Donna Quesada: He went through such jealousy and contempt from his brothers. And yet, remaining the kind of character that he is. Can you speak to that?
Who is Joseph? What does he teach us? What did you discover?
Stephen Mitchell: Well, the contempt is merited. And Joseph realizes that, himself, when he’s in the pit. One thing I did that I think transforms the story, or brings it back to its essence, is that I’ve given him an in the pit and enlightenment experience. It’s not explicit in the Biblical version, but it has to have happened this way because once he’s out of the pit, all of his actions are different. They are easy. He allows everything to come and go with great equanimity. So, what he goes through in the pit we can go into in a little while, too. The first thing that he realizes after the first reaction of Oh my God, how could my brothers have done this to me? I’m the chosen one… I’m the one who is going to save the whole family… I don’t know how… After that first reaction, as he is thinking on the outside… We tend to blame. Especially to people, naturally, who try to murder us.
DONNA: And sell us into slavery.
STEPHEN: But then he is given the gift of something deeper. He asks himself the question, not, “How could they have done this to me?” But, “Why did they do this to me?” And then something starts to open up. A little space of insight, and he gets to see himself from a third person perspective. You could say a God perspective, outside his own personality, and to see that everything he did was marked by his sense of being entitled… his actually… being a spoiled brat.
His father loves him more than all his other brothers and isn’t shy about showing it and saying it. And he, himself, is not shy about gloating and showing his entitlement and showing how his father loves him so much more than all his other brothers. He realized what a spoiled brat he is. And when his brothers call him… excuse the expression, “A little prick,” he understands that is accurate. He has been that and he has been unkind, arrogant, and so stupid in emotional ways towards his brothers. Everything floods in on him when he is in the pit.
And even more than the physical pain he is… and the uncomfortableness of being naked in the weather, shivering. Being soiled in his own urine and feces, etc. The moral pain is even more troubling to him. Seeing how he has been so hurtful to the people closest to him, in addition to his father.
So, all of this floods over him and he has to go through the experience that we all do… if you are interested in spiritual growth… of moral pain, at seeing our own unkindness and the hurts that we have inflicted on others. It’s a terribly difficult experience, but a necessary one if we are interested in self-awareness.
And so, once he gets out of the pit and is sold into slavery, he’s able to see that, first of all, whatever he might think about slavery, Oh my God, this is terrible. This is going to be the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. What’s going to happen? Help, Help! All of those things we are tempted to think after a difficult experience… He’s able not to get caught by that and to see that maybe this could be something good.
In the pit, he’s sees that everything happening is according to God’s will. God, in the largest sense of the word. And that when his brothers threw him into the pit, they could not have done that if it were against God’s will. In a sense, it was God that threw him into the pit. It’s God that is selling him into slavery. And with that understanding, everything becomes very simple. Because nothing that can happen can be bad. Everything is good in that sense.
This is very counter intuitive. It’s very difficult to see if you are looking at it from the outside. But on the inside, it’s an experience of amazing freedom. There’s nothing that you have to do anymore. There’s nothing that you have to be. The reality takes you along with it. Without effort. And you can coast on that momentum. You can be in the flow of reality at all moments because you realize that nothing can possibly happen that should not happen. What happens and what should happen are actually synonymous. I could say more about that, but that’s the basic insight that leads Joseph into his great fulfillment, after he gets to Egypt. That’s in the original story. I had to make it more explicit and add some flesh to the character, but it’s nothing that isn’t implicit in the story. And that’s what makes it such a great story.
DONNA: You’ve said to Jon Kabat Zinn, who we also interviewed, that “you can smell the likeness of someone who is similarly committed to the elimination of suffering.” You can smell it in someone.
STEPHEN: That was probably taking off from a quotation from an ancient Sufi Master, who said something like, “Enlightened people can recognize each other over great distances and over the centuries, as well” and it’s like horses smelling each other. They know affinity and smell it, so I may have been quoting that Sufi master, but it’s true. You may not put in the terms of a sensory experience but it’s a great recognition. And people do have that experience of recognizing others who come from a similar state of insight.
DONNA: You know, it seems like so often we’ve all been where Joseph was in the pit. That often is the prompt for beginning this life as a teacher or a seeker because we have been so far astray or so far from where we want to be, that it becomes what we need to pull us back. Does it always have to be that way? Do we need to have a dark night of the soul, so to speak? Do we need to be in the pit, like Joseph?
