Wise & Wild

Take Full Responsibility for Your Awakening

Interview with Lonny Jarrett, by Adina Dabija

Lonny Jarrett is recognized worldwide as a leading practitioner, author, scholar and teacher of East Asian medicine. Throughout his career, he has been devoted to advancing the practice of this medicine. Lonny has been practicing Acupuncture and Herbology in Stockbridge, Massachusetts since 1986. He holds Master’s Degrees in Neurobiology (University of Michigan) and Acupuncture (Traditional Acupuncture Institute).  Lonny is the curator of Nourishing Destiny, a vibrant online community dedicated to discussing ideas, presenting cases, learning, and advancing the practice of Asian Medicine. 

Lonny, when I was in the acupuncture school, I would go to the school library and read your book Nourishing Destiny instead of studying the boring textbooks for my exams… Thank you so much for that book, I could feel the passion that you put in writing it, and it really inspired me to pursue my studies in Asian Medicine. I found it important, as a student in Asian medicine, to connect to books that offer a higher perspective and a way of tuning in to yourself. Going back to Nourishing Destiny, do you think it is easier for the young generation of our days to find a path in life compared to previous times in history? Is it easier to aim for a meaningful and fulfilling path in which autonomy and self-sufficiency could be an integral part?

If a person lives their life in the right way, then, as they age, they will gain a depth of understanding and engender more profound capacities within the self. This idea of fulfilling destiny, that I dedicated my first book Nourishing Destiny to, was something that came from high sages in 500 BCE in the Shen Nong Ben Cao (Classic of the Materia Medica) and was elaborated in the Daoist tradition, in the Dao De Jing (“Classic of the Way and Virtue”, 400 BCE) and in Zhuangzi’s writings. But we have to understand that the philosophical discourse regarding the fulfillment of individual destiny was held by the most developed people at the time and it was the destiny of the average person in ancient China to work all their life to pay for the emperor’s funeral and then die. So, this notion that we have about being individuals, gaining autonomy, and self-authoring is really something that has only blossomed in Western culture since the 1950s – really coming online in the mainstream in the 1960s. It’s important to understand that most of the world is still at the magic or mythic stage of consciousness. In the USA roughly thirty percent of people are still in the magic-mythic membership of consciousness, which is a pre-personal stage of development. In the 1960s or 1970s they would have been called conformists – conforming to a culturally programmed set of rules that are thousands of years old, unquestioned, unexamined, patriarchal, a top-down hierarchy based on gender, skin color and nationality. And it’s really a small percentage of the nation that really holds the value that an individual should exist in the political-economic context of being able to self-author and develop themselves. And even if we read literature on self-authoring, I think we have to acknowledge that the value of becoming self-authored has throughout history been reserved for men, and in terms of the notion that a woman should gain autonomy, that concept emerged in the West as a popular movement in about 1850. This recent Supreme Court decision (Dobbs v. Jackson – 2022) to take a woman’s bodily autonomy away in terms of her right to choose an abortion is still at the forefront of the debate that a woman should even have autonomy. So, when we talk about this notion of an individual gaining autonomy it’s only a small percentage that holds it and honors the idea that the principle of autonomy should extend to women as well. This is not a settled issue, we are still in a cultural battle around the idea of autonomy, let alone the autonomy for women. And artists, musicians, poets, and authors in our culture who express positions that are outside of the social norm are still branded by a very large part of culture as outcasts, and would be severely repressed if they would get their way.

Historically, the formation of the USA as an independent country was based on the notion of breaking free from the influence of the British Empire and finding autonomy and self-sufficiency. Do you think that these values still hold true here, in our times?

When we read the constitution of the United States, we can be deeply inspired by the vision that the founders had – Jefferson and John Adams – who literally advocated in their own writing for perpetual revolution, putting everything on the table for examination, deconstructing it and always having a revolutionary attitude. However, the constitution was written only for men, not for women and also it didn’t outlaw slavery – Jefferson owned slaves all his life. At the end of his life, he freed many of his slaves and he set up a trust fund to support some of them for the rest of their lives, but that is not the same as having taken a stand for their freedom when he personally had a price to pay for doing so. So, we can see that the constitution really elaborated a profound vision and that many of the men who wrote it – it was written exclusively by men – were visionaries, mostly in their early to late twenties, they were young, and they had the revolutionary spirit of youth. I think one of them, Benjamin Franklin, said “We’re giving you a republic, if you can keep it”.

