Episode 125: Insights at the Edge
We're joined again by Tami Simon--founder of the
spiritual media company Sounds True and senior student of Vajrayana
teacher Reggie Ray. This week we ask her about her new podcast series,
Insights at the Edge, where she
has been interviewing many of the best spiritual teachers in the
world. Jokingly, Tami said that she wanted to name the show, "Grill
the Guru." Even though that was a joke, there is some truth in it, and she uses her opportunity with these different teachers to
ask them tough questions about their lives.
We also ask her about some of the people that have impacted her the most during her decades of being around, and working with some of the brightest spiritual teachers of our time. She shares stories from some of her favorite luminaries, including Quaker teacher and activist Parker Palmer, Julia Butterfly Hill, Adyashanti, and finally "the living now gate," Eckhart Tolle.
This is part 2 of a two-part series. Listen to part 1, You Will Get the Dharma You Need.
Vince: So, Tami, you recently started interviewing a bunch of spiritual teachers, luminaries, authors, and this project you are calling Insights at the Edge, and currently it’s in podcast form. So, each week there is a new interview out, and you have been interviewing people like Jack Kornfield, Parker Palmer, your teacher Reggie [Ray], Tara Brach, you recently interviewed. So, you have been interviewing a lot of really interesting people, and you have been asking them tough questions, you have been asking them about their edge.
Tami: Well, I wanted to call the series Grill the Guru, but...
Vince: God, that’s great.
Tami: ...since it’s Sounds True, I’d like to now bring it back. So we’re...
Vince: Grill the Guru.
Vince: That’s a good title, though.
Tami: Ok, well, you can use it. Ryan: OK. I just bought the URL.
Vince: So, I wanted to hear a little about the vision or intention behind the Insights at the Edge podcast. You kind of, already…
Vince: …touched in on it.
Tami: Well, it’s actually not to be adversarial or grilling in that kind of way, but it’s more to sort of find out what do people know from their own experience when they are not prepared, when they haven’t -- when they’re not giving you their stick. And so, that’s what I am interested in, and part of it is in, you know, all these years at Sounds True, publishing all these different teachers, part of my original impetus, when I was 21 and started the company, was I wanted to find out who is for real. Are you for real a spiritual teacher? I mean you come up, you talk, blah, blah, blah, but I want to meet you in the bathroom, if I can, or in the hallway or I want to know what your wife or partner thinks about you; or I want to see what it’s like at 2:00 a.m. when you have a nightmare and you can’t sleep, what do you do, how do you handle it? I want to know how the practice that you are talking about how you present -- what’s that really like? And so I’ve, you know, thought about different ways of, you know, I’ve spent my career kicking the tire--we could use that as a metaphor--or sniffing, the you know what, the tush of all these different teachers, just trying to find out what does it smell like from that end; do you know what I mean?
And so, in the sense the podcast interview series is really a natural outgrowth of a lot of my original motivation at Sounds True, which is to learn and grow, really, and by finding out what people know. It’s as interesting finding out what they know as what they don’t know, meaning what they don’t know, oh, OK, so that’s a gap in that person’s book. What do they know, and you know, what I found in each interview is that people know things, and they have jewels and those jewels are the takeaway that are offered to other people. You can even really find their jewels better by talking to them and stripping away the hype. What’s the real jewel that this person really knows in their blood?
Vince: What are some of the jewels you have run across so far in your…
Vince: …talking to these teachers?
Tami: There have been a couple of moments that have moved me the most. I’d say the first was with Terry Tempest Williams. She was recording at Sounds True the audio version of her new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and she was describing what it was like as a barefoot poet in Rwanda, and looking at these mass graves, and her experience in how she could see an opening of compassion in the world through being there with these other women, people from all over the world who came to report on the experience of barefoot poets. And I looked at her and I said, what eyes are you looking through that give you the kind of image as an information; and when the moment when I said that to her, what eyes, she just -- her eyes just started tearing and crying.
Fortunately, we had a video camera at the time too so it’s an audio podcast but we were able to capture some of these on video. And, you know, it’s interesting actually because what that reminds me of is how often the most important things I have learned interviewing people haven’t been the things they’ve said; they have been little things I’ve observed. I mean, for example, when I had the chance to interview Thich Nhat Hanh, and this a while ago, before we started the interview it was time for breakfast because I came a little early and blah, blah, blah and it took him about maybe five minutes to peel the banana, and it was the most beautiful relationship I have ever seen of a person to a banana for breakfast. And I learned more from that than I did the entire two-hour interview that we did; I’ll never forget the way he looked at the banana before he peeled it, the way he took the first -- you know, and he was not performing for me, he was just eating his banana, you know.
