• 1966 Fulbright Fellowship, Brazil ]
  • 1984 MacArthur Prize Fellowship for contributions to public health
  • 1993 U.S.-Japan Leadership Fellowship
  • 2009 Environmental Health Hero Award CleanMed [5]

    Born in 1943 in New York City, Lerner is the eldest son of the political philosopher Max Lerner, author of America as a Civilization and psychologist Edna Albers Lerner. He received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1965 and a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 1971. He taught political science and psychology at Yale before moving to Bolinas and co-founding Full Circle, a residential center for children with learning and behavior disorders. In 1976, Lerner co-founded Commonweal.


Unedited original transcript:  A Talk at Yogaville

By Dr. Michael Lerner Talk on 25 May 2001

Transcribed by Marcela Andre. Maitreyi. Artist in Residence, Scribe to the Guru.

2001-2002 Satchidananda Ashram – Yogaville ©

Second half of talk - On the Environment


s= strong laughter/A= applause/SG= Sri Gurudev/ (ph) = phonetic/ [ comments] = Transcriber's clarification.

So, I've spent fifty minutes or so, on these five areas of choices in healing, which, as I said, is thegood news. This is what we have accomplished in the last twenty-five years. We have broughtmind-body health into the mainstream. Integral Yoga, Gurudev's teachings has made a very significant contribution to this.


The work of Dean Ornish is world-known with heart disease. There are many of us who are doing, you know, smaller pieces of the work along side Dean, and you know, contributing what we can in different areas.


Ahm - I think that, what I'd like to now suggest, is I was asked to speak about the challenge of health-care in the 21st Century, and I want to talk about the hard stuff.


Because I think that what we've done in mind-body health over the last twenty-five years, is that we've enormously expanded the breadth of interventions that practitioners and patients can use. Much wider range with all the new complementary as well as mainstream therapy. And we've taken up into the psychological and spiritual dimensions of healing. But what we have failed to do, is to ground mind-body healing, in the social and environmental determinants of health.


We have been amazingly blind to injustice, to racial and gender prejudice and to environmental contamination as a contributor to ill health. And why have we been blind to this? It is because if we took those on, we run into real opposition from the globalizing system that is - ah, controlling life on earth today.


And I want to suggest to you that the challenge of health-care in the 21st Century cannot truly be addressed just by boutique practices of homeopathy, and Yoga, and nutrition, and vegetarian diet, and things like that.


If we are going to leave life on Earth a hundred years from now in any kind of shape, we are going to need a global environmental public health movement, the likes of which we have never created before.


And if we don't have leadership, from the mind-body health community in that, if we don't have a sense that holistic medicine means planetary as well as personal healing, then we will be giving homeopathy to creatures that bear little resemblance to human beings today.


So, I want to talk about that aspect of this for the last fifteen minutes of this talk. We are living in an age of extinction. We are driving biodiversity, which is the sacred tree of life, back sixty five million years, the lowest level of vitality since the end of the age of dinosaurs.


This is the fifth spasm of extinctions in the history of the planet. There are four great drivers of this age of extinction, which are: climate change,  ozone depletion, toxic chemicals and habitat destruction.


Let me just give you one image of what is taking place: As you know, the ice around the Arctic Circle is melting. What that means for the polar bear is that the ice caves in which they bring their young up are collapsing around them and it also means that the polar bears who depend on the ice being frozen for much of the year so they can hunt the seals at little holes in the ice where the seals come up to breathe, now there is open ocean, so the seals can come up to breathe anywhere. So the polar bears can't get food.


But on top of that, the way toxic chemicals work, a lot of them go, skip up through the atmosphere to the Poles and deposit in the Poles. And some of these are endocrine disruptors, which disrupt endocrine function. So more polar bears are being found who are hermaphroditic, who have both sets of sex organs as a result of chemical contamination. Now, that's just one species, that's polar bears. But that's happening to millions and millions of species. The polar bears are just an emblem for us of what is happening to life on Earth.


