The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

COMMON THREADS IN MYSTICISM with ROBERT FRAGER, Ph.D.

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is cross-cultural currents in spiritual traditions, and my guest, Dr. Robert Frager, is a scholar and a practitioner of diverse spiritual traditions, certainly an expert in this area. Bob is the founder and currently on the faculty of the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is also on the faculty of the Institute for Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College. He is the coauthor of a book called Personality and Personal Growth. He in addition is a fifth-degree black belt of Aikido; in fact he is a student of Osensei, the original founder of Aikido. On top of that he is also a Sufi sheik. Welcome, Bob.

ROBERT FRAGER, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeff.

MISHLOVE: Let me ask you this. How do you manage to do all of that -- how can you combine Aikido and Christian spirituality with an active Sufi practice, all in one person?

FRAGER: Well, like Topsy, my spiritual practice "just growed." My first spiritual practice was that of yoga, to even make myself worse. I started as a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, following a fairly traditional Indian meditative practice, back in 1964. I followed that practice for approximately twelve years. While I began the practice of yoga, almost concurrently I had started to practice Aikido, and I saw the two very much together. In a way Aikido was a physical practice, and I saw yoga as a mental practice, and the two complemented each other. It was as though I needed to develop my concentration, my ability to focus my mind, my mental energies, and through Aikido to focus my physical energies, to focus my attention with my body.

MISHLOVE: At the same time you were involved in academic psychology.

FRAGER: Right. Well, by chance, or perhaps by greater design, I received a fellowship for two years from the East- West Center at the University of Hawaii, and I spent that time studying the Japanese language, preparing to do research in Japan on social conformity, which was my field as a psychologist. My training was in social psychology, in the experimental end of it, nothing to do with mysticism. When I went to Japan I began to practice Aikido. I met the founder of Aikido, and I was tremendously impressed with him, both as an expert in one particular field, but also as a human being. My sense was there was something in him that was far beyond his skill at a martial art. I had met a lot of people who were smart; I had met a lot of people who were strong, who were athletes, who were very skilled in a particular area; but I always felt underneath their skill we were the same -- they were about as neurotic as I was, they had tempers that they lost, they had pride, they had ego, and they had skill in certain areas. I felt that there was something I loved, I revered almost, about Osensei. There was something developed in him that had nothing to do with his skill at Aikido.

MISHLOVE: Which was exraordinary, incidentally. I've seen films of him as an old man, practically eighty, fending off six or eight or twelve attackers at one time.

FRAGER: Well, it in a sense eventually blew me out of traditional psychology, because here was an old man, really in his mid-eighties when I studied with him, who did incredible things. I saw him hold a staff out with one hand, literally just hold the staff out straight, and have four people push it, at right angles to the staff. Now, a three-year-old kid can take a staff away from me with that kind of leverage, and I saw the feet of those men -- very strong, husky men, each one almost twice his size. He was maybe 85 pounds soaking wet when I knew him. Their feet were slipping on the floor. It was like they were trying to push a wall. And then he would kind of flick the staff, and they would just fly.

MISHLOVE: It goes beyond pure muscular strength, to be able to do something like that.

FRAGER: I couldn't understand what he did, I couldn't possibly, and I said to myself, well, what in the world could explain a person like this -- a person with this skill, and also with this quality of personality that was quite extraordinary? There was something about him that was more mature than the average person, that was developed in him. It's hard to put a term to it.

MISHLOVE: Some spiritual quality, would seem to be what you're getting at.

FRAGER: Well, basically I would say he was more in touch with his higher self, in more transpersonal terms. I didn't have that language then. I said, how can I explain how this man operates -- what motivates him, how he learned what he learned -- as a psychologist? And my answer was, I can't, given the theories I had studied most as an academic psychologist, and you know, Ed Maslow, who I'd heard lecture at Harvard, who sounded like a kind of nice, friendly Jewish uncle, really was the finest psychologist for explaining this kind of behavior.

MISHLOVE: In terms of self-actualization.

FRAGER: Right -- his theories of self-actualization, his theories of human development beyond the average, were the only thing that gave me a framework within psychology to look at a man like Osensei.

