Subject

Trish McLoughlin

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

June 11, 2015

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Trish McLoughlin: Healing from what has passed

There are times in life when there is a real need for answers. If you are lucky, you would be blessed with the same gifts that the thoughtful and wise Trish McLoughlin has: a capacity for compassion and passion, a fine-tuned intuition, and an especially attuned ability for healing communication. Among so many things, Trish is a healer and a medium; she recently retired from funeral celebrancy. It has taken me a long time to get this interview here, but thank goodness I did. I spoke with her long ago on a breezy, sunny day in Bowral, and she has helped my life change for the better. Thank you, Trish. And here she is.  

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and what were some of the milestone events in your life?

Trish: I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, and I’m a twin to a boy. My mum had two lots of twins, and I have an older brother. So there were four boys and myself. There wasn’t a lot of money around, but we didn’t know that as kids. We never went without. We always had a nice home. My parents did say something about how one Christmas we had cornflakes. But who would remember that? Kids are not interested in the food. They’re interested in what Santa brought.

My childhood was just a normal childhood growing up in a loving household. I guess, looking back, as I got older, having four brothers no sisters was a bit of a challenge for me.

When I was 15, my father moved us from Newcastle in the UK where we’d all been born, to Leeds Yorkshire, because of his work. So from 15 to 19 my life was in Leeds again doing just the normal things. Going to work. I started off as a hairdresser but in those days you stood from 8 o’clock in the morning till 6 at night. If you had half an hour break for lunch you were lucky. After 2½ years my body just wouldn’t take it. So I went on to becoming a telephonist and receptionist, and that was the main part of my work for a long time.

I married when I was 21. The year after I was married, I was walking down the main street and there was an office with a big sign on the front: “10-pound poms. Migrate to Australia”. I can’t honestly tell you what happened, but the next thing I knew I was in there. My husband agreed. We were in London having all the medicals. Then I was on a ship in South Hampton going out to Australia.

We didn’t know anybody. We had 50 pounds in our pockets. And one of my aunty’s girlfriends was living out here with her family. Her husband was a managing director of a company, and they lived on the North Shore. They took me under their wing. I had my first daughter in Sydney when I was 23. Then I missed my family, so we went back to the UK. By that time my twin brother had come out, and I was back there two or three years when his marriage broke up. He wrote me this letter and there was this long yearning that I felt I needed to be there for him. So that drew me back to Sydney again. By then I had two children, a daughter and son. My marriage had fallen through, and through my brother I met his friend, John, who is now my husband. We have just celebrated 40 years together. So my life settled down here. My parents did come out for a holiday and, a few years later, they ended up living here.

There was a time when I went back again for another two years. In the time I was there, my father was already a spiritualist, and had been for a number of years. I have vague memories of being taken to a spiritualist church when I was 10 and then later when I was about 15. It didn’t really mean anything to me at that time.

Jess: That’s what it was called? A spiritualist church?

Trish: Christian spiritualist, yes, my father was a Christian. I went back with John for a couple of years. We had our third child, another daughter. It was then that I started to become more interested in what my father was doing. I went to church a few times. Never got a reading. Couldn’t understand why nobody ever came to me. Then I started seeing things and remembered that I’d seen things when I was a child. I had this particular dog that was like a golden retriever. It followed me everywhere, and it used to sit next to my bed. And I used to see other things. But I took it as the norm. I then got on with living my life, raising a family working, etc. But, when I was back out here in Sydney, my parents came out on holiday. By then I had set up my own meditation group. My father came and ‘sat’ with us. Not long after he’d gone back I had this dream on Remembrance Day—Anzac Day here.

I woke up at 6 o’clock. It was right on 6 in the morning. John was doing shift work at the time. In the dream, it was shown to me very clearly that I had a connection with Australia. I’d already been here once before. My parents today were my aunty and uncle in the dream, and my aunty and uncle—who I was very close to—were my parents back then. It was during the Second World War. So that’s how quickly, according to this dream, I’d passed over and came back again. So I knew then that I was meant to be here.

I think I was always destined to be here in Australia.

My father tells a story that his aunty, during the Second World War, had four boys. His grandfather, because she was divorced, didn’t want the shame on the family, and sent her out to Australia all by herself with four boys. The four boys did really well. One went back and said to my dad, “You’ve got to come out to Australia. The kids would love it.” My mum wouldn’t come. So my parents had had the opportunity after the Second World War to come to Australia. I think I was the forerunner, because had they come we would all have grown up here, and all put one of us has made Australia our home.

So I think I was always destined to be here in Australia. Unfortunately, by the time my parents came they were in their 60s. My father did meet people with his interests. By then, when he came out here, I was running this group. I was trying to practise a spiritual pathway with awareness. My father was often asked to speak on ‘platform’ in the spiritualist church, which just means being the speaker of the day for the service. He said, “The only way I’ll do it is if you allow Trish to get up with me.” So I did. I was terrified, because I was never a public speaker. I was actually quite shy. I wouldn’t even go into a coffee shop on my own at 19. But I had this immense trust in what I call spirit and spirit guides. I knew that if this was my opportunity then I needed to take it. And I did. And from then on we were asked to do ‘platform’ all over Sydney. Nearly every Sunday, actually, we were invited to speak, to be the guest medium.

Jess: So happened the first time you got up there on the platform?

Trish: Well, I was out the front of the church crying, first of all, because I was so terrified. There were two of us. My father never did readings. He said he couldn’t. So he always did what they call the address, the talk, and I did the readings. And I just trusted completely and went to the people I was drawn to, I do what they call overhead readings, so I don’t need an object, as in psychometry. When I was a child, when we lived in Newcastle, I used to take one of my younger brothers, one of the second set of twins, to church. I think I always had this connection with what I called ‘God’ back then—something greater than myself. And of course my dad, being religious, referred to that term ‘God’.

I think I always had a gift of clairvoyance.

I used to take my brother to church until one Sunday. I was only about 13. My brother was 8. Those were the days when the churches were packed. I couldn’t follow the psalms, and the man behind me pointed me to the right page. But, as I was leaving, the minister of the church pulled me aside and he said, “You don’t think you’d be better off going to Sunday school?” Well, I was disgusted. I never went back. It turned me off it completely.

I think I always had a gift of clairvoyance but because life took over when I was younger, and I had a change in marriage and was travelling backwards and forwards to England, it wasn’t the time to pursue any of that. Gradually, over time, when my father and I were doing our platform work in Sydney together I noticed that when it was my turn to get up to do the readings I was doing philosophy as well as the readings. Of course when my father died it was then my choice to continue on my own, which I did do, and still do.

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Jess: So it was predominantly in a church setting for a long time.

Trish: Yes.

Jess: It still is?

Trish: Yes, although I don’t do as much as I did, but I still do it because that’s the opportunity that comes to me, apart from my public speaking at weddings and funerals. I did once get invited to what they called a psychic fair. This was in the days in Camden when they were very anti anything like that. There was a protest out the front. I’ve never found an opportunity or an avenue to do it anywhere else except when I’ve run workshops, or do private parties for readings.

I’m not comfortable with the word “psychic” and never have been. I see myself as a healer and somebody who empowers other people. 

Jess: To what extent are you using your psychic skills?

Trish: First of all, I’m not comfortable with the word “psychic” and never have been. I see myself as a healer and somebody who empowers other people. So I run a development group. The old term is spiritualism and development group. It’s meditation, teaching others how to recognise their clairvoyance, their clairsentience, their clairaudience—but through the connection that is from within themselves and being able to interpret that. And I see people privately. I also work three days a week in Picton and Camden at two different venues seeing private clients, and at home.

I guess over the years I’ve never been a big reader of books. Give me a fiction book and I’ll sit down for hours and read it, but this other stuff—the new age, spiritual stuff—I’ve never been a big reader of that. I do have lots of books in the house. If they’ve got a story to it, then I tend to want to read it. If it’s a personal story, I’m always interested in people’s stories. But I guess I know that all of the information or all the different perceptions that have come through me have come from within me. For instance, how I see our connection now is not something I’ve read in a book and I haven’t been told it. It has come from within me, through meditation and the connection with spirit, and life experience—a great teacher. Over the years all my work—as a receptionist and natural therapist, counselling, group facilitation—has all been working with people in a healing capacity. So, even when I’m up doing my readings in a public forum, I still see myself more as a healer. I do the clairvoyance and I do the mediumship, but I’m more interested in bringing peace into people’s lives through that work.

Jess: It is a bit of delicate balance, though, isn’t it, of turning into a performing seal and being authentic, really.

The best healers are the ones that work on healing themselves.

Trish: There is a lot of ego that takes over with this kind of work if you let it. For me there has to be a balance. You have to develop the spiritual side of yourself. I think that shows through in the quality of the work, whether you’ve actually developed that side of yourself. I’ve always believed the best healers are the ones that work on healing themselves.

Jess: You come across to me as quite low-key and modest, and perhaps self-contained. It sounds like you’ve tried to keep it under wraps in a way. Is it something that you reveal about yourself?

Trish: One of the things my father taught me early on was, “Don’t go around telling everybody because they’ll laugh at you.” And I don’t go around telling everybody. But in the right situation in the right setting I have over the years got better at saying, “This is who I am.” One of the things I teach people who are interested in getting in touch with a spiritual guide is this: in the Western world, we have five main guides. There is the American Indian, there is the Chinese, there is the monk, there is the nun and there is the Egyptian. When my husband started to sit in our meditation groups, he asked, “So, why is a guide not the shopkeeper down the road or the local miner?” And I had never questioned it, because that’s what my father had taught me and I believed it. So I decided to question it. And what came to me was that these five guides are symbolic. There are not hundreds of Indians running around up there. Their dress is all symbolic. The American Indian is symbolic of the healer within you. The Chinaman, the wisdom. The monk, the knowledge. The nun, peace. And the Egyptian, abundance. So if somebody gave you a reading and said, “You have a nun as a guide with you, that’s working with you,” that’s the aspect of yourself that is showing you that what you’re going through at the moment is teaching you inner peace.

You hear people in spiritualism talking about your guide going away. Then it might come back again. It never actually goes anywhere. It’s just a part of you, an aspect that keeps changing.

Jess: I don’t know much about the Christian spiritualist movement at all. Tell me a little bit about it, the best of what you know.

Trish: There is a Christian spiritualist and there is a spiritualist. I’m none of them now, because I don’t like labels. It was one of the things I dropped when my father had gone—not intentionally; it just happened. The Christian spiritualists still talk about Jesus. The spiritualists don’t. It is like any normal church service. They have a beginning prayer. They don’t have hymns, as such; they have uplifting songs. They have a guest medium. They have a reader. And they have tea and coffee afterwards. That’s the basis of it. And they have healing in between—hands-on healing. They have seven principles. It’s brotherhood of man, the communion of angels, personal responsibility for the here and after, retribution for all good and evil deeds done on earth, that kind of thing, they are not commandments just guidelines that they believe in. Spiritualism is a science and a philosophy.

It is open to anybody that wants to go. John and I ran the Campbelltown Spiritualist Church for two years. They had two services at the time. At that time my father had just died and I was still into the Christian beliefs. People had come from being, maybe, Catholic all their life, and they would come and say they felt like they had found home. Because there is no dogma as such. You take what you want from it and leave the rest. Most people that attend are initially looking for evidence of survival, and spiritual guidance.

Jess: Guidelines?

Trish: Yes. It’s not really any different. I had this very naïve outlook when I first started going, thinking that once you’d got to the stage where you were on platform you’d solved all the problems and you knew everything. I realised that that is not the case at all. It is an ongoing process. But there are people that go not for the philosophy, which is a reading in itself. They go for personal readings. Because they want somebody to tell them all the time what to do, how to make the changes. When is it going to get better? When am I going to meet Mr Right? That kind of thing. They have psychic days when they have readers in and they raise money. Over the years more healing techniques have come through to me, as with all my knowledge, through meditation and the connection with spirit.

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Jess: What healing techniques are they?

Trish: [There is]one in particular that I used for a long time, and I used to give it to my friends and clients. When an emotion comes up—say, a bit of anger or anxiety—get a pen and write it down straightaway, even if it’s just, “I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m angry.” Because it’s like the sediment at the bottom of a pond coming up. Somebody has put their hand in and stirred it up, whether it’s something you’ve thought about, something you’ve seen, something you’ve heard. It’s stirred it up. And now it’s saying to you, “You need to let me go.” So writing it down takes some of the scum off the top. The more you do it, the more you’re able to see a true reflection of who you are in that water. I used that for a long time.

Not so long ago, just 12 or 18 months ago, I was sitting outside and I got this thought that whenever something comes up, just ask, “When was the last time I felt this?” You might not get the answer straightaway, but if you get a picture of something or you get a feeling of something and you can put a picture on it, even if it’s just a word, hose it down as if you were hosing dirt off a wall. “I choose to let you go now.” It works instantly. It doesn’t mean it’s got rid of it completely, because it will come back. But the more you do it, the less it comes back. I have been using that one for quite a long time. I have to say, I really am at the best place I have ever been in my whole life. The affirmation “I choose to let this go now” instantly removes the feelings of discontent however you name it, anger, disappointment etc. But if you continue to use it whenever a feeling comes up it eventually takes you to a place of peace and of course makes the necessary changes in your life. I always stress that it’s not like a diet, start one day and then in a fortnight’s time stop because you haven’t shed the ‘weight’ you want. And we don’t go digging, if you dig a hole to find out where the feeling is coming from, you end up digging another until you’re in a rabbit warren that you can’t find your way out of.

As children we are taught how to attend to our hunger, thirst and tiredness because if we don’t we get sick. But we were never taught how to attend to our emotions that are associated with some experience from the past, so we bury them, and the weight we gain is all emotions stored in the body. We don’t need to ask where is this feeling coming from, the very fact that we are feeling something says the unconscious already knows, it’s just reminding us that we are still living an old experience and that we need to let go now. It can be used when you are engaging in an old conversation in your head, that is stressful, or when you are experiencing physical pain. The greater challenge is to be aware and keep doing it, it’s easy to revert back to old habits.

My father used to say to me, “Patience is a virtue,” and I never, ever understood what that meant. But I finally understood what patience really means. It’s not about being patient about something you’re going to get in a material sense, something that’s tangible. It’s just about knowing that everything’s going to come when it comes, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and you just have to make peace with everything that’s around you. You kind of accept it, I suppose. Eckhart Tolle is one of the people that inspire me. I like to listen to him. His way of dealing with any emotions that come up is to notice it and to just breathe through it.

And my husband inspires me. He came from a Catholic background and, like a lot of men, didn’t want to know about what I was doing, but listened in the background. He has got to a place in his life where he is totally accepting now. Coming from a big family with even less money than our family had in Glasgow, they came from the scarcity mindset. He has changed all of that, and it’s just fantastic. We both say that if we ever had to choose a way of life it would be a Buddhist way of life.

Jess: Do you practise Buddhism in any way, shape or form?

Trish: I practise Buddhism in terms of mindfulness and present moment awareness. I taught mindfulness. I introduced awareness to this women’s health centre where I used to work for 10 years. I’ve run it for groups, families, individuals. Yes, I try to practise it as much as I can every day.

Jess: Do you have a regular meditation every day? Do you meditate every day?

Trish: No. I meditate when I feel like I want to do it, but the mindfulness, all the present moment stuff, is a day to day, moment to moment thing. So you don’t have to sit for half an hour. It links all of that up, if you like. While I’m waiting for you I might be just sitting here looking around. While I’m driving I might be just with my thoughts, or being aware of my breathing. I get a lot of my peace just getting in touch with this, and just being at peace means more to me than anything else, really.

Jess: So your husband is Buddhist?

Trish: No, not Buddhist but he definitely practises the mindfulness. He works in a job that can be quite stressful at times. He’s aware of the techniques. He practises in his way—which I think is fine. The fact that he is doing something with it is fine. All my three children are intuitive. They don’t practise it the way I do. They’ve got young families, and they know the tool is there when they want to use it. They just use it differently.

Jess: How were you doing it when you had young children?

Trish: At the time, I wasn’t doing it as well as I’m doing it now. My meditation would be through yoga and going to church. At night, I would sit down to write; get inspiration and write. Then in between times I’d just sit quiet. I worked full-time. I used to run my own massage and reflexology business, as well as full-time work. Then I had—this is when my children were a little bit older—two groups I was running a week, and I was doing platform at church as well.

Jess: Does it now make sense why you were drawn to Australia? I know there was that connection with your aunty and uncle. Is there anything deeper, something other than that?

Trish: No.

Jess: You’re not quite sure?

Trish: No. I’ve often wondered. Is there something I’ve missed? No. I’ve thought about that myself sometimes. I’ve given up on it, really, because I think you can drive yourself round the bend trying to work it all out.

Jess: You might have to stick with the “patience is a virtue” mantra.

Trish: That’s right. It may be that I’ve had to meet certain people. I had friends down in Robertson, and, one in particular, her life has changed dramatically since I started teaching her. We and others sat together for five years, every week. Maybe that’s the reason. Who knows? Maybe if I hadn’t come back I wouldn’t have met John here. And of course—sorry, I missed this bit out—three of my brothers are living over here now. I always make the joke that I came over here to get away from everybody and they all followed me. I’ve got one brother in England. He and I get on really well. I saw him last year. I went over to surprise him. He is still happy over there. Who knows? I really don’t know. Whether it was just to get my parents out here. Whether it was to help us have a better life. I don’t know.

Jess: Actually, now that you’ve talked it through, it sounds like there are plenty of reasons why you ended up here!

Trish: One of my first jobs over here was as a telephonist in Australia Post in Martin Square. You know the big building there that’s now converted?

Jess: Yes.

Trish: My father has a photograph of one of his cousins standing outside that building. There’s definitely been a connection. A lot of spiritualists believe that there’s another life, and you leave your body, and you go and live with your family. I don’t quite see it like that now. They believe that there’s reincarnation and you can come back and that your life is planned, it’s destined, that God will provide. My philosophy of God is just love. It’s not a figure. It’s love. My interpretation of the soul is just the essence of who we are that makes us feel what’s right for us. To know what’s right for us. To see what’s right for us. It’s that light that we all connected to. I often use the analogy of a candelabra, there is the centre piece, God, the universal light, then the individual globes that are us, but still connected to the centre piece.

Funnily enough, on my way down here I was listening to Richard Fidler. I missed half of it, but he was interviewing a Quaker teacher, and she said they’re very much like the Buddhists. But she didn’t believe that there was anything. “We’re just nature,” she said. “We’re born into this world. We live this life. And then we die.” That doesn’t quite make sense to me. I can’t see the point in that.

The important thing is that we live our life in a way that is bringing peace into this world.

Jess: I think in Buddhist belief there is not necessarily a soul, because we are interconnected. Reincarnation isn’t necessarily the way it works.

Trish: For me it is hard to know. I don’t think it really matters whether we know or not. I think the important thing is that we live our life in a way that is bringing peace into this world. Because for me the outer world—your environment you live in, what’s going on in your life—is a reflection of your inner world. That expands out to the rest of the world. We can’t sit back and say that what’s happening in other parts of the world has nothing to do with us, it has. I think we have to take responsibility to be here in the now and realise that what takes place in the world is a reflection of how we all live our lives, what we think, do and say. Enjoy life, but find peace and compassion and love. I don’t think that can happen when people are in conflict. That’s my mission, my passion… I don’t know where it will ever take me. But I put it out there. It’s my mission to help the people that cross my path—if they want it. I never push it on anybody.

Jess: So that happens in your private practice, it happens at the meditation groups and workshops?

Trish: Yes. I have a girl at the moment that’s only been coming six weeks. Where I am there are [only] one or two street lights, so it’s quite dark at night-time. She was coming with her aunty. She suffers anxiety terribly. I’ve known here for 13 years, and I didn’t know that she suffered anxiety. Two weeks ago when she came she had to come on her own. The other thing she doesn’t like is my drive. As you back out it sort of [curves] a little bit. She backed in so she could drive straight out. She’d been scared of doing that. I said to her, “Did you realise that you were able to drive out there in the dark, without much lighting, and back into the driveway by yourself?” She said, “Yes”. I said, “See how far you’ve come in just four weeks.” I just think that’s wonderful. Now she will pass that on, eventually. She has a son who’s very anxious. She’ll be able to pass on her learning to somebody else.

Whereas I know people who I’ve trained over the years whose vision is to be on the world stage and have a name. Hopefully they do. They work really hard at it, though. Because for them it is more about the name and being known. And, yes, at one time I thought it would be good to be more popular. But that is all long gone now. I can do as much sitting here as I can with a group of people. It’s nice to work with people face to face. It’s nice to be able to go out there knowing you’ve made a difference on the day. But, yes, I’m happy doing what I do.

Jess: One of the other things you do is the celebrancy work.

Trish: Yes. I fell into the funerals because of my public speaking, and friends knew me. I did a funeral for a friend. And then my father died, and I did his. Then my mother, and I did hers. Somebody suggested I do it as a profession. So I did a course to polish off the things that I didn’t know. I had my Certificate IV workplace trainer certificate. I then started working for a registered training organisation and was teaching celebrancy. I’m a teacher. I know I am. That’s inherent in me, whatever I do.

Somebody said to me, “Why don’t you do weddings?” I realised I had to do it because it got me a teaching job. I stopped after 13 months because I was away all the time. You do a lot of work outside of that, like any teaching job. My work as a celebrant now is mainly funerals, which again is a passion, I see it as an honour and privilege to be a part of a family’s life when they are going through so much grief, and entrusting you with such personal information.

Jess: Do you find that there is an overlap between the spirit work and the funeral celebrancy work?

Trish: It’s a very fine line, and I would never cross that line with families. Although I might be seeing you because your father’s passed over, if I saw him, I would never tell you that. What I can do is pick up is what they’re (the deceased) telling me about their personality, which helps me gain rapport with the family. They might say, “I was very dry.” And I will say, “Did he have a dry sense of humour?” They’d say, “Yes, he did!” And, “Did he love being in the garden?” “Yes, he loved the garden!” So it helps me gain rapport with the family in that sense. That is the only way, really. Obviously I use the opportunity to send them healing.

Jess: It’s another form of healing, isn’t it?

Trish: Of course. Yes, that’s right.

Jess: Giving people the opportunity to farewell a love one.

Trish: Yes, to say goodbye to them. The good thing about civil celebrancy services is that the family get the opportunity to create the service they want. The only downside to all of that is that a lot of them are at crematoriums. The time is limited, they only get a certain amount of time. If you want more time, you have to pay more money. As I say to my families, half an hour is long enough, otherwise you get people repeating themselves and families are going through enough.

Jess: How was it doing your father’s funeral and your mother’s funeral?

Trish: I got up to speak at my father’s and I felt and heard him behind me. My throat had gone so dry. My parents had only been in Sydney seven years, and there were over a hundred people there. He just said to me, “You’ve done this many times before.” What I teach people who are doing a eulogy tribute now is what I learnt back then. When you’ve written it, read it, reread it and read it again, until it desensitises you slightly, so you can do the job on the day that you’re there to do. Same with my mum’s funeral. The company that my brother works for, his boss came to me afterwards and he said, “Trish, where do you get the strength from?” I said, “I don’t know. It’s just who I am.” I have a job to do and I just get on with it. Then I’ll grieve privately later on. I think having the belief that they’ve gone to a better place and that I still have that connection is what it helps.

I actually wrote what I think is a profoundly beautiful verse from my mum after she passed. I can send it to you, if you’d like to see it. You might not like it. It’s fine. You don’t have to use it. It just came through me. It’s not something I could sit and put down on paper now.

Jess: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m very interested to see it [the poem can be read at the end of the interview].

Jess: Do you chat with your parents now?

Trish: No, because I have the belief that if you’re coming to see me and if you’re constantly getting told that your father’s around you then you haven’t detached emotionally and there’s still some healing to be done. So for me they’re part of me. I know they’re around somewhere. I don’t need them in the same way I used to need them. I’ve detached emotionally from that. So, in a sense, once you detach from those emotional past lives, they become part of you, and then you become more whole. It doesn’t mean that they don’t come around in times of need, and it doesn’t mean that once you have healed from that emotion that they ‘leave you’. They are part of you, part of the whole.

Jess: It sounds like you’re in a very good place.

Trish: I’m in a really good place, yes.

Jess: Is one of the brothers who are over here in Australia your twin? Is your twin brother here? Does he have similar capacities?

Trish: Yes.

Jess: I’m just going with the stereotype stuff!

Trish: He does, but he doesn’t use it. I’m extremely lucky because I took the opportunity when it was there. I think because I had always seen as a child. But my brother … we’ll know when we’re going to ring each other. I’ll know when he’s sick. Usually when he’s sick I might have a bit of a cold or something like that. It’s very rare that I get sick. I have found so much peace at this time. Although I know that will keep changing as I let go of ‘stuff’.

Jess: Thanks so much, Trish.

 

My Mum

Written by Trish McLoughlin at the time of her mother’s death in 2006

No restrictionsfloating in space

Being cushioned, wrapped up in lace,

Not needing to talk, or even to listen,

Quietness, silence, memories I keep.

Nurtured and cared for, blessings abound,

New understanding and learning I’ve found.

 

Days are for living, night is for sleep,

All of those things in my mind will I keep.

Memories of loved ones, and times gone by,

All a part of me now, and soaring up high.

 

This is the freedom that comes with a loss,

Time and memorial cannot be cost.

If I could have one thing that gives me your face

It would be the encounter, yet to take place.

 

For now I will cherish your love and your life,

Now you are where you have chosen, somebody’s wife,

Take care mum, I love you—you will always be mine,

My mum, my friend, a keeper of time.

***

* Photographs courtesy of Hamish Ta-mé. For more information about Hamish, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

* Interview very kindly transcribed by Jane Aylen. For more information about Jane, please visit https://accessediting.com.au

Subject

Petrea King

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bundanoon, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

November 25, 2014

Petrea KingPetrea King

Petrea King: A profound quest to live

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone as determined as Petrea King to support people who have experienced grief, trauma and illness to reconnect with the sense of peace within themselves. Petrea herself knows how to do this after ‘conquering’ several traumatic life events. Among them was being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in her early 30s. She was told that she would be dead by Christmas, which was three months away. And yet here she is now, at age 63, telling her story and inspiring others with her wisdom, compassion and heart from her base at Quest for Life in Bundanoon, New South Wales.

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about your early days? Where did you grow up and what are the milestones that led to where you are now?

Petrea: I was born in Brisbane and moved to Sydney when I was five. I was the youngest of three children and I had two brothers, one being 18 months older than me. His name was Brenden and he was a chaotic presence in our home. He exhibited ADHD 20 years before anyone knew what it was and he spent his childhood falling off the roof, breaking bones, decorating the house with lipstick, clinging to my mother and she mostly had to carry him everywhere. Being a little younger than he, I tried to be as invisible as possible, to have no needs. For me that became second nature just to disappear and not have any needs. For instance, once when I broke my arm it took three weeks for my mother to hear that my arm was very sore and needed treatment. I just didn’t have a voice and was so used to being invisible.

Brenden told me before he was 10 that he had to take his own life by the time he was 30. I immediately took that on as the reason for my existence. “That’s why I’m here, I’m here to keep Brenden safe.” I adored him, but I also found him really challenging, scary and difficult. He was incredibly bright, gifted with music, art and creativity.

Suddenly the whole physical world became completely insubstantial and there was this blinding light that was far more real than the physical world.

When I was seven I had a profound spiritual experience when I was just running in the garden with my pet dog. Suddenly the whole physical world became completely insubstantial and there was this blinding light that was far more real than the physical world. I could see through the earth, the house, my dog and the trees. The only way I can describe it is to say it was like seeing the hand inside the glove; the glove being everything that was material but the hand being that which enlivened everything. While it was a very powerful experience, I didn’t discuss it with anyone because I don’t think I even had a language to do so.

When Brenden reached his teen years he went into major depression and he was hospitalised on and off for years. He took awful drugs which turned him into a zombie and he also underwent electric shock treatment. I found everything that was happening to him to be totally awful and I felt responsible that I wasn’t able to help him. He attempted suicide several times before he did finally succeed in Kathmandu when he was 32.

When I was 11, I grew 23 centimetres in one year. My knees swivelled in and started dislocating and I was unable to walk without constantly falling. After months of physio, I left school at 13 and entered hospital where I virtually spent the next three years having a dozen corrective surgeries and learning to walk again. The surgeon cut my legs at the femur and turned my lower legs outwards. Then he cut the tibias and turned my lower legs inwards, as well as transplanting the tendons under my knees and shortening some muscles while lengthening others. After one of the surgeries I was in traction for nine months because the femur wouldn’t unite and my doctor said that I would never walk again. After so many months in bed, my legs were like two white hairy sticks attached to my body and, even with all my willpower, I could not move either of them.

However, when I was told I would never walk again my steely determination kicked in and so, every night between nurses’ rounds, I would unhook myself from the traction unit, get out of bed and, taking my weight on my arms, manoeuvre myself around the bed. I could feel my bones grinding together and this dislodged the plate and screws holding my femur together, but the bone completely united in three weeks. I returned to theatre to have the plate and screws removed as they were lodged in the muscles by my nightly activities. Of course, the doctor wondered how and why my bones had suddenly healed albeit slightly crookedly but I was too scared to say what I’d been doing at night for fear of criticism or punishment.

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Because of the unspoken spiritual experience I had at seven and then this hidden life in hospital, I developed a split reality of being someone very privately to myself and the ‘me’ that I kept highly polished for everybody else. In our family, no matter what awful thing was happening, we always coped and we never talked about how we felt, we only talked about what we thought.

Jess: You kept up appearances.

Petrea: Yes, the attitude in our family was that we could (and would!) all cope with everything. I think this stemmed from never wanting to be a ‘bother’ because Brenden was being a much bigger bother! It was as if Brendan had ‘bagsed’ being a worry to the family so there was no point in competing with him on that. As a child and young teenager I felt quite depressed and overwhelmed by the way the world seemed to me. Why is it such a painful place? How come I have food while kids in Africa don’t? How come I’m going to heaven because I heard about Jesus and yet those children will burn forever because they didn’t hear of him? Why are humans so cruel to one another and to animals; so thoughtless about nature and the environment? I couldn’t bear a God that allowed such suffering. So I sacked that God very early on when I had the experience of seeing beyond the material world. That had been such a profound experience for me and I knew I was more than my physical body.

During my hospitalisations I had several out-of-body experiences. I suffered with really terrible cramps in the leg where the femur wouldn’t unite. The cramp would start in the toes and move right up through my leg into the hip. By then, I would usually pass out with the pain and I would find myself on the ceiling looking down at my body. From there I could see my body going through the motions of the cramp but the ‘ouch’ – the pain – went out of it. It was very confusing; I knew I wasn’t my body because I was watching it going through the pain yet ‘I’ was alright and felt I was beyond the pain.

While in hospital I devoured all the books in their library, which was housed on a trolley that squeaked as it was wheeled around by volunteers. I would listen out for the familiar squeak of its wheels because new reading material was on its way to me! I read Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley and the Bible among many others on animals, nature and astronomy. I devoured every encyclopaedia and studied the dictionary to learn words so I could beat my grandmother at Scrabble – which we sometimes played for hours. This is where my education and vocabulary really came from – these books and writings – and playing Scrabble!

Jess: So a lot of philosophical and mystical writings.

Petrea: Yes, as a child and then teenager I was really curious about life. I was trying to find answers to all the great questions about existence. I taught myself to meditate when I was 17 and it has remained a constant in my life ever since.

After recovering from the dozen operations and teaching myself to walk again I went into nursing, which of course was too physically demanding for me after so much reconstructive surgery to my legs. Within a year, I had damaged my spine and was confined to a back-brace. It was during this time of again being laid low by my body that I was raped by a ‘friend’ at a church fellowship meeting. I was lying down resting in the bedroom of the house where we regularly met when this man overpowered me with his strength and desire. If I had called out for help, it would have been provided but I didn’t have a voice. I was just so used to being quiet, to not being a bother, not rocking the boat, disappearing somewhere else beyond the pain, beyond the humiliation and the fear. I felt, “You can do what you like to me, I’m not here”. It was some years before I told anyone about that experience as I had felt it was my fault because I didn’t call out for help. I didn’t even think of it as rape because I was to blame.

At 18 I ran (limped!) away to the country as I felt defeated by life and relationships and I craved the stillness and solitude I found in nature. Nature made far more sense to me than people did! I worked in western Queensland outside of Cunnamulla and from there I went to NZ for a year, then Holland (where I used a lot of LSD!), then England for another couple of years finally returning to Australia at the age of 24.

I wanted to understand the relationship between food, lifestyle, the mind, our attitudes and health as I intuitively knew that there was far more to healing than just what we eat and drink or how we exercise.

Because the arthritis in my legs impacted quite heavily on physical activities I voraciously consumed information about diet and lifestyle and the positive impact they might have on my health. I’d become a vegetarian at 17 and undertook a number of lengthy fasts, sometimes just with water or freshly made juice. On my return to Australia I again went into nursing but then decided to study naturopathy, massage, homeopathy and herbal medicine. I wanted to understand the relationship between food, lifestyle, the mind, our attitudes and health as I intuitively knew that there was far more to healing than just what we eat and drink and/or how we exercise and the medical approach, which always seems to be shutting the gate after the horse had bolted! I knew the mind had a lot to do with health. I noticed how different my body felt when I meditated rather than when I felt overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, hopelessness, depression, self-loathing and despair. However, no amount of meditation helped me deal with these powerful and overwhelming emotions. I knew how to escape them by meditating but meditation didn’t resolve the underlying self-loathing that permeated my life.

Quite soon after returning to Australia I met Leo who was soon to become my husband. We married and had two beautiful children, Kate and Simon. Unfortunately though, my husband was violent and the marriage lasted about eight years before its rather sudden ending.

Brenden was always a little bit ahead of me making a mess of his life. We used to talk about living on the edge of a ‘black hole’. The black hole was where despair, anguish, anxiety and melancholia lived and he and I always seemed to be teetering on the edge of it.

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Jess: You mentioned there were three children in your family. Can you tell me about your other brother?

Petrea: I have an older brother, Ross. Everyone in the family had a relationship to Brenden, but not really to each other because he was such a huge presence in our home. When Brenden died my older brother Ross and I decided that if we were going to have a relationship, we would have to get to know each other. Ross lived in the US for 20 years where I often visited him but he’s back here in Australia now, even though he still spends quite a lot of time working there. Even though we are very different from each other philosophically, it is a very loving relationship and we have grown closer over the years. We’ve been very supportive of each other as our parents have aged and we focus on what we have in common.

After I completed my naturopathic studies, my husband, children and I moved to a community in America so we could do our yoga and meditation teacher training. We had been there for just four weeks when I thought Leo had gone for a long walk, but he’d actually gone back to Australia with all our money leaving me stranded with two small children in a geodesic dome! Brenden had recently taken his life and I was feeling overwhelmed by grief, loss and trauma.

Not long after Leo left I became very weak and ill and I was soon diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and was told that I would be dead by Christmas, which was three months away. My very first reaction was relief because I felt in many ways that my life was a constant struggle and I was so weary of having to keep up appearances when really I felt hopeless and helpless.

my daughter, who was seven, sat on my bed and said, “Mum, you’re sick. If you need to meditate to get well, I think you should go back to America.”

My mother came to America to pack us up and she brought us back to Australia. I had been offered experimental treatment in the US – which I couldn’t afford – and I needed to be looked after by someone so this fell to my mother who cared for me. Kate and Simon went to live with their father as I was too sick to look after them. After about three weeks my daughter, who was seven, sat on my bed and said, “Mum, you’re sick. If you need to meditate to get well, I think you should go back to America.”

Jess: What a wise little soul!

Petrea: Yes. Her words came as a great shock as I felt that I had come home to die and she was sending me away. It was a very difficult decision but shortly after I returned to California and from there travelled with the head of that community, Swami Kriyananda, to Italy where he was teaching. It’s a longer story but finally I landed in Assisi and stayed for several months in a monastery built around a series of caves that St Francis and his disciples had used for prayer and meditation.

I had many disciplines to keep my mind focused on the breath or the mantra to avoid experiencing any of the feelings that would arise. So finally, in the cave it all came unstuck and I wept for weeks.

Each day I would spend up to eighteen hours a day in the Grotto of St Francis. It was there that I realised I’d used meditation for many years to avoid my feelings. I had many disciplines to keep my mind focused on the breath or the mantra to avoid experiencing any of the feelings that would arise. So finally, in the cave it all came unstuck and I wept for weeks.

