KOREAN WOMEN’S SOUL QUESTIONS
by Alice Walker and Hyun-kyung Chung
Before going to South Korea, a few years ago, my friend Hyun-kyung Chung and I were asked twelve questions by South Korean feminists. Our responses became a book, The High Spirit Love of Hyun kyung and Alice, that was a best seller in Seoul. Women in South Korea were on fire to find solutions to their deeply challenging situation under what felt like a crushing patriarchy. I have chosen to leave our exchanges just as they occurred, because I see and feel the beauty of our collaboration, just as it happened. I have not yet seen what Hyun Kyung’s responses were, though years have passed. Hers were written and published in Korean. It is my guess that women all over the planet are having similar questions put to them, and are questioning each other, about the direction we must now, as a gender, as a planet, take. -AW
It was so wonderful to talk with you. I love your spirit!
Here are the questions. I am going to translate them literally (and roughly due to time limit). Korean women (IFTOPIA) asked us to answer following 12 questions from our own life experiences and perspectives. Each Question with 1-2 double spaced page answers. They want to publish this book called “Gift” on our big performance day. They want to spread this book as a conversation piece to open the dialogue between Korean women in Korea and us. (Women from other stars.)
Fasten your seat belt and let us fly.
Questions: 1. Let me ask you directly. Can a feminist woman become a Soul friend with a man? I am becoming despaired. I do not think I can in this patriarchal world.
Logs also weep like me in the fire place.
Her ancient eyes look into my eyes.
Yes, you can.
I can see some men evolve slowly everyday.
I can see a man among them coming to you.
From Hyun Kyung’s poem, Alice Walker
Can we become soul friend with men? Women anguish and cry out that ‘good men are hard to find.’ Do we have to lower our standard to have a relationship with men? Do we have to make a big compromise to stay with men? Or, should we change our direction and love and play with women?
AW: Yes, it is possible. However, nothing, not even “soul friendship”, is forever. I think women must look at relationships with men more realistically and less romantically than they have in the past. There are good men in the world; many have been, as women have been, damaged by patriarchy. Most men are afraid to be who they really are, just as women are. The imbalance of power stems from men’s greater physical strength, otherwise women are easily as powerful as men, if not more so. I would say, in fact, that they are more powerful, because women are endowed with strengths stemming from their ability to conceive the progeny of the human race within their bodies. Women nurture and sustain the life force itself, using vast creative resources that don’t seem apparent in even the most developed men. Women can think and give milk. How astonishing and powerful is that!
We must learn to play with men. And to consider more of our relationships with men in this light. Women have been far too serious. I myself have always been happiest with men who liked to play. After I had a child in a marriage that lasted ten years, I was saddened to discover the playfulness, that I so loved, had gradually begun to disappear. Looking back on that marriage, I saw that the first five years were a delight; the next two were ok, and that the last three were unbearably tedious and boring. Even though we had a child together, I could not imagine continuing to live in a situation in which I felt suffocated. After that marriage I was in relationship with another man who liked to play as much as I did: walking, talking, dancing, swimming, traveling, reading and writing poetry to each other. We could spend entire days doing nothing but being together, washing and brushing each other’s hair, bathing each other, eating together, going to the movies, going camping. It seemed we lived under the stars! This way of life suited my soul. The freedom of it meant I could continue to create, to write my books, and to be a more generous parent to my child. It was a joy to see this man grow, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally. He deepened wonderfully. Unlike in my marriage, we did not live together. This made all the difference. We tried living together for one week and saw it was impossible. So, for the next thirteen years we lived in separate houses. I am not convinced that men and women were ever meant to share the same house, though some people can do it beautifully. I was able to do it for five of the ten years of my marriage.
At the end of thirteen years, and after a lifetime of relating intimately with men, I knew I did not wish to continue my life without the experience of loving women. The man I was with was evolved enough to understand this; he loved women very much himself. However, when I became involved with a woman I found I did not want to dilute the experience by attempting to divide my time between them. Loving women, making love with women, was for me a spiritual calling. It was worship of the Life Force, of Creation, of the Great Mother, the Holy Feminine. It was also of course highly erotic and amazingly easy. Which I had not expected. In fact, once I got over the nervousness involved in making such a seemingly drastic change I was shocked to discover how like breathing it was. I began to be lovers with women at the end of my fortieth decade. Throughout my fifties I had women lovers. I was very happy. Toward the end of my fifties, I once again loved a man. My most amusing discovery re: women vs. men lovers is that lovemaking, whether with a man or with a woman, is essentially the same. Women might have an edge, because we know our own bodies better; but men can be very subtle and knowledgeable, well beyond the stereotype of what makes a “good” male lover.
I have never compromised myself for long, whether with men or women. I have relied on my inner guide to help me preserve integrity and faithfulness to myself.
Myself: this creation of the Universe who was made in the special form and Beingness of me. In my experience, fluidity is all. Study water, how it flows. Water goes here, water goes there, it retains and enjoys its essence in all settings. Women can be like that; in fact, I think we are, essentially, like that. We give birth to male children and female children. We love both, very easily. We tend to easily love our parents, who are male and female. It is this ease of relating to both sexes, and knowing both sexes come from our bodies, that makes having both male and female lovers feel completely ordinary and natural.
