Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and my guest this week is Michael Fischman, who is the President of the Art of Living Foundation in the United States. And the Art of Living Foundation is the organization that presents the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is an Indian guru, in the United States and I guess around the world too. I mean, is that the name of the organization everywhere?
Michael: The Art of Living Foundation, that’s correct.
Rick: Right, okay, good. And Michael just wrote a book called Stumbling into Infinity, which I just finished reading cover to cover, which is significant because I’m not a voracious reader. I mean, I don’t have a lot of time to read and it sometimes takes me months to get through a book, even if I enjoy it. But I really enjoyed this book and I read it rather quickly. And I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is that I found you to be extremely honest and unpretentious. You didn’t… I mean, it would be sort of rare for the head of a spiritual organization to be as candid as you were in this book. I mean, you didn’t mind just sort of recounting all the incidents in which you made a fool of yourself or did some dumb thing and so on. So I found it very refreshing and very sincere. You weren’t trying to present a squeaky clean image of the perfect spiritual aspirant or any such thing. You just kind of told your story and it made it very real. So I really enjoyed it. Thanks for writing it.
Michael: I’m glad you enjoyed the book.
Rick: Yeah, it was good. So since I just read the book, I know a lot about you, which my listeners don’t know. So perhaps we should start by you just kind of giving us an overview of what your path has been. And incidentally, there are several aspects of your path that I shared in. I was there for the riot of the so-called pundits in Noida, outside New Delhi, India. And I was there in the half-built dome in Fairfield, Iowa, in the freezing winter when Ravi Shankar was sitting on the stage with Maharishi. And I’m sure you and I shared a number of other experiences, although we didn’t actually meet at those times.
Michael: So where to begin? Maybe I can begin in my childhood, where I think my spiritual path started. And I was about three years old or maybe four years old. And my parents were rather poor. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx. And in the middle of the night, pretty close to dawn, I saw my grandfather standing in front of my bed as an apparition. And he was in his pinstripe blue suit, pencil-thin mustache and silver-white hair. And he was just standing there, but it was more of a cloud of smoke. It was an apparition of my grandfather. And I screamed, and it woke up my entire family. And it took us all night until we all calmed down and finally went back to bed. And it was probably a week later that my mom sat me down and she explained to me that Grandpa had died. And it was probably that night, hard to tell because I was so young. And when I heard that, it was the first time I heard that about death. That sometime I’m going to die, that this life is not going to be forever. And that really troubled me so much. I wondered what would happen to me if I didn’t have my thoughts anymore, if I didn’t have my body, my feelings, my memory. Who would I be? And I would lie in bed and I would cover myself with my blanket like I was a mummy. And wonder what would life be if I lived this way forever. And I needed to find some answers. What was the purpose of life? What was the meaning of life? That was the push, and it put me on this quest to find the truth. And it wasn’t until I was in the fifth grade where we had a substitute teacher who was doing our history class. And he was doing world history and talking a little bit about China, and then got into Buddhism. And when he spoke about Buddha, he talked about Buddha’s knowledge, and that there was a wheel of life and death, and that we keep coming back again and again and refining ourselves. And I heard about reincarnation. And then when I heard that, it was like an epiphany. I wanted to just reach out and shake every kid in the class and just say, “Did you hear that? We don’t die at all. We’re just energy, and we keep coming back again and again and again and again”. But nobody was interested. And then I was in the substitute teacher in the fifth grade. Everybody was just shooting spitballs at each other and flying paper airplanes.
Rick: Well, that’s really cool that at that age you were thinking so seriously about those things. I mean, I was one of the kids shooting spitballs. And this stuff didn’t begin to dawn on me until I was about 17. So I’m impressed that you were getting into it when you were in the single digits of your ages.
Michael: And then I eventually wound up learning to meditate, and that really made a very big difference in my life. I started with Transcendental Meditation. I moved to Fairfield, Iowa, and that’s the first time I met Sri Sri. As you mentioned, Maharishi was there, and he was inaugurating the Geodesic Dome. And it was just a shell at that time. There were no walls up. And there were these three Vedic pundits who were sitting outside and chanting Rig Veda to inaugurate the dome. And we were all freezing outside, wearing parkers and gloves and boots and hats. And it must have been with the wind chill factor, 30 below zero. And two of the pundits, they were completely frozen. And they were putting blankets on them and electric heaters, and they were still shivering. But there was one pundit who was a little fair, with almond-shaped eyes, who was unaffected by the cold. And he really intrigued me. What was it about him that didn’t need warmth? And I wanted to jump up on stage and just put a shawl around him. And finally, when somebody did put a shawl on him and he accepted it, I felt somewhat relieved, like, “Ah, someone’s taking care of him”. And then later that day, I was going to the meditation hall, and I saw this white car traveling around. And the three pundits were in the back of the car. And the one with the almond-shaped eyes, his eyes caught mine. And I had a catharsis. I just had this intense release of emotions. But it wasn’t connected to anything. It was just a release. I went to the hall and I meditated, and it was the deepest meditation I had. And that moment of looking into Sri Sri’s eyes, that was a cameo that stayed with me for so long. And then I went to India on this Vedic Science Conference, and I saw Sri Sri there again. And then it wasn’t until 1988 that I was in Santa Monica, California. I was in a health food store buying some sugar-free, wheat-free, taste-free cookies. And somebody came up to me and told me, “You have to take this seminar. It’s the most amazing thing”. And then I wound up taking this course, and it just changed my life in such a dramatic way.
Rick: You know, it’s funny, because when I was observing that incident where he was refusing the blanket, it seemed to me at the time that he was the one who was closest to the heater that was blowing. And I thought, “He’s putting on a show here, because that heater is keeping him warm, and he’s pretending that he doesn’t need a blanket”. But after reading your whole book and everything – and obviously I’ve become more mellow over the years – but after reading your whole book, I really feel like he’s not a disingenuous guy. I mean, what you see is what you get. And he probably didn’t want a blanket because he wasn’t cold, simple as that.
Michael: You know, that’s really the reason I wrote this book. First of all, many of us have a concept of what an enlightened Master is all about. And also, very few of us get to see what happens behind closed doors with an enlightened Master. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been there from almost the inception of the Art of Living Foundation. Now we’re coming up on our 30th year, and for 22 years I’ve been able to work with and study with Sri Sri. And I have found him the same behind closed doors with two or three people, or if he’s in front of millions of people giving a presentation, he’s the same person. He doesn’t change. And interacting with an enlightened Master is such an incredible experience. There’s so much one learns just from observing the life of the Master.
