty. I’m worried." Often times, when we are off course, we can’t see it. Surround yourself with good companions for your journey. If you were Buddhist, you would say that it would be a sangha. Many of us have groups of people with whom we are fellow journeyers, whether it is a congregation at your temple or in my case, I have a group of friends who work at Claritas together. We help one another discern if we are on the path or if we have gone off on a tangent. There is also a need for times of silence and that is what came through so clearly. We need times to be silent and find places to get out of the fray. If we are running at 100 miles an hour, often times, we have lost track of what direction we are running in.

Wisdom: I imagine it helps having a partner who calls you on your stuff.

Joan: Absolutely, there’s no doubt about that. That truly is a commitment to a spiritual relationship. We say, "Be honest with me. Let me introspect." That is what Reb Zalman said so clearly in his interview. He said, "You’ve got to hold yourself accountable and at the end of every day, look back in retrospect and if you make a mistake, try as soon as you can to make amends." Having a partner, whether it is love relationship or friendship, it’s a spiritual partnership or a ‘soul friending’ partnership or spiritual mentoring relationship.

Wisdom: You mention one of my favorite terms in the book that relates to that kind of relationship: ‘anam cara’ (Gaelic for ‘soul friend’) .

Joan: I love that! Did you read John O’ Donahue’s book called Anam Cara?

Wisdom: Yes. It is a gift and a blessing to have people in my life like that.

Joan: It is. I think it was in that chapter on community when Daniel Ladinsky, who is such a delight, started with that quote by Hafiz which is: "A hunting party sometimes has a greater chance of flushing love and God out into the open than the warrior all alone." We find the Divine Beloved better together. It is a rare person, who finds the way alone. It is the whole fabric of soul circles and soul friends that really are a manifestation of the guidance.

Wisdom: How would you define mysticism?

Joan: Direct experience. That’s beyond dogma, belief or doctrine, where it really doesn’t matter if you are spritual, but not religious, or if you are a believing Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or Jew or Native American. Direct experience touching the larger Source is the same experience. It is what Wayne Teasdale defined as ‘inter-spirituality’ It was really Wayne’s book The Mystic Heart and then Wayne’s presence that made us interested in founding The Claritas Institute. Through his interest in mysticism, he has had a profound influence on many people.

Wisdom: You spoke of the Mystic Heart, can you explain more?

Joan: You might have noticed that we dedicated the book to Wayne and his vision which is to create a civilization with a heart. Wayne said "Look, whatever tradition you’re from or no tradition at all, when you do touch the Divine ground, then anyone else who has had that experience will know that experience and the only way we will be able to create a civilization with a heart, is to meet on that ground, where there is no doctrine, no dogma, no ‘my religion is better than yours’." When you touch that Mystic Heart, you recognize that everything is interconnected and that everything is a continuing out-picturing of the compassionate heart itself, knowing itself and growing itself through each one of us. If more of us would know that, then we would be able to create a global civilization with a heart. That was one of the main messages of all of the mystics in the book and that is when you are in touch with that Mystic Heart, the sense of kindness, compassion, contentment and bliss is not someplace outside of you. It wells up from your own heart and the overflow of that creates a very different world.

Wisdom: We’re not in it alone and what we do matters.

Joan: We’re not in it alone. Here’s the part that I always love. I’m a medical scientist and I’m always fascinated with what the new research is. What you see now is the research on gratitude, on forgiveness and altruism. It makes perfect sense that those are the things that confer better health, better mood and longevity on people. That’s what life is about. I think somewhere there is a line of Gordon’s in the book which says that the secret of life is not about willing the goods, but willing the good. When you do that, you do feel good.

Wisdom: So, we’re not totally altruistic when we express loving-kindness, since it is a reverberation that turns inward as well.

Joan: His Holiness, the Dalai Lama calls it "wise selfishness".

Wisdom: You also talk about the ways that God leaves behind breadcrumbs to show us the way back home.

Joan: Three years ago, we were having Rosh Hashanah dinner with a couple of friends and we were retrospecting our year which is what you do at a moment like that as the year turns. A friend had said, "This year I have really been guided and God has left these breadcrumbs to show me the way." For me, it was a great metaphor.

Wisdom: I call it the "Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail" that when I follow it backward, it leads me to an awareness of how this encounter led me to this person, who introduced me to someone else and so on, so it can go backward and forward.

Joan: Yes, it can go backward and forward. What’s also interesting is that you can recognize that there were choice points. You can look back and ask "What part of you knew? How did you make that choice?" There are lots of ways of knowing and of course, this was a big subtext of our text. There is a rational component, but very often, it’s much more intuitive. You find that there is a deeper way of knowing that comes from your heart, and sometimes it is so deep, that there is no duality about it. You just know that this is the way to turn. It is interesting to go through the bread crumb trail and ask when there was direct knowing and when there was doubt. When did I had to use my rational mind and when did I need community to help me discern? If you become conscious of how it is that you follow guidance, then it can only help.

