I Dissolved My Body (But Kept My Ego) at a Meditation Retreat

I just got back from ten days at a meditation retreat. Vipassana is the style. The idea is, you observe your physical sensations very carefully, going over each part of the body, hour after hour, day after day. 

No matter what sensations you experience, pleasant, unpleasant, hellish, sensual, short, fast, hard, soft, you maintain perfect equanimity. That is, you tell your mind to chill out no matter what it encounters. In theory you’ll reprogram yourself to stop developing “cravings and aversions” – the twin devils of Buddhism – thereby liberating yourself and enjoying a life (or lifetimes) of profound happiness.

There I am, sitting, squatting, kneeling, trying all different manner of posture, to trace all my body's bits. I experience the usual sensations, e.g. back pain, itches, eye twitching and cold feet, but then another phenomenon appears: a buzzing energy around my scalp. Then around my neck. Then large swaths of my body. Feels like a million billion tiny particles jumping on my skin.

I get excited. You’re not supposed to get excited, the assistant teacher reminds me during a check in. You’re supposed to remain equanimous. Well, I’m excited anyway, and I tell him that we shouldn’t tell ourselves how to feel. To which he responds, oh so simply, “Come back to the sensations. Remember your equanimity.”

I feel this buzz over my whole body. Not just around my body, but within it, too. Inside my legs, my arms, my chest. On the last day, on the last mediation, it happens: my body dissolves, top to bottom.

I’m nothing but vibrations. Just vibrations. No I to speak of, actually.

I pass my awareness, an awareness that seems beyond me, over this mass of particles that once was my body. All the way down, all the way up. I feel so damn blissed out. I confess my bliss to the teacher. He says, calmly, “Bring it back to the breath. Doesn’t sound like you were able to maintain your equanimity.”

But didn’t I just get enlightened? I mean, I experienced an awareness that wasn’t mine flushing through my non-existent body.

Isn’t that awesome?

In my mind, as I write this, I can hear the teacher saying, “The only yardstick of progress is equanimity.” I need to get over myself, even if there’s no I to get over. In the words of the master, venerable SN Goenka, whose death five years ago did not prevent him from presiding over the course via video:

For the Love of Performing

 

Last week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I got in front of about 50 people each night and enacted the story of my psychic and spiritual development. I embodied characters, shared about my depression, writhed on the floor from ayahuasca, and danced on stage. I took volunteers from the audience, sat them across from me, and read them -- all the way down to their core. 

Catie Davis directed me masterfully with just the right combination of ease and discipline; Jake DeGroot made it come alive with playful sound effects and spectacular lighting; and Alannah O'Hagan, our stage manager, held the whole production together. An angel named David Solie financed the play after a few phone calls -- then flew to NYC to see it with his family.

It was, in short, a blast, maybe even a miracle. I can honestly say we held everyone's attention the whole time, and though there was much to improve, there was so much more to celebrate. I gave my all to something. And I loved it. (And thanks, Jake, for taking these photos!)

 

Come to My Play on April 13th, 14th and 15th in NYC

If you're reading this, I want you to come to my play.

People ask me: How did you realize you were an empath? They ask me: When did you start doing readings? They ask me: Who the hell are you, anyway?

On April 13th, 14th and 15th, in Theaterlab's beautiful white box theater, I'm going to answer these questions as entertainingly as I know how. I'm working with an awesome director, Catie Davis, who's pushing me to go all the way, expressing aspects of myself I'd rather hide.

Because it'll make for good theater.

Theater is my first love. I wrote and produced plays throughout my teens and early twenties. I thought I was going to be playwright (until a Tony Award winner told me it was a waste of time because it didn't pay enough). Now I'm coming back and bringing everything I have. 

My body. I'll show you how I came to do what I do. 

My heart. I'll tell you how far I fell, what I learned down there in the dumps, and what life's about for me now.

My soul. The one who disappears for you. The mirror.

It'll be fun, too. Psychic readings at Burning Man. Surreal conversations with psychedelic plants. Lots of sarcasm from a once cynical Jew from LA (who attended Harvard-Westlake, for those who've heard of it? The fanciest, shmanciest school there is).

