Tami Simon: You are listening to Insights at the Edge. This week is a re-broadcast of one of my favorite Insights at the Edge episodes, with the very talented writer Geneen Roth. Geneen is the author of the bestseller Women Food and God, and the Sounds True audio learning course When Food Is Food and Love Is Love. In this episode, Geneen and I spoke about the spiritual lessons which resulted from her financial losses with disgraced investment advisor Bernie Madoff, and how this experience caused her to re-examine many of her long-held beliefs about money, loss, and the preciousness of this moment. I love this conversation with Geneen Roth because it illuminated for me how anything in our life can be the source of spiritual awakening, even, and especially truly difficult things, if we allow ourselves to be radically changed by the experience. Here’s my moving and heartfelt conversation with Geneen Roth.
Tami Simon: So thanks, Geneen, for taking the time to have this conversation.
Geneen Roth: I am glad to.
Tami Simon: I wanted to talk with you because a friend of mine mentioned to me at the end of January that he had gotten hold of a blog entry on the Huffington Post in which you talked about how you had been part of the Madoff ponzi scheme and lost 30 years of savings. And of course as soon as I heard this my heart, first of all, went out to you, a Sounds True author and someone I have known over the years, and then secondly I thought, well, how is this turning our for Geneen in terms of inner process and what kind of sense is she making out of this. You have such a gift for making wisdom out of, what shall we say, garbage, that I thought, well, tell me Geneen. Talk to me.
Geneen Roth: Well, you know I can start talking, and if I talk too generally then feel free to ask me any specific questions. In fact, specific questions really do help.
Just a little background (because a lot of people have some misconceptions about Madoff): my husband and I were invited to invest actually with a good friend of ours whose father was a good friend of Bernie Madoff's. They had been with him and investing with him for 45 years. And, of course, they had done quite well during that time. And this friend took pity on Matt and me when another friend of ours ten years ago, a financial advisor of ours, had embezzled quite a lot of our money. And so our friend Richard said, "Come with me. You can invest anywhere from $500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Doesn't matter. But this is something that is safe." And so we were very, very, very grateful to do that. And never for a second did I think, did I imagine in my imaginings of various catastrophes that Madoff was a fraud.
So when I did find out, I went into shock, terror, because we had been using our account with Madoff as sort of a bank. You know, whenever we made money we put it into our Madoff account and we kept what we could to pay our expenses. But it was a feeling of we found something safe, we found something reliable, it is not making the kind of money that other people were making during the high times, but it is not losing money during the hard times.
So in that second of finding out that everything we thought we had we didn't have, and everything we knew we had was completely lost, there was a sense of dying, actually, of having somebody throw a bomb into my chest and somehow finding myself still alive, which I think I wrote about. And then there was the process of coming to terms with it. My husband was in Antarctica. He was on vacation. I couldn't…
Tami Simon: Hold on a second. What was your husband doing by himself vacationing in Antarctica? That's a little strange.
Geneen Roth: He actually was with four good friends on a wildlife expedition that I didn't want to go on. I was working on a book deadline. And I also don't like being cold. So I didn't want to go. But he did. So he went. But when I called him within a few minutes after finding out about Madoff…I had to call him on the satellite phone, and both of us realized within probably three minutes that we were no longer the kind of people who could talk on satellite phones because it was $15 a minute to talk. And so all I could basically say to him was, "Madoff is in handcuffs. It has been a fraud. And we've lost everything." And he said, "oh my god," a couple of times, and we both said to each other somehow we will get through this and we will be okay. We didn't know how. And then we needed to get off the phone.
Tami Simon: Wow. You know, Geneen, I think part of the reason I wanted to talk with you about this is that something like this I would, say, put in my top biggest fear category. I mean this and getting pregnant or something. And I've gone to extremes so that second thing won't happen. But this would just be so terrible. And I thought about it, knowing we would be talking today, and I think that there is me and there is infinite, vast, expansive everything--but then there is my savings. The infinite, vast, everything is fine as long as I have a certain amount of cash.
Geneen Roth: Right.
