“The Blessing of Stillness and Silence.”

An Interview with George Kirazian about his literary friendship with Juan Mascaró.

“The memories…are golden memories and I am reliving them,” (George Kirazian).

George Kirazian

George Kirazian

Juan Mascaro

Juan Mascaró

Author, composer and poet, George Kirazian and his family visited translator Juan Mascaró in Comberton, Cambridge in the UK in 1972. Perhaps at some future point George and I will speak again about his own creative work (he is currently working on a ballet and his rendition of the “Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church” is available on-line, however in our discussion on 8/28/15, we primarily focused on the Kirazian family visit to Comberton, Cambridge. I decided to publish this all as one piece, even though it is a bit lengthy for a blog post, but I’d like to present the full experience of George’s memories as a whole.

Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church

Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church

Juan Mascaró (December 8, 1897 – March 19, 1987) was born in Majorca, Spain, lived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) for a time, and spent most of his adult life as a professor at Cambridge. His first name was originally spelled “Joan,” in Catalan, but he changed the spelling to “Juan” to avoid confusion with the female name “Joan.” He retained the Catalonian pronunciation, however, which is more like “jew-an,” rather than the Spanish pronunciation “wan.”

George tells that Juan only ever taught two classes at Cambridge during his entire time there. One class was on the Romantic Poets and the other was “Literary and Spiritual Values in the Authorized Version of the Bible” (which means the King James Version in the UK). There is very little written about Juan Mascaró on the internet, which is perhaps fitting for a man who dedicated his life to translating ancient words spiritual texts – his English translations of The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, and The Dhammapada are still available in the Penguin Classics series. He also self-published a small anthology of his favourite Keats poems (of which George has a copy), Lamps of Light (a compilation of spiritual wisdom from world religions), and the posthumous The Creation of Faith (a collection of his own thoughts and aphorisms). Mascaró had correspondence with another George, George Harrison and this resulted in the Beatles song, “The Inner Light.” 

inner light sheet music

Mascaró wrote in The Creation of Faith, “I have two lives: my inner life with God, and my outer life with nature and men. How mysterious these two worlds are,” (169). He left footprints and notes, detailed in his writings about his inner life with God, however, we know remarkably little about the man in his outer life, and our conversation with George will serve to flesh out the words a bit.

DK: Why don’t you start with how you came to have inscribed copy of Juan Mascaró’s book, Lamps of Fire, as well as his other books?


GK: I had been studying the Penguin Bhagavad Gita in the late 60s, ‘68-69, and was deeply impressed. I then purchased the Upanishads, Juan’s translation, and I was so moved when I completed the introduction, that I just simply–it was at midnight–picked up the phone and trusting to luck and good fortune, called Cambridge, yes, at midnight, San Diego time. I guess it was what, 8 or 9 am there, and she was kind enough, the operator, to trace Juan’s number for me. I called him and he was having breakfast. We chatted for a while and I said “Professor Mascaró, I am so deeply moved by the introduction to the Upanishads that it was like an Upanishad for me,” and he said “Oh, George, where are you calling from?”

You know, he had such a sharp mind that could leap into transitions effortlessly. I said, “I am calling you from San Diego,” and in a moment he simply said “Father Junípero Serra was born a mile away from my father’s farm.”

So you see how he leaped from San Diego, and if you know the whole history of the California missions, established by Father Junípero Serra [recently canonized by Pope Francis], no other comment, he just moved right into the reference, and we chatted. He was very gracious and he said, “Look, I know this is a costly call, can you give me your address.” So I took down his number and I gave him my address and we continued chatting for a while, I don’t know, by this time it was  1 am or so, and a week later I received a Penguin Bhagavad Gita inscribed to me with a very lovely note. And then there began, in Winter, 1971 a lengthy correspondence that carried over into the spring of ’72.

“In theory, an Upanishad could even be composed in the present day: a spiritual Upanishad that would draw its life from the One source of religions and humanism and apply to the modern world,” (Juan Mascaró, Introduction to the Penguin Classics, The Upanishads, 8).

[George then recounted how the friendship developed, with letters back and forth. Juan then invited George and his family to stay at a cottage he owned near his own home, “The Retreat,” and George recounts the discussion with Juan about the cottage.]

GK: Juan said, “I have a lovely cottage,” within walking distance of The Retreat” [his home], and I said, “That’s fine.”  “You’ll like it George.” He said, “I’ve just renovated the bathroom and in addition to that, I have just had the roof re-thatched!”

So, Dave, my wife and I, let me jump ahead a month or so, when we approached the cottage I expected either Ronald Colman or Greer Garson to walk out and greet us, like in “Random Harvest.” I don’t know if you are at all an old movie fan. It was incredible, lovely, with an entrance archway of many miniature roses.

I said “That would be fine.” He asked, “How long are you planning to stay?”  “Oh, about  5-6 weeks.” … Hmmm, it’s amazing how one can recall these conversations almost per syllable, after more than 40 years….. He said, “Well George, would $250 for the month be acceptable?” My wife and I nearly fell off our chairs. I said, “It is so generous, Juan!” Of course, I immediately sent payment to him.