Rick: And we’ll talk more about that over the course of this interview. I’m really interested in, having read and having you discuss about how that proximity has altered you over the years, but we’ll do that as we go along. So just now you alluded to learning that course in Santa Monica, or Santa Barbara, whichever.
Michael: Santa Monica.
Rick: Santa Monica. And you also referred to, throughout this book, you kept referring to Sri Sri’s knowledge, and you were running around the world teaching Sri Sri’s knowledge. You never really elaborated too much in the book about what exactly this knowledge is. What is it you were teaching that was transforming people’s lives? I understand that there’s Sudarshan Kriya, which involves some breathing exercises, and perhaps you could talk a little about that. And I’ve had some people who’ve learned that say, “Ah, it’s just hyperventilation”. But obviously I have other friends who have done it who have had a profound effect from it. So what is it, in a nutshell, that Sri Sri is teaching people that is benefiting them and making the whole thing so popular?
Michael: Well, we both have this common bond that we’ve been meditating for many years. And before I did the Art of Living course, my meditations were deep, but not much was happening. It wasn’t getting integrated into my life so much. And I was looking for something more, something that would help me more on an emotional level, so that I could connect more with people, have deeper and more enriching relationships with others. And I tried many things. I got involved in lots of different seminars, personal development programs, and I was meditating at the same time. And then when I learned the Sudarshan Kriya, one thing I found, first of all, is that my meditations went so much deeper.
Rick: And Sudarshan Kriya is the breathing thing?
Michael: It’s the breathing technique. It’s a rhythmic breathing technique. And when one is done with the practice, it takes about 10-15 minutes to do, meditation just happens and there’s such a serenity and a depth to the meditation. It’s like getting a super-duper, advanced, powerful technique that enhances one’s meditation. So that’s one level of the technique. But more than that, what I found was that I started to get in touch with my feelings.
Rick: What do you suppose it is about Sudarshan Kriya that makes it have the profound effects it has? It must be more than just oxygenation or something. Is there some sort of subtle effect on the nervous system that you can explain?
Michael: I would say there’s two things that are happening. (1), it’s a very simple and scientific approach. Every emotion has a corresponding rhythm of breath. When you’re angry, how do you breathe? There’s a certain rhythm to it. It’s shorter and faster. And when you’re relaxed, there’s a different type of rhythm. It’s longer and slower. So if we could learn how to work with the rhythms of breath in a particular way, we could learn how to control our emotions, our mind, and our nervous system. And that’s what the Sudarshan Kriya is. It’s a rhythmic breathing technique that works on that level of pulling out the negative emotions from every cell of the body. But on another level, I would say that really why this technique works is it’s the grace. It’s the grace behind the Master. Without any technique being charged through a Master’s grace, I don’t think that technique would work. And I think that’s the gift that Sri Sri is giving to this world, the Sudarshan Kriya. In fact, he went into a period of silence and seclusion for ten days. And after he came out, that’s when the Kriya came up. So it wasn’t that he mechanically thought about it and figured out, “Oh, this would be the best way to present a technique like this”. It was a gift that came to him, and in the moment he taught it, he said it was like a poem that came to him. And there’s over 25 million people around the world who have done this technique. It’s phenomenal. And the changes in lives are just extraordinary.
Rick: Do you have any idea what the retention rate is among the people who learn it, how many keep doing it?
Michael: It’s fairly hard to track. We know who are the people who come back for our advanced programs and who come to our weekly gatherings, but how many people practice at home on their own, it’s also hard to track.
Rick: Who knows. But judging from the popularity of it, I imagine if everybody stopped after a week and then told their friends that they had stopped, you wouldn’t be getting so many more people doing it.
Michael: No, it’s growing. Art of Living is growing rapidly. We’re now in 152 countries around the world.
Rick: That’s great. I didn’t know there were that many countries.
Michael: In fact, in 2006 we had our 25th year anniversary and we had 2.5 million people gathered together in an abandoned airstrip in Bangalore that we turned into this massive celebration. Most of those people were practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya and other people were political leaders and business leaders who came to honor Sri Sri and the work that the Art of Living Foundation is doing. It’s not just that there’s a technique that’s being taught, it’s also the service work that we’re doing around the world.
Rick: Did you actually manage to house and feed 2.5 million people?
Michael: Many of them came from different parts of India and yes, everybody was housed and people were fed. Quite an amazing phenomenon.
Rick: I wouldn’t hate to have been the organizer for that. So you’re saying that the Sudarshan Kriya harmonizes the rhythm or frequency of the breath and by so doing it brings emotions and perhaps other aspects of the personality into alignment. Maharshi…
Michael: And when one’s done, what’s the amazing thing is you feel such a state of serenity, the mind just stops. There’s this blankness and peace, so you go right into this deep experience of meditation. It’s phenomenal.
Rick: So it’s recommended that it be used in conjunction with meditation or as a preliminary to meditation, so as to make meditation more effective.
Michael: It can be a self-sufficient technique, it’s up to the individual what you want to do, but if you want to go deeper, of course, yes, you would meditate that way.
Rick: There’s an old Indian saying that you can move a table by pulling any of its legs and whichever leg you pull, the other legs will come along. So you’re kind of like doing this thing with the breath, it’s one approach to bringing everything else in the personality into alignment. Theoretically you could take a mental approach and then bring the breath into alignment, but stretching that analogy a bit, it seems like certain legs are easier to pull than others.
Michael: Yes, obviously breath and mind is connected. If we stop breathing, we stop thinking. If we stop thinking, we stop breathing. But you can use the breath to get into that very very serene breath, like a samadhi type of breath. Once you’re in that state, then samadhi happens. The mind just naturally slips into a state of meditation.
Rick: How long does it take to do the practice the Sudarshan Kriya?
Michael: The course, the Art of Living?
Rick: Actually, when you sit down every day, how long does it take to do it?
Michael: About 15-20 minutes to do.
Rick: And then you meditate after that if you do?
