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.

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.

Meditating at Work

September 11th, 2009

I have known Ed and Deb Shapiro for over twenty years. Deb is the author of the ST book Your Body Speaks Your Mind and Ed (whom I call “Swami Eddy”) is a true Boulder character and one of the most active networkers I know. Together they have written a new book called “Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World.” The book looks at how meditation can positively affect every aspect of our life including our relationships, our environment, and the greater world. For the chapter on “Silence in the Boardroom” (about meditation in the workplace), Ed and Deb asked me to contribute a short, practice-oriented piece on meditating at work. Here is my contribution:

Meditating in the workplace requires that we learn to meditate “on the spot,” in the midst of challenging circumstances and difficult conversations. Three techniques I’ve found useful for interrupting identification with discursive thinking and introducing a quality of spaciousness at work—and in any situation—are attending to physical sensations, bringing attention to the back of the body, and beginning meetings with silence.

Attend to the sensations of physical tension, and let go

By paying close attention in meditation we discover the following equation: if our mind is agitated, our body is tense; if our body is tense, our mind is agitated. By letting go of physical tension in the body, we create space in our mind to listen to others and act creatively.

In the midst of a meeting, a phone conversation, or any interaction in which you feel yourself becoming impatient or agitated, bring your attention to the part of your body that is holding tension. You can do this on the spot by internally scanning your body from your toes to the top of your head, zeroing in on any part that seems tight, clenched, or contracted. Perhaps you will discover that your lower belly is in a knot, or your shoulders are up by your ears. Maybe your hands feel like they are gripping something, or the bottoms of your feet are recoiling from the ground. When you discover an area of physical tension, use your in-breath to connect with that sensation. Then, on the out-breath, simply release, relax and let go. You can actually “ride the out-breath” and let it carry your physical (and mental!) holding into space.

Bring your attention to the back of the body, and make space for others

Different physical and energetic postures carry different modes of being. If we want to exert and express ourselves and move forward into action, we can bring our energy into the front of our body. If we want to make space for other people, listen deeply, and avail ourselves of new creative ideas, we can benefit from leaning slightly back and bringing our attention to the back of the body. Have you ever been in a meeting in which everyone was interrupting one another and it felt like no one was really being heard? If even one person in the group brings their attention to the back of the body, a quality of space and receptivity is introduced that can change the tone and course of the meeting.

Allow time for renewal by beginning meetings with silence

Often a busy day can feel like being on a non-stop train with one action item following the next without a break. Creating moments of silence, moments of getting off the train, interrupts our tendency to fall into habitual reactivity and drops us back into the depth and generativity of our being.

A simple way to introduce silence into the workplace is to begin meetings with a few moments of being quiet together, what I sometimes like to call “taking a good minute.” People use this shared silence in different ways – to breathe and relax, to appreciate a few moments during the day that are calm and spacious, to let go of previous work concerns, or to connect in a silent, energetic way with everyone else at the meeting. When we introduce “a good minute” at the beginning of a meeting, we are introducing a practice that is totally secular and fitting for a working environment, where people regenerate and renew themselves in different ways. What we are saying is that we value that renewal and that we want people to bring their full presence to the task at hand.

When we use these and other practices to bring meditative awareness to the workplace what we are doing is creating space – space for our own feelings, space for other people, space for brilliance and originality to shine through. Of course, the more we practice meditating in a formal setting, creating space for ourselves in a relaxed way outside of the work setting, the more depth and precision we can bring to meditating on-the-spot in the pressure-filled environment of the workplace.

Featured in Be the Change, How Meditation can Transform You and the World by Ed and Deb Shapiro, to be published Nov 3. Pre-order the book now.

What Does It Mean to be “Wholehearted?”

August 28th, 2009

I was recently on a vacation with my partner of 8 years Julie Kramer (spending time in British Columbia kayaking with orcas), and I asked her how well she thought I was doing “living up to my highest potential.” These are the kinds of questions I seem to gravitate toward on vacation, a type of existential “taking stock” if you will. Julie’s response surprised me. She said something to the effect of, “I think you are asking the wrong question. How about asking instead, ‘Am I living in a wholehearted way?’”