I once made the mistake of calling him Juan [the Spanish pronunciation, like “wan”]. “No,” he said, “I am Catalonian, it is Juan,” [the Catalonian pronunciation sounds more like “jew-an”]. “Well, I am comfortable with Juan” [“wan”], I said. And he answered firmly, “No, George, it is Juan [“Jew-an”]. I only needed that one lesson, I didn’t need it to be repeated.

When we entered his home, Juan amazed us: he came in from a dining room and he just stared at us. It was as if time stopped, he just stared at me, my wife and our children, in a very warm way, you know, this wasn’t anything done icily. And after that he just stayed and looked, as if taking a kind of physical/cerebral inventory of us, if that is possible, and he welcomed us and we sat. It was just a wonderful welcome. And we sat there and then later in the evening, he and Kathleen [Juan’s wife] walked us to our home. And he was right, it was a newly refurbished bathroom, small but very convenient, and the roof was indeed recently thatched. My memory just leaped backwards in time. I imagined that Keats on a walking trip from Cambridge to Comberton, or William Blake, perhaps, and stopping at this cottage for a refreshing drink. I think the building date was 1732. I just said to my wife, “Who knows if Byron or Keats walked by here, and perhaps stopped to rest” – Keats was a walker, certainly, Wordsworth and Coleridge were also…so I just kind of pondered that.

There began our 5 or 6 week sharing time…

We discussed The Dhammapada [Mascaró was just finishing this translation from Pali of the Buddha’s teachings]…and there began a number of delightful, I mean, Dave, golden memories, sitting in his backyard and Kathleen fixing tea and our chatting. And my wife Dee and our girls there, sharing with Juan and Kathleen, and I underneath an absolutely massive walnut tree. Juan said I was sitting in C.S. Lewis’ favorite chair and I was gratified to hear that. He told me that another chair was a favorite of W. H. D. Rouse, who had translated the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, prose translations, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were very popular in America, published by Signet American Library, I used them myself in a number of my classes. He said that Rouse’s chair had been carved out of a nearby walnut tree and it was a beautiful comfortable, gnarly chair, but I preferred CS Lewis’ chair.


I asked him about Lamps of Fire, oh and a beautiful – he had done a marvelous anthology of Keats’ poetry. Published in Majorca, in a very nice, very artistic, rough-cut, parchment cover, an edition by a friend of his, published on the Island.

And we were talking about Keats, and I don’t know if you want to get into any literary or musical things, but that is what we focused on in those early weeks. He told me, he said that Keats for him was the perfect emblem of the Hellenic experience, while Wordsworth, to his great satisfaction, was the perfect embodiment of the Hindu. And if you read his notes, he took a month or 5 weeks, he told me, to do [translate] the Isa Upanishad at Tintern Abbey, one of Wordsworth’s most renowned poems and he just stayed there…he said it was a labor of love and he didn’t leave. I guess the Wordsworthian spirit and consciousness were present.  He said it was a beautiful time for him.


          And I have felt

          A presence that disturbs me with the joy

          Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

          Of something far more deeply interfused,

          Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

          And the round ocean and the living air,

          And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

          A motion and a spirit, that impels                           

          All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

          And rolls through all things…

(Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a  Tour, July 13, 1798”)


From Wikipedia, “Tintern Abbey,” released to public domain by Martin Biely at English Wikipedia

One of the most beautiful gifts he gave me was the gift of Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore and – there have been one or two other translations, but he, as I did, following his lead, felt that Tagore’s rendering of his own poems was perhaps definitive.


“Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure,” (Tagore, Gitanjali, opening line).

He gave me a number of books during our stay and then we started on our walks.

[George tells of their walks down country lanes, speaking of Lope De Vega, Ezra Pound, Bernard Shaw, “Citizen Kane,” Fortunio Bonanova (Catalonian singer and actor who moved to Hollywood, whom Juan grew up with), Tomas Vittoria’s masses. At one point, Juan and George were walking on a meadow lane near a group of cows. Juan asks George about the college the locations he taught at, in California].

GK: I told him, the city is called “El Cajon.”

“El Cajon!” He burst out laughing and the cow got so scared it just turned and ran into the meadow. He said “You have a city called ‘the box!?!’” And apparently that’s what it means. “I can’t believe that a city would be called ‘the box.’ He howled and just kept walking and slapping his knee. He couldn’t believe that a city would be given such a name.

We talked about Tagore, a dear, dear favorite. And we talked about Vivekananda and Ramakrishna and also about Paramahansa Yogananda, who came to the center in LA. He didn’t follow them too, too often, but he had heard that Yogananda had a broad following in the United States and California especially.

Then he went on to talk a little bit about Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and this was before he returned to Cambridge. He told me, “George, you know I have taught only two courses, I taught the Romantic Poets and ‘Literary and Spiritual Values in the Authorized Version of the Bible,’ that is to say the King James. “That is all I taught, my entire career.” Apparently he got his degree and then went back to Barcelona where he lost a number of his friends, I think Unamuno and others who had been shot. I guess this was Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” time, Francisco Franco ‘39, ‘40, ‘41 and he apparently had lost some dear friends, so he didn’t stay there. He went back to the school that had granted him his degrees, to teach, but he repeated, “I only taught two classes….”

