How George Leonard Showed Me the Tao

How George Leonard Showed Me the Tao July 20, 2016

George Leonard youtube
photo from YouTube

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My one and only flesh and blood brush with the ancient wisdom tradition of Taoism took place years ago when I was a young journalist newly arrived in San Francisco. Looking for new contacts and connections in my adopted city, I called up a fellow journalist, George Leonard.

George and I knew each other in New York during the ’60s when we both worked at Look magazine. That is to say, George and I were aware of each other when we were at Look — I more aware of George than he of me.

I was a very young editorial secretary — and not a very good one. (My bosses were people like Betty Rollin, Jack Shepherd and Pat Carbine.) He was a Look writer and a star. He was documenting — no, inspiring — the youth and human potential movements that were fermenting in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time.

George Leonard – Author and Athlete


George has just published his Education and Ecstasy. He later wrote The Way of Aikido, Mastery and The Ultimate Athlete. He went on to become a long-time influence at the Esalen Institute. And even in his later years he was as formidable physically as he was intellectually; he took up Aikido at mid-life and earned a fifth-degree black belt. He died in 2010 at the age of 86.

Though he barely knew me, George was kind enough to meet with me when I first arrived in San Francisco from New York. During that conversation, he gave me some advice I’ve kept pasted to the inside of my forehead ever since.

We were talking about story ideas, and I told him I had a big one. I thought it was pretty hot, but I didn’t want to reveal it. At Look, story ideas were gold; we treated them like state secrets. If we didn’t keep them under wraps, our competition — Life magazine — might get wind of them and scoop us. We hoarded our ideas.

A Brush With the Tao


George’s response took me by surprise. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Ideas are not in finite supply. The more you give away, the more you generate. That’s the way the universe works.”

Those aren’t George’s exact words. But they are the way I’ve remembered, interpreted and reinterpreted them over the years. And, for me, they embody what little I have experienced of the Tao. It seems to me that it, like life and all of the things in it including my bright story ideas then and now, is a generous flow. It cannot be grasped or possessed; it can only be accepted.

Following George’s dictum, “The more you give away, the more you generate,” has been a useful practice for me as a person and as a writer. As a writer, I’ve learned over time that the more willing I am to help out other writers and share my ideas and hard-won expertise with them, the more thoughts, ideas, inspirations and writing tricks — hot ones all — pop into my mind.

Thank you, George.

Barbara Falconer Newhall writes about her rocky spiritual journey — and the view from the second half of life — at Her prize-winning book, “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith,” is available from Patheos Press.

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