The question itself stung (Julie seems to have a gift for delivering “zingers” very calmly and sweetly). I thought to myself, “I am not truly whole-hearted about anything. Not about our relationship. Not about my work. There is often a part of me that is holding back, looking and evaluating everything from the sidelines, measuring and comparing, reserving just a bit of ‘hedge’ room to protect myself if things go south.”

During this vacation, I thought about this question a lot (and took all kinds of new relational risks as well!). One interesting point here is that there are two Sounds True authors and spiritual teachers I greatly respect, Adyashanti and Hameed Ali (who writes under the pen name A.H. Almaas and is coming out this Fall with a new ST learning program called The Diamond Approach), who emphasize again and again how sincerity is the most important quality on the spiritual path. I have never much connected to this word “sincerity,” however when Julie asked me to inquire into whether or not I was “wholehearted,” I suddenly realized that this was the same question Adyashanti and Hameed have been pointing to when they talk about what it means to be sincere.

That’s when the light really went on for me. I have always been curious about how some spiritual practices seem to work fabulously well for some people and other people can do the same practices for years (sometimes even decades!) and there is no real growth or transformation. I had previously attributed this to different people simply being at different points in their development (and of course, there is some truth in that). But what if one person is engaging in a practice (say the practice of forgiveness) in a wholehearted way, and another person is doing the same practice with only a portion of their genuine heart “on the line”? Of course, the results are going to be wildly different.

Or take another example: how some couples see a relationship counselor and radical change happens in a very short period of time, while other couples can go through a similar counseling process with little or no change occurring, even after years of therapy. Is it possible that the couple whose dynamic did not change were not really wholehearted in their willingness to grow and transform?

Now, I know there are lots of factors that account for how people change and at what speed, but what if wholeheartedness is one of the most significant and powerful factors of all? What if my partner Julie was right, that asking this question “Am I wholehearted?” is the most important question I could ask if I want to experience life in as full a way as possible?

At one point a few years ago, I was engaged in a devotional practice called “prostration” which involves throwing yourself down on a mat over and over again, while offering yourself fully and completely to life, for the benefit of all beings. I remember talking with Adyashanti about the practice I was doing, and he said “if you do one prostration with the whole of your being, that one, single prostration will liberate you.” This type of “gonzo wholeheartedness,” packed and exploding–in one prostration, one kiss, one moment of total surrender and vulnerability—is what interests me, and what I hope to experience again and again and again.

Love at Work

June 8th, 2009

Every so often I find myself “in love” with someone I work with. Now let me explain: I am not talking about a love that needs to express itself sexually or in intimate partnership. I’m talking about the love that comes with the recognition of an “essence connection” that holds the promise of destiny unfolding. It is the feeling that somehow this other person and I have a gift that we need to share with each other, a gift that, once exchanged, will leave us and others transformed.

I get this type of “in love” feeling with Sounds True authors, with business partners, and with co-workers (at the moment, I am in love with a dozen or so such people, just to give you the idea about what I mean here). I usually know I am in love when someone or something has captured my imagination – I daydream and swim in the feelings evoked. Internally, my code language for this experience is the recognition that I have “karma” with someone. What I mean by having karma is that we have work to do together, that something is wanting to be exchanged, something is wanting to be born through a joining of forces.

I wanted to toss out this topic of “Love at Work” because it is so often considered taboo to talk about Big Feelings in the workplace. And yet, it makes sense that if we are creative in our jobs and if we are bringing forth our soul’s gifts, we will of course encounter big feelings of love (and many other types of big feelings, by the way) at work. So I would like to break open this taboo and welcome eros, which is the life force itself, into the workplace, and proclaim that we can welcome these feelings of intense love in a way that is respectful, life-giving, and follows all necessary HR guidelines!

When we invite love into the workplace, our work world begins to sing with the fullness of life. Meetings become a chance to connect with people we love; new projects become a way that we can combine energies with others to magnify the potential of our individual gifts. We become available for real partnership, which for me only happens through a heart-level exchange. We also begin to acknowledge what I consider to be the real fuel for work life – relationships with other people which are overbrimming with shared heart in the context of a shared purpose.

Does Your Spiritual Path Have a Goal?

May 7th, 2009

Are you more interested in finding happiness—or finding out what is true? This is the question that Adyashanti, an innovative spiritual teacher out of the Zen tradition and the author of a provocative new book from Sounds True entitled The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment, asked his wife Mukti on their very first date.

