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William Irwin Thompson Interview

In this StreetSmart Conversation, Steve Stein introduces and interviews William Irwin Thompson. William is an author that blends many genres including poetry, nonfiction, philosophy, and novels. Mr. Thompson explains his background and discusses the work he was involved in including starting the discussion on planetary thinking and green technology. He also discusses his opinion on how he would help people growing up with digital technology, and what his ideas means for the average person.
Text Excerpt from the video:
“Since I have the luxury of actually having you here. So who are you, William Irwin Thompson?
William: I’m basically a writer and used many genres from poetry, which is where I, you know, first started out in high school, and a novel and nonfiction essays, cultural history, philosophy, ecology. So I’ve written in many different genres. But basically, I am a writer. I have been an academic, you know, taught at various universities, and functioned as a visiting professor from Honolulu to Cambridge.
And at the present time, as 80 years old, I’m retired. And Lindisfarne was closed down, the association and the fellowship I created with three different campuses. One in the Hamptons, the next one in Manhattan that you saw, and then the third one in the Rockies when the Undersecretary of the U.N., Maurice Strong, who created the Stockholm Conference on the global environment, donated land to Lindisfarne. And I ran conferences.
Steve: What were some of the key ideas in Lindisfarne?
William: Well, we were basically talking about everything that has now become public. We started talking about the shift from economics to ecology as the governing science. We were talking about climate change, and appropriate technology, and the union of green technologies, all of this stuff we were talking about in the ’70s. So we started the discussion. But the people who necessarily start a movement are not necessarily the ones who are recognized when it becomes popular, or it becomes a mass phenomenon. So a lot of the ideas that you would take for granted, we started.
Steve: So are there any, ideas that are kind of proliferating now that your…would you want to kind of communicate what was the beginning of those ideas, or anything that…
William: Planitization itself, though I credit Teilard de Chardin with using the phrase, but these issues that I talked about long ago in 1971 in my book, “At the Edge of History,” are now public issues. And so some of these things, I personally started, and I…
Steve: Such as?
William: Such as bringing together economics appropriate technology, green technologies, Jerry Brown politics, the Rockefellers, and calling for a kind of new planetary governance. We started all that with the Lindisfarne conferences. I started all of that. Does your 13-year-old realize that? No, of course not.
Steve: No. Do you see anything in the current culture that maybe can plant the seeds or any…not hope because I think what you said was, there’s ebbs and flows, there’s dying off, and that’s fascinating that the trees need to burn for them to continue to grow. So let’s get to that part in a little bit. So we have who you are, what you do. I think something that was interesting is that you could talk about something esoteric and also something scientific at the same time. And I think that’s what I always found fascinating, and how you tied it in…
William: Well, that’s because I’ve, you know, I was at MIT. So I was teaching, you know, young engineers and scientists. And so I learned to try to integrate science with what I was doing. So I met Verner Heisenberg in Germany, and the quantum physicists, Arthur Zajonc was a Lindisfarne fellow. And so all of that was very much part of my program, my project. As I said, this goes way back before the counterculture. Gerald Heard and the Vedanta Movement in Ojai, California, that was going on in the 40s. You know, everybody had heard of Alan Watts but not Gerald Heard. Well, he was the beginning to people, you know, and you have to be a cultural historian to be really interested in these seeds of transmission, the Buddhists would call it, mind to mind transmission.
Steve: Say, the scenes of transmission?
William: Seeds.
Steve: Seeds. Right, of course, of course.
William: And so, you know, there is a transmission process. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic as with shaktipat with Muktananda that you and I experienced. And other times, it can be indirect. You know, I thought that I had created the genre or discipline of cultural phenomenology where you combine anthropology and cultural history, and you get cultural phenomenology. So, you know, I’m not just saying writing history of who killed whom with what, when, which is if you look at the History Channel, it’s a military channel. It’s about who killed who with what when.
Steve: Right.
William: You know, Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Eisenhower, and that’s boys history. And girls history is how to buy nice things for your Texas oil millionaire husband, and go to Europe, and bring back a lot of art, and touchy-feely stuff. So the culture has always been sexually dimorphic and split. And so part of the counterculture was to bring feminism in together with science and technology.
