Aligning your words with your actions with Sah D'Simone.
Kyle Calian: Could you describe your path to teaching meditation?
Sah D’Simone: Great question. I started a magazine when I was 23, and many different things led me to sell it when I was 26. My best friend, who was also my investor, and I had a personal falling out. I don't know if you're familiar with Bullett Magazine, but it was a very downtown, cool magazine. We were featuring a lot of people in Hollywood, a lot of the young kids who were trying to do something cool and wanted to be photographed in a way that wasn't too advertisement-driven. We actually had enough funding to not be in desperate need, and we also had Louis Vuitton and Chanel as advertisers in perpetuity after the first issue. They gave us some credit, a way to expand.
To keep a very long story short, I left the magazine, and I found myself really depressed, really feeling a lot of betrayal. And my genetic makeup is already rooted in mental illness. There's a lot of that in our family. One major key point is that my grandmother committed suicide, so the trauma molecule really lives on in us, full power.
So, I left and went to Florida for a little bit. I started to live by the beach, and that was really nice. But I was still having this existential paralysis, where I wasn't really able to connect with the world or with myself. Things just didn't make much sense.
When you give birth to a project, and the person who says they're going to support you every step of the way decides to take the project away from you because of creative differences ... there's a lot more personal stuff in there. Let's just keep it at that.
I started to research about meditation and clean eating, and it led me to visit a friend who has always spoken in an emotionally intelligent way. So, I went to visit her in Zurich. And after being in Zurich for 24 hours, she's like, "Let's go to Berlin." So, it was during this breakfast in Berlin that I heard people speaking about swimming in a sacred river, meeting their teachers, funding for an NGO in Tibet, drinking entheogens and a lot of stuff that I was like—what the f*** are you talking about? I'm a creative director of a magazine. I have done this, this and this. But my vocabulary and theirs didn't have anything in common. Everything about it was very strange to me.
I went for a walk right after breakfast. I got totally lost, and I started to realize that we're spending a quarter of a million dollars every three months to get people to buy things that they don't need in order to express themselves in a way that isn't actually beneficial to all beings. And I didn't even understand the vocabulary of world peace and the Buddhist philosophy or your dharma or karma. I had no awareness of any of that. Although, I've always had a lot of spiritual pieces in my life. When I was starting the magazine, I was going to Kabbalah—maybe I was just going because Madonna was there, too. I don't know. It's a funny thing.
So, it was at that breakfast table that a lot of awakening came through. And then I left Berlin. I went to Amsterdam, and I was taking some mushrooms and riding my bicycle, and I stumbled upon this Volkswagen van. And this woman in the back of the van, she's chanting a Buddhist mantra. And I'm looking at this thangka and I'm like, whoa. What is this? It drew me in so profoundly. I didn't really interact with her that much, because I was inward at the time. But then I came back and started to write about sustainability. I started to write about meditation and yoga, and building a plant-based eating regimen. I started to write about all this stuff from a very intellectual point of view. That's how I really understood it. So, we started a blog called Oracle Talk—me and my brother.
Then, something crazy happened. Oracle, the big tech company, sends me an email saying that I was going to be sued if I didn't stop using the name, because we were coming up on Google more than they were. Within six months we had 4.2 million unique visitors, because of some of the stories we wrote. We were approaching it from a place of ignorance, but keeping it cool, New York, downtown. We had to shut it down.
Sorry to hear that. So what happened next?
That’s when I arrived in India. I bought a one-way ticket and went to a 10-day silent retreat. Then, I went to a 30-day silent retreat, and that's when things just shattered. Completely got blurry. I believed my thoughts so much that I thought my whole family had died during this silent retreat. You can't have any physical contact with people, and I was literally desperate, sobbing. People were coming up to me and handing me paper notes, being like, "I'm here for you. You're OK. Whatever is going on." But I couldn't have any human connection. Eventually, I ended up paying a monk $10 to let me use his phone, which is totally not allowed. I called my brother and he's like, "No, we're fine. Everything's great. You're just tripping."
With that experience, I decided that I wanted to realize the power of the mind. The more we believe our thoughts, the further away from reality we get. The point is that we're the listener, and we can actually determine the quality of our thoughts and notice when we're being hooked and have spacious awareness, right? Become metacognitive. The awareness behind awareness. That was such a new way of thinking for me.
Then, I saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi doing a talk with a group of quantum scientists, going back and forth. There were neuroscientists and people from all walks of life at this three-day conference. And he [the Dalai Lama] was speaking about how human beings are inherently compassionate. I actually hadn't heard that before. I thought some people were just bad, some were good. I didn't think people were all born good despite our deeds and anything we've done in this life.