I want to talk about chemicals in a little more detail of these four areas. They're actually climate changes is the most serious, but chemicals is the one I'm most involved with.


The new research literature on chemicals as endocrine disruptors at which they work at parts per million or parts per billion in the human body, these chemicals are laid down in the bodies of young women. And when they get pregnant, they disrupt the function of the fetus in the womb.


And the fetus is born with a set of often subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes that the chemicals that we're carrying in our bodies right now in research animals and in wildlife - people are seeing changes.


So, the pediatric toxicologists who are working on this in this field, have identified: childhood cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, and asthma as four of the conditions that are probably chemically linked. But also, there's an increase in autism, in Parkinson's disease, in testicular cancer, in endometriosis, and infertility.


There are changing sex ratios of males to females in the population, with fewer males. There is a great increase in premature puberty in girls, increases in breast cancer and immune disorders, and I could go on.


And increasingly, these are being linked to these levels of chemicals that we are all carrying in our body in every part of the world. Now, I could do the same kind of analysis for climate change.


And what the droughts and floods and hurricanes and desertification mean for human health. And we could do the same kind of analysis for ozone depletion and habitat destruction. And in each one of them, the scope and the magnitude of the crisis of life on Earth faces in the 21st Century would become clear to us.


For example, in the past century, we have cleared fifty-percent of the forest on Earth. We have depleted seventy-percent of the fishery. Sixty percent of the coral reefs on Earth are dying. So this is what actually is going on, and I submit to you we can't talk about health in the 21st Century if we are unwilling to have the conversation about environmental public health.


There is a remarkable man named Jim McNeil(ph) who did something called the Gruntland(ph) Report, which was the first report to talk about sustainable development. And McNeil has a very useful way of looking at the future that he talks about. He says we can imagine four futures: Business as Usual, Descent into Chaos, Achieving a Sustainable Future, or Artificial People on an Artificial Planet.


And I would suggest to you that we don't actually face one of those futures, we face a combination of those four, and what we're really working for is a better percent of sustainability, as opposed to: Business as Usual, Descent into Chaos, and Artificial People on an Artificial Planet. That's what I believe is actually going on as we move into the 21st Century.


And the most curious part about it as we work for sustainability, is to recognize that in some ways, sustainability is the most artificial future of all. Because sustainability will involve a complexity of control of how humans interact with the global environment that requires the most delicate tuning of any of the futures that we can imagine.


It's like trying to turn the Earth into a beautiful garden, and it will require an amazing human capacity to cultivate and care for that global garden with the level of coordination that we haven't achieved before.


So, where's the hope?  I think there is hope, but Vaclav Havel, the great Czech statesman makes a very important distinction between optimism and hope. He says optimism is the assumption that everything is going to go right. And he says hope is the deep orientation of the human soul that can be held in the darkest of time. So I find it hard to be optimistic about the future, but I'm profoundly hopeful about the future.


And when you work with cancer patients, and I want to sort of talk about the relationship between personal and planetary healing, you will find that very often a person with an advanced cancer, like, as Gurudev was saying to me before, the cancer that the Earth is facing right now, they may find it hard to be optimistic, but they can be hopeful.


So that hope is a really critical dimension of what we hold. I believe the hope is an emerging environmental health movement that is growing all over the world, where people are beginning to recognize that we cannot take the state of life on Earth for granted anymore, and that all of us who care must become engaged in some way.


And I believe that this environmental health movement has a number of qualities,


Number One: It is and will be, primarily led by women. Because women get this much faster than men do. They really "get it" and they want to do something about it, and they don't block it out.


And Secondly: I think that as this environmental health movement develops, and as we say, "Well, how can it possibly deal with these kinds of problems?" We should look back in history. Because if we look back in history, ask yourself, what did the early people, fighting tyranny for democracy, what did the odds look like to them?"


What if the first Quakers, working against slavery, which had been an institution since the beginning of time, what did the odds look like to them? What did the odds look like to the first people creating trade unions? What did the odds look like to the first women involved in women's rights who believed that women shouldn't be property?