MISHLOVE: You know, it's interesting, because at that time I was doing undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin myself, a thesis on the psychology of religious mysticism, and I also turned to Maslow in trying to explain all the different mystical traditions. His concept of peak experiences and self-actualization seemed to provide the psychological language that began to get underneath the dogmas and the trappings of each tradition, and talk to the basic experience that people were having then. I guess that was your reaction as well.

FRAGER: It was. I mean, I didn't realize it at the time, but I was searching within psychology to find a way to make psychology bigger to hold my experiences in Japan. And so I discovered yoga. I really was brought to yoga by a fellow Aikido student, and I was brought to other spiritual disciplines -- to Zen, to in a sense modern humanistic psychology -- again through colleagues who were in Aikido who were interested in these things.

MISHLOVE: It's part of the transpersonal-humanistic psychological community these days, that people have branched out, and members of this community are in effect participating in almost all of the contemporary spiritual mystical paths.

FRAGER: And it was really rare at first. In the very beginnings of transpersonal psychology, there were very few of us who were deeply committed to those disciplines. Others in a sense had an academic framework and were looking for something to commit to, but hadn't gotten there yet, but were interested intellectually and personally in finding something. So I stayed on with Aikido, and I found this interesting relationship between Aikido and meditation. If I stopped Aikido, it was almost as though I became too yin.

MISHLOVE: Very feminine.

FRAGER: I became too sensitive, almost, to really function happily and effectively in the world. I became too inward.

MISHLOVE: I see.

FRAGER: And Aikido was a way of being more outward, more active -- dealing with other people in a powerful, active, relational way, but that also was consistent with my meditative and spiritual practice. So I found Aikido and meditation really did work together. Osensei himself said Aikido is not a religion; it's not even a spiritual discipline per se, he said, but it's a way of practicing the ideals of all religions, of all spiritual traditions, in actuality. And in effect I have more and more come to appreciate that -- that Aikido is a practice for me, and it's a way of putting what I know and what I've learned often in other practices into action, and testing it, and also finding out that I do know something.

MISHLOVE: Now let's jump forward a bit, because now you've been very active in the Sufi tradition. You are a Sufi sheik, which is something important -- I don't know what exactly. That's quite a jump from yoga and Aikido.

FRAGER: Well, do you want another story? I might as well. I was sitting in my office at the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, my old school, minding my own business. I was sitting with my feet up on my desk, talking on the phone to someone about something administrative, and two of my colleagues, Kathy Speeth and Jim Fadiman, had invited a Sufi group to come talk at the school, to come and be the school's guest for a few days. Literally I hadn't paid any attention; I said, "Look, I'm really busy getting the school off the ground. You handle the administration, you handle the finances. I don't want any part of it. I have enough on my plate, thank you very much." And besides, Turkish Sufism seemed as odd to me, I mean as far out of my experience, as any spiritual tradition could be. So I was sitting with my feet up on my desk, minding my own business, and this one heavy-set Turkish man walks by my office. He walks by and looks at me. The look must have taken a quarter of a second, maybe half a second at most. He didn't break stride; he didn't stop and stare. But the moment he looked at me, time stood still, absolutely time stopped for me, and I had this impression that all the data of my life was being read into a high-speed computer -- that he somehow knew everything that led up to my being in that office with my feet on the desk, everything that led up to the phone call, and how it was all going to work out. And then this little voice in my head said, "God, I hope that's the Sufi master, because if it isn't, I don't want to meet him -- I mean, if that's just one of his students. I don't want to meet the teacher of somebody that can do that." It was this sense of great power and knowledge.

MISHLOVE: And you felt it was connected to him looking at you. It wasn't just synchronicity, a coincidence.