And then, there was His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking about being inherently compassionate or inherent qualities. The scientists were speaking about the vagus nerve and saying that it connects the microbiome of the gut to the core of the brain. It's connected to the oxytocin networks, and that really proves that human beings are biologically compassionate. And it was just that shattering moment where I said to myself, Oh, my God. This is what I've been looking for. I can understand these ancient wisdom practices through a totally evidence-based, scientific approach. So, it was that perfect merger. It was everything I needed to just really set me off on a much-needed journey for integration and deep research.
What I've been doing is finding ways to speak about spiritual practices, ancient wisdom practices. And if you've noticed in my work, I usually don't even use the word spirituality a lot. I usually keep it as emotional intelligence that we are working toward. Becoming original. Finding our inherent qualities. Being able to observe our inherent qualities.
Because the fact is that we are inherently blissful, non-conceptual and luminous. It's just that the mind is too busy—we don't have the awareness to become cognizant of these inherent qualities that are always present.
So, it was through a lot of sitting, a lot of integrating, a lot of speaking to really high-vision people. And spending everything I had on training after training after training. I took four years off of living in a city to live between India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. And then also doing trainings in the States with really great people in an effort to acquire the vocabulary that bridges this linear and creative approach, this way of mathematical and whimsical delivery.
Then, I had the great opportunity to start teaching at the Omega Institute last October. That was a six-week course that was looking at happiness through a physiological, psychological and spiritual perspective, and showing people that all these things really match flawlessly. What the mystics have been talking about for thousands of years, we're just now coming around to understand.
I find it really important, when sharing with people who are not aware of these practices, to be able to support them with evidence. Because it's all there, and it's really where science and spirituality are becoming one in the same. It's just different vocabularies, you know? Science explaining things from the outer-in and spirituality speaking from the inner-out.
So, you said you trained for four years? And then how long have you been teaching?
I've been working on getting to know suffering and the human condition for about four years. Nov. 22, 2012, was when I started. So, in November of this year, it's going to be five years. Teaching since last July. But officially teaching, right? Everything that I've learned, it was always something I wanted to share. It's the nature of who I am. Anything that worked for me on any scale was always like, OK. I have got to bring it out to people.
And what have been some of your proudest accomplishments doing this work?
My proudest accomplishments would be working with American Express, the MoMA, the United Nations—being in these spaces with people who are highly successful and have been able to work with their suffering in a really interesting way. It’s so nice to be in that space and hear them speak about suffering, hear them speak about the neurotic, sometimes psychotic states of mind that we encounter. It's kind of all happened really fast, which is wild and amazing and fun. And I think the largest accomplishment is to have healed my depression—my suicidal depression and chronic anxiety—by myself. I’ve gone to see the teachers, have taken, have learned the practice and have just done the work of sitting and cleaning my diet. That's the accomplishment I’m most proud of. I crawled out of the pit. That's really what happened. Thanks for asking that. All the other stuff is secondary. I think it has to do with my own personal transformation.
That's great to hear. That's awesome. Could you talk more about your core philosophy? It was really interesting when you mentioned how science and spirituality have been coming together in the 21st century. Maybe tell me more about that as well.
I feel like the most important thing is to know that these practices actually work. Certain people really speak from the angle of: breathe in love, exhale light. I'm really much more about: let's sharpen the focus. Let's change the brain in five main areas. Let's become biologically compassionate. Let's change how we eat. Let's clean the gut. Let's honor the vagus nerve. Let's bring coherence between the biological heart and the brain.
They're not hard. The reality is, it’s the repetition of simplicity that leads to insight. That's all the scriptures have always said. It’s just the discipline of showing up, sitting on the mat, sharpening your focus, having an object of focus and cleaning out the yucky stuff. Letting go of limiting beliefs.
All this stuff is really all connected, right? When you start to feel good, you make other people feel good.
When you make other people feel good, that's the flow state. You have these neurochemicals coursing through your brain. And it's really so beautiful to look at research and know that when you start to meditate, you have better cognitive abilities. You become more compassionate, more empathetic and essentially more emotionally intelligent.
I think one of the most incredible research papers that I've read was from Marian Diamond, 1969, from U.C. Berkeley. She was one of the first neuroscientists to say that we actually are not determined completely by how our brains are shaped after adulthood. That we actually have the potential to use intentional behaviors to change the infrastructure of our brain, and that was such a freeing notion. Because if you were born, like in my case, in a family tree that has a lot of mental illness, then you were going to be the byproduct of your genealogy. That was so scary. But we finally know that through these practices, through intentional behavior, we can change completely. Not only physiologically, but psychologically. And (to use the big word) spiritually—to really start to connect with these things that we can't really construct, that we can only feel.