2. It’s so simple.
Anybody who believes these two things, they are feminist:
First, do you accept that women are oppressed in someway.
Second, do you want to work with us to solve that oppression.
Why do you make simple things so complicated?
From Hyun Kyung’s poem, Sexiest nun alive
Why do you want to live as a feminist? When you come out as a public feminist, people (specially men) avoid you and consider you as a problem. They call you “fighting hen” or “trouble maker”. There are so many women who can not utter the word,”Feminist”, be
cause they do not want to be ostracized and alienated from their community. How long do we have to live this life under fear? Do we have to raise our voices in spite of this ostracizing?
AW: I created the word “womanist” for women of color, especially women of African descent (and actually, because Africa is the birthplace of humanity, all women are of African descent!). Specifically women who are culturally African American. I created it because I believe every culture has its own word for a woman who objects to her own oppression. A woman who believes women are human beings and deserve all the rights due human beings. A woman who raises her voice and her energies to fight oppression, whether in school or in the marketplace, in the bedroom or the theatre. Is there a word in Korean for such a woman? Sometimes it feels better to use the tool our foremothers, or we ourselves, have created. A word that is strictly ours, taken from our own culture. Not an import.
Having said that, however, I also affirm the right of Korean women to call themselves whatever they like, including “feminist”. “Feminism” after all is a word readily recognized around the world, and easily connects Korean women with other women no matter how far away they live.
In my own life, I have been severely criticized no matter what! If criticism can stop women, if being ostracized can stop women, then we have no chance of changing our societies. If even violence can stop women, we have no hope.
I think we must believe so deeply in the rights of women; believe so completely that our mothers deserved to be free; believe so deeply that our great-grandmothers should have been able to live their own lives; believe so deeply that our daughters must be strong and free, that we are willing to sacrifice our reputations, such as they are, in the eyes of people who deliberately misunderstand and berate us. Why would a woman wish to be with a man who avoids her for saying she wants to be treated as an equal and not as a servant?
3. Leave Seoul. Leave Korea. Go to some other place in this planet where you can reconnect with the star you came from. From Hyun Kyung’s poem, Sophia
So many women in Korea have allergic reaction to Korea and Korean men. What is the remedy for this allergy? Is there any cure? Shall we leave Korea? Shall we get involved with men from other country? We want to hear from women like both of you who made an exodus from their own community to reconnect with their star. We also want to hear from you what you want to say to sisters like us who can not leave, women without choice.
AW: I think it is fatal to assume we are created solely for the men (or women) of our own culture. I have spent many happy years with African-American men, as lovers and friends. However, I have spent many happy years with men and women who were not African-American. Life is rich! Life is varied! Life is alive! And as far as I am concerned, that is one of the miracles we are placed on earth to discover. The Korean women I’ve met are exquisite.
How could they not be worshipped by Korean men? That is the question. As women, creators and carriers of life, I feel much worship is due. Instead, what we get, whatever the continent, is disparagement, diminishment, and abuse. We must turn away from this behavior, regardless of what turning away will mean. At the very least it will mean an increase in self-respect.
Also, when you realize that a loving, equal relationship with women is possible, there is an enormous feeling of plentitude, not scarcity. There are millions and millions of women in the world, just as there are men. To be limited in one’s imagination to men is to me a great sadness. Meanwhile, life ticks by. Women, wonderful women, full and juicy (!) are left sitting prettily on the shelf. Men stroll by, disrespectfully, glance at the women on the shelf, talk with each other about how the women don’t have the right color, hair, shape, speaking voice, height, nose, lips, odor, shoe size, etc. And the women of the world have been reduced to such beggary that they sit there on that shelf and begin with knives, scissors, bleaching creams, hair dye, deodorant, voice lessons, and so forth, to reshape themselves. Women must WAKE UP!
Men are not worth our suffering. And indeed, this suffering that has befallen women, is not wanted by Creation itself. It is the absence of a strong feminine that is leading to Earth’s destruction. We have become too weak and too preoccupied with the petty opinions of men to take proper care of Her.
4. Why do you look so sad? You look like someone else.
He has another woman. I have been crying day and night.
Her compassionate wings embrace me.
Her oracles comfort me. Romance and true love are different. True love is only possible When you do not need men for your happiness. All my ex-lovers are my family now.
From Hyun Kyung’s poem, Gloria
So many women are melancholic because they can’t have lover. And when they finally find lover and loving him, they are still melancholic. They marry, still melancholic, divorced, still melancholic. They choose to have a single life, but still melancholic. What are we doing wrong here? How is “True Love” possible where we can find true satisfaction and fullness of life?
AW: I feel I was put in the world to Be in and With the World. That the true relationship is between me and Creation, not me and a man. I think relationships between lovers are wonderful for their contribution to growth, but they should not obscure the fact that there are other kinds of relationships.
