My Life Journey So Far:
Traveling Along the Path From There ... to Here
It was Christmas Eve 1965. I was nine years old. My grandmother "Nanny" had been saying grace before all the holiday meals I'd attended prior to that fateful night, but in years before I was probably fidgeting and more interested in the food on my plate than a prayer. After all, my parents never took my brother and I to church, so this was just part of the whole "family meal ordeal" - along with my new patent leather shoes and a fussy dress, both which I'd outgrow before I'd ever wear them again. The simple words I heard I'd undoubtedly ignored at least a couple dozen times before – or perhaps it was a matter of my ripening cognitive development combined with eloquent timing that made me pay attention that night. Either way, Nanny's prayer set me forth that night upon a lifelong journey traversing a road less travelled:
"Bless O Lord this food for our use and us to Thy service, and make
us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen."
What did being "ever mindful" mean? And what do others need? As is typical of a precocious child, I was determined to find out, and knew my family wouldn't be helpful in providing a sufficient answer. My search back in the 60s couldn't take place via Google; it meant finding books. Spending hours in libraries. Annoying the librarians. Naturally, one of the first stops on my journey was reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, my first exposure to Buddhist philosophy. My best friend at the time was a strict Lutheran, and we argued about Christianity and Buddhism, often in notes we'd pass back and forth in class. When our teacher busted us, she read the notes out loud to the classroom. My friend called the Buddha "Bud" and I called Jesus "JC" – and we got in trouble for passing notes talking about boys!
Fast forwarding over the years, I explored a wide array of "expansion of human conscious" books, lectures, and workshops, just like my fellow Baby Boomers. I learned that yes, mindfulness can be traced back to having roots in Buddhist philosophy – yet it is also found in pretty much every other culture, religion and belief system I delved into - (including the teachings of Taoism and Stoicism). It is like Shakespeare's rose: it smells sweet no matter what this aspect of human conscious awareness is called. The vast garden of religious, spiritual and philosophical bounty became my inner playground, and unable to choose just one species to cultivate, I embraced the beauty of each one, becoming somewhat of a "Heinz 57" practitioner. The universal wisdom contained within the diverse palette of teachings available to humankind was impossible for me to shut out in favor of just one, and the unconscious biases that might give me.
In 1984, I moved to Los Angeles after I was invited to be a close student of a highly educated, funny, articulate, self-proclaimed enlightened spiritual master (warning: run away from anyone who calls him or herself an "enlightened spiritual master"). I left the group after a couple years, partly because the women in the community were behaving in a manner that was anything but enlightened - or reflective of what our teacher espoused about what he called spiritual etiquette - but he didn't necessarily practice. He had sexual relationships with many of his female students (including me) - a clear violation of power which he explained away as a transmission of "shakti" that he claimed would accelerate our spiritual growth. Of course this was simply a manipulation of our trust and vulnerability that served to feed fear in various forms: competition, jealousy, betrayal and back-stabbing - and all the other horrible shadow behaviors ego-run women engage in, treating those they perceived as a threat with anything but spiritual etiquette. The teacher never addressed this behavior, which was the opposite of what he often publicly lectured on: the enlightenment of women. He also began to charge an exorbitant tuition to his students, many who gave up most of their income and slept on their floors. But I felt intimidated to question his behavior and instead enabled it with my silence; however, interestingly, before I left, he told me one day I'd be teaching about spiritual etiquette myself.
I learned a lot about hypocritical spiritual teachers, the deep human need to belong, the abuse of power, and "mean girls" while being within his cult-like sphere. And although some of the experiences were painful, the couple of years I spent under this teacher's tutelage have been the most deeply influential ones in my life because I lost some major illusions and learned what not to do and how not to behave if you aspire to live with unwavering integrity. I am eternally grateful for this, as well as for what he taught that is clean and full of universal wisdom that I do my best to integrate into my practice every day. After I heard that he committed suicide in 1998, I felt inspired to place spiritual etiquette at the center of my studies and eventual teaching just like he said I would - which I have since come to reframe, and teach and coach as intentionally conscious, Ethical Intelligence skills.
I also learned about the danger of contagious, negative groupthink, and have witnessed its existence in toxic, dysfunctional organizations as well as in cult environments; in fact, many toxic workplaces are run like dehumanizing cults. Just like no one can counsel an addict like someone who has been in that sort of living hell him/herself, my experience provided me with insights, empathy and knowledge to coach others how to extricate themselves from these disempowering situations that can often lead to compromising our personal and professional integrity.
