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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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