Interview with Darrell Calkins

This interview was conducted by Philip Mitchell and Kevin Kreiger. Philip is a retired therapist, pilot and businessman. Kevin is a teacher, playwright and poet.

A perennial question that everyone seems to want to know about you is “What’s your background?” Both in terms of the typically combative “who the hell are you to say/do the things that you do” as well as those of us who are curious as to the heritage that is coming down to us through you.

My background is somewhat eclectic. In my early teens, I began to take interest in various Eastern schools of thought—Buddhism, yoga, Sufism, and the philosophies behind Chinese and Japanese martial arts. At the same time, I was in a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers, so I had a fairly deep religious training. My studies at school focused mainly on theater, as a playwright, actor and director. I started my own theater group at 15, the same age I began lecturing through a public speaking program at a nearby college. I was quite shy, so speaking and performing became a real challenge.

I jockeyed back and forth with all of these for a few years before really focusing on mastering the physical arts. That took me to a lot of places: Kung Fu and Tai Chi, Aikido, classical ballet, basic physiology and biology, endurance training and running, and again, yoga. I had the right genes and a lot of energy, so I eventually made my way up through the ranks and got to work with some elite teachers.

In my twenties, I traveled to the Orient, became serious about Zen Buddhism and Chinese and Japanese martial arts. I spent some extended time in a couple of monasteries. Back in the States, I studied Western philosophy, psychology and literature at Cal Berkeley and eventually Yale, largely auditing postgraduate courses.

Through all this, I was basically following my instincts. I didn’t really have a single teacher or discipline that eclipsed the others. My luck was in meeting extraordinary individuals in each of the disciplines I studied, mainly those who had really given their life to their chosen art. I loved the unique atmosphere and rituals associated with each school. At some point, I began to realize that each of them was saying more or less the same thing. And I understood that I was looking for a central theme or essence to all this. What’s the driving force behind these disciplines? What are people looking for? What am I looking for?

In terms of a heritage, I’m probably not sufficiently certified to be an accurate representative of any of the given disciplines above. My experience and interests are too wide-ranging. In recent years, my focus has turned toward the natural sciences, for example. I know a lot about falcons.

So, who the hell am I to say and do what I do? Nobody. Just a man trying to make the most of my time on the planet. If I’m succeeding in passing down some heritage, I hope it’s just this essential driving force, a love of questioning and engaging. Keeping that alive.

How has this eclectic background led you to do what you do? How did teaching arise as a way of life? More specifically, how, for example, does your extensive knowledge about falcons emanate from and inform what you do? And while we’re on the subject: what exactly do you do?

I don’t really consider myself to be a teacher, although I understand that others do. There’s a certain restriction or reduction in that stereotype that doesn’t ring true. Especially the underlying assumption that I know something that others don’t, and my job is to give them what I know. That’s simply not true.

My personal experience in doing what I do is more along the lines of following the questioning, or, more precisely, the questing of others. To do that correctly, it’s essential that I don’t provide an answer that ends the quest, but rather, that I somehow aid in making that quest more functional, clear and fulfilling. Part of that involves engaging in a dialogue to facilitate cleaning out unworkable habits and misperceptions. But most of it is just being authentically interested in the individual I’m working with. That builds a common trust, from which a shared process of real exploration can take place.

Having said that, I’d like to add that learning to be authentically interested in someone else is an immense project. It’s extremely rare to find someone capable of it. How often do you have someone ask you three consecutive questions, with genuine curiosity? Not so as to identify what they might get from you, or so they can judge and place you in the appropriate box, or to provide their own pat answer to your problem, or out of common obligation. But simply because they care and are interested? I try to care and be interested. I believe that’s the essence of my “job.” That work arose as a way of life from having noticed that not many others are doing it. I can’t say if I do that well, but that’s what I try to do.

Beyond that, I’m a big fan of the idea that we already know way too much, but don’t know what to do with it. Beneath all that is a soul searching for how to have fun, in the deepest sense of the word, and how to cause fun for others. I try to assist in a process to relocate that and live according to it. For each of us, that’s completely unique. To find exactly what that is in each individual has little or nothing to do with teaching.

Evolution seems to be your central theme or organizing principle. Where does evolution fit in your view of the world and how the world works? Do you use it as a metaphor because it is commonly known or as a metaphor because you find it powerful? Or is it perhaps your unconscious belief system?

Yes, it’s mainly just a good open-ended, somewhat neutral metaphor. Terms like spirituality, human potential, personal growth, or even happiness and attainment or others all have common restrictions and personalities, causing more likelihood of, “Oh, yeah, I know what he means.” And they’re less accurate. I’m not using the term as in the Darwinian scenario, but more as in its origin: unrolling or unraveling.

It may be a belief, but as I see it, yes, that’s the name of the game. Unraveling mystery. Some of that is external and some of it is internal. I can think of nothing in the universe that does not abide by this essential principle. I’m simply transposing it to the specifics of the human being. We do have some capacity to determine how things evolve, and how we evolve, individually and as a community or race. That’s a tremendous freedom and a tremendous responsibility.