Tami Simon: And otherwise the infinite, vast, everything, whatever, it is great. But still, I need this cash in order just to be an okay human.
Geneen Roth: Right. Got it. I understand. I felt exactly the same way. I felt as if, you know, there was my spiritual practice, whatever I mean in the moment that I use those words, and then there was the money I'd saved for thirty years. And all of life could keep going on as long as I had that money. As long as I had at least some of that money, anyway, as some kind of protection, as some kind or reassurance, as some kind of something, that would tell me that I would be okay. That if I got sick or my husband got sick we could make it through, that we could keep our house, that we'd have enough money for food and shelter and everything else. And suddenly all of that was gone.
I just actually have been writing about that in the last couple of days. And in those moments after the phone call. I called my husband, as I said. I called a friend of mine who unfortunately had just invested in Madoff based on my recommendation. And then I called to very close friends/ teachers of mine. And both of them said almost exactly the same thing to me. One of them I didn't know when I told her was also invested in Madoff. And this was the first time she was hearing the news that she too had lost everything. And when I told her what I told Matt, that Madoff was a fraud, she had two responses: the first one was "Oh, we have lost everything." And the second response was "but we still have what matters." And I thought to myself when she said that, this is no time to be spiritual. This is no time to, you know, talk in that spiritual psycho-babble jargon. You know? We've just lost everything. This is a disaster. This is horrible. And when I said to her, "How can you say that?" she said, "because it is true."
My second friend who I called also, her name is Katherine, and she also said the same thing to me. She also said to me, "It is fine. It is horrible. It is awful. He was a liar and a cheat and he should be in jail. But what matters most wasn't lost." And I really couldn't see that at that time, but I knew somewhere in the far reaches of my mind or heart or soul that that was true. And I knew that everything that I had been doing, thinking, spending my time on, had come down in some way to that moment, that this was where the rubber meets the road. That actually is where what we call spirituality actually becomes the life you are living. It is not just about sitting on a cushion and it is not just about thoughts and it is not just about going to retreats and teachings, but I couldn't see that at that time.
So what I did instead, besides crying, which I did a lot of. I started memorizing a poem that I read just that morning, which is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called "Kindness." And it is about losing things. Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things. "Feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved. All this must go." And there are a few other lines before the poem goes on to talk about how you must see yourself "like the Indian in a white poncho who lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you. How he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive." And I started understanding in those few weeks, and I don't want to make this sound easy or simple or tra-la-la—la, because there were nights upon nights of waking up in terror, of oh my god what are we going to do? What am I going to do? Where are we going to live? How are we going to live?
There were the horrible recriminations of not diversifying slowly over the 10 years we'd been investing with Madoff. We had put more and more of our savings in Madoff. There was the "how could I have been so stupid?" "How could I have been so selfish?" "How could I have been so greedy?" "What is wrong with me?" "How come we didn't pay off our house?" "What do I actually value?" I mean, there was a whole host of those recriminations and actually some of those recriminations have led to me deeply questioning what I actually value. You know, that old thing about putting your money where you mouth is. Putting my money into the things that I value most. That whole issue of what do I actually value, and, in fact, what is money for? Which I had never actually asked myself. I just had always thought, you know, I need to make money and I need to save money. I need to buy a house, and I need to mortgage that house. And I need to have more and more money and I do need to give chunks of my money away, which I was doing. But I still need to have more than I give and save more and just keep saving and saving and it is kind of about me and my husband and my family. And the illusion which I started seeing as I began memorizing and living with that poem day after day that I thought I could be different than, and I thought I could be separate from the Indian in the white poncho. I thought I could be separate from the people who were losing 10, 20, 30, 40 percent of their money, who had lost their jobs. Some way that I could protect myself. Some way that I could be separate from the soup of chaos or what everybody else was going through. Some way I was special. Some way I was different. Some way I was going to be the one still standing when everybody else had fallen. And I was suddenly one of the fallen ones. And it was humiliating. It was humiliating. And I was ashamed, deeply ashamed. But I also knew, I think partly because I had people around me like my friend and teacher Jean, like Catherine, like my very good friends, all of whom had lost all their money—because Richard, in the generosity of his being, had offered all of us, basically the community that I knew and was part of, this opportunity to be in Madoff. And because he had been in it for 35 years before he opened it up to us, because it had done so consistently well for 35 years, we all felt like it was a miraculous gift. That this man, our friend, Richard, was offering to us. Which meant that when Madoff was declared a fraud, everyone I was close to lost everything they had. So it wasn't just me. It was also my closest friends. And I saw in the weeks after that lost, first of all, how important contact was, and community. I mean, it was crucial.