If you're reading this, and you're going to be in NYC the weekend of April 13th, I'm offering myself, my whole self, for your entertainment and enlightenment. 

Okay, enough pitching. 

Did you buy the tickets yet?

Feeling Shitty in a Healthy Way

Tomorrow I'm teaching a class on how to have a healthy relationship with your emotions. See, look: 

And right now, as I write this the night before, I feel shitty. More precisely, I feel heaviness from the front of my face all the way down through my chest. My mind is slower than normal; my voice is more distant. I find I am more agitated at the routine emptiness of modern American life than I am grateful for the exquisite opportunity to experience life in all its variations, including emptiness. 

Someone asked me how I was doing today. They meant it in the usual sense of, "You say you're okay, I'll say I'm okay, and together we'll share a half-hearted moment of connection before it dissipates into another transaction." Instead I said, "I'm feeling shitty." And it got awkward. "Oh, um. Sorry to hear that," he said. "Well I guess I opened a can of worms there, eh?"

We have few places for authentic human relating. So few places, we've turned authentic human relating into a high art, practiced by a select few willing to commit to it in conscious, conventionally upper middle class white spaces:

cirdling-cover1-500.jpg
auth2017-07-22_instagram.jpg
ath.jpg
pya_arg.jpg

Even here, as you'll note by all the smiling faces, there's a premium on happiness. On my advertisement too. This marketing deliberately sells the lie that authenticity = happiness. When the reality is, authenticity = whatever the hell you're actually feeling right now. And fuck happiness, if that's what you're feeling.

This is how we have a healthy relationship with our emotions -- by acknowledging them, giving them space, welcoming them. To do this in a culture that values transactions (i.e. money) over authentic expression is an act of rebellion. To do this in spiritual circles that preach gratitude, love and light is an act of heresy. 

The truth is, gratitude is not better than bitterness. Joy is not better than sadness. Bliss is not better than misery. Sure, it feels better. Sure, you'd rather be feeling it. But if you're not feeling it, you won't get any closer by telling yourself you should. Or that something is wrong with you if you don't. 

Tomorrow, if I still feel shitty, I'm going to tell people I feel shitty. I may feel self-conscious about it. I'll tell them that, too.

My Breakup with Lina

I broke up with my girlfriend Lina a month ago.

I wrote a letter and handed it to her. We were in a hotel room in Stockholm. I was so afraid of doing it, my hands shook, my body shook. I couldn’t say the words. So I wrote them down, as honestly as I knew how. I was hoping to leave the letter on the bed, go for a walk, and come back after she had read it.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Lina screamed as I walked toward her with it. “No.”

IMG_1874.JPG

I sat there while she read it. It was so hard for me. I was so afraid of her feelings. I felt her pain so deeply it was unbearable. Unbearable in the sense of: I dissociated. I imagined far off places. Trees with thick trunks. Loud gushing rivers.

I had a flight out the next day. Lina asked me to stay a few more days. It was too violent, this breakup. Too fast. She needed time to process. I was so afraid of absorbing more of her pain. And my own, too.

That night, Lina woke up crying. Deep, agonizing wails. I panicked. I begged her to call her father, her sister, her best friend, someone who could carry this with her. I couldn’t do it. A few hours later, I woke up with hair all over my pillow. I was shedding from stress.

I went into the bathroom to meditate. Lina wailed again from the other room. Can I tell you: never in my life, in my whole life, have I experienced the pain of another as intensely as I did in that bathroom.

Deep, throbbing pain in my chest. My head lilted to the left. I started to go black. I was shutting down, reverting to some pre-verbal, deeply traumatized state. I woke up with the bell of the alarm, telling me I had finished my meditation.

I went back to Lina. We hugged and held each other. We stayed together in that hotel room for three days. We walked some, too. Had a meal or two. But mostly, we stayed in that room.

We went through the ways we had hurt each other. We apologized to each other. I had never appreciated her femininity, really appreciated it. I had misled her about my ability to commit. She had disappeared when I needed her one afternoon during a fight. Sometimes she yelled at me instead of listening to my concerns about the relationship. We apologized and we cried and cried.