We are still fighting the civil war culturally – because 30% of people are at the pre-personal stage of development and another very large segment is merely at the rational stage and relatively a small percentage of the population – a few percentage points – have evolved to the integral stage of development.

Walking up to self’s subtle and very subtle dimensions

Are these categories from Ken Wilber’s integral theory?

Ken Wilber’s integral theory is a map of maps. In his book “Integral Psychology”, he literally has a thirty page plus chart of hierarchy of state and stage development, created in all traditions of humanity to show how they all relate to each other. But he did not generate these maps. These maps were generated by a multiplicity of cultures over a great period of time. So the Daoists and The Buddhists tend to be hierarchies of state-development. Development involves walking up, growing up, cleaning up and showing up. Most people only know themselves as a body, they haven’t differentiated as individuals out of that body and the part of their mind that is awake is only the part that reflects the apparent reality and separation of the physical world. And then of course there is a subtle dimension to the self, that is activated in daydreaming, imagination, and dreaming. We can access those states in contemplation and meditation or through taking entheogens. So that’s the subtle dimension of the self, which is the psyche – the soul – and beyond that there is spirit, which is the very subtle dimension of the self.

Source: Integral Academy Hungary, teaching material. 

So waking up means opening up to the increasingly more subtle dimensions of the self. And all of the traditions, all their hierarchies, have to do with waking up and not growing up, which is stage development. Understanding the evolution of stage development, Growing up, is relatively new. It came online in the early part of the last century and really blossomed in the 40s and 50s with Piaget, Kohlberg, Jane Loevinger and Abraham Maslow and all the developmental psychologists who started creating hierarchies of human development, explaining how ego structures develop over the course of a lifetime. So, a three-month-old dreams, a five-year-old dreams, but most adult people disregard their dreams, and they only know the world as a physical world – so waking up means doing practices like meditation and contemplation to really be able to stabilize our relationships to higher states. But then there is growing up, and only probably thirty percent of humanity in the west is at a post-modern stage of development. Postmodern means that we can hold multiple perspectives simultaneously. So, for someone who is at the mythic stage of development and masters their religion – anyone else is going to hell, anyone else is wrong. And someone at a rational stage of development can master their discipline – so you have rational scientists who are ultra-specialized – one is a heart specialist, one focuses on the immune system, then you have a psychologist, who only focuses on the mind. So people at the rational stage can master one discipline. But when you get to postmodern, that’s where you see world-music emerge, and a synthesis of cultures, so people are pluralists and start to hold many perspectives simultaneously. I can read the Torah,  the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Dao De Jing, Confucius, Mahayana Buddhism, and the Old Testament and the New Testament. I can honor the differences between them, but I can also see the universal truths that are being expressed in them. So all of these stages of development – people at magic, rational and postmodern stage- they are all at war with each other. And that’s the cultural war.

Would the postmodern approach apply to practice also? Understanding is not the same as practice. If one practice or tradition of practices fills one’s heart, why would one need to embrace more than one?

When an individual is truly at a postmodern stage of development, they break free from culturally constructed hierarchies. All of the traditions are beautiful, and they all have profound insights, but they are almost all based on dominator patriarchal top-down male oriented hierarchies. So, what happened in the 60s with the postmodern people who became disillusioned with the materialism of the West – they looked to the eastern traditions for psychological, spiritual and emotional depth. George Harrison was playing sitar on the Beatles’ album Revolver, and the Beatles were studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought transcendental meditation to the US. Then yoga came over. J. Khrisnamurti was brought over early in the 20th century by Madame Blavatsky and the eastern traditions started coming west. People who were at a postmodern stage of development started studying the eastern traditions and adapted their practices with teachers who were at a lower than postmodern stage of development – they were still at a magic to mythic stage of development. A perfect example would be Chögyam Trungpa, who brought the Tibetan Buddhism to the West, who himself was at a mythic-rational stage of development, while his students were at a postmodern stage of development – free love, free sex, and he slept with hundreds of them and drank himself to death. So, you have all these students who are at the level of postmodern development being fit into a rigid, top-down, patriarchal, guru structure, where there was lots of secrecy, it was all about the teacher, who was almost always male, and the teacher just had their way with the female students frankly and with many of the male students too and this led to a lot of pain and disillusionment. So, there is only probably 3% of culture in the West and far less in the East who is at the integral stage of development. When we talk about the very first stages beyond integral, we are talking .1 or .01 percent of humanity.

