Sally Kempton At SAND Conference This Year!
The Science and Nonduality Conference is happening October 18th - October 22nd in San Jose and we were thrilled to be a able to speak with Sally Kempton before seeing her this year at SAND. Awakening Shakti is one of my favorite books and has given me much solace on the power of the feminine, so as you can imagine I was honored to be able to speak with her. Here is what she had to say:
Your talk at SAND is on 'Mutual Meditation-the Magic of Shared Awareness'- Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect?
This talk—which includes quite a bit of practice-- is based on the recognition that shared Awareness amplifies both your inner meditative state, and offers powerful openings towards deep intimacy. We’ll establish ourselves in a heart-and-Awareness space, then practice with both silent tonglen-style meditation and with mutual questioning. Given the level of experience of the SAND participants, I expect this to be a powerful experience for everyone.
You have a book called Meditation for the Love of It, Enjoying Your Own Deepest Practice, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Meditation for the Love of It is a manual for deepening your meditation, based on my own experiments in practice. It's full of practices, including quite a few attitudinal practices. We could call it a Beyond Mindfulness practice manual, but there is also quite a bit of theory, especially from the non-dual tantric traditions. It includes directions for experimenting with different modalities, including mantra, inquiry, breath and awareness practice, vipassana, visualizations, and many practices for working with thoughts and emotions.
In 40 years of teaching meditation, what 'tricks' have you learned on making meditation a priority?
It needs to be constantly renewed. Two things are crucial, I’ve found. First, schedule it. Start with 10 minutes, but do it daily, and sit for as long as you’ve scheduled, even if you feel distracted or bored or uncomfortable. After a while, your body starts to crave meditation. Try setting aside 21 days in which you ‘vow’ to meditate daily. See if you can increase your meditation time by one minute every day or so, until you are comfortably sitting for half an hour. That’ when you’ll start to see deep effects. Second, do keep reading about meditation and its benefits, until you are really convinced of how powerful it is for health and well being as well as for unfolding your inner world, and that will give you motivation. Reading a bit of spiritual poetry, or inspired teachings before meditation is also helpful, because that helps re-set your mind from outgoing ‘ordinary’ consciousness to a more unified and subtle awareness.
I also recommend varying your ‘routine’—In other words, having a core practice that you use as a default (i.e., breath awareness or mantra) and then playing with different practices with the goal of opening your inner body and cultivating the subtle and casual fields that interpenetrate the body/mind. And try alternatives for beginning practice. Chant for a few minutes, or do a little pranayama.
And, try some open-eyed meditation. Sit in nature or even at your desk with your senses wide open, tuning into the Awareness that holds all this.
I've heard you talk about studies testing the neuro-plasticity of the brain and meditation. One, I believe, was a 3 week study of biotech workers who had stressful jobs. Do you think the scientific community (medicine especially) will start to accept meditation as a healing practice and prescribe meditation?
Definitely. It's already happening in the tech world, and several insurance companies are now offering meditation cds to help people prepare for operations. Richard Davison’s work and that of Andrew Neuberg at Penn have been crucial in this process and it seems to be continuing at an even more accelerated pace.
I watched your 1970’s video of you and Susan Brownmiller on the Dick Cevett show where they called it 'Feminists Vs. Hugh Hefner' and Hugh called both of you 'girls.' Did you ever reconnect with Hef and how did it go?
Never. He wasn’t, to put it mildly, my kind of guy!
You've said, as a 'left wing political individual' that you couldn't go straight to God. What do you suggest in our modern times for stressed out, politically involved persons to do?
Maybe this is because I live in California, but I’m seeing more and more activists turning to meditation and related practices to sustaining themselves in the midst of this very challenging time. One of the gifts of post-modernism is that even as we’ve deconstructed religion, we’ve also come to recognize that mystical experience is natural, a normal part of human develpment, and something that is available to everyone. As you know, love and Awareness are real—and theydon’t have to come to us cloaked in religious language or religious concepts. The more deeply we realize that, the more we can take the best of the practices that are called ‘religious’ —such as ritual, community, contemplation, inner silence, music, and certain kinds of character work—and let go of what is not useful in our spiritual unfoldment. It doesn’t matter what we call the Intelligence/Love that permeates this universe, what matters is that we learn how to sense its Presence, feel it, open to it and allow its wisdom and grace to irradiate our lives, especially when during dark times.
You talk about, and practice, Kashmir Shaiva Tantra which is a specific text. What do you think of the misuse of the term in modern yoga and the sexualization of Tantra?