Once, a woman I adored had to leave me. Knowing I would be lonely, I went (with her) to purchase a puppy. On the night she left, I began to toilet train this puppy. I began to learn the behavior of this puppy. I began to feed and take care of this puppy. I missed the woman with all my heart; yet part of me was immersed in my growing affection for this little black puppy. Now that puppy is a huge one hundred pound dog. When I am home, we are inseparable. She is my friend, my companion, my teacher. I cannot imagine life without her. I talk to her; I take walks with her; she sleeps under the table when my friends come for supper. She snores through my Women’s Council meetings. She eats snacks off the table when Sangha is held at my house. Everyone responds to her, knows her. Most people like or love her. How loving of my departed woman friend, I often think, to help me acquire her.
My dog is symbolic of all the connections that are possible. I also garden, passionately. I am deeply fulfilled by growing abundant crops of the plants I ate as a child. I love giving away large, platter-sized leaves of a special plant, the collard, that sustained African American people during and after enslavement in the American South. I now grow these plants to a size and a flavor that exceeds anything I’ve ever grown before. I am ecstatic that I can do this, even though, unlike my farmer parents, I was educated in Literature, Philosophy and the Arts. I live a life that feels whole and circular. I am constantly in companionship with ancestors, many of them also gardeners and farmers. When I cook the food they planted and ate, I eat it using the taste buds of a dozen generations. It is exciting!
And I have women friends with whom I can discuss anything. For intense sensual connectedness to the Divine I have a vibrator. For cuddling I have enjoyed spending time with a big, warm bodied man friend who wants to be “the new man” who loves women and is sensitive to their ways. This is a celibate relationship, and contentedly so.
The news around the world of men infecting women with AIDS should alert women to the need to create other kinds of relationships with men. Celibacy can be an excellent choice and c
an contain much sensual and erotic pleasure that is at the same time safe.
5. Freedom is privilege of lonely women. Can you endure loneliness?
I don’t know.
When you receive the letter from future, You become lonely.
But, aunt. You do what makes your heart leap.
You are right.
That’s why my heart breaks so often.
From Hyun Kyung’s Price of Freedom
Now many women refused to get married and decided to have a single life. But single life is not cool at all in Korea. Many women can not endure their loneliness, a price of freedom, and go into marriage unwillingly. What is the nature of loneliness and true freedom? Please give us some advice for happy, solid single life.
AW: Sometimes my house has been my companion. Sometimes my dog has been. Sometimes the moon has been. Sometimes a single wildflower. Fortunately I have always cherished solitude. I was surprised to discover my own loneliness, which I felt most keenly when I was married and the marriage was not alive. Loneliness is; but it is not forever. It comes and goes like every other feeling. If you meditate, which I recommend, you can see this easily. Then it’s arrival will not frighten you. You say: Oh, Loneliness, there you are again. Come in. Have a seat by the fire. I was just wondering what to do with myself. And so you sit or walk or read or sing it out. It will not necessarily be lifted just because another person, especially a husband (!) is present. It is worthwhile for women to learn to be creative during periods of loneliness. I have made beautiful quilts when I was lonely. And sometimes the quilts turned into stories, or novels. Sometimes, sewing, I discovered a world unknown to me, revealed now in daydreams. Do not underestimate your own inner fertility! Do not overlook the richness of your own company! We are, as human beings, far more wealthy, in everything, than we know.
Once, in my fifties, I decided to study plant medicine. I have always loved plants and it seemed to me right that they should be able to speak to us and to help us heal our woundedness. We breathe because of them, after all! I sought out a shaman and began to practice listening to a particular combination of plants called Ayahuascha. This medicine has been used by Indians, indigenous people of South America, since time immemorial. Imagine my surprise when, after taking this medicine, an entire world revealed itself inside me, and a teacher appeared, the voice of the plants (!) that immediately began to teach me incredible things about life. My outer world disappeared – I was wearing light-proof dark glasses – and the inner one bore no resemblance to it. Eventually I wrote a novel using some of this experience and the central idea is: there is no end to wonder! Women must take back their sons from the patriarchal death trap that thinks natural wonders are to be tampered with or destroyed. For the human race to survive, much effort must be expended by everyoneto take back our children, daughters and sons, from a fatal vision of conquest of Life itself.
6. I have a dream.
I gather all the people
crazy about life
and make one big house hold.
we do not have to live together everyday
we do not ask others to live for us.
pumpkin flower blooms beautifully as pumpkin flower.
rose blooms gloriously as rose
we all say “truth of my own”
but they do not become poison to other’s heart
we all eat from our heart’s content
but we do not make anybody poor.
From Hyun Kyung’s Gaia House
When we are lost in everyday’s demands, we lose our imagination. We do not like our everyday mundane life but alternative seems like a far away story. It does not look realistic or easily come. We need to recover our ability to dream again. Please share with us something about your imagination of feminist Utopia.
AW: Amazingly, this poem, “Gaia House” by Hyun Kyung, is exactly the plan I set out to implement after I left my marriage. I think this is absolutely the right dream for women and I believe it is do-able! I bought a house with three stories. It was a small house, only twelve feet wide. I invited my lesbian cousin to live on the top floor; I invited other friends and relatives to visit us. My daughter had her room. Eventually we would have added a dog and/or a cat. In fact, all my houses have been roomy enough to accomdate many others; because I believe we can share households in an equalitarian way. One of my oldest friends from college days lives in such a cooperative household. She is a single woman, and happy. What happened to my own cooperative household? I became “famous. After becoming “famous” in America it is difficult to plan anything with others. All of one’s energy goes into staying connected to the source of one’s life, one’s creativity and joy.