This is the kind of question I love. It reminds me of a question I often like to ask meditators: What is the goal of your meditation practice?

For me the goal of meditation (and spiritual practice of all kinds) is wholeness or inclusiveness. What this means is that I am practicing not to achieve a certain chosen state—be it ecstasy or deep bliss—but instead, so that I can accept and embrace everything that I am and everything that is arising.

I have often met people on a spiritual path who say that the goal of their practice is to feel something in particular—usually peacefulness or happiness or some other positive state. And although this sounds nice, I find this approach problematic for several reasons.

1) Focusing on feeling a particular way can lead to what John Welwood calls “spiritual bypassing.” “Spiritual bypassing” means using spiritual ideals (like feeling peaceful) to bypass personal developmental challenges. For example,  a friend of mine is terribly angry at her boyfriend for all kinds of really good reasons. He is not a very attentive listener and is unwilling to see many things from her perspective, instead simply trying to convince her of his view. Yet my friend is determined not to be angry. In her world view, her “practice” is to be understanding and forgiving and compassionate. Yet I know that, just beneath the surface, she is fuming.  (I think she knows this, too.) She is “bypassing” her anger, and in the process is avoiding the growth that would come from confronting her partner in a constructive way. In the meantime, where is her anger going? Will it simply dissolve if she doesn’t acknowledge it? I don’t think so. When we bypass emotions in favor of “living our spiritual ideals,” we stuff these feelings into our body, where they hide out, simmer and wait to erupt.

2) When we’re seeking a particular feeling state, our spiritual path, which is supposed to free us, becomes another method of control. When we try to control the moment-to-moment experience of our lives by insisting that we feel a certain way, we end up telling ourselves things that are not true—i.e., that we are feeling something we are not actually feeling. (Again, I hear Adyashanti’s question in my ear: are we interested in discovering happiness or knowing what is true?) Instead of our spiritual path opening us to a fresh experience of each moment, we are now using spiritual ideals (like happiness or peace) as a control funnel through which reality is filtered.

3) If we’re hoping for positive mind states, we run the risk of abandoning our path when uncomfortable experiences surface and challenge our stated objective. If we use being “comfortable” or “peaceful” as a yardstick of our path’s success, then we might stop working with a particular practice just as it is beginning to do its work, revealing some hidden material that could prove to be the next step in our evolution.

One of the spiritual teachers who has spent more than five decades mapping what he calls “the transformative process” is Benedictine monk Father Thomas Keating.  (This fall, Sounds True will be releasing a home study course with Father Thomas on centering prayer and the transformative process it catalyzes.) Father Thomas uses Christian language to describe the process of prayer and transformation, and yet I find his work to be completely universal and, interestingly, perfectly resonant with my own experience of meditation and transformation within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. According to Father Thomas, God could be called “the Divine Therapist.” When we rest in God’s presence, there erupts within us what he calls “an unloading of the unconscious.” If we are able to accept this unconscious material without repressing it or reacting to it, a further “evacuation” of unconscious material occurs. (I just love the use of the word “evacuation” in this context!) This leads to greater interior freedom and an increase in our overall capacity for awareness.

I recently had my own experience of an “evacuation,” which was quite dramatic. Last summer, I went on a solitary meditation retreat for 10 days in a cabin in Crestone, Colorado. This is the third solitary retreat I have been on, and I have learned from my other two experiences to enter retreat with an open and innocent mind—an attitude of “who knows what will happen?” About three days into retreat, I started having what I can only describe as a “panic attack” – my breathing changed and I started gasping for air as if my life were at risk. At first, I thought the panic attack had to do with a new house I had just purchased—or, more accurately, with my new mortgage. (The amount of the mortgage kept repeating over and over in my head as I panicked.) At the same time, it was clear to me that the panic I was feeling was about something deeper. In reality I was safe, in a lovely cabin, and I could afford my new mortgage. And yet, after three days of meditation practice, I was on my knees gasping for air for no reason I could name.