Vince: So, I understand, you actually started Sounds True doing an interview series on KGNU; that’s, kind of, like where it started.
Tami: Yes, in a sense. I mean, I would say it started with dropping out of Swarthmore College and realizing that I couldn’t follow and learn what I wanted to learn in an academic setting; and I went to India for a year, and when I came back and then started Sounds True here in Boulder, really what I was wanting was to continue the education that I felt I couldn’t get in a traditional academic environment, and what I discovered was that the best way for me to learn was to have a dialogue with somebody. And that -- yes, I could read their books, blah, blah, blah, but something happened when I engaged one-on-one with somebody that I could learn all kinds of things, and I just like -- it’s just like, just tell it to me, just tell me, and I could learn so much by the language that they used, as I just mentioned, by visual cues that I was receiving, by the tone of their voice, by -- how they worked with space or didn’t -- did they talk like this and just keep going about -- I mean I learned something about how their mind worked or versus the way people pause even in a sentence or before they ask a question. And so, for me, interviewing people and starting Sounds True was all this desire to really feed myself with the kind of learning I needed and in the process, be of service to other people thinking there must be some percentage of the world that learns in a similar way, I hope, and, you know, I got to find a way to support myself, support my learning habit. I am sure you have a -- can relate to that Vince…
Tami: …and Ryan, as people who work on these kinds of projects, you know, it’s like this is what I want to do and is there any way I can serve other people, at the same time make enough money from it to keep it going. So, that was the original inspiration behind Sounds True, 24 years ago, and then to have a podcast series now because you know, as you know you have been consulting with us and helping us develop our podcast…
Tami: …series, meaning with the internet and its capacity, this is the way to reach so many people for Sounds True to be able to offer the best of our relationship with these high level authors for free. That’s the realization of a dream for me. I mean we’ve spent the last couple of decades plus creating really wonderful programs and charging people for them because that was what our business model was, and as I said, we have to -- have to remain self-sustaining. But then coming into a time where actually having a free podcast will benefit the company from a marketing standpoint and then we can put out this kind of really good Dharma for free is so fulfilling and wonderful.
Vince: Yes, yes, and you are coming back, kind of, to the roots.
Vince: Yes. And you can find Insights at the Edge at www.soundstrue.com/podcast.
And it occurred to me, I was listening to you speak to Parker Palmer on the way to work and I realized, wow, Tami has really been exposed to so much spiritual wisdom over the past few decades, and it would be really interesting to ask her, what are some of the things she has been -- the authors, resources, teachings that she has been most, kind of, impacted by, most blown away by -- it would be interesting for those people out there that are on the spiritual path to kind of get Tami’s, kind of, top picks or resources, what had been most significant to you or you have seen that had been most significant to others.
Vince: Yes, can you share that?
Tami: I can share what comes to mind.
Vince: Yes, please.
Tami: So, you mentioned Parker Palmer, and I would like to bring him up because like what’s Parker Palmer doing being talked about on Buddhist Geeks?
Tami: And at the end of my last conversation with him, he said something interesting. He said, you know, you and I can have good conversations because we have just enough in common and just enough not in common to have an interesting conversation. I mean there is a part where he and I really connect, and then he has got a whole world of social action, kind of, Quaker concern and all kinds of things that I -- it’s not that I am not interested, I just don’t have that much to talk to him about. But what I saw in him was somebody that through intense experiences of depression, clinical depression, what he said is that at first, he saw the darkness in his life and he saw himself as darkness, but then he actually “became the dark.”
I don’t want to try to sentimentalize or make it seem easy the process that he went through; in fact, part of what he and I talked about is why some people go through -- who go through those kinds of depressions kill themselves and other people don’t, and now, he doesn’t know the answer to that because his depression was that debilitating, but what he learned from that experience was unbelievable to me and what I felt being with him since he knows what it means to be the dark, was that I could say anything. There was the complete space from my emotional experience like I was with one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time, and hear somebody who is involved in political reform and you know, helping educators with his books the courage to teach and the courage to lead, and yet because of his experience with clinical depression, I mean, what I said to him is being with you is like sitting next to a fire, a fire being so warm, it’s so accepting, it’s so transfixing and part of what it made me start thinking about is it relates a little bit to your question about Sounds True authors in general is how people can be initiated into spiritual reality, into the boundlessness of space, into the boundlessness of our essential identity through all kinds of things. I mean, for Parker it was depression.
