Birju Pandya: Today we have Marilyn Schlitz joining us for a conversation. As a bit of background, Marilyn is a leading authority on the science and nature of consciousness. She's run an organization focused on the topic -- specifically the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a leader in bringing this up into the public dialogue. She's also been published in journals, written books, lectured at lead institutions such as Harvard and Stanford and the United Nations. Most recently she's been making movies with the likes of Deepak Chopra, and running innovative education programs on this question of consciousness. So Marilyn, thank you so much for joining us today.
Marilyn Schlitz: Thank you. I'm delighted. What a great beginning.
Birju: Well, I am curious first of all just how you're feeling today, and what feels most alive for you to be talking about and sharing.
Marilyn: Ah - I feel good. I feel hopeful. I'm really inspired by listening to your audience, and their own affirmations of their transformational process, and their own journeys. I'm happy to talk about that -- to share some of the research and writings that we've done around world view transformation and you know tell you a little bit about the most recent project which involves big transformation, and our relationship to death and our own mortality.
Birju: Awesome. So I've noted all of those elements and want to make sure we cover all of it. I also wanted to start from your personal experience with diving into this. I'm curious where your interest in these-- what some would call esoteric topics -- first started at all. It seems like you had a near death experience as a youth?
Marilyn: Yeah -- I don't know exactly where some thing starts. I think all of us have our own metaphysics about what is a starting point. Maybe it goes on and on for a longer time than we are embodied but, in my own sort of personal lived experience I had an encounter with death that happened before I can even remember. And I think that probably planted the seeds in me for some kind of curiosity.
I was 18 months old and a good little toddler, exploring the world, investigating what was around me, and as toddlers are wont to do, I put things in my mouth as part of my empirical process. My father had inadvertently left a can of lighter fluid sitting on the kitchen table, and in that process of swallowing the lighter fluid, I started a journey of three months in and out of intensive care. And so I was at that border between living and dying. I can't tell you I have any memories of that experience, but I have a deep appreciation and reverence for health professionals, for the nurses, for the doctors. I've had a long-term passion and interest around understanding healing. I've written extensively on the topic of healing and consciousness. So I think there was something in that moment that really precipitated a lifetime of inquiry.
When I was about 15 I was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident. We were struck by a drunk driver. And I very vividly remember at the moment of impact, watching my body tumbling through the air and then landing in a thud on the concrete. So you know, I didn't have the language for out of body experience, but I think that's what it was. It gave me this insight that our consciousness, our awareness is something that isn't just in the physical. It's something that transcends our physical nature. And again I was young. I didn't have the repertoire of life experience or vocabulary to really understand that. But again, it provided me with some curiosity. The cut on my leg was very serious. They talked about amputation and they stitched me up. 66 stitches in my left leg, and sent me home and hoped for the best. I was to come back the following week to see if something more dire was in store for me. And I remember laying on the couch in my family's living room. And you know I was in Detroit at the time. My father was a tool and die maker. I didn't come from a medical family, or a scientific family, scholarly family -- none of that. But I remember somehow having this insight that if I just focused my awareness on my immune system, I could help myself heal.
And so I did this, I really envisioned my body healing itself and I could feel the tingles going up my leg and - I went back to the doctor a week later. It wasn't like it was a miraculous recovery, but I healed well. And I think that this was another affirmation in my life story about the powers and potentials of our consciousness; in this case to heal ourselves and to invite in the qualities that we aspire to. And so moving forward in time I was really discontent in Detroit. At that moment it was a time in the 60s and 70s when this nation was at war with itself. It was a race war, and a class war, and an ethnic war. Ultimately it was a conflict over worldviews and paradigms. Again I didn't have the language at the time to understand that. I just knew I had to do something to change what wasn't working, and I didn't have the capacities, didn't have the tools.
It wasn't until I got into college at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit, where I discovered a couple of books. The first one was by Thomas Kuhn, called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That book was catalytic for me. It was transformational. What it said to me was that we live in these paradigms or models of reality, and we take them to be true. We take them to be literal, and in fact, they are in many respects, but what Kuhn illustrated is that they are in some sense constructed, and that our models of reality change and have changed periodically through time. Even in the hallowed halls of science we are not fixed in terms of our models of reality, and learning that, and understanding that was a liberation. It really said to me that the kind of suffering we're experiencing on this planet isn't fixed or absolute and perhaps there's another path forward. And finally to just wrap the story up I then discovered a second book. It was called Psychic Explorations and it was by Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut. And that book said to me that there were serious scientists investigating these qualities of our human capacities that warrant being included in mainstream science. It really set in motion for me a personal odyssey. I wanted to be part of a revolution that was going to shift the paradigm and help us become more whole, more complete. So that really was what started me, and it's now been decades of research and inquiry into the nature of consciousness, into the powers and potentials of our own minds. DNA capacities that we have to heal and transform, and ultimately to live a life that has more richness. So that's kind of my backstory.