After several hours of gasping, I collapsed outside on the ground.  I gave myself to the earth and to whatever process was unfolding in me. The insight that came later was that a core panic I’d been carrying inside since birth was being released from my being into awareness. Here on this retreat, I was finally ready for the somatic memory of my birth—a difficult delivery that was experienced by my infant self as a life-or-death drama—to come forward, be known, and be released.

What if the real goal of our spiritual path is to have the courage to face everything, and I mean everything, without turning away? Might there be a type of unshakeable peace and unshakeable happiness that denies nothing but instead welcomes every experience as exactly what is needed? Could that type of unconditional acceptance rightly be called faith?

In The End of Your World, Adyashanti talks about how he has worked with many students who have had breakthrough experiences of spiritual awakening, and how all of these students report that the experience is not  what they had imagined. Adya comments that awakening has to be beyond our preconceived ideas, since we can only conceive of something based on past experiences. Spiritual awakening is a total shift in perception, completely unprecedented in our lives. According to Adya, when we awaken, our “world ends”— the world that is held together by our ideas of subject and object, of how the world functions, and of who we are in its midst. When Adya had his great spiritual awakening he says he “awoke from Zen,” meaning that even the tradition and its practices no longer defined his experience. What if any goal we can describe for our spiritual path will be outgrown? What if there is literally nothing we can hold on to, not even our maps and presumed destinations?

A Confession

April 24th, 2009

A couple of years ago, I was driving Reggie Ray from one retreat center to another in the New York/Boston area. Reggie is a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with whom I have been studying closely for the past 7 years. When I heard he needed a driver, I thought it would be a good chance to spend some one-on-one time with him, in a closed situation—a vehicle—and to pummel him with questions.

As we were leaving the Garrison Institute to drive to a E-Vam, a small retreat center devoted to the work of Traleg Rinpoche, I asked a receptionist at Garrison for directions. Much to my relief, they were incredibly simple and straightforward. (The truth is that even though I volunteered to be Reggie’s driver, I actually have very little confidence behind the wheel; you might say driving is one of my “inferior functions”.) As we got into the car, I exclaimed to Reggie that this drive was going to be easy: just one turn and we would be on the expressway to our destination.

When I said this, Reggie looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Whatever,” I thought, “Reggie is just being negative.” Well, you guessed it—after driving for only 2 miles, we started hearing a strange thump, thump, thump. We had somehow developed a flat tire. I remembered his comment about “not being so sure” and asked him if he had had a premonition or something. He said, “No, you just sounded awfully confident.” Well, now I was panic-stricken and anxious. (Here I have the meditation master in a rental car with a flat tire and we are stuck on the side of the road!) But Reggie just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Don’t worry, I live for this kind of thing.”

Well, he might have enjoyed the unanticipated newness of the experience, but for me it was uncomfortable and stressful. And this is the same way I felt after I wrote my first (and only) “manifesto” a few weeks ago, on the topic of “manifestation” (see “Manifestation Manifesto”). After I confidently posted that entry, which extolls the virtues of listening to one’s inner voice and claims that following its directives is the key to creating, I was immediately plunged into a period in which I couldn’t hear any inner guidance at all. Nothing. Static. It was like a sudden flat tire inside.

Now, there were outer causes. In January and February, Sounds True had very disappointing top line sales due to the overall contraction in the retail marketplace, and we were having some issues with our line of credit (which, fortunately, have since been resolved). What I noticed was that my inner system was “jammed up” in a flight or fight response, and in that state, the last thing I could do was tune in and hear my inner voice clearly. And yet, I had just written a “Manifesto” that made it sound like listening to one’s inner voice and following its call is as simple as driving a few miles and making one turn onto an expressway.

During this period of hearing static inside, I asked myself two critical questions:

  1. What works for me when I find that I need to “un-jam” my circuits so I can receive inner guidance?
  2. How do I distinguish between what could be called “the voice of ego” and “the voice of the knowing self”?

Here is what I discovered:
When my “circuits are jammed” (which is what it feels like to me), I can conclude that I am terribly afraid of something or other (in this case, potential economic doom) and that the first thing I need to do is release the fight or flight response from my body. A friend of mine recently wrote a PhD thesis on a somatic approach to resolving conflict in couples and he called it “Fight, Flight, or Feel,” a title which I quite like. When I am in conflict with myself, let alone with another person, what I need to do is move beyond fight or flight and into feeling.

