As a legendary playwright, who’s work has been produced internationally since the 1960s, and a sought after meditation teacher through his Shantigar community, Jean-Claude van Itallie is truly one of the keenest conversationalists imaginable.
He embraces discussion of matters large or small with an athlete’s love for sport. He shows up as both crystalline listener and sparring curiosity. No wonder he’s known by his friends in New York City’s West Village for throwing vibrant tea parties with mind altering encounters.
In his new venture as host of the Tea with Jean-Claude discussion series at the Alchemist’s Kitchen, Jean-Claude shines, as well as brings out the best of guests like downtown performance artist Penny Arcade, or upcoming media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff (which will take place tomorrow — learn more here).
He’s also the artistic director of Shantigar’s current summer season of arts and meditation retreats, The Ocean Within: tools for art and action in dark times; a lineup featuring exceptional teachers offering transformative practices in a really beautiful place.
I spoke with Jean-Claude recently to find out what he’s carting between the country and the city these days, why flowers always seem to be staring at him, and how he leverages spiritual technologies, so that even getting a new haircut can lead to sharp insights.
Jean-Claude van Itallie: Hello
Josh Adler: Hi, Jean-Claude. It’s Josh.
Yes, I’m not surprised.
You can hear me?
I think so, or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to answer your question.
Okay. Well that’s good.
Yes. Yes, I agree it is.
How was your haircut?
Well, she moved hair number five to the right, and hair number six she left kind of in the middle, and hair number seven she moved a little to the left. It looks good.
It sounds more like a massage.
(Laughs.) No, she just has to work with what I have to offer her.
There are a certain number of hairs, and she has to decide which direction they go and how long they should be. It’s like arranging flowers I guess.
That’s a really lovely image.
(Laughs.) I brought a lot of flowers from Shantigar [to New York City]. I put them around here. They take on quite an interesting ‘other’ look.
What do you mean?
They become elegant, living things in vases. They make an urban environment more elegant. They don’t look like they do when you pick them. I guess the surroundings are different. The flowers themselves are no different. Here the vases make a big difference, and the setting makes a big difference. The flowers are here to compliment that, whereas in the country they’re just themselves.
I like moving things from the country to the city and the city to the country because by changing the context you feel you’ve done something.
What else do you move between the city and the country?
Food. Clothes. Objects. Yesterday I brought back a chair, which I had had caned up in the country by a woman who does caning. I’m sitting in it as we speak.
Oh, where is it going in the apartment?
It sits against the mirror facing the window. It’s for when I want to sit at my desk, which is rare, since when I’m at the computer I stand on my treadmill. But when I want to sit I pull this chair over. It’s a very beautiful chair with bent wood arms I’ve never seen before. I bought it for very little money at an antique store in the country, I think for thirty-five dollars. Having to have it re-caned was far more expensive.
So you bought it because you thought it more beautiful than it was priced at?
I bought it because I thought it beautiful. The price was very affordable. It’s an old, old chair. I imagine that now that I’ve had it re-caned, it’s worth many times more than the thirty-five dollars. But I bought it because it’s beautiful. I like beautiful objects. It’s an addiction.
(Laughs.) I think you also brought a person with you from the country to the city.
I did. I did. I brought Michael. He was sitting in the passenger seat doing his coaching.
Did he coach you as well along the way?
No, but I listened to him coaching other people. It was very interesting.
What was he coaching about?
One person had a food problem. Another person was making one of their own coaching calls, and was concerned because the person they wanted to coach was going to have another family member on the phone call. So Michael dealt with that. Another person wanted to celebrate because he’d just gotten two new coaching clients.
Do you find it strange that there’s this whole litany of coaches coaching coaches?
No more or less strange than anything else. It’s interesting that contemporaneously that people are solving their problems, or going to teachers that are coaches, whereas in my generation we went to psychologists. The same problems, for instance an eating disorder, would be addressed quite differently by a psychologist. A psychologist would go into, “What was your mother’s attitude towards nutrition? Were you fed a lot of love? Were you not?” That’s not the case here. It’s more a question of finding techniques to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I don’t know that one is any better than the other. It’d probably be good to do all of it.
Is it possible to do all of it? Or do you have to choose ‘something?’
I guess you can only do one thing at a time. But you could do different things at different times that lead to the same goal. I’m stating the obvious here. I’ve done an awful lot of practices in my life. Been Rolfed. I’ve been through three Rolfing series. I’ve done psychoanalysis twice. Psychotherapy once. You can do a lot of different things. You just can’t do them exactly at the same time. But why would you want to?
Have you ever finished a ‘practice,’ as in come to completion with a practice in terms of its utility?
I have no idea. Something’s working, but I can’t tell you exactly what it is or was. I do all these different practices. I do meditation. I do all these many kinds of things because something is working, but I’m not sure what it is so I don’t want to drop anything. It makes for a very busy day.
(Laughs.) Well, yes: there’s parking and haircuts….
There’s food preparation if you eat a strange diet. There’s meditation. There’s different kinds of exercises and yogas, and movement things. That’s just the basis before you start doing creative things, and contacting your friends. It makes for busy days. Everybody has to do lots of things, but mine are pretty organized. Picking up sticks in the woods. What if I let a day go by when I’m in residence at Shantigar, not picking up any sticks in the woods? Who knows how cluttered our Zen path could get.