You implied that various religious, philosophical and spiritual traditions carry a lot of baggage. I assume from the originators and followers, and the onlookers. I see evolution as equally loaded, including the ‘scientific view’ as well as those who use it to answer the traditional questions of where did things come from, is there meaning to life, who cares, etc. I would like a follow up to your last two sentences. Do you believe we have the capacity to influence our evolution or even the evolution beyond ourselves beyond rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Or, if we have little impact, should we act ‘as if’ we did because it makes us feel good?

There is, no doubt, as you suggest, some reaction to the term evolution that limits its viability as a neutral but accurate metaphor. I’ve found that usually what I’m up against in terms of prejudice or assumption are terms that are more commonly used and nice. I try to cut through the scientific association by specifying personal evolution. The majority of persons who don’t know me and are introduced to my work come from angles of self-reflection and self-betterment, usually via schools of religion, spirituality, psychology or other forms of therapy. Personal evolution makes some sense, it’s close in spirit, but usually avoids immediate categorization.

In any case, I’m not attached to the word, and am open to better ideas. Do you have one? Perhaps unfolding is better? Sounds to me like something you’d do to a deck chair.

On your last question…Various human abuses resulted in reducing the total number of Peregrine falcons on the planet thirty years ago to dangerously low levels, where extinction seemed highly probable. A few, and only a few, individuals noticed this and studied the causes. After a long battle to get that information out and instigate necessary changes, a corner was turned and, very slowly, the momentum changed directions. Now the breed is doing well.

My wife was an innocent observer in my own studies and teachings about falcons. Eventually, she pursued various opportunities to meet, hold and study falcons close up. Those experiences remain an unending source of inspiration and joy for her, and provided an obvious and permanent shift in her perceptions and experience of life itself, which has since influenced experiences of others. All of that was caused by noticing and engaging the elements of influence. Choosing for things to unfold in a specific direction and not another or no direction.

On a more profound internal dimension, we survive largely because of the existence and recognition of high-end qualities—compassion, integrity, courage, humility, etc. These are how we perceive spirit. Even the most cynical and fatalistic bastard will snap out of self-absorption, abuse and hopelessness when confronted by an extreme expression of any one of these qualities. (Case studies show that this also applies even to rapists and murderers, not always, but more so than any other technique or therapy.) That is, beyond belief, the desire to feel good, or even hope or despair, there does exist an essential intuitive value system in each of us. This runs through and across every culture, and even every species. I don’t believe that those intuitive values are there to fool us into occupying ourselves so as to feel good while waiting for the inevitable to happen. Nature is not so decadent. Or cynical.

It takes choice and sacrifice to develop these qualities. This itself is the act of creation and personal evolution. Rarely do they happen by accident. We can equally choose to not develop them, to not evolve, at least at this time in history. We suffer and cause suffering when we don’t, but that’s not the ultimate reason for doing so. Whether or not we personally do impact some ultimate evolution beyond ourselves, we can definitely influence what happens today. To choose to waste a day, or a lifetime, is opposed to the essential spirit of life, expressed, sacrificed for, and upheld through every perceivable interaction in nature. It’s also opposed to every human expression of spirit throughout history. We know to live up to our potential, to fulfill the trust of creation by moving forward, even if we don’t believe it or feel like it or know why.

As an aside, the Titanic is a good metaphor. Notice that there were some survivors, new ship construction techniques developed because of it, lots of excellent stories (some involving the qualities listed above), a heightened ethic on peripheral perception and responsibility in some related areas, and the chance to see Kate Winslet topless in the film, so not all was lost. Some evolution came as a result of it, and that was a choice.

Please tell us about three life changing experiences, epiphanies if you like, that fundamentally changed your view of the world and yourself, and that led to a change in behavior. If you would, I would prefer each story to be of a different age period and/or different circumstances. For example, from childhood, adolescence and recently.

When I was eleven or twelve, I was isolated in my bedroom as punishment for having stolen some money from my father’s wallet. I was told that I could leave my room once I apologized for having done what I had. Everything with entertainment value was removed from the bedroom, except for my books. I went to school in the mornings, returned home in the afternoon, and spent the rest of my time in the room. Entire weekends were spent in solitude. This went on for at least some weeks, and possibly a few months. As the time went on, it became more and more difficult to apologize. I actually tried to do so, but couldn’t formulate the words and became increasingly self-conscious.

Anyway, as the days went on, I found myself inventing all kinds of activities in my room to keep away from boredom and depression. I invented physical exercises that I discovered years later to be variations on yoga postures. I would hold these positions for long periods of time, noticing how my breathing changed and slowed, and enjoying the sensations, mainly a deep calm and serenity. I read a lot, including some books that others had given me but that I wasn’t really interested in at the time. My sense of time altered and I would wake up in the middle of the night, read or just imagine things.

One theme that kept coming back was all the things I would do when I would finally be let out of the prison. I felt a deepening gratitude for all kinds of things and persons that I had always taken for granted. I yearned to be outside and have the freedom to choose.

Finally, my parents gave up and let me out. My life returned to normal. I vividly recall the first day out; I did everything I had imagined, played games with my friends, rode my bike, ate ice cream, watched the TV, climbed trees… When I returned to my room that night, I felt strangely embarrassed and guilty, as if I had somehow done injustice to some unspoken trust. I also felt deeply saddened by the realization that everything I had done that day failed to produce real joy. I had actually been happier in my room without the “freedom.” I never spoke about this to my friends or family, but my experience of everything was entirely and permanently changed.