Awakening through Music

I would like now, if you allow me, to go to your own story. How did you first hear your calling and what were some of the challenges that you encountered on your path?

The first memory I have of what in retrospect was my first awakening was when I heard the first chord of the Beatle song A Hard Day’s Night in 1964. I was six years old, and my parents would always buy new record albums and they put on that song, and I heard that first chord and I was like… what is that? And then I said to myself: “Something is going on and I have to find out what it is!” and I started taking guitar lessons. The first guitar school in America was across the street from my fourth-grade class, it was literally two hundred feet from my classroom.

Where was that?

In a town called Roslyn, in Long Island. Some hippies got a place and set up a guitar school. This guy named Kent Sidon was a beatnik and a folkie from the 1950s. And I started studying guitar in 1967, I played guitar my whole life, I played in jazz bands. That year Jimi Hendrix’s first album came out, Sgt. Pepper came out, the first Pink Floyd album, and I was listening to all this music. I was only 9 or 10 and I didn’t understand most of what they were singing about, but I loved the music – I think Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was the first tune I ever learned to play.

So music really opened your path!

Yes. Music was my artistic form of self-expression when I was a kid and most of my life. So, through the Beatles I got introduced to Tim Leary, Alan Ginsberg, Baba Ramdass, Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley and I started reading their books. And, when I was 14, I found all James Legge’s and James Ware’s translations of the Chinese philosophical texts in my mother’s library. I began reading the I Jing, the Dao De Jing, Sun Tzu, Lao Zi and all of the Buddhists, Daoist and Confucianist texts and the Bhagavad Gita. I went to a high school with no grades and no tests, where you designed your own program, and my courses were psychology, philosophy and comparative religious literature.

“Being free was a great value when I was growing up”

Was this a Waldorf school?

No, it wasn’t a Waldorf school. It was a hippie school. Run inside the regular high school. They taught me how to be free. Being free was a great value when I was growing up. And then I went to a college – the only college I applied to – Hampshire College. It’s a school where you design your own program. And I took 32 bioscience courses in college. I wish I studied music and Chinese, but I was single-minded in genetics and molecular biology and neuroscience. And I spent my last year of college at Albert Einstein’s Medical School publishing neurobiology research in science journals. Then, I went to the University of Massachusetts for a year, and I did molecular biological research, I had my photographs of DNA – which were the best taken at that time published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – and I got a full scholarship to the graduate school in Neuroscience at University of Michigan when I was 22. The year I took off to work at University of Massachusetts I took a course in Five-element acupuncture. I actually have written my college entrance essay on the difference between Chinese philosophy and the Western worldview, and I talked about acupuncture in my essay when I was 17. When I was 22, I took a ten-week course in acupuncture from one of J.R. Worsley’s students. Worsley taught the Five-elements in England, and he is the one who kept the Five-element tradition alive. I thought a lot of his students were in a personality cult. I broke away and I don’t have much to do with those that seek to preserve that tradition as it was. My red book, The Clinical Practice of Chinese Medicine is the most comprehensive on his tradition that’s been published. He discouraged scholarship, so his students tended to not write books. At any rate, I took a ten-week class and, while I was in the middle of the class, I got a full scholarship at University of Michigan and couldn’t turn it down, it was one of the best neuroscience programs in the world. So, I was in a PhD program, but I was getting tired of how narrow-minded neuroscientists were and I had this revelation in the first year of graduate school that neuroscience had nothing to do with consciousness. Rather, it was all about the body and about cells and about electricity, but nothing to do whatsoever with consciousness.

“Neuroscience has nothing to do with consciousness”

Do you still think that?

Yes, I do. Neuroscience has nothing to do with consciousness, you cannot study consciousness with a microscope. You can study consciousness directly through contemplation and meditation. You can study how the physical body works. But neuroscientists think consciousness comes from the brain as opposed to realizing that the brain arises simultaneously with consciousness. And the person to reference for that discussion is Bernardo Kastrup and the book to read would be “More Than Allegory”. He has a blog on Scientific American where he debates with all the neuroscientists, who are claiming that consciousness arises from the brain, and he goes head-to-head with them making the case that there is no way that they can prove that – they have no data – and that consciousness actually precedes the brain.