Tami Simon: You huddled together.
Geneen Roth: We huddled together. We met that first night we found out, within a couple of hours. One of the first things I had to do was teach as class on the phone. And after I got done with that. And that was really a good thing because it forced me to be present and to get out of the story that was just raging in my mind about what was going to happen to me. And just be present with myself, in my body, and also with the people on the call. That was great to do that. I didn't mention Madoff. But I did read that poem, "Kindness."
Then I got in my car and I went to meet with my friends. We talked to each other often during those first couple of weeks; we met a couple of times. I never, not for a moment, like I thought I would feel when the catastrophe happened. I think that is one thing I have learned. That I have spent my life preparing for the imminent catastrophe, I spent my life storing up money for when the catastrophe happens. What I didn't realize that the catastrophe was going to be about losing all that I had stored.
Tami Simon: You use this term a couple of times, and I think it is interesting: the word "protection," the idea that our money, our savings, can be some kind of protection for us. And what I am curious about is, what does it feel like to be living "without protection"?
Geneen Roth: I know this is going to sound very hard to believe. But I am speaking the truth when I say that I feel like I have more now than I did when I had my money. And I will try to unpack that because it has been difficult even for me to understand. I think one thing is…it is the Dylan line "When you don't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." I'm not sure if that is Dylan or not, sounds like it could be. But there was something about losing it all and no longer being frightened of losing it that was, I don't want to say a relief, because it wasn't a relief. It just was the way it was. I had all of this money in my mind, and, yes, some of it was actually checks that had come through my hands and that I had then put in my Madoff account. But, of course, what I thought I had as a result of having those original checks, it turns out, I didn't really have because Madoff's returns were all made up anyway.
So I had the thought. What I basically had was the thought of having that money. And then I lost the thought of having that money. Now of course I lost more than the thought of the money, because at any time during the years that I was invested in Madoff I could have redeemed all of that money, or some of that money. And then I would have actually had that money to spend, so it gets a little complicated there. The idea of what I had, what I thought I had, and the idea of having money.
When I no longer had the money that I thought I had, then there was a necessity of having to look at what I had left. What I actually did have that I could count on having, that was in front of me. And this is where it starts; this is where I start sounding like Jean or Catherine.
Tami Simon: It is okay. It is okay. I support you, Geneen, in…you know, the G.O.M.s, the gifts of Madoff.
Geneen Roth: That's right! That is what I wrote about in the article.
Tami Simon: Because there is clearly the O.M.G.s too, the oh my gods, do you know what I mean?
Geneen Roth: Yes, thank you.
Tami Simon: We have the O.M.G.s, but these are the G.O.M.s and that is fine.
Geneen Roth: I saw that I could, well, first of all, I saw that I still had a body that could breathe and talk and walk and see and feel. I saw that much. I saw that I had been taking that for granted. No matter how many meditation retreats I have ever done, no matter how many times I brought my attention back to my body, there was something astonishing about seeing that I still had the resource of a life, and of having a body.
The year before, in September of last year, I had gone through an anaphylactic shock experience in the CAT scan room where I almost died. I started leaving my body. And the doctor and then the paramedics had to bring me back through extreme measures, but in the moments that I thought I was dying, my husband was standing right there, and I realized he couldn't come with me. I was going alone. And I was losing everything including my body. And I wasn't afraid, but I was just sort of shocked that it was happening so quickly, and right there in the CAT scan room and not at all as I had planned it, which was I was going to be old, I was going to be dying with friends and orchids around me and beautiful music playing and somebody reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And, you know, all kinds of rituals and poetry and all of this, and there I was in a lousy CAT scan room leaving my body and dying. So when the Madoff loss happened, I thought about that almost immediately, within the first couple of days. And I thought about how I was losing my body then. I really was losing everything including my body. Now all I had lost was my money. And it was a profound gratitude that even with losing my money I wasn't also losing my body.
