CONVIVIUM: Your journey into business and world religions is a fascinating, largely unknown story, but I want to start with your religion. You were raised Catholic. Is that where your curiosity about religion started?
DON MORRISON: I was raised Catholic. And there are some difficult elements within it. Just yesterday, I was in Boston and I went to this monastery, the order of St. John the Evangelist. It’s an Episcopalian Monastery, Benedictine. They have holy water. It was the first time I’ve seen an Anglican-Episcopalian edifice with holy water. It’s a complicated thing, holy water. Another issue that piqued my interest was transubstantiation. The issue, for me, is one best left to the theologians because it’s too complex. I still believe that there’s something ontological and important that happens when a person gestures toward the altar to receive communion. I fail to see the difference whether the altar is Anglican or Catholic. That being said, my father, who was a convert to Roman Catholicism, said, “Be careful that you don’t find yourself inventing your own religion.”
C: Which I think we probably all do to a certain extent.
DM: I agree!
C: To a certain extent, it’s human nature to select what appeals to us most.
DM: True, and what I find is that in the Catholic and, broadly speaking, Christian traditions, there is a richness that lies on the other side of the Enlightenment that’s been repressed. We’re now in the process of rediscovery, and it has a profound impact on how a person goes through a process of transformation, which lies at the very heart of the two New Testament Commandments.
C: This reminds me, somewhat, of G.K Chesterton. In fact, we do a reading group with some of the people at Cardus, where we get together quarterly. We read a book and then we discuss it for its applicability to Cardus, but also for our own adaptation. Last week, as it happens, we were discussing Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and at the beginning he has this wonderful line about that happy moment when you set out in search of New South Wales and with a gush of joyful tears discover that you are really in Old South Wales. You’ve gone full circle and come home again.
It seems to me that your instinct or impulse or desire is to actually bring Old South Wales over to New South Wales and have the two of them together so that the new and the old coexist rather than one overtaking and replacing the other.
DM: I think what I’m doing is pointing at something. As it says in Ecclesiastes: There’s nothing new under the sun.
We all have a role to play. I’m profoundly influenced by Thomas Merton, who felt that he became a better Catholic, a better Trappist, for having opened himself up to learn from others. But it never at any time changed the strength and the roots to which he had committed himself.
I’m doing a lot of work right now on trying to understand people that have been pointing at this tradition called the Perennial philosophy in which there is a golden thread that weaves its way through all religions. This means you’re living in a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, you’ve got the differences that are faith-based, theologically dogma-based. But on the other hand, you’ve got this deep spiritual restlessness that we all have. This restlessness can be affirmed through certain practices, and those practices are embedded in the Catholic and Christian tradition just as other faiths have their own practices. What strikes me as interesting is that there are some common elements to those practices. For example, prayer and contemplative practices bear a lot of similarity to each other. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is very quick to point out that Buddhism is not a theological religion. But I don’t need to embrace the theology of Buddhism to benefit from learning some of the methods and practices it employs.
C: There’s a wonderful book I love. I don’t know if you know the author – a monk called David Steindl-Rast. He’s a Benedictine monk.
DM: Oh, I’ve met him. He blessed my rosary. He is a beautiful human being.
C: He and a Zen master have a long discussion about the relationship between practice and the point at which you ultimately have to buy in. If you don’t want to call it theology, you have to buy the underlying concept. It’s a delicate balance, but you can still share a common ground up to that point.
DM: Right. There’s a gentleman by the name of Schuon. He’s a German who came to America; he just passed away in the late ’80s or early ’90s. I just discovered him, but he does a good job of architecting the various religions and the place of demarcation and how each of them stands on their own merits. He’s the first person to go past the conceptual description of what it is that we all have in common. The reason he has credibility is because he has lived with Muslims. He lived with Vedanta Hindus. He lived with Buddhists. He lived a long life and then he came back and wrote about it.
