This is the best time to be alive, says Alice Walker, because there is so much work to do—so many poor to house and feed, so much opportunity for self-realization, the earth itself to be saved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, and essayist talks about her spiritual practice, the importance of resolve, and the charming perfection of her imperfect cat.
Alice Walker is a writer and activist, meditator, and mother. The youngest of eight children born to a farm family in rural Georgia, Walker grew up to become one of the best-loved writers in America. Now 63, she continues to see life as a holy adventure packed with exploration and learning.
The major themes of her writing remain unchanged. Walker is fascinated by community: its integral place in our lives, how it can be destroyed and achieved. She continues to contemplate suffering, especially among black women facing both sexism and racism. She calls her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple “my Buddha novel without Buddhism.”
Now Walker has written what may be her most revealing book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Subtitled Inner Light in a Time of Darkness and Meditations, it offers heartfelt considerations of the worst troubles of our time—environmental crisis, sexual abuse, poverty, injustice, war, despair, racism.
While her writing often deals with horrifying subjects, Walker manages to accentuate the positive. Casual, precise, and fiercely honest, her contemplations read like letters to a friend. The word “love” comes up repeatedly. So do the compassionate Buddhist practices of metta and tonglen. Meditation is especially praised, and called a “loyal friend.”
We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For is rife with grave concerns, yet when I spoke with Alice Walker, it was clear that she remains full of hope. She believes that with greater awareness than our ancestors possessed, and thanks to our tremendous capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy, we can create positive change—in ourselves and the world.
David Swick: While your new book has a lot of pain in it, you work through the pain and come to a place of hope and peace. Is pain an important teacher for you?
Alice Walker: Pain is a great teacher. You can work through pain and come to a place of peace when you accept that you will need to work as hard as you can. If you can be at rest with the fact that you will do your utmost under all circumstances, what else is there but peace?
David Swick: A lot of people, though, feel that no matter how hard they try, they are not going to be happier. They feel they cannot overcome their problems.
Alice Walker: That’s because they believe in trying rather than in doing.
David Swick: How do you mean?
Alice Walker: If you just try to do something, you’re not actually accomplishing anything. But if you resolve to do it, you accept that it is there for you to do and that you’re perfectly capable of whatever it is. And of course there’s no point in trying to do something you’re incapable of. Then you use every conceivable atom, sinew, and instinct available to move whatever it is you’re trying to move. There’s a world of difference between that and simply trying to do something.
That is basically how I work. I think if I had started out simply with the idea that I was going to just try to make the life that I have made for myself—and the work that I have made for myself, and for my community and the world—it’s very possible that I would not have accomplished very much. Instead, I simply set out to do it. And to do it incrementally, so that I could do just the amount that I was able to do each day.
It reminds me of what Ernest Hemingway used to tell people when they asked him how it is possible to write a novel. He would tell them that it’s a matter of “across the river and into the trees.” You resolve to get to the river, which is like the end of a chapter, and then, maybe in your dreams, you cross the river at night. Then, the next day, it’s on into the trees. You do it in stages, rather than saying, “I’m going to just try to write the whole thing.” You simply do what you can do today, and that’s fine.
David Swick: Is perfection one of the things we have to let go of to live like that?
Alice Walker: But everything is already perfect. And if you can accept that everything is already perfect, the imperfection is a part of the perfection. What’s to worry about? (Laughs)
David Swick: So often we think if we can’t do it perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
Alice Walker: That’s a terrible mindset! I look at my cat. My cat lived a very rough life before she arrived in my home. She has one tooth that’s broken and another that’s kind of long on the other side. She’s snaggle-toothed. A stranger might look at her and say, “Oh, she has imperfect teeth.” But I look at her and see the absolute perfection—the charming perfection—of her imperfection. It gives me so much information about the kind of life she has had, and the kind of soul she has probably fashioned.
David Swick: In your book you stress both yoga and meditation as essential practices for people living today. Do you think of yoga and meditation as complementary practices?
Alice Walker: Oh, yes, very much so. I’ve recently started doing a type of yoga that brings both of them together. Each pose is held for five minutes, which leaves you plenty of space and time to consider the pose, what it means to your peace of spirit, and to just breathe in, breathe out, in the way Thich Nhat Hanh talks about.
