People Are Challenging: More Wisdom from Martha Beck
Martha Beck, PhD, grew up wanting to be an ecologist or a professor. However, after bearing three children while acquiring three Harvard degrees, Martha decided she’d rather just lie down for a few decades. During that time she became an author and life coach. Her books include, Expecting Adam, Leaving the Saints, Finding Your Own North Star, The Joy Diet, Steering by Starlight, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, and her brand-new book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. Martha has been a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine since its inception in 2001 and has been a contributing editor for several popular magazines, including Real Simple and Redbook.
1440: In your experience, does transformation happen quickly or does it take time?
Martha Beck: I have had a lot of mind-blowing spiritual experiences, including a near-death experience, and I can tell you that any changes you have from moments like that will not last unless you’re continuously cultivating it. A lot of people get plastic surgery as they’re aging. For a few days they look great but then they realize it’s sagging already, or this part over here now looks a lot older. Whether spiritual or physical, there’s no permanent shift to some state that is then effortlessly held forever after.
That said, there seems to be a point when change is irreversible. One Indian sage says that the fruit ripens and ripens as you peel off the layers of illusion and get closer and closer to your natural or essential self. Once you truly rid yourself of that illusion it’s like the fruit drops from the tree—there is a binary change that is irreversible.
1440: Could you give some examples of people who have experienced this irreversible change?
Martha Beck: Byron Katie is one example. She was at a point in her life where she was suicidal, homicidal, and institutionalized in a halfway house. Then she woke up into total ecstasy one day and hasn’t suffered since. She developed this method called The Work, a rigorous form of inquiry with a peculiarly intense laser-like focus.
I asked her husband Stephen once, “If Katie didn’t constantly question her thoughts, would she be able to sustain that level of enlightenment?” He said no, she is cleaning house all day, every day because the mind generates stories, and stories lead us into untruth, and untruth leads us into suffering.
Eckhart Tolle is another example. He is continuously bringing himself into alignment with the now, again and again. It never stops, his practices to stay in alignment with the now.
Ramana Maharshi did it by meditating on the question,”Who am I?” Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of my favorites, did it with just a meditation on the phrase, “I am. I am. I am.”
1440: So you are saying continuous work is necessary to maintain transformative shifts?
Martha Beck: Yes.
Irreversible shifts are possible, but sustained transformation requires continuous housecleaning, continuous questioning of your own mental projections.
When you experience a transformation—Eckhart Tolle calls it passing through a portal into the absolute—you move into a place that has a lot less suffering, but the portal is always trying to close. Unless you are really assiduous, you’ll fall back into illusion again. That’s okay. You’ve just lost the track. Go back to the last time you were on the track and you’ll find it again. This isn’t a tragedy; it’s just how life works.
1440: How do you keep your portal open? What are your favorite personal practices?
Martha Beck: My go-to, no-fail practice is suffering. When I forget to do other practices, pain in the mind, pain in the body, pain in the heart come back, and I’m reminded to go do my other practices if I’ve forgotten them. These include meditation, Byron Katie’s process The Work, writing, and coaching. Because I write and coach on these topics, I’m continuously reminding myself of what I’ve figured out along the way. By staying immersed in it all the time, I keep myself in that frame of mind.
The trickiest, most wonderful, and most illuminating practice is trying to have loving, peaceful, generative relationships with other human beings. People are challenging.
At one point I’d been out in the forest for a year meditating. I was in a state of complete bliss. But I went to hang out with my kids and immediately hit 17 levels of unexamined dreck! It’s always in there, and human beings—especially the people we love and hate the most—are always showing us what’s the next step to waking up.
Martha Beck will be teaching Navigating the Storm: Finding Peace and Purpose in Uncertain Times, February 2 – 4, 2018, at 1440 Multiversity.