The Primacy of Experience

June 14th, 2011

I have now hosted over 100 episodes of Insights at the Edge, a free podcast series in which I interview Sounds True authors about their life and work. What I have found is that the part of the conversation that always interests me the most is when people talk about their own direct experience–their experience with difficult times, their “illumination” experience, their experience with intimate relationships (the good, the bad, the ugly). These are the moments when the conversation becomes the most real for me. I feel like saying to my guests, “Please don’t tell me what you think sounds like wonderful philosophy, tell me what you have seen with your own eyes, tell me what has surprised you, tell me what has disappointed you, tell me what has helped you feel most alive and free.”

Being in the spiritual education field, I have recently developed an allergy to people telling me that “life is like this” or “life is like that.” I am very interested in knowing what people have discovered for themselves, but am very disinterested (and yes, allergic) to people telling me how life is, period. Recently, I recorded with a Sounds True author who repeatedly used the phrase “in my experience” to talk about the discoveries he has made. I noticed how much I appreciated the spirit of this phrase, how there was a certain humility in his presentation, how he wasn’t speaking for all people, for all time, in all dimensions. He was speaking about what he had discovered in his own experience that might be helpful to others.

One of the questions I have been asking myself is, “Why have I developed this allergy to people telling me that the universe works, definitively and forever, like this or like that?” I recently discovered this quote from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that I quite like: “Ambiguity is called a seed syllable when it becomes a starting point rather than a source of our problems.” To me, what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche means by “ambiguity being a seed syllable” is that each moment is unprecedented and fresh— we can be open in any moment to a new possibility. We don’t need to attach ourselves to some type of certainty (possibly a false certainty) as a way to feel at peace. We can be at peace with not-knowing.

After listening to hundreds of hours of Sounds True recordings and hearing all kinds of wise teachers contradict each other (and sometimes even contradict themselves), I am beginning to feel at home with ambiguity. I do not need a wisdom teacher to take away ambiguity because it is too destabilizing, because I can’t handle it. And I feel allergic to advertising that promises me that someone else’s theories will assuredly work just wonders for me, all the time and in all situations. What I am interested in is the personal process of discovery, and sharing notes and experiences with other spiritual journeyers. What I find is that when people talk to me from their own first-person experience, I relax. No one is preaching to me about “how it is.” Instead I am touching in with someone and for a moment seeing the world the way that they see it. And that makes my world bigger. I feel in those moments that I am connecting with another person, not being preached at (hallelujah!). And perhaps most importantly, I feel interested in diving deeper into my own experience, inspired by this person’s genuineness and vulnerability.

Stories of Transformation

March 24th, 2011

Sounds True has recently launched a new feature called “Stories of Transformation.” The idea is simple: we want to hear stories from Sounds True listeners about their discoveries and insights as we journey together on the path of awakening.

Why stories? Stories make abstract teachings real and personal. As a producer, I will often sit in the studio with an author and record their ideas for many hours at a time. At a certain point, I know the program will seriously benefit from the inclusion of a personal story. Enough theory, I want to hear the teaching exemplified in a real-world example, in a way that “hits the ground.”

Now of course, when it comes to our own personal “stories of transformation,” there are many different ways we can approach sharing our stories with each other. Are we trying to prove something? Are we trying to impress others? What might it be like to tell our stories for the sake of touching and being touched?

A further question is what distinguishes an everyday story from a “story of transformation”? When is a story a prison and when does it empower? I believe it all comes down to how we frame our experience. Do we hold the frame lightly? What lens do we use when we tell the story of something that happened to us? Are we blaming ourselves or others, or are we seeking to learn and transform?

Recently, I interviewed Lewis Mehl-Madrona for the podcast series Insights at the Edge. Lewis is a physician, psychiatrist ,and clinical psychologist who is part Cherokee and part Lakota. He is also an expert in “narrative medicine,” an emerging field of study that looks at the power of stories in the healing process. In the interview, Lewis told me that when he meets a patient for the first time, the most important question he asks is, “Will you please tell me the story of your illness?”  He then listens with every fiber of his being. He is listening to hear whether or not the story is a healing story or a story that is imprisoning in some way (perhaps filled with self-recrimination or a sense of futility). As an expert in narrative medicine, he then works with the patient to help them reframe their experience of illness, to find a new story that is empowering and growth-oriented. Lewis helps his patients turn whatever is happening in their lives into a story of transformation.

Now what about the idea, quite common with many people who are interested in present-moment awareness, that we should “drop our story” altogether. I believe that such people are pointing to the pure field of aliveness that exists when we are not trying to frame experience in any way. When we drop our story, there is nothing to hold on to. We find ourselves in a wide, open space that is groundless, uncertain, and free of any solid position or stance. All stories become fiction. And of course, this is an important point of view to keep in mind—all of our stories are simply stories. We must hold them loosely, even our stories of transformation.

