Visiting Robert Tolz in his home in Ossining, New York, is always an adventure. His wife, Delia, and he are raising two lively sons, Jesse and Elliott, and their house is a menagerie of marine invertebrates, frogs, guinea pigs and, of course, the family dog. The view from the living room reveals the Hudson River, and the beautiful changing landscape of the colorful New York seasons.
We met with Bob in the summer of 1997 to talk with him about his family, his work and living a spiritual ideal.
The management of time is a pressing issue for almost everyone. What advice would you give to someone like yourself, with family and career, who wants to live a spiritual ideal?
When time is pressing, as it is for most people, it's necessary to prioritize. Ask yourself what is truly important and requires you to spend time on it, and what is less important. Whenever I hear someone say, "I have no time for that," I know what they're really saying is that there are other things in their lives that have higher priority.
Time is obviously a precious commodity. We never have enough of it. There are many, many things that I'd love to do if I had the time, but my list is too long to be satisfied even if the earth magically slowed its rotation so there would be an extra hour or two in each day.
For this reason, I know that there are some things I'd like to do that will not be done, some capacities that I'd like to develop that will remain potentialities. My advice would be that it's necessary to determine what's on your list of things you need to pay attention to, and then set priorities for them. Those at the top of the list, such as my children, get first crack at my time. Those at the bottom may see periodic moments of my attention, but I have to resign myself to the fact that there are some things that I have on my list that I simply will not be able to do.
My family is, and will always remain, one of my top priorities. When I come home, my kids virtually "claim" me, and I give them undivided attention. But there are times when I simply cannot give them that time and attention. Sometimes the flow of work at my job necessitates that I give attention to a client through the late hours of the night, and I might not see my kids for a few days at a time.
My spiritual practice also maintains high priority, but its level of priority for the most part has an entirely different quality to it. That is, spiritual life is practiced at the same time as playing with my kids or while negotiating a contract. Spiritual life is not something separate and apart from all the other things I need to do; it's about the way I do all those other things.
Even the items at the very bottom of the list sometimes rise to the top. For instance, I used to envision that when I retired in a few decades and had more time I could explore my musical abilities. I was taken completely by surprise about a year ago when a melody came out of nowhere to grab hold of my mind and wouldn't let go until I gave birth to a complete song. That one was followed by two others. At this moment, there's very little percolating in my musical channels, so for all I know it may indeed be the day of my retirement that I start working on my next song.
Is there any time required for your spiritual practice which is different from, or in addition to, the time you spend on normal everyday living?
Yes. In Cafh, we practice a daily meditation, we meet in small groups on a regular basis, there are periodic retreats and there is time for personal spiritual direction. I usually meet several times a month with members of Cafh to serve in providing spiritual direction. So, the time I spend in spiritual practice, in addition to the normal activities of family and work, is not insignificant.
I don't ever recall feeling that these practices steal time away from something I'd rather be doing.
Since time is indeed precious, the offering of time is a way of offering oneself. To my mind, offering oneself is an absolutely essential component of spiritual consciousness.
Even if I were to spend a half hour in a meditation which I did poorly, with my mind wandering all over the place, the action of offering that half hour which I might otherwise have spent on a trifle has a spiritual consequence.
How do you infuse your spiritual ideals into the mundane world of making a living?
Bringing spirituality into daily life is my objective. Since my work occupies one of the largest chunks of my time, it's obvious that work has to be a major focus of integrating spirituality into ordinary life.
A wise man was once asked, "How can I tell anything about a man's relationship with God?" He answered, "Look at his relationship with you."
This anecdote illustrates what I think is one of the most important things about bringing spirituality into practicality. It has to be found in my relationships with those who are around me.
That means that if I happen to be in a position where I direct the work of others, I have to make sure that I treat them with love and respect, and not as mere objects to do my bidding. For instance, if I find that an associate has analyzed a point of law or a factual situation carelessly, I could choose either to snap at him and suggest that he's not competent enough to hold a license to practice law or else I could clearly, calmly and patiently go over the error in a professional way and with the view to teaching him something to avoid a repetition.
Similarly, if one of my partners yells at me for something that he perceives I did incorrectly, I could either defend myself and get into a pitched battle with him or else take another approach. For instance, in one case I remember just plain getting something wrong. My partner asked me incredulously, "How could you possibly do that?" To which I answered, "I made a mistake." I could tell that he had been ready to knock down all my excuses and justifications, and when I honestly reported that I had none, we then moved quickly to correcting the mistake.
