The Path to Awakening: Capturing Natalie Goldberg's Breath

Amy Lefkowitz

Writer’s comment: Reading Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America was very much a journey for me. The essay assignment asked students to write about the purpose of Goldberg’s book—why she wrote it. This open-ended project allowed me to find my own direction and structure for the paper. Therefore, my essay derives from a merging of class discussions, quotations that I highlighted or wrote down as I read, and a lot of work and thought.
        I began by pulling out and writing down many, many quotes. Then I wrote a first paragraph and a brief outline to establish each item I wanted to touch on. Next, I organized the quotes and some thoughts into categories—America, teaching, spirituality, impermanence, and aspects of writing—all the topics mentioned in the thesis. From there I went to the computer. I re-read and revised my first draft a number of times, had another student read the paper, and then revised a little more. I have never read a first-person narrative that touched me as deeply as this one. As Natalie Goldberg has taught me, the process is just as important as the product.
—Amy Lefkowitz

Instructor’s comment: n designing “American Lives Through Autobiography,” one of my goals was to surprise students with the readings—and thereby surprise them about American lives, how they are lived, and by whom. We were all, I think, surprised, delighted and moved by the books, by their authors, and by our diverse yet linked interpretations of the texts. This last discovery underscored the idea that we cannot view an “auto” biography as written in isolation. Rather, it draws into itself the author’s experience of her/his world, and is transformed again by the life that each reader brings to meet the text. Natalie Goldberg is a Jewish American woman, a writer and practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Goldberg’s life teaches a clearer, stiller kind of attention to ourselves, to all that surrounds us, and to all that is within. Amy Lefkowitz exquisitely conveys the spirit, the “breath,” of Natalie Goldberg’s interwoven practices of writing and meditation. She seems to meet the text deeply, receiving it in the spirit in which it is offered by the author.
—Ruth Frankenberg, American Studies Program

"I don’t think fate is a creature, or a lady, like some people say. It’s a tide of events sweeping us along. But I’m not a Fatalist, because I believe you can swim against it, and sometimes grasp the hands of the clock face and steal a few precious minutes. If you don’t you’re just cartwheeled along. Before you know it, the magic opportunity is lost, and for the rest of your life it lingers on in that part of your mind which dreams the very best dreams—taunting and tantalizing you with what might have been.” (from the film Flirting, 1990)

         “Every moment is enormous, and it is all we have” (Goldberg xii). Natalie Goldberg offers her readers the opportunity to recognize the delicate nature of life and the importance of slowing down one’s life. In her autobiography, Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, she invites readers to journey along her path to awakening in an effort as an author to “pass on her breath” (22). By capturing her message and holding it close to one’s heart, the reader grasps the essence of Goldberg’s message. It becomes clear that awakening can take on many forms and can be reached by different roads, but it is all centered on one goal: to go within oneself and find inner peace and understanding. Through her exploration of America, teaching, spirituality, impermanence, and writing, and through her writing style and language, Goldberg sends her readers along their own long, quiet highway.
         The main point one might gather from Goldberg’s discussion of America is that Americans need to slow down all aspects of their lives, need to take the small components of life and make them significant. Goldberg sees an impatience in America which does not allow for experiencing. For example, she observes that many Americans would rather read a book on writing than actually write. They want the outcome, but are not willing to take the time to get there on their own. It is possible that Americans unconsciously sense this lack of connection with the self and herein lies the reason so many want to write. Recognizing that writing is a possible solution, Goldberg notes, “When we write we begin to taste the texture of our own mind” (71). As Americans push towards their ultimate goals, they forget that the process can be just as important, if not more important, than the product. Living in the present and preparing for the future can go hand in hand because every part of the process makes for a more complete person.
         Disconnection with oneself often translates into a distance from others. Growing up in America, Goldberg felt both an internal and external isolation: “My desolation was that no one knew me and I did not know myself” (24). In her early descriptions of her life, she makes it clear that she felt very out of place, even within her own family. She asked many questions that no one would or could answer. She felt very alone. She speaks of sleeping next to her sister for many years and never getting to know her.