Jess: That’s a relief to hear!

Petrea: Yes, I meditated, prayed and wept, meditated, prayed and wept.

Jess: So that was very healing?

Petrea: It was very healing. The old priest, Father Ilarino was amazing as he took care of me, shopped for me, cooked for me. I think he was worried that he had this pale, skinny, divorced Anglican holed up in his little Catholic cave. I think he thought I might die in there and he was determined I wouldn’t die in his precious Grotto! The first night he dragged me upstairs to sit at this ancient table where he put in front of me a meal with meat in it, a goblet of wine and a big chunk of white bread. As a naturopath I’d been saying for years, “The whiter the bread the sooner you’re dead.” I hadn’t eaten meat or hadn’t drunk alcohol, wine, tea, coffee or anything like that for 15 years. So it was like my whole belief system was there on the platter. I realised it was far more healing to be grateful for what he’d lovingly prepared for me – a stranger – than for me to say, “I can’t have what you’ve lovingly prepared because my belief system says no”. I realised that I knew zip about anything. For all my studies, my qualifications, my understandings and knowledge, I knew nothing about love, about trust, about letting go.

Jess: It was all good intentions and heart from him.

Petrea: Exactly. So it was the first dismantling of my beliefs. I knew how to live my life if I clung to those, but the thing I couldn’t do was trust in life. “I’ll do it myself” was the dominating feeling. So instead of that I started to practice seeing that I was in the palm of life/love/God, and there was nothing I could do that would ever separate me from the realisation of that except what was going on in my own head. There were a lot of tears and grief shed in that little Grotto. The whole experience was incredibly humbling because I was lovingly cared for by complete strangers.

Jess: You’re here now, so I assume the diagnosis was wrong?

Petrea: Well time passed, and as I dismantled everything and wept all of the tears over trying so hard to get it right, to measure up to some impossible self-imposed standard, I felt stronger and better. There were times when I was in a morass of self-pity where I felt totally unworthy and unlovable. I was so ‘me’ focussed. This is how low I had become: one day I was sitting outside the cave eating grapes when this blue and black butterfly landed on my knee. I squeezed it a drop of grape juice – and sat there feeling miserable. After a while another butterfly alighted on my other knee and I thought, “I’m good for something! I’m a good place for butterflies to land on!” That’s how sick (in the head!) I was at the time. I realised I’d just become this black hole; I was completely self-absorbed, I was my own universe and I couldn’t see past it. I was always obsessing in my mind about not being good enough, of being a failure, a loathsome person and yet I could see so clearly that that would perpetuate my suffering. I felt trapped in my own miserable mind!

Jess: I guess you were encouraged implicitly by your family to be self-contained. When you’re self-contained where else do you turn to look, except at yourself? It’s hard to escape the parameters of your own existence.

This was the task I set myself to, liberating myself from self-hatred and judgement.

Petrea: That’s true, it’s not easy but what else is there to do but liberate ourselves from this kind of sick thinking? And this was the task I set myself to, liberating myself from self-hatred and judgement. So when I came back after several months in the cave, I desperately wanted to be with my children and I wanted the peace that I had come to, to remain. I wanted that peace in my relationships; I wanted that peace to remain with me in all aspects of my life. I knew that peace was not dependent on being in my body. My preference was to live but I wasn’t addicted to having to stay alive, because I knew peace was not dependent on staying in my body.

So I returned to Australia, saw my doctor and had extensive blood tests. He told me I had zillions of baby red blood cells and that I was in an unexpected remission from leukaemia. He assured me that leukaemia would return in a few days or weeks. I suspect one reason I may have developed leukaemia was that I had hundreds of x-rays as a teenager. Portable X-ray machines had just been invented and I had one every other day to see if the bones in my legs were uniting.

Jess: All of that would kill anyone off quickly!

Petrea: Yes, I think my immune system took a serious dip due to grief, shock and despair. I have found since that many people suffer an illness several months after a shock or grief.

Those of us who have had many shocks in life know that life can change in a phone call, a breath or a conversation and it’s never the same again. We know that life can change in a moment.

I found living with uncertainty very challenging. When you know you’re going to die there are things that you need to say and do and I’d done and said all of them. I had my Will and financial affairs in order. I’d made tapes and letters for my children for the future. I had my whole life all packed up ready for the big ‘trip’… and then the plane got cancelled. How much do you unpack? How much do you live as if you’re really going to be here? Then I realised that everyone is living with uncertainty, they just don’t know they are. Those of us who have had many shocks in life know that life can change in a phone call, a breath or a conversation and it’s never the same again. We know that life can change in a moment. But a lot of people don’t know that until it happens to them.

I lived in this place of great uncertainty until my mother said to me, “Have you thought of working, dear?” I rang Marcus Blackmore from Blackmores and he told me, “Forget what the doctor said. There’s a doctor in Mosman looking for a naturopath to go into practice with him. I’ll introduce you.”

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So I went into practice with Dr Emmanuel Varipatis and within the first two weeks, the first person with breast cancer came in and the day after, the first person with AIDS came to see me. Both of them had been told that they wouldn’t see Christmas, which is what I’d been told fifteen months earlier. I felt they were fellow travellers in the transit lounge of their lives and my question to people has always been, “What is it that stands in the way of you being at peace?” Sometimes it was diarrhoea and I’d adjust their diet and use herbs to alleviate that symptom. It’s hard to have peace of mind if you don’t have peace in your body! After the symptom was relieved I would ask again, “Now what is it that stands in the way of you being at peace?” “I’m not sleeping.” So we dealt with that using meditation or visualisation or herbal relaxants. “Now what is it?” “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know why I’m here; I don’t know what my purpose is; my relationships are in tatters, I want peace, I need forgiveness.” These were familiar issues for me and these clients began to help me understand and in time, articulate the inner human journey we are all on, the journey to peace and wholeness.

“Who am I? What am I doing on the planet? Am I living the life I came here to live? If not, why not? And what am I going to do about it?” Those were the questions I had grappled with and they had been the driving force in my life.

The conversations with clients got ever deeper. The more I was just present – without judgement, creating a space for the unutterable to be spoken – it seemed to be profoundly helpful for my clients. I provided a safe space in which people could utter the anguish or give expression to whatever was causing them distress. “Who am I? What am I doing on the planet? Am I living the life I came here to live? If not, why not? And what am I going to do about it?” Those were the questions I had grappled with and they had been the driving force in my life.

It is interesting that we often talk about what is second nature to us without ever wondering about our first nature, our essential nature, before we took on the fears, anxieties, limitations and beliefs that impel our behaviours.

Even now, thirty one years later, I often sit in a circle of people with extraordinary stories. Stories about illness, traumas, disasters or diagnoses, we call them the Ds – drama, disappointment, diagnosis, death, divorce, disloyalties, disfigurements, disasters – there are lots of Ds! And when you bump into these Ds in life, everything that’s second nature to us doesn’t work. So it might be second nature to drown our sorrows, to drug ourselves, to fill ourselves up with so much busyness that we don’t have time to feel. It might be second nature to blame other people for our misery, to resent other people’s happiness. But this D, whatever it is, causes us to realise that, whatever has become second nature to us, no longer works. It is interesting that we often talk about what is second nature to us without ever wondering about our first nature, our essential nature, before we took on the fears, anxieties, limitations and beliefs that impel our behaviours.

Jess: “Second nature” is such an off the cuff phrase. What happened to the first nature?

Petrea: For me the purpose of human existence is to relinquish everything that has become second nature to us so that we reveal, experience and live, in our first nature, our essential nature, which is home to love, compassion, wisdom, insight and the source of our creativity … all of those wonderful qualities that we sacrifice the moment we project into the future our fears, worries and anxieties or we’re consumed by resenting, blaming or the shaming of our history.

Jess: It’s a relinquishing of the persona.

Petrea: It’s letting go of all mental constructs or beliefs born of our wounds. Once we’ve let go the construction there’s just the moment and our place in it. The less we construct the better because then we experience the moment with freshness and without judgement.

People travel from all over Australia and beyond to the Quest for Life Centre to find a safe place in which to utter what has been unutterable and, once heard and deeply understood, they are in a position to learn practical skills for managing their life and its challenges. It puts them back into the driver’s seat and allows them to live with a profound sense of meaning.

Jess: I should take a few steps back and ask how Quest for Life came to be. You were working in Sydney as a naturopath for a while working with a colleague of Marcus Blackmore’s and then…

Petrea: Then I worked from home because I started support and meditation groups – ten a week! –and we had over 200 people in our sunroom each week. I worked for a couple of years with prisoners with HIV and AIDS in Long Bay jail and at the Albion Street AIDS centre conducting support and meditation groups.

In the very first cancer support group I ran there was a woman with breast cancer named Kay and her partner Wendie. I didn’t know Wendie so well, but Kay came to support groups for several years. In this time she grappled with the highs and lows of her illness and finally her impending death and the leaving of her three beautiful children and her beloved partner. Before Kay died she told Wendie, “When you’re over the worst of the grief, go and see what you can do to fluff Petrea up because who looks after her?” So Wendie became a volunteer and, before long, my partner of now 22 years.

Jess: She’s still fluffing you up!

Petrea: Yes indeed! We are very fortunate to have each other. In 1995 Wendie and I moved to Bundanoon. Bundanoon picked us as we were really looking to live somewhere on the coast. One weekend we returned to Sydney via Bundanoon and it just seemed to us that this is where we were meant to be.

Jess: Bundanoon has a very homely feeling about it.

Petrea: Yes. We weren’t sure if we could keep doing this work because who would come to Bundanoon? I commenced my practice again in a rented house as we had decided to no longer work from home. It needed to be our sanctuary, our place of replenishment. The following year, this beautiful guesthouse on nine acres came on the market for $1.5 million. The Quest for Life Foundation, which I had established in 1989, only had $15,000 in its account. I had always dreamed of providing a safe place for other people who were distressed by the events of their lives. One of my clients gave me a slip of paper with someone’s name on it and said, “If you’re serious about purchasing this place then ring these people.” Wendie and I meditated and prayed about it and finally made that phone call. These wonderful people who have always chosen to remain anonymous enabled Quest to purchase and refurbish the buildings so that they were suitable for our use. We opened in 1999 and have been busy ever since providing retreats for people living with life’s great challenges of cancer and other chronic illnesses/pain, grief, loss, trauma, PTSD, depression and so on.

The aim of each program or retreat is to help people actively contribute to their health and wellbeing and establish peace of mind. It’s about living today well. The capacity of the human spirit to embrace great suffering is just extraordinary and is very inspiring to witness.

Jess: I guess there’s always that little kernel of growth within painful experiences that can be embraced. There is always an opportunity.

Petrea: Otherwise your suffering gnaws away at you until you deal with it, or it embitters you, or it kills you. We can feel as angry, miserable or depressed as we need to, for as long as we need to, because what happened to us may well be a terrible thing. But we all recognise that staying stuck in that place of anger, depression or misery isn’t going to help us to find peace.

Jess: So what happens when people come to Quest? What kinds of changes do you see? I imagine there are many cathartic moments?

Petrea: It’s not particularly cathartic; it’s more about the inner journey. People’s tears are always welcome, but there’s a lot more laughter than tears. There’s a great power of possibility in a group of people who all understand suffering even though their suffering may be born of different causes.

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We have very experienced teams of six that work on our retreats. There are two facilitators, two support people, a trained counsellor and a massage therapist on every program. The first part of the retreat focuses on helping people to feel safe. We often encourage people to stay on the property if they’re feeling emotionally fragile. The food at Quest is fabulous and much of it comes from our organic gardens. The retreat starts at 4 o’clock on Monday and concludes with lunch on Friday. We talk about the journey of being human which is based on neuroscience, epigenetics and an understanding of a holistic perspective. We discuss sleep, nutrition, the role of exercise, switching off the mind, living mindfully, forgiveness, making meaning of suffering, managing our time, communication strategies, and a host of practical strategies that equip people to deal more effectively with their challenges.

As babies and young children we were all enculturated into our families where we learned the, “I’ll be happy when…” story and the judgement of others who our family believe are less than us, more than us, different from us, whether that is about religion, culture, sexual orientation, intelligence or lack of it, socio-economic backgrounds and so on. We also adjust our behaviour according to the dynamics of our own particular family. For instance, we may become the responsible one, the peace maker, the sickly one, the black sheep, the bright one, the dumb one, the pretty one, the brave one and so on. All of that information has gone in by the time we are three years of age, long before we have the ability to articulate any of it. It hasn’t been absorbed in a conscious way. It is an unconscious adaptation into our environment. We secrete an inner chemistry of neurotransmitters – which are chemical messengers – according to how we feel moment by moment. These chemicals of our emotions influence every cell of our body so, in our retreats, we talk about the science around that. It may become normal to feel a particular way, it becomes second nature to us to feel that way and we set off in life hoping that we’ll be happy at a future time when things look different from how they are in the present moment. We take our beliefs, attitudes and judgements into every encounter as they have become second nature to us. Then when we bump into a D in life and everything that is second nature to us doesn’t work. It might be second nature to you to drown your sorrows, to isolate, to blame others to resent other people’s happiness, to sleep all the time or not sleep, to over or under eat and we finally realise, “Something’s got to change, and it’s me. I can’t change what happened – the D – what I can change is how I’m going to respond to it.” So we look at the neuroscience around that. Meditation and mindfulness are important factors in allowing us to live more in the present moment.

Whether it’s about self-realisation, revelation of the soul, however you like to think of it, to me it’s all profoundly spiritual work.

Jess: Given The Soul Spectrum looks at the soul, would you describe that essential part of yourself as the soul?

Petrea: What’s really creative about what we do is that it’s all commonsense, grounded, and backed up by good science. For me, everything we do is profoundly spiritual work because it’s about relinquishing everything that’s become second nature to us; it’s about realising our essential nature, our first nature – before we took on the limitations, beliefs and attitudes from our childhood or from life’s adventures. So whether it’s about self-realisation, revelation of the soul, however you like to think of it, to me it’s all profoundly spiritual work.

I work with people who may not want to hear about the soul. They may be feeling disheartened or even desperate for peace but we often need someone to witness our anguish or begin to move through our rage or despair before we’re ready to hear about peace. I avoid any language that might close anyone down or cause them to react. What matters is that people feel profoundly heard and that someone ‘gets them’. I’ve also learned through long experience that people have their own best answers and, if we provide a safe non-judgemental environment in which they can begin that journey, they will discover their own best approach to the situation or challenge they are facing.

Jess: It’s about not alienating anyone…

Petrea: The important thing is to find a common language where we can talk about what is profoundly important. So whether it’s working in a jail, in Parliament House, with doctors, with street kids, with judges … how can we talk about what really matters in a way that no one glazes over or feels that they haven’t been acknowledged and heard in some meaningful way.

Jess: So where to from here?

Petrea: Initially my vision for this place was grander than what we’ve been able to achieve. I would love to have people living on the property; I would love to see a healing centre here where we can have a range of therapists and counsellors; I’d love to see a meditation and yoga hall that’s a dedicated quiet space; I’d love a day centre where people could leave a relative who is unwell or frail so that they can do their shopping or whatever, but I don’t think that those chapters are my work. Wendie was 70 in January, and I’m 63, so my work over the next three to five years will be to make this place sustainable into the future with more people holding the vision for Quest.

Jess: I’m sure there will be a way. Thanks very much Petrea.

* For more information about Petrea King and her work at Quest for Life, please visit www.questforlife.com.au

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

David Shapiro del Sole

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-Mé

Date

November 3, 2014

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David Shapiro del Sole: Building empathy through stories

David Shapiro del Sole was born in New York and came of age during the Vietnam War. His story (so far) is a testament to finding your own way amid social and political tumult. David now lives in Bowral in New South Wales, Australia, where he has set up Highlands Counselling. It’s a place to go if you’re hoping to really be seen and heard. And most of us do yearn for this. David generously shared his story with me with honesty and humour. Here it is – enjoy!

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like and what led to the here and now?

David: I was born in the United States in New York in an area called Brooklyn. That’s where my father was born and grew up; my grandparents on both sides were Jewish. My paternal grandparents came from Russia and my maternal grandparents came from Hungary. I don’t remember my first years in New York. At about the age of two my parents moved because of my father’s work down south in the US. The reason why that was significant for my parents and for me was that Dad came of age during the Depression. He got involved in radical politics so he lost his job in New York because he got blackballed; it was one of the reasons why we shifted. So we went down to the deep south of the US to a small town with a population of 200 people. 190 of the 200 were black and the 10 who ran the town were white. We spent four years there. That was my learning of language so I can remember having a really strong southern accent.

And then we moved around a lot. We moved to the mid-west for a couple of years. That made a strong impression on me because my Dad had little businesses but my Mum – to make extra money – cooked dinner for the foreign students at the local university. On the one hand, because I was an only child, dinnertime was quite active and to me very exciting. There were students from France and South America and Israel and it introduced me to the larger world. We moved back to New York when I was about eight years old. For a number of years we lived with relatives because we didn’t have our own place.

Growing up in New York was a bit of an education in cultural diversity. That became a strong stream in my education and how I see life.

Jess: So what brought you back to New York?

David: My Dad was constantly trying to avoid 9-to-5 jobs and working for people, so he started a series of his own businesses, all of which lasted anywhere from six months to a couple of years and then went belly up. My Dad (this says something about me, too) was at the dreamer end of the spectrum rather than the practical end. So we lived with relatives in New York where my Dad again started another business. We lived behind a shop where my parents made some artistic things. It was an old Jewish neighbourhood and there was some sense that the greater part of the world is Jewish because that was my experience growing up. When I got older I realised the Jewish community was a minority rather than being the world’s population. Growing up in New York was a bit of an education in cultural diversity. That became a strong stream in my education and how I see life.

Then I did the usual kind of thing; I went to high school and university, which you were expected to do. The Vietnam War came along and I was of age. I had finished university and I was called up. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. In the end I left the country and became a draft dodger and went to Canada.

Jess: You mentioned that you went to university, what did you study?

David: I should say that I went to a few universities [laughs].

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Jess: It took a while!

David: It took a while. Yes, it took twice as long as others. I started off as a science major. As you can probably tell in how I speak about my Dad, he was a strong influence in my early life. He had two sides: on the one side he was a very rational man, his conscious view of the world was, “If you think things through rationally you will arrive at the best answer”. Then, on the other side, which he didn’t particularly acknowledge but was by far the most important side of him for me as a kid: he was a very deeply feeling man, very kind, very gentle. As a teenager I picked up the rational scientific side and I had plans to go into biology. I spent about a year and a half thinking that, but I wasn’t connecting with it. Then I changed to history, and then I dropped out of school. I was close to my final year when I dropped out. That’s when I first got called up to go into the army. I don’t know if what was happening in Vietnam was quite a war yet, but it was really hotting up. And because there was the draft, ever since World War II, there was compulsory military service. When my turn came I quickly ran back to university and started doing literature.

I started to see myself as a potential writer and there was a school in New York called the New School for Social Research, which had some really cutting edge creative writing courses. So I went there for my final year and did some creative writing courses and got a degree in literature. When I finished I got called up again and it became a choice between the army and graduate school. I tried to avoid both and went up to Canada.

Jess: So what did you do when you were in Canada?

David: Before I answer that I should mention something that was significant. It was the mid-1960s at the time and I had a year abroad in Europe. I came back from Europe and everybody and their little brother was trying drugs of various sorts, me included, doing the usual dope smoking and Timothy Leary thing. I took some acid trips and had a couple of very, very traumatising experiences. At the same time I was being invited to join the US Army. All this stuff was happening at the social level in the country, it was real upheaval. Families were being broken up; there was conflict between one generation and the next. I was going through a personal crisis within myself, feeling completely lost. So when I went up to Canada I tried to get some legal advice about what my position would be there. No one really knew; the Canadian government was trying to sidestep the entire issue. At that time you could go to Canada without ID or a passport, so I just hopped on a bus and went over. I made some contact with some existing draft resister organisations in Canada and the US. They put me on to a place where I could get a job in Montréal. It was a local university library and the head librarian was sympathetic to draft resisters so I got a job working in the stacks. So that kept me alive.

It was the late 1960s and early 1970s. On top of everyone taking drugs, my friends were going off to India. They were studying Zen Buddhism, so I started getting interested…

At the time I was working under a false name because it wasn’t clear where the Canadian government was sitting. Technically they were saying they had no legal rights to send people back. It turned out later that they were in fact stopping people at the border and turning them back. So for about a year lived under a false name, but when the newspapers broke the story that the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) was doing stuff that wasn’t really legal it became safe and I became a Canadian citizen. At the time I was holding down two jobs; one at the library and the other door-to-door marketing, asking people what kind of beer they drank. I was still interested in writing so in my spare time I was trying to write.

It was the late 1960s and early 1970s. On top of everyone taking drugs, my friends were going off to India. They were studying Zen Buddhism, so I started getting interested in that kind of stuff. I went to yoga camps and attended Sufi meetings. Eventually I was trying a bit here and there of the various spiritual offerings. I went to a lecture on Steiner education and when I came away from the meeting I remarked that no one came up to me and said how glad they were to have me and would I be coming back. I felt no one made the effort to have me join up, which was such an enormous relief to me. And I thought, “Okay, I can come back”.

Jess: That’s a bit of an unexpected response, isn’t it?

David: Absolutely! Maybe it says something about the people from that particular movement. But to me that was a really important thing and, interestingly enough, Steiner started off as a philosopher of science. His basic foundation book is called Philosophy of Freedom. There is something going on there, I’m not quite sure what, but it spoke to me.

I spent another five or six years in Canada holding down odd jobs. I was also doing some writing. I tried to go back to university to do a Masters in Creative Writing at one of the universities on the West Coast. But I also found out there was this weird and wonderful course called Creative Speech, which came out of Steiner’s work. He had worked with his wife, an actress, and they created what they call Creative Speech together. There seemed to be an overlap between writing and putting that written mode into spoken form so, a year later, I was on a plane to Australia on a student visa to do this speech and drama course, which went for four years.

Jess: So where was that in Australia?

David: When I first arrived it was in a small studio in Cremorne [NSW] that had anywhere from 15 to 20 students in it. Then it moved over to Manly [NSW] and that’s where it was from the time that I was there. By the time I finished the course I met a woman who was one of my teachers. A few months after I finished the course we had a son so I applied for immigration because I only had a student visa and I wanted to stay. I needed to find a job. I got a very small educational grant from a high school in Mt Druitt. They wanted someone to come in and tell stories to their students once a week. And I thought, “Someone will actually pay me money to come and tell stories to kids?” So I started promoting myself and eventually got some community arts grants and spent the next seven years telling stories around Australia.

Jess: And now you earn your crust by listening to other people’s stories!

David: Yes, now I listen to stories. When I meet up with people I knew 25 years ago and they ask if I tell stories anymore, I say, “No, but I listen to stories now”. It’s the same activity, sitting on the other side of the room.

Jess: In being able to tell so many stories in the first place you would have been listening, they need to have come from somewhere.

David: Absolutely. Since I’ve become involved in doing therapeutic work it’s become much clearer to me that listening is equally active as the actual telling. What is happening for the teller is equally dependent on the listener and vice versa. It’s a totally collaborative activity.

Jess: So how is it that you shifted from being the teller to the listener?

David: There is a gap in between. Eventually after about seven years the grants and the work dried up for me. It was the Howard era and most grants were disappearing. I was competing against the Bell Shakespeare Company to get bookings in schools. During this time I became a single parent. Because the work started to dry up I just thought, “Stuff it for now,” and I stayed home for about eight years being a parent. When my son moved on I went back to school again and got a degree in teaching English as a second language. I did that for about 10 years, and by this time I was ageing. I was always ageing but I was getting close to retirement age. I had friends who were working in the mental health field and a close friend of mine had just come back from Europe where she had studied with someone who began their own therapeutic model, strongly influenced by Jung’s work, and called Process Orientated Psychology. Some years later, I thought, “I’m going to try something different,” so I went and did a counselling course in Sydney and then when I finished I hung up my shingle. For the first two or three years I had one utterly devoted client. If it weren’t for her I would have given up long ago! I am eternally grateful to her for keeping the flame going.

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Jess: So how long has Highlands Counselling been in existence?

David: Since I finished my course, so that’s five years now.

Jess: There seem to be some key philosophies that really inspired you, mainly Steiner philosophies and the Jungian approaches to psychology.

David: My first introduction to psychology was Process Orientated Psychology. Its founder, Arnold Mindell, had originally been a Jungian therapist and he took it to what he described as the next step of the Jungian approach. He did a lot of bodywork and what he discovered in observing our physical body was that you could read the physical body in the same way you could read dreams. He would sit there and watch you. He would look at how your hand is holding a glass and start having a conversation about that physical gesture. And because of my background in Steiner I was certainly open to the whole Jungian approach and to process work.

When I started doing the course somebody came in and gave a lecture on Carl Rogers. They showed us a video of Rogers and Fritz Perls, the founder of gestalt, and another fellow whose name I can’t remember. Carl Rogers sat there and there was something about him that was so intent in his listening. It was like he was listening to this person’s presence. I didn’t know what it was but I kept watching the video again and again.

Then I was married a second time and my second wife had died and I discovered some books she had. She had at least one of Rogers’ main books and I started reading it. He wrote as you would expect someone to speak – in such simple, conversational language. In all of my studies I hadn’t come across that at all. This guy was speaking to world conferences in language an eight-year-old could understand. I didn’t know if it was good or bad, but it really grabbed something in me. It was something that I trusted. So over the last five years he and those who have been his disciples and came out of his work have been inspiring me.

Jess: So would you describe yourself as a Carl Rogers disciple?

David: I’m too scattered to be anyone’s disciple. It’s like that experience of going onto the internet and being led from one place to the other. I tend to go back to that very basic experience of just listening to what the other person is saying, forget everything else, just being present to what they’re saying. I do come back to that, always.

Jess: I know you’ll have confidentially issues to think about, but in a broad sense what happens in your counselling sessions?

David: Even if I didn’t have confidentiality issues I would have difficulty in describing it! I at least try. I often come away feeling I haven’t done so well in just listening rather than bringing in my own history, my own story. While I know that it’s inevitable that I bring me to the meeting, I want to be as conscious as possible that my story doesn’t interfere with the story that you’re struggling to tell. So what do I do? I say, “Hi”.

I take it as my task to know who this person is because I think that is the foundation of what we call therapy or healing, this thing about knowing who I am, and knowing who you are.

Jess: That’s a good start! [Laughs.]

David: [Laughs.] If I get past that, I’m relieved. Will they respond? And as soon as that starts a huge part of it is unknown to me. I take it as my task to know who this person is because I think that is the foundation of what we call therapy or healing, this thing about knowing who I am, and knowing who you are. So if the other person can at least feel that my commitment is to get to know them, then the relationship starts to become something that is prized, is valued. It’s about seeing yourself and your environment as being of enormous value, which can be totally different to the message given to you by your family or community. If I can help with that, then I have a sense I’ve done okay.

Jess: In a roundabout kind of way what you’re saying is that what you bring to counselling sessions is that deep sense of empathy of looking deep, feeling deep, so that the person feels that they’re being seen and can recognise that they matter. How do you facilitate that process? Isn’t that a bit taxing on you?

David: I’ll go back to Rogers. He said, for him, there were three conditions for healing to happen. One was empathy, stepping into another person’s position, another one was what he called congruence and that is, in a more everyday way, called being upfront, being honest, this is who I am. I don’t sit in the therapist’s chair trying to give you an impression that is not me. So I have to be as free as possible of trying to be someone I am not. To the extent that I can do that, I can be present for the other and I can also step into what they’re telling me, I don’t have agendas. I think that carrying the least amount of my own personal baggage allows me to be empathic.

Jess: That’s interesting. “Baggage” can be a loaded term. But you grew up among all kinds of cultures and it sounds like you were exposed to diversity. You are also young in the 60s and you were aware of what was going on in politics and the Vietnam War. You mentioned that you lost your second wife, which must have been a traumatic grief. So you’ve got this breadth of experience that must be brought to the process. It’ll give you the empathy and a capacity to connect. All of that is going to come with you. Your experience would make you feel more ‘real’, more ‘human’, to your clients.

David: If I understand what you’re saying, it’s that baggage can also be a positive. Yeah, there’s baggage and there’s baggage.

[Laughter.]

Jess: Well, there’s baggage that hasn’t worked, and then there’s baggage that helps you.

David: That’s a really good point. Baggage has always had a negative connotation for me, and you’ve completely turned that around, so from now on I’m going to come into the room with heaps of baggage [Laughs.] I think you’ve helped me. How much do I owe you?

Jess: [Laughs.] Now, I wanted to ask about your Empathy Circle in particular. I’m curious to know what happens during an Empathy Circle session?

David: The Empathy Circle started about a year and a half ago; it came out of a program I was running for depression. And when it came to an end I asked if anyone wanted to continue not as a program but just as a group that meets every once in a while. About half a dozen people were interested in doing that. There was something about having the capacity to listen that seemed more and more important to me, which is why I called it the Empathy Circle. And what do we do? It really is very open. I play the role of facilitator but what’s talked about is up to the people who come. We go for a couple of hours and it just rolls along. I do other groups as well, but I’ve never come away from an Empathy Circle feeling that nothing has happened. I have had that in other groups but not in the Empathy Circle.

Jess: Is it mostly the same people on a weekly basis?

David: There is now a core group of about five or six and they connect outside of the group, as well now. They’ve gotten to know each other and have formed bonds. Something came up recently in the group; it was quite unexpected, in which someone was very distressed. At that moment, it could be said that I was not quick enough to act, not present enough, and so created something of an empty space. A number of the participants immediately jumped in to fill that space and took care of it. I certainly didn’t do that intentionally, one could say I stuffed up there, but looking down from above and seeing a larger picture, I could say, “David, you were fantastic!” [Laughs.] Quite unconsciously and unintentionally, of course. Some of those participants now have the experience of: “I come here as a person not just with difficulties, but I also have the capacity to help other people.” In terms of a therapeutic effect, that is crucial. Groups can offer that.

Jess: Each group has their own dynamics. One-on-one counselling can still be an atomised experience; you can still feel quite isolated with whatever issues you’re dealing with. In a group setting you have the opportunity to share your stories and be in the trenches together. Can you tell me a little bit more about the two men’s groups that you run?

David: They’re quite different. One’s been going for five years and that’s held at under the auspices of Wingecarribee Family Support. So I co-facilitated an eight-week program for grief but it was for men only. Some of the participants really started to bond with each other. They had never been to any kind of men’s group before and they asked if they could have an ongoing thing, so we started to have weekly meetings. Five years later it’s still going.

The other men’s group meets once a fortnight. The fellow who started the Harmony Centre in Mittagong started that. He had an interest in getting a men’s group and asked me whether I would be interested in facilitating and I said, “Sure”. It’s a somewhat different demographic. The men who come to that group don’t come because they have had mental health issues; they’ve come because their partner tells them they don’t know how to talk about their feelings. It’s somewhat different and so the conversation has a different flavour. I haven’t thought about this before, but is there a common theme between the two groups? I suppose the common theme is that – in this very fluid world where gender roles have been turned upside down in such a relatively brief space of time – where am I and what am I supposed to be doing?

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Jess: It’s interesting because among women there is a tradition of swapping stories about pesky parenting issues. Men don’t usually have that kind of space marked out for them at that everyday level. They do when it comes to writing books, men are the public storytellers in patriarchal cultures. So we listen to men’s stories more often at that meta-level, but not at that everyday level. Do the men in your groups find it cathartic? Do those who keep coming back find it refreshing and relieving?

David: I think telling your story, whatever the gender of the person telling it, is therapeutic for the person telling it. When the Empathy Circle started it was a mixed group for the first six months, at the moment it’s all women. I think it’s fair to say – I might get some difficult feedback from the men who were in the group – that the men really had difficulty in keeping up with this facility that some of the women had to not only speak about their emotional life, but to have awareness of their emotions. On a certain level some of them really appreciated and respected it, but if they were thinking competitively, “Am I up to scratch?” then it is was going to be a very humbling experience for them. That was my take on why some of the men dropped away. I find as a facilitator in a men’s group, I often try to bring the conversation around to a more intimate, personal tone, whereas with women, I have to do that much less.

Jess: I often feel that men are trapped in a way, socially. It happens on both sides, there is an entrapment of some sort on both sides. For most men it’s emotions, and for most women it’s about feeling empowered in the public sphere.

So The Soul Spectrum looks at spirituality and soulfulness in it very broad terms. There is a strong undercurrent of spirit and soul going on in your life, but do you have spiritual practice?

David: Well, I run it by you and you can tell me if it ticks the boxes! [Laughs.] For years I would make attempts at meditation, it was one of those things. It wasn’t a requirement but it was certainly on offer in the Steiner circles. I would do it for a few weeks and think, “I’m not getting anywhere,” and give up. Then when I met my second wife she was very deeply involved in Vipassana and she was constantly going off to retreats. She was inviting me and sometimes it was even stronger than an invitation to do some meditation. I suppose it just gets back to this thing of feeling so comfortable in the group that made no effort to invite me to join. There’s something about groups that I find I’m very cautious around. So I didn’t begin to meditate in any regular sort of way until my wife died. It was a way to get in touch with something in myself but it was also about staying connected to her. I needed to because she died suddenly in the car next to me. As painful as the experience was, I knew that it touched on something that I didn’t want to lose; it had awakened something in me. I think you used the word depth or deep and it was that, it was the depth of experience. I thought, “This is bloody painful but I feel so alive”. So each morning, before I had breakfast, I would get up and do some Tai Chi, then I would sit and it was my 20 to 30 minutes, it was my time, and I’ve been doing that for years.

I read a book by a man who is a physicist who also wrote a book on the Dalai Lama. It was about contemplation and it had parallels with other things I was coming across in psychology around phenomenology that relates to listening and taking in as purely as possible the actual phenomenon. What’s going on there? Letting it speak to you.

Jess: It all sounds suspiciously like mindfulness to me!

As I grew up superficiality was worse than first-degree murder and depth is what makes life worthwhile.

David: When I think about soul my mind goes to soul music. I grew up in the US and it was the 1960s. I was never a big rock ‘n’ roll fan but I really liked soul music and I still listen to it. I was thinking what is it that grabs me and it has something to do with that term “depth”. I conveniently forgot to tell you I had mother issues. If you asked me what would truly drive me nuts and why I found it so difficult to be empathetic towards my mother, I would say it was her superficiality, in my eyes. As I grew up superficiality was worse than first-degree murder and depth is what makes life worthwhile.

So soul. Soulfulness to me is depth. There’s a Spanish poet, who won the Noble Prize in the 1950s: Juan Ramon Jimenez. I came across some of his poetry and I was blown away. I went to Spain and visited the place where he was born, a pilgrimage of sorts that I was drawn to do. I later came across a collection of his poems that I didn’t know called Animal of Depth. In one of his poems there is a line, “I am an animal of depth of air”. It struck me that putting side by side a word like depth that describes vertical measurement in space and air that is immeasurable and intangible.They seemed contradictory terms. For me it is the kind of depth we experience when we choose or are forced to deeply enter, to go down into our own experience – our own immeasurable, intangible being – that’s what I think of when I say the word soul.

Jess: Wonderful, thanks David!

* For more information about David Shapiro del Sole, please visit highlandscounselling.com.au

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

Lyra L'Estrange

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Robertson, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-Mé

Date

October 2, 2014

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Lyra L’Estrange: Living the connected life

Lyra L’Estrange is a gentle and wise woman who embraced a spiritual understanding of life at a young age. Compelled to educate and support adults through some of life’s challenges, she has recently become a Parenting by Connection instructor. It’s all about really listening to your children and your self, and fostering deep connection and understanding, which amounts to a life of unconditional love. I spoke with Lyra in her beautiful home in Robertson in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Jess: Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up? What were the forces and influences that you feel shaped you as a young person?

Lyra: I was born in Coonabarabran, which is a small town in country New South Wales. I’m the eldest of four; I’ve got three younger brothers. We grew up on a farm, not a working farm, though; it was more of a hobby farm with lots of bush, 400 acres. So we were free as children to just roam around. We would spend most of summer without any clothes on, just hanging around in the bush and in the dam, building cubbies and climbing trees.