Today I am part of a Women’s Council which meets each equinox and full moon. We have been meeting for five years. I am part of a Sangha (a Buddhist support group). This has met for three years. Out of these two groups could easily come candidates for a cooperative household. This may well happen, as we get older.
I would suggest beginning a circle of women. Meet regularly. Don’t have an agenda. Get together simply to Be Together. Eat, drink, be merry. Dance if you feel like it. Lie about on cushions. Tell stories. Share secrets. Teach each other how to garden, how to build fires. But definitely do not “plan” what you are going to discuss or do. Whatever work needs to be done will be done without your trying to make it happen. This is one of the discoveries made when associating with other women.
7. From Alice Walker’s ” I want to marry my mother” (Alice, you know your poetry. I will not rewrite them for time sake here).
As women, we have more compassion for our mothers than our fathers. For some of us , our mothers are victims and our fathers are oppressors, a sad dualism. We also say, ” I will never live my mother’s life! ” Many of us are wounded by growing up witnessing our mother’s suffering. What is mother-daughter relationship? What can we do to make this relationship healed.
AW: My mother was wonderful, not perfect. She had her “off” days like any other woman. She suffered a great deal, hormonally and emotionally, from PMS, a condition I inherited. She was magical. She could grow any plant under the sun. She had an affinity for all that is natural and creative. My father had this also, to some extent. I have learned to have more compassion for my father as I’ve understood how men are crushed under patriarchy. He also had many tender feelings that he was not able to entertain or express. The feminine was suppressed in him. But not at the time he and my mother married. During their first years, when they had four of their eight children, my father was more “mothering” of their children than my mother. He loved to bathe them, sing to them, cuddle them, cook for them. But under the dual oppression of race and class oppression (being a poor black man under white supremacy) and under Patriarchy, my father became more rigid and closed and “masculine.”
Lucky for me, my mother was physically strong. When my father tried to dominate her, she was able to stand her ground. She could fight, just as a man would fight, to ensure protection for her children and her own liberty. This characteristically self-respecting behavior deeply impacted my life. So much so that it is hard to imagine a lover or husband even thinking about abusing me. Whenever a partner has disrespected me – and no one has ever dared to lift his hand – I have, sometimes tearfully, changed my relationship to her/him. This is my mother’s legacy.
My daughter and I have inherited some of the problems carried over from my relationship with my mother. When I was small, my mother’s condition was little better th an a slave’s. She had enormous fields to sow, to weed, to harvest. Sometimes with my father, sometimes alone. If she took me with her, I would be an infant crawling around in the grass and dirt, where there were snakes, and other dangers. She sent me to school when I was four. I missed her terribly. Later, in order to pay for my needs in school, she held other depressing jobs that took her away from home. She left home before sunrise and returned after sunset. I could not complain of missing her because I could see she was doing her best; telling her my feelings would have burdened her even more. In my life, I have spent too much time away from my daughter; she has missed me, just as I missed my own mother. This has created pain between us. For many years we barely spoke. Now we have committed ourselves to speaking openly with each other about our sorrow. This is the beginning of the process we hope will heal all the generations of mothers and daughters in our family.
8. From Alice Walker’s “Jane Goodall”
Women have put tremendous effort to be beautiful. In Korea going out of your house without make up takes enormous courage. ” Inner Beauty” is considered as ugly women’s excuse. Media bombards us to become beautiful in some specific and acceptable way (cosmetic surgery, make up, fashion, etc.). We all long to become beautiful. How can we truly become beautiful?
AW: Happiness is beauty. Beauty is happiness. That is the true meaning of “inner beauty.” Women must unplug from the media. Shut off the television, which is toxic. Shut out the billboards. Shut out all commercials that seek to sell “a better you.” There is no better you that can be sold to you by someone else. You are already the best, and how to improve on this is a wisdom that grows from silence. Quiet time when you can appreciate your essence, is essential. In the circle of women of which I am a part we reflect each other’s beauty. We treat each other with dignity and cherishing. It is easy to see our delight in each other. If someone took a photograph of us our radiance would be obvious. This circle is a foundation for each of our lives. No matter what happens to us in the larger society, there is a place where we are seen for who we truly are: women who have survived many terrible things; women who have created homes and families; women who are capable of protecting and sustaining not only ourselves, but parts of our communities and parts of the world. We are women who speak up and speak out. Women who dance under the moon. Women who hike the hills. Women who swim the rivers. Women who honor the strength of women and understand the importance of having time together. Women who will fly thousands of miles to be present for Women’s Council. We are our priority. Simply knowing this makes the whole world feel safer for human life. And not only human life, but plant and animal life, as well.