And so we had women who were part of Lindisfarne, like Hazel Henderson and Nancy Todd, yeah, you know, and Mary Catherine Bateson. So they’ve been definitely part of, you know, the program from the very beginning.
Steve: So why? Why did you go down this path,  in the previous section you told me about growing up in L.A. and things like that. But what’s the big why that you feel that you had some calling or some…
William: Well, you know, when you’re an adolescent Piaget talks about the formation of the child and the adolescent in his books, the child psychologist Jean Piaget. And I met him, too, or heard his lectures. And I think it was in Toronto because he lectured in French. But that’s a digression. But when I grew up reading in high school, Emerson, and Whitman, and Thoreau, and American transcendentalists, and so I was motivated by that kind of idealism that it wasn’t simply enough to sit in a library. You know, it was important to embody these ideas.
So I think that somebody who said the man screaming in the street, distilled his frenzy from the scribblings of an academic writer, two generations back. You know, it’s like Hegel, and Marx, and Lenin. And so that societal process has been with us, you know, for a long time.
Steve: Wow, wow. So I get it. I was a an Evergreen poet. But, you know – so this is a good tie into this other question. So in the ’80s, there was this thing called the Whole Life Expo. It was really…
William: Yeah, the whole earth catalogue with Stewart Brandon, yeah. He was a Lindisfarne fellow and was part of our group.He spoke with these, and he had his own events.
William: And I went actually to the Whole Earth Jamboree, and I was at those meetings in California.
Steve: Right. And then in the ’80s, they started…there was a movement, these expos, like in the New Yorker Hotel, or the Hilton even, where there’s 100 booths. And Dick Gregory would speak. And he was a firebrand with Stewart Brand and it felt like it was a movement, you know? It was a groundswell, was kind of like the ’60s energy was grounded in the New Age movement or the human-potential movement next step.
So I was excited to be part of that. And for the most part, I was recording and helping get other people’s message out. And then something I’ve noticed, about 10 years ago, there was this thing called, Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which started about 7 years ago. It was like inSilicon Valley. And it was like founders of Twitter and Facebook, and Jon Kabat-Zinn and Roshi Joan Halifax, and it was like 350 people a few years ago. And now, it sells out at 3,100 people. It’s a whole thing, it’s mindfulness. So I’m finding, like, you know, that it’s reminding me somehow in the scheme of things in the ’80s when it became…all this kind of esoteric ideas were now turning mainstream, again.
And, you know, five years ago, I couldn’t tell my friend what meditation was, he would say that’s wacky. Now, my friends are getting older. And if you tell them that, you know, they’re taking a medication that has a side effect, and I could say, “Oh, they proved that if you sit and breathe for 10 minutes, it’s as effective or more effective, and there’s no side effects.”
William: Well, I think that’s what’s going on, you know, even in my generation. So meditation, you know, what I tried to do was in the planetization of the esoteric to bring all the esoteric branches of the world religions together. Now the World Council of Churches brought clergymen together who were, you know, really mediocre people. They’re not philosophers, scientists, poets, they’re just clergy. They’re boring, you know? And I would say to Joan, you now, in a lot of the stuff she puts on Facebook has become a clergyman. She’s giving a lot of sermons. I couldn’t finish her new book because it’s just preaching to her disciples, not speaking to her colleagues anymore. And originally, Joan had, you know, Francisco Varela and I as colleagues, and she’s decided to give that up for a mass audience. And that’s so intrinsically American.
I mean, you go back to Dale Carnegie and positive thinking and American boomerism. I mean what the genius of Yogananda was is he came from…there’s a book called “Calcutta Yoga” that looks into the roots of all. It’s a very interesting book. But he joined esoteric yoga, and the elevation of Kundalini, and initiation through the chakras, and the etheric body, with self-help, and boomerism, and positive thinking, and Dale Carnegie, and he created this Self-Realization Fellowship, you know, which is a very non-Indian kind of thing. It’s completely America.