Mum and Dad were around a lot. Mum worked in town for a couple of days a week as a physiotherapist, and Dad was self-employed so he would pick and choose his work. We were never put in care; our parents spent a lot of time with us, which was a big influence on how I wanted to bring up my children.

We went to the local state school, which wasn’t anything fancy. I went there until I was 13 and then we moved to Hobart. My Dad wanted to find work down there; he was an engineer by trade and wanted to do some more work in the Antarctic. That didn’t end up happening, but we still moved down to Tassie. Mum grew up in Hobart. I think Mum and Dad thought that we had a really good life in Coonabarabran, but it was very sheltered. They thought moving to the “big city” – even Hobart – would give us some perspective on how other people live. So we packed up and moved and were there for two years. I went to a state school down there, which was an eye-opener in terms of how other kids are raised and what’s going on during those formative teenage years.

Jess: So did it have the effect that your parents were hoping for?

Lyra: Yes, it definitely opened our horizons. We got to experience a different culture, the city culture. There was exposure to drugs and parties and that kind of thing, which we hadn’t been exposed to before. My cousin came with me. She was a year older and we were really close, and we did a lot together down there. But to Mum and Dad’s credit they provided such a strong, solid base at home. They took us out on weekends to go exploring in the bush, and to see the sights of Tassie. So we didn’t stray too far into the party scene. There was no need to!

People often ask me, “Did you rebel as a teenager?” I didn’t because I didn’t have much to rebel against.

My Dad was an avid bushwalker. His mother, my grandmother, is Dorothy Butler who’s quite well known in bushwalking circles. She’s passed on now, but she’d written a book called The Barefoot Bush Walker, and was one of the founding members of the Sydney Bushwalking Club in the Blue Mountains. So my Dad definitely followed in her footsteps and thought he would like us to do the same. But he went for a walk on his own at the end of those two years in Tassie and didn’t come back. We searched for months and had to return to Coonabarabran without him. I was 15, almost 16, at the time and it was a huge. It was a time where I grew up very quickly. People often ask me, “Did you rebel as a teenager?” I didn’t because I didn’t have much to rebel against, and I knew that Mum needed me close. She was trying so hard to raise us all. My youngest brother was only five at the time.

Jess: And you were the eldest…

Lyra: Yeah, so I helped her run the household and come back into the community that we had left. We still have very good friends there who helped us through that difficult time.

Jess: So your Dad just disappeared without a trace, there’s no indication of what happened to him?

Lyra: Nothing, not even footprints that could be linked to him. So it’s a mystery and obviously harder to deal with because of the lack of closure. But he was a very spiritual person and very much a searcher. Back in the early days, when I started school, he and Mum would run a spiritual meeting at our place once a month. We thought it was great because lots of kids came and we played all day! But those spiritual values infiltrated how they brought us up. It was very much about Eastern philosophy, such as Sai Baba and Buddhism. There were photos of gurus in the house and Dad would go upstairs to meditate. He would put on his meditation music and we knew what he was doing. So we were exposed to that, it was in the house all of the time.

His disappearance really tested our strength and our beliefs in terms of what happens after death or the reason behind these events. What do we learn from them? How does it form us? It was very much an accelerated growth period for me, but also quite a reflective time. It probably took me the next 10 years to process it all, and to come to some kind of understanding and peace around it. Although I still can’t answer why it happened.

Jess: So you didn’t rebel in your teen years, but did you ever rebel in your later years?

Lyra: No, as I said before I don’t think I had much to rebel against. And what I’ve learned through the parenting work that I do now is that when a child isn’t listened to, or their feelings are suppressed throughout their early years, then that’s when they’re more likely to rebel. Mum and Dad were very much there for us, they listened to us so there wasn’t much to come out in a rebellious way. My uni days were probably pretty typical; there was partying, late nights, alcohol and that kind of thing.

Jess: But it wasn’t too outrageous.

Lyra: It was never overboard.

Jess: Is the same true for your brothers? Did any of them rebel?

Lyra: I think it was a similar situation for my brothers, I’m sure they did the usual party things, rode their motorbikes hard, and took risks, but there was never any trouble.

Jess: What did you study at university?

Lyra: I moved back to Hobart after I finished Grade 12 in Coonabarabran and had a year off before starting uni. I studied massage and shiatsu and worked in a supermarket to get by. I really loved the study, the whole natural therapies field really resonated with me, but I was only 18 or 19 and still unsure of whether I wanted to commit to that course and make a career of it, so I thought I would go to uni and get a degree behind me instead. My grandparents on my Mum’s side were academics, but there was never any pressure to do well at school or uni. I got good marks in the HSC, and could have applied for medicine or something, but instead I chose subjects that I really enjoyed, which was a lot of anatomy and physiology. I did a degree in human movement and sports science. I moved to Launceston to do that and it took four years, including an honours year. After that I went into community-based work. I didn’t want to work with athletes; it was more about getting out there and promoting exercise among the elderly or to people who were disadvantaged.

So that’s what led me into the next phase of my life, which was to move back to Coonabarabran for a while so I could work in Dubbo (the nearest big town) in health promotion. Then a few months later, at the same time as meeting Guy, my husband, I got a more permanent job in Wollongong. Guy was living in Burrawang, so I just moved in with him after a month of knowing him and have been with him ever since!

I spent almost four years working in Wollongong with the area health service. In the position I managed a cardiac rehabilitation program, and wrote it up into a PhD thesis. I made a lot of friends in the Southern Highlands through Guy’s work in outdoor education. There were a lot of us girls who were left behind while our partners went out and did their programs in the bush. We really bonded and there’s still that same core group that I have as friends now, and we’ve had children at similar times over the last few years.

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Jess: You’ve gone through many milestones together.

Lyra: Yes, which has been really nice.

Jess: Do you have an inkling of where your interest in health promotion and bringing knowledge to disadvantaged or excluded groups stems from?

Lyra: I think my Mum was a big influence. She worked with the community in her physiotherapy role and with children with physical disabilities. But I think generally I’ve always felt like I wanted to be in a career where I’m helping people. So the community focus really appealed to me because of wanting to make a difference in the lives of people who don’t have a lot of money or are disadvantaged in terms of support. Doing the PhD in public health led me to those areas of disadvantage in the Shoalhaven and in Wollongong, people who were suffering from cardiac events who couldn’t necessarily access extra help, and I loved my role there. The project got great results by the way, which I think – in part – was because of my attention and support for these people, not purely the exercise program!

Jess: And you’ve gone on a different tangent since then?

Lyra: Yes, I have.

Jess: You’ve got a young family, so you’re still in the midst of all of the newness, the craziness, the making sense of it all, and trying to find your way through it. I’ve got a young family as well and it can really derail any plans that you might have had for yourself before having children. Can you describe a bit of that process for you? It might not have felt that way for you! How has having children led to where you are now?

Lyra: Well, the advantage for me is that I’m not very career driven! So I haven’t felt my career derail since having children. When I finished my PhD we [Lyra and Guy] went overseas and travelled for a year together. I’d done a lot of yoga as I travelled, which had been a part of my life since uni, but while we were travelling I had more time to practice and I’d just bring out my mat beside a lake or forest, or whatever was there. I was also studying A Course in Miracles as well and it gave me a lot of structure in the way that I wanted to practice my spirituality.

So, at the end of that year, and in thinking about coming back to the Southern Highlands, I thought about training to be a yoga teacher. I remember the moment where I decided that that was the pathway for me. I was standing near a lake beach in British Columbia and I was doing my morning yoga routine. Then the realisation just came to me, “I can teach this!” It was like all of my previous experiences came together. I was quite familiar with the yogic philosophy as well as the Sanskrit language because of the Eastern philosophy that I’d grown up with. I also knew some traditional devotional Indian songs. So I was familiar with yogic language, the language used for all of the poses. And I had a background in meditation. It all tied in together, including my professional experience in health promotion teaching adults in groups. So it just fell into place. My grandmother, who I mentioned before, passed away earlier that year and – just as I decided to do the yoga training – I received news that she had left a sum of money which was exactly the amount that I needed for my teacher training course. It was meant to be!

After Finn was born I stopped doing any work other than being at home with him for almost a year. I saw that as my purpose.

So as soon as we got back to Australia I enrolled into that and did a year-long course with Byron Yoga. That’s also when I fell pregnant with Finn, my eldest. I was halfway through the yoga training. At first I thought, “How am I going to finish my yoga training?” But I talked to the teachers and they said, “Look, it’s fine. If you’re fine with that, then we’re fine with that.” And it put me in a good position to be able to teach mums and bubs yoga or prenatal yoga.

After Finn was born in February 2010 I stopped doing any work other than being at home with him for almost a year. I saw that as my purpose. I always wanted to have children, and I always thought that I would be a mum by the time I was 30. Finn was born a month before my 30th birthday!

It took almost all of that year to really feel comfortable in the role of being a mother. It was a huge adjustment. I remember about a month after he was born just realising the constancy of it. I was thinking, “My gosh, I’m going to be waking up in the middle of the night for ages and he is going to be with me for so many years. And it doesn’t stop!” It was a huge adjustment for me to make, which I’m sure you can relate to.

Jess: Yes, absolutely!

Lyra: But then I fell pregnant with Summer when Finn was 11 months old. It wasn’t planned that way, but it has worked out well. I don’t have any regrets about that. I did a few months of health promotion work and taught a few months of yoga classes, after the children were born, but I knew then that I was entrenched in my parenting role and that’s where I needed to be. I really felt called to be the homemaker, so I fell into that traditional role and I loved it. Apart from it being constant hard work, it really did give me a purpose. So I didn’t worry much about the career side of things falling away. The yoga thing or another thing will come at the right time.

I was very grateful that we were able to do it this way financially, that Guy could go out and do the income earning and I could stay at home and focus on being a mum. I think that ties back to my earlier experience of being with my brothers at home and that’s what I wanted to give to my two rather than putting them into care and going back to work. That’s what I hope to give to them until they start school.

Jess: I’m just thinking about that connection between your upbringing and how you parent your children now. To what extent do you think you’re really bringing yourself into the equation?

Parents in this generation have so much more access to information than our parents did. And the information we have access to can be quite overwhelming.

Lyra: I think that parenting is a lot more involved today than it was when I was little, even though my Mum and Dad were there, very involved, and they gave us such a wonderful experience in childhood. When I was pregnant with Finn I read a book called The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter and that had a huge influence on how I wanted to bring up my children. She is the founder of Aware Parenting. Her approach is all about listening to your child and allowing them to have their feelings right from birth, whatever they might be. It’s about looking at crying as a healing process rather than something that needs to be suppressed. I don’t have specific memories of Mum or Dad suppressing my tantrums and my crying but I’m sure there was some of that, only because this information wasn’t available to them then. They did the best that they could with the information and support that they had. Parents in this generation have so much more access to information than our parents did. And the information we have access to can be quite overwhelming.

Jess: Absolutely, you can get quite dizzy with it all. You go into a bookshop and face this enormous wall of parenting books.

Lyra: Yes, it’s crazy. I went through a few books and a few parenting approaches looking for answers about “the right way” to do things when I was a new mum. I had so many doubts and felt pretty bad when my baby didn’t follow the routines described in the books. I was so focused on looking for the answers outside of myself rather than listening to my intuition. However, I kept coming back to the Aware Parenting approach. Then a few months after Finn was born I found Hand in Hand Parenting and the Parenting by Connection approach. I realised that, after putting into practice some of the ideas, I felt empowered and more confident that I could be a good mum. I was really lucky that I found something that really resonated with me and I started ignoring everything else and just stuck with that. The framework provided by Parenting by Connection has been, continues to be, a bit of a roadmap for my parenting journey. There’s a lot of room in the approach to bring in your own self and own ways of being within your own family. It’s not a list of shoulds.

Jess: I’m curious because you’ve loved it so much that you’ve trained in Hand in Hand parenting and teaching. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

20141204_046Lyra with her daughter, Summer.

Lyra: When Summer was about six months old, and Finn was 2½, I got quite overwhelmed. Finn was going through what I call the “Tremendous Twos” – I don’t like to call it the “Terrible Twos”! I just felt so out of my depth. I had these ideas about being with my children that really resonated, and I was really trying to practice them, but I felt like I needed to go a little bit deeper. So I signed up for a six-week course with Hand in Hand parenting online called “Building Emotional Understanding”. It consolidated everything for me and crystallised in my mind the tools that were taught, including how I could understand my children, and myself, a lot better. So after the course finished I heard about the certification program to become a Parenting by Connection instructor. And it was one of those moments like when I had decided to teach yoga, all my previous experiences consolidated and I said to myself, “That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Jess: You had that clarity.

Lyra: Yes. I had the background in teaching adults, I was a mother, and the spiritual ideas I had all meshed really nicely with the Parenting by Connection approach. So it took me another year to finish that training. And now I’m teaching it!

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience of teaching it?

Connection with your child is fundamental. They need it just as much as they need to sleep and to eat.

Lyra: A lot of parents who come to this way of parenting are really introspective and they think very deeply about how they want to bring up their children and how they want to be as parents. They’re very aware of themselves and their psychology. There’s that group of parents, which is the majority of who I teach at the moment, but there’s also that portion that have tried everything else and it doesn’t work and they need a solution. They’ve realised that the mainstream rewards and punishment framework doesn’t really work in the long term, so they’re looking for something else.

So I feel the main thing that people come away with is the ability to tune into their child in a way that is productive for the child and the parent. I teach that connection with your child is fundamental. They need it just as much as they need to sleep and to eat. They need that strong connection with their parents so their brains can develop optimally. There’s quite a bit of brain science in the approach – it is fascinating to learn, because it applies to us, as well as our children. For instance, the limbic system in our brain is searching for that sense of connection all the time, like a radar. If a child can sense that safety, the connection, then all is well, they can think – the thinking, rational part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, is online. However, as soon as there is a sense of disconnection, the limbic system is flooded with feelings that are often overwhelming (the brain literally senses the loss of connection as an emotional emergency), and the child can’t think in that moment, their prefrontal cortex goes offline. This disconnection is the cause of the challenging behaviours we see so often – the aggression, the whining, getting upset about how the sandwich has been cut, etc. Then society generally groups this challenging behaviour as “bad” and something to be punished, which of course disconnects the child further from you. The child might seem to respond well to threats, punishment or rewards in that moment because they’re scared or because they don’t have any other choice, but it doesn’t lead to happier children or more cooperative behaviour in the long run.

So what people come away with from the parenting classes I teach is how to look at their child’s challenging behaviours differently. It’s not something to be punished, it’s a call for connection, and it’s a call for love. Even though it might seem incredibly challenging to us, that’s what is. And there’s nothing that really needs to be punished. Of course there is a need teach your child the right, or acceptable way of doing things, but if we try to do this in the heat of an emotional moment, when the child can’t think, it doesn’t work. It’s much more productive to talk about it when the child feels connected to you, and the thinking part of their brain is actually working.

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What I think sets this approach apart from a lot of other parenting programs out there is the support that it offers to us as parents. Seeing your child hit another child or taking a toy from another child all the time really takes its toll on us. It’s not very easy to sit and watch your child be aggressive to another child and not punish them if you don’t have that awareness of where it’s coming from. It triggers things in us as parents. So I think supporting parents to recognise when they’re being re-stimulated from a previous experience, whatever it might be, and being able to offload that tension in a safe place with another adult prevents them from offloading those intense feelings onto the child. The whole process can transform a generation. You don’t repeat the cycle of abuse or even just the little things that disconnect you from your child that your parents might have done to you, which is where our default parenting style comes from.

Jess: It’s amazing how powerful that process can. Without even knowing it, you emerge as your own parents.

Lyra: Especially in moments of stress.

Jess: I think lots of people tend to have that reaction, don’t they? “I didn’t want to be like my Mum or Dad and now I’m exactly like my Mum and Dad.” You probably hear that all the time.

Lyra: Yes! It’s important to have the time and space to stop and reflect on how we’re parenting, or how we want to parent. It’s very valuable, rather than just blindly going through each day and trying to make it up as you go along. We’re not trained to parent!

Jess: And again we were “trained” by our parents who weren’t “trained” either. So in talking about the kind of support that is provided to parents, I know that Hand in Hand parenting has a tool called Listening Time. Can you tell me a little about it?

Lyra: So what we teach is all about listening. We teach one-on-one Listening Time between parents, but also group Listening Time. They’re valuable tools that feel quite different but basically the idea behind it is to shine your attention and warmth on the person who is talking. You don’t interrupt or offer advice, you just support them to think and talk through their thoughts about the issues that are coming up for them as parents. And to hold that space for them, that you know that they are good, that they are doing the best that they can, and that they can figure this out. They don’t need your advice or for you to fix it. You just need to hold that space for them to work through it as you listen. And I think your attention on that person is the most valuable thing because we don’t get that undivided attention paid to us very often. Even when we’re talking to our close friends or spouses, it’s very much conversational listening. You’re jumping in, you’re offering your stories, your thoughts, your opinions, your advice, even your judgement, so we don’t often get the space to just be held and allowed to work through it. It can be quite a confronting process if you haven’t done anything like that before, so I really try to keep it light-hearted and not go into the heavy emotional stuff right away. A lot of parents don’t feel comfortable doing that.

Jess: I imagine that there can be a lot of tears?

Lyra: Yes, it’s interesting. With some groups that safety builds up very quickly and there are a lot of tears. With other groups, there are no tears, there’s lots of laughter. And laughter is another way to release that tension. And basically the way that we listen to each other as parents is the way that we want to listen to our children. We’re putting in place the listening tools that we use with our children.

Jess: What kind of feedback do you get from people you’ve been working with?

Lyra: It’s all been positive so far, I guess people don’t tell you the bad things! It’s very similar to my experience where people feel they have found a roadmap for responding to their child in challenging moments, to make them a lot more self-aware about when their buttons are being pushed, that it’s their buttons, not the child’s behaviour. It also breaks down that sense of isolation that a lot of parents can feel – that they must be the only one yelling at their child, or they’re only one who has a child who is biting everyone, whatever it may be. But when you come together with group of parents and share those insights and stories, you realise you’re not on your own.

Jess: Yes, it can be a very disconnected parenting experience these days. In years gone by, as they say, you had the village raising a child.

Lyra: There’s definitely a lack of support generally as a culture and even neglect. Being a stay at home mum is challenging. You need the emotional support but you also need the financial support. And we feel judged, whatever we do. Whether we do one thing or don’t do it, judgement comes in all the time.

Jess: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

It’s never too late to start listening to your children.

Lyra: Yes. With these groups that I run it’s really important to just offer that support, encouragement and appreciation to each parent for all that they’re doing for their child. In that way I think it’s a very empowering approach. It’s never too late to start listening to your children. And it’s also about trying to get away from the guilt that we all feel as parents. That I’ve done it all wrong. And that I’m never doing enough.

Jess: Well, you’re human, so what happens to you? There must be a few lapses for you, here and there, despite your training in Hand in Hand parenting. What happens in those moments or days or weeks?

Lyra: It can be like that, for sure! There are times when I lose it and sometimes that makes me feel even worse for a while because I know what I should be doing and I’m not doing it. But the work has also made me be a lot more self-aware and to realise that – when things go downhill – I need some Listening Time or I need some time out by myself to go for a run, do some yoga, and just think through what is happening. I’m still working on asking for help and asking for time and space! I’ve seen myself grow so much in terms of being more aware of when I’m about to slip into a downward spiral and yell at the kids. So I’ve got a few strategies that I use to try and bring myself out of it. One is to call one of the people with whom I have set up a listening partnership. I get to cry, yell, laugh or talk with them, even just for a few minutes, which is SO helpful. And sometimes I just give myself a timeout, not the kids, and go in the bathroom or sit outside and just say to my children, “I need to have a little break so I don’t yell at you or hurt you.”

Jess: Do they give you a break? I can’t imagine my kids doing that!

Lyra: Sometimes they’re banging on the door but they’re getting used to it. They know.

Jess: Yes, the other day I yelled at my children, “Why do you need me so much?!” And my little girl turned around and said, “I don’t need you Mummy, I’m going to play by myself now!” I felt pretty bad about that but I just needed a moment…

Lyra: There are times in our lives as parents and even beyond that when we didn’t have the support or it was all too much, and these feelings of overwhelm can come rushing back very quickly when our buttons are pushed. But one thing that’s really helped ground me – given I don’t have the time to meditate for half an hour or even do my yoga practice regularly – is the realisation that my spiritual practice is my parenting. Every time there is a conflict and every time a challenge comes up, my children are calling me to be a better version of myself, they’re calling me to be more present. It’s just moment by moment where you can choose your reaction to whatever is going on. So I feel like I’m living that as a spiritual practice rather than anything I used to do.

I’ve also done a bit of work with an Aware Parenting instructor who is also trained in field therapy. It’s very much about alignment, and very much tied in with my experience with A Course in Miracles. It’s about looking at everything that’s outside as a mirror of what’s going on inside, and that’s been a really beautiful experience for me to have this awareness. For example, once Finn just wasn’t listening to me. It was like he had no ears. And I kept finding myself yelling at him, “Finn, you’re not listening, you’re not listening!” And then I realised that I wasn’t listening to myself. I needed to stop; I needed to do something differently. I wasn’t listening to my inner voice that was telling me to stop and it was projected out onto him. That little person is a mirror bringing all your stuff up to be examined and let go of. It’s a constant process.

Jess: So it’s quite tiring, I imagine, being in that self-aware state. It takes up energy in and of itself.

Lyra: I guess it does take discipline. But the other way of being, for me, where you’re stuck in conflict and your own stuff, which still happens to me at times, is even more draining. So I know that when I’m feeling like that I need to reconnect with myself and do whatever I need to do to return to being present. When you’re being present and you’re in that feeling of being in the flow of life, you’re just an instrument and presence comes through you. It’s effortless when you have that energy attached to it. When I can feel that flow it doesn’t feel like it takes a lot of energy to keep it up.

Jess: That’s a nice place to be! I’m just thinking that mindfulness or any spiritual practice takes a lot of vigilance, there’s an effort to be in a state of sustained presence. But I guess after a while it becomes second nature – maybe even first nature!

Lyra: I guess with anything you make it a habit. I know that I’ve experienced that with my yoga practice. I feel worse without it so it’s something that I’ve got to do. It does become a part of life.

Jess: I can see you’ve got A Course in Miracles over there and you’ve mentioned it a few times. I know the name but I haven’t read it. Can you tell me about it?

Lyra: I was thinking, “What is the main thing I’ve taken from my study of this text?” It’s recognising that it’s all about me. Every conflict, every opportunity for growth, every relationship, every lesson that life presents is all about my perspective on it. I guess it’s taught me a lot about projecting, not blaming, and not judging so much. It’s quite a challenging text, it’s quite intellectual and it can get bogged down in the theory, but at the same time there are a lot of amazing parts. It was written, or channelled, by Jesus Christ and uses a lot of the biblical terms like crucifixion and resurrection and Holy Spirit, but it’s definitely not framed in the traditional sense of Christianity. The Holy Spirit is your higher self and the resurrection isn’t a physical resurrection of a man that died 2000 years ago, it’s more about coming into your own higher self and awareness, or alignment. It’s all about you and all of the lessons that life presents. It also talks about how interconnected we are and that it’s all about oneness. We need to bring that knowledge into ourselves, grow from ourselves, and everyone else grows with us.

Jess: Are there any other texts that have been influential for you?

Lyra: In my teenage years I read a lot of Sai Baba’s teachings and I went to his ashram in my twenties. His teachings encompass the Eastern philosophical outlook, so things like the ego and the spirit, that we are all spirit, that God is love, and we all have that divine spark within us. I think I’ve taken a lot of these teachings as a foundation. I remember one very early experience where my brother went through a hitting phase. I asked Dad, “Do people hit each other in heaven?” And Dad said, “In heaven there’s not even the urge to want to hit anyone.” I must have been 10 when we had that conversation and I still remember it so clearly, and can now have an understanding that it’s true. When you’re enlightened the urge to hurt just doesn’t come up, it doesn’t exist.

Jess: The Soul Spectrum focuses on soul and spirituality. You’ve touched on these things broadly but have you ever thought about what is soul is to you?

Lyra: Yes, I have a lot, right from an early age. I’ve thought about it, talked to my Dad about it as he was very much searching for that. And then, when he passed away, thinking about where he’s gone. I have always believed, for as long as I can remember, that the divine spark that all of us have is our soul and that it’s eternal and it returns back to the oneness that we all come from. I think when you die it’s ongoing. But it’s also that part of us that really connects with another person at that soul level, beyond the physical, beyond the superficial; I think we all have the ability to connect on that level if we can lose some of the layers that prevent that. I really love the translation of Namaste, “The divine in me recognises the divine in you. We are one.”

Jess: A lot of us can get caught up in distractions and busyness. It helps to live close to nature.

Lyra: Definitely. Nature has been a big part of my upbringing, my whole life, and I feel like we’re instilling it into our children. It’s something that we [Lyra and Guy] connected about right from the start. We spend a lot of time outside in nature and I feel like that’s very grounding for us. It’s very nurturing, and I think the children feel that as well. When things do feel a bit disconnected I say to the kids, “Let’s go outside and sit on the grass,” just to have that feeling of the Earth beneath us.

Jess: Can you tell me about a day in the life of Lyra?

Lyra: I don’t think I do anything too differently to other stay at home parents! I’m up early, which I enjoy most of the time. I usually go for a run, then make a cup of tea and sit with the kids down in our beautiful window seat. Lately we’ve been sitting in the front room because the sun is streaming in. We just have a bit of time together before we start with the busyness of the day. And then we move into having breakfast together and then I might take the kids out somewhere. We might go on play dates, to the park or the local waterhole, and we’re often catching up with friends. As I mentioned before, our group of friends here all have children of similar ages so we have that core group of support, which really tops me up. It’s great to connect with another adult while the kids are doing their thing. I usually spend some time each day in the garden; we have a big veggie patch that the children love helping me with, so it can be a lot of fun. I love seeing them eating straight from the plants! I really love cooking too, and I love the tradition of sitting down together to eat a meal. I make that a priority. Everyone sits at the table for dinner and it’s a really nice way to end the day, to come together as a family, particularly if we’ve been apart during the day. After dinner we might go for a bike ride or walk as a family, or play inside together. The bedtime routine is actually really easy with our kids; it’s never been a battle, they’re pretty much always happy to go to sleep! Then I can have a bit of time either with Guy, or to myself to do my work on the computer, or some yoga practice, or I just chill out and read a book or watch TV with Guy. Nothing out of the ordinary!

Jess: But you are doing a little bit of work?

Lyra: Yes, so on a day that I teach, usually it’s an evening class so Guy looks after the kids and I can go and do that. A lot of the work I do is over the phone and internet, so I can do that once the kids have gone to bed, or when they are with Guy, or they go to preschool one day a week, so I get some work done then.

Jess: You must have so much energy!

Lyra: I’ve definitely been through periods of tiredness. But the kids sleep really well and also I’ve had a real shift in looking at sleep since being a parent. That first couple of years of sleep deprivation just meant focusing on how tired I was. Guy was really instrumental in helping me come out of that. He said, “You can choose to focus on that but why not something else?” So with practice and over time I’ve realised that I actually feel okay. And just changing my focus and realising that I am going to get woken up early every day for the next few years is okay. Actually, the last few months has seen an even bigger shift in this, as I’ve been getting up before the kids to go for a run, and have loved it! It gives me time to myself, and more energy for the day. It also helps that I’ve found work that I really enjoy doing, so it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve got that groundswell of energy behind me where I feel like I’m just being the instrument, I’m being guided and spoken through and that’s not tiring to me.

Jess: It’s interesting to hear talk about parenting is a spiritual practice because it can be difficult to get your head around it if you haven’t been introduced to the idea before. There’s a book called Buddhism for Mothers that looks at parenting as a spiritual practice. It’s all about being mindful and present.

Lyra: It brings to mind a quote from my Mum; I think it came from Sai Baba, “Your work is your worship”. I remember when Finn was born, Mum was there with me and she said, “You will understand that quote once you have children,” and it’s been so true. It’s constant work, but it’s also worship, if you want to use that word. It’s also spiritual practice, service throughout each day constantly! [Laughs.]

Jess: Do you have any sense of where you want to go to from here?

Lyra: I get the feeling that I’m on the brink of an exciting and involved career. I think I’m just touching the surface. There is so much more to learn about this way of parenting and my children will be my best teachers as they grow older. But I’d like to continue teaching this approach in the community; I really like that grassroots, one-on-one teaching with parents. Then they can head off with some skills to make them a leader in their family and in their community as well. I’m just passing it on. I’m not an expert, but my vision is to teach parents this way of being and have it ripple out into the community. I can already sense that with the parents who I know very well who I’ve taught. They have expanded it to their families and beyond so understanding is being built through parenting our children this way. I’ve been talking to others in this field and we feel there’s a groundswell rising that will change the whole philosophy behind parenting. The mainstream approach is becoming outdated and there is this new way of being with our selves and our children. It feels really exciting to be on that leading edge, but it can be challenging because you’re coming up against the mainstream traditional ways of doing things all of the time. This is a whole new paradigm and it’s quite challenging to a lot of people, but I’m happy to be part of that movement towards critical mass and shifting mainstream consciousness. It’s very exciting!

Jess: Great, thanks so much, Lyra!

* For more information about Lyra L’Estrange and Parenting by Connection, please visit www.lyralestrange.com

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com
 

 

'herz' by Jim Pettigrew'herz' by Jim Pettigrew

Finding the peace and the love within…

Where have The Soul Spectrum interviews been, you ask? Well, there are several awaiting transcription, editing and posting, but the many pleasant familial obligations that come with the festive season are proving too distracting for me to tend to The Soul Spectrum right now. Sorry! But I’m very much looking forward to dropping into your email inboxes some time in early 2015 with some really super special interviews with Lyra L’Estrange, David del Sole and Petrea King. They’re all going to inspire your post-Christmas stockings off! Yep, I just love this self-appointed role of mine.

But onto broader spiritual matters. I recently enjoyed the luxury of going on a two-night meditation retreat at the Brahma Kumaris centre in Wilton, New South Wales. I have to say, when I arrived I was feeling so desperately exhausted that I was almost in tears over the peacefulness of the place. Bush, birds, thundering and atmospheric skies, and the centre itself was dotted with beautiful souls bearing gentle, nourished natures. So, not even 48 hours later, after enjoying the company of nine other wonderful, fun-loving and peaceful souls, I left on an absolute happiness high. While I was uncertain about putting myself into the folds of the Brahma Kumaris – because I really didn’t know very much about them – I’m pleased that I was willing to explore some unknown territory. Because when you explore something you don’t know, you emerge with new knowledge, insight and – quite possibly – extra dollops of wisdom.

What did I learn? Well, I learned that there is a community of people out there who are yearning for a truly peaceful existence. And not one to covet for themselves, but one to nourish, generate and share with others so that a peaceful way of being becomes an increasingly desirable and accessible possibility for each person who comes their way. I learned that there is no shame in genuinely, actually, really and truly loving yourself amid all of your imperfections. Because the energy of love permeates all of the arbitrary boundaries we place around each other and ourselves – whether it be by gender, sexuality, suburb, country, cultural identity, religious inclinations – and it becomes contagious.

So it’s been wonderful to glean an insight into the Brahma Kumaris philosophies. Like any belief system, you take what makes most sense to you, and respect the bits that don’t. But the experience was a welcome addition to The Soul Spectrum’s investigations into how people choose to live their lives along spiritual, soulful lines. Thank you to all of those I met on that retreat.

In the meantime, dear readers, I wish you internal love and peace during the festive season (and beyond!). Because if you’ve got love and peace on the inside, you’ll invariably find a lot of it on the outside.

Jess x

PS A huge loving thanks to Jim Pettigrew for sharing his image herz with me. It so beautifully encapsulates the spirit of this post xox

 

Driving hail and snow on the bus back to Quamby Estate

Spirituality is life in action

The Soul Spectrum has gone a little quiet recently because my family has been on the merry-go-round of winter illnesses. We’re through that now, thank goodness. It’s truly uplifting to finally see spring emerge in its full glory, complete with the rich smell of violets and freesias (at least where I live), and so many blooming colours.

I’ve got some more interviews lined up for the coming months, but I thought I would write a quick post with some reflections on what I’ve learned while conducting interviews for The Soul Spectrum so far.

I’ve learned that there is an incredible generosity of spirit out there, particularly if you’re willing to ask people to let you in. I’ve been taken aback at how disarmed and honest The Soul Spectrum’s interviewees have been when I’m asking them particularly personal questions. It’s a level of honesty that I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable in offering if someone plonked a recording device in front of me and said my words would be published on the internet!

Similarly, I’ve been so, so impressed at how articulate interviewees have been when talking about their personal journey with soul and spirit. It’s clear that they have reflected deeply on these questions, and I just find that plain beautiful. Again, I’m not confident that I could do the same.

Finally, I just love how idiosyncratic each person is when it comes to expressing their sense of soul and spirit. I love the clear picture of diversity that is emerging from The Soul Spectrum’s interviews, which is a liberating discovery. It might be a cliché to say there’s not one way to live a soulful life (I dunno, is that actually a cliché?), but there it is…

Paradoxically, however, I’ve started to notice some common themes among the interviewees. Several have grown up close to the natural environment, which has had a positive and indelible impact on their spirits. Many have spent a lot of time alone to connect with and nurture their soulful selves. And all of them are searchers following their apparently unconventional noses to places that are meaningful and fulfilling to them. This might sound easy, but it can be tough work when the pull of mainstream culture and its glitzy offerings are so overpowering and relatively ‘easy’ to just go along with. It takes a bit of chutzpah (as Ganga Karen Ashworth would say) to get out there and genuinely, really and truly be doing your own thing. I just love it, I really do.

If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that spirituality is life in action (a realisation which is, in part, inspired by Gail Withers and her Patch Adams quote, “Spirituality is love in action”). It doesn’t look or sound a particular way, it doesn’t come with store-bought material expressions of spirituality, although these can be tools that help you get there (I’m thinking candles, Buddha statues, religious motifs or hymns). Spirituality comes with existence itself. Existence is imbued in spirit every moment of the way. So, to me, spirituality is omnipresent. It is just there ready for you to look at it, marvel at it, and love it with passion. As I said, spirituality is life in action. Take a look around you. The padding of your feet against the earth. The dimples on a smiling face. The breath of fresh air coming through your window. Nope, if you ask me, you can’t get away from it… So I started wondering where my soul is, only to realise it has been there all along. Whoops.

So, THANK YOU to Sage, Kate Pell, Anthony Ashworth, Ganga Karen Ashworth, Amnys Darbyshire, Tisiola Lear and Gail Withers for your time, trust and generosity.

I’ll back in the next month or so with one or two interviews. In the meantime, I hope you’re all getting out there to enjoy the sparkle of spring – yum!

Jess x

PS Thanks to Mik Efford for the pic.

 

 

 

Subject

Gail Withers

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

June 19, 2014

Gail WithersGail Withers

Gail Withers: The heart and soul of living and dying

Gail Withers is a spiritual medium who can interpret and pass on messages from people who have passed away, a talent she embraced following the revealing death of her Dad. She complements that work with holistic counselling, reiki and spiritual development classes, which all makes for a busy, determined and sensitive woman. I went to one of her spiritual medium platform nights and was truly moved by the experience. Many people in the audience had the chance to hear messages that resonated deeply. Of course, Gail’s line of work invites scepticism, but it’s her personal mission to destigmatise the work of good-intentioned spiritual mediums, and to encourage people to embrace their own sensitivities and intuitions. I spoke with her on a bracing winter’s day in Bowral.

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where you grew up, what kind of family you had, and what kind of ideas you had for yourself and your future?

Gail: I’m one of five kids and the fourth girl. We grew up in a tiny war service home as my Dad was a returned serviceman from World War Two. My Dad features strongly in what I’m doing now so I like to think of it as Dad giving me not only my physical life but also my spiritual life. We were a poor working-class family of the 1960s and 1970s. I was a very, very, very shy and sensitive little child. I used to cry over anything and everything and hide behind my Dad just because somebody said, “Hello”. I felt everything, I couldn’t watch anything scary or nasty, I would just cry and be terrified. Mum used to say I was very dramatic but really I was just so anxious and full of fears. It was a very tough upbringing with five kids and Dad working three jobs to support us, so Mum was short on time and patience.

