A Speech to Grinnell College
January 24, 1997



I came to college initially to "learn", whatever that meant. I had imagined that I would acquire facts and history, overviews and perspectives which would alchemically transform me into an educated person. If nothing else, I hoped my BA would be a ticket into the middle class. Ten years after graduation, I was living in a 1941 Chevy one-and-a half ton truck, traveling around the Southwest with tools and welding tanks, going from commune to commune as a tinker, thinking about the world -and unconsciously post-poning facing the question that had haunted me, and probably haunts most students at college, "What the hell am I gonna do?"

If facts are the brick of an institution like this, they are not, the mortar which cements it together. It is that binding force which has engaged me since my student days and I would like to explore that interstitial reality with you today. I regard it as the imagination. The rudder of the imagination is intention, and I am interested in the role they play in shaping the world.

In, The Art of the Novel, Henry James said, "the task of the imagination in public life is to create the record. to imagine, in a word, the honorable, the producible case." I admit to great fondness for that word "producible," because it implies human agency and the possibility of tangible creation.

The over-arching imaginative umbrella of Western Civilization is the Holy Bible, a work as grand and contradictory, and disputed as civilization itself. This book is the common foundation of Western European culture and often regarded with the same monolithic impermeability as the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument. It does not appear immediately to be an act of imagination.

However, even the Bible did not and does not exist in a vacuum. It was created in a real and complex series of present moments, when nomadic tribes warred over territory; when the city-state was relatively new and emergent Kings fought for hegemony over resources and subjects and to perpetuate their royal blood-lines.

Jesus himself was the last of the Hasmonean line of kings of the House of David. His homeland had been invaded by a foreign power, and those seeking to oust the Roman occupiers by force were called zealots and there were many among Jesus's entourage.

There are reputable Biblical scholars who assert that quite normally for a rabbi, Jesus was married and had heirs and that a portion of his evangelizing was concerned with organizing his efforts to regain his earthly throne and oust the Romans.

The Bible was produced in a real world, by real men, in many cases, long after the death of Christ. Paul preached and sought to convert Romans not Jews. Consequently, it was in his interests to play down the bloody Roman occupation of Judea and blame the death of Jesus on the Jews - a charge for which they were finally exonerated by the Pope only this year. Consider the centuries of suffering and anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, that sprang from this modest political adjustment.

For every book in our familiar Bible, there are expunged parts or other books with equal historical credibility which paint very different pictures of Jesus and the times. What was included or not included in what we know as The King James Version of the Bible, was based on the vision of Christianity of those doing the selecting.

The point I want to stress, is that despite their supposed solidity, the "facts" of Judaism and Christianity were imagined and re-imagined, generation by generation, and the world we inhabit today is a by-product of that process. These imaginings often warred substantially with one another. The first genocide in Europe involved the obliteration of the Albigensians and Manicheans by the Pope's forces. Albigensian understanding of Christ's teaching involved personal knowing of God through introspection. They refused to recognize the spiritual authority of priests and considered bureaucratic superstructures unnecessary.

Their beliefs were condemned as heretical, and the vast might of Rome, which had amassed great wealth and bureaucratic power, was dispatched on a scorched earth mission to the Languedoc region of France. They exterminated men, women, and children there so thoroughly that an officer suffering pangs of conscience asked his general how he might discern the pious Christians from the Albigensians and thus spare them. His general's answer is a classic example of how completely ideologies can blind us to the actual. He replied, "Kill them all. God will sort his own."

Even as conventionally accepted a concept as the Virgin Mary was not consolidated until nearly three hundred years after Jesus's death. The ancient Hebrew adjective describing Mary which was translated into Greek as "virgin" actually meant "young unmarried woman". Some sects claimed Jesus sprang from the ear of Mary (literally) while others insisted that he was fully and totally human. The Council of Nicea, was convened in the late Third Century to sort out what the story of Christ and Christianity was going to be.