It is worthwhile to know, and love, your natural face. Your natural hair. To present your natural self to the world. The honesty of this is a tonic, a medicine, for society, even if it is attacked. The young especially need to see people who are not frightened by their own looks. Whenever one is tempted to hurt oneself in an attempt to be more “beautiful” think of the teen-agers in the West who are mutilating their faces and bodies – through cosmetic surgery – in an effort to look “beautiful” before their features and bodies have even fully formed. This is a madness that will spread throughout the world unless adults model gratitude for having a human body and deep appreciation and respect.
9. From Alice Walker’s ” Be Nobody’s Darling”
What is the true meaning of women’s Independence?
AW: It is vital that women earn their own living. That money is understood to be important to a woman’s freedom. To this end we must educate our daughters even more rigorously than our sons. We must have a material foundation that allows us, in any situation, to speak our minds. Only when women around the world feel confident enough to speak out will the world have a possibility of being saved. Women hold the key to everything; it is our voiceless-ness, which is tied to our lack of material wealth, that permits the degradation and destruction of planet life. We must awaken to the strength we have already: the strength to bond together as women; the strength to bring up our daughters to be articulate and aware; the strength to raise our voices wherever we are able to raise them, if that is only at the supermarket. Which is an important place, indeed, since most of us shop there and that is where most of our families’ food comes from. Women are not powerless. We must cease to think of ourselves that way.
When we can speak, write, act from our hearts; when we can comment on any activity or person or behavior anywhere in the world; when we are not afraid to follow, with action, our ideas about how things should be, then we are independent, we are free.
On International Women’s Day a year ago, I was arrested, along with twenty-two other women, in front of the White House. We were protesting the President’s impending war against Iraq, which we opposed. Not only was this a vibrant political experience, it was also a deeply holy, sacred one. Just to be able to say NO! in this way was wonderful; NO to the bombing of human beings and animals and rivers and cities; NO to the terrorizing of children and their families. It was an extremely happy day, to be free enough, independent enough, to say NO to an atrocity which all the women knew would be a calamity for everyone on the ground in Iraq. This is the kind of happiness that can blossom when women cease limiting their activity toconcerns about men and reach out to care for and embrace the whole world.
10. From Alice Walker’s ” My Friend Yeshi “
Women’s lives are filled with trauma, stress, and impass.
We are harassed by men in the subways, in our work places and life itself.
etc. How can we get out of our trauma, stress, and impass?
AW: It is time for women to remember who it was that gave birth to the first human being and then gave birth to all the humans who followed. Who foraged for food with her digging stick. Who later began agriculture so that humankind might continue to eat, even when the climate and the weather changed. We know how to improve a bad situation. It begins by gathering together, which is why Feminism, Womanism, is so important. If there are dangerous places women must go, go in a group. Learn to meditate, learn to exercise. Become strong. Believe with all your heart that life, happiness, joy, this world, all it it belongs to you. Begin to walk with that conviction in every step.
11. From Alice Walker’s ” Goddess”
Most of mythology we know of are about patriarchal God. Where are all these powerful and beautiful Goddess hidden? Where can we find them? How can we discover Goddesses within us? Please tell us Goddess’ story.
AW: We ourselves are the Goddess.
I will tell you the story of how I finally understood what it was that I so loved about my mother. Whenever she was home, the energy in our house completely changed. Even the plants raised their heads; the cat was happier and stretched itself more. The dog was more peaceful. It was because she went from one place in the house and yard to another, touching this, whispering to that. Singing, humming, stroking. Often she carried a pitcher of water, which she poured wherever water was needed. And now I am able to feel this force in myself, in my own house. Some days I move about my house and garden, enchanted. For I am able to feel the Goddess in myself. She Who Brings Sounds of Reassurance; She Who Brings Sustenance; She Who Brings Peace. Whenever we, with love, tend to the world – whether that is our room or our garden or our children or our lovers – we become the Goddess. If you want t o see Her, look in the mirror.
12. From Alice walker’s ” Maria Sabina” and ” Anything We Love Can Be
AW: The title of my book is Anything We Love Can Be Saved, not “Everything We Love Can Be Saved.” It is a book that grew out of my forty years of activism. It means that if human beings -”we” -can collectively love the planet, we can save it. Encouraging others to love nature, to respect other human beings and animals, to adore this earth, is part of my work in the world. Sometimes all that can be saved is one’s sanity. Or, sometimes, all that can be saved is a precious open-pollinated seed, a seed that will continue to produce plants because it has not been genetically engineered to self-destruct. Under male rule, much of life has been compartmentalized and separated. Our children grow up without understanding their connectedness to all the other children of the world. They have no feeling connection to animals or to plants. They are taught that torture of plants and animals is ok. They are taught to think human beings deserve to dominate the rest of Earth life. We must work to change this. It is essential that humans learn to love the entire planet as passionately as they love their own gardens. We must persevere in our appreciation of this wonderful place, Earth. We must never despair of Earth because there is bad behavior almost everywhere we look. If we look closely we see that Spring continues to arrive. Winter comes with its refreshing snow. Summer stuffs us with its fruits, and its smells of sweetness and plenty. Autumn prepares us for rest. No bad behavior by any human being has ever stopped the changing of the seasons and their incomparable gifts to us. We must begin to affirm our good fortune, rather than our misfortune. The person who stands in front of us is the person we change the world with. We need never go very far. Beginning with our own selves is always the right place to start. Sit down, take a deep breath. Then another, and another. How can we save us, this world, in the madness of injustice, hatred, greed, and violence we witness everyday?