David Swick: What part does yoga play in your life?
Alice Walker: It is relaxation from stress. Yoga allows us to be calm and more present and not be physically overwhelmed by the calamities that surround us and the messages of disaster we’re constantly exposed to. In one of the talks excerpted in the book, I was speaking to a yoga group and telling them about how I learned of all these horrible abuses on Native American reservations and boarding schools, and how that connected to my own Native American ancestry. I told them it was so overwhelming that all I could do, really, was yoga.
David Swick: What would you say meditation means for you?
Alice Walker: Many things. In the early days, I almost always disappeared in meditation and found it just delightful. Now, sometimes I can disappear, but I have reached a place, I think, where the meditation often happens spontaneously. At times that means a lot of attentiveness to something, and letting it fully develop, and then having real insight into it. On the other hand, meditation could arise as a calming, spacious feeling of connection with everything, dissolving into the all.
David Swick: Are there other Buddhist practices you do?
Alice Walker: I am so grateful to Pema Chodron for the gift of the practice of tonglen: taking in the bad and sending out the good. She has managed to absorb and preserve and present these ancient teachings in a form that is so current. I find tonglen one of the most important practices we could receive in this time. It’s always challenging and deeply rewarding.
You meditate, you read Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, you have praised the work of Jack Kornfield, you go on retreats, and yet you say in the book that you’re not a Buddhist.
I’m not. The whole point of anything that is really, truly valuable to your soul, and to your own growth, is not to attach to a teacher, but rather to find out what the real deal is in the world itself. You become your own guide. The teachings can help you, but really, we’re all here with the opportunity to experience the reality of hereness. We all have that. I trust that.
is pointing out. This is the time to have full self-realization as an earthling. It’s time to be responsible and take charge of that. It’s also a great time because if we fail, we lose the earth.
David Swick: Are you concerned that if you embrace the word Buddhism, it would change the experience into something more formulaic and less alive?
Alice Walker: Yes. I’m just not interested in labels. I find all of them constrictive. They’re hard to wear. And they’re hard to wear because we’re always—hopefully—growing. Not only that, there are so many teachers in the world today of many different stripes. The world is a marvelous place of learning, from every possible direction.
David Swick: Does that make this a fortunate time to be living in?
Alice Walker: We live in the best of all times.
David Swick: Why is that?
There’s so much to do! [Laughs.] We are so lucky. There’s no shortage of work to do! [Laughs.] There’s no excuse for anyone, in my opinion, to complain that they can’t change anything. For instance, there are millions and millions and millions of hungry children, people who don’t have clothing, people who don’t have housing, trees that are begging us to let them live, rivers that are crying out to be clean, skies that are shouting at us to let the ozone layer live. There is no end to the ways we can have full self- realization. That’s what has to happen, and that’s what this time
David Swick: Is self-realization the spiritual philosophy at the center of your life and work?
Alice Walker: Self-realization is certainly up there, and of course true self-realization comes with a realization of the connectedness to all, the inseparability of the self and the all. That leads one to understand oneself as an earthling, not an American, Canadian, African, or Indian. Beyond that I realize myself as the cosmos, the universe, the whole thing. How can we not be the whole thing? [Pause.] As I sit and look out at the trees, I know clearly one day that’s where I’ll be. Hallelujah!
David Swick: You touch upon so many different influences in your book: the I Ching, the Tao, meditation, yoga, and so forth. In your life and practice, does Christianity have a place?
Alice Walker: I love Jesus; I think Jesus was wonderful. However, I think he has been distorted terribly. I want to see the wizardry of Jesus restored. I want to feel his dancing quality and his joyfulness. It’s a terrible thing that they have left him in that tortured, naked condition, which is bound to frighten most children. Just imagine if he were depicted like the Buddha. I love the way the Buddha goes through all his changes and he’s basically very happy. Suffering is not the end-all in life. It is a part of it, and then we rise above it, we work through it, we transform it. Jesus did that.
David Swick: You write that “heaven is a verb.” Can you use it in a sentence?
