The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy (BM) recently sat down with Robert Wolf (RW), co-founder and director of Free River Press, which bills itself as “…a nonprofit publishing house whose primary mission is to develop a literary mosaic of America written by people from all walks of life.”
Bob is also the author of numerous books, including An American Mosaic: Prose and Poetry by Everyday Folk and Jump Start: How to Write from Everyday Life, both published by Oxford University Press, The Writer Within, and The Triumph of Technique: The Industrialization of Agriculture and the Destruction of Rural America.
What follows is a transcript of our chat. Many thanks to Bob for his time, and immense patience.
BM: Briefly tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?
RW: Well, I’ve traveled the country extensively. When I was sixteen, I decided I was going to work every job in the country, live in every town and city, and have conversations with everyone. Not long afterwards—I think I must have been 16 or 17—I took off. I was living in Connecticut. I took a train to New York and hitchhiked to Ohio to visit my grandparents. I stayed there maybe a month or so, and that began a lifelong habit of wandering around the country. I’ve lived in ten different states. When I was nineteen I lived in a little town in central New Mexico. I was the only Anglo in that town; maybe 65 people lived there. I was there for two months in the winter. I rented an uninsulated shack for $10 a month. It had one light bulb and a cook stove. You can’t heat with a cook stove, so I slept fully clothed with all my other clothes stuffed inside my sleeping bag.
American writers that I loved like Sandberg and Kerouac had ridden freight trains and hitchhiked all over the country, so that’s what I did. I did a lot of that. Worked on a ranch; taught in a Brooklyn school—a ghetto school—was a columnist and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune; taught composition, philosophy, and literature at Chicago colleges. I did a lot of different things, but then life changed for me once I got really disgusted with journalism. I would go up to my editor at the Tribune and say, “You know, the world is on fire, and I’m writing about how to put together a great stereo system.”
RW: So what I did was I started looking for Right Livelihood. I was Catholic at the time, and I contacted the Catholic archdiocese and the woman I talked to wanted to know my background. I gave it to her, and she gave me two possibilities where she thought I would flourish and have plenty of time to write. One of them was a home for the [developmentally disabled] called Misericordia. I spent a year there, and that was a life-changing experience. I decided after that I wanted to do service work. When I got married, after a year at Misericordia, my wife and I went to Nashville. I started teaching GED to the homeless, or was supposed to. But the men at this shelter had GED certificates, high school diplomas, even college degrees.
So my supervisor at the board of education said I should improvise. So I got the men writing about how they became homeless. Eventually a friend and I set up Free River Press, a nonprofit whose purpose initially was to publish homeless writings. We did six little books by the homeless.
Then, when Bonnie [my wife] and I moved to Iowa, I did the same thing with farmers. I said, “Their story needs to be heard,” and I set up a writing workshops for neighboring farmers. After that small towns hired me, and I found that in three days with 15 people I could do a little book. Since then I’ve worked in lots of different sections of the country.
BM: Let me ask you something. You mentioned a phrase that’s not necessarily common these days, or to most people, especially not necessarily to Catholics: Right Livelihood. Where did you come up with that?
RW: Well, I’ve read a lot of Buddhist literature over the years.
BM: Did you actually use that phrase when you called up and talked to that lady? Did you say, “I’m looking for my Right Livelihood?”
RW: I don’t know how I put it. But it was very definitely in my mind.
BM: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
RW: People use that word who don’t believe in the spirit. I don’t know what the spirit would be, so I don’t use that word. I say I like to think that the goal is to transcend the ego. I think this is related to your other questions about love. My heart, I would say, is hardened. It hasn’t always been hardened. But if I could find, through various disciplines, ways to allow others in, then it would help me transform and go beyond ego-bound consciousness. So that’s a big focus in my life.
BM: Transcending, going beyond the ego?
BM: Most religious traditions speak of the power and value of love. For example, the Dhammapada tells us, “Only love dispels hate.” The Bible tells us, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” What, if anything, do those words mean to you?
RW: [laughs] I mean, it’s true. What the Dhammapada says is true. But, again, this is totally something that is within myself. I have to allow love into my heart. Ideally, if we all allowed love into our hearts, or we allowed other people into our hearts, however we want to put it, we wouldn’t have wars to worry about. But also, the other Buddhist idea about clinging not clinging to people or things or ideas, all of that is of immense importance. I suppose if we could stop clinging to things and to people and to ideas, then we’d be simultaneously flooded with love.
BM: What stops people from being more loving and compassionate?
BM: [laughs] Is it really? Tell me about that.