That was a big one. And then, obviously, all the supported research from when Richard Davidson started to really bring neuroscientists and molecular biologists into the mindfulness space, and Scientific American was backing up a lot of that research. I really love to speak to people, share simple practices and show them the power of the research. It's all there. It's all available. And there's nothing woo-woo about spirituality anymore. I mean, you will find some people still wanting to say, "This practice is so esoteric that you need me everyday to be able to do it."
But the Buddha just said that the more you meditate, the more you notice how chaotic the mind is. Then, you realize that you are your own spiritual teacher. We need guides who have integrity, who have been doing the work. But the reality is, things have to go from intelligence to wisdom. We need to take that leap. You've got to build a new neural pathway in the brain where it becomes experiential, and I think having scientific evidence helps you enter into that space more easily. Does that answer your question?
It does. And I think we need that now more than ever, especially emotional intelligence. Once you reach a point where you don't need a teacher, you don't need Sah standing over you shoulder teaching you, then in a way you should be able to help yourself. And, eventually, share what you've learned with others. Is there a particular mindfulness exercise that you’d like to share with our readers?
Well, one of the most powerful tools is coherent breathing. It's learning how to breathe. Medical research shows that the average person breathes about 16 to 20 times per minute, which creates incoherence between the biological heart and the brain, which then leads to inflammation, which leads to scattered thinking, which leads to rumination pattern. And rumination pattern, in layman’s terms, is catastrophic thinking that a lot of us enter into many times during the day. The simplest practice is to actually slow down the breathing to five breaths per minute. It creates coherence between the variables of the heart and the brain and then that way, you lower inflammation and you can actually become emotionally intelligent.
This research is done by Dr. Richard Brown, who's a psychiatrist from Columbia University. This practice has shown positive results in the lab with South Sudanese refugees with extreme cases of depression and anxiety, as well as for Asian tsunami victims. Essentially, all we would need to do is breathe in, two, three, four. Pause. The pause would be for one, two. And then breathe out, two, three four. Pause. Breathe in, two, three, four. It's just essentially going over and over, breathing in for a count of four, pausing for two, breathing out for a count of four. And you can do that for five minutes. The research shows that doing this for 20 minutes a day is when you can actually see major results.
So, if you do this breathing technique for 20 minutes a day for two weeks, you will notice massive shifts. Anxiety and depression will be lifted, in some cases totally eliminated. You look at the research from Sara Lazar from Harvard, and she talks about doing these practices for 20 minutes a day for the course of weeks and being able to change five main areas of the brain. There's proof that if you started this practice today, did it for eight weeks and then used an MRI on your brain (had a brain scan), you can actually see the changes there.
That's really incredible. Can you give me another technique?
A very simple one that you can do is called tracing fingers. It's like breathing in all the way to the top of your finger and breathing out all the way to the bottom. Breathing in, this is what I teach for kids. One of the challenges I face teaching is that people want to meditate right away, but their breathing, they've never taken a long, deep breath to the bottom of their belly. They have no clue what it is to feel the physical sensation of the breath. Plus, the ACE study shows that seven out of 10 people in America have experienced enough trauma that it's really hard for them to close their eyes. But with the breathing, you can do it with your eyes open. You can do it anywhere. That's why I always encourage the breathing first, as a precursor to having a good practice.
I want to transition into some of the work you've done at the United Nations. Have you found that people working on climate issues are under a lot of duress right now?
Yes. Oh, my god. How did you know? Did I tell you that?
No, it's just something climate change journalists talk about a lot right now. That they are under intense stress and feel like a lot of pushback has made it difficult to feel comfortable publishing. Or that they are being ridiculed or criticized.
Yes, yes. Wow. I think it has to do with what you said. But I could also say something on a personal level. And this is something that I go back and forth with different groups of people. It's like, "I'm an environmentalist, but I still eat meat three times a day. I work for the climate, but I still drink out of plastic bottles."
I think what happens is there's a lack of congruence between intentions, speech and actions for a lot of people.
The commodity of modern life allows people to say, "I'm an environmentalist. I am here for climate change." But they're going back and eating the cheeseburger and drinking out of the plastic bottle. The lack of congruence creates incoherence, and then inner chaos creates outer chaos. That's something that I really notice and I see a lot. I ask people, "Is that OK? For environmentalists or people who are working for climate change to eat meat all the time? Is that OK for them to drink from plastic? Where is the fine line crossed? When is it OK?" What is it to you?