Another experience was when I must have been about seven or eight. A friend of mine yelled out to me that my younger brother had been in a bike accident down the street and was stuck under a car. I immediately had a tremendous sensation of infinite power. I ran through backyards and over fences that I would usually avoid out of fear. I had absolutely no sense of self-limitation, total freedom combined with an extraordinary extrasensory emotional perception that is indescribable. I knew, more than anything I had ever known, that nothing would stop me. I was crying as I ran, overwhelmed with a combination of emotions I was completely unfamiliar with.

When I arrived to the scene of the accident, my brother was fine with only a few scratches. I don’t recall what happened after.

If I may take two separate episodes from adulthood, as they both came to mind simultaneously…

The first was my initial experience of really recognizing death right in front of me. I had been in martial arts training for a long time, and had reached a level where my teachers pulled out all the regular precautions during a combat exercise. I realized that the risks were very real. My usual sensation of panic came, and I responded with my habitual techniques to control it—breathing, talking down the fear in my head, concentrating on details.

At some point, and I don’t know what triggered it, I felt this strange ease or relaxation. It was initially just physical, but my emotions followed quickly. I stopped thinking. Everything slowed down. I could see details of each item and movement with tremendous clarity. It was great fun, and an exquisite relief.

I recognized in my mind that I was playing with death, not in the sense of taking it on carelessly, but that all I had to do was play. From that initial recognition, everything flowed effortlessly. What a relief: “All you have to do is go play, you idiot!”

The second was a more recent event, about 15 years ago. I was asleep in my bed while living in New York City. In the middle of the night, a great clap of thunder came out of nowhere. I was so surprised and it sounded so weird that I immediately thought that a nuclear bomb had gone off. A first wave of panic hit me. Then, immediately following and equally out of nowhere came this thought that any bombs that would be dropped would probably be directed to the big cities. A lot of people elsewhere would survive. Indeed, it would get rid of the cities and lower the population. Life would go on; it was just me and some others who would die. A new beginning from the wreckage. Again, a sensation of relief on all levels. I was happier that others would live on than I was afraid for myself. What a sense of freedom.

When I listen to you, sometimes you feel like one unending string of contradictions. You seem to go to great lengths to support many things which you then turn around and trash. Spirituality/religion would be one primary example, but hardly the only one. Can you comment more on the role of the whole paradox thing in your work? Why is it so important? Why can’t you present anything in a linear way?

The primary reason that I’m not a representative of specific groups or schools of thought is that that choice gives me the freedom to look at these groups and thoughts from the inside and the outside. I’m trying to be honest in that role—what really works here and what does not? That is, I have nothing to sell or win by any given position. I’m promoting a similar process for any person I interact with in my work, including toward me.

Investment in a given idea or group tends to immediately shut down options for perception, and then choice. Prejudice, bigotry and arrogance breed from that. One is forced to think a certain way to stay within the group or thought, and then to defend against apparent opposition. This constructs and feeds the kinds of adamant separation and conflict we see so many manifestations of on every level. In many cases, it’s also the cause of deep internal conflict in most individuals, yet it isn’t really addressed.

I try to focus on the essence of things. Following an already understood idea to its assumed conclusion is what linear thinking usually produces. One ends up with what one already has and knows… It’s raining outside; stay in. I’m hungry; go eat. I feel unsatisfied; make more money. An initial perception or impulse has an infinite number of directions it can go. Some work better than others. But in any case, if one doesn’t take time and energy to focus on the essential impulse, the gesture that follows will replicate what one already knows.

On paradox, it’s not intentional. There are some things that don’t function as one would assume. For example, the impulse and linear thinking associated with the search for happiness most often produce questions like, “What’s in it for me?” or “How do I get what I want?” Paradoxically, if you will, that very question pushes authentic happiness away. Now, to try to explain that to someone in such a way that they hear and are interested by the idea is going to probably involve some paradox and non-linearity.

So many traditions advocate the notion that freedom comes from surrender; surrender to a specific deity/deities, and surrender to a preconceived set of beliefs and spiritual/social rules. Obviously, you’re headed in a different, more complex, and ultimately more dangerous direction: freedom is an individual’s greatest gift and greatest burden (regardless of organizational affiliation), and as such entails enormous responsibility.

Can you talk more about the role of freedom and responsibility in our evolution? Not only in terms of defining concepts, but also in terms of how they influence our lives? To whom are we ultimately responsible? What is it we are trying to preserve and promote? What exactly is at stake in this arena?

Well, for one, freedom and responsibility themselves are at stake. One does not find freedom or enact responsibility by surrendering to another’s conceptualization of these ideas. Living out the rules of conscience laid down by someone else for the attainment of an unquestioned goal, a freedom designed and articulated by someone else, is the surrender of human imagination and intuition.

In the more extreme versions of this, we end up with a collective momentum resulting in events such as Nazi extermination of millions of Jews, the Inquisition, or similar events recently in Africa and elsewhere. That comes from allocating one’s conscience to someone else, not attending to one’s own deeper intuitive sense of right and wrong.