All that being said, here’s how this new feature works: each month, Sounds True will ask our listeners a question, and then collect “stories of transformation” in response. The question, as well as a selected story each month, will be shared in our “Weekly Wisdom” as well through the “Discussions” section of our Sounds True Facebook page.

This was the question for this month:

“Have you ever experienced an unexpected transformation in your life as the result of suffering from an illness or other debilitating physical condition? What happened?”

And as a way to help launch this new feature, I am writing my own story of transformation in response to this month’s question:

Looking in the Mirror

Recently, I had a three-week flu. “Flu” is a short 3-letter word, but this flu felt like a terrible giant. It stormed through my body and pinned me down.

I don’t get sick very often, and when I canceled a speaking engagement and a series of out-of-town meetings because I felt too ill to fly, the people who are close to me were simply shocked. I had never missed a week of work before due to illness in over 25 years. I felt shocked as well—not that I canceled the trip—but by the lessons that followed.

It was clear that my body had a singular message for me: rest. But that was not the message I wanted to hear. I kept thinking of all of the supposedly important meetings I was missing. I kept my BlackBerry with me in bed even though I was too blurry-eyed to read the screen. And then, I asked myself this: You have been a meditator for over 25 years. Your body needs you to rest. Can you please just let go and surrender?

And that was the moment when I looked into the mirror. I saw that I was seriously attached (we could say addicted) to the sense of power that comes from doing and making and creating. I knew how to relax into space and sit in silence (I have been on several solitary meditation retreats), but relaxing into illness felt different. It felt like I was being dragged into the underworld, a world in which I was a worthless, grey slug. It was humiliating.

What did I learn from this? That illness is a great initiator. I was initiated into indisputable helplessness. That ultimately I am not in charge of whether I stand up or lie down (I had to lie down when I wanted to stand up), or ultimately whether I live or die. That I am not in charge, period. I learned to embrace my brokenness. I couldn’t breathe beautifully and enjoyably in the ways that I know how. All I could do was accept the fact that each breath hurt, each breath felt broken. What could I do? Be merciful toward the feeling of brokenness.

This flu stopped me. It stripped me of the illusion of control, and it exposed a part of me that is addicted to outer-world accomplishments. Looking in the mirror isn’t always pretty, but I prefer truth to self-deception.

Here is the question for next month: “Have you ever undergone a profound transformation or breakthrough as a result of forgiving someone (or yourself)? Are you in the midst of a forgiveness challenge right now? Tell us your personal story of forgiveness.”

You can submit your story of transformation through stories@soundstrue.com, or through the discussions area of our Facebook page.

Please write your heart out. We would love to hear from you!

A Moment of Good Fortune

November 17th, 2010

I recently had an experience that I can only describe as a moment of great good fortune. A few months ago, I received an invitation to speak at a World Peace Conference in India that was sponsored by the Tej Gyan Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to self-realization, as well as the promotion of mutual respect and understanding between the faith traditions of the world.

When I agreed to speak at the conference, I had no idea that the Dalai Lama would be the keynote speaker (he had not yet been invited). And when I discovered that he would be speaking, it never dawned on me that I would have the chance to interact with him in any way.

To my delight and astonishment, I found myself sitting right next to him in a private tent during the few minutes before the proceedings began. Without thinking, I reached for his hand and held it between mine for what seemed like a very long time, although it was probably just two or three minutes! I can still feel how his hand felt in that moment –- soft, mushy, like warm dough — and how a feeling of goodness and grace swept through my whole being as we held and squeezed one another’s hands (ok, I probably did most of the squeezing!). I continue to be moved by how much he communicated through the simple touch of his hands — his tremendous warmth and compassion.

It feels somehow fitting to me to post this photo as Sounds True launches its newly designed website, a website that we hope will bring a vast array of spiritual teachings to an increasing number of people worldwide. We all have our personal mythologies, and in my personal mythology, my meeting with the Dalai Lama was a blessing that I received on behalf of Sounds True to inspire our efforts in the world. May our outreach continue to grow, and may the spirit of compassion continually pervade our work!

“Keep Going, Say What You Know”

July 20th, 2010

Tami Simon reveals the three most important lessons she’s learned (and un-learned) over Sounds True’s 25 years of exploring spiritual frontiers.

David Whyte: Following the Signs

May 28th, 2010

One of the best parts of my job at Sounds True is hosting a free weekly podcast series called Insights at the Edge. During each conversation, I attempt to listen with my whole being, not with my mind alone and not with a list of prepared questions ready to be served up in a particular order. Instead, I actually “take my skin off” (so to speak) so that I am in a receptive state and can hear what is being said through all of the pores in my body. I love the experience of listening that deeply and hearing what Sounds True authors are saying, both in their words, and in the spaces in between their words. I am also listening and attending to what could be called “a greater field of inquiry”—to the questions that other listeners might have. I love this part of my job because it is a time when I get to be in a state of full sensitivity and receptivity, which for me is highly enjoyable.

