Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, Equanimity, and… Box Office?

An interview with Tom Shadyac


Before a bicycle accident left him suffering from post-concussion syndrome, Tom Shadyac was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. Odds are, you've seen at least one of his movies: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Patch Adams, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty, to list a few. But the head trauma led to spiritual longing, and Shadyac was compelled to explore another side of himself. His latest film, I AM, which opened in select theaters in February and will likely see a wider release soon, investigates how we, as individuals and as a society, can improve our own lives and the lives of others. The film features interviews with Desmond Tutu, the late Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. Shadyac's father, who did not live to see the film's release, is also interviewed, having devoted his life to charity work at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee. When he began to recover from his injuries, Shadyac abandoned his lavish lifestyle to take up a simpler life.

In March, I accompanied Tricycle Editor and Publisher James Shaheen to interview Shadyac in midtown Manhattan. What follows is some of what Shadyac is thinking about these days, primarily the ideas explored in I AM.

—Sam Mowe

You start the film with two questions: What's wrong with the world? and What can we do about it? Is there a nutshell answer to this? Can you boil it down at all? I would boil it down this way, without giving away too much of the journey of the film. We're not seeing things as they are. We've created a society that's based on an illusion. So I'll give you Einstein's answer very quickly. We have to widen our circle of compassion to include all of mankind and the whole of the natural world. The illusion is that we're separate.

When I watched the film, I was impressed by your enthusiasm and optimism. And yet, this came out of an experience that included a lot of pain and heartache. Do you have any spiritual practice that carries you through periods of doubt? I was raised in the Catholic tradition. So I'm recovering. But I may have been a monk in a past life [laughs]. I've been doing a practice called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” You read something that inspires you. And it can launch you into a meditation and introspection. And you kind of absorb that reading. It's what I call real food, real nutrition. So I try to start my day that way. I'll sit in a poem. I'll sit in a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson or Thomas Merton or Rainer Maria Rilke. And I will try to absorb that and to use it as a shield against all that's unreal.

You mention that Morgan Freeman introduced you to a lot of writers that you hadn't read before. Yeah, one in particular: Daniel Quinn [an American writer who often writes about the environment]. Quinn just woke me up how this has all been invented, that there were other cultures that invented totally different ways of doing things.

I was introduced to the moral teachings of Jesus. Not to be cliché about this, and I don’t mean it in a dogmatic sense, in any way. But there was a power there that spoke to me. So if there's any mentor, it would be him. But since then, I've found a modern day poet named Mary Oliver, whose poetry lights up my soul. I considered her a modern-day Emerson. I love Emerson. I think Emerson is just a lightening rod for so much truth.

You end the film on a very optimistic note. You look at what's right with the world. And you advocate constructive engagement and being of use to other people. What sort of action do you advocate? I made a film. Others may start a conversation. They may write an article. They may shift, not in material resources, but in how they walk in the world. Being more present, kinder.

I think it's important that I don't tell anyone what to do. I'm not standing here, sitting here with you today because anyone told me what to do. People turned me on to principles. And then, they said, "It's up to you now. How does that principle move in your heart?" People want to know what to do very desperately. And yet, I think this film is much more about not what to do, but who to be and who you are. And the walk starts from there. And it's okay to be confused. Emerson says, “People wish to be settled: only as far they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” So I think that unsettledness that people have after they may see the movie, even though it's very hopeful, "Oh, what do I do? How do I participate? What's my next step?" That's a good thing. Be in that unsettledness. Sit in it. Speak to your friend, your brother, your spouse, your cousin, about it, and take a step. And then, you will write your own story, and I will not write it for you.

One premise of the film—drawn from a number of scientific and spiritual thinkers—is that our DNA favors compassion, consensus, cooperation, over that darker side of ourselves. There's a lot of optimism there, to say that we're wired for compassion. Are we also wired for violence? I think we have the choice. And we certainly have the capacity to do either. But I don't think we're necessarily hard-wired for it. Hate breaks down your immune systems. Hate can function and work well for you in certain situations, but if you live in that state, it breaks you down. I think that whatever created us knew that if that was true that we wouldn't live very long. If a hateful person rises up, like Hitler, the world rails against that and says, "Never again." That's more powerful, you see?

I didn't want to be one sided. And I don't personally believe it's one sided. Gandhi said it's either true or not that love is more powerful than hate. If it's not, don't ever think about non-violence again. You should dismiss it. But if love is more powerful than hate, then, you should consider it. Because when a hateful act is met with a hateful act, we know what that looks like. We know what that feels like. When you see me meet that hateful act and take your blow in love, is that more powerful? Does that speak to your heart in a more powerful way? For me, it 100 percent tangibly does. When I see 9-11 happen, I see a hateful act. When I see the love that poured forth in this city, New York, after that and throughout the world, I see love more powerful than that hate. We were healing in that time. In that dark time we were healing. And then, over time, we forget. And we stick with the old paradigm. Oh, we've got to go after that hate with more hate, you know?