On a more personal and, I think, devastating level, we lose access to our imaginative spirit—the impulse to imagine and create from our soul’s yearning. That may sound esoteric, but in practical translation, we end up with a life we never really imagined and designed. The goal, the methods to it, and the responsibilities attached to it were never questioned. Just play out the part someone else wrote for you, following the indications on the prefabricated signs along the road. I call this the superimposed self. You don’t really know or even recall what it was you truly wanted to do or be. “Life” got in the way of living; you did what you were told to do. Somehow, there was never time or space to really explore, to learn to love or create, or to ask, “Now, what am I here for, again?”

Each religion has provided a tremendous service in defining elements of conscience. They have made it possible for us to live together in a society, to work toward common goals, and to learn how to accept or tolerate relative opposition to our own opinions. I also think that this has been done much as a parent needs to provide a similar service for an adolescent. Internal and external conflict requires discipline to organize and structure some form of minimizing the chaos imposed on others.

There is a pivot point, however, to become an adult. That transition comes from recognizing and acting in accordance with your own deepest impulses. On the responsibility front, that means acting in harmony with your conscience, not because you’re going to be punished if you don’t, or paid for it if you do (heaven, enlightenment, salvation, or whatever), but because you know it to be right. On the freedom front, that means acquiescing to your deepest inspirations, following what truly compels you, even when it’s difficult to do so. These two principles brought together in the same time and space is what integrity is all about. And it is only through such integrity that you resolve conflict between the two of them: what you “know to do” and what you “want to do.”

Let’s see; what else is at stake? How about the human race? Whether or not one believes in the accelerating dangers of the climate crisis, the end of fossil fuels, or the permanent annihilation of species of plants, insects and animals that essentially cover our ass by maintaining an inconceivably complex environment in which we have the freedom and responsibility to do pretty much whatever we’d like, it’s not too difficult to at least perceive the dangers of heightened tensions between cultures that now, for the first time, have the power to annihilate each other or the entire planet.

I recently saw a wonderful documentary about what the Earth would look like many thousands of years from now. A number of experts from different fields and disciplines offered their views. Not one of them even mentioned human beings remaining on the planet. The species that would survive all had certain incontestable dynamics already in place. One primary quality, if you will, was that they had all resolved severe conflict within their own species. That is, all their energy and focus was directed toward real enemies, challenges and problems, not imagined or invented ones. They already realized that they were on the same team. The dynamic for the human race is exactly that of an adolescent frantically struggling to find a way to resolve apparently opposed impulses within himself.

Now, if you throw into an analysis of this problem the fact that internal species conflict for human beings is promoted and fueled by the different spiritual organizations or religions which are supposed to teach us how to resolve conflict, where exactly are we to find methods for resolving it? That’s going to take imagination and integrity well beyond anything we’ve yet seen. It’s also going to require a clear recognition that the challenge is not an abstract game, that we are not guaranteed immortality, and that ultimately, it’s our freedom and responsibility to determine what happens. And there is a clock ticking away somewhere.

One of the major threads in your work concerns the power of finding a degree of comfort in our discomfort. From physical training to the mental effort required to approach a state of stillness in meditation—from professional advancement to creative work to childrearing to intimate relationships—it’s obvious that success is ultimately contingent on our ability to apply a significant element of discipline to our pursuits. This of course generally entails significant degrees of discomfort. An initial response seems to follow the inevitable “stop whining, grit your teeth and get through it” mindset.

But I’ve heard you refer to a deeper level of dialogue that opens beyond stoicism; one in which the discomfort becomes welcome, even a source of joy, and which in turn leads to other possibilities. Can you comment more on that?

Essentially, what you’re referring to here is the experience of personal purpose.

We all understand the value of sacrifice, even if that only involves setting aside dessert so as to lose weight, or putting money in the bank so as to later buy a house. Progress or achievement in any arena requires choices that often oppose what one feels like doing. The trick in truly succeeding with this in the long run is locating enough depth of feeling that the experience of conflicting desires dissolves. For that to happen, one has to learn how to think emotionally and physiologically.

Traditional stoicism, indifference to pleasure or pain, is a form of imposing conscience so as to block more immediate desires. The problem is that it eventually collapses on itself because natural emotional and physiological impulses are being ignored or repressed. To pass beyond that dichotomy—”I want to eat ice cream, and yet I don’t”—requires conceiving and creating an integrated mind in which our passions and childlike impulses find expression through conscience. In other words, what we feel like doing and what we “should” do become one and the same.

The sticking point for most of us in this process is that we don’t know how to feel with conscience. Ideas like integrity or devotion remain abstract, theoretically correct and good, but lacking the ability to produce immediately fulfilling emotions or sensations. What I mean by learning to think emotionally and physiologically is rediscovering the visceral joy of investing in what we already love, the kind of unquestioned spiritual relentlessness we had as kids. As adults, that demands an internal dialogue through which we transpose the search for pleasure onto a platform that is in harmony with our conscience and real responsibilities. We find the pleasure in applied conscience. That’s a lot easier than it sounds. Basically, it’s about recognizing and feeling passion for what we really want to do in our lives.

Yes, once we get a handle on that, temporary discomfort is experienced completely differently. It becomes a source of fun, not an obligatory suffering for the greater cause. Over time, our definitions of comfort and discomfort can be completely reworked.

You mentioned that you do not see yourself as a teacher. I see you doing three additional things. You share a story (or an activity) and you do little or no interpretation of what a person should, needs to, or might discover though the story or experience. The student is thus left to discover his own meaning. You do select the story or activity that you believe the student(s) might find helpful.

