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Michael Lerner: Whispers Of A Wounded Healer

--Audrey Lin, on Feb 13, 2015

Over forty years ago, Michael Lerner stepped away from a tenure-track position at Yale to follow a heartstring that tugged him to engage at-risk youth in California. In the years that followed, he found himself both a witness and instrument to restorative education, pioneering research connecting nutrition and child development, a heart attack survivor, steward of sacred land, and a holder of space for individuals diagnosed with cancer.

Last Saturday, we had the privilege to hear insights from his remarkable journey. Over 100 people across multiple continents signed up to tune in. The conversation that ensued—with Richard's elegant moderation and Kanchan’s warmhearted hosting—echoed across airwaves like a deep breath of high-altitude air—crisp and real to the core.

California Beginnings

In 1972, a Harvard and Yale-trained political scientist by the name of Michael Lerner traveled to California. The casual work visit resulted in a chance encounter with a young child of misdiagnosed disabilities—a meeting that both nudged his conscience and piqued his intellect.

“I met a girl who was diagnosed retarded. She was taken off dairy and gluten products, and eventally swam up out of these allergic reactions. She turned out to be learning disabled, but not retarded. I had studied child psychology at Harvard and Yale, and no one ever mentioned that nutrition can effect consciousness. That was such a profound realization.”



The following year, he founded Full Circle, a residential school for at-risk youth that explored the role of nutrition and behavior disorders.

“I discovered over a number of years that there were a small number of kids who had these very dramatic responses to changing nutrition. Then, there were a large number where nutrition mattered, but it wasn’t decisive. And then, there were others where nutrition didn’t matter at all.”

For three years, Michael steeped himself in these explorations—the momentum of which catalyzed into Commonweal, a stunning retreat center and educational hub that incubates dozens of programs in the fields of health and healing, art and education, environment and justice. A local cornerstone of social, psychological, and spiritual renewal, in the simplest terms, the center “is really about healing ourselves and healing the Earth,” Michael describes. It’s about “service to others—and in the quest of service to others, we also awaken ourselves.”

Towards a Collective Consciousness

It’s that spirit of service that fuels Michael to connect deeply with the people, communities, and earth that support and sustain our shared existence. That kind of disposition has naturally oriented his organization into a vehicle for translating these principles into action.

“Because we work in community, we have a shared wisdom, and a shared understanding that is greater than the wisdom or understanding of any single person. In effect, a third consciousness develops, separate from our own individual consciousness, and that guides the work,” he reveals.

“It’s by engaging in service that we discover the wisdom as to how the work is to be done, and become part of a community of awareness that guides us beyond anything we could have imagined individually.”

And he returns to these values in the face of pressing issues that face our planet— from climate change to toxic chemicals to income disparities and beyond.

“It’s easy to despair,” he concedes, “but despair is a very unproductive way to live. And we can’t know what the future will actually be. But living in service and doing what we can engenders a form of home, a form of resilience that is part of creating a global consciousness, which can move us through these very difficult times.”

Aligning Head, Hands, and Heart

As you listen to Michael speak, you sense a depth of knowing in his heart. And when you see the wealth of services and tapestry of community that he’s poured decades of his life into—it nudges a sense of possibility into your fingertips.

“There is a key point on the fulcrum—that point where something changes from an idea into a doing,” Richard observes. “You exemplify the capacity and the courage that helps a person move from having a vision and actually trying to do something about it. Can you say something about that point of crossing that threshold, and what it takes?”

At such a question, Michael brings us back to the ancients.

In the Bhagavad Gita, he explains, there are three great yogas: yanna yoga (yoga of wisdom), bhakti yoga (yoga of the heart), and karma yoga (yoga of the hands). In Christianity, there’s faith, love, and hope. In so many wisdom traditions, there are trilogies of head, hands, and heart.

“We each are designed with different ratios… to which we serve with our minds, hands, and hearts,” he sums up. “But the traditions tell us that the greatest of these yogas—at least in the Bhagavad Gita and some other traditions—it’s the yoga of love, compassion, and kindness. If that is foremost, the mind is its wonderful servant, and the hands enact it in the world.”



For Michael, making time for stillness or prayer is essential to drawing out this deeper sense of alignment.

“In silence, I connect with intuition about what I’m called to do or how I’m called to understand what is happening to me… In the traditions, in some sense, this is the way that instructions come to us.”

And in that practice of tuning our minds with heart, we make space to reconnect with a network of humanity.

“When we think about what happens in communities of people all over the world who are dedicated to meditation or prayer, it naturally pulls us toward a vision of what humanity can be. What is evoked by meditation or prayer is kindness, and out of that kindness, equally evoked, is service.”

The Wounded Healer

From collective consciousness to alignment of head, hands, and heart—it’s clear that Michael’s way of seeing and being in the world is inextricably tied to a sense of interconnectedness. With an insight like that, service becomes a pathway for renewal, across all spectrums of human experience, and perhaps even more so during times of despair.



