Words: Elaine Quinn (July 2018)
Image Credits: Open Source / Peter Gabel
Reading Time: 10 minutes

In his recently published book ‘The Desire for Mutual Recognition – Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self’, Peter Gabel describes how our experience of being truly recognised by a fully present human being, and of deepening into our own natural presence as a result, could have incredible implications for our collective reality were this to be become a more consistent experience for all of us. Gabel attempts to unravel, in a spiritually aware yet deeply grounded way, the knots of why our apparently most natural of states is so rare for us human beings today and why its re-emergence is critical. Read a book review of ‘The Desire for Mutual Recognition’ here. 

When did the spiritual dimension become important in your own life?

My first experiences of inter-being and deep human connection came through the movements of my youth in “the sixties”, through experiencing the joy in the rising of those movements. To me, at that time, that was a political phenomenon, not a spiritual one. I recognise, in hindsight, that it was, of course, spiritual. Through my subsequent relationship to Rabbi Michael Lerner, I began to attend Jewish High Holiday Services in the Jewish Renewal Movement. We engaged in dancing, singing, movement, evocation, and prayer – intentional ways of being together. I realised that it was possible to intentionally create this elevation of consciousness through practicing together. This had a significant impact on me and, in time, led me to willingly use the word spirituality in describing my work.”

You first developed the central ideas of your book as a graduate student almost forty years ago. Can you describe how the ideas emerged for you then?

What was dawning on me with increasing clarity in “the sixties” (a period of years actually spanning 1965 to 1975) was that emerging into the world, through the multiplicity of movements occurring at that time, was a new parallel consciousness alongside the dominant reality that co-existed with it. It was possible to palpably feel two realities in the world simultaneously existing.

One was the “evening news” reality – a version of the world represented as real but that was actually quite unreal. At that time, the Vietnam War was happening and millions of people were being killed. The delusional, imaginary ways people were living were perhaps more obvious against this backdrop.  Many of us were beginning to experience this “evening news” reality as a delusion. A recording by ‘The Electric Flag’ rock group really captures this. The record begins with the voice of President Lynden Johnson, in his Texan accent, addressing “My Fellow Americans”. Then suddenly everyone bursts into hysterics. It captures this moment during which the order of the world was beginning to dissolve. It was as though this man was a kind of absurd jester. And yet, standing behind the podium with the presidential seal, he was treated as this elevated person. We are witnessing a similar absurdity with the man currently standing behind the presidential seal.


The second reality was “the movements” reality where we were opening our eyes to each other in a new way, with a new consciousness. It was a very fruitful moment for thinking and developing new ideas. In graduate school, the palpable existence of these two realities was enabling me to perceive more clearly. My dissertation was titled “The Social Psychology of Law and People Processes” and I was already starting to write about law in the way I describe in my book. I never though wrote down the whole theory, as it had emerged then, until now. I cannot say exactly why it has taken until now except perhaps to say that it was a vast enterprise requiring three full years of work.

Can you given an overview of the book's theme as it relates to law and legal culture?

We have inherited this constraining “envelope” of being from the 17th and 18th centuries and it saturates legal imagery and thought. It is an analytical discourse that separates thought from feeling. Participating in it involves manipulating concepts that presuppose we are socially separated, disconnected monads floating in space. When we train as lawyers, we are immersed in this discourse and we must accept it.

We can certainly understand this discourse as an expressive part of our evolution – that is, the rising of the liberal individual out of oppressive forms of group coercion. We can even say it was a great achievement for its time. Understanding and accepting that however, we can now throw ourselves into escaping this constraining “envelope” for a new legal culture that emphasises what is most missing in our world which is the capacity to fully recognise each other’s humanity.

This new legal culture heals the legacy of fear of the other. It is a legal culture that fosters, through empathy, compassion and mutual understanding (and through practices that can make that possible) the experience of mutual recognition or of love. Love in the sense of the beauty of apprehending each other’s humanity and being present in each other’s humanity.

You use a powerful metaphor of the "Emperors' New Clothes" to describe the entire legal order in Chapter 7. Can you speak more about this?

Well, this was very clear recently with the publicity around President Trump’s list of Supreme Court nominees. The dominant ideology that all of these ‘Trumpian’ Justices [including the chosen candidate, Brett Kavanaugh] advocate is originalism meaning the only way we can interpret the meaning of the US Constitution is based on the original intent of its founding fathers. I wrote a recent article on this in Tikkun magazine.

It is part of an investiture of majesty into a prior generation of young men who were mostly in their twenties and thirties – the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’. If we give this any level of reflection, we will realise that it is absolutely absurd, surreal and insane for our Highest Courts to think that the only way we can collectively know what we ought to do in a given situation is to try and decipher the intent of a group of young men who lived over two hundred years ago. Nevertheless, in the US, this collective belief is internalised in childhood when the awe surrounding the founding fathers is first transmitted in civics class. It is associated with deference and awe for the American flag which everyone must stand for. One gradually comes to internalise a kind of magical world that is somehow “we” Americans.

For lawyers particularly, this is complicated because we must participate in the discourse in order to realise the potential of the liberal revolutions of the 18th century. Within the ideology of those revolutions were the ideals of liberty and equality and the struggle for non-discrimination. Although our understanding has expanded greatly, we are still trying to carry out those liberal revolutions.

