Hardship, loss, loneliness. These aspects of the human experience can be doorways for finding meaning in life. According to Michael B. Beckwith, founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center, the key is asking yourself the right questions. Don't ask, "What is the meaning of this suffering?” Instead explore, "Based on this obstacle, how can I imbue my life with greater meaning?” Today, Jeff and Michael discuss that imaginary hole we sometimes feel in our lives, and how what that feeling is really asking for is a spiritual awakening.
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Michael B.: I'm Michael B. Beckwith. Right now, I am the founder of Agape International Spiritual Center. We're celebrating our 33rd year as a community here in Los Angeles. Basically, I teach meditation. I facilitate worship services and whatever falls under that description of a spiritual teacher. I speak at the United Nations. I teach around the world. I feel very grateful that I get to be and do what I get to do.
Jeff: Was there a moment for you, an epiphany, where you became woke?
Michael B.: Yes. Now, when I had that epiphany that I could see as I was growing up, it was trying to happen, but I kept blocking it. So when it finally happened, I had just moved back to Los Angeles from Atlanta. I'd attended Morehouse College, and I took a semester off and came back to Los Angeles. I was a part of a group, revolutionary group, to change the world by any means necessary. We worked with the Black Workers Congress, Black Panther Party.
I was sitting in a meeting and someone said, "If you were to take over the world tomorrow, would it be any different?" So I looked around as he said that there was no one there. So the meeting continued and then I heard it again, but it was coming from within me. "If you," meaning us in this room, "Were to take over the world tomorrow, would it be any different?" So I looked around the room, and I could see the pathology. I could see territorialism, ego, possessiveness, always having to be right. I could see all of this in the room and I said, "Wow, the world wouldn't be any different, regardless of the ideology."
Michael B.: So I stepped out of that meeting, never went back. The very next week, somebody shot somebody in that meeting. They got upset and shot somebody. So I enrolled at USC, psychobiology majors. I was on track to go to med school. But I was having these experiences, starting in that room. I was hearing things, seeing visions. Now I know I was astral traveling. I didn't know what that was at the time. I would think about my mom, I'd be in her kitchen watching her cook. I'd call her on the phone. "Mom, do you have on a blue dress?" "Yes." "You cooking chicken?" "Yes." So I knew something was going on, but I didn't know what it was.
This experience I was having culminated with three men were always chasing me every night. It was a lucid dream, but I would force myself awake before they could get to me. So one night, they were really close and I turned around and there was a small tent with thousands of people trying to go in this small tent. I knew every single person in line. So I said to myself, "These guys can't hurt me. I'm with my friends." So I started screaming. One by one, they turned their back on me.
Two of the men in held me down and another plunged a cerated knife into my heart. The pain, physically, was excruciating. It was emotional, physical, and I screamed out and I died. When I woke up, I could see that I was surrounded by this presence. I named the presence love beauty. The love was so intense and the beauty was so profound, I didn't use the word God. I was kind of agnostic at this time, agnostic, atheistic. But it was a presence. As we were talking about earlier, everything was glowing, animate and inanimate objects, just glowing in this presence everywhere. So I went on a search to discover what had happened to me.
In so doing, I bumped into the mystical teachings of Gautama the Buddha, and Jesus, and Zoroaster, and Kwan Yin, and Dhammapada, and the Upanishads, and the Bible. I could see the mystical thread running through all of this, regardless of culture or history. It shifted my life forever. Then I could see when I was a kid, it was always trying to break through, but I would always stuff it down because I didn't want to be weird. I had different experiences, and I would find a way to normalize myself.
Jeff: Yeah. Isn't it funny, there's this kind of shame associated often with spiritual awakening as if you would be judged in a way? Of course, to put too much of value, to base your own identity through the eyes of others, it's never a fruitful practice.
Michael B.: It's called hell.