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It wasn’t an idyllic, sunshiny life but on reflection it could have been a lot worse. I remember that there was always something going on that was scary to me, because I could ‘feel’ and ‘see’ things that not everyone else could. I would be lying in bed and I could feel something/someone pressing on me, I could feel them in my ears, I could feel this energy around me making every hair on my body stand up and tingle. I could see faces and shapes and hear voices trying to talk to me. As a terrified child I thought it was the Devil or vampires or other ‘monsters’ because there was nobody talking about this kind of thing back in my younger years. There was no John Edwards or Alison DuBois on TV telling us that these happenings were normal when connecting with Spirit.

I used to take myself off to church, as that was the place where I felt safe. I thought that God would keep me safe from all the feelings and visions I kept having. When everything felt dark and scary, the church was pretty lights and glass, candles, ceremony, and security. I even entertained being a nun at one stage when I was young as I was so frightened of what was happening to me.

Jess: But you were raised Catholic?

Gail: Yes, I was christened Catholic but that was it. It wasn’t like we went to church every Sunday. But I would be taking myself off and it helped keep ‘things’ at bay. My Dad used to say, “You have such an imagination,” because I used to write really good stories and dreamt all sorts of things up. I always thought I would be a writer because of my stories. My Grandpa was a photojournalist and he was always going to get me a cadetship as a writer. I loved anything creative: music, writing, sewing, cooking. I guess I was always looking to express myself.

So even with my ‘feelings’ and ‘sensing’ and ‘seeing’ things I never acknowledged anything, I just thought it was creepy or I was weird. I even had a bad experience with a priest that put me off going to church at around age 13. During confession he was asking me if I’d had impure thoughts and I was like, “No!” So even Church no longer felt safe.

Jess: So you never talked to anyone about it? You never said to your Mum, “Look, sometimes I see funny things”?

Gail: There was never a channel open for that sort of communication at home. I probably would have gotten in trouble for being dramatic or making things up. I think I was always the odd one out at home. My Dad was very soft and gentle but he was always at work. So Mum was there with five kids under 10. I’m not going to say “I see dead people” or something like that, she would have said, “Don’t be stupid or ‘stop acting’”.

Jess: I imagine she was very stressed and had to run things like a military regime.

Gail: She was brought up in very tough times and did the best she could. Mum only recently came to have reiki with me and she was quite impressed. Before that she was a bit sceptical or not sure of what it was all about. I think I got my sensitivity from Dad because he was a very deep man, a man before his time. So I grew up never saying anything about it to anyone. I have always been good at keeping things to myself. I left school early and I got a job in the public service instead of journalism because my Grandpa died.

Jess: So your Grandpa dying meant no more cadetship?

Gail: Yeah, he wasn’t there so I let the dream go. And then came the teenage years, and the trials and tribulations that go with those years, I really did struggle when I was a young woman. I can really see how there is a fine line between having this link with Spirit and mental illness. When you’re that sensitive and when your heart leads you all the time, it doesn’t always lead you in the right direction. I have often marvelled that I never dabbled with serious drugs to escape the feelings. I could have but something always stopped me, probably the thought of my Dad and his disapproval. He was so against drugs, really drilled it into us. I could see how the escapism of addiction could have appealed to me during those trying times… thankfully I never went down that path.

Jess: You mentioned that you’re a Pisces [before we started recording]. Well, that’s classic Pisces behaviour. You either go psychic, addicted or performer.

Anxiety for most people is caused by their over sensitivity. Most anxious people I know are really lovely people; they just have a really hard time dealing with all of these feelings…

Gail: Exactly, that addictive, dreamy thing. Being off with the pixies, so to speak. I obviously have a lot of other astrological attributes, as I’m also very fiery. So when I was younger this connection was very, very hard. I see a lot of clients, both young and old, really struggling when they’re very sensitive. I strongly believe that anxiety for most people is caused by their over sensitivity. Most anxious people I know are really lovely people; they just have a really hard time dealing with all of these feelings and don’t learn to trust themselves because of the overload of input they continually receive and try to interpret.

Jess: I know what you mean! [Laughs.]

Gail: Yes, because gentleness is not a virtue that is admired or encouraged in the world. We are all told you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to get to the top, and you’ve got to beat everyone else. So generally most people I see with anxiety are really gentle people just trying to live in a not so gentle world. That’s why I tell everyone try to make anxiety your friend instead of looking at it as the enemy, which is what I feel I’ve done for myself with this work. I have taken my particular sensitivities and put them into the positive. You need to feel that you can control how you process the input, otherwise it does tend to overtake your life. Anxiety has become almost an industry in itself, and generally leads to depression. I think it’s Lao Tzu who said, “Depression is living in the past, and anxiety is worrying about the future, calm is in the present.” So most anxious people are looking for that comfort zone, because when you’re feeling things as they do it’s so exaggerated. Most people can measure their comfort or discomfort zone on a scale of one to ten, but for anxious people it’s somewhere around 50+. There’s a whole mass of anxious people suffering, often in silence, that have this ability to link with Spirit. They should all come together and make a group or club, take comfort from the fact that they are not alone in this and that what they feel or see or know is not weird, they are just tuned at a different frequency to a lot of other people.

Jess: They can all get together and feel affirmed.

Gail: Yes! My spiritual development class is a bit like that. It’s a class where everyone can just be relaxed, talk about things that are happening to or through them, all the things considered outside the norm. Everyone says, “I know that this is going to sound weird,” but it’s not weird, it’s just their experiences and sometimes those experiences can be outside physical realms. Having that platform, that safety zone to talk about these experiences and to develop it further if they wish, is just wonderful. To me spiritual development is really self-development as we’re all trying to find out who we are and what is our purpose.

Jess: I can imagine that that would feel really liberating to people. They have lived their lives with all of these hunches and feelings and then being able to talk about it…

Gail: Yes, especially people of my generation. Everyone is aware of the indigo and crystal children now. Kids are so much more open about it than I ever was able to be. And if my children say something about it I can say, “That’s fine,” or “What do you think?” and we can discuss it without fear or judgement, so to me that’s enlightenment. I was only saying to someone yesterday, I’ve come to realise that my generation and those before were like pioneers that went and blazed the trails for the indigo and crystal children to come and hopefully they won’t have to deal with the stigma and judgement that often follows this work or ability.

Jess: They won’t meet the same kind of resistance and scepticism.

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Gail: No, not nearly to the same degree. I was talking to a woman yesterday whose family was connected to the first spiritual church in Enmore, which went from World War One. She said it was illegal, it was like prohibition was with alcohol, these people had to do it underground in secret. It was against the law to get together for these kinds of practices … unbelievable!

Jess: People were very closed-minded.

Gail: It still exists now though thankfully not nearly as much as only a couple of decades ago… Even back in the 1980s I might have literally been carted off to a mental institution! It’s funny to think that all I am trying to do with my work is what was considered normal thousands of years ago when kings and queens held seers and healers in high regard. Then the Dark Ages and religion came along and so belief and abilities went underground and stayed there for quite a long time. I feel like the wheels are starting to turn back a little and we are finally going back to where we started. Hopefully people will regard this work with Spirit and energy as a valid and worthwhile modality. This work can and does support your regular visits to your doctor, your dentist, your gynaecologist, and your beautician. I love to envision that you would have a wellness practitioner that would include metaphysics as much as naturopathy, massage and any other complementary therapy.

Jess: You’ve got to deal with all of the elements, don’t you, of body, mind and spirit?

Gail: Absolutely. My dream is that people will go, “Oh yes, I’ve made an appointment with the dentist, and I better go and see my holistic practitioner for a chakra balance, recharge, etc.” That would be fabulous.

Jess: You’ve got to get a tune up.

A reading should never tell you how to live your life, it should confirm what you already know or what you intuit yourself. So it’s really a confirmation, not a set of instructions.

Gail: Yes, just like you do with any area of your life that needs some support. I see many people a few times a year. They come in and say, “I just need a boost, a bit of reading, a bit of a tweak on the chakras,” and off they go. It’s not my dream or vision to have people dependent on me for their every move. I tell everyone that a reading should never tell you how to live your life, it should confirm what you already know or what you intuit yourself. So it’s really a confirmation, not a set of instructions. I saw a client yesterday – when she rang up she was sussing me out like she was conducting a job interview. It turns out that she’d been to see a clairvoyant and she was getting quite accurate information, and that was fine, but from that moment on she had been bombarded with emails and texts, “I keep getting these flashes of your life, I’ve read the cards and I keep getting the Devil card.” She was going to the dark side of that because the Devil card doesn’t even mean the devil. I don’t do cards in my readings, but I know that death doesn’t mean physical death but the end of a situation or phase. She said, “She was literally trying to scare me into coming back.” And I said to her, “That’s what I’m trying to change.” To break down the barriers and misinformation about this work. Mind you there are lots of unprofessional and unethical people in every field of work: police, church, teaching, medicine, law, retail, etc. But in this particular industry you are under that much more scrutiny.

Jess: There’s stigma to break through.

Gail: Yes, there’s a lot of it. And this is only a recent thing and that’s what makes it really hard for people like me. There are a lot of genuine people trying to do what I call “light work”. Working with the light or energy, as basically we’re all, in essence, light. Medical doctors work with your blood and bones; I work with your light.

Jess: You said that when you were a child you were hypersensitive. When I met with you recently you talked about working in administration for a little while. Could you tell me a little bit about the transition from being a young woman unsure of what is going on around you to your adult years and where you are now?

Gail: I was always attracted to the esoteric world… if there were psychic fairs, I would go along and get a reading. I love astrology, numerology, colour therapy, anything metaphysical, love it all. I would love to have the time to learn all of it. As I said, I left school and joined the public service and that pretty much set me up for the next 20-odd years of working in offices. I didn’t do my HSC, which always bugged me because I was a really good student. It was the only time when I thought Dad was a bit disappointed in me. He never said anything but I could tell. So I was a good student but I was also an emotional Piscean, which made for a tough start in life with heart versus head all the time. So I went back and did my HSC when I was 22 at TAFE. I did well there. It was important to me that I finished and got my HSC, Dad always told me knowledge is never a burden so I took that on board and continue to do so. This HSC took me out of office and clerical jobs without much future, and got me into payroll. That work was much better paid and more of a challenge… Ever tried working out manufacturing bundy cards manually? Very challenging! In hindsight it was so at odds with how I thought I would be making my money because I was always creative. But I was very good at it, and I liked the people side of it.

But then I started getting bored. I always thought, “This is not what I want to do with my life.” I remember thinking quite often that I was supposed to be doing something different and I’m not doing it. I used to think I’m meant to be doing something really amazing but thought I was only daydreaming as nothing changed. Then when I had kids I thought maybe I got it wrong and they’re going to do something amazing, because I just had this feeling that something really amazing was supposed to be happening. Payroll made a good living and I met many lovely people who are still good friends, but it wasn’t interesting to me at all. Although I did meet my lovely husband through payroll so that more than makes up for it.

Jess: Well, there you go, that’s the reason for it.

Gail: That’s right, exactly. When I think about it, payroll has been really helpful for business now. Having all of that office admin and numeracy knowledge has been great. So I use a lot of those skills even though at the time I thought it was so boring and I hated it. And then you have kids and you think you’re stuck with your lot. In hindsight, I became quite unhappy in myself. I had a wonderful loving husband and two beautiful kids but I was never really very happy. I was probably a really uptight mum when they were little, so busy working full-time and carting the kids to Nana’s and day-care, and then everything else that every working mother around the world will totally understand and relate to. I just felt, “Is this it?” And you feel really bad for feeling like that as you are very lucky on so many levels.

Over the years, I had all of these experiences. I would have dreams and wake up and tell my husband, “It was really weird but so-and-so was talking to me.” Once I woke up and I heard a voice saying, “If you don’t stop smoking, you’ll die.” It was so loud and clear and I thought, “Who said that?” I was really scared because I was starting to get wheezy in my breathing; I had been smoking for a really long time. I’d been trying for ages to stop. Some people can smoke until they are 110, but I knew it was bad for me. So I did stop. So I had all of these experiences going on and I would forget about them or brush them off with the thought, “Doesn’t everybody have things like that happen?”

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So, fast-forward… In 2007 my Dad got really sick after his second stroke. He was an elderly man of 83 and he smoked for a long time. He was terrified of dying. He used to tell my siblings and me, “You’re my mortality, and I’ll never die with you here.” He was terrified, I think because of the war… or maybe he was just scared of the unknown. I was terrified of death as well. I’m not sure why, I just couldn’t bear thinking about it. I hated going to funerals because they used to scare me so much.

So there’s my Dad lying in the bed literally dying before me, and there was all the family standing around him. We had all said our heart piece with him, and spent time with him and cried. We were all sitting around him in a horseshoe shape around the bed. My sister was rubbing his hand and Mum was there, and I remember putting my head down, I remember this so clearly, and I felt everything go really slow and quiet. I felt like all of the energy was pulling into me. Then I had this picture of Dad as this young, handsome man with dark hair. He had these long pants on that I’d never seen. They weren’t shorts and they weren’t pants. And he was waving at me saying, “I’m here.” And he was handsome and wonderful, and in my head I’m thinking, “Dad looks great.” I could see the palm trees and it was a beautiful, warm day. I remember looking up and, as I did, Dad’s eyes had opened and he was gone. And at that moment I knew Dad had shown me his heaven. Dad had gone straight to his heaven and his heaven would be a beach, because he grew up in Bondi. It was very surreal.

Later that night we were sitting around talking and crying and I said to Mum, “It’s really strange but this happened,” and I told her what had happened and that he had these pants on. She said, “I made him throw them out when we got married, I hated those pants.” But I’d never seen them so everything I was saying to her was confirmation of Dad’s existence after life… life after life.

Once the numbness had worn off I knew Dad had shown me that he was okay, even though I missed him I felt such peace and wanted everyone to have that sense of peace when they lose someone they love. So literally two weeks after that I started doing development circles, I started doing courses and my fear was well and truly gone. Dad took my fear and replaced it with love, hope and peace. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no hurry to get ‘there’ [death]. I feel like I’ve got a lot of work to do. I always say to Spirit, “Do I have to be this age, couldn’t I have been younger?” But I know I wouldn’t have been ready. You have to deal with your own stuff before you can serve other people. You don’t want to bring that to the table because then you’re making it worse, and you’re using somebody else’s time and space for yourself.

Jess: For your own purposes.

Gail: Yes, and that’s not what it’s about. So doing this and doing the counselling course has been very cathartic. I’ve done a lot of work, which has led to a lot of changes for me, even though I thought I’d already worked on so much there is always more to re-examine. There’s still learning and learning and then more learning to be done.

When I’m working with spirits I just ask for the love and light and that’s it, I’m good to go.

People talk a lot about protection in this work and they burn a lot of sage and do these rituals, but I just ask for the light. I’m not curious. You know in those movies when they say “Don’t open the door, don’t open the door,” and they open the door? I would never open the door. Curiosity will never kill this particular cat. I don’t want to see what’s behind that door. So when I’m working with spirits I just ask for the love and light and that’s it, I’m good to go. That is all I get because I’m not even minutely interested in anything else. There are many who do really good work with the more negative spiritual realms but that doesn’t interest me so I leave it to those who choose it.

Jess: When Spirit talks to you, do they sometimes indicate that somebody is going to die? You mention ill-health and things like that [at the spiritual platform night], but do you see flashes of the death or…

Gail: Again I’m very strict in my boundaries in what I will and won’t bring through. I won’t and I never have asked when someone is going to pass. Even if someone asks me I would say, “Even if I got it, I wouldn’t tell you, what if I get it wrong and plant that idea?” I don’t feel that’s enlightening, only frightening. If someone were terminally ill, or their partner or somebody they loved was terminal and they already knew that they’re not going to recover, then I would encourage them to spend as much time as they could with them and to find their peace. But that’s a counselling technique not a psychic thing, I go between the two. I’m a holistic counsellor and I am fortunate to have this other ability or link. So I always come at a session from a counselling point of view of what’s appropriate to bring through. When I’m doing a reading I ask Spirit to give me something that will help give the client an insight or clarity. Don’t come to me if you want to know the Lotto numbers, or to ask me if you should leave your husband. If you have to ask me that question I think you have answered your own question. I’m not going to tell anyone that. I’m not going to tell anyone how to live his or her life. I can only tell you what Spirit is telling me to the best of my ability and with the idea of bringing you clarity or confirmation of your own intuition and self-knowledge. So if they don’t tell me, I’m not going to be able to tell you. So I’m not going to tell you to leave your partner but I will tell you what your grandmother thinks of them. And I say to people, “If your grandmother was here telling you this, would you listen to her?” Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t, because it’s your journey.

My idea of Spirit is that they can definitely have a good bird’s eye view of your life and want the best for you, if that is your choice. I don’t think it’s empowering to make decisions for people. At the end of the day I’m interpreting what they’re telling me as best as I can in the hope that the client will have their own moment/s of clarity and connection. Sometimes the client just needs to know that their loved ones are still around them, sending them love, encouragement and hope.

Jess: Do you find that when you’re doing a reading with a person that there are several spirits? And I imagine that just like sitting in a room with a group of people that each spirit would have a different perspective on the same issue for you. Is that something that goes on? Or is there generally a consensus?

Gail: I haven’t had them argue the point in my head. I have had Spirit come and push Spirit out of the way and say, “Right, I want to talk.” That’s been quite funny. I’ve had grandmothers go, “She needs to hear from me,” and she will literally come running through my head. Generally, even though they have different relationships to each other and to the person, they all want the best. Generally they will all come together for the highest and best for that person. Some of them like to take the credit. It’s quite funny, like a grandmother will say, “She gets that from me.” I haven’t had one saying, “Leave him,” and the other one saying, “No, stay.” I’ve had parents come through admitting that their kids have been pretty crap with the way they were going on about things, and it’s hard for me to do that because they love their child. But you have such a different and clear perspective on things in Spirit that you didn’t see in life, even if it pains you to admit it. People generally stay the way they were otherwise no one would recognise you. Like if the cranky old grandmother was suddenly sweet and nice and the person is saying, “Oh, that’s odd as she was always a real cow.” So they keep their true essence as far as I’m able to interpret it, so for me to understand and relay a message it has to be at a level that the person will understand. They have to come through as they were known.

Jess: It’s not the same energy.

Gail: I have the best laugh sometimes; I meet the best people, here [in life] and there [in Spirit]. And you can have a laugh with the person even though you respect that there is grief. And sometimes they’re crying and laughing.

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Jess: So what does it feel like for you? When I saw you the other night there was a combination of talking and also an embodied experience as well.

Gail: They’re all the ‘clairs’. So you’ve got you’re clairvoyants, which is the clear sight, clairaudience, which is the clear hearing, and clairsentience, which is clear feeling. I get a lot of information through clairsentience but I generally get the sight and hearing during a reading too, it just the degree that changes with each experience. It’s always different, because every spirit communicates differently and they use the best way they can to speak with me. They have their own strengths; some are better at it, like people in life can be. Basically I have to go with what I get. That’s why I said I made friends with my sensitivity because it works for me now and it’s been fabulous.

Jess: Watching you, it all happens very quickly. That could be a skill in itself, to be able to register and then report so instantaneously.

Gail: Well, the more you do the quicker you get at it. I always tell everyone, “Do you go to the gym once and then become Arnold Schwarzenegger?” No, you’ve got to practice and work at it. I can tell you how I’m doing it and how I’m feeling it, but that’s not how you’re going to experience it. You’re going to have to work out your own signs, your own language. Like a symbol in my head for plants might be different for yours. So we work on creating little libraries for ourselves. So I see my work as a medium as translating.

Jess: So how does it work? For example, my grandfather was Italian and he had broken English, and my grandmother was German and had very good English. Do they talk in English for you?

Gail: Good question… I had a lady in here yesterday who bought her mother who was visiting from India and her Mother in Spirit came through who has never ever once spoken a word of English. I could understand her because we were talking mind to mind; it is not like talking a language. There’s another clair, claircognisance, which is clear knowing where you simply just know things. I can and have communicated with horses, dogs, cats, and birds, even a tree… Do I speak horse or tree? No! Because we’re not talking language, we’re talking mind to mind.

Jess: You talked earlier about being a very sensitive little girl and now you’re doing this work. Can you explain to me more precisely what the process was?

Gail: As I said, Dad was the catalyst and once I lost my fear it all happened very quickly and rather easily. Fear is really the enemy for everything but especially if you want to do this kind of work. You also have to ask why are you doing this work. While it is certainly wonderful to be able to do this work it is also a huge responsibility as you are often dealing with vulnerable, lost, sad and lonely people. I’m certainly not some pious and all-knowing spiritual guru to say you shouldn’t do it this work one way or the other. People can do what they feel is right for them. It is their business but I really hope that, when someone is interpreting Spirit or giving a healing, they are coming from a place of peace within themselves. First and foremost you’ve got to recognise that you are a human being and that you’ve got to be very grounded because we’re in a physical world. I have built trust in myself, in the spirit world, and in my intentions. I’m also very straightforward, I don’t believe in all of the theatre and drama of this kind of work, which makes it seem like it belongs in a carnival show or on the stage. This is the stereotype I am trying to dispel.

As I’ve been doing the work with Spirit, I’ve been more drawn to the healing side of things. I have practiced and studied many different modes of metaphysics and some are more comfortable for me than others, so it’s also about learning to trust where you align yourself and what you see yourself doing in the service of Spirit because I really see this as a service. It’s also important to not be afraid of not being successful in a reading every now and again. On a couple of occasions I have had to say, “Sorry, I’m not going to be able to continue this session.” This is usually because the person is not willing or able to take on board or acknowledge the information that Spirit is giving. I would rather stop than continue to try and convince a person who may not be ready to deal with what has arisen. Maybe they never will be and that is fine that is their choice. I think people recognise the honesty.

Jess: You’re human and therefore there are feelings of darkness there sometimes. Do you sometimes get darkness coming in?

Gail: I’ve had information on murders and less than pleasant things come through, and I just shut it down. Some psychics are really good at dealing with that but I just don’t want it. After my Dad died, the doors flew open and it was like Pitt Street with Spirit coming and going at all hours. People were walking in and out of every door in my home and I said, “No, take it away, I don’t want it.” So I decided that if I was going to do this work I would be very structured about it. Spirit doesn’t have to come along and interrupt your meal or your life. And if they do you say, “Go away please, I’m not working now. I’m on between 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.” It sounds funny but that’s what you have to do. You have to be very clear because they’re so excited and want to get their message across to their loved one. There is no midnight to them so you have to be very structured, put your boundaries up, and say what you will and won’t do. So I don’t get the dark stuff because I’ve been really strict on that because I need to feel comfortable in what I do.

Jess: Can you tell me about a day in the life of Gail?

Gail: I am just like everyone else. I’ve got two kids, I’ve got a husband, I’ve got two dogs a house and family to run. I’ve got teenagers and that’s very testing, but I am lucky as they’re really good and kind people. So I am busy doing all the usual things so I can’t be tuned in to Spirit all the time, I can’t be on all the time because I would burnout. Generally people come here to see me when there is grief and loss and challenges, so I need to be clear and focused. So I have my boundaries about switching on and off. Any counsellor and therapist will tell you that you need to do that. So I get up, get ready, and go to work and my day begins. When I go to work I am ‘on’ and when I finish for the day I switch it ‘off’ and get on with the tasks of everyday life and family.

Jess: The Soul Spectrum is looking at different people’s understanding of soul. We’ve been using the word ‘spirit’ a lot. Is there any difference between soul and spirit, for you?

When I see you as the beam of light that you are, you are perfect. Absolute perfection. Each and every soul is perfection.

Gail: I see it all as one source. I’m starting to understand that idea, when they talk about unity and being one. I’m starting to see it through the work that I’m doing. I have glimpses of great illumination and then I get back to being just silly old me again. But I have those snatches of moments where I see stillness, that beautiful place. Then I feel my whole being in those moments being just huge, it’s amazing. When I’m talking about Spirit I’m talking about anybody that comes to talk to me from the other side. When I work with someone, when I’m doing the healing, quite often I see his or her soul. I see the colours of their soul; I feel the state of their soul, because that’s where I’m working, in their energy or soul. And that’s a totally different connotation to the word spirit. As a medium I’m bringing through and interpreting another energy. When I’m working with a person one-on-one I am in the space of his or her own energy, if that makes sense, and it’s wonderful. I’ve seen some amazing things. Sometimes I see their soul connecting with their loved ones that have passed. And it’s a beautiful, joyous reunion. That can really bring some healing to the person. This is all going on while they’re lying on the therapy table; it’s going on energetically in and around them.

And I always tell clients that when I see you as the beam of light that you are, you are perfect. Absolute perfection. Each and every soul is perfection. And that’s wonderful. But how are you going to experience everything if you’re perfect? If you’re perfection, what can you experience other than perfection? So to experience the good, the bad, the ugly, you had to come down to earth. You’ve got to don the heavy coats of humanity. But you also get some wonderful sensations in the physical life. That’s why I think people keep coming back to having these many lives time and again for centuries, for eternity. Because it’s not all bad. Think delicious food, warm sun, newborn babies, a long relaxing massage, incredible animals and breathtaking beauty of humans performing and producing amazing music, sport or art, so many wonders to behold. The only way you can know perfection is to learn through the imperfectness of being a human being.

Jess: Perfect! Thanks so much, Gail.

 

* For more information about Gail Withers and her business Heart and Soul Healing, please visit http://heartandsoulhealing.com.au

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

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Subject

Tisiola Lear

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

March 3, 2014

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Tisiola Lear: Loving and living your full potential

Tisiola Lear is a wholehearted life coach who works with women to embrace their potential and finesse the art of self-love and acceptance. When she migrated from her native Tonga to Australia in 1984, she didn’t expect to have a series of intense, transformative experiences that have connected her with oneness and permeated her very being. Her spiritual journey has led her to love in all of its human and transcendental glory. I spoke with her on a brisk afternoon in Bowral.

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about where you were born, how you grew up, and all of the things that have happened in between that have led you to here today?

Tisi: I was born in Tonga, a little island in the Pacific Ocean. Tonga is an independent island that is made up of many islands. I grew up on the second biggest island called Vava’u, in a little village called Tu’anuku. We lived in a village that was very close to the bush and the water. We had a lake on one side and the ocean on the other. So my childhood was very beautiful, I just remember being very close to nature. The people were very spiritual. There was that sense of linking to our ancestors and to the land. People were very aware of nature.

I am one of eight children; four girls and four boys and I’m number five. What I most remember was that I was always a free spirit. I remember climbing trees. As a little kid, when you’re up so high and you’re looking down on everything, you think it’s your world.

Jess: What a wonderful way to grow up!

Tisi: Yes! Our people mostly lived off the land and from the sea. It’s still that way today. There is always that sense of abundance. My school days were very happy. I loved to learn and never stopped asking questions. I won a scholarship each year of high school, which helped my parents put me through school. I remember my school days being rather long as we needed to travel each day, either by boat or truck, from my home to school. It took three hours to get there. Even so, I loved school and learning as I’ve always had a mind that keeps asking, “What else is there?”

Jess: Quite an analytical mind, then?

Tisi: Yes, just looking at what’s behind things. In 1984 I married and came here to Australia. When I first arrived, for the first few years of my marriage, I was really questioning life. I was brought up in two religions.

Jess: Which religions were they?

Tisi: I was brought up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which was Mum’s religion. But my grandparents on my Mum’s side were part of the Church of Tonga, under the umbrella of the Christian Church. My grandparents were missionaries, and my grandfather was the Church Minister. He went around the island spreading God’s word, and that’s how my Mum met my Dad. My Dad’s side of the family weren’t religious, they just believed in being one with nature. So there was an issue about that in the past, which I only know from stories. Then, when I was in Year Seven, my Mum converted to the Mormon Church and I was baptised a Mormon that year.

Jess: That’s very mixed, then.

Tisi: Yes, very mixed! Until I married, I was brought up in the Mormon Church. There are so, so many rules with that religion, as there are with the Seventh-Day Adventists. So I grew up thinking, “Which one is right?” as the ‘rules’ of both churches differ somewhat.

Jess: I’m curious because you describe yourself as being a free spirit. How does a free spirit negotiate all of these imposed belief systems?

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Tisi: Not very well. I appeared on the outside to be conforming to what was expected, because I was dealing with my parents and they’re meant to know what’s best for you. And you’re also trying to deal with the authority of churches and “converted” friends. But inside I was always questioning the church’s rules and beliefs. I remember thinking at the time, “You just need to go with the flow.” But there was a huge argument among family and friends when I wanted to marry. They were really against me getting married because I was doing the wrong thing by marrying someone who is white, and they thought I was too young. My family believed I should be pursuing my studies at university. I would also be leaving the church because my husband-to-be wasn’t a Mormon. Some of my family wanted him to become baptised into the Mormon church and I said, “No, I’m not going to ask him to get up there and lie to all the people that he believes just so we can get married.” I wouldn’t let it happen that way. So we were married in the Tongan tradition and headed to Australia to live.

Jess: So your husband is an Australian man?

Tisi: He is. He was in Tonga on holidays. I was going to go to the university in America and follow the pathway of being a Mormon wife. But I followed what I felt was right for me at the time. I remember having a conversation with my Dad. I said to him, “I’m so sorry but this is what I want to do.” And he was fine with that, he gave me his blessing. Not long after I left Tonga, he went missing. To this day we still haven’t found him. For years afterwards I had dreams of seeing him, over and over, coming to me. I thought he might still be alive somewhere, I couldn’t accept that he could just disappear off the face of the earth. But I have finally put him to rest in my mind.

Jess: That would be a really hard thing to come around to.

Tisi: It was… And my husband didn’t seem to have any spiritual connection. He was brought up in the Anglican Church when he was little but he didn’t really believe in anything. I then started thinking, “Well maybe that’s right.” Other people seemed to be living their life without some sort of ritual or connection and they seem to be fine. So I felt like I went off the rails, I felt like I was a bit lost. I started living a life disconnected from the spirit. I felt like my spirit was experiencing life from a different perspective. During that time I really went against all religions, I became anti-religion.

Jess: You rebelled against the kind of experience you had growing up?

Tisi: Yes. I didn’t want to know anything about religion at all. I thought God was also religion so I didn’t want to know Him either. I just rejected God and anything to do with spirituality. Looking back, there was just a deep sense of loss and confusion. I should mention I have given birth to four children.

Jess: Four?

Tisi: Three actually, two boys and a girl. I had a miscarriage and my first baby died after four and a half months. That was another dark time for my soul, really dark, and I lost contact with the outside world. I didn’t want to know anybody and I questioned, “Why and how did that happen?” Then I had three healthy kids after that.

When I saw the beam of light I had this overwhelming feeling of oneness, it was the feeling I experienced when I was a kid.

When my youngest son was born I spent his first Christmas in hospital. He was only three months old. I was taken to hospital by ambulance as I couldn’t move my leg. I was paralysed from my hip down to my foot. The doctors thought it might have been a blood clot. I remember waking up on Christmas morning and I looked out of the window in my hospital room and saw a tiny beam of light. I thought, “God, if you are there and you can hear me, I just want to surrender.” All that time I’d been trying to fix things. I was very anxious and thought, “What if something happens to me, what will happen to my kids?” When I saw the beam of light I had this overwhelming feeling of oneness, it was the feeling I experienced when I was a kid.

Jess: It returned.

Tisi: Yes, it returned. And I felt that everything was calm and that there was nothing to worry about, there was no more fear, there was nothing like that. I just thought that everything would be okay. On Boxing Day I was able to go home for a short time to be with my family. I walked around my home, as if nothing had happened to my leg. I had to return to the hospital in the evening to undergo further tests.

Jess: So what did happen to your leg?

Tisi: I don’t know, the doctors didn’t know. They all had different ideas, but nothing was proven. I really connected to that part of me that always felt okay throughout that experience. I then became curious about things. I thought maybe I should go back to the church. I went to the Anglican Church and reached out. I thought, “I’ll get my little boy christened.” When I went to organise the christening, the Minister asked, “Why do you want to have him christened?” And I said, “I have no idea.” It is like a family tradition, I guess. And that really stirred me up. I was thinking, “Why do I want it done?” I pursued it and thought, “I’ll do a little bit of reading into it.” I did have him christened but I was still restless. Part of me was wondering if I was still rebelling.

Jess: Clearly there was a yearning but you couldn’t describe what it was?

Tisi: There was a yearning, exactly. I thought the only way to find out was to go to church. But, when I returned to the church I felt worse. I felt really uncomfortable with the whole system of getting up and singing, and then sitting down, and doing this and doing that. I became even more anxious inside because I was thinking, “I don’t really feel comfortable.” It’s almost like the people in the congregation had been doing it for so long that there wasn’t any depth of feeling, they were just going through the ritual of the service. I just felt…

Jess: Hollow?

Tisi: Yes, it was like that. The Minister’s wife said to me, “We have a women’s Bible study group, if you want to come along.” So I said I would give it a go. When I arrived, I was handed pieces of paper. I thought, “They’re going to sit in my bag for the next week.” I wouldn’t even do the study. Again I felt very uncomfortable. I kept asking questions like “How are the Bible teachings relevant to our lives today?” I needed to know. But no one seemed to have the answers, and they all appeared uncomfortable. I thought I was wasting my time. I didn’t see the relevance. Then I ran into the Minister’s wife at the shopping centre, and she said, “We missed you, are you going to come back?” And I thought, “I don’t think they missed me, they’ll be glad that I’m not coming!” [Laughs.]

Not long after that I had a conversation with the Minister’s assistant who said, “If you are interested in learning about the history of the church, come along to this.” I attended the first lesson, and he said, “We are going to talk about timeline.” And I said, “Look, I just want to ask about the spirit.” And I could see he was really uncomfortable. I said, “Well, I’ve been trying to deal with my Dad who is missing and I just need to know if his soul is okay.”

My sister, who also lives in Australia, went back to the island for a visit and she took a video when she entered our village. The village is very small, everyone knows each other, and there is this moment in the video when an image of my Dad comes into view. He’s walking, not on the ground, but right next to her. So I was asking this man, who has authority in the church, can he give me an answer that will rest my enquiry about my Dad’s soul? His answer was, “The Devil lives.”

Jess: Oh, that would hurt.

Tisi: It did hurt, and I just thought, “Wow, that is not what I thought he would say, how could he relate that to the Devil?” As far as I’m concerned it’s something good. I’d like to think that my Dad did come and welcome my sister home after years of being away from the village. To me it makes sense that my Dad would do something like that. So I spoke to the Minister’s wife and told her I didn’t want to come back to the church.

Later on, the church was going to run a program called Alpha, which is like a ‘Christianity Explained’ course. I was told I would probably like the program because I’d be able to ask lots of questions. It was the first time they ran that course. I loved it and I asked questions. The course included a weekend away, which was to focus on receiving the Holy Spirit. My husband and I had lots of excuses for not being able to make it. But then I said, “I’m going.” I made up my mind and in the end he reluctantly came with me. A day was given for everyone to have the chance to receive the Holy Spirit. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I did the same thing as when I saw that beam of light at the hospital. I don’t know what other people said to themselves, but I said, “Lord, I don’t really know you, if you’re real or not, but here I am. If you’re real just show me what I need to know.” And, in a moment, it was like I had the whole world hugging me. For the first time I felt love that was endless.

Jess: Infinite?

In that moment I just felt that love, and all of its fullness, was with me.

Tisi: Yes, infinite love. It was so full in my body that I could hardly move. And each time I asked the question, “But…” I would get more of this energy hugging me. I literally felt that somebody had put their arms around me and hugged me. And the words I kept on hearing were, “I love you.” I had tears streaming down my face. “Could this be real? Could this be what it is?” I couldn’t move from that spot. The energy was so overwhelming that my body couldn’t take it. All I could see was the crucifix. For the first time I understood what the crucifix means. And in that moment I just felt that love, and all of its fullness, was with me. I have remembered that feeling from that day onwards.

Jess: So that would have been quite a transformative experience.

Tisi: It was huge. And from that day on I never saw things the same way again. I was starting to see people very differently. I saw everyone with love, including the people in the church that I once had no time for. There was no judgement, it was just love. It transformed my thinking. My mind was no longer seeing things in the same way.

Jess: That’s just huge. How long did that experience last? For a few minutes, or longer?