Rick: Right. So you started this back in Santa Monica, way back in the 80s I guess, and you’ve been practicing it regularly ever since. So let’s continue with your story and go through some of the ups and downs and the ins and outs that you’ve been through over the years.
Michael: Do you have a specific question about that?
Rick: Well, after you first started, and again for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, what do you consider to be – let’s emphasize more, as much as possible, in terms of your inner subjective transformation as it proceeded, as opposed to just this event and that event and I went here and I went there. Let’s talk more about how the inner Michael has been evolving over the years.
Michael: I would just say the book’s original title was going to be “A Bull in a China Shop”. And that was me, the bull in the china shop. And here I was, I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor from New York City, a very aggressive individual. I became a Madison Avenue advertising executive. I worked for Ogilvy and Mather for many years. And it was all about how do you get something done. It was all aggression and there was no consideration for the other person at all. It was me and just me and I was going to get my way and it was going to get done in a particular way. And here I am, working with somebody who is so refined, who is so concerned about everybody, who has this amazing knowledge and care and concern and empathy for individuals. And this has become my teacher. And I would just say through osmosis and through various different occurrences that have happened, I really learned how to become a human being. I had no regard for other individuals. My skill in communication was very awkward. I was very abrupt with individuals. And I was lost in my own mind and my own emotions and thinking that always some other thing was going to make me happy. And I’d be jumping from one situation to another situation to another situation. And life is very very different now. There’s much more dispassion. There’s much more understanding for what is the nature of my mind and how my ego gets involved in various situations. And when one takes a look at their ego and one turns inward and starts observing the patterns, it may not be a very pleasant experience, but with the help of a guru, with the guiding light, that gave me definitely the strength to move forward.
Rick: I like what you’re saying. In certain spiritual circles these days, there’s an aversion not only to gurus, but to the whole notion that you really need to do anything about your personality, because there’s an emphasis on, at your essence, you really are no one – “There is no one. There is no person. We’re all just this sort of absolute silence and there is no individuality ultimately. So why should you concern yourself over something which ultimately does not exist?” And very often, in some cases anyway, people who espouse that philosophy are not very delicate in their behavior or compassionate or accommodating or gentle and so on. And in my understanding of things, the great traditional teachers, both ancient and modern, take people like Ramana Maharshi, for instance, whom everyone respects, didn’t have a one-sided view like that. They said, “Sure, ultimately it’s all one and there are no individualities, it’s just the ocean”. But on the other hand, insofar as we’re alive, we’re human beings, that has to also be acknowledged and we have to concern ourselves with that and refine and become a better person. On some level there is no karma and on another level there is, and we need to look at the whole package.
Michael: If you look at the depiction of Krishna and the traditional drawings of him, he’s playing a flute, he has one foot up in the air, just his toe is touching the ground, and the other foot is firmly on the ground. Playing the flute to me is about celebration, that life is a celebration, singing and dancing and enjoyment of life. And one foot being elevated is spirituality. Yes, we shouldn’t be connected to the mundane, to the sense world, and there’s something much higher, but yet one foot is firmly on the ground. We need to be firmly on the ground and integrated into this life. So yes, spiritual concepts are wonderful and they can help us tremendously, but we are human beings and we are here now, and many people are experiencing a lot of suffering. What is that suffering? The suffering is only in your mind. And just having this concept, “I don’t exist, I’m only this temporary physical body and I am the impermanent being” – well, that’s a great concept, but how does it help you in day-to-day life? And there needs to be some more knowledge that helps you experience the joy now, not just get lost in a conceptual world. And I can relate to that because I felt as though that was where I was at before I met Sri Sri. I could recite any scripture and I could get into any esoteric spiritual phenomenon, but how did that help me as a person? It didn’t. I was still obsessed with myself, I was still caught up in my own cravings and my own aversions. I had my own little limitations of my mind and I was focused in concepts. It was all concepts to me. And now spirituality is not a concept. Getting lost in spiritual concepts doesn’t help you as an individual. There are all these patterns that are there, that are in some way blocking us from experiencing the infinity. How do we get in touch with those patterns? How do we transcend the patterns of the mind? And I think what’s essential is to have a teacher in one’s life. The mind is so complicated. We don’t know how to handle our own mind and control our own mind and understand our own mind, but through the guidance and the supervision of a Master it makes it so much more simple.
Rick: Yeah, and I would suggest that perhaps even for some people it’s not merely conceptual. There has been a profound degree of experiential grounding or awakening, and yet that still doesn’t necessarily impel one to become more refined and developed as a human being. In other words, one might take refuge in that absolute view to the exclusion or to the ignoring of the more relative structure that also has vast room for improvement. And what I gather from your book is – and I’ve also seen this with other masters, such as Ammachi, the hugging saint – they’re as concerned with the refinement and development of the person as they are with allowing that person to awaken into universal consciousness. In other words, both legs, and you can’t walk without two legs, both things have to be simultaneously developed or attended to.
Michael: I think it happens at the same time. As the refinement of consciousness happens, so does the refinement of the personality. There’s a great saint that once said, “Knowledge is structured in consciousness”. And for me that statement means that the greater the awareness is, the more you can be in touch with yourself. Again, what’s going on in your own mind? What are your patterns? Where do you get stuck? Do you hold on to emotions for long periods of time, or are you able to let them go? And the more we’re aware of ourselves, our own mind, our breath, our body, our sensations, our patterns, we’re able to transcend all of that, personality transform, and so the expansion of consciousness happens at the same time. It’s a whole, you can’t take one without the other.
Rick: Yeah, and I really beat that drum for a long time, and the reason I bring this point up these days a lot in interviews is that certain, I don’t want to get into specifics, but I’ve seen examples of people who had very exalted consciousness, and yet… We were talking earlier about the private life, and how Sri Sri is what he is, whether he’s in public or in private, but I’ve seen examples of where you look into the private life of someone who has very exalted consciousness and find things that seem way out of kilter with the level of consciousness they seem to have attained. So in other words, the correlation isn’t as tight as I once believed it to be between development of consciousness and moral or ethical or behavioral values. So it’s a little bit of an obsession with me, but I appreciate very much the emphasis that you illustrated in your book and in Ravi Shankar’s teaching about this holistic development. You really seem to have exemplified that in your own life, and he seems to really be concerned with that in his teaching.