Okay, you may ask, but how do I approach “feeling” when I am terrified of feeling how terrified I feel? (Now that’s a mouthful of a question.) I found three things that worked for me: 1) Deep bodywork, 2) Loving and intelligent friends who truly know how to listen, receive and reflect, and 3) Intensive meditation practice.

What I found was that I could restore my sense of inner connectedness when my body relaxed, when I felt loved, and when I could connect with a vast sense of spaciousness. During this particular period, I participated in a 5-day meditation training program.  Being at this program , I felt that I regained the antenna that had been lost in the fight or flight attack; instead of hearing static inside, I once again had clear reception of what you could call a “grace field”—a sense of being informed as to what was being called for in each moment.

The second question I examined during this recent difficult period was “how do I distinguish between what might be called the voice of the ego and the voice of the knowing self?” For me, it is all about how my body feels. I have come to recognize the feeling of genuine guidance in a kind of somatic “rightness.”

And so I pose these two questions to you, the readers of this blog. When you are going through a challenging time, how do you “un-jam your circuits” so you can receive guidance in a clear way? And how do you distinguish between what could be called the voice of the ego and the voice of the knowing self?

I have been asking people these questions in an informal way and discovering that people have their own inner language and signaling system. What is this for you?

Finally, as you respond to this question, I offer one last thought.  I feel a bit strange writing a blog post that is as confessional as this one. (First a manifesto, now a confession.) And yet I know that vulnerability is real strength. I recently interviewed Terry Tempest Williams as part of a new Sounds True podcast series. (She was in our studio recording an audio adaptation of her new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, which will be available this Fall.)  In the interview she talks about how one of the reasons she writes is to create community—and how ironic it is to engage in a totally solitary act for the purpose of connecting with other people. The writer and the audience are, as they say, “alone, together.” As I connect with you, the Sounds True community, through this new experiment of a “Publisher’s Blog,” I want to do so in a way that is real and vulnerable and raw. I want the exchange to be genuine and at eye-level. I want to “manifest” something that leaves no residue of “half-said” but instead is a reflection of our collective wholeness—and in your responses, I invite you to do the same.

–Tami Simon
Publisher

Manifestation Manifesto

February 25th, 2009

Over the past few years, I have heard more and more people talk about “manifesting.” From what I can tell, the going definition of manifestation is “learning how to use spiritual principles to get what you want out of life.” Of course, it is usually stated in more palatable language like “how to realize your dreams” or “how to create the life you want.” Often, when I hear people describe this view of manifestation, I find myself feeling irritated. So, I decided it was time to write my own “Manifestation Manifesto.” (As you can see, I’m using this Publisher’s Blog as a chance to constructively express – at least I hope I’m being constructive – many of the pent-up frustrations I have been feeling as a publisher in the field of personal and spiritual transformation for the past 24 years.)

So in response to all of the manifestation talk I‘ve heard over the past few years, here is my “Manifestation Manifesto”:

Step 1. Listen to your inner voice.

Step 2. Do what your inner voice says.

Step 3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2.

That’s my manifesto (very short!). And although it sounds quite simple – and it is from a conceptual viewpoint – that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Step 1: Listen to your inner voice.

I believe we all have a trustworthy inner voice. You might experience it in the form of words spoken internally or as a gut feeling, an intuitive vision, a flash of insight, or a spontaneous sense of knowing. In traditional religious language, this inner voice might be called “the voice of our conscience,” which may not be too far off the mark. I do believe we each have an internal guidance system that is always available, if we are willing to stop and listen.

You might ask, “Where does this inner voice come from?” That’s a good question – and I don’t have a good answer. What I do know is that for me this inner voice is a compass. It feels to me like a reliable, benevolent, evolutionary messenger service, something that is guiding me to express more, to love more, and to extend more for the benefit of others.

It’s my experience that there is no shortage of available inner guidance. What is in short supply, however, is our willingness to tune in and listen. Most of us are too busy, busy, busy (ironically, trying to manifest our dreams, right?). Imagine how much power and impact we could have if we paused and listened to make sure we were actually scurrying in the right direction.