One of my favorite recent podcasts was with the poet David Whyte. David and I talked about something he calls “the conversational nature of reality.” You might want to take a listen or read the transcript so that you can hear and see for yourself how he presents this idea. What was intensely meaningful for me was how he described an approach to living that mirrors how I approach an interview. What if we lived our lives as if we were deeply engaged in an open-ended conversation? What if we asked our heart’s most central questions and then followed the thread of responses delivered by the world, even if it leads us into unknown places?

In the interview, David makes the point that there is always a feedback loop, a conversation if you will, going on between our innermost thoughts and desires, and the world. We have all kinds of ideas about how we want things to go, and then the world speaks to us. Some doors fly open and other doors slam shut. It is as though reality is a field of intelligence delivering all of the feedback we need in a variety of forms, including seemingly random comments from strangers, illnesses and broken bones, changes in the weather, and synchronicities of all kinds.

After recording this interview with David, I started reflecting on what it might mean to lead an organization by attuning to “the conversational nature of reality.” I am certainly asking questions all the time about Sounds True’s future and how best to “steer the ship.” What if I were to steer by faithfully and intensely listening and then following the signs as they appear? I love this idea because it feels so respectful of others and the wakefulness of the world itself. It also puts me in touch with what might be called an indigenous sense of being, a sense of being in touch with how reality is presenting itself in the physical world, rather than being overly identified with my own pre-conceived notions and plans.

The challenge for me as a leader is that I often feel I am supposed to have answers (not just good questions) and I feel a kind of inner pressure to lead according to some kind of formalized blueprint, rather than according to the signs that reality is presenting. One of the business writers who has influenced me the most is Sounds True author and organizational consultant Peter Block (author of the audio program The Right Use of Power). According to Peter Block, the role of the boss is to “convene.” What does the boss convene? Conversations. I love this notion. Convene conversations? That is certainly something I can do! When it comes to organizational life, we often discover what is needed next through dialogue, through conversations we have with everyone who touches the business and whom the business touches—which is why I so value all of the comments I receive from people who read this blog and comment on the podcast series. These conversations reveal our next step, maybe not the step after the next step, but certainly the next step we need to take (which may sometimes be to wait, or gather more information).

Sometimes during a podcast, I will refer to the title of the series and ask authors, “what is your current edge?” In that question, I am attempting to probe a bit and find out where people feel a sense of excitement and uncertainty in their lives. Where does their knowing turn into unknowing? People often talk about the many things they have discovered in the past, but what is most interesting to me is the inner conversation we are each having with ourselves. The cool thing about a “conversation” is that we might have an idea of what we want to say, but we never know what the other party is going to say. So when we open up to what David Whyte calls “the conversational nature of reality”, we open to surprise, to the open-endedness of our situation, to reality delivering us something we can’t manufacture but is instead gifted to us. How do we navigate such a conversation that is out of our control? I like the idea of enjoying the pauses, and following the signs.

Blessing and Being Blessed

March 30th, 2010

I love to receive personal blessings. One of the best blessing-givers I have ever met was the late Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue. I remember at the end of our various recording projects, we would always celebrate by going out to dinner and having a few drinks. One night, after dinner, I shyly asked John if he would be willing to give me a blessing (I just couldn’t let him fly back to Ireland the next morning without asking). We walked together to a private spot outside of the restaurant, under a tree. He then cupped his hands over my head and prayed out loud for several minutes, asking that goodness come, that any obstacles in my path be removed, that I be liberated from any shame or self-deprecation that was holding me back (quite honestly, I can’t remember exactly what he said, it was a long stream of consciousness invocation, but what I wrote here was the gist of it).

I will always remember that moment when John O’Donohue blessed me under a tree. It was like being injected with light.

Interestingly, since that time, I have requested blessings from all kinds of people (from Tibetan Buddhist teachers, from friends who seem to have healing abilities and from my partner Julie who is always willing to help me out with a blessing if I feel like I am facing a particularly difficult situation). I have also given blessings to all kinds of people in different kinds of circumstances. John O’Donohue spent 19 years as a Catholic priest, but I am not a priest of any kind. My point here is that we can all give and receive blessings, regardless of whether we have been “officially sanctioned.” All that is necessary is a willingness to invoke infinite benevolence for the sake of someone else. Then there is a meeting, a mysterious meeting that is beyond the personal and infuses the person with infinite possibility.

Recently, I interviewed Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés for “Insights at the Edge” (the weekly free podcast series that I host). I asked her about the power of blessings, as she ends each one of her online teachings with a blessing-prayer for the listeners. Her comments hit home. She talked about how the blessing withheld is as important as the blessing given. I thought of situations in my own life in which out of competitiveness or meanness, I have actually withheld from someone my belief in them or my investment in their success. CPE (as I call Dr. Estés) also spoke of how we can bless people through our work, and through writing and poetry, and how there are many people who are literally waiting and in need of the blessings that can only pour through each of us.