And it was that day, when we returned from the walk, that he gave me the private, 200 copies only, privately printed anthology of selected poems by John Keats. Very artistic looking, a rough-cut, parchment cover edition, it showed Keats’ poems that matter most deeply to him.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness;

Nor do we merely feel these essences

For one short hour; no, even as the trees

That whisper round a temple become soon

Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,

The passion poesy, glories infinite,

Haunt us till they become a cheering light

Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,

That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;

They always must be with us, or we die.

(From Endymion, John Keats)

And when we talked about Ceylon, Sri Lanka, where he was, he used the term “Governor” of the school, I guess the magistrate of the school. He said that he would walk to the school every morning and I said “That must have been pleasant.” “Yes, it was pleasant but it was rather unique. My rooms were not that far…” And I said “What was unique about it?”  “Well, every morning when the sun rose I would walk to work, I purposefully took a cane and as I walked I would take the cane and knock the cobras out of my path.” He would just strike the snakes out and knock them onto the dirt or the meadows that flanked the walk way. I said, “Did you ever get hurt?” He said, “No, no.” Apparently every morning they were awakening from their torpor, and as the heat warmed them they were stretching and arching, and he just knocked them out, or knocked them out of his path.

[George and his wife, Dee, recount memorable evenings with Juan and his wife, where Juan would pour them all sherry and listen to Catalonian folk songs, and a different facet of his personality would emerge].

GK: He enjoyed and poured us sherry and played Catalonian folk songs on 78 rpms.  And you saw a side of him that I never saw in our walks or in our conversations in his library. What a splendid library, Dave, oh Good Lord, I think he had begun building it the day he returned to England after the Spanish madness. It was just beautiful.

[I had read his] Upanishads and I was deeply moved. The introduction to it was a revelation to me, it still is.

“Our spiritual life must be a work of creation. Whether we are within a religion, or outside a religion, or against religion, we can only live by faith, a burning faith in the deep spiritual values of man. This faith can only come from life, from the deep fountain of life within us, the Atman of the Upanishads, Nirvana, the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Mascaró, Introduction to The Upanishads, 23).


And The Dhammapada, he was working on it [when we visited]. I sat once, and I was honored, he was walking around the room – I sat at the desk and he read several chapters. We looked over the introduction, and briefly discussed Lamps of Fire. He is very careful, as in San Juan Del La Cruz, St. John of the Cross, he will say “translated by E. Alison Peers or “Sister Teresa” and he’ll say “translated by so and so.” Or he’ll say “translated by Juan Mascaró,” but unless I’m mistaken, for all of the Tao Te Ching, he uses the verb “rendered by Juan Mascaró,” he doesn’t say translated. He said he would study the translations he respected the most, absorb them, as many translators do today. We see a number of Americans rendering the Tao or Dhammapada; they are hardly versed in the original language, so what they do is surround themselves in a half-moon of other paperback translations, absorb them, and then render their own translation.

So we talked about Tagore, Yeats – my favorite poet of the 20th century who had written a lovely, lovely introduction to the Gitanjali – it still reads beautifully, do you have that introduction, Dave?”

DK: I don’t think I do, I just have a collected works of Tagore.

GK: If you can get a single volume, with Yeats’ Intro, 1912 or 1907, I may be mistaken, or 1912, it is just a lovely introduction to Tagore’s poems. There are some paragraphs there, you know “I have kept these poems in my hands on trolleys and omnibuses and so forth…” just a beautiful, beautiful tribute….

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on top of omnibuses and in restaurants…

Lovers, while they await one another shall find, in murmuring them, this love of a God a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may bathe and renew its youth. At every moment the heart of this poet flows outward…for it has known…images of the heart’s turning to God,” (W. B. Yeats, “Introduction” to the Gitanjali, 1912).

Then he had shown me a letter that Tagore had written to him and said that Juan  had “captured the spirit of the Upanishads,” a very complimentary letter that Tagore had written, and then when we left, he gave me a number of books and inscribed them all, including Lamps of Fire and also Final Poems of Tagore. I think the title is “Whispers of Eternity,” unless I am mistaken, and he said these were very lovely, and indeed, I think the final poem in that volume was written on the morning or night before Tagore’s passing.

“22 December, 1938.

Dear Professor,

I have too often seen the Upanishads rendered into English by scholars who are philologists and who miss the delight of the immediate realisation of truth expressed in the original texts.

And these are the reasons why I feel grateful to you for your translation which fortunately is not strictly literal and therefore nearer to the truth, and which is done in a right spirit and in a sensitive language that has caught from those great words the inner voice that goes beyond the boundaries of words.

Yours sincerely,

Rabindranath Tagore”

(Letter reproduced in The Creation of Faith, Juan Mascaró, 20).

It was a lovely summer, “How was the weather, Dee?”

[Dee, in background, answered] “Not very good. I think we saw the sun twice in one month, grey and overcast…”

[Dee, incidently, is the author of an Armenian Vegan cookbook]


I just love my memories, in the carven walnut tree chair behind the cottage….