If we are interested in manifesting more in our lives – more abundance, more happiness, more contribution to others – one interesting question to ask ourselves is why we don’t spend more time listening to our inner guidance. Caroline Myss, the medical intuitive and author of Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can, has investigated this question in some detail. She posits that the reason many people don’t listen to their inner guidance is that they don’t actually want to change – certainly not in dramatic ways. We may say we want change in our lives (we want to “manifest” something that doesn’t currently exist, right?), but we usually want it on our terms, not on unconditional terms, not if it costs us something like our current sense of security, our current network of relationships, or our current identity structure.

And this brings me to why I often feel irritated when I hear people talk about “manifesting their dreams.” It is as if this all-powerful ego-based person wants to orchestrate a new world order according to their likes and dislikes, as if this whole universe exists to line up around our personal wishes. I really see things in quite the opposite way. The way I see it, we are servants, not masters. What are we serving? That is for each person to answer in their own being. In my case, I am serving a higher field or finer dimension of vibration that has qualities to it like truth, beauty and justice. I am also serving and partnering with all of the beings, seen and unseen, who have worked and are working to bring these qualities into form. To put it another way, for me the central question around manifesting is not “What do I want?” but instead “What is wanted from me?”

Step 2: Do What Your Inner Voice Says

Once we hear our inner guidance, we need courage – or to use Caroline Myss’ language, “a backbone, not a wishbone” – if we are to manifest in the world. This is complex territory, because there are all kinds of unconscious reasons we don’t want to act on the messages we hear.  I will give you an example from my personal and professional life:

For about 5 years, I knew I needed to hire a President at Sounds True. The company needed day-to-day operational leadership, and I needed the time to explore other avenues of self-expression and contribution. I was, however, terrified about making this change. What if I hired someone who ruined the 20 years of work I’d put into the company, eroding the value of the business? What if I hired someone who was better than me at running the company, and I ended up feeling like a horse put out to pasture? What if and if and if?

Finally, my inner voice stopped talking to me in clear sentences and started creating difficult circumstances in my life – including a schedule that was totally unmanageable and a love partner who could not tolerate how little time and attention I had for our relationship. It was as if my guidance system could no longer get my attention by whispering so it started shouting through the circumstances of my life.

A year and a half ago, the shouting got so loud I couldn’t help but listen. So I finally made the decision to hire a President. (Happily, April 1st 2009 will be the one year anniversary of a fellow spiritual traveler and business professional named Grant Couch filling this role.) Why did it take me 5 years to take this step? Because, as Caroline Myss says, I was afraid of how much and how quickly my life would change. In a certain sense, I was “hiding” behind all of the tasks that I had to do. I knew this just below the surface of my consciousness, but I didn’t really want to acknowledge this knowing because I was hiding for some very good unconscious reasons. Suffice it to say I was protecting my heart; it can be quite scary to change in ways that radically – and publicly – increase our level of vulnerability.

So for me, when it comes to manifesting, a useful line of inquiry is “Why am I not doing what I know I need to do right now”? That is a totally different approach than “visualizing what I want” or expecting hoped-for external events to happen. It’s about deeply inquiring into our own resistance and what lies underneath it. My experience is that when I can archaeologically dig up that unconscious material, feel it and release it, it’s like untying a knot. Once that knot is untied, the energy to manifest flows swiftly and generally, unimpeded. Doors fly open. Surprising allies arrive. Magic happens.

Step 3

Repeat steps 1 and 2

There is no end to manifesting and expressing who we are. I recently spent some time with Eckhart Tolle. We were filming a trailer for Eckhart Tolle TV, a new online television service that Sounds True is launching in partnership with Eckhart Teachings. I asked Eckhart why he was bothering to create this new service at all. I wanted to understand his motivations. Obviously, Eckhart can be spending his time in whatever way he wishes; why get involved in a multi-year commitment requiring so much energy and creativity? When I asked Eckhart the question “Why are you bothering to create Eckhart Tolle TV?” he paused for about a minute. Then he looked directly at me and said, “I am responding to the evolutionary impulse.”

I love that answer. When we are responding to an evolutionary impulse, we manifest in a way that is pure and selfless. We tune in. We are given instructions. We respond boldly, wildly and unconditionally. And as a result, we manifest in ways that serve evolution itself.

–Tami Simon
Publisher

Enlightenment in five easy steps?

