Interviews with people who work with conflict
about the spiritual foundations of their work
A research process done by Michael Bischoff
Emily Hughes | Abdul-Hakim As-Siddiq | George Lakey | Marcelle Martin
Introduction | Reflections on the Research Process

An Interview With George Lakey, 10/26/00

Why did I interview George?

George has been one of my most important mentors and examples for the work I want to do. George is currently the Executive Director of Training for Change, and leads nonviolence workshops across the world for activists of many kinds. In the past few years, one of George's growing edges has been personal transformation work with activists. During conflict in workshops, I have seen George act from a deep center that always amazes me. I partly decided to do this project so I could ask George about how he does this.

What images or metaphors would describe the spiritual foundation for your work?

Yeast has been a very powerful metaphor for me at various points, especially when it seems like there is mass movement coming on. I don't tend to use it much when things are quiet. In the 60s, for example, I used it a lot in my head. The reason I tend to use it when I see mass phenomena at work is that it reassures me that even a small part can make a difference--that quickening, that fermenting, that tastiness offered by a small minority. I have baked a lot of bread in my life and I know it doesn't take much yeast. It is really reassuring. As far as my actions are Spirit-led, that can make a difference in a much larger thing that doesn't seem to be acting in consistency with Spirit.

Jesus is a person but also a metaphor. I used Jesus's example as a metaphor this Sunday morning in my vocal ministry at my Friends Meeting. With regard to the question of "taking it." How much can we take? One way that Jesus is a powerful example to me is that there he was, this very assertive, if not aggressive young man running around. When they finally caught him, he showed this amazing ability to take it without responding violently. I always imagine being tortured on the cross as one of the more extreme forms of torture. Being in touch with his own divinity was overriding the pain, so he could still speak from that divinity at various points on that journey of torture. And he didn't seem to have the belief, which is what I carry around a lot, that there is only so much I can take and then I can't take any more. That belief, whether it is only so much stress or only so much of my children's acting out or whatever it is, I can only take so much. It is really just a belief. It is not a reality. Maybe Jesus had that belief in his culture too, somewhere inside him, but what he turned to in that time of extremity was the divine substance there. That Spirit mattered more, and that is where he came from. And that inspires me. To feel that I don't have to actually be free of that belief; I am a child of my culture; and there is something else going on with me that can be more important. Therefore, why can't I come back home from the Friends Meeting and take whatever the next phone call brings, or my crazy family, or this crazy world?

A lot of my life, I have felt very self determined and the last few years I haven't experienced that a whole lot. That sense of "Here I am and who knows what the next thing is going to be" is very present. Some of my depression has come from that sense of "I can't break out, I can't be in charge, where is my sense of control?" So there Jesus was nailed up there and all he could do is take it, take it, take it.

How does being a part of this organization, Training for Change, support or hinder your spiritual life?

That's a great question. The biggest thing is that it enables me to do what my purpose in life is to do, and that is a phenomenal gift. Because I would just die if I couldn't do what I am here to do. And that was a lot of the struggle and depression about being a full time care giver for my grandchildren. It looked as though, for a while, that I just wouldn't be able to do what I am here to do. It was just horrible.

I came quite quickly to the Board and said "this is my situation. There is no way I can put out like you are used to me putting out in this changed circumstance. You are going to have to accept half of an Executive Director and I don't know if you want that. You have choices." And they decided they would accept half of an ED and there were people on the Board who encouraged me to look at the rearing of my Christopher and Crystal as political work and part of my purpose. Which is really very amazing.

I routinely take naps. I don't have an organizational culture which discourages naps. I take one most every day. That has meant so much. Now I have my co-worker taking naps.

On the shadow side, with regard to spiritual life is . . . that even though there is no discouragement at all of me going off on a retreat or this or that, there is some kind of spiritual loneliness I feel in this organization. It is so built in the nonprofit and the profit making world of going with the director track and having loneliness. Even though we are full of good will and awareness in our outfit, we haven't broken that net. Even though people have done these things that are so family friendly and me-friendly, I feel alone a lot. It may be that I just need to say, "Look George, this does go with the turf and this is the result of the structure." Maybe I need to get more clarity about that: if I really don't want loneliness, it is time to change the structure, not do the Executive Director thing. Maybe the three-way staff leadership that we are moving to is going to make a big difference in this arena.

Are there other things you want from the organization that you are not getting to support your spiritual life?

