Sarah Susanka Shares a Few "Not So Big Life" Lessons
1440: How did you find your way from being an architect to being a spiritual teacher?
Sarah: I started as a student of life. When I was really little I somehow knew how to meditate, and although my practice was fairly unformed as a child, it’s the most important thing that’s been happening throughout my life. Along the way I’ve been other things that are named, like an architect or a student or a writer, but really what’s going on is student-of-life-hood. So that’s where I speak from.
It’s become clear to me recently, as I’ve been doing more teaching, that it’s actually in having lived the life of a student of this inner work, the work of coming to know oneself, having been completely immersed in student-hood, that I can teach in a different way than if I hadn’t so fully lived that path. So my architecture has been informed by this inner work, not the other way around. I’m really interested in the architecture of consciousness, too, and never could have written any of my books or designed homes the way I do without my spiritual practice informing the process all the way along.
1440: What has been one of your biggest spiritual lessons?
If there’s one thing I wish people would understand, and a lesson it took a lot for me to learn, it’s that everything in your life is an opportunity. Everything is for you. It’s not even a bad thing when something really hard is happening.
I went through breast cancer treatment. Oh my God, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life. I had a massively difficult time with chemo. But the gift of that time was that I was forced to stop everything. I couldn’t even recognize myself. My brain wouldn’t work and I was angry all the time, and I felt totally miserable. But when I stopped arguing that this shouldn’t be happening and just allowed myself to experience what life was like with almost no energy, it opened me. I learned what “let go” really means. But I most certainly couldn’t have learned how to let go without this huge life lesson to show me how.
I couldn’t have done half the teaching I’m doing now if I hadn’t been through that experience. I really couldn’t, because I hadn’t really struggled before that. I’ve had a life where things opened up for me easily, partly, I expect, because of a natural orientation toward opportunity. But this chemo stopped me in my tracks. It really helped me to experience what it’s like to be fighting with those voices in your head that say, “You’re a piece of shit,” and, “You don’t deserve to be alive,” and, “You can’t do anything right.” All that stuff. I had not really lived that before, but I lived it full throttle for a good year and a half. It was hard.
I learned that if you look with the eyes of a student, with the eyes of “This is happening for me, not to me,” it’s a really different view. And it allows the very hardest of life’s circumstances to be received in a way that you’re not fighting, but you’re learning. I’m not talking about denial. I’m not talking about not experiencing what’s happening. That’s a very common misunderstanding.
I’m talking about experiencing it completely, but not resisting or rejecting what’s happening and not making it mean something about you. It’s just the recognition that you are a cell in the body of the One, and one cell has to experience going through chemo, and you’re it right now. This is what it’s like. It’s the resistance to what’s happening that gets us in trouble. We think life—and spiritual life—should look a certain way, but it doesn’t. It looks every way. It’s not about what you’re experiencing; it’s about how you are with what you’re experiencing. That’s where life is happening. And living that way, with awareness, no matter what is happening, is a truly spiritual life.
1440: A big part of your philosophy is that living a smaller life, meaning a less achievement-oriented one, can be a deeper, more fulfilling experience. How so?
Sarah: I’ve been thinking about this since my first book, The Not So Big House, and more recently in The Not So Big Life. There is a moreness that we are all hunting for—it’s sort of hardwired into us, this knowing that there is something that we had once and we should be able to find again—but we’re not sure how to have it.
Our instinct is to look outside ourselves and try to accumulate in order to get that moreness, whether it’s through more stuff or more activity. But it’s absolutely the antithesis of that. It’s actually coming to this moment without any baggage and just being able to show up with whatever is here.
So when I talk about this idea with house design, I say: we’re all looking for home, but we’re looking with tools that don’t contain home, like square footage and number of bedrooms. But home is a feeling; it’s totally outside the paradigm of quantity.
It’s the same thing in our lives: we’re hunting for that thing—a passion, a job, a partner—that will make us feel complete again. Meanwhile, the only place completeness resides is inside us. What you’re really looking for is a transformation in your interior life.
The only place we can truly change anything is within ourselves. And as we change, the world outside us changes with us.
This is the real meaning behind the often-quoted wisdom, “Be the change.” That is truly the only way the world changes, because the world is not “out there.” The world is in you!