Jacob Needleman (born October 6, 1934) is an American philosopher, author and religious scholar. Needleman was educated at Harvard University, Yale University and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and is said to have “popularized the term ‘new religious movements’.
Born in Philadelphia in 1934 and raised by Jewish parents for whom “becoming a doctor was the only human thing to do,” Needleman entered Harvard University with the intention of going on to medical school. But the young student’s obsessions with the big questions of life steered him into the pursuit of philosophy. “My father never understood what I was doing,” Needleman recalls, and his mother didn’t take his decision well either. When he received his PhD from Yale and was first introduced socially as “Dr. Needleman” in her presence, she interrupted to point out, “He’s not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good, you know.”
Needleman has never been the kind of philosopher that an academic is supposed to be, either. Early on he departed from the dry-bones pursuit of argumentative logic and analysis to deal with questions that inexorably cross over into the academically suspect realm of spirituality. At Harvard he was the only student to sign up for an esoteric course on the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, and in ensuing years he studied Zen Buddhism and the other Eastern traditions. He also encountered the teachings of the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, which remain a touchstone of his perspective.
He is the author of The New Religions, a pioneering study of the new American spirituality, The Wisdom of Love, Money and the Meaning of Life, A Sense of the Cosmos, Lost Christianity, The Heart of Philosophy, The Way of the Physician, Time and the Soul, What is God?, Sorcerers, a novel, The American Soul , Why Can’t We Be Good? and The Essential Marcus Aurelius. He was also General Editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library, a highly acclaimed selection of sixteen reprinted texts dealing with the contemporary search for spiritual ideas and practice. In addition, he has been general editor of the Element Books series, The Spirit of Philosophy — aimed at re-positioning the teachings of the great philosophers of the West to show their relevance to the modern spiritual quest. Among the other books he has authored or edited: The Tao Te Ching (Introductory Essay), Consciousness and Tradition, Real Philosophy, Modern Esoteric Spirituality and many others.
In addition to his teaching and writing, he serves as a consultant in the fields of business, psychology, education, medical ethics and philanthropy, and is increasingly well known as an organizer and moderator of conferences in these fields. He has also been featured on Bill Moyers’ acclaimed PBS series, “A World of Ideas.” His most recent books are An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth published by Tarcher/Penguin, 2012, and Necessary Wisdom published by Fearless Books, 2013.
Two very worthwhile interviews with Needleman linked here:
Quotes from Jacob Needleman:
“It is only in and through people, inwardly developed men and women, that God can exist and act in the world of man on earth. Bluntly speaking, the proof for the existence of God is the existence of people who are inhabited by and who manifest God. . . . God needs not just man, but awakened man, in order to act as God in the human world. Without this conscious energy on the earth it may not be possible for divine justice, mercy, or compassion to enter the lives of human beings.”
“All through my life I’ve experienced a sense of wonder that has to do with something that’s out there but also touches a place within me. It feels as if I’m part of something bigger. Once, when I was in Greece, I went into an Orthodox church and saw an image of Christ up on the ceiling — a giant head of Christ the Creator looking down on me. I felt the same sense that somehow reality or the universe was offering me a gift, but I wasn’t sure how to respond to it.
In the midst of such wonder, all my ordinary concerns, fears, and worries are quieted. The source or trigger for this wonder is always outside: the stars, the face of Christ, the extraordinary beauty of nature, looking at a slide of blood cells. But the experience is inside. What I see out there awakens an impersonal joy within me, as if this wonder is what I really am, rather than being my day-to-day self, which we can call the “ego.” In those moments the ego realizes that everything it always wanted — safety, security, happiness, the ability to give and receive love — is granted by this great thing outside me. Yet it is given to me within. And in that moment the ego submits, because it realizes that this great gift is not of its own making. This gift comes from God, and anyone can have it, without religious trappings.
For a while I led a double life in regard to God. On the one hand, I was a scholar and philosopher, respectful of religion yet fundamentally disbelieving of God. On the other, I had these transcendent experiences in which the word God was not even involved. I would have described them simply as encounters with “higher consciousness.” At some point these two ways of being merged; it was as if the wall between them became a porous membrane. I didn’t become a “believer” in the usual sense, but I recognized that my experiences of wonder were pointing me toward what God is.”