Does your inner work have any effect on dealing with the pressures of work?
I have to say that one of the most important things I've learned well from the years of inner work is a sense of perspective. I don't get ruffled easily. Things tend to go pretty smoothly around me.
I received some cute feedback on this once from one of my partners who asked what I thought of an associate who was working for us. I told him, "I can work with him." To which my partner replied, "That's not enough information for me. You could work with a monkey."
How do your spiritual ideals affect how you raise your children?
One thing my wife and I try to do is nurture a sense of love, respect and responsibility within the home.
I believe that our kids are quite confident that they are well-loved, and they know this to be true even when they are disciplined. They also know they are well-respected, as well as being valued as individuals.
Before either of our children were conceived, my wife and I studied and used for prayer a section from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet dealing with children. It begins "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." I commend the passage to everyone who is a parent and anyone who may become a parent. Actually, I think it's good reading for kids as well.
The essential idea I derive from that passage is that, if I may use some legal terminology, we are trustees for our children, not their owners. They are each unique souls whom we have a duty to nurture, teach and guide. But since they are not our property, we cannot tell them what they have to think or believe.
I remember when my first child was born, one of my companions in Cafh jokingly told me, "Get their respect before they're bigger than you." I think by giving respect, we've gained their respect in return.
I love the ending of the Kahlil Gibran passage. It goes "The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."
I want to be a stable support and foundation for my children, not just economically, but emotionally as well; helping them to understand how life works, so they can learn to think for themselves and ultimately become self-sufficient in a way that benefits humanity and those who surround them.
Do you try to transmit to your children any of what you've learned in Cafh in an explicit way?
I have never said to my children, "Cafh explains this in such-and-such a way." I don't like to preach or indoctrinate. Besides, Cafh doesn't have any kind of sacred book that I could quote from anyway.
Frankly, even if I were to say such things, I don't think it would be an effective method for transmitting anything. We all know the phrase, "Do as I say, not as I do." The reason that phrase was invented is that, for sure, children will learn more from what you do and how your are. Perhaps the phrase "actions speak louder than words" is what really applies to how kids learn from their parents.
So, whatever I may have learned in Cafh is transmittable only to the extent I actually live it. I don't have to try to teach, and they don't have to try to learn it, because without effort my way of being becomes part of their environment, and they absorb that environment automatically.
This is actually one of the reasons we had our kids attend The Seed, which is a nursery school / kindergarten run by members of Cafh who live in a community in Yorktown, New York. We knew that they would absorb the environment of love that the community members have been able to create there.
So there's no time that you try to inculcate spiritual ideas to them in words?
Well, we do talk to them about many things that deal with behaviors that would be consistent with spiritual ideals, like love, respect, fairness, and so forth.
Wait. There is one time I can recall that I tried to communicate more directly some of the ideas I've learned through my association with Cafh, though still in a roundabout kind of way. I was putting my kids to bed and said I couldn't read to them because it was time for lights out. That didn't stop them. They virtually demanded that I make up a story for them. I asked them to pick a subject, and they picked Christmas.
I started making up a story about two kids who just accidentally happened to have the same names as my two boys who magically wound up visiting Santa Claus on the day before Christmas. An accident injured Santa to the extent that he had to ask the two boys to take his place that night to deliver all the presents. They learned, in substituting for him, how he's able to make his rounds the world over without ever being seen. In gratitude for their assistance, Santa told them he had a special present for them placed under their own tree.
The boys returned home to find a small, plain stone from Santa, which they learned is called the "Helping Stone." It allows them to bring about the same circumstances around them as allows Santa to deliver presents without being seen. They can use this power whenever they need it, but only in order to help others. Naturally, since they can't be seen, they can never be thanked for their help.
The story goes on from there (it basically created itself over several nights of story-telling) to detail the boys' adventures in using the Helping Stone. I think most kids feel relatively powerless, and that's why superhero comics are so avidly read. Superheroes fix things and are loved and applauded for their efforts. Although my story was a little bit like turning kids into superheroes, they had to learn to use their powers because it was the thing that needed to be done, and not because they would be recognized or thanked.
My kids loved the story. They complained if any evening's episode was too short. I don't think they ever suspected that I was trying to teach them something at the same time I was trying to entertain them.
Are there any other roles which are affected by your spiritual work?
Well, my "role" as a male is affected.
In what way?
A little-noticed effect of the women's liberation movement is that it also resulted in the possibility of men's liberation as well. Men have become free to develop their innate qualities which might years ago have seemed relatively unmanly, such as the expression of kindness, the recognition of one's emotional life and the will to nurture.