The peace that the world needs can only come if we bring it within ourselves.
It will be a great trip to Korea. I can’t wait. We will spread Goddess-Spell according to Alice and Hyun-Kyung to Korea. Be well and celebrate your beautiful self!
Copyright © Alice Walker 2008
Start with a Flower: Alice Walker & Sharon Salzberg
Moderated by Melvin McLeod
Sharon Salzberg: In speaking about metta practice, or loving-kindness practice, one of the hardest things is not to sentimentalize. That’s especially hard in our society, where the whole idea of love can be degraded and considered a weakness. But in your books, the power, the actual life force and potency of loving-kindness, comes through so strongly.
Alice Walker: I think my feeling of loving-kindness is rooted in a very irrepressible spirit that has always been earth-connected. When I was a child I felt so much a part of the countryside, and everything that was in it, that I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I had to have been loved very much to find myself there.
So when I came to meditation—I actually started doing TM when I was living in New York after a divorce—it was a kind of going back. Just after being initiated into the training, when I finally sort of got it, I started to laugh, because I recognized where I was. I was back in a place where I had lived as a child, in my spirit, in a very open, spacious, loving place, where I felt totally at peace and in myself.
Later, when I was in another period of great struggle and trial, I read a book of yours about metta practice, and it was wonderful. I was so comforted to have again such a place within my reach. It was that incredible thought that we can care about ourselves and not fall into the pit of thinking that just because life is not working now, there’s something terribly wrong with us. That is what metta has given me, this reassurance that of course we go through incredible periods of stress and pain, but if we hold on to our love of ourselves through it, we can come out the other side.
Sharon Salzberg: There’s a teaching in Buddhism that suffering strengthens our faith. That’s hard to understand, it’s hard to even speak about, because so many people are embittered by suffering and are broken by it, rather than renewed by it. It’s finding the transformative quality in the openness that makes all the difference.
Alice Walker: For me, it is also not having my love and faith in the earth itself broken. Some years ago I experienced having Lyme Disease, which at the time I didn’t even know existed, so I just thought I was dying of some mysterious thing that nobody had ever heard of. Then when I realized that this disease was caused by a tick bite, I thought that the earth had kind of turned on me. I had always been such a shameless pagan, out there fornicating in the grass and up the trees and everything, and I felt I had to withdraw from that kind of intimate contact with nature, because nature bites back, I thought. So I went for years with this kind of fear, and only after a very long time did my love for the earth and for nature prove so strong that I just decided that I loved it no matter what it did. And so (laughs), it’s been wonderful.
Sharon Salzberg: In your audiotape, “My Life as Myself,” you say something like, “Love makes me look at what I can’t stand,” which is a tremendous affirmation of the bigness of love.
Alice Walker: It’s true. I think that feeling had to develop in me because so much of what I’ve had to look at in life is so hard. If I didn’t have the love of the people and of the earth and of the life force itself, I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t know that children are being subjected to all the things that they are being subjected to. I would just turn away, I think, as many people do. People go into drugs, they go into television, and they go into many things. But you can also go into love.
Melvin McLeod (Editor, Shambhala Sun): Can I ask what your understanding is of the actual practice of loving-kindness. Many people might hope that they could access such love in their lives, love for themselves and for others, but how does one actually do it?
Alice Walker: Well, for me it has always been through activism. I’ve been a very contemplative person by nature, and was fortunate enough always to live very far out in the wilds of the country. I think this is where all meditation really comes from, that feeling of spaciousness you get in the countryside or in nature. But I was also very lucky to have been placed in a part of the country where one has to struggle politically and socially in order to grow, and actually to exist at all. So I was brought into contact with people and movements and with forces for change in society, and I could not help but grow. It was just inevitable that if I looked out and saw people in all their radiant fighting beauty, then I would just be struck with love for them.
I’m so happy that I lived in Mississippi for seven years, because each day I could see these warriors, who were really the least of everybody. They were poor, they could be thrown off their land, they could be jailed, they were often shot—you know, lynching was not uncommon. And there they were: they would stand up to anyone and hold their ground, insist that they were children of God, and that they had a right to exist. This was incredibly humbling, and I just found myself loving them without reservation.
The thing about love that I’ve discovered in my life is that one love leads to another. It just gets bigger and bigger. You can let it start anywhere; it can be really tiny. You can start with a flower, but if you sincerely see it and if you sincerely love it, then it’s like the key. The flower is like a key to a big, big, big storeroom. Then everything becomes something that is lovable.
Sharon Salzberg: You describe the naturalness of it all. I guess the problem is that we’ve forgotten, or we’ve got out of touch. It’s not so much a practice to get more loving, but to remember more, and to feel more safe and confident in our ability to love.
Alice Walker: Yes, and also to see the good even in the midst of the dreadful. That has always been very powerful to me. I’ve known so many people in my life who were almost split in half, good and bad. You could see them doing something that was just horrendous and despicable on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, you would see them drop all of that and stand up to incredible forces of oppression and despair, and call upon something very deep within themselves that was really precious.