But let’s think of another person here that I have worked with at Sounds True, just briefly, it was never a very popular program, although it’s an incredible program, Julia Butterfly Hill who, we created a program about her experiences sitting in Luna, the tree. She was initiated into the healing nature of reality through her love affair with a tree. Amazing.
And then someone who I interviewed recently, Geneen Roth who previously I would have said, well, you know, I don’t really have food problem, she is the food lady, she helps people who sit in front of the refrigerator, take five breads and close the refrigerator and sit down, you know, blah, blah, blah, but she has gone just through this experience and is writing a new book called Losing Everything, about how she lost all of her life’s savings, 30 years of life’s savings, during the Maydoff scandal, and how that experience of total loss initiated her.
OK, so there’s different things that can initiate people; and the thing is when you meet somebody who has been that blown open, regardless of what the catalyst was, for me, at least, I can resonate with that, I can feel that when I am with them or even just speaking to them over the phone. What I can feel is that they have gone under and then under and then further under until whole floor fell open into boundlessness, that their experience has taken them that deep, and they can show it to you.
Now, somebody who I have had really profound experiences with is Adyashanti who is a wonderful, sort of, post-Zen teacher, and many people are finding him interesting, and he helped me a lot talking with him, being with him. I actually felt that being with him there were sort of bandages around my heart, and just through the course of our time together those bandages were pulled off, you know, like gauge strips, so he just kept, he wasn’t really doing anything, he was just being himself. It was funny that the night before I went to interview him, I had a dream and in the dream, you know, we had an exchange, and he said you seem to be blah, blah, blah. I couldn’t really sleep, so, it was sort of a dream, sort of not. And then eight hours later, we're interviewing, we take a break and he says the exact same thing that he said to me in the dream. And that...
Tami: It was trippy, yes. And I find him a really, really, really helpful teacher. Now, interestingly, I, in my own path, am working with a body-based practice approach which we talked about through Tibetan yoga and that’s really important to me, and the way Adyashanti teaches meditation, and Sounds True has published programs on it, which is more just sort of allow everything to be as it is and then inquire into your experience. That approach, I don’t think would work for me. I mean, I have tried it and I try it, and may be I just don’t know, and I have talked to Adyashanti about this, how to inquire deeply enough, what happens for me as if I am not rooting my practice at a somatic level, I can just kind of spin off a bit. So, I need something physical to keep going back to. So, in my own practice I wouldn’t be able to say Adya the way you teach is my path but being around him and talking to him, I think, he has a nuclear effect on people because of his own level of realization.
Vince: Just to highlight one author that you talked about recently in a meeting, Eckhart Tolle, you spent some time with him recently on PBS special, and you said sitting with him was, kind of, like sitting next to a nuclear reactor, that you were having some tripped-out visions and experiences and...
Tami: Oh my God. Well, Eckhart, I mean, I call him the “now gate”, the living now gate. And actually I was telling Reggie about Eckhart and my experiences with him, and he said, oh, Eckhart is like a hole in the universe. And I said, yes, pretty accurate way to put it. And I do think he, kind of, feels that way, and you know it’s interesting when he tells the story of his own awakening. He tells it very briefly at the beginning of The Power of Now, here he was suicidally depressed and said, “I can’t stand myself”, and then had the thought, “who is the I who can’t stand myself; are there two of me or one of me?” I can’t stand myself, he tells the story and then he heard a voice that said, resist nothing, and the next he morning awoke to the sound of the bird, and the bird chirping sounded to him like it was inside of him, not outside of him.
So, that’s kind of the way that he tells the story but the way that I interpreted it, it was like a vacuum hose that came down from the galaxies or something, and when you heard resist nothing, it created the hole in the universe that is now the “now gate” of Eckhart Tolle. So, yeah, he is so unique and unusual, and what an unusual destiny he has in terms of… I mean, over 40 million people have downloaded his, the series that Oprah did him with online. I mean, this is amazing, you know, 6 million copies plus… I mean that's just anywhere 10 million copies of all of his books in print, just in the English language, 30-40 languages translated all over the world. He is known all over the world.
