No matter what challenges we are facing, no matter what is going on around us, our suffering can reveal an “inner door.” Passing through it, we find an opening, welcome, the company of others. We find out in that moment that much of our suffering has to do with the illusion that we are alone. But we are not alone. Discovering this–that everything we have suffered has been suffered by others, everything felt has been felt, everything known has been known–opens suffering up into wisdom, spaciousness, the feeling of being accompanied.
You can’t know this truth about the inner door until you experience it yourself. But hearing it can prepare you. I remember hearing a version of it in a Brooklyn accent burnished with age and experience. During his last years, I would often visit William Segal, who was then way up in his 90’s, in his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Segal was very frail at the end, and a horrific car accident in middle age compounded the frailty, but he met me at the door and walked me to a chair with careful precision. Pain can make us careful, but he was also mindful. “A real teacher teaches with his back,” he said. Meaning you have to walk your talk.
Segal first heard this during a stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. He was the first American allowed in after World War II–and when he was sitting he was being an international businessman there, helping then reestablish trade or some-such. Segal was proof to me that you can live an ordinary outer life and still be working on creating inner freedom, something that others who come in contact with you can feel. They may feel it (as I did) as a lifting of fear, as an invitation into a larger world right here and now, a world that you might have felt was out of reach. “Some people have a feeling of inquiry,” said Segal. “They want to know more, and they learn through painting or through music or through expressing themselves. But very often, an accident, or a moment of great sorrow or shock, brings insights we don’t ordinarily have.” Segal helped me see that this was the ticket of entry, that feeling of inquiry, that wish to know a little more about why we’re alive.
One explanation he gave for the experience of the inner door swinging open, is that some of the energies that run through our bodies obscure finer and more subtle energies–energies that naturally lead us to our part in a greater whole. We are usually so preoccupied, but sometimes there are openings….Segal had bright kind eyes and often wore a black eye patch over one of them (due to an injury related to the horrible car crash, I thought). Often, a big, green parrot perched on his expensively dressed shoulder, adding to the rakish pirate look. I got such an enormous kick out of his style, and clearly so did he. He delighted in overturning the notion that being spiritual meant being drab and indifferent to the pleasures of life; he delighted in being a man of the world and a rugged individual, that cherished American archetype– but he was also delighted in being a kind of undercover monk.
Segal was living proof to me that we can live a kind of double life. He really did like his life but he was open and seeking that finer energy, that finer connect to the whole and to God right up to the end. “What is this all about?” he would ask, and you felt his sincerity. His real power didn’t come from his worldly attainments but from his nonattachment, from his willingness to be open, to not know. At the end, he wanted to be like the old man in the marketplace, moving through the world without grasping and clinging, with empty hands.
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1904, to poor Rumanian Jewish immigrant parents, William Segal became an archetypal American success story with an important twist. After attending New York University on a football scholarship, Segal rose to become the publisher of eleven magazines, including a ground-breaking arty magazine called “Gentry” (the kind of magazine that would run articles on wine and billiards along with an interview with a Zen master). Segal was a painter, writer and editor, an international businessman and connoisseur of life. He was worldy, even suave. Growing up in Watertown, New York, during the Cold War era, Segal was the kind of figure I dreamed of being when I grew up, James Bond-like, a kind of spy—only his power was not about deadly force but in learning to not to force, to move through the world with ease, without fear and wanting.
Through his long life, he was quietly learning to open that inner door. He was a student of P.D. Ouspensky, G.I.Gurdjieff, D.T. Suzuki, and other great Zen masters, and finally he was on his own. The great English theater director Peter Brook once wrote that Segal “was a man of many layers and if the outer layer was the man of today, the innermost core was an opening to eternity.”
I’m all grown up now and I no longer want to be an James Bond-like woman of mystery. I no longer want to glide up to elegant bars in world capitals and order a dry martini “shaken, not stirred.” In fact, I would very much rather be stirred by life, not shaken. But Segal remains one of my role models, reminding me what can be done with a life—how everything in our lives can be used to help us open–anything, a moment of beauty or great pain, might help us find that inner door.