None of these observations are intended to be disrespectful. They are culled to demonstrate how porous an apparently seamless story becomes once it is investigated closely. The monolithic wall resolves to brick and mortar on closer inspection. Looking deeper, the mortar itself is revealed as pocked, shot with fissures and faults. This porosity permits us to create imaginative passageways between the apparently solid facts; allows us entry as participants, and co-creators. By learning the facts of history and stitching them together with knowledge of people like ourselves, we can imagine probable scenarios and intuit the trains of thought and intentions of those who came before us. Through our imaginations, we can also change the way the story is manifested in the present.

I chose to stress the surface of the Bible just a bit, because the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of our largest common sets. We have inherited its stories with our mother's milk, and their filaments run like long complicated protein molecules from the beginnings of civilization to the immediate moment. Like our parents and their parents, we too reach an age where we begin to review these received stories independently. We begin to question, to speculate, and finally to synthesize our own imaginings of how the world might be and who we will be in its drama. Those independent explorations are to our collective future as the acorn is to the oak. It is from our visions and imaginations that tomorrow will be born and knowing that is the primary reason it so interested me to speak with you today because to the degree that I can engage your imaginations, I am participating in changing the future positively. The germ of all change, positive or negative, exists in the moment in which we create that future by imagining it.

"The self is actually a storied construct with a past , present and future."

Zen Buddhists, among which I number myself, have a parable, "Look deep enough into a piece of wood and you can see the sunshine." This sentence underscores the fact that without sunshine the tree could not exist. It reminds us to be conscious of the connection between the two. The same relationship is true for water, pollinating insects, or microbes in the soil: there can be no tree without them. It follows logically, that the tree does not have a separate existence; that it exists only interdependently with those non-tree elements. It was Buddha's contribution to post-primitive culture that the same relativity is true in regard to the self. Since our inner idea of ourselves is made of non-self elements, like the tree, it cannot (despite our cherished wishes) have an independent existence either. It depends on the body, the five senses, thoughts, impulses, sensation and consciousness, and these in turn depend on everything else. So the self is actually a storied construct with a past, present and future. Our commitment of that story to action is how we manifest our identity in the world.

Now if the self is not a fixed entity with rigid and defined characteristics, it follows that its description and our perception of it can be modified. All religions have understood this fact, and their vows, practices and rituals have been designed to liberate us, even momentarily from the limited perspective of self-centered thinking.

The mechanism by which the self is directed is called intention. It is, to my mind, the single most powerful force on earth available to humans. Through focusing our intention and making it fixed and immovable, we can become like a stake driven into the bed of a rushing creek, forcing the flow around us

Obviously, different intentions produce different results. The intentions of Gingrich and Gandhi are not comparable. What concerns me today are, which and what types of intention we could foster to offer the optimal conditions for all persons and beings on earth (including mountains and rivers) to experience their fullest evolutionary potential. Not to ask such questions is to pretend that interdependence means and implies nothing and implicitly condones a morally and logically indefensible position.

We all breathe oxygen; the gift of countless green-leafed plants supported by countless insects and microorganisms nourished by water spiraling in vast cycles between the oceans and land. The clothes we wear have been grown, harvested, spun, woven, printed, dyed, assembled, shipped, stored and sold by the labors of numberless souls who remain unknown to us. The energy powering our industrial culture is the bodies and blood of numberless lives that came before us, which stored the energy of sunlight during their time. The simple, over-arching questions I would like you to consider are, "What is our responsibility to these unseen "others" and how may we acknowledge our reciprocity with them in our everyday lives? What should our intention toward them be? The short answer, is, if we exist interdependently, they are us and we should act accordingly.

An interesting scholar named Martha Nussbaum has written a book called Poetic Justice based on her teaching of literature to Law students at the University of Chicago. She argues persuasively that the story-telling and literary imaginings do not contradict rational argument, but can provide it essential ingredients. She observes:

"Very often in today's political life we lack the capacity to see one another as fully human.Often, too, those refusals of sympathy are aided and abetted by an excessive reliance on technical modeling of human behavior."