Oh, and his eating habits – he said, “I eat one meal a day,” echoing the Buddha. He said “I have a chop, a bit of potato and some greens.” I myself couldn’t exist on so Spartan a diet, so I made it a point to eat rather well before I went for my midday visit there. But he would sit in a kind of mini greenhouse, and he was right: I saw a very thin lamb chop, a modest sized potato, and some green peas, and he ate very slowly, very delicately….

A beautiful summer it was, my family loved it, especially the girls – it looked like Snow White’s cottage or Ronald Colman’s cottage.

GK: Catalonian Dance night, the girls would read the classics…and we would have great times, and I asked, “What about W.H.D. Rouse?” He said, “Rouse was remarkable!” I said, “In what way?” (It was quite an accomplishment to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, although they are rather prosy). He said, “Well, he impressed me deeply one day when he came here and sat in that chair George, and said, ‘I have begun the study of Chinese’ – and he was 89! ‘I am launching a study of Chinese,’” I think he died several years after.

DK: George, you had mentioned Catalonian music nights, where Juan showed a different side of his story, could you say more about that?

GK: The side was not a very Cambridge manner (laughs), I mean he was relaxed and very cordial, he sipped the sherry and he would fill it again and then translate the songs and he even would sit and get up and then change the record and then stand up and offer us a snack, and smile and laugh. He was like a young boy again, nibbling straw on his father’s farm, long before the whole Cambridge/Barcelona experience began. And we saw that – and I am not saying he was a frowning Cambridge Don, even on his non-Catalonian nights, he was very gracious, very friendly, he would laugh. He would always say, “George the power and beauty of” – and almost every meeting, and I learned from him (I get excited now because the memories as I mentioned are golden memories and I am reliving them, but I was that way myself) and he would always say, “The beauty and the blessing of stillness and silence.” And as Dee just mentioned, he spoke very softly, but you never had to lean toward him to hear what he said, everything was clearly stated and that evening was a merry, merry evening and he would sit and you would know he was in a kind of Proustian remembrance of things past…. He must have been an adolescent again, maybe stealing apples with Fortunato on his father’s farm. Dee says from background, “They were happy songs.” Yes, they were lovely songs, very lilting and happy songs. He loved his Catalonian culture. I mentioned Franco once, but he didn’t even bother to respond. He just didn’t want to discuss that time, that topic… He just wasn’t concerned with it. He was totally Catalonian….
“George, the power and the beauty…the beauty and the blessing of stillness and silence,” (Juan Mascaró, to George Kirazian, 1972).

He could crack a walnut and take a sip of sherry with the best of them, don’t get the impression that he had high, stiff starched collars – that was not the case. Very humble, in that respect he was still a simple son of a Majorcan farmer, I don’t mean that in a bad way, he was very earthy, down to earth.

We never saw him again…

DK: It is so great to hear about [your visit with him]. You know, I had read the Upanishads and the Gita when I was in college and then a few years ago I had gone back and I think I had lost the books, so I had bought them again and had, kind of similar to you, just this real appreciation for the introductions, I read the introduction and then read the book and then went back and read the introduction again, which is kind of a rare thing for me to do. I’ll often when I appreciate somebody, I will start to find everything that they had written and that is when I found The Creation of Faith [a posthumous collection of aphorisms that Mascaró had been working on at his death] and I think that is kind of how you – how did you stumble across that the blog that I did on that book?

Creation of Faith cover

GK: I don’t think it was a blog, was it an Amazon?

DK: Oh, it might have been an Amazon review because I would do both, an Amazon review and then expand that into a blog.

GK: And I responded to that, I don’t know what the review was, but I was struck by that and that initiated my email to you and so forth. You are right, what I did for one semester and a half was, I went through The Upanishads [Juan’s introduction] with a pen and underlined every reference to writers, such as Ramon Lull, a great poet/mystic of the 14th century.  And San Juan De La Cruz, who’s Spanish even I can understand, even though it is around the time of Elizabeth, Shakespeare. But you are right, those have to be revisited often as a holy tribute.

DK: I feel like the tremendous amount of work that he did and how passionate he was, and how much he seemed to love the work that he was doing and the writing that he was translating or rendering. If you look on-line there is very, very little about him, the translations of the books and the introductions come up, but I just pulled up the Wikipedia page [on Juan Mascaró] there are only 303 words in the description of his life.

Juan Mascaró

Juan Mascaró

GK: Oh, my Lord!

DK: Just even what I am hoping with you is to put a little bit more about this man’s own life – maybe he is the type of person who would not want a lot of his own details out there, but for somebody who did so much important work and introduced so many generations of people to Eastern wisdom it seems…

GK: Oh, you are absolutely right, it was Juan’s, it was his translations of Penguin which for years were adopted by the UC system here. I mean from Northern California right down to my own city, San Diego, if you took a course and you walked into the bookstore, those were the translations that were on the shelf, his….

DK: And I think they are still very well respected and available.