You also often respond to a student, or set up a situation that confounds, “trances out” or breaks the student out of his current rut (familiar pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors). In that moment, he might be blown out of or just stumble out of his rut into a place from which he might recover. Or in psychobabble, he is now open to therapy.

Among others, Fritz Perls and Milton Erickson did this kind of thing regularly. Dr. Erickson used stories and hypnosis. Once he was walking down a dangerous street in NY City and a man stepped out of a doorway, pointed a handgun in Milton’s face and ordered, “Give me your wallet.” Milton slowly looked at his wristwatch and then looked at the robber and stated, “Why yes, the time is 4:32.” Then he stepped around the man. The robber was totally unprepared for such a response and while he “tranced out” trying to figure out what to do next, Milton was long gone.

Further, like most teachers, coaches, leaders, etc. it is enough for a student to just be in your presence to change or grow.

Do you relate to any of this or is the above counter to your perception of what you do.

Yeah, I recall this story about Erickson. That’s some cool operating.

I don’t know. I suppose I’m a bit more anti-Darrell than you’re giving me credit for here. My hope is that I’m much less of a manipulator than a Perls or Erickson (and a lot of others), at least the impressions I have of them. I’m not working from the presumption that I have the capacity to understand the specifics of personal disorders and therefore have solutions and a vision of what is better for someone else. I’m not offering therapy.

At every seminar, retreat or class I lead, my primary rule is to minimize any and all forms of imposition and manipulation, including any “answers” or advice I believe I have. Keeping things clean. That is, I try to keep to my deeper sense of respect for and trust in another’s ability to design their own personal process as they wish. As long as they hold to a similar set of principles. I go under the guidelines for creating the perfect date: my partner should leave the event not thinking how wonderful I am, but realizing how wonderful he or she is, or at least what he or she really loves and values in life. To do that well, I have to remove myself from playing therapist, master or teacher.

In my experience, most of us already have enough problems with various kinds of “trancing out,” so no, that’s not a technique I use or value. I do try to provide conversations and experiences that help to clarify or reveal the mechanics of habitual and addictive “trancing out.” Usually, these are just remnants of rules and behavior that others set up and we follow simply because we haven’t perceived them or haven’t yet found a better way. Even then, though, what someone else does with that information or experience is their business.

Finally, in terms of growing while being in my presence, that’s an image that strikes me as being presumptuous and arrogant. I’m a big fan of the idea that those who really make things happen are basically invisible. If someone feels something special in my presence, I’m probably not doing my job well.

Other than that, yes, I can relate to what you’ve suggested here.

I have heard a few second-hand stories about your training that some of us by-standers haven’t heard. I personally like stories and would like for you to share a story or two.

The story of my life as a whole, on reflection, is basically a romantic comedy. Looking back over my past, I think that I overcame a lot of tremendous obstacles. Most of these were undoubtedly self-invented, or at least held and fed by me alone: fear and prejudice, obsession over irrelevant things, living by others’ rules even while hating those rules, maintaining a war between conscience and just wanting to have fun, distracting myself as much as possible to keep away from the sense that life basically has no purpose or ultimate meaning… All to eventually give up, mainly out of exhaustion, and find that there really does exist a kind of permanent resolution, that it is possible to find and maintain a certain state of grace. Along the way, primarily through my own errors, I did learn an extraordinary amount about what not to do, what doesn’t work, and how to really make some steps up or evolve out of that.

Only to find that almost no one is interested in the subject.

It has taken me a while to find the humor in that. Of course, it’s not only funny, but it’s a very romantic comedy. It’s still being written, so I don’t have an opinion about whether my own life is a success or a failure. I do believe that all lives, like all stories, reveal some truth that eventually serves a greater purpose, but one that is extremely subtle and only recognizable over time.

Beyond that, the idea of a story is an important one; I think it’s essential to construct our lives as if it’s a story we want to tell. We create our lives very much in the fashion of a storyteller or writer. And, just like a storyteller, we get to choose the subject, the details and the ending. But not whether someone else is going to find it interesting.

Please expand on your take on what most people have gotten out of their encounters with you.

Also, what do you do with a person who not only takes an interest, maybe trusts you to assist them in “telling their story,” but tries to make you their guru, master and responsible for what happens to them? Not someone who relies on you from time to time to give them a kick in the butt or a kind word, but centers their life around you. How do you feel about such “clingers”?

I suppose the main thing people have gotten out of their encounters with me in the context of my work is a wider spectrum of perception and options in life. That’s fairly easy to come by. The greater challenge is to find a significant jump up in subtle energy—real, sustainable inspiration and wonderment with which to engage those perceptions and options. I think that generally comes over a longer period of time, for example, for those whose imagination is really ignited by the personality or tone of what I do.

As you suggest, trust has to be developed for anything to really happen, and the obstacles to trust in any kind of relationship are serious indeed. Most people are deeply cynical and apprehensive about anyone claiming to offer something effective for taking on personal problems and questions. And they’re right to be. In my experience, the great majority of persons offering solutions for others—whether that be under the heading of spirituality, applied philosophy, psychology, religion or whatever—are in it for the power, the money, or as a kind of transposition of their own experimental self-therapy on others. Consequently, it takes a while and a lot of testing to establish some real confidence, not only in my intentions and methods but also in the idea or intuition that real change is even possible.