Birju: I'm amazed. It feels like a blessing to have the exposure to happen at such a relatively young age, and yet, I hear you mention the book by Edgar Mitchell. For so many people this is an exploration that comes up in their "spare time" and it ends up being something that they read about and understand, and it's the thing that happens in the evening because nobody's paying attention, because nobody gets it. And I hear that you have turned this into a life's work and I'm just really curious, how did the process of that inner inquiry lead itself to what some may call, a professional connection as well.
Marilyn: Well it wasn't simple or easy or - you know -- something that my family was particularly supportive of (laughter). I remember having finished my undergraduate degree and being offered a job at a bank, and it was paying pretty well, given my life experiences and work experiences. But I knew that I needed to do something else. I was offered a fellowship at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, in Durham, North Carolina, and I think I got paid $400 a month, and my rent was about $40 a month. I had a room in a house with a group of other students and post docs. And I just knew that's what I had to do. I knew I wanted to pursue this life and there was really no stopping me. And my mom, for all her curiosity and uncertainties about why I had chosen the path I did, years later was ultimately very proud of me for defining my own life and not going with whatever the general tide was at the time. So you know, it's something I don't know that I even questioned. It was just something that I had to do and did, and I have been profoundly grateful for it ever since.
Birju: And it sounds like one of the places that you've really been plugging yourself in, is that role of science in shedding the light on the mysteries of consciousness. I would love to hear a bit more in depth about what has been the impetus of your interest in the scientific approach to it, as well as your findings.
Marilyn: You know we all have different paths, and mine is complex. It's not just one direction, but I do think of science as a spiritual practice. I think it is a deep and rigorous inquiry into the mystery. And so it offers us, those people who are drawn to that path, an opportunity to really be a truth seeker in the fullness of that. And you know there are many scientists who are simply functioning in a rote fashion, and aren't engaged in the mystery aspect of it. But I think really good, clear-minded scientists understand that the universe has these gifts, and our job is to, in a certain sense understand and reveal them, so that they can be harnessed for the goodness of our lived experience. So that's what drew me, and I ended up initially doing laboratory research on consciousness and the extended reaches of consciousness. I was interested in psychic phenomena. Is it possible that we can understand things that are happening on the other side of the planet with no sensory interaction between two people? You know these kinds of things, and figuring out how you would develop an experimental model to study that under rigorous conditions.
My interest very quickly moved to healing and trying to understand the nature of healing. Where are the powers and potentials that we have to heal ourselves, to heal others, to heal our planet? And I was in the laboratory, designing experimental protocols that would allow us to look at these questions about the role of intention, for example, in the healing process. But I also, in addition to the quantitative lab based work, was really interested in the fullness of lived experience. And I didn't want to give up the precision that science offered, but I wanted to engage a broader palette as it were.
So I began to turn my interest towards anthropology. I realized that anthropologists had been studying life and culture for, you know, over a hundred years at that point, and had a methodology for doing that, so that started me off, and I began to really look at the nature of culture, world view, how it is that our beliefs, our perceptions, our social interactions, define our models of reality. Recognizing that different people in different cultures have different models of reality, different ontologies that they live in. And I just found that riveting, you know? How is it that we can have Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and Christians and Atheists, all using the same grocery stores, the same schools, the same hospitals, and yet co-existing in different models of possibility? Obviously there's enough commonality that we can connect, and yet there are enough things that differentiate us that add to this kind of bio-diversity if you can go with that metaphor. I find that just beautiful and powerful. I have been as I said, interested in different healing practices. Different modalities, different ways in which people understand the nature of who they are, what it means to be a complete, whole healthy person. What are the practices that we need to engage in? And ultimately that led me to an almost 20 year exploration of transformation. And so -- how is it that we change? How is it that we move ourselves into another way of being, another way of understanding ourselves, and our relationships? That's kind of been my journey.
Birju: The first thing, that's just most strong based off what you shared, this word transformation. What is that to you? What is transformation?
Marilyn: Well, the project began when I was at the Institute of Noetic Science. IONS was created a little over 40 years ago now, by Edgar Mitchell, one of the Apollo 14 astronauts. And Mitchell had been trained as an MIT engineer. Very confident of the Newtonian paradigm, and he had this unique opportunity to walk on the moon, and to complete his part of the mission successfully. He describes having the window seat on the way home. And, he was able to watch the earth, the moon, and the sun rising and setting, rising and setting. And as he looked out at planet earth, suspended in the vastness of space in all its pristine, whole beauty, he had a couple of epiphanies. The first involved a kind of suffering. He looked at this beautiful planet and he realized that there were no divisions. There were no state boundaries, national boundaries, race boundaries or gender boundaries. None of that existed from the vantage point of deep space as he looked down at earth. And he realized that the cause of suffering on this planet wasn't something inherent in planet Earth but really inherent in the inhabitants of Spaceship Earth. And it was really about our worldviews and our belief systems -- we were living in these kind of pathological states. So his goal was to really try and better understand how we could resolve that kind of suffering. The second piece of his epiphany was a kind of unifying consciousness. He recognized the wholeness of earth, and felt himself in the richness of the universe. As he looked at the colleagues in the Apollo capsule, he felt this interconnectedness. And that was ultimately what he called the samadhi experience for him.