We expressed gratitude. It turned out that what we most appreciated about each other, we had never mentioned. Not once, in the six years since we met, had she told me she loved how committed I was to growth. She never told me she loved my courage. And never, in the six years since we met, did I tell Lina that my favorite thing about her was her heart. Her heart, her pure heart, kept pulling me back, year after year. So it turned out that what we we most loved about the other were exactly those qualities we most loved about ourselves. We just didn’t know it.

I left Lina on the platform at the train station. I cried on the train and cried on the plane. I don’t want to stop talking, but she does. I am afraid of that disconnection, even though I initiated it. So we’re not going to talk.

Love you, Lina.

 This is the last picture of us together. 

This is the last picture of us together. 

Shows, Workshops, Classes, Dreaming and Chilling

Your empath here has had a busy couple months.

I did a show at the beautiful Mystic Journey Crystals in Venice, CA a few weeks back. My first time on a literal stage, with religious iconography above me and multi-thousand dollar crystals on either side. Here's what that looked like (minus the crystals, in the other room):

Actually, here are the crystals in the other room. I just have to show you:

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 11.34.36 PM.png

Off I went to San Francisco, where One Salon SF hosted me for a hybrid workshop-show-presentation at Make School. I explained to a more tech-oriented crowd how I experience others' feelings, gave a reading by way of demonstration, then had everyone feel everyone else's feelings through a playful meditation. 

Mel photo 2.jpg

I wrapped up my four-week class "How to Thrive as an Empath" through the Evolver Learning Labs. Which was the most beautiful experience I've ever shared with people digitally. Turns out, emotions travel through screens as easily as through space as long as the intention is there. Here's how the class began:

I was also, I confess, featured in a documentary by Vice. I just hated the way they portrayed me. This is me sucking it up and showing you the first few minutes of what I experienced as a mean-spirited botch job. (Note to self: don't read the Youtube comments. Or do. Prepare yourself, anyway.)

Still, i have this restlessness, this feeling of wanting to do more. More gallery shows (dream: art museums); more theater (dream: off Broadway, eventually... Broadway?); more classes (just becoming a better teacher) and the loudest dream of all, a show, Facebook Watch or Youtube or even cable TV. So much so I've hired the brilliantly talented editor Will Kitchings to edit a sizzle reel for me.

Why? What is that feeling? The egocentric need to replicate my image? Or could it be a desire to serve more folks? Or to explore my boundaries? Right now, it feels more like: I want to win at the game. Which is another way of saying: Grant me, oh universe, validation as a success. Maybe it's me sensing a destiny, in an honest way, then grasping at it, because I want it NOW.

So I come back here, back to this place of sitting on my floor at 1:30 in the morning, typing. I will sleep soon, wake up, meditate, maybe go to the gym, then head to my new office at the Assemblage in NYC, respond to emails, plan whatever's next, in other words: ALLOW. I remind myself, when I notice I'm grasping: I'm awesome as I am, right here, right now. No one has to read this or pay attention to it to change my underlying self-worth. But also: It's okay to want more

These thoughts spin around. This is work I'm still doing on myself. Re-orienting around what shows up for me to do today, tomorrow, the next day, and not as much around brass rings. If they come, great. If they don't, I am not less of a person. Because they're just ways, at the end of the day, to grow into a fuller self. I might grow just as much by not getting what I want as by getting it. Who knows?

Emotional Healing in a Nutshell

I was doing a reading yesterday. The person I was reading asked:

What's the thesis here? Like, how do you heal?

Turns out, it's pretty simple. Not easy, of course, but simple. 

Allow yourself to feel what you're feeling. Those feelings are yours; there is nothing wrong with them. If you can't handle your feelings, that's okay. Have compassion for yourself. Come back when you're ready. 

It's not new. But it's now.