FRAGER: No, no, no -- absolutely connected to him looking at me. Many years later, someone else in another Sufi tradition, when I mentioned this story, said, "My God, that's a perfect description of what we call the look of the sheik. That itself is an initiation at some level." But no one ever told me that; I'm not even sure I fully told my master that story. And sure enough, I went out, hoping that in fact there was no one more powerful wandering around the halls in the school, and I introduced myself as the president of the school that was inviting all these people, and sure enough this man was the Sufi master that had been invited. I started hanging out with them. They invited me in to lunch, and they invited me to dinner, and I always liked being around spiritual teachers, but this time, strangely enough, I didn't push. I mean, I wasn't as greedy as I had been in the past to be in the presence of people who were teachers and high, inspiring beings.

MISHLOVE: Of course, by this time at the California Institute there, you had been dealing with all kinds of yogis and Zen teachers and every variety, I should think.

FRAGER: Yes, we had every one, literally from every spiritual tradition, from Native Americans to Tibetan Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, yogis -- marvelous, marvelous people, and some of them became friends and spiritual guides for me, but no one kind of captured my heart.

MISHLOVE: It was sort of a deeper thread, then, for you.

FRAGER: And I suddenly found myself sitting at mealtime with this man, and then he started telling stories, and it was as though no one had ever told spiritual stories before. The stories just knocked me over -- the power, the wisdom. It felt as though there was no one else in the room, that he was literally telling the stories just to me, and that they were all designed for me. And then after the stories were over I glanced around and I said, "My goodness, there are other people here too."

MISHLOVE: You know, a cynic might say at this point, "It goes to show you, even a sophisticated guy like Robert Frager can get hypnotized."

FRAGER: Sure, or fall in love, in a sense, in a Platonic sense, with a personality, with a very powerful, charismatic teacher.

MISHLOVE: This then is an essential element of many spiritual traditions -- a kind of opening up of the heart. It can't just be intellectual.

FRAGER: No. And interestingly enough, a whole group of us that were really drawn to this teacher and this tradition all complained of pain in the chest. It almost felt as though our hearts were growing, and literally our chests had to expand to keep up -- whether it was psychosomatic or hypnosis or something else. You know, there's one part of me that can sit back as a psychologist and say we don't know. The other part of me in the tradition says it is clearly a sign that something was happening.

MISHLOVE: And when you're touched in that way, when your heart opens up, as you did to this Sufi tradition -- which for some of our viewers who may not know, is an Islamic mystical tradition that is very ancient -- it doesn't close you off to any of your background in yoga, in Aikido, or any other religion.

FRAGER: Well, my teacher's approach to Sufism was really an eclectic one. He passed away, God rest his soul, two years ago. What he said is there's one religion. There's one God, there's one religion. There are different interpretations; there have been different cultural traditions that have grown up around the initial revelations that great saints have had, but the essential revelations are all the same. And where they're different, there has been some, in a sense, monkeying with the original message. That was his underlying premise as a spiritual teacher. And so he said, look, what I'm teaching is not like the Islam in the Middle East of the professional priests, nor is it similar to the modern-day Christianity of the church, or the modern-day Buddhism or Judaism or Hinduism, but it is the same as the original Christianity of Jesus, the original Judaism of Moses, the original Islam of Mohammed, the original Buddhism of Buddha. So I feel myself, in a sense, at home in all the traditions, because I do believe they all are true. And Sufism in a sense is a mystical practice. Our order is from Turkey, has a three-hundred-year lineage in Turkey, and a five-hundred-year lineage before that, of going back to the Middle East, to Egypt and Arabia. Our particular order -- we're a branch of an older order, and our branch is three hundred years old. It's a wonderful framework that I really see as fitting anyone who's deeply spiritually interested in mysticism.

MISHLOVE: And what is the essence of this Sufi practice?

FRAGER: Opening one's heart. Again, my teacher once said, it's to develop a heart that can pray, that can truly pray. All the great teachers have said we should pray, but how? We know some external forms in all the world's great mystical and religious traditions, but how about the insides? How can our hearts pray? How can we truly open ourselves to that divine, infinite presence? What he said is Sufism is a way of cleansing the heart to make the heart a temple that God's presence can fit in.

MISHLOVE: So one might say, in comparison then, that the Aikido discipline -- I always get a feeling it deals with the gut, with the belly, with the "Ha!" kind of sense.
You know -- you're out there, you're powerful in the world. It comes from that power center, the solar plexus. In the Sufi tradition it is a different physiological center that the practice centers around.