So when he came back to planet Earth he'd had these visionary transformative experiences. But he didn't really have a vocabulary or framework for understanding it, and so he started to explore. He started asking questions, and meeting people and ultimately creating an organization where the emphasis wasn't so much on exploring outer space, but really understanding the nature of inner space. Understanding our consciousness and our worldview as the threshold for a fundamental transformation in our lived experience. So Edgar's epiphany, his moment, put me in a position where people would come to me with ideas and questions and one day a gentleman came in. His name was Richard Gunther, a very, very successful, pragmatic businessman, no-nonsense, not New Agey. And he had had a transformational experience, but he didn't really understand it. What he knew was that it was profound, it was deep, and it was life-changing for him. And yet, he didn't know whether there was something weird about him, or how to really grapple with it. So he came to me and he said, "Am I the only one who's had these kinds of experiences? And if I'm not, what can we learn from other people's experiences that will help us to turn lots of people on to this?" And his kind of altruistic intention was really to help heal people and our relationship to one another.
At the time when we started the project this was such fresh territory. People weren't talking about transformation. So we looked in the medical and scientific literature and we found that by and large, these concepts were considered pathological. They were aberrant. They were delusional. And yet what we heard from Dick Gunther wasn't any of that. He'd had a very clear and very positive experience. And so we started first of all, by collecting stories from the members of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. And we collected thousands of stories from people. And I asked them, "Have you had a transformative experience? What catalyzed it? What sustained it? And ultimately what were the consequences of that?" From the reports we were able to map out a sort of Hero's Journey. People described their lives as 'before' and 'after' some kind of catalytic opening. That then led us to do focus groups with teachers and masters who taught transformation. From that we developed a set of questions, twenty questions that we asked in a very methodical way to 60 masters from different world traditions. People who had literally dropped out and lived in a cave for ten years and then come back to share stories and experiences. From that we created survey instruments. We surveyed a couple thousand people trying to compare the average householder with the advanced teacher, master. Looking for areas where they differed, looking for areas that they had in common. We'd done a couple of studies, and then longitudinally looking at different transformational communities, and looking to see what happens to them in their bodies, minds, spirits. From that we developed a change model and I'm happy to continue to talk a little bit about the change model, but I'll pause right now and just see where you're at.
Birju: I really appreciate it, and I'm hoping that there's a way that that kind of model may be shared with our listeners at the end of the call.
Marilyn: Well we have published a book, it' called Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life, and a lot of the findings that came out of that study are there. And the precursors to the transformation model are also in that book.
Birju: Gotcha, gotcha. Well I'm curious in terms of the rubber hitting the road for our audience members who are interested in this topic, you know I'm here intellectually understanding this concept of transformation and wondering what you've seen it means to actually live doing the work. You know what does it mean to be at Thanksgiving Dinner with one's extended family that has no idea or interest in this kind of field, and to live transformation?
Marilyn: Good. Well I think that one of the things we found in the process of doing the work, and ultimately what we talked about in the Living Deeply book, is that you can have a catalyst for your transformation, and as you mentioned earlier, it's almost always involving some kind of suffering. Now some people have these openings that are just of beauty, awe and wonder. But it often involves something that is disruptive of the steady state. Something that causes us to reflect on what's not working for us. That can become an invitation to transformation. And we can ignore that and many people do. It's not comfortable, it's not what I'm used to, and so it really does require then, sometimes several openings, sometimes several disruptions to get our attention. Then, it's the opportunity to begin to ask questions. To explore, “What does this mean in my own life and how I'm living?” And so people begin to participate in programs like this, or they read books, or they go to a class. They begin to inquire, “What happened to me? What was that about?”
Then, ultimately, the masters certainly told us about the importance of practice. And yet what we found was, that there are so many different types of practices. What are the qualities that these practices have in common? And they really do in a formal way involve intention. I set an intention to transform. And yet we know intention is not enough. The road to hell can be paved with good intention. But it's important as we begin to start the process. And there's attention, these transformative practices really help to shift our attention. Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full? And how do I interpret, how do I begin to own the powers and potentials within me to make that interpretation? So how do I focus my attention? Repetition, building new habits, finding new ways of conditioning the steady state so it isn't one of anxiety or suffering.