GK: Yes, they are, and you know, a few of the comments…


GK: Let me close with this, because not too many people have touched on it in the appreciations on Amazon and elsewhere. What was a revelation to me with the Gita and then later the Upanishads the subsequent, following year, was his ability to (and a number of people now I think are referencing it), his ability when he happens on a kind of eternal spiritual truth he, instead of rendering it the way the original would have him do, he will go into the Old Testament or the New, based on his authorized version…and he will take that phrase from the Bible instead of strictly translating the original because he feels, that quote captured perfectly the Spirit, and would be luminous to kindred readers–and yet he would not dilute, he did not feel that he would dilute the effect and the power of the original by using that Biblical phrase. He worked very carefully… I was amazed at that and I told him that first night. I have never, of all the translations, I have never encountered anything like that. It showed such a total mastery of the two traditions and when I learned later that he taught only two courses,” when he said the Authorized Version, I said to myself “Well, George, there it is!” Just beautiful, just lovely…

And there began, that Summer, the literary romance of my life.

George Kirazian

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/george.kirazian

Twitter: @georgekirazian

“We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” PART II

Carl Reisman on the water

Carl Reisman on the water

Dave Kopacz near the water

Dave Kopacz near the water

This is part II in a discussion between Dave Kopacz and Carl Reisman, part I can be found in the previous blog, below…


Why do you think that machine-think, machine-medicine, machine-models of service and interaction have become more attractive than more human interactions? This brings up the question, following on from above, what is the difference between machine and human?


To whom?  The business model prefers efficiency and short-term gain, externalizing costs.  This has been the dominant approach in the West at least since the Industrial Revolution and seems to be a new  world religion.  Machines are the new slaves.  I remember a David Sedaris essay where his brother refers to the TV remote as “a nigger.”  Humans are lazy, and it is wonderful to have work done magically for us without taking responsibility for the suffering it causes another.  It’s a Utopian dream to have a world where we all are rich and robots serve us.  If they do, though, what are people for?  Wendell Berry wrote an essay with this title, and it is a good question.

It’s tempting to say that the difference between humans and machines is that humans have spirits or souls and machines don’t.  I would say that is unproven.  I go back to what I said before, that humans are the models for machines.  Even if machines eventually can create new machines, or learn to crack jokes, or feel love, they are still our creations.  Machines are our way of playing God.

More thoughts:

As far as we know, machines don’t have a sense of self awareness.  They don’t have a culture that is independent of human culture.  They aren’t aware of their own mortality.

Being fully human means being a member of human culture.  It’s impossible to be fully human as an isolated individual.  A baby is fully human.  We can all aspire to follow their model for participation, direct communication, and ability to grow.

If we are honest with ourselves we need to own up our debt to machines and the people who imagine, build, maintain, and scrap them.  They are a part of human culture and should be honored as members, from jet planes to pepper mills.


I like what you say about being human means being part of something larger than the individual, being part of culture (this echoes your earlier statement that being human is being aware of larger ecological interconnection. In my book, I equate holistic medicine with connection – connection within one’s self (between body, emotions, mind, spirit) and connection between people (particularly doctor/patient). I contrast this connection-based interaction with a mentality that values efficiency and technique more than human connection. While these may or may not be mutually exclusive in theory, in the practice of contemporary medicine, efficiency and standardization are valued over connection (Amit Goswami, author of The Quantum Activist and The Quantum Doctor, writes, that this should be called “machine medicine”). Partly this is because in our materialistic society, “things” that can be turned into “numbers” are valued more than feelings or states of interaction. I think the complaints that patients and doctors have about contemporary health care delivery systems is that they are de-humanizing.


The Marxists have been talking about this problem for over 150 years.  Doctors have just become workers in a new factory.  It’s the same language and logic as was used in earlier forms of industrial production.  We are steeped in this culture, and it is very difficult to free ourselves from it.  The film, The Matrix, dealt with this anxiety that we are slaves in a system  that we don’t understand and that is committed to our remaining asleep.

While it sounds innocent to talk about humanizing health care, it is placing oneself firmly against the tide.  Certainly, the industrial health care system can pay lip service to being more humane without facing its deep-seated de-humanizing, profit-driven values.  It can offer up birthing rooms but not make home births legal, for instance.  Like all revolutions, this one will come from the people, not the owners–i.e., the patients, who demand more than they system wants to give.  So, doctors who want to become more humane need to listen to their patients and find out what they really want and need.


Peter Salgo, a physician, wrote in a NYT piece that it is up to the people (patients) to demand that medicine change, because doctors “have felt powerless to change things.” While I am all for grass roots movements, I think we also have to appeal to professionalism and the contract between doctor and patient. Can it really be true that an educated and privileged class of professionals are really “powerless to change things?” What I argue in my book is that the same dehumanization that patients feel in the medical system is the linked to the dehumanization of the doctor through a rigid adoption of the scientific persona of the technician, which not only treats the body as a machine to be “fixed,” but also leads physicians to believe that they are simply machinists of the soul.

I speak about the Quality Revolution in medicine, which is a movement driven by multiple motivations from different sectors, which calls for more efficiency, safety and less variation in treatment and outcomes. I also acknowledge that there is another growing movement, a Compassion Revolution, which calls for enhanced human connection and treating people as people while treating them as patients. These two revolutions are not necessarily at odds with each other, but I think they function best as a dialectic or a pair of inter-balancing movements. The exclusive triumph of one at the expense of the other would not be good medicine.