What did the odds look like to Bob Moses and the Civil Rights movement when he moved down into Royal, Mississippi, and began to organize down there? What did the odds look like in the antinuclear movement, or in the people who decided to get the landmine treaty, or any of the other thing? This, - or the environmental movement?


The truth is that you can see all of human being-of human history, from the hope perspective. As a deep struggle against tyranny, against injustice, against slavery. And when we begin to understand that this destruction of life on Earth that has taken place right now is a new form of slavery, it's a new form of tyranny.

Dr. Michael Lerner, Continued:

And if we decide that this destruction of life on Earth is fundamentally not OK with us, and that we are going to engage with it, and that it's not up to us whether we win or lose, but we're not going to go down without a fight, because life on Earth is too precious to go in on without a fight.


And you may wonder, what does this have to do with Yoga? "I thought that in Yoga we were supposed to be peaceful and calm and not let things disturb us and things like that." Well, maybe that's true. But you know, there's something that I feel about my own approach to Yoga, which is that I fight as a peaceful warrior.


I find that my peace is much less disturbed if I'm engaged in this fight than if I'm just sitting by and watching it come down. That's what disturbs my peace.


And I not only fight as a peaceful warrior, but I fight in a way that I first ran into in Gurudev's translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Because, you remember, the - ah, in the field of battle, the - Arjuna was taken out by Krishna right into the middle of the field of battle, and he was very dispirited by what he saw.


And Krishna said to him, "Arjuna," he said, "Listen, don't give up." He said, "You were born for this fight, you were destined for this fight. That's what you were designed to do."


Well, I think that's what we're designed to do. I think that we're Arjuna in that field, facing what's happening to life on Earth, and I think that part of the challenge of health-care for the 21st Century is to recognize that.


And to recognize that "Yes, we'll do our work with individual cancer patients, with heart patients, with the elderly, with systemic lupus, with learning disabilities, with whatever it is that we're working on.


But we won't be complete as peaceful warriors if we're not engaged in the struggle to sustain all life on Earth. We won't be complete if we're not part of this movement to save life on Earth. Because without it, we really won't have much left.


So, thank you very much.


Very Long Applause.


Sri Gurudev: ª - [other comments not very audible]


[Questions taken from Audience]

If anyone has any questions, for Dr. Lerner,


Q: I'd like to know how the people who come to you are funded?


Yeah. I want to tell you one wonderful story about that. When we fist set the price of the program, we set it for $1,080. 108 is a spiritual number, and we were doing a program. And one day, I got a check in the mail for $1,080, and guess who it was from? It's from Gurudev.


Audience: gl and A


ML: So, I framed his letter, I cashed the check,


Sri Gurudev and ALL: sl


ML: So, with the course of fifteen years the price has gone up to $1,480 dollars, which is not a spiritual number, but it is what we charge now. But, the truth is that the actual program costs us about twice that. So, everybody is on a fifty-percent scholarship, and we give scholarship.


And the way we support it is contributions from alumni. So, it's that the financing of these things are really tough. But, the finances are tough, but even harder is to find the right people to run them. I'm not saying this is easy, I'm saying it's possible.


Another question?


(Long question not clear on tape)


ML: Well, those were great points, thank you very much, and I actually agree with you. It is true, that the people who come on cancer help programs are quite exceptional, but it doesn't mean that they're spiritually mature. What's exceptional about them - they're exceptional the way the people in this room are exceptional, in that, it is exceptional, but not totally exceptional, for people to want to engage in their life.


And I think it's probably about ten percent of the population in general, something like that, ah, people who just are interested - and also, you know, there's a, there's studies of self-efficacy, the concept of self-efficacy: there's about ten percent of the population that actually believes it can make a difference in this life. So, that is unusual in that sense.


But, that doesn't mean people are spiritually immature. And, you can find - and it is also very cross-class, and cross-economic thing. You can find very poor people, who are not educated, ah - who believe they can make a difference in their life.