So that was his trip in the first wave of the planetization that included Vedanta having its center in Ojai, California. This is before, long before, like, a whole generation of 20 years before…
Steve: Right. So now, I think especially with the age of digital distraction, and my boys, I mean, I have thousands of hours in the basement of audio recordings of like these archive Francisco Varela, you know, that, all kinds of thing.
William: Yeah, but it’s ultra long. It’s gotta be in two minutes. I mean, I think what Stewart wanted is everybody to have a three-minute pitch, you know, because nobody’s got time to sit for an hour for a podcast. And people’s attention span is short and you click and go to people’s website. So the medium now is not radio, or FM, or KPFK, or any of that, it’s the web.
Steve And now, my boys, they have Instagram. So it’s…
William: I’ve never gotten into that, or I’m on Facebook because it’s a convenient way to stay tracking with Joan Halifax and others.
Interviewer: And that’s how I tracked you down. So I’m glad you’re on Facebook.
William: Yeah.
Steve: So how do you recommend these new digital natives to manage all the digital distractions? Any thoughts on that?
William: Well, because I come from the culture of meditation, that’s not an issue for me. If a person has a nervous noisy mind and it just constantly bombarded, and doesn’t know how to center down, and meditate, and devote an hour a day to silence and quiet, I don’t know how to help them. I mean, I do it the traditional way, and meditate for an hour or more a day. But I feel my era. I’m more the person who likes to initiate things and then not necessarily market it and sell it. I’m not a merchandiser or a marketer. And the culture, you know, it’s what Weber calls, the routinization of charisma. I’m much more with the…
Steve: The what? The routinization of…
William: The routinization of charisma. It’s Max’s favorite phrase, the sociologist. So in starting things, I like the charismatic ideational. The routine operational, I drop out. And so when the salesmen take over, I say bye-bye, you know? And so when St. Paul fucks up Christianity by trying to compete with the Gnostics, and, you know, turn it into, and write, and construct a historical Jesus that probably has nothing to do with the real Jesus, I am not interested at all. And so those guys, I just vacate the show. So my time is over. Your kids don’t know me. My books don’t sell. The IRS closed down on this one in 2009. I retired from lecturing and having Lindisfarne meetings in 2012. I’m 80 years old, I’m over, I’m done. I’m not in the culture anymore.
Steve: No. But I think, you know, you’re alive and kicking, and your brain is phenomenal so I’m glad to afford some time for this. Here’s a kind of a random question, you worked with the Disney Corporation years ago. Is that right? Did you do something…
William: No. I consulted for one week, I think, and I went to meetings in Orlando because they were… And I was turned off by the whole experience. They wanted my advice on building Disneyland in Paris, out in the suburbs outside Paris, and creating a second Disney World. So I took the, you know, the interview consulting gig. But, you know, it was like a day in Orlando. It wasn’t, you know, a big chunk of my life. And I think they found that I wasn’t a congenial organization man to work with. So, you know, they found other people that were more simpatico with their, you know, world view.
Steve: Okay, thanks. So my whole reason for doing this kind of bigger level is, you know, what… Let me ask it this way. What…your work or the essence of, you know, your work or your message. You had so many different ones, it’s hard, but how was that relevant to people on the street today? Is there anything…the average person.
William: I mean. they’re dealing with the same problems of life, and death, and health, and wholeness, and neuroses. So everything that I and my colleagues talked about is relevant. You know, I’m basically, as I said, influenced by American transcendentalism, that I read Whitman. And he was a blend of poetry and politics. So I was greatly influenced by Walt Whitman as an archetypal figure of the American bard, as opposed to the European one. But I’m basically a walk-in. You know, I come from the Pleiades, and I’m here to do a little bit of Peace Corps work with the humans. And I’m pretty much done now, and I’m looking forward to, you know, getting out of here.
Interviewer: All right, great. That’s a good note to end. All right, Bill, thanks so much for your time.
William: Okay, ciao.
Interviewer: Ciao, see you soon. Bye.”
If you like what he has to say, check out his programs on BetterListen.com here.

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