So I realized just as I was reading this "Kindness" poem, just as I was memorizing it and saying it to myself again and again, that what kept occurring to me in those days after Madoff, was that I had known the possibility of losing everything. I wasn't sure I was going to come back. I didn't know if I was going to kind of zonk back into my body or not. But here I was losing my money but still having everything else.
Tami Simon: So that happened previously in 2008?
Geneen Roth: Yes.
Tami Simon: Wow. What a year.
Geneen Roth: What a year. And I saw that I still had the capacity to feel, to feel sadness, to feel sorrow, to feel love. One of the lines in the "Kindness" poem is "before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing." And I felt like I was getting to know the regions of sorrow. The sorrow not only for myself and having lost what I lost, but that sorrow that so many other people were feeling had been feeling, not just the people who were losing 10, 20, 30, 40 percent of their money, but the people who had never had any money. The people who were worried about where their next meal was going to come from. The people in other countries and third-world countries, the women I saw pictures of, who were scrambling for grains of rice as it got dropped from planes, who were fighting over grains of rice. I looked at those pictures and I felt the O.M.G. part, oh my god, and I felt a momentary flash of sorrow and then the kind of pride or smugness of, oh well, that is not me. I will never be like that. And I started feeling the bareness, the nakedness, of that kind of sorrow, of not knowing where your next meal is going to come from.
So when I lost what I had, then I started feeling the territory of loss. And I started feeling more connection. The price of having so much more than other people had and of feeling like I was always going to have more than enough and I was never going to get into those situations, for me, and I don't think this is true for everybody, but for me it was the price of feeling separate from other people's sorrow.
Suddenly I was one of them. I wasn't different than; I was the same as. And that was startling to me. But there was something astonishing about it. There was something relieving about it. There was something that made me feel so grateful about it. I felt like I was getting to inhabit a country that I never would have visited on my own. But that was putting me in touch, I think, mostly with places in myself that I had cut myself off from, that I just never had to visit.
In the realm of food, because so much of my work until now, has been with compulsion and addiction, specifically with emotional eating, and one of the patterns I talk about with food is "storing for the hunger to come," how people eat and eat and eat as if in the next moment there is going to be a famine.
Tami Simon: A kind of protection, if you will.
Geneen Roth: Yeah, a protection from feeling any kind of emptiness. The emptiness that is associated with hunger. And I saw that I was going to same thing, though I had worked through my issues with food, 30 years before, so that food is no longer a problem for me. I had transferred so much of what was true for me about food onto money. And so I was storing for the hunger to come. And I was trying to protect myself, first of all, from catastrophes that in some ways had already happened. My teacher Jean had said to me years before, "You keep protecting yourself from losses that have already happened. You keep trying to shield yourself from the catastrophes of your childhood, from what I call the three A's of childhood: addiction, abuse, and abandonment. And that I was still in the present moment protecting myself from those losses by the way that I acted and felt. And I saw that I was still doing that. But then I also saw that I was protecting myself from imminent catastrophe, from the catastrophes of losing all the money, of being faced with loss, of emptiness, of not knowing what to do, of being like everyone else, of being at complete loss.
I think in the end, I mean, what that got down to as I just kept sitting with it and sitting with it and crying about it and raging about it and writing about it, was I just felt like there was some way, some illusion, that my money could protect me from sort of just being human. You know, that the losses of aging, you know, I kept telling myself, oh well, I don't have kids and what if Matt dies before me and men usually die before women and what if my friends are dead and their kids are taking care of them but nobody is taking care of me and nobody wants too. Well, at least I will have enough money to x,y,and z. And suddenly I didn't have that money. I didn't have the money that was going to help me get old. And there was fear about what was I going to do. And I still don't know. But I do know that that kind of future catastrophizing only revved me up, made me sort of insane, and wasn't particularly helpful, because nothing happens the way you think it is going to happen anyway. Nothing.
