Jacob Needleman

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Bill Moyers talks with philosopher Jacob Needleman about his study of the role of money in our culture. Needleman discusses how there has always been greed, avarice and people wanting more than they need. However cultures have always wanted other things, too, including honor, power, love, respect and beauty. You can view more about this program at the archived Bill Moyers Journal website.

Jacob Needleman

(Photo: Janet Van Ham)


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Jacob Needleman says he writes for people like himself, “People who are searching,” as he puts it, “for a way to return to the questions of the heart that a child puts to the universe. Who am I? Why am I on earth? How can I find the meaning for my life?” This Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at San Francisco State University is both a scholar and a seeker. His books examine the promises and failures of the world’s newest religions, and the relevance of the most ancient. Whether asking how to practice medicine humanely or philosophy wisely, Needleman hopes that his readers will entertain second thoughts about what we ordinarily take for granted. He’s working now on a book about money and its power to shape life’s meaning. We talked at his home in San Francisco.

[on camera] You and I were both born in the same year -1934. Now, where I grew up, they kept telling me that the best things in life are free. Did they confuse you, too?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN (Professor, Philosophy and Comparative Religion, San Francisco State University): Oh, yes, very much so. Very much so. That’s what they told me, but what they did was something else. The best things in life are free, but most of the energy was spent on getting the money.

BILL MOYERS: You’re holding seminars on money. Do the people who come there know what they’re getting-


BILL MOYERS: -or do they think they’re going to get advice on the stock market?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: No. That’s what I say. I say very-“This seminar will not help you make more money. It’s not for that. It’s to understand yourself in the midst of the world we live in, which is a world of money.” And people come, in large numbers, for that.

BILL MOYERS: What are they looking for?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: I just did one a few weeks ago, and I asked them what their questions were and almost all of them had the same question, one way or the other: How do I engage in making a living and still keep my soul? And, putting it in very simplest terms, they feel that the world of money -the world they are forced to live in is sucking their soul dry, and they cannot keep their -what we called -self-respect, or their sense of inner worth and still participate in the money world. They want meaning. People come for meaning.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of questions do they ask you?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Well, for example, there’s this idea, “Do what you love. The money will follow.” I think it’s one of the New Age fantasies, where you’ll just-And they say, “No. I have found that when I’m out there making my living, making money, I am completely wasted on meaning. My life is meaningless. I’m doing-I’m manufacturing widgets, or I’m selling this, or I’m writing these things that are totally without any nourishment to my inner life, and I come away from that tired, exhausted. I have no time for anything that I consider meaningful.” Part of the illusion of our culture is that it makes us think we are free and independent beings when, actually, we are being pulled by the forces outside of us.

BILL MOYERS: In the Buddhist tradition, the world just beneath the human level is an animal world, and the animal becomes a kind of symbol of the human being, because the animal is driven fiercely by the need to get food.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: That’s used as a symbol, representing a human state where we are constantly getting satisfactions, pleasures, or, if you want to say, money, but mainly that we’re constantly getting our satisfactions and pleasures and warding off the things that we are afraid of, whether justifiably or not. And the animal level, for the Buddhist, is a level of living where we have no time, no space, no inner space or time to search for something higher than that.

BILL MOYERS: I keep hearing in my mind, as you speak so many of my friends, and myself, and my family, saying, “I have no time. I’m so busy. I have no time.”

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: This is one of the things that I’m most interested in in the study of money. We are-Just think. We have we’re coming at the end of 100 years, about -or more -of devices that were invented in order to save time. What has become of time? Nobody has enough time anymore, even my students. Nobody. We are all completely taken. So-The way I would put it is that time is slowly disappearing. It sounds funny to put it that way, but we are a-what I would call-It’s the new poverty. We are a time impoverished society. We have lots of material things, but we have no time left. Human time has disappeared and we’re in animal time; we’re vegetable time, if you like.

BILL MOYERS: Vegetable time?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Or mineral time.

BILL MOYERS: Mineral time?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: The time of the computers, the time of things, of mechanical devices. Or vegetable time would be the time of just dreaming and doing nothing and-

BILL MOYERS: Languishing.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Languishing. Animal time is the time of the literally, of the rat race.