Michael: It’s interesting what you’re saying, Rick, but it’s not my experience and I don’t relate to that. My interaction with Sri Sri, he is my guru. He’s somebody who is the living example for me, and maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I see him to be so refined and just in a state of unconditional love and wisdom and understanding of the human condition all the time. And I would say that that experience of being with somebody and having that experience of unconditional love – that has really been the real transformation with me. I never met anybody, especially when I first took the Art of Living course and I interacted with him, I never met anybody who liked me so much. And I never had a friend like that. I didn’t get in the beginning that he liked everybody the same way and everybody was having the same experience with him. But here is somebody who has literally created a global spiritual revolution through love. And he’s an example of how love can move the world. It’s so exhilarating to see because it’s a volunteer organization. It’s one of the largest non-government volunteer organizations in the world. We do so much humanitarian and service work all over the world, all inspired by one person. And what is the motivating factor? It’s love. We teach this course in schools to high school kids. We teach it in universities. We teach it to veterans who come back from the war in Iraq. We do post-traumatic stress syndrome relief. We did it after the tsunami and hurricanes and all sorts of disasters. We just sent volunteers over to Pakistan after the flooding that happened. And why are these people doing all of this? It’s the same reason I’m doing it. It’s just motivated through love. And it’s a phenomenon. I think it’s a global phenomenon, what’s happening.
Rick: You’ve been talking about, at this point, the evolutionary value of doing service as a means of breaking the preoccupation with one’s own individual ego and expanding into more universal values. So perhaps you could just elaborate on that a little bit more, Michael, because you were interrupted before when we were trying to talk about it.
Michael: It was never something that I had planned to do. It wasn’t part of my MO to be of service to other people. You could say, in a sense, I was seduced into it through love. When Guruji first told me that I would become an Art of Living teacher and travel around the world and spread this, I was very rebellious towards this. It wasn’t something that I wanted to do, nor was it something that I was interested in. And lo and behold, look what I’m doing with my life. And it was one step at a time. And it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in working with people, helping people, reaching out to the people. And I so much feel as though I’m part of life now, that I’m connected in a very big way. I don’t know how to express that. But serving other people, I feel like I’m part, I’m the hand of the Divine. And before, I think I was much more miserable because I didn’t have a purpose. And one of the themes in the book is, “How do I find my dharma? How do I find my purpose in life?” And I think so many people struggle with that. And it may sound like a cliché, but really you just have to get out of your own way because nature wants you to fulfill your purpose. That’s why you’re here – to fulfill your purpose. And if you can just let go, then the force of nature just takes you.
Rick: I think a lot of people struggle with that. It’s good you mention it. Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. And there are a lot of people who are stuck in jobs they don’t like, or situations they don’t like, and they just feel like they have no alternative. They’re kind of locked into it, and they need to make a living, and they’re afraid to try something else. So how does a person… how do you change boats if you’re stuck in a rut?
Michael: Maybe you don’t change boats. Maybe you see the job as a means to an end so that you can pay your rent and take care of the mundane things. But the fulfillment in life can come from service. So you can still have a family, you can still have a career, and there can still be time to serve other people. And what you’ll find is through those times that you are dedicating your life to serving others, it will enrich every aspect of your life. That’s the missing link. So I think people think it’s all or nothing. I have to put my job and do something completely different. Not necessarily. You can be well integrated, keep your job, keep your family, and just dedicate time every day to doing something that you know will uplift other people. For me, it’s been teaching the Art of Living course. And now I’m the president of the Art of Living Foundation, so in a sense I’m running the organization. It doesn’t have to be such a dramatic step that you do something like this full time. It can be a small aspect of your life.
Rick: Yeah, I watch the evening news every night, and at the end of it on NBC, they always have this “Making a Difference” segment for a few minutes, and they just show some person somewhere in the country who is doing something to make a difference. It might be rescuing stray animals, or it might be visiting people in rest homes and entertaining them in some way. Every night it’s a different thing, but it’s really an enjoyable aspect of the news to watch because it really shows somebody bringing a lot more joy into their own life and the lives of others through something that they can do. It’s different for different people. Obviously we all can’t be heads of international organizations, and we can’t all fly off to Africa and serve kids in a rural village, but there’s always something you can do.
Michael: Usually it’s the invisible people who are the heroes of humanity, and what we need is more heroes of humanity. And it’s just coming out of your comfort zone. Why is it that people don’t find their life more enriching and fulfilling? Because they’re stuck in their comfort zone. They think, “Oh, if I do that, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me”. Somehow you have to step out. In the beginning it can be uncomfortable and painful to try something new and do something different, but unless you do that, you’re going to stay stuck.
Rick: Yeah. You were talking earlier about how you grew up in the South Bronx and you used to work for Ogilvy & Mather. I’m reminded of Mad Men, the TV series, watching that. And you were kind of a tough nut. Hard driving, abrasive, not exactly a delicate diplomatic guy, I guess, by your own admission. And if we can extrapolate that to larger society – for instance, the situation in the Middle East. What if everyone there could become softened in the way that you have been softened by your spiritual practice and development? Would we perhaps not see that whole intractable conflict kind of just dissolve?
Michael: Absolutely. That’s the whole plan. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re teaching this all over the world. I was very lucky that I got to teach the Art of Living course in Arab countries. I taught in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Jordan and Israel. And once you see that there’s a common denominator for all of humanity, then where does the violence creep in? People are able to create violence and havoc when they don’t see the life force in another individual. But once you recognize the life force and you feel the sense of belongingness, you feel like all of humanity is part of me, well then, where does the terrorism come in? So yes, knowledge like this is really essential for transforming individuals and transforming the world. That’s what I think.
Rick: How well received was the Jewish boy in Jordan and Syria or all these places where you’ve taught? Did you run into any cultural friction?
Michael: I didn’t run into any cultural friction. I think people were more interested in the knowledge, in the techniques and the benefits than in my religious heritage.
Rick: That’s great. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling myself back over the years in the TM movement. I spent three months in Iran, for instance, just before the Shah left. One thing I always observed is that wherever you go in the world, even these countries that have a rather bad reputation, you meet all these people who are just total gems, just these really spiritual, bright, universal, open-minded kind of people. You really can’t stereotype a whole country.
