PW: Your latest work, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, offers readers a provocative new way to think about American ideals and about what it could mean to be an American. You describe how democratic principles that most people take to be purely political can also be interpreted as intensely personal, spiritual values. What was your inspiration?
JN: Many years ago, a friend of mine and I began talking about the deep spiritual roots of America. As I began to look at American history and the lives of the founders, I was stunned by the resonance that some of the ideas had with some of the great spiritual teachings.
PW: What is the soul?
JN: It is a sense of self or an identity that is our deepest nature. Often we are alienated from it by identifying with what society and convention tell us we are.
PW: The compassion and heroism and general wish to help that we saw after the attacks on September 11, was that an emergence of the American soul?
JN: Yes, there has been this feeling for the country that has not been allowed to surface from under our consumerism and a hundred other things that get in the way, and we see that right under the surface there is this love, this humanity, this goodwill.
PW: Just after the attacks many people commented that they were encountering feelings and values that they didn't know they had.
JN: On many levels, the spirituality of Americans is becoming apparent, and not the harsh fundamentalist religiosity. It is a spirituality that is the search for love, compassion and truth within ourselves, and this is under some of the ideas and ideals that have been understood to be purely political or economic, purely external.
PW: You explore how our great icons of leadership and the democratic spirit—Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln—can become a fresh source of spiritual inspiration and guidance. For example, you discuss the way George Washington famously yielded power at the end of the revolution, retiring to his farm and defying the expectations of observers everywhere that he would flow from the role of conquering hero to king. You describe him as a man of spiritual power, emphasizing his impressive physical presence, his quiet dignity. Suddenly, he seems like a meditation master.
JN: First let me say that what I'm trying to do in the book is call for a remythologization or retelling of the American story or the American myth for grown-ups who are seeking the truth. It is not a history book. I am trying to find a new depth to a story and to heroes who have become clichés and have lost their meaning. The effect Washington had on the world by stepping back was momentous. What he did can resonate with spiritual teachings about real power—that an inner yielding of egoistic power can lead to a greater power and authority. Why shouldn't we take Washington and let him represent the dignity of a human being who steps back from grasping egoistically? The descriptions of the beautiful way he sat on a horse or the force of his physical presence in a room I take to be another mythic indicator. He can be seen as a man in an attentive relationship to his body, who had a connection between his mind and his body. So, he can be seen as being like a meditation master or a martial arts master in the ultimate spiritual context.
PW: Readers will come away with a strong impression of Lincoln's face.
JN: I think the deepest icon of America is the face of Lincoln. When you meditate on that face, you realize that here was a man who was extremely ambitious. But then he got into the war and saw the cost of lives and yet he had this intention to keep the union together no matter what—the remorse that must have surged through that man. Like Washington stepping back from power or Jefferson submitting to the group at the Constitutional Convention, this is another icon of the ego yielding to something greater. And this is what the myth of America can be. It doesn't prevent us from being fierce when we have to, and it hasn't prevented us from making big mistakes. But America is still the place in the world that provides the conditions for the search for individual conscience.