It is a deeper appreciation for and a wish to participate in the transformational possibility of this work. There are folks on the Board who are pretty remote from that and figure we are providing a service and that is great. In some cases they don't want to go that place (what is the magic that is possible in the room?) and/or who don't want to go there with me. Who don't trust me enough. This is very tricky stuff. That is what I want to happen in transformational training--that we be open to the Spirit, not that it has to happen or that we are attached to it, but that we be open to it, so people can allow the Spirit to flow through them and the facilitator can say, "let's remove as many barriers as possible to allow the Spirit to show up." I don't have the Board with me on that. That is my most exciting growing edge. In a way that would be the most explicit integration of spirit in action--transformational training happening for activists, as compared with therapists or with priests, but activists allowing transformation to go on. That is the essence, and there are a lot of barriers around that. You've really helped me think freshly about something where there is another pain around it that I haven't even wanted to think about it.

Are there other ways the organization would look different if it were really, truly Spirit-led?

We would be on each others learning frontiers more. When Niyonu, our board president, is leading a concert of her group, there would be lots more board members there. There would be more sense of community, not in the other sense of community of potlucking with each other children. I don't expect that of this group, but the idea of us at each other's growing and showing off points or whatever it is that each of us are doing, the other's of us showing up and cheering. Its the cheerleading, the intercessory prayer, more of that. That's what I would like, yeah, wow.

And what would your working life look like if it were even more deeply spirit led?

More joyful.

How might that happen?

I love work places that are fun to be in, and I think one reason our work place isn't more fun is because there is not more joy there. I think the reason there is not more joy in me in my work place is my loneliness. And of course it spirals, I guess. If I paid more attention to humor it would help the loneliness to erode. This is great, an organizational development intervention.

Do you have stories from a work time when you felt completely stuck and way opened?

I remember being invited to a design weekend in Ohio when people were being gathered from around the country to launch a campaign against the B-1 bomber system in the early 70s. It was experienced organizers from around the country who were going to, together, design this campaign and run it. I went out there with a mission, which was to persuade people that, not only do we want to be against something, we want to be for something. And I wanted it to be peace conversion. I believed that it was pragmatically necessary in order to defeat the B-1 to have an alternative. We could create a coalition that would include labor unions because they would realize that for a change, peace people were thinking about economics. I thought it was pragmatically smart, but also we needed it spiritually, we needed to stop doing all this "anti, anti, anti" and to own what we could be for. Or maybe invent or maybe discover what we could be for. I was completely on a mission about this and I wasn't going to be part of the campaign if it wasn't going to do this, if it wouldn't become a two dimensional campaign. I just wasn't interested in going up against a weapons system. A bunch of my colleagues were very resistant to this. So we fought and we fought and we fought. I remember one guy I had known for a long time and we had a lot of mutual respect was so furious that I thought he was going to come over and punch me in the meeting. So furious with me because I would not let it go. I was in everybody's face about it. By the end of about the second day, it looked like I was being marginalized, people were just thinking that there is no way we are going to get a mainstream agreement on this, so we will just have to marginalize George and let him go home if he wants to. So I went up to my room in despair because it looked like it was going that way. I beat on the bed in my dormitory room. I cried. After a lot of crying, I started praying and came to a place where it was not about my life, or something like that. It was not about checking out my groceries, the center of my life. So, as Buddhists might say, I detached. Not because I had given up my conviction about it, but because I had given up the ego about it. Then I went back downstairs and was way more relaxed. The result was positive, so I must have been much more persuasive after I stopped being so abrasive and having so much ego attached to it. And the campaign did agree to become a B-1 bomber/ peace conversion campaign. That would be an example.

How would you describe the essence of the work you do?

The essence of the work I do is to love. To love.

How have you kept going the past 30 years or however long you have been doing this work?

43 years! Age 19 is when I felt a very clear leading of the Spirit that my life was to be about this -- working for justice and peace and supporting people to express their real natures, their real loving natures instead of being victims of their and each other's egos. In some ways I am very much in the same place, really. I feel very lucky about that. Even my mid-life crisis wasn't about what my purpose was. For 43 years, I have known my purpose. Clear, clear, clear.

What has kept me going . . . God has kept me going. My willingness, too. It takes two to tango. I do feel a relationship, like a twosome going. I know that part of it is to stay open--well, not to stay open, but to reopen. My spiritual life is not one of continued openness. I don't pray without ceasing as Brother Lawrence said would be a good idea. But it is much more episodic than that.