I love the idea of blessings flowing freely from us and to us. We each have the freedom and the birthright to invoke blessings at any time. We can scream blessings from the rooftops, silently look through eyes that bless, or say something to someone that is exactly the blessed encouragement they need to hear. It doesn’t have to be formal or even seen. Blessing and being blessed can be a way of opening to a field of grace, a field that is always available, ready to fill us and others in response to our heart’s call.

What makes a “Groovy Workplace”?

March 23rd, 2010

I am not someone who easily fits into office life (or at least what might be called “traditional” office life). I like to take my shoes off when I work. I sometimes need to lie down at strange times and simply stretch (or moan). It is impossible for me to wear one face at work and then wear another face when I am not at work, as if I were two separate people – a worker and a person. To me, I need to work in an environment where I feel whole and can express my wholeness.

Twenty five years ago when I started Sounds True, it wasn’t that easy to find what I would call a “groovy workplace”. And for me, such an environment was a necessity. I knew I would be spending most of my waking hours at work (in an office no less), and I wanted those hours to be enjoyable, love-filled, interesting and rich.

With that in mind, back in 1985, I articulated three bottom lines for the company. We would be successful as a business if we could:

1)Fulfill our mission (defined as “disseminating spiritual wisdom”)

2)Maintain a groovy workplace

3)Generate a profit

To this day, these remain the three bottom lines that matter to me most. The first two are non-negotiable and are within our control (we decide what we publish and how we treat each other). The third bottom line allows us to pursue the other two.

When it comes to maintaining a groovy workplace, the employees at Sounds True have taken over this bottom line as their own. What is mostly required of me is to stay out of the way. Here are a few examples:

  • A few months ago, our Art Director curated an all-employee art show. For several months, the hallways of Sounds True were filled with employee-created works of photography, sculpture, painting and collage. People even brought in art by their children (and one of our conference rooms was dedicated to children’s art). The exhibit was called “Many Artists, One Show,” a take-off on our new company tag line.
  • Last Friday was Pajama Day. For the past several years, during the first snowfall in March, people are invited to wear their pajamas, booties, and sleeping hats (who really wears a sleeping hat?) to work. The idea was introduced by someone in our art department several years ago. At first, I thought it was ridiculous, and I was one of the few curmudgeons who wore my clothes to work on Pajama Day. This year, I wore my pink cotton pajamas and a cashmere grey robe and finally got the hang of it.
  • A new employee in our marketing department recently asked me how I would feel about him gathering people once a month for a lunch-time discussion group to talk about a Sounds True title. “Will it cost anything?” I asked. “No, but it would be wonderful if you wanted to join us.” That’s the kind of initiative I can roll with. Now, a group of ST employees bring their lunch and gather once a month to share their experience of listening to a ST title.

These are just a few recent Sounds True happenings. The point is that NONE of these ideas came from me or the management of the company. Even our meditation room exists because an employee wanted it to happen. The idea was brought forward about 15 years ago by a copywriter who worked in an open cubicle. He wanted to meditate during his morning and afternoon breaks and felt uncomfortable meditating in public while people walked past (understandably).

So, what makes a workplace groovy? I believe each person will have a different answer to that. As the founder of ST, I believe my role is to be open and receptive and to let people act on what is important to them. Grooviness does not require a policy or plan. It requires creating the space in which people feel safe to enact their inspiration.

Now for me personally, the absolute grooviest part of the Sounds True workplace is the fact that people can bring their (well-behaved) dogs to work. Bosco
When visitors come to Sounds True, the number of dogs in the building is one of the first things they notice (on any given day, there can be anywhere between 10 and 20 dogs sleeping in offices, sitting on people’s laps and walking through the halls). The “bring your dog policy” began about two decades ago when I lived with a dog named Toby. Toby would give me the most woeful look when I would leave the house each morning, and I couldn’t bear it. So one day, I decided to bring him with me. And soon, Toby was coming to work with me every day. After about a week, an employee asked me if she could bring her dog as well. Believe it or not, I never considered that bringing Toby would mean that everyone else would soon be bringing their dogs too (I clearly didn’t think through the implications). But I have always believed in treating people the way that I would want to be treated. And clearly I wanted to bring my dog to work. How could I not let others do the same?

We now have an entire page of our Employee Handbook dedicated to the Sounds True dogs (three poops and you’re out!) along with dog free zones in the building (if only there was compliance). Yes, there are challenges (we have a large supply of stain remover on hand) and there are occasional turf wars and barking attacks during conference calls. But overall, the dogs humanize Sounds True. And I mean that quite seriously. They connect us to our natural warmth and softness. They break our trance of busy-ness (if you bring your dog to work you need to take it out on a regular basis, similar to taking a smoking break but without the smoke). They provide a dog-lover like me with over-the-top grooviness (a bit of smelliness is a small price to pay).