Sharon Salzberg: It’s like the creation of the other, even within oneself. We don’t incorporate all aspects of our being into this loving space, and so it’s that much easier to dishonor others and to feel so separate.
Alice Walker: I think you have to really work at it, to see the good, and sometimes you do it in such peculiar and maybe perverse ways. For me, I have had to recognize a real fear of Germans. When I travel through Germany I feel afraid, and all of that. But I made myself get a German car, and I really liked it a lot. It was perfectly smooth and wonderful and it made me think about Germans in a different way. I didn’t think about them killing people in concentration camps. I kind of thought about them on the car level, the Mozart car-making level, something very beautiful and very efficient also, in a positive way. I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we’ve been brought up to do.
Melvin McLeod: Is there also a healthy type of anger or outrage that is compatible with, or perhaps even a companion to, loving-kindness? Could this be the sense of the power of loving-kindness that Sharon referred to originally?
Alice Walker: Creativity—for me, that is where the power is, that is where the healing is. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, to make something that is beautiful and not destructive, or to make something that is useful and not destructive, that is the healing power of the artist. For me, as someone who spends so much time in solitude, it has been about making actual objects—making stories and making quilts. And making friends with somebody, that’s very good. And we all together make political movements; we make change in society.
One of our big problems is that we live in a culture that bombards us with destructive images that are killing us. I think that children are battered so badly by destructive, negative images from television, mainly, and the movies, that they often have no idea that they can create in a way that is not destructive. They actually think that creation itself is destructive. That’s a terrible place for us to find ourselves, where our children believe that.
Sharon Salzberg: Maybe the power we’re talking about is the clarity of truth telling and clear seeing. I would hate to call it the positive aspect of anger, but maybe it has some of the energy of anger.
Alice Walker: I love “clear seeing.” It is such a wonderful phrase. It just gets right to it, that you try to see things as clearly as they are. Then you try to express them to yourself, and then to the world, as clearly as you can. This, I think, is really the only hope. Because it’s as if this world is constructed almost entirely of lies, and so we can’t help but be lost. We are floundering about, trying to find the path, and they have deliberately said east where it’s west, north where it’s south, up where it’s down, green where it’s blue. And all the time they are wrong. These signposts have been deliberately put on the path to send us off somewhere else. So clear seeing, clear speaking—that is our responsibility.
Sharon Salzberg: It’s also feeling the truth of our own experience, because being cut off from our own suffering, it’s that much harder to open to the pain of others.
Alice Walker: That’s why it’s good to be a writer, or to be a poet, because you can at least offer your own truth. I’ve had the experience of writing about incest, wife beating, child molestation, female genital mutilation, all kinds of things, and having people say, this could not possibly exist, and even if it does, why would you want to tell us? And at some point you stop really caring whether it makes other people uncomfortable, because, as the Buddhists say, this is just basic human stuff (laughs). Essentially, your experience, whatever it is, is human stuff. And for people to pretend they don’t know what it is, or that it’s so shocking somebody said it, this is another signpost that says East instead of West. Because deep in your heart, you recognize what is human when you see it.
Sharon Salzberg: In your novel, The Temple of My Familiar, Carlotta says to Fanny, well, maybe the problem is too large for anger. The way you phrased it in “My Life as Myself” is that maybe it’s too big not to forgive. That sense of bigness is, I think, a spiritual understanding which is totally inclusive. It’s not separate from what’s happening, or trying to get beyond it, or transcend it in some way.
Alice Walker: I think that with me, I do realize it’s pretty messy all around. Lots of suffering, lots of pain. And I have just decided that there are places where I feel I am uniquely suited to be, and causes that just fit. Causes where I feel I understand some of what it’s about, where I feel I can actually do this without being insulting or ignorant or unhelpful.
I work on what I am able to work on, more or less joyously. When I tackle something like female genital mutilation, I think about one child at a time, and I try not to think about a hundred million people. I can’t really think about all of them in their collectivity. I have to just try to go after one child who has a possibility of not being harmed, if I speak out now. And I go into that with a real light heart. It’s very heavy, but because I’m off my couch, my heart is fairly light.
And that’s it. I give to the extent that I can, and then I sit back and I eat tomatoes. And I enjoy them, and I look out at the landscape and I love it, and I walk and I go swimming and I love being alive, and I enjoy my life. And then when I get my strength back, I go out again. That’s all I can do, and I do it with such happiness. It’s not in any way a strain, and when it gets to be a strain, I just take a nap. But it’s good for me.
Sharon Salzberg: That reminds me of something out of the classical Buddhist tradition, that at the time of the Buddha, the Buddha would smile, throw a flower, or say three words, and 50,000 people would get enlightened. And it doesn’t happen that way these days. I asked one of my teachers once, why not? And he said, it’s basically because we can’t open up to the suffering all at once. We have to do it gradually. It’s not the point to suffer; it’s the opening that’s the point. It is that lightheartedness, that bigness, that spacious mind and love that can hold the suffering and accommodate it and integrate it and understand it. It’s not just to suffer and be broken by it.