Michael: Absolutely, and it’s really just a few people who are getting the limelight and the media is attracted to the negativity. That’s almost the same as all of us. We seem to be really attracted to negativity. There’s 80 to 90 percent joy in our life and there’s 10 percent misery, but we take that 10 percent misery and we turn it into 120 percent misery. That seems to be the nature of a stressed-out mind, to cling on to the negativity. But yes, for sure, wherever I went, I only found wonderful people, whether it was the Arab world or the Caribbean or South America or here in the United States. I’ve only been fortunate to interact with wonderful, wonderful people.
Rick: Yeah, I think one of the reasons is when you’re teaching something like what you’re teaching, you tend to attract a real cream. You tend to attract people that are just on the spiritual cutting edge, so to speak, and have moved beyond petty bickering and narrow concerns.
Michael: But who’s not on the spiritual cutting edge? Many of our teachers who teach in prison – we have a program called the Prison Smart Program – and they report that the prisoners are the most spiritual people they’ve ever met. So yes, they’ve done something, they weren’t able to control their anger or their greed or their jealousy, whatever it was, but here they are incarcerated and it’s like an ashram for them. And they’re growing spiritually, their hearts are opening, they’re taking responsibility for the actions that they’ve done. So I don’t think you can really stereotype anybody and say there’s a bad person in this world.
Rick: Good point, good point. Have you ever tried to teach somebody who was… well, maybe not, because somebody who isn’t at all inclined to do this… Have you ever been in a situation where people who… you’ve had to teach this to a group of people who really weren’t interested in it, but for some reason were told to do it by their school teacher or their warden or somebody?
Michael: I have been, yes I have.
Rick: How did that go?
Michael: We teach a program called the Apex Course, which is taught in corporations. And I’ve had a scenario once where people came and it was mandatory for them to go through the training. And they thought that this was going to be something that was going to be way too touchy-feely for them. But it was amazing. At the end of the course they were so grateful that they had an opportunity to go through something like this. Many of them were very resistant, definitely on the first day. But after they went through the Sudarshan Kriya and they felt something so powerful, they were just amazed and they were just filled with gratitude.
Rick: That’s great. I was teaching TM in the Philippines with a large group of people who went over there back in about ’84. And we had some situations where it was sort of mandatory for a whole classroom to learn and so on. And the kids… I didn’t have such a good outcome as you did. The kids really didn’t like it. Maybe there’s something different about Sudarshan Kriya than having to sit with your eyes closed and meditate when you don’t want to, that makes it more easy to do.
Michael: Definitely. And first of all, our course is not just the breathing techniques. There’s interactive processes, there’s some stretching yoga involved, there’s knowledge involved, some games involved so that the learning happens more interactively. And the Sudarshan Kriya is something more physical, not as passive as meditation. In fact, last year we taught 6,000 children with our YES program, Youth Empowerment Seminar. And we taught this in inner city schools as well as private schools, public schools. And the kids are just blown away by the whole course. And many of them, when we interviewed them afterwards, they say things like, “I felt like the school was lifted up into the heavens”. And kids, we’re not educating them about release of stress and how stress is affecting your life. We’re just teaching this beautiful program to them. And at the end they say, “We feel so much stress has lifted and I feel I have more confidence in myself and I understand myself better”. It’s really something phenomenal.
Rick: How does this stuff get funded in inner city schools and so on?
Michael: Through donations and grants. And if anybody is interested who’s watching this program, they can contact us at www.artofliving.org is the website for the organization. Our sister organization that does the humanitarian service projects is called the International Association for Human Values. So that’s www.iahv.org. I’ll give out the website for my book as well. It’s www.stumblingintoinfinity.com.
Rick: I’ll also be linking to all these from www.batgap.com once I put this interview up. Do you ever get any opposition from fundamentalist Christians when you go and try to teach in schools?
Rick: These days… in fact the whole theme of this show is that I’m basically interviewing people who have had a spiritual awakening. By that I don’t imply that they’re totally enlightened, whatever that means. Because I’ve observed that there are many degrees of awakening, that we keep progressing and there’s always a next horizon and even sometimes we may arrive at it and think, “Well, this is the final horizon”, but then we discover there’s another one and so on. I know in the TM movement there are many people, I would say, who have had shifts into what Maharishi used to call “cosmic consciousness” or even “God consciousness” or “unity consciousness”, higher states, where it’s not just a temporary glimpse that comes and goes on some course or something, but some shift which takes place which they never seem to lose thereafter. Has anything like that happened to you? And if not, do you see that kind of thing happening with others in your organization?
Michael: Many things have happened. I’ve had extraordinary experiences on the inner. I feel as though it’s integrating more into the outer, but it’s really not something that I’m putting my attention on. I’m really more focused in the here and in the now. I’m not looking for some moment that’s going to happen that’s going to change my life and be some glorious, transformative, cosmic experience. I’m here now, and that’s all I have is the here and the now. What I find is more and more my mind is not projecting into the future. I’m not regretting the past, I’m not caught up in the past, and that I’m able to be present, and my mind is more still. And it’s a much more contented experience. And if that’s a higher state of consciousness, great. But I seem to be much more happy in my life than I ever have been, and to me that’s a very important thing.
Rick: Well, in fact, I think that may very well be the kind of thing Maharshi was referring to when he spoke of cosmic consciousness or whatever. He wasn’t alluding to some kind of flashy thing. He was referring to something which persisted. Nothing persists better than the now. I mean, can you ever get out of it?
Michael: So many times we’re not in the now. So many times we’re caught up in our desires, and we think, “Only if I had this, then I’ll be happy”. And it’s endless waiting for something to happen, and then when that moment happens, then I’m finally going to be happy. What’s happening right now in your own mind, and what’s happening with your own feeling level and your own emotions. And there are moments when we don’t feel very comfortable inside. In fact, we just want to jump out of our skin. And many people resort to so many different ways to avoid the present moment, whether it’s watching TV or reading a book or eating food or going hiking. It’s always activity-bound. Or even meditation can be an escape from being in the present moment. Can you just be with whatever is and endure the field of the opposites? Because the suffering and joy and pain, it’s all part of life. Things go in cycles. And as opposed to trying to escape life through any means, how can you be more integrated in life, more here, more now?