On those who try to make me their guru or master, my approach is to start destroying that from the first moment we meet. It probably seems naive and idealistic, but I rely on basic, old-fashioned qualities in keeping my interactions clean: integrity, chivalry, honesty. In my experience, it’s not that difficult to eliminate the guru paradigm and stereotype, if one really wants to. Finally, it comes down to simply not accepting a role or the associated temptations offered.

Beyond that, I don’t give advice for a living, I don’t speak on the phone, and I live in a rather isolated part of the world. Like for any relationship, set the frame, determine the rules therein, and stay within it.

One of the elements in your approach that most stands out to me is the unique integration of physical training. Sessions tend to toggle back and forth between intense discussion and intense movement. Unlike most people who do the kind of work you do, you seem to put a significant premium on the body as a primary tool. Can you address the genesis and purpose of this?

I’m not sure who you’re referring to when you mention, “People who do the kind of work you do…” Certainly I’m not beyond comparison to others, but I don’t see exactly which category you’re placing my work within. There are many examples, historically and presently, of disciplines that place a high importance on physical well-being as resolution to many of our stresses, problems, struggles and misperceptions. Most Eastern disciplines addressing spiritual, emotional and psychological health include well-developed physical programs, and many depend on them entirely.

My own take on this is that general attitude and outlook—the way we perceive and experience anything—is more influenced by our physical state than anything other single factor. I’d guess that for most of us, at least 50% of our struggles and discontent are brought on by being physically out of balance. The causes of that imbalance are many, but at the core, there’s an insensitivity or inability to locate and maneuver essential physical processes within us: how to breathe, how to sit, stand and walk, how to see and hear, how to slow down or speed up, how to relax, how to sleep, how to eat, how to adjust our physiological responses to the different circumstances we find ourselves within. This kind of removal or abstraction from our physicality causes an enormous amount of problems on many levels. One key result of it is a distrust in our own ability to influence our emotional state and our energy and perspectives in general; we often feel that we can’t get our hands on the control switches, as if most of life just happens and we can’t do much about it.

On an even subtler dimension, clarity, intuitive knowledge and contentment are primarily determined by chemical and hormonal balances in the body and brain. Most of this is entirely manipulable through fairly simple physical exercises that anyone can do.

In my work, I try to create situations in which we take ideas, information, experiences and qualities to a pragmatic arena. Then within those, to relearn or experiment with how we respond to internal and external variables. There’s no point to understanding something but remaining incapable of applying it. I think real knowledge and understanding is experiential, and the easiest way to access those is through our physical being.

What’s in it for you in the work you do?

I get to do what I love both in my conscience and as a creative player. I get to follow my intuition.

What are you hiding?

A fair amount of despair for humanity as a whole, and particularly for the future of those I love, such as my children. I think that as a species we’ve played at being the self-indulgent, spoiled adolescent way too long, and now there are permanent damages and absolute risks that most people are ignoring.

My distaste for dealing with many of the kinds of people who seek self-satisfaction through my work, or anything, as if everything comes down to how one feels.

My rage at organizations and individuals who have abused the trust and faith of their followers, including the currently existing dynamic of religious face-off. On a more personal level, perhaps, this includes fairly original thinkers who have created a severe distrust in those who don’t fit into obvious categories and existing paradigms. The more obvious examples of this are the various religious sects and gurus who have exploited the personal suffering and confusion of others for their own gain. These are everywhere, and usually poorly disguised, which brings me back to my first two responses to this question.

But you probably mean some kind of perversity, vulnerability or hidden neurosis, no? Well, let’s see. I enjoy my time with animals much more than with humans, generally. I’m not a patient man. I often feel overwhelmed by the complexities of my work. I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t find a more creative way to do what I do than to offer classes, seminars and retreats. I often think that people are stupid because they believe something I said or wrote was brilliant, as most of what I express I consider to be fairly obvious. I don’t like to meet new persons, because I can barely keep up with my already-existing relationships. I have this increasing urge to shut up and remain silent. I have a completely irrational and disproportionate affection for Mexican food and some of the cartoons my kids watch. I often feel refreshed in the presence of female physical beauty. I think my dog is smarter than any politician I’ve ever seen. I think it’s a good weather day when it rains. I wonder sometimes if I should have been a painter, musician or gardener.

In general, you don’t seem very forthcoming. Why don’t you talk much about yourself? Aren’t you big on leading by example?

Because I’m not the subject (except in this interview). One can lead by example without saying anything. Explanations often destroy the search for meaning and knowledge. If you impose a meaning, others often just take it without trying to discern if it’s true or not. One key aspect of my job is to aid people in thinking for themselves, not thinking as I or anyone else does.

If you’re so great at what you do, why aren’t you rich and famous, and have lots of disciples, etc.?

I’ve worked to keep a low profile, mainly to maintain the lifestyle I prefer. Rich and famous is not on my list of goals or priorities. And I’ve always had this intuition when I see crowds assembling anywhere to walk the other way.

On disciples, I have none and never will have any. I’m not leading anyone anywhere.

Why is the dropout rate in your work so high?

I’m really not sure that it is, not more so than any discipline or work that’s qualitatively demanding, like playing the piano, or playing a professional sport. Most public events I offer are thematic, and many people take them because they’re interested in that theme and not necessarily me or my way of thinking. For a lot of people, I think many of my ideas and techniques are considered to be too deep, implying that life is much more complex than “What’s in it for me?”