Three Nights at the Gallery

Three nights in a row of readings at the ABXY Gallery on the Lower East Side. Probably 60 readings total, with 300 or so people cycling through the space. Sometimes I nailed it; sometimes I fumbled; sometimes it was exquisite and sometimes it was exquisitely awkward. I feel like saying, I did it, I actually did it. It's hard to go all the way with something, until the moment you're all the way with it. Then it's fun.

What Does the Word "Empath" Really Mean?

I say an empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. Where did I get that definition?  I cribbed it from the Urban Dictionary. Here's the entry:

Empath: a person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.

I like that definition. It exudes empathy. It doesn't imply woo woo. I can explain it without having to apologize. But the Oxford English Dictionary, an actual dictionary, features this definition:

empath122.jpg

Empath: (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.

Yup, it's a supernatural thing, originating in science fiction. The first use comes by way of JT McIntosh (1925 - 2008), a once well known but now obscure Scottish novelist, in a story called "The Empath," published in 1956. I've just ordered it from a used book seller; stay tuned for a review. In the meanwhile, here's the sentence where the word appears for the first time in recorded history:

"How exactly does the government use empaths?" Tim shrugged.

The answer:

"We can tell the level of a man's loyalty just by meeting him. We can walk around a factory and sense that there's going to be a strike."

NewMutants_62.jpg

So empaths are supernatural beings whose sensitivities the government exploits to oppress workers. After "The Empath," other scifi writers adopted the word. Joyce Muskat introduced the archetype to the broader public in 1968 with an episode of Star Trek called "The Empath." In the 80s, the Empath morphed into a mutant in an X-Men comic called "The New Mutants."

It would take another who knows how many years before the word would mean what I want it to mean. But real people, people like me, have always felt the emotions of others. There was just no word for it until McIntosh came up with one. Now we mortals have appropriated it.

Judith Orloff, who wrote the book on empaths, says an empath is "an emotional sponge. They absorb the emotions, physical symptoms and energies of others into their own bodies." The word has taken on another meaning, too. It's a vaguely hipster way to say, "I'm really sensitive," which may or may not mean you're an HSP, or a Highly Sensitive Person, as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron

An empath is someone who feels the emotions of others. An empath is a mindreader. An empath is highly sensitive. An empath is a telepathic superwoman on a faraway planet who may defeat the Enterprise.

All true. 

 

A Few Reflections on My First Gallery Show

Monday, 9/11, at 6pm, I sit in a chair in a gallery on the Lower East Side. Across from me is another chair, identical and empty. I cross my legs, yogi-style (halfway, anyway) and meditate. I feel my body, feel my legs, hear some talking in the next room, hear the neon lights, sense their brightness. If there are thoughts, they run like this:

IMG_1382.jpg

I hope this goes well. I'm sure it's going to be fine. Everything is set. Nothing more you can do. You're doing this. I hope this goes well. If it doesn't go well, that's okay too. This is an experiment.

Someone walks into the gallery. I nod my head, inviting her. I thank her for being the first to join me. She sits down.

"I'm going to close my eyes, tune into your feelings, and tell you what I feel is going on. I'm going to do it one layer at a time. You'll see these feelings express themselves through my body." I can tell I don't need to say anymore. "You read the artist statement?" I ask her. I had written up a page on what I was doing, called it my artist statement, printed it out and left 50 copies in the front room.

"Yes."

I close my eyes, imagine everything I'm carrying, my emotions, my energy, descending through my legs, through the floor, into the earth. I affirm that I am here to serve -- I use the word as an incantation. My body does the rest.

"Right now you're feeling calm, open and curious." My thumbs connect with my forefingers; my elbows pull my arms back to my chest; my heart expands outward; and my neck tilts forward. I feel a soft serenity not my own. 

***

IMG_1386.jpg

I read about 30 people in three hours. For the first time, after two years of doing this, I am reading people in public. People come in, get a reading or don't get a reading, and watch. At its peak, there are 50 people watching. The women in the reception area were supposed to make you check your phone, swapping it for a ticket, but after an hour, they stopped insisting. Still, quiet pervades. Everyone is paying very close attention. It feels sacred.