Is it possible for a doctor to say, “I will treat you exactly how I treat everyone else, as a unique human being?”


It’s cruel to doctors to hold them to a standard of treating everyone the same way. Doctors are human and humans have favorites.

Besides, if a patient comes into the room and the doctor thinks, “I am going to treat this man as a unique human being,” they have already lost an opportunity to see who they actually are.  We all need a beginner’s mind when we encounter the world, and it’s especially hard for experts to have this sense of open curiosity, since experts have been trained to quickly establish authority and sense of control in each new situation.

Doctors can aspire to be better listeners and let their treatment lightly follow what they hear from their patients, as learned from their histories, a review of their medical records, and their own knowledge and intuition.  They need to be vulnerable, working with open minds and hearts.  They need to at times admit that they don’t know what is going on or how to help, despite their best efforts, and admit to their patients when they are wrong.  Sometimes they need to just sit there and witness another person suffering and dying.   Sometimes they need to smile at a patient’s return to health, because or in spite of the doctor’s advice.   That can be quality medicine, too.


Carl, what are your thoughts about these topics as they pertain to your practice of law? I have always referred to you as a “holistic” counselor. This idea of a “counselor” is relevant in both law and medicine and I suspect that the roots of the term lead back to some kind of spiritual guidance in antiquity.


When you say, “holistic” what do you mean?

It makes me think of how we create firewalls in ourselves to protect ourselves from all sorts of threats.  When we go to a professional school we are given a new suit of armor.  The armor insulates us from those who might doubt our competence or authority but also isolate us.  In a holistic practice we sometimes wear the armor or sometimes not, as we see fit.  The armor has its place and needs to be polished, oiled, and deeply appreciated.  But we also need to know when it is a terrible trap.


Thanks for the question, when I say “holistic” I mean being able to shift between multiple perspectives. Perhaps that means to have multiple suits of armor? I suppose another way to reformulate some of our original questions is: is it possible to be a professional and also to not be wearing a suit of armor? Or, maybe how does one appreciate when one needs the armor and when to remove it?

I define holistic as a state of being. Technically, I envision this as something like the chakra system, an interlocking system of sub-systems with different rules and strengths. Is each chakra a suit of armor? Or a “body?” In that sense, one would be embodying different conceptions or states of being and recognizing that each of these states is one language or musical note or instrument that is part of a larger whole. To be “holistic” is to be continually shifting perspectives while realizing that it is impossible not to have a perspective. Is that true? I am not sure. What if I said that to be “holistic” means to always be focusing on the between of different paradigms and perspectives?


When I went back to law school nine years after dropping out I hand-painted my own ID.  I was afraid that I would lose my sense of self when I went through the professionalization process of law school.

It reminds me of a conversation I had last week, too, with a singer song writer who said that she was afraid if she learned how to read music that she would lose her way as a musician.

I think the word holistic points towards being able to shed some of these fears and move with a certain confident vulnerability.

In my own practice I exclusively help clients who have suffered injuries, most at work.  I have the luxury of being able to take time with each client.  I don’t have a paralegal or secretary.  If a client comes in my office or calls the office phone, it’s just me.

I am not sure if this is a holistic practice, but it has worked for me for nine years, since my partnership broke up and I took up residence in an old gas station in Urbana, Illinois.

Clients come to lawyers with expectations that they have powers, perhaps arcane or diabolical, to fix things for their benefit.  It’s similar to why they come to doctors.  They seem to have similar roots in wizardry, sorcery, alchemy, or shamanism.  A person is under some sort of dark spell and they want help.

So, like a doctor I have to try to be a good listener.  I need to take a history, learn something about the person who comes into my office.  I have the luxury of time that few doctors have any more.  Like a doctor, I review their medical records.  Again, because I have so much time, and am a generalist, sometimes I see things that doctors miss, and I can help the client with their problem in that way.  I used to see myself as a hero, a warrior for my client, but I dropped those fantasies years ago.  Now, I feel like the hard work of recovering from their injury is theirs to do, and I am just along to help in the modest ways that I can.  That is also similar to a doctor, and I imagine that doctors must go through a similar process of shedding their grandiose fantasies and accepting the limitations of what they can accomplish.  Perhaps, also like a doctor, I’ve come to understand what a privilege it is to get to know people when they are at their most vulnerable, their most tender, their most human.

Lawyers and doctors both seem to feel trapped by their professions.  Lawyers talk about the “golden handcuffs”—their inability to leave high paying jobs that they hate.  Doctors lament the cost of medical school and the corporatization of medicine.

It’s always easier to blame others for one’s own choices than to take responsibility for one being stuck.  Every doctor and lawyer can do simple things to make their profession better, and it starts by listening to the people who come to them for help.


Let’s go back to our topic of humans and machines. How about pondering why we have come to value machine-thought and machine-being over human process? Why elevate the created over the creator?