I don't mean to imply that saving money is not good.
Tami Simon: Well, obviously, yeah.
Geneen Roth: I don't mean to imply that at all, but I think that there are some things that money cannot save anybody from. And I think that I was living in the half world of money can save me from that. I am not sure I really believed that, even during those Madoff years. But still there was this feeling that in my own case I could cover my bases.
Tami Simon: Yeah. A couple of other questions about it, Geneen. You mentioned one word, which was the humiliation you felt. And yet here you are talking publicly and you know clearly sort of exposing the situation. And what I have noticed in my own business life is that when things happen that are not successful in the business world, it is actually the humiliation that is more of a problem for me than the actual loss of money, when I search my heart, it is the ego loss of my sense of being "hot stuff," that is more of the loss. And I think that is part of what you are pointing to here.
Geneen Roth: Yeah. I had to come to terms with my idea of myself.
Tami Simon: Yes.
Geneen Roth: My identity as a smart, successful person, woman, business woman, who made decisions. And had money. And that got stripped away. And so then I had to keep asking myself, well who am I without that? Who am I? It is that age-old question, but it became real. That is what I mean when I say that all of those spiritual hoo-hah suddenly become real when this kind of thing happens because the question of who am I without what I thought I had, without my money, without my idea of myself, without my vision, without my identity, who am I? I really had to live with that. Ask myself that. And answer that pretty much. And it wasn't my idea of myself, because that was no longer there. It pretty much was whatever I was in that moment, whatever I am. I mean, the ideas just got ripped away, so there was no pretending anymore. There was no hiding behind. It is kind of like, you know, in my work with compulsive eaters, hiding behind being thin. Or hiding even behind being fat. Letting the body speak instead of having to break over and over and over again on the truth of who you are or what you feel in that moment. I mean who you are without the identity, without the image.
Tami Simon: So what have you discovered about yourself without that identity of being the successful, smart, savvy, one-step ahead woman?
Geneen Roth: It is sort of very, very simple. It is not any big, fancy discovery. It is more just a moment to moment process of being with and telling the truth about whatever I feel, whatever I sense, whatever I see in this moment. So if I am feeling sad or shamed like I was in those weeks after Madoff, I needed to actually feel that, not pretend, not uplevel myself, not transcend it, not hide behind, an identity of not being that. But actually break over it. Like a wave. Just keep breaking and feeling the shame and keep asking myself about it. Well, what was that about? Why was that important for me to be perceived and to perceive myself as successful? Was there a part of me that I felt was ultimately, irrevocably, and unredeemably unsuccessful and so this image or identity of myself as successful could counteract that. You know, for every part of myself, for every way that I wanted to be perceived, I began asking myself if there was a counterpart, a deeper belief, of being the opposite of that. And, of course, questioning that, and seeing that that wasn't true either. So that was no more true than the fleeting identity of being successful, according to external terms.
Tami Simon: Now you mentioned that before you even got involved in the Madoff world of investing that you had been, that the financial investor you had been working with had embezzled money from your account. So I can imagine having thoughts like, what kind of strange, cosmic design is there for my life that I would go through this more than once.
Geneen Roth: That is a very kind way of putting it, Tami. You know, in those first few weeks I had to be so vigilant about not ripping myself apart. I don't know how to say it any other way. But I would be so many times on the verge of saying, how could you be so dumb? How could this happen twice? Don't you ever, ever learn? And of course I did say that to myself, but there was an understanding, because I knew that voice well in many other areas of my life. There was an understanding from having worked with it that this voice was not my friend. That voice was going to lead to no good. And that voice would not help me discover and/or reveal what was going on that I got involved twice.
Now the first time was a little different, it was a very close friend; it was kind of like the relationship Richard's father had with Madoff. My husband and I had the same with this man. It had been somebody we had known for almost 15 years and had advised us beautifully. We had been to his wedding. He had been to ours. We'd been there for the birth of his kids. I mean, he was that close. And it turned out in the end that he was just as much a fraud as Madoff was.