FRAGER: In a sense you might say it's a tradition of the heart. But you know, it's more complex than that, and again, my teacher has said that within Sufism there are primarily intellectual orders -- and perhaps some of the viewers have read books of Idries Shah, which are the most common Sufi books available in English. He has really followed the intellectual end of Sufism, and he really has analyzed thinking and the way we misperceive, and the way we in a sense con ourselves into not seeing reality. Then there's a devotional tradition, and our order in a sense blends the two, so it blends the heart and the head, and it seems reasonable to blend the heart, the head, and the belly as a complete person. Don't forget, my teacher was a Turk, and Turks are not wimps by any means.

MISHLOVE: Do you still practice yoga, incidentally?

FRAGER: No, I don't have time for everything.

MISHLOVE: It fell by the wayside.

FRAGER: That one did. I do some physical work similar to yoga, but I don't do the meditation practice I once had.

MISHLOVE: And now you're on the faculty at Holy Names College, a Catholic University -- the Institute of Creation Spirituality. Let me ask you this before you describe it. How do the Catholics there perceive you?

FRAGER: Well, it's the other world's great religion I'm exploring. I mean, I've been through all the Eastern ones pretty much. I was born Jewish. I've tasted in some depth the other traditions, so I think it's somewhat appropriate that somehow I get dropped into the middle of the Christian tradition.

MISHLOVE: What a path.

FRAGER: The people in Creation Spirituality are very much dedicated to recovering the original Christianity of Jesus, so that we have something very much in common, in that we see there is an original, really mystical tradition underneath all religions, and what Matt Fox, who is the founder of this Institute --

MISHLOVE: A very well known Catholic theologian who's something of a gentle critic of the Vatican.

FRAGER: Well, not so gentle always, but he's still managing to stay in as a Catholic priest. Matt said, look, the original teachings of Jesus are very powerful mysticism, and by the way, they have nothing to do with original sin. He wrote a wonderful book called Original Blessing, in which he argues if you go to Jesus' teachings the body is seen as a blessing.

MISHLOVE: By that you mean, if you get a copy of the New Testament, all the words in red.

FRAGER: Right. Well, Jesus didn't say anything about original sin. That was later taken from Augustine, who any psychologist would probably call some sort of a neurotic, given his autobiography. But no, one of Jesus' most beautiful sayings is when they were about to stone the prostitute, and he said, "Let you who have no sin cast the first stone." Everyone stopped, and then he said to her, "Go in peace, and sin no more." Now that was not a guilt-producing statement. That was not the statement of someone who takes the position that we're basically sinful. He had a very fundamentally powerfully positive view of human nature -- that someone even who had a life of past sin could literally go in peace, and could choose to sin no more. So I really feel that that kind of Christianity is exactly the same as what I've learned from my spiritual teachers in India, in Turkey, everywhere else.

MISHLOVE: And they seem to feel comfortable with you being someone who is outside of their tradition. They must recognize a common thread that they see in you as well.

FRAGER: Yes. Well, they have opened to non-Western religions. There is an American Indian, a Native American teacher there. There is a woman who follows Wicca.

MISHLOVE: Oh. They used to burn those people at the stake.

FRAGER: Well, Matt has gotten some very interesting letters from Fundamentalist Catholics who really feel that he and she probably should be burned, and probably will. They have a woman who's a wonderful black actress and dancer, who is a priestess of Vodun, which has also been pronounced voodoo -- but again, as a serious spiritual practice, not as, I assume, sticking pins in little dolls; I've never seen her practice.

MISHLOVE: Now that we've gotten a sense of the common threads to these various traditions, Bob, where does it lead us? What does it say about the deeper nature of man in the universe?

FRAGER: I believe we're a paradox. I really think paradox is where truth lies, never in any simple statement of this or that. I believe we are divine in essence, and really that's why I'm connected with Fox, because it's a program teaching ministers and theologians who are interested in the divine in man, and I'm interested in developing a psychology that begins with the premise that what it is to be essentially human, the core of our humanity, is that part of us that is in touch with the divine -- is our deep, deep self. That's true of us, we all have that deep self, and yet sometimes there are wounds over it. Sometimes there's a wounded child screaming, crying, acting out. There's a false self that develops often, because childhood and adulthood have led many of us to try to avoid pain in all kinds of ways, but ways that distort our true self.