Our culture values highly human cultural production over machine processes in many ways.  Just look at prices for original oil paintings by Picasso compared to machine made reproductions.  This sort of appreciation for the small, the human made, the artisan-produced, is found in countless products–it’s why there is a premium paid at the farmers market, for the bowl thrown by the potter, for the hand-stitched quilt.  It is a luxury afforded to the rich and a necessity for the poor, who survive by their hands and wits.

Humans also crave order and predictability.  If we buy a jar of Jiffy peanut butter, we want it to taste exactly the same next week, next year, and twenty years from now.  That is the implicit promise of brands–order, stability, uniformity, the known.

When we are dealing with novel situations, whether we are on a strange highway far from home looking for lunch or in a hospital, facing surgery, there is comfort in knowing that there is something familiar that will reassure us, that we can surrender our defensiveness and put ourselves in the hands of someone who will take care of our needs.  We turn in to the McDonalds and order a burger, and it tastes like the burger we ate last year in our hometown.  The doctor comes into our room, and uses the same sort of language as our family doctor did ten years ago.

The same desire for order created machines, a refinement of tools.  Tools, by their nature, do not produce uniformity.  A chisel in my hands with a block of wood will result in something very different then the same chisel and block of wood put in your hands.  But if we make a lathe, there is a pretty good chance that we can produce something pretty consistent, whether you use it or I use it.

So, our appreciation for the unique is a kind of nostalgia for the old order of things, when we worked with tools.  We are creatures, though, of a machine culture and machine thought, gravitating towards order and predictability.  We prefer standardization to surprise, security to joy.


Could it be that our nostalgia for the unique is also that illusive kernel of what makes us fully human? We have ranged across a discussion in which “human” is part of a unique identity, that it is attained through transcending or contextualizing the human in a larger realm (which seems to have a sense of being “more than” human, but also being human through our connection and care for that which is “less than” human). We humans seem to sometimes want to just accept ourselves as we are, to sometimes try to be more than we are, and also to have a drive to be less than we are. For instance, Philip K. Dick speaks of a form of dehumanization when human beings become like androids, particularly when their behavior is always “predictable.”  Carl, please leave us with some inspiring words to spark off the Human Revolution!


When I think about the products of the human imagination, how an idea becomes a thing, and the thing changes us, I think about the wheel.  There is the prayer wheel of Tibetan monks, the clay cylinders of scribes, the wheels of ox carts, the medieval concept of the wheel of fortune, the tires of our cars, the wheels of our lives.

We talk about the need for a revolution, but what is it that revolves?  It’s the wheel, going around, our innate creativity, industry, and restlessness taking us as humans to new places.  Any revolution that is going to mean something needs to start with individuals who wake up.  They need to find their own wheel.  Thanks to culture, they don’t have to invent it, but culture only goes so far.  We all still have our work to do and places to go.

“We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” PART I

Puget Sound

Puget Sound

The following blog consists of an on-line discussion between Dave Kopacz and Carl Reisman. Carl is a “holistic” lawyer, cook, and naturalist based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. This on-line discussion follows up on a recent conversation that Carl and Dave had in Seattle, after not seeing each other for several years. This is Part I of two parts.


Carl, when we were talking in Seattle, you said, “We’ve got it backwards, the human is the model for the machine.” This quote is what sparked a great conversation and lead to the idea of posting a blogalogue (blog-dialogue).


I was just thinking of you as I was walking the dogs around the block–just that I enjoyed our visit in Seattle and hoped we would stay in touch.  Nice to see your email pop up.  Connections between us all are subtle and real.

I like your questions and will wing a few answers.


How do you balance standardization in service delivery with supporting human-to-human interaction?


I am not sure if the “you” is referring to me or just people in general.  I can only speak for myself, and write as a solo law practitioner who used to be a professional cook.  As a cook, I can understand the need for customers who order pancakes today to be able to get the same pancakes when they return next week.  If they get lousy pancakes, they won’t cut slack, even if they are told that the cook is out sick and a new cook getting trained.  At least this is the dominant logic in the restaurant business, and it certainly is behind the success of chain restaurants.  No matter where you go on the planet, a Big Mac is a Big Mac.

Implicit in the idea, though, is standardizing quality.  No need to standardize something that sucks.  People want good experiences each time they come to a human exchange, be it with a doctor, lawyer, teacher, musician, or mechanic.  To some degree, this can be standardized, by an individual or organization imagining the experience from the point of view of their patient or customer, and trying to be consistent in delivering what they imagine that person would want.

I see no conflict with providing standardized, quality experiences and providing  human to human interaction–I think people generally prefer dealing with humans to machines, but not always.  If people always preferred humans, self-service gas stations would not have succeeded.  In some situations, people just want efficiency and to move on with their days.  It’s easy to figure out what these situations are by taking a minute to think about what we would want in those circumstances.  But when we are at our most vulnerable, such as when a doctor is telling us that they found cancer, we want the human touch.


What does it mean to be fully human?


This reminds me of my father asking me, after looking at my report card, “Did you do your best?”  I struggled to answer, because I thought it was impossible to do one’s best.  You could always do a little more.

So, too, a human can wake up to compassion, and still find that their heart has lots of room to grow.