And then guidance. Guidance is finding people who have been on the path before us and can help us calibrate. It can be a community like what we're engaged in here which can help to remind us. And it can also be the inner guidance that comes when we really begin to listen to the deep truths within ourselves, and have the ability to understand where that inner voice is guiding us in a positive way or in a way that is disruptive. And ultimately to speak directly to your question, I think the move that we saw in the transformative process is from the “me” to the “we”. So the masters told us how important it is to get out of the pew, get off of the cushion, get out into the world. And to begin to treat our life as practice. So that every moment at that dinner table with the relatives who can push every button in us, is the moment of teaching. For myself I'm a parent, I have a teenage son. He is my greatest teacher. I can guarantee it. (laughs) And it's not always easy, but the transformation comes I think when we can bring these qualities that come to us when it's easy, into those moments when it's not. And it may not mean that we try to proselytize to the person at the dinner table. It may mean that we can come with a more compassionate empathetic ear, to listening to their life story and hearing them in a new way, to understand the trials and tribulations that they've lived through, that bring them to the point that they're at. And I'm absolutely a person who does not believe in conversion. I don't think we should try and make other people like we are. I don't think that's how it works. But as we can begin to listen, and to be not just in the loving presence of those people who support us, who nurture us, but also those people who don't -- those are great moments of teaching. We like to talk about creating your carpool of the sangha, or treating that difficult relationship in the workplace as an opportunity for growth and self-reflection. All of those become moments of opening for each of us.
Birju: I really appreciate that approach. The non-proselytizing, live the truth of compassion. In the conversations that I've had with people in my world, more of the social changemaker world, I have seen this question of saying, "Where the social and environmental movement is concerned, what is the role of doing this kind of inner work?" and I'm curious what has been your work in understanding this process of cultural transformation or social transformation in light of this interior process that's going on.
Marilyn: Well I think it's kind of like a fractal. And as you think about what the work is within each of us, how is it that we can develop the practices and use the practice when in fact things are difficult for us, this becomes kind of the formula for affecting social change, I believe. I think there are different ways. I mean you can think of social change as top down. “We've created the new law and everybody wears their seatbelts,” and pretty soon people start wearing their seatbelts. You know that's one type of social change. But there's also that kind of social change that comes from the kind of work that you're doing, or the field of awareness that is percolating up now around gratitude, compassion, empathy, goodness. For goodness’ sake, that I think helps us realize that we are all operating within systems. So whether we're a nurse operating in a hospital, whether we're a business professional operating in a large corporation, whether we're a teacher in a classroom dealing with students and other faculty, all of those are playgrounds in a certain sense for beginning to model transformation.
So I think first of all of us as individuals, as that nurse, for example can learn new skills about how to become more resilient in the face of all the stresses, and as she become empowered to take personal action, to work on her own health and well-being, she becomes a model for others who begin to see this. And inviting in others to engage in a conversation over the lunch break about their own personal work, their growth, their development, how it's helping them to be better at their jobs, how it makes them more effective when they're dealing with their patients. People begin to see this and they think, "Hmm. I wonder what I could do?" And it becomes a kind of ripple effect, just like in the pay-ahead notion. If you do something really nice for someone, and they get that feeling, you know, they're more likely, maybe not the first time, maybe not even the second time, but to feel something change in them that propels them to be an affective agent of change around people they're with.
So ultimately I think we need the inner work in order to affect the kinds of profound, deep transformations we need in the outer world. And learning social emotional intelligence for example, I developed a program for high school students called World View Literacy. We call it the worldview explorations program where we're teaching young people that they have a worldview. And that that worldview is informed by many, many things, but that it then informs how they perceive the world around them. So becoming aware of that, waking up to that is really powerful. And then the second set of skills come when you recognize that other people have worldviews that are different from our own, and that there are ways in which we can learn to listen, to exchange, to cooperate, to celebrate those difference, that becomes a second set of tools. And then out of this kind of worldview literacy comes the opportunity to affect change in the world. Where I can take these tools and skills and moments of appreciation out of whatever that domain of activity happens to be, and to do it in a way that helps us to stay grounded and to be kinder with one another.
Birju: I'm curious about this worldview concept. Can you unpack that a little bit? Because that's a really deep concept. Having it land in terms of a specific example might be really helpful.
Marilyn: Well our worldview informs everything, so it's kind of hard to disentangle it, if we think about our own concept of self. Who am I? That is informed by my culture, by my education, by my family, by the work environment that I surround myself with, the activities that I choose to do during my free time. All of those things are informing my understanding of who I am so when we talk about transformation, transformation involves a shift in our perception. It isn't like anything magical happened. I still go to my same job every day, but there's a way in which my perception of myself transforms. And my world view shifts. So, I'll just take my current project, which is called Death Makes Life Possible. I created a feature film with Deepak Chopra, and have now just finished a book. And it's about our worldviews around death and recognizing that different people, different cultures, different religions hold death in different ways. And in particular what happens after. So my cosmology, my model of what happens at the point of death, informs how I live my life. I can be fearful, and filled with trepidation about all of the things that may come next. Or I can begin to make peace with my life, my purpose and begin to open myself to the inevitability of my own mortality. And what we argue in that project, is that, in resolving our relationship to death we can live more fully and more deeply because we're not afraid in the same way. So that's a worldview transformation. It's coming to terms with who we are at the core level of our being and what are the right actions that we want to take today, tomorrow, in this moment that can help us to be more full and complete.