MISHLOVE: One would think there must be, if you look at the condition of the planet, many ways.

FRAGER: Right. You can't just say that we're all deeply spiritual beings, and then ignore the fact that we don't behave like that a lot.

MISHLOVE: Particularly the Middle East, which is the birthplace of all of these religions, is one of the most troublesome areas on the planet.

FRAGER: Well, there are an awful lot of people whose false selves are very strong there, without mentioning any names.

MISHLOVE: The Sufi tradition has stories -- you use parables and stories, to get at the underlying nature of things. Is there something in that tradition that addresses this issue of the different selves, the false self?

FRAGER: Of course I have a million stories, and let's see what comes up. There was a story of one man who was very poor, and he always complained that it was because people weren't good to him -- it was because people conspired against him, because he didn't have the right breaks, the right parents. And the Sufi teacher in this town said to his students, "This man always complains, but you know, it's destiny. And also, he helps create his own destiny." They didn't understand, they really kind of bought into this man's complaining. He picked the wealthiest of his students and he said, "Bring me a bag of gold, bring me all the gold you have in your house. Put it in a sack." The man said, "Yes sir," came back with the bag of gold. And he said to another one of his students, "Go, bring that man to me. Tell him I'm waiting on the other side of the main bridge in town, and we'll all gather at the end of this bridge." And then he said to the wealthy man, "I want you to take that bag of gold and leave it in the middle of the bridge, and let's see if the man finds this tremendous wealth, this wealth that would literally leave him financially independent for the rest of his life." So all the dervishes and the teacher are waiting, all the Sufis are waiting there at the end of the bridge, and sure enough the poor man comes across the bridge, and he walks right past the gold, and he comes up to the teacher and he bows to the teacher and says, "Yes sir, what do you want with me?" And the teacher says, "Didn't you notice something on the bridge?" And the man says, "Well, you know, no, I didn't, because I've been over that bridge so many times. I thought, wouldn't it be amusing to cross it with my eyes closed this once?" I really think so much is given to us to actualize our potential, to be full, wonderful human beings. A lot of the time we close our eyes. It's as though we're given a beautiful car, the finest Rolls Royce in the world, and we sit there and complain that it's not going, because what we haven't done is turn the key in the ignition.

MISHLOVE: What you're saying reminds me of that line by Walt Whitman -- you know, "A grain of sand, a leaf of grass." It's as if the essence of divine radiance is in any little trivial thing, if we just want to open our eyes and really see it, appreciate it.

FRAGER: Do we have time for one more story?

MISHLOVE: We have about two minutes.

FRAGER: I'll try to do this quickly. One of my teachers asked about human will and human development versus divine will and what is given to us by the divine. His teacher said, "Well, look at sight. You see someone out there. Did you create that person?" He says, "No, of course that must be a will greater than mine that created that person." He said, "Well, how about the light that allows you to see? Is that created by you?" He says, "No, obviously God must have created the light also." And he brings him through: "Did you create your eyes?" "No." "Did you create the optic nerve?" "No." "Did you create the association center in the brain, the visual cortex that allows the message to go?" "No, I didn't." So finally he says, "Well, where am I in all this?" And the teacher says, "Well, you can always do this." And he shuts his eyes. It's as though we're given ninety-nine percent, and in a sense we can guide our lives for good or for worse with either opening our eyes or shutting them, basically.

MISHLOVE: I'm in the middle of it; it's in the middle of me. Well, Robert Frager, it has been a pleasure having you here. We've been able to cover quite a lot of ground with the Sufi tradition, the Catholic work that you're doing, Aikido, yoga, and yet you seem to be very centered, very happy, very open, very integrated and balanced within yourself. It's really a pleasure to have had you here, Bob. Thank you very much for being with us.

FRAGER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.

END


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