For me? It's changed over the last year. I was mostly vegan, pretty much produced no waste. Then, I went on a trip to Central America, and it was nearly impossible not to produce any waste. It was extremely challenging, and I really didn't have the choice but to eat some animal protein while I was traveling. Otherwise, I would be hungry every two hours, or just not feel nourished. So, I'm in this place right now where I feel like I need to be back in my own space at home in order to get back into my routine. Traveling this much, it's really challenging. And I'm sure a lot of these businessmen and women are traveling all the time. They probably need ways to hack their routines. I sympathize with the challenges that they have, but I also know that there is a lot of incongruence with the way that people think and the way they act. That disconnection causes a lot of internal chaos for people who work in this space, for sure. So, I'm actually caught in that space right now. I have to practice what I preach.
Yeah, it's so important to have that high integrity with the work that we're doing. It's something that I really am fascinated by.
There was one thing we did that was so powerful. National Geographic went to do something on this tribe in South America where these kids were all sick, and the elders were singing the kids’ names. And they were being healed, just hearing the elders sing their names. So, we have things like that. We also did the breathing exercise that I shared with you, three times a day, and we meditated. We did screaming therapy in the forest. That was really cathartic for so many people.
And we eye-gazed and asked, “Who are you?” You know, Sri Ramana Maharshi's practice of inquiry, of let's get to that place. Even as you're listening to me speak, if you tune into that space of “Who's listening?” and then go to that very subtle part of the very corner of the mind. You can actually take another leap, and look at it all from this awareness behind awareness space.
So, it was really powerful stuff, and we ate really clean. A lot of people are coming from a space of eating unhealthily, because of their high-stress jobs. So, the food was lightly seasoned, clean stuff.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is the catalyst for all this transformation. When I took refuge in Buddhism, it was like, I'm going to take up refuge for a year, and I'm going to see what this is like. I'm going to see what it's like to live with high integrity, and it was the best thing I've ever done. But I had so much resistance.
I remember having a dream the night before I was going to take refuge, and the dream was so tricky. I had committed suicide, and I was hanging naked from my neck in the gompa—in the big meditation hall—with all 250 people. So, I spoke to some people about the dream, and there were so many different interpretations.
The reality is that I was scared of what it is to actually be cautious and to be aware of the things I'm putting into my body, the kind of music I'm listening to, the kind of people I'm surrounding myself with, how I'm eating, how I'm treating others, how I'm treating myself.
I was so afraid of having to live up to that. And I didn't think there was conversation beyond gossip and talking shit. I thought that was the hardest thing—to be aware of your thoughts. And [His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s] big thing was, every moment is a moment.
At every moment, there's the potential for enlightenment.
And it was so scary to live up to that.
And then, Dr. Richard Davidson. Huge influence. I think Deepak Chopra is also a good one. But if I could pick one, it would definitely be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I think he just embodies all of those qualities. You can see the high level of enlightenment by the size of someone’s smile and how loud their laugh is. You know what I mean? He's constantly laughing. The deeper you get to know yourself, the more you realize that it's so ridiculous that we get caught up in… we just get hooked about the littlest things. And that becomes our reality until we get unhooked, and then we get hooked again. He's got swagger about the human experience, and that's inspiring, you know?
Dancing the cosmic dance. What's your favorite thing (or things) to bring with you everywhere you go?
I don't really have that, to be honest. I do bring a prayer book everywhere I go, from my time in Nepal. It helps me realign, to continue to live up to this bodhisattva nature.
My intention, my speech and my actions, may it all be for the benefit of all beings. But no, I'm really trying to rewrite that story of attachment.
I'm really trying to be able to live this modern gypsy life, where I'm constantly traveling and able to really live up to non-attachment. So, no, I don't have anything. Oh, actually, I do have one thing I bring everywhere. My meditation cushion. That's what it is.
And the prayer book.
Yeah. The prayer book is always tucked in with it. I used to carry a bracelet from John of God, but I gave that to somebody. The meditation cushion was made by a group of Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas. It’s totally falling apart right now from all the traveling. I think that is the one thing I bring with me everywhere. For sure.
And my running shoes. I love arriving anywhere and being able to run.
Yeah. I've actually been pretty inspired by seeing you do that, and I've been trying to do as much as I can. I have been doing a lot of hiking though.
OK, this is going to sound like coaching, but can you really be in your body as you're running and notice when the tabs are opening up? When you have a new tab open about this idea, that idea, this person, that person, lunch—and be able to close the tabs, and just feel the ground underneath your feet?