Birju: I'd love to build on that so, this is a topic - the topic of death, is seen as so taboo from the perspective of the dominant paradigm. I know that I have these kinds of conversations with my parents with some frequency, and find that it's difficult to not only bring it up, but to think of this process of evolving the world view around it. So pushing this further, what kinds of specific activities have you seen be really helpful in taking this example of death and evolving how a person perceives it?
Marilyn: Yeah, it's big. It's not like there's a magic bullet or you turn on a light switch and suddenly it's there. But it is something that is the great equalizer. I will say one of the things I'm really fascinated by, and that I develop pretty fully in the book Death Makes Life Possible, is the idea of what's called terror management theory. There is this taboo as you mentioned. People have what is a core existential terror around it, and that's why people don't want to talk about it. They don't want to think about it. It's so scary. And what they have discovered, there was an anthropologist by the name of Earnest Becker who wrote a book called The Denial of Death for which he got the Pulitzer. And in it he argues that it is the fear of death, the terror of death that is largely unconscious, and that leads to the pathological behaviors that we see so prevalently in today's world. And what has happened then, is a whole field in social psychology has developed out of that, called terror management theory. And the idea here is that when people who are not aware of their own mortality issues, are confronted by somebody who is very different from us, who holds a different value system and believes different things than us, who dresses differently, who eats different foods, goes to a different place of worship, those people can become very threatening. And ultimately, the response for people who aren't dealing with it at the consciousness level is that they become very aggressive towards the out group, and they become very insulated with their in group. So I want in that case, to be around people who are like me. And I can become very nasty and aggressive and violent towards people who are different from myself. I joke with people that it's death awareness for peace.
How is it that we can become more aware of our fears? How can we overcome that terror in a way that allows us to open into the richness of life, and in that process to become more respectful of people whose worldviews are different from our own? So for example, the folks who are doing this terror management theory -- Jeff Greenberg is a colleague of mine, and they did this study where they took judges who were involved in giving penalties to prostitutes and they had these hypothetical prostitutes who had done the same crime, and they gave half of these judges a mortality salience prompt. They reminded them of their own mortality. But they didn't give them the positive skillsets to work with it, They just reminded them of their own death and they then asked this group of judges who had had the intervention, as compared with a group of judges who hadn't had the mortality salience prompt, to then decide what the bond was, to get these prostitutes out of jail, And what they found was that those judges who had been triggered about the death salience prompt, gave a significantly higher bond than those people who hadn't. So there was something about being triggered but not being given the skills that caused them to have retribution, to be more aggressive. So you know, to follow that, if you can help those people after you've triggered them, to feel greater self- esteem, they can then have more buffers against the mortality salience terror.
The little practice that I like to do, and I have this in my book on the chapter on fear of death, is simply to sit with a smile on your face, and in that process of meditating with a smile on your face, to reflect on what are those qualities about you that are really good. I'm a good hugger. Or I'm generous. Or I'm loving, or I'm artistic, or I dance well. Whatever it happens to be. I'm a good cleaner. I make sure my kitchen sink is clean -- whatever it is. And to begin to breathe into that awareness of these qualities of goodness within ourselves. With a smile on our face, which has been shown to change the biochemistry within our bodies and make us feel better. As we do that and breathe into that, it provides a beautiful buffer against the negative aspects of this terror that comes when we ponder mortality. And as we become more resilient we can then begin to shift our worldviews in ways that are ultimately very beneficial.
Rahul Brown: Marilyn, this is Rahul, I just wanted to jump in with a thought on that note. You know, it's interesting to me that there's this whole field that's developed around working through the terror of death, and yet there are these near death experiences that you had. First with drinking the lighter fluid as a young child and then later with the accident, that were so transformative to your own process. And I'm just wondering about the connection between this idea of healing the terror of that, and how we heal the way in which we work in the world. Because it seems that both of them seem to be equally valid doors. It's either a brush with something that is traumatic, obviously we don't want to have people go through that experience, but -- or imagining it that really shifts and sort of allows us to heal. So is it really the consciousness of the suffering that is an impelling force or is it just letting go of our neuroses and fears around that that is what allows us to heal? And before you answer I just want to open up the queue for other folks on the call.
Marilyn: Well that's a big question you're asking. The first thing we found in the research is that almost anything can act as a catalyst for transformation. It's what are the right circumstances in a person's life that make them open to seeing it? I heard of a woman, she was washing dishes looking out her kitchen sink, and suddenly began to see her world in a different way. Or a Vietnam vet who was watching his colleagues being gunned down in the battlefield, and who remembered an Islamic prayer. He was a Christian soldier, he remembered an Islamic prayer and began to recite that, and began to shift his whole worldview around the violence he was experiencing. So it can be as mundane as washing dishes, as profound as going to the moon and coming back and everything in between. Anything taken with the right boundary conditions can serve as the transformational opportunity for us. And I think that each of us, we don't have to have suffering in order to have these awakenings. It's a matter of our choices and often if we don't have the difficulties it doesn't propel us into it, but we can make choices. I think people on this call are making choices. And that's what's so beautiful about this emerging community, is that we are thinking in new ways, and we are reflecting about how our inner landscape affects the outer world in which we are engaged. So I appreciate the question, and I want to take the opportunity to hear from your participants.
