How can we find balance and peace in the midst of pain and turmoil? A legendary Zen Buddhist master once sent this startling note to a friend:
“Lucky man,” wrote Soen Nakagawa Roshi, the abbot of Ryutakuji monastery in Japan. “One accident like yours is worth ten thousand sittings in a monastery!”
The accident the Zen master mentioned was a devastating car crash. The “lucky man” was William Segal, 67, a magazine publisher, artist, and spiritual seeker. Segal received the message as he lay in a hospital bed in New York. Both hips were shattered, his skull was fractured; and all the bones in his face were broken.
“That’s why I have a different face,” Segal told me.
During his last years, I often visited William Segal in his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The walls were lined with self-portraits painted over many years, so I could see how much he had changed. I could also see the intensity and persistence of his interest in who he was.
“What’s it all about?” he would ask people, including me. “What do you think?”
He had kind dark eyes and usually wore a black eye patch over one of them, his impaired vision a legacy of the car accident. He looked at you intently as he asked the question, seeming to be really open and listening deeply, as if he might hear something he had never heard, something useful. This was deeply moving. He had been friends with Zen Buddhist masters including Soen Roshi and D.T. Suzuki, as well a student of P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff. And he was asking me what I found?
Segal showed me that questioning, having an attitude of inquiry and interest, can transform our lives. No matter what we are doing and no matter what happens to us, we can turn our attention towards ourselves, towards our awareness of being alive in the present moment. When we do this, it is like finding an inner door.
Segal regained consciousness briefly after the car accident. He remembered being in total darkness, looking up at two glowing disks, like two suns. If he went towards one sun, he sensed that he would go painlessly to his death. If he went toward the other, he would live, although he would have to be willing to endure great suffering. He was tempted to just float away. But he was gripped by the fearful thought that if he let himself die people would conclude that he had arranged the accident to join his beloved wife, who had recently died. He had been driving fast, and after a lunch that included several drinks.
Segal woke up in a hospital full of wires and tubes, facing years of surgeries and painful recovery. He could have regretted every decision that led up to the crash. Instead he adopted an attitude that made him a lucky man in spite of what happened to him. He shifted his attention away from what was happening towards his awareness of what was happening.
“I said to myself, ‘Either I’m going to die or I’m not going to die. It’s all right,’” Segal recalled. “In either case I want to watch—to see what goes on.”
Segal sometimes answered the door of his New York apartment with a big green parrot perched on his shoulder. Several times I brought my young daughter to visit and naturally, the parrot and the eye patch made her think he looked like a pirate, but she also thought he could be a monk or a holy person from another time. This had to do with the way he dressed and also the slow, careful way he moved and spoke, except that he had an old-fashioned New York accent, burnished with age and experience. He called her a “woik” of art.
Segal loved art. He felt that making it called on every part of a person, thinking and feeling and perceiving. He also loved his family and working and traveling and food and wine and cultivating a personal style. He completely overturned the notion that having a serious spiritual life necessarily meant separating from worldly life.
“To me, Bill was an example of a truly harmonious man—the head, the heart and the body, each aspect of his life was developed,” his second wife, Marielle Bancou-Segal, told me. “The interest he had in the inner life and the outer life was absolutely equal.”
Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1904, to poor Rumanian Jewish immigrant parents, William Segal attended New York University on a football scholarship and stayed in New York, although he also kept a country house in New Jersey, a beach house on Fire Island, and an apartment in Paris. He was the publisher of eleven magazines, including a ground-breaking magazine called Gentry, which ran articles on wine and billiards along with interviews with artists and Zen masters.
Along with Soen Roshi, D.T. Suzuki considered Segal to be a fellow seeker on the Zen path, and a true spiritual friend. Among other friends was the theater director Peter Brook, who wrote that Segal “was a man of many layers and if the outer layer was the man of today, the innermost core was an opening to eternity.”
And yet, Segal also knew how to do worldly things, how to pull together an issue of a magazine under pressure (“Make do with what you have; do only what is necessary….”); how to make money and also lose it when the market changed. He was humble yet confident, often saying that his ideal was to be the old man in the marketplace, the culminating scene of the Zen training path depicted in the Ten Oxherding Pictures. In the last picture, a man is shown in the midst of the world, but he moves through it with empty hands, no grasping, no cringing (Segal titled his first book Opening).