If we trace root definitions of sympathy, it means, sensitivity to the pain of others. A refusal of sympathy is a direct by-product of imagining others as separate and less essential than ourselves. Furthermore, proponents of "the fact school" as Ms. Nussbaum refers to legal and economic theorists and modelers, are advancing a story equal to but competitive with the literary imagination. They just don't seem to be aware of it. In their version of reality, discrete observers with no feelings measure detached phenomena as if they were isolated from the fabric of creation. They label their "refusal of sympathy" "objectivity", and even though it is hopelessly behind the latest contributions of Advanced theoretical physics, they advance it as a story about the nature of reality.

My purpose is not to discredit science and meticulous observation, but to remind you that the scientific/objective world view, despite its lofty accomplishments, is only one among many possible descriptions of reality and not without downsides. To quote Ms. Nussbaum again:

"If economic policy making does not acknowledge the complexities of each human being, its strivings and perplexities, its complicated emotions, its efforts at understanding and its terror; if it does not distinguish in its descriptions between human life and a machine, then we should regard with suspicion its claim to govern a nation of human beings; and we should ask ourselves whether having seen us as little different from inanimate objects, it might not be capable of treating us with a certain abusiveness."

"What blindness or indulgence allows us to think we can live independently of the ants..."

Consider an ant crawling along your arm at a picnic. So minuscule, and delicate that even your hairs are an obstacle. It pursues some purpose with a single minded fixity we call blind, perhaps to excuse our ignorance. We marvel at football players catching a pass while malevolently intended competitors close on them. Is this ant's concentration under our gaze less worthy of consideration and respect? Isn't our inability to identify with its struggles actually a failure of imagination? Could we be so impeccable in the moment if the situation were reversed?

If we crush that ant nothing seems to change: clouds, sky, plants-- all of creation continues, apparently unchanged from the moment before. And yet, if we are sensitive, we can see that what we have crushed between our fingers are precisely those questions and speculations about the ant which might open us sympathetically to its reality. We have lost an opening to an expanded, more intimate existence and have killed something in ourselves at the moment that we extinguished the ant. We have killed an area of our imagination. When we spread chemicals into the environment which kill the single celled microorganisms on which the ant feeds, are we not attacking the building block of our mutual reality?

If we can kill one ant, why not all ants?" Obviously anything except everything can disappear. Species are extincted all the time. Extincting a species through our interventions however, claims for ourselves the right to reorganize life to our own design. Is this not a disguised intention to be God? On what other authority could we cancel a part of Creation? Certainly the use of the word "dominion" in Genesis cannot be the ideological excuse. Because we can? We are able to commit incest, but have made it a species wide taboo because we have recognized that we can have more power than wisdom. Failing absolute comprehension of what Buddhists call Big Mind, would not the wisest course be to build incremental understanding on the largest, most comprehensive picture of these interlocking systems? Would not the most prudent course be to cultivate an intention of compassionate observation to better understand our relationship in the big picture until we could answer the simplest questions like, "What breathes me? What beats my heart?"

In the Northern California town where I live, houses are inundated with ants every rainy season, when the water floods their colonies. Normally, I have no ants in my house, because as part of my efforts to express my relationship, I put food out for them periodically. Occasionally, I'll return from a trip however, and discover a river of ants an inch wide, snaking through my kitchen in a ribbon ten or fifteen feet long. The first thing I'll do is put honey outside for them in a protected place. Within five minutes, the stream will have diminished by 2/3 and within twenty minutes the ants are gone. They have appreciated my good manners, and I theirs. If we believe that they leave solely because of an instinctive need for food, we diminish the ants and ourselves. If it is instinct, why poison them, why not simply feed them? What blindness or indulgence allows us to think we exist independently of the ants and bear no responsibility to or for them? Are not our surpluses of food and wealth partially attributable to their labor?

Extend this example into the human realm. How many of you have stepped out of a fine restaurant after a good meal and met someone begging? Personally, it doesn't matter to me whether that person is crazy, unfortunate, handicapped, or shiftless. The overriding reality of the moment is that he (or she) and I are face to face and I have more than I need. My treatment of that person will depend on the relationship I imagine I have to them. At least I must begin by being honest enough to acknowledge that some of my surplus is a direct result of fiscal and social policies which have benefited me at their expense.