Huston Smith has also been one of the most significant contributors to comparative religion in the 20th century. He said that this fellow, Schuon, is arguably the most thoughtful on this topic of comparative religion and this notion of Perennial philosophy – what I refer to as the Golden Thread that weaves its way through all the different religions that we all share in common. Academics give me a hard time because I’m not an academic, and they say be careful that you’re not being syncretistic. But I don’t think I am. I’m saying you have to live inside the paradox of respecting differences and then look for things you can learn from without in any way compromising the firm ground that you stand on.
C: I came up against this recently in someone who believed that the multiplicity of faiths necessarily negates the possibility of there actually being one truth. I said, “Do you realize that after the first three moves in the game of chess, there are 121 million possible moves that could be made? At the beginning of a game of chess, there are more possible moves than there are molecules in the universe. But there’s only one right move to end the game.”
The idea that there being a multiplicity of probable answers negates the possibility of a single real answer is nonsensical in the literal sense. It is non-sense. It defies reality.
DM: What a wonderful metaphor.
C: One thing I found interesting in reading about your work is that a lot of people explore these kinds of ideas at midlife or even in their late 30s when the kids are starting to grow up. But from the sounds of it, these are questions that have been there from the beginning for you.
DM: Yes. I was at St. Mike’s High School and in Grade 11 or Grade 12 we started a program looking at comparative religions. I was attracted to Hinduism because of these practices around inner transformation. Then I thought, “What’s better than this?” Then I started studying Buddhism. Then I went down to the university and I bought a book and started reading it. Then I got to university, and I just happened to have purchased a Thomas Merton book; so the whole thing then just became a complete circle back into Christianity and I became extremely curious about the lives of the saints and what happened to them.
I know this sounds absurd, but I was interested in causality and then the life of prayer and then my own responsibilities in my own life for how I should conduct myself. I said all the way along that I felt that I had been the poster child for living a spiritual life because I have failed so miserably in maintaining the discipline. There are other people I know who are much better in that they commit themselves to something and they stick with it.
C: The discipline of practice?
DM: Yes. Because in 1989, I became a lay Benedictine, and it requires a certain set of things that a person will do; and the views that I have come to is that I think the world needs a lay order that encourages a daily discipline, but not one that is stripped down and remanufactured from the rhythm of the multiple hours of the monastic. Because it’s very reading-based and there has to be an element that’s reading-oriented, there should be other things in it that deal with contemplative practice with instruction on how to live inside the marketplace because you’re not in the monastery.
C: Reading David Steindl-Rast, especially The Music of Silence, brings alive the notion from the monastic life, which we actually could incorporate, that at a certain point within the hours, you simply stop what you’re doing for a given interval. You put it down. You pause prayerfully. Then you pick things up again and continue on. It’s an idea that says stop for five minutes, just pause and think about what you’re doing. You don’t have to wear a robe and rope to see the good of this, do you?
DM: I think there’d be a transformative effect on the world if people did that. The interesting thing is, when you travel in the Middle East, they do that. I mean Muslims actually do that, and it’s accepted for them to sit in a meeting with their prayer beads, but here, if you start doing that, everybody thinks you’re trying to make a point and it’s egotistical and that sort of thing.
A lot of my motivation is that I think what’s happened to us is that we believe that we go to church on Sunday. I mean you charge yourself up and you’re good for a week. I think that the monks have it right and some parts of the world have it right where all you have to do is stop for a few minutes. The question then becomes what do you do in a few minutes. It doesn’t have to be complex. It can be reflective. It could be pure silence. It could have some element of cognitive reflection.
C: It’s become quite New Age and pop culture-ish to talk about mindful awareness, but there is a deep practice beneath it. Thich Nhat Hanh says communication begins with something as basic as mindful awareness of the way you walk, with your step, actually being aware that you’re putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a very simple thing to do. How did you, though, having made the transition into the business world, coming first through the banking world, balance that desire, that thirst for inquiry into faith, with the corporate life? Did you have to screen those two things off?