STEPHEN: I don’t think it needs to be that extreme and there is one instance I already mentioned, where it wasn’t. The case of Ramana Maharshi who was a 16-year-old school boy, when he suddenly had a devastating fear of death and he lay down on his back and he experienced what death would be like and for that practice of a few minutes, I think it was, he emerged as a sage. At age 16, he had the same insight as he did at age 50.
So, he didn’t have to go through that process. And perhaps there are others. I don’t know of any instances but I do know of my own experience and Katie’s experience. For her, it was 10 years of misery and paranoia and suffering, beyond what most of us go through, or would ever want to go through. For me, it was a longer process, from the initial devastation of a romantic break up was what the impetus was for me, to search my way out of the great pain I was feeling all the time, in my heart. And that lasted for years, until I had my first experience with opening.
So, I would say it doesn’t have to get that deep. There are people that come from an ordinary kind of life. An ordinary kind of consciousness. There are problems. There are upsets. But they are still more or less happy and carrying on… productive… and have decent marriages, but they just want to go deeper. They are curious and there is a powerful sense of wanting to understand life and their own mind. So, people like that can begin with a great advantage in some way, than people who begin in a state of suffering. In some way, the people that are coming from intense suffering have an advantage, as well, because there is a sense of… I don’t want to say panic, but there is a sense of urgency. Because the pain is so bad that it’s almost unbearable. They’ve been bearing it for seven or ten or twenty years. But it feels like it’s unbearable. They are hungry for an experience of clarity. That’s a powerful motivator.
DONNA To use another Zen expression, their head is on fire.
STEPHEN: Their whole body is on fire. Everything is on fire.
DONNA: Something else you said stayed with me. That replacing the negative with positive just doesn’t seem to work. That’s fascinating. Why is that? Why is that not enough?
STEPHAN: Well, Katie again. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but my wife has the best explanation for that.
DONNA: I have a huge crush on her!
STEPHEN: So, I’m going to be free referring to her.
STEPHEN: Katie says… that you can have an enlightenment experience and then it will revert to your ordinary suffering experience because there is an underworld. And what she actually means by an “underworld” is all the thoughts that you still believe, but aren’t even conscious of believing. The thoughts that have not been questioned. Simple thoughts like “My husband doesn’t listen to me,” or “I’m not good enough.” These are thoughts that some of us are conscious of and try to replace with positive thoughts. There are other thoughts that we are not conscious of. I had a vivid experience of this when I did her school for The Work. Here is someone coming from 27 years of intensive meditation, and when I started to fill in her Judge Your Neighbor worksheets, I became aware that there were some basic essential existential thoughts that I hadn’t even been aware that I was thinking. So, there is this underworld and if we don’t address it, it will take over our ordinary consciousness. After weeks… two weeks… a month of the bliss of enlightenment… of partial or temporary enlightenment.
DONNA: Like gas just seeping out. Toxic something…
STEPHEN: It does. And we aren’t even aware of it. It just happens, and then when we lose it… And then, when we try to get it back, there is a kind of sorrow that enters, as well. I realized that after my first opening experience, I started reading the Christian saints. Even the greatest one. The near greatest one. Not the greatest one like Meister Eckhart, but the next level, like St. Teresa and John of the Cross. Where they are constantly longing for God’s presence… and getting their experiences of divine love and static experiences.
But then, they lose it. And then, they long for it. And they try to get it back. And maybe it will happen. Maybe it won’t. Maybe two years will go by, and maybe five years will go by. And it’s a state of constant longing, which then, is then spiritualized into something that is an achievement. But it’s not. Longing is a mode of suffering.
The long and the short of it is that unless we find some way through meditation or self-inquiry… through The Work, to address these unavailable thoughts that we are believing, we are going to be sucked back into our suffering.
DONNA: That is fascinating. Let me make sure I understand this because that is extremely rich and useful at the same time. Replacing the negative with the positive doesn’t work because as I do that, there is a kind of longing. There is a kind of grasping for that intent to replace. And as long as I’m reaching and grabbing… that “efforting”, to use that kind of Law of Attraction terminology, which I also love, creates a kind of suffering?
STEPHEN: Yes, and let me be a little clearer and more explicit. There are two things here. And I was talking about people who have an enlightenment experience, which happens from time to time and it isn’t unusual… Perhaps during a long Zen retreat. People will have kensho experiences, as they call it in the Japanese Zen tradition, which is a glimpse of reality. It’s only a glimpse, but its life changing.