RW: Well, if I’m afraid of extending myself or allowing others into my life . . . I put up barriers. I put up a barrier if I’m afraid. It’s a defense mechanisms. You’re trying to protect yourself from this or that, to hold onto this or that, and that creates fear…When we can’t get rid of desire or we continue clinging to something, then that’s where fear comes from. In other words, if you’re clinging to something, then there’s a fear of losing that something.
BM: So, but in the case of love, what are we afraid to lose? If we think love is to gain, why are we afraid to lose?
RW: But that’s an intellectual concept, if we think love is to gain. It has to be experienced, otherwise it’s just another concept.
BM: I like that a lot. It’s a good way to put it. But therein lies the Catch-22, doesn’t it? If it has to be experienced, but we’re afraid to experience it, where does it break through?
RW: Well, the Christians would say through the grace of God. It would be grace. It’s a gift. If one is going after love, let’s say chasing love, it’s like going after a criminal with the sirens on. Alan Watts said something like that.
BM: You’re alerting the goal to the fact that it’s coming?
RW: Or you’re just not going to get it, it’s just going to keep eluding you, it’s going to keep running. Having read Krishnamurti a lot, I started just observing my mind until there was just silence, and then the passive intellect could be accessed. The active intellect, which does all the talking, all the conceptualizing, is silenced, just like in Zen sitting, and you just observe that mind.
I was practicing that in everyday life, riding on the bus or walking down the street. I gained insights from that. It would just come, it wasn’t something that you were thinking about. It was just something that just came to you, like a gift. But most people don’t recognize the distinction between active and passive intellects – or, we might say – between discursive reason and intellectual intuition. That’d be another way of talking about it. The passive intellect or intellectual intuition is like a reflecting mirror. See, if you shut off all the jabbering, all the monkey talk, then you can begin to see.
BM: How did you get to Krishnamurti and all these other people if you’re not labeling yourself as “spiritual”? What were you doing reading all this stuff? Was it an intellectual pursuit?
RW: Absolutely not, no.
BM: Are you a spiritual person but you just don’t like that word? How did you get from whatever you were to reading all these things and gaining profound insights? What was the driving force there?
RW: Connection with the transcendent. But, again, if someone tells me, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Then I want to ask, “Okay, you’re spiritual, so you must believe in the spirit. Tell me what that is.” I don’t think most can.
RW: At least not most people today. In the Middle Ages, people would have an answer.
BM: Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term, but also put love into action right now, so that he or she can make a positive difference right away?
RW: Oh, I don’t think it’s something that happens right now.
RW: I can only speak for myself, and I think that the way to do it is through self observation. And through visualization. I practice visualization. I had a past experience with a Qigong master and people practicing Qigong, so I’ve experienced energy, being flooded with energy and so forth. And on my own, practicing Qigong. So I know what visualization can do, in terms of moving energy and so forth, that one can actually visualize love flooding one’s heart.
BM: Is that then long term or short term?
RW: I can’t speak for others, I can only speak for myself, and it’s long term. It’s a lot of work.
BM: What about somebody who maybe has less patience, or really feels the need to do something right now? What could that be? What would demonstrate love?
RW: Go out and serve dinner to the homeless. Work in a homeless shelter, something like that. Go out and ring bells for the Salvation Army.
BM: Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?
RW: Sometimes Gurdjieff. Do you know Gurdjieff?
BM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Meetings With Remarkable Men, right?
RW: Yes. I’ve read a lot of books on Gurdjieff and writings by Gurdjieff.
BM: What about his writings? Why him? Out of the plethora of people you could have named, what was it about his writings?
RW: I think not just the writings, but the fact that he was in the recent past, and we have so much first-hand documentation about Gurdjieff. That’s why I can imagine myself in his presence, so he becomes a living spirit, entity for me.
BM: So that actually helps to imagine he’s sort of sitting across the table from you.
RW: Sure. And have him observe me.
BM: What would he say if he’s observing you most of the time.
RW: “You’re asleep, Bob.” [laughs]
BM: And what do you say? “Yes, I know. I’m waking up. I’m getting on it.” [laughs]
BM: That’s great. Do you have anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?
RW: I can’t think of anything.
BM: That’s good, either I’m real complete here with this, or you’re asleep. [laughs]
RW: I’m definitely asleep. [laughs] Oh, there’s one man. Have you heard of Anthony de Mello? You would find his work very interesting. He was an Indian, despite the name Anthony de Mello, he was Indian. Not American Indian, but from India. And a Jesuit priest. The Jesuits and the Catholic priests did not like Anthony de Mello because he was very much in the spirit of the Buddha and Krishnamurti. He has a book called The Way to Love, a series of very short essays. I find that one of the most wonderful books. It’s a tiny little book that you can just put in your breast pocket.