Jeff: You have developed, kind of through contemplation and meditation, tools for managing a lot of life's most salient problems, obstacles, challenges. I'd love to talk with you a little bit about how people can utilize and develop those tools to address some of the issues that we're all going through. I mean, I guess I would ask you first is, is the nature of humanity to suffer at some level?
Michael B.: I think that's part of the Buddha teachings. There is suffering, and I think we'd have to define suffering. I think in the human experience, there are certain experiences that are going to happen. Somebody's going to die. They may die before their time. A kid may die. Somebody's going to suffer loss, whether it's a job, whether it's a friendship. There are just certain things that are in the human condition that we can't avoid. So pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
You know, suffering is the story you tell yourself about the pain. So suffering is can be long if in fact, you keep carrying the story about it and not really change your perception around it. But yeah, in the human condition, I sometimes say that there's something going to betray you. It might be your body temple. Your own body may betray you with a disease, or an accident, or something. A friend or an associate may betray you with some kind of lie, or scheme, or something. Yeah. So I think in the human condition, it's going to be there.
Jeff: Yeah. Let's talk about grief specifically because it's something inevitably everyone has to deal with. How do you counsel people that are dealing with grief?
Michael B.: Well, first of all, I give them permission to grieve not to lock it up and put it away in some kind of spiritual box that... The person is alive. They live forever. They'll always be alive. You know this is spiritual truths. But when a person is suddenly taken away from you, your heart doesn't know that. So we give the person permission to actually feel into that, to feel into that loss and make that loss sacred. You honor that someone was in your life, now they're not. What does that feel like? So once an individual can do that and then in brace that, I let them know that the fact that they can embrace it, they're bigger than that issue. Their consciousness is actually bigger.
Then, I ask them to... Of course, this is not boilerplate. I mean, when I'm with somebody, it's always a little different. But the basic principles are I get them to celebrate what that person meant to them. That person came into your life. "What did they bring, what gift? What did they make you feel? Obviously, you're sad that they're gone, so what was it?" So I have them start thinking about that. "I'm just very grateful so-and-so was in my life. I really got a chance to have a lot of fun. We read together, we traveled together, whatever it was." So that becomes an awareness of that gift and that energy, and that energy doesn't die.
Then from gratitude, I invite them to dedicate something in their life to that person. So they're in a project like we do with yoga sometimes in the asana, we may dedicate our yoga practice to an individual or to something in society that needs a blessing or healing. So I invite them to do that. I also say to them, "When we're in our lowest ebb, we generally ask the question,
Michael B.: What is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this person dying at such a young age, if that happened? And I asked him to reverse the question. Don't ask, "What is the meaning of that?" because a lot of that is unanswerable and it has something to do with that individual, their own soul, their own choices. You can't really know why right now. But you can reverse the question and you can say, "Based on knowing them, how can I give my life meaning? So based on this person being in my life, they brought this quality, they brought that quality. How can I give my life meaning?"
So then I go out into the world giving my life meeting by saying, "I want to be more like them because they were very forgiving or they were very compassionate or they were very generous or they were very creative. I want some more of that in my life." When the energy shifts from just grieving that they're gone to, "How can I give my life meaning?" there's an energy shift that takes place and the person's perception widens. They don't stop grieving, but the fabric of the grief changes until finally the individual, they may not believe it, but they're really celebrating the fact that this person was in their life and their life has more meaning, just a gradual shift.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. I've been reading Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, and he essentially says that we're here to find meaning and that we find meaning in three ways, in love and connection, in work, and in suffering. And for me, just trying to intellectualize that, the hardest seems to be the ladder, to be worthy of our suffering. I had a friend ... Actually, I played tennis with him this morning ... he had two beautiful daughters, one of whom was two and choked and died at the breakfast table. And I was talking to my wife about it. I was very upset about it. I mean, how you cope with that form of disorder, the chaos of that? And I think your words are important for people to hear because even if you're not going through a kind of suffering that is as acute potentially as that kind of disordering, to find meaning in that suffering, to find meaning in that loss.