Tisi: It was a long time. People came and stood around me quietly, there were no words that could explain the feeling at the time. I was speechless. I was sitting there in awe. And I was crying. I never experienced love and its fullness like that. That’s all I could feel. Everything became one. After that I became really interested in running the Alpha course. Not so people could become religious or join the church, but so they could experience what love is. So I started running Alpha and continued to run it for a few years. I took people on weekends away. However, some people in the church didn’t support what I was doing.

Jess: Why is that? Because you weren’t being strict about the religious aspects?

Tisi: Yes, some of that. And because my thinking was that it’s boring just going to church and sitting there. I said there was a purpose in doing that but now we need to reach out to the people who are lost like I was and not Bible bash them. Just bring them to experience love. So I suggested things like doing dinners and other social things as well. But there was resistance. Every time I ran the course it was a full house with people from all walks of life.

I was shocked when I realised that I was not fully supported by the church because I had a different expectation. I thought that every single person who went to the church had experienced what I had. Then I became curious about how important it is to have an environment that supports growth. So was I going to keep bashing my head against a brick wall or was I going to do something about it?

Shortly after I was baptised as a Christian my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer where people usually die within two years. The women in the church were praying for us, bringing food for the family, and providing all sorts of help. And I thought, “Wow, my husband is in the midst of all this and here is the hand of God bringing this love.” People were saying, “Tisi, aren’t you afraid?” People were crying for me. But, to be honest, I wasn’t worried. What I was worried about was that I wanted him to experience what I had. It wasn’t about losing him or his physical body, I was more interested in his soul not being lost. And I wanted him to know that. So we got through the cancer and everything is fine, he still lives today. That was in 2000.

Jess: So did he find his soul?

Tisi: I don’t really know! It took five years to be reassured that he was going to be fine. However, during that time, our relationship was in a downward spiral. Before he became ill, he was lost in himself, he was always unhappy and I was so busy with the kids and other activities, I didn’t realise that I had over-focused on his illness. All of my energy was focused on fixing him, making him well. In 2006 I became very unwell. I had this feeling of being cut off within.

Jess: What were you sick with?

Tisi: I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The doctor said I would be on pills until the kids were older. One part of me was relieved to think, “Well, good, now I know what is wrong with me.” I felt so tired, like there was a cloud over my head all the time. I became so unwell that I couldn’t get out of bed so I slept a lot. I went within and I did what I call the ‘deep work’. I was really searching for that self that I had lost.

Jess: What kind of work did you do?

Tisi: I literally slept and slept but part of me was thinking, “I wonder if the same God with all the love that was around before is still here and can he see that I’m unwell?” Even when I couldn’t put anything into words there was a part of me that knew it was going to be okay. It was a very dark time. I was cut off even from my children. I really didn’t want to be in this state, but physically I was falling apart, and mentally I was totally exhausted and worn out.

Jess: It was quite blinkered and myopic?

Tisi: Yes, I didn’t feel, I didn’t hear, all of my senses were cut down. So I slept for days. I had 12 months off work. Barb, my sister-in-law, helped look after me because the kids were young and my husband was at work. Then one morning when I woke up with this deep knowing that everything was going to be okay. It was like I had been awakened to the fullness of my being. It turned within. I had this revelation. It’s like my state altered and I was taken to a place where all I could see was a beautiful beach. The water was so calm and crystal clear, and the sand was still untouched.

Jess: Was this metaphorical?

Tisi: No, I literally saw this in my head. I saw myself walking on the beach. I felt that deep clarity. And then I thought, “I am well!” There was no question about it. Just, “I am well.”

Jess: You had a realisation and you genuinely felt it within all of your being?

Tisi: Exactly. A boom of energy had energised all of my being, there was nothing damaged in the picture, everything was there. I felt calm, at peace, and clear in my head. I slowly weaned myself off the medication. I then committed to learning about what had happened to me and why.

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I searched for information extensively and I found Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) through a nurse who had studied NLP. I completed all levels of NLP with Pip McKay, CEO of Evolve Now: Mind Institute in Sydney. NLP was created by a mathematician and a linguist, John Grinder and Richard Bandler, in 1970. They were curious about how the mind and emotions work and the relationship between the two.

Jess: Do you use NLP on yourself? Was that part of your process in discovering why you were unwell?

Tisi: Yes. As I was studying what they were teaching, I was applying it to my own experience and sickness. I realised how the unconscious part of the mind forms these beliefs, and I learned about the underlying things about myself that had been embedded for a long time. So I started clearing all the “old” stuff and releasing it and also understanding why my energy had been so affected.

Then I was curious about that part of me that always assured me that I was well. That curiosity led me to meet Dr Jean Houston in America. She is an amazing woman who has helped shed some light on how I had been thinking about many things. Another person who has been a big influence for me is Dr David Hawkins who has written many books, including Power Versus Force.

Jess: Can you tell me a little about them?

Tisi: Well, Jean is many things. She is an historian, a philosopher, a scholar, a teacher, a visionary leader and an author. She is also Chancellor of the Meridian University in San Francisco and has developed a school called the Mystery School and Social Artistry. She doesn’t like to be a famously known person, yet she is appreciated by many for her amazing knowledge and huge contribution to discovering and evoking human capacity and potential.

Jess: She’s modest.

Tisi: Yes, but she is a people mover. She makes changes in big ways. She works with governments of many countries and helped Hillary Clinton write It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. She has been interviewed by Oprah, has met Mother Teresa and many other well-known people throughout the world. She’s not only learned through books but she has lived with people in many countries, rich and poor, to gain a real sense of the capacity of humans. She helps people move into what she calls the parallel world to understand our soul.

Jess: What kind of course are you taking?

Tisi: Jean offers many courses. I did one online called “Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose”. And, in June 2013, I attended a weekend workshop in San Francisco where she used one of the books she has written, The Wizard of Us. It’s her take on the story of the Wizard of Oz. She looks at our understandings of archetypes to understand how it fits into society. That understanding really helped me understand my little self, and how it fits into the bigger society picture. It’s not just airy-fairy talk about love; she has the scientific research to back it up.

I also did her seven-day salon in October 2013 in Ashland, Oregon. On one of the days she was talking about the illumination stage, where you see the light. We did an exercise that took us into the world of our own university, and I had a really a vivid experience. I went into a room and I saw a library of books that contained everything that I ever want to read, and more. And on the other side were people who were there to answer any questions I had. Then I was in a building and, as I was coming out, there was just openness, it was everything. And then I heard a voice asking me to put out my hand. I literally saw a ball of white light drop into my hand. The light ascended and all I could see was infinite light that had no beginning and no end. I was taken up into the light and I couldn’t see myself any more.

Jess: You must have merged with it.

Tisi: Yes, I saw myself merge into this light and I became it, and I was trying to say, “Where am I?” And all I could hear was, “You are in me and I am in you.” And that was it. There was no beginning, there was no end and I was in there. When we finished the exercise, I said to Jean, “I can’t move.” She said, “You’ve experienced what we’re about to do this afternoon. So now just rest.” And my whole physical body went to sleep for hours.

Jess: And what was that, exactly?

Tisi: Illumination.

Jess: That’s very powerful.

Tisi: Very powerful. My physical body could not take the energy. I slept, yet I knew what was going on in the room. I saw everybody as one. Everything was complete. Every single person in the room was radiating with this light, and they were all beautiful. It was like I was in love with everybody. It was that sense of you are not a woman, you are not a man. I was just radiating in this beautiful light. I couldn’t talk, I had no words to describe it.

Later, when I returned home, I read David Hawkins’ book The Eye of the I. He wrote about his own experience, just like the one I had, which helped me make sense of it. He is a psychiatrist and the director of the Institute for Advanced Theoretical and Spiritual Research. He has been knighted and honoured in the East with the title of “Foremost Teacher of the Way to Enlightenment”.

Jess: It seems like you’ve had maybe four or five of these kinds of experiences.

Tisi: Yes. And I had another one when I went back to my island in 2011 for the first time in 27 years. You can imagine going back to the island and Dad’s not there anymore and I was not going to see his physical body. But I knew that I was going to sense his spirit. I went with Pip McKay. She became my courage and we did clearings about things to do with my Dad, she had experienced what I had and knew what I wanted. In my mind I was going to go to the village and do a ‘ceremony’ for my Dad on 7 July.

Jess: What was the significance of 7 July?

I made peace with the land, with heaven, with earth, with everything.

Tisi: My Dad’s birthday was in July and the number seven is a completion number for me. It was all about completion. I just wanted to go to the beach where he took his last walk before he went missing. I saw Dad as I walked into the house where I grew up. Again I had the feeling of spirit merging and feeling so overwhelmed that he was there to welcome me home. I was crying with joy. I now accept that he will no longer be here in the physical body, but his spirit is here. I wanted to honour him. So I took Pip and my nephew’s children and went to the beach. I said to the kids, “Let’s just collect whatever we can.” They found flowers and stones. I had already been to my family’s graveyard and picked up a little piece of bamboo from the graveyard’s garden. Symbolically I thought that this is going to be like me letting go of his body and releasing his spirit. We then laid some flowers in the water. Everyone just stood in one line along the beach and the water was up to our ankles. I said my speech. I felt like I was speaking for all of us who were feeling the pain. But I wasn’t only speaking to my Dad, I was speaking to all of those who have gone. And I had that feeling again. It was an elevated feeling, I felt like someone had taken me from the beach and put me on top of the water and that I could just walk out to the ocean. It was that feeling of goodness and that everything was one again. I made peace with the land, with heaven, with earth, with everything. I knew that the others were standing there, but I felt again this aura of oneness in all of creation.

Jess: So how does that work on a day-to-day basis? For example do you feel that sense of oneness right now?

Tisi: Yes, there was one thing that I didn’t really quite understand. It was, “How can I come back to a different reality and live a normal life?” I put that to Jean. It’s almost like there is a part of me that would rather be in that place.

Jess: Well, it sounds very blissful.

Tisi: It is. The only thing that I know is that I wouldn’t be able to function as a human. If I am in that fullness of energy, I just couldn’t function. It was only upon returning to the physical that I could ask the question, “What do I do with that? What does that mean to other people?” And what it means to me is that we all need to know about it. I hope one day we will all be in that place, but we can’t be while we are in this limited body, which is not who we are. We are not our body, which is limited. We are not our mind, which is limited. I’ve been given this amazing knowledge, and it has a purpose. I keep remembering that voice that says, “You are in me and I am in you.”

Jess: So what are you doing with it? You’ve developed Embracing Women’s Potential, for example.

Tisi: I’m developing a program to teach people exactly that: you are more than just your body and your mind. I thought that religion was the way to find the light, to become spiritual and to connect to the One. And in my experience it hasn’t been the case. What I’m trying to do is to teach people, not to become anti-religion or anti-church, but to know that what they hunger for can be found within. But what is missing in the teaching is how. When you go to church, people show you what, so you become overwhelmed with knowledge and it just sits there. It makes you hunger for more.

Jess: So what is the “how” that you’re sharing with others?

When I am present with a client I help them to activate who they are.

Tisi: That’s the program! That is what I’ve been given and it’s what I think people can use. At one time when I was seeing clients I was doing everything with a script, and I thought nothing is happening. And then of course nothing is going to happen. Because I am just the channel for people to open up their own light. When I am present with a client I help them to activate who they are. And that is the gift, because not everyone can do that. A lot of the time I’m not prepared, it’s intuitive. I download stuff that is appropriate to that person, because I now know that I have that deep connection with the One. The One also has a desire for that person to come into the light. I’m working in partnership, I’m not doing it on my own. It’s not about all these boring scripts that will cause the person to nod off.

Jess: So what brings people to you? Do they see you because they’re having troubles or an emotional block or ongoing issues that don’t seem to change?

People get lost when really their home is already there. And when you return home, other things outside of you will fit into how you want them to be.

Tisi: Often they will have a relationship issue. And often I know that what is falling apart is their relationship with themselves. So I don’t sit there and talk about what’s not working in their relationship, I work with the person to take them to what is possible, which is knowing their potential. Not what is already wrong. My work helps to return them home. And their home is within. People get lost when really their home is already there. And when you return home, all other things outside of you will also fit into how you want them to be.

Jess: How do people get to their home, their soul?

Tisi: First of all you’ve got to want to. You need to know that you might not be answering the call. And then in answering the call you’ve got to ask yourself, “What does it mean for me to be answering my soul’s call?” And then it’s important to really get to know the language of the soul. What messages does the soul give you? Everyone is different. But it can be very similar, in the end. You’ve also got to know how to welcome the soul through a ritual. For us to keep that connection alive you’ve got to have some way of doing so. Some people might like to say a prayer every day or meditate. But a person needs to know how to get there.

Jess: How do you stay close to your home, your soul?

Tisi: I choose to make it my way of life, I just operate from there. I just welcome it every day. I say I am at home with my soul. So when I see things happening outside I talk to my soul and I ask, “What would you do here?” So I don’t react to a situation or just run off. I do have quiet time to myself, mainly in the morning. I get up and I have a spot in the house where I spend a few minutes to read a Bible verse. Then I will say a prayer. But when I say a prayer I don’t just pray from my own needs, most of the time I give thanks. That’s the other thing that the soul loves – gratitude. And I like to give thanks because there’s more to embrace, rather than focusing on the lack. So I say a lot of gratitude prayers, even for what is not working, I give thanks to it for whatever lesson it brings. I very humbly accept everything and say thank you.

Jess: That’s all very beautiful. Thanks very much, Tisi.

* For more information about Tisiola Lear, please visit http://embracingwomenspotential.com/ and www.evolvenow.com.au/tisilear

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

Amnys Darbyshire

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

February 9, 2014

Amnys DarbyshireAmnys Darbyshire

Amnys Darbyshire: Playful exploration, body healing and self-care

The effervescent and joyful Amnys Darbyshire leads a diverse life, acquiring and experiencing spiritual knowledge to help heal others. Her energies have led her to a life of massage, yoga and wholefoods, and deep forays into fascinating territories such as menstruation and Eastern philosophies. I sat outside with Amnys to chat about her life and explorations; it was a sparkling Sunday morning with birds tweeting to their heart’s content.

Jess: The Soul Spectrum interviews people about soul and soulfulness, but I’m using those terms in a really broad sense to look at how people bring meaning into their lives. I’m starting off each conversation by asking people to tell me a little bit about themselves.

Amnys: Well, I’m a massage therapist and I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. I initially did my study in remedial massage in Canberra. Then I moved to the Central Coast to visit a friend and I saw a double rainbow from the sea to the land, as well as dolphins, and I thought, “I must move here!” As you do! And from there I met a really interesting lady who has mentored me to where I am now in a light way [more about this lady later]. I found some work doing remedial massage and I studied Tibetan massage, a branch of Tibetan medicine, and how that can intertwine with certain body types. I followed that study with Chi Nei Tsang, which is a Taoist abdominal massage. The Taoists say it is the highest kind of medicine, because you massage the abdomen and change the internal organ energy so it can be released and transformed. So I did a lot of work with these two techniques early on in my career. That’s the foundation of my massage technique and my concept of bodywork.

I also did a lot of Qi gong, which involved meditation to ensure your energy is very clear. Both of those methodologies have a base in spirituality and energy work, but they work with the physical body. During that time I started doing the Five Tibetans Yoga, which I practiced for years and years. This is an ancient form of yoga that I see as a basic and powerful life practice. It is five postures that you repeat 21 times each, beautifully simple and powerful.

When I moved to the Southern Highlands I started to take classes of other forms of yoga, which opened me up to much more and I fell more deeply in love with yoga. The first time I saw the sign for yoga teacher training [at Bowral Yoga Studio] I felt the call to become a teacher. And a year later I am now a yoga teacher as well as a massage therapist.

Jess: What was the compelling factor with massage in the first place? What drew you to doing massage in particular?

Amnys: I travelled for a few years when I was 18 and in that time I used to go to parties, raves, and things like that. I always ended up touching people and giving them a massage. I used to bring a little tube of hand cream so I could sit down with people and give them hand massages.

Jess: That would be a quite unique thing to do!

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Amnys: It was! It was to connect with people. I would think, “I like you and I’m just going to give you a hand massage,” so I could connect with them. So that was a start and then I came back to Australia. I went back to Europe and I found my way to this gathering called the Rainbow Gathering, which is like a travelling festival that follows the moon cycle and it goes all around Europe. So I found myself on top of a mountain in Italy at this gathering. You had to climb this mountain for an hour to get to the top. When I reached the top I can still remember viewing this clearing and I could see teepees, tents, lots of hippies roaming around, I could the smell of smoke from fires, and I could hear the distant sound of drums beating. There I was given or initiated with reiki from this little Italian man called Gavani. It was over three days and on the last day we all had a day of silence and fasting, I had never done anything like this before in my life. I think that’s when I realised that I wanted to work with people. Healing and massage just opened up and I thought, “Okay, that’s a good start.”

Jess: A lot of people in the mainstream wouldn’t have been so open to a lot of the ideas that you’re talking about. So what was it about you and your background that would explain that kind of openness?

Amnys: Maybe when I was growing up… Well, I grew up on a farm, and when I was under 10 my younger sister and I shared a horse. And then one day I said, “I don’t want to look after this horse.” Mum said, “You either have to look after a horse and you can ride, or you can’t have a horse.” I didn’t want to do that so Mum said, “You have to do something.” Mum would say, “Go and try this or that,” so I got shipped off to all of these different courses. If I showed an interest in something, it would be supported. I would start doing tennis and then I would get over that. Then it would be, “Let’s do art, let’s go to art camp!” Then it landed on drama, which I did for most of my teens. As a kid you have to explore characters, and learn to be open and playful. So maybe it was about trying lots of different things, just exploring and experiencing.

Jess: It sounds like your Mum was really influential in the sense that she encouraged you to go out searching.

Amnys: Yes, to find and seek.

Jess: So what happened with drama, did you embrace that? Or was it just something that you took on board for a little while?

Amnys: I did and then I don’t know what happened. When I was about 16 or 17, I started getting really shy. I was out on the stage and I felt like, “No, I can’t do that!” So I started doing backstage stuff. And then it stopped when I left school.

Jess: What do you see when you are connecting with and massaging a person?

Amnys: It varies from person to person; each massage is different. To begin with I go very quiet, it’s like a meditation that I go into. Sometimes I get a lot of information, I see a lot of images, or it’s just a certain word that comes to me and I just sit with that. I’m feeling the energy of a person, just allowing my hands do what they do. Sometimes I go into people’s bodies with my mind’s eye and my intention, and I see a little ball or a block. So I bring my attention to that and in my mind I am touching whatever needs to be touched. It feels like I am listening to the body, I see nothing, but hear in pictures, it is a little odd to explain. Then sometimes I’m in a playful mood and I’ll just say, “I’m going to blow up that blockage!” [Laughs.] “I will shoot all of this energy over there!” That’s when I’m in my cheeky and playful mood. All of this is happening in my imagination as I am giving the hands-on massage. I do a lot of rocking movements that allow the body to realign with its own wisdom, so I give the body the space to come back to itself. It also helps me feel and see where the body is holding on. To me it feels as though I am just creating space within the body to come back naturally to balance and alignment. You know, sometimes when you get stuck in your head, just going for a walk creates space and it is all that you need to feel good again.

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Jess: It gets the energy flowing again.

Amnys: Yes, and sometimes a massage is very straight down the line, I’m just working on sore shoulders, so I relax the muscles in the shoulder.

Jess: A more perfunctory massage?

Amnys: Yeah. It depends on the person and where they’re at. I always ask permission if they want information, if I get information, because it’s not up to me to just blurt it out.

Jess: On your business card you describe yourself as an intuitive massage therapist and that’s what you’re describing now. Do you find that people come to you because they want your help to find something within themselves?

Amnys: Yes, sometimes I do get people for that, or they want something shifted energetically, if they’ve got some issue communicating, or a heavy heart. I use the Chi Nei Tsang abdominal massage to assist with that. Sometimes I put my hands on people and I get flooded with information. That’s usually through massaging the abdomen, because that’s the emotional centre, and people can release from there and allow the energy to move through their bodies. But with those, because I think people are really powerful in their own sense, I’m more encouraging of their own wisdom that’s there. I don’t always encourage people to come back; they can go off and do it themselves. I’d much prefer that people learn how to self-care and self-nurture, so I give that kind of encouragement.

Jess: What kind of feedback do you get from the people that you are working with?

Trusting myself is probably the key to being an intuitive massage therapist.

Amnys: There’s a lot of, “That was great!” It’s hard to know because some people say, “That was the most amazing massage; that was very different to what I’ve experienced before; the whole body is tingling.” Sometimes I don’t remember what I say to people but they come back and say, “When you said that it was really true and all of this stuff has happened since that time.” I don’t usually ask, I just allow the person to be, which can actually be a bit tough hanging in the unknown, not knowing if I have done a good job or not. I see all of this stuff and I kind of want to get feedback that I have ‘nailed it’ but I just have to trust in myself and let go of being right or wrong. Trusting myself is probably the key to being an intuitive massage therapist.

Jess: It sounds like there is an inherent connection with energy and spirit for you, and an ability to intuit what is going on in a person. I’m just assuming that that was always there? Or did you realise one day that something was going on and that you’ve got this capacity to tap into a person’s energy and intuit quite accurately what’s going on in them?

Amnys: It was probably inherently there without me knowing as a child. My Dad remembers that, when I was little, he would be building things, and he always loved building with me because he would be building something and before he needed a tool I would be handing it to him. So that kind of thing was always there. I did a lot of training in intuition and how to use it in different ways. Techniques like reading symbols or shape shifting, and refining those skills. But I think it was very much my first nature of knowing how to do that, but then I worked on refining it.

Jess: So what does training in intuition entail? What does that look like?

Amnys: I did two years of intensive training with a guy called William Whitecloud who wrote a book called The Magician’s Way, personal development stuff, creating your life using your intuition as a guide, looking at beliefs, assumptions, tuning into people, reading their faces, intuitive writing, doing quite a lot of study and practice. In the course we studied hermetic philosophies, The Kabbalah. There is a book called The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz, which is about understanding how energy moves. Even with the Tibetan philosophies and the Chi Nei Tsang there is quite a lot of meditative work. You have to work intuitively to feel things and become more sensitive. But the intuition training was more about learning to use that for your own guidance, letting intuition become the predominate creative force in your life. So you can tune into a vision that you or another person have, and receive information, and look at different aspects of it and see what the next step or action to take is. There was also a lot of written guidance as well. First learning how to get into that state, getting to a guide, talking to this guide and writing the information. But before I did any intuitive writing, I remember as a 19-year-old I was writing a lot of dark poetry and horrible things and then one day I wrote a question, “Why do I feel this way?” And then this whole different thing came out, my whole writing changed and I could never write like I was before again, it just [clicks fingers]…

Jess: Shifted…

Amnys: Yeah.

Jess: Quite dramatically by the sounds of it.

Amnys: I couldn’t do anything, it just changed that day. I can’t even read the past stuff.

Jess: So was that a move from the teenager stuff to something a bit more enlightened and adult?

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Amnys: Yeah, I think so. There was also a lot of other stuff going on. I remember my first experience, around about the same time, of sitting with my friend and we were meditating and it’s the only experience that I’ve ever had like this, but I became connected. I just felt like I was connected with everything. I became light and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m in the universe!” I’ve never experienced anything like that ever since or before.

Jess: That’s very formative. I’m thinking again from a mainstream perspective that it’s all quite esoteric, and to jump into a lot of those things you need to feel confident and supported. Did you have a community around you in those early stages?

Amnys: Yes, I probably did. I studied Buddhism and I went to a lot of Buddhist meditation groups, so they were like-minded people. And I went travelling, so I went away from home and I found like-minded folks, I just followed my nose around. People just arrive when they need to arrive.

Jess: You mentioned earlier a mentor. Can you tell me a little bit about her?

Amnys: Her name is Barbara Elkins and she is an amazing woman, she has done so much in her life. She is turning 70 this year. We are both very excited. She’s done a lot of personal development work, she has had a few different businesses. She’s a really amazing artist, and she is also a seamstress; she now owns a company called Wisdom for Living, selling all sorts of natural remedies and products. The first time I met her I was looking for work in this particular area and I was late to the interview, because I had a bad head cold, and she was very direct with me and told me off for being late. Everything was against me, I wasn’t myself that day. So the next day I woke up early with a really strong urge to see her, I thought, “I’ve got to apologise to this lady.” So I saw her that day and apologised. I said, “I’m really sorry,” and that I did not expect to get the job but wanted to apologise, and she accepted my apology, she was just really lovely. Later she taught me the Five Tibetans and she took me under her wing, so our friendship grew from there. And along the way I then asked her to be my mentor.

Jess: That’s a big step to ask someone to be your mentor! Usually it just happens by default, you slowly develop a relationship like that with someone, but to actually ask, “Can you be my mentor?” is a big step. So, all of my questions are a pathway to learn more about you and your background. But The Soul Spectrum is focusing on the soul and spirit, and I think you probably answered some questions just by describing your background and your journey, but what is soul or spirit to you?

The soul is this thing that is connected to all time and space.

Amnys: I have this beautiful book called Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom of the Celtic World by John O’Donohue. He describes the soul as, well, the soul holds the body, the body doesn’t hold the soul. That is, the soul is this thing that is connected to all time and space. That’s what I think the soul is. There is an individual spark that is experiencing this life and this creativity through the form that we’re in and the life that we have. But spirit is the ether, it’s everywhere. It’s space, the experience that I mentioned when I was 19 or 20, that’s what I think spirit is. You can’t see it, you can see the movement of the wind, but you can’t see that wind. When you breathe in and out, the air that you breathe in has been taken in by the whole world. It’s that connection with everything. Being connected to that spiritual aspect and knowing that there is something beyond just the physical form. We are just a grain of sand. It excites me because I have no idea what it is, really. Words can’t really describe it. I can have senses of it and I could have experiences of it but it’s just part of something that is beyond my current understanding. But I connect better when I’m in that playful mood. Children are innocent and they are connected to that, they’re just in it, they’re just in innocence. It excites playfulness within me because I think, “I’m just this little thing and there’s all this stuff and I can explore it!”

Jess: It excites a sense of wonder and awe?

Amnys: Yeah!

Jess: So what’s a day in the life of Amnys like? What do you do on a day-to-day, weekly, monthly basis?

Amnys: I have a terrible habit of being interested in too many things. It’s a fun habit, I can’t help it. In the mornings I will get up early and either go to a yoga class or do my own practice of yoga and some joint mobilisation. I scull a litre of water first thing in the morning. And then I probably have a coffee with my boyfriend, and then it depends on the day, I could be massaging, teaching or working in my office job. So if I start later I generally do a bit of studying yoga because I am new into that. I’m really getting into menstruation and women’s mysteries and the spiritual aspect of that and how it’s so empowering. I also study Don Tolman, which is about wholefoods and how to heal the body through eating or fasting and more. And if I have a nice morning off I’ll sunbake in the backyard. In the afternoons I might do some painting and carving, so I’ve been exploring those things. Then in the afternoons sometimes I do another yoga class and do a bit more study and make some dinner. I’m a bit of a nanna, I like to go to bed early.

Jess: That’s living the good life, really, being able to have a long and restful sleep!

Amnys: Yeah! So I like to calm down in the evenings, either call a friend or read or watch some cool thing. My boyfriend and I have been dashing down to the beach and having a quick swim in the afternoon, which has been really lovely. Just dive in and say, “Okay we’re wet, let’s go home!” And once a week I have a date night with my boyfriend.

Jess: I wanted to ask about the recent decision to teach yoga. Can you tell me a little about that, what brought you to that decision?

Amnys: I always wanted to be a teacher but I didn’t know what I wanted to teach. So there’s been a yearning to teach something, but I’ve never had the feeling that I had the wisdom or the guts to teach. It began by asking Barbara, who is a teacher of the Five Tibetans, “How do you learn to teach this? And she said, “You learn from me.” So she was coaching me in how to teach it and I learnt it that way. When I moved to the Southern Highlands I got into doing lots of yoga, I went to different people’s classes. And then I saw Kate’s studio go up [Bowral Yoga Studio] and on her list it said ‘Teacher Training’ and I felt this hit in my heart, “You are going to do this!” And I thought, “What? Ah! Okay!” But it took me six months to actually tell Kate. So it’s like a calling and now I say to myself, “Oh my god, I’m home.” Teaching, I just love it to pieces, it’s just the most divine thing.

Jess: It’s quite an intensive course, it’s about a year’s worth of very intensive study and practice and then actually getting out there in front of a class and starting to teach. So how did you feel with your first go at teaching?

Amnys: It was pretty nerve-wracking. Through a series of events, me and another teacher just got thrown in the deep end to teach, but I like to do things that challenge me, so I was offered this opportunity and I thought, “Okay,” and I just kept saying yes to everything. But it was pretty nerve-wracking the first time and then it got easier. It’s still nerve-wracking.

Jess: So does it feel like your “real” vocation as opposed to massage? What’s the narrative that you tell yourself about the two and how they work together?

Amnys: I love working with people and the body. When it’s one-on-one, it’s such an honour to work so intimately with people, I get to touch a lot of people. So if I don’t massage my hands go, “I need to touch people!” But it’s quite labour-intensive, so I see yoga as having more longevity. But one leads into the other. I like being able to help people align themselves in a different sense and build that self-care idea. Yoga can facilitate more of that self-care. People can come to a class and maybe do some yoga at home, whereas a massage is more passive in that sense. But the study I’ve been doing with wholefoods will be the next aspect that combines the two.

Jess: So it’s all about body, mind and spirit, and encouraging people to look after themselves?

Amnys: I think it is. I get a lot of people who are very disempowered by the medical system. They seem to me as if they don’t have any say in it, we don’t know how to do things for ourselves, but you can actually quite easily take care of yourself and cure yourself from major things within a very short period of time, but people just don’t know that wisdom.

Jess: So when you say massage is labour intensive, that’s in the physical sense, but is it also energetically intensive?

Amnys: Yes, sometimes it can be. I am working with energy and I can give quite a firm massage. People know that I am touching them, I’m not doing fairy fingers. So physically, even if I wasn’t doing spiritual work, I’m very present, so it’s quite an intense focus. I can come out and I’m a space cadet after a massage. But I’m always learning to work with it.

Jess: You hear from people in the healing professions that a basic part of their training is to learn how to disconnect from negative and dark energy. Do you encounter that in your work? And if you do, how do you deal with it?

Amnys: I used to a bit, I would take people’s energy on. Some people also talk about protecting yourself, but I don’t really like that concept. I understand it and I’ve done that in the past, but I prefer to think that people are whole and complete. So whatever’s there, if it’s a negative thing, that’s actually a part of them and it’s through those wounds and in embracing your own darkness that you become whole. So I don’t think I encourage people to expel this energy, I encourage people to encompass that within themselves, because if you are all light then it becomes wishy-washy.

Jess: Your feet are not on the ground, I suppose?

Healing is about encompassing pain because life can be painful, but it’s part of the experience that we get to have.

Amnys: Yeah. I think of myself as a one-way street so I don’t take energy on. I don’t give my energy or do my best not to. I just draw it in from heaven and earth and that’s where it comes from. It’s not me taking it away from someone. If you face your shadow, well, it’s really hard at first and there’s embarrassment, fear or shame with whatever comes with that dark aspect, but when you learn to just say, “That’s just me being like that,” it actually makes you a more whole and complete person. So healing is about encompassing that pain because life can be painful, but it’s part of the experience that we get to have.

Jess: It gives you some depth.

Jess: So there’s a few things going on. What do you envisage for yourself from hereon? Perhaps in a few years time or even across your lifetime, if you’ve thought that far ahead?

Amnys: Well, I have, I was sitting up a tree in a cemetery contemplating my death…

Jess: That’s very Tibetan!

Amnys: I know, it was great! [Laughs.] I came out of there in this bliss. I foresee teaching being the main thing, encouraging people to listen to their own wisdom and get back into natural healing. Whether it’s massage or some kind of hands-on healing, something gentle, so that, as my body ages, I can still keep that connection with people. I might have some little munchkins. They can play too! So just building on what I’ve done so far, but I think very much the educational stuff. I have this term, the “utility belt” like Batman, so if you’ve got tools that you can use anywhere, wherever in the world, whatever is going on, you can, for example, just get rid of a headache if you do this exercise or drink water. So giving people the understanding that they’ve got these tools that they can use. Getting people to look after themselves. Go off and be amazing!

Jess: You’re very engaged and interested and you clearly have a really bright and sparky energy, but inevitably most of us will have a tough time or a bad day. How do you deal with that? How do you get yourself out of that space?

Amnys: The first thing I do is honour that emotion. I do my best to understand why it is. Give it the space. Because generally it’s the same story that comes up, it’s not anything new. It’s the same story of, “Oh, I can’t do this,” or “I’m not good enough,” or even “I’m lonely.” So that’s the first thing that I do. I don’t try to run away from it. I just let it be and then I go quiet. I go outside and listen to nature and just be still. And it’s like reconnecting with everything. And I remember the truth of what is driving me and why I’m here. Sometimes I do writing, sometimes I call a friend. I’ve got friends who have done a lot of the intuitive work with me. They’re really great because they don’t collude with me, they just laugh with me and bring back to life. But I also work with my menstruation cycle and I find when I do get blue that it’s around that time. It’s not always, but I honour that as well.

Jess: Can you tell me a little about what you’ve learned?

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Amnys: I love menstruation, I think it’s part of women’s power. It’s the only blood let from the body that is natural. I work with my boyfriend with it, he’s amazing. If I feel premenstrual tension or something, if there’s agitation there I call it the Black Cat. There’s a story behind that, but “Black Catting” means, “Stay away from me or I may attack so let me be.” We have had conversations and we’ve come to an agreement. So if I’m in that mood he gives me space and he knows that whatever comes up and how I am is not a personal attack against him, so we’re quite mature in that way. I acknowledge that something is going on and then when I start bleeding I make sure that I rest. It doesn’t have to be the whole day but sometimes I just daydream or lie on the grass, I just allow whatever it is. It’s like a meditation, so I think about what’s going on, why am I feeling this way, I ask the questions. Sometimes I do a bit of writing, even talking to people, you get that information. And I sit down and talk with my partner about what was happening and then we move on from there. Sometimes it is something that we work on as a couple and other times it is something I need to address in my own life. Other times I can get quite prophetic information about my life and things that I need to shift and change. So, since doing that I have just been acknowledging when it comes up. And relationships are usually where it comes out the most. I think relationships are here for the development of our consciousness. Be conscious and move on then allow it to unfold.

Jess: Oftentimes when you’re in a heightened premenstrual tension state it’s usually a red flag saying that something is up. For the rest of your cycle you’re dealing with it okay, or you’re ignoring it or not really looking at it and, then premenstrual tension compels you to address whatever underlying issue is coming up.

Amnys: They say that the veil between the lives of this world and the other world comes down so you can’t pretend, there is no pretending, and in a lot of American Indian and ancient cultures women used to go away and bleed together on the new moon and oftentimes they would have quite prophetic dreams. There is a lot of information that comes in that time and they would come back and that wisdom from the women would be really important to the tribes. That’s the way I see it, I think it’s really important that what I get comes out. But also we’ve got hormones and stuff running around, it’s an altered state of consciousness, really it is.

Jess: I read one theory that premenstrual tension is a biological device to repel a partner because they haven’t made you pregnant! [Laughs.]

Amnys: I haven’t heard that! “You’re no use to me, be gone!” [Laughs.]

Jess: That’s right, you didn’t make me pregnant so I’ve got to clear the way for some new fella! It’s a nice theory but I won’t use it on my husband because he’s so lovely and special. Thanks so much, Amnys.

 

* For more information about Amnys Darbyshire, please visit http://www.naturaltherapypages.com.au/connect/purenessholistic/service/8182

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

Ganga Karen Ashworth

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Moss Vale, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

February 17, 2014

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Ganga Karen Ashworth: The spirit of singing the soul and self

Ganga Karen Ashworth is passionate about the voice, and she uses innovative voice therapy to nurture and inspire people to release blocked emotions and sing their truth. Her calming, present and wise energy is absolutely gorgeous to absorb. She spoke with me about her journey from a conventional upbringing in Sydney to the unconventional, spiritual and inspiring life that she leads singing her heart out to heal in the Southern Highlands in New South Wales and beyond. She lives with her husband, Anthony Ashworth, in their energetically charged home in Moss Vale.

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, your ‘origin story’ so to speak, and then how you came to be where you are today?