In graduate school I had to give a thesis proposal and I proposed to study the innervation in the brain of the acupuncture shu points and map the shu points into the brain using neurophysiology, molecular biology, CT scans, which was a technology that was invented when I was in school. After I gave my presentation, people were screaming and yelling at each other. The next day, one of the students came to me and said: “I’m passing you this message: if you take your preliminary examinations, they’re going to fail you. They want you to take a master’s degree and just leave”.

That’s unbelievable!

So now, one of the heads of anesthesiology at University of Michigan is the president of the society for acupuncture research. But that’s forty years later. So, I was a grad student there in 1982. In 1983 I left there, went back to Albert Einstein, worked for a year, earned the money and went to acupuncture school. When I was in school, I met Leon Hammer and I spent ten years organizing his teachings out of my office and apprenticing with him to learn his pulse diagnosis and I also spent two years studying herbs with Ted Kaptchuck. And, when I was 25, I worked with J.R. Worsley for one month in England. I graduated acupuncture school when I was 28. Since then, I’ve published 50 articles and wrote three books.

“I gave up a PhD from University of Michigan to get a certificate from an agency in Maryland that accredited people who cut dog hair”

Impressive! Could you share some challenges that you had on your path and how did you push through those challenges?

One of the first challenges that I had in my life was finding the courage to give up a full scholarship in neuroscience to go into a career that almost no one has ever heard of in the west. I gave up a PhD from University of Michigan to get a certificate from an agency in Maryland that accredited people who cut dog hair. I got a certificate of competence from some board in Maryland instead of a PhD in neuroscience. So, I had to believe in myself profoundly to walk away from a field where basically I was walking into a full professorship at some university and was about to spend my life being a slave of the National Institute of Health being told what to research and spending my whole life writing grants so, thank God, I had the courage to walk away from that. Another big challenge was when I wrote my first book Nourishing Destiny. It was rejected by the first forty publishers I sent it to.

I can’t believe that!

I called one of the publishers and I asked them why they are rejecting my book. And they said that, “there is no commercial potential, nobody would be interested in this.” Even Shambala asked to see my book three separate times and turned it down each time. So finally, the Internet came along, which meant that, all of a sudden, for the first time in history, I had the capacity to publish my works on my own.  So, I hired an editor, a book designer, and a page setter for all of my three books.

Congratulations, that’s a lot of courage!

Yes, these books still sell, and they are used as textbooks. I think by far my best book is the green book. It’s too bad it’s in the field of Chinese medicine, because it it is perhaps the deepest syntheses on Integral Medicine that exists, but it’s only known by people in Chinese Medicine because I wrote it in the language of Chinese Medicine.

You could always change the language…

I’m done writing!

How do you know that?

It took fifteen years to write the black book, six years to write the red book, and seventeen years to write the green book and I am sixty-four. I am not taking another sixteen yearlong project. I’m spending my time doing photography and music and enjoying my family and teaching. I love teaching and I will always teach. But I’m working in my clinic one more year and then giving up clinic and I will be simply teaching and giving retreats for people who really want to develop. My shadow work course is going into a really deep psychological approach into shadow, and I am going to give a retreat next fall (2023) on the Bodhisattva vow for people who want to meditate, contemplate and have intersubjective discussion groups and do serious practice.

No progress is possible without shadow resolution

I am familiar with the Jungian concept of shadow. But what is “shadow” in Chinese Medicine? Are you referring to “po spirits”? 