Michael B.: Yeah. My friend Lily Dylan's daughter died a few years ago. Went over to the house. Obviously, her and her husband were distraught, and she has now transmitted that energy into a nonprofit in which he raises money for families, raises money for all kinds of things that are connected to children. She has successfully embraced that her daughter was in her life for few years. She keeps her alive in her heart, but she shifted the energy, so the suffering was real and continues to be something that guides her to keep on going, to make her work bigger and better and brighter for other people that are going through similar situations, and just families in general. So there was a transmutation of that. You said being worthy of the suffering. That's an interesting statement, because I think we become worthy of it when we're able to use it for transformation.
Jeff: That's right. There's was this beautiful letter that Ram Dass wrote called The Letter to Rachel, which is one of the most beautiful notes, written notes I have ever read that he dedicated to ... Well, he sent it to two parents that lost a young one and I'll post it, but it's a beautiful piece of writing. There's God in it.
Jeff: Let's talk about loneliness, because Vivek Murthy, who is Barack Obama's surgeon general, he said that loneliness is the number one epidemic in our country, period. That is interesting. I mean, there's chronic disease. There's a lot of epidemics.
Michael B.: Opioid epidemics.
Jeff: But they're connected, probably.
Michael B.: Yeah, probably.
Jeff: What is the cause of our loneliness and how do we address it?
Michael B.: I would probably say, what's the meaning? What's the meaning of it? I don't think it has a cause, but I think it has a meaning. An individual that's suffering from loneliness is at some level disconnected from themselves and is caught up with what is called interactive thinking. They have these thoughts that are running through their mind and it generally has something to do with other people. Other people can make them happy, other people can make them sad. They want some kind of connection.
And oftentimes, I'll tell people, for me, I like being alone. I can be in crowds. I love all of that. I love people, but I like being alone. I like it. And I think that what we have to do is learn to like ourselves while we're alone because we'll be hell when we're with people if we don't, because we'll try to extract our happiness and our joy from being around people, and that's an addiction if you have to go out, and then it gets exacerbated with social media. How many likes do you have? How many people are following you? People are suffering from an acute disconnection from themselves. They don't know who they are.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. It's interesting. As a child, I traveled. My parents were moving me to and fro to all sorts of different countries with all sorts of different languages. I was also very chubby kid. Every six months, I'd show up in a new school [crosstalk 00:20:45] overweight, not speaking the language. I mean, it was a very beautiful multicultural way to grow up and I learned a lot of languages. There's a lot of positive attributes to my upbringing, but I had a really big self-esteem problem and my main goal in life was fitting in, just fitting in and being liked. I mean, of course, that followed me for a very, very long time until I became more aware of the issue. And I read this thing that Brene Brown wrote, sort of the difference between fitting in and belonging.
Michael B.: Two different things.
Jeff: Totally different things. Belonging is being accepted and liked by other human beings, but also while maintaining your true authentic self, versus molding, changing, morphing yourself to assimilate or fit into a situation. I thought that was very-
Michael B.: It's absolutely true. And at a young age, people are mistaking belonging for fitting in or fitting in for belonging. They want to fit in so bad. It's a pseudo belonging. They don't really belong because they are not themselves. They don't know who they are. Their personality is shaped by others' thoughts of them and they have to fit in. That's a kind of a hell, and it's also why people can be in a crowd and be lonely, because they're always trying to be nimble to figure out what to fit into next.
Michael B.: Yeah.
Jeff: Yeah, and we've all been in those conversations where people are looking over their shoulder to find the next affirmation from somebody else.
Michael B.: Absolutely.
Jeff: I used to take sort of an umbrage at that and now actually I just have a degree of compassion for it because essentially what that is saying to me is that that person feels like they are not enough.