It seems limiting to define oneself as being exclusively human, even a fully actualized human.  Biologically, we are a sort of community that includes a variety of organisms living and interacting with our human cells.  Our ancestors were bacteria.  We depend upon plants and other animals for life, not to mention, sun, soil, water, air, and our community.  Truly, we are products of universal processes and dependent upon the universe for our support.  It is a miracle we are alive.

A different question might be, Can we be fully human without awareness of our debt to everything which sustains us ? I think we sometimes are more sensitive and awake to these connections.  When we are, we are called to be humble and more responsible.  That seems like a good start on the long pilgrimage to find our humanity.

These questions bring to mind the word “humane.”  We are born to human parents, and are human.  But we grow in our understanding and compassion, and become more humane.

As biological creatures, we need to be selfish to survive, at least to some degree.  But we also need to learn to share to survive as a species.  You can see this tension play out as babies become toddlers.  It is painful to learn to share.  A baby’s first word may be “mine.”  It takes a great deal of patient supervision and praise to teach a toddler that there can be a benefit to sharing a toy or snack.  This is a primary lesson in our growth.  If we miss this one, we are forever damaged in our ability to relate.

It is painful to share.  We want it all and have to give up some of our claim.  There is a risk to sharing, too.  We hope we may get something in return. Sometimes we are terribly disappointed.

I don’t believe there is a pristine state that we  come from or strive towards–no noble savage, no sainthood, no innocent childhood.  Everybody wrestles with the same problem faced by the toddler–do I play with this toy by myself or give someone else a turn?  If I am hungry, do I eat the cookie by myself or share it?

We are steeped in the myth of progress, both spiritual and material.  We have the story of the pilgrim, toiling on the path to God.  We have the story of civilization, up from savages, building the shining city on the hill.

I like the idea that being human or building a culture is more like making bread–you take disparate elements, and through work, skill, and love  you create something that is entirely different than the sum of its parts, that can be beautiful and sustain life.  There is no final goal of perfection.  There is the need for constant renewal.  Death, rebirth, growth, death, rebirth.  We are participants in a terrible and beautiful cycle.

The Buddhists teach that the self can be transcended.  The heart can melt into compassion.  After it melts into compassion, though, it’s back to the fundamental challenges of sharing toys, needy people, declining health, disappointment.  This is not to discount the joys of life, which can be better appreciated if one isn’t mired in self pity.   Through a spiritual practice, we might gain a small margin of humor as we deal with frustrations and a deeper appreciation of the joys and mysteries of life, but we can’t see a spiritual practice as a journey towards a goal.  The pilgrimage is its own reward.


I’d like to follow-up on a couple of points here.

The first is that you seem to be saying that being “human” entails an awareness of being “more than human,” that is to have an awareness that extends beyond one’s immediate context or ego. Also, in this, there seems to be an element that being human entails connecting to that which is non-human. Your astute mention of the bacteria who were our ancestors as well as continue to allow human life through symbiotic relationships (such as aiding in digestion in the GI tract), illuminates the fact that human being occurs within a larger context of non-human nature.

The second point is somewhat related, you write “the long
pilgrimage to find our humanity,” this implies that being human is not a fixed, given state, but a journey toward some point in the future. There are so many conundrums here. Is being selfish (focused on one’s individual needs) to be less human? Is there a pristine, pure state (childhood, the idea of the “noble savage,” sainthood, or some future state of perfection)? When can one be considered “human enough?” For instance, in your analogy with the exam score, when can one say, “I could have done more, but I did well enough.” I think about this a lot, this interplay between acceptance of one’s self and trying harder (e.g. “overcoming” one’s self, or “becoming more” one’s self through effort). Do you have any thoughts on these points?


Dave, you asked, “What is it to be fully human?”  If we break down your question, let’s start, “What is it to be?”  Before we can worry about whether we are human, let alone fully human, we need to figure out how to be.  One translation of Lao Tzu is, “The way to do is to be.”  So, maybe the way towards being fully human is to be.

What does it mean to be?

Perhaps God is our greatest creation as humans, a projection of ourselves benevolently looking down upon ourselves as if from above.  We are in a particular moment in time, but also have a sense that some part of ourselves is timeless and watches if not tends our lives, even our moments of pain and panic, with a degree of compassion and humor.

To be fully human, to be fully alive, we integrate this awareness into our workaday consciousness, as a guide.

While a sin may be a trespass against our best nature, in being fully human we learn to forgive and appreciate sin as a part of our process of growth.

I don’t believe that we are traveling from a pure state through a corrupted state to a pure state.  There is no goal.  There is the opportunity to bring light to any particular moment, or to enjoy the darkness or shades of grey.  There is the chance to gain understanding, to forgive, to grow in competence and confidence, to accept losing competence and confidence, failure, and death.  It’s a rough road but a fascinating one.

You asked about what it means to be “human enough.”  The world that we share tells us when we aren’t good participants in the natural order of things.  So, humans as a species will be human enough when we figure out how to live without undermining our own existence.  This is something that humans have already accomplished.  We just recently have collectively lost our way, and hopefully, as a species, will find our way back to that place of appreciation and understanding.

(to be continued…)

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches

Gulls Over Puget Sound Through Winter Branches