Homelessness in contemporary America is not an accident. For those of us old enough to remember, the phenomena began when President Reagan cut 90% of the Federal budget allocated to low-income housing subsidies. A flourish of the pen created that after dinner confrontation helping to institutionalize in the United States the same disparities of income and opportunity for which we used to ridicule Third World Countries.

Consider, a small tasteful ad in a recent New Yorker magazine, announcing an around the world trip by Supersonic Concorde Plane. $52,800 per person for a little over three weeks. That's $4,600 a day for two people, an amount which is more than twenty five states allow a welfare family of three for a year! 1% of our population owns 48% of the Nation's wealth. 1/2% owns 39% of all private property. Or, more telling: the median net worth of white people in the United States is approximately $10,000. The median net worth of blacks is zero! What is the nature of the society and what are the personal acts of imagination these figures are indicating?

What they express, over and above simple inequity, is unconsciousness concerning what we actually mean to one another and a thoughtless readiness to designate those we do not know or understand as "other" and thus expunge them guiltlessly from our attention. If we can easily discover a relationship to an ant, how can we not trace a relationship to a human being? It's a fairly simple proposition to trace the dollars we don't spend in personal taxes, to the escalating Dow-Jones and the geometric rise of American billionaires in the last decade. Doesn't such myopia create the inner-cities, erosion of the middle class, and despoliation of the Planet we hold in common?

The impulse to spurn the beggar and kill the ant represent a misguided view of the fundamental fact of interdependence and a self-centered intention. While recent history indicates that vast, centralized bureaucracies, whether capitalist or communist, do not do a very refined job of caring for people or the planet, does the failure of those two monolithic models justify stopping the search for improvement? I don't think so, and in the very near future, you students will be called upon to express your answer by the way you choose to live.

Relating questions like these to life choices has haunted me for years and perhaps it will be instructive to speak personally a moment and try to explain how and why I have come to place so much faith in imagination and intention.

"We imagined that we could so something and that it would matter."

In 1962, while I was a student here, the Cuban missile crisis occurred when the US discovered that the Russians had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Our Nation blockaded Cuba as missile carrying Russian ships approached. Many people feared that the United States and Russia were playing a game of chicken with nuclear arms. A number of Grinnell students, myself among them, met to consider what we might do and as a result of that meeting, organized a trip to Washington and a three day fast to picket the White House and protest the resumption of nuclear testing. We were idealistic, but not stupid. We cut our hair neatly and dressed conservatively; carried signs diplomatically supporting Kennedy's "Peace Race". While we were gone, some students and faculty members wore black arm bands and fasted with us in solidarity. President Kennedy was in Arizona at the time, but read the press coverage of our picketing and invited us into the White House to meet with McGeorge Bundy, who was, I believe his National Security advisor.

It was the first time in our Nation's history that a group of pickets had been so honored. We received a great deal of publicity which we Xeroxed and mailed to nearly every college in the United States. The next February, 25,000 students held a peace rally in Washington in what is usually heralded as the beginning of the student movement. Nine students from this school contributed significantly to this movement which eventually stopped the Vietnam war and ousted a President, simply by asking, "What could we do?" We imagined that we could do something and that it would matter.

When I graduated from Grinnell, I went to pursue a Master's in Creative Writing in San Francisco. My first apartment was, by chance, in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city. I joined a small, street-theater group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a company dedicated to creating silly comedies which took such questions as I've been asking today seriously. It was a rag-tag group which played in the parks, accepted no government or corporate grants and passed the hat to survive. Two years later, we mounted a tour to take several shows to New York. We traveled the same way we Grinnellians had gone to Washington: begged and borrowed, bought a couple of old clunkers and took our chances. We played at Grinnell on the way - and in New York won a coveted OBIE award and achieved national recognition.

It all happened because we imagined that public dialogue about issues that count might be as interesting to others as it was to us. Two years earlier, I had been as I imagine you to be today, sitting in Iowa and wondering how my time at Grinnell was relevant to my future life? I'm still like you, but I've come back to announce that the life takes care of itself. It follows hard on the heels of the dreams you have of it and your intention to actualize them.

