‘The Color Purple’ author talks about her meditation practice, doing the world good, and how a feminine God is everywhere.
Alice Walker has always known God. But she prefers terms like “Godness” and “Mama” to describe the divine—for her, it is everywhere, from the Japanese maples outside her window to the slow yoga she practices. Though her seven novels, including 1982’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Color Purple,” and many essays and poems have myriad themes—from feminism to race to class to love—a palpable sense of Mama’s richness runs throughout. As well as fiery resistance to any force that attempts to control or contain this juicy, abundant, and ever-present divine.
In her most recent book, a collection of political, spiritual, and personal talks, essays, and meditations, “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she calls “The Color Purple,” a “Buddha book that’s not Buddhism.” Recently, the 63-year-old author talked to Beliefnet about meditation, activism, and how we can all bless ourselves anytime, anywhere.
In which sense did you intend the word “meditations” below your new book’s subtitle?
It’s political meditations. Politically, the world is so confused right now—there’s so much suffering caused by various movements by various parties and people in power in government. And many people are truly overwhelmed even thinking about politics and the environment and world affairs, so I wanted to offer thoughts on these, but I also wanted to give meditations after each section, because some of the information is a little difficult. A meditation eases that a bit.
How can people stay compassionate while still being knowledgeable and active?
There’s a saying that I appreciate a lot, which is “Knowing without doing is not to know.” That seems to be where most of us live. We say, “Oh, I know that.” But if we don’t do anything about it, do we know it? I don’t think so. And so, part of practice for all of us now should be understanding what exactly we know, and the way we tell what exactly we know is to notice what we do.
How do you know that you’re knowing?
The last essay [in the book] is about being arrested in front of the White House in 2003 with these other wonderful women against the war. It was one of the happiest days of my life because I knew that I knew, and I knew that I knew that I hated war.
What kind of meditation do you practice?
All kinds. At one point I learned transcendental meditation. This was 30-something years ago. It took me back to the way that I naturally was as a child growing up way in the country, rarely seeing people. I was in that state of oneness with creation and it was as if I didn’t exist except as a part of everything. And that is where meditation can help you understand yourself.
What’s your meditation ritual?
Over the years it shifts. I used to meditate all the time in bed. That was when I was raising my daughter and I’d get her up and off to school, and then I would go back to bed, and meditate. And then I would do the same in the evening, and that was very good for that period because I had so many things to juggle as a single mother. But now, I can meditate walking by the ocean. I can actually meditate driving. Not when I’m in traffic, you’ll be happy to know.
At least not with your eyes closed.
No. I’m just saying that there are certain activities that lend themselves to the meditative state, and it was quite astonishing that driving happened to be one of them. I sometimes take long drives from here to Mendocino, which is north of Berkeley and when there is no traffic, it’s just amazingly meditative. And so, the whole point is basically to be in yourself, to not resist whatever needs to be worked on in yourself, to let that rise, to let it come and to look at it as closely as you can, and then let it go. And I sometimes say that meditation is like flossing your mind… you get rid of a lot of stuff that you actually don’t need to continue carrying around with you.
Do you also practice yoga?
I do. I met this man who recently sent me a whole instruction book and tape and everything about Yin Yoga. This one is just right for this time in my life. You concentrate on the inner parts of your body, like your bones, your tendons, not so much your muscles. And it is wonderful. You stay in each pose for five minutes. It seems like a long time, but it is so good because we get really cramped in our daily world.
You wrote in this book that “The Color Purple” was your Buddha book without being Buddhism. Can you explain that?
Well, Buddha was Prince Siddhartha and he lived in a castle. And one day he discovered suffering and old age and death. And then he decided to try to find a better way to deal with this.
“The Color Purple” is about theology. Many people assume that it’s about just about incest, wife abuse, spouse-beating; all of that is in there, but you will notice that the journey that Celie is making is toward her self-realization as a part of the entire Godness. Speaking of God as everything there is, was, ever will be.
When you close your eyes and tune into God, what do you see?
I don’t close my eyes. Why would I close my eyes? It’s everywhere. I mean it just is. What is this if it’s not God?
Do you feel like your whole life you’ve had a sense of God in this way?
Yes. I do. In fact, when I was 13, I stopped going to church because I felt like they had taken this huge, amazing, incredible Godness and whittled it down to this tiny little thing that they stuck in the church every Sunday when people were too tired really to listen, and fell asleep because they were exhausted from still being slaves, basically.