He has another book called Sadhana: A Way to God, which includes a lot of different exercises, some of them visualization, some of them self observation. It’s a book with about 50 different exercises.
BM: Is he still around?
RW: He died recently, I think, fairly recently. He’s on YouTube. You can listen to some of his talks on YouTube.
BM: I definitely will.
RW: I mean, you hear a lot of Buddhism in de Mello. There’s little mention of Christianity except perhaps in Sadhana: A Way to God, you will see references to Christ and so forth.
BM: In a positive way?
BM: That’s going to be excellent, because you mentioned two people that nobody else so far has.
RW: Krishnamurti and?
BM: Gurdjieff and de Mello.
RW: Oh, okay.
BM: I know Wonji Dharma, whom I recently interviewed, is interested in Krishnamurti. But also Rumi and Bede Griffiths, if you’re familiar with him. You might like Bede Griffiths. He was a Catholic, a Benedictine, who moved to India and became like the Indians. He was called Swami Dayananda by the Indians. His aspiration was to bridge Hinduism and Catholicism in a way that hadn’t been done before. Bede Griffiths is legendary.
BM: Yeah. B-e-d-e Griffiths. If you look him up, I think you’d be amazed.
RW: Yes. Okay.
BM: How about Thomas Merton. Read any Merton?
RW: Oh sure. Absolutely.
BM: Is your background Catholic, mostly?
RW: No, it was Protestant. I converted to Catholicism, but when the priestly scandals broke, I left the church.
BM: Which scandals? What are you referring to?
RW: The pedophilia.
RW: Yes. The priest that I was taking Eucharist from was hauled away by the bishop.
BM: In your church?
BM: How old were you?
RW: Somewhere probably in my 60s, late 50s early 60s. That’s when I left.
BM: Why did that one incident make such an impact on you at that age? I could see maybe 20s, teens, it would shake up your world. By the time you’re in your 60s, aren’t you like, “I know what the world’s all about. This doesn’t surprise me”?
RW: I’m constantly shocked by the world.
RW: This young boy’s mother said that her son came to the altar for the Eucharist and the priest chucked him under the chin and said, “You’re a good looking boy, Billy,” or whatever. I was willing to say, “Well, at least it’s not happening here” until then. That really brought it home to me then.
BM: But when it hit that close to home.
RW: Yes, yes.
BM: Is that when you pursued Gurdjieff and de Mello and…?
RW: No, no, I mean all these kinds of readings—non-Christian, spiritual readings—had been going on for ages. I mean ages. But De Mello I didn’t find until maybe 10, 12 years ago. And Krishnamurti goes way back. You know those little Shambhala books, the pocket editions?
BM: Yeah, I’ve got one in the car.
RW: Yeas I love them. I collect those.
BM: Do you have a favorite one? The one I carry in the car is the Dhammapada, Thomas Byrom translation.
RW: Yes, that’s definitely one of my favorites.
BM: How did you go from Protestantism to Catholicism? What made that change? I mean, isn’t it often the other way around?
RW: Well, the Protestant church is pretty empty. It didn’t do anything for me.
BM: What were you looking for, more ritual, more ceremony?
RW: That was part of it, but I think I can, I know exactly what the moment was. I was doing theatre, involved in theatre in Chicago, and this one theatre company was looking for rehearsal space. And I approached a priest who didn’t know me from Adam. He gave the okay. So it was his example that led me to the church.
BM: What did that demonstrate to you?
RW: Well that was love, wasn’t it?
BM: [laughs] Yeah. Well, it’s openness. It’s what’s mine is yours.
RW: Yes. And so that’s why when I saw an emptiness to the journalism, I wanted to go work for the church. And so that was a transformative experience in my life. That was one of the big, pivotal moments.
BM: Really? So that one small, seemingly small action changed your life?
RW: Yes. Well, yes, that led to another transformation. Namely the transformation that happened at Misericordia.
BM: What was your role there?
RW: I was a house parent.
BM: So you had responsibility over a group of kids?
RW: About eight. First, I was six months with adolescents, then six months with adults. I would cook or help cook, take them to sports activities, take them to movies, or go get videos and bring them there.
BM: That’s service. That’s dedication.
RW: After a year, I was pretty much burned out. And they did have a lot of rollover, turnover. Most of the individuals, almost all of them, were high functioning, and they could have day jobs. So that left me free during the day to write.
BM: It was fascinating chatting with you. Thank you for your time.
RW: Thank you, Bill.