Here is a metaphor that I use a lot, it is as if here we are sitting together, and there is music playing downstairs. I can choose to pay attention to that or not. I might be just absorbed in what we are talking about or whatever and not paying attention to that. But at any moment, simply as a matter of will, I can pay attention to that music. And it is not only there when I pay attention to it, it has some objective reality apart from me. That is how I think of the Spirit. The Spirit is always there. The everlasting arms are everlasting. And I can go amazingly long periods of time without paying attention to it. It is always just there. And I know that. Often what presses me to remember is when I run out of gas on my own. Or drying up for lack of that music. I do so much like being self determined and I feel myself to be a self-made person who parented myself in some respects. Because I count on myself that way to run things in my life, "allow" is this wonderful word for remembering the vulnerable side of what needs to be semi-permeable membrane, not a wall.

What ways do you have to open yourself back up to God?

Prayer is the most direct. Just praying.

How do you pray?

The prayer that is most reliable in getting results in my life . . . In fact it is a prayer that has never not been answered. 100 percent results. Here it is, at no extra charge. And I didn't make it up, I got it out of the Course on Miracles. It is, please God, help me to see this from a different point of view. It always works. Within the next five minutes. It is like these aspirins that are supposed to work faster than fast. Within five minutes at the most, I am seeing whatever this thing is that has me in agony, I am seeing it from a different point of view. That is petition, right? Asking for what you want. Ask for what you want. I ask God for what I want.

Another way that it happens is unbidden, not intentionally bidden, but the result of my going to an unusually vulnerable place. Maybe grieving. I do a lot of grieving just standardly. I often sit at this table and read the morning newspaper and cry over the paper. Another thing is in great joy.

If you are in a workshop and there is a major conflict, what other ways do you have of finding your center?

Humor. There is this great line of Charlie Walker's that I remember in times like that. Charlie, who has just turned 80 and was an early mentor of mine, used to say "If you can keep your head while all about you people are loosing there's, you don't understand the situation." That is a great help to me. Another great help to me is to ask myself who is being most marginalized in the room? Jesus said that in as much as you value the least of these my brethren, you are valuing me. That seems to help because a lot of what gets me upset in situations of turmoil is some sense that I should be instrumental in bringing the whole thing into clarity. It is the part of me that wants to control that really comes forward at that time. If things are in a certain kind of chaos, there is really no way of asserting control. Not in that sense of control. So I can get upset myself, "Oh my God, nobody is in charge here, including me. Oh my God, oh my God!" Because I am an activist, a doer, I'm not a contemplative. I am an activist. My spirituality needs to be expressed in an activist way to be real for me. Which isn't to say that other kinds of expressions of spirituality aren't real for other people. I need to do. A wonderful doing form for me is to look around with the question, "Who is being most marginalized?" and to then do whatever interventions are appropriate. Maybe I am actually facilitating the workshop, so maybe I can do it from there. Or maybe somebody else is facilitating and I can go over to that person, call attention to that person. Start praying for that person.

It is sometimes hard for people to understand how powerful intercessory prayer is. That came up in the last Transformational Workshop I facilitated. There was a union leader here from Canada who was a wonderful, wonderful, refreshing man in many ways. I think he classically brought the strengths of working class to the workshop. One way that working class people "doers" sometimes don't see is how powerful the inner work can be. This was a great case of this. In the workshop, people took turns in pairs facilitating exercises, so he was facilitating this exercise and his part of it at that time was simply to set up the exercise and it was doing fine. And he noticed that people were doing what they were asked to do and being in pairs and it was going fine. What I noticed from the back of the room, was that he seemed ill at ease. He didn't quite know if he should sit down or stand up or what he should be or do. He seemed restless, and yet it wasn't obvious what he should do because things were going fine.

So what do you do if you feel like you should do something, but everything is going fine and there is nothing to do? He was in this existential dilemma. Afterward, as we were debriefing, I called attention to that. And he said "Yes, that is right. I kept feeling like I am facilitating, so I am supposed to be active, I am supposed to be doing something here. There was nothing to do because people were doing great. They were following instructions and it seemed meaningful to them and so what to do?" I said, "What about cheering for them? Rooting for them?" He said "What?" I said, "You know, like a football match in Canada. When you go to a football match, what do you do?" And he said "Well I scream my bloody head off. That is why we all go really." I said, "That's it! That's what you need to do as a facilitator. Not out loud. That might get in the way of the process that you already set up. However you can do that internally. You can yell your head off internally and cheer people on who are doing the work that you have asked them to do." He said, "Now come on, that is like crazy. What is this, a mind game or what?" So I said, "OK, let's just try it.'"