It depends – because people who wrote Chinese Medicine are at different stages of development. The person who wrote the Shen Nong Ben Cao was very much at the magic stage of development. And you can tell this because, even though there is some emerging rationality in the text, the author is constantly talking about flying and ghosts and sex with demons and making the body light and all these kinds of magical concepts. The Nei Jing is a mythic-rational text. A lot of scholars would say it is purely rational, and it is significantly rational, but it takes place between two mythological characters that never lived, the Yellow Emperor and Qi Bo. And the first question is “How come men used to be able to have children into old age and people lived to be hundreds of years old and now everybody is decrepit in their fifties?” And the answer is because the sages followed the laws of yin and yang. So if you were in 500 BC and you are looking at the sages of old who lived in harmony with nature  – those were cave people before civilization. And the answer is that people from 500 BC have too much sex, food and alcohol. So that’s a mythic -membership notion meant to civilize the lower impulses. There is an author from 1600 or 1700 who wrote that a person who is suspicious will experience everybody else as suspicious and the person who is full of ghosts themselves, will see ghosts everywhere. That’s an example of the concept of repression and projection. So in the magic and mythic stages of development, shadow is understood as demons or ghosts, as Other. And then in later stages, we start to see authors who begin to talk about the shadow as self. Freud said that the unconscious was discovered by poets. And then Jung and his student Erich Neumann went much further. I would suggest you read Erich Neumann’s book “Origin and History of Consciousness” and “The Great Mother”, in which he looks at the feminine archetype in all cultures throughout history. So, we can understand shadow in Chinese Medicine as internally arising and internalized pathogens that are repressed and then projected, and we can understand one of the main paths of the shadow resolution to be the draining of pathogens. So there are two courses of action in Chinese medicine: 1 – strengthening the presence of what’s real – jing, qi and shen and 2- eliminating the presence of what is false. And shadow work involves those two things. People cannot healthfully progress in stage development without resolving their shadow. You could wake up in state development and never deal with shadow. You can wake up to non-duality to the point where when people get close to you their heart and mind explode in a field of light and they discover themselves as infinite light and love, but none of that resolves shadow. The mythic illusion is that it resolves shadow. So you have all these post-modern people pursuing tantric sex and yoga and meditation and qi gong and LSD to have the experience of oneness, but experience does not necessarily resolve shadow. You can wake up without having significant shadow resolution. When you wake up, you are sitting in the center of the sun and you don’t see a shadow and the illusion is that the shadow is gone, but it isn’t gone. And the problem with this is that you have people who wake up at high spiritual level but they never resolve their shadow and they are the ones who steal from their students, abuse their students psychologically and even sexually because the walking up creates an illusion that they don’t have a shadow and they think they are one with the absolute and because students have powerful experiences around them, they fail to see that the teacher is actually frozen at a very low stage of development. I’ve seen teachers who have never done shadow work to resolve their lower structures who are very abusive. They tend to adopt a top-down patriarchal dominator hierarchy as their social model and this doesn’t work for the people at the postmodern stage of development, or higher, and most of their teachings fall apart.

That is a shame. Lonny, what advice would you offer to someone trying to find out their path in life?

Question every rule. Deeply and profoundly contemplate the question “Who am I?”. Read a great variety of writers and traditions. Find a mentor who looks to you like the kind of individual you would like to be some day. When you awaken, take full responsibility for your awakening and never project it on someone who facilitated it. Recognize that your awakening is the product of all the work you have done in this lifetime and potentially tens of thousands of lifetimes and never give away your own power.

“Killing” the teacher is painful, but profoundly liberating

What do you mean by taking responsibility for your awakening?

What tends to happen is that people grow in the presence of a mentor, and they project all the divine aspects of themselves on the mentor. Then, when they are awakening, they think the mentor saved their life and they owe their life to the teacher and then, eventually, they get disillusioned because nobody is perfect, and they have to “kill” the teacher for the sake of their own autonomy and it’s just better not to have to go through all that.

You went through that – so you know it.


At the Daoist Conference, July 2022

Freedom is a profound obligation

Me too! It is painful.

Yes, it’s painful, but profoundly liberating. I was with three teachers. I was completely committed, absolutely immersed for twelve years in my last community and I watched the entire teaching fall apart within 72 hours, the whole worldwide community. And for three years after, I learned as much watching it fall apart as I did in the previous 25 years of spiritual engagement. And now I am free. So, the point is to be free, but freedom is a profound obligation. The context in which I hold my life is the Bodhisattva vow and that context is: “I didn’t have to come back, and I agreed to come back no matter what great misfortunes I might experience for the privilege of being a vehicle to carry the wounded and the suffering to the distant shore and help others.” So, all of my experience, all of my suffering in life is contextualized by a deeper, wider care for others and I recognize myself as the vehicle for the emergence into existence of the truth, the good and the beautiful. And that’s who I am and that’s what I am. The fundamental force of life is love and it is my experience that if we give absolutely to love with no conditions, love will root out in us every physical and psychic structure that opposes the expression of love, and that’s the practice.

Lonny, thank you very much!