Herbie Pearlman’s “News at Dawn”: Buddhism on the Box

By Jason M. Rubin

I hate talk radio, especially when I’m driving to work. There’s plenty of talking at work, I don’t need to prepare for it by listening to more talk. So, on those days when I am too lazy to pick out a CD, I scan the radio for music that doesn’t offend my snobby ears. Snobby ears are typically connected to twitchy fingers, the kind that change radio stations frequently when a tune doesn’t appeal. In the course of my daily commute, when I’m feeling particularly picky, I can venture onto a dozen or more different radio stations at different times, hoping to sustain a certain quality of listening experience.

One morning several months ago, my twitchy fingers happened to stop at 90.3FM, the frequency of WZBC, Boston College’s radio station. I like college radio as it is unbound by restrictive playlists. But what I heard on ’ZBC was not indie rock but talk. Yet not just any talk. Talk so strange and curious that I was compelled to listen. The voice was slow and plodding, like a 45 played at 33-1/3. The speaker spoke in a monotone, serious but devoid of emotion. The content was a dialogue between a questioner and someone called Maharaj. I resisted the impulse to switch from this unusual programming. Like a Diane Arbus photograph, it was simply too unusual to look away.

Then came a musical interlude. Leonard Cohen, an extraordinary songwriter who was born Jewish but became a practicing Buddhist later in life. It was clear that I had stumbled upon some kind of a Buddhist program (confirmed later on, when the host took a deep, audible breath and let loose a long “Oooooooommmmm”). I was fascinated by the juxtaposition, the thought-provoking content and the peaceful yet sophisticated musical selections. I regretted it when I found that I had arrived at work, and my radio experience was over.

I eventually went to the WZBC website and realized that the program I heard was called The News at Dawn, hosted by Herbie Pearlman (another JewBu?), and that it aired only on Wednesday mornings from 6-9:30am. I was crushed that I had to wait a week to hear more. Also that I would pretty much always miss the first 90 minutes (too early) and the final 30 minutes (too late) of the show. Even so, I routinely began to show up at work on Wednesday mornings in a much better mood than the other days. Whether or not I heard some piece of wisdom I felt I could or should apply to my own life, I enjoyed the gentle teachings and often surprising songs interspersed throughout the program.

He gets political, too, often speaking out against Israeli aggression and the country’s occupation of disputed territories. It’s no surprise that he is required to read a disclaimer during each program, noting that his views are not necessarily the views of the station, the college, or its Trustees. For a gentle-talking Buddhist, Pearlman has no apparent fear of being controversial.

After several months of listening, I have gained such an appreciation for what Pearlman is doing that I realized I had to speak with him. I had so many questions; chiefly, does he talk like that in real life? (He does. In fact, on his home page is the phrase, “Deep breath, half speed.”) As an executive coach working with C-suite professionals in small companies up to $10 million in revenue, and a Buddhist DJ to boot, Pearlman loves to talk and has no shortage of ideas and thoughts to share. I had allotted 20-30 minutes for our interview, which ran to 90 minutes.

Q: How did you come to Buddhism as a spiritual practice?

Herbie Pearlman: I went to Harvard during the Vietnam War and like all the students of my era it was common to apply for a student deferment, what was known as a 2-S. Each of my first three years, I would go to Widener Library and sign up for my 2-S deferment. In my fourth year, however, a friend stood outside the library and handed out copies of something he wrote. He had come to the realization that by taking the deferment we were complicit, cooperating with the larger system that sends certain people in harm’s way while other people who are deemed more valuable can remain safe in school. Rather than protesting the war, which was easy for us who weren’t going to be part of it, he was protesting taking a deferment. His ideas and his example crystallized my discomfort at being one of the privileged. So I, too, refused to take a deferment and in my senior of college I was drafted.

That winter I had my draft physical. There was an organization called the Boston Draft Resistance Group that advised people on how to resist the draft process without actually breaking the law. For example, you cannot disrupt your physical but you can ask questions. So during a lecture we were being given during the physical process, I asked, “Could you please tell us why we’re in Vietnam?” The sergeant said, “Are you trying to disrupt this process?” Now if I said yes I would have been taken out of that place and processed as a draft disrupter, which could have gotten me prosecuted. So I said “No, I am being asked here to offer my life up to protect freedom and I want to understand better the freedom I’m protecting.”