I start from the precept that those who participate in an event I offer have already figured out that fame, fortune and comfortable retirement aren’t really what life is about. Most people understand that, and are intrigued by it, but have already invested too much in someone else’s paradigm of “happiness and success.” Usually, there’s a conflict with intuitive conscience somewhere, a spiritual hypocrisy, and recognition of that is tough. Resolution of conflicting interests within each of us—the desire to fulfill a personal purpose versus the desire to forget about it and just go have fun, for example—takes time and focus and application of a lot of qualities, like playing a difficult piece of music with two hands on the piano. Many people are looking for a simple pill to make that apparent dichotomy go away. Once they discover it doesn’t exist, it’s very frustrating.

Besides, I’m not offering to the public a school to stay within. People should come and go as they like.

If what you’re doing is so important then why aren’t there lots of others doing it? What makes you so unique or special?

It’s difficult work, it doesn’t pay well, it requires 12 to 15 hours per day everyday, people are often suspicious of my intentions, it takes discipline and creative risks that are tremendously stressful, and most of the effort goes completely unnoticed. Is that a job you’d like to have?

I don’t believe that I’m particularly special. I do believe that most people who do work that would be considered to be like mine are not.

Why don’t you offer more events to the public?

Not enough energy, mainly. Generally I do five or six seminars and retreats a year, which is about maximum for me. They each take a lot of preparation. And I’m trying to get to writing a few books I have in mind. The rest of my time is already completely overloaded.

On spirituality, do you consider yourself to be a religious person?

Yes, in terms of the purest definition of “religious”: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality. Also yes, from the perspective of following the essential spirit and guidelines of the religions I’ve studied.

In the more common view—of believing in the superiority of one religion over another, and a personal salvation brought about primarily by exclusive belief itself—no.

You speak from time to time about God, but your references are often oblique at best. From the way you talk, you seem to experience a special relationship with the divine. Could you address your sense of the divine, and how you relate to it?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to address through virtually all my writing over the last years, including in my book, Re:, and the articles published through my newsletter. There are so many stereotypes, prepackaged concepts and platitudes out there in our thinking on the divine, and the associated emotions those produce; it’s very difficult to transcend. But that’s ultimately what experiencing the divine is all about: transcending stereotypes, concepts and platitudes. As soon as one falls back on an acceptable definition or understanding, it disappears. It’s like water; the moment you try to grasp it, you lose it.

For myself, there are a couple of ideas that help me to relocate and deepen my sense of the divine. One is recalling sacredness. That is, being as appreciative and attentive as I can to that which I experience as sacred: those I love, nature, and the qualities, ideas and work I value most. To help in that, I design personal daily rituals that allow me to contemplate and rediscover how to engage those.

The other idea is alluded to in the verb divine—to discover intuitively. Accurately perceiving and following one’s intuition is, I think, the essential human spiritual process. The distractions, confusion, misinterpretations and temptations that oppose that process are enormous. At the same time, there are always clues for how to go about it. The divine is a mystery, so the impulse to really discover, like a child, has to be the core response to anything; that’s the only way beyond the habits, presumptions and prejudices that feed ignorance and fear. To question well, instead of hiding behind a belief or answer, requires the application of the most valued of all human qualities, such as compassion, courage, imagination, respect, humility, devotion, and ultimately love of life itself.

This kind of passionate questing is evident in the most admired and, if you will, divine individuals in every culture, religion, and skill throughout history. I try to follow their lead.

You’ve obviously made some unusual, and potentially difficult choices in your life. You’ve opted to live in a relatively remote corner of the world, sacrificed a degree of affluence that you could certainly have created for yourself and your family…. in the pursuit of what, exactly? Translation: what are the priorities that truly drive you in your chosen line of work? If you could articulate your ideal vision of what the people who work with you take away, what would it look like? Looking back from a deathbed perspective, what would you like to see?

My choices in my personal life were and are made with a definite focus toward what I would call the real life. For me, that’s primarily about sincerely attending to what I value most. Affluence is not high on that list. One has to make some sacrifices along the way toward anything. I like nature and quiet. I like my privacy and need my solitude. And I’m trying to raise my children in an environment that’s healthy, relatively simple and close to nature. My daily rhythm and schedule wouldn’t work in a city or suburb.

The priorities in my work all revolve around providing something that I have not found available elsewhere. I see no point in offering something one can already find down the street or in the local bookstore. Some of that obviously involves recognizing and synthesizing what others have done—doing my own homework—but the majority of it is an attempt to move forward, beyond the existing ideas and techniques we’re already familiar with.

I hope that I’ve provided some original insights, questions and solutions to some of the problems and issues we all struggle with personally and communally. I’d like to have been some help in moving forward into healthier and happier territory.

Your seminar approach, at times, seems to have an element of violence to it. There are attendees who find your style overly harsh, your tone caustic, your attitude superior. This phenomenon also seems to occur with women far more often than with men. How would you address this?

That’s the kind of commentary usually conveyed by men who have little or no experience with my work or me. In general, I think people are often surprised by my tone at first, which is meant to express some passionate urgency regarding the subjects we’re taking on. Almost always, though, that evolves into some sense of relief or enthusiasm about the fact that I mean business, that we’re not just going to sit around and exchange niceties and banal answers that we already know don’t work.