Rick: Yeah, and I found it interesting in your book how you described, whereas earlier on you were much more impulsive – you even had recounted a story where you punched some guy in the nose – later on you found that when these emotions and things arose, they had lost their power to grip you and to impel you to some action that you might regret, and you were able to just sort of settle back down and they would dissipate.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, so many people meditate and they meditate for so many hours and so many years pass, and they’re advanced meditators, but then one incident happens and then they’re lost, they’re caught up in it. Somebody says two words to you and then forget it. You’re all caught up in that. How can we be so centered that those things don’t affect us? It’s like drawing a line in water. You draw a line in water and it disappears. You carve a line in stone and it stays much longer. But then how can our emotions be more like drawing a line in water? I think that’s really essential.
Rick: Yeah. And so do you find now, for instance, that when you’re confronted with trying situations, I don’t know, let’s say you’re racing to catch a flight or somebody gets angry at you or anything that may have happened, let’s say, in the last couple of months that ordinarily would have pushed your buttons, do you find that they don’t get pushed, that there’s some dimension that is unperturbed despite the onslaught of some disturbing situation?
Michael: Let me just say this. There is no magic pill. If anybody ever thinks, “Practice this technique and you’re never going to get angry again or never get frustrated again”, it’s not true. Those emotions do come up for anybody. But how long do you hold on to the emotions? Do you get angry for a few moments and then you come back very quickly and drop it? Well, that’s a big change. Most people hold on to emotions for long long periods of time. And yes, I have seen a shift. There are moments that can get under my skin, I can get aggravated about some things, but do I hold on to it for all day? Do I hold on to it for years? Do I lament about it? No. I just drop it and then, okay, what’s the next thing that comes up?
Rick: And also, even in the midst of the anger, is it the way it used to be? It perhaps used to be such that the anger was all that was there and you were completely consumed by it, but now do you find that…
Michael: Do you have video of me from my past that you know that?
Rick: No, I’m just speaking of… I’m not saying you, but I’m speaking of people in general. We’ve all been through these things. And I can remember being completely blinded by some emotion or experience or something that I was in the midst of. Now I find that rather intense things can sometimes happen and it’s almost like there’s this silence that just continues on despite the intensity of the moment, of what I’m experiencing.
Michael: Absolutely, yeah.
Rick: Like I fell off my bicycle one time, for instance, and I had my helmet on, but my head hit the ground and my arm got skinned and all that. But in the midst of having that experience, I was almost bemused to notice that there was this kind of rock-solid silence that was just not falling off the bicycle. It was just kind of continuing on despite the trauma that I was experiencing.
Michael: Yeah, we can call that more of like the witnessing state. There’s more consciousness that’s there, so it doesn’t get shaken and overshadowed by the emotions. But for most people, the emotions just take over, completely take over. And it’s one thing to fall and hurt yourself, so now pain is there and pain doesn’t take over. But emotions are something very different. When something happens that’s catastrophic in your life, whether it’s losing a loved one or losing your job or somebody attacks you in some way, how do you respond to those situations?
Rick: How do I? You’re asking me?
Michael: How does anybody? And the most important thing is to learn to take responsibility for your own feelings. Usually we blame everybody else for how we feel. “I’m angry because this person said this to me”, and “I’m depressed because of my father”, or “I’m like this because of my mother”. Well, we’re actually giving power to our father, mother, or whoever the person is. They’re controlling your feelings. So until they change, you’re never going to feel freedom. But the truth is, you’re responsible for the experience of your own emotions. Now you have the emotion, what are you going to do about the emotion? What tangible way do you have to work through it? Because it’s your experience of life. The other person, they’ve moved on or they’re not even thinking about you. How do you handle your own mind and how do you handle your emotions? That’s so key to have that knowledge.
Rick: Some wise teacher once said that you have two choices – you can either pave the world in leather or you can put shoes on your feet, and then there’ll be leather wherever you step. So you can hope to get everybody in the world to change so you’ll no longer be upset by anybody, or you can, as you’re saying, effect some sort of change within your own perspective or with your own way of dealing with things, which will make everybody else… it’ll make it a totally different world for you.
Michael: The more you can take responsibility in life in general, the happier you’re going to be. Everybody has needs and we all get caught up in our needs, fulfillment of our needs. When our needs are greater than our responsibilities, we’re miserable. When the needs decrease and you’re more focused on responsibility – caring for others, uplifting others, serving others – then responsibility takes over and then you kind of dissolve. It’s another way of transcending. Service is another way of transcending the small mind. So you’re not so much caught up in “what about me, what about me, what about me”. And through that, your feelings don’t become so essential. You’re more concerned about, “Well, what is my commitment to life?” than, “What am I feeling right now?”
Rick: Yeah, very good point. So is what you were just saying about taking responsibility for everything, is that explicitly part of the AOL teaching or is that just from your own experience?
Michael: No, absolutely. I think that is the teachings that Guruji is giving people. It’s all about personal empowerment. You can change the world. You, by taking responsibility, can change the world. And if your perspective of the world is more in accord with the laws of nature, you have more of a sattvic approach to life, well then you’re going to do righteous, good things. And if you can take responsibility for your feelings, if you go deep into that experience of meditation, then you’re much more dynamic and you can do so much more in life.
Rick: That’s great. And I suppose that’s the very reason why your organization is involved in so many humanitarian efforts all over the world. It’s like you’re walking your talk. I mean, you don’t just hear this in lectures. People are actually inspired to get out and do it and put it into practice.
Rick: I imagine that’s quite transformative for all the many many people who are doing these things.
Michael: So the people who are on the receiving end, they benefit, and the person who is on the giving end, they benefit. But if you look at it as though I’m going to do service to benefit from something, it’s not service and you’re not benefiting at all. It’s just you’re doing something to gain something. But if you just do it, selfless service. But there has to be a certain shift in the mind to be able to do something like that. That just isn’t just by telling somebody, “Go ahead and do this”, it doesn’t happen. We see so many times people who work for the Red Cross or other wonderful non-profit organizations that are service-based, people get burnt out after they do all that service. They can do it for a little while and then they’re exhausted. But how do you do service and at the same time replenish yourself through increasing your subtle life force energy, the prana? Through breathing techniques and meditation you can increase the subtle life force energy and then you can have the stamina to continue to do the service.
Rick: That’s a good point. I mean, you hear about teacher burnout, for instance, and policemen getting burned out, and those are both service professions. Obviously, if they had something like this to recharge their batteries, then they wouldn’t get burned out and they could really be of much greater service.