Harpreet: Hi, my name is Harpreet and I really enjoyed your talk. I think we have sort of a lot of transformative moments in our life. Certainly I've had quite a few. But I was quite intrigued when you mentioned how your search for healing, how healing helped you get started. For me, it was also very similar. I'd landed up at this fair in Berkeley and some people were doing healing. And they said would you like to try and I said sure. And as soon as I sat down they started moving their arms and hands over my body and I felt a giant jolt of electricity go over my arm and I got a bit creeped out and I got up and said, "What are you doing?" And they laughed and said, “Just sit down you'll be okay.” And then I got this healing. My whole body was felt the energy just tingling and I'd never had that kind of experience before. So after that my whole worldview completely changed. And for a while I was kind of angry, why hadn't anybody told me about this stuff before? How come I was 27 years old and had never heard of this? So I cooled down for about two weeks and then I went in and started taking some classes over there. Learning how to work with energy and stuff. And connected to that, one of my teachers over there was Rev Lewis Fostwick. One time he came by and said, "You know what, I'm going to teach you how to die." And that's just stayed with me for a long time. So you know, getting over your fear of death is - has been a part of living I guess. Thank you very much for sharing your views.
Marilyn: Thank you. What a beautiful example. I mean you illustrate all the touch points that I was speaking about from the research, and illustrating it in your own lived experience. I'm so grateful for that. I do think healing is transformation. I think transformation is healing. And to see them as mirror images of the same process. And you -- there's this word 'noetic' -- noetic is 'these states of insight unplumbed by the discursive intellect, all inarticulate though they remain and yet they carry with them a curious sense of authority.' That was William James back in the 1800s, and he defined these noetic experiences as really transformative. And yet we don't always have a language or an understanding. They're non-discursive. Often times, if we pay attention we can begin to see them. So you were walking down the street and you stumbled into a fair, this was like an opportunity. But your worldview was primed so that that moment became important for you. And then the healing piece, that's just great! I've heard other people describe these encounters where suddenly they had an experience that they didn't have an understanding of, and I also really love your reaction, which was, "I got mad. Why didn't I know this before?" That can become something that shuts people down. They say, "I don't want any part of this". But for you it really led to the next phase of this transformative process, which is the curiosity, so you started taking classes. And then you're teacher coming to you and saying that, that's such a gift. So I'm very grateful to you for sharing that. Thank you.
Harpreet: Thank you. And I think one very important point that you mentioned was, not having the language to understand what's going on with you. And that took awhile to develop the language and to explain this is what's happening with me, and this is what's happening with other people. And until you get that language it feels like, being alone. It just doesn't make sense, what's going on.
Marilyn: Right. I went to a lecture a couple of nights ago over at Berkeley; I'm over in the west bay, over in Petaluma. But it was on social emotional learning. And the guy made a point that I thought was so valid in my experience, which is that we don't have a vocabulary for thinking about the range of emotions that we have within us. Our culture has privileged the external world, the physical, objective material parts of our existence, and we haven't really cultivated the vocabulary around the inner world. And so he asked people to think about an experience that caused them discomfort, and people were struggling with that. And then he asked, is there anybody in the room who is a wine connoisseur. And this man in the front row raised his hand. So he said, "Describe to me wine, good wine." And the guy had a number of ways of articulating his experience of a good wine. He's like, "Why is it so much easier for you to describe a good wine than it is to describe a ‘good whine’ within us?" You know the whining that comes when we're dissatisfied with our life experience. And it's true. I think this is an opportunity at this time in human history for us to wake up to the fact that there are these realms of experience that are within us and as we begin to pay attention to them we will better be able to articulate what's happening and to be able to share that with other people.
Rahul: Thanks Harpreet and Marilyn. We're going to move on to the next question.
Pallavi: Good morning everybody. My name is Pallavi. Marilyn, thank you so much for your presence and for your life. My question is a little bit off the cuff with respect to what we've covered today. You're working at the intersection of consciousness, death and science, and I'm curious about alternate realms of consciousness. Personally for me that's what has come up. So I'm just curious to know whether that's something you've explored?
Marilyn: Great question. Thank you. Yes. I think that just like we were talking about developing a vocabulary for our emotions, there are realms of experience that people describe, have encountered, have mastered in many respects, that don't easily conform to our western-based mind. As I said about transformational experiences, often times these non-ordinary experiences are considered pathological, because we don't understand them.
Pallavi: Schizophrenia is the word that maybe people can - I don't know. Please continue.
