Sam Keen (born 1931) was, in his words, “overeducated at Harvard and Princeton” and was a professor of philosophy and religion at “various legitimate institutions” and a contributing editor of Psychology Today for 20 years before becoming a free-lance thinker, lecturer, seminar leader and consultant. He is the author of a baker’s dozen books, and a co-producer of an award winning PBS documentary, Faces of the Enemy. His work was the subject of a 60 minute PBS special Bill Moyers–Your Mythic Journey with Sam Keen.
When not writing or traveling around the world lecturing and doing seminars on a wide range of topics on which he claims he is “not necessarily an expert but a skilled explorer,” he fiddles with his horses and growing things on his farm in the hills above Sonoma, and practices the flying trapeze.
“One day, out of nowhere, you realize you don’t know who you are, and none of
the cards in your wallet provide the slightest clue to your real identity.””
Sam Keen’s personal odyssey from theology professor to countercultural journalist to reluctant icon of the burgeoning men’s movement to, most recently, aspiring trapeze artist is the kind myths are made of. It seems fitting, perhaps, that the leitmotif of his many books is the idea of life as a mythic journey.
Keen believes that our lives are shaped — and occasionally misshaped — by the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s only by becoming intimately acquainted with these narratives — as they have been handed down from our families, our cultural backgrounds, our religious beliefs — that we can begin to live consciously and, as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “unfold our own myth.” Unless we understand our lives as a kind of autobiography in the making, we’re likely to take refuge in other people’s stories, in ready-made ideologies, and in unexamined systems of belief.
Keen admits that his philosophy is a deeply personal one that grows out his own unique experiences and reflections. “The only life about which I have inside information is my own and, therefore, I must find the meaning of my life on my home ground,” he insists. “If I have a method that runs through all my writings, it’s this habit of returning again and again to the happenings that provide the raw material and the stories that make my life uniquely my own.”
The stories of Keen’s life — as documented in Apology for Wonder, Hymns to an Unknown God, Beginnings Without End, and the bestseller Fire in the Belly — are those of a restless soul, a nonconformist, a lover of questions. Born into a deeply religious family in the American south, Keen attended Harvard Divinity School and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Princeton University. In the late 1960s, after a brief stint as a professor of theology, he dropped out of the academic world and moved to the west coast, becoming, as he put it, “engulfed in the California madness.” He took up freelancing for Psychology Today and other magazines and quickly made a name for himself as a trenchant participant-observer of the human potential movement and a sharp-witted interviewer of some of its more influential therapists, gurus, and religious leaders. He also began conducting seminars on personal mythology with his friend and mentor Joseph Campbell.
But in spite of his long-standing affiliation — one might even say romance — with the cultural and spiritual frontier, Keen is notoriously impatient with the cliches and false consolations that often pass for wisdom. To maintain our sanity today, he says, we need a “spiritual bullshit detector.” In a world of cults, gurus, and self-help programs, we need to be mindful of how accepted beliefs often get in the way of true understanding. As he sees it, real wisdom is born of “epistemological humility” — of bewilderment in the face of life’s enduring mysteries. The paradox of self-knowledge is that it’s only by confronting the depths of our own ignorance that we can begin to glimpse the essential truth of who we are. Knowing, as the mystics have always said, begins with not-knowing.
At sixty-seven, Keen carries himself with the authority of age, though he still hasn’t lost his good looks and robust physique. When I met him at his sixty-acre ranch north of San Francisco, he led me down to his small writer’s cottage next to a gurgling creek and overlooking the oak-dotted hills of Sonoma County. Along the way, he showed me the object of his latest passion: a full flying trapeze rig.
His new book, Learning to Fly, details how he discovered trapeze late in life — two months shy of his sixty-second birthday — after seeing a television feature about the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. “My emerging passion was not unlike falling in love,” he laughs. “A bit of ecstasy and a lot of foolishness.”
In Keen’s view, flying trapeze is more than a mere recreational sport. Like archery, flower arranging and motorcycle maintenance, it can serve as a vehicle of profound inner discovery and transformation. Learning to fly involves cultivating equanimity, trust, and the willingness to let go — in the real sense of the term. The challenge and the thrill of trapeze lie in overthrowing our resistances and becoming “connoisseurs of fear.”
Today Keen heads a local trapeze troupe and a program called Upward Bound for troubled kids and abused women. He also hosts weekly classes, led by professional instructors, for men and women who want to learn the aerial circus art. The examined life of the philosopher isn’t very different from the lure of the trapeze, he muses. “They both promise freedom, release from the mundane — a winged existence.”