But I wonder. What the hell am I doing? Twisting my body into shapes to reflect people's feelings back at them? It looks weirder than it sounds -- and it sounds weird. I am embarrassed sometimes. I make mistakes sometimes. Sometimes I doubt whether I have a gift at all. To write this feels vulnerable. To question myself. But I do question myself. I feel a person's feelings, and I feel my doubt at the same time. I get lost.

I insist on a clear intention. I am here to serve each person, every time. My ego comes in: I'm here to show I can do this. My inner child, too: I'm here because it's fun, because I want to try something I haven't tried. My inner achiever: because I had a vision of this moment, and it feels good to do what I envisioned.

Oh, and I'm here because VICE is here, too.

VICE has come to film a documentary about empaths. They called two weeks before, hoping I would do more than just an interview. They wondered if I could do something visual. I told them I was planning on a show. I could push the show forward if they wanted to film it? They came with two cameras and a host, Hannah, who sits down in front of me, nervous as hell, her mind spinning. And sadness, I feel in her. I see it in her eyes, too.

IMG_1417.jpg

Do I want to be a star? Why have I set this all up for cameras? How come I'm working with a publicist, my friend Mandie, to promote me? Oh, the tendency to hide self-aggrandizement behind a mission. Still, I have a mission. I am here to connect people with their feelings. To permit them to have their feelings with no judgement. And I'm here to show people magic is real. But I have another reason, too. I'm here to show people I am special, to be acknowledged as special, even as I disappear into the other at my most special. I want to be recognized for my transcendant moments of genuine egolessness. 

***

A woman sits down wearing all black. I feel something different than the other readings. A force, like a field, pushes me back. "I don't know what's happening," I confess. 

I try again. Again, the force. Should I go through it? Could I? The force forces me away for a reason. "I can't figure you out. Maybe I'm not supposed to?" I'm back in my head, thinking. I'm failing to be present. But I'm comfortable failing. I give that to myself. Failure is part of the show. I go back into myself, that is to say, into her. "You're lost in there, alone. You don't trust me. But you came to me to be seen. You go to lots of people like me, hoping to be seen."

Where does this information come from? My tendency to tell stories? Intuition? This woman's spirit guides, speaking through me? I don't know how I know it. But I know it

"You can't depend on anyone to see what's happening with you." She meets my look with a look of acceptance. It's just a look. She feigns everything so well, she doesn't know she's feigning. 

"No more gurus for you," I say. The crowd chuckles. They get the irony.

***

I feel relief, thinking about what I did. I envisioned doing readings as performance art. I never envisioned doing readings in front of an audience -- I was thinking one-on-ones -- but this pushed me deeper. When I left the gallery, I felt like I didn't need to do this again. Didn't ever need to read people again. I made my statement, whatever that statement was. 

The next show is October 14 - 16, 6pm to 8pm each night, at ABXY.

IMG_1515.JPG

Statement of the Artist as a Young Empath

This is my artist statement for my show on 9/11/17 at ABXY Gallery on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I'm doing readings in front of an audience.

An empath is someone who feels the emotions of others.

What I do is, I empty myself of my own feelings, tune into the feelings of whomever I’m reading, and share what I’m feeling as if I were them.

I experience people in layers. First, what they’re feeling right now, at this exact moment. Then what they’re feeling underneath the surface. Then a layer below that. All the way down to a person’s core — their basic, essential makeup as a human being.

In the process, something strange happens. My body literally takes on these emotions. It happens through my muscles. They move my body into shapes that form a visual language. I interpret this language as best I can.

What I’m feeling, I have no choice about. What I say, however, is a conscious process, subject to my own subjectivity. I often get things wrong. If I say something that doesn’t resonate, I ask you to let it go.

Thank you for experimenting with me. This is a gift — I love giving it.

_H6A7057.CR2.jpeg

Healing Hatred, Not Judging It

What to do about Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Confederacy apologists and others who espouse an ideology of hate?

Well, it's tricky.

My first instinct, as an activist, a Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, is to say things like, "We need to fight back." The ADL, for example, talks about combatting racism and anti-Semitism. Left-leaners, just check your Facebook feed for an unlimited number of posts about fighting, combatting, confronting, and standing up to hate.