BILL MOYERS: And yet there are still 60 seconds in the minute, and 60 minutes in the hour.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Yes, but we don’t experience them that way. We don’t experience the present moment. Time is real only in the present moment, and we’re never in the present moment. We’re always worrying about the future, regretting the past, trying to do three or four things at one time, and we never have a sense of, “I am here, now, in this time, and this is reality.” Part of consciousness real consciousness -is real time, is inner time, and that is gradually being lost.

BILL MOYERS: You said somewhere that human time is conscious time. And I think of that as you talk about being conscious of ourselves. Talk a little bit to me about conscious time.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Well, you know what it’s like in certain moments of one’s life-moments of crisis, for example. You know, there’s a wonderful passage in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, when the hero is about to be executed and a firing squad or-hanged, about to be hanged. And he has one minute left before he’s hanged, and he begins to realize-say to himself-feel, feel to himself, ”What an enormous amount of time I have. I have 60 seconds. I’ll have 10 seconds to think about my family and 10 seconds-” So, at that moment, time simply opens up. In that one minute, he goes through a lifetime of intense, subtle impressions and experiences and sense of presence. That is conscious time. And I don’t think you need to get executed in order to have it.

BILL MOYERS: When we are most conscious, in this sense, what are we conscious of!

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: That’s a very interesting question. First of all, we are conscious of our world around us. We’re conscious of a sense of one’s own being. We’re conscious of one’s self -myself, here and that myself-in the middle of that, there’s something that you would call the sublime, if you like. Call it God. But there are many levels to that. Consciousness doesn’t have to be of something in the usual sense. It’s in itself a valid and reverberating inner experience.

BILL MOYERS: Have you had moments like that?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Yes. I think everyone has, only we haven’t our culture hasn’t enabled us to value them properly. We take them as extraordinary and then we say, “But it was just a momentary thing,” and we go on and it-Our culture hasn’t enabled us to say to ourselves, “Wait a minute. What is this that I’ve just experienced? And is it something I need to develop more, I need to come in touch with more? Is it really myself! Is all the rest of what I call myself and what people call me and think of me and how I regard-Is all that secondary or illusory in some way, or -at least -only an external shell of something that is really inside myself, that I’m not in touch with?

The culture, which is, basically, a secular culture now, doesn’t enable us to ask questions about those experiences -when “I am” is real in us. And-A spiritual-a more spiritual, a more philosophically, a more metaphysically serious cultural environment would help us to realize that those moments are really a pointer toward something in myself that I need to come in touch more.

BILL MOYERS: When do those moments occur, do you think?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: For most of us, we pave them in childhood. They’re kind of given -looking up at the stars, or looking at nature or, sometimes, in moments of intense joy, when you’ve received some satisfaction that goes beyond your bounds of containment. But almost everybody has had this kind of moment when they’ve encountered the death of a loved one, or even of a pet, when you’re a child. But even when we’re adults, when someone close to us dies,in that moment, very often, something appears in oneself. It’s grief, but it’s not negative, and in those kinds of moments, “I exist.” And then, it fades out, and it’s replaced by something else. Sometimes a scientist will get it in a moment of great discovery, and suddenly, “I am here. I understand. I see.” And then it gets washed away.

We don’t have the language for it. Something even more subtle, even more intimate than that momentary sense of joyous readiness to participate in the day-It’s something more-I’d have to say the word sacred comes in there. “I’m stopped. I am stopped. I am here.” And suddenly, everything else that I’ve been considering so important is not so real anymore.

BILL MOYERS: Do you believe that, in some way, we human beings are intended to live in two worlds, of two natures?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. The one world is the world we live in every day, which is this world of action and activity and doing, and it usually is governed by our everyday thoughts and emotions. It’s when this other world appears-the direction toward it appears in these special moments. And we have intimations of it in our feelings sometimes when we come in touch with great art or literature or philosophy or nature. Then we are-we have a certain feeling, a certain longing, that we can’t quite put in words that is like what Plato called “Eros.” It’s a striving, a longing, a wish toward something greater and higher in ourselves and above ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: Of a spiritual nature, as well as this nature that depends upon food and drink and sex-

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. And social recognition and money and all that. This other direction is-You call it-You can call it-It certainly is spiritual, but spiritual is a word that I have trouble with, because, to many people, spiritual means something insubstantial. And this is damned real. This is more real than anything. But it’s a longing. I would say it’s a love, if you like.

BILL MOYERS: A love of!

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: A love of that which is greater, higher, and more inclusive than my ordinary self. Call it God -why not. But it’s inside as well as above.