January 13th, 2009

Here at Sounds True, we have seasonal meetings (called “creative direction” meetings) where our creative team gathers to brainstorm (and argue—in a constructive way, of course) about how best to position each one of our new titles. By creating a position for a title we are launching it into the world as a new and unique being—what it will look, sound, and feel like; what makes it unique from every other title that has ever been born.

The writers at Sounds True have historically advocated describing each program in terms of its benefits to the customer. The idea is that people want to gain something—intelligence, peace of mind, greater health—when they spend their money on inner learning and spiritual development. Well, those “benefits” sound good (they sure do!), but here’s the rub: The spiritual journey is often more about loss than gain, as much about embracing our darkness as it is about basking in the light. Advertising that promises the spiritual journey will be easy, fun, and always filled with light and bliss has some very real problems attached. Specifically:

It makes us misunderstand and reject our own experiences of “descent.”

Experiences of “descent” are those times when we need to be deep within ourselves—when we are called to inner silence and inquiry, when we are letting go of something that needs to be let go of, when we are grieving, when we are wrestling with and sorting out our priorities, when we are grappling with physical illness. These times of descent are part of life and are intrinsic to the spiritual journey. They are not times of failure or of being off course; they are passageways that need to be traversed so we can emerge with greater depth of being and, dare I say, wisdom.

If we ingest advertising that says that the spiritual journey is all about peace and feeling positive all of the time, then we are prone to believing that we are somehow “failing” during such times of descent. We will reject ourselves and our experience; we will actually pull away from the initiatory experiences we are having that hold so much richness and information, and we will instead stay on the surface of our lives and wonder why we feel like something is missing. Without the descent there is no real ascent; it is like wanting all of the vitality and energy of springtime but being unwilling to experience winter.

We are not prepared for the real work of the spiritual journey.

If we believe that the spiritual journey is quick and easy (like following the instructions on the back of a bag of microwave popcorn), we will not be prepared for the real work, the “heavy lifting” of genuine transformation. What I mean by “genuine transformation” is a process by which everything that is false in us—our emotional defenses, limiting beliefs, and self-structures—are seen and released, and a new unbounded and mysterious sense of self emerges which is fluid and ever-changing. Of course, this heavy lifting is more about “un-doing” than doing. But in my experience, when it comes to letting go of my need for power and control and safety, as well as my need to be universally well-liked by others, this process is quite a process indeed!

The problem with believing that the spiritual journey does not require real and sustained work is similar to the problem that emerges when a partner in a love relationship believes that the relationship should continuously unfold beautifully and perfectly without either partner needing to work at it. When tough spots emerge, there is no willingness to engage, to go deeper. The real treasures, those that can only be discovered through sustained engagement, remain hidden.

We lecture others about our theories of happiness instead of meeting them in their unique experience.

If we believe that the spiritual journey is formulaic, that there is a one-size-fits-all series of easy steps to follow, then when other people are suffering, we insist on sharing with them our winning formula. I do not believe this is what people really need or want from us when they are in emotional pain.

Recently, I spent three days in a studio in Madison, Wisconsin with Parker Palmer recording a series of talks about “The Undivided Life.” He is a beautiful writer and educator and someone who has written courageously (and now spoken courageously!) on the topic of depression. Parker himself has gone through three periods of clinical depression (he describes the most recent experience which he underwent during his sixties as “becoming the dark”). One thing he learned in these periods was how people could best relate to him in ways that were truly helpful instead of simply driving him deeper into isolation. He named this ideal form of relating as being “neither invasive nor evasive” and he compared it to how a dying person might want to receive a visitor—the visitor would not try to “fix” the dying person (for who can fix the fact that we are going to die and this is actuality the situation we are all in?) but would instead be at the bedside with total presence and a full heart, neither invasive nor evasive.

If we know that the spiritual journey is mysterious, complex, and totally individual (not reduced to a series of simplistic steps) then we can be with each other in this way—present, open, attentive, warm, and available. We can be fellow travelers instead of salespeople with one-size-fits-all answers.

The irony here is that the spiritual journey is the most exciting, the most rewarding, the most benefit-packed focus we could ever have for our lives. I remember at one point approximately seven years ago speaking with spiritual teacher Reggie Ray about my own ambitious nature. I wondered if a life focused on inner growth could ever really satisfy me. His comment was that the inner journey would nourish me and fulfill me in ways outer accomplishments never could—that instead of feeling drained and empty from working in the world (even with the purpose of being of benefit to others), I would feel overflowing from the inside out with a sense of richness and fulfillment.