He gives the example of Carl Jung’s archetype of a Wounded Healer: “The way people come to an interest in healing is through their own wounds. When we get sick and we experience some deep loss in our lives, we can get stuck in depression and grief forever. But there is another way; our wounds open us to essentially a greater awareness of our souls, and of a greater reality behind the everyday reality. When someone we love dies, when we develop an illness, when we have a great loss, the shock of that loss can open us to a higher reality.”

Such an expansive reality can unearth a new fullness—an excruciating caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation, that it eventually gives rise to a new day, often with a cup over-flowing to guide others towards those greater depths of understanding.

“The archetype of the wounded healer is one of the most ancient in human history. It’s exemplified in the Shamanic traditions. That shamans were those women and men who had what was called an initiatory illness, and through that initiatory illness—through their own wound, as they came very close to death or a complete sense to being blown open—they came to know that if they recover, they wanted to dedicate their lives to helping other people with this process.”



Michael sees this time and time again at Commonweal. Through their Cancer Help Program, patients collectively re-orient their identities and worldview to accept difficult diagnoses and adjust their lifestyles accordingly. The act of exploring shared wounds in community—with people who previously would have seemed so dissimilar—bridges a connection to a shared humanity.

“When one does this in community, what opens is an awareness of actual love—of compassion that really opens to people who are very different from ourselves. We realize that it doesn’t matter what we did for a living or what our belief systems were. What matters in the circle of the Cancer Help Program is that we share a wound, and that we are brothers and sisters-- we are beloved of each other in that circle.”

The New School

With a constant pulse on the unifying forces of humanity, time and time again, Michael steadfastly puts his realizations into practice.



One such creation is The New School, a vibrant hub of conversations, readings, and performances from renowned thought leaders to everyday faces in the realms of beauty and art, health and environment, sciences, inner life, and beyond. Bridging his passion for intellectual inquiry with a heart of curiosity—this platform is a vehicle to deeply explore the myriad facets of the thinkers and doers, shakers and movers that color and propel society.

“I came out to California and started Commonweal, and we were doing all this strongly focused service work over time… there was a part of me—the part that loved teaching at Yale—that wanted to continue having these conversations.”

Seven years ago, he began the conversation, and has since joyfully engaged a learning community of 3,000 people around the globe, with an open-source library of 200 podcasts and videos distributed across iTunes, Vimeo, and the Commonweal Library.

The Expressive Arts

From groundbreaking youth work to all-ages education, Michael and his team offer art as another concrete channel for the expression of insight.

He explains that there are two different ways of looking at art. One is as a professional product that is commissioned or put for sale. The other is a movement of consciousness that expresses itself through art. In this latter, expressive form of art, the focus of beauty is not in a finished product, but rather, “it’s about using the arts to explore the individuation process—or the healing process—to enable us to see what is going on inside us that isn’t accessed by words or cognitive thoughts.”

Just as silence, meditation, or prayer can be a vehicle for greater awareness, so too, is art an instrument to unleash consciousness. And it celebrates a sense of wholeness—a beauty that radiates in its expression of all kinds of being.

“For me, I celebrate— I share with you— the vision of life as an art. But for me, that art is all inclusive, not only of happiness, but also of sadness. Not only of joy, but also of suffering. Not only of health, but of the fact that we are mortal and that is what we all share.”

A Whole Mirror

With a deep honoring of wholeness, Michael acknowledges a commitment to recognizing all aspects of the human being, all spectrums of experience across the psyche, the spirit, the physical, and intangible.

“Very often, in some kinds of religious or spiritual communities, where people try so hard to live in the light, shadows tend to pool. I prefer to live in a community that acknowledges our imperfection as a fundamental dimension of who we are and therefore shadow tends to be more integrated. It doesn’t pool as much because nobody is putting themselves on a pedestal… no group is saying they’ve figured out a better way of being human.”



He gives an example from Gandhi’s life:

“When someone asked Gandhi how he seemed to always know what the British were going to do before they did it, Gandhi replied, “I know because I’m that kind of rascal.” He had within him the same realpolitik, cold capacity to see how power was moving, and therefore to be able to predict the next power moves of the imperial power.”

Gandhi was in contact with both a tremendous sense of hope as well as the gritty human capacities. By recognizing those capacities within himself, they were not so much dark shadows, but rather, transformative vessels for compassion. With his natural idea-to-practice ease, Michael concludes, “The question is not whether we have those [shadows] within us, but rather: Can we put our understanding of those [darker sides] into service to life?”

On Sacred Land



Michael’s extraordinary discernment of our connection to each other holds no bounds, and spills into an incredible reverence for the land.

Based near Point Reyes National Seashore, Commonweal’s retreat center, garden, and 12+ programs are woven into a stunning 100 acres of rolling greenery overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“The land is our mother, and it is sacred. There are so many other sacred places around the world. I see us as one tiny, minor acupuncture point in all the acupuncture points around the world. Together, we are moving as needles in the piece of Earth where we’re placed, and working towards a wholeness that calls us all.”



His words glide into the air like a bird in the sky—with a viewpoint so vast, it peeks down on our existence, overlooking our infinite intersections with each other, from micro to macro and beyond.

A conversation with Michael makes you feel like the wind between the wings—soaring sights vast and wide, while soaking in the subtle whispers of this sacred life.