And I wanted, and I insisted, even at that age, on going out into nature and truly feeling what is there, what—you know, we’re not—you know, the reason we are not alone is that–because earth is with us. We are her beings. It’s not because there’s somebody in the sky who’s watching us, you know?
Do you have a preferred word for God?
I like “Mama.”
In the book you talk about a chant and mudra [yogic hand gesture] that Spirit gave you. Can you explain what that is?
It’s a way to bless yourself and to give yourself some sign that you are protected and loved. And as we go into this part of our journey as a planet that is quite frightful, actually, I realize that we also need something that is a gesture to bless ourselves.
So, the mudra is to hold your thumb and your two first fingers together, and then to circle your heart, or you can circle your whole body while you say or chant, “One earth, one people, one love.” And this is very good to say for seven times while making the mudra around your heart and your body just as a way of calming yourself, centering yourself in the reality of being this one place, earth, and this one people, the people of earth.
Do you have prayers that you say on a regular basis?
“Thank you” is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding. People pray and pray–and that’s fine. But, for me, “Thank you” just basically says it all.
Who are some of your spiritual gurus?
Well, I have teachers. I like Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nath Hanh. I like a lot of the spiritual teachers out of India. I learned from Jesus when I was a child. I was very taken with the stories of His life and very much taken with His struggle to bring a new way to His people. I’m very delighted to have the Gnostic gospels and the Nag Hammadi scrolls. And I’m just constantly delighted with the Dalai Lama and the ancient, incredibly wonderful teachings that have made their way to America from Tibet.
You talk about silence a lot–how has that also been a spiritual and creative teacher for you?
Everything does come out of silence. And once you get that, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and live in silence until you’re ready to leave it. I’ve written and published seven novels and many, many, many stories and essays. And each and every one came out of basically nothing—that’s how we think of silence, is not having anything. But I have experienced silence as being incredibly rich.
Do you ever have dry spells or writer’s block?
I don’t believe in them. I think that if there are periods when you’re not doing something that you’re used to doing, it means that you can spend that time doing something else. If I get up and I think I’m going to write something and it’s not there, rather than sitting there and trying to wait for it or try to give it a little nudge, I think, “Oh, I can do something else with this time.” And then, there’s so much else to do.
Do you have other creative outlets?
Oh, yeah. I paint. I garden. I dance. I cook. I farm. I have never felt that the one thing that I am “known for” is what I am.
How are you feeling about aging at this point in your life?
Well, I’m 62 and I feel wonderful. I have loved every decade. I had a little rough bump in my 30s. And the 20s were politically very rough. I think it’s a very good thing to be entering elderhood and to take that role in my family and society. I love life even more as I see and have seen so much of it.
Oprah played Sofia in the Color Purple movie and helped produce the Broadway show. Why do you think she’s so popular right now?
Oh, I think that she is like a contemporary goddess, actually. Which is different from saint because saints have to be good and perfect, and she’s not interested in that. She’s interested in doing good things, but how she behaves and who she is is her business, and that’s very goddess-like. I think that she offers people a lot of help and a lot of aid and a lot of inspiration and a lot of joy.
In the book you quote Martin Luther King saying that the saddest words are “It’s too late.” Do you think it is?
Well, it depends on what you’re thinking it’s too late for. It’s never too late to start trying to bring peace to yourself and take that into the world, which is what I try in my life to do, because I really do understand that, unless you have it in yourself, there’s no possibility of giving it. That’s why you can’t make war on people and think that you’re bringing peace. It’s just ridiculous.
And what’s your greatest hope for humanity?
Well, I hope we can wake up. If we can rise to the challenge that our global interconnectedness gives us. I sometimes talk about how the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know China existed. But now we really can connect with all the places. We can see cause and effect. We know about karma. We know karma is just that, that, if you do something mean to somebody, it’s very likely they’re either going to do it back to you or they’re going to pass it on to someone else.
We have a splendid opportunity, for the first time ever on earth, to truly get to the root of things and to transform human society. It’s entirely possible, and it’s really up to us. And since I believe that, I don’t worry about it because I know that we will either do it or we won’t. If we do it, “Hallelujah.” The world will just be so wonderful and joyful. If we don’t, we will lose such a beautiful gift. And I will have to say that while I was here, I did my very best and loved it as much as it loved me—the cosmos, the earth. I personally feel like I’ll be fairly content. You can only do what you can do. It’s just a fact that worrying is unhelpful, whereas trying to bring peace to your own spirit is work you can do, and it’s work that will actually bring many benefits to everybody that you ever encounter and to the whole world.
Copyright Beliefnet.com. To hear Alice speak and see the original context of this article, go here.