I never thought I would spend my life working in an office building. I associated office life with something stale and staid. But it needn’t be. What is mission critical for me is that every day I can come to work and be genuine and connect with other genuine people in an authentic way. Can that happen in an office building? Well, of course it can. It can happen anywhere.

About 5 years ago, the culture of Sounds True was studied by two researchers from “The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.” Their goal was to study various businesses to see if contemplative practice (the practice of prayer, meditation, and other forms of reflection) had an impact on the culture of a company. Did such businesses embody “spiritual” characteristics? If so, how are those characteristics expressed in business? After spending two days at Sounds True and interviewing our 80+ employees (about one-third of whom identified as being contemplative practitioners), they came to the following conclusion: Overwhelmingly, the people at Sounds True feel like they can be themselves at work.

Maybe that is the ultimate grooviness.

Many Voices, One Journey

March 8th, 2010

Sounds True has a new logo (see above) and a new tag line: Many Voices, One Journey.

 

The new tag line came from Mitchell Clute who works as a Producer at Sounds True. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded a bit like we were a gospel choir, but hey, that’s not that far from the truth.

 

The phrase “Many Voices, One Journey” has grown on me. Obviously, we each have our own individual journey to make, however we are all here together experiencing our one life. As unique as we each are, there is an underlying universality that we share, which is the human journey of birth, death and the potential for spiritual transformation.

 

At a deeper level, I have been reflecting on the whole notion of what it means to be a universalist (someone who appreciates what all the world’s spiritual traditions have in common) and at the same time someone who has chosen a particular spiritual path to follow (to be part of a particular lineage).

 

In my own life, I started out in my early twenties in love with the direct path of mystical knowing, determined that I would always be a “world citizen” and never become a member of any particular tribe or tradition. However, by the time I reached my late thirties, I had the feeling of being a bit lost in the woods. I had studied with many different teachers and in many different traditions. I knew a lot, but there was a way that I had remained on the surface. At one point, my partner Julie said to me “You like to talk about spiritual transformation more than anyone I have ever met. The question is, when are you going to start transforming?”

 

Her question stung, and I knew she was pointing to something absolutely critical. It was at that time in my life that I started working intensively with a single spiritual teacher and with a single spiritual community, and this teacher and community have been my “home base” for the past 8 years. What is interesting is that now that I have a home base, I am engaged with exploring many different spiritual teachings and traditions (my heart is a universal heart), but I no longer feel lost. I feel like someone who has a home and who is an adventurous traveler.

 

Perhaps even more importantly, I can now appreciate in an experiential way deeper dimensions of various teachings from other traditions (different from my own) because I have reference points from my own practice that illuminate the language of other traditions.

 

When I first started meditating, I studied with S.N. Goenka who is a Burmese meditation master who teaches the Vipassana style of meditation. I was 20 years old, and I remember him saying, “If you want to find water, don’t dig in hundreds of different holes, dig deeply in one place.” I remember thinking that he was an old fuddy-duddy, a traditionalist, and besides, how did I know that I was digging in the right one hole to begin with? Two decades later, I reached a certain point where I knew the smell of water and I knew what pure water tasted like (I had also tasted quite a bit of what I might call “muddy water”). I had experienced enough and grown enough to have confidence in my instincts. And when I found the tradition that had the right scent and the taste, I decided to dig in a very serious way.

 

I love the tag line “Many Voices, One Journey” because I believe there is a great underground table of pure water that is available to all serious spiritual journeyers. I also believe there are many routes and access points depending on your personal bent, your personal karma (all of the various conditions of your life), and on what teacher and practice form calls forth your heart and inspiration. I have met deeply realized people from many different traditions. One Sounds True author whom I dearly love, John Milton (who takes people on vision quests in nature) recommends to students to always study in more than one tradition because it creates checks and balances on the path (John himself has studied and practiced extensively within 4 lineages: Taoist, Shamanic, the Kali Tradition, and the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism). And this combining of paths is an interesting “voice in the choir” as well.

 

My current perspective is that spiritual transformation is a universal process (“one journey”). No one can own it. However, the universal becomes real for us when it has a voice, a name, a particular expression. We discover the universal through the particular and then we can appreciate all particulars as expressions of the universal.

 

To Think or Not to Think?

January 20th, 2010

“To Think or Not to Think?” is the title of one of the seminars that recently aired at www.EckhartTolleTV.com. Eckhart Tolle TV is an online subscription service that features new video teachings by Eckhart Tolle along with a monthly live broadcast with people participating from over 120 different countries. Sounds True is a partner in the development of Eckhart Tolle TV, which has given me the chance to work closely with Eckhart and his teachings, an opportunity I truly value.

 

So, “To Think or Not to Think?” Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that I have been thinking about this question. But ever since I heard Eckhart talk about it, I have been noticing times that I engage in repetitive thinking (thinking about the same thing again and again with no new information coming forward). And how this kind of thinking is distinct from the arising of insight, which happens of its own accord and feels like an effortless “a-ha.” And I have started to ask myself when I notice I am engaging in repetitive thinking, “Why not drop this loop and rest in the unknown?”