BILL MOYERS: It is the experience of God which comes from being a part of God’s creation.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Yes. And we human beings, as far as I understand it, are meant to be in contact with that, or of this higher, and also out there. So we are two. And this is our great possibility and our great sorrow, and it’s a very difficult spot to be in. The human being is uniquely a being of two natures, and our task and our difficulty is to find a relationship between them in this life.

BILL MOYERS: By spiritual, you do not mean otherworldliness?


BILL MOYERS: Because there is a hell of refusing to live in the realities of this world.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. But it doesn’t mean escaping from everyday life. It means finding the place of everyday life in an individual search that brings you in touch with that which is higher and greater and more yourself than what the society tells you are. Can I tell you a story? I was invited to be a participant -observer -at the launch of Apollo 17 by Time magazine, and we went down to watch the space launch. This was in-Oh, when was it? About 12 years ago or so, ten years ago. And we were sitting on the lawn drinking beer and waiting for this huge, white thing, at night -illuminated, looking like a religious-You know, it was tall, 35-story high white rocket, lit by these powerful lamps, and we were all sitting around joking and being-wisecracking, and the voice of Walter Cronkite, like the voice of God coming over on the louds-telling us about things. We’re going-And then the countdown came-

I’m making a long story very short, but it’s just on this point. And the countdown came. There was the usual delay, and we were all waiting, and waiting and waiting, and then came this launch. And the first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of light that you can bear to look at. It’s not too bright. You don’t have to tum away, and then comes-It’s beautiful. Everything’s illuminated with this light. Then comes this slow thing, rising up; total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. And then comes this [noise] and enters right into you, and this extraordinary thing is lifting up, and then everybody -all these cynical people and these wisecracking people, myself included-Suddenly, you could practically hear jaws dropping, all “Oh, my God.” And the sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place as this thing goes up and up and up. And then the first stage ignites, with this beautiful blue flame, and it becomes like a star, with-You realize there are human beings on it. And then there’s total silence, and people just get up, quietly, help each other up, are kind, open doors, looking at each other, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were, suddenly, moral people, because wonder -a sense of wonder, the experience of wonder -had made them moral.

By the time we got to the hotel it was gone. But what I’m saying by that is that in these states we’re speaking about, whether you’re in touch with something more inner, you just are naturally sharing and caring to other people, so this, to me-The pursuit of understanding ethics, which is of great concern to all of us -without trying to understand this inner self -won’t go past a certain point, won’t take us where we need to go.

BILL MOYERS: You use the word moral for that moment of knowing and sharing -not ethics, ethical. Why?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Ethics, I think, refers to somewhat more-I would take it to refer to outer actions -what you do -but inwardly, you are moral, that is, you are in touch with something that’s truer, that’s more your right, your right nature, your real nature. And as a result of being moral, you then act in a way that would be judged ethical.

BILL MOYERS: But when you all got back to your hotel rooms-

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Way before that, even, in the car. By the time we got back and we had forgot-It left a trace of certain-for a little while, but, on the whole, it disappeared under the usual way of social convention and laughing and joking and drinking and having fun and complaining and then by the time we were ready for bed, we were our usual egos, egoistic selves. But it shows that there are-Even in everyday life, we sometimes experience a change, or what you may call a state -a state of consciousness, as it were, and in that state, we are closer to being loving people, caring people.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what I like about some of your earlier writings and articles, Philosophy, Lost Christianity, other works you’ve done, where you say that life, the meaning of life, is found in the, on the verge of the two realities, the reality of the spirit and the reality of this world of getting and spending and being very much involved with the mechanics of society and the way life is lived. But that’s where meaning comes from. It’s not in isolation.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Exactly. This is what’s interesting, I think. Human meaning comes from being in two worlds simultaneously, and it’s a very difficult place to be in, but it’s where our real meaning. And people have been trying to find meaning in one world alone, either the world of outer life, or in the world of some mystical reverie. Neither one’s going to bring real meaning. And this is the human being; this is what’s unique about this human being. It’s a very strange situation.

You know, there’s a passage in The Koran where Allah is about to create man, and the angels -some of the angels -ask him, “Why are you creating this? You know what kind of trouble it will bring. Why are you-” And then asking us to serve him, to serve what you want for him, and Allah simply answers to them, “I know something you don’t know.” And then there are other passages which say something like, “The angels worship at the altar of the perfected human being.” That means that this two-natured being has within him the power to become, potentially, even greater than the angels. But it’s a very difficult spot to be in, because we’ve got to ride these two horses at once, and that’s where meaning comes from.