Tami Simon: I guess the question I am asking is…in my own experience, and I can imagine listeners having this experience, when whatever it is in their life, it might not be around money, it might be around something else, where they get to that moment of…the language I use internally is, you know, gosh I just feel like slitting my wrists. Not that I ever would. But it is just this feeling of, I feel so terrible about myself. And as you say, it is not a voice that is particularly constructive. So what have you learned about how to work with times when that is the voice you are hearing in your head.
Geneen Roth: Well, the first thing, and I just want to make a distinction here between blaming yourself and feeling terrible because feeling terrible in those weeks after Madoff was what I think is a natural thing to feel. I don't think there was any way of feeling anything but devastated. Blaming myself?
Tami Simon: Which is really what I am talking about in this example.
Geneen Roth: Yeah. Raging against myself. What I learned in that time, and I learned that also after the death of my father, I mean I keep learning that in the most extreme circumstances. But that voice, that raging voice, that has got to be cut off immediately. I do not believe that there is any value in listening to that raging voice. Now, this is not to say that I haven't asked myself again and again, what is it about me that is so susceptible, that so wants to be taken care of, by somebody that seems to have the answers that I am willing to throw what I know away. That is a different voice than, you idiot. You good for nothing. You dumb thing. How could you? Give me a break? I mean, that is a different voice. The actual voice of curiosity, the actual voice of wanting to know. Well, what happened there? What really happened? What block? What obstacle? What quality? What tendency of mine is operating that allows me to just throw myself overboard like that? That is different.
Because when that voice is raging, what I have discovered, is that there is no way that I can answer that question. I can't really get to the bottom of that. Because all I feel when that voice is raging, is horrible about myself, is ashamed. I feel collapsed and paralyzed and diminished. And like slitting my wrists. And in that condition I have never discovered that what is actually going on has the space to reveal itself. Because all I want to do is hide. I am not interested in finding out the truth then. I am just interested in hiding. Because it is like being whipped. You know, when a kid gets beaten, when you are getting whipped, all you want is for the whipping to stop. You don't want to figure out what you are getting whipped about, you just want the pain to stop.
So have I asked myself what it is? What goes on? Have I been incredibly mindful of that since then? Yes. Was I vigilant and have I become extraordinarily vigilant about stopping that voice dead in its tracks when it starts revving itself up? Yes.
Tami Simon: How do you do that? How do you stop that voice dead in its tracks?
Geneen Roth: Well, that is a really good question. And there are a lot of different ways that a lot of different people believe. I will tell you what works for me. The first thing that works for me is awareness. I have to realize that that voice is operating. For the first many times that it happened, I am not talking about Madoff, I am talking about the first 100,000 times it happened while I was trying to be aware of it before Madoff. Because I think that if I had just started becoming aware of it when Madoff happened, it would have been really hard to stop it. I think this is the kind of thing you have to be aware of pretty much daily.
So I think that the first thing that has to happen, or had to happen for me, is that I had to become aware that the voice was operating. That voice sounded so much like my voice. And also, because it had co-opted the truth it was using something that actually had happened to make me feel awful about what happened. That I had to be aware when the voice was revving up. And so I had to being understanding the difference between my voice or the voice that really wants to know what was going on. That voice is called by so many names: the super ego, the inner critic, the inner parent, the judge, call it anything, but that is basically what it is. It is the voice that thinks it knows what you are supposed to be doing and how you are supposed to be doing it and basically it says that you are not doing it the right way. That's what I found. At least that is my version of it.
So the first thing that happens is that I am either aware of it speaking to me or I am aware that I suddenly feel collapsed. I wasn't collapsed 5 minutes ago or 2 minutes ago, but I am suddenly collapsed and ashamed. And if I have enough presence to realize wow, something just happened there. I was feeling fine, and now I feel collapsed. Now I feel humiliated and now I feel ashamed. What happened? What am I saying to myself? And it takes a lot of attention and some degree of consciousness to realize, okay, I am in it. I am on myself. I am raging against myself.