The comments, spoken and written, about my work in general tend to be more positive and complimentary from women than from men. Attendance at events, response to my book and articles, and returning attendance to seminars and retreats is higher amongst women than men. I’ve never received the suggestion from a woman who had attended more than a single seminar from me that I’m sexist.

There are probably some women who react to my style or personality with apprehension; any man raising his voice is going to provoke some reaction, even if you know that his intention is positive. One has to understand that aggressiveness from a man means something different for a woman than for a man; there’s always in place a deeper instinctive awareness of physical danger. Women often feel that male assertiveness is oppressive, and used to oppress, and they’re right. That’s not always the case, though.

On violence, most of us have no capacity at all to handle it—the deer in the headlights syndrome. Violence, in many different forms, is and always will be a significant part of anyone’s life. It’s a good idea to figure out how to maintain grace and clarity in the midst of it. I try to construct metaphors of common violent or confusing situations in which people have the chance to develop skills for handling them. Women in particular need this skill, as they usually have to be more creative in response. Internal strength, like muscle tissue, only develops through resistance.

You speak at times, in your classes and writing, about the idea of “right place, right time”—a “palpable harmony” between an individual’s intentions and actions, and the intentions and actions of Nature—a “state of grace.” Whether that be the perfect parking space on a crowded city street or, as you write, “you open a book to a certain page and what is written there is an exact response to something you’re reflecting on.”

In speaking about Nature’s intentions, you seem to imply a kind of reward system: if an individual is “in tune” with the world around him, then the world will open itself in response. This of course suggests an awareness on the part of Nature of each individual’s behavior, and a willingness to offer up greater benefits to those who pay attention. It also brushes up against more traditional religious structures of obedience and reward, and hints at the potential presence of disobedience and punishment (as in circling the same city street in search of a parking space for all eternity).

Is that what you’re getting at? If not, what’s your intent in evoking such a dynamic? Can you speak more to the way you see it working?

I see this kind of perfect harmony resulting mainly from a spontaneous deep comprehension and experience of the dynamic of balance.

There’s not a reward system in place as much as methods that work better than others. On a simple level, to understand it, it’s like eating. If a baby tries to eat by smacking food against his forehead, that’s simply not going to work. A little may trickle down into his mouth, but it’s not very efficient. Likewise, down the road, if an adult eats more calories than he gives out, that’s not going to work too well either. One is “rewarded” for acting in accordance with the existing rules and principles that run the show. Obviously, the state of grace you’re referring to here is much more complex, but at the core, the dynamic is very similar.

With eating, and everything else, there are certain rules or laws already in place. One either recognizes and adjusts to these laws, or pays dearly for it. All of these laws are based primarily on the dynamic of balance. You can see this quite clearly in all the physical functions of any being, including the human being. All organ and hormone functions rely on balance more than anything else—the utilization and distribution of exact percentages with precise timing according to circumstantial need. Those who have a better understanding and experience with this physical balance and how to adjust to it—elite athletes, for example—know how to strike a superior balance between input and output, intense training and rest, caloric and nutritional balances, and maximum performance and recovery.

That probably sounds too scientifically reduced here, but the point is that one can isolate specific choices and the results they cause. To switch frames here for a second, the same process will be used by a painter, musician or writer to identify combinations with their associated tools and techniques that function better in balance than others. How many times can you use the word synchronicity in a 300-page novel? How much midnight blue can you use in a painting? Those are questions of balance as they relate to context. And they’re similar to questions Nature has to deal with—how much does any individual get before he has to give back something?

The human soul is complex. So is Nature (or life, if you prefer). Creating a perfect interface between the two results in a balance that one can recognize in an individual as a state of grace. This kind of resulting harmony is just like the dynamic in an exceptional relationship. What we’re talking about, finally, is establishing an exceptional relationship with life. The subtleties in doing that are infinitely complex. We’ve touched on the complexity of the human body, and that’s just an appendage of the human soul. One cannot succeed in this interfacing exclusively by analyzing and manipulating individual parts. It’s more liquid than that, and time and circumstance move too quickly. Consequently, one has to find a way to spontaneously strike the balance. That then comes down to finding one’s way into the central control room, the essence of life. If you know what life really wants, and if you know what you really want, you can begin to create the relationship.

Your question edges up to the most complex subjects imaginable. More focus has been placed on these subjects through human history than on anything else—mystery and mysticism, God, imagination, intuition, the nature of relationships, human purpose, happiness and salvation… I’m not going to try to compete with, add to, or reduce to a single idea that body of knowledge and questioning here in an interview. I will say that in terms of achieving what I call “being in the right place at the right time,” one has to know balance. Not from the outside as an observer, but from the inside out. For every individual, that requires creating a successful balanced interface between what one is compelled by and the essential principles of nature, which we comprehend through our intuitive conscience. Those are our clues to the mystery. When one gets it right, there it is.

If there was one thing that you wish, above all others, that people would really learn, what would that be?

I hesitate to give a pithy, short answer, as that’s the kind of thing one gets defined by for the rest of one’s life. I would suggest that your question is a good one for people to ask of themselves; then go out and be an excellent example of the thing they wish for others to learn.