Ah- and the other thing is, that if I were working in a cancer center like yours, and I deeply respect that you are - as I say, my brother's an oncologist, and I deeply respect oncology, what I would be doing is to try to create an environment in that center that optimized whatever it was that people were coming in with in terms of what they were seeking.


So, absolutely, there are people who say, "Doctor, just take it over." And that's a legitimate approach. And then with those people the doctor has a very special responsibility, because it's like - ah, somebody coming to Gurudev, and asking for advice.


It's a holy responsibility when the doctor has that - and sometimes I believe doctors don't feel how deeply that responsibility might be carried when somebody turns their whole lives over that way.


Other people, as you know, want to be a partner with the doctor, and want the doctor as a consultant while they make their choices.


Those are the three models. And all of them are fine. So, ah - ah, I have seen, Amrita and I visited some anthroposophical clinics in Germany and Switzerland, founded by followers of Rudolf Steiner, the great European mystic who was the counter-part of Edgar Cayce here in the United States, they knew each other and the founders of wholistic medicine in some ways in both continents, and there are very large numbers of people in Germany and Switzerland who go there just because they've heard it's humane, and it's compassionate.


So, I think that there's a huge amount of space in Charlottesville, are you in Charlottesville?[Referring to person who posed the question] Because I once spoke at Charlottesville to the medical program there. I think it's a very creative place, and I think there is a lot of wrong, to ultimately create in Charlottesville an optimal, you know, sort of public cancer program that meets people where they are.


And I think that if a place is truly kind and compassionate and is able to meet people where they are - and I know all the problems of managed care that are in the way. But if there's that sense of deep kindness, ah, and also, for me, if I were involved in mainstream medicine in that way, I would have a panoply of "experimental interventions" - which actually I've - which were non-toxic.


So that when a chemotherapy, when I knew that I'd maxed out on what I could offer people, I would say to them, "You know, we have this very promising experimental program. And I think you might want to be on it. And so you give them something that is non-toxic, there is, in fact, it has some promise, you're not being dishonest, it's one of the - you know - I mean, there are a bunch of things that aren't so toxic anymore.


But I think just from the point of view of managing those who want to keep fighting right to the last breath, to have those interventions that are not toxic so that we're not needlessly harming them would be a tremendously beneficial approach. So, I didn't mean to suggest that people go out peacefully as the only way to go out. I see lots of people going fighting for every last breath. And that's their way. And, you know, my father went out like that.


And, ah, it was fine. Ah, ah, so I, I respect all the ways of going out. I just wish we didn't have to poison people when we know that the chemotherapy is not going to be working very much. Does that make sense to you? Yeah. And - by the way, I really wish you luck in what you're doing and I'm very grateful that you're going into it. And I want to say, you know, my heart just goes out to people who go into this work. It is such important work, and I thank you so much for this.




Yes. [Acknowledges person with question]


Question from the Audience: Interested ...know how important - people's lives. ... I feel - UVA - not there, creative work that as occupational therapists were doing in the hospital...medicine...still there are programs that are supporting....maybe you could talk some more about....hospital ...


There's a beautiful poem by W.H. Auden about a country physician who is treating an elderly woman with breast cancer, and he's come home, and he's sitting at the kitchen table with his wife, thinking about his day and treating this older woman, and he said to his wife, "You know, cancer's a curious thing. Childless women get it, and men when they retire. It's as though they needed an outlet for that foiled creative fire."


Now, I'm not saying Auden was right about the epidemiology, because we know he's not. But, when you ask cancer patients to what they attribute their cancer, they often say to you that some very large thing happened in the two years before they developed cancer. A divorce, or a job loss, or some terrible thing - a parent died or whatever.


And they attribute the cancer in part to that, and what these things had in common, there's a deflection from life purpose. A "foiled creative fire." Neoplasm literally means, new growth. It's as though the new growth took place over here because it couldn't happen over there. I'm speaking metaphorically, I'm not speaking causally.