DM: I think I wrestled with it in the early years; I thought I was a bit schizophrenic.
C: What was the difficulty?
DM: One of the things that the Dalai Lama says is you can’t very well lose your identity until you have one, which you really develop in your 20s and 30s. Richard Rohr, who is a Franciscan priest and very like David Steindl-Rast, has written eloquently on this topic of the inner journey. In his book Falling Upward, Rohr talks about two journeys in life. The first journey is making a success of your life, and the second journey is a spiritual one.
My view of myself is, because I have this curiosity that I didn’t ask for, I really messed myself up. I am very grateful for having been messed up, but I characterize it the same way that Thomas Merton characterizes his career. He uses the Biblical reference of Jonah and the Whale. In his second biography, The Sign of Jonah, he says that Jonah is walking along toward his destination and the whale swallows him and takes him in the opposite direction. Merton says, “All my life, I feel I’ve been travelling in the belly of a paradox, but it takes age and reflection of life to see the paradox, rather than when you’re younger and you’re in it.”
The problem I had was immediately when things began to go wrong in business, I thought, “I’ve got to leave here. I’ve got to become a priest.” I wrestled with that profoundly. In fact, the gentleman who’s the dean of the Anglican Cathedral here in Toronto was encouraging me to be a priest; and the gentleman who was the archbishop was encouraging me not to be.
C: I thought the vignette I read of an Oblate priest throwing a book across the room and telling you to get your priorities in order was wonderful advice for a young man. A friend of mine says postmodernism means writing books made for throwing out the window. Maybe we should have a spirituality of throwing books across the room to help us get our priorities in order.
DM: It was like a slap across the face.
C: But you felt this deep internal struggle between pulling back from the world and being engaged with it?
DM: I still do. We don’t often get to do the things we want to do. I remember when I was in Grade 13 at St. Mike’s and there was a young guy walking around with a U of T jacket on that said Forestry on the back. I thought, “I so admire him because he knows exactly what he wants to do.” I’m 62 years old and I’m still trying to determine what I’m supposed to be doing. Despite being a father and a husband and now a grandfather, I still struggle with that. But I think that’s fine. I think we’re meant to struggle. Right?
C: Yes, there is that saying that recurs in some of the Buddhist literature I’ve read: “Do what you are doing. Whatever it is you’re doing, just do that.” And that’s what you’re doing. There is a simplicity to that, isn’t there?
DM: There is. Roshi Joan Halifax, who’s a friend of mine, loves watching me struggle. When we were in Nepal together a few years ago, I was having fits because the plane was late – being the business guy, I’m thinking this is ridiculous. They’re running a business and serving customers. The plane should be here on time. Then she said, “How is that working for you?”
You brought up the notion of mindfulness and the cultivation of presence. I think that’s a good stepping stone. It’s not the end game of why a person ought to pray in silence, but this notion of being present, I think the benefit of it is the extent to which you’re more open to the other person rather than showing up with an agenda, rather than showing up with the focus on you trying to guide them toward a prescribed outcome.
You’re less inclined to be control-oriented and you’re just in the moment and allowing the moment to manifest itself. These are great insights to help us with how we actually run companies, too, actually.
C: There is a line from Thich Nhat Hanh: “When I am drinking my tea, I am 100 per cent drinking my tea. Why would I do anything else?” If you’re going to drink tea, you might as well just drink your tea in that moment.
Can you tell me a bit about the pressure, and that duality I guess we could call it, that you struggled with in the business world as you achieved the success that you did. Was that an external pressure or was that entirely something that you carried with you because you had no guidance in how to resolve it?
DM: It was an internal restlessness. I came to the conclusion, and what I would write in my journal was, that it actually doesn’t matter contextually what you’re doing. It matters how you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s a state of being. I could rationalize it somewhat that way. I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to go into the priesthood and that this is where I was meant to be, and that was that.