I wasn’t a conscientious objector because as a Jew I would have fought against Hitler. But I didn’t understand why we were fighting in Vietnam so I spoke out. This was my first time speaking truth to power, which is pretty much what I do for a living now. Anyway, they decided I was too much trouble so I received a 4-F classification, meaning I was not acceptable for military service. I wrote up my experience for the Harvard Crimson, which led many others to do the same. It’s risky, I could have gone to jail but you have to be prepared to pay the price for what you believe in.

Another turning point for me was in 1975 when I did my first Buddhist retreat. I meditated for 12 hours a day, practicing being silent for long stretches of time. That experience really turned my head around. I began working and found my place in executive coaching, where the practice of intentionality and intuition is very valuable.

Q: So how did the radio program come about?

HP: It’s useful to think about who gets to allocate resources and what people do with that resource. Radio station frequencies were allocated to universities, but there are several in Boston that are essentially outsourcing this resource. They don’t have students or volunteers working at the station; they’ve sold out to professional DJs and producers. I’m lucky that Boston College hasn’t done that yet. We’re living in a particular moment, like with the net neutrality issue, all these resources increasingly are becoming privatized and someone like myself who doesn’t buy into the bullshit probably won’t have access to the airwaves in 20 years.

With my program, I’m seeking a kind of synesthesia, where we can easily cross the boundary of sensory experience from hearing to seeing to feeling. That’s where the music comes in. Part of the fun for me is finding artists that help me create a palette of colors I can invoke when I get to a certain experience of feeling. When it’s really working, and it doesn’t always, the music plays itself because it’s exactly right to what we were just talking about. So it could be Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, or it could be the local women’s world music group Libana or Aretha Franklin. I often dance in the studio. My partner is a dancer and it’s a good way to express what you’re feeling. I know that doesn’t come across on radio, but I hope that listeners at the end of each show feel, “Oh I get what he’s doing, he’s practicing and he’s invited me to practice with him. And now I feel better.” It’s powerful to participate in something positive, to take a deep breath, dance, and get on the creative common.

Q: Tell me about the readings you do. Where does the Maharaj material come from? Also, you frequently talk about Israel and other topical issues.

HP: There are a lot of truths out there, a lot of negative truths. It takes effort to look for positive truths and telling the truth also involves confronting the negative truths. The premise of my show is that we will be extinct as a species in 100 years. Knowing that, what truths would we want to say? It’s possible we won’t be extinct, but given the way things are going, it’s likely. The Holocene refers to the last roughly 12,000 years, when the climate on earth supported human life – unlike the previous billions of years when the climate was uninhabitable. We are destroying that climate and we’re probably past the tipping point. In fact, as the temperature goes up we use more carbon from air conditioning, fueled by electricity from coal-fired power plant. It’s a negative cycle. In 2040, there will be 9.9 billion people on the planet – its peak population. In the next decades following that, the population will be decimated. The sea rise will be much higher than anyone’s predicting.

So we’re a ghost species, we’re on the endangered list. And yet it’s possible to do something. The Maharaj dialogues come from a book called I Am That, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. My favorite part is Dialogue 67, where Maharaj tells his questioner: “I am offering you exactly what you need – awakening. … You need cessation, relinquishing, disentanglement. … You need to return to the state in which I am – your natural state. Anything else you may think of is an illusion and an obstacle. Believe me, you need nothing except to be what you are. You imagine you will increase your value by acquisition. It is like gold imagining that an addition of copper will improve it. Elimination and purification, renunciation of all that is foreign to your nature is enough. All else is vanity.”

There is a lot of talk about the 1% in America. For me, Buddhism, which talks about enlightenment, is the flip side of being very rich. It’s a different 1%, the 1% who are beyond the allure of material things. But a lot of what I do on my show also involves confrontation. I have read excerpts from Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, which looks at the Israeli government’s far-right policies. As a Jewish person, I think it’s important not to be complicit in what I call the “Isreality”. You need to speak out. I am estranged from my two brothers because of my position on Israel. One called me an enabler of terrorists. I often get calls asking me why I don’t present the other side. I say you can get the other side on NPR or Fox News or NBC, why don’t you call them to broadcast the side that I’m broadcasting? You need to have a thick shell to do what I’m doing.

To learn more about Herbie Pearlman, go to his website: herbiepearlman.com.

To hear his program, listen live at http://wzbc.org/index.html#listen.

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