BILL MOYERS: There’s another passage in your writing, where you say, “Hell is the state in which we are barred from receiving what we truly need because of the value we give to what we merely want.” Now, how does one arrive at understanding what it is we truly need?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: This is a serious question. It’s the kind of question more and more people are asking now, and it’s that kind of question, when you really feel it in your guts, that begins to give you meaning. In other words, strangely enough, meaning can come from the search for meaning, if you see what I’m saying. In other words, when I have a real question like that, I have something that directs me. What do I mean? That kind of a question can really bring meaning to my life, because it makes me inquire and makes me try to understand, and when I do it with another person, and two or three people together-we begin to inquire. We have already-begin to have a new human relationship, which is what used to be called friendship. When two or three people together are in a relationship, on the basis of a search for understanding, that is a human relationship that can bring-also bring extraordinary meaning. But that also has disappeared a great deal from our lives.

BILL MOYERS: You started out to study physics. How did you come to philosophy and religion?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Well, yes, I went into science originally because I loved nature. I was struck with wonder. I wanted to understand nature. I wanted to understand-Now, I see. I really wanted to understand what we could call God, because nature was somewhere. God’s way, God’s manifestation. I didn’t use those terms because I was allergic to conventional religion when I was a kid. I ran away from it. I went to study the order of the universe. I wanted to understand, I wanted to participate in that pragmatic, practical way that science enables you to do. You actually make things; you do things. It’s-And I loved that.

After my first year in college-


JACOB NEEDLEMAN: At Harvard. I came away feeling, “I guess I’m not a scientist after all,” because it just–I just didn’t take to it as much as I thought I would. Later, I realized it was the way science was being taught, without any honoring of this feeling of wonder, of wanting to understand. But it was just done in a very tense, overly mental, pragmatic way. So the part of myself that loved knowledge, loved understanding wasn’t honored, and from that, I went into the study of philosophy, particularly ancient philosophies. Science, I felt–Well, it’s a long story. That led me to the study of ideas. But I still wasn’t that interested in religion. I felt religion was a kind of still -a kind of-like Freud said, “a kind of fairy tale of the emotions, a projection of the childhood weaknesses.” And when I came to San Francisco and as part of my agreement to teach here, I was obliged to teach a course in The History of Western Religious Thought, I started reading the Old and the New Testament, and for some reason, scales fell from my eyes, and I realized, “My God, these are really seriously interesting books.” And from that point on I was-my main interest was the religious traditions and spiritual philosophies -including Plato -of mankind.

BILL MOYERS: But it was reading the ancient scriptures that-


BILL MOYERS: The conventional scriptures. Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: The conventional ones. That’s right. The Old Testament. I read Isaiah. When I read Genesis-I read the Parables of Jesus. I couldn’t believe I had been so deceived by my elders to think that these were just foolish, childish things, or just mere poetry or mere literature. They were not. These were great ideas, expressed in a language that could touch the heart and not just satisfy the lust for explanations.

BILL MOYERS: So it wasn’t just the Bible as literature-

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Not at all. As I say-Someday I’m going to write a book, a revolutionary new book called “The Bible Considered as a Religious Document.” No, this was not just as literature. This was-Everything I’ve ever studied of the spiritual traditions of the east and of the Orient, of the mystics, of all the cultures of the past-It’s there in the Old and the New Testaments, only we’ve lost the ability to see it’s there. We take it in too simplistic a way or too tense a way or too dogmatic a way.

BILL MOYERS: . The paradox is that if you had gone on with your pursuit of medicine, you probably would have been a much richer man and then you might have had to write a different kind of book about money.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: Yes. My parents, like most Jewish parents, were so happy when I told them I was going to be a doctor. And then when I said, “I’m going to be a philosopher”-They’re very nice, but they couldn’t help being a little disappointed. And later on, at a party after I got my Ph.D., someone-my mother was there and someone introduced me to someone as Dr. Needleman, and she -a very nice woman -but she immediately, in a funny way, she said, “Oh, he’s not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, there you are. That’s the prevailing sentiment of society about philosophy. Philosophy bakes no bread; it builds no buildings; it banks no deposits.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: That’s right. That’s right. All it does is open a human being to the most important things in life.

BILL MOYERS: From his home in San Francisco, this has been a conversation with Jacob Needleman. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.

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