What I do at that point, if being aware of it and simply naming it isn't enough to help me disengage and to kind of dissolve it, is I will go the next step and I'll either write down or say out loud if I am alone (and this took a lot of practice also), I will say what that voice is saying to me. I can then actually hear the cruelty in it. It is cruel. I mean it is just outright cruel. And vicious. Once I hear the way that I am speaking to myself, but I will put it in the you terms, like "You are a piece of shit. You are so unbelievably dumb. You are doomed. You are a failure." If I say it in the you form, and this doesn't work for everybody, but for me it does because then there is a you and an I, then there is actually somebody, there is some voice that is talking to me, the super ego voice, then I can just feel the cruelty of it. And then at that point, at least for me, it can stop. At the beginning, when I became aware of what I was saying to myself and how I was saying it, I would also just say "stop, enough, go away."
There are some schools of thought that believe that it is really important to be vehement with that voice, to be aggressive with that voice, to mobilize some kind of aggression that you were never allowed to have as a kid if you were one of those kids who was never supposed to talk back to your parents. So one school of thought says you need to mobilize your own aggressiveness simply to separate from the voice, as an active separation, so that you can then see what is true. That has never really truly worked for me. But becoming aware of the cruelty of it, becoming aware of it and the cruelty of it, and that I am locked in a death grip with it, and that it won't lead to any good, that helps. But it is a practice.
Tami Simon: Now you mention that it is a practice that you've worked with, I think you said 100,000 times, but let's just say lots of times over the years. But in the context I presume, probably many contexts, but at least somewhat in the context of emotional eating and with your work with helping people with issues related to emotional eating, so I am curious, how does that voice play in people's relationship with food?
Geneen Roth: Oh. It is primary. The moment somebody starts eating something they think they shouldn't be eating, the moment somebody starts bingeing, the moment somebody starts feeling like their pants are too small, like they've gained weight. I mean, it comes in constantly, like many times a day. In comes that voice, how could you? Why did you? What is the matter with you? Aren't you ever going to? You are hopeless. You are a failure. Why don't you just give up? There is no way out. You should have known this. And then of course what happens is that people hear it, they talk to themselves like that, and usually their response is to go eat some more because they feel so bad that they then use food to comfort themselves.
So again it is a voice that needs to be recognized and it needs to be stopped. And by stopped I mean disengaged from. Named and disengaged from. And really I think it takes having support to do this. I am a great believer in not doing this alone. I think it takes help, I think it takes guidance, I think it takes support. Because what I find in my students for the first many times that we work with this, and what I certainly saw in myself for years, is that I was so identified with this voice that I couldn't tell the difference between me and it. And I also felt like I deserved it. I deserved to be spoken to like that. I had gained 30 pounds. My thighs really were so big. I was a bad person. It was telling me what I needed to know. It was keeping me from making even more mistakes, so there was 100 percent belief in what this voice was saying.
And so to disengage from it you have to be able to tell the difference between okay right, maybe I did gain 20 pounds, but that doesn't make me unredeemable. It doesn't make me a failure. It doesn't make me doomed. And the same was true with losing our money. Yes, I really did sort of make the same mistake twice. Sort of. Not exactly. Sort of the same mistake twice. Okay. So what? So what? What did that make me? Did that make me an abject failure forever? Did that make me incredibly dumb? Well, it certainly made me naïve. And it certainly really spoke that I was somebody who hadn't quite learned the first time around what there was for me to learn. But so what? It is not like we are being graded here. It is not like anybody is keeping score. It is not like we are going to get to the end of our lives and pass a test or fail a test. So what? What is there for me to see here? You know, if you separate being good from what has happened, if you separate passing some test you have in your mind—I am supposed to be learning this as quickly as I can so I can get to the end as fast as possible—if you take that away, then there is just what is happening. And whatever it is you choose to do with it.