I looked around and I asked "Does anybody else know what I mean, like holding an inner attitude that might be expressed with different metaphors for different people, but has to do with cheering? Some people might say 'holding in the light', some people might say praying, some say cheerleading, whatever it is." And people were nodding their heads and saying, 'We know what you mean.' "So Brian I would like you to just sit there. Don't do a thing, just relax and the rest of us are now going to silently cheer for you. One, two, three." So we all started cheering for him. He grew red as a beet, sweat started pouring off of him and then in a little bit he said, "Please stop. I can't stand any more." So we stopped. And I said, "Well . . ." And he said, "I can't believe it, that much energy! I was hot as an iron." I said, "What did you hear?" He said, "I didn't hear anything. It was incredible, incredible, radiant energy." I said, "Well that is it. That is what cheering for people is. We really ganged up on you. You know, it was all of us to you, so if you were cheering for us, relax, you wouldn't be wiping people out. It would be an appropriate amount. You could cheer 100 percent and we could handle it. That is what you do as facilitator. That is what some people call spiritual motion. It is just cheering for people." So there is another metaphor, cheering your head off. And letting your heart shout because you are cheering your head off.

And how about other communities that you are apart of, like your Friends Meeting, how do they support the spiritual life of your work?

Well my Friends Meeting is the main place, and my Oversight Committee which holds me accountable. The standard question on its agenda is 'What is your spiritual well being?' So we always look at that every time. And Meeting for Worship, which actually I don't get to that often because of workshops. I miss it a lot. When I am there it is always very important to me. Meetings are an anchor in my life.

Can you tell me about the Oversight Committee, and how long you have doing that, what do you get out of it?

Since 1991. The Meeting set up a Clearness process for me. I asked for that. We decided that my work is indeed a ministry, a religious service and therefore deserves an Oversight committee, which reports yearly to the Meeting. That committee has met with me since 1991, and there has been some turnover of course, but I think there are three members that have been on it the whole time. For the most part, although they are very supportive, they don't think of themselves as a support committee, they think of themselves as an oversight committee. It is both support and accountability. They will ask some hard questions, including stress related: Are you overdoing it? What are you doing for yourself? And they pray for me. They ask the Meeting for money for me. So it is a very interesting combination. It's not a fundraising committee, it's not a support committee, and it's not a little foundation board. They keep track of my family life. It is really the best, it is looking at me as a whole person, even though there is a particular action outcome that got it all going in the first place. It is looking at me as a whole person. Supervisors don't do that, or they are not supposed to. Boards don't do that. Even though there was some talk of once we got the Training for Change and the Board, why have the Oversight committee? And people asked "Does your Board have this kind of meeting?" No way. Board meetings are like board meetings. Niyonu influences them in ways, so they aren't cut and dry. There is more individual sharing than in most board meetings, but nevertheless the center of the Board's attention is the organization, is the work. While the center of the Oversight Committee's attention is me. That is amazing. So my Oversight Committee continues to value meeting with me and think it important.

Anything else you want to say about your spiritual life and your work?

The final thing would have to do with this question of non attachment. I was so impressed at the training for protests at the Republican National Convention. It brought so much back to me of how I was as a young activist. There was the passion and there was so much great stuff over there. We had this college campus kind of arrangement, with five different training sites all in the neighborhood. I would take turns sitting under a bench under a tree and people would just come to me. So we had a lot of one-on-one interaction as well as running all of these different workshops and sometimes facilitating these workshops. I was impressed with how many people were willing to be pretty vulnerable and expressive with what their fears were and stuff like that. It was this great opportunity to see a lot of people in a pretty good way. It reminded me again of how strong the fear can be. It reminded me of how actively fear attaches us to particular outcomes and particular righteousness and modes of superiority and how much that separates us from the other people who need one in order for the cause to succeed. So this question is of being able to keep the passion, root the passion at a deeper level, so that one can detach from the fear and its symptoms. It seems more important to me than ever. Even though, in my own journey, I haven't gone to where I want to go, on my good days, I can see, "Wow, this is what I want more of. This ability to be not withdrawn at all--be intensely present and at the same time, not attached." Vitality is what is needed. I think we are talking Spirit when we talk about effectiveness. It is daunting to develop vocabularies that will convey all of that, and yet we need to do it. Thanks for this project. This project is a part of that effort, right?


Spirit in Conflict
Interviews: Emily Hughes | Abdul-Hakim As-Siddiq | George Lakey | Marcelle Martin
Introduction | Reflections on the Research Process