What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America
Tony Schwartz
Bantam Books: New York, 1995.
472 pp. (cloth), $23.95.

Spiritual search is as American as the art of the deal. Most Euro-Buddhists, for instance, have come to the dharma only after leaving behind a Christian, Jewish, or agnostic upbringing and heading for parts unknown. So it’s not surprising that the dust jacket of What Really Matters, Tony Schwartz’s account of his four-year odyssey across the United States in search of “wisdom,” carries enticing blurbs from such American media stars and spiritual icons as Diane Sawyer, Steven Bochco, Larry Dossey, and Ken Wilber. Well, maybe the Wilber quote is surprising (What Really Matters is a magnificent work, executed with style, great intelligence, and great sincerity. . . .”), since Schwartz devotes a chapter of his book to Wilber, author of The Spectrum of Consciousness and other works. In fact, Schwartz notes that Wilber (whom he credits with “an extraordinarily penetrating, synthetic, and discriminating intellect”) is “invariably logical, cogent, and intellectually persuasive . . . warm, charming, patient, generous, funny, insightful, and entertaining.” If after all those effusions, the use of Wilber’s blurb strikes the reader as a bit off, then the book itself probably will, too.

It was in early 1988, Schwartz tells us, shortly after the publication of The Art of the Deal, the bestseller he wrote with Donald Trump, that he noticed something lacking in his life: “I sensed that I was living only a piece of the life I’d been given, a pale reflection of my potential. I was searching for a more complete life, an experience of my own essence, something I came to call wisdom.” Yearning to fill the void of his unrealized potential, Schwartz did what so many Americans do when confronted with a feeling of dissatisfaction: he went shopping.

Tony Schwartz, courtesty of Cassie Arnold.
Tony Schwartz, courtesty of Cassie Arnold.


Schwartz doesn’t call his haphazard spree through America’s spiritual supermarket “shopping,” of course. In his words, he “traveled the country . . . spent hundreds of hours talking with psychologists, philosophers, physicians, mystics,” and so on; he “looked carefully at the ways in which discoveries in more traditional fields such as psychology, medicine, and science nave contributed hard knowledge to the highly subjective challenge of defining a complete life,” and “set out to experiment . . . with techniques, technologies, and practices aimed at transformation.” In the course of his search, Schwartz visited the Esalen Institute several times; underwent biofeedback training; studied with Betty Edwards, learning to draw using the right side of his brain; explored the mind/body/healing connection, particularly the work of Irving Dardik, involving rhythms of exercise and relaxation; learned to play better tennis by applying the psycho-physiological techniques of Jim Loehr; underwent intensive dreamwork with Jeremy Taylor and Montague Ullman; studied the psychological system Helen Palmer has created based on the enneagram, the sacred symbol brought to the West by G. I. Gurdjieff; and talked at length to Ram Dass, Michael Murphy, and Ken Wilber.

He also pursued meditation. But after what appears to have been a few months of vigorous effort, Schwartz concluded that however “valuable the perspective of the higher meditative states, they didn’t seem to provide all of the answers I was seeking.” Reading this, most Buddhists will sigh with relief that the Buddha didn’t come to the same conclusion after a few months of meditation – but then, the Buddha didn’t have a book to write. Despite his conclusion, Schwartz has more to say about meditation; he ends up devoting an entire chapter to vipassana meditation and to two of its foremost teachers in this country, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, cofounders of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

After several brief retreats, Schwartz “practiced mindfulness twenty to forty-five minutes a day, sometimes twice a day,” for more than two years. By “mindfulness” he seems to mean sitting practice; the pursuit of mindfulness always and everywhere seems to have taken a back seat among his interests. He does, however, offer a clear picture of what happens during the initial stages of meditation, particularly how one can sit, observe, drift off, and “snap to,” then drift off again. It’s a shame that Schwartz doesn’t go on at greater length about his sitting experience, but of the 32 pages that constitute the chapter “Seeking the Heart of Wisdom,” only four concern mindfulness practice. Many more are devoted to biographies of Kornfield and Goldstein; similar biographies act as engaging filler in nearly every chapter of the book. Here we learn that, in college, Goldstein was galvanized by reading the Bhagavad Gita; that, during the summer of 1966, Kornfield spent four months living in Haight Ashbury, occasionally dropping acid; and that both men taught at Naropa Institute, the Buddhist-inspired college founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Many more pages still are devoted to a split between Goldstein and Kornfield. In this battle of the meditating titans, the author casts Goldstein as the rigid traditionalist and Kornfield as the flexible modernist (“The more Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg embraced U Pandita’s hard line, the more Kornfield began exploring other approaches to wisdom,” including psychotherapy). Schwartz leaves no doubt as to his preference for Kornfield’s approach. The problem isn’t in his taking sides, however, but in his emphasizing the split in the first place. With 2,500 years of the Buddha’s teaching coming to its latest fruition in America, the fact that Schwartz chooses to focus on a minor rip between two Buddhist teachers is a sign of the journalist’s instinct surpassing that of the seeker.

Schwartz’s journalistic training serves him well on a small scale. When he’s describing minutiae, he proves a competent and entertaining guide. But when dealing with larger ideas, he seems lost at sea without a compass. He gives more or less equal weight to biofeedback training and vipassana, and glosses over the wealth of Buddhist teaching to dwell on gossip.

Throughout What Really Matters, Schwartz seems driven by an apparent need for results. He impatiently flits from one idea or teaching to the next, apparently expecting to heal in a few years wounds that have taken a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, to develop. Claiming to go in search of “wisdom” in America, he avoids talking to any formal representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or the Native American religions, and he never delves into prayer or the sacred. Where is the wisdom in that? It is perhaps true that Schwartz was motivated more by the search for wisdom than by the search for colorful material—with which to fashion a book about the search for wisdom. Even so, in the search for “what really matters,” this book really doesn’t.

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