The other component that I try to work on is to recognize when the old superior-male / inferior-female roles start to rise up, where the woman is supposed to be the servant of the man. Thankfully, my wife is pretty quick to reflect that back to me if I falter.
It truly makes me very sad when I see people in relationships that preserve those old superiority/inferiority models. Unfortunately, I see it more than I would like to.
Can you describe something specific about how you try to change those roles?
I can say without false humility that I'm the cook in the family, at least when I'm home before dinnertime to prepare meals. I think my two boys believe that it's the man's job to cook in the house. Once some friends gave my wife and me a special cooking utensil as an anniversary present. My oldest boy asked what it was, and our friend said that it was a gift to celebrate the birthday of his parents' marriage. "Oh," he said. Then after a pause he added, "What did you get for my mom?"
How does taking over cooking functions express spiritual work?
Believe me, the spiritual work in marriage goes well beyond cooking.
Let me give you an example. When I was single and living in Manhattan, I used to pick up after my dog well before Mayor Koch put in a pooper-scooper law. People used to watch me do it and think I was crazy. I did that because I didn't think I had the right to soil the environment. To do otherwise would be an imposition on others. Someone else would have to pick up after me or else suffer the messy consequences.
Now that I've been married many years, I have to confess that one of the things I still have to work on is when I'm imposing on my wife to do something that I could just as easily have done, such as making sure that I throw away an envelope after reading the mail instead of leaving it on the kitchen counter for her to deal with.
It may seem like a very mundane example, but spirituality is truly realized only when it is expressed in the small details of daily life. I think it was Einstein who said that an idea becomes real only if you write it down. I would say that a spiritual idea is made real when expressed in concrete actions.
When I was single and picking up after my dog, I was trying to express a sense of responsibility to my community. When I got married, I was joining a community of two people, It was a smaller community, but not lesser in significance by any means.
One of the reasons I like this example is that it shows one of the things I've learned about spiritual life. It is sometimes easier to say something broad and abstract like "I love all souls" than it is to figure out how to express love in your own immediate environment.
Switching gears, what is spiritual direction all about?
In spiritual direction, a soul comes to her spiritual director to consult privately about the status of her inner work. The topics for consideration can be very wide-ranging, such as questions about the mechanics of meditation, discussions about difficulties in relationship at work or home, sharing of some insight, intuition or revelation, and so forth.
The soul who comes for spiritual direction and the spiritual director try to explore these questions and observations with an underlying intention and orientation towards an expansion of consciousness.
When you give spiritual direction, what is it that you do?
Most of all, I listen.
Everyone is a unique individual, and it is necessary to work from each person's present circumstances towards the expansion of consciousness. Some souls will come to spiritual direction to focus on a pressing problem that they're facing. Others will come to deal with mechanical questions about meditation or about some of the subjects that may have been discussed in the weekly group meetings. Some will come for assistance in considering a decision they have to make. Others will come to report on what they're experimenting with and learning in their inner work. Each has quite different needs.
After listening and discerning the soul's circumstances, I will provide whatever comments or assistance which seems to be called for. My responses stem from my appreciation of the soul's needs and the storehouse of information and experience that the members of Cafh have developed.
Without breaching any confidences, can you give us a quick example of how a private conference for spiritual direction might proceed?
Sure. Recently, I was talking regularly with a woman who was considering entering Cafh. These discussions took on the character of spiritual direction. During one of our meetings, she shared with me how she was in a state of euphoria about a new understanding she had about her life. I told her how happy that made me feel. I also told her to watch out when the emotional high diminished, as it most certainly would, and to rest assured that when the thrill of the revelation disappears, that doesn't mean that the knowledge disappears with it.
The next week, she came back and with a broad smile asked me, "How did you know?"
Well, how did you know?
This is not a matter of being clairvoyant. It's merely a matter of having personal experience on the spiritual path and being the beneficiary of the knowledge of my fellow travelers. It flabbergasts me just how much a spiritual director learns from those who come to seek spiritual direction. I also learn from those who precede me on the path.
In the particular case of the woman with the disappearing euphoria, it was exceedingly easy to identify that I needed to tell her not only that the emotional high might disappear but also that she shouldn't confuse the sensitive gratification with the expansion of consciousness she was simultaneously experiencing. She was enjoying her euphoria so much that I didn't want her to be unnecessarily disappointed or disillusioned when the predictable event of emotional normalcy returned. This sequence of events is predictable because it has happened many times over with so many people who choose to embark on a spiritual path.