This alienation is the American disease. It is our inheritance, our roots. It can be our teacher. Mother Teresa, who works with India’s poorest of the poor, has said that America has a worse poverty than India’s and it’s called loneliness. (25)

There are many important statements in this passage. Goldberg, by calling alienation a disease, suggests not only the detrimental effects of alienation but also the fact that it seems to spread. Alienation is a part of the American collective past that has been passed down through generations and has yet to be stopped.
         Also important in the passage are the ideas that alienation can be “our teacher” and that America is filled with loneliness. Goldberg truly believes that every aspect of one’s life can be a teacher in the sense that one can learn from everything. The words of Mother Teresa—a woman who has been such an influential world figure and who has worked with people in extraordinary poverty—accentuate the urgency of the problems Americans face. Loneliness is different from simply being alone. One can be completely surrounded by people and feel lonely—not alone, but lonely. Conversely, one can be alone but feel no sense of loneliness. Why is loneliness more painful? Loneliness is an emotion that cuts to the heart of a person, whereas being alone is merely a situation which can be more easily rectified. Loneliness, Goldberg suggests, is indeed like poverty, because it can completely tear a person down and leave him or her in a vulnerable position.
         The question which now remains is whether or not Goldberg overgeneralizes in her discussion of the plight of America. One might argue that being disconnected is exactly what American ideals revolve around; after all, Americans have always held dear individualism, free will, freedom of “voice.” Such notions seem to necessitate a solitary figure. However, this solitariness or individuality becomes a problem and a “disease” when one is alone but not in touch with herself. People might take the American ideals to extremes and in the process lose a sense of who they are and forget how important affiliation with others can be. So one must strive for a balance; Goldberg goes on to assert that one needs to develop the ability to be familiar with one’s inner self as well as an awareness one’s surroundings. This turning outward is embedded in Goldberg’s idea of teaching and teachers.
         Even now, at the age of 47, Natalie Goldberg remembers the day her high school teacher turned off the lights and allowed the class to simply listen to the sound of the rain outside. Teachers impact their students, Goldberg suggests, even if the student does not realize it immediately; “some lessons take a long time to comprehend” (16). Goldberg’s view of teaching is quite different from the traditional views of what a teacher should be. “Every moment and everything became my teacher. This was so different from what I had been taught education was” (73). With this view of learning, she realizes the importance of taking everything in deeply and remembering it carefully. Goldberg began to apply her ideas about teaching to her own teaching experience. During her last week with a rambunctious class in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, she employed the type of teaching she had always respected most. To this day, she allows her students to learn from everything—as they visit a food co-op, walk gently between rain drops, and let a Hershey Kiss melt slowly on their tongues.
         Goldberg began to truly understand the value of learning from everything once she entered the world of Zen Buddhism. She often recalled teachers who both spoke to her “whole person” and subsequently transmitted their entire being to her.

You keep quiet and pay attention and the learning penetrates your whole life, seeps into all your pores. Zen is not taught the way most of America’s schools teach, from the neck up. (118)