So, that’s what I was talking about when I was talking about two weeks of bliss and then the underworld creeps back. The replacing of negative thoughts with positive thoughts is not an enlightenment experience. It’s a total effort experience and it may or may not provide any insight. For one thing, it’s not possible. You can try to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts, but you won’t believe the positive thoughts. Because the negative thoughts… if they are not questioned… are still there. You are still believing them, even though you are trying with all your might not to believe them.
So, all of these positive thinking practices, beginning with old books like The Power of Positive Thinking… they may be helpful in a short-term sense… in a relatively shallow sense… people will be benefited from them, but they are very superficial. And those negative thoughts are still going to be circulating around, consciously or unconsciously. So, these are two slightly different things I am talking about. But, even with the enlightenment experience… the negative thoughts are still somewhere untouched, and they need to be addressed.
DONNA: That recalls the importance of sitting with our emotions, which we hear a lot about in today’s kind of spiritual parlance. We have to sit and be with whatever we are feeling. Even the negative stuff. Does that mean there isn’t a kind of wisdom in reaching for the better feeling or thought?
STEPHEN: No, there is a natural sense, with all of us, of wanting to be happy. That’s given at birth. And so, avoiding the negative and reaching for the positive is natural.
DONNA: To feel better.
STEPHEN: It’s a natural reaction, but it never works, as we were saying before. What a more effective, and I would even say mature way of going about it is… Again, as Katie says, to look at any negative emotion, quote unquote, like anger or sadness, as a temple bell to tell us that we are off. That we are believing something that is not true. And this gives us an additional step in the process. Let me say it this way: Instead of trying to push away negative thoughts and trying to reach for positive thoughts… you know, the Buddha, in his first truth, talked about this… and his second noble truth… Suffering is something that is part of our reality and we need to acknowledge it and be with it. That’s the first noble truth. The second noble truth is the cause of suffering. According to the Buddha, it’s reaching after pleasure… it’s an impetus or desire for something that we are not. So, this can also be a desire for positive thoughts. That is, in itself, suffering.
It can be a desire to move away from negative thoughts. So, greed is one side of the coin. And aversion is the flip side of greed. When we are trying to push away negative thoughts, it’s the same thing as trying to grasp positive thoughts, that we don’t really own… we don’t really possess. So, both of these are modes of desire that the Buddha said are the basic cause of suffering. The way Katie treats it is entirely different. For example, if I’m feeling fear or sadness and I become aware of that after a second, or five minutes, or a half hour… If I’ve been doing meditation, or I’ve been intensive in my practice of inquiry, I’d be able to catch this after a couple of seconds… that emotion of sadness.
So, slowing the process down would be saying “oh, I’m sadness. Why am I feeling it?” And sitting and identifying the thought that is causing that sadness. Could be, she’s being mean to me or I failed at this task… or, whatever it might be. There is something there that is the cause of my emotion. It always happens this way. Even if we can’t intensify it, there is something that is triggering the negative emotion. Once I have identified the thought, I can write it down and question it. And if I do my questioning in an honest way, the effect of that thought will disappear by itself.
So, there is no necessity to replace a negative thought with a positive one. When I question the negative thoughts, they disappear by themselves. So, there is no striving. No effort involved at all. There’s no replacing involved, at all. I question. The negative thought unravels by itself. What’s left is a life of clarity and happiness. So, I’m not controlling it. In other words, I’m not replacing this with that, which is total control. And control is a recipe for suffering. So, it’s like that. All you have to do is question it and the process takes care of itself.
Continued in Part III…
Read and Watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Stephen Mitchell Part 1 – Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness
Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness
A BIBLICAL TALE RETOLD
Stephen Mitchell’s gift is to breathe new life into ancient classics. In Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, he offers us his riveting novelistic version of the Biblical tale in which Jacob’s favorite son is sold into slavery and eventually becomes viceroy of Egypt. Tolstoy called it the most beautiful story in the world. What’s new here is the lyrical, witty, vivid prose, informed by a wisdom that brings fresh insight to this foundational legend of betrayal and all-embracing forgiveness. Mitchell’s retelling, which reads like a postmodern novel, interweaves the narrative with brief meditations that, with their Zen surprises, expand the narrative and illuminate its main themes.
By stepping inside the minds of Joseph and the other characters, Mitchell reanimates one of the central stories of Western culture. The engrossing tale that he has created will capture the hearts and minds of modern readers and show them that this ancient story can still challenge, delight, and astonish.