Alice Walker: In looking for places to write novels, I’ve ended up with houses in Mexico and Hawaii. I rent them out to people on a sliding scale depending on need. I’ve created a little booklet about them, and in there I talk about being in Hawaii and “heavening on the beach in sight of a six-pack.” Isn’t that good? |Laughs.) Are we there?
David Swick: You talk about grandmothers as a source of wisdom and power. Is this something you’ve recently come to understand, or have you long had a connection to the power of a grandmother?
Alice Walker: My maternal grandmother died when I was two, and the other one had been murdered when my father was a boy, but I had a strong connection with my step-grandmother, who did give me unconditional love. As time went on, though, I saw the damage to the feminine that patriarchy imposes, and I understood that it’s often the old woman—the grandmother, with all of that accumulated wisdom and compassion—who is depressed.
She is depressed because she sees things so clearly, and she’s lost her fear of speaking. We need her. We are not going to get anywhere without her, so we might as well go and start liberating all those nursing homes, and calling home, and getting our grandmothers back with us, and asking them to leave the sitcoms, and get them to come out from in front of the TV and give us some guidance, some of the understanding that they have gained over all these decades. Sadly, many of them have been anesthetized, but many of them have not. They’ve just been silent.
David Swick: Do you see people being anesthetized as a big problem?
Alice Walker: It’s huge! That’s what television is for. That’s what all these Game Boys and Palm Pilots, and all of these whatever-you-call-them gadgets are for. I feel we became gadgetized as part of the corporate takeover of the world. Everyone was either looking into their hand, or into their TV set or their computer, and basically missed how our lives were being stolen by very greedy people who would rather have a lot of money than have community.
David Swick: Do you see our obsession with security as part of the anesthetizing?
Alice Walker: We need security, but it cannot come without community. How can you have security without community? You could have all the chain-link fences, and all of the gates, and all of the helicopters flying over your house you could possibly afford, but if you had trusting neighbors, people who really cared about you, you’d be much more safe.
David Swick: In the book, you say that it is time for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing. What do you mean by that?
Alice Walker: Many people live with two sides of themselves out of touch with each other. They complain about paying their taxes but don’t complain about what their taxes actually buy, like cluster bombs. A million of these bombs, originally supplied by the U.S. government, were left in Lebanon. Children will come and pick them up, and they will blow up in their faces. Then you have all these maimed and dying children. But since your right hand, which wrote the check for the taxes, has learned not to care about the left hand, which has actually sent this off to the IRS and the government and the military, you pretend you are innocent. Well, you’re not. That’s what I mean.
Of course, I know how difficult it can be to become fully aware and bear responsibility, and even though I figure there’s very little I can do to actually stop the war, I feel like I can make every effort to be aware. Not to be aware is very soul-shredding. People might say, “I didn’t know they were making tanks big enough to level people’s houses.” Well, they should know that. You may not be able to dismantle the tank, or even stop paying for the tank, but you can know that’s what is happening.
David Swick: Often, though, we feel that if we spend a lot of time finding out such disturbing information, we will just become more depressed.
Alice Walker: Have the courage to be more depressed. In a world like this, where we are—as Americans, anyway— paying for so much suffering, who wants to be Little Miss Sunshine? It’s scary.
David Swick: You have said that when you write fiction, you write the book for the characters. Was there someone specifically you were writing this book for?
Alice Walker: Oh, yes, for our times. My regular publisher, Random House, didn’t want to publish this book, because my editor said they didn’t know what they could do with it. But I kept saying to them, “We live in a time when things are so dire, and politics especially. The political discussion is so discouraging that people need a book that is political but is at the same time infused with spirituality. They need a book that instructs them to step back and meditate, sit and contemplate, rather than dissolve into despair.”
So I offered this book as a companion for this specific time, which I consider probably, along with millions of other people, the most dangerous, frightening, unstable time that the earth has known and that human beings have ever known.
David Swick: But your regular publisher didn’t see it that way?
Alice Walker: No. I think they may not have understood how much nourishment we get from teachers who encourage this kind of awareness. Even when we feel we can’t change things, it’s important to have awareness of what has happened. If you are unaware of what has happened, it means you’re not alive in many respects. And to be unalive in many places within yourself means you are missing a lot of the experience of being on this planet. And this planet is not to be missed. ♦