Shortly after his death, his widow Marielle, who was Parisian, invited me to visit the apartment Segal kept in Paris. She wanted me to experience Bill’s Paris. His absence was to be a benign presence, accompanying me on favorite walks, eating where he liked to eat. But she found that many things had changed since their best years there: this café was gone, that neighborhood had transformed, the print maker who Bill made prints with had grown old and sick, the macaroons from a certain bakery weren’t as good as she remembered. During that poignant trip, I took a daily walk alone that began with a stop in the garden behind the Rodin Museum, a short distance from Segal’s apartment, and a place he went to meditate and marvel at the work of the great artist. I came to understand that what I loved most about William Segal was the balance he struck with life. He had been broken, literally, his face and body and, with the death of his first wife, his heart too. And yet he had found a way to go on, not just surviving but thriving and deepening in understanding.
All people who go through serious calamities or illness or loss go through a transformation, Segal believed. We long for life to return to normal, and old comforting routines do reassert themselves. But another view remains underneath, bringing a degree of understanding and equanimity. Nothing is ever the same because it is irrevocably clear that we are not as solid and independent as we think. And life is a gift that can be taken away.
“One takes everything for granted until it’s taken away,” Segal wrote in a posthumous memoir, A Voice on the Borders of Silence. “If one has a relatively good body and mind, one is proud of ‘my’ strength and ‘my’ intelligence though they are simply given. It doesn’t take much, one small blow; they’re gone, and I’m not so great. Whatever could be taken away so easily couldn’t have belonged to me.”
Segal had to gather himself together to go on living and he sometimes felt towards the end of his long recovery, facing yet one more surgery, that his will was growing weaker. This too became a question to be curious about, a subject to be investigated: “Maybe we have a finite supply and it gets used up, or maybe it isn’t really summoned until your life depends on it, and then it comes forward and champions you.”
Or maybe what is needed to heal is not will but willingness. The accident taught Segal the power of letting go. Letting the body relax and rest was more valuable than trying. He learned to listen and obey nature. He learned that healing is necessarily related to patience and to acceptance of what is happening, making space for another force to enter. Pushing makes things worse.
Lying in the hospital, helpless and in pain, Segal learned to see and appreciate the goodness in small acts, the young woman who mixed his drink (his jaw was wired shut) with care to get the taste just right, the man who cleaned at night, a recent immigrant who performed his job with great care and economy: “There was in every gesture the nobility of doing what life required of him,” Segal wrote.
Suffering contains an inner door. Segal found it and opened it, moving from a tight and fearful focus on his own dire life situation to an interest in life itself. What would happen next?
He wanted to keep watching and know, whether it was life or death. Decades later, during my visits, he was asking questions. But the conversations were always a balance. I loved asking him questions about his long life—his long search. I did this partly for my own edification and partly because I hoped to lift his spirits as the life force ebbed away.
“I have had a good life, haven’t I?” he marveled sometimes.
Frail and diminutive, simply but beautifully dressed until he was bedridden at the very end, Segal showed me that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our attention, and also on the sincerity of our intention to see. Segal’s apartment was full of his art and artifacts from his travels, including Zen scrolls and Buddha statues, as well as furniture designed by friends of his, including George Nakashima and Alvin Lustig. His life was broad, but it was also deep.
“What do you think we’re here for?” he would ask, the long horizontal span of years and experience forever matched by a vertical wish to know himself and to know God.
Segal was the first American to be allowed to practice meditation in a Zen monastery after World War II. He travelled to the war-ravaged country carrying letters of introduction written by his friend D.T. Suzuki. Strong and vigorous before the accident (he had been a college football star), he loved zazen, but he also loved working with the monks, chopping wood and carrying water. He understood that everything we do can be a teaching if we are watching, revealing attitudes and forces that are usually hidden.
While he was staying in a monastery in Japan, Segal was called upon to address the Japanese parliament (the National Diet) about trade with America. He was an international businessman, but he was astonished to receive the invitation. And yet he understood that Japan had been devastated. When the war is lost, when our old notions about who we are as a nation or as individuals come into question, we tend to be more open, to question and search for new answers, for an inner door.
At the very end of his life, shortly before his death at age ninety-five, Segal asked me what I thought happened after we died. We sat surrounded by self-portraits representing different selves and different understandings. His life was a search for openings up to the very end. He watched and listened closely as I expressed my hope. “I sure hope you’re right,” he said. ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2020 issue of Parabola, BALANCE. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.