Each plateau creates another. We had created the San Francisco Mime Troupe to critique the culture and they had just given us a medal! This led some of us to fear that we were not doing enough to stop the war in Vietnam and change its cultural antecedents.

We began by analyzing our theater work and decided that theater had been reduced to a commodity; buying a ticket at the door unconsciously certified in people's minds that the performance was a mercantile arrangement. If they did not like the wares on-stage, they were as free to leave as if they had browsed a clothing store and decided not to buy. This was unacceptable to us. There was no way within the system to raise questions about stores themselves and the relationships between people they demanded or implied. There was no way, within the system, to empower audiences from the private, protected territory of the stage, so we decided to create another. We felt that theatrical events which erased distinctions between actor and audience, would create an alternative reality to highlight the majority culture. If that reality was compelling enough and fun and if people could imagine roles for themselves within it, we predicted wholesale defection from the workaday world.

We began by serving free food in the park. There were hundreds of homeless and disenfranchised kids living on the street. This was not an act of charity, but the imagining of a world with free food. In order to receive a bowl of stew and loaf of Digger bread, made in a small coffee can, a person had to step through a six foot by six foot yellow wooden frame called, The Free Frame of Reference. They were given a smaller version about an inch square on a cord to wear around their necks along with their bowl of food. They could then regard the world through a free frame of reference and determine for themselves what that might mean and how they chose to respond. There was no ideology to subscribe to and no leaders to follow. One was handed an invitation to apply their imaginations to reality and accepted it or let it pass.

The Diggers continued to create situation like this, anonymously and without money because we imagined a world in which we could live authentically, without the pressures of economics dictating all personal choices. We made it real by acting it out. We created Free Medical Clinics, a family-wide Free Bank and Free Stores (where not only all goods, but the roles of manager, clerk, salespeople, were free to be re-invented as well.) If someone inquired, "Who's the manager?" the answer was "You are." If they got it and accepted the invitation to play and provided an interesting offer, everyone would bend to their task. If they left befuddled, or refused to play, they had missed an opportunity and could not blame the system or economics or family dysfunction.

This Quixotic experiment was doomed to fail, but it did succeed in altering many people's relationships to money and property and stretching the envelope of the counter-culture. It also created some hellaciously good fun. All the emblematic free rock concerts you may have seen in records of the Haight Ashbury, were organized by the Diggers, who always remained anonymous. We did this as a way of self-checking against culturally ingrained temptations of wealth and fame; feeling that if we were not getting rich and famous for what we did, it was probably authentic and not culturally conditioned behavior. Once again, the direct link to action was imagination and the intention to take it seriously. The Diggers referred to the process of actualizing a vision as "assuming freedom".

From these basically theatrical events, we began to consider sustaining economies. The Diggers left the Haight-Ashbury and evolved into an amalgam of other groups and became known as the Free family. We moved into the country; founded communes and other experimental forms designed to teach us to live on less and more self-sufficiently. We explored new social relationships from extended families to open marriages. By the time we came to realize that our counter-culture was not going to be flooded with converts, and moreover was condemning us to marginality, we had learned a great deal. Our children were growing older and their concrete needs began to take precedence over our theoretical constructs.

Generations pass and often leave traces only in the sentiments of old men. Occasionally moments of public concord create energy which does not dissipate but continues to replicate itself through time. My friend, poet Gary Snyder, refers to the largest set of such agreements as "The Great Underground". Emerging in the Paleolithic, he likens it to a submerged river of the traditions of shamans, visionaries, poets, healers, yogi's, priestesses, and artisans which has coursed alongside and below civilization since it existed. It speaks always for the archaic, earth centered values, personal, intuitive insight, and inter-species awareness. The Great Underground created the Caves at Lascaux and Altamira, powered the entranced followers of Diana, whacked out of their minds from eating Ivy who would tear apart any man who witnessed their sacred rituals. It informs Amazonian people as the psychedelic age and ayahuasca, and Native Americans as peyote. It surfaced in the Albigensians, and sends sprouts and fountains anywhere in the world that people still acknowledge the living reality of other species and beings. In America, Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau all paddled on this same great flow and their canoes bumped into Jack Kerouac's and Allen Ginsberg's.