During this time, the "New Age" and "self-help"market boomed and the focus became "Me Me Me." It was rather disheartening to witness that many people who claimed to be "spiritual" were not all that interested in doing the deep work of inner transformation. Projecting an ego-driven spiritual facade was apparently a lot more appealing than an authentic, grace-filled quest to be of selfless service to humanity through wisdom gained. And when the book The Secret came out and the "law of attraction" heavily promoted the notion that you could "manifest" anything you desire just by "asking the universe" and creating a vision board with pictures of everything you want, the ego tightened its collective grip.
The good news is each us can choose to authentically follow a path toward higher human consciousness, not just put forth a "spiritual appearance" - or as the late Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa said, mimic or pretend. But that means actually doing the work - and choosing the road less travelled: the often uncomfortable, challenging, messy, scary work of personal change, growth and transformation that many people avoid like the plague. Doing the work as a path of service for the positive, beneficial impact it has upon everyone our life comes into contact with - and not making it "all about me-me-me" - makes this so much easier to do, and deeply rewarding in a non-egoic sense.
It took decades of challenging inner work before I felt I was capable of sharing the universally applicable wisdom that consciousness studies brought to my life (and not let my ego take me out) like I have personally witnessed happening with many well-known "spiritual celebrities." It became clear to me that the only way to not get tripped up by ego, power, fame and money was to lose self-involvement and self-importance, so I vowed to do my best to always remember the spiritual journey is not all about us. I began writing columns blending spiritual etiquette, mindfulness, spiritual activism, and becoming a modern-day Bodhisattva/Noble Warrior for the benefit of humankind. I put together a book proposal about spiritual etiquette, and although the agent who read it thought it was well-written and unique in the field, bluntly told me without an army of "followers" or the endorsement of a revered published author in the self-help genre, I'd never get a book deal. So I sent an email to a well-known teacher I'd respected, sharing a few ideas about the book in the hopes of finding a mentor, but she never responded. Instead, a couple months later I read a newsletter she sent to people on her email list that reworked what I'd sent her just enough to give it her "voice," and she passed it off as her own. Talk about feeling disappointed by one of your heroes ...
I saw the dangers of not "walking your talk" in so many ways as I saw other well-known teachers who were doing the same thing - yet nobody questioned them (just like I was afraid to question my own hypocritical yet intimidating teacher.) Disillusioned, I let go of the idea of writing a book and having it published, and kept writing columns for small publications and teaching meditation to small groups. However, in 2005 I did self-publish a book that addressed the uncleared shadow behaviors of women who claimed to be "spiritual" - echoing my former teacher's question of "Why don't more women attain 'enlightenment'?" I sadly learned that the audience I wrote it for wasn't all that interested in looking at themselves deeply enough to take responsibility and ownership for the reasons why ... at least back then. I am currently revising this book after the awareness the "Me Too" movement has brought.
In late 2008, one of the columns I wrote titled "Mindfulness and Addiction" caught the attention of the CEO of an organization that was preparing to launch an online mindfulness training company, and I was subsequently invited to become one of their first teachers. Since then I've had the honor and privilege of teaching basic mindful awareness skills to hundreds of corporate employees for several mindfulness training companies - as well as for Curious.com and on my own to smaller businesses in the Mindful Eating, Resilience, Work + Life Success, and Communication courses I created - and witnessed how this simple (but not easy) practice changed their lives for the better - just like it had mine.
However, I watched mindfulness quickly start to acquire baggage as unusually high number of positive results of scientific studies on its efficacy hit mainstream media and became a major component of marketing mindfulness meditation and trainings. Suddenly mindfulness was everywhere. While the science was a boon to respond to all the skeptics and naysayers who attempted to pass off mindfulness as yet another questionable (at best) New Age practice, quantifiable metrics soon overshadowed anecdotal evidence, including the touching human stories of the benefits mindful awareness skills brought to students' lives. Our individual character, values, and upholding a universal, inclusive code of honorable behavior are observable measures of our growth in conscious awareness, and in my humble opinion, removing them from the wholeness of mindfulness training was a serious disservice. It's not about creating a lucrative, marketable "brand," or becoming a "mindfulness celebrity" - it's about serving mindfulness itself - and "the needs of others" who may benefit first and foremost. It's not about "Me" - it's about "We."
My journey since the age of nine to learn about mindfulness and how it could be applied to "...being ever mindful of the needs of others" proved to be complicated. After witnessing corporate mindfulness trainings become competitive, commercialized and stripped of their universal ethical and spiritual components (and other baggage that it has acquired), I chose to disengage from what I refer to as "the modern mindfulness industry" and its many unintended consequences.
Even though all paths with heart lead to the same place, I believe that each of us needs an Internal Ethical Compass to help us skillfully and ethically navigate our way in life - in both our personal and professional domains.