I suppose it’s organized because you pile the sticks. If you just picked them up and threw them onto other spots, then maybe it wouldn’t be a practice. Stacking the sticks into huge piles makes it into a practice. So what isn’t a practice?
A practice, I think, has some deliberate intention about it. I think you do something for its own sake in a practice. It’s not something that you do unconsciously. It’s something that you keep doing although in the midst of it you may not remember why you were doing it.
How do you know if it’s working?
If you find yourself laughing more than you used to laugh, or not as anxious as you used to be. If you appreciate little things about places and people more than you used to. If you suddenly, spontaneously come up with something which you find hilarious yourself. Then something’s working. I don’t see any great need to quantify, “This works, and this doesn’t. This works ninety percent, this works sixty-three percent.”
But something’s working.
Yes. Though it’s very hard to say, “This is better in me than it used to be.” The moment you make a boast like that, poof it vanishes. (Laughs.) But in a general way, if I feel better than I used to—something’s working.
So then ‘progress’ is real?
Progress in terms of personal development? Progress in terms of moving the world towards a more heavenly place?
Yes, those things. Feeling better personally. Feeling more engaged creatively or socially. A more peaceful planet.
I don’t think the planet is more peaceful. Do you?
I argue with myself about that. I feel that throughout any point in civilization you can point to violence and peacefulness co-emergently existing.
I don’t know that it’s necessary to make all these assessments. We have to live in the world that we’re living in now—live the truth that we’re living in now with the spontaneous, important reactions that we have to it. There’s a terrible situation in the White House. A huge building burned in London due to the neglect of people. If you’re talking about the state of the world, there are things to do. Whether the world is better or worse than it was a hundred years ago is irrelevant to those actions.
I agree that maybe it’s not necessary, but I find myself wondering. For instance, in the ‘70s there was someone awful in the White House. Are things any different now than then?
What’s the point of even putting your mind to that? Does it help you deal with today’s world better?
Maybe in some ways. It asks me to surrender to struggle or conflict that often feels beyond my control. Which is not to disengage or disconnect from it, but at the same time to accept that it’s always with us. It’s a part of our nature. The demons of our society. But what about this idea of ‘spiritual technologies?’ Does that provoke anything for you?
I was telling the person cutting my hair a little while ago about it. She said, “What does it mean?” I suppose it means different ways of coming from a deeper place in one’s self. If I have to define “spiritual,” I’d like to define it that way—coming from a deeper place in one’s self, so that you have less grids through which you see.
What do you mean by ‘grids?’
There’s an exercise in my book about letting the flowers look at you. Do you remember that exercise?
You look at a bed of flowers, could be a bouquet, but usually many flowers of the same kind and the same color works well. Instead of looking at them the way you usually do, you let the flowers look at you. You let the flowers penetrate you, if you will. You become vulnerable to the flowers. By doing that much is communicated from the flowers to you; letting them ‘look at you.’ I could analyze why that is, but it would be far better just to do the experiment. Usually when we look at flowers, or when we look at anything, there’s the concept of ‘I am looking at it.’ That immediately creates the duality of ‘I am one thing,’ and ‘it is another.’ So you and the flowers are caught in that conceptual grid. Whereas if you drop that idea of ‘I am looking,’ but simply let the flowers ‘look at you’—you melt, if you will, ‘the grid.’ Then in your state of vulnerability you’ll see so much more. So much more will be ‘seen upon you’ so to speak. It’s wonderful if you can do it.
And if the flowers communicate that I need a haircut, I’m guessing you can recommend someone to me.
I don’t think flowers communicate that. I think they communicate something very profound and sacred having to do with their color mostly, and their shape. But maybe to you they may communicate about haircuts, I don’t know.
They have in fact communicated the profundity of their color and shape to me as well. They said to me once that they bloom “because they feel that way.”
I saw a really nice movie last night called Beginners with a sweet dog that looked at its owner with baleful eyes. The filmmaker put what the dog would be saying at the bottom of the screen, as if it were a translation of another language. The owner of the dog said to the dog, “I don’t know why I keep talking to you. You can’t talk.” And underneath it said, “Well I know 150 words, but it’s true I can’t talk.”
I thought that was pretty good.
That is good. I’m glad you brought up that word “sacred” when you were talking about the flowers.
Sacred—in that context anyways—I guess means a land where truth is more vibrational. More experienced. Where the environment glows in some way.
So for you it’s a sense of place?
I think so. All of this is approximate and shorthand, but yes for me sacred is a sense of place. It could be anywhere, but you have a sense of being in a sacred place, yes.
How does that relate with this notion of ‘spiritual’ as coming from a deeper place?
You can experience a sacred place much more easily if you’re coming from a deeper place. You can experience everything more deeply if you’re coming from a deeper place. You could call that sacred. Because you’re not imposing on the world what you think it should be like, you’re getting the raw stuff.
Then is spirituality what you bring to a place to receive in an expanded sense?
All these words—sacred, spirituality, whatever it is—it’s who you are. Who you are has to do with the depths from which you’re coming in your body. Sure, everything is sacred, but you don’t always see it because you’re busy thinking things.
Tomorrow, June 27, Jean-Claude will be joined by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in NYC to discuss psychedelics, consciousness, technology, and more. Learn more here.