Wisdom: Have you had experiences that if you don’t listen to the gentle guidance, then it kicks you in the butt?

Joan: I have. What usually kicks me in the butt is the bad choice that I made, or the missed opportunity. I think about it as a form of grace. If I’m off the mark and off the mark and off the mark, then I get feedback that I’m off the mark, then I’m more willing to turn toward it. I loved the interview with Hameed Ali where he said that guidance is inherently spiritual. It is about the spiritual journey itself. Should I pursue this relationship or take this job, or move to this place? It’s all about getting closer to your own essence or true nature. For me, the inherent pain of being separate from myself, is the best feedback there is. As long as I’m comfortable, it’s easy to do what I’m doing. The feedback is not so much about "I married the wrong guy or I wish I had taken that job." It’s about how I feel in my own heart. Am I peaceful and content, do I have that sense of bliss welling up without a cause in my own heart? Do I feel all stressed out and miserable and separate from myself?

Wisdom: So, you are learning to be in tune with that instrument; your body and heart that is giving you signals. It’s like that kids’ game ‘you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder.’

Joan: Exactly! For years, as the director of a mind-body clinic, I had a great opportunity to learn more about what I was teaching and that was to be more conscious of what was going on in my body. What was the felt sense, what were the thoughts that were giving rise to that feeling? How did I deal with my thoughts either in a way that allowed me to come to greater insights or ended up where I was victimized by them? Those very basic skills of mindfulness, of tuning into your body, of witnessing your thoughts, are the very same skills that we need in order to follow guidance.

Wisdom: What do you think gets in the way of having us recognizing our own Divine nature or Buddha nature?

Joan: The biggest things that get in the way, are the introjects of society...it’s supposed to be this way, or that way. It starts with our own parents. By the time we are 5 or 6 years old, we have a personality that has been configured to make sure that we get love one way or another. We have already become distanced from our essence and have already started to have put on a variety of different masks. I lived in a family where you got loved by doing real well in school and not making any waves at home. I became a really nice person who did really well in school, because that was how I survived. It’s not that it was a bad thing. I just couldn’t be authentically myself, because I felt like these are the ways that I should be. We loose track of what it would be like simply to be present in the moment. We are always on the look out for "Who’s looking? Am I pleasing the right person and doing the right thing?" We all do certain dances. Daniel Ladinsky said that we’re not going to get rid of the ego, we’re just going to dance with it, since it will be with us until the end. Do you know the humorist Loretta LaRoche? She is not only a hoot, but is incredibly wise. She asks "Who’s driving your bus?" A whole lot people are driving your bus, telling you where to go. It makes it hard to pay attention to the road as it winds in front of you. It’s the very belief that somehow or other, it is always going to be perfect, that if we learn to drive our bus right, it will never run out of gas, it will never have a flat tire and it will never go in the wrong direction. All of it is part and parcel of a human life. We learn a great deal from them. When we did the interviews, it was Wilkie Au who said that guidance shows up in every way, because ‘where is God not?’, in essence. It shows up in doubt and imperfection and wrong directions. All of this is just part of our ongoing evolution as human beings.

Wisdom: Can you talk about Claritas?

Joan: I always say to people, "Think of the word ‘clarity’." Claritas is the Latin word for clarity or illumination. Another way of thinking of this is that when we get a little quiet inside and the mud settles, when our desires to let other people drive our bus slow down, then the light that is inherent within each one of us, can just shine though, then we have a sense of clarity about us. There is a sense of confidence and contentment that arises from within, a willingness to be open and a curiosity about our experience. This really is what I think we are looking for as human beings. That’s when we feel happy and that this journey isn’t just about me. It’s about the larger wholeness in life in which I play a role. We formed a school; the three principles in the school are myself, my husband Gordon and our dear friend Janet Quinn. We thought how great it would be to train people to be spiritual mentors, as anam caras, as soul friends in an inter-spiritual kind of program. We set about creating such a curriculum. People come for a year and half long program; four times for five days each time on site and then there is a six month inter-session. During that time we meet on phone bridges. Many of the people we interviewed in the book teach for us. People get exposed to that Mystic Heart of Wayne Teasdale. They are learning to reflect back that depth of connection to the Divine and not a particular religious tradition itself. We are having an amazingly wonderful response. We refer to the three part movement of the school. The first part is working with what aligns you with the Source of your being; your own essence. The second part is how do you make discernment? How do you know if it’s your own ego out there vs. some movement of Spirit. The third part is putting spirituality into action in your life. We’re training people to work with others. What are the competencies you have to embody to be a spiritual companion with others? The capacity to dwell in comfort in the unknown, to tolerate ambiguity, to be open-minded and open-hearted. Our second class graduates in about a year.

Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin can be reached via www.joan borysenko.com


Rev. Edie Weinstein-Moser is a Renaissance Woman, journalist, speak-er, interfaith minister and energy worker. She can be reached via her website www.liveinjoy. com

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