Nevertheless, this current discourse is extraordinarily limited. When we argue within it, we are to some extent participating in the very hallucinatory narrative about reality that we are trying to transcend. For now, however, we are stuck arguing within the liberal ideology in order to realise its possibilities because others believe in it and are participating in it.

So, there is this paradoxical relationship. We cannot yet go into court and just put it out there that true legal equality ought to mean a truly loving world where we can foster and affirm our inter-being and connection. Importantly though, we can really do our best to infuse the discourse or the argument with a meaning beyond its inherited meaning. Within the discourse that is permitted within the room we are in, the room that allows that person to be a Judge and that allows the room to be called a court-room, we can fuse the transcendent within the real inheritance that we are still stuck with.

What about living those qualities of empathy, compassion and mutual understanding in our work on a day-to-day basis in a law firm?

Lawyers cannot really do what they do and remain easily fully present in their bodies. They often have to establish a type of interior barrier that keeps them disconnected from their bodies and their feelings. I often call this the ‘glassy-eyed stare’. Lawyers are often reading their thoughts as they make their arguments. It is this capacity to transpose the life-world into a mental legal schema and then narrate it.

It is very important to remember that humanity always remains, even in the law firm. It is always possible to challenge the ‘glassy-eyed stare’, to thaw the false self, by assertion in the present moment. People working in the law firm are still people. They are not necessarily totally consumed by this “envelope” of being and we can connect with their compassion and humanity.

We have to imagine creating a legal universe where, instead of disconnection and separation, there is a more open kind of awareness that integrates the whole person into the present. Then, a law firm simply contains people coming together seeking to transcend and heal a problem of some kind with each other.

You say we must surrender our detachment and engage in ways of speaking and writing from our being-in-the-world. This shift is a radical one for lawyers as it is completely contrary to what we are taught.

Yes, it is very important. I started out as a writer with the rise of the Critical Legal Studies movement in the US. In that movement, we were people that were shaped by “the sixties”, we identified with the labour movement, the civil rights movement and the gay and lesbian movements and many of us became law professors at that time. We saw that law and legal culture were being rationalised, for example, with the Vietnam War and there was a strong left wing movement to critique this. We wanted to write about how law limited the gains of those movements whether by repressing them altogether or by co-opting them and legitimising the established reality of the “evening news”.

Many of us wrote many articles during that time. And yes, my articles and earlier books are written from the experience of what it is like to live in the world and not from the outside (social phenomenology). The point of the book, and writing this way is part of it, is not to put forward a new belief system but to illuminate a common experience that is masked, or opaque to us, in everyday life. It is to illuminate what we already experience. And to, in that illumination, create in people an experience of self-evident acknowledgment. Like, “Exactly. Yes, that’s it exactly.”

Do you think we are in a time now where the ideas you express are more capable of being heard and received?

I think there is a rising spiritually conscious movement in the world in part born out of the failures of past social movements and the theories that have supported them like Marxism. Basic liberal thought is not producing the world that many people fighting for rights alone have aspired to. The left, more radical, movements have followed theories more heavily based on materialism and redistribution of wealth and power and also have not worked. The internal dynamics within groups has often tended to undermine us and the struggle with the mainstream society. It is a difficult task to change the world! In “the sixties”, the thinking was often hard and angry as it was based on the unjust distribution of wealth and power rather than on the inability to fully recognise each other’s humanity in a loving and caring way. Although the latter was part of my early experience of the movements, it was not articulated in the thinking very well. This has led now, in part, to a more spiritually aware movement that is drawing many people and that is trying to introduce a healing, loving, elevating consciousness. It has been strengthened by women’s’ movements and by other non-male forces. It is a dawning that is different from rational thought.

What final advice would you give to those of us in law seeking to bring in this new legal culture?

We cannot proceed in the direction we are pressing unless we participate, in some way, in a parallel universe. I offer three circles of being-ness in the final chapter of the book. These must be lived however. The outer shift will only follow, or happen alongside, the inner shift in each of us.

First, engage in a spiritual practice on a regular basis which enables you connect with your deepest self so that you do not get drawn off into the artificiality of being a lawyer and playing the role of lawyer.

Second, be part of some kind of group life where you can be recognised for your deep being and not for your prestige, your salary, your role.

And third, engage in some kind of activism where you can articulate a moral direction that is your highest vision for the world. Be visionary about it. For example, if you are going to advocate for universal healthcare, invoke a world in which we are caring for each other’s health, and the health of our families. If you are going to talk about the environment, don’t talk about science and the global warming is going to kill us all. Talk about the incredible beauty of the yellow flowers outside your window (currently outside mine!).

A world that people long for…

Appeal to what it is that we as a people really deeply long for and resonate with. Live from there.

PETER GABEL is the former president of New College of California and was a law professor at New College’s public-interest law school for over thirty years. He has been Editor-at Large of Tikkun magazine for the last thirty years and is now co-chair of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics. He is also currently president of the Arlene Francis Foundation for Spirit, Art and Politics in Santa Rosa, He is the author of many articles on law, politics, and social change; his previous books include The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (Acada Books 2000); Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture (Quid Pro Books 2014).




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