Alice Walker: I’ve had this experience where I go somewhere, and even on the way, I’ll be thinking, oh no, it’ll be so rough, how can I stand it? Then I’ll get there, and I’ll be with the people, and sure enough, they’ll be up against some incredible madness, and I’ll just find myself getting happier and happier and happier. And we’ll all look at each other, and we’ll be grinning and grinning and grinning, and by the time it’s over, whatever it is, we will have decided that this was absolutely the high point of life. And so there’s that to be experienced.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when people think that if their activism is not some huge, grand thing, that if they’re not some great hero like the ones who have been assassinated already, then what they have to offer is not good enough. Just by writing a letter, for instance, or teaching somebody how to vote, or picking up litter in a neighborhood where picking up litter is unknown, you can influence people. You may feel that, well, this is so small, I’d like to do it but what is it? But the tiniest thing can be very powerful and very beautiful, and it’s something that one should do for oneself. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not to clean up someone else’s neighborhood, or feed their children, and just do it for them. It is really for you too; that is where your happiness is.
Sharon Salzberg: It’s so healing to recognize our connection. I’ve received a lot from people who had very little, and that has been an awesome experience. Like going to a country such as Burma to practice meditation, where every single meal is offered to us by people who are sometimes just dressed in rags. They’re so happy for the chance to have fed you, and they have nothing. To receive so much from them is beautiful.
Alice Walker: Also, Sharon, you know what?
Sharon Salzberg: What?
Alice Walker: They are quite aware that they have everything and you have nothing.
Sharon Salzberg: That’s true too.
Alice Walker: You’re the one who left home to come to Burma.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, that’s very true. And sometimes when we do something small, we have no idea where it’s going to lead anyway.
Alice Walker: Never. And also there’s just the joy of beginning.
Melvin McLeod: I’d like to go back, Ms. Walker, to your ability to maintain a light heart. I saw part of a documentary on female genital mutilation, and it included an actual scene of a young girl undergoing some sort of terrible excision of her genitalia. The child was screaming, and I was completely shaken. I couldn’t watch it. So when you’ve seen that sort of thing, as you have, how do you not get your heart broken, on one hand, and on the other hand, not be completely enraged at the people doing it?
Alice Walker: I think you feel all of that, and you just don’t stay there. Once again, here it is—the most horrible thing in the world is happening, but by some miracle you are there at the beginning of seeing that it stop. So how could you not be lighthearted? I mean, ultimately. But it’s very difficult, I know. When I was in Africa, I was walking along—this was after a whole long line of young girls had been mutilated—and I couldn’t watch it. And out of nowhere there was a little girl, I guess maybe three or four years old, who just came up to me. She’d never seen me before, and she just took my hand, and we walked along holding hands for a little distance. All I could think was, I’m doing this for other children, but we’re not starting in time to save this particular child. And I’m telling you, it almost just drove me under the ground.
At the same time, I think, well, I am here to help. I’m here with all of the skill that I have acquired as a writer, and all the love that I feel for the people here, and all the love that I feel for myself and my connections to the people of Africa. So I felt like it was okay. It’s better to start, even when things are so dire, then to be sitting home not starting.
Melvin McLeod: This reminds me of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s image of the “Great Eastern Sun,” which refers to the fact that in every situation, no matter how difficult, there is always the possibility of going forward, toward waking up, toward helping others. This situation seems exactly the definition of warriorship, that you can see the possibility of going forward, even while your heart is broken.
Alice Walker: You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken, and I say that because that seems to be just part of what happens with hearts. I mean, mine has been broken so many times that I have lost count. But it just seems to be broken open more and more and more, and it just gets bigger. I remember saying to my therapist, “You know, my heart by now feels open like a suitcase. It feels like it has just sort of dropped open, you know, like how a big suitcase just falls open. It feels like that.”
Instead of that feeling of having a thorn through your heart, that feeling Pema Chödrön talks about in tonglen meditation, you have a sense of openness, as if the wind could blow through it. And that’s the way I’m used to my heart feeling. The feeling of the heart being so open that the wind blows through it. I think that is the way it’s supposed to feel when you’re in balance. And when you get out of balance, you feel like there’s no wind, there’s no breeze, there’s just this rock and it has a big thing sticking through it. I don’t know how you get from one feeling to the other, except through meditation, often, but also activism, just seeing what needs to be done in the world, or in our families, and just start doing it.
Sharon Salzberg: I think open heart comes from a sense of community, and it can come from a meditation practice, or both ideally. Because when there’s a central connection with others, that’s also the source of joy. Realizing that what’s happening to those little girls is not different from me, not other than me. Inevitably, it’s awful and one’s angry and terrified, but at the same time, that connection itself is the joy, that open suitcase heart.
Alice Walker: I don’t know where that suitcase image came from (laughs), but now that I think of it, a suitcase is something that you also fill up again and move on off with (laughs). So it doesn’t stay empty. It’s also portable.
Alice Walker is the author of The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart, published by Random House. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple.
Sharon Salzberg is a Buddhist teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. She is author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, and is the editor of Voices of Insight.
Start with a Flower, Alice Walker & Sharon Salzberg, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.