Ganga: Well, for want of a better term my upbringing was pretty ‘180 straighty’. I grew up in Sydney as the oldest of two. My Dad was an accountant, and my Mum was a schoolteacher. So we had a very secular family. My parents didn’t really engage in spirituality as such. They sent us off to Sunday School so that part was covered. But it wasn’t really something that we discussed in the home. And I think that I always had a sense that I believed in divinity, I believed in a greater ‘something’ that pulled us forward and connected us. But I didn’t connect with the way that it was done at church, it never felt right. I felt there were other pathways, but I’ve been more able to articulate that as an adult, I knew I had this inner world and a world of imagination. Part of that was that I’d sing away to myself, waiting to be discovered some day. That ‘knight in shining armour’ kind of story. It was about having my voice heard, because I knew how it felt to me, I knew how it made me feel and I wanted that to be shared. And that was something that I did growing up. It was a tricky dance between being a Leo and having that kind of brash personality. I was told once by a teacher at the Conservatorium, “Oh you are a bold girl, aren’t you?” [Laughs.]

Jess: Well, Leos are meant to be very proud!

Ganga: Yes, outwardly there was that bravado, which really serves me in performance and in being able to present myself, but I’m actually a Cancer cusp, I was born on 24 July, and Cancer Moon, so there’s a lot of that nurturing and sensitive aspect to me. So the world of performing, you see what it looks like on all of those TV shows, I guess with that sensitivity, if anybody criticised me, I’d be crushed. But I’ve always sung, it’s always been a part of who I am and who I know myself to be. I probably only got outed when I was about seven. I had a teacher at school who was an exchange teacher from the US, Miss Hough (pronounced “Huff”) was her name, and she sang with us a lot. One of the songs she taught us was Take Me Home Country Road by John Denver. I’d sung it in class and when the band played it at my Auntie’s wedding, I couldn’t help myself, I was up dancing in front of the stage and singing along with them. So my family got me to sing it a lot. I still remember when I had to hit that high note, everybody was wondering, “Will she hit that note?” and all of these people were coming in to watch and there was a universal sag of the shoulders in relief, “She got the high note!” So that’s when I came out as a singer.

Jess: And did you always live in Sydney?

Ganga: Yes, I lived most of my life in Sydney. We moved to the country for a while in a town called Manilla, which is half an hour northwest of Tamworth. I taught in Tamworth schools for a while and then came back to Sydney where I met Anthony.

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Jess: So you were ‘outed’ at age seven and what happened thereafter? Did your parents support you in your desire to sing? Or did it simmer for a while until later?

Ganga: It certainly was always there. I remember doing dancing as a young girl, as well. I did ballet, I loved ballet until I realised I wasn’t really built like a ballerina. Even though I had the timing and the creativity, I didn’t really look like a ballerina. So that was something that they very much encouraged. In terms of singing, it was really about what was happening at school. I had piano lessons, that was another thing that I was passionate about, so Mum and Dad really encouraged that.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I was really able to push for singing lessons. It really came about from auditioning for the school musical. One of my friends had a singing teacher, and she had had lessons for a long time, and I got one of the lead roles. She got a lead, but it was a smaller part. And I thought maybe I could sing, maybe if I had lessons it could help me. And so again my parents really encouraged that and I ended up going to the same teacher that my friend had. The teacher was really good. She was a very nurturing and motherly figure, even though she had an operatic background and she had been to the same teacher as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She used to say, “You sound like a young Kiri!” [Laughs.] So that got me in!

It was something that was encouraged, but only to a degree. “Yes, it’s lovely to be musical and creative, and we will pay for these lessons and exams, and foster all of that, but that’s something you do when you’re growing up. When you get out of school you will need a real job. So what are you going to do when you get out of school?” And this led me to teaching. I had that innate ability and my Mum was a teacher. So it made sense. I even went to vocational guidance and said this is what I’m interested in and never really took a stand that, “I really want to be a singer, and I want to do that as my career.” And I needed to make a living and be a singer, so how could I do that? My options were either music therapy, or music teaching. So I took to the music-teaching path.

Jess: At what point in your career did you decide that you would shift tangent into voice therapy in particular?

I was really passionate about transformation for my own growth and, being a wounded healer, finding answers to my own path, for my own journey.

Ganga: That really involves my spiritual journey, which probably began when I was in my mid-20s. My journey had been my own personal growth and coming to understand experiences that I was having, as well as embracing meditation. I had a friend who was a numerologist, which set me on a path. I read Louise Hay, and I got into crystals. So that was a part of my life, which I was already exploring. I was really passionate about transformation for my own growth and, being a wounded healer, finding answers to my own path, for my own journey. Also there was the shock of having gone from this beautiful and nurturing teacher, to when I went to the Conservatorium with my teacher who was head of vocal studies. I often joke that she had pictures on a wall of Brunnhilde, with the horns and the pitchfork…

Jess: A very quintessential image!

Ganga: Yes, it was very “Old School” and there was a sense of, “We don’t do that here.” For my first recital I wanted to do songs from music theatre. It was, “We don’t do that here, it has to be more serious than that.” And the approach was to really tear the students down and see if they’ve got the chutzpah to fight back and do what it takes to make it in this industry. She stripped my voice back to make sure that the technique was there. The approach was, you know, “Singers don’t exist before age 16, certainly there is something worth considering at age 18, so I really need to teach you everything with a harshness, with a criticism.” I remember so many times being in tears in my singing lessons and I realise that this was my soul expression, this was my heart and soul being expressed through my voice. It happens when I speak but more so when I sing. It was something that, in my experience, because I was so sensitive, really needed nurturing in people. So that influenced my approach to working with students. I had one-on-one singing students then, and I found that it’s your soul that you’re bearing by opening your mouth and revealing it to the world…

Jess: It’s a vulnerable thing to do.

Ganga: It’s incredibly vulnerable. So much comes up, so much emotion in people in singing lessons, so it wasn’t just about singing. And I was really fascinated by that part and I realised that it was not so much the technique that was required, although there were parts of that which support the voice, but it was about what’s getting in the way. What are the beliefs? What are the emotions? What are the emotional charges that are blocking the voice? That’s what I really got fascinated by. Again, it was because of my own journey, and of wanting to nurture someone through to finding their true voice, rather than stripping it back and tearing it down, having power over someone, and that ‘learning by force’ approach.

Jess: So really nurturing a person so they feel that they are in a safe and supportive space?

Ganga: Yes, because safety is such a major issue, I knew it was for me. I understood how necessary it was. It comes with the territory with me.

Jess: Did you undergo training in voice therapy or was it something that evolved from the teaching that you were doing? Did you fashion a trade for yourself?

Ganga: A bit of both. I did some work with a woman called Liz Watters when my daughter, Acacia, was a baby [she was born in 2000]. Liz called it a kinaesthetic process, really going into the body and feeling the sensations that are there around emotions. Not just dealing with the emotion, although that is part of it, but allowing the emotion and really feeling the sensations of the body and being guided by that. So I did some work personally with her and then trained as a facilitator in that approach and found it so potent. The body is so wise, it has that wisdom of what is blocked and what’s going on, but also of what it needs to release to get back into alignment. That was the training that I had and I thought, “Well, we could use this in alignment with the voice.”

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I used it when my daughter was a baby, it really taught me about sound healing. She had bad reflux and she would projectile vomit. She was obviously in pain, her face was bright red, and she was pulling up her legs. She would sleep for 20 to 40 minutes at a time and then wake up screaming. So I was going a bit spare [laughs]. It’s hard being a new mum anyway, and I knew that she was suffering but I didn’t know how to fix that. I tried all sorts of things; there were naturopaths that gave me calming teas to chill me out, there were acupuncturists that did acupuncture and acupressure on my daughter and me. But what I found that worked immediately with her every day was using my voice. I’d read this book about sound healing called Sacred Sounds by Ted Andrews, and it had a list of the sounds for different parts of the body. The sound for the stomach and digestion was “orr”, so I held her tummy and I went [sings] “orr” and she would calm down and stop crying. Then I would draw breath and she would start screaming again [laughs].

Jess: You just had to keep doing it!

Ganga: I had to learn to draw breath really quickly so I could keep the sound going. It was something that really seemed to give her some relief. I don’t know, still to this day, if it was the sound healing or the fact she was hearing my voice, or the actual vibration of the sound itself. But that’s what started to turn my head towards the importance of the voice. I thought, “Well, maybe there’s something in there.” And having birthed her the way I did… I had a yoga teacher who worked with me one-on-one; she was in the Desikachar tradition, which is sometimes called yoga therapy, which was such a blessing. She taught me a mantra and I hadn’t been exposed to sacred sounds in that way before. So Acacia was born into that. The hospital staff called our room ‘the ashram’ because we were “om-ing” and I was sounding, and Anthony was standing behind me, holding me. So we had that sacred vibration around her, so she has really been my teacher on that level.

Jess: That would have been quite a beautiful birthing experience.

Ganga: It was beautiful and empowering, no drugs, no intervention, not even any tearing. It was a very conscious birth. That’s another aspect of something that I love to bring, helping women use their voice in birthing.  Not only is it important for women to literally ‘have a voice’ in their experience of giving birth, it’s also incredibly empowering to be able to relieve your own pain and to create a sense of calm, relaxation and focus in such an intense and life-changing experience as bringing a new life into the world – and this is all possible using your voice. I supported one woman to use her voice in this way and she was able to birth her 5kg baby completely naturally with no drugs or intervention. That’s a big baby!

Jess: I wish I had known about voice therapy before I had my children [laughs]! I screamed my way throughout the entire birth of my first child.

Ganga: It’s an intense experience, isn’t it?

Jess: The second time around I had done Calm Birth and knew what to do with my breathing, I knew I had to move around with dance-type moves, and all of that really helped enormously the second time around. It sounds like there’s been a slow evolution for you. You went from being on a more conventional path and then you gradually discovered and opened up to a more unconventional way of being, and embracing spirit and spirituality in your work and also in your family life, more clearly. Was it actually a gradual thing or was there an epiphany where you realised that life makes more sense if you live it in this way?

Ganga: Yes, there’s been a number of those, I would say. I was just thinking about the transition from teaching to doing this kind of work as probably one of them. And even though I had the realisation that this is what I’m passionate about, I had messages. For example, “Take sing therapy to the corporate arena.” What’s sing therapy, then? [Laughs.]

Jess: So you had guides telling you that?

Ganga: Yes, I’ve had really clear guidance since my late-20s when I connected with spirit and with guides, when I was beginning that journey. So I used to have conversations with my guide. My first guide has moved on, I’ve had differing relationships along the way. And again that was through vibration as well, I would feel my left palm vibrating and I knew that that was her. I had to test that along the way, I’ve needed proof that it wasn’t just me making it up. The expression, even the grammar, whether I heard them or had written them down, would come with words that I didn’t know, so that helped to give me a little bit of proof. So I had to go investigating. When you get a sentence like, “Take sing therapy to the corporate world,” well, what does that mean? What is sing therapy? So that pointed me in the direction of bringing the work from the kinaesthetic process into using that with the voice. So epiphanies like that, but it wasn’t really an epiphany, it was more of a guided statement.

Lots of guidance has come through writing, that’s been a big pathway for me. I did Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and so I wrote morning pages and the things that were coming up. There were songs and poems that would just be telling me what I needed to do. Again that was a really gradual process where the information unfolded through writing and through having these messages come and having to investigate them. But still having this need for safety, which kept me in that teaching role. Even though I resigned from working in schools as such, I went back in and did what is known as peripatetic teaching, so teaching one-on-one with students in the class. I went on doing that even when I’d had my daughter. I didn’t want to be just Mummy, I wanted to have some mental stimulation and that’s what brought us to the Southern Highlands. I thought if I’m going to teach in schools, then the values that would be aligned to me would be at a Steiner school. So I came and taught here, but even then it was still teaching in a school. And I realised that what I needed to do, so I could fill my soul up, was the things that I loved. With being a music teacher, I had to be a generalist, work with all sorts of aspects of music and instruments, but what I really loved was the voice. I was absolutely passionate about it. The more I realised that the more I got to be clear and make those boundaries. I actually only want to do this piece; this is the piece that I’m absolutely passionate about. But it took me time to be able to leave teaching, leave that safety of having a “job” job, and leap into doing this.

Jess: This passion for the voice, do you have any sense of where that’s come from? Clearly there was an innate capacity from about the age of seven, but do you have any understanding as to why the voice has been so central in your life?

Ganga: Yes, I’ve done a lot of work around this. It’s interesting, the question you asked before about epiphanies, I’ve spoken about a number of things because there hasn’t been a big bang, there’s been lots of smaller things. A lot of them were related to my birth and how I came into this world, that being my sacred wound. It’s understandable that I’m passionate about making birth conscious and helping women to do that in a way that is empowered.

Jess: So how were you birthed?

Ganga: I don’t think that my Mum had a voice, I was born in the late 1960s and you go to hospital and you do what they tell you. I don’t know how much information she had about birth, but Mum had some difficulties in my labour and they said something about my head not turning. I don’t really understand the logistics, but they decided that they would give her a general anaesthetic and I was a forceps delivery. I’ve done kinesiology and repatterning around this stuff. The force required to birth with forceps is enough to decapitate a full-grown man. The trauma and injury to my little head must have been awful. But I was born, I’m here, and am very grateful for that. And medical technology can really help in those sorts of situations. Obviously there is some kind of bruising, and Mum and I weren’t allowed to see each other for the first 48 hours and so there is that early bonding and abandonment stuff. Looking at how my daughter was born and how my Mum experienced me, I think I was a really refluxy baby as well, and no one really knew what that was. There was also damage to my hip when I was born and that was undiagnosed, so there was a lot of pain. And I screamed a lot. So I developed this lung capacity [laughs] and this passion and the need to be heard.

Jess: And you felt there was a need to be heard for your mother as well, so there is some kind of sensitivity around that issue, particularly among women. Do you find that you work mostly with women clients?

Ganga: Yes. I certainly have some male clients and they tend to be very aware, on a journey of some description.

Jess: ‘Honorary women’, then? [Laughs.]

The voice and emotions are not separate and we see that in a performance. The ones that really move us are the ones that are able to be in touch with their emotions … they can convey something that we can connect with.

Ganga: Absolutely! They’re okay about delving into their inner emotional realms. Because that’s what it takes in the way that I work, in my belief, to connect with the voice. It’s my belief that the voice and emotions are not separate and we see that in a performance. The ones that really move us are the ones that are able to be in touch with their emotions. And they can convey something that we can connect with, it doesn’t necessarily have to come through the actual sound, it can be that embodied energy.

Jess: Can you tell me a little bit more about your voice work? You’re dealing with people who come to you for a reason, I suspect, the reason being that they want to free their voice in some way. Can you tell me some anecdotal stories about some memorable clients, things that come to mind that help drive your passion?

Ganga: Wow, so many! I’m very honoured in having that over and over again, the experience of seeing some real change happening. One of the major things that people come with is feeling that they can’t sing in tune or that they have some sort of blockage and can’t express themselves clearly, particularly women who feel they can’t speak their truth. On that one I’ll speak about something that happened quite recently, which led to an epiphany for me. One particular client was working with her challenge in speaking her truth and noticing that in relationships with her partner and people that she is really close to. She had this belief that, “If I speak my truth, it will hurt others.” So of course you will do anything to go around the subject gently, be as diplomatic as possible, to the point where you don’t actually say anything. You’re so busy making it okay for the other person. And I had three clients on that one day that had something to do with what was coming up for them, it was believing that they’re not enough. So when you get that much repetition, the same issue in that many clients, it’s, “Get the message, Ganga, there’s something you need to look at.” And that’s something I’m well aware of, it’s a belief that I’ve had for a long time that I’m not enough, not good enough. I’ve worked enough on it to the point where I’ve given it a name, it’s “Notenoughacus”, like Snuffleupacus, you know, with Big Bird on Sesame Street [laughs].

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The very next day I had a big conflict with Anthony where I believed I was speaking my truth and I believed that I was speaking calmly. But his experience was that I’d just turned on him. So I sat with that and said, “Show me what it is that I need to realise, what is it that I need to see here?” I realised what was driving me in the communication. I believe that when I speak my truth that people will get angry with me, so when I was speaking to him, even though I believed I was speaking my truth, he got the emotional charge of, “I’m expecting you to be angry,” so I’m already speaking with that barb. Being able to see that and to use the processes that I use with the voice to release that feeling from my body… So it’s, “Where is that feeling in my body? What does it need?” And then giving it a vibration that will give it some comfort and release; that’s the essence of how I work.

And I have this wonderful, aware man in my life. I know he’s explained to you that he uses his bath as a spiritual practice. He got out of his bath one day and said, “I got this message for you, I was in the bath and having my inner experience and there was this thing all about you!” He said that I needed to have some space alone, time to just be and have my own experience. He realised it had to be something that I want. So he shared this with me and he thought it would be really great for me to have some time to myself in nature because it recharges me and I don’t get out there often.

Jess: It’s really hard to get out there sometimes.

Ganga: It is when you’re dealing with the realities of life. It actually took a lot for us to facilitate it, but he said, “I’ll support you and I’ll take care of the children.” He took me out to Blue Pool out at Carrington Falls [in the Southern Highlands, New South Wales]. The entrance was closed off for whatever reason so I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to go in there. But it ended up being an incredible blessing because people didn’t go in there. It was January and it was the full moon. So I went and had this beautiful day’s retreat and really got to have an experience of my soul. I’ve heard people speak about that; an author called Sera Beak talks about embodying your soul. When you’re speaking your truth and you’re really present in your body, it’s really embodied and connected to your soul, that is recognisable even in just the words that you say and how it is received. So when you’re sitting opposite someone and they hear you, they can hear that what you’re saying is true, “I feel that, I know that.” And it’s not an intellectual engagement, it’s just a bodily recognition.

So where is my soul? Does it live in my body, is that possible? What is it that is having this experience of talking about “I” and “I am this” or “I have this” or “I experience this”? What’s the “I” experiencing those things and noticing that separateness from this body about? Is it a meat suit, a space suit that we put over what actually ignites us and gives us life force? So what is that? I’ve connected with spirit externally and have received guidance, so it feels like it’s connected to me, but it feels like it’s another being, it’s another essence. So, what’s mine? What’s my stuff? And I had that experience, could it live in my body? Yes! I had that experience of my soul being present in me and I realise how disconnected I can be from that in daily life. But having experienced that was prompted by a couple of things that I do with others: one with birthing and creating a soul song, so going to meet the soul of the baby and asking it for its song, and also the process that’s in my book, Singing the Silver Circle, that the main character has to go and find her Nerthgan, which is her power song. You can hear my voice is changing as I’m speaking about it, it’s really potent for me, and I haven’t actually spoken about it to anyone. So I wanted to find my soul embodied in my body and I wanted to find a song that expresses that. That was something that came to me on that day.

Jess: So you came to that realisation on the day you were in nature?

Ganga: Yes, because I had the space to ask those questions. We’re privileged living in the west where our needs are taken care of. I had that extra level of it when Anthony took care of everything. So I could just sit and be and listen and have this gift. Anthony gave me his iPod and there was some drumming that he uses in his shamanic healing that we recorded on Echoes of the Goddess, which we had used initially to support women in birthing. So that track is just the drumming part, he said, “I just have a feeling that I need to give this to you.” And I put that on and that drumming put me into the space of receiving that soul song. So for me the journey of my voice is what has connected me to my soul and expressing that. It still wells up in me. It’s such a blessing.

Jess: I was just thinking earlier that you used the expression ‘wounded healer’, and the symbolism of the wounded healer is that we have a lifelong wound that is very difficult to close, so our gift emerges from that wound, and it sounds very much like that’s what happened to you and you’ve only very recently come to see that more clearly.

Ganga: Yes, recently, certainly.

Jess: Thanks very much for sharing that story with me, by the way.

Ganga: That’s a pleasure. That was very recent, that was January this year. Knowing that my voice and my experience around it being a healing instrument, and being able to reveal things to us that need healing, you can be a conduit for the revelation as well. This kind of healing has been something that I’ve been exploring for about 14 years. There’s been lots of experiences like that along the way. And the wounded healer and the understanding of that around my birth came when I was pregnant with my daughter because I asked the question. I asked my Mum about my birth. There were things that I knew from the story that you grow up with, but there were things that I didn’t know, like the 48-hour separation and that was major. There’s been that exploration and being able to share from my own journey feels like its authentic. And inauthentic because it feels like I’ve made it up, it’s like I haven’t taken on someone else’s system that’s been proven to work, or it doesn’t have the scientific studies and data to back it up. But since I’ve been on this journey, I realise that there is a lot of scientific data if I go and research it, there’s a lot that’s been done, even recently, about the benefits of singing.

Jess: Well, music therapy is increasingly being used in hospitals…

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Ganga: Yes, well recently I’ve started doing some training with the Arts Health Institute. It came out of the Clown Doctors idea of taking humour into aged care, so that’s where they take music into aged care. So this program is called “Sing Out Loud Together.” It’s taking children from a primary school and matching them with buddies in an aged care facility and they sing together and put on a performance. It’s being used in many ways to open hearts. There’s a lot of evidence that music is a way in for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and those kinds of memory loss conditions. They will remember a lot of songs and poems from their past, particularly from the 17 to 35 years time in their life, it seems to be a place that they can connect with. So singing songs can really bring back their cognitive abilities, it’s quite extraordinary.

Jess: That’s incredible. So on some deep sensory level it becomes embedded into our being. It never really goes?

Ganga: No, it never really goes, it’s still can be accessed. There’s a lot of work that is proving what we’ve known for a long time, so while it feels out there, you can sing your way to health. It seems ridiculous but we’ve got the evidence now that it’s working, for myself and for others. I feel like I can speak about it authentically because it has been my experience and I do use it, I need to remember sometimes to use my own processes [laughs]. Musician heal thyself!

Jess: Oftentimes when you’re a healer or a mother you’re so busy looking after everyone else, you’re focusing on everyone else, and you wake up one day feeling a bit “NQR – not quite right”!

Ganga: NQR, I like that! That’s right, the focus is on everyone else.

Jess: I saw online that you work for Quest for Life as well, is that still happening?

Ganga: Yes, I’ve been there seven years now and Petrea King has always wanted to have singing as part of the program. And when she experienced my approach she thought, “Yes that’s what we need.” It’s about singing for health, approaching people that are terminally ill. I was there last week, Wednesday night; I come in the middle of the program. Petrea has organised that with much insight, “Where is their breakthrough point?” And it helps totally shift the energy. Speaking to people who are terminally ill, and there were three people in the room that had been told, “We don’t know how long you’ve got left”, but you wouldn’t know to look at them. Most of them believe that they were someone who couldn’t sing. When I say, “Were you the one where the choir teacher says you just mime the words?”, there’s always people in the room who have had that experience, and it shuts them down. It’s amazing how energised people look and feel after using their voices. With some of the other programs, where people have had incredible trauma in their lives, you see people walking around and you wonder, “How can you actually be upright after all of the things that have happened to you?” To say to those people, “Sing and it will make you feel better” is ridiculous, but I know that it works. “Hmmm”, humming to myself right now just puts me back in touch with myself.

Jess: So is that the kind of feedback that you get from most of your clients? There must be a pivotal point in most of your sessions, especially the early consults, where something really dramatically shifts in a person and they start to feel connected with their voice. Does that happen time and time again?

Ganga: It does, and it’s quite different. There are different points for each person. Usually within the first three sessions there’s a breakthrough where there is a revelation or a memory that gets shifted or a perspective is transformed.

Jess: I imagine that most people come and have several consultations with you but not all of them go on to become singers. What do they do once they’ve gone through that transformational process?

Ganga: A lot of the time it’s really about having the confidence to express themselves in the world, publicly or in a group. Some will say, “I had to do this presentation in a course I’m training in and I was able to get up and in fact get the whole room to sing, teach them a song.” So that facilitation comes about a lot. For others it will be, “Now that I’ve got this, what will I do with it? Should I record my own music?” Now that technology has changed so much these days people can do that, they can create and record their own music and put it out there themselves, they don’t need the approval of a record company. Or a win on The Voice or The X Factor or Australian Idol, you just do it because you love it.

Jess: Just thinking about voice in general terms, not just about the singing voice but the written voice as well, you’ve recently published a novel, Singing the Silver Circle. I’m about a third of the way through and I’m really enjoying it, it’s the point where Aria goes through the circle after her kids.

Ganga: Well, you would, wouldn’t you? [Laughs.]

Jess: [Laughs.] Yes, you’ve just got to go after your kids! So can you tell me about your writing and your experience of writing?

Ganga: It’s funny that you should say that because it took a long time for my husband to grasp that. He asked, “Why would someone who can sing as beautifully as you do want to write a book?” And you’ve answered that, it’s another aspect of my expression, the written form of the word is as potent, if not more so. I’ve always loved writing and it’s been part of my inspiration and my path, my inner journey. It began as a how-to book about my approach to the voice and the guidance was, “No, this is a novel.” What’s that? I’ve never written a novel! How can I do that? I had done some courses, one locally here with a woman called Lucy Palmer. I did her creative writing course and that was helpful. And then there was that whole journey of creating characters and situations and what would motivate a character. I really was passionate about the fantasy genre, my favourite book ever was The Hobbit, and we have this entire wall of books about spirituality in some form. But so much of that genre is motivated by fear of death and that archetypal good versus evil battle and, in the Lord of the Rings cycle, it’s literal. I wanted to write something that’s not about death and dismemberment. Something about what would motivate a woman. And you hit on that; it would be her children, her family. And what would motivate her to change if she doesn’t even believe in this stuff? She has a very scientific mind, she doesn’t believe she can sing, she wouldn’t even consider singing in her everyday life. Why would she want to embrace any of this fanciful stuff?

Jess: Books can write themselves, it sounds like that’s what happened with you.

Ganga: Yes, and they teach you about yourself. My journey with my work around the voice has been my journey to self, that’s why I called my business “Singing the Self” because I believe it is that journey to know thyself, so that’s what that book is as well, it’s about her journey to herself and what motivates her and to realise and release things that are in the way. It’s interesting because my sister was reading it and she sent me a text message about the book. She thought that I was Aria, and I said, “No, I’m not, I wouldn’t have resisted any of those experiences, I would have dived right in!” [Laughs.]

Jess: You’re not a sceptic.

Ganga: No, Aria’s a lot more sceptical than me in that realm, I love magic, and I love ceremony and the fantastical. Please take me there! So it was quite a journey and I realise that I love to take things in through story, a bit like what you’re doing, you’re hearing people’s stories and what led them there. I have a pile of books beside my bedside; my husband calls it my ‘compost heap’. “Are you going to compost those and just take them in by osmosis, darling?” [Laughs.] A lot of what stops me from reading things like self-help books, where there is a process that comes up, is that you need to do that in order to do the next thing, but until I’ve got time to do that you can’t go on with the book, so it’s frustrating. So I prefer a story has those processes in it, so you can experience them in the moment through someone else’s experience.

Jess: So are you planning to write more novels that all or are you letting it sit for a bit?

Ganga: I think there is more in this character, in this genre, perhaps something like a trilogy, like there often is in the fantasy realm. There have been ideas, but not the impetus to write yet because I’m still sharing this, and developing the processes that you find in the book, and one of those processes is finding your Nerthgan, your soul song. So I want to do that.

Jess: Do you have a soul song?

Ganga: Yes, I do.

Jess: Can you tell me about that soul song? Or is it something you’d like to keep private?

Ganga: It’s the one that came to me the day I did the retreat out at Blue Pool. So that’s come this year. I haven’t sung it to anyone and I don’t know that I will yet, but it’s something that connects me into where I feel my soul lives in my body. So if I’m feeling anxious and stressed, my voice has been how I have managed that, my stress and anxiety, this just takes me straight there, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m home.” And that’s actually the first word in the song it’s [sings], “Home, home.” And there I am, I am home.

Jess: That’s really beautiful.

Ganga: Yes, it drops me into my soul.

Jess: Clearly you’re very comfortable using the word ‘soul’ to describe something, what would you say the soul is?

Ganga: Wow, that’s a big question, I don’t purport to know.

Jess: Neither do I! But I’ll ask you anyway…

Ganga: I have considered that question, knowing that I was going to speak to you and that you may ask me something along those lines. I think I know it more by what it is not. Making a distinction between spirit and those things that are in spirit, and my connection with the divine that I call goddess, which means the feminine experience, and I’ve had experience of communication with it particularly with Quan Yin. She has been very accessible and present and has given really clear messages. It says in her mythology that you call her name and she will respond. And that she is waiting outside the Pearly Gates to facilitate the way through. That sort of communication with spirit and with guidance feels like it doesn’t come from me, it’s from something with a higher knowledge. That’s almost a contradiction then because that higher knowledge is in my soul, it’s like my soul is my conduit that lives in me. I think that’s the easiest way that I can describe that distinction, it resides in me and I can connect with it tangibly in my body. And when I’m disconnected from it I need to get myself back there.

Jess: Through your soul song? That’s the best way of getting back to it?

Ganga: Yes, for me.

Jess: When you’re not connected with it, then I guess you can really feel it? It’s like an itchiness or restlessness?

Ganga: Yes, anxiety in the body.

Jess: I didn’t get to ask at any how you and Anthony met. I’m assuming there’s a story there?

Ganga: There is actually. We were out with friends in Sydney in the Northern Beaches. A friend of mine invited me out, so when we were at The Steyne, a Manly pub. The friend that I was out with and her friend, so three girls, had gone to school with the friend that Anthony was out with. They started chatting and we were like shags on a rock. So I just said to him, “So what do you do?” Being polite. He said, “I’m an architect, but it’s not what I’m passionate about.” I said, “That’s interesting, I’m a teacher, but that’s not what I’m passionate about. So what are you passionate about?” And it was spirituality. And we just clicked and we just got talking about that. Anthony says of The Steyne and about our meeting, “You meet angels in dark places.” So there’s always been willingness between us to do the work that is required to grow.

Jess: That’s beautiful. Thanks so much, Ganga!

* For more information about Ganga Karen Ashworth, please visit www.singingtheself.com

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

Anthony Ashworth

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Moss Vale, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

February 17, 2014

Anthony AshworthAnthony Ashworth

Anthony Ashworth: Sacred spaces and shamanic journeys

Anthony Ashworth’s energy is so much more larger than life that it’s not surprising that he finds it easy to penetrate the walls of everyday reality to clearly see and connect with the spiritual ethers. But it wasn’t always that way. Anthony once steadfastly identified himself as a “humanist rationalist atheist”. Until one day he attended a spiritual camp and his core beliefs experienced a life-changing transformation. Among many things, his key passions are shamanism and sacred spaces. I chatted with Anthony at his home in Moss Vale, which he shares with his wife, Ganga Karen Ashworth, amid his many altars, books, idols and icons, and a gentle breeze.

Jess: I’m having chats with people who, for want of a better term, are living soulful lives. What I mean by ‘soulful’ is how people bring meaning to their lives. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

Anthony: I’m an immigrant. My family migrated to Australia from England, but I was born in Zambia in Africa. We moved there when I was three and a half or four. We briefly moved back to England. Both sides of my family had come from England, Ireland and Scotland. We moved to Africa for the mining boom, a bit like the Western Australian one that we have at the moment; there was a big silver gold and copper boom in Africa. My Mum’s dad was an engineer, boilermaker and sheet metal worker, and my Dad’s dad was a journalist, so he worked for the mines’ newspapers. My grandfather built stuff and that’s how they made money in Africa. I have an older sister who was born in England. Dad’s Irish and English and Mum’s English and Scottish, so we’ve got a lot of Celtic stuff mixed up in a bucket.

Jess: How was it living in Africa?

Anthony: It was quite problematic in Africa, my parents were worried about the future so they decided to move to England. We were like the £10 Poms; we were sponsored to come out here. And I think some of my earliest memories are from England. I have been back to Africa since then and I certainly remember the smells, but also my family used to make movie films, so some of my memory is coloured by those. I’m not sure how much is my memory and what are the films. We came out to Australia in 1965. We arrived in Perth on Anzac Day, we were wondering, “What the hell is going on with this thing called Anzac Day?” And my parents had ambitions to move to Brisbane, they had seen a film about Brisbane but we ended up settling in Sydney as we had friends there. I made the Northern Beaches my home from the age of seven until 22. I got kicked out of home because Mum and Dad moved to the country. But I stayed around the Northern Beaches. Most of my life was spent at Killarney Heights and my parents – I’m eternally grateful to them – bought a house that backed onto the bush, thousands of acres of beautiful bush that went out to the harbour. So that was my childhood, hanging out in the bush. We mucked around on bikes and scooters on the roads, but a huge amount of time was spent in the bush. It was very free range; I call it being ‘free range children’. When it was 6 o’clock, it was time to come home for dinner. As long as you were home before dark you could pretty much do anything you wanted all day, outside of school time, of course. So that was a really beautiful childhood. And it’s probably one of the reasons I have landed back in the Southern Highlands; the bush is like the bush I grew up with, sandstone country, and full of Mimi spirits or nature spirits.

Jess: It really resonates with you?

Anthony: Yes, this deep childhood memory makes me feel comfortable. My childhood was sometimes hard for me because I don’t really fit into a box. My parents sent me to a boy’s private Catholic school, St Aloysius, which was somewhat horrendous. I tell my wife about it – I just lived it – and she cries when I tell her how violent it was. We were beaten from the top down, and we beat the hell out of each other as a consequence. We used to get strapped with a leather strap for getting a maths answer wrong. As I said, it was hard for me because I didn’t really fit into a box.

Some people like to define this way of being as being an ‘Indigo Child’, which I do relate to, but basically I’m a bit anti-authoritarian. To have me sit still at a desk for huge slabs of the day didn’t suit my personality. So I somewhat struggled at school. I did okay. I think I must have been half bright because I didn’t do a lot of work but I always managed to just pass comfortably. And it was violent. I landed up with the ‘dags’, the uncool group, so I would be in a lot of conflict with quite a lot of the bigger or older guys, but I would be able to stand up for my friends, and myself, as I was a tough little bulldog.

I was a humanist rationalist by the time I was coming out of high school. For whatever reason I didn’t go through adolescence, I didn’t rebel. My sister rebelled quite strongly, but I was comfortable going out with my parents to restaurants, I went to their parties, I wasn’t a strong cliquey teenager, I suppose. I think I went through adolescence later in my 30s. Basically I adopted my father’s non-belief system, he was a humanist rationalist and an atheist, and so I became a very good humanist rationalist atheist.

I remember one of my mates at high school was studying to be a priest. We got on better than most people because he enjoyed the fact that I had at least taken a stand and had thought about it. So we would be able to drink and discuss our different points of view. In terms of career, I again took on my father’s ways; I became an architect and designer.

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Jess: So your father was an architect?

Anthony: Yes, and then I got a degree in interior design. So I wasn’t very studious at school but I spent 10 years after school studying. I went from doing my HSC at school and then I did another year at tech, where I did a lot better. I matriculated, about which my parents were delighted, and then I went to university to study architecture and dropped out after the first year. I was too young and busy enjoying life. So I went to work for my father. I wanted to be an environmental biologist, that’s what I signed up for at uni, but during the Christmas holidays I’d had a huge argument with my Dad, he was getting sick of me basically doing nothing, so he said, “Why don’t you come and work for me? I’ll pay you.” So I did. I don’t know whether it was the right thing to do or not. I blew the environmental biology and decided to study architecture. At the time there was another architectural recession, so I had a job. But I wasn’t quite ready for it, to be honest. So I did architectural drafting, which I excelled at, I found it really easy. Because I have always found it really easy to draw, a bit like my Dad. And when I finished that I was going out with a girl and she was going back to uni to study fashion design. I’d read all the brochures on interior design and I thought, “I’ve just go to do this.” So after that I did another four years, full time.

I finished there, and then I broke up with my girlfriend, which completely broke my heart; that was my first heartbreak. And unfortunately I went into another relationship very quickly. I got married, I was married for nine years, but for a great deal of the latter part of that we were separated because she was doing a Masters degree in Canberra. I had my own business at that point, and as soon as I left college I opened my own interior design business – I don’t know what I was thinking! Dad retired and I took on one or two of his last clients and built that business and was quite happy doing that. It was all corporate staff, but I was happy in my naïve world. My wife tried to get me to this spiritual retreat called Camp Eden. And I’d resisted because I used to smoke cigarettes and you couldn’t smoke when you went there, you couldn’t drink, it was all vegetarian, and I didn’t want to know about all that. In the end I stopped smoking and she wanted me to go to Camp Eden, as she had been there, herself.