We are actually launching something with Eckhart’s teachings, caused Eckhart Tolle TV, which launches on July 1st. And interestingly, people from over 33 different countries have signed up to subscribe to Eckhart Tolle TV, because of the interest in him world-wide. Anyway, so yes, being around Eckhart… yeah, I mean the first time I went to interview him, I think this is kind of, just talk about weird, hey this is Buddhist Geeks, so the word Karma is one of the most popular search words you have on your transcriptions…
Tami: …so weird Karma which is, we created the time to do the interview. We set it up about six months in advance. He’s not very famous right now, but I still think, “wow, this is cool. I’m really being given a boon to get to interview him.” That’s great! And, here I am, I’m in Vancouver, and the morning that the interview is scheduled is September 11th, 2001. I wake up to a phone call, “turn on your TV, can you believe what’s happening?” And I call Eckhart’s office, and I say, I presume you don’t want to do the interview today. And his business manager says, “No Eckhart really wants to do the interview today.”
Then so here Eckhart and I are talking for three hours on the morning of September 11, 2001. And at first when I came to meet him, and I had never spent any time in person with him, he said “why don’t we meditate before we start.” And I was like “sounds great”. So I’m setting there. First of all I am just so relieved that we are going to get to sit. And we are just staring at each other ten or so feet away, and that was when all the walls started melting. They started dripping with color and melting. The room started turning. There wasn’t really a floor or ceiling. And I was like okay great, I hope I’m not going to have to like, say anything, [laughter] you know.
And the good news is I didn’t have to say much because I asked him one question, which is “What do you make of this day of what has happened?” And, he proceeded to talk for about 90 minutes in response to that one question. And here is the moment I thought later in the interview, which is I was asking him about the experience of dying. He just looked at me and he said “I’m already dead.” But here’s the interesting thing. When he said that, I saw this cross of light blast right through him, and sort of explode onto the room. And I was like, the dude is already dead…
Tami: …In a certain kind of way.
Vince: In part I wanted to ask Eckhart because “Power of Now” was one of the first kind of spiritual books I picked up and it just kind of blew me away. Reading it, I remember just at certain points, just weeping, thinking “this guy knows what he is talking about. There is something really important here.” It’s so amazing that he has touched that many people, who presumably have had similar responses to his writing, and teaching.
Tami: Well, interestingly, before he got on Opera. And this is the phenomena of him getting on Opera and selling this number of books, yeah he was popular, but it’s only a little over a year old.
Tami: So you know, for the last, five to eight years, he has been talking about what he calls the flowering of human consciousness. And he uses this metaphor that at one point that earth was covered with plants, but there were no flowers. There was just green. I don’t really know if this is true, because I don’t know very much about biological debate, but let’s presume that it was true.
Yeah. And then there was one flower that arose someplace on the earth. And before we know it there were more and more and more. And there were flowers on all different parts of the earth that had the right climate to support it. But at one point there were no flowers. There were just a couple. So he talks about early enlightened teachers like Buddha, and Christ and other teachers as early flowers, but that now here, in the beginning of the 21st century, were going through a flowering of human consciousness.
And he believes that lots and lots of people will be experiencing a spiritual awakening. And enlightenment in our lifetime in a way that is completely unprecedented. And I remember saying to him, “I like so much of your work, I like you, you’re a ‘now gate’. But I just don’t believe this thing about the flowering of human consciousness. I’ve been working my you know what tushy off, for how many years. There’s a certain number small group of niche people who are interested. Look we have a small business, it’s just not, come on, I mean until we can even elect a decent president in the United States, how can we even talk about the flowering of human consciousness?”
And then January, the beginning of last year, it happened for me actually on the same evening, which is I got a call from his office telling me that Oprah had chosen his book, A New Earth, as the book of the year, her pick for the year. And, that she was going to be doing this first online webinar ever with him. It was later that evening, that happened during the day, was when Obama won the Iowa Caucus. I was listening to it on my computer at three in the morning, his acceptance speech. I actually just started weeping on my keyboard, thinking, “is it possible, that things this good could be happening?” Even if it’s not like a full flowering, even if it’s just a little budding of human consciousness, this is incredible!