“The typical modern reaction to nature is instead to manipulate it or cover it over with our own artifacts. We’re constantly muting the living presence of nature in our lives. But if you really give your full attention to nature, it does speak to you. If you’ve ever been out in the woods and suddenly experienced a shock of grief or awe or a sense of belonging to something greater, that’s because nature has spoken to you. That’s why there’s a timeless, universal tradition of experiencing God in nature. It’s one way of recognizing that we’re part of something greater than ourselves.”
“This is the mark of great ideas: they unify people and they also act to unify the disparate parts of the human being; they speak of a social order that is possible on the basis of an ordering within the individual self.”
“Man must have results, real results, in his inner and outer life. I do not mean the results which modern people strive after in their attempts at self-development. These are not results, but only rearrangements of psychic material, a process the Buddhists call ‘samsara’ and which our Holy Bible calls ‘dust’.”
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
“What an abundance of leisure the person gains who is not looking over at what his neighbor is saying, doing, or thinking, but only at what he himself is doing, in order that he does what is just and respectful of the gods. As Agathon said, do not peer into the darkness of another’s character, but run straight toward the finish line without straying from your path.”
“We lose our time because we lose our attention.”
“To love my neighbor is to assist the arising and unfolding in him of that which can harmonize the real elements of his nature.”
“To search means, first, I need Being, Truth; second, I do not know where to find it; and third, an action takes place that is not based on fantasies of certainty— while at the same time a waiting takes place that is rooted not in wishful thinking but in a deep sense of urgency.”
“My personal search paralleled my study of religion, mystical traditions especially, and then Eastern traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism—that got deeper and deeper. And my inner life, personally. And there was a point when those two lines touched each other. And all the emotional force, the emotional power, of the word God that had come to me in my childhood, all that emotional power that had been suppressed and hidden in some dark place—when those things came together it was like the sun rose. It was: Ah, that’s what God is. I’ve already experienced it. Not at the deepest—there are many levels—but that was one level. It was only when I actually touched a certain level of inner experience, and I said, Ah, that’s it. Now I am absolutely certain that there is such a thing. I always believed, as I was studying these things, that there was something higher in the universe. I never thought it was a dead, mechanical universe, like scientism. It was only when I experienced it as part of me that I saw that it was true. ”
“But without a community, without help, without interrelationship, I don’t think most human beings can ever come to true spiritual development. You need a community of some kind or other. Very rarely, if ever, without the help of environment or community or culture, does someone appear who becomes a highly evolved person, in my opinion. What kind of community would be the question, and how difficult that is. People can relate to each other in such a way that it calls down something, and I’ve experienced that. When two or three people seriously listen to each other, speak and exchange with each other, something appears: “Where two or three come together in my name,” is, I think, a fact. It’s in the possible existence of such community that I think the hope of the world lies. I don’t think the world can make it without developed human beings, and a community supporting inner development.”
“People are attached to their opinions. Put simply, that means their fears and anxieties, their agitation, have been fueled or absorbed by an idea or concept or thought. It’s hard to get to the root, because the root of this is the fundamental sleep of mankind—or corruption, or sin, or ignorance, whatever word you want to use.
And people cannot listen to each other. When we’re talking, you and I, mostly when I’m talking and trying to listen to someone I maybe hear—if I’m lucky—one-third of what they say. Mostly I hear my own thoughts, and when I try to write down what they’ve said I mix it with my own thoughts. But there is a discipline which one can obtain. It’s not that hard. It’s to step back from one’s own opinions, make a space in myself and let you in. I don’t have to agree with you but I have to let you in, so that you are heard. I hear you. And you let me in. And that way something very beautiful can appear; I can still disagree completely with you, but I don’t deny your humanity.
The art of listening is the first step of every ethics. That’s been misunderstood: as if to become good is to become ethical. But it’s not a question of acting and doing the right thing—that’s hard. But we can listen to the other, give our attention, which is our precious human substance, to the other person. When I give my attention to you it’s a little bit of love, whatever you might call it: and that’s the source of ethics. That’s been lost entirely. And it’s really practical, it can happen. But people can’t do it. They don’t do it. They don’t know they have this capacity. They think listening is simply waiting for you to pause so I can come in.”