Teaching goes beyond reading and interpreting books. It permeates one’s entire body, and one fully experiences both her teacher and the teachings. There is a constant interplay between teacher and student. Goldberg admits that she did not fully understand this until she came to know her most influential teacher, Katagiri Roshi. Through him she began to recognize that the teacher’s job is to “close the gap between the student’s ignorance and the teachings” (181). But the student must also acknowledge this gap to fully appreciate the teachings and the need for learning. The teacher gives the student a “personal connection to the teachings” (194); by continuing the practices and knowledge one gains, one makes the teachings one’s own. Additionally, these teachings must come from within oneself.
         Goldberg’s spirituality is the one aspect of her life that seems to influence all the others most significantly. Her writing, her beliefs and viewpoints, and her relations with others are all monumentally impacted by her discoveries about spirituality. As a child, she discovered that her only path to spirituality—Judaism—remained a mystery. All of her questions were answered bluntly or insufficiently. “Why did Hitler kill so many Jews?” she asked, “Where was God?” Her father replied harshly and inadequately: “He hated them and there is no God” (12). End of discussion. She was left alone in her search for a notion of spirituality, so she picked up where others left her dangling and searched for her own understanding.
         In her discovery of Zen Buddhism, she has learned two main lessons about experience and practice. Because experiences are such a fundamental part of one’s spirituality, it is difficult to explain them to others. Goldberg could not explain to her friends how she felt the energy of her teacher Rinpoche and how she felt the transfer of cells between herself and others. It was part of her and came from within her. Entangled with these two ideas of experience and practice is the notion of struggle: “negative energy transformed is the energy of enlightenment” (25). This negative energy can take the form of struggle, and the by-product of the struggle is an awakening. The reason one might think of the awakening as a “by-product” is that the processes (practices) of spirituality are just as important, if not more important, than the product. Awakening comes along the path. Once awakening is reached, one does not truncate the journey, one continues along the way with a new and more complete understanding. “The end of duality does not mean we never do anything. It means we are empty of a need for result” (90).
         Natalie Goldberg followed a number of paths which eventually merged into her awakening. Her first experience occurred when she was a teacher in Albuquerque. She felt something opening up inside her and had a vision of herself wandering in autumn fields and knew that “nothing, nothing else was important.” She “knew [she] had to stay true to that one vision” (59). This interlude in her search for an inner peace resembled a wandering among nature. She discovered meditation, a practice which helps one to connect with the inner self. She noticed her breathing, and this was accompanied by a slowing-down process. Buddhism stresses uncomplicating things. Before Goldberg could do this she still had many issues to resolve. She did not understand a heritage she knew was hers, Judaism. Although she grew up culturally Jewish, she had never felt the spirituality that she knew must exist in the religion. In a Yom Kippur service, she finally makes the connection—she feels the peace and beauty of the religion she was born into. She can move deeper into her own spirituality thereafter, when she feels she has a practice. She was married to Buddhism, but this did not mean she gave up any other components of her identity.
         From her spiritual awakening came a vital understanding of impermanence. Once she learned the “fundamental truth of impermanence” (xiii), she realized that “Our path is the path of learning, to wake up before we die” (xiii). Paying close attention to every moment is so important; if everything is a teacher, it is imperative to slow down enough not to miss an important lesson. Goldberg learned the lesson of impermanence through two striking experiences. Visiting her dying grandmother, she didn’t want to acknowledge that death was indeed close at hand; she realized later she was both fighting against impermanence, by trying to bring her grandmother out of senility and into a recreation of her youth, and trying to understand and accept it, to gain a sense of closure by making sure her grandmother knew she was loved.
         Goldberg’s second experience forced her to fully accept the reality of impermanence. When she was faced with the sickness and death of Roshi, she had a much different experience of death. She realized that she had to visit Roshi to acknowledge his impermanence, and she came to understand how much she loved him and how that love can survive beyond death. Consequently, a person can also survive beyond death, as Roshi does. The deceased live within their loved ones, and this is where Goldberg finally discovers her beloved teacher. Impermanence is merely a physical state. Teachings, practices, respect, and love never die.
         The idea of impermanence is at the heart of Goldberg’s own approach to writing: “A writer needs to know death is at her back, otherwise the writing becomes brittle, full of fear . . . . It will make our work glow and be truly alive” (120). Writing is a way to slow down and capture moments. Even more than this, it is a way to “digest” one’s life, to understand one’s experience and use it as the substance of writing. Writing cannot exist in isolation from experience. Goldberg’s early writing transformed the negative energy of her childhood experiences into something that belonged to her, something that she could use in her writing. After she had thoroughly absorbed her past, she could move on to explore new ideas.
         Once Goldberg made writing her own, she could also share it with others. When she was with one of her writing groups on a retreat in the mountains, she felt the communal component of writing, a sharing of ideas. Writing can be a way of connecting with others. For example, Goldberg discusses how writing can bridge the gap between present and past writers: “our job is to write . . . so that the whole lineage of writers rushes through us” (93). When people read the work of an author, they are breathing the breaths of that author; the transmission has occurred. However, for the author the connection is not always immediately felt. Writing can be a solitary quest because “anything you do deeply is lonely” (189). Yet writing is a coming to terms with loneliness: connecting with oneself is the first goal of writing because it is the essential process. Passing on one’s breath is the by-product.
         Goldberg did not accept formal writing structures. Since they were not a part of her, they could not be her form of expression. Her writing was about her; she valued writing as a practice. Yet her style and language are important ways to reach her readers and to teach them. Through metaphorical language, the reader is enveloped by Goldberg's energy and can feel the emotion in her descriptions. She speaks of writing as “germinating,” a word that brings to mind images of growth. This pictorial representation is consistent throughout the narrative as she refers often to the growth of trees and flowers. “We don’t put a seed in the ground and then stick our fingers in the earth and yank up an oak” (34), she writes, bringing to mind the slowness of the growth process and the impressiveness of the outcome. Something is alive within Goldberg, and she wants readers to sense this mysterious aliveness and to feel it within themselves. She offers poetry as a way to feel the aliveness:

Poetry is always there, waiting for you to dip into it, just as breath is always there . . . (92)

Inherent in this gesture is the suggestion of meditation—an awareness of breathing. She offers many paths to awakening and she does so in a beautifully touching manner.
         Many aspects of Goldberg’s writing draw readers to her, so much so that readers often feel the desire to refer to her affectionately as simply Natalie. In fact, it seems strange to refer to her as merely the author of a narrative—she has most assuredly transmitted her being through her writing, most definitely made a connection. There are few times when she outwardly addresses the reader, so when she does, she calls attention to the importance of the event she is describing. “Understand,” she implores, causing the reader to sense the urgency and the great impact of what she is describing. When she describes Rinpoche as “fluid energy” (87), she wants readers to know this was really how she experienced him. Hers was a vital discovery, one of experiencing people. Natalie reaches readers. She cannot be disconnected from her work because hers is the breath we capture.

Works Cited

Goldberg, Natalie. Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.