Michael B.: That's exactly what it's saying. They're not enough emotionally. The emotional body, the mental body, all of the bodies are having an imaginary hole in it that they're trying to fill with something outside of themselves. And that's a spiritual awakening. I mean, what happens is that people, the opioid epidemic ... What is it called ... consumer therapy, going out and buying stuff. All of these things try to fill that imaginary hole, but it's actually a spiritual awakening that needs to take place. You have to become aware little by little by little that you are enough from the beginning, not because you have plaques on your wall or degrees or money in the bank or people liking you, that you are enough from the beginning.
Jeff: Yeah. And it's funny because when I see people bristle to spiritual programs, I'm like, "You're already spiritually programmed, or programmed." You're living with the idea that you can solve your discontents in the devouring or accumulation of one thing or another within the material plane, whether that's likes on Instagram, chocolate cake.
Michael B.: Cars, whatever.
Jeff: This is the big switch, the shift, right? You call it the shift.
Michael B.: Yeah. It's a shift of perception, which is why we have spiritual practice, not to become religious or to become a great meditator, but to actually open up to who we are, to the potential that's within us, until it becomes more real than the temporary circumstances that we're living in. People do bristle at it at times. However, you go back 30 years ago, this stuff was really woo woo. Now it's central.
Michael B.: It's a central fabric of our society. Everyone knows about meditation and life visioning and affirmation and visualization. They may enter Intuit at a parochial stage.
Jeff: And I know that you believe that we're not just here having a temporary spiritual experience. We're spiritual beings having a temporary human experience. If you believe systems and structures are essentially built to serve people, and people are inherently spiritual, then those systems cannot work when they're devoid of spirituality.
Michael B.: Absolutely. The systems, they have such systemic issues, and the narrative is that people are evil, people are bad. We've got to control them, so we have to dumb them down and numb them down. And the population is basically dumbed down and numbed down at this particular time in history.
So, yeah. The structures systemically ... They're falling apart, I mean, at the seams. I mean, you look at the medical structure. You look at the legal structure, the prison structure. You know, they're at ... Like, the seams are breaking. They can't hold anymore, so it's a time for a birth into something else.
So, when we talk about our spiritual nature, the systems are to serve that. They're to serve the fact that each being is a reservoir of infinite potential and creativity and that we've come to the planet to release that. But individuals in our society are stuck in self-preservation.
You know, I talk about the fact that we live in four domains: self-preservation, adaption, transformation, and dissolution. Most people are still living in self-preservation, even billionaires are still stuck in self-preservation. You know, they still want more. They don't have enough-
Jeff: Right. And the fear of losing.
Michael B.: The fear of losing. That's their identity, you know. Then we learn how to adapt to circumstances. Most people live there. But the third domain, which you're talking about here, is transformation, where we're actually on the planet transforming ourselves, becoming openings through which our potential is released, becoming the next great version of ourselves. Not in a self-improvement kind of way, but in an awakening kind of way.
And then when that occurs, then there's dissolution, the old world that was built upon your mind power, or your might, starts to fall apart. Your new world is built upon your new vibration that you're carrying, and then you live primarily from transformation/dissolution/transformation/dissolution.
So, the society, as we were talking about earlier, is so young, they don't even know this. They're stuck in self-preservation, so you heavily police everything, put criminals in jail so we can preserve our life and our way of life. Which is what? Materialism and consumerism. That's pretty much what America stands for.
Jeff: That's what it is.
Michael B.: It's a corporation.
Jeff: So, you've studied all forms of theology from the Tao to Jesus, Mohammed to modern poets, mystics, sages, Melville, Emerson, Dr. King. I mean, is essentially ... Are there different masks, but essentially an eternal face under that mask?
Michael B.: Absolutely. You break it down to spiritual principle. There's a presence. I call it the presence that's never an absence, which means it's everywhere. And it can't compromise its nature, it can't change. It is always what it is. So, it's love and it operates lawfully.