The alternative approach we hear is to ignore. Ignore what they're saying. Don't give them air time. It'll suffocate them like a fire without oxygen. 

Neither feels true. Hatred will not disappear by fighting it. Nor will it disappear by ignoring it. Hatred is properly understood as an emotion meeting a deep need. Anti-semitism, racism, and other belief systems built on hatred are cries for help, cries for attention. They are expressions of something deep, primal and true. They are, in other words, expressions of trauma.

What is the trauma? That varies person to person, place to place. Healing can happen on a societal level, but ultimately it's about a single human being, bringing awareness and compassion to their own suffering, in order to move through it and integrate it.

So what do we do?

I personally start by acknowledging the humanity of the haters. I feel my own hatred welling up inside, my judgement, my feelings of disgust, and I watch these feelings flow through me, signs of my old patterns. Now I see a person with similar feelings. Can I hold space for those feelings? Can I stand there with them and listen?

If we want to heal racism, heal anti-semitism, address these issues at the root, that's what's required. To listen with love and compassion to the ugliest things you've ever heard, to hold that space with reverence for the soul underneath, expressing extreme pain the way they know how.

Imagine that.

Emotions are Chinese to Some (Including the Chinese)

A few days ago, I spoke at a conference, in Shanghai, on the subject of consciousness. Well, the conference was about consciousness, but I spoke about empathy. Specifically how I discovered the depth of my empathy through depression, introspection, plant medicine and ultimately tuning into the feelings of others.

What struck me most was the different masks the Chinese wear compared to us Americans. We Americans tend to cover up our feelings by pretending to be okay, or happy, or doing well. We have few socially acceptable outlets for anger or grief, fewer still for sadness, and virtually none at all for misery or, incredibly, joy. Our strategy for hiding these emotions is to project a false self who is empowered, confident and clear. We've got it covered. That's our story. 

Not so with the Chinese. They're allowed frustration and anger. Beyond that, though, they seem, on the whole, to be playing poker. The mask is emotionless drive -- the undeterred acheiver who is satisfied (never delighted) when the job is done and hyper-focused on whatever task comes next. They project, or try to project, a detached deference to the rules. And they allow themselves outrage when someone does otherwise.

These masks are important. They're there for a reason. They teach us what we value. What I suggested in my talk is that we start valuing the emotions too, start seeing what's really going on, at least in ourselves. We don't beat ourselves up for our culturally conditioned stories. We forgive ourselves, we patiently walk into our own truth, and we step out again when we can't handle it. And so on, with compassion, until we eventually make friends with ourselves. 

Empath(y) in Virtual Reality

A few hours ago, I did readings in virtual reality. That means I entered a virtual room as an avatar and read people, whom I saw as avatars, on a social VR platform.  It was the pilot (or beta test) for a VR show Eve Weston and I are developing, currently entitled "I Feel You: The Empath Experience."

Um, what?'

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 12.56.58 AM.png

Okay, here's how it works. A bunch of avatars join a room at an appointed time. Eve introduces the show and asks for volunteers to be read. Someone steps forward (that is to say they move their avatar to the center of the "room"). Then I ask them a question, any question, just to hear their voice. I use the sound of their voice to tune in -- and off I go. I do my best to see, reflect, and untangle people's emotional states.

The thing I love about being EMPATH in VR is: it's intimate and anonymous at the same time. I can go very deep into someone's psychology (last time I felt that someone was suicidal and said so) with a whole room of people watching all without violating their privacy. Because no one knows who they are.

We're still working out the kinks. But it's promising. People are loving it. Really loving it.  The company behind the platform, AltSpaceVR, is thrilled.  And it posits a new answer to a question the entire VR community is asking: how can we best use VR to generate empathy? Well, my answer is: put human beings together to engage deeply in their emotions.

You don't need a headset to experience the show. You can actually download AltSpaceVR on a powerful enough laptop and join in 2D. I'll post when the next show is when I know. Stay tuned.