Kashmir Shaiva Tantra is a term of convenience for the philosophy and practice that arose in a region of northern India around the 7th century BC—but the insights found in that tradition can be found in different language all over the east, as in Taoism, Chan, Tibetan Buddhism, and even in mystical Kabbalah. As you know, one of the core recognitions of tantra in general is that subtle energy is at the heart of everything in the physical and subtle worlds, and that therefore the sacred essence of life can be discovered within any experience, including intense emotions, difficult situations, and every aspect of the sensory world. Which of course includes sexuality. But to equate tantra only with sexual practices is a profound misunderstanding of the tradition. I’m not against sexual tantra per se, as long as its understood that a) it's a part of your practice and not the whole thing, and that b) for most of us, especially women, sexuality is deeply entwined with our emotional life, including our emotional wounds. For that reason, the emotional ‘side-effects’ of sexual tantra can be brutal, especially for people with unexamined wounds and family of origin issues. So it's not a practice to take lightly!
Let's talk about Shakti, the subtle energy that can contract consciousness or expand it. How can this energy help us in current (arguably very male-dominated) times?
Shakti isn’t gender specific…It ( She!) is in everyone and everything—because what Shakti truly is is the energy that creates and sustains life! The tantric view here is that in ‘ordinary’ life, the life-force works to direct our attention outwards through the senses and perceptual apparatus, which gives us the experience of separation from others and the world. At a certain point in human development, something happens to that orientation, so that we become able to see more deeply into ourselves and recognize non-separation. That’s what tantra means by the expansion of consciousness. In my experience, the more we can identify our own connections to our own life-force—our Shakti--and the more we honor it, the more that energy becomes a force in our unfolding. So, Shakti isn’t gender-specific. However, there is a very valuable recognition that comes to us as we begin to discern the presence of Shakti inside our own field. We realize that something is moving us that is beyond our individual mind and will, and we learn in time to partner with that subtle force, and eventually to surrender to it. I believe that this is the heart of the journey of unfolding awareness, especially because when we can recognize the presence of Shakti in everything we can also start to recognize the presence of the sacred even in what we don’t especially like. In spiritual life, there’s a specific type of awakening that involves activating the inner energy called Kundalini, which can completely revolutionize your capacity to see into the heart of life, as well as accelerate your own opening. We’re having a panel about this at SAND, which should be fascinating!
At the SAND Conference in 2016, you talked about the lack of sexism being addressed. And then you explained that the feminine is not seen and is not obvious but subtle. How can modern-day feminists ensure their cause is on the forefront while still keeping the feminine Shakti aspects alive?
Generally, Shakti is not seen, simply because Shakti pervades everything as the energy within and behind all manifestation. And, historically, at least in the political and social arena, it seems to me that there is a connection between the situation of Shakti in the universe, and women in the social and political sphere. I have always found it telling that just as Shakti is generally unseen until Kundalini awakens, throughout much of human history, women have been ‘backstage,’ doing the work that makes everything happen, yet rarely recognized or seen except in their absence! So I’ve always seen a corollary between the subtlety of the Shakti and the subtlety of women’s effect on the world. And of course, patriarchy defines femininity (and masculinity) in very limited terms. So even though the Eastern societies that honor feminine sacred forms—goddesses—are also patriarchal, they do offer us an understanding that the feminine can take many forms, scary and intense as well as sweet and nurturing. So for me as a feminist, it's been crucial to widen my understanding of what it means to be feminine—and also to recognize how the feminine shows up in people who have male bodies. Perhaps this is one reason why Awakening Shakti has been meaningful for so many women, because it helps us break out of the social constructs around what the feminine is supposed to look like. There’s always been a cost to women who stand up to patriarchy, and unfortunately, that cost has sometimes been a loss of the yielding, soft qualities that are traditionally associated with femininity The question you ask is one of the core questions for every generation of feminists, and I’ve come to believe that each of us must find out what it means to us as individuals.
Hopefully, we can support each other in that, because we really do need open and radical conversation about what it really means to be a woman, and to hold feminine energy. This is especially true in the spiritual and yoga worlds, where we are learning to birth genuinely new ways of ‘feminine’ yoga practice. But the questions are always coming back around. For instance, how do you hold the paradox of strength and softness? How do you learn to be assertive about justice and still keep your heart open? How do you learn how to use strong feelings like anger to give you energy, and yet not to become hardened by your anger or your sense of injustice? We need to be in constant dialogue about those things, to learn how to use anger skillfully without being taken over by it, to know how to be allies of our own soft hearts even as we keep working for genuine equality. Its hard. But we’ve made enormous progress in our understanding and our tools since the 70s, and even with the challenges facing us right now, there’s so much rapid growth going on in our consciousness and capacity for awareness and empathy, that I have a lot of hope.