Marilyn: Yeah, well I think that we have certainly studied the expanded realms of consciousness. And so there is the mundane consciousness that is this embodiment where we're getting through the day. We're observing what we see, what we feel, what we touch. But there are then these non-ordinary experiences that come through meditation. The yogic traditions describe many different kinds of meta-capacities that develop. Certainly within the shamanic traditions there are many different realms of experience. I like to tell the story of being in the Amazon, I did some research on the dream sharing practices of the Achuar, and one of the first times I was down in the Amazon, I was with one of the guides and we were walking through the forest and he became very animated and he starts pointing up at the trees. And we the northerners were like what's the big deal, you know -- trees. We're in the rain forest. And what he was pointing to were these howler monkeys that were jumping from branch to branch at the top of the trees. And the interesting thing there was that our culture hadn't primed us to pay attention or to even be able to perceive the monkeys up there because we hadn't been conditioned in that way, our senses hadn't been primed for that. But then you go a step deeper and walk into the little compound and you know that they are involved in their dream life.
When they go to sleep they believe that the soul leaves the body, travels into the spirit realm, gains information about the world through the spirits, comes back and they believe that it is their social responsibility to share the contents of their dream life, because everybody has a piece of the puzzle. And then typically some elder within the household unit will interpret the dream based on different people's input, and they'll make decisions based on that subjective experience, like should they go hunting, will their hunting be successful, will they be visited, will the visitors be friendly. These kinds of things about their subjective world become very important, very real to them. But our culture hasn't trained us in that way. And then you go a step further and they are a group of people who make use of the ayahuaska or the plant medicines, and if they want to have a big vision, something that's going to help them years into the future, they will use this ayahuaska or other plant medicines as a way of gaining access to insights that aren't obvious in the mundane physical world. Well all of those things are aspects of cultural development that allows us to appreciate these non-ordinary realms of experience and ultimately then to navigate them in ways that help us stay grounded on one hand, because we don't want to get lost in that realm, but also help us to gain benefit from the insights that come from those extended reaches.
Pallavi: Wow. I have a quick follow up question, which is, given your own personal life story, and the work that you do, do you have any suggestions for how one can get grounded? I sense that you are very grounded in yourself and when you have these kinds of experiences how do you find the grounding?
Marilyn: Very good question. I think one thing is to be in conversations like the one we're in right now. And to share with other people so you know you're not alone. You're not the only person who's had those kinds of experiences. That I think is extremely helpful. Like when Dick Gunther came to my office he was like, "Is there something weird about me?" Which then deprived him of the beauty and the learning that came from that. So first of all recognizing that we're not alone when we have these experiences. I think that's really important. Finding a supportive community, and by supportive I don't mean that they always agree with us. I mean they are there to be present with us in whatever experiences we might describe. And in particular, in these kind of non-ordinary realms, it's important to keep our feet on the ground and allows our soul to be expansive. And I think that's the way in which we can be both grounded in the mundane world that requires that we have a job, that we make money and that we go to school. We do the things our culture says is important, and at the same time to know that we are more than that. And in conversation, in reading things that people have written, you know earlier we talked about these kinds of near death experiences, out of body experiences. You know many, many, many people report these and yet because we're not paying attention, particularly within the dominant culture, we don't tend to understand how widespread they are. So I think those would be a couple of things, and then always finding practices that can help ground us. I love walking in nature, working in my garden, really taking an opportunity to take a leisurely bath, things that give us a break from the mental chatter.
Pallavi: Thank you so much.
Birju: I wanted to dive a little bit further on this point of worldviews. On a personal front, where is the edge of exploration for you on exploring your worldview?
Marilyn: That's a good question. Let's think about that for a moment. I can answer that in various ways. We are all multiple layers of being. There's the idea of right livelihood - how does one have right livelihood and also be open to the mysteries that come. So I was with the Institute of Noetic Sciences for 21 years and stepped away from that a year ago to pursue some different lines of work and expressions of creativity, and that was scary for me. Having had an organization, a group of people that I relied upon, the familiarity of the place, I knew where I was going every day. So just at the level of my work - and I didn't just jump -- I had a grant to bridge me. So there was some financial support for that. I had the collaboration of some amazing people. Deepak Chopra, I mean who doesn't want to work with him? And so I had some structure to help ground me. I encourage people to have a base. It's not for everybody to just drop out of society. Sometimes we need to build the bridges and set the foundation for whatever transitions we want to make, but it is a worldview shift. To go from working in an organization with all the complexities of that, with all the support of that, to being on my own, to being an entrepreneur. And so that's one piece of it.