Michael: It’s so practical.
Rick: Yeah. And obviously, as you just indicated, this is something which grows incrementally. It’s not like you’re going to go from Joe Selfish to Mother Teresa overnight or something. We take baby steps, we do what we can, and each step builds on the next.
Michael: Well, it depends on the individual. Once those blocks are there and once those mental patterns change, well, then you change. So each person transforms differently. We can’t judge a book by its cover. We can’t judge an individual just based on their past, how quickly they’re going to transform. I think that’s why it’s essential that everybody receive this great gift.
Rick: You mean Sudarshan Kriya and AOL and what it teaches?
Michael: It has the great gift of going inward, learning more about their own mind and their own emotions, and seeing how their emotions and their minds work, how it’s integrated with breath and the body. I think that’s really very essential.
Rick: Does Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his organization have a fairly universal attitude toward all the various spiritual practices? Is there this sort of mindset of “We are the best”, or is it more like, “Hey, it’s a garden full of variety and there are all sorts of things in the world which are helping people and we’re doing our bit and they’re doing theirs”?
Michael: Let’s be practical. There are so many millions of people on this planet. It’s impossible that there could be one way for every individual. It’s just impossible. Some people will gravitate to this and some people will gravitate to that. What’s most important is that you do something to transform your life. Regardless, as long as there’s truth there and you see that there’s integrity behind the teaching, then go with that. Our job is to spread this art of living to as many people who would like to come, to partake in this. But there can’t be one way for everybody. I think it’s impossible.
Rick: Good. I think that’s a very mature attitude and I think it speaks well of the spiritual development that this inculcates. Because obviously there are some organizations in the world who feel like theirs is the only valid thing and everything else is bogus. I don’t ascribe to that notion, but there are millions of people who do. So I think it’s good that we touched upon that point. So… Michael, in your book you went through various relationships and there was one woman that you were rather infatuated with and that didn’t work out so well. Did you end up in a relationship or have you gotten married or have you become a monk in a sense?
Michael: No, I’m not married. I’m still available. I’ve been in a few relationships but for some reason or another they weren’t right and didn’t work out.
Rick: Okay. And have you found that your – I think this will interest people – have you found that your spiritual development over these decades has transformed the quality of relationships, even if they don’t work out? Has it become a whole different…
Michael: Absolutely. I would say that the biggest transformation as far as relationship – most people think relationship is between a man and a woman – I’d say the biggest relationship transformation for me was the one with my father. That was always a struggle for me. We would always have a very hard time and my dad was very argumentative, especially when I was a child growing up. It was quite rough for me. And as an adult, there was always some kind of conflict that was going on. And what I found was through interacting with Guruji and my relationship with him – that that really affected my relationship with my dad. And here what I found was by the unconditional love that he was sharing with me, it would just melt away the armor I had around my heart. And I think everybody has armor around their heart. You get hurt by somebody when you’re a child or you get hurt when you’re a teenager. Various things happen and we just harden our heart and we become stiff. We interact with people. We could be even loving with people. But we hold back a certain way, a certain part of ourselves. We don’t feel free to be vulnerable with other people. But if we can let go of that and really open our heart, then our relationships could flourish with everybody. And I found through the relationship of having a guru – my interactions with Sri Sri – the more I let my guard down, the more natural I was, the happier I was getting. And then I noticed that that started to be part of my relationship with my dad. In fact, I moved to Florida to take care of him the last five years of his life. From the age of 90 to 95, I was the caretaker. And it was so rewarding to be able to do that and love my dad in such a deep way. I don’t think I ever would have been able to do that without Sri Sri’s guidance and his inspiration and his love.
Rick: There was a real sweet story in your book where you visited Israel with Sri Sri. Whenever there was a photo op with somebody like Shimon Peres, Sri Sri would make sure that you were in the photo with him and Shimon Peres. And then you didn’t know why he was doing that. And then finally he said to you, “Did you get all those photos?” And that became something you could actually show your father, who was really concerned about what you were doing with your life and your career and who was your boss and all this stuff. And it ended up on the wall of his home, this picture of you and Shimon Peres and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I found it touching because here your guru was concerned with much bigger matters and the whole worldwide organization to run and meeting with national leaders and so on. And he wanted to make sure that Mikey and his father were getting along okay and got you in the picture. It was sweet.
Michael: Isn’t that extraordinary that here is somebody who is a global humanitarian. He is invited to Israel for the very first time as a state guest. And he is meeting all these dignitaries in the country and he takes a few moments out to say, “Can we wait a few moments, Michael? Why don’t you come here?” And he makes sure that I am in every photo and he is concerned about my relationship between myself and my father. It’s extraordinary and I would say that is very true in the way Sri Sri lives his life. He really takes care of people and I think everybody feels that in his presence. And there are many around the world who are not as fortunate as I am to physically be with him. But once the connection is made on the inner level, there is magic that happens in people’s lives and something transforms. That’s the grace of the guru. It’s something that’s beyond words.
Rick: I’m glad you said that because I was going to ask, many people might watch this and think, “Yeah, well, now it’s this big organization, two and a half million people come to his 50th birthday. There’s no way that I could get in on the ground floor and have any kind of personal contact. I may never even see him. So this may work for Michael but it’s not going to work for me in the same way”. And that could be somewhat discouraging to people. But what you’re saying is – and you’re welcome to elaborate if you like – that that doesn’t matter really. That just by plugging into what he’s teaching and practicing that and living what he advocates, you’re making a connection nonetheless.
Michael: I just asked Guruji this question. In November I was with him in our ashram, which is in Quebec in North America. I was saying to him that many people read this book and then they feel as though unless you have that personal, physical interaction with you, that they’re missing something from the path. He just looked at me and said, “Look, I just went to Russia. I hadn’t been in Russia in six years”. And people shared with me what their experiences were. And he said, “They’re extraordinary experiences”. And he said, “It doesn’t matter if I’m physically present or I’m not physically present. Obviously somebody has to interact with the Master to do the work, and I’m amongst one of those people who get to do that. But if there is a need for the Master to be physically in your life, it will happen”. And it continuously travels all over the world. And the way technology is today, from webinars to the Internet, to so many different ways, there is a way to connect with Sri Sri. And once the connection is made on the inner level, I think that’s really where the transformation is. The ways of a guru are very mysterious. How it all works, I can’t really explain that to you. But I see it over and over and over again in countless individuals, how that shift happens.
