Sally Kempton is my teacher because she’s not my teacher.
While interviewing Sally about her new book Meditation For The Love Of It, I recalled a conversation Sally and I had on a retreat she was teaching years ago. It was a cool fall day in northern California, and Sally and I sat on the porch in a lovely wood glade warmed by the afternoon sun discussing my practice and our relationship. After some conversation about the things we typically enjoyed talking about, like the cultural significance of Kiefer Sutherland’s high-octane loner character Jack Bauer on the series 24 and the fun quirks of our modern spiritual experience, we settled in to discuss a question I had been asking: if she would be my teacher.
I’ll never forget what she said to me, “Kris, I’ve given this teacher thing a lot of thought, and I don’t think it’s right. It’s time for you to figure it out. It’s not going to be me or anyone else. It’s time you’ve made it about you. I’m your friend and sometimes your guide, but I’m not your teacher. You’ve walked far enough and now you have to walk the rest of the way. And, I love you.”
In that moment Sally become my teacher, even though she’s not my teacher. She has supported me in countless ways and I am forever grateful for her wisdom, skill, humor, and insight. Whenever I bow, wherever I bow, in my heart I bow to her.
Kris: Your new book Meditation for the Love of It just came out this month. It’s a new work loosely based on your previous work The Heart Of Meditation you authored in the 90s for Siddha Yoga under your Swami moniker Swami Durgananda. What’s new and how is Meditation for the Love of It different?
Sally: Meditation for the Love of It has new exercises, some new teachings, and a much accessible framework. Like the previous book — which went out of print several years ago and was selling for $180-$200 on Amazon — it offers a blueprint for deepening your relationship with meditation that seems to shift people’s experience of their practice.
Kris: Why did you write this book?
Sally: It came out of some discoveries I made in my own practice. I was trained in a tradition that values meditation as THE practice for enlightenment, yet I had found that there was very little instruction for working with the subtleties of the practice. I had had a sort of mid-life meditation crisis, and as a result began experimenting with different approaches. My experiments took me much deeper than I’d been able to go before. So I wrote the book to share this approach — playful, creative, and energetically oriented — with students and friends.
Kris: Who did you write this book for?
Sally: Originally, I wrote it for my peers — people who’d been meditating for years and who were either feeling stuck, or simply wanted a deeper experience. As I went on, I realized that beginning mediator could benefit from the principles in the book — principles of playfulness, creativity, and especially looking at meditation as a relationship with yourself. So the book includes a very detailed section on how to set up a practice and move through the initial stages. It takes you through the major techniques of meditation in a step by step way. It also has something that I haven’t seen in other books: a detailed guide to how to invoke grace in meditation, and how to follow the signals that come up as you move deeper. People tell me that they have found it useful at many stages on the journey. Its designed as an on-the mat companion — you can literally look up certain experiences and find answers to your questions. The book explains the ‘whys’ of different techniques, and how each of them can benefit you, and encourages you to contemplate your practice and work with it in creative ways.
Kris: You have been meditating for many years now – how has practice changed? What motivates you now?
Sally: When I started, my mentalogue was almost insurmountable, and it took a couple of years — make that about five years! — to get quiet enough to enter into deep meditation. But because I was meditating with an awake Kundalini, it was fun — juicy, full of nice energetic hits, lots of bliss along with purification. Then as my mind began to get clearer, witness consciousness began to emerge, and I entering into states that were more classically meditative. Now I meditate both because I enjoy it and because it keeps me directly in touch with the Self, with Essence, with the Great Heart love space. And there are all sorts of sweet side benefits of meditation — spending an hour meditating will often help me get an insight about something I’m writing or teaching. There’s a lot of bliss in it. And meditation creates a spacious container that lets me work with shadow issues when they come up. You can look at a lot of very tough stuff when you’re standing in the space of Essence, in the Great Heart.
Kris: What do you mean by essence? Why is it so important?
Sally: Essence is just one name for what in the Indian tradition is called Atman, or True Self, and in Buddhism is called Buddha Nature.
Kris: Wow, that’s neat! Has the practice of meditation changed? Do you think we’re meditating for different reasons now?
Sally: In general, as meditation and yoga have become more mainstream, meditation has become much more secularized. Traditionally, meditation was part of an overall spiritual or religious practice. Now, we know that its actually a natural function, that benefits us on a physical and emotional level as well as spiritually. So people are meditating for health, for relaxation, even as a past-time. Yet I have many students who started meditating for those reasons, then found that meditation opened up something they hadn’t known before inside them. So they look to go deeper. I’d say that meditation is a very generous practice that way. It will give you what you ask for–lower blood pressure, a better immune system, a clearer mind, a more open heart–and if you stay with it, it becomes a conveyor belt or escalator that will deepen your connection to the the Essence.
Check back in a few days for the second installment of SALLY KEMPTON on Meditation, Studentship, and The Future of Spirituality.