Jess: Why did she think you should go there?

Anthony: To fix me, because I was broken [laughs]. Like a lot of women trying to fix their man! She desperately wanted me to go to find myself. I think I was very naïve. I went back to Camp Eden three times in all and I remember being with older, more spiritually mature people. And you go through a process when you get feedback and a lot of people said, “I love your naïveté.” I did not really understand what they meant at the time, I later realised it was a compliment, and it was about me owning my inner child and the exuberant – perhaps naïve – ways that I embrace life and the world. This camp and the experiences I had were a pivotal moment in my life. I went to this retreat centre as a burnt out design executive with my own business. When I got there they said, “Can you let go enough so we can experiment on you for six days?” They told us what to do pretty much 24 hours a day. For example, “You are doing meditation at 10am and you are having a massage at 12pm.” I’d never had a massage, I’d never meditated, I’d never done Tai Chi, I’d never done yoga, none of this stuff. It was all hippie dippy rubbish as far as I was concerned; my opinion of religion and spirituality was that it was a crutch to lean on for people who couldn’t cope with life.

I remember ringing my wife [at the time] and saying, “I was doing Tai Chi this morning and I felt the golden ball of energy. I felt it in my hands!” And she said, “Get out! You! You felt it?” And I said, “Yeah!” It was the beginning of a deep stirring within me.

So I went there and there was very little contact with the outside world, but I remember ringing my wife and saying, “I was doing Tai Chi this morning and I felt the golden ball of energy. I felt it in my hands!” And she said, “Get out! You! You felt it?” And I said, “Yeah!” It was the beginning of a deep stirring within me.

Then the next day I sat down for my first meditation and it was a guided visualisation where this wonderful teacher took us on a journey into some yummy land and it was all birds and flowers. She taught us a basic mantra which was, “I am, I am.” But I did everything right, it seems, I don’t know how, it must have been a past life recollection, but I sat down and took a handle of this spiritual technology. So I was toning, “I am, I am, I am,” and I went off into my own world and I had full-blown spiritual experience. Kundalini rising, a shamanic awakening, a realisation. I didn’t know what it was at the time. The only way I could describe it was that it was like every orgasm I’d ever had bundled into one, it was every drug and substance I’d ever taken. My cells just exploded into orgasmic life and it was the most ecstatic experience. It was extraordinary, and what was really weird was that everyone in the room witnessed what I experienced and were totally awestruck by it. Afterwards I got some counselling from the woman who ran it and she said, “Go and spend a little bit of time on your own, just chill out.” I thought, “What am I going to do with this? This doesn’t fit into who I am, this stuff just doesn’t exist.” So my whole nonbelief system had been swept away in one go and I thought, “Where do I go now with my life?” Because I had really cherished my atheism and my humanist rationalist self and it was all swept away, my old foundations totally eroded, gone.

Jess: It’s very interesting because the spiritual life can happen in two ways. Usually it’s an innate calling where people feel an affinity with all things spirit from a young age. They might not know how to give it a name or how to identify it, but there’s an awareness, whereas in your case it just came on suddenly. That’s another way it can happen.

Anthony: I guess there was an awareness of something ‘other’ with my connection with nature and the bush, which was profound. I came alive when I was in the bush. But I had none of this stuff like what you see around my house, altars and gods and goddesses, because I was raised in a very secular childhood home, there wasn’t any religion and spirituality in my home at all. Having said that, my father is deeply spiritual in the way that he sees the world. So I had no clues around this, it was so foreign to me. In fact I was quite judgemental of all of this sort of stuff [sweeps arms to gesture around his living room filled with spiritual symbols]. So that was a pivotal moment in my life where I changed sides, I started to back the other team.

Jess: It was an extreme change!

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Anthony: It was an extreme change and it took me some time to make sense of it. From there I ended up in a yogic tradition for a long time. Around the same time I did some breath work, and that was an extreme experience, as well. So I was obviously very open to all of this sort of stuff, I was easily moved in some way. So then I had to make sense of it. The teacher at the time said, “You might like to go and explore Eastern philosophies from China and India and see what resonates with you.” So I went off and started some Tai Chi but fairly quickly migrated to yoga. And then I found Yoga in Daily Life and a spiritual master. I started doing satsangs, which they were doing in a house in the bush, so I thought, “Spirituality in the bush, this is alright!” I describe myself in those times as a ‘satellite disciple’, I was never really in with the guru, and I really did not surrender myself as such as some do. I was there when the guru was there and I helped out too. As an architect I was often involved in advising on fixing up ashrams using Vastu (ancient Indian feng shui). So how to make sense out of all of that had happened? I was an interior designer and there was this spiritual stuff. So I started asking, “What is it that I want?” I started scuba diving because I love scuba diving, it’s really important to me because it’s such a focused experience. When you’re scuba-diving you can’t be thinking about what’s going on in your life, you are present with the environment and you are focusing on what’s going on, just staying alive, it’s compulsory, forced meditation.

Jess: It’s a bit like rock-climbing, you have to stay focused.

Anthony: Yes! And scuba diving used to juice me up. So I wondered, “What can I do with this, can I do underwater yoga teaching?” [Laughs.] I was resistant to becoming a yoga teacher, because it seems that every second person who has a spiritual awakening wants to become a yoga teacher, in my view. And then I discovered this thing called Vastu Shastra, which is ancient Indian feng shui. Then I went to India to see a whole set of masters on this subject. So my exploration of sacred space began. I travelled a lot with my first wife and we’d been to a lot of wonderful sacred sites.

As I’ve said, I was interested in meditation and yoga, but I never felt good enough. They were all very yin people, it was all very quiet and nice, but I’m loud and I always felt like I was trying to fit myself into that box. But I didn’t quite fit, it was a mismatch, but there was something there that I wanted. It was a spiritual community, there were people who were interested in spiritual technologies and that’s why I hung in there.

So the deeper I went into Vastu and feng shui, the further I went into understanding ceremony and ritual. I used to feel that whenever I was doing something devotional, I got this charge. As soon as I put my hands together I’d feel the spirit and I’d get a charge that just went up like a little mini orgasm. So who wouldn’t do this all the time? It was fantastic! And I would meditate and have quite deep meditation experiences. One night I was meditating with a guy and he had 1000 faces flash across his face, I don’t know if it was past lives, I don’t know what I was seeing. I would have these kinds of experiences, rebirthing experiences, that were very strong. So I got into ritual and ceremony, and progressively as I spent more time with that I began to discover shamanism. That was something that I would really love because it was experiential. That’s probably why I was drawn to the yoga tradition because it was experiential. I wasn’t drawn to traditional religions because they weren’t experiential. I went to a Catholic school and I used to sit in mass and the thing I loved was the singing, I loved singing in mass. But I didn’t get a sense of God or spirituality when I was sitting in a Catholic boys school mass.

Jess: That’s often the case for many people, isn’t it?

Anthony: Yes! Absolutely! So from feng shui rituals and the like I started to study around shamanism, and that has overtaken my life. That’s what I’m most passionate about. And recently, over the last eight years or so, I have really begun to embrace the divine feminine and the whole idea of the Goddess and the sacred feminine. A few years ago I went to a Goddess conference with Ganga. I was one of three men attending and the first ever male presenter and there were hundreds of women.

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Jess: I could imagine!

Anthony: But in a lot of my spiritual journey I have been surrounded by women, there aren’t a lot of men who have the time or interest. Of recent times I’ve embraced men’s work, I’ve been to a couple of men’s conferences and held a men’s group here. We had a men’s group going for many years and that broke up and we started a separate more spiritually focused one, I found some really soulful and spiritual men. So that’s been a really beautiful part of my recent journey.

Jess: It sounds like an extraordinary journey. It is taking you in all kinds of directions and to all kinds of places, but there’s something cohesive underpinning all of it.

Anthony: Yes, a bit of a quest there, or my life is a one big spiritual quest and I’m a bit greedy for big spiritual experiences. I’m 53 now, when I was 50 I took myself on a vision quest. Not a particularly long one, it was three days and two nights. I sat naked in the bush and just had water to drink, no food, no tent, no nothing but a frame drum and myself. It was incredible for me. That brought me home to who I am. That was the most soulful experience of my life.

Jess: So, what happened? Can you tell me about that?

Anthony: I had requested prayers on little prayer flags from a bunch of friends and family. I asked them to email them to me or preferably write them down on a piece of paper or cloth, and so I hanged them up on a piece of wool all around me like a prayer cage or circle. I’d been wanting to do a vision quest for about eight years. And I found lots of people and organisations charge thousands of dollars to do them and I couldn’t justify sitting in the bush to have this spiritual experience for thousands of dollars. So in the end I thought turning 50 is a pivotal moment, I can’t put it off any longer. I’ve just got to go and do it. So I found my little spot in the bush. I set up my prayer flags and then I just wept. It was such a release. I don’t know what was going on but I just cried and cried and I was exhausted after it. Then I just sat in Mother Nature and read all my prayers and the things that people said were so beautiful. “I hope you find what you’re really looking for; you’re so special; I hope you have a true vision that enlightens you.” I’m really into this idea of your environment vibrating back to you what you put into it. So here I was in the bush, which was alive with these deep spiritual intentions and it just did something big to me. Then I had a long rest and then I felt I needed to shake, so I did a lot of jumping up and down and shaking on the spot, for probably an hour or more to just shake everything old and unwanted out of my system. At one point I sat down on a blanket and it was getting cold, and then I saw two huge funnel web spider holes in my little two-metre diameter circle. That became quite pertinent to me because I perceived them as tunnels into the underworld. It was a shamanic experience, it was all about facing one’s fears, when you’re frightened. So all of a sudden from being a bravado bloke in the bush it was, “Oh Christ, I’m sleeping with funnel webs!”

Jess: Spiders are meant to symbolise creativity as well, because they can create such beautiful silk and spider webs.

Anthony: They can do, yes. Funnel webs are one of the most ancient spiders in the world, really ancient and primal. They seem to have always been around me. Where I grew up in Killarney Heights there were always funnel web spiders in the pool, and again now in the Highlands many more funnel webs around my home. So what they did was bring up a lot of fear for me. It was getting dark and I was getting frightened. And I thought, “I’m getting frightened and I’m not used to getting frightened, it’s not something I do.” But I was. So I intuitively started to go into a gratitude state, I started to feel really grateful for my home, my family, and eventually to all the people in the train of events who provide all the structure in our society. I even felt grateful for John Howard [who was Australia’s Prime Minister at the time]!

Jess: [Laughs.] That’s a concern!

Anthony: Yes! And this gratitude built up in me. And I also retraced my entire life from as far back as I could remember and I got a series of memories of things that I had completely forgotten about. It took hours, it was a beautiful experience. And when I did this gratitude thing an intense bubble of light went “Zoom!” I could physically feel it go back into the dark forest, literally pushing the fear back, it wouldn’t have mattered what happened, if a funnel web spider came out and sat on me or something like that, because I was in this state of absolute connection with the forest and then everything else. I wasn’t frightened because how can I be frightened of anything when everything is so good and beautiful? And then later on that night I had a vision, I had asked for a vision, I had a big frame drum that I was drumming and I also asked for a song. And I got that vision, in the form of a personal myth, you might say. Which I am not sure if I should or can share with you here, it’s very intimately personal.

Jess: Well, that’s up to you. I’d love to hear it.

Life for me on planet Earth is somewhat of a sojourn, it’s a place to play, it’s a place to enjoy life to embrace the gift of living. Start being grateful for why and how you’re here. Really embrace it, enjoy it.

Anthony: It’s pretty out there. It was a very deep personal myth about … well my yoga master said, “One day, when you’re ready, you will have the courage to ask these core questions, ‘Who am I? Where am I from? And why am I here?’” So I asked those questions and I got answers to them, in a really ‘out there’ kind of way. I thought it might be coming out of my subconscious, but spirit oftentimes speaks in metaphors. It was a metaphor for me, it was a personal myth, it was a story embedded with spiritual truths. And so what I got out of it, rather than what it actually was, is that life for me on planet Earth is somewhat of a sojourn, it’s a place to play, it’s a place to enjoy life to embrace the gift of living. Start being grateful for why and how you’re here. Really embrace it, enjoy it. And then I got this huge almost God-like booming voice saying, “But don’t be acquiescent. Don’t be spiritually lazy. You’ve got to stay on the path, you’ve got to keep working on yourself and working with spirit.” It was basically saying look at where we live, we are living in heaven on earth. That’s the big thing I got out of it. I think I’ve been a lot more authentic since that day.

Part of my spiritual practice is bathing. My bathroom is now a place where I connect with my soul at least once a week. I have a bath somewhere between two and three hours long. I’ll take in candles and incense. I’ll often start by listening to a philosophical lecture because it relaxes me, I’ll have a glass of wine or some herbals or tea. I put massive amounts of bath salts and essential oils into the water. Bath salts relax my muscles, they support my body, and so I become less body conscious. And then I slowly move from ordinary states of being to become ecstatically tranced. I tone and sing, and I play my flute, I become one with the music itself and eventually I go into a completely ecstatic shamanic state and I am able to travel around the universes and I have amazing deep and sometimes really nice experiences. I get insights and messages into how fucked up I may have been, or of the people I’ve got to be clear with or apologise to for being less than or judging of – it’s often toward Ganga – so I’ll take practical things and messages away. It’s the time where I deeply connect with me. I build up vibrations in there. My bathroom’s a pink 1940s room; everything is pink walls floors, tub, basin all soft pink, I call it my ‘bath womb’! I really go back into the primal womb, I go back into a state of innocence, I just have the loveliest time imaginable, it is truly blissful for me.

Jess: So that’s very profound and you do it once a week?

Anthony: About once a week, sometimes twice I week, I start to get very edgy when I don’t do it. The whole family gets it, and knows how important a ritual it is.

Jess: So for income you do feng shui consultations and…

Anthony: Yes, Vastu and feng shui. And I do dowsing, so I go into people’s homes and I dowse for earth energies. I also do space clearing, which is my favourite thing. I go in and remove negative energies from people’s homes. At the far end of the scale it’s ghost busting, which doesn’t happen often. At the softer end it’s just energetic removal of the dross in people’s homes, where they’re full of thoughts or unfulfilled dreams or negative thought forms. So I go in there with a ceremony and in quite a shamanic way. What I do on behalf of the clients is bring my soul into the soul of their home and ask what it needs. It’s done very respectfully, I don’t say, “Energies leave!” I create a beautiful mandala, which is made up of rice, powders and flours. That’s a little model of the universe. So I set that up and I tell the home, “Someone loves you.” I cleanse the four corners of the house and I sing mantras to clear and lift the energy.

Jess: So what kind of feedback do you get from clients after you’ve done a space clearing in a house? Is there a follow-up?

Anthony: Yeah, I get really great positive feedback, but sometimes I’m scared to follow-up, my old wounds come forth, I get scared I’m not real, it’s not real, I feel I don’t want to be exposed as a fraud or for not being helpful, so I sometimes won’t ring up specifically. However, it’s usually that I get feedback anyway. For instance, I had a woman recently ring me up and she said, “My mum recommended you. I’m just about to go into another relationship and I’ve had three relationships. One divorce, one husband died, and I’m about to go into another one.” Apparently there have been two or three couples that have all been divorced in this house. So the neighbours have been telling her to move out of the house, “It’s the divorce house, it’s the relationship death house.” So she got me to come in. I did what I call basic feng shui acupuncture, I go to the key points and change a few things. I gave her a few things to do. I told her to have a party in the house, “You need some joy in this house, the house is sad.” We did a few things and then she called me. She’d rung her mum and she said, “I need someone to come and do some ‘ooga-booga’ on this house.” ‘Ooga-booga’ was the extent of her spiritual language. I could tell that she was very tentative, and it was outside of her world. Most people who do space clearing are a bit wacko like me. They get it. But some people aren’t and it’s usually when they’re in a crisis situation like this that they’ll try it. She did the things that I’d recommended and according to her and her mother, who both rang to thank me, it’s completely changed her life. She says the house now feels beautiful, when her friends came to the party I had recommended they said, “What have you done to this place? It feels so much more, and different!” I put some soul into it, the house was soulless. She hadn’t decorated in a way that reflected her or her soul. She hadn’t or didn’t know how to nurture the house nor herself.

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So that’s what I do, I go into people’s homes and bring soul into their home. I’m on a spiritual mission to do that. There’s a lot of cowardice out there where people are too frightened to do what they feel they might like to do, or are called to do, like put a gold Buddha by their door because they’re afraid that people will judge them. I give them permission to do that, which nourishes them into life.

Jess: It permits them to express their soul, to make it visible?

Anthony: Yes. Part of it is working on the house, the other part of it is working on the people who live there. I didn’t understand that in the early years. I was doing effective space clearing, but I didn’t really know why it was working so well. But it was as much about nurturing people and their relationship with the house. For me, having a relationship with your home is the beginning of your deeper relationship and connection with what’s out there in the greater world and universe. Our home is our intimate environment, we’ve got to have a relationship with this space first, and then we can take that deep authentic relationship out there. I think it’s really important and I want to write more about it one day.

Jess: You’ve got an extraordinary body of knowledge and it would be great to get it all down.

Anthony: Well, I’ve been studying for a very long time. But, as you say, how do you make a living out of it? Barely! [Laughs.]

Jess: [Laughs.] Well, it’s what matters to you and it’s what matters to others as well. There’s always a tension there between the spiritual life and the material life.

Anthony: Yes. My archetype is the free spirit, so my work ethic is poor. It always has been. I’ve always lived under a lucky star, I’ve always managed to do well but I’ve never really had to work very hard. I can’t put my nose to the grindstone too long. I can’t work long hours. But I’ve had a lucky life, and I think some of that space allows you to be deeply spiritual. Swamiji used to say, “Householders have chosen the most difficult path.” To purely become an ascetic, to become a monk or a yogi, that’s pretty easy when you can dedicate your life to it, but when you’ve got this balancing act of trying to have kids and a job in a spiritual life, he says that’s a really difficult path.

Jess: I have two little kids under the age of three years, so I try to take my moments where I feel really grateful. I try to do that in each moment, and that’s a spiritual practice in itself so I don’t feel so disconnected from the spiritual life. When I look at them, I think it’s miraculous; it’s really extraordinary that they’re here in the first place. And just watching them take joy in the world or even have tantrums about being in the world. The Buddhists talk about how you can meditate while washing the dishes. It’s all there; you can bring spirituality into the mundane realities. It just requires effort because you can get preoccupied with the fact that the mundane is…

Anthony: … so omnipresent! [Laughs.]

Jess: Exactly!

Anthony: In the ancient and traditional cultures they always allow everybody some opportunity for a retreat. So people who are bound in a family situation, they deserve some retreat every now and again to go off on a Vipassana, a camp or a women’s retreat, at least for a weekend to nurture one’s own space away from the family. Ganga and I have always allowed each other that.

Jess: I read on your website that you do some shamanic journeying to retrieve people’s souls. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Anthony: I started doing it for myself, which was finding pieces of myself that had disassociated, and then doing it for friends and family. And then I realised that this was a spiritual tradition. It’s working with people that have lost a piece of themselves somewhere along the way and may not even know that they have lost something. People in the modern world have lost huge chunks of themselves because of the way that they were raised. Children are taken away from their parents and shoved into school. Just through living a western lifestyle we disassociate little pieces of our soul, they get scattered and left behind and usually because there’s a trauma or a sickness or it’s just too hard. So an example is a child who has been abused, physically, sexually or verbally, you can see when a child just shuts down. They might tolerate that once, twice, three, four times, but eventually they will go, “This is too hard, I can’t cope with this and I’ll put that little piece away.” That sensitive part of them that just can’t cope.

I believe that soul piece gets tucked away and it can be in the underworld, it can be in this middle plane, it can be in outer space, or can be in the upper worlds. I will go into an altered state of consciousness in order to journey, I will take my guides with me, I take a gold crested black cockatoo like that feather with me [points to feather], because it is a symbol for soul retrieval, and I travel around the universe. I find my journeys are really quick; I don’t have to journey for very long. I get to the information fairly quickly. Then I’ll have a dialogue with the soul piece that’s missing, which is often in a child-like form, but not always. Then I coax that soul fragment to come back and be integrated with the person. The soul may protest, it will say, “I don’t want to go back the lady hits me and shouts at me.” So I have to offer an incentive to that soul. “Come back, it will be alright. Your master really loves you. And you are a part of each other, so come home.” You often have to treat the childlike energy childishly. I think all of this happens energetically, I don’t think it’s literal. You often blow the piece back into the person. And then you tell that person the messages you’ve got. And once you’ve done that, I’ll get some metaphor and the person will say, “That reminds me of when this happened.” So we make a contract with that soul fragment. If it comes back then that person will look after it. So I’ll say to the person, “You found a lost part, what are you going to do to nurture it and look after it?” It can bring about radical changes in a person, in the way that they see themselves and in their relationship to the world. I’m not quite sure what to label myself; in my heart I would like to call myself a shaman, that’s still weird to me as others judge that. So I call myself a shamanic practitioner. But really I’m just working on behalf of other people to connect them back in with their soul and with other parallel dimensions, I’m just a messenger as all shamans are.

Jess: That’s fantastic work, thanks so much for sharing your story with me, Anthony.

* For more information about Anthony Ashworth, please visit www.schoolofsacredplace.com

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Jess chatting with Kate Pell. Photograph by Hamish Ta-mé.Jess chatting with Kate Pell. Photograph by Hamish Ta-mé.

About

Welcome to The Soul Spectrum, an online space dedicated to documenting the presence of soul in the full spectrum of our everyday lives. It’s headed by me, Jessica Raschke, because I’m utterly obsessed with “soul”, something that people might otherwise describe as “spirit” or “spirituality”. I like to use the language of soul to understand how people make meaning in their lives, because just the word “soul” in itself leaves me feeling inspired and fulfilled all at once.  But everyone has their own way of interpreting “soul”, and that’s what really, really fascinates me.

So, it’s not surprising that I often find myself having long and dark nights of the soul. At least, that’s where I think I’ve been, somewhere in the soul, or just somewhere close if not actually in it. Yet the notion of the soul itself is ever elusive. What is it, exactly? Sometimes I know I’m there, deep in some kind of soul-space, but most of the time my rational self steps in and interrupts any chance of really feeling it. I doubt it. I forget it. I challenge it. Sometimes I ignore it. This poor treatment of the soul-space must be why I keep returning to a quote by that wondrous poet and mystic, Rumi:

My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.

To me, the soul is inextricably linked with a strong sense of spirituality, and I keep pushing myself to reach a place within myself where I completely feel soulful. Yet I hardly ever reach it. Perhaps I’m already there, perhaps I’m always there and I have just taken it for granted. But something within me says, “You should just know it.”

No, the truth is that I envy others who can confidently claim that they are living a soulful life. I’m fascinated by this kind of person. I’m in deep admiration of this kind of person. Well, actually, I’m intensely envious of this kind of person. They have reached a place that I can only struggle to arrive at. And I might not ever get there. Although – as the line from Rumi suggests – I have every intention of getting there. I have every hope that I’ll get there.

But, just in case I don’t, I’d like to learn from the many people out there who are living soulful lives wholeheartedly. I want to hear their stories and ask them how they came to believe and feel what they do, and what their soulful beliefs look like in their everyday lives. I’m particularly curious about those who walk comfortably in their soulful selves in a contemporary and secular sense.

The first issue features interviews with Kate Pell and Sage. I hope you enjoy reading The Soul Spectrum as much as I’ve enjoyed getting it here.

All the very best,

Jess x

PS: Thanks go to Hamish Ta-mé for so generously offering to photograph the wonderful interviewees. Thanks, also, to Mik Efford for designing such a beautiful website. As always, a big and loving thanks to Jim Pettigrew and our kids for so patiently supporting me in making The Soul Spectrum a reality.

Subject

Kate Pell

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

November 21, 2013

Kate PellKate Pell

Kate Pell: It’s all about connection and nature

Dynamic and energetic Kate Pell heads the calming Bowral Yoga Studio in the Southern Highlands. When it comes to soul and spirituality, Kate believes that pivotal to peace of mind is forming a connection with the dynamic intelligent nature inside and all around us. Her journey to yoga teaching, studying traditional Chinese medicine, and developing a sense of happiness wasn’t straightforward. Like many of us, Kate searched until she discovered the right place in the world for herself. I had a long chat with her at her bright and light studio, on a sunny summer day in Bowral.

Jess: Can we start by talking about your background, your ‘origin’ story, where you grew up?

Kate: I grew up in a small country town called Numurkah, it’s north of Shepparton in Victoria, up near the Murray River. I call it “flat country”, a farming community for the growing of wheat, fruits and vegetables, sheep and milk production and big dairy areas. I was the youngest of six kids. I think everybody has issues and problems at certain times while growing up, and issues with your siblings, and the odd time at school, times when you’re feeling on top and other times when you’re feeling low. I had lots of emotional rollercoaster rides This comes with the basic territory of growing up. All of the developmental “stuff” that – when you’re talking about the soul – that offers. Such a fertile ground, that in retrospect allows a greater understanding of yourself. Obviously your parents are important because you’ve taken on their DNA. I had a wonderful relationship and still have a wonderful relationship with my Mum. I was at loggerheads with my Dad for a long, long time. But over the years there’s been lots of great healing and now we’re good mates and I feel really appreciative of him. But again all of that has been such great learning. When I was about 14 I did some work experience at the local news printers for a week. They seemed to love what I did, they thought, “She is quite capable and good with people,” so I worked there for a few years until I finished high school.

Jess: What kind of work did you do?

Kate: I was the Girl Friday, so I would see people coming in wanting to put an ad in the paper or needing to pay a bill, I would generally be at the front desk serving customers, but also buy morning tea, clean, work on the newspaper negatives, accounting, collating, photocopying, etc. I would have to paint this special chrome paint on it to make sure that when you printed it you didn’t get black spots everywhere. I even had to clean the launderette next door. I did the banking and got the wages each week, I having to carry out what seemed like a massive amount of money from the bank. So they gave me quite a lot of responsibility, which was great. The owner (Launa Morris) asked me, “Would you like to stay on?” and I was thinking, “Would I do journalism and stay here?” But I decided not to, so I finished my HSC. When you live in a small country town one of the ways to get out of town was to head to Melbourne. So I went to university and I studied industrial chemistry for two years. I was at this stage of my life a shocking student. I was going through a stage of inner rebellion and not really wanting to focus on my study. I also started working in disabilities while I was a student. I was working with young people, some eight-year-old children who had differing levels of physical and intellectual disabilities. I did this for about 15 years while I lived in Melbourne, until I was about 38.

I completed one year of occupational therapy and then I found something that I was really more passionate about. I went overseas for a trip for about eight months and I came back and I discovered shiatsu therapy. This led me into the direction of oriental therapies. I found eastern philosophies of healing and touch a more natural way of looking at life. I really enjoyed this and I found a much greater enthusiasm for putting more effort into my studies. I completed that course and bought a little shop in High Street in Northcote [in Melbourne]. My partner [at the time] and I took over this little arts and crafts shop, and there was a room at the back where I set up my shiatsu therapy room. When I went overseas just before that in 1989-1990, I really dove into yoga. I studied it for a few weeks in southern India. That was my first real contact with yoga and trying to sit and meditate, not really knowing what I was doing. Along with doing the shop and the shiatsu therapy, I spent some lovely days just practising, spending every day looking at Mr Iyengar’s book and going through postures. I never really went to many classes, I just did my own home study. Then in the mid-1990s, I completed yoga teacher training and Kundalini yoga with a wonderful teacher, Joy Spencer in Melbourne. I think Joy was 74 when I studied with her. She went to India when she was in her 30s and studied with Swami Sivananda. She was amazing, there wasn’t a lot of alignment stuff like there is in Iyengar yoga but her energy was amazing, I would leave there just floating. So I studied with her and then started going to a few different classes. That slowly developed to eventually starting to teach myself in the late 1990s.

Jess: So it sounds like it was a slow evolution, you didn’t have a light bulb moment at 14, for example, like “When I hit my 30s I want to be teaching yoga one day”?

Kate: I had no idea. I don’t think I realised when I was 14, but as time went on I realised I liked being in the capacity of serving others.  So my previous jobs, like being behind the counter at the local newspaper printers, then working in disabilities and then Shiatsu therapy all led me to recognise that I liked to help people. Working in intellectual disabilities just taught me so much. They were just amazing people, with amazing strengths, even though their bodies and minds made life so very, very challenging, they still managed to bring joy into their lives.

The possibility of yoga teaching as a career started when I finished my teacher training with Joy. She asked me if I could take a few classes for her because she was going away. I was so scared but I taught the Wednesday nights regardless. I felt proud inside to have the opportunity to teach for Joy, but it was like I was out of my body the whole time. I had a major case of nerves, I guess like stage fright.  I thought, “That’s it, I’m not going to be a yoga teacher”. I was contemplating it as a career for myself but after the experiencing teaching for real, I realised I felt too uncomfortable. When I was a kid, my mum used to say, “You should become a physiotherapist”.

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Jess: So working with people and bodies, she had enough intuition to know that.

Kate: Yes, we used to massage each other a lot, I’d give her back a rub and we’d swap. So I liked that connection and working with people in some sort of healing or supportive capacity. But after teaching for Joy those days I didn’t think I would take yoga on as a profession. But when I was living in Strathewen, a friend of mine said, “I’ve got five students ready, when are you going to start?” Someone inside me said, “How about next Monday?” So I started teaching classes at Strathewen Hall.

Jess: And was that experience different?

Kate: Yes, it was different because when I was teaching for Joy in her home for her students, I think my whole ego was saying I had to try and be Joy. I didn’t know who I was as ‘Kate the yoga teacher’, so it all felt very new. The students all said, “That was great and where you are teaching?” I thought, “Oh god, that was hell, that was so hard!” But taking on classes of my own, setting it up and teaching from scratch and discovering me as the teacher was a lot more comfortable. Not that I wasn’t nervous, not that I didn’t have doubts, but I thought, “Well, I’ve started and I will continue on”.

Jess: You felt confident enough by the end of a few classes…

Kate: Yeah, you set yourself up to teach and five people will turn up, and then another night there’s no one, and then another there’s one person, another night there’s three, then five. But within a year, I remember sitting in Strathewen Hall, there’s no township there, just a sign that says Strathewen Community Hall, which very sadly, during the fires down in Melbourne got totally demolished and a lot of people passed away, students who were there.

I remember sitting on the stage there and looking out at 35 students and going, “Oh my god, this is incredible, who would have thought!” [Laughs.] So I did have ideas, there was some inner inspiration about what was going on, but I really didn’t know what it was. I felt really excited by life. A dear friend of mine, as soon as she saw someone playing guitar on the TV, said “That’s what I’m going to be.” And that was from a really young age.

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Jess: She had a moment of clarity at that point.

Kate: Yeah, but for me, I really wasn’t quite sure who I was and what I was meant to be doing.

Jess: Yeah, I’m intensely envious of people who can have that single-minded focus from a really young age. Although sometimes not so much, because you get to learn a lot when you’re searching, when you’re looking, you encounter different people and try different occupations until you get to a point when things start to consolidate and things start to fit.

Everything I did, everything I studied really supported the next step, even though I wasn’t aware of that process.

Kate: Now, looking back, it was a great journey. And everything I did, everything I studied really supported the next step, even though I wasn’t aware of that process. I now look back and even the industrial chemistry that I flunked out of, and even the occupational therapy, has really assisted me.

Jess: I was curious when you mentioned the industrial chemistry, you went from working in a print shop, which would have suggested a career in journalism, but then industrial chemistry is a bit of a tangent.

Kate: It is, the work at the local newspaper printers was just a fluke. It was just the opportunity that presented itself and I said, “Oh yeah, I’ll work there for the week,” and I enjoyed it and they enjoyed me, so that was my little bread and butter. I was in Year 9 or 10, so that was me being able to buy records and do things that I wanted to do. Even at school I loved sports, I was quite physical, I was a fairly good A or B student until about Year 10 when I started to rebel. I wasn’t quite as happy within. But I had and still have a great respect for one of my older sisters. She was the bright and brainy one and I just wanted to be like her. And so when I was choosing subjects I didn’t think of history and art and all of that. I’m not really artistic but I didn’t think of history and social things in that sense, I thought I’ve got to do physics and chemistry and maths because I want to be like my sister. But I did well, I really like maths and probably because I did best in chemistry I ended up applying for some chemistry courses, not knowing why. I thought I would become an environmentalist with my chemistry knowledge.

Jess: So there’s a humanitarian spirit there.

Kate: Yes, the plan was to become like an environmental scientist.

Jess: Was your experience of working with people with disabilities formative for you at a deeper level? Do you feel that you carry that with you in any way?

Kate: Working in disabilities has made me a much more compassionate, empathetic person because they taught me. I was just so humbled by how they took life on, even though it was really challenging, even though they were stuck in a wheelchair, even though they couldn’t express themselves properly. They generally had very challenging lives and yet they took each day as it came and did what they needed to do. I just bow down to anyone like that. They were great teachers for me. They’ve shown me that I should be very lucky for what I’ve got. I feel very humbled and lucky to have everything I’ve got.

Jess: Getting back to your journey to becoming a yoga teacher; being more broadminded and therefore curious about other belief systems, you developed a curiosity about eastern traditions. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

It’s all happening, but you don’t have any control, things are going on and they will always be going on and they always have been.

Kate: I should mention that when I was seven, I had an experience and it was just a moment in time where one morning on a weekend I happened to climb up the roof of this great old house that Mum and Dad had. I was just sitting up there and I had this moment. I don’t know if it lasted for a few seconds or if it lasted a few more. You could see over everybody’s fences and you could see life happening; someone’s hanging up washing, someone’s mowing the lawn, someone’s playing with their dog, there’s adults, there’s young kids, there was just this sense of life’s happening. I had this moment of, I don’t know, it’s difficult to put into words, sensing the whole totality of life. Just sensing that it’s all happening, but you don’t have any control, things are going on and they will always be going on and they always have been. I had this moment of deep peace. And some sort of revelation, or whatever you would call it at the age of seven.

Jess: Like an epiphany?

Kate: Yes, but I couldn’t understand it logically. Anyway, I don’t think that understanding life is purely conceptual mind. It was a little bit beyond me. Internally, I just went, “Wow! Oh my God, wow!” There was an internal feeling in my body of the enormity of life, it’s just enormous, and it’s simply happening. It’s all happening, but yet I’m very still. So I think that moment has always stayed with me and has influenced me. Sitting up there for those few moments and seeing everything happening, it was like patterns; people mow their lawns every so often, people wash their clothes and hang them out. Rather than it being drudgery, I saw this cycle. There is a cycle to life. Like the cycles of weather, of night and day, and of the seasons.

And I remember growing up thinking that Australia is getting too much like America; all the TV, all the lollies. Maybe it was the influence of my folks; they watched a lot of ABC and listened to Radio National. I was a little bit against the westernisation of the world, which didn’t seem very caring with nature. And I wasn’t really into western medicine. We’d have to go to the doctor, but somewhere something changed where I started to disbelieve. I was coming into my later teenage years, listening to music, and reading magazines. I did go through a period where I was reading Dolly magazines as a kid.

Jess: Oh, we all did! You had to! What else would you talk about at school except the ‘Dolly Doctor’ column? [Laughs.]

Kate: That’s right! I tried to keep up with that but I wasn’t into nail polish because I was quite a tomboy, so I felt rather inadequate. I think a lot of the inadequacies within myself also prompted me to support the alternative. So, even as a little kid I was turning into a bit of a hippie. Further down the track from my own experiences with western medicine, particularly in my mid teenage years, I had sinus troubles and I was given a lot of pseudoephedrine and it really knocked me out. They told me not to swim for two years, and swimming and playing at the pool was my life. In the end I don’t think it was a reaction to chlorine, I think I was just going through some reactive stuff whether it was seasonal with wattles or food. So I started to question western medicine and the things that we were taught at school. In history there was very little taught of the truth about Aboriginal history, it was mostly English history.

Jess: The dead white men history.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I think there was a bit of disappointment and maybe my feelings of inadequacy about fitting into society prompted me to look into eastern philosophies. I really loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I remember thinking, “Wow! I could do anything, I could give it a go. And yes, you’re going to end up dying, but that’s okay!” So there were some major books that blew me away and made me contemplate that there’s more exciting things than getting married to a farmer, because that was the pattern, you would grow up and get married and have kids, and I haven’t done that. But I feel quite lucky. So working with people with disabilities and looking into eastern philosophies all fitted in because it was going against the norm. Part of that might have been a bit of a personal struggle of my own to rebel but there was obviously a deep interest in what’s life about and in watching things like cycles and recognising all sorts of patterns in life.