Being a parent, and knowing that I am a respected person in my field, I've got publications, I've got books, I've got blah blah blah, you invited me to come on your program, and then you talk to your kid, who thinks you are nothing. [laugh] and you think wow! What a great neutralizer that is. And how does one not become reactive, how does one, how do I take the skills that I've learned from my own gratitude meditations, the many years I've spent in the emotional social intelligence world, my own meditation practices, how do I deal with that? And it is the greatest teacher for sure, for me at this point. I think this idea of death awareness is really important. And the gentleman whose teacher said," Okay now I'm going to teach you how to die," you know, in my new book I have a chapter called Death Preparation Practices --and different cultures, different world views, have practices for making peace with the inevitability, for inviting in the opportunity. It's not about committing suicide. It's about finding the gift that comes when we understand our mortality and we then use that to inform our life. I would also say that having been at the bedside of friends who were dying, parents who were dying, that is a great teacher. It is the gift of all gifts to be there to be present, to have the opportunity.
I, for example, had a very, very close friend, one of my best friends, a scientist. She was a psychiatrist who developed a brain tumor, and this is a woman who did everything right. She was a good person. A brilliant mind, kind individual. And I do this gratefulness meditation and I love to do it when I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Because it's such a reminder of all the things we can be grateful for, the victories of civilization and so on, but she lived in San Francisco, I lived in Petaluma, so I'd be going back and forth between her house and mine and trying to be in this place of gratitude, when in fact my beloved was dying. And so it was a gift to be able to reflect on how I was a person capable of having the depth of feelings that I had for this person, Elizabeth, for having the kind of friendship that called me to my highest self. You know that was an opportunity for me to feel the gratitude that life presented me with. And ultimately gratitude for her life because she had gifted many, many people with a lot of insight and a lot of beauty. And that beauty and that giftedness came during her very productive life but also at the moment that she died. So to the extent that we can open ourselves to the gifts that life presents us in whatever form they come, whether they are difficult and challenging or easy and delightful, all of them provide a door way for us, and for myself really, to be completely present and to live these ideals that we espouse.
Birju: Really appreciate that. Thank you for sharing that context. I'm also curious because you've touched on it a couple of times, this concept of healing, I'm not sure that we've dived into a definition of that. Can you share a bit more about why healing is so important and what is the impact of that?
Marilyn: I think healing means the restoration of wholeness. And it's different from curing. Curing is kind of fixing. I think healing is about coming into completeness. And so we can think about healing at different levels. In my book Consciousness and Healing, we talk about integral approaches to mind-body medicine. Integral being that sense of the whole. So when I think about healing, I tend to think about it as nested sets of relationships. Relationship is ultimately deeply healing. So it's the relationship between our cells and the organs in our bodies, and when functioning optimally they work in perfect harmony. We don't have to tell our heart to beat. It knows what to do, So trusting that set of relationships to do their job and to be in harmony, and to do things that can help to harmonize the relationship, you know eating right, and exercising and being in healthy relationships. Those are all really, really important. I just went and had some tests done, for a yearly check up, and I was looking at the test results from some blood work over -- it was over a seven year period. I'm at Kaiser Permanente and they keep track of all this, so you can actually look at your medical record and you can look at diagrams that show -- and about a year and a half ago when I was leaving my job, when I was having some very personal upsets around some family dynamics, you could see that I was unhealthy as compared to now and as compared to before. And it's so interesting when you look at the timing, it's very clear that I was in a very stressed out period, and my body showed it.
So there's the body and then there's the mind body where our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs can influence our bodies and our bodies can influence our thoughts and emotions. So recognizing the healing that comes when there's right relationship between our inner mental experiences and then our physicality, then there's the relationship of our own interpersonal connections. Are we in right relationship with our family? There's this great, highly replicated study now called the Marriage Effect. And people who are in a positive, successful, nurturing marriage, are healthier and live longer than people who aren't. And that's not the same as just being in a relationship. There's something about being in that kind of committed relationship. And it's particularly true for men. Men seem to be happier, healthier and they live longer when they are in a married, positive relationship as compared to not. That says something about the healing of these relationships and that sense of wholeness. Then I think about it in the context of our healing as a society. Ivan Illich talked about - it's hard to be healthy in a sick society, so how is it that we can work towards healing our planet, healing our relationships, healing the environment? And that sense of being embedded in a healing environment. How is it that we can remember to spend time in nature?
You know I grow butterfly bushes, so that I can be part of a habitat that is going to bring the pollinators. So working at the relationship we have with our natural environment becomes very important to healing our relationships, our planet, and ourselves. And ultimately there's a spiritual aspect to healing. It's being in right relationship with that sense of something greater than ourselves, something that is mysterious, unnamable, and feeling that sense that we are in relationship with the wholeness of it all. And I think that can ultimately lead to very positive transformations as we begin to think of this issue of death. If you have a healthy relationship to that sense of something bigger than ourselves, if we can move from the “me” to the “we”, we can begin to heal some of those pathologies that come from separation.
Birju: That's so beautiful Marilyn. I was just thinking about how you made that complete connection between healing and transformation. We began the hour with the question of what is transformation, and it comes back so deeply to healing ourselves on multiple levels. Thank you so much for joining us on the call today.
Marilyn: Thank you! And I really think what you guys are doing is fabulous.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly conference call that anyone from around the world can dial into. It is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.