“We think we can play with love, but, we are mistaken. Love plays with us. Who has not been humbled by love, by its joys and its sorrows? How many of us try again and again to lay hold of what love seems to promise, only to be thrown back in fear or confusion or pain? How many give up and sadly accept to outside the drama of love? . . . Whatever the meaning of our lives may be, it has to involve love. But what kind of love? Almost all the myths and legends and stories that teach us about love deal with the force that brings us together, in passion. And then – leads us into what?”
“Love is far more powerful than we are and at first we seem to be fitting love into our lives, this is only love’s way of smiling at us as we are drawn into its thrall. Naively, ecstatically, we cross the bridge that love lays down for us and soon enough, we are fighting for our lives. What can guide us after love has set us on fire and we have reentered the world of time and mundane life? . . . This book is about the meaning of sustained love. . .What is the deeper purpose of living together within the embrace of love? It is an urgent question for our culture and our time.”
“The point is that we human beings are in search of meaning, in search of ourselves. Very little of what we already are and already have brings us deeper meaning or happiness. We are born for meaning, not pleasure, unless it is pleasure that is steeped in meaning. And we are born as well for suffering, not for suffering that leads to madness, but to suffering that leads to joy– the struggle with ourselves and our illusions. We are born to overcome ourselves and through that overcoming, to find an inner condition of great harmony and being. We are born for that; we are not yet that. We are searchers and that is the essence of our present humanness. And in love, we have the possibility and the need to help each other search.”
“Can we begin by acknowledging that quarreling is an unavoidable aspect of human life together? It is not something that is going to go away. It is not going to be dissolved as psychological insights or philosophical wisdom. Quarreling is here to stay. Emotional reactions are part of human nature. . . What is an issue is neither the existence of these reactions nor the pain that they bring. What is at issue is something else, something rather subtle and actually unknown to modern psychology. . . And the answer that comes to us from every great inner teaching is that there is something in ourselves that can be freed from these emotions. There is a capacity of the mind that can step back from them, a capacity of consciousness, to exist independently of the egoistic emotions. The manner of approaching this capacity and of developing it differs in different traditions, as does the terminology used to characterize emotional reactions. . . At the core of the great spiritual traditions of the world, however, we are advised not to seek to destroy these emotional reactions, but, to allow their existence within the light of our free awareness. There is a long and difficult discipline here, an art of intentionally relating to our emotions without, on the one hand, seeking to suppress them, or on the other hand, indulging in their expression. . . The first step involves the cultivation of an attitude toward the emotion that is not common in our society, namely, that they are not ourselves, that they are processes which need not have the authority in our lives that we usually give them. . . In fact, the stoic teaching, if looked at carefully, tells us that it is actually through separating from these emotional reactions that we begin to approach the real power of the mind, not only to see clearly but to love truly, to care truly, and even in a sense, to hate truly– that is to “hate” what is truly evil and not merely what goes against our subjective desires or which provokes our subjective fears. . . Silently, or perhaps sometimes in words, but not too many words, you and I understand that before everything else, we are human beings in search of our Self.”
“I was once visiting a very interesting man in England who was a Russian Orthodox Archbishop. In Orthodox churches, when you see the image of Christ on the ceiling, you get the impression that this is really the cosmic Christ, and that the whole of the universe and all of human life is based on some kind of gift or sacrifice to reality. So, I asked the Archbishop, what could a human being do to respond to this gift of love, which is cosmic, so overwhelming beyond anything? He gave me a very beautiful answer. I only half expected it, but when I heard it, it made such a great difference. He said, “You’re asking what is the response to the gift of love? Well, what is the response to any gift? What is the true response to any gift?” And the answer came, practically from my own lips, but he said, “To receive it.” At first I felt the response would be something I had to do. But he said, “No, the response to love is to receive it. The response to a gift is to receive it.” All spiritual discipline is really a way of creating in ourselves the possibility of receiving the gift, and two people can help each other, one way or the other, to do so.”