The Sixties was another such upswelling of this water. The Civil Rights movement; the anti-war movement; the environmental movement; women's movement, organic food, and a host of holistic medical and spiritual practices were intrusions of its power into the domain of material culture. I can say unequivocally that these various movements expressed a perceived sense of interdependence and compassionate intention. A generation re-discovered this rich vein and called in the pledges of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to aid our highest possible development.

Unfortunately, we were not disciplined enough to continue to explore our shadow sides, purify them and keep our intentions fixed. Personal indulgence and excess felled many along the way and created the counter-reformation of the Reagan years. Still, while their expression may have been callow and often naive, these seeds of vision planted themselves in the cosmology of the public mind, where they are yours to shape and prune today.

My decision to become an actor was a very painful one. For many years, after the Mime Troupe, I had kept my performing talents and aspirations under wraps as antithetical to the anonymity and communal identity of the Diggers. Even though the communes had now disintegrated, and the Diggers was only a circle of fast friends, accepting the life of an actor meant interacting with a world and values that I had spent the majority of my adult life opposing. Furthermore, my fascination with public politics and social forms had diverted me from the critical nature of personal work.

Some combination of personal weakness and political frustration had led me to seek energy and refuge in dangerous and addictive drugs. It became critical for me to change my life, so I began a course of psychoanalysis and the study of Zen Buddhism. It was through meditating and pondering the inter-connections I've been discussing that I found my way back into the world, went on to eight years of government service, shaping public policy in the majority culture, and eventually to my present work as an actor and writer.

"...we can create the world of our imagination."

If everything is truly interconnected, than I was forced to accept that there would never be a pure, untrammeled, morally impeccable place to stand outside of the mess of the present world. I had to admit that every situation contained some combination of positive and negative values and could never escape that duality. Enlightened living, to me, became the practice of consistently seeking the most positive enlightened possibilities where I was. There was no sense trying any longer to dictate what the world should be. My new task was to clean my personal house at the same time that I struggled for positive change in the world; to stake that intention in the midst of its stream and hold fast. That work is not flashy. It is not "special" or usually charismatic. One can practice as a tailor, an executive, a street-cleaner, a mother. It is however, essential.

Our deepest meditations reveal that we are the ant, the morning, the homeless mother and our feared and hated enemy. Meditating on those connections, expressing them in action and intending to all others, human and non-human the same generous and compassionate possibilities we wish for ourselves, will alter reality as certainly as water eats away stone.

We begin by integrating care of the self and the nurture of other life forms into our daily lives. In the material realm, this might mean keeping what we buy longer; keeping things in better repair; resisting the blandishments of image-mongering industries which urge us to buy unnecessary products. It might mean searching out locally grown foods, knowing where your water comes from and how it is treated and what other species of plants and animals are critical to keeping your home place healthy. It might mean inventing our own entertainments instead of buying them. By doing this, we generously free space and resources for other people and other species. Buying organically, investing in institutions and processes which do not violate the health and integrity of others, demanding less wrapping; waste and filler; re-cycling and demanding of manufacturers that they comply with environmental and social standards are all small personal steps that one can take and pivot the world around you.

In the personal realm, pondering your angles of intersection with a cup of water, a guitar, your shirt, or the ten year old child enslaved to stitch Nikes in Indonesia, will heighten the connections between you, and instruct you intuitively how to behave appropriately. Being firm with one's own indulgences and understanding of others' will heighten intimacy and make us less strangers to one another.

Expressing gratitude in action and attitude toward the things of the world we must use to sustain our life, will give those beings equal standing and make your environment as intimate as your living room. It is in this way, moment by moment; breath by breath that we can create the world of our imagination. It is in this way, without cant or rancor, that we can create the world we would most wish to occupy. Finally, it is in this manner that the life-force we have inherited from beginningless time might evolve gaily as the limitless future. Imagine that.


[Peter is a '64 graduate of Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Grinnell, Iowa, with an enrollment of about 1300 students.  As a member of Grinnell's alumni, he was invited back to the college in January of 1997 as a guest speaker.]



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