Martha Beck is a force field. Half an hour in the company of this Harvard-trained sociologist, life coach, and best-selling author will plug you into higher frequencies and open the shutters of your mind.
At 51, Beck has been on the international stage as a teacher and memoirist since her breakout book, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, in which she accuses her father, a church elder and apologist, of sexual abuse. After the birth of her second child, Adam, who had been diagnosed with Down syndome prior to his birth, she published the superb Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic about her decision to give birth to and raise Adam.
Her most recent book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, is both brilliant and filled with life-changing insights. I sat down with Beck for a half-hour phone chat about the book.
Mark Matousek: You write about a particular breed of individual called a Wayfinder. Who are these people?
MB: I borrowed that term from a guy named Wade Davis, an anthropologist who used it to describe the navigators of the Pacific Islands. These [people] were so amazing ... they were able to, for example, interpolate the existence of a chain of islands 100 miles away by watching the way the water broke on the hulls of their canoes. This is how they found all of the islands in the Pacific, which are so widely scattered. I liked the word because we live in a world were the flood of information and technological change is so vast that it has become almost as chaotic as the sea right now. It's very hard to know where to go and what to do in your life. I turned to these ancient skills from a variety of cultures to see if those could help, and it turns out they do.
MM: Part of the Wayfinder path is what you call "meeting your rhinoceros."
MB: This literally happened to me. I was learning to track rhinoceroses in Africa and tracked right up on an animal that really I thought was going to kill me. [In that moment], I let go of my life, dropped the idea that I had a plan for the future, because I thought I was going to die. And what came into the open space was this amazing image of what the rest of my life could be: Joyfully hanging out with people who want to heal nature, heal people's hearts and I could just do that and nothing else. Whatever causes you to drop your plan forward and open to your vision, your own, deeply-personal vision of what your life could be at it's very best, that's what I call meeting your rhinoceros.
MM: You also write about "wordlessness" being important to this process.
MB: It has been so fascinating to talk to people about Siberian shamanism, African shamanism, South American, North American, and find out that they all started the process of Wayfinding ... by getting away from the left hemisphere of their brains. You see this really clearly spelled out in our modern neuroscience, one of the best examples being the Harvard neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a stroke that took out her speech center for a few years. She realized that there's a whole reality available to us -- vast reality that doesn't make it into our verbal thinking. It's like trying to push the Pacific Ocean through a funnel. [Without words] ... she could sense what was going on all around her, and she felt the interconnection of herself as a field of energy with others. When we focus very narrowly on what we know with words, most of that richness is lost. And our educational system teaches us to focus almost exclusively on words ... Bolte Taylor calls it stepping to the right hemisphere of your brain and dropping out of language. There are numbers of techniques to do this. It's the first step toward being able to work what looks like magic (stepping into the place beyond language). The verbal brain processes about 40 bits of information per second, which is impressive. The non-verbal is processing 11 million bits of information in that same second.
MM: Amazing. How does this relate to what you call "sacred play"?
MB: Sacred play is anything that takes you into that right hemisphere of your brain. It turns out that this move away from left to the right hemisphere, that sense of expansiveness and everything, can be accomplished through unusual rhythmic action, or any action that requires so much attention away from words that you cannot think in words. Playing the piano, if you are not yet adept at it, takes too much attention to think in words. If you try to think your way through even driving a car, the thinking brain can't do that. It has to be incorporated into the body ... something rhythmic and slightly difficult is going to put you right into that brain state that people get with years of meditation. Only you can get there very quickly.
I had a client who was a professional baseball player once, and he would go to clubs and dance for seven, eight, nine hours at a time. He wouldn't drink, he wouldn't take drugs, he just danced because he had so much physical energy; he was this amazing athlete. And for him, sitting meditation would have been a catastrophe. He needed dance. And dance will put you into a deep trance, by the way, if you do it the way that shamans do it.
MM: Why is paradox so important to the Wayfinder path?
MB: Paradox is an interesting technique because it's been used by many, many cultures to get people, who are fairly brain-centered thinkers, to think themselves into a spot where they can no longer think. So the classic paradoxes are koans in the Japanese tradition ... they'd say, go and tell me what is reflected in two mirrors that are exactly facing on another. And the idea is to get the brain into such a logical loop that it sort of sputters out, and then you get this puff into pure perception. In my own coaching practice, I have trained many, many coaches to use a form of "paradoxing" where you get people to voice their deepest fear, and then they have to prove to you that the opposite of their deepest fear couldn't also be the truth. And it absolutely boggles people. One man thought he had to rescue all women, and I said, "Give me an example where you won't have to rescue a woman." And he sat there for five minutes. He couldn't come up with one. And I'm like, I'm sitting right here, what am I, chopped liver? But it was a paradox for him to even think that there could be a woman he didn't have to rescue.
MM: What do you mean by the difference between "forming" and "forcing" in the Wayfinder tradition?
MB: If you start with wordlessness and experience yourself as "oneness," then imagine something, you'll find that everything seems to help you create what you have imagined (because you're connected to all things).
I'll tell you a personal story. I had this experience at a basketball game, an environment that's not at all meditative, where people are screaming and yelling and throwing things and sloshing beer. I was with my son, who has Down's syndrome, and his friend, who also has Down's syndrome. They were desperate to catch these gifts out of the air that were being shot through these cannons. My son wanted a T-shirt, and his friend wanted a little stuffed animal, but they were small and slow, and it just was never going to happen for them.
So this was going on, and quite separately I thought, I wonder if I can drop into wordlessness. It took a minute, but then I did, and the whole thing became this explosion of love. So overwhelming and so beautiful that I actually started to cry. I looked around to see if anyone was paying attention and around me in a circle about a hundred across, there was this ripple in the crowd ... And it took me about 30 seconds to realize that from all around us, everyone who had caught a gift out of the air, was passing it hand over hand to my son and his friend.
I came unglued. I was sobbing uncontrollably because the love was so overwhelming ... the boys got what they wanted, and then people were offering each other gifts ... and the whole time there's this basketball game being played. That's how the world of form begins to behave for you if you live and walk in the path of the Wayfinder.
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