Jess: You felt an affinity with those kinds of themes?

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Kate: Yeah, especially when I started the shiatsu therapy course, I worked with a major text by Giovanni Maciocia. So here’s this Italian writer with this great Chinese text on traditional Chinese medicine. And inside I was saying, “Yay!” I could feel myself screaming with joy because it just made so much sense and this is what I’ve been missing, this is what I’m into.

Jess: It struck a deep chord.

Kate: Definitely, definitely.

Jess: And so yoga came along, but that wasn’t necessarily with great expectations that something would come of it?

Kate: No, not at all.

Jess: The Soul Spectrum is looking at people’s understandings of the soul and spirituality and soulfulness. ‘Soul’ is just the catchall word for it given it means different things to all people. What would you say that soul, spirituality, soulfulness is for you? What does it look, feel, taste like? How is it expressed in your life?

I don’t think that conceptualised mind can grasp the totality of life.

Kate: I guess it’s multilayered. Firstly, what I’d like to say is that I don’t know. I would like to say what I think, but what I think is conceptualised mind, and I don’t think that conceptualised mind can grasp the totality of life. Like me sitting on the roof when I was a kid was connecting with something that was either a deeper level of mind but not limited to the black/white, night/day duality of this world. So, I don’t know the answer to your question. But when I think about what is life and how does it all work and why do some people have it rough and why do some people have it easy, all those sorts of things, I would say that one of my best teachers is nature. So if I ever want an answer, I look at the wind in the trees, I look at the clouds in the sky, and I look at animals, and that gives me a sense of connection, or a reconnection if I have lost some sense of myself. I had lost connection with myself in my late teenage years, which is why I failed a lot of my studies and wasn’t so committed. This too was reflected in my desire to get “out of it”. I was into alcohol, dope, partying and socialising, quite a bit.

Jess: Just being a typical teenager!

 Kate: Yeah. Anyhow, I did a 10-day Vipassana course in my late 20s and the penny really dropped. I realised I was running from myself. I wasn’t connected. The more I drank and smoked and partied, the more I was feeling disconnected. I wasn’t settled in myself. So there was an anxiety that I would cover up with drugs and so on. A lot of it was great fun, but I realise the intensity of not being able to stop, of binge drinking and going crazy well into my 20s. There wasn’t a sense of self that said something about being mature and about being connected. So now I realise that what was missing was a connection with myself. When I feel disconnected, which to me means that I don’t feel comfortable in myself, comfortable with whatever is happening, if I’m not able to be with that, then I realise I’ve lost connection. So if that happens I go for a walk in the bush, I look at the trees and stop and pause and [sighs] feel my breath. That’s why I think yoga and physical stuff have been really good tools for me. I think that helps to make me feel connected. So I just feel comfortable with myself, and when I feel comfortable with myself, there is a level of contentment with myself. And in that contentment I feel okay and therefore I feel happy. Even if I am really desperately sad and feeling a lot of self-doubt, I know it’s okay.

So I think spirituality is connection, it’s that feeling of being connected. A tree is a tree. It never doubts itself. Whereas having an active and reflective mind can lead us into trouble. So I do feel that spirituality is in all things. Spirituality can be drinking a glass of wine, spirituality can be singing oms in practising yoga, spirituality can be going to church, it can be driving a car, it can be brushing your teeth. I think people believe that spirituality is somehow separate from the mundane, but I think this energy, this intelligent life force that has the molecules in the air bouncing at the right speed that enables it to be available to us to breathe in and absorb that energy, that’s incredibly intelligent. So, for me, the intelligence of life is spirituality.

Jess: Yes, they’re very sophisticated ecosystems that have worked out their internal logic.

Kate: Yes, so when it comes to God, that’s God. The intelligence of nature, the intelligence of every cell of my body, of your body, of everything around us. It’s already happening. So if I’m feeling judgemental, if I’m feeling jealous, if I’m feeling down, I will remind myself that there is so much more happening and it’s okay to recognise that that’s how you’re feeling. I feel when I recognise my habituated mind states that I’m able to step back, hold it, love it, and it dissipates.

Jess: I was going to ask a question about habit, because I think many of us in a western context do get raised amid a lot of chatter, such as advertising, which begets all of these anxieties and insecurities about image and material consumption. So growing up in a western culture makes it very difficult to come to that peace of mind. It requires a lot of training, a lot of discipline, a lot of vigilance, to break the habit of the chatter. Did you go through all of that and do you feel that you’ve broken the habit as best as you can?

Kate: No, no! [Laughs.] No, I think it will be something that I continually practice. I do have a busy mind. And sometimes I love thinking about the world and how much better we can do it because I think there are great opportunities for human beings to grow and make things work. But it feels a little bit stuck in the dark ages where the majority of people haven’t had the realisation that they could live with sharing and supporting and community. We’ve done it in the past, we’ve come from that, but industrialisation has given us so much and taken away so much. I look in shops and I can see the varieties of lollies and sweets and wrappers and things that people have become attached to and feel they need. So there is a lot of chatter, there is a lot of stuff in the world, and there is a lot of, “I need this stuff”. And that keeps people clouded to really thinking about what they really need. What made me really change is having more of a contemplative mind and recognising this great connection. I feel much happier when I think less and when I just be more. So when I’m just in myself, there is a great sense of ease. But my practice is to keep practising doing that. People talk about when they’re enlightened, that they’re just in that zone. When I talk about meditation, the step before doing meditation is called “dharana” and it’s about learning to just concentrate, to just hold your focus. So all I ever feel like I’m saying to students is “C’mon, come back!” Getting the chatting mind to come back and be present.

Jess: It’s so wondrous that what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is, as far as we know, an incredible imaginative capacity, we can imagine objects and other worlds and we can create objects and we can create other worlds whether it’s in gaming or Disneyland. But I think what you’re saying is that we have made a few misjudgements along the way about how we can best put that to use. Now it’s a matter of trying to break through all of that and trying to reapply that imaginative capacity towards sustainability projects or health projects, or sending out more beneficial messages to people rather than selling junk food to people.

Kate: Yeah, I totally agree. To me I feel life is really simple, this stuff isn’t hard.

Jess: Our imagination allows for empathy. It helps us begin to understand how another person feels in a difficult situation and is the first step towards compassion and trusting and loving each other.

Kate: Yes, that’s a big one, the idea that there is not just one way. As individuals we will have different ways of planting a tree. I’ll have my way, I’ll dig to a certain depth, you’ll have your way, you’ll dig to a certain depth and have a particular fertiliser that you’d like to use, and the tree will still grow really well, and the intention there is to do well. At times I might do it my way because I really believe in that, but at other times I might say, “I’d like to do it your way, let’s share this, let’s just do it your way, because I don’t have to do it my way”. I have learnt a lot from serving on Vipassana retreats to let people do their own thing their own way. And to realise that it can work out really well, although in my head I’m thinking they’re not doing it right.

Jess: I want to ask something a bit more everyday, what does a day in the life of Kate look like?

Kate: If I was to speak about this year [2013], well, I had been teaching seven days a week from Monday nights through to Sunday mornings. One or two, sometimes three classes per day. And I’m at university, studying traditional Chinese medicine, my second year. I also teach two teacher training courses, one here in Bowral one in Brisbane. And I’ve got two dogs and five chickens, I’ve got a garden, and I’ve got to feed myself and get some sleep. I feel like I really enjoy life, but in setting up a new business and choosing to go to uni I’ve had to stay pretty focused and headstrong. When I wake up in the morning I know what I’ve got to do. I know I’ve got to get to class and teach and be prepared for that do my own practice. I’ve got to come home and walk the dogs. So there is a real sense of doing what I’ve got to do, but I’m really enjoying that. In saying that, I’ve also tired myself out a bit. Recently I decided to cut back my teaching to only four days a week, uni has just finished so I have a bit more space. I would recommend studying to anyone. Don’t ever let age stop you from learning. I’ve been having such a great time going back to uni. There is a level of stress, but maybe because I’m a little bit older I tell myself, “It’s okay, the worst that could happen is that I could fail”. Some days are fairly planned out and I really enjoy those times when I can sit down and have a cup of tea and cuddle the dogs. I’ve discovered iPhones and listening to music or lectures as I walk. When it comes to food, some days I can be really inspired to cook, but when I’m single – I’m now in a relationship which started not so long ago but I still spend quite a bit of time on my own – I’m not as inspired to cook for myself, so I make a quick basil pesto with cashew nuts. I sleep well, but sometimes I’ve got things on my mind between 1am and 3am, so I’m making lists, and then I fall back to sleep. I feel very fortunate living here in Bowral, I’m even enjoying the cold.

Jess: It must have been quite warm back in Numurkah.

Kate: It would get cold like it does here, those icy, bone-chilling days. And also very hot and dry summers down there. Here it’s just a little bit more humid. My days are just like anyone else’s. But I do feel very happy with life. I’m enjoying getting older, I’m getting onto 50 but that’s now young whereas I used to think that was getting old. I feel like everything that I’ve learnt in the past has made me generally happy. I still have some crappy days, I wake up and I don’t feel quite right, but part of my practice is to just love that as well, you don’t have to play into it. I lead a normal life just like anybody else.

Jess: I’m a perpetual student of yoga, I’ve been a bit choppy about coming to classes over the years. But I have always found yoga teachers quite inspiring figures. When you’re watching them they seem to have it all together and they have lots of wisdom. Do you find that students sometimes come to you for guidance, do you sometimes become a counsellor to them?

Kate: Unfortunately, when people think about yoga in the West, they tend to think, “I want to get flexible”, or something like that. So people may come to yoga for that originally, they might have been introduced to it at the gym because it’s part of the gym pass, and it’s often seen as somebody up the front doing some strong flow poses, that is stretching and moving, and there’s not much talk of philosophy. So whatever leads people to yoga is good. But I like to introduce the idea that it’s not just about your body, but that the body is the anchor for the mind. I remind people that we are going to do physical things, and I want you to feel what is happening, feel that sensation in that strong stretching, and notice your mind’s reaction to that. So I like to introduce some philosophy. I’ve been teaching for 15 years or more, but sometimes I haven’t planned anything, so I’ll open up an Eckhart Tolle book or someone that I like and think, “Oh, that’s the perfect reading for today”. Sometimes I’m going through my own crap and, in processing that, what I get attracted to in a book and share can be related to what’s happening to me. And it’s amazing how many times students will say, “That’s just what I needed to hear, how did you know?” So you can imagine that, as the yoga teacher you know something, but in fact I don’t know anything, I’m really just living my day and often what is coming up for me, what reflects in me, is just part of the human condition. Sometimes when I teach it can feel like I’m channelling. Things come out of my mouth sometimes and I don’t know where it came from and I think, “Wow, that’s poetic!” [Laughs.]

Sometimes I think people are genuinely lost. I remember back in the 80s or early 90s going to see the Dalai Lama back in Melbourne. There were at least a few thousand people who couldn’t fit into the venue and I was walking around and people were dejected, “Oh my god, what have I missed?” The penny dropped for me. There is a need for help. Maybe they have tried religion, they’ve tried Christianity or whatever, “I’ve tried doing it my own way, and you know what I’m still lost”. And a beautiful figure like the Dalai Lama comes. So people who didn’t get to see him were really lacking in something, I think it’s that sense of connection. Because if we are feeling connected, then it doesn’t matter if you see the Dalai Lama or not. I was there with my sister. We were standing outside because we also missed out on getting inside and actually seeing him, but it was a pretty amazing experience to realise that as a species we are missing something. We’ve separated from nature, from what’s really the basic natural importance. We’ve become really intellectual, we’ve become really industrialised, we’ve become very modern, we’ve got all this stuff but it’s taken us further away from the truth, it’s muddled our minds and hence there is a lot more pain and suffering. It is encouraging to me as the yoga teacher to have students come in who are physically challenged, but it’s actually helping them get through the day. So, because of something I’ve said, when the boss yells at them, they don’t take it so seriously. They might look at the boss was a bit more compassion instead. So I think the gift, in some way, of being the yoga teacher, is that the philosophy happens to suit the people who come along and they keep coming. But it doesn’t suit everybody by all means, there are lots of people who will come and go.

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Jess: So, with your studying of traditional Chinese medicine, is the plan to incorporate that into your yoga teaching or to retire from teaching and become a full-time traditional Chinese medicine practitioner?

Kate: I don’t know, I have ideas, but I guess my life will just have to wait and see. I couldn’t quite imagine myself not teaching. I’ve been running teacher training courses since 2006, so I’ve been teaching trainees of yoga to become teachers. I would employ an anatomist, I would employ a Sanskrit scholar to teach the philosophy. I would bring in other people to the course. Now that I’ve studied traditional Chinese medicine I know more about anatomy on a deeper level and I feel more confident to teach that myself, as well other things, the shiatsu, and bodywork, even the philosophy. So it helps me with my teacher training courses and it helps me understand the body better just in general teaching to the public. I think they go really well together, because when you’re moving the body in certain ways you’re also stretching certain meridians, so I can talk to people and them understand their bodies by knowing what part of the body is blocked. I wanted to study traditional Chinese medicine, but it seemed like such a big course and I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it, and now I’m realising that I am. That was from the years of being a bad student when I was younger, I thought I wouldn’t be up to doing it. So who knows, I think it will be a work in progress.

Jess: Thanks, Kate, fantastic!

* For more information about Kate Pell, please visit www.bowralyogastudio.com.au

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com

Subject

Sage

Interviewer

Jessica Raschke

Location

Bowral, New South Wales

Photographer

Hamish Ta-mé

Date

November 22, 2013

SageSage

Sage: The magic of spiritual transformation and enlightenment

When Sage had a transformative spiritual experience in Byron Bay, it set him on a powerful and fast-paced path to enlightenment. I spoke with Sage about his experience and can only describe the discussion as ‘mind blowing’. This conversation needs to be read and re-read again to fully comprehend its complexity. But it’s worth the time and reflection because it will stay with you for a long, long time. It might alter your perspective on your life as you know it (as it has for me).

Jess: I’m talking to people about their ideas and understandings of soul and spirituality in their everyday lives. It’s a lifelong quest for me, I find myself asking what soul means to me, and to others. I thought I could get people’s stories out there because I think many of us are trying to find meaning and trying to find that space within ourselves that makes the most sense, that most feels like home. In that searching no one is entirely sure about what feels right for them. So I’m interested in speaking with people who seem to be well on their way to working it out…

Sage: Yes, well, the interesting thing about soul is that it’s incorporeal, so it’s beyond material matter. If I was to say to you, “Where is my soul?” Could you pinpoint it? Could you say, “There it is,” like a scientist? Could you pinpoint something of matter and study it objectively? I think the first thing we have to understand when we’re talking about spiritual domains is: how do we approach it? What is the avenue of investigation? To me that’s the most important thing, because the demarcation lines of the investigation can set up what you’re going to find. If you start with a limited parameter or a limited way of viewing something, what you’re going to have is a limited finding. We need to understand that if we are looking at something that’s beyond matter, beyond personal experience, then how do we touch it, how do we experience it? That’s the fundamental question.

Jess: Yes, it’s a huge question, one that philosophers have been trying to answer for a very long time. Some people have made claims that the soul lives in the brain and is the size of a pea, for example. I’ve read that somewhere [laughs].

Sage: I’ve never read that [laughs]. I’ll have to look that up.

Jess: It’s a funny one that people have reminded me of a few times! That’s what is so interesting about the concept of soul because many philosophers have brought it up. There seems to be some belief that we hold, whether it’s just out of necessity or if it’s actual, that there is something fundamentally distinct and essential to our nature that is intangible but, as you say, we haven’t come up with the right tools yet.

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Sage: It may be that philosophers haven’t found this because they’re using the wrong instrument. My understanding and experience is that soul and spirit are fundamentally transcendental. When you look at mind – your mind, my mind – it is comprised of a whole lot of experiences and knowledge. Your experience, your knowledge is physically stored in your brain cells. If someone has an acquired brain injury or there is some problem with their brain cells, a whole lot of memory and personal experiences of self can be completely wiped away. So memory is fundamentally a physical thing. So if soul and spirit are transcendental, then using thought to try and bring about understanding of this architecture, well, it’s my understanding that you will never find it. So then you have opinion, you have belief, you have conjecture, you have, “This is what I think it is,” and that’s all you’ll get.

Jess: Yes, you can’t necessarily see it, but a lot of people feel it and sense it.

Sage: So I think we need to look at whether there is a difference in the definition between spirit and soul. Historically, through the ages, there’s been crossover, there’s been mingling, there’s been the blurring of the lines. There may be a distinction, which would be helpful, so then we can narrow this huge thing down a little bit.

Jess: I think in general terms the soul is understood to be something that is essential to a particular person’s nature, that it belongs solely – pardon the pun – to a person or an animal or any kind of sentient being, that it’s quite specific. And if you believe in karma and reincarnation then that same soul will retain its essential nature and will be transferred to another sentient being.

Sage: See, the Buddhists don’t believe in the soul.

Jess: Yes, but maybe there is energy or spirit but soul doesn’t exist in the same way that it might under a Christian doctrine.

Sage: I did a bit of a dig up on Wikipedia on soul. The Hebrew translation is “nephesh” and in the beginning they didn’t make any differentiation between soul separate from the physical. They saw soul, mind, body, spirit – everything – as one complete entity. It was only until Greek thought came along that we had more of a separation of things. When it comes to spirit, I think the collective unconscious and its experience of spirit tells you there is a spirit world, people have repeated experiences of seeing spirit. How do we see spirit? It is disembodied, it is a light being, it’s at a different frequency of vibration as it moves out of the physical, it tends to come in and out of the physical through near death experiences, that’s a very common one. And I never hear people say, “My soul has left me”. I think we can say there are spiritual entities out there, there is a spirit inside of us, which is a little bit more tangible. My feeling is that soul is the entirety of everything.

Jess: So like a god-like presence or force?

Sage: There is no individual soul. I say that because I had a spiritual experience in 1996. A spirit entered my body, I saw it physically. I’ve written a short autobiography, it’s on my website and you can download it. And this spiritual being illuminated the trees, it moved towards me and it entered my body through my heart chakra. So from that period of time it had a very strong influence on me.

Jess: Where were you, what were you doing?

Sage: I was in Byron Bay, I had a whole lot of mystical experiences leading up to that, which was in the subconscious realm of things, like preparation for this spiritual entity to arrive. Shortly after things coalesced and I went to India so this spirit could align itself with different spiritual frequencies; India is a strong motherland of spiritual energies within the earth itself. I went to different ashrams: I went to Meher Baba’s ashram, he called himself the Avatar. I went to Osho’s ashram, I went to Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram I went to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, and then I finally went to Hampi. Looking back now, with time, which can bring clarity, you can see the architecture and the reason behind certain things. So I can confidently say, regarding spirit, that I have directly seen spirit out of a body. From my understanding of traditional Chinese medicine, they say that spirit resides in the heart and controls the mind and is linked with emotions of happiness, clarity of thinking, and it can be viewed through the eyes. A lot of this is quite true, so when someone has a clarity of spirit, their spirit is strong, it is clear, it’s like the fog of life is not around them, they have purpose and clarity, their eyes shine with brilliance, they have a purpose, they have good intention and it’s aligned with something that is good and love. When it comes to soul…

Jess: This is from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective?

Sage: Yes, they say the soul is “hun” and it resides in the liver. You can manipulate the energy within the spirit via the heart channels with certain needles with certain points that calm the spirit, that calm the emotions, so you can allay anxiety and stress through acupuncture. It’s not the same with acupuncture with the soul, it doesn’t have a direct influence necessarily.

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Jess: So you can’t treat a soul in the same way you can treat a spirit?

Sage: Clinically it’s been demonstrated that you can harmonise someone’s spirit because spirit is a light vibration and essentially what happens with spirit, not just within traditional Chinese medicine but in my own spiritual experience, I’ve seen how spirit operates in me, is that spirit requires the physicality of the body almost for energetic purposes. It’s like a battery source, it requires the vitality of the organ systems, it needs the functionality of the body to work properly. When things aren’t working properly, there is a lack of amplitude. If someone has chronic pain or chronic fatigue, then the functionality of the spirit, how it expresses itself, is compromised. I can see that in myself, I can see that in clients, mystically I’ve seen it. So spirit is dependent on the body for its source of life and vibrancy.

Jess: So the spirit needs the body to have its vitality in order to have the spark?

Sage: Exactly. And when people die they lose the vibrancy of the spirit, it’s like a battery and there’s not enough amplitude for the spirit and eventually the physical passes away. And that spiritual mind-body cannot be housed any more, so the spirit leaves the heart.

Jess: So the spirit leaves and does it go elsewhere, according to traditional Chinese medicine?

Sage: That’s getting a bit mystical, it doesn’t talk about that so much, because it is a medicine and its knowledge is more specific about how to treat emotions and psychological disorders. My personal experience is that, when my own spirit took me to India, it knew exactly all of the things that it needed to do. It had been here before, it’s like it had been programmed and had all of the experiences before and it just needed to be in contact again. So how does this spirit have all of that information, how is it all tapped in? It’s tapped in through the mind primarily, that’s my understanding. Because everything we do, every action that we have, has thought and thinking behind it, with spirit connected with thought and thinking. Everything that we do the spirit sees and is fully connected with. When we do something of harm, or something of ill will or evil, we have an overwhelming feeling of discomfort and wrong. Is that just emotion? Where is that emotion coming from? These feelings of wrongness are an emanation of the spirit, which is connected with all of the organ systems, and psychologically connected in an integrated human being.

So spirit is a seemingly individual aspect of a person and spirit is a part of everything. It may be trees and nature, it may be animals, it may be humans; they all have a collective spirit. We wouldn’t say that the spirit is individual, it only appears individual.

Jess: Like the collective unconscious or something like that? Or is that a different force altogether?

Sage: Well, you have the unconscious mind, the subconscious mind and the conscious mind, which is all about self. That’s the other very important topic, self. If spirit is the life force within us and it fundamentally connects us to existence, universally, then it’s a universal life force within all living things. And without spirit we’re dead. Spirit is like the vibration of life, like God. It is universal, seemingly within an individual person or an animal, it is only individual because matter has coalesced to form an individual process, but this is all transitory. Your life, my life, the physical aspect, the trees, the stars, are all transitory phenomena, but spirit is beyond the transitory phenomena.

Jess: So we’re like vessels that flow through the spirit, not so much capturing it, but we flow through the spirit?

Sage: Definitely, you can see that the spirit resides in the physical because spirit needs to operate. There may be a purpose for existence, funny enough, and spirit may have a reason behind this [the way it works].

Jess: Funny enough! I would like to talk more about your personal biography, about your background, and once we’ve traversed that for a little while to go back to these experiences that you’ve had with spirit, because it’s interesting how we are born into this world into a random family and set of circumstances and how we find meaning in our lives from thereon. If you feel comfortable to talk a little bit about the early days for you. Where were you born, what were key elements of your childhood?

Sage: I was born in Melbourne.

Jess: And what did you feel like as a kid, what kind of inclinations did you have towards the life that you’re leading now, did you had any prescient feelings?

Sage: I’m 44 now, so looking back with a bit of age, hindsight, and a bit of wisdom… Well, it’s like being on the mountaintop, and you can look back with a little bit of clarity because you’re not in the valley with the clouds. That’s been quite important for me, to be able to look back with clarity because clarity dispels illusion. When we think about clarity, does clarity come from understanding or thinking about one’s life and trying to understand it? Or is there a different operational level of being beyond thought and thinking in our own psyche? I say there is, I say that there is a completely different consciousness beyond consciousness of thought that is operating in everything and that’s our essential being, but we’re caught up in thought. Which is tied to knowledge and experience, which is limited. And we’re moving from this limited place and we’re hoping that, with a whole lot of knowledge, we can gain wisdom. But knowledge is limited, it’s personal, knowledge is always being built on, it’s never fully understood, we can never fully understand what’s beyond the mind, but we’re always using knowledge to coalesce, to bring a worldview in. But we haven’t been able to do that. I think fundamentally that is one of humanity’s problems.

So I’m on top of the mountain looking back with clarity. I was born into this life with purpose. I wasn’t attached to my father, only through blood, I wasn’t attached to my two older brothers, only through blood; the only person I was attached to karmically was my mother. We choose where we are born into this life, at a particular point in time, and to our Mum and Dad, it’s not random. And when I was born, I was born unconscious. I was very shy when I was a kid, I was very insecure, I was in a broken home. My Mum and Dad divorced when I was about five or six. The beginning of my life was a very unsettling time and that reflected in my spiritual essence. It was insecure. So for quite some time I never really knew what I wanted to do, even when I was in high school. If I was asked, “What do you want to do at university?” I couldn’t give you the answer. So I’ve been like a wandering nomad for a long time.

Then in 1993 I met a gentleman by the name of Richard who was an acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, basically doing what I am doing now, funny enough. In my book, I talk about the people on this earth who are called masters who have keys to give us. These people unlock aspects of us that are shut down for whatever reason and time brings us together. To me, this gentleman was a key that unlocked something within me that had been shut away on purpose for my own security.

Jess: Shut away on purpose until you were ready to look into the facets that made more sense to you? It was a matter of timing?

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Sage: It was a matter of timing in terms of age. I had past adolescence, I had got to a stage where I was pretty secure physically, and spiritually this person gave me a key that began to unlock some sort of spiritual destiny that was going to happen to me. It was locked away subconsciously. It was locked for my own self-protection.

Jess: And did you realise it when you met him? That something had been unlocked?

Sage: No.

Jess: It took a little while to realise that?

Sage: Not on the conscious level. It felt like I had met someone who took me under his wing and things fell into place. It worked really well. Then I followed in his footsteps.

Jess: So you started to study?

Sage: Yes, traditional Chinese medicine in 1993. I lived with him and I looked up to him as a master but I didn’t have that terminology in my consciousness. I saw this gentleman as wise, which he is, and I was brought to him for some reason, who knows what that was, but it happened. It’s only been until the last decade or so that I’ve looked into this from the top of the clarity of the mountain and seen this with clear vision.

Jess: So meeting this gentleman put you on a more steadfast path towards a spiritual life, and thinking and feeling at more spiritual levels from thereon?

Sage: It set me onto the path of what I do now, which is acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. I remember Richard used to say, “Your work has to be your life. It can’t be separate.” And you understand when you become a healer that it’s an honour, offering something to existence, supporting the betterment of people; taking people from sickness and pain into health, and that’s a really valuable thing to do. And I needed to do that. So on a practical level he set me up for what I’m doing now. Acupuncture has come very easy to me.

Jess: So that was in 1993 and then in 1996 it [the spirit] took you to India?

Sage: Yes, I studied with Richard and then I moved on. In 2006 I came back to Byron Bay. I lived there and met up with Richard again, and then spiritual experiences started to happen around me, which I write about in my book. I stayed at Richard’s place one night, I was more conscious of things going on, the subconscious and the unconscious were really working out in the open. I was sleeping in his lounge room on the mattress on the floor – he’s got a lovely Lassie dog called Sarah – and at 3 o’clock in the morning I woke up from hearing her barking. When I woke up the air was charged with spiritual energy, the vibration was really enhanced, there were goosebumps on my skin and I was like, “Wow, what’s going on?” I got out of bed, opened up the front door and looked down the side of his place. To the left, about 20 metres down among the trees was a light that was oval in shape, about 6 foot high, illuminating the trees, and I remember staring at it just speechless. I knew it was benevolent, there was no uncertainty or fear, and I knew it was for me. I remember staring at it and it was moving towards me. I went back to the house, closed the door and went back into my bed. I lay down with my arms across my chest, and a minute or two later I felt a physical sensation descending into my heart chakra, I felt it sink into my body. In the morning I asked Richard about it, I said, “Did you feel anything last night?” He said, “No”. I took it that – at a conscious level – he wasn’t meant to know about it, so I never told him about it. I kept it a secret. Soon after that I met a lady, and we hooked up together and we went to India. I needed someone and she was like a princess. We went to Meher Baba’s ashram, which is a Western-style ashram, and that’s where we split up. Then I went onto my journey after that. I had the feeling that I was being dragged around by the spirit, I was out of control. It was like the control of my life was out of my hands. And I was taken to different places for whatever reason.

Jess: Did you ever feel it leave?

Sage: No.

Jess: Do you feel like it’s still present?

Sage: It’s a part of me. I had quite a few questions. Is this a different spirit from my spirit? Is there going to be some kind of interaction? Would it be like schizophrenia? How is all of this going to play out? I’ve come to some understanding that I was born, if you like, with a lack of spirit. I was born unconscious and then a part of me, my spiritual integrity, came to me when the time was right. I know it sounds very mystical, it sounds way out there and I rarely tell people about this, but I wrote about it in my book because I needed to write about this for myself, just to get things out.

Jess: Well it’s something that you’ve experienced and felt and it has given you significant meaning. It’s absolutely real, even though we only have the mystical language to describe it. So having experienced that and feeling now that your spirit has been perhaps returned to you or has been gifted to you, I don’t know the right phraseology…

Sage: It was returned to me…

Jess: Have you been clear ever since then? It sounds like it was significantly transformative, and it led to a fundamental shift in your way of being. Have you been able to sustain that kind of feeling and that sense of purpose since the early days of the return of the spirit? Have you been able to hold onto it firmly? Because that’s quite a mystical experience as you’ve said but then we live mundane lives, so how do those things go together?

Sage: I’ve only told you the beginning. But it’s an important beginning. I went to various different ashrams, I went to Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram before he died in 1998 for three weeks and then I went to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, who was recognised almost universally as a genuine mystic; but he passed away in the 1950s, but you can still go to his ashram. I stayed around there for about two weeks. In the meditation hall there is a huge framed photo of him sitting on a couch and this photo of him sits on the couch. So it’s like he’s sitting on the couch. And I used to sit there and meditate in complete silence. The spirit was receiving a lot of spiritual tools and connections by the very virtue of being to different spiritual masters and walking through India. I also went to the place where the Buddha was enlightened. Any feeling of self and self-determination was stripped and I was just in a flow in India; wherever it took me, that’s where I landed. I spent immense amounts of silence with Ramana Maharshi. The spirit talks through silence and he used to communicate through silence, that was one of his major ways of communication. We used to communicate; when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘we’ in the spirit, ‘we’ used to communicate, his energy was still pouring from the photo in the room and the couch that he used to sit on. I left there and I went to Hampi, which is another really magical site, a surreal landscape of boulders with a serpentine river snaking through it, it’s very ancient, with ancient caves. I stayed there for a couple of weeks just sitting in silence and meditating. I wasn’t travelling with anyone, just my spirit.

In Hampi I witnessed self-realisation, which is when thought itself realises the nature of its own existence.  You see, we normally go through experience to get to knowledge, we might read a book, there are endless forms of escapism that we can move into as distractions of the mind. When you are in an eternal landscape of solid stone and immense silence, and in an ancient civilisation, meditating in dark caves, there is a tremendous force of eternity that is surrounding you. And thought being transitory phenomena is insignificant to this. That’s what happened [to me], and there was no avenue of escape, there was no talking, there was no socialising, there was just sitting in silence, no distractions. And in this immovable silence thought finally came upon its own realisation, of what it was, which is the centre of self. The self is comprised of thought. And thought’s only function, essentially, is as a tool for communication. And it asserts itself as an identity of self that dominates existence, it dominates and directs life. In this immense silence, thought had nowhere to go. It saw the nature of itself, and in that there was a moment that it released. It had positioned itself as self, and it just fell apart. And I just got up laughing. A part of me was free. Something had cracked. And Hampi was finished for me.

Then my holiday began, I left India. I had a flight via Thailand so I stayed on the beaches for a week, then I came back to Australia. Up until that point, spirit was in the motion of effort, it was bringing things to it, coalescing things around it, and after this self-realisation, there was a full let go, nothing needed to be done. I just let things settle. Then I went to Byron Bay, I went to an ashram, it was called Osho Samaya, and it was on 100 acres of property. The gentleman who owned it was an Osho follower and anyone could go there. I became a resident and I stayed there for six months or so. Initially I was down at the bottom of the property in a canvas army tent near a beautiful stream with a still, beautiful pool. I would sit on the bank of the stream at dawn and meditate in complete silence. The leaves on the trees used to pitter-patter on the water, it was so silent, the birds would be waking up. There was still self in me, and I would be going to the pool and I would be emptying myself into the pool in complete silence. And less and less of me walked away. There was one moment when I went down to the pool, I used to have a shawl that I took around in India and I still have it now, and I sat down on my hessian sack in complete silence with no thought, it was like eternity and I was sitting there [clicks fingers and blows a breath of air] and the flame [gestures it’s gone]. You know what the Buddha called Nirvana? To be blown out, to be extinguished like a flame? [Clicks fingers.] That’s what happened. Self as consciousness, self as a self-created entity had gone. And when it goes, it’s gone for ever.

Jess: So does anything come into its place?

Sage: No. Nothing comes into its place.

Jess: So, I say the word ‘mundane’ not in its derogatory sense, but in its pragmatic everyday, quotidian sense. How do you live a mundane life after an experience like that?

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Sage: There was an adjustment period for a long time, a long time of a void-like consciousness. Without thought operating there is just immense silence. So thought is now used as a communication tool. So there was an adjustment period, but I met Sara [Sage's wife] not too long after. So existence has provided me and, looking back, my traditional Chinese medicine has been my conduit, if you like. It has given me meaning and purpose and functionality. So I can operate. I operate differently now, I can operate through traditional Chinese medicine really well, because it’s an ancient art.

We can be fully conscious of the immense sacredness of existence while we’re alive.

But coming back to Nirvana, which is the extinguishment of the self into enlightenment. Where do you go? You have essentially become the universal consciousness, which we all are. You are that. The trees, the birds, the stars, we are all that. But what makes the difference for human beings is that – unlike plants who are not conscious of their divinity, and animals who are instinctual so they are not fully conscious – we can be fully conscious of the immense sacredness of existence while we’re alive. I can only assume that from the very beginnings of evolution, ‘God’ or ultimate consciousness wanted to experience itself in every different dimension. It wanted to experience itself as a rock, as a plant, as a bird, and all of these different forms of matter. A bird will have a different experience, it flies around, it touches trees, the bees have different experiences, we all have different experiences. So God as ultimate consciousness, not as a male figure, as ultimate consciousness of love, not physical love but love beyond comprehension, experiences itself in infinite ways through form and matter. However, when we move into form, we move into self, because we identify our self through the physical. We get trapped in that. And that’s the ignorance that we live. Unfortunately, my feeling is that, through evolution, because evolution is form based, the ties are so strongly linked to the self and the survival of the species. So we have identified ourselves with the ego self and it is ingrained so strongly that it’s rare for people to fully break this illusion.

Jess: There are very few people who would want to do that, I would say. You would have to be very determined to break it.

You live from one unknown to the other unknown and that’s what brings magic into existence.

Sage: I am telling you from the truth of my being that this spirit was enlightened before. When it went into my body it knew what to do. It had been there before, and it did it really quickly, within a year or two… When you live in the present, when you’re living in the now, because that is where life is lived, you live from one unknown to the other unknown and that’s what brings magic into existence. We can become bored with the rut of life, the day-to-day existence, the same job for 20 years, the same images that we have of our kids, it’s all routine. It becomes boring and stale. We live through the mind. But in the present moment in life, mind is just a functional tool. But if you’re living in the present moment in day-to-day existence, which goes from one unknown point to the next unknown point, where does boredom come in? Then there is magic. Then you’re not searching for experience or entertainment, or escape into religion, into spirituality, because these are all entrapments. The living now cannot be theorised, it can only be lived, just like the tree can only experience existence just by living, just by being, it can’t think about it. We can think about life, we can think about the soul, we can philosophise about it all, but in the end it’s beyond the human mind and understanding, it’s transcendental. When we understand that, we start living. Instead of mind trying to understand the meaning of life, we realise that it’s pointless and the basis for self-preoccupation.

Jess: We’ll have to wrap up there. Huge! Thank you.

 

* For more information about Sage, please visit www.enlightenmentwithsage.com

* For more information about Hamish Ta-mé, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com


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