Rick: Interesting, yeah. I mean, people might not know this, but Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Master, and then Maharishi’s Master was a man known as Brahmananda Saraswati. He was Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath. And Maharishi told a story one time about how people who had never actually physically met Brahmananda Saraswati, or Gurudev as Maharishi called him, would have these miraculous things happen in their life, as if he had personally intervened in some circumstance to help them out. And Maharishi asked Gurudev, “How does this happen? What are the mechanics of it?” And Gurudev just said, “It’s the department of the Absolute and he takes care of it”. And I think what he meant by that is, what is a guru after all but a living embodiment of universal consciousness? And universal means universal, it means that intelligence which is governing the heartbeat of a housefly, and the rotation of the galaxies and everything in between. The guru is just like a focal point or a concentrated expression of that universal intelligence. And if the intelligence is really universal, then why should you necessarily have to be in the immediate physical proximity of such a person in order to plug into that intelligence? Just the intention should be sufficient to bring the blessings of God or universal intelligence into one’s life.
Michael: There is great value in having a living master, there is no doubt about that. And the Upanishads, which are a very big part of the Vedic tradition, the word Upanishad means “coming close”.
Rick: “Sitting near”, yeah.
Michael: Sitting near. So I think sitting near the master is something that’s important as well. And in this day and age, it’s not so hard to sit near the master, physically. Whether the master will come to you or you come to the master, but I would say definitely take that step. It’s very much like the ocean. You can go to the ocean and just look at the ocean and never get out of your car. Or you can get out of your car and just take a few steps on the boardwalk. Or you can get onto the sand, go very close to the ocean and even dip your toe in the ocean. You can swim in the ocean or you can dive deep into the oceans. It’s up to you. The ocean remains the same. So the guru is there. How deep do you want to go? It’s up to you. And there’s joy in looking at the ocean from a distance and there’s joy in diving deep into the ocean. I think to really understand what an enlightened master is, you need to get closer. And the more you can understand an enlightened master, the more you can understand what enlightenment is. Everybody has a concept of enlightenment. But we’re still in the conceptual mind. We’re going to have a concept of bad enlightenment. Those concepts need to be broken. Somehow or other those concepts need to be broken. Because it’s just a projection of our own mind. And the guru will help break those concepts. But somehow or other those concepts have to get broken.
Rick: Yeah, I agree with you. I’ve had the privilege of encountering several enlightened masters in my life. It’s definitely an eye-opener to meet someone who embodies cosmic awareness to that degree and expresses it to that degree. You think, “Whoa, this is not your average run-of-the-mill person here”. This is an example of where humanity could be headed or where I could be headed with enough development. On the other hand, some of these masters had huge organizations and the opportunity for the kind of proximity that you have enjoyed is not easy to come by. I suppose if the desire is fervent enough, you can work your way into greater proximity. I think a person shouldn’t make themselves miserable over not being able to have a close personal relationship with a master if the circumstances of their life simply don’t allow it. Because as you say, you can establish a connection nonetheless, you can do the practices that the master advocates, and you can make tremendous progress. If at such time you really need to have that physical proximity, then hopefully nature will organize that for you.
Michael: Rick, I think what you’re referring to is your experience with other organizations. But in Art of Living, it’s not like that. Guruji is really there for the people, and he does travel around the world all the time. Sometimes he’s in a different city every day, and he’s rarely in one place more than a week. His reason for that is he is going to the people. If there is an interest to spend time with him, one can definitely spend time with him. It’s not a closed door in a hierarchy where only certain special people get to spend time with him. If there is a need, the door is open. I think he’s very unique in that way. I’ve seen this countless times where somebody had an emergency in their life and they’re able to get to him on the telephone. They’re able to email him and he’ll respond fairly rapidly. So it depends on the style of the master of how accessible they are. But in Guruji’s case, I would say he’s very accessible.
Rick: Yeah, our friend Peter Sutton told me that too, that if you really wanted to see him, even in this day and age when the thing has gotten rather large, you could probably go up and sit in his hallway and get your name in the queue and get to have a face-to-face if that was really important and necessary.
Rick: Yeah. That’s great. It’s a shame to quit, this is going so smoothly now. No technical problems, but we’ve covered quite a bit. Is there anything you feel like you would like to cover that I haven’t thought to ask? Anything important from your book or anything you’d like to announce or say about your own personal life that you haven’t had a chance to express?
Michael: No, I think we’ve covered everything. The only thing I would say is I’m sure most of your viewers have a spiritual background and they’re interested in these types of things. I would encourage people to check out the Art of Living course. I think you’ll find some treasures there that may enhance the practices you’re already doing. I think it’s complementary to whatever practice you’re doing. It’s not that you take the Art of Living course and you take an initiation and you’re following this path. You could be practicing a different form of meditation, a different form of yoga, and this can enhance it, whether it’s a religious persuasion you have or a spiritual persuasion. I think this can really make a difference. It could be the missing link. So I would encourage people to do that and to remember that you are the light and keep moving towards the light. I think 2011 is going to be a fantastic year ahead and it’s been very nice to be on your show.
Rick: Well, thank you Michael. It’s been a joy. So let me conclude by telling people that you’ve been watching an interview with Michael Fischman, who is the president of the Art of Living Foundation in the United States. The Art of Living Foundation teaches and presents the teachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, sometimes referred to as “Punditji”. Do you still refer to him that way sometimes or no?
Michael: No, I don’t think.
Rick: That’s the old days?
Michael: That’s the old days. Most people refer to him as “Guruji”.
Rick: Okay, “Guruji”. There are a variety of ways in which you can listen to this show or watch it. So if you happen to be watching on YouTube or listening to a podcast, you could also come to www.batgap.com, where you’ll find an archive of all the shows I’ve done so far and you can branch off from those if you want to watch other ones. So I’m not sure who next week’s guest will be, but it’s better that I don’t announce it because things keep changing. I announced you a couple of weeks ago and then it didn’t happen. So whoever it is, we hope to see you next time and thank you for watching.
Michael: Rick, I’m sure your viewers are really grateful for all the work that you do and thanks very much for having me on your show.
Rick: Thank you and we’ll talk again sometime.