So yes, we can describe Sounds True titles with benefit language galore, but we need to be careful we never sell the spiritual journey as something that is easy, quick, formulaic, and without challenge. That would be a serious disservice. As Parker Palmer says, there is no resurrection without death. As I see it, our real job at Sounds True is to communicate the great glory of dying.

–Tami Simon
Publisher

Leap . . . and Life Unfolds

December 1st, 2008

Writing a blog like this is a type of “leap” for me. It is one thing to run a publishing company and stand behind the work of great luminaries and spiritual teachers. It is another thing to stand up front and use my own voice in this way. Preparing to write this first entry, I started thinking about a phrase that I have often heard repeated in spiritual circles: “Leap and the net will appear.” I just don’t think that’s true, at least not in all cases. People always want guarantees when they take a risk, and they want their spiritual endeavors to come with guarantees (if I follow this path, I must know that I am going to become happier, wealthier, etc.). What if there are no guarantees? What if we leap simply because we have to, because not leaping leads to stagnation and stuckness and sometimes we know in our hearts we just have to extend, regardless of the outcome?

Back in 1985, it appeared to others (my friends and family) that I was taking a leap to start Sounds True. But really, it was more like a calculated risk. The leap came when at age 20, I dropped out of college. It actually felt like I jumped off of a train that had been going 100 miles per hour (a stunt-like maneuver, I leapt off the train and rolled on the ground somersault fashion and found myself studying meditation and traveling in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal for a year). It was a dramatic leap because I had been on a certain track, an academic track. I thought I was going to be a professor or something like that because I loved learning and I loved ideas. And here I was, called by something mysterious to discover what it meant not to get a degree in mysticism but to live the life of a mystic.

When I started Sounds True a year after returning from India, I had nothing left to lose. I was a college drop-out volunteering at a local radio station and working as a waitress to pay the bills. During this period in my life, there was a prayer that I said every day: “God, I am willing to do your work. Show me what it is.” The word “willing” was a very intentional part of the prayer. I did not want to approach finding my life’s calling in a “willful” way and I also didn’t want to be “will-less” — not exerting myself or caring about the outcome. I wanted to be shown, and I wanted the universe to know I was willing to do my part, whatever it might be, however humble it might look.

At the age of 21, I received a small inheritance (about $50K) when my father died. This was the money I used to start Sounds True. Starting Sounds True was a calculated risk. I lived very simply at the time (in a rented house with four other people) and I felt as though I had nothing to lose. If after the end of two years, Sounds True was not able to pay me a wage, then I would shut it down and go look for a job (which would put me in the same place I was in before I took the risk, seeking meaningful employment in a landscape that didn’t seem particularly promising).

People sometimes ask me if it took courage to start Sounds True. And the answer is no. What did take courage was to leave a situation (Swarthmore College) that promised a lot of rewards that were meaningful to other people but not actually meaningful to me. It took courage because I had no idea what would happen or how my life would unfold. I risked losing the respect of my family, and I had no explanation for my actions. I knew I had to leave a situation that felt wrong to me, but I had no idea what would feel right.

Since leaving college and starting Sounds True, there has been no end to “leaping.” Sometimes, I have taken a leap and suddenly it feels like a magical white horse has appeared underneath me, wings spread, and we fly through the air together. Other times, I have landed on the ground with a resounding “thud.” Sometimes, I have taken a leap and felt really humiliated at the results (a public talk that didn’t go well, for example). No matter. There are no guarantees. A “thud,” however painful, can lead to a new birth. What matters to me is to keep leaping, to keep moving away from the known and trusting the great fertility of the unknown.

We could even take this further. What if there is no “known”?  What if all of our plans and safety nets are fictions we have created to give us an illusion of personal control? What if life, when lived “full out” with our hearts leading the way, is more like a free fall in space than a construction project?  With this first entry, I have now made the “blog leap,” and I am doing so in free fall and in dialogue with you, Sounds True listeners. I would love to hear from you.

–Tami Simon
Publisher