Part of it is how you mature in your orientation toward developing yourself internally. There is a great book called The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer. One of the first lines in the second chapter talks about beginning to discover that this whole inner journey actually has nothing to do with you. I accentuate that with something that Jean Vanier said last year when I visited him. He said it’s all very well and good, Don, that you’re talking about this life of prayer and contemplative practice, but you have to be careful that this doesn’t become an exercise in self-absorption.
I’ve seen many, many people embarking on the mindfulness movement and transcendental meditation, and what they’re trying to do is acquire something when in fact this is an exercise in letting go. If you want to find who you are, you have to let go; and the last thing you have to let go of is the need to be a good person. This whole subject of legacy and all that stuff, you have to let go. You can see the genuineness of people who have let go because they have suffered the pain of even the need to be good. What begins to manifest is a genuine humility.
C: As opposed to an ethicalism of ticking off binary boxes: done good, didn’t do so good, done great, done bad?
DM: Right. Living a moral and ethical life is not enough. The golden rule is an important element in a person’s life, and goodness knows we all need more of that when you take a look at business and political leadership here in North America.
DM: We’d do well just to make that the object of our attention societally. Individually, there’s another path that needs to be walked beyond living an ethical life, and that deals with this process of self-transformation and the ingredient that most people are not willing to step up to. It’s this notion of letting go.
What’s implicit is the willingness to put yourself in a posture of acceptance and humility. I don’t think these things are just ideas. They are a real way of living. This is a great disappointment, I think, of the age of Enlightenment in that we are supposed to reason our way through everything.
The great spiritual tradition of the Church got derailed with the age of Enlightenment. Merton is eloquent on this point. He talks about Descartes saying that the sum of the highest aspirations of the human being is our capacity to reason. Contrast that with the decision to engage in a practice in which the very nature of that practice has to do with communion.
C: How does that play itself out for a late 20-something to mid-40-something, man or woman, in the corporate environment, in a world where such things as humility and acceptance and even gratitude are lipstick on a pig in a sense. They’re what we put on in order to get something else that we want. Put another way, how is it possible to live that way in a corporate environment where the idea of competition is mother’s milk. You have to compete to get ahead. How do we balance those things out?
DM: A lot of things in life require walking in a paradox. The first journey is you’ve been given all these skills and talents. It’s your responsibility to manifest and grow and build those skills and talents in your career, in your chosen career. Juxtaposed against this is the guy who wrote the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. I have a real problem with a culture that encourages you to be a success and the moment that you are, you’re supposed to sell everything. I think it’s a false humility. So, what you say to those 20- and 30-year-olds is, balance your time, build a career. It’s just that at some point, for some people, it’s going to happen when they’re 20. For most people, it’s going to happen in their 40s and 50s. There’s another voice that comes and the question is: Is this enough?
Living inside the paradox is a matter of balance. Don’t be unethical when you’re pursuing success. Tell the truth, keep promises, that sort of thing. You have to maintain that foundation of integrity, but be ambitious and be competitive; and then we can talk later about the next journey, which is you have to lose all that.
C: I love your golf story, too, about being four up on a very good golfer and and then putting too far past the hole to lose the round on the very last hole. I was playing golf once with a teaching pro and a couple other guys. I didn'’t know the other guys, but one got up on a tee box and whacked the ball right into the woods. He lost his temper and threw his driver down and started swearing. Finally, he stormed off the tee box and said, "I don't do that. I don't hit the ball like that." And the teaching pro said, "I think you just did. Let's go and find your ball in the woods."
DM: “That’s not me.” Well, actually it is you. Now do something about it.
C: It’s not acceptance as, “Oh, I failed. I’m a failure and failure therefore is good.” No, it’s actually what happened. It’s what’s in front of you. That’s what’s in front of you. Play the shot from where you have to. That’s a very Buddhist wisdom.