But, people attribute that. And in fact, if you look at the literature on stress, and you look at the studies of animals designed to develop tumors, and you stress them and the tumors get developed faster, ah, and you pat them, and the tumors go slower. So, stress and love are in distinction here. But creativity is what gets deflected by stress a lot of the time.


And so, I think that - reconnecting people with their own sense of creative potential is one of the most powerful things one can do. Ah, and, and what this really is about, is helping people discover their true life, you know? I've -I mean, that's what we're really talking about. It's like trusting that within themselves there is a creative force which is their guidance and which ultimately is their connection to God in many ways. Or to spirit, or however one understands it. That creative force is the expression of the light within us.


Comment from audience inaudible.


That's right, there is.


Comment inaudible.


Yeah, we did several conferences that Amrita attended on art as a healing force. On hospitals, where Dr. Michael Samuels is involved in Florida where that's going on. So, yeah.


Comment from audience member.


There is hope.


Other questions, yes, please.


Question inaudible but for this:

...group of people...I personally have been for that....not survival...luckily ...in field...



Sri Gurudev: [Makes comment]


MC: Asks question.


Amrita: Good night. So happy to share with you.

[Sri Gurudev departs]


ML: Ah, I'm going to respond to your question. You talked about the need for nuclear people who would help cancer patients with this integration process. I think that's true, I think it's true that we need that and I think that's growing up. Ah - so, ah, but it's very undeveloped and so it's a wonderful field to go into.


Ah - was there somebody else with a burning question, I don't want to - yes, yeah.


Q:I would like to hear what you suggest for people in Yoga already - to do for the environment. Because I've been very concerned but people are very interested in several other things here, and I was hoping that you'd have maybe some ideas that could be a part of Yogaville's approach to caring for the environment.


ML: That's an interesting question. You know, I'm a great believer that we have a deep need for people who specialize in the contemplative function so that those of us who are working on the outside world have places to come to where we can recreate ourselves. And when I was sitting in my room at the lotus inn earlier this evening, or just meditating I became aware again of the palpable sense of peace that this place has, and the power of that peace.


Ahm - I believe in spiritual reality and I believe that places dedicated like this to the nurturing and dissemination of spiritual peace are profoundly central to this process. Ahm - so, I think in itself,  Ahm, places like this all over the world catholic, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, African, American Indian, are fundamental. Ahm, having said that - I also think that they're in any intentional community like this, there will be some people who are drawn to various forms of activism as part of their work, and others who are more naturally contemplative.


And I think of the question of what people should do really reflects what their own inner dharmic orientation is, and the situation they find themselves in. So for example, last time I was down here, I remembered that Gurudev was quite concerned about the hog farms that were developing in this area.


Well, you know that is the battle, because being - the battle against mechanized animal agriculture and treating living animals as parts of a machine is taking place all over the world. And it's one of the fundamental battles. So I think and again, I think that it comes naturally to this community, to be involved in sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture, and offering health foods in Charlottesville and so on and so forth.


Ah, but there will be other people who have a calling to some other specific fight. I guess what I would hope for in spiritual community, is an awareness that in our time that we should not discourage the impulse of Karma Yogis who choose to engage with the struggle for life on Earth.


And I think if we carry that awareness that we, you know, just as we - ah, nourish contemplative impulses, and nourish ah - service to the Ashram itself; if we nourish ah, as Tisch Nath Kan(ph) nourishes or Martin Luther King nourishes, or Gandhi nourished.  If we nourish ah, action in the world as part of our vision of what Integral Yoga or whatever tradition we're involved is, then that sense of nourishment is picked up by the younger people in the community.


And they feel that it's part of their spiritual path. They don't have a feeling that they're supposed to ignore what's going on in the world and just meditate. They recognize that one way of pursuing your peace is to become a peaceful warrior on behalf of life.


Thank you all so much for being here.


END. Transcript: Marcela Andre, Maitreyi


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