Is the interrelationship of emotions with spiritual experiences a sticky matter?
The phenomenon of the misidentification of the emotional high as being the spiritual event itself is, in my opinion, one of the primary causes of people giving up on a spiritual path. Almost all spiritual realizations are accompanied by emotional content, usually a very pleasing emotional content that, as a side effect, reinforces the seeker's behavior. I have never met anyone who can be continuously high emotionally. Of necessity, the emotional high that accompanied the spiritual realization disappears.
What happens when the emotional high disappears? If the seeker believes that the true and lasting experience is the knowledge gained and the expansion of consciousness which has occurred, then the disappearance of the emotions may be greeted with some disappointment but also with acceptance.
On the other hand, the person who believes that the emotion was the most important part of the experience may be frightened when it begins to ebb away, thinking that the expansion of consciousness was only temporary or illusory. Another person might be more sanguine about the disappearance of the emotion, but, in the absence of additional and repeated emotional experiences, may not feel sufficient support to continue.
The spiritual path is, in large part, about inner liberation. If our happiness has to depend on our gratifications, we are not free. It's almost as if we're caged laboratory rats whose actions are dictated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The pursuit of spiritual gratifications is particularly insidious, because, under the guise of seeking something apparently lofty and high-minded we become exceedingly eager, possessive and materialistic. The term which has been coined to describe this condition is "Spiritual Materialism."
By the way, spiritual materialism can be a difficulty not only for those who are new to the path but also for many who have practiced spiritual life for many years.
The process of spiritual unfolding has been compared to being "married to life." Do you think this is a good comparison?
I sure do.
Let me start by describing what I think is the prevalent relationship that we can have to life. We dream about how our lives are going to be, or could be. In our minds, we write scripts about where we're going to be in a month, a year, ten years. The only problem is that nobody else reads our scripts and things happen that prevent our expectations from materializing exactly as planned.
As a result, it's easy to be disappointed and complain that we haven't received what we're entitled to. And we can effortlessly slip into a series of daydreams about an alternate reality that's more pleasing than we have to face in real life. The result is that we wind up rejecting life as it is and hope to have a life that isn't our own. We are no longer completely present in our own lives, and we miss it as it passes in front of our eyes. I'll quote John Lennon again: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
To me, an essential component of spiritual life is to accept what we have received by the roll of the dice with the smallest amount of complaint, for better or for worse. That doesn't mean I can't work to change my circumstances when appropriate, but I have to live my own life, not one that exists only in my imagination. I can't divorce myself from my life and pick up another. Either I'm going to live the one I have, or it's just going to pass me by.
You have been in Cafh a long time, and I'm sure your ideas about spiritual life have changed since you began. Looking back, would you say that spiritual life has dealt you some surprises? If so, would you like to share some with us.
I'd have to say that one of the most surprising things about spiritual life was that being on a spiritual path is not a "linear" experience.
What I mean is that at first I imagined spiritual unfolding to be a process of personal perfection where I would pass through particular stages or conquer certain unwanted behaviors in a particular sequence. I would go from point "A" to point "B" to point "C", and so forth, as if I were traveling a route on a road map. Once having traveled past point "A", I'd never have to see it again.
I was quite wrong about that. First of all, I think that thinking of this work as a process of personal perfection results in having an objective that gets in the way of something I now set my sights on, which is to clean up whatever there might be about me that gets in the way of me simply being a point of expression of Divine love. If I'm concentrating on perfecting myself, then subconsciously I'm looking for myself to shine, but if I'm concentrating on sort of getting out of the way, I'm truly looking to bring more of a sense of heaven down to earth.
Also, if I'm working on some attitudes, feelings, thoughts or behaviors that are inconsistent with how I want to be, I've now recognized that it's hardly ever the case that something is vanquished, never to be heard from again. I see in myself and in others that if a soul has a particular tendency that needs to be dealt with, it's likely that this tendency will be something that must be dealt with time and again. Instead of a process of becoming perfect and never seeing point "A" again after having passed it, we're engaged in a process of keeping some weeds in check, and we have to revisit our garden again and again to re-weed so that the flowers we love can grow well.
Let me illustrate with an anecdote I was told. A man was driven over some distance by a person newly introduced to him. At the end of the journey, the passenger complimented the driver. "You put me at ease because you are one of the most careful drivers I've ever had." The driver responded, "I drive as carefully as I can, because I have a tendency to be careless."