DM: Yes. What’s encouraging is it’s also a very Christian wisdom, too. Merton points it out. We tend to use Eastern examples, but I think if you’ve read Saint John of the Cross, he talks about mortification of the appetite and opening yourself to something that you can’t control. That caused even Mother Teresa so much angst in her later life, but what you’re opening yourself to is the caprice of grace. You can open yourself to it, but you can’t manufacture it.
I mean the Trinity either reciprocates in some fashion or not, so you’re not in control. This Taoist idea of effortless action I think is really embodied. If you go back and read the Wisdom of the Desert and the Desert Fathers, they’re saying exactly the same thing. That, to me, is very encouraging that the early spiritual writers in Catholicism/Christianity were essentially saying the same thing.
C: There absolutely is that dimension of acceptance within Christianity. People often say to me: “How can you profess a Christian faith in a world like this?” I say, “You know what? I actually believe that human beings are capable of nailing God to a tree. I actually happen to believe that. You may not, but I do.”
If we’re capable of doing that, pretty much everything we’ve done since then is not such a big surprise. Some of it may be a bit extreme, but it’s not that surprising. This is what we’re capable of doing, and I’m not being cynical when I say that. It’s just the way things are. The lyrics of that beautiful Negro spiritual ask: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord; sometimes it causes me to tremble.” Actually, yes, I was there. It wasn’t the outside world that crucified Him. It was me, and that requires acceptance. It’s not easy to admit it, but that’s who we are – who I am – so how do we deal with it? What do we learn from it?
DM: Yes. Simultaneously, and Biblically stated, we are created in the image and likeness of God. I don’t think there’s enough time spent reflecting on that. I have holy cards that go back to the ’30s, with ancestors that have passed away, and the first thing the holy card says is: “You’re decrepit and you should be asking for forgiveness for your sins before you do anything.” I think we’ve come a long way to understanding that there’s a paradox between the need to ask for forgiveness but not dwelling on this brokenness, that there’s this other aspect that speaks to our potential; not our potential for worldly greatness but our potential for compassion in connecting and communion. Then the question, which is the curiosity I’ve had since I was 16, becomes: What do you have to do in your life to cultivate that?
C: And you’re coming closer to an answer?
DM: My answer is to study what the great religions, particularly Christianity/Catholicism, have to say. I refer to myself as an apophatic junkie. There are two different kinds of prayer. There is thinking prayer, and there is prayer of silence. I haven’t let go of the need for silence in the mind. I’m very grateful that people like John Main have developed the Word into Silence mantra in the Christian tradition and that Father Thomas Keating, in particular, has developed Centring Prayer as a movement.
In my world, it is imperative that a person stop and find time for silent prayer. It’s not just a good thing. It’s an imperative thing. If a person chooses to really live the two New Testament commandments to the best of their ability, I think they need to stop and quiet their mind every day for a certain amount of time. The second thing they need is to commit themselves to living an examined life. Here, we Christians can learn a lot about this from the Buddhists. They’re very good at giving mental exercises for reflecting on our fears, angers, self-loathing, hatred, envy.
When I talk about letting go, I’m saying that we’re trying to learn our way toward letting go of the negative aspects of the monkey chatter in our head that drags us down, and then the other monkey chatter that’s in our head that creates this artificial illusion that we’re better than other people. All these things have to come down. There’s the silence, there’s the self-reflection and then I believe that people need to have a rhythm of what you have talked about in your own life where you pray and find certain things.
Quite frankly, I’m very, very sacramental. I respect other strains of Christianity, but I feel that I’m blessed and fortunate that I’ve been exposed to the part of Christianity that is deeply sacramental. We have to rediscover that. For example, the sacrament of confession is really this exercise. It is like Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises.
C: One of the great gifts of certainly the Roman Catholic Church is that sacramental awareness. It's the sense of being embodied, actually physically happening in the world. It's a catalyst for deeper spiritual life.
DM: It’s a catalyst for communion experience. I agree with that.