 

Interrupting the runaway thinking process with this question “To Think or Not to Think?” has been immensely helpful to me, especially when I am trying to figure out a solution to some problem to no avail. The irony of course is that when I stop trying so hard to think a solution into being, a next step emerges, and a natural, intelligent unfolding occurs. It reminds me of why so many of us have some of our best ideas in the shower, when we finally give up on solving a certain problem.

 

Now, before anyone comes to the conclusion that I am proposing living like a thoughtless idiot, I want to be sure to emphasize that Eckhart makes a distinction between rising above the thinking process and dropping below the thinking process. (This is a similar distinction to that made by Ken Wilber , author of the ST series Kosmic Consciousness, when he talks about the “pre-trans fallacy.” In Wilber’s language, there is being “pre-rational” and being “trans-rational.” They are both not rational, but that doesn’t mean we should confuse them as the same thing.) According to Eckhart, if we were to “drop below” thinking that would be a type of idiocy; we would lose access to our rational powers. When we “rise above” thinking, we live as a space of awareness that welcomes the arising and dissolving of thoughts, but we are no longer identified as “the thinker.” Instead, we experience ourselves as a field of sensitivity or what could be called “the space of awareness.”

 

I notice that I sometimes choose to think think think about something even though I know I have the choice to “think or not to think.” I notice it usually happens when I am afraid, afraid that a situation will not turn out in my favor. Some part of me believes that if I think about it long and hard enough, I will find a solution in which my interests will be met.

 

So what can I do besides think think think when I notice I am afraid? There are actually lots of options. What I have found most effective is to turn my attention to the physical world (rather than the mental world), to the feeling of my belly rising and falling with each breath, to my heartbeat, to the feeling of my feet touching the ground, or attending to what Eckhart calls “the inner body,”—the feeling of aliveness, a kind of tingling sensation that pervades the entire body. I notice that when I do this I feel calmer, more grounded, and better able to let the unknown be just that—unknown.

 

According to recent studies I have seen, somewhere between 85% – 90% of the thoughts we have each day are repetitive. It’s like a needle going over the same part of a record, round and round, again and again. There are many reasons I would like to be free of this type of repetitive thinking—it’s boring, it’s dulling, and it is an abstraction away from this sensory-rich moment. It is a type of recoil. Additionally, I am interested in originality and what supports the emergence of original ideas. I love being around ST authors who are “true originals,” people who relentlessly come up with ideas that have never been spoken before, ideas that are quite literally “from the origin” or from the source. These authors are not simply regurgitating someone else’s work. There is something fresh, one could even say revelatory, about their writing and teaching.

 

I believe such authors and teachers are people who know how to live in such a way that they are not spending 85% – 90% of their time in repetitive thinking. When I am with such people, their very presence feels spacious, like there is room for something unprecedented and surprising to emerge.

 

Recently, I interviewed the poet David Whyte for an episode of the Sounds True podcast “Insights at the Edge.” I remarked to David that his new audio series with Sounds True (What to Remember When Waking, to be published later this Spring) was packed with insights I had never heard voiced by anyone previously. In the interview, I asked him about this and what he believe leads to original thinking. He commented that it is impossible to try and be original, but that instead originality is a natural outgrowth of living in what he calls our “frontier identity.” According to David, our “frontier identity” is the leading edge of our being, the part of us that ventures beyond territory we have already covered, the part of us that actively meets the unknown. This frontier is where I want to live. Not in the realm of thinking thinking thinking, but in the realm of being—or, one could say, right at the edge of the wave.

 

Until Now!

November 17th, 2009

I have been maintaining an outdated view about what “businesspeople” are like. (Although as astrologer Caroline Casey says “Until Now!” is the appropriate exclamation to make when saying such things). Granted, over the past two decades, I have met a few exceptional business leaders (I could count them on one hand), people who are genuinely led by their hearts (not their egos) and by a sense of serving a greater purpose. However, even in the face of these meetings, I have held tight to the perspective that such people are very rare. I have held on to this view because that has been my experience. Until now!

 

Recently, I attended a four-day conference on “Catalyzing Conscious Capitalism” convened by the CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey. In attendance at the conference were CEOs from Patagonia, Men’s Warehouse, Joi De Vivre Hotels, The Container Store, Jamba Juice, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Life is Good, and The Motley Fool, among others. I learned many things at the C3 event, but the most important thing I learned is that “I am not alone” (far from it, actually) when it comes to seeing business as a vehicle for fulfilling our heart’s highest ideals.  In fact, in an interview that I recorded with John Mackey that is published by Sounds True along with a lecture by John on his theory of Conscious Capitalism, I asked John if he felt it was fair to call “Whole Foods” his “ministry” in a certain sense. To my great delight, he agreed that the word “ministry” does, in some important ways, describe the animating force underlying his business.