It's a story we don't tell. We just had a shooting in Arizona. And that was a hateful act. We can't even call it hate, because the person may have been mentally ill. In any case, his life had gone askew. And there wasn't anyone reaching in with understanding. But the millions of people who said prayers, showed kindness, wrote notes, spoke to a loved one, held a loved one tighter, thought about their own communities, never gets reported—not the millions of acts of cooperation that go into running the city. That's the larger story that we don't tell. And the reason we don't tell it is the other story is the aberration. It's the exception. So we’ve crafted our society based on the exception. We need to rethink that, I believe, and craft it on who we are.

In the film, your father tempers his faith with skepticism. He was skeptical about our ability to carry the love and compassion we cultivate in church into the world. In Buddhism, there are various practices that teach us to cultivate what we call the Four Immeasurables or the four Brahma Viharas—compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and… Box office?

Box office; right. [Laughs.] But your father questions whether it's realistic to think that we can practice outside of the church, or the place of our spiritual practice, or among those who are very close to. Is I Am, movie an attempt to take it out into the world? Of course, yes. It's an attempt to look at the sadness of that idea that you can compartmentalize. Our science is now saying there is no compartmentalization. Everything is one, connected. And the fact that my father thought that it was just who we are, that we were moral on Sunday and amoral on Monday is—I think my father was taught well by this society and this vision. And that was unheard of in native cultures. They didn't wake up as one with the earth and then go destroy the earth. This is something that has developed over the course of mankind's evolution. Explain to me St. Jude Children's Research Hospital [Shadyac’s father, Richard, devoted his life’s work to the Tennessee-based charitable hospital]. My dad is evidence against his own statement. He did the very thing he said couldn’t be done. He walked outside with those values from church. And he brought them into the boardroom on Monday and said, "Let's cure cancer. Let's help children. And let's not make money off of it." "Dad, I thought that wasn't possible? You did it."

Often among Buddhists we hear that there is no distinction between our spiritual practice and our lives. Our life is our practice, so how do we practice? I agree fully. Well stated. Your life is your practice. Beautiful.

It seemed to me that's what you were doing when you made the documentary. And the next documentary you're making, what is it, "Earth Walk"? I'm making another documentary? I can't wait to hear what it is.

Maybe it's not a documentary. There's something somewhere in the film... Oh, "Planetwalker." Yeah, that's a narrative.  It’s a true story of a gentleman with these very same principles. He changes his life. He saw an oil spill and changed his life. He thought he could have power. His life became his message. Rather than pointing at the damn oil company that's so greedy and selfish and pollutes the bay, he thought, "Oh, I'm participating in that." And he changed his life. His name is John Francis. What difference are you going to make, St. Francis? What difference are you going to make Jesus? The whole world doesn't really care about what you're doing. And yet, you and I are in a room talking about John Francis. He's one of the founding fathers of the environmental movement. We're still talking about Jesus. We're still talking about St. Francis. A lot of great things are born from crazy.

What is your relationship is to your previous films now? Sexy. I am still very attracted to them. I, in no way, feel any less—if I feel anything, I feel more— affection toward them. You know, they were all attempts—imperfect attempts—to spread some idea that I felt was important. They are a part of my heart. Even a silly film like Ace Ventura is about spreading joy in a childlike quality and a respect for nature. Patch Adams is about serving each other. And Liar Liar is about the truth setting us free. What I don't support is the way I did business within those paradigms. I look back at that and say, "Hmm, that's something that I needed to rethink. I wouldn't have had to make I Am, in other words, if I had been awake to the idea that I wanted to be unified in my life. I could've been my own message. And you could've just looked at my life and read the story about my life, rather than me talking about the journey and the imperfection.

In order for you to get there it took something very traumatic, a bicycle accident, post-concussion syndrome, and a lot of suffering. Is it possible to get there without all the headache, so to speak? Well, there are couple of ways you can go about it. One is the dark night of the soul, very personally. But the other one is to look around you and see all the suffering around you. In the course of this interview, somebody died from lack of medical care, hunger. Some part of the earth was raped or pillaged for greed, for excess. It's all around us. And we simply have to look. Ignorance is from the word “ignore” We're just ignoring what's all around us. So I think life is showing us we're at a point where we can't ignore it anymore. Who's fixing this economy? We can't fix it throwing a lot of money here, a lot of money there.

We talk so much about the economy as if it were a force of nature or as if the “free market” were a simple fact of nature. We don't spend a lot of time asking ourselves, "Is that really true? And what is an economy for?"
Yes. That's exactly right. And the answer is no, it's not true, you know? This is invented. This example I used, just one example, is the law of supply and demand. We're taught that that's a law. It's not a law. If that's the last bottle of water in all of New York, we're taught that the price of that goes up. That's a law. But that's not true. I can choose to share it freely with you. It's a choice to raise the price. But we believe that no, it's not a choice. But it’s a choice. Do you think it's a choice or a law that the gasoline prices rose? People are choosing to raise the price. They're choosing.

What is an economy for? is such a great question. We forgot. And we've linked it now with money. It's to raise money. Because money, we thought, was a step toward a life of meaning, purpose and joy. But that's no longer true. We know now what we've studied in positive psychology. But we haven't gotten off that same train.

What is an economy for? It should be to serve a life of beauty and meaning, connection, quality. That's what the economy's for, to serve us.

Do you ever ask yourself, is there anything to do besides serving others? Is there a better thing to do? If you think of it, let me know.

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