Tami Simon: I was looking on your website last night, and looking at the description of one of your upcoming retreats, and there was a bullet point describing some of the things that will be covered. And one of the bullet points said "discovering that no situation or feeling is unworkable." And I thought that was really incredible. In a way it speaks to what you are saying, that no situation or feeling…I mean, that is a very huge thing to know—that no situation or feeling will be unworkable, that could happen.
Geneen Roth: It is huge, and in some ways it goes back to what you asked me about protection.
Tami Simon: Yeah.
Geneen Roth: I think I've carried for the longest time this sense that there was something that was going to be completely unworkable, that would destroy me. And I am not talking about death. I am talking about a situation; I am talking about a feeling; I am talking about a loss or something happening. That something could happen while I was still alive that would utterly destroy me. And that was not in fact workable. And I think what I was in part using my money for and in part eating for, during the years that I was compulsive about food, was to keep myself buffered, to protect myself from that devastation, from seeing, from feeling, from ever getting to that place where I would be torn apart and devastated.
And what the Madoff loss has given to me, in some ways most of all, was that one of the worst things that happened, happened. It is not the worst thing. And I qualify this a lot, because I can think of so many worst things, like being raped, like watching my family get murdered, like being a murderer, like being in the middle of a war zone. I can think of a hundred things worse. But in my limited and very privileged life losing all of that money was one of the top few worse things that could happen. And it happened. And I wasn't devastated. I wasn't torn apart. I felt lost for a while and I felt in shock and I cried, but I wasn't devastated. And that was amazing to me. It really was amazing. In fact, what happened was that as I allowed myself to cry and to feel like a bomb had been thrown into my chest, and to feel the loss, I started feeling what was left, and I started seeing what I wanted to say about it, that I wanted to write about it. And so I wrote that—and I hadn't written really about anything but food literally for 30 years, and I decided to write about what because there were so many articles coming out about how I got screwed by Madoff and how my life is completely horrible because of what Madoff did. And I actually felt like there was that, but there was also something else to be said, to be found, that there was something that was there after the loss that I wanted to pay attention to, and that I wanted people to pay attention to. And so I wrote that piece that you saw, and then that piece led to amazing responses from people, just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of responses. And that led me to see that oh, I wanted to write more about that.
It kind of opened the door to a whole new area that I wanted to look at, write about, pay attention to, and that I never would have done without the Madoff loss. So it changed my life radically, in many ways, and many of them have been ways that I have been grateful for. But as I said, the most is to see that one of the worst things that could happen and I still was not going to be destroyed—that everything that I had been doing, these spiritual practices for all of these years, since I went to India when I was 23, all of that, all that everyone said on the essential level (I am not talking about all the notions of heaven realms and hell realms and all of that), but that the bottom line that there is something that can never be destroyed was actually true. And I was living it day by day, because I still got up. I still moved. I still did the things that I did before I lost my money. And there was the sense when I started paying attention to it, when I stopped crying long enough, of the benevolence that was left, of the sheer goodness of being alive. And I was struck with that.
And so that led me to a different kind of practice in my life of starting to actually consciously pay attention to what is here instead of what isn't here.
Tami Simon: You know, Geneen, this series of conversations is called "Insights at the Edge," and I think this conversation couldn't fit that any better in terms of this really being such an alive edge in your life and you having so many insights about this very current experience for you, so I thank you so much.
Geneen Roth: Yeah, I am really happy to talk about it, and I am very, very glad that you asked me, Tami.
Tami Simon: And I wonder, and this is just for my own enjoyment, if you would be willing to recite the poem again, the "Kindness" poem, which I think is so beautiful.
Geneen Roth: Oh, I would love to recite that poem, yes. And this is kind of as an aside, that poem was one of the things that got me through those weeks that…as I went to bed with it and woke up with it in the middle of the night, because I knew that Naomi Shihab Nye in order to write that poem had already traversed the territory that I was moving through, there was comfort in that. And there was, I don't even know what to call it, reassurance isn't strong enough. And comfort actually isn't strong enough. I knew that there was another side to this. And I knew that if I stayed with the loss itself, and the feelings that the loss was bringing up, it would wash me up on the shore she was talking about. So I held fast to that poem.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
Tami Simon: Thank you, Geneen.