 

I spent much of the four days of the C3 Conference crying. In the midst of discussions about the theory of conscious capitalism (more on that in a moment) what moved me the most was the sense of having “arrived.” I had arrived by coming into contact with a philosophical framework and a group of highly successful people who mirrored my own deepest convictions about the power of entrepreneurship to simultaneously create benefit for individuals and for society as a whole, in what John Mackey calls “a virtuous circle.” I felt like I had been a young girl crawling in a dark forest for two plus decades, really on my own, and I had somehow emerged into relatedness with a group of strong older brothers (and a sister or two…I am still looking to meet more such women business leaders), and that I could now walk in allegiance with this strong larger group.

 

One of the presenters at the conference was Roy Spence, co-author of the book It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven by Purpose. As part of his presentation on how purpose is the nuclear force at the center of everything we do (my words, not Roy’s), he offered the following slogan “The road may be long, but we are ready for the walk.” This sentence touched me at my core. Of course, no matter what our purpose is, we need to be ready for a long walk, especially if our purpose is “disruptive” (and according to Roy, when our purpose moves society forward in a significant way it will of necessity be disruptive). This slogan, “The road may be long but we are ready for the walk” hit me in the chest because I realized that catalyzing conscious capitalism had become a “walk” that many people were now walking together, a walk in which I had lots of strong allies at my side.

 

So what is “conscious capitalism”? It is a term coined by John Mackey to describe how businesses can bring consciousness to what they do and how they do it so that they become a force for collective good (to learn more in John’s own words, I suggest visiting his blog at www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs/jmackey or check out the Sounds True audio with John on “Passion and Purpose.”). At the conference, I learned that a business that is catalyzing conscious capitalism (what we could call a C3 business) has three pillars or anchoring principles:

 

•    A C3 business has a clear purpose, which is its reason for being. This purpose forms the core identity of the business and is its offering to others.
•    A C3 business honors all of the stakeholders of the company, which includes its customers, its employees, its investors, its suppliers, the community, and the greater environment. This is what John calls “the interdependent stakeholder model,” and it requires a view to making decisions that harmonize and balance the needs and interests of all parties that contribute to a company’s success.
•    A C3 business is managed by conscious leadership, by leaders that focus on stewardship and facilitation not “command and control.”

 

John further makes the point that C3 businesses over the long-term are more profitable than comparison companies who do not employ these principles (and he offers statistics to back up this claim). The reason for this is quite simple – if you don’t honor all of the stakeholders in your business, at some point this will catch up to you and backfire in some way (your reputation with customers will suffer, it will be harder to attract star employees, the community will boycott your business, etc). In a nutshell, the case was clearly made at the conference that C3 businesses are the businesses of the future because they will be the companies that customers love to love, and as a result these businesses will thrive.

 

It was also exciting to see the investment community represented at the conference. Investors are also recognizing that this is not just a “feel good” approach to business. It is an approach that will generate the most long-term financial success.

 

I returned from the C3 conference about three weeks ago, and I have been letting the lessons of the conference sink in. Perhaps the most important lesson for me is that I am not alone in the business part of my life, not as “freaky” as I thought. And more importantly, I am probably not alone in any part of my life. That I need to “update my file”—as a friend who is a therapist once said—regarding beliefs I held as a child about other people and the world.

 

Over the past six weeks, I have been hosting the Mother Night online event with Clarissa Pinkola Estés (or CPE, as I call her). One of the most interesting things I have noted is how many Sounds True listeners have written in questions for CPE that say in essence, “I feel so alone. Where is my tribe?” We have literally received dozens of such questions. CPE’s response to listeners has been that the tribe you are seeking is right here in our shared experience, that the potential exists for us to find belonging when people connect with each other who hold dear similar ideas.

 

And over these past few weeks what I have been reflecting on is how each one of us is probably nowhere near as alone as we imagine ourselves to be. We may be pioneers. We may be being disruptive in our way and in our own spheres. But there is probably a huge yet-to-be-discovered network of people who are nursing similar ideas and ideals, working in their own way, waiting to be found. We may feel like we are crawling head down alone, but I am beginning to warm up to the notion that if we open our eyes and look up and out, we may very well find more brilliant and capable allies than we ever could have imagined.

Flying the Freak Flag

October 5th, 2009

I often feel like I don’t fit in. Into what? Conventional forms.

When I was in elementary school, I was often asked by students in other grades, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I secretly enjoyed the question but never gave an answer.

I went to Swarthmore College and dropped out after my sophomore year because I felt alienated from the philosophy department (where there was very little room for a personal voice), and I couldn’t see myself getting an academic degree in religion (would any of the mystics I loved have chosen to earn a degree in mysticism?).

I started my own company because there were no ready-made jobs that made any sense for me.