Now, you go through every major religion, all the culture and their expression of this presence, you're going to bump into forgiveness, you're going to bump into prayer, you're going to bump into meditation, you're going to bump into service. You know, these are pathways to wake up to your essential self. So, whether you're entering into it from a Jewish persuasion, or a Christian, or a Mohammedan, or ... You know, they're principles. You can't change principles.
It's just like saying, just like there's different bodies of water and you have it different names: This is the Atlantic. Oh, that's the Pacific. Oh, that's the Dead Sea. But it's all water, you know. The principles are the same in that water. If you want your boat to float, it has to adhere to the laws of buoyancy, you know. It doesn't matter what body of water it's in.
So, when you study ... What I did when I had that epiphany, my first one as an adult, when I studied all of those things I said, "Oh, there's basically no difference except for culture and history, and the lens that the teacher was speaking through based upon their culture and history at the time. They spoke to their issues at that time, and whatever the dominant culture was, that was the language they used. But the underlying principles are the same.
Jeff: They are. And are you essentially a modern torch-bearer for those principles, and is your message missionary in nature?
Michael B.: "Missionary" meaning ...?
Jeff: "Missionary" in the sense of how Christianity is missionary. Essentially it's ... Somewhere in there it's baked into it to spread.
Michael B.: We don't proselytize. No. We want to inspire and encourage people to discover this for themselves, so we would be called the religion that gives the person back to themselves. You know, we want them to discover themselves. So, we want to encourage. You know, we want you to become you. I don't want you to follow me. I always say, I'm not here for followership, I'm here to train spiritual leadership so that when a person wakes up, when they go to their place of employment, they're leading with excellence.
You know, you drive onto the freeway, you're leading with excellence. You go out into the world, but you're going out as an emissary of the presence and an emissary practicing these principles. So, it's not about joining this club and making this club really big. It's about finding our dharma, our reason for being on the planet, and doing it excellently, you know, as an extension of our awakened consciousness.
Jeff: What's the highest expression of being human?
Michael B.: Probably love. Love, and I have to save love, but also creativity. I don't mean music and dance, even though that's a part of it. I'm talking about the activation of our unique giftedness in expressing it. Because one thing about the spirit: It's not inert, it's not dormant. It's alive, and each and every one of us are unique expressions of this aliveness. So, we are here to reveal that this love ethic take over and express ourselves, you see.
Jeff: Yeah. That's beautiful. I mean, if the soul is infinite, if it has no end and has no beginning, it's essentially always expanding, right?
Michael B.: Yes.
Jeff: And this is where ... And also because I have three daughters, and I'm always like, "You've got a long time to be old, but don't concern yourself with that now. Be expansive. Live in that full expansiveness of your imagination, and that is a mirror of your soul."
Michael B.: Yeah. Just set them free. You know, it's Lila, it's play. It's learning how to play, and we've forgotten that. We've gotten very serious. But interestingly enough, the vibration of playing and the vibration of praying is very similar. Because when you're playing -- I'm not talking about trying to win a game, I'm talking about playing -- the object is just to be in play, you know, and full out with no attachment to an outcome. And when you're in prayer, you're full out, communing with the presence, with no attachment to an outcome. The outcome forms itself based on your communion. You know, so they're very similar. So, you're teaching your daughters to just play, and then watch all this good flow into their lives, you know?
Jeff: I always say, they never listen to me, but they'll never fail to imitate me.
Michael B.: Absolutely. And that is the truth of parenting. Your kids will not listen to you, but they will do what you do.
Jeff: That's right. That's why it's parent [assist 00:40:25]. I just put the edges on it. I love being in your presence, Michael. Thank you for all the work that you do and the work that you've done, your dedication at Agape for 33 years. You've made the world a better place. I'm very, very grateful.
Michael B.: Thank you. I appreciate being with you, as well. I like your presence, I like what you're doing, I like hanging out with you.
Jeff: We'll do it some more.
Michael B.: That's great. Absolutely.
Jeff: God bless.