Two and a half decades later, I still feel “freaky” quite a bit of the time. I enjoy spending time with successful businesspeople (I learn a lot watching how their minds work) and yet I notice how different I feel from most entrepreneurs. Most businesspeople I meet evaluate a business in terms of its capacity to scale, its gross margins, and its mass appeal. I feel more like someone running a messenger service who wants to make sure there is a flow of income to support future delivery.

I have been a member of a practicing spiritual community for the past 8 years. Recently I had the experience of feeling like I didn’t fit in, even though the group welcomes all serious spiritual practitioners and has been my “tribe” for almost a decade. I felt like I didn’t fit in because a certain practice form is followed, level after level, and my inner experience is not tracking along with these levels in a linear way. The spiritual teacher of our community told me I was “atypical” and that I need to follow my own inner sense of how to practice. This was quite a relief. I could still be part of the group and be in my integrity. However, the whole process of discovering that I was not progressing “normally” was painful. It reminded me of all of the other times in my life when I have not fit in.

I have received many gifts from Sounds True authors over the years, but one of the most important gifts has come to me from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, best known as the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves. I first met CPE (as I call Dr. Estés) in 1987 when she was a guest on a radio show I hosted on KGNU, Boulder County Public Radio. CPE saw that I was not a “this” or a “that,” but something one-of-a-kind. She affirmed that in me, and I believe her work does that for many, many people.

In just a few days, CPE will be launching a new series of online events called Mother Night: Learning to See in the Dark” (you can listen to a new free podcast with CPE on “Diamonds In The Dark” if you want to get more of a sense of what she will be covering in this new series). For me, part of learning to see in the dark involves accepting my “freakdom” – accepting the fact that the conventional, daylight world does not hold my future. I can’t fit into a pre-made path – academic, business, or spiritual – and find my way. What I can do is descend into the darkness, into the unknown, into the never-before created and give birth to my own uniqueness. When I look at myself through the outside eyes of convention, I still sometimes feel like a “freak”. But when I look at myself with inner vision, seeing in the dark, I feel like a mystery—a geyser of unknown energy coming into form.

I could take this even further and say that one of the things that is needed now is for more and more people to descend into their own darkness and find the unprecedented expression of their individual life. The pre-made forms are obviously not working (and in fact are collapsing around us). Will you join me — by, of course, not joining with me, or with anyone or anything, but instead by giving birth to your own uniqueness?

Drop the Storyline and Feel the Underlying Energy

September 21st, 2009

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Pema Chodron, the author of When Things Fall Apart, in a retreat cabin in Crestone, Colorado. The purpose of the interview was to create a question and answer session to be included in an upcoming Sounds True program by Pema entitled “Unconditional Confidence: Instructions for Meeting Any Experience with Trust and Courage.”

The very first question I asked Pema was “How do you define this term, ‘unconditional confidence,’ and is it really possible to be confident in every situation?” Her response stunned me. She said, “Unconditional confidence really means unconditional gentleness, and yes, we can train so that we are gentle with ourselves in the face of whatever is happening.”

When Pema gave this answer, I “exited” in a certain kind of way. Everything turned white; it was similar to a blackout, but it was a white-out. The experience was brief, and I kept listening and moving along with the interview, but at the same time something had hit a deep nerve in me, and I wasn’t quite sure what the nerve was. It was as if her answer slapped me in the face.

Since the interview, I have been investigating internally the connection between gentleness towards myself and confidence in the world. The first thing I have seen is how many times a day I say something to myself that is ungenerous and even mean. I am sure this has been going on for, well, a lifetime, but the truth is I had never seen it so clearly before. Usually the commentary is about something minor: “Why weren’t you more articulate during that conference call?”, “Why did you say such and such to that person?”, and on and on. But sometimes this inner commentator takes on bigger issues, in a more aggressive way. “You will never be able to open your heart fully because it hurts too much,” or “You are not a real businessperson because you react instead of plan,” or other such indictments.

During the interview, I asked Pema what to do in these kinds of instances, times when we are just not gentle with ourselves. Her instruction was to interrupt the self-talk any way you can. I took the question further: what if interrupting this inner voice just doesn’t work? What if the situation feels impossible, and this mean voice is persistent, like a radio you can’t turn off? Her response was very direct and clear: drop the storyline and feel the underlying energy.

I have found this technique to be extremely effective (when I can remember to do it!). Dropping the storyline is like a thunderclap. A gap is created and what remains is pure energy.

At a certain point, this energy finds a direction. It moves. A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once said to me something he learned through the therapeutic exchange, “Even if you say something you regret, what really matters is what you say next. It is all about what you do next.”

And this is what I have discovered about the connection between gentleness to myself and confidence in the world. When I am gentle towards myself, I take the next action that is needed in the situation; gentleness allows me to be resourceful and responsive. If I know I can count on being kind to myself, then I can risk “failure.” I can step into a new challenge, knowing that no matter how the situation turns out, I will be able to extend again and again. These days, I